WASHINGTON – Congress approved billions of dollars in recent years to support new nuclear energy technology. Despite this, advanced reactor projects have yet to break ground in the United States, delaying the fight against climate change, experts said.

One big reason nuclear hasn’t gotten off the ground is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is using outdated regulations that do not match the new technology, according to industry experts and members of Congress.

Siting new nuclear plants could help meet President Joe Biden’s goal of having net-zero carbon emissions for the U.S. by 2050, according to a Department of Energy report from March 2023. The department suggested the U.S. needs much more clean energy generation, as much as three-quarters of all the power that existing clean and dirty electricity sources can produce.

“Nuclear power is one of the few proven options that could deliver this at scale, while creating high-paying jobs with concentrated economic benefits for communities most impacted by the energy transition,” the report said.

Reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is “going to be incredibly difficult” without nuclear energy deployment, according to Jackie Toth, deputy director and board secretary of Good Energy Collective, a pro-nuclear energy research group.

Wind and solar can generate electricity but without battery storage, that power would not always be available to the grid like nuclear energy. Large scale wind and solar projects face other challenges such as connecting them to the grid with transmission lines, according to the Energy Department report. Nuclear plants all generate radioactive waste, which lasts for thousands of years and can pose risks for people and nature. The possibility of nuclear accidents also raises concerns among some people.

In a 2019 law, Congress mandated that the commission draft an updated licensing process using updated risk assessments to usher in a new generation of nuclear reactors. However, Congress gave the agency eight years to draft new regulations.

“It’s a really challenging task because it’s trying to figure out how we regulate all nuclear technologies using a single rule,” said Patrick White, research director at Nuclear Innovation Alliance. “And many of these nuclear technologies we might not have actually ever built or operated commercially in the United States.”

The agency did release draft rules in March 2023 that were more than 1,000 pages long, but experts criticized them as unwieldy and overburdensome. Some went further to say the rules failed to meet the objectives of the 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act to update the rules to fit new reactor technology.

“The draft proposed rule doesn’t accomplish those goals that were laid out in NEIMA,” ClearPath nuclear expert Nicholas McMurray said. “Unfortunately, some of the additional requirements that were included in there are not going to improve the process.”

Two out of four commissioners released public recommendations on the released draft. Commissioners Annie Caputo and David Wright provided detailed comments and emphasized the importance of streamlining the licensing process.

“For deployment at this scale to occur, there must be a straightforward, flexible framework for licensing that prioritizes adequate protection of public health and safety and is also useful and usable by a wide variety of applicants and licensees,” Commissioner Wright said in his comments. “It is imperative that we [the commission] facilitate pathways for the safe licensing of advanced reactors, not impede its progress.”

After the staff redrafts a proposal that all commissioners can support, the staff would ask for public comment, according to the commission’s public affairs officer Scott Burnell. Then the staff would draft a final rule to the commissioners for approval. No timeline was available.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s regulations for licensing nuclear reactors evolved slowly over time, and the current rules have been highly effective for licensing large reactors that are most common in the U.S., according to White.

Compared to large reactors, advanced nuclear technology would allow smaller plants with different cooling systems, according to the Breakthrough Institute. Smaller reactors have smaller cores, which are safer and easier to cool than larger reactors.

“So, the problem is a lot of these regulatory requirements are explicitly written for these large light water reactors, and they either don’t apply or they don’t make sense for some of these new nuclear technologies,” said White.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the first small reactor design in the U.S. in January 2023. Nuclear company and reactor designer NuScale and utility company Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems then withdrew the operating license application and canceled the project in November, about two years before construction was set to begin.

The reactor and utility company ended the project because of rising costs, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The high cost of nuclear projects has deterred new construction because energy companies often choose to pursue natural gas plants or renewable power, as cost and risks are significantly lower than deploying new nuclear technologies.

It’s especially difficult when no advanced nuclear projects have been built yet in the U.S.

“It’s more difficult, especially for a first-of-a-kind project, because you don’t know when it’s actually going to come online and what it’s actually going to cost, you’d rather be number two or number three,” Energy policy analyst Matthew Wald said. “That encourages people to build stuff that is the cheapest to build and can be done the most quickly, and that’s natural gas.”

While nuclear projects in the U.S. were stalled, 20 new natural gas plants were expected to begin operation in the next two years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Although natural gas plants produce less carbon dioxide emissions than coal-fired power plants to generate the same amount of electricity, natural gas plants still produce enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.

The agency reported that natural gas plants emitted a total of about 743 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2022, about as much climate pollution as comes from the tailpipes of three-quarters of all U.S. gasoline-powered vehicles.

“We’ve built the infrastructure to supply growing electricity demand, but we’re still building it on fossil fuels,” Wald said. “The amount of electricity made by fossil fuels in the United States is not declining. We’re still producing vast amounts in legacy fossil plants that we cannot replace.”

Industry experts were counting on the commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to direct the staff to dramatically improve the regulations.

“They have the opportunity to provide very clear direction and guidance for the staff to ensure that the rule can accomplish the goals of [the 2019 law], and can improve the licensing process for new reactors,” McMurray said.

Despite the delay, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects as many as 25 applications for small and advanced reactor technologies in the next five years, Andrea Kock, a deputy director for engineering of the commission’s office of nuclear reactor regulation said during a joint meeting last month of the commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“You see that the leadership of the [commission] is very clear-eyed that its workload is expected to increase,” Toth said. “It is now, in part, incumbent on Congress to ensure that the [commission] has the staffing and compensation capability that would enable it to have the personnel and financial resources necessary to license and review these new designs.”