Where less regulation can help the climate

20 September 2019

With the UN Climate Action Summit set to start soon, it is becoming clear that a lot more has to be done in an ever shorter time to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In its most recent report, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made this clear, arguing for the expansion of low-carbon energy sources such as renewables and even nuclear.

But in order for nuclear power to really pull its weight, nuclear power plants (NPPs) will need to be built and run more efficiently so as to reduce construction and operating costs. New build will also have to be conceived, authorized and constructed on considerably shorter timescales.

“Achieving a rapid decarbonization of the electricity sector will require, at first, deploying proven technology,” the IPPC observed in a recent statement. “[T]he projected increase in nuclear generation can be realized through existing mature nuclear technology or through new options such as generation III/IV reactors and SMRs. Generation III reactors have already come into operation in several countries.”

However, achieving these goals will necessitate lessening the burden on NPP operators by regulations on new nuclear because overly onerous red tape has been driving up costs and has led to repeated delays. That has been a significant disincentive to investors and governments alike. Indeed, as an article published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists notes, “The high cost of nuclear power has led to a significant decline in the construction of new plants.”

One way to drive down costs – both of construction and operation – is to allow for greater regulatory flexibility according to the specific needs and conditions on the ground. “There is [need for] a high degree of flexibility there,” argues also Mark Foy, Chief Nuclear Inspector at the UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). “By providing that flexibility, [regulators can] support modernization, innovation fit for purpose designs, not looking for gold plating but a constructive environment.”

Reducing regulations would help speed up new builds, although doing so must not come at the expense of legitimate safety concerns, especially since the public narrative believes that deregulation always comes at the expense of safety. Lingering fears about the safety of nuclear power must therefore be acknowledged and adequately addressed by regulators.

Working constructively with stakeholders is the way forward, Foy stresses. “We work with vendors, we work with government and we work wider stakeholders. The public have a vested interest as well,” he explains. “What we try to do is influence effective delivery against commonly agreed prioritized outcomes. The ultimate goal is delivery of that nuclear reactor constructed operating safely.”

Foy also stresses the role well thought-out de-regulation can have in guaranteeing both reactor safety and making the sector more attractive to investors. “The reason why the projects in the UK haven’t been successful thus far is they are major infrastructure projects that have required billions of dollars’ worth of investment, and the financial markets have not been willing to do that because of the potential risks associated with it. The design assessment is there to try to remove some of that uncertainty in both the adequacy and safety of the design to be deployed safely in the UK. “

Regulatory authorities in countries like the UK or Finland are beginning to show more flexibility in nuclear regulations. After all, regulations touch upon much more than just safety. If de-regulation is done smartly, nuclear power can be an important complement to renewables in a more sustainable, carbon-free future.

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