Dr. Adam Stein speaks with Mark Hinaman about Dr. Stein’s background, his time at the Breakthrough Institute, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the current state of nuclear regulatory policy and how it can be improved to advance the industry more quickly.
[00:00:00] Adam Stein: It should be much, much simpler. But to get there, they need to actually consider the net benefit to the public, and they don’t right now. And so they think they are carrying out the mission of the NRC very well to protect human health in the environment.
The Atomic Energy Act also says you need to do things like maximize benefit to the general welfare of the public. That isn’t considered in their decision making.
So we’ve been trying to get them to consider those potential net benefits. Their response is generally that we don’t promote nuclear we do not ask them to promote nuclear. We ask them to consider the benefits to public from using nuclear. Not to say we don’t want them to go out and, you know, put up ads and say, build new nuclear.
Right? That’s not their role. They need to make sure that it’s safe, but safe when considering the cost of their regulations to the public as well as the Atomic Energy Act tells them to. And so we’ve been trying to get their mission clarified, not changed, but actually, so they do what the Atomic Energy Act of way back in 1954 says they should do.
And what the Energy Reorganization Act 1974 that created the N R C of the Atomic Energy Commission also says they should do. We think that considering that counterfactual of net benefits is critical to having an agency that benefits society.
[00:01:38] Intro: Just because the facts are A, if the narrative is B and everyone believes the narrative, then B is what matters. But it’s our job in our industry to speak up proudly Soberly. And to engage people in this dialogue, those two and a half billion people that are on energy poverty, they need us. America cannot meet this threat alone.
If there is a single country, of course, the world cannot meet it without America that is willing to, we’re gonna need you the next generation to finish the nuclear regulation. We need scientists to design new fuels, focus on net public benefits. We need engineers to invent new technologies. We need over absurd levels of radiation property entrepreneurs to sell those technologies.
Then we will march towards this. We need workers to operate a. Assembly lines that hum with high tech. Zero components on prosperity need. Diplomats and businessmen and women and Peace Corps volunteers to help developing nations skip past the dirty phase of development and transition to sustainable sources of energy.
In other words, we need you.
[00:02:43] Mark Hinaman: All right. Welcome to another episode of the Fire2Fission podcast. My name’s Mark Hinaman, and on this podcast we talk about energy dense fuels and how they can better human lives. We’re joined today by Dr. Adam Stein, director of Nuclear Energy Innovation with the Breakthrough Institute. How you doing, Adam?
[00:03:01] Adam Stein: Great, mark. Thanks for having me on.
[00:03:03] Mark Hinaman: I’m stoked to talk to you. I’m happy to be here. Yeah. Yeah. Before we started recording, Adam just said he is pretty laid back except on analysis, so, I like it. We’ll, we’ll have kind of a varied conversation as we stepped through this. So, Adam, before we kind of dive into breakthrough and, and your work there,
Well first off, why don’t you just give kind of a 30 second intro about what you do at Breakthrough what, what is the director of Energy Innovation, and then kind of, we’ll, we’ll talk a little bit more about your background before getting further into breakthrough.
[00:03:32] Adam Stein: So at the Breakthrough Institute, I lead all of our nuclear related work. I have a, a great team that works with me. We work mostly on regulatory affairs, but we also work on legislation, economics community engagement, and a bunch of other topics as well.
[00:03:52] Mark Hinaman: Awesome. You, you didn’t start at breakthrough?
[00:03:55] Adam Stein: Oh, no.
I came to Breakthrough somewhere around three years ago.
[00:04:00] Mark Hinaman: Okay, gotcha. Where where where’d
[00:04:02] Adam Stein: you get your start started at? Siemens Westinghouse. Okay. Which is a, was purchased by Siemens from Westinghouse. It was the power plant service arm of Westinghouse Power Generation way back in the day.
[00:04:19] Mark Hinaman: Got it. And I mean, did you work there long?
What, what was kind of the progression over the course of your career?
[00:04:27] Adam Stein: It has been a very diverse career. So initially I started there working on service work for balance of plants. So generators, turbines, ex citters, the non-nuclear side for any power plant that has a thermal cycle. Not just field service, but also new inno innovative ways to do inspections and maintenance.
That doesn’t require long outage times because when the power plant isn’t running, it’s not making money. Made some crazy inspection robots some gigantic robots to take generators apart in the field instead of taking them out of the power plant and ship them back to the factory for refurbishment. All kinds of fun stuff.
Eventually I left to do consulting instead. My initial first main consultant or customer was the company I left. They didn’t want to implement one of the ideas that I had decided to leave and work on it on my own. Sold it back to them. And that started my consulting career, which worked in the power industry.
But I also worked in scientific vacuum chambers create some vacuum chambers to both help the process for making new innovative battery modules and consumer grade lab grown diamonds. Worked in transportation safety with the railroad industry for a while as a consultant in the whole time staying also connected to the power industry.
I went back to school, got my M B A, and then went to Carnegie Mellon to get my master’s in PhD in engineering and public policy. So I could work more effectively at the intersection between the technology that I had a lot of experience with, and the public policy that at times is disconnected from the technology causing unforeseen or unexpected bad outcomes.
Yeah. And now I’m at breakthrough,
[00:06:32] Mark Hinaman: but a varied path, but also ki kind of specific. I, I love this approach and it’s actually more common than people think, but yeah, company doesn’t wanna do something and so you leave and then turn around and say, Hey, I’ve got this great idea. You guys wanna buy this now.
And suddenly when you’re on the outside that yeah, there’s a different dynamic there. So
[00:06:52] Adam Stein: that’s exactly what happened.
[00:06:53] Mark Hinaman: Yes. You’re not the first person that I’ve heard of that has done that. So, okay. So what, what is breakthrough?
[00:07:02] Adam Stein: Breakthrough is a global research center that works on addressing problems using technology for human development and environmental concerns.
So we essentially look at ways to reduce impacts in the environment or benefit human welfare, mostly through technology, but also through either the way that technology’s applied or the rules that govern the use of technology like regulation.
[00:07:33] Mark Hinaman: Got it. And it’s not just nuclear, right? I mean, it’s broader than just nuclear.
[00:07:39] Adam Stein: It’s much broader than just nuclear. We have other teams that work on agriculture, a larger view of climate and energy systems in general and specific to the developing world.
[00:07:57] Mark Hinaman: Got it. Founded in 2007, right. By Ted Nordhaus and Shellenberger. Michael Shellenberger.
[00:08:04] Adam Stein: Yep. Okay. It has changed significantly since then, except for the main premise of using technological solutions to help human environmental concerns.
[00:08:15] Mark Hinaman: Okay. So who is the Breakthrough Institute? I mean, how many people are there? Which corporations, donors exist? How are they different?
[00:08:25] Adam Stein: We are about 25 people right now That changes. We recently opened a new office in DC at the very beginning of the year and so we’re continuing to, to increase staff at that new location.
We are funded entirely away from industry, so we’re not connected to any corporation. It’s mostly through foundations and individual donors. Which is intentional. We don’t have any pressure from industry to uh, work in to make decisions that might be away from our core mission.
[00:09:06] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. So to basically be able to firmly say, no, we’re not influenced by these guys.
Like, we’re making policy recommendations because it’s what we believe in and what our funders and donors believe in.
[00:09:17] Adam Stein: Actually no, our funders and our donors may believe in it, but they don’t give us any input as to what they believe in what we should be working on. Uhhuh, we work independently.
Our work is not informed by our funding. Our funders have no expectation that we will move in a certain direction at all.
[00:09:37] Mark Hinaman: Okay. I do like your guys’ mission statement. It says, we believe that ecological vibrancy results from human prosperity, not the other way around. What’s, what’s that mean for breakthrough or what’s that mean to you?
[00:09:51] Adam Stein: Kind of, it’s kind of another way of saying what we work on technological solutions to help human benefit and, and environmental impact. Advances for human welfare have led to a lot less impact to the environment and more prosperity to humans at the same time. Great example is agriculture. We used to get way less productivity out of the same piece of land than we do now.
And so by being able to use new technology, we have reduced impact to the environment by not using more land. And at the same time, we can feed more people, bringing people out of poverty with, by using the same technology as well. Same goes for energy systems? Of course.
[00:10:39] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. So, I mean, we say at the beginning of every podcast energy dense fuels, and in my mind that includes kind of oil, gas.
But nuclear is obvi obviously best. Does breakthrough have a view on fossil fuels or should they be phased out?
[00:10:52] Adam Stein: Breakthrough Institute is very supportive of phasing out fossil fuels in terms of need to address both direct human and environmental health concerns, but also climate change.
But our approach is a little less stark than some other organizations because there are still billions of people in the developing world that have no access to energy. And fossil fuels might be their only option for the near term.
[00:11:19] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. If you can feed yourself today Yeah. Better, better to use and have energy today than right.
[00:11:30] Adam Stein: So ultimately we need to get away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, but they’re the transition period needs to not just be a hard line because some people need energy now that can’t have access to it or don’t have access to it, I should say. Yeah. Like billions of people. Right?
That’s like billions of people.
[00:11:55] Mark Hinaman: Okay. So why nuclear?
[00:11:58] Adam Stein: Well, nuclear has a lot of advantages that some other technologies don’t have. It fills a role that needs to be filled and since no other energy technology can do all of the things that nuclear energy can do, and some of those things can only be done by nuclear energy technology, period.
So the world needs nuclear energy to move forward and to do so, we need to do it correctly. There are barriers to address, there are opportunities that need to be created to let that happen. But in some form, at some level, nuclear energy is important. Not just to the US energy mix, but to the world.
[00:12:48] Mark Hinaman: Got it. Some things that it can do that other energy systems can’t. I mean that’s like making medical isotopes, right?
[00:12:57] Adam Stein: That is absolutely one of them.
[00:12:58] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. That’s like being on all the time. Right? That’s
[00:13:01] Adam Stein: well, some geothermal sources can be on all the time. Some run of river hydro sources are on all the time because the, the rivers aren’t expected to have significant fluctuations from climate change.
There are some other options for that, although those are very location specific. The opportunity for nuclear is being on all the time wherever you build it. Yeah. Deployable. Deployable, right to where you need it. And there are other atomic opportunities that need isotopes, not just for medical, but say for agriculture.
We use radioisotopes for agricultural production to help productivity. There’s a whole suite of those other opportunities that are an extrapolation from using it for power.
[00:13:53] Mark Hinaman: I, I didn’t know that. Is that an active use or, well, it’s for pesticides, right? Or am I thinking about that incorrectly?
[00:14:00] Adam Stein: It’s for pesticides.
[00:14:03] Mark Hinaman: Treating the land, meaning it takes radioisotopes and then if they’re not harmful once they decay, but they can be effective at removing well bugs essentially that can be harmful to crops, right?
[00:14:16] Adam Stein: Yes. It’s also for sterilization of already harvested crops. For instance, strawberries would go bad in a day or two, but after being treated, they, they last much longer on the shelf and you have way less food waste.
[00:14:32] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Okay. So what specifically is the nuclear energy innovation program?
[00:14:40] Adam Stein: Well, I think I covered this a little bit at the beginning, but we look at barriers that are in the way of deploying nuclear at scale for the benefit of both public and the environment. These barriers are wide ranging. We focus a lot on regulation in the US right now because there wasn’t sufficient effort in that space, in our view when we started this program.
And so we didn’t wanna necessarily be duplicative of what others were doing in other PR areas that, that they were already doing good work. We wanted to fill a role that was necessary and not covered yet. And we also work closely with Congress and state legislatures when the opportunity arises to make sure there’s policies in place in law.
We also work at public engagement and communication through our new effort called Build Nuclear Now. And we work on economics and, and deployability. We had a big report that came out last year called Advancing Nuclear Energy that looked at costs that zero grid analyses in a bounding sense. So what could the deployment of nuclear be if it’s really expensive and really low learning rates, or if it’s really cheap and really high learning rates with the expectation that the actual outcome will be somewhere in that range of possibility instead of how most net zero approaches say, I’m gonna make these assumptions and I’m going to project one possible future.
And here’s the answer. We wanted to know what the whole potential reasonable solution set was, and so we could say with some confidence that the reality will be somewhere in there instead of trying to put our finger on an answer that is very likely not accurate.
[00:16:36] Mark Hinaman: Got it. No, that, that’s awesome. It’s super interesting.
You know, we’re only like 15 minutes in and I’m worried that we’re gonna run outta time on this next question or topic, but so let, I wanna focus on the regulation piece and I’m gonna come at this to kind of set this question up on something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently where, you know, cost drives decision making in so much of the world and just picking the lowest cost energy solution isn’t always the best option ’cause it doesn’t do all the things like other energy systems do.
Just like we talked about nuclear has a lot of advantages and can be deployable and provides other benefits to society, but frequently people will say, well, it, it costs too much. And when I think about it, and when I think about the cost, like the energy return on energy invested, how much energy actually goes into building the plant, like the physical material?
World and construction of the plant should be approximately equal to that of coal plant or a natural gas plant. Like there’s many of the similar components and the rest of the fluff. The thing that makes it expensive is this regulatory burden and paperwork and like proving that you’re safe preemptively.
Number one, I’m curious if you agree that the, a lot of the cost is in the regulatory burden to build more nuclear. And then number two what do we do about it?
[00:17:59] Adam Stein: Hmm. I’m gonna unwrap that a little bit. The material components are higher than natural gas and fossil fuels in general because you have additional structures like a reactor containment, dim, right?
And so that material wouldn’t be the same as in a fossil fuel plant. So you do have additional. Fossil fuels, but nuclear power plants tend to run more often higher capacity factor than those fossil fuels. So per unit energy, it’s the lowest grams of c o two per kilowatt hour of energy. Any energy source, except for some very efficient solar panels, lower c o two output per kilowatt hour than wind even.
There is additional cost for regulatory burden. Some of it is black and white. Just on a line item on the budget, you have fees every year from the N R C to do oversight. You also could attribute some of the safety systems to that as regulatory burden, but that’s where it gets to be a gray area.
Nuclear power plants need safety systems. It can be dangerous if uncontrolled. The question is how do you delineate between what’s sufficient and what’s beyond necessary? And, and the extra would be additional regulatory burden. You want some additional beyond what’s the bare minimum. So you have can, can account for uncertainty, but at some point you get into the realm where you’re just asking for more and more and more all the time without any additional reduction in risk or increased benefit to the public.
[00:19:51] Mark Hinaman: Do you have any perhaps, specific examples that might come to mind?
[00:19:54] Adam Stein: Hmm. Well, everybody says that ALARA is, is the epitome of the example because as low as reasonably achievable, right, as low as reasonably achievable. If it’s based off of the linear nerve threshold model, which it currently is, that means that there is no dose that is completely safe.
And so ALARA, it requires operators to reduce potential dose to workers and the public based off a search and cost threshold. Certain and dollar figure per rem reduced with no lower limits. It’s just whether it’s financially passes this cost threshold. So you could reduce the most minuscule dose that costs you $15 to do.
Right. And they would say that, that you need to do that. Does that minuscule dose actually have risk to the public? Yeah, probably not. But because it’s particularly based off this cost threshold, they still have to do it. And uh, that goes beyond where I would say is, is um, It goes into the area of additional burden because it’s not actually providing that additional safety benefit.
[00:21:13] Mark Hinaman: Right. Yeah. Jack Devaney has a ton of great writing about this, in my opinion. He’s a, he’s a great thought leader on it, and one metric that he uses is dollar spent per life, year saved. And nuclear has some of the worst return on investment as far as additional dollar spent, saving more lives. Like we could spend our money in so many other ways as a society rather than working on more nuclear safety
[00:21:40] Adam Stein: that I mean by the numbers.
That’s absolutely true. Nuclear is per kilowatt hour, the safest form of energy that the earth currently, or as far as we know is ever used. Yeah so something that people always try to, to break apart here that I actually object to is that the the nuclear industry is only this safe because there was regulation.
These things grew up together. Yeah. So the regulation moved in the direction of it, moved along with the industry. You can’t completely separate them and you can’t say that one is just the result of the other. The question is how do we untangle this now so we can move forward in a way that is the most benefit to society?
Not whether the past mistakes were from the industry or from the regulator. It’s probably both, to be honest. They, because they are intertwined, so moving forward should not be a attack one or the other proposition.
[00:22:47] Mark Hinaman: I like that, that that’s a, that’s a solution-based mindset, which I think is very positive.
I. But I totally agree with you. Like the, if you look back at the number of rules when they came into effect, when the N R C was formed the cost of nuclear plants over that amount of time it’s pretty obvious that nuclear was safe before the N R c before a bunch of the regulations came into place.
And my, my personal view is regulations will fill. I mean, just like you said, elara basically means how much can you afford? And so pay us as much as you can afford to make it that safe.
Which then eventually you regulate yourself out of a job and you can’t afford it anymore. Or another technology comes along that doesn’t have the same standards.
And when I look at the number of regulations for each type of energy system, they scale remarkably close to the energy density of those fuels. Meaning like there’s a ton for nuclear, there’s a lot for oil and gas. There’s not that much for other kinds of energy systems.
[00:23:54] Adam Stein: That’s true. Yeah. Absolutely. A big question mark is what are, is the regulations going to look like for say, hydrogen, which is potentially very dangerous if used incorrectly? And if we have a very fast uptick of energy infrastructure based on hydrogen, it’s not just production of hydrogen, which we do have some regulations in place, it’s also transmission of the hydrogen, which we also have some regulation in place, although it’s not as strict or comprehensive as say, natural gas pipelines.
But the end use is largely unregulated at this point. And that’s usually where you’re gonna have operator error.
[00:24:37] Mark Hinaman: Hmm. I see. So you mentioned these things are intertwined. I agree. What are some of, some of your ideas about how you might be able to untangle them or fix them?
I’ve got hot takes. But curious on your idea about what some, some solutions might be.
[00:25:00] Adam Stein: I have some very hot takes as well, I guess, but let’s talk about hot takes. Yeah.
Some things since these things are intertwined, I’ll note again that to fix one, or the other, we’re going to have to be willing to move beyond or away from the way we’ve always done it. You can’t say that new standards needs to be the same as the old standards. Just say technologically inclusive instead, that won’t actually fix the problem.
[00:25:34] Mark Hinaman: So part 53 doesn’t make any sense?
[00:25:37] Adam Stein: Not as currently written. There are some improvements because it is technologically inclusive. You’re going to have to request less exemptions from regulations that are in part 50 or 52. For instance, if you don’t have a backup pump, because you don’t have a pump at all in your reactor, you don’t have to ask for an exemption for it.
But it doesn’t go, it doesn’t change the
[00:26:01] Mark Hinaman: Realize what we’re, what we’re talking about. So, yeah. Okay. So I’ll give kind of a background or Well, yeah, you go for it.
[00:26:08] Adam Stein: Part 50 and 52 are the two regulations that are currently available to licensed reactors under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Part 50 is the old way. In the old way, and it’s a two-step process. You first apply for construction permit to build the plant, and then you apply for an operating license to operate the plant. Part 52 was later put in place to try to streamline it. It’s a one step process, let’s call it a combined operating license.
You have a standardized design. The design gets approved upfront, and then you can apply for a combined operating license to build that specific design at a specific site and operate it all in one go instead of two separate stages. Existing licenses except for Vogel. Unit three and four were all done under the part 50 framework, or even before the N R C U, under the Atomic Energy Commission.
Part 52 was used for the gel framework all the way to completion for the first time. And new developers for advanced reactors are almost exclusively using Part 50 because it allows them to get an upfront initial look at first of a kind plant with the construction permit, and then separately seek an operating license later for the as-built plans instead of trying to have new all the information up front.
[00:27:40] Mark Hinaman: Do you know if New Scale also did Part 50, or, I thought they did
[00:27:42] Adam Stein: New scale did design certification first, which is under part 52. Okay. And now they’re applying for a standard design application, which is also under part 52.
[00:27:53] Mark Hinaman: Okay. So they, they’re using 52, but they’re one of the only new developers that.
[00:28:00] Adam Stein: Oklo was also pursuing an application under 52. Right. They’re expected to apply again, also under 52. But for the most part, all the other developers are looking at part 50.
[00:28:13] Mark Hinaman: Gotcha. Okay. And then we said part 53, this was the new rule that, I mean, Congress had a mandate to modernize regulation in the nuclear industry.
And this was the NRCS attempt at doing that, right?
[00:28:26] Adam Stein: That that’s exactly right. I’ll make it a little bit more detailed and confusing. It’s supposed to be at technologically inclusive, which means potentially usable by any design, not unlike part 50 and 52, which were largely designed for the large light water reactors that we have in operation today.
So 53 is supposed to be usable for any design. It’s supposed to be risk informed, which means. You focus on the things that are most important to the risk of the plant. Everything doesn’t have equal value. If it’s not important to risk, it shouldn’t be part of the licensing process. If it’s very important to risk, it should have way more focus in the licensing process.
And this next one is a big departure from existing licensing, which is performance based. Existing licensing is deterministic, which means they have determined that you need to do these things. It’s almost like checking off boxes of a list. Performance based means you set performance objectives, how something should perform, and applicants can define how they are going to meet those objectives.
So it’s more flexible, but you also keep the regulation focused on the outcomes that you want, which are their performance objectives. You want the plant to be safe. Right, not impact the, the public health. That’s obviously at the very high level performance objective and everything flows down from there.
Instead of saying, do all of these things in a deterministic rule, which may not actually add up to that same performance objective, or you could end up being way more burdensome than needed to hit that performance objective. It all depends on the design of the plant. I try to explain the difference between a deterministic and performance using a car analogy or prescriptive.
Really prescriptive says you have to do things a certain way. So if you have a car, you could be prescriptive and say you need to have turn signals on each corner. You need to have four wheels. You need to have a clamping force of 2000 p s i in your brakes. You need to have a steering wheel. And on and on.
All these things to check off. Performance based rule would be the car needs to be safe. That’s the number one goal. It needs to have a way to stop in a certain distance. Even. You can have specific distances in that. You need to be able to go straight down the road instead of saying something like, you need a steering wheel, don’t tell me how to do it.
Say you need to be able to control a car and go straight down the road. Those are performance objectives. It’s a different approach, and you’re focusing more on what the outcome should be instead of how to get there.
[00:31:12] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, so stretch that analogy. Some of the new designs though, are like, people are trying to build either an RC car or like a fighter jet and yeah.
The N R C is still looking at just cars, right?
[00:31:24] Adam Stein: Like that’s the, the example I use of that comes from one of my friends sch, he says, it’s like trying to regulate a motorcycle. With regulations designed for a tractor trailer, you kind of stretch it a little bit farther for an artsy cargo, a fighter jet. But it’s the same idea what, what you need to do for a tractor trailer is not motorcycle is not a scaled down version of a tractor trailer.
It is fundamentally different in some ways. Some systems don’t even exist in the motorcycle that exists in the tractor trailer, and the same requirements wouldn’t replicate. For instance, if you had a requirement that you needed to have 18 wheels because it’s a tractor trailer and then you have a motorcycle that has two wheels, then you need an exemption.
And should you have to ask for an exemption just ’cause you’re smaller? Probably not.
[00:32:17] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. So you mentioned this exemption. This is part of the licensing process, right? Like there’s a clause in in the regs that says like, the, the N R C can grant exemptions to the rules, but you gotta ask for it and then you gotta prove why it’s okay.
Am I correct in that?
[00:32:32] Adam Stein: And you are correct. And the next step is the n r C has no obligation to say, okay.
[00:32:39] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, that’s, yeah. They, they can reasonably or unreasonably withhold approval of that exemption, right? Like they don’t have to give, correct. Yeah. They have complete power over it. So, but conversely, I mean, hypothetically they could just come out and say, well, yeah, for I’m, and I’m thinking for very small systems like micro reacts you effectively to get some of those licenses under the existing frameworks, you would just apply for exemptions to almost everything.
And ’cause there’s so much less source term and systems would be easier to license. I don’t know.
[00:33:14] Adam Stein: That’s true. And they actually have the N R C has worked on that to some extent. Setting up expected general design criteria for advanced reactors. For instance, what they would expect to be the criteria to use for licensing them.
Standard review plans or working on that for advanced reactors. So they’re trying to in bulk allow for exemptions for advanced reactors in some areas, not enough. Basically the low hanging fruit of things that obviously wouldn’t apply. Like if you literally don’t have a pump that you’re supposed to have in the regulations, then it should be easy to get an exemption for that ’cause it physically doesn’t exist.
Right. Other things you still need to ask for exemptions for that aren’t obvious like that? The N R C started working on that effort. I think eight years ago. I. The advanced reactor developer scene has changed significantly in eight years. More than quadrupled in to, in terms of potential designs with a much larger variety of designs.
And so that whole effort is basically outdated at this point, but it was a step that the N R C took in the right direction.
[00:34:33] Mark Hinaman: Nice. So when I’ve read through part 53, and it’s been, it’s been a while, so you mentioned things have changed or things have improved but when I read through it, it was a lot of copy and paste from the other rules that, you know, the N R C was using the previous framework to make this new rule.
Do, do you have an update or do you wanna give kind of an overview of how it might be different and how, how it’s the same or are there other parts that need to change? And what’s the timeline on like, on this, I.
[00:35:01] Adam Stein: That’s a lot of big questions. So, sorry, I’ll start
[00:35:05] Mark Hinaman: summarizing from the beginning. Yeah.
Specific or as broad as you want to be. I, I don’t think we prepped you for that question. So the
[00:35:15] Adam Stein: Nuclear Energy Innovation Modernization Act, or NEMA told the N R C to make this framework that we’ve previously mentioned, Copart 53, the staff came up with a rulemaking plan. That rulemaking plan basically said we are going to start from, because of the short timeline we have to do this, we’re gonna start from the existing regulations as a base, including using the licensing modernization project, which I’ll explain that as a starting point for part 53.
And we are going to make sure that part 53 is as leased as, yes, as leased, as safe as the existing regulations not as safe. But as least as safe, so could potentially be a stricter, more safe rulemaking, which is ultimately where, where it has gone. The commission said, okay, but get that done even faster than you planned on.
And so the staff’s response to that was, okay, well then we’re gonna copy and paste even more. And that’s what they’ve done. They started from part 50 and 52 and made it mostly technologically inclusive but really started from the existing regulations. They also incorporated the licensing modernization project, which is an effort that N E I led.
The Nuclear Energy Institute led to be an optional approach to using part 50 and 52 for licensing advanced reactors. So they, n e I previously had this long-term project with some other companies like Southern Company. On how you could risk inform these deterministic licensing frameworks. So it was supposed to be an approach to using those frameworks in a risk informed way.
But the N R C staff took this and said, okay, the industry obviously liked this because they developed this. They asked us to endorse this. We’re gonna take this and make the new rule. It was never supposed to be a rule by itself. It was supposed to be an approach that fits the constraints of part 50 and 52.
Instead of rethinking how reactors should be licensed from the ground up, they also did not need to put L M P or the licensing modernization project into no rule because the N R C endorsed it for 50 and 52. So it didn’t have to be essentially duplicated into another rule. It was already in place. So putting it into part 53 didn’t really gain the industry much.
Right. Part 53 was the opportunity to revolutionize licensing advanced reactors instead of just evolving from what we already have. So after there was a lot of feedback saying you basically just took L M P and put it in a new rule, but made it technologically inclusive. They said, okay, we’ll make another framework called framework B.
This one will respond as feedback that we receive, that not everybody wants to use L M P, and that they want an approach that is more aligned with international standards to make it easier to import and export without having to redo all of your licensing efforts. And so framework B largely just looks like part 50 and 52 more deterministic.
Which also doesn’t get you much because 50 and 52 already still exist. And so now we have these two frameworks that didn’t need to be two frameworks in the first place, neither of which really meet the mandate of how would you potentially license hundreds of reactors a year? Where can we find efficiency improvements?
And more importantly, can we make this a performance-based rule instead of a deterministic rule largely misses a lot of the opportunities to have performance objectives instead of deterministic objectives. So it’s not the outcome of rule structure that really anybody would like. Yeah. There’s also, there’s, there’s several other specific issues in it, such as inclusion of the quantitative health objectives, which is from 1986, the N C’s definition of how safe is safe enough.
Those were always supposed to be safety goals. It’s literally in the safety goal policy statement. It was never intended to be actually a regulatory standard. And the commission has told the staff that on many, many occasions, these are not thresholds, these are goals. They’re supposed to be used by the staff to inform how the staff approaches regulation, not a specific number for the industry to hit.
The N R C staff took it and put it in part 53 directly, which instead of being a performance based objective is a risk objective. It completely changes the paradigm of how these goals are applied. It’s also, and this is one of my slightly more contentious takes, but based on science, it’s unobservable in the population.
You can’t actually epidemiologically observe this standard. Even if it, you had a severe accident that led to this level of safety, it would never be able to show whether it happened or not with cancer rates at this low of a level. And so that means that it is not useful for regulatory oversight because you can’t tell whether the operator is meeting that requirement or not.
So not useful for regulatory oversight, but also open for contention legally by saying, we don’t think this plant is operating to the regulation. And the plant can never say, here’s evidence that we are.
[00:41:22] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. So I’ll, I’ll say it back. See if I heard you correctly. There was, I. Study rule that report in 1986.
What, what was it, sorry?
[00:41:33] Adam Stein: Safety goal policy statement issued by the N R C commissioners in 1986. In
[00:41:39] Mark Hinaman: 1986. Okay. And they had levels of radiation exposure in that report that were goals. They weren’t meant to be strict guidelines, but the N R C has now taken those objectives, put ’em into part 53, which basically condemns, I mean, if people utilize that, then condemns from a legal perspective, anyone that is trying to be compliant under those standards.
Because I agree with you, it sounds like if, if there are, if there is a release of radioactive material and you can’t observe a, an impact from any study of an increase in cancer rates, then like, was there damage, right? I mean, this is kind of the, if a tree falls in a forest, did it make a sound? But it, I, I think like the broader question is even.
What’s the net impact of having these rules in place? I mean, it’s, it’s prohibiting the utilization of the technology at its core, right?
[00:42:36] Adam Stein: Potentially, yes. But that’s not a question for part 53 specifically. Right. That’s a question of whether the safety goal, policy statement should exist or if it should be adjusted some way.
Yeah. In terms of part 53, from moving a goal into a regulation, then you’re requiring that outcome and operators would not be able to show that one way or the other. You can’t prove the counterfactual either that it didn’t happen.
[00:43:01] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Which just, like you said, leaves you open for lawsuits and then, and then no one’s gonna take that risk.
’cause then it’s a toxic tort case and it’s uninsurable. And I mean, yeah, you just opening, opening up yourself for a big legal battle down the road that you can’t prove or disprove one way or the other.
[00:43:21] Adam Stein: Right. In terms of recent developments with part 53 the N R C staff sent the most recent draft to the Commission for consideration the beginning of March.
The commission has been considering it since then. On Monday, Congress sent a letter, a very strong bipartisan letter to the commission saying this doesn’t look like it’s following the intent of nema, that Congress directed. Here are six areas of concern that need to be addressed by the commission, and the commission should consider both past and ongoing stakeholder engagement on this topic because most of the requests for adjustment to the rule have been mostly unanimous from stakeholders, and they haven’t occurred from the staff. The staff doesn’t have to do everything the stakeholders ask them to do. They have to make a rule that they think meets the mandate they were given. But it’s my opinion that the staff has not actually been listening to a lot of the concerns.
For instance, concerns that we’ve raised on just mathematical IM possibilities that are still in the rule that should have been easy fixes and haven’t been addressed. Breakthrough Institute also hosted a workshop that brought in most of the major stakeholders that have engaged in part 53 to develop consensus about these topics so we can provide that feedback to the commissioners. Their commission staff came to these workshops to hear all that input in real time to show that we have consider these issues in depth. We’re not just disagreeing with the staff and there are reasons that we disagree with the staff and potential pathways forward.
[00:45:14] Mark Hinaman: I, you know, I gotta ask, what are we protecting against? You know, like this conversation and the whole topic, like it traces back in, in nuclear to this organization that the Nuclear regulatory commission that, I mean, doesn’t have a CEO, doesn’t have like a, a leader.
I mean, I’ve heard there’s a very military structure. But, you know, not, not a lot of guidance that, and I just, at the core, like what is actually driving the decision making that we’re protecting against? Because when you read the NRCS mission statement like, these actions and this behavior doesn’t seem to line up with it.
You know, like the net public benefit doesn’t, it’s not there. So I’m, I’m curious, what’s your opinion on like, I mean, asked simply, is any of this even necessary?
[00:46:03] Adam Stein: Oh, you mean nuclear regulation, period?
[00:46:06] Mark Hinaman: Well, at the level and extent that it’s grown to, right? I, I mean, I feel like it should be much, much simpler and there should be, you know, I, I don’t know, some level of alternate solution.
[00:46:23] Adam Stein: It should be much, much simpler. There’s also not just simpler in terms of what regulations are required, but also there’s huge opportunities for efficiency improvement. But to get there, they need to actually consider the net benefit to the public, and they don’t right now. And so they think that they are carrying out the mission of the N R C very well to protect human health in the environment.
The Atomic Energy Act also says you need to do things like maximize benefit to the general welfare of the public. That isn’t considered in their decision making. They don’t consider the general public welfare. They just consider the potential impacts of the public from actually building a nuclear plant.
So we’ve been trying to get them to consider those potential net benefits. Their response is generally that we don’t promote nuclear we do not ask them to promote nuclear. We ask them to consider the benefits to public from using nuclear. Not to say we don’t want them to go out and, you know, put up ads and say, build new nuclear.
Right? That’s not their role. They need to make sure that it’s safe, but safe when considering the cost of their regulations to, to the public as well as the Atomic Energy Act tells them to. And so we’ve been trying to get their mission clarified, not changed, but actually, so they do what the Atomic Energy Act of way back in 1954 says they should do.
And what the Energy Reorganization Act 1974 that created the N R C of the Atomic Energy Commission also says they should do. We think that considering that counterfactual of net benefits is, is critical to having an agency that benefits society.
[00:48:28] Mark Hinaman: I completely agree. Yeah. I mean, in my mind they’re working inside this box.
Right. I mean, I’m reading, I’m looking at the mission statement right now. It’s they need to regulate radioactive material to protect public health and protect the environment like those are, that’s simplifying it. But if you regulate radioactive material and you’re only looking at the use of radioactive material in this box, then there’s the whole rest of the world that’s happening outside of it that.
Because you’re not using the radioactive material for the benefits that it provides. You’re using other systems that are more dangerous and harm the environment more so.
[00:49:01] Adam Stein: Absolutely.
[00:49:02] Mark Hinaman: I mean, thi this is really contentious to me, and I, it really bothers me because, I mean, there’s a company an SS m r developer Last Energy Right, that is going internationally to build reactors elsewhere because they think this problem’s intractable.
They’re literally not going to try to build in the US and they think that they can build faster elsewhere, right? I think NuScale thinks that they’re gonna build systems internationally first, before the first system here is built. Like, it’s sad from an American perspective, you know, for being proud of your country and like wanting to be an innovative and, you know, go fast and break things.
[00:49:38] Adam Stein: I, I don’t disagree with that. I think we should be building nuclear here quickly and first I think that we have. Potentially huge opportunities to reduce impacts of public health just by shutting down coal, which leads to thousands of annual deaths of our citizens, whereas nuclear has led to zero. So that consideration is core to what the N R C should be considering in their decision making.
And I’ll note that the safety goal policy statement of 1986 that we mentioned previously says that it, it has several let layers. The first layer is that nuclear should be as safe or safer than alternative competing energy sources. They don’t actually do that comparison ever. They then leave that consideration of alternative energy sources and go to say that it should be.
A 10th of 1% of cancer rates in the population from all cancer sources. So completely decoupled from energy into just prevalence of cancer that’s already in the public from any source of cancer. There’s no real reason to make that jump, but they do. And if they considered the actual top line safety goal of being as safe or safer than alternative energy sources, that also would make them say, oh, this is safer than, say, coal use.
And we should require a level of regulation that’s appropriate based on that.
[00:51:23] Mark Hinaman: So how does that get fixed, Adam? How do we peel the existing regulations back to be in line with that purpose or with, with that objective?
[00:51:35] Adam Stein: The only way is to have Congress clarify the mission of the N R C because the N R C could do this itself, but has interpreted the direction of the Atomic Energy Act to be the mission that you just read, right?
And so they do not think that there is a reason that they should revise any of their regulations to consider these things. They need some new direction to say that this is what you should have been doing all along and we need you to do this now. That’s the only way the N R C’s gonna revisit it, except for if you ended up with five commissioners that all thought that that was an issue and then they could decide to do it.
But that seems unlikely. It’s gonna have to be direction from, from Congress. And I think that direction really needs to be, do what we told you to do many decades ago. Not to say we no longer care about safety, just build the things that’s. Not the direction that some people, you know, reacted to these draft legislations.
Like that’s what is being asked. That’s not what’s being asked at all. We just want them to do what they were told to do from the start.
[00:52:53] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. So we could either stack the commission or motivate Congress to write a letter and change, clarify the mandate words stay the same emphasis on different words.
Right. We’ll underline and italicize different words. So
[00:53:08] Adam Stein: basically, yes.
[00:53:11] Mark Hinaman: How are commissioners appointed? What’s, what’s the process for how, how would you stack the commission and why do you think it’s unlikely that that would happen?
[00:53:18] Adam Stein: The requirement of the commission is that there can be no more than three commissioners from any political party.
And so it is a bipartisan commission, kind of like FERC is. You usually appoint commissioners and pairs, so you’ll have one from each party. Combined together so it’s easier to get them approved. At the same time each party thinks they are putting somebody on the commission that’ll do what they think should be done.
There are different views of what that should be. And so it’s unlikely you’re ever gonna get five commissioners that really think, really you only need 3 to 5, you need a majority. But changing the mission of the N R C and all the regulations that flow down from it, it’s going to be difficult for that to not be contentious with external stakeholders if it’s a bare majority for that kind of vote.
[00:54:15] Mark Hinaman: I see. Well, but I mean, just like you said, bipartisan letter from Congress, right? It, it almost, it’s almost like political party shouldn’t matter on this. This is a bipartisan issue that a lot of people agree on. Both red and blue, you know, so,
[00:54:30] Adam Stein: Yeah, I agree. But commissioners generally are more, well just conservative on their approach to changing regulations no matter which side of the aisle they are, than big, bold strokes.
That’s just not how they have approached regulation ever at the n r c.
[00:54:52] Mark Hinaman: Fair. Okay. So I, I mean, domestically and internationally, do, do you think there’s been a big mind mindset shift about nuclear?
[00:55:03] Adam Stein: Oh, yes, definitely. I, I do think there has been, we’ve even seen countries that were shutting down all of their reactors to suddenly say, maybe we need to keep some of these around because we don’t have enough energy.
There’s been mindset shift from we’re gonna keep the nuclear we have in some countries to, we’re gonna build more. And then we have other countries like say, Poland, that doesn’t see any option of how to get off of fossil fuels except building a lot of nuclear energy. And so there’s a wide range of mindset shift from where different countries start to where they’re going, but there has been a lot of shifting over the last year or two.
[00:55:49] Mark Hinaman: Got it. Do you guys have a resource or a recommended resource for people to learn more about this problem with the, the regulator? Or could we point people
[00:55:59] Adam Stein: one specific resource? No, we, we write about it in parts relatively frequently. Okay. Sometimes on very specific issues that we think need to be addressed and sometimes
[00:56:10] Mark Hinaman: on.
All right. Donate to the Breakthrough Institute. And anything that you, I won’t object to that. Shameless plug. Right.
[00:56:20] Adam Stein: But the, Our approach in, in my team is to identify an issue, do the analysis on the issue, propose a feasible solution, not just a fanciful solution that we would like, but one that’s actually feasible.
And then communicate that to both the regulator or congress or the public, depending on who needs to be the appropriate audience. And so taking that approach, we don’t have just say, one big compendium of this is what’s wrong with the regulator. Got it. It would be the volumes and volumes, right? Instead we try to address specific issues at one time.
That way we can identify specific solutions to try to get those implemented for results, for beneficial outcomes, instead of just be somebody that talks about a topic.
[00:57:17] Mark Hinaman: I like it. So you, you’re educated on the topics, you think critically about them, then you have a specific recommended approach and craft it to be most helpful often towards this specific audience.
So that’s awesome. Great.
[00:57:30] Adam Stein: That’s the goal. Yeah.
[00:57:32] Mark Hinaman: Well, we ask, we typically ask people what’s the most impactful step that it can take to building more nuclear A S A P and how can people help? But I, I don’t wanna put words in your mouth. I’ll, I’ll let you answer that question. But what I’ve, one thing that I’ve heard is write your senator, write your congressman or congresswoman and ask them to change the interpretation of the NRCS mission to have a dual mandate for to both protect and encourage nuclear energy in the us.
[00:57:57] Adam Stein: I’ll actually adjust what you said, so don’t change the interpretation, just tress what the original interpretation was. Just
[00:58:07] Mark Hinaman: go back to what the original purpose was.
[00:58:09] Adam Stein: Just go back to the original purpose and. Clarify that that is what the N O C should be doing with every decision. And not even that they should promote or encourage nuclear energy and innovation or deployment, just that they should be thinking about what is best for the general welfare of the public.
And the result will be that this energy source will be more usable to the public because regulations will have to be designed to allow for the greatest improvement to general welfare. It’ll just be an extension of that clarification.
[00:58:50] Mark Hinaman: Okay. So Adam, walk us through, if that happened, what’s the timeline, I mean, for that to happen, how would Congress clarify that and how long would it take?
I mean, I, I know that’s a really big question, but, and, and I’m asking you to answer it succinctly since we’re coming up on our time, but, Yeah. What, what would that look like?
[00:59:12] Adam Stein: It would look like a bill that specifically added a section to the Energy Reorganization Act 1974. That takes these key points from the Energy Reorganization Act and the Atomic Energy Act, and specifically says, your mission is this.
It includes the specific things from the, the purpose of those acts and defines the NRCS mission. That way it’s very clear that those are the things the NRC should be working on. And then from that, we will have to work with the N R C to update the regulations so it follows that new clarified mandate appropriately.
Some things will have to change to, to do that. It won’t happen overnight. They’ll have to amend many regulations to get there, and that takes time and staff resources. But you have to start somewhere, and that’s where we’ll start. It could, passing a bill can be quick in Congress or it can be very, very slow.
It all depends on whether things align, whether they’re in recess, everything else. But assuming that if a bill like that gets passed, then it’s going to be a, an effort to focus on the most important things first that need to get addressed to realign with that mission, and then keep going down the line for decades to make sure the emissions continually carried out
[01:00:48] Mark Hinaman: and the reorganization of the two of the regulations or rewriting of the regs.
I mean, that’ll take time, but it it, like you said, it’s not overnight. Is it a year, two years, 10 years, 20 years? Like how long would this process take?
[01:01:09] Adam Stein: It may never end because some regulations aren’t touched very often. They’re not used very often, therefore very small cases that don’t come up often. And so there would be no reason for the N R C to spend resources to revise those regulations until there’s a need for them. We’d rather their resources will put into, say, refuting licensing applications.
Right? Yeah. They’re still revising resources to be risk informed and they started doing that in the nineties.
[01:01:40] Mark Hinaman: Got it. Well, Adam, I’m incredibly thankful for your work. Thank, thanks so much for this background. I can tell you’re well versed in the subject and I, I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten the chance to chat with you.
[01:01:53] Adam Stein: that was very kind of you. I’m glad that I had an opportunity to talk. Awesome.
[01:01:57] Mark Hinaman: Thanks for the time, Adam.