The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) has kicked off a five-year partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to educate state public service commissioners and commission staff about barriers and possibilities related to the U.S. nuclear fleet. 

The non-profit organization whose members include state regulatory agencies in all 50 states said on March 8 that the measure would help stakeholders better understand the reliability and environmental attributes of nuclear power. The effort attempts to bolster the existing nuclear industry, which continues to endure competitive headwinds as more gas and renewables flood the market. But it will also address growth pathways for advanced nuclear and small modular reactor (SMR) technologies. 

“By building institutional networks and relationships between state and federal decision-makers, who will affect both the retention of the existing nuclear fleet and the deployment of advanced nuclear energy technologies, this partnership will coordinate on technical, environmental and economic issues relating to the use of nuclear energy and the options available to maintain its competitiveness in a diverse, reliable, environmentally friendly and affordable energy mix,” NARUC said in a statement

NARUC’s Center for Partnerships and Innovation will oversee the partnership with the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. “The NARUC Center for Partnerships and Innovation successfully manages multiple educational partnerships with DOE, and we are pleased to add nuclear energy to our growing portfolio,” said NARUC Executive Director Greg White. “This partnership is important to providing unbiased resources not only for the 28 states with an existing nuclear plant but also for states that are interested in exploring the deployment of new, advanced nuclear technologies.”

Commissioner Anthony O’Donnell from the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) and Commissioner Tim Echols from the Georgia PSC will co-chair the partnership. O’Donnell and Echols also head up the NARUC Subcommittee on Nuclear Issues – Waste Disposal. Initially, the partnership will include commissioners and staff representing 18 states and territories.

The partnership marks a new concerted effort to better inform a broad set of stakeholders about what it takes to deploy new nuclear technologies. Since 2018, the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) has prominently spearheaded an effort to establish direct engagement in states and with utilities to provide them with a clearer picture of how nuclear could provide value in their distinct ecosystems. 

Industry observers note that the efforts are being rolled out because the timing feels right. Most states in the U.S. are seeing changing market structures, rapidly decarbonizing energy systems, and strong state-level policy pushes to support greenhouse gas emission reductions. At the same time, regulatory agencies are mulling changes to address changing energy supplies and suppliers. 

In January, the Department of Energy (DOE) sought comment on a petition from a “Mr. Ken Kay”—identified simply as an Ohioan—to promulgate rules and establish programs that will allow states “to collaboratively develop new nuclear technologies with the DOE, and under the authority of the DOE.” These programs would cover “development of SMRs that are designed to produce 10 MW or less of thermal energy, thus providing for a program of maximum development that recognizes the interests of states.” 

Kay said that the petition—for which the DOE is collecting comments until April 15—responds to a failure by federal agencies to provide a domestic program of research and development for nuclear technologies “to encourage maximum scientific and industrial progress allowing other nations to become the world leaders in nuclear and energy diplomacy. This failure has compromised America’s safety and security and put states at a competitive disadvantage to foreign countries in producing new nuclear technologies.” He added, “Federal policies with states are not consistent with international arrangements and agreements of cooperation.”

Kay argued that the gap stems from the 1974 dissolution of the 1946-formed Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), with the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) legally splitting its duties. “The ERDA was to take on the research and development activities of the AEC and the NRC was to take on the safety and regulatory aspects of the defunct AEC,” he said. But in 1977, Congress dissolved the ERDA and consolidated its programs into the DOE. 

With these changes, a core facet of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act (AEA) requiring the AEC to “recognize the interests of the States in the peaceful uses of atomic energy,” was lost, Kay argued. The law also required the AEC to promote “an orderly regulatory pattern” between the commission and state governments with respect to nuclear. Under a proper interpretation of the law, however, the DOE’s authority could be extended to states in collaborative research and development agreements per the law’s mandate to recognize the states’ interests in developing nuclear technologies, he said. 

Kay’s petition urges the DOE to issue rules and programs that would allow states to develop collaborative nuclear and non-nuclear labs “on currently licensed or formerly licensed nuclear facility grounds, within their respective states, and allow for the construction of collaborative nuclear experimentation containment facility testing platforms.”

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).