Issue 11
Words by

Taming the stars

23rd May 2023
32 Mins

Cheap, safe nuclear power is possible, but is all but prohibited in most Western countries. A regulatory sandbox for fission could shake us out of our regulatory sclerosis.

We, and the world around us, are mainly the dust of long dead stars; our food, the same stardust transformed by the power of another star, our Sun. The Earth is warmed by the radiation from decaying stardust within. Stars furnish the power on which life depends.

As well as life, stars bring death. Radiation from the Sun causes cancers, and storms that sink ships and flatten homes. Currents stirred by heat within the Earth cause volcanoes and earthquakes. Solar storms could destroy our electrical grids or satellites. Collapsed stars, like the enormous black hole at the center of the Milky Way, eat other stars. 

Unless one day we learn to control and transform them entirely, we must live with stars as best we can. Billions of years from now, the Sun’s increasing temperature will render the Earth barren, before it goes dark altogether. Without radically better technology, any life remaining on Earth at that point – which, for all we know, may be all life in the universe – will end. Stasis is not an option. We must progress, or die.

Since the dawn of the species, we have learned to harness ever more energy per person. To begin with, the only energy we harvested was that fixed by photosynthesis in plants, creating the sugars that have fed humanity since its origins. In time, we learned to tap that energy in other forms. To keep warm, we burned sunlight stored as wood, and learned to use it to cook. We tamed animals to carry us and to help us grow food. Sunshine caused water to evaporate from the oceans and then fall as rain, which we used to drive mills and then generators. 

The increasingly rapid improvement of our lives since then would have been impossible without more and cheaper energy. We learned to extract dead life, compressed beneath the earth, in the form of coal, oil and natural gas, for warmth and industry. Heat from the Sun creates weather which we have tapped with windmills and then turbines. Even tidal power, mostly driven by the Moon, also depends on the Sun – to stop the water from freezing. 

We also learned to use the geothermal power within the Earth – first from hot springs, and increasingly by digging deeper. We learned to bypass these indirect routes of harnessing the Sun by making solar panels that generate electrical power directly from the sunshine itself.

In the past century, we have begun to unlock gigantic amounts of energy from the heaviest pieces of long-dead stars within the Earth – uranium – through nuclear fission. Most remarkably of all, nuclear fusion power, distinct from fission and technologically still in its infancy, recreates the nature of stars directly by forcing hydrogen atoms together until they combine to form atoms of helium, releasing enormous energy in the process.

In the future, we may beam power down to Earth with microwaves from solar panels in space, where they can capture the Sun’s energy more efficiently than on land. One Star Trek episode featured the physicist Freeman Dyson’s idea that we might capture all of the Sun’s energy by surrounding it entirely with a ‘Dyson sphere’.

The ‘Henry Adams curve’, named in Where Is My Flying Car? after a prediction made by late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century historian Henry Adams in his autobiography, predicted that energy use per head would increase at about seven percent per year indefinitely. For the decades between 1907, when Adams first made this claim, and the 1970s, his prediction held. But since around the time of the 1970s oil crisis, growth has stalled. 

Higher energy consumption is closely linked to faster economic growth, and vice versa. Many of the world’s problems today are caused by the high cost of energy, whether internalized in the price we have to pay for it or externalized in damage caused to the environment. These energy costs govern our use of things like transportation, heating, air conditioning, and activities as fundamental as manufacturing and agriculture. Finding clean, abundant energy might improve human welfare more than solving any other problem except housing

Roughly 28,000 people die in the US due to cold temperatures every year, and the effect is larger in low income parts of the country. Expensive energy may have killed more Europeans than did covid last winter. As Bill Gates has said, ‘If you could pick just one thing to lower the price of – to reduce poverty – by far you would pick energy.’ Cheap energy globally could supply the world with plentiful drinking water, and abundant food grown under artificial light

The ideas of science fiction have been realized mainly where they do not require much energy. With smartphones, we have nearly surpassed what science fiction imagined could be possible, but they use very little power. It is the high price of energy that has prevented moon bases, human interplanetary travel and flying cars. Fast transportation is a major use of energy. If trends in speed had continued since the 1970s, airliners would be able to take you from New York to San Francisco in 22 minutes. The cost of energy is a huge constraint on technological progress.

Nuclear power is a part of nature

Uranium is not rare. The oceans alone contain approximately 4.5 billion tonnes of dissolved uranium, with billions more tonnes crystallized onto the ocean floor over geological time. That is before you even get to the uranium in the crust, which we mine as our primary source of uranium today. With ‘breeder’ reactors, we can even turn used uranium into more usable fuel ourselves. Uranium also continues to be made in space: nuclear power is a functionally renewable resource. It is hard to imagine that we could run out of nuclear fuel before we have the technology for space-based solar power, which will avoid the weather problems with solar power on Earth.

Uranium atoms come in different types, or ‘isotopes’. All have 92 protons in their nucleus, but each isotope has a different number of neutrons. The most common isotope, making up over 99 percent of uranium on Earth, has 146 neutrons. It is known as uranium-238 (238 is the molecular weight, meaning 92 protons plus 146 neutrons). The next most common has 143 neutrons and is known as uranium-235, or U-235. 

Uranium-235 is much more reactive to neutron radiation than U-238. It will split or ‘decay’ into two smaller atoms in a process known as ‘fission’ under a broad range of neutron radiation types, including  when it is hit by a neutron from another decaying atom of U-235. If it in turn decays, it will in turn emit neutrons and so on in a chain reaction, generating heat. That special property means that uranium contained in a housing called a ‘reactor’ can heat water into steam and drive turbines to generate electricity – just as, in a coal power plant, a coal furnace heats water to drive turbines. We call this a nuclear fission power plant.

Versions of such reactors, with uranium atoms splitting into lighter elements in a chain fission reaction, also exist in nature. The French discovered that a natural nuclear reactor at the Oklo Mine in Gabon had been operating intermittently for millions of years. Water had leaked into seams of natural uranium deep underground. Just as it does in some nuclear power plants, that water had then acted as a natural ‘moderator’, slowing down the neutrons emitted by decaying U-235 enough to make them more likely to split another atom of U-235. If the chain reaction went too quickly, the water boiled into steam, which does not slow neutrons so well, and the chain reaction slowed or stopped again. Over time, some of the U-235 was used up.

Long after the reactions ended, the ore was mined, and the lower proportion of U-235 in the extracted ore triggered alarms and concerns that terrorists had stolen some of the missing U-235. When they investigated, they discovered the natural fission reaction.

Nuclear power’s incredible density

Uranium has so much potential for good and bad because it stores energy so densely. A gram of uranium can provide about two million times more energy than a gram of coal. British nuclear-powered submarines are powered by a nuclear reactor the size of a barrel that, for 30 years, provides enough power to run a small town. The atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, ‘Little Boy’, was roughly three meters long and less than a meter in diameter. The highly enriched uranium inside weighed only 64kg, but the bomb produced a blast equivalent to 16,000 tonnes of TNT.

In principle, nuclear power could be the ideal source of electricity. Uranium is widely available from stable, democratic countries. Nuclear plants use less land, labour and resources than solar or wind power generation – and do not suffer from the same intermittency and unreliability that mean those forms of power need to be backed up with storage or alternative energy sources. Fission doesn’t create acid rain or emit nitrogen oxides, or the particulates through which coal kills millions of people every year. It can have zero carbon emissions, unlike hydrocarbons. And above all, there is that incredible energy density, meaning that it is cheap to mine, transport and exploit.

Its incredible energy density does, however, bring risks. Nuclear power plants cannot themselves cause explosions like nuclear bombs, even in the worst case scenario of an uncontrolled meltdown where the nuclear reaction runs out of control and melts the fuel and other parts of the reactor. But they can cause harm: leaks of radioactive materials from meltdowns, other accidents, or sabotage; and the risk of their fuel being used by a rogue actor to make a nuclear bomb.

The risk from radioactive leaks is very real. The Chernobyl plant had a risky design, illegal in the West, intended to allow it to use less enriched uranium to lower costs. But even that disaster probably caused on the order of 100 deaths. Two workers died in the blast; 28 workers and firemen in the following weeks from acute radiation syndrome, also known as radiation poisoning; up to 19 more died later; and approximately 15 people died from thyroid cancer due to milk contamination. A death toll of 100 is fewer than a bad plane crash. And plane crashes, as rare as they have become, are still far more frequent than reactor meltdowns. The other biggest nuclear disaster, at the much more safely-designed Fukushima, is not believed to have caused any deaths directly through radiation, although it likely caused deaths from the stress of the evacuation and may have accelerated some cancers among those who lived near to the plant.

Overall, although leak risks are real, nuclear power is hundreds of times safer, per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated, than fossil fuels – it is safer even than wind power, which involves a fair amount of construction accidents. The difference is that the occasional nuclear accident happens all at once, hitting the news, so it is far more easily remembered. It’s also easier to identify those affected than people who die from air pollution from coal or oil. And we have been regularly reminded of the pernicious effects of excessive radiation doses by films about the very real risks of nuclear bombs.

The other risk is known as ‘proliferation risk’: the worry that civilian nuclear power will support military nuclear programmes. But nuclear reactors cannot become nuclear bombs, and civilian reactors do not use fuel that could be used in a bomb without massive further enrichment. 

Natural uranium comprises about 0.7 percent U-235. Most nuclear reactors around the world use a blend of uranium that has been concentrated through a process known as ‘enrichment’ to increase the proportion of U-235 to between three and five percent. (An exception is Canada’s CANDU reactors, which are specially designed to use natural uranium, but have to use expensive ‘heavy’ water as a moderator.) 

But even this higher proportion of U-235 is not remotely strong enough to make a nuclear bomb. If a nuclear reactor goes wrong, the core – the part containing the fuel, which generates the heat – melts down. Such a meltdown led to the ‘elephant’s foot’ of molten core found beneath the Chernobyl reactor, named for its characteristic shape. The small explosion at Chernobyl was caused by coolant water rapidly boiling into steam on contact with heat from that melting core, rather than any inherently nuclear phenomenon. To make uranium into an actual nuclear bomb, capable of flattening buildings across a wide area, Little Boy required a proportion of 80 percent uranium-235. That purity requires a long, technically difficult process of further enrichment. 

Some of the stringent regulations on nuclear power – which, I will argue below, have made it far more expensive – no doubt stem from public concern about nuclear weapons. But all but banning nuclear power in the US or UK, as we have, does not stop a rogue state obtaining natural uranium and ultimately refining it into a bomb. So whether we have nuclear power or not, we must guard against the risks of enrichment plants in other countries. If the US or UK can provide cheap enrichment services, we may reduce the risk of countries deciding to build their own enrichment plants, and reduce the risks of more states getting nuclear weapon

Do we need fission?

One view is that since we are rapidly improving wind, solar, and other renewable energy technologies, we will not need nuclear power. Yes, nuclear power has been unfairly maligned, this view goes, and yes, we should have implemented more of it earlier. But now the political hurdles are too large, and if we can manage through a rocky and difficult energy transition period, we will not need to surmount those obstacles: rapid improvements in solar power combined with energy storage and long-distance ‘HVDC’ transmission lines could make it economic to generate all the power we need from the US Sun Belt or the Sahara without any need for nuclear power.

And we might be on the cusp of practical fusion power. Private capital is finally making large investments in it, such as the $375 million that Sam Altman invested in Helion. Fusion plants are likely to be safer than traditional fission plants because they mainly do not use radioactive enriched uranium or plutonium for fuel and do not produce long-lived radioisotopes, which are among the most hazardous types of nuclear waste. Fusion plants also have no risk of meltdown in case of failure. 

This anti-fission view risks putting our eggs into a few unreliable baskets. Even if these breakthroughs do materialize, without more fission power in the near-term, they may come too slowly for us to reduce carbon emissions at the rate we need to. The German energy transition is already being compromised by the country’s early winding down of its nuclear power plants, forcing a reliance on the dirtiest and most dangerous brown coal power plants, as well as a loss of industry to countries with cheaper power. 

We also place ourselves in the way of political and geophysical risks. What if public resistance to new transmission infrastructure prevents adaptation of the grid quickly to allow for enough renewable energy? Or what if a supervolcano like Toba erupts, creating clouds of dust blocking sunlight for years, sending a society that is heavily dependent on solar power back to the nineteenth century? Nuclear plants would not have those particular risks. 

And we are betting on the development of various technologies that simply aren’t here yet. In grid operator lingo, solar and wind power are not ‘dispatchable’ – we cannot control when they produce power. Clouds block the sun; the wind stops blowing. To guarantee a steady power supply, if we mainly relied on wind and solar, we would have to store the energy in some form. That could be done through improvements in pumped hydro storage, lithium-ion batteries, or by cooling air down to liquid form and then letting it evaporate to generate electricity again. Other options include storing energy by compressing air, or by raising heavy masses. Or we could use spare energy to split water into hydrogen to store. But each of those options is currently still fairly expensive, and storing hydrogen has its own risks. 

Image from Nationaal Archief. Wikimedia license.

Current nuclear power plants are not quite as dispatchable as gas plants: reducing their power output can burn the fuel unevenly and inefficiently. But as long as the fuel is cheap, this is not a huge problem: the excess power can simply be dissipated as heat, as nuclear-powered submarines already do. 

Many point to the low ‘levelized cost of energy’ (LCOE) of wind and solar power as proof that moving exclusively to those sources would be cheaper. But, as Michael Cembalest of JP Morgan has pointed out, LCOE does not include:

(a) the need for backup power, storage and reserve margins to maintain system reliability

(b) the value of electricity supplied at different times of the day or year

(c) the need to overbuild wind and solar capacity to meet demand in deeply decarbonized systems

In other words, LCOE only measures the cost of a marginal MWh of wind or solar power and typically does not include any of these other capital or operating costs.

Levelized costing is simply inadequate for estimating total system costs to governments and consumers. We have not yet developed the technology for cost-effectively storing enough energy to power a country for the days or weeks that a dunkelflaute, or calm and cloudy period, might last. We probably will, in time. But we cannot yet be sure when. 

Fusion design is not without risks, including the (potentially much lower) risk of releasing radioactive material. And fusion is still far from being commercially viable. The famous recent successful experiment at the US’s Lawrence Livermore National Lab only managed to break even in terms of energy generated, generating very little surplus – far from enough to cover its economic costs.

If things turn out perfectly, we may not need fission power. But if things don’t go to plan, we may be glad that it was part of our energy mix.

The story so far: nuclear power in the US

At one point, nuclear power was widely seen as a great hope for the future. The dream was that it could provide electricity that was ‘too cheap to meter’, just as some places do not meter water or data downloads today. Nuclear power competed on price with coal power in the 1960s, when coal was at its cheapest, even without any charge imposed on coal plants for their carbon emissions, and when nuclear power plant technology was still in its infancy. It could provide power, including the costs of construction, for about $0.03 per kWh in 2023 dollars, or less than half of current US electricity prices.

The problem lay with externalities.

New technologies can also come with more negative externalities like dust, congestion, light, smells or noise. And as we get wealthier over the centuries, we become fussier about what we will put up with. Voters want more protection against externalities.

We have seen this greater significance of externalities over time with the ever-stricter rules to prevent fires. After the Great Fire of London, new laws required houses to be made of brick, with any wooden windows recessed back from the front of the house – hence the inset sash windows that characterize historic London homes today. In total Americans alone spend around $270 billion every year to prevent and mitigate fires.

We also saw this demand for protection against externalities with the growth during the twentieth century of laws against building more homes, lobbied for by existing homeowners who want to preserve certain features of their local areas. And we have seen it with increasing laws to protect against the spillover effects of generating power: laws against emitting more smoke, sulfur, lead, carbon dioxide. And radiation.

Making rules about land use is often politically tricky, because decisions can affect other people in large and permanent ways. In one respect, making rules about energy is easier than making rules on where homes can be built. Most voters don’t sell electricity from their own individual power plant, and almost all of them welcome cheaper power. But many voters do worry about pollution and other downsides of  new power plants. 

After the optimistic beginnings of nuclear power in the 1950s, concern about nuclear weapons proliferation increased. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was created as an independent agency by Congress in 1974. 

Following the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island fission power plant in 1979, public opinion turned even more strongly against nuclear power. The actual release of radiation may have been tiny – for the 2.2 million people living near the plant, about as much as someone taking a single flight from New York to Los Angeles would be exposed to but the public was rightly angry that it had been lied to, and lost trust in the nuclear power establishment. The drastically tightened regulation that followed had strong public support. 

The resulting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines on nuclear power, which remain in place to this day, require mandatory mass evacuation if, more than one year after a leak, citizens risk being exposed to small levels of annual radiation (five milliSieverts/year) that are far below what the residents of Denver – or Maryland, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Dakotas, and Iowa – experience from natural background radiation from mineral deposits every year.

Denver’s cancer mortality per head is squarely in the middle of the US range, slightly lower than that of Los Angeles, although the state of California has far lower levels of background radiation than Colorado. In fact, the EPA’s guidelines on relocation due to radiation exposure imply that wide swathes of the US mountain west, including Denver, should be depopulated.

Acting as if there are no tradeoffs

Mandatory evacuation of large populated areas is costly. But it is only one example of an even more expensive regulatory mindset that prioritizes ever more expensive safety even when more lives might be saved by deploying those resources elsewhere. That mindset is embodied in a regulatory principle called ‘ALARA’, or ‘as low as reasonably achievable’. 

ALARA is defined as:

making every reasonable effort to maintain exposures to radiation as far below the dose limits in this part as is practical consistent with the purpose for which the licensed activity is undertaken, taking into account the state of technology, the economics of improvements in relation to state of technology, the economics of improvements in relation to benefits to the public health and safety, and other societal and socioeconomic considerations, and in relation to utilization of nuclear energy and licensed materials in the public interest. 

As currently applied to nuclear power, ALARA literally means that every expense must be spent on eliminating every possible effect of nuclear power, at least until the resulting electricity is no cheaper than what the market pays for electricity generated from non-nuclear sources. Since standards cannot ratchet downwards, only up, safety standards that are just about affordable at the top of energy price spikes get entrenched, meaning that nuclear is made unaffordable until the next price hike – which makes it even more expensive, since it prevents learning and the economies of scale that a steady pipeline of projects can allow. ALARA, as currently applied in the US and much of the rest of the developed world, means that nuclear power is never allowed to be cheaper, no matter how much safer and cleaner it is than other sources of energy. It makes affordable, safe nuclear energy impossible, and forces us to rely on much less safe energy sources instead.

US nuclear regulators distinguish between components that are safety-critical – essential for controlling radiation exposure – and those that are not. But the components that are not safety critical are still subject to a gold plated ALARA standard. This means the same component is regulated differently depending on whether it is in a coal plant or a nuclear plant, even if it is far away from the reactor and cannot affect it.

ALARA, introduced in 1971, and the mindset of refusing to consider cost-benefit analysis that it illustrates, are a major reason why no US commercial reactor that had a construction permit issued between January 1978 and Vogtle Unit 3 in April 2023 managed to reach operation. And because the US has been the largest market for electricity and one of the few countries with ready access to enriched uranium, that has profoundly limited innovation in nuclear power.

Other problems, such as frequent changes of regulation, are likely another big issue.  Like ALARA,  those frequent changes of regulation stem from a goal of reducing risks to ever tinier levels, no matter what the costs. But the constant changes increase the labor costs of building nuclear plants, both by adding to the work to be done and by requiring designs to be repeatedly reworked.

The costs of banning nuclear power

Everything we do in life, even getting out of bed, involves weighing risks and benefits. Aiming for zero radiation exposure in our day to day lives, even if it was possible, would involve absurd costs that no reasonable person would be willing to take. Every time we step outside, we get a blast of radiation from a vast nuclear fusion reactor. The Sun would never have received NRC approval under the current regime, given the millions of cases of skin cancer every year. Frédéric Bastiat, who wrote a satirical petition by candle-makers against competition from the Sun, would have been amused. 

Under ALARA, our ancestors would never have used fire for heat or warmth. Unguarded fire can spread uncontrollably and kill in vast numbers. Much safer to stick with food that needs no cooking, using longer guts for digestion that leave less metabolic surplus for a bigger brain. Who needs shelter, culture, the internet and protection from infectious disease, anyway?

Regulators are always understandably keen to avoid risks for which they may be blamed, but rarely get credit for new innovations under their watch. So their appetite for risk is asymmetric. 

But preventing investment in a potentially clean, green, cheap source of energy has resulted in profound damage to human health, the environment, and wages. Two-thirds of all the new generating plants started in the US in 1966 were nuclear. According to one estimate, if building of nuclear power had continued on that trajectory until 2015, then nuclear power would have generated 186,000 extra TWh over that period, enough to replace gas and coal power creating 174 gigatonnes of CO2 to prevent 9.5 million early deaths. In that scenario, nuclear power would be responsible for the vast majority of energy production, and the entirety of the coal power plant fleet, plus three quarters of today’s gas fleet would never have been run up. Some of the billions of people who cook and heat their homes using open fires and polluting indoor fire-driven stoves could have switched to cooking with electricity, in turn saving millions of deaths from indoor air pollution. Deaths from contaminated water could have been reduced by providing more people with clean water and sanitation.

Instead, US nuclear power costs exploded – unlike any American commercial reactors – after public opinion and regulation turned against nuclear energy. America was not alone. But not every other Western country had the same problems. France, Korea and Japan maintained somewhat lower costs. Although none have regulated fission perfectly, Korea has not priced nuclear power out of existence with ALARA. China is now investing heavily into the technology. Its government plans to have nearly twice the US’s current installed capacity of nuclear power by 2035, and appears to be building at lower costs than coal. These countries show that affordable nuclear power is achievable, but the United States and most of Europe are being left behind.

The US, UK, and other developed countries could enjoy costs and safety at the level of Korea, Japan, and France by improving the way they regulate nuclear power. That would give them safe, clean energy on demand, solving their energy problems. It would make them substantially better off.

It might also set off an innovative cycle that would make things even better, restarting the learning curve that was cut off in the 1970s. 

Can and should we restart the learning curve? Nuclear power has risks, and allowing more of it may increase them, even if it lowers the total risk and harm created by energy generation in general. There may be ways to get better decisions that more accurately reflect what the people of a particular state want, without affecting other states, and still allow us to restart progress in fission power.

New ways forward? State regulatory sandboxes

Many campaigns to burnish the reputation of nuclear power have failed. Nearly half of the US public views it unfavorably, making it the most unpopular energy source other than coal. Although many more would probably support it with the full facts, getting that information to them could be difficult and expensive. But it is not necessary to convince the entire population of the US that nuclear power is desirable. It should be enough for the citizens of a particular state to wish to decide for themselves, so long as any potential negative effects are contained within that state. Nuclear power plants often have grassroots support from those who live nearby: the Diablo Canyon plant was saved by a campaign with local support. 

In a tug of war, it is often surprising how far you can move if you try to pull the rope sideways. As with so many other controversial issues, progress may be easiest if we find reform options that move in a direction that fewer people find controversial. Rather than attempting to force through nationwide changes to regulation in the face of fierce opposition, sometimes it is possible to find compromises that nearly everyone can live with.

One option would be to allow each state to choose to take the lead on nuclear power if it wishes. American domestic electricity costs are about $0.15/kWh. If better regulation could return costs to the $0.03/kWh they were in the 1960s (in today’s money) – but adding all the intervening improvements in efficiency and safety achievable at that price – then affected states could enjoy costs far below the rest of the Union.

Not only could those states enjoy cheaper power for residential and industrial uses, they could also become the home of a major new industry. Total US electricity generation in 2020 was 4,000 TWh, with sales to end users of $391 billion. With more supply and lower prices, this market could be much larger, as could energy-intensive sectors of the economy that would enjoy lower input costs. The winning states could ultimately reap a new industry with jobs worth tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars a year, generating billions of tax dollars to benefit that state’s current residents, as well as much cheaper power for domestic customers. 

That could be done by amending 42 USC § 2021 to allow states to create their own regulatory sandboxes in respect of all matters relating to nuclear fission power apart from reactor containment and proliferation risk. The NRC should protect other states from cross-border effects, perhaps by limiting activity under that sandbox to at least a certain distance, perhaps 100 miles, within state lines. The risks from low-level or intermediate waste at a distance of 100 miles are negligible, and even the risk from a major leak are substantially reduced. This would allow the citizens in each state to decide whether they want their own state to improve some of the badly-written regulations on nuclear, in exchange for the benefits in cheaper power and jobs that will generate, without creating significant risks for people in other states.

The citizens of  a state might, for example, decide that saving thousands of lives – through more affordable heating and cooling, less air pollution, or better living standards paying for better medical care could potentially outweigh the risk of potential accidents. It might decide to introduce cost-benefit analysis into its regulation. That would allow nuclear power plants to be built based on what would save the most lives in that state, not on gold plating every last component and leaving us stuck with more fossil fuel emissions. To avoid upsetting too many voters, it could restrict the sandbox to areas that already have current or former nuclear plants, where the residents are often far more supportive of the jobs that nuclear power can bring. To make the politics of reform even easier, it could specify that the sandbox will only apply where areas have opted in by referendum or petition, or will not apply where areas have opted out. Experiments will be easier to carry out and more likely to succeed when every state has a choice to try them, instead of needing to persuade the whole of the United States.

Driving down the cost of energy – an essential good on which nearly all others depend – is a huge and important goal, not only for the US and Europe. Learning how to lower the cost of energy would bring huge benefits for the rest of the world. Expanding decisions about new nuclear power to another 50 jurisdictions would more than double the number of areas that can innovate. And each of those 50 states has access to the US supply of enriched uranium and potential access to the entire US electricity market, the biggest in the world, giving enormous incentives for them to try to generate power cheaply. What’s more, the Non-Proliferation Treaty can in practice make it harder for other countries to get nuclear materials and technology needed for innovation.

The suggestion is not to stop the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from working on its new regulatory regime for advanced nuclear power, and instead switch entirely to a state-driven sandbox approach. The idea is for those two to proceed in parallel, so that the best set of regulations can win. 

Even within sandboxes, concerns about weapons proliferation should continue to be addressed by the national nuclear regulator. And federal regulation should always ensure that nuclear power does not harm residents of other states. The NRC should of course continue to control reactor containment risks to ensure that no meltdown could cause a cloud of fallout affecting other states.

Perhaps no state will seize the nuclear opportunity. In that case, we will be no worse off. But perhaps a few will lead the way, creating a new boom of jobs and safe growth, reducing carbon emissions without additional costs, and developing new technologies that will benefit the rest of the US, and indeed the world.

If these ideas for smarter regulation work, they may prove helpful with other challenges. A monopolistic regulator is often not the best way to encourage innovation and enable progress, because it may be captured by vested interests or inertia. Energy is just one example of the many areas where we could hugely improve the world by learning to work together better. We evolved to live in small groups. We cooperate in large ones better than any other species, but we still have much to learn about doing it well. 

There may be hundreds of billions of dollars lying on the ground if we can solve our current energy problems. To continue to spread our wings out to this galaxy and then to others will require technology with potential for ever-vaster good and harm. We will need ever-smarter governance to protect citizens without blocking progress – including avoiding regulatory dead ends like ALARA. Working to find better sources of power today is one small step on our way to taming the stars.

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