Project Report:
Breakthrough Institute - The Next Generation of Nuclear Policy
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.


Next generation nuclear reactors have the potential to lead a nuclear renaissance in the United States that could help power the globe with zero-carbon energy. But the existing policy and regulatory framework is outdated, built during the Cold War for old nuclear reactor designs, and is ill suited to support the development of new reactors that could be sold on the open market. Moreover, nuclear energy faces stiff challenges in terms of cost and politics. Breakthrough Institute’s report How to Make Nuclear Cheap offers an important step forward in the effort to achieve economical advanced nuclear reactors.


Breakthrough’s proposed work related to nuclear power contained the following deliverables:

1. Convene a policy retreat on next generation nuclear in order to build consensus among key experts and opinion leaders: This retreat took place in April 2013 in Boston, MA.
2. Conduct a technology analysis of next generation nuclear designs, with a focus on Generation III+ and Generation IV reactors: This assessment is included as part of our report How to Make Nuclear Cheap, which was released in July 2013 in Washington, DC.
3. Assess the political feasibility of nuclear power as a low-carbon source of energy based on a set of country-specific, historical case studies: Our assessment on political feasibility was used to create the framework for How to Make Nuclear Cheap.
4. Issue a policy white paper on next generation nuclear energy: These policy recommendations are included as part of How to Make Nuclear Cheap.

Deliverable 1: Policy Retreat
In April 2013, Breakthrough hosted a retreat in Boston with professors from the country’s top nuclear engineering departments, as well as lawyers, venture capitalists, and policy makers focused on nuclear power, in order to present the early framework for the advanced nuclear technologies assessment. The main goal of the retreat was to get feedback on our evaluative framework and to develop a set of policy recommendations to include in the final paper. The second half of the day focused on policy recommendations, where there was a strong call for reform of the NRC licensing process, reform of export controls, use of existing nuclear sites for demonstrations, and the need to invest in technology-neutral test facilities (fuel test facilities, materials test facilities, etc.).

Deliverables 2, 3, and 4: Political and Technical Assessment Plus Policy White Paper: How to Make Nuclear Cheap
In How to Make Nuclear Cheap, Breakthrough argues that next generation nuclear reactors have the potential to lead a nuclear renaissance that could help power the globe with safe zero-carbon baseload energy. But the existing policy and regulatory framework in the United States is outdated, built as it was during the Cold War for light-water nuclear reactor designs, and ill-suited to support the development of new reactor designs that could be sold on the open market.

Moreover, nuclear energy faces stiff obstacles in terms of cost and politics.
Breakthrough's political analysis informed its identification of what has contributed to rising costs. While existing nuclear plants produce affordable energy — they have the second lowest production costs in the United States — new builds have become expensive largely because of strict building standards, environmental and safety regulations, and labor costs. Safety features necessary for current generation reactors — especially massive containment domes and multiple redundant cooling and backup systems — make up a significant portion of such costs.

Breakthrough also identified factors that will not decisively influence cost. Fuel availability, waste disposal, and proliferation risk are largely political and institutional concerns, rather than technological challenges, and will continue to require attention regardless of what new designs are pursued. Innovations in fuel cycle and waste reprocessing are unlikely to reduce costs until nuclear energy is much more widely deployed.

Breakthrough argued that policy makers, investors, and entrepreneurs should pursue reactor models that are:
• Safe: Inherent passive safety characteristics eliminate the need for expensive and redundant engineered safety systems.
• Ready: Ready designs will utilize existing supply chains and will not require the development or commercialization of new or unproven materials and fuels.
• Modular: Modularity allows whole reactors or their components to be mass-produced and assembled uniformly.
• Efficient: High thermal efficiency enables reactors to generate more electricity from a smaller physical plant.

And Breakthrough identified three key areas of reform that are needed:
• Invest in nuclear innovation: Expand support for public research, development, and demonstration; certification of new materials; supply-chain development; and test facilities.
• Innovate across advanced designs: Prioritize technological challenges that have the greatest cross-platform relevance to multiple reactor designs.
• Licensing reform: Increase government cost-sharing, integrate licensing with the innovation process so developers can demonstrate and license design components; and lower the costs with streamlined and hurdle-based regulatory review, reduce regulatory barriers, and shorten time to market for new designs.

The report generated coverage from Time, IEEE Spectrum, Smart Planet, and EETV, which conducted an interview on the report with Breakthrough principal Ted Nordhaus. Time’s Bryan Walsh noted the need for change in how we develop nuclear technologies, arguing, “Nuclear can play a significant role in decarbonization, but it will only happen if atomic power isn’t expensive — all the more so given that most of the increase in global energy consumption will be coming in developing countries that are especially price sensitive."

In a profile of the report for IEEE Spectrum, Eliza Strickland notes, “The safety and modularity arguments are particularly important. The light water reactors that are currently the industry standard require extravagant safety systems to keep the reactor vessel pressurized and filled with water … Modularity is also a hot topic in the nuclear world these days, since the up-front costs of building a light water reactor are prohibitive. With smaller off-the-shelf reactor designs, units can be added one by one to the grid—and paid for one by one.”

Smart Planet’s Mark Halper praised the report, writing, “Now the Breakthrough Institute — a youthful group dedicated to an ‘ecologically vibrant planet’ has given those [green] holdouts a good reason to drop their final objections and join the nuclear cause … With environmental leadership like Breakthrough’s, more and more previously shamed nuclear supporters should start to boldly show their true colors.”

The report was released on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Hearing Room on July 9, 2013. At the briefing, Breakthrough staff presented the key findings of their report, including their framework to transform nuclear from a sector that has historically resisted change to one in which rapid innovation is possible.

A panel of independent experts, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter, Head of MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering Richard Lester, Transatomic cofounder Leslie Dewan, and Departing Chair of the National Venture Capital Association Ray Rothrock also weighed in, discussing the challenges and opportunities for advanced nuclear technologies to meet global energy and climate mitigation needs.

Beyond hosting a standing room-only briefing at the Senate Energy and Resources Committee hearing room, Breakthrough and its partners met with other key players. Over 80 people came to the briefing from Senate offices, the Department of Energy, and Idaho National Lab. Also while in Washington, our group met with Pete Rouse, Counselor to the President; Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change; Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND); staff of Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and John Thune (R-SD); staff of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House; staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Pete Lyons, Assistant Secretary, Office of Nuclear Energy; Matt Crozat, Senior Policy Advisor; Todd Allen, Project Officer, Golden Field Office, On Loan From Idaho National Labs; Allison Kennedy, Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy; Stephen Stromberg and Steven Mufson, staff writers, Washington Post.


The first nuclear power plants came from federal labs. They were so big and costly that only the largest, publicly regulated utilities could build and operate them. Now, start-ups are creating new reactor designs that are smaller and amenable to private investing. These next generation reactors could be developed, marketed, and sold as products. A whole new market lies in waiting. The Breakthrough Institute will research and develop federal policy proposals – on issues from licensing to waste disposal, financing to liability, testing and commercialization – that will help get the next generation of nuclear reactors to market.


This proposal is national in scope, focused explicitly on researching and developing federal policy reforms to advance next generation nuclear energy in the United States. It does, however, have long-term international implications. Large amounts of baseload, zero-carbon energy – generated by nuclear power – will be required to reduce future global warming, especially in developing countries where energy demand is growing the most rapidly. Developing a robust next generation nuclear sector in the US can help meet the global energy challenge of making clean energy cheap and accessible around the planet.

Information Dissemination

The Breakthrough Institute published a report of our research on next generation nuclear technologies on our site and released them to policy makers and the national media at a briefing in Washington, DC.

Project Link

Amount Approved
$20,000.00 on 9/11/2012 (Check sent: 9/18/2012)

How to Make Nuclear Cheap cover

How to Make Nuclear Cheap cover
How to Make Nuclear Cheap (PDF)

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Grace Choi
Operations Director, The Breakthrough Institute

Posted 9/4/2012 7:04 PM
Updated   4/15/2014 12:41 PM

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