Blog Posts


What’s in the ADVANCE Act?

blog posts

What’s in the ADVANCE Act?

June 21, 2024

The featured image for a post titled "What’s in the ADVANCE Act?"

The Huffington Post reports that with the Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act, Congress has passed the largest clean energy bill since the Inflation Reduction Act. That is certainly true, insofar as it is the only clean energy bill passed since the Inflation Reduction Act.

The ADVANCE Act, which passed the Senate 88-2, aims to speed up U.S. advanced nuclear deployment through a host of new incentives and streamlining efforts. Many are heralding the law as a bipartisan win for American energy abundance more broadly. Unfortunately, while any legislation that makes it easier to build nuclear in the U.S. is a welcome development, the ADVANCE Act is ultimately light on provisions that will materially change the prospects for the domestic nuclear industry.

Five aspects of the ADVANCE Act in particular have received a great deal of coverage.

First, much has been written about the bill’s requirement for more timely processing of nuclear license applications. While this sounds promising, what it really amounts to is a requirement that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) produce several reports evaluating its current approach. This applies to non-electric applications—using nuclear for things like industrial process heat or hydrogen production—with the bill instructing the NRC to “submit to the appropriate committees of Congress a report … addressing any unique licensing issues or requirements.” And it applies to brownfield sites—land that has been abandoned because of pollution—by requiring that the NRC either “develop and implement strategies” or “initiate a rulemaking” to enable timely licensing reviews.

These sorts of provisions are inevitably toothless. Legislative language that requires agencies to meet certain review timelines has had notoriously little impact on actual outcomes. The Clean Air Act, for example, requires the Environmental Protection Agency to review state implementation plans in twelve months or less. In reality, the EPA has taken as long as 16 years to issue decisions, with no ramifications for the agency. The ADVANCE Act’s provisions regarding non-electric applications and brownfields, meanwhile, do not even establish a specific target timeline for licensing reviews; they simply ask the NRC to come up with ways to make the process move faster. What’s more, most nuclear plant construction in the U.S. does not take place on brownfields—it takes place on greenfields, which the new legislation does very little to address.

It’s worth noting that the ADVANCE Act does have one provision that sets a specific deadline for licensing—the combined license review procedure, which sets a 25-month review deadline for reactors being built on already-operating nuclear sites. But even here, the consequence of missing the deadline is yet another report, which the NRC must submit to Congress detailing the reasons for the delay. A more effective provision might include some sort of conditional approval, or a requirement that the NRC repay some of the licensing costs accrued during the review process.

Second, the ADVANCE Act reduces fees for some license applicants, capping hourly rates at the level of direct salaries and benefits of the Nuclear Reactor Safety Program. In theory, this means that applicants will no longer be charged for indirect costs such as mission and agency support.

Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin math here. The NRC’s hourly rate in FY2023 was $300/hour. Assume that direct costs account for only half of the total overhead—such that the ADVANCE Act would lower the new hourly rate to $150/hour—and that the NRC takes around 18,000 staff hours to issue a licensing decision. This means that under the status quo, licensing costs applicants $5.4 million. With the changes under the ADVANCE Act, licensing will now cost $2.7 million less. That’s all well and good—except that the most recent reactors to come online cost upwards of $15 billion apiece. In other words, optimistically, the ADVANCE Act will reduce overall project costs by about 0.02 percent. So while this is a nice provision, it will have very little impact.

Third, the bill requires the NRC to update its mission statement so that it does not “unnecessarily limit” nuclear development. This is a nice moral victory for nuclear advocates, and an indication that the NRC of 15 years ago, when the organization was run by anti-nuclear ideologue Gregory Jaczko, is behind us. Again, though, there aren’t any specific, binding requirements here, so this provision does not have any major practical effects.

Fourth, the ADVANCE Act allows for more flexibility in hiring. Specifically, the NRC chairman can appoint a total of 210 individuals to permanent positions without needing to abide by the typical civil service laws and regulations, and can set rates of basic pay without being bound by the General Schedule pay scale. This is a reasonable idea, and while it would only increase the overall size of the NRC workforce by about 6 percent, the ability to target specialized individuals without the traditional federal hiring delays makes this the bill’s strongest provision.

Finally, the bill facilitates the export of U.S. nuclear technology, allowing for the creation of an “International Nuclear Export and Innovation Branch” within the NRC’s Office of International Programs. This is another good idea. U.S. small modular reactor (SMR) companies such as NuScale have signed agreements with countries such as Romania and Poland to develop SMRs. Coordinating import and export licensing and supporting international regulatory cooperation could prove useful for American companies looking to send nuclear technology abroad. It’s too soon to say what this new branch will actually achieve, but the provision is certainly a step in the right direction.

In short, the ADVANCE Act does some good things, but anyone hoping for a transformational nuclear bill will be sorely disappointed. Nevertheless, the fact that the bill passed through Congress with such ease is a promising sign for the political economy of nuclear energy going forward. Let’s hope there’s more to come.

Explore More Policy Areas

InnovationGovernanceNational SecurityEducation
Show All

Stay in the loop

Get occasional updates about our upcoming events, announcements, and publications.