Congress torpedoes a Biden nominee and casts doubt on nuclear safety via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Allison Macfarlane | February 6, 2024

The Biden administration’s recent abandonment of Jeff Baran for another term as member on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) bodes ill for the independence of the agency—and the safety and security of the country. A longtime commissioner, Baran reportedly did not have enough support from some senate Democrats to win another nomination.

His crimes? Being “an overzealous regulator overtly hostile to nuclear energy.”

Senate Democrats say they would prefer a nominee who is not “too focused on safety.” But the NRC is not a pro- or an anti-nuclear group; it’s an independent regulator, whose mission is to protect public health and safety, ensure security, and protect the environment.

Baran’s opponents in the Senate and in public interest groups cited his track record of being the lone NRC commissioner (of five) to consistently vote in favor of more environmental protection and safety. But with the other four votes typically going in the opposite direction, the decisions favored by the nuclear industry often won out. Baran was hardly a threat to the industry. Does the nuclear industry and its supporters really want the NRC to become an echo chamber instead of a balanced and trusted regulator?


Many in the nuclear industry are hoping to herald a yearned-for renaissance through the commercialization of small modular and advanced reactors. In the United States, none of these reactor designs has ever been constructed, let alone actually demonstrated. That has not stopped the industry and its promoters from claiming that small modular reactors (SMRs) are safer and cheaper than existing large light water reactors—though because they have not been demonstrated, let alone achieved commercial success, the actual costs and safety issues are unknown. For nuclear power supporters, what is holding the industry back from making a dent in fossil fuel usage is the NRC.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

For years, the NRC has worked proactively with the nascent SMR industry, providing guidance as to how to follow the design certification and licensing processes. And recall that Congress structured the NRC as a fee-for-service agency that must recover 90 percent of its budget from fees paid by licensees by law. This means the agency doesn’t get paid until an application is submitted, but regulators have already done a lot of work even before anyone has submitted a license application. And even then, the fees from the agency are a tiny fraction of what it costs to bring a reactor to commercialization. For instance, in the NRC’s Design Certification process, the agency’s fees amount to between 2.5 and 7.5 percent of the total costs of the reactor.

But blaming the NRC for the industry’s woes is a red herring that deflects the real challenges and uncertainties of developing a new technology onto the regulator. Even if the NRC stopped charging fees and gave all license applications a pass on rigorous safety requirements, the SMR industry would still struggle to commercialize its products. That is because the real issue with these reactors is their economics: SMRs are expensive technologies, especially compared to the cheap cost of wind, solar, and natural gas. And costs for renewables keep decreasing every year.


 To be functional, the NRC must have commissioners who have some technical understanding of nuclear facilities they are supposed to regulate. In the past, commissioners have been drawn from the Navy, academia, and other government agencies.

Over the last 20 years, however, the trend has been to tap congressional staffers—who are by definition political and clearly embody a means for members of Congress to interfere with NRC decision-making—to be commissioners. Such a practice has introduced politics directly into agency processes. The agency performs best, however, when it makes reasonably objective decisions based on expert knowledge of a complex technology. The United States should consider itself lucky compared to other nuclear operating nations because it has a diverse pool of nuclear experts to draw from to sit on the regulatory commission. Sadly, the increasing politicization of the NRC’s Senate confirmation process prevents the agency from benefitting from those experts, which undermines the safety of US nuclear facilities.


It’s in the industry’s best interests to have an independent regulator. As many in the industry say, “an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere.”

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