Brian Wang over on Next Big Future brought up a point I’ve been thinking about for a while. In an article about why Canada is likely to beat the US to having molten salt nuclear reactors (in spite of the US pioneering the field back in the 60s), Brian hit on the key reason:
There is an important difference between the Canadian and the US regulatory authorities. The US is rule-based and Canada nuclear regulations are output-based. In the USA, anyone wanting to develop a new type of reactor will have to prove its safety before it exists. All of the US rules are based on light water reactors. In Canada, you will have to prove the safety of your concept while it is operating. Terrestrial IMSR seems to moving ahead very quickly. Canada’s nuclear regulators could allow a molten salt reactor to be built and operating in 6 years.
Simply put, US nuclear safety regulation is based on the idea that regulators from back in the 60s knew the best way to make a safe nuclear reactor, and that compliance to their rules was the best way to guarantee a new reactor was going to be safe. The problem is this kind of assumes that technology stands still and that new approaches with fundamental safety benefits aren’t likely. The sad reality is that this is why we have disasters like Fukishima–old reactors get grandfathered into the regulations, new reactors that could be dramatically safer or even passively safe get delayed so bad by regulations that they in many cases never get completed. So we’re stuck with older, less safe technology, all in the name of safety regulations.
You see similar dynamics in aircraft certification, and the current arguments about regulation of suborbital RLVs. George Nield, who I normally have a ton of respect for, recently argued against extending the “learning period” under the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Ac said that:
“The US has over 50 years of experience in human spaceflight,” he argued, providing a large set of lessons learned for commercial spaceflight providers. “For us to just put that aside and start over without taking advantage of what we’ve learned, I think is irresponsible.”
It’s true we have some experience, and that info should be provided to suborbital developers to build off of, but it makes the same fundamentally flawed assumption that’s stifling nuclear technology in the US–and which is making nuclear power less safe in the name of safety. We have a bit of experience now with manned capsules, and shuttle-type winged reentry vehicles. But assuming that we’ve now reached the pinnacle of reusable launch vehicle design is likely going to look laughably foolish in the future, possibly even the near future.
In some ways this line of argument might look like one a Department of Ground Transportation official could have made in 1907 about safety regulations for ground vehicles such as horse buggies and automobiles. After all, by that point, we had centuries of experience with design and operation of horse-driven ground transportation. We shouldn’t just throw that out and ignore it. We know enough to make reasonable safety regulations. I mean, how much are these automobiles going to change from horse buggies–heck the current ones even look really similar.
It would be sad if a few years from now safer launch vehicle and reentry vehicle technology had to go to places like Canada because the US was so sure it knew enough to make rules-based regulations to “certify” the safety of the industry.