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Increased Funding for Nuclear R&D in Omnibus Budget Bill

Jan. 15, 2014—A bipartisan, bicameral omnibus spending bill for 2014 contains an increase in funding for nuclear energy research and development above the president’s budget request. The House of Representatives passed the measure Jan. 15. The Senate’s vote was expected to follow quickly.

A summary of the outlays for energy and water on the House Appropriations Committee’s website noted that the $889 million appropriation “to further the next generation of nuclear power while ensuring the safety and longevity of our current plants” is $36 million above the fiscal 2013 enacted level and $154 million above the president’s request.

The allocation includes $110 million to fund the Energy Department’s cost-shared small reactor licensing support program—at $40 million more than the president sought. DOE is working with two small reactor vendors, Babcock & Wilcox and NuScale, to ready the reactors for design certification by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and deployment by 2025 (see Nuclear Energy Overview, Dec. 12, 2013, and Nov. 21, 2012).

The industry welcomed the increased funding. “The recognition that small reactors hold great promise as a future supplier of low-carbon electricity and as an export technology that can create many thousands of U.S. jobs is heartening,” the Nuclear Energy Institute said in a statement. “This is a smart investment in a brighter, more secure energy future for our nation.”

The appropriations bill also ensures that the NRC can use $13 million the agency has in remaining carryover funds to continue its safety review of the shuttered Yucca Mountain used fuel repository project. The Obama administration withdrew the Energy Department’s license application for the project in 2009.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last August directed the NRC to resume its review of DOE’s license application for the repository, consistent with the provisions of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. In response, NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane ordered the agency to use its unspent $13 million in Yucca Mountain-specific funds to complete the safety evaluation reports on the application (see Nuclear Energy Overview, Nov. 19, 2013).

A final licensing decision for Yucca Mountain would require additional steps beyond completing the safety report, but the NRC said it does not have sufficient funds to complete them.

The spending bill also restores funding for programs that support nuclear-related university fellowships and scholarships at DOE ($5.5 million) and NRC ($20 million).  Industry priorities were also included, such as $30 million for DOE’s Advanced Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program and $60 million for advanced accident-tolerant nuclear fuels. 

The bill also includes provisions on issues not directly related to the budget. For example, several senators have decried an NRC guideline change that would allow only the chairmen and ranking members of congressional committees with NRC oversight to receive sensitive documents from the agency. A provision in the omnibus bill reverses the NRC’s new guideline, allowing all oversight committee members to see sensitive NRC materials on request.

The $1.1 trillion fiscal 2014 omnibus budget, the first to be completed by Congress since 2012, covers the entire federal discretionary budget for all government agencies. It results from the work of a bipartisan group from both houses of Congress and attempts to forestall issues that led to the government shutdown last October.

The House voted Jan. 14 to extend by three days the continuing resolution, which has funded the government at 2013 levels since fiscal 2014 began and expires Jan. 15—so that the bill could be passed and signed into law.