Nuclear Energy InsightNovember 2010—
More than $1 billion will be spent on nuclear energy research and development under legislation approved by the House Science Committee. The funding would lead to market development of nuclear technologies that start in the nation‘s laboratories.
“This is important legislation. It provides the resources needed to keep the nation moving ahead in research and development that will take state-of-the-art technologies from the laboratory and make them available for commercial application. This is especially the case with the support for small modular reactor research, a technology with a lot of promise,” said Alex Flint, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The bill needs to pass both houses of Congress to become law, but there is limited opportunity to pass the legislation this year. However, the bill, with considerable bipartisan support, could be a precursor of how policy regarding the subject may develop in the next Congress.
“[The bill] will help America recapture a technological lead in a wide range of industries critical to our economy, our national defense, and a clean and secure energy future,” said Science Committee Chair Bart Gordon.
The Science Committee endorsed R&D funding for several nuclear energy projects, including:
Small reactor designs: The bill calls for the Department of Energy
to carry out a program “to promote the research, development, demonstration, and commercial application of small-scale reactors, including through cost-shared projects for commercial application of reactor system designs.” These reactor designs range in size from 45 to 130 megawatts.
Next-generation plants: Siting and development of a prototype next-generation nuclear plant would help spur more investment in these advanced reactor designs.
Rep. Ralph Hall (Texas), ranking Republican of the committee, said, “In the short term, we need to license and build more reactors using existing light water technology, but over the longer term we need to advance the development and licensing of new reactor designs.”
Advanced fuel treatment options: Funding in the bill would spur R&D into technologies that could maximize the use of uranium so that there is less unused fuel at the end of the process. Flint noted that “the bill increases funding for comprehensive used fuel management that will further our ability to take advantage of the recycling potential of the considerable reusable material in each fuel rod while enhancing proliferation-resistant technologies.”
The bill directs the Energy Department to conduct a research and development program “on fuel cycle options that improve uranium resource utilization, maximize energy generation, minimize nuclear waste creation, improve safety, and mitigate the risk of proliferation in support of a national strategy for spent nuclear fuel.”
Additionally, two amendments to the bill stressed the importance of a used fuel repository. One amendment reinforced the federal government’s responsibility to store spent nuclear waste, and a second requires DOE to compare other nuclear waste disposal options with long-term storage at the Yucca Mountain site.
But in its essentials, the bill concentrates on the future of nuclear technology itself.
“It is hard to overstate the importance of this significant federal investment in pursuit of advances in innovation, safety and efficiency that will help nuclear energy technologies play an even greater role in our modern society,” Flint said.
Gordon summed up the issues this way: “If we are to increase our energy independence and mitigate the effects of climate change, nuclear must continue to be a large part of our nation’s energy mix.”
Bipartisan Agreement on Reactor Safety
The chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), and committee member Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) found themselves in agreement over a troubling provision of the Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010
The legislation would have directed the U.S. Department of Energy to report on the “quantitative risks associated with the potential of a severe accident arising from the use of nuclear power and ... the technologies currently available to mitigate the consequences of such an accident.”
It also requested a recommendation “of technological development that should be pursued to reduce the public harm arising from such an incident.”The “report language” referred to by the representatives is a document that accompanies the bill.
Rep. Bartlett: “[The legislation] may have the unintended consequence of giving the public the inaccurate impression that our fleet of commercial nuclear reactors aren’t safe or that emergency risk assessments are not currently required. The United States benefits from a track record of 50 years of safe, reliable and affordable generation of electricity by commercial nuclear reactors.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission
already enforces rigorous risk assessment analyses and procedures for our civilian nuclear energy fleet. I would appreciate your willingness to address these concerns in report language.”
Rep. Gordon: “I want to thank Mr. Bartlett for bringing this concern to the committee’s attention. As I have said before, I am supportive of nuclear power as I believe it is a part of the solution to the challenges of energy independence and climate change. The gentleman is correct that our 104 commercial reactors have run with a strong record of safety and operating efficiency. I share your concern that [the bill] might be misinterpreted. In light of the fact that these concerns have been brought forward only recently, I concur with your assessment that report language would be the most appropriate way to address them.” —Read more articles in Nuclear Energy Insight and Insight Web Extra.