Efforts to Revive U.S. Nuclear Industry Highlighted at Hearing

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Publication date: 
22 September 2016

At a Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the “future of nuclear power,” senators expressed a mixture of concern and hope about the future vitality of the U.S. nuclear industry and nuclear innovation enterprise.

On Sept. 14, the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss the future of nuclear power in the United States. The subcommittee heard from two panels of witnesses as well as from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who described pending bipartisan nuclear innovation and reactor licensing reform legislation.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz was the sole witness for the first panel, and on the second panel were former senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), now chair of Nuclear Matters, and Jay Faison, CEO of the ClearPath Foundation—both organizations that advocate in support of nuclear energy. These witnesses testified about the challenges facing the industry, the potential role of nuclear energy in meeting carbon emissions reductions goals, and what the government could do to keep nuclear power economically competitive and further support domestic nuclear innovation.

Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) noted that this is the first of two hearings the subcommittee will hold on the subject. The next hearing, likely to occur in November or early December, will focus on basic energy R&D underpinning the development of advanced reactors and the reactor licensing process.

Alexander notes reactor closures will impede efforts to combat climate change

There are currently 99 nuclear reactors operating in the U.S., all of which are light water reactors. Together, they supply about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and represent about 60 percent of the electricity generated without emitting carbon dioxide.

U.S. Nuclear Plant Map

In his opening statement, Alexander highlighted his deep concern about the health of the U.S. nuclear industry given that up to 25 reactors might close by 2020 and that 48 could be forced to close by 2038 if their licenses are not extended beyond the 60 year limit set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (Later in the hearing, Moniz declined to weigh in on the prospect of the licenses being extended, but observed that DOE’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program funds research to support the NRC’s ultimate licensing extension decisions.)

Alexander expressed his belief in the need to act on climate change, citing the consensus of “20 of the leading science [academies] in the industrialized countries.” He also stated that a primary purpose of the hearing was “to focus attention on the irony and the inconsistency of, on the one hand, having a national goal to reduce carbon, but at the same time closing nuclear plants and making it harder to build new ones at a time when nuclear produces 60 percent of our carbon-free electricity.”

Alexander concluded his opening remarks by arguing that the U.S. should take the following high-level five actions to ensure the future vitality of the nuclear industry: build more reactors, solve the stalemate over nuclear waste storage, ease regulations to make it cheaper to build plants, stop subsidizing mature energy technologies, and double energy research. On the last two points, he repeated his desire to abolish the wind energy tax credit and use this money to double basic energy research. This July, Alexander introduced legislation to do just that, as reported in FYI #94.

Nuclear Energy Capacity Scenarios

In response to a query from Alexander, Moniz posited that entrepreneurs’ recent interest in developing new reactor types was likely spurred by recognition of the need to “decarbonize” the electricity sector to combat climate change. Moniz expressed that one way DOE can further support these nuclear entrepreneurs is to make relevant facilities at the national laboratories more accessible to them. However, he also acknowledged that the U.S. no longer has certain facilities desired by these entrepreneurs:

We feel a focus area for us is to try to build up the accessibility to our nuclear infrastructure for these companies, but I have to concede that there are some areas in which we just don’t have the infrastructure, in fact, and we know that some entrepreneurs are going to other countries to find, for example, fast neutron spectrum.

Legislation pending in Congress (discussed below), calls on DOE to “determine the mission need for a versatile reactor-based fast neutron source, which shall operate as a national user facility.” This legislation has already spurred DOE to charge its Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee with assessing the need for a new test reactor and reporting back by March 2017.

Waste worries cloud outlook

Subcommittee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) expressed considerable skepticism about the long term viability of nuclear energy absent a solution to the nuclear waste stalemate. “If we can’t properly store the waste, we shouldn’t build the reactors,” she said. Feinstein also pointed to the 2014 radiological accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a geological repository for transuranic defense-related waste, as evidence of inherent safety problems posed by nuclear waste:

Here, we have one of the premier laboratory facilities in the world at Los Alamos making a basic chemistry error on the packaging of waste drums which led to a radiological release. One mistake, in a single drum, contaminated more than a third of the entire site. That to me is really striking. If we can’t trust these experts to handle radioactive waste safely, what confidence can we have in other efforts to manage this material safely and securely long-term at 78 sites around the country?

Alexander and Feinstein have introduced legislation in multiple Congresses that would permit the consolidation of nuclear waste at one or more interim storage sites. The House has been opposed to this proposal, instead insisting on reviving the Yucca Mountain repository (see FYI #89). At the hearing, Alexander said that he supports Yucca Mountain serving as a repository because “science and the law says we should do it,” but also later described opposition from the nuclear industry to the interim storage proposal as a “particularly bone-headed move.”

Despite the congressional impasse, DOE has been proceeding with development of a process for consent-based siting of interim storage facilities. On Sept. 15, DOE held an event to discuss input the department received at eight public meetings it held across the U.S. in 2016. DOE has summarized this feedback in a draft report.

Support for advanced reactors bridges wide party divides

Whitehouse used his testimony to highlight two complementary bills pending in the Senate—the “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act” and the “Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act”—as evidence of renewed, bipartisan interest in nuclear energy reforms. By a vote of 87 to 4, the Senate incorporated the former bill into the massive energy policy modernization bill now being debated in conference (see FYI #108). The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the latter bill by a vote of 17 to 3 this May. The full House approved a similar bill, the “Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act,” under suspension of the rules on Sept. 12. (See FYI #103 for a summary of these latter two bills.)

Whitehouse has found an unlikely ally in Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a fellow co-sponsor of the "Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act." Whitehouse stressed that he views advanced nuclear reactors as an important means of addressing climate change. In stark contrast, Inhofe is deeply skeptical of anthropogenic climate change.

Inhofe with Snowball; Whitehouse Urging Climate Action

Yesterday, they spoke at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council to provide an update on the legislation. Both appeared optimistic about the prospects for the bills passing, although they noted that Feinstein has put a hold on the reactor licensing reform bill because it is silent on the subject of how to handle nuclear waste.

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