House Science and Tech Subcommittee Advances Nuclear Energy R&D Legislation

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Publication date: 
17 August 2010

The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee recently reported favorably the Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010 (H.R. 5866) to the full committee.

The legislation modifies the Energy Policy Act of 2005 by adding a small modular reactor (SMR) program, a nuclear fuel cycle research and development program, requiring a report on the risks associated with a severe accident at a nuclear facility, and directing the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to put together a nuclear energy standards committee.

Per their name, SMRs are smaller than typical reactors and can either work independently or as part of a larger circuit. Benefits of SMRs include potentially lower manufacturing and maintenance costs, the ability to deploy SMRs to remote sites, less nuclear waste, and passive safety features as characteristics of their design. The bill would instruct the Department of Energy (DOE) to carry out a program to “promote the research, development, demonstration, and commercial application of small modular reactors, including through cost-shared products for commercial application of reactor system designs.”

DOE would also house a fuel cycle research and development program to investigate “fuel cycle options that improve uranium resource utilization, maximize energy generation, minimize nuclear waste creation, improve safety, and mitigate risk of proliferation….” This program could boost federal investments in open or modified open fuel cycle research, fuel recycling programs and storage methods.

Within 180 days of the enactment of H.R. 5866, DOE would also need to complete “a report summarizing quantitative risks associated with the potential of a severe accident arising from the use of nuclear power, and outlining the technologies currently available to mitigate the consequences of such an accident.”

The Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010 also directs NIST to establish a nuclear energy standards committee composed of representatives from federal agencies and the private sector. The standards committee is tasked with determining what “technical standards… are needed to support nuclear energy” and to maintain a database of nuclear energy-related technical standards.

In his opening statement on July 28, Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) said that nuclear waste management and capital costs “have heavily burdened the [nuclear] industry and caused great concern over its reliability and long-term safety.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Bob Inglis (R-SC), who also cosponsored the bill, expects the legislation will “push the nuclear industry into the future.” Inglis explained “the nuclear fleet supplying this abundant power is efficient, reliable, and clean. It’s also getting old.” Noting the “prohibitive” capital -costs associated with building a nuclear power facility, Inglis identified “artificially cheap coal facilities” as a major market obstacle. On the bureaucratic side, Inglis cited lengthy nuclear facility approval processes and continuing uncertainties about the future of Yucca Mountain as a long-term storage site as further hindrances.

Amendments adopted during markup included a measure by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) that directs the Secretary of Energy to coordinate DOE’s work on SMRs with an existing Navy program. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) won approval for an amendment encouraging research and development to ease the licensing and approval process of new nuclear designs. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) added an provision directing the Secretary of Energy to request a report from the national Academies on “scientific and technological challenges to the long-term maintenance and safe operation of currently deployed nuclear power reactors up to and beyond the specified design-life of reactor systems.”

Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) also cosponsored the bill. The full committee plans to markup the bill in September.