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Lawmakers, Industry Look to Expand Nuclear Energy Options

In a world of low oil prices and cheap natural gas, the prospects of developing new nuclear technology seem to remain ever in the future, beyond market and regulatory barriers.

“To be practical, we all know that the gestation time of a new nuclear technology is very long,” Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz said last month in laying out his view of energy issues on the horizon. “It’s hard to get from here to there, frankly, and there’s the regulatory challenge.”

The nuclear industry and some lawmakers want to change that with action now.

Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said Thursday he will be leading a review of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s budget to see what changes could be made to allow construction of new reactors.

“We should be re-examining regulation of the nuclear reactor licensing process to make sure it’s not an undue burden,” Alexander said in an address to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade association. “We don’t want to make it so hard and expensive to build and operate reactors that you can’t do it.”

Daniel Lipman, the institute’s director of policy development, told a House panel in December that in the next five years, federal and state governments should work to fix the financing and regulatory challenges facing advanced reactor designs.

“The time, the uncertainty and the cost required to design, license and build new reactors is daunting,” said Lipman, who spent three decades at Westinghouse and oversaw the commercialization of the AP1000 reactor, a newer type of light water reactor being built in Georgia.

All of the operating commercial reactors in the United States are light water reactors, based on decades of operational experience. Developing advanced nuclear technology with different fuel and cooling features has been an elusive panacea with the promises of intrinsic safety design and reduced nuclear waste.

Alternative designs based on research reactors that have been tested in the United States and elsewhere are touted for their potential to run on waste material piling up across the United States or, in some cases, produce hydrogen as a byproduct to fuel a new era of automobiles.

Worried by Risk

The inherent dangers continue to haunt nuclear power in the United States, though. When climate change scientist James Hansen last year called for considering nuclear power as a way to cut carbon dioxide emissions, more than 300 groups joined in a letter to object, dismissing more consideration of next generation designs.

“Dr. Hansen and his colleagues tout so-called ‘advanced’ nuclear technology,” they wrote, “which is nothing more than regurgitated attempts by the industry to bring tried-and-failed alternative designs such as expensive and dangerous breeder reactors to commercialization.”

However, there are those like Hansen who look to advanced nuclear as a possible solution to climate change.

Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a staunch advocate of cutting greenhouse gasses, sees advanced nuclear technology as a means to lower carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector while reducing some of the risks of traditional reactors.

“Investing more in advanced nuclear technologies — things like small modular reactors and traveling wave reactors — may be a way to produce more greenhouse gas-free energy while generating less waste,” he told members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a Senate committee hearing last year.

“Boosting nuclear plant security will require taking advantage of innovative approaches,” Whitehouse said. “There’s at least one advanced reactor concept, for example, that doesn’t require water for cooling; so, it can be built away from the shoreline and the coastal elements.”

As required by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Energy Department sought to develop advanced nuclear technology using a cost sharing agreement to design a high temperature gas cooled reactor. That effort stalled in recent years due to a lack of industry support, according to the department, which continues advanced nuclear research at national laboratories. Industry officials say there are other ways the department could support development as companies push toward new designs.

Future Power Ideas

To further the next generation of technology, Lipman’s organization recently formed a working group headed by Stephen Kuczynski, president of Southern Nuclear Operating Company, with the directive to support the development and commercialization of advanced reactors.

With the right regulatory changes and research support, the future technology may be closer than many think, said Leslie Dewan. As a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dewan co-founded a company focused on a molten salt reactor concept that could produce 75 times more electricity from uranium than a light water reactor and be “walk away safe.”

While the concept has attracted investment from Founders Fund, a venture capital firm that backed SpaceX, the problem is procuring additional funding to overcome the uncertain regulatory hurdle of getting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve of a new design.

“The commercial regulatory structure in the U.S. is currently set up only for light water reactors,” Dewan told lawmakers. “The system works well for these designs but it needs to be broadened.”

She sees two solutions.

“A good path forward would be to move to a set of technology-agnostic guidelines based on performance criteria that would be equally applicable to all reactors,” she said, citing similar regulations recently adopted in Canada.

Secondly, she thinks the Energy Department should have a much larger role in the research for reactor prototypes, removing the uncertain cost and timeline for regulating and licensing prototype reactors which she said stymie private investment.

“A clear way to solve this problem would be to establish a test bed facility, ideally at a national laboratory site for building demonstration scale advanced reactors,” she said.

The NRC’s dependence on fees is another roadblock to research, according to Ashley Finan, a project manager at the Clean Air Task Force, who said the commission lacks funding to do much other than support the existing reactor types.

“One thing that Congress could do would be to allocate funds to NRC that would be outside of that fee recovery basis so that they could work on this R&D work and work on developing the ground work that’s needed for innovation and advanced reactor licensing,” Finan told lawmakers.

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