Energy Subcommittee Discusses Next Generation Nuclear Reactors and Future Energy Policy

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Publication date: 
18 December 2014

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy held a December 11 hearing to discuss nuclear reactor designs, the work of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy (NE), and the role of the private sector in reactor development.  Members heard about nuclear energy research and development programs including Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Technical Support, Reactor Concepts, Fuel Cycle Research and Development, and Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies (NEETs).  Members were interested in learning about the development of next generation nuclear reactors and focused their attention on reactor safety and economic costs and benefits of their development.

Chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) opened the hearing by noting the progress of nuclear energy technology in the United States and the regulations required for licensing new reactors.  She wanted to engage with witnesses about when SMR developers would be able to deploy reactors off the grid and with high levels of thermal efficiency.  Lummis and Members on both sides of the aisle were looking to gain further information on regulatory and market barriers that affect the progress of SMR development.

In his opening statement, Ranking Member Eric Swalwell (D-CA) highlighted the critical role of the federal government in energy research and development and noted the role of public-private partnerships.  He promoted an “all of the above” approach for the US energy economy.  “We just need to make sure that we are making the smartest investments we can with our limited resources,” he stated as he pressed for safe development of new nuclear reactors. 

Witness Peter Lyons, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy spoke about the current reactor fleet, licensing and construction, advanced reactor research and development, sustainable fuel cycle, and investments in research and development infrastructure.  “NE’s programs strive to ensure both the current fleet and advanced light-water technologies are available to meet the Nation’s energy security and clean energy needs,” he stated as he discussed international cooperation efforts through the Generation IV International Forum.  He described private company reactor construction made possible through a DOE loan guarantee program as well as public-private cost sharing and research and development efforts at the national labs. 

Questions for Lyons included what was the appropriate cost-sharing balance between the DOE and nuclear plant developers.  Lummis posed questions about the development of a prototype for new nuclear power plants and asked for updated information about fuel research.  Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) focused on the three phases for project development for next generation nuclear plants as outlined in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.  She asked about lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) was interested in discussing reactor safety and asked Lyons to comment on whether it was possible to expedite the process for private sector development of SMRs.  Also discussed was the interaction between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as it provides feedback to nuclear vendors on their proposals for new plants.

Four witnesses testified in the second panel.  Ashley Finan, Senior Project Manager for Energy Innovation at the Clean Air Task Force spoke about the development of nuclear technology in the context of the challenge of climate change.  She discussed the reactor licensing process at the NRC stating that it is “far less established, and thus introduces a level of uncertainty that can be paralyzing to private investment.”   She suggested adjusting the certification process to introduce stages of licensing, similar to the Food and Drug Administration’s use of pre-clinical and Phase I-III trials, rather than the current “all or nothing” approach for nuclear plant development. 

Mike McGough, Chief Commercial Officer of NuScale Power spoke of the company’s nuclear plant design stating that it is “uniquely safe.”  He discussed the market demand for nuclear energy technology and explained that the highest risk components remaining in the project “is the uncertainty of the time and process for the NRC licensing efforts.”  NuScale expects to submit a Design Certification Application in 2016 and the NRC review is currently operating on a 39 month review schedule.  The NuScale Design Specific Review Standard, issued by the NRC, will “establish the basis for our technology review,” described McGough.   

Leslie Dewan, Co-Founder and CEO of the Transatomic Power Corporation discussed the need to broaden the commercial nuclear regulatory structure to include new reactor designs.  She cautioned that the high cost and long timeline for plant development “effectively blocks large-scale private investment in new nuclear reactor designs.”  She described regulatory issues at test-bed facilities stating that they are “closely tied to the ability to build prototype nuclear reactors.”  Lastly she advocated for a “better regulatory pathway for advanced nuclear reactors” and explained that this, “coupled with the ability to more readily demonstrate reactor prototypes at national laboratories, will enable greater private investment in the suite of new nuclear reactor design currently being developed.”

Daniel Lipman, Executive Director of Policy Development and Supplier Programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute outlined the current status of the domestic nuclear power industry, domestic and global energy markets, the potential for SMRs and Generation IV plant designs, and the need for government-industry cooperation to address financial and regulatory challenges.  “Coal-based options are narrowing,” he stated “which create a compelling need to ensure that the nation has available a robust diverse suite of nuclear technologies.”

The bi-partisan dialogue between Members and both panel of witnesses showed an interest in further developing the next generation of nuclear plants.   Safety and licensing were issues discussed throughout the hearing but questions were aimed at overcoming barriers and ensuring rapid and safe nuclear plant development.