Contrasting Views on Future Prospects for Nuclear Energy Presented at Appropriations Hearing

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Publication date: 
29 November 2016

At a Senate hearing, appropriations subcommittee leaders disagreed on the advisability of the federal government embarking on an effort to spur the development and deployment of new types of nuclear reactors.

On Nov. 16, the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee held the second of two hearings this year focused on the future of nuclear power in the U.S. (See FYI #117 for a summary of the first.) Testifying before the subcommittee were John Deutch, an MIT professor and chair of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB); Alan Icenhour, associate laboratory director for nuclear science and engineering at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Matthew McKinzie, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear program.

Contrasting views on nuclear past and future

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) referred to utilizing nuclear power as the best means of addressing climate change, and argued that the U.S. needs to invest in the next generation of nuclear reactors, including advanced reactors and small modular reactors. “We need to take steps today to ensure nuclear power has a future in our country,” he concluded.

In contrast, Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pointed to the nuclear waste disposal stalemate, safety concerns about nuclear plants (especially those in earthquake-prone California), and advances in renewable energy as reasons against relying on nuclear power in the future. She also cited a series of failed attempts to deploy advanced reactors as reason to doubt their future prospects and observed that advanced reactors are “in competition for federal research funding with other clean energy sources.”

Feinstein invoked a long history of disappointment with advanced reactor designs, including criticism of them by Adm. Hyman Rickover (the architect of the U.S. naval reactor program), the 1966 partial meltdown of the Fermi sodium-cooled fast reactor, and President Jimmy Carter’s opposition to the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. “Now, these are fundamentally the same reactor designs we’re still discussing today,” she asserted.

She went on to cite more recent examples, including Japan’s recent decision to likely decommission the Monju fast breeder reactor despite having invested $12 billion in the project and DOE’s 2013 decision to end the Next Generation Nuclear Plant Project after no company was willing to pitch in funds despite DOE having spent $550 million on the project.

In response to some of Feinstein’s remarks, Alexander expressed deep skepticism about the ability of wind and solar technologies to fill in for existing nuclear power plants and hailed the overall safety record of the U.S. nuclear industry. He noted that there has never been a death attributable to the operation of U.S. commercial or naval nuclear reactors, and stated that “The most celebrated accident we have in the United States was Three Mile Island in 1979, and despite years of testing of everybody in the area, no one was hurt.”

Deutch outlines potential advanced reactor deployment initiative

Deutch presented the conclusions of the SEAB’s Task Force on the Future of Nuclear Power, which Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz charged with describing the prerequisites for the U.S. to deploy one or more new reactor types at a significant rate in the 2030 to 2050 timeframe. In its final report, approved by SEAB this September, the task force sketches out a potential major initiative by which the U.S. could deploy a first-of-a-kind, commercial-scale advanced nuclear reactor design. It estimates that such an effort would take about 25 years and cost around $11.5 billion, split between the federal government and a private firm.

John Deutch testifying at Senate hearing

In his testimony, Deutch emphasized that the task force was “especially unanimous” in its view that the U.S. must undertake an initiative of the scale they propose if the nation wishes to have a “nuclear option” in the 2030s. He also stressed that the future economic competitiveness of nuclear power depends on rewarding its carbon-free nature, either through subsidies proportional to the social cost of carbon or through a charge on carbon emissions.

Absent an extension of existing reactor licenses or the construction of new nuclear plants, the U.S. will soon encounter a so-called “nuclear cliff,” a period where the nation will rapidly lose its nuclear generation capacity as old plants go offline. Currently, the U.S. nuclear fleet consists of 99 light water reactors that supply about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and represent about 60 percent of the electricity generated without emitting carbon dioxide.

Task force report and testimony touch on R&D

Although the task force was not asked to review the current R&D portfolio of DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, the final report states that the task force does not recommend DOE expand this office’s support of advanced nuclear reactor R&D absent additional funding. In addition, the task force weighed in on the advisability of constructing a new test reactor facility in support of the advanced reactor initiative:

The Task Force does not believe a new test reactor is necessary for the demonstration / deployment initiative it is examining. … Although it may be desirable for the long-term health of the U.S. nuclear technology base, committing to the construction and operation of such a U.S. multipurpose test facility requires significant time and resources. Successful operation of such a facility requires a long-term, substantial commitment for base funding (as was learned with the Fast Flux Test Facility experience of the 1980s). The Task Force believes that if a U.S. test reactor project goes forward, the United States should seek international cooperation, both substantive and financial.

Notably, pending energy policy legislation contains a provision directing DOE to “determine the mission need for a versatile reactor-based fast neutron source, which shall operate as a national user facility.”

Although Icenhour did not weigh in on the SEAB task force report recommendations, he did advocate for a “sustained R&D program” focused on advanced nuclear energy technologies. Icenhour also described the R&D performed at Oak Ridge in partnership with other national laboratories to support existing and new reactor designs. He stressed that new simulation capabilities, such as those employed by the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, permit more rapid innovation in nuclear reactor design and licensing—a point which he elaborated on in his written testimony:

By using a science-based design and licensing approach, we can improve upon history, rather than repeat it. The existing fleet of U.S. nuclear plants was developed using empirical engineering approaches. That is to say, systems were initially designed, built, and tested; designs were then marginally improved as operating experience was gained. Billions of dollars were invested in generating operating data to determine what worked best. … With contemporary science-based tools and techniques, the development phase can be rapidly accelerated in laboratory and high-performance computing environments. Similarly, there are opportunities to accelerate the licensing phase.

In contrast to the optimism expressed by Icenhour, McKinzie urged the subcommittee to maintain “a healthy dose of skepticism” toward the purported promise of advanced nuclear technologies. Among his five overarching recommendations, he said that the subcommittee should assess the expected economic competitiveness of new reactor designs early in their R&D phase before deciding whether to further support them. In addition, he argued in his written testimony that the DOE role in supporting advanced nuclear should be limited to “small investments in research and development in areas such as computer modeling and materials science that also have applications for nuclear safety, for nuclear non-proliferation and for non-nuclear energy technologies, such as the use of molten salt for energy storage in renewable generation.”

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