Republicans and Democrats in Congress are backing, with near unanimity, a bill that would promote collaboration on research and development of advanced fission and fusion energy reactors across the Department of Energy’s national labs, universities, and the private sector.
“America must maintain our nuclear capabilities and continue to develop cutting-edge technology right here at home,” said Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) in a speech Monday on the House floor moments before the chamber unanimously passed his nuclear research and development bill, the “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act”.
In his floor speech, he led with a word of caution about U.S. competitiveness in nuclear energy:
Without the direction provided in this bill, we will continue to fall further and further behind, lose the ability to develop innovative nuclear technology, and be left importing reactor designs from overseas. Today, we have the best nuclear engineers and manufacturing capacity in the world right here at home. We can’t put that expertise at risk.
Bill would direct DOE to work with private sector to advance nuclear technology
Weber’s legislation, which he is sponsoring as chair of the House Science Committee’s Energy Subcommittee, calls on the Department of Energy (DOE) to further collaborate with universities and the private sector to advance new fission and fusion nuclear reactor technologies through new initiatives at the national labs. Furthermore, it embraces a future in which nuclear energy plays a significant role.
The bill directs the Department to draw up blueprints by the end of the year for a “versatile reactor-based fast neutron source, which shall operate as a national user facility.” It also includes two sections drawn from Rep. Alan Grayson’s (D-FL) “Nuclear Innovation Act,” which Grayson, an outspoken champion of fusion energy, introduced in the House separately last November.
These two sections would require DOE 1) to utilize high-performance computational resources to support development of new reactor technologies and 2) to facilitate private sector testing and demonstration of nuclear reactor concepts as part of a “National Reactor Innovation Center.”
Bill embraced by both parties, both chambers of Congress
The Act has sailed smoothly through the legislative process so far, starting with its introduction in the House in November of last year and a well-received, bipartisan legislative hearing in the House Science Committee in early December. The committee agreed unanimously to advance the legislation at a Jan. 12 business meeting. At the December hearing, committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) commended the quality of the legislative work taking place behind the scenes on the bill, saying majority and minority staff worked closely together every step of the way from engaging stakeholders to the helping to craft and incorporate suggested changes to bill language.Johnson added:
This is a great example of what we can achieve when we put politics aside and join forces to address challenges facing the nation’s research enterprise.
The Senate got in on the bipartisan action as well, approving the bill on Jan. 28 by a vote of 87 to 4 as an amendment to a major energy policy bill. The underlying bill, the “Energy Modernization Act of 2015,” also has bipartisan support, although its future is uncertain. Senate leadership was forced to table it in early February when the parties reached an impasse on the amount of federal relief that Flint, Mich., should receive to address a spate of lead poisonings from drinking water contamination.
Key leaders in the House are standing behind the nuclear energy legislation, including House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Johnson. During the December hearing, Smith said “nuclear energy represents promising, emission-free technology and America’s best opportunity to bring reliable electricity to the developing world.”
Johnson elaborated on her support of the bill in a statement released yesterday:
One of my top priorities…is preventing and mitigating the potentially devastating impacts of climate change. … Nuclear power can and should play a key role in our efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of our electricity sector. But there currently are technical, economic, and policy challenges…. [This bill] takes several positive steps to address these challenges. Implementing the provisions in this bill will help accelerate the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies that are safer, less expensive, more efficient, and produce less waste than the current generation of nuclear reactors.
DOE, White House supporting next generation of advanced nuclear reactors
While DOE does not have a position on the legislation, Acting Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy John Kotek testified at the December hearing that the legislation is consistent with the strategy and ongoing efforts of the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. He added that nuclear energy continues to play a “vital” role in the President’s clean energy strategy.
Kotek explained how the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is already providing leading edge computer modeling and simulation capabilities to improve the performance of light water reactors and small modular reactors. The Department has also undertaken a study, intended for completion by April of this year, to determine the needs of the advanced nuclear reactor community and examine options for developing an advanced research reactor capability.
Last November, the White House hosted a summit on nuclear energy and launched the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program. According to Kotek’s testimony, GAIN will provide the nuclear energy community with access to the technical, regulatory, and financial support necessary to move advanced nuclear energy technologies toward commercialization.
While the “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act” is currently mired in the broader energy bill standoff in the Senate, political will for the legislation as a standalone bill seems more than sufficient for it to eventually become law.