Congress Moving on Nuclear Options: The State of Play on Advanced Reactor Bills

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Publication date: 
6 April 2017

Congress is currently advancing four bills that would support the commercialization of new nuclear reactor designs by enhancing R&D at the Department of Energy and instituting a new licensing framework at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

On March 30, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the chamber’s “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act” by voice vote, sending it to the full Senate. The bill is one of four that Congress is now actively advancing in order to promote the development and commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors.

Proponents of the legislation argue that moving nuclear power beyond traditional large light-water reactors (LWRs) would bring significant improvements in safety and cost competitiveness to the nuclear industry. Last week, the particular importance of cost became evident once again when Westinghouse Electric filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, partly due to cost overruns at four state-of-the-art LWR plants the company is constructing.

All the bills have bipartisan backing, and all had predecessors in the last Congress that made considerable progress. Now, lawmakers must settle on how the various provisions in the current bills will fit into a final legislative package.

Bill Main Goal Current Status

Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (HR 431)

Sponsored by Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX)

Authorizes R&D and new facilities in support of advanced nuclear reactor development. Incorporated into the “Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act” (HR 589), which the House passed on a voice vote on Jan. 24.

Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (S 97)

Sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID)

Authorizes R&D and new facilities in support of advanced nuclear reactor development. Approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a voice vote on March 30; awaits consideration by the full Senate.

Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act (HR 590)

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH)

Directs NRC to formulate a plan to develop a licensing framework for advanced nuclear reactors. Passed by the House on a voice vote on Jan. 23.

Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (S 512)

Sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY)

Directs NRC to etablish a licensing framework for advanced nuclear reactors. Approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on an 18–3 vote on March 22; awaits consideration by the full Senate.

‘Innovation capabilities’ bills would enhance DOE-supported R&D

This year, the House and the Senate each introduced new, nearly identical versions of the “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act,” which focuses primarily on technology development and testing. Introducing the Senate version in January, its primary sponsor, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), said in a press release,

There is bipartisan agreement in Congress that nuclear energy and nuclear research have been underutilized as a reliable, safe, clean, and efficient part of our national energy portfolio. We are working to eliminate barriers to innovation within the private sector and strengthening collaboration with our national labs to maintain American preeminence in nuclear energy.

In the same release, Democratic co-sponsors Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) pointed also to nuclear energy’s role in moving toward a less carbon-intensive energy sector.

The centerpiece of the bills is a set of provisions directing the Department of Energy to build on existing efforts to expedite the development and commercialization of advanced nuclear reactor designs. Both call for the establishment of a National Reactor Innovation Center, through which private-sector companies could work with national laboratories to test and demonstrate advanced reactor concepts. To aid the development of reactor designs, the bills also call on DOE to establish a fast neutron source user facility and to institute a program of high-performance computational modeling and simulation of nuclear phenomena.


The Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) reactor core

The Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) reactor core. Located at the Department of Energy’s Hanford site in Richland, Washington, FFTF was constructed in the 1970s, initially to support the U.S. fast breeder reactor program, but DOE decided to deactivate it in 2001. Some have suggested restoring it to provide the U.S. with a new fast neutron source for use in R&D, while others recommend constructing a new reactor for that purpose.

(Image credit – DOE)

Public domain

The bills do not authorize any funding for these initiatives. Instead, the bills instruct DOE to report back to Congress on how it would work the newly authorized initiatives into its budget under different scenarios.

Notably, the chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for DOE’s budget has signaled strong support for efforts to help revive growth in the nuclear industry. However, the Trump administration could resist such plans. The White House has already requested Congress to immediately cut funding for the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy by 20 percent, suggesting the office could absorb the cut by decreasing funding for “later stage R&D in fuel cycle, reactor, and crosscutting technologies.”

The only major difference between the Senate and House bills is that the Senate version directs DOE to establish a cost-share grant program to assist the private sector in obtaining reactor licenses, with a view toward increasing the diversity of advanced reactor technologies.

The House has incorporated its version of the bill into the broader bipartisan “Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act,” which it passed by voice vote on Jan. 24. That bill now rests with the Senate Energy Committee, which has for the time being chosen to move on the Senate’s standalone bill instead.

Senate sits on House licensing bill, advances its own

This year, the House and Senate also introduced new versions of their respective bills directing Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop a licensing program for advanced reactors: the “Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act” and the “Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act.”

The House bill, which the chamber passed by voice vote in January, directs NRC to develop a plan for developing a regulatory framework for advanced nuclear reactors. It also instructs NRC to coordinate with DOE on this effort, and it exempts any appropriations directed toward the effort from counting as part of the 10 percent of the agency budget not recouped from user fees. The bill has been in the hands of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works since that time, but on March 22 the committee instead approved the Senate’s own licensing bill on an 18–3 vote.

The Senate bill is more ambitious than the House bill, detailing the schedule and requirements for a licensing framework that NRC would begin to implement immediately. It directs NRC to be ready to implement a new, staged licensing procedure for commercial advanced reactors within two years. The bill also directs NRC to develop a licensing procedure for research and test reactors within its existing, non-staged process within the same timeframe. The bill instructs NRC to complete a licensing framework that will be applicable across all commercial advanced reactor technologies by 2025.

Like the Senate’s advanced reactor R&D bill, the licensing bill calls for a DOE licensing cost-share program. It would also enact major reforms to NRC’s budget structure, eliminating by fiscal year 2020 the requirement that 90 percent of the agency’s budget be supplied by user fees.

In addition, the bill contains a number of miscellaneous provisions. One relating to bolt examination schedules for nuclear power plants addresses concerns raised in a report that NRC issued this past October. Another would require NRC to review its evacuation planning in light of lessons learned from recent disasters. There are also provisions relating to NRC licensing for uranium recovery operations and to DOE’s policies for the transfer and sale of excess uranium supplies. The bill’s new primary sponsor this year, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), has a strong interest in these issues as Wyoming is the nation’s top uranium-producing state.

Meanwhile, in January, as Congress began its new push on licensing, NRC took important steps of its own, beginning review of the first-ever design certification application for a small modular light water reactor and releasing a roadmap for licensing non-light water reactors. Also in January, DOE released its own roadmap for supporting the development and deployment of advanced reactor designs.


NRC, DOE, and NuScale Power officials commemorate the submission of the first-ever license application for a small modular reactor.

In January, officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, and NuScale Power commemorated the submission of the first-ever design certification application for a small modular reactor.

(Image credit – DOE)

Public domain

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