If the Senate receives the Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010 with the same enthusiasm that the House did in passing it in early December,  H.R. 5866 would be an assertive step toward a more lively U.S. nuclear industry. Senate support would mean renewed U.S. interest in jumpstarting the long dormant industry at home and joining the international nuclear renaissance. However, this bill may be putting the cart before the horse.  While striving for new safer, more efficient, and assembly line built reactors is necessary, the U.S. must re-learn how to implement any type of nuclear power plant in a reliable and efficient way.  It is thus necessary to incentivize the sale of existing or close-to-market technologies which can be built and put to work within the next two decades if we hope to be able to construct the plants which we will be researching today.

H.R. 5866 is an extension of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (which expired in fiscal year 2009), but focuses solely on nuclear energy research. Its objectives are well-intentioned and valuable: to reduce “the cost of nuclear reactor systems,” to reduce “used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste products generated by civilian nuclear energy,” and to support “technological advances in areas that industry by itself is not likely to undertake because of technical and financial uncertainty.”

The bill properly addresses the need for government funding in research areas like reactor design, spent fuel reduction and disposal, and improvements in current power plant technology. It would provide $419 million in fiscal year 2011, $429 million in 2012, and $439 million in 2013. The money would be distributed as the Department of Energy (DOE) sees fit: probably a mix of donations to its national labs and competitive partnerships with companies that would have to front half of the project cost to receive funding.

The dollar amounts are not noteworthy, as they are comparable to those in the 2005 bill, it is the proposed research that is interesting. The first target is Generation III and IV reactors: those designed with safety systems that do not rely (or rely less) on pressurization or electrical power, with economically simplified parts, with reduced proliferation concerns, and some without the need for a significant water source.

The second target is small modular reactors (SMRs), a resurgent technology originally designed for submarines that boasts significant economic advantages and commercial potential. In theory, an SMR could be manufactured in house, shipped to a desired location, and operated solo or in tandem with others. This would help SMRs to capture economies of scale, which has proven more difficult with on site construction. One could imagine assembling enough SMRs to comprise a traditional power plant with the added ability to turn off a fraction of the plant for refueling and maintenance while the rest runs.

The remaining research areas targeted by the bill - nonnuclear improvements to current plants like steam turbine and heat exchanger efficiency, as well as work on the spent fuel storage issue in the wake of the Yucca Mountain upheaval - are just as vital as those already mentioned.

But these potential technologies have one thing in common: all will be subject to the same, if not more stringent, regulatory hurdles that today’s designs are. Historically, just the design certification on new plant types in the US, carried out by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), has taken about nine years. In his June 2010 report “New U.S. Nuclear Generation: 2010-2030,” Geoffrey Rothwell notes that there are currently five design certifications pending:  one from 2005, three from 2007, and one from 2009. Because of this lag time and regular progress in research, interest in constructing many designs dissolves by the time they are licensed. After design certification, a plant must then be licensed, so a utility must obtain a Combined Construction and Operating License (COL). Rothwell reports that “the first COL application was submitted… [in 2007], with an estimated commercialization date near 2017. Since then, the nuclear industry has applied for more than two dozen COLs.”

If even certified technologies still need a decade or so to produce electricity, it is unrealistic to expect brand new designs - regardless of their ingenuity - to produce electricity anytime comparable to that. Because of the slow nature of American certification and licensing, it is difficult to imagine the technologies promoted by H.R. 5866 bearing any considerable fruit in the US nuclear industry in the next two decades.

A bill like H.R. 5866 should be used to simultaneously promote the development of these technologies and pave the way for their relatively quick and inexpensive deployment. The latter objective should be carried out by working through and improving the jumbled regulatory process with existing technologies. This means studying the regulatory system as it presently functions by helping projects through it. Incentives for utilities to buy nuclear plants could take the form of expanded federal loan guarantees, guaranteed rates of return on electricity production, and monetary rewards for the production of low-carbon electricity.

The authors of H.R. 5866 did appear to recognize this need, but without the deserved importance or urgency. One of the bill’s objectives is to research and develop “technologies and processes so as to improve and streamline the process by which nuclear power systems meet Federal and State requirements and standards.” Yet this objective lacks any direct action item. The most relevant project to this end supports the construction of a pilot plant and a subsequent report detailing how federal funds were spent and how private partners were included in the project. More money and legislation promoting projects along these lines are required if SMRs, Generation III reactors, and spent fuel storage are to come to pass in a marketable fashion soon.

This is in no way a dismissal of the importance of the research proposed by H.R. 5866; rather, it is a reality check on the process necessary for a technology's eventual implementation. Research and regulatory improvements should be tackled hand in hand. While General Electric (GE) applies for federal money to demonstrate its promising Economically-Simplified Boiling Water Reactor design, the NRC and DOE should also be working with GE to preemptively certify the novel design. While private companies like TerraPower apply for and employ federal funds to invent small modular breeder reactors, the Blue Ribbon Commission and NRC should be further streamlining the licensing process for current plants and anticipating how this process will need to be changed when plants are built one small reactor at a time over the course of twenty years. Sending existing technologies through the regulatory process, with a watchful and critical eye, will lead to an improved process through which new technologies can more effectively navigate in the future.

Nuclear power is seeing a renaissance around the world, as nations move to fight climate change and provide cost competitive and reliable power.  The idea of awakening America's dormant nuclear industry is picking up steam as a strong nuclear industry could help to phase out fossil fuels andcreate sustainable American jobs. While H.R. 5866 is a strong step towards making America competitive again in nuclear reactor production, it is no substitute for real implementation, and subsequent reform of the certification and licensing processes.

By Dan O'Connor | originally published at Americans for Energy Leadership


Dan O'Connor is a Policy Fellow in AEL’s New Energy Leaders Project and will be a regular contributor to the website. Dan is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Certificate in Energy Analysis and Policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also working as a contractor for the Research and Technology Unit of Westinghouse Electric Company to develop a systematic approach to identifying disruptive technologies in the nuclear industry.