Bipartisan Senators Move to Cement Nuclear Power’s Future

A wide-ranging bill introduced by a large group of bipartisan U.S. senators on March 27 seeks to cement the role advanced nuclear reactors will play in the nation’s future power mix. 

The “Nuclear Energy Leadership Act” (NELA), aims to “reestablish U.S. leadership in nuclear energy,” which has been lost to state-sponsored development in Russia and China, the senators said in a joint press release. 

The bill contains a lengthy list of significant measures. For one, it seeks to “define and establish” a domestic market for advanced nuclear reactors by extending term limits for federal power purchase agreements (PPAs) from the current 10 years to 40 years. “Initial capital costs for nuclear reactors are paid for over a period beyond ten years, which means 10-year PPAs do not work for nuclear projects,” a section-by-section factsheet disseminated with the bill says. The bill also establishes a pilot program that will see the federal government partner with industry to be an early adopter of new technologies using a PPA that exceeds 10 years. 

To compete with state-owned or state-sponsored developers in “rival nations”— namely Russia and China—the bill also encourages significant collaboration between the federal government, national laboratories, and private industry. One provision directs the Department of Energy (DOE) to establish specific goals and ultimately demonstrate advanced reactors with the private sector. 

It also requires the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy to develop a 10-year strategic plan to support advanced nuclear research and development (R&D) goals. “There has not been a cohesive long-term strategy for the direction of U.S. nuclear science and engineering R&D policy across administrations,” it says.

As notably, the bill seeks to boost development of fast neutron reactors. Fast reactors have the potential to extract 60 times more energy from uranium compared to existing thermal reactors and contribute to a significant reduction in the burden of radioactive waste. But while wide progress has been made of late in many countries, only a handful of mature concepts have been demonstrated. At the end of 2016, Russia put online the BN-800 at its Beloyarsk nuclear plant (a POWER Top Plant winner in November 2016), and though at least 16 other fast reactor projects are inching closer to deployment, only two—Russia’s BN-1200 and China’s CDFBR-1200—could be commercial projects when they come online by 2030. To grasp any hope of advancing U.S.-developed fast reactor technology, the bill introduced on Wednesday directs the DOE to construct a fast neutron-capable research facility.

At the same time, the bill pushes for rapid advancements in high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuels, which several small modular reactors under development require but no domestic production capability currently exists. “This program will provide a minimum amount of HALEU to U.S. developers until a long-term domestic supply is developed, while also facilitating the development of HALEU-appropriate transportation equipment,” the fact sheet says. 

Finally, the bill will establish “a world-class, highly-skilled workforce to develop, regulate, and safeguard the next generation of advanced reactors” by creating a “university nuclear leadership program” to meet workforce needs. 

Senators sponsoring the legislation include: Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Cory Booker, D-New Jersey; James Risch, R-Idaho; Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island; Cory Gardner, R-Colorado; Chris Coons, D-Delaware; Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska; Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois; Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina; Michael Bennet, D-Colorado; Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia; and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. 

While the measure will be crucial to “electric reliability, keep energy prices affordable, and address climate change,” Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,  stressed U.S. nuclear innovation was lagging behind other countries. “We once led the world in nuclear energy, but have surrendered that position to Russia and China. It is imperative that we reverse that trend and develop advanced nuclear technologies domestically,” she said.

Bennet, meanwhile, pointed to national security. “U.S. investors should not need to look to other countries to invest in advanced nuclear technologies,” he said. “If we don’t make a concerted effort now to strengthen our clean energy economy, China, Russia, and others will continue to surpass us. This bill is one step we can take toward ensuring our national security and addressing climate change,” he said.

Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).