In a speech today to hundreds of Southern Co. employees at that company’s Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga.—the site of the first new reactors approved in the U.S. since 1978—Energy Secretary Steven Chu said federal agencies were preparing to strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the global nuclear sector by earmarking $770 million in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget.

“With more than 100 operating commercial nuclear reactors, nuclear power produces about 20 percent of total electricity and 70 percent of the carbon-free electricity in the United States,” he said. “The role of peaceful nuclear power is also growing around the world as we confront a changing climate and increasing energy demand.”

Chu said that the “resurgence of America’s nuclear industry starts here in Georgia, where you just got approval for the first time in three decades to build new reactors,” he said. The Obama administration was backing the project as well as Westinghouse’s third-generation AP1000 reactor technology with more than $8 billion in conditional loan guarantees, he added.

Chu also announced a funding opportunity of up to $10 million for “innovative, cross-cutting research and development for advanced nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technologies.” The funds would be used to invest in advanced manufacturing methods to more efficiently produce and design nuclear plant components. “We’ll also fund research in advanced materials for reactor vessels and other related structures as well as in the nuclear fuel cycle,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy has launched a small modular reactor program to boost manufacturing and promote U.S. technical leadership. “Our Fiscal Year 2013 budget request proposed $65 million to assist in the engineering design necessary for Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval of small modular reactors, which have the potential to expand our options for nuclear power. If we can develop this technology and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge in the global clean energy race,” Chu said.

Training a new nuclear workforce would be imperative, Chu added. In the past three years, the DOE has invested “$170 million in research grants at more than 70 universities, supporting research and development in a full spectrum of technologies and attracting future leaders in nuclear energy.”

Among its bigger obstacles will be overcoming challenges faced at the back end of the fuel cycle. “Finding a workable way to end the stalemate over the safe and secure storage of used nuclear fuel is one of the most important things we can do to support this vital industry,” he said. Chu’s appointed Blue Ribbon Commission recently released its final recommendations on how the U.S. could manage its spent nuclear fuel. Among its key recommendations was that efforts should begin immediately to develop at least one geologic disposal facility and at least one consolidated storage facility. Efforts should also begin to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from current storage sites to those facilities.

“I appreciate the commission’s hard work. They took on some tough issues and produced a consensus report that is a critical step toward finding a sustainable solution to this issue,” Chu said.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations will be assessed by an “internal working group” that would also “develop a strategy that builds on its excellent work,” he said.

Sources: POWERnews, DOE