When it comes to nuclear power, the U.S. is not living up to its potential, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told appropriators during a July 20 full committee markup of the Senate’s fiscal year 2018 (FY18) Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill.
“When it comes to nuclear power, we’re just so far behind the times and I think now’s the time to catch up,” Graham said while presenting an amendment that would address language in the bill he believes to be problematic to the future development of small modular reactors.
According to Graham: “The current report language prohibits funds for engineering design or regulatory developing for next generation light water reactor technology. That language is being perceived by those in the small modular reactor world as basically an impediment to producing small modular reactors.”
Graham went to note that the U.S. has not successfully built a new nuclear reactor in decades, and those under development—the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear plant in Graham’s home state of South Carolina and Southern Co.’s Vogtle project in Georgia—have significant problems. “They’re very large enterprises,” he said. “There are cost overruns, we’re behind schedule, and Westinghouse has gone bankrupt, the primary contractor. So, what did we learn? America has a hard time doing things that other people can do. They build reactors in Japan and France pretty routinely. We haven’t done it in 30 years, and when we try, we’re not doing a very good job of it.”
The current issues facing the U.S. nuclear industry illustrate exactly why the nation should be investing in small modular reactors, Graham said. “Here’s the deal, I want to get these plants built because I don’t want to get out of the nuclear industry business, because that’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for the economy, it would be a retreat from us as a nation that we can’t build a nuclear reactor,” he said. “But here’s what we should learn, rather than building a bunch of $6 billion-plus reactors that take the utility and put it in a compromising situation if you can’t build on time, small modular reactors are the way of the future.”
Before withdrawing his amendment, saying that he would bring it up again on the floor of the Senate, Graham offered kudos to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) ongoing efforts at developing small modular reactors. “DOE is aggressively developing a small modular reactor plant that will allow these plants to be built for about a billion dollars to $2 billion. It changes the entire utilization and the future of nuclear power, the language in this markup, I think, would impede the development of small modular reactors.”
The bill, which funds DOE and a handful of other government entities, was reported favorably out of committee.
In negotiating the Senate version of the bill, appropriators rejected several aspects of the administration’s budget request.
The president’s budget request, released in late May, proposed cutting funding to DOE by $2.786 billion to just $28 billion. However, within the DOE’s proposed FY18 budget, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is “responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science,” had a proposed boost of $1.1 billion to $13.9 billion, an increase of about 9% from FY17. Funding for the rest of the department in the request was cut 21% to $14.1 billion, down $3.7 billion from FY17’s $17.8 billion.
The budgets for DOE’s offices of science, nuclear energy, fossil energy, and energy efficiency and renewable energy were all cut significantly under the budget request.
The Senate version of the appropriations bill restores much of the funding President Trump requested be cut. Science research is funded at $5.55 billion, $158 million more than FY17. Energy programs are funded at $11.1 billion, $189 million less than FY17, but $3.6 billion more than the president’s request. Fossil energy research is funded at $573 million, a loss of $95 million from FY17, but $293 million above the request. Nuclear energy research and development is given funding of $917 million, $214 million more than the president’s request.
The Senate bill, unlike its House counterpart, rejects the president’s request to terminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program.
—Abby L. Harvey is a POWER reporter.