Positive Response to Administration’s Nuclear Energy Strategy

“In order to meet the Administration’s goals of energy security and greenhouse gas reductions, nuclear energy must play an important role in the national energy portfolio.” – Nuclear Energy Research and Development Roadmap

DOE-SealAn indication of how opinion has changed regarding the Obama Administration’s position on nuclear energy was the favorable reaction of hearing witnesses and Members of the House Science and Technology Committee to the Department of Energy’s “Nuclear Energy Research and Development Roadmap.” This 60-page strategy, released in April, was the focus of a May 19 hearing.

Members of Congress have previously expressed concerns about the position of the Administration on nuclear energy. In the early months of the Administration, Energy Secretary Steven Chu was asked repeatedly about nuclear energy, answering questions such as “are you for it or against it?” Those questions are not being asked with the same frequency as the Administration more clearly describes its nuclear energy policy, although there is still much criticism about DOE’s decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain project.

Few questions were asked at the hearing about the safety or reliability of nuclear energy. Members were far more interested in the financing and licensing of new nuclear plants, the supply of uranium, and advanced reactor designs. Small Modular Reactors (SMR) were discussed at length. Warren Miller, Jr., Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy highlighted SMRs in his opening testimony, describing an upcoming June 29 and 30 workshop on these reactors that will have lower capital costs and offer greater flexibility. SMRs would be 300 MWe or less, built at factories and transported by trucks to the site, and would offer what DOE describes as a “plug and play” capability. The Department has requested $38.9 million in new money for an SMR program in FY 2011.

Members asked about the disposition of spent nuclear fuel. Miller said dry cask storage has been successfully utilized for more than 20 years, telling the committee that there is “no need to rush” in the determination of a future waste policy. He spoke of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future that has been charged with conducting “a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense used nuclear fuel, high-level waste, and materials derived from nuclear activities.” A draft report is expected by the middle of next year.

The committee also received testimony from senior officials of Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy, the Federation of American Scientists, Argonne National Laboratory, JP Morgan Chase, and the American Nuclear Society. While offering recommendations and describing obstacles to the expansion of nuclear energy, they each praised the DOE R&D roadmap. Their testimony may be read here The road map outlines “the NE [DOE Office of Nuclear Energy] role and mission in enabling the benefits of nuclear energy for our nation; and presents a strategy and roadmap to guide the NE scientific and technical agenda. The report presents a high-level vision and framework for R&D activities needed to keep the nuclear energy option viable in the near term and to expand its use in the decades ahead.” The roadmap focuses on four R&D objectives:

“Develop technologies and other solutions that can improve the reliability, sustain the safety, and extend the life of current reactors.

Develop improvements in the affordability of new reactors to enable nuclear energy to help meet the Administration’s energy security and climate change goals

Develop Sustainable Nuclear Fuel Cycles

Understand and minimize the risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism”

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Source: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News
Photo: Department of Energy