ANS task force calls for boost in federal R&D funding

18 February 2021

A near doubling in annual federal appropriated funding levels for core nuclear research and development activities is needed to ensure the commercial deployment of US advanced reactors in the 2030s, a task force commissioned by the American Nuclear Society (ANS) has concluded. The group said the additional funding will help meet the Biden Administration's climate goals.

(Image: ANS)

The ANS Task Force on Public Investment in Nuclear Research and Development brought together over 20 technical experts - from US Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories, universities, private developers, utilities, suppliers and professional divisions within ANS. The Task Force is co-chaired by Mark Peters, executive vice president for Laboratory Operations at Battelle, and Christina Back, vice president of the Nuclear Technologies and Materials Division at General Atomics.

The group has spent the past six months assessing current nuclear R&D funding levels and determining the federal investment levels required to enable a commercial scale-up of US-designed advanced reactors, starting in 2030. It also considered maximising nuclear energy for decarbonisation, economic growth through high-paying nuclear jobs, and preservation of US influence in global nuclear safety and standards.

In a study released yesterday - The US Nuclear R&D Imperative - the Task Force concludes: "To effectively answer the national imperatives of clean energy, economic growth, and national security, the US must be equipped to sustain a strong nuclear energy enterprise both domestically and internationally. This need constitutes a new imperative, a nuclear sustainability imperative. Without nuclear sustainability, progress on our national imperatives will be impeded and the US will not maintain a leadership role in the international nuclear community."

Funding recommendations

The Task Force says meeting decarbonisation goals as rapidly and efficiently as possible will require significant additional investments in nuclear energy research and development. It recommends about USD10.3 billion in additional discretionary spending by 2030, compared with levelised funding at FY2021 enacted levels. 

The study says the recommended additional federal nuclear R&D investments "are a small fraction of the total cost needed to address or mitigate climate change." It notes the requested additional funding of USD10.3 billion over nine years is about 0.6% of the costs of President Biden's USD1.7 trillion 10-year climate plan. The funding, it says, will spur the deployment of an advanced reactor fleet at levels required to meet the Biden Administration's climate goals of a carbon-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050.

The major funding increases proposed by the Task Force are focused on three key outcomes: Firstly, full funding for the first advanced reactor demonstrations under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), followed by funding under a future "ARDP 2.0" to continue the pipeline and fund the next demonstrations, expected to mature from the current ARDP Risk Reduction award. Secondly, construction of the Versatile Test Reactor by 2030 to provide a versatile fast-neutron source to test and qualify advanced reactor technologies and materials, and a build-out of the National Reactor Innovation Center for accelerated testing and demonstrations. Thirdly, construction of an advanced light water reactor by 2029 to capitalise on past investments for the reactor closest to market.

The Task Force also recommends, as a baseline, modest funding increases for existing programmes which support essential research, development, and infrastructure. This includes: maintaining the USA's essential nuclear science and engineering infrastructure at its national laboratories and universities; the testing and development of advanced nuclear fuels for existing and advanced reactors; and, operational improvements of the existing fleet of nuclear power plants through the Light Water Reactor Sustainability programme.

"Federal investments in nuclear research and development are critical to lower costs and reduce the time to deployment, while building momentum to catalyse more private investment, more research, and more innovation," according to the Task Force. "United momentum is key to deriving maximum benefit from nuclear technologies and securing America's clean energy future."

Accelerating R&D support now will help secure America's clean energy future by deploying first-of-a-kind advanced reactors later this decade, Task Force co-chair Peters said. "Without increased and sustained R&D support, more US reactors will be shut down by 2035 and advanced reactor systems will not be deployable, resulting in a weakened power grid, higher emissions, and higher energy costs,” he added.

Innovation pipeline

The Task Force says the DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy must ensure that the recommended investments "will constitute a healthy, sustainable nuclear innovation pipeline - not just a set of loosely coordinated programmes ... Every funded programme, from a bench-scale university experiment to a full-scale advanced reactor demonstration, has its place in this progression. Programmes must be developed apace to get maximum value from federal investments, with due consideration to every step on the pathway to deployment - from material and fuel qualification to siting and licensing."

"Sustained R&D support will strengthen a vibrant national testbed and technology pipeline for nuclear energy" said Task Force co-chair Back. "A cohesive nuclear R&D strategy will produce advanced reactors ready for deployment by 2030 as well as preserve our national scientific capabilities and nuclear workforce. A series of milestones is envisioned to measure and assess R&D progress, ensuring that only the most efficient nuclear innovations and designs are brought to market."

The Task Force said its assessment seeks to serve as a prospectus for policymakers as Congress and the Biden Administration consider ways to support and expand nuclear energy.

"The future promises more than we can grasp now," the Task Force said. "Technologies that are still maturing, such as inline diagnostics and advanced manufacturing, may be used to support operational advances that we cannot foresee now. But we will learn, with time, just how our investments made today will pay off, while the world learns to recognise nuclear energy's promise of clean and reliable energy."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News