Act now for nuclear future, US Senate committee told

18 November 2016

The USA must take action now if it wants to have a "nuclear energy option" by 2030, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee was told on 16 November.

John Deutch, chairman of the Secretary of Energy's Advisory Board (SEAB), presented the results from a task force study on the future of nuclear power to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, at the second of two oversight hearings on the future of nuclear power in the USA.

The task force was asked by US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to describe an initiative leading to a revitalised US nuclear industry of a scale able to deploy 5000 to 10,000 MWe of nuclear power annually, between 2030 and 2050. The report was approved by the full SEAB in September.

"If the country is going to have a nuclear [energy] option in 2030, it must an initiative of the scope and size that this committee [the Task Force] describes," Deutch said. "If you do not undertake a major initiative now, it is inevitable that in 2030 the country will not have a nuclear option," he said. Any such initiative would require time, significant public resources, a redesign of electricity markets, and "sustained and skilled" management. "There is no shortcut to doing this," he said.

The task force called for market restructuring to avoid the premature retirement of nuclear power plants as a prerequisite for the success of any nuclear power initiative. It called for the carbon free nature of nuclear to be recognised in order to diminish the "cost disparity" between new nuclear - with high overnight capital costs of $5000 per kWe - and natural gas-fired generating capacity - with overnight costs of $1000 per kWe. This could be achieved through either a direct production payment proportional to the cost of carbon avoided - recommended by the task force as 2.7 cents per kilowatt-hour - or by the imposition of a carbon charge on the emissions from gas-fired generation.

Two-part program for new reactors

The task force recommended the USA pursues a two-stranded program to support the development of new plants. Reactors based on proven light-water reactor (LWR) technology would not need any additional federal support beyond the proposed 2.7 cents per kilowatt-hour production payment, although Department of Energy assistance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing and possibly siting early reactors on federally-owned sites "would be appropriate and helpful", it said.

For advanced reactors based on new technology, the task force recommended a four-part program to bring a reactor from early concept to construction of commercial plant. It estimated such a program, including technology selection and construction of a first-of-a-kind commercial plant, would take up to 25 years and about $11.5 billion. The cost would be shared equally between the government and the private sector entity undertaking the project, with the government's contribution coming in the earlier phases of the program.

The task force recommended the creation of an independent quasi-public corporation to manage the proposed advanced reactor initiative. It underscored the importance of addressing fuel cycle and waste management as part of the proposed initiative, noting that advanced reactors will raise different issues from LWRs for the front and back end of the fuel cycle. Deutch said committee staff had suggested a single entity could be created to manage both the advanced nuclear initiative and the implementation of the nuclear waste plans from the 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future.

The NRC should develop a staged approach for the licensing of advanced reactors, in consideration of the time and cost associated with obtaining construction and operation licences. The regulator already has the authority to proceed "and should do so now", although it may require more budgetary support to do so, Deutch said. New advanced reactors constructed and licensed abroad would still require a full NRC review, he added.

The SEAB provides advice and recommendations to the secretary of energy on the department's basic and applied research and development activities, economic and national security policy, educational issues, operational issues and any other departmental activities and operations as the secretary may direct. The duties of the board are solely advisory.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News