Experts Say Funding Commitment Needed for Nuclear to Remain Viable Option


  • Decades-long, multibillion dollar funding for research needed
  • Support for existing nuclear plants also key to keeping clean air benefits
  • Industry supports nuclear research and development funding for large and small modular reactors

Nov. 17, 2016—A long-term commitment to research is needed if nuclear energy is to remain a part of the energy mix, according to expert witnesses at a U.S. Senate hearing this week.

“If you do not take a major initiative now, it is inevitable that in 2030 the country will not have a nuclear [energy] option,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology Institute Professor John Deutch said.

Earlier, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz charged The Future of Nuclear Power task force, chaired by Deutch, to detail a new initiative that would lead to one or more nuclear technologies being deployed at a significant rate (3,000-5,000 megawatts annually) in the 2030 to 2050 time frame. The task force identified major barriers to success and a comprehensive program that needs to be enacted for that vision to become a reality in its official report.

“If the country is going to have a nuclear [energy] option in 2030, it must undertake an initiative of the scope and size that this committee described,” Deutch said. “Any such initiative is going to require time, considerable federal resources, redesign of electricity markets, and sustained and skilled management.”

The report envisions four phases in which various advanced reactor designs—including both small modular and large reactor designs—are selected, developed and demonstrated over the coming decades. The report estimates that such a program would require about 25 years and $11.5 billion.

In addition to this long-term plan, the task force said that preserving existing nuclear plants is essential to meet U.S. carbon reduction goals. Wholesale electric capacity markets, preferential dispatch for renewables, exclusion of nuclear energy from renewable energy portfolios and other issues make it difficult for nuclear generators to recoup a fair value for their investment, Deutch said.

“The task force report makes several suggestions for redesign of market rate structure, but for existing plants this has to be done on a state-by-state basis,” Deutch said. “New York came to some agreement that seems to be suitable for that state … That disparity has to be addressed at a state level.”

During the Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said without a proper value for nuclear energy, there is a possibility nuclear energy could disappear as a substantial, viable contributor to the country’s energy supply.

“Nuclear doesn’t get enough credit for being carbon-free,” Alexander said. “Imagine a day when the United States is without nuclear power. That’s a day I don’t want to see in our country’s future … We need to take steps today to ensure nuclear power has a future in our country.”

Senators from both sides of the aisle said it is time for federal action on used nuclear fuel policy.

“We need to move on all tracks at the same time to solve the nuclear waste stalemate,” Alexander said. “The new Congress should take the next steps and pass the bipartisan Nuclear Waste Administration Act introduced last year.”

“I plead with the industry to help us get a permanent waste facility,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said. “And one won’t do it, there have to be a number of them.”

Alan Icenhour, associate laboratory director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, emphasized the need for a long-term pipeline of funding along with workforce training and development.

“We are partnering to enable rapid innovation. Together, we can succeed in bringing the best of our nation’s scientific understanding and engineering capabilities to bear on deploying the next generation of carbon-free nuclear energy technologies,” Icenhour said.

The industry supports a nuclear future that includes additional large light water reactors, small modular light water reactors and advanced nonlight water reactors.

“The U.S. nuclear industry can best maintain a leadership role in nuclear technology development and contribute to energy safety and security by designing and building new advanced nuclear plants, as well as enhancing the technology of our current fleet,” NEI’s Director of Federal Programs Melissa Burnison said.

Icenhour added that funding for nuclear research is fundamental to success.

“We have to first of all, decide to do it,” he said. “We have to set clear goals, we have to have a focused effort, focused research and development that will help move us along the way. It will take a public-private partnership to do this.”