Utlity Dive: Bipartisan Senate support for nuclear grows with $7.5B bill to extend life of current fleet

Dive Brief:

  • A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday introduced a bill that aims to extend the life of the United States' current nuclear fleet.
  • Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., introduced the Nuclear Energy Renewal Act, which would authorize $755 million per year from 2019 to 2029 to "enhance the economic viability of the current U.S. nuclear fleet."
  • Three other nuclear bills have advanced in the past three legislative sessions. Two passed the Senate and one more, the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), advanced through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in July and now heads to the full Senate.

Dive Insight:

As cheaper resources such as wind, solar and natural gas take the energy market by storm, the operational and maintenance costs of large nuclear plants have made them less economically viable, something the Republican-controlled Senate has tried to address in recent years.

Nuclear is "an industry that I think we recognize that we've kind of stepped down our game in over the years," Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told the audience at an Energy Innovates conference last week. "And so NELA, along with the several other advanced nuclear pieces that we have moved through the committee previously, kind of helps put us in that position of leadership again."

Nuclear generator Exelon praised the bill for supporting "largest source of always available, zero-emission energy in the country."

The Nuclear Energy Renewal Act would:

  • Expand the Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program, which is focused on improving the economics, reliability and safety of current nuclear plants in order to maximize long-term operations.
  • Increase support for advanced nuclear technologies. In July, federal regulators completed the second and third phases of licensing for NuScale's small modular reactor design, considered a significant step forward for advanced nuclear technology in the U.S.
  • Establish the Nuclear Energy Research, Demonstration, and Development Program, which would expand advanced simulation tools, continue research and development on "next-generation" light water reactors, continue advanced nuclear research and establish a training and apprenticeship program to expand the nuclear workforce.

Nuclear power's dual role as a baseload and carbon-free resource has made it an increasingly bipartisan fuel of focus as pressure mounts for lawmakers to cut carbon and address climate change.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in November came out with a report that found 35% of the country's current nuclear fleet is at risk of retirement, potentially allowing carbon emissions from the power sector to rise 4%-6% by 2035. And while many environmental groups agree that policy intervention is needed to save the current fleet, they say safety should remain a key focus.

The newest bill "looks pretty much like a DOE-NE wish list," Acting Director of the Nuclear Safety Project at UCS Edwin Lyman told Utility Dive in an email."Although we haven't taken a position on it, I don't believe we would support the bill without significant changes."

Most of his initial concerns were safety related, he said.

"[E]nhancing safety and security in meaningful ways should be a fundamental aspect of any future R&D on those technologies," said Lyman. "While the bill defines 'advanced reactors' to include improvements such as 'additional inherent safety features,' many of these new designs do not really have such features, or they have other safety problems."

He said he appreciated that the bill added a provision for a panel to do a technical review for the advanced nuclear technology program, though he's "not sure its scope goes far enough. I believe every DOE nuclear energy research proposal should be rigorously peer reviewed by an independent panel to prevent money being thrown at technological dead-ends."

The bill's next step is to advance to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, a spokesperson from Sen. Coons' office told Utility Dive in an email.

By:  Catherine Morehouse
Source: Utility Dive