WASHINGTON (CN) – Sprawling nuclear energy plants may one day be replaced by much smaller modules for a fraction of the cost and will likely feature combination reactors powered by wind or solar energy, representatives from the Department of Energy told Congress Tuesday.
Saying the U.S. is at a “tipping point” for the future development of its nuclear energy fleet, Ed McGinnis, the Energy Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary, told members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee the ability of the nation to bring “new reactors into the pipeline” will be a critical component for U.S. energy independence in the future.
One company, NuScale Power, McGinnis told lawmakers, is already designing sleek steel reactors which consume less fuel and less energy and therefore, operate at far less risk, he said.
The modules can be built in factories and easily transported and McGinnis said the feedback he has received from Congress long before Tuesday’s hearing has been encouraging.
In January, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled NuScale reactor design is safe enough that emergency backup systems typical to traditional reactors won’t be needed with their modern invention. Costly emergency pumps will also become a thing of the past, the commission found.
NuScale currently has plans for small modular reactors in nine locations in California. Beyond California, in 19 states, NuScale has plans for 47 projects underway.
“They have the promise of being the first advanced small modular reactor fleet in the country,” McGinnis said, adding small reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory are on track to open in 2026.
“As opposed to an $8 billion [conventional nuclear reactor] unit, you’re looking at a unit that costs about $1 billion to $1.5 billion for the base plant plus just $350 or $450 million added to it after that,” he said.
Altogether, since 2013, the Department of Energy has invested $226 million in NuScale.
Approximately 447 commercial nuclear power plants produce 10 percent of the world’s electricity, the Department of Energy reports. In the U.S., 99 operating nuclear power plants generate approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs.
According to a forecast by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, global nuclear capacity will grow at an average annual rate of 1.6 percent between 2016 and 2040. That progress will be predominately led by countries outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a multinational group which collaborates on projects driving development throughout the world.
China and India are expected to lead the world in nuclear energy growth. The U.S., on the other hand, only has two new nuclear reactors under construction currently, with a number of other projects on pause or lacking the critical licenses to continue operations.
“Frankly, the U.S. is still a leader in design development of advanced reactors, bar none. We’re challenged in the deployment, that’s for sure, but in regard to advanced reactors, we’re leading,” he said.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., pressed Art Atkins, the energy department’s deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration, for his perspective on whether or not the department’s ambitions aligned with the DOE’s current budget requests.
“Resources have not always kept pace for need for modernization to ensure facilities are safe, reliable and that stockpiles are maintained. We have increased our budget request since 2015 so we can work on the backlog of deferred maintenance. In 2016 and 2017, we were able to stop the increase of deferred maintenance,” Atkins said.
Addressing environmental liabilities around nuclear plants is also a costly task, noted James Owendoff, the deputy assistant secretary at the Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management.
“Half of our budget goes toward maintaining safe conditions with radioactive materials at our facilities. With the balance of funds, we utilize those in the highest risk areas,” he said.
Keeping up on the global nuclear energy infrastructure stage could call for a revision of the Energy Department’s current uranium management plan, as well, McGinnis told lawmakers.
“We are towards the tail end of revising [the plan] and intend to put it out a notice into Federal Register for public input,” he said.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., said he was encouraged to hear of so many changes poised to transform the nation’s energy infrastructure but when reviewing the FY2018 budget request, it featured a $238 million cut from 2016 levels.
“The request went from just under a billion to $730 million. I appreciate the emphasis on early stage research and development opening advanced nuclear up, but the testimony and budget seem contradictory,” Doyle said.
“Our final request will be rolled out next week,” McGinnis said.
Where the private and public sector can find common ground for projects like NuScale, McGinnis repeated his enthusiasm. But from the federal side, more must still be done to push the U.S. ahead of international competitors.
“We could be doing more from the federal side,” McGinnis noted.