home Nuclear Attitude, U Forget ‘Oppenheimer’ — nuclear power is having its moment in Washington

Forget ‘Oppenheimer’ — nuclear power is having its moment in Washington

The big wins for “Oppenheimer” at Sunday’s Academy Awards are not the only attention the nuclear industry has experienced in recent days.

Hollywood’s “Oppenheimer” dominated at the Oscars — renewing calls for reducing the threat of nuclear weapons worldwide — but a different kind of nuclear energy is gaining momentum in Washington.

Freshly passed legislation and new rules from the Biden administration are putting teeth behind a renewed bipartisan push for nuclear power, which has suffered major setbacks in recent decades despite advocates’ repeated predictions over the years that the industry was on the brink of a renaissance.

The bipartisan support for nuclear power in today’s divided Washington has been well-documented, especially given its potential importance as a carbon-free energy source that can aid the fight against climate change. But that hasn’t necessarily translated to concrete policy progress for an industry that has hit hurdle after hurdle.

The lone project with a license for an advanced reactor was canceled last year. In Georgia, an effort to build the nation’s first new commercial power reactors in more than three decades has suffered long delays and ballooning costs. And Monday marked the 13th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that set off the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan, an event that caused severe setbacks for the industry in countries such as Germany.

But now, the policy stasis could finally be changing, as Congress injects billions of dollars and modernizes regulations that advocates have long said are needed to move the industry into the future.

“There’s a feeling of optimism within the industry, that things are finally lining up,” said Lesley Jantarasami, managing director of the energy program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank that has supported efforts to expand advanced nuclear development.

Growing opportunities for advanced nuclear power “has a lot of us in the clean energy field really excited,” she said, adding that “it’s one of those missing pieces of the clean energy portfolio where we need firm clean power to provide that backup to wind and solar.”

The big wins for “Oppenheimer” at Sunday’s Academy Awards are not the only attention the nuclear industry has experienced in recent days.

President Joe Biden on Friday signed into law the fiscal 2024 spending bill for the Energy Department and several other agencies, which includes $2.7 billion for DOE to boost domestic uranium production. The funding was a rare point of widespread agreement between Democrats and Republicans, and exceeds a request for $2.2 billion the White House made last year — using money repurposed from the bipartisan infrastructure law.

The funds are on top of new authorities for domestic uranium production that Congress provided in the Nuclear Fuel Security Act, which made it into last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. That law created new programs at DOE to provide incentives for production of the fuel — known as high-assay, low-enriched uranium — that will be critical for advanced reactors but is largely produced in Russia. DOE has moved quickly to implement the law, and on Friday moved to begin evaluating proposals for HALEU enrichment contracts.

Biden’s proposed budget released Monday seeks to build further momentum for nuclear energy, requesting $150 million to use small quantities of HALEU for advanced reactor demonstrations. Combined with the fiscal 2024 appropriations funding to procure HALEU and low-enriched uranium and a long-term ban on imports from Russia due to its war in Ukraine, the White House said the funding should prompt “sufficient private sector investment to reinvigorate U.S. uranium enrichment and reduce America’s current dependence on Russian imports.”

Separately, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill last month, H.R. 6544 (118), that would streamline the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing process for advanced reactors, including through lowering application fees, ramping up agency staffing and allowing a shorter environmental review for some reactors. That largely aligns with the ADVANCE Act, which has widespread support in the Senate, and sponsors of both bills have expressed confidence that the chambers can reach a compromise this year.

The minibus that became law Friday also includes $100 million for the NRC to boost nuclear workforce training, though it keeps NRC’s appropriation roughly flat — even as the agency faces staffing shortages.

The NRC earlier this month issued a significant re-write to its “Part 53” proposal — a rule aimed at speeding up the licensing process for the small nuclear reactors that many see as the industry’s future. The new proposal is far more aggressive in updating the regulations after lawmakers and industry criticized a previous staff proposal they said was insufficient to propel advanced nuclear project development.

“The commission’s vote on part 53 could have significant benefits for enabling licensing of advanced reactors in the near term,” said Adam Stein, director of the nuclear innovation program at research group The Breakthrough Institute.

Although new nuclear developers won’t be able to use Part 53 for a while given it’s still in progress, many may use its provisions as guidance to inform their reactor designs and applications moving forward “assuming that it follows the direction the commissioners voted on,” Stein said.

Congress is still considering a ban on Russian uranium imports, H.R. 1042 (118), which the House passed last year but has been held up in the Senate over an unrelated dispute. Democrats and DOE have been more hesitant about that proposal, worrying that the U.S. lacks enough domestic capacity to cut off Russian supplies.

An analysis by center-left think tank Third Way found that an immediate ban on Russian imports could create a “substantial” gap in the supply the U.S. needs to fuel its current and future fleet.

“The U.S. currently meets a third of our specific demand,” said Rowen Price, policy adviser for nuclear energy at Third Way. “Now, there have been increases by several western enrichers so we are going to see increased capacity in the next several years, but we feel we’ll need more than that.”

Federal and state regulators must also weigh how long to keep the fleet of aging nuclear reactors running, which provide reliable clean power but have long drawn objections from some environmentalists.

The NRC is considering a particularly contentious proposal to keep Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear power plant, open for another 20 years. But the plan also faces challenges at the state level.

Source: Politico