Progressive misgivings over nuclear unlikely to derail US strategy

The new U.S. Democratic leadership is making positive noises for the continuation, and possible expansion, of the previous administration’s own beefed up nuclear strategy despite the left’s traditional aversion to the technology, say those in the industry.

Nuclear investment and research & development is expected to continue under President Biden (Source: DOE)

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In a last-ditch attempt to cement Donald Trump’s administration's advances in the nuclear power industry, the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy put out its own ‘Strategic Vision’ on Jan. 8.

The ambitious roadmap pushes for a continuation of technological advances and investigations for existing reactors, advanced reactors and advanced nuclear fuel cycles while rebuilding U.S. global leadership in nuclear energy technology.

The strategy, which some have said will likely be instantly dropped by the new administration for its own objectives, will probably be followed closely by President Joe Biden’s DOE, say others.

“The DOE’s strategic vision of nuclear is a very good compendium of where the bipartisan advanced nuclear policy making effort has been going ... it very much reflects this consensus on how we have to invest in R&D, demonstrations and lowering costs,” says CEO of the American Nuclear Society Craig Piercy.

The Trump administration, with its countless scandals and missteps, cast a politicized light over all it touched, but Piercy believes the ‘Strategic Vision’ is a rare example of a document that represents a consensus view from both ends of the political spectrum.

“I’m pleased and the community is pleased that it doesn’t appear we will be whipsawed between a Republican administration that has one set of priorities and a Democratic administration that has a different set of priorities,” he says.

Part of the enthusiasm for the document, which came shortly after Trump signed an executive order that called for a revitalization of the U.S. nuclear energy sector and on the day the DOE’s Assistant Secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy Dr. Rita Baranwal stepped down from her post, is that it doesn’t stray far from previously agreed positions.

The 36-page document begins with a foreword by Baranwal which reflects the opinions of many in the industry.

“New advanced reactor designs show enormous potential to help decarbonize energy-intensive manufacturing processes and will make nuclear more flexible and accessible than ever. Taking the reins of this emerging market will lead to more American jobs, a stronger economy, lower emissions, and a healthier environment,” she wrote.

 The two reactor designs to take part in Phase 1 of the DOE's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) (Source: U.S. Department of Energy) 

Five Goals 

The 'blueprint' lays out five goals, breaks down each into explicit objectives and lists timelines for performance indicators. 

The first, ‘Enable continued operation of existing U.S. nuclear reactors’, calls to demonstrate a scalable hydrogen generation pilot plant by 2022 and begin replacing existing fuel in U.S. commercial reactors with accident tolerant fuel by 2025.

Meanwhile, the goal to ‘Enable deployment of advanced nuclear reactors’ sticks to plans laid out in the Advanced Reactors Demonstration Program (ARDP) including to demonstrate two U.S. advanced reactor designs through cost-shared partnerships with industry by 2028. (See DOE infographic above.) 

“What you’ll find is that the major elements of that vision, in particular when you look at the goals and at least most of the longer-term objectives, are remarkably consistent with what was being pursued under the Obama administration,” says John Kotek, Vice President of policy and public affairs for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) who served as assistant secretary for nuclear energy under President Barack Obama.

“In my view you’ve seen a pretty stunning degree of continuity across administrations in the direction of the nuclear energy research program here in the United States.”

Kotek believes the previous plan for the industry will survive more-or-less intact, noting that the current drive for nuclear comes as much from Congress as it does from the President’s office.

“The ARDP was very much a creation of Congressional leadership. It wasn’t something within the President’s budget request ... I think the major themes in the ‘Vision’ document are consistently viewed as priorities for nuclear energy regardless of political party.”

Environmentalist progressives

The new administration has tagged the fight to tackle climate change as a central priority, aiming for 100% clean energy and net zero emissions by 2050 and 100% clean electricity generation by 2035, including specific mentions for SMRs and a pledge to support a research agenda, dubbed the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Climate (ARPA-C).

The ARPA-C would be a duplicate of the already existing ARPA-E project which, among other projects, will provide millions in funding to research technologies vital to the resurgent nuclear industry including digital twins, artificial intelligence, advanced control systems, predictive maintenance and model-based fault detection.

While, in the past, the word “environmentalist” has been synonymous with pure renewables/anti-nuclear activists, the latest generation of climate proponents is more open to nuclear power forming part of the mix in the phush to net zero.

The argument, as laid out by the climate lobby group Good Energy Collective, is compelling.

In order to raise the proportion of energy generated from clean sources to 100% from the roughly 35% today, the U.S. would need to add over 350, 1-GW nuclear reactors operating at 90% capacity and though, not all that energy will come from nuclear, as the economy, including transport and heating systems, decarbonizes, there is potentially a huge market for the technology.

Even one of the most progressive Democrats, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in her much touted, 'Green Deal' admitted that the plan left the door open to nuclear power.

“What we’ve seen is that progressives, especially young progressives, are not necessarily opposed to nuclear in the way that their older cohort might be, but it’s not an automatic support,” says Jessica Lovering, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director at the Good Energy Collective during a Nuclear Matters webinar to discuss Biden’s plans. 

“The climate movement and the progressives today are much more outcome focused. It’s much more about climate and reducing emissions and not necessarily this technology or that technology, it’s whatever we can do to get to zero carbon.”   

By Paul Day