US nuclear plans on track despite partisan divides

Plans in the United States to invest heavily in nuclear R&D to prepare for the next generation of power generating technology will continue despite a chaotic political transition between increasingly polarized parties, industry insiders and bureaucrats say.

A U.S. flag flies near the cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant (Source: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Related Articles

Growth in public investment in civil nuclear power research, from the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) to small and micro modular reactors to molten-salt storage, has far outstripped most government programs over the last four years under Republican President Donald Trump but some are concerned that this drive may stall under the incoming Democrat leadership.  

“It’s easy to get really focused on the future and forget where we came from. Just five years ago, total funding for nuclear energy research was less than a billion dollars and we’re now at $1.5 billion,” Professional Staff Member for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Spencer Nelson said during a American Nuclear Society (ANS) fireside chat on Federal Policy outlook for 2021 in November. 

“The overall funding level for the DOE (Department of Energy) has not grown 50% over the last four years, but this portion has because it has been a priority.” 

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has earmarked some $42 billion for the DOE for 2021, with $1.5 billion put aside for nuclear energy research, development, and demonstration activities. That is an increase of $11.9 million above that enacted in 2020 and $325.4 million above the budget request. 

Importantly, the bill continues funding for the Advanced Reactors Demonstration Program (ARDP), which aims to develop two fully-functioning, commercially viable, advanced reactors in the next five to seven years and, in October, picked TerraPower and X-Energy to receive a total to $160 million in initial funding. 

The bill also put by $430 million, up $5 million from a year earlier, for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), which has been working on research projects deemed vital for the nuclear industry including digital twins, artificial intelligence, advanced control systems, predictive maintenance and model-based fault detection. 

“By and large, these bills are the product of bipartisan cooperation among members of the committee,” U.S. Republican Senator Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee said when unveiling the funding measures.

Bi-Partisan Support

U.S. Federal energy policy hasn’t been updated in well over a decade – a lifetime compared to the pace nuclear technology has been developing in the last few years – and bi-partisan support for the nuclear industry is vital during transition periods when both the presidency and the upper house (the Senate) is up for grabs. 

Indeed, energy policy in general is expected to morph under the new leadership with new tactics seen over international oil supplies, the relationship with OPEC, a potential return to the Paris Climate Agreement and possible bans on drilling permits on Federal lands.

On nuclear, however, both parties seem mostly in agreement.

“It’s real and for us it’s spectacular and it wasn’t always this way,” Executive Director and CEO of ANS Craig Piercy tells Reuters Events. 

“It’s happened over the last decade but it’s really come to blossom over the last four or five years when Democrats, both moderate and progressive, and also most environmental groups have done the hard math of deep decarbonization and come to conclusion that they can’t get to where they want to go and leave nuclear off the table. It’s just impossible.”

In a deeply divided political system in which both sides take polar-opposite views on any given subject, a bi-partisan compromise on nuclear power at an essential moment in the technology’s development is an opportunity for the next couple of years that must be taken full advantage of, says Piercy. 

“There is definitely going to need to be a change in policies that value the attributes of ‘clean’ as opposed to just providing tax subsidies under the lines for renewables. That’s the challenge we face,” he says. 

Cultural differences

Cultural attitudes toward climate change and the need for power-generating technology that has zero carbon emissions are also changing on both sides of the aisle as younger politicians take the helm. 

“I think that the ultimate bipartisan compromise is to say hey, if the Democrats really want to do something and enough Republicans acknowledge that we should at least do something then nuclear is the bipartisan middle ground that people can rally around, we just need the right circumstances,” says Piercy.

The tendency on the Republican right to claim that climate change, if real, is not a problem that humans can do anything about, is fading, a fact reflected in the support Republicans have given to nuclear over the last few years. 

Meanwhile, the Democrats, which will likely hold the presidency and the House of Representatives (and potentially the Senate too) for the next two to four years, and especially the more progressive arm of the party, are more wary of nuclear technology and lean more toward renewables. 

“In the house, at least on the Democratic side, there is an appetite to accept these large increases in R&D levels, but say it needs to be across the board,” Professional Staff Member for the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Alyse Huffman says during the ANS fireside chat. 

“There are a lot of progressive members that don’t like that we’re giving a lot of money to fossil and nuclear and not even close to other renewable technologies. So, for us, it’s a balancing act trying to support nuclear and fossil where this amount of money is really needed and, also, to the interests of more progressive members.” 

Uranium reserves

The allocations also include some $150 million to initiate the Uranium Reserve Program to ensure a backup supply for domestic-sourced uranium.

Uranium concentrate production in the United States

(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.) 

Some 90% of uranium fuel used in U.S. reactors is mined outside of the United States.

Production of uranium in the United States has been declining steadily since the eighties and, according to the DOE, on the verge of collapse as operators turned to less expensive imports from state-owned foreign competitors which have undercut prices while operating under less strict economic and regulatory environments. 

The reserve program is the first step in a plan to reestablish the U.S. nuclear industry and under the program the Office of Nuclear Energy would buy uranium directly from domestic mines and contract for uranium conversion services. 

The move will support the operation of a least two U.S. uranium mines, reestablish active conversion capabilities and ensure a backup supply of uranium for nuclear power operators in the event of a market disruption, the DOE says.

By Paul Day