Friday, September 24, 2010

The Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010

1RoscoeBartlett While many politicians like to make fun of government funding things like volcano monitoring or the study of strange insects, they usually fail to explain why the government might take an interest in such things – and usually, it’s for pretty good reasons, like getting people out of the way of an erupting volcano or trying to get a lead on a dreadful disease.

Government does a lot of similar things – and maybe some of them are silly – that fly so far under the radar that people really don’t follow them or have any idea about them. Yet many are valuable: they may have an immediate good result – keeping people and lava separate – or a long term good result – maximizing the value of an energy source.

And of course, that’s where we come in. Yesterday, the House Committee on Science and Technology passed the Nuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 2010, which commits almost $1.3 billion to nuclear energy research and development through 2013 to commercialize lab-bound technologies, taking the work of researchers and making it practical.

So what does it include? You can find the bill at as HR 5866, but here are a few interesting bits (quoted from the bill and some amendments – the latter may not be reflected at Thomas yet):

The Secretary [of Energy] shall carry out a small modular reactor program to promote the research, development, demonstration, and commercial application of small modular reactors, including through cost-shared projects for commercial application of reactor system designs. Activities may also include development of advanced computer modeling and simulation tools, by Federal or non-Federal entities, that demonstrate and validate new design capabilities of innovative small modular reactor designs.

Some of this is already happening, but the extra resources will be appreciated.

The Secretary shall conduct a fuel cycle research and development program … on fuel cycle options that improve uranium resource utilization, maximize energy generation, minimize nuclear waste creation, improve safety, and mitigate risk of proliferation in support of a national strategy for spent nuclear fuel and the reactor concepts research, development, demonstration, and commercial application program…

Sounds like a massively broad mandate, but again, there are many projects that work on these issues. This part of the act lists some of these. Here’s a taste:

(1) OPEN CYCLE- Developing fuels, including the use of non-uranium materials, for use in reactors that increase energy generation and minimize the amount of nuclear waste produced in an open fuel cycle.

(2) MODIFIED OPEN CYCLE- Developing fuel forms, reactors, and limited separation and transmutation methods that increase fuel utilization and reduce nuclear waste in a modified open fuel cycle.

(3) FULL RECYCLE- Developing technologies to repeatedly recycle nuclear waste products to minimize radiotoxicity, mass, and decay heat to the greatest extent possible.

Hmmm. That first one sounds a lot like Thorium. I was a bit dismissive of Thorium in a post a couple of weeks ago, but I’m more than willing to eat a little crow when crow is set in front of me.

The Secretary shall conduct a program to support the integration of activities undertaken through the reactor concepts research, development, demonstration, and commercial application program under section 952(c) and the fuel cycle research and development program under section 953, and support crosscutting nuclear energy concepts.

The list here includes things like advanced reactor materials; advanced catastrophic radiation mitigation methods; advanced proliferation and security risk assessment methods advanced sensors and instrumentation; and advanced nuclear manufacturing methods.

Get the sense that something has to be “advanced” to qualify here?

The Secretary shall transmit to the Congress a report summarizing quantitative risks associated with the potential of a severe accident arising from the use of nuclear power, and outlining the technologies currently available to mitigate the consequences of such an accident.

Let’s let Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland) and Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) handle this one, which they did quite handily at the session yesterday:

Mr. Bartlett: Mr. Chairman, I would like to request a colloquy to address concerns about Section 8 raised by Constellation Energy which serves many constituents in my district as well as other utilities.

Chairman Gordon: Certainly, and I would like to thank the gentleman from Maryland for sharing his concerns with the Committee.

Mr. Bartlett: Section 8 may have the unintended consequence of giving the public the inaccurate impressions that our fleet of commercial nuclear reactors aren’t safe or that emergency risk assessments are not currently required.  The United States benefits from a track record of 50 years of safe, reliable and affordable generation of electricity by commercial nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission already enforces rigorous risk assessment analyses and procedures for our civilian nuclear energy fleet. I would appreciate your willingness to address these concerns in report language.

Chairman Gordon:  I want to thank Mr. Bartlett for bringing this concern to the committee’s attention.  As I have said before, I am supportive of nuclear power as I believe it is a part of the solution to the challenges of energy independence and climate change.  The gentleman is correct that our 104 commercial reactors have run with a strong record of safety and operating efficiency.  I share your concern that Section 8 might be misinterpreted.  In light of the fact that these concerns have been brought forward only recently, I concur with your assessment that report language would be the most appropriate way to address them.  I am confident that staff from both sides will work together on the bill, as they have throughout this process, and address these concerns as we move forward to the floor.

The prototype nuclear reactor and associated plant shall be constructed at a location determined by the consortium through an open and transparent competitive selection process.

This vague language is very substantial in impact, as it sets in motion the siting and deployment of a prototype next generation nuclear plant. Doing this will, at the very least, provide assurances to industrial and financial sources going forward.

Though it may not seem apparent from the provisions, everything here is intended to achieve one or both of two goals:

The primary goals of this bill are to mitigate the problems associated with nuclear waste and reduce the capital costs of nuclear power through a robust and integrated research, development, demonstration and commercial application program.

You can decide if this is so, but I think it’s pretty on-target – and it keeps the bill focused and terse, always to be encouraged. Still a ways to go on this one, but well worth your taking a closer look to see what you think of it. You can read NEI’s press release on its passage here. The general press has not yet picked up (and for the most part, probably won’t pick up) the story.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. Bartlett has represented Maryland’s 6th district since 1993. He is the only Republican in the Maryland delegation. He is facing Democrat Andrew Duck this year, but I could not find any polls on the race. Here’s an article about Bartlett and Duck.

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