Nuclear, Reactors

Administration Supports Nuclear Resurgence

Issue 6 and Volume 106.

By John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E., Contributing Editor

The Bush Administration has submitted its Fiscal Year 2003 budget for the Department of Energy (DOE). The bad news is that the total amount requested for nuclear activities is 15 percent less than last year’s budget. The good news is that next year’s budget includes funding for both the Nuclear Power 2010 initiative and Generation IV reactor research. These two programs, respectively, provide the impetus for new nuclear power plants in the U.S. by the year 2010, and the basis for advanced reactor designs to be in place after 2030.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham described the Nuclear Power 2010 initiative in a speech earlier this year at the Global Nuclear Energy Summit. The Secretary noted that finding appropriate plant sites is the first step toward having new nuclear plants on-line by 2010. DOE announced that it will work with both Exelon and Dominion Resources to perform site-scoping studies; and in May, Exelon chose the existing Clinton plant site as its first candidate for future expansion. DOE will share the “first of its kind” risk of exercising the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) site evaluation process. In addition to examining potential utility-owned sites, the companies will also evaluate sites on DOE property at Savannah River, S.C., Portsmouth, Ohio, and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). The DOE budget for 2003 includes $46.5 million to fund this early site approval program, as well as to begin a project that will culminate in the first test of the NRC’s new combined construction permit/operating license process.

The added funding for these nuclear power initiatives comes at the expense of the nuclear plant optimization program, which was funded at $6.5 million last year, and the advanced nuclear medicine initiative, which had $2.5 million in last year’s budget. Also, the Nuclear Energy Research Initiatives program will continue to fund ongoing research projects, but will not add any new ones next year, for savings of $17 million. Finally, DOE is requesting only $18 million for spent fuel pyroprocessing and transmutation work next year, as opposed to more than $77 million in the 2002 budget.

In his remarks introducing the Administration’s Nuclear Power 2010 initiative, Secretary Abraham also expressed strong support for a cooperative effort between DOE, private industry and foreign governments to fully develop advanced nuclear technologies. He specifically mentioned the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) and the Gas Turbine Modular Helium Reactor as two prime candidates. The Secretary announced that a joint research program is already underway at INEEL and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to establish the practicality of these technologies. That is, the research is directed toward making these designs licensable for construction in the U.S. It is not yet clear if Exelon’s withdrawal from the PBMR program, subsequent to the Secretary’s remarks, will have any impact on DOE’s commitment to future joint research on that technology.

In an interesting twist, the Secretary mentioned that DOE is especially committed to funding research in high-temperature gas-cooled reactor designs because of the potential for using them off-peak to “drive the thermochemical processes needed to generate large quantities of hydrogen.” This would shake hands with the DOE program to reduce U.S. dependency on imported oil by promoting development of hydrogen as a transportation fuel.

Experience has taught us that many unexpected pitfalls show up when trying to commercialize an entirely new technology. Up to now, the only successful nuclear designs have been those that are evolutionary improvements to existing designs. However, government research programs originated those first “existing technologies” for defense purposes. The DOE 2003 budget recognizes this issue. It provides funds for high-risk, innovative technologies as well as for more down-to-earth purposes. The 2010 program addresses the immediate practical problems associated with building a new commercial nuclear power plant, using the new licensing processes. The Generation IV program then aims to evolve the current plant designs into even safer, more-efficient, more-economical, and more publicly-acceptable versions of today’s light water reactors. In addition, DOE is supporting research on the PBMR and other revolutionary technologies because of their potential to address several of the country’s energy needs at the same time. This is high-risk research – research that private companies are unwilling to fully support on their own.

In his speech to the Global Nuclear Energy Summit, Secretary Abraham uttered what might be the most encouraging words U.S. nuclear power advocates have heard from official government sources in more than a decade. He said, “We cannot ignore either the benefits or the significant challenges posed by nuclear power. I believe that the U.S. government has a clear role to help remove the barriers to an expanded role for nuclear power in this country.”

In addition to these encouraging words, the proposed DOE budget puts the Administration’s money where its mouth is. Let’s hope Congress doesn’t screw things up.