Advanced Reactors Front and Center at House Committee Hearing on Nuclear Energy

by Hogan Lovells
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The House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing February 6, 2018 to discuss the challenges facing America’s nuclear infrastructure, including advanced reactor development.  The hearing was called “DOE Modernization: Advancing the Economic and National Security Benefits of America’s Nuclear Infrastructure.” A video of the hearing can be watched here.

A background memorandum released in advance explained that the hearing would explore the following important topics:

  • National security implications associated with U.S. nuclear leadership and a domestic nuclear energy industry;
  • The outlook for domestic and international development of nuclear energy and application of nuclear technologies;
  • Challenges and opportunities regarding maintaining the components of a domestic nuclear fuel cycle; and
  • Options to develop and deploy advanced nuclear technologies

The hearing witnesses included (their statements are also provided below):

  • Mr. Art Atkins, Associate Deputy Administrator for Global Material Security, U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration: Witness Statement
  • Mr. Victor McCree, Executive Director of Operations, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Witness Statement
  • Mr. Ed McGinnis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy: Witness Statement
  • Mr. James Owendoff, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management: Witness Statement
  • Dr. Ashley Finan, Policy Director, Nuclear Innovation Alliance: Witness Statement
  • Ms. Maria Korsnick, President and CEO, Nuclear Energy Institute: Witness Statement
  • The Honorable Bill Ostendorff, Former NRC Commissioner and Distinguished Visiting Professor of National Security, U.S. Naval Academy: Witness Statement
  • Dr. Mark Peters, Director, Idaho National Laboratory: Witness Statement
  • Mr. David Trimble, Director, Government Accountability Office, Natural Resources and Environment: Witness Statement

Summary of Key Issues for Advanced Reactor Community

During his opening remarks, Full Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) noted that “[a]t root today, is a question of our nation’s capabilities not only to propel nuclear innovation generally, but to ensure an infrastructure that is critical to our economic and our national security.” He promised to align U.S. policy with a changing world: “we must recognize the world looks different than it did at the birth of the nuclear age. Consequently, we must take steps to update the relevant policies. These policies must be forward looking to enable innovation and the development and deployment of new advanced nuclear technologies.”

Once witness questioning began, the Subcommittee quickly honed in on issues facing the advanced reactor community and expressed bipartisan support for U.S. government help to develop and deploy these innovative new designs. Among the issues discussed were the following:

  • SMR commercialization and deployment schedule

The first question asked at the hearing, by Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), was on small modular reactor (SMR) commercialization and when the U.S. was going to see SMR designs being approved and deployed in the commercial sector. In response, Ed McGinnis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy explained: “We are at a tipping point,” with the U.S. leading in design development but challenged in deployment of the technologies. He went on to note that NuScale project that can be “game changing” if successfully deployed.

Last year, reactor designer NuScale submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission the first SMR reactor design certification application  in the United States. The NRC recently approved–in a first of a kind decision–that NuScale would not need a safety-related electrical power system. This means that the NRC believes the reactor can remain in a safe condition in the event it loses electricity. Currently, all nuclear power plants in the U.S. have safety-related electrical power systems. And the fact that NuScale does not need one is a testament to the inherent different nature of SMRs—and the first time the NRC has recognized as such during its review of an application.

On that front, Victor McCree, the NRC’s Executive Director of Operations, explained during the hearing that the NRC’s decision about NuScale reflects a “philosophical” change that will lead to more efficient and effective reviews. Mr. McCree continued on to explain that an NRC approval of the NuScale design would open the market in a way that large reactors cannot, including by being more affordable and improving grid reliability. Mr. McGinnis further explained that with a number of large-scale reactors facing shutdown, getting SMRs into the pipeline is an imperative, and among other things, DOE was working on integrating SMRs with wind turbines and solar plants. With SMRs versatility and fast ramp up ability, Mr. McGinnis explained, SMRs could be paired with renewables to firm up their intermittent power and delivery of emissions free power.

  • Concern with amount of DOE funding to support SMR commercialization and deployment

Several members expressed concern that—with less than US$30 million invested in advanced reactors—whether DOE is really pushing for commercialization of SMRs. In response, Mr. McGinnis noted that a lot of work was being performed at the national labs and DOE continues to work on deployment matters.

  • High-assay LEU and Test Reactors

Mr. McGinnis from DOE also explained that DOE was working towards development of a fast neutron reactor and growing a capacity for high-assay LEU. Mr. McGinnis acknowledged that next-generation nuclear innovators need a test reactor, which itself would require high-assay LEU. He added that NNSA is taking seriously the challenge of developing a high-assay LEU capacity for testing and eventual industry use.

  • Deployment of US SMRs overseas

A number of members asked about deployment of US SMRs abroad. In response, Mr. McGinnis remarked that a number of countries are interested in U.S. SMR designs and watching their progress. He remarked that the U.S. is the world expert in designing SMRs, and that if the U.S. was able to prove the technology domestically it would open up the international market. The hearing participants also discussed ways to speed up the U.S. nuclear export approval process. On that last point, Congressman Bill Johnson (R-OH) noted that he intended to introduce legislation soon to improve the export control authorization process. At the end of 2017, Chairman Upton and Congressman Johnson sent a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry saying that the slow pace of DOE authorizations for commercial nuclear energy exports is having harmful consequences for U.S. competitiveness and national security. “While DOE is in the process of implementing some targeted reforms, more work remains to accelerate agency decision-making so that our domestic nuclear technology leaders have timely answers necessary to compete effectively with other nations’ nuclear programs,” the letter said.

  • NRC fee reform

When asked about if the NRC is undergoing reviews of its fee structure and looking for ways to improve methodology especially when non-LWR reactors look for licensing, Mr. McCree confirmed that the NRC is looking at this issue.

With a flurry of attention on advanced reactors lately, the hearing brings welcome attention the advanced reactor community needs.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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