Bipartisan senators seek to revive nuclear energy investment
- Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced a nuclear energy bill with a group of bipartisan senators Thursday, seeking more action from the Department of Energy (DOE) in support of advanced nuclear energy goals.
- The bill would extend the maximum length for federal power purchase agreements (PPA) from 10 years to 40, to accommodate the long life and costs of nuclear plants.
- The bill also seeks to enhance federal investment in the nuclear industry, establishing facilities to test and develop advanced nuclear reactors and to develop domestic capabilities to produce the type of uranium needed for advanced reactors.
While nuclear advocates are already lauding the ambitious scope of the bill, it may not have much chance to pass based on other policy priorities this late into the legislative session.
"But it will definitely be a top priority for us next year and shows very solid bipartisan momentum for advanced nuclear," Darren Goode, spokesperson for the conservative consulting group ClearPath, wrote Utility Dive via email.
ClearPath supports advanced nuclear reactor development and the group's president, Jay Faison, recently penned a piece with Murkowski regarding the need for nuclear energy in rural communities.
"Whether it gets done in this session or it gets reintroduced the next session, directionally, I think it's a key message from the congress to the executive branch," Chris Colbert, chief strategy officer for the advanced nuclear developer NuScale Power, told Utility Dive.
NuScale is the closest company to commercial deployment of a small modular reactor in the U.S., with the first plant to use NuScale technology scheduled to be online in 2026, Colbert said. The PPA extension would "clearly help with near-term deployment for the NuScale plant," he said. The plant will have a 60-year life, making the possibility of a 40-year PPA "that much stronger to help with the project."
The bill seeks to extend PPAs since more than a decade is needed to pay for the initial capital costs for nuclear reactors. Besides creating an extension for federal PPAs, the bill directs the DOE to partner with industry and purchase a longer-term nuclear PPA as part of a pilot program to use the new technology to increase reliability and resilience for critical grid assets.
The plant using NuScale technology, under development at the Idaho National Laboratory, is a testament to the importance of federal funding, research and development. Republican Idaho Sens. James Risch and Mike Crapo co-sponsored the bill and praised the ongoing work in their statements.
"The research and advances in nuclear energy being achieved by the experts at Idaho National Lab will be supported well into the future under this legislation," Crapo said in a statement.
The bill directs the DOE to establish specific advanced nuclear reactor R&D goals and a 10-year strategic plan for the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy to meet those goals, while also creating an education program to help meet nuclear energy workforce needs.
Another aspect of the bill addresses two gaps in advanced nuclear research capabilities: the lack of a fast neutron-capable research facility, to test reactor fuels and materials, and the lack of domestic production of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU). Many advanced reactors would rely on the latter, prompting the senators to ask for a DOE program to provide HALEU from federal stockpiles until a supply is developed.
If the bill does not reach the Senate floor, the intention and bipartisan support, including from Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., could prompt the DOE to take actions on its own to promote advanced nuclear energy.
Already, "there's a lot of flexibility in the executive branch and the agencies to start, you know, moving forward in that way," Colbert said.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the types of technology and clarify the level of deployment for the new advanced nuclear energy plant at Idaho National Lab. The plant, a small modular reactor, is under development as part of a commercial deployment using NuScale technology.
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