by Meredith Angwin
Senator Bernie Sanders often speaks about his opposition to Vermont Yankee as having something to do with the age of the plant, the fact it is owned by Entergy, or his “state’s rights” stance about regulating nuclear power plants. Recently, however, Sanders made it clear that he is against nuclear power in any form and is proud of that opinion. On Senator Sanders website, he featured the fact that he was the only vote against “a pair of measures that would promote the development of small modular reactors.”
One of these measures was the Nuclear Power Act S512. This act would authorize the Secretary of Energy to start a cost-shared program for development of small modular reactors (SMRs).
This act had strong bi-partisan support, being sponsored by 3 Republican and 4 Democratic Senators. The act requires research and development funds for SMRs. The Act is still in committee, and does not have a dollar amount attached, but the dollar amount is likely to be small (in government terms, at least. The numbers I have seen are less than $100 million a year). The act also requires that industry cost-share the expense. If industry doesn’t think it is worth spending money on the research, the research will not receive government funding either.
As a background to the probable cost of this Act, we should note that President Obama requested $4.8 billion dollars for Department of Energy research, of which $3.2 billion is allocated for renewable energy and energy efficiency research.
Sander’s opposition to this Nuclear Power act will hurt America’s chances to develop an important new exportable technology. Outside of Europe, the nuclear renaissance remains in full swing, with reactors being ordered and built in Arabia, China, India and Southeast Asia. Developing a strong set of SMR designs would be America’s best chance to re-entering the world market for nuclear power.
SMRs are modular (assembled in a factory and delivered to the site), small (50 to 225 MW) and have many safety features, such as passive cooling. SMRs are expected to have a huge international market. They suitable for many places that do not have the population density or money for the current crop of huge reactors (1200 MW, built on site at great expense). SMRs would make nuclear power affordable and salable many places.
Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox have invested significant amounts of their own money in developing these products. The NRC is also active in assessing preliminary designs. At another Senate committee meeting on SMRs, Commissioner Magwood of the NRC said that he does not expect decisions made by the NRC to be the critical factor in the success or failure of SMRs. Magwood noted that SMRs have passive safety features and large water inventories.
America has fallen far behind the rest of the world in most nuclear technologies. Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) and Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) were developed in this country. They are being sold all over the world, but not by the United States companies. We’re out of the running. Other countries licensed and improved our original technologies. Companies from France, Korea, Russia and China compete to build large reactors in China, Arabia, and Southeast Asia.
Three American companies have put millions of dollars into the development of SMRs: Westinghouse, Babcock & Wilcox, and NuScale (a small start-up). Many people in the nuclear industry feel that the race to develop the first successful SMR is a truly high-stakes race, being fought at the level of nationwide efforts. Luckily, SMR development has bi-partisan support, and Mr. Sanders was alone in his opposition to supporting American industry efforts to develop these plants.
Of course, one can make a case that the government should get out of the energy research business altogether. If Senator Sanders wished to save tax dollars by cutting all energy-research programs, he might have a valid case. However, if the government does plan to spend money on energy research, cost-sharing with industry on a new nuclear technology is a far better use of funds than anything in the swollen DOE renewable budget is likely to be.