Promising signs for energy policy after a long winter

Promising signs for energy policy after a long winter
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Growing among the weeds of Congress’ policy garden are a few sprouts of nuclear energy legislation that, if properly tended to, could lead to the blossoming of America’s carbon-free and high-tech future.

On May 24, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a 2019 spending bill that included both language on, and money for, nuclear energy research, which could help reanimate an industry that has been trapped in an overly long winter.

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The Obama years were not kind to the nuclear power industry. Nuclear power was excluded from the $100 billion in tax credits spent on competing wind and solar technologies. It bore the competitive brunt of historically cheap natural gas prices and endured the adverse attention brought about by the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

 

The number in the fiscal year 2019 — $55 million — may seem small. The funding will go toward building a new advanced test reactor and designing a facility to turn spent nuclear fuel from U.S. Navy submarines into reusable fuel for advanced nuclear reactors. But these investments could be exactly what are needed to develop more than a dozen U.S.-based reactor designs that could bring advanced nuclear concepts to market by the mid-2020s.

Investors are considering several truly revolutionary reactor concepts, including molten-salt and metallic-fuel reactors, which will dramatically improve safety, consume existing nuclear waste and cost much less to build than conventional heavy-water reactors. Many of the reactor proposals are also much smaller than current nuclear plants and can be built in factories placed in remote locations without access to an electric grid.

Such technology represents an improved investment profile relative to the only nuclear plant currently being built. The Vogtle plant in Georgia was initially estimated to cost $14 billion in 2008 but may now cost $23 billion to complete by 2021. These cost overruns will mostly be passed on to Georgia’s electricity customers.

In contrast to the usual gridlock many bills have faced on Capitol Hill, the House Rules Committee has promised quick action on the appropriation bill during the first week of June, signaling that nuclear power has become a less controversial and more bipartisan issue than during past Congresses. The bipartisan attention may represent the end of a period of neglect that viewed nuclear energy as irrelevant to America’s most important climate goals and ignored America’s vital role in policing nuclear non-proliferation around the world.

Indeed, the U.S. nuclear industry’s chief competitors in China and Russia are using their domestic state-run nuclear industry as tools of statecraft. A sickly domestic nuclear industry threatens to lock the United States out of markets throughout the Middle East in the coming years, with potentially dire consequences if U.S. proliferation norms are no longer followed.

With a modicum of federal help, the industry could regain some lost ground. It will all depend on whether Congress continues tending its garden through the summer.

William Murray is federal energy policy manager at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group that works to promote limited government.