April 21, 2016

Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Bipartisan Advanced Nuclear Energy Bill

Whitehouse Calls for Better Licensing Process for Advanced Nuclear Reactors to Drive American Innovation, Repurpose Nuclear Spent Fuel, and Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Washington, D.C. – The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety held a hearing on advanced nuclear reactors and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI) bipartisan Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) today.  Whitehouse introduced NEIMA last week with Senators James Inhofe (R-OK), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Mike Crapo (R-ID).  The bill would overhaul licensing of advanced reactors, which have the potential to produce reliable, emission-free energy, while adhering to existing safety standards and producing less nuclear waste than current technologies.  The emission-free nature of nuclear technology would reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuel energy and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.

“The sense that I have and that brought me to this conversation is that the approval process at NRC is an obstacle course that is designed for a particular kind of technology—but is not well-suited to technologies that aren’t that technology,” said Whitehouse during the hearing. “We do have new technologies that are emerging.  They have enormous promise for a carbon-constrained world.  We have done in America a lot of the leadership design for them, but if we can’t get them through a process to where they’re actually creating electrons, then we haven’t done ourselves any good.”

Building a nuclear reactor in the United States requires a construction and operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to ensure the new facility meets federal safety and security standards.  The NRC’s current licensing framework for nuclear reactors is geared toward the standard “light water” reactor technology, which produces large quantities of energy but can also present safety, waste disposal, and other challenges.  Newer technologies—such as thorium and traveling wave reactors—have the potential to produce substantial quantities of energy more efficiently and with fewer of the drawbacks associated with light water reactors.

NEIMA would direct the NRC to develop a new, optional licensing process for advanced non-light water nuclear reactors within the Commission’s existing regulatory frameworks.  Later, it would put in place frameworks that would make licensing more efficient, flexible, and predictable for advanced reactor technologies while maintaining the NRC’s safety and security missions.  It would also allow the NRC to adjust its regulations as these technologies continue to be developed.  The bill would authorize a new cost-share grant program at the Department of Energy that would help the first acting advanced reactor technologies to pay for some of the licensing reviews at NRC.  Finally, it would establish new transparency and accountability measures for the NRC fee recovery structure and recommend limits on the Commission’s corporate support costs.  

Witnesses at the hearing included:

  • Victor McCree, Executive Director of Operations, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • The Honorable Jeffrey S. Merrifield, Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council Advanced Reactor Task Force
  • Maria Korsnick, Chief Operating Officer, Nuclear Energy Institute
  • Dr. Ashley Finan, Ph.D., Project Director, Nuclear Innovation Alliance
  • Christina A. Back, Division Director, Inertial Fusion and Advanced Fission, General Atomics
  • Edwin Lyman, PhD, Senior Scientist, Global Security Program, Union of Concerned Scientists

NEIMA has the support of nuclear leaders like the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, ClearPath Action, NuScale Power, Hybrid Power Technologies, Third Way, Gen4 Energy, Terrestrial Energy USA, American Nuclear Society, Tri Alpha Energy, the Transatomic Power Corporation, the Next Generation Nuclear Plant Industry Alliance, and Entergy.

Earlier this year, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to adopt legislation cosponsored by Whitehouse that would increase collaboration among private industry, universities, and national laboratories to facilitate the development of advanced nuclear technologies.  That measure—the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act—was approved as an amendment to a broader energy bill that passed the Senate this week.


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