New legislation to empower next-generation nuclear energy
December 7, 2015 (Source: The Hill) — November 30 to December 15, France hosts the United Nations Climate Change Conference (orCOP21), which will aim to create an international agreement designed “to keep global warming below 2˚C.” To do this, nations will need to enact stricter regulations, deploy existing clean technologies, and invest more heavily in green energy technologies. Billionaires have also expressed interest in this initiative, with Bill Gates leading the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to invest billions in clean-energy research.
Much of the investment side has focused on wind and solar, though nuclear has recently garnered more attention despite increased skepticism after the Fukushima disaster. China and India, for example, have signaled their commitment to expand nuclear energy. By doing so, they hope to drastically increase their energy production capabilities, without increasing carbon emissions.
The president has long touted the benefits nuclear energy can provide, which prompted the launch of a new Department of Energy (DOE) Program that assists nuclear scientists, laboratories, and small businesses experimenting with nuclear energy designs. This complements the recent NRC approval of the Watts Bar power plant, expected to go online in 2016.
Now, the leaders of the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology have introduced HR4084, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act. Introduced by Energy Subcommittee Chairman Randy Weber (R-Texas), and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), and Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) of the full Committee, this bipartisan bill directs the DOE to prioritize research and development (R&D) infrastructure in a way that benefits private sector investment into advanced reactor technologies.
The bill provides the opportunity to bolster public-private partnership among nuclear scientists. One major provision supports technology transfer from the National Laboratories to the private sector. A second one enables the private sector to partner with said National Laboratories for the purpose of analyzing novel reactor concepts.
This can have potentially profound implications on nuclear fission and fusion research. For one, fission scientists can better address the waste issue that has troubled environmental groups for so long. Private companies have already begun experimenting with alternative reactor designs that would create substantially less waste or recycle waste altogether. A public-private partnership could accelerate R&D of these types of reactors, meaning the public could witness safer and more efficient reactors in a much shorter time span.
Another provision aims to develop enhanced computational software through public-private partnerships as well. Programs, such as NEAMS, are crucial to the research process by providing researchers the opportunity to run simulations on high-power computers before the experiment. This lowers costs and reduces the time for testing different reactor concepts while also increasing efficiency. Considering the resources needed to build reactors, this could amount to hundreds of millions in savings as well as years saved in construction and testing time.
The bill also calls for the establishment of a versatile reactor-based fast neutron source, and for the Secretary of Energy to consult with both the public and private sectors to ensure this facility will accommodate the needs of its users.
Providing a fast neutron source will improve the efficiency of reactors, creating less waste and reducing costs. Thus, this provision gives researchers more flexibility in creating new advanced reactor designs. Without it, scientists and engineers will have to either use older designs or acquire a better neutron source through their own funds.
Lastly, the act calls for the Secretary of Energy to carry out a program that thoroughly analyzes reactor concepts proposed by the private sector. With the assistance of experts in various Federal agencies and National Laboratories, private firms will obtain additional input on novel reactor concepts. This will increase the efficacy and efficiency of the reactors in addition to improving their safety. Furthermore, collaborating with experts could expedite the construction process since it would become easier to find and address any technical issues.
The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act improves public-private cooperation among nuclear scientists in various spheres. It gives ample opportunity for both fission and fusion scientists, both of whom would benefit from technology sharing, access to enhanced software, a better neutron source, and additional expert input.
The House and Senate should pass this bipartisan bill. While it does not serve as the end point, it is a stepping-stone for establishing energy security and independence. Therefore, the next administration should continue to pursue nuclear fission and fusion energy by increasing federal funding and assisting the private sector as much as possible. Not only would this strengthen our role in addressing climate change, but it would also boost our economy by providing countless jobs in a rapidly changing energy sector.
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