House Energy and Commerce seeks to enable advanced nuclear energy

On Friday, April 29, 2016, the Energy and Power subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing to discuss H.R. 4979 and a draft discussion bill with the unfortunate acronym of NUKEPA (Nuclear Utilization of Keynote Energy Policies Act). Though at different stages of the legislative process, both documents are efforts to improve the ability of the US to design, license and deploy improved technology that takes advantage of the incredible capabilities of actinide–uranium, thorium, and plutonium–fuels.

The attendees at this hearing were overwhelmingly supportive of nuclear energy and the need to make improvements in the way that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reviews technology, charges for its services, engages in hearings, and interacts with both government and private sector nuclear technology developers.

Rep Bobby Rush (D-IL) made the following supportive opening remarks.

Mr. Chairman, as we move towards a reduced carbon, sustainable energy economy, there’s no doubt that nuclear energy will need to play an instrumental role in order to reach those objectives.

If we are to truly develop and scale up these technological advances, it is important that policy makers and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission provide regulatory certainty for the nuclear industry in order to encourage investment in these next generation nuclear designs.

Rep Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) represents the Sixteenth District in Illinois, which is the home to four operating nuclear plants, “miles of windmills”, hydropower plants, ethanol production facilities and biodiesel plants. He’s the author of the NUKEPA discussion draft; his opening statement is fairly representative of the committee’s statements.

As indicated at the end of his opening remarks, Rep Kinzinger understands the overlap between energy and national security. It wasn’t surprising to find out that he is currently serving as a Major in the Air National Guard and served active duty Air Force tours as a pilot in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rep Mike Doyle (D-PA), stated his support for both pieces of proposed legislation, though he asked Rep Kinzinger to change the name of his bill so it would cease to be called NUKE PA. Doyle’s district includes Cranberry, PA, home to Westinghouse’s world headquarters.

Rep Jerry McNerney (D-CA) is a co-sponsor of H. R. 4979. He began his opening statement as follows, “Our nation will, by necessity diminish our dependence on fossil fuels to fight climate change, and, as we do so, we will need to turn more and more to nuclear power.” Rep McNerney is one of the few members of congress who is not a lawyer; he has PhD in Mathematics, worked as an engineering contractor at Sandia National Laboratory, and founded a wind turbine manufacturing company.

I suspect that Geoffrey Fettus, Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council, felt outnumbered as the token nuclear energy opponent in the room. His opening statement questioned the need to make any changes and portrayed nuclear energy as an inherently expensive, slow, and potentially hazardous technology that has already received more than its share of support and attention. His organization objected to virtually every provision included in the two documents under review.

After making that statement, Fettus was ignored by the committee. His only remaining participation in the discussion came when he injected himself into the conversation. (1:38:32 in the archived video)

There is little doubt that the professional nuclear energy opponents will whine about the fact that there wasn’t sufficient balance at the hearing, but I believe that balance is overrated. A better objective would be pursuit of truth and positive action to enable problem solutions.

H. R. 4979, NUKEPA and the hearings held to discuss them are part of a serious, increasingly well-coordinated, multi-vector effort to help American leaders both recognize the scope of potential benefits from a growing global nuclear industry and take action that will allow the US to fully participate in that growth. Even during a low price “bust” in the traditionally boom and bust fossil fuel industry, there are excellent reasons to build the foundations needed to enable actinide energy to displace fossil fuels where appropriate.

People involved in marketing wind, solar, biomass and energy efficiency products are strongly and publicly resisting the rehabilitation of a long demonized competitor for both resources and public attention. They are defending their selectively encompassing “renewable” brand as the true solution to reducing the use of fossil fuel. They openly recognize that allowing nuclear energy to accurately describe itself as a clean alternative to fossil fuel puts their whole business model at risk.

Though the NRDC would likely protest inclusion of their organization in the category of marketers for wind, solar and energy efficiency products, the following quote from Mr. Fettus’s opening statement supports the contention.

Moreover the practical nuclear engineering and economic hurdles inherent to these technologies are such that NRDC questions whether advanced nuclear can ever be transformative – or even shoulder a small fraction of our fast evolving energy markets as we address the pressing needs of climate change. Furthermore, as an environmental advocacy organization, NRDC has concerns that advanced nuclear may serve as a distraction to the rapid, continued scale-up of existing, economically viable and proven solutions to the threat of climate change from wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies.

Dr. Todd Allen, Senior Fellow at Third Way, described some of the opportunities that could arise from a program where the federal government cooperates with and nurtures nuclear energy technology instead of serving as a high barrier to entry.

With all of the talk about the inability of the House of Representatives to function in a bipartisan way, it looks like nuclear energy might be a place where both parties can find common interests. That is heartening; the technology is too important to be supported by a single “side of the aisle.”

For those of you who are keenly interested in enabling new nuclear, I encourage taking the time to view the hearing in its entirety. For everyone else, I hope you gain the feeling that there is growing bipartisan support for smoothing the path between concept and commercialization for safe, productive, competitive nuclear energy technologies.

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