On May 17, 2016, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine the status of advanced reactor technologies. Hosted by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) the Committee Chairman and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member, the committee heard testimony from the five witnesses listed below.
- Dr. Jacob DeWitt, Co-Founder and CEO Oklo
- Dr. John Gilleland, Chief Technical Officer, TerraPower, LLC
- Mr. John L. Hopkins, Chairman and CEO, NuScale Power, LLC
- Mr. Steve Kuczynski, President, CEO, and Chairman, Southern Nuclear Operating Company
- Dr. Mark Peters, Director Idaho National Laboratory
The people arranging the hearing were seeking to receive a wide range of information. To achieve their goal, they invited a micro-reactor developer, a small modular reactor developer, an advanced liquid metal cooled reactor with a long core life, a visionary leader from a company that is currently building two advanced passive reactors, and the director of one of the premier nuclear reactor technology development national laboratories.
Missing from the invitation list was a wet-blanket witness from the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, or Greenpeace. Perhaps the organizers realized that they would not hear anything new from them; they’ve made it abundantly clear over the years that their answer to nuclear is invariably a resounding no. It never seems to matter to the naysayers that talented engineers and scientists have been successfully developing technology improvements that have made most of the opposition talking points either thin or obsolete.
There were several highlights of the hearing that I’d like to bring to your attention. Senator Angus King (I-ME) adamantly claimed to Mr. Kuczynski that the Price-Anderson Act was a significant subsidy to the nuclear industry. When Kuczynski responded that he did not consider that insurance pool to be a subsidy, Sen King said, “If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck…”
Not long after that exchange, one of my favorite Senators, Lamar Alexander, was given an opportunity to comment.
In case you are too time constrained to watch the video, here is a brief summary.
He stated that reliable nuclear generators might be the biggest beneficiary of a major electricity storage breakthrough.
He also engages in a minor rant about Senator from Maine’s claim that the Price-Anderson Act is a subsidy.
Aside: Sen Alexander was speaking quickly and off the cuff, so he can be forgiven for saying “Price-Waterhouse” and for understating the magnitude of the industry’s self insurance, which is now $13.6 billion, not the $3.75 billion as he mentioned. End Aside.
He follows quickly with his frustration with the repeated extensions of the wind energy tax credit. As Chairman of one of the most important appropriations committees in the Senate, Sen Alexander understand that the wind energy credit costs a large amount of real money that cannot be used for other purposes, like expanding the available resources for advanced energy research.
Sen King had mentioned earlier in the hearing that the extension passed at the end of 2015 included provisions for a subsidy phase out, but Sen Alexander, who’s been in the Senate for a couple of decades, reminded everyone that the subsidies have been supposed to end about a dozen times already. Every time they are supposed to end, they’ve been extended.
Sen Alexander reinforced the reason I’m a big fan of his by contrasting the $50-$100 million per year that is being spent on NuScale, a start up company developing small modular reactors with the $5 billion ($5,000 million) per year being granted to mammoth corporations like GE, Eberdrola, Vestas, Siemens and Next Era for manufacturing and installing mature wind turbines. (Note: I’ve added a few editorial modifiers to his statement.)
At the end of the hearing, Sen Murkowski, another of my favorite problem-solving Senators, addressed an issue that is important to her as the Senator from the vast and lightly populated of Alaska.
She is keenly aware of the high cost of electricity in some of her state’s remote areas. Even though Alaska is a major oil producing state, the crude oil that is extracted there is not capable of direct consumption in generators. Instead, the remote villages must pay several times the going rate for refined diesel fuel because the price has to cover the embedded transportation costs.
Sen Murkowski questioned Dr. Jacob DeWitt about his company’s micro-reactor power systems. As DeWitt explains, their 2-4 MWe power plants are specifically designed to address the needs of remote areas.
Note: Caroline Cochrane, Oklo’s co-founder, is visible in the background proudly beaming during DeWitt’s description of their joint creation.
People interested in building coalitions and ensuring a reliable, abundant energy future for the United States would do well to spend 7-21 minutes watching and then re-watching Senator Manchin (D-WV) turn to ask questions. The segment illustrates the benefit of doing homework before testifying; it seems to me like a few of the responders did not really understand Sen Manchin’s point of view and current priorities.
As the former governor and now senator from West Virginia, Sen Manchin is deeply concerned about the effects that both low natural gas prices and the overt “War on Coal” have had on numerous communities in his state. Coal is not a demon; it is a valuable store of useful fuel and raw material that can be used much more cleanly, especially in a system where nuclear energy is used to dramatically upgrade coal to higher and cleaner uses. There are many paths worth immediate study; some might already be ready for demonstration.
Red-headed step children that get no respect can to respond to years of mistreatment by bullies by working together.