Whenever I go to Capitol Hill, I am encouraged by the broad and bipartisan support for nuclear energy.
Republicans and Democrats, in growing numbers, agree that sustaining the existing fleet of nuclear reactors and developing, demonstrating, and deploying next-generation reactors will create jobs, ensure reliability and resilience of the electric grid, protect the environment, and meet growing energy demands in the electricity, transportation, and manufacturing sectors.
But, as we all know, words and actions are very different things. That’s why I’m so encouraged by recent passage of the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act.
This legislation, approved overwhelmingly by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and signed Sept. 28 into law by President Trump, is a big deal — for the nuclear energy industry and for Idaho National Laboratory.
Here’s why I say that:
First, NEICA establishes the National Reactor Innovation Center. This program enables the testing and demonstration of reactor concepts that will be proposed and funded, either in full or in part, by the private sector. INL is the right location for the NRIC.
Nearly 70 years ago, the U.S. government established the National Reactor Testing Station on the Idaho desert.
The NRTS provided capabilities that drove nuclear innovation. Our predecessors built the first nuclear power plant, tested the first submarine reactor, demonstrated a self-sustaining fuel cycle, and lit up Arco, the first U.S. city to be powered by nuclear energy.
The National Reactor Testing Station is our foundation. The National Reactor Innovation Center is our future.
Second, NEICA requires the U.S. Department of Energy to determine the need for a “versatile reactor-based fast neutron source, which shall operate as a national user facility.”
Currently, the world’s only fast neutron source reactor accessible to U.S. companies and capable of performing the needed tests is located in Russia. This legislation, along with appropriations in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, kick-starts the process of filling a gaping technological hole in the U.S.
As I told a congressional committee earlier this year, I can think of no better place to build this fast neutron source reactor than on 890 square miles in the Idaho desert, at the place that provided the foundation for America’s commercial nuclear energy industry by building and operating 52 original nuclear reactors.
That’s why INL is leading the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy’s Versatile Test Reactor research and development program, an effort that will ultimately lead to a pre-conceptual design and cost estimate for a U.S. neutron source reactor.
Also in support of our NRIC vision, in the FY-19 budget, Congress allocated $100 million for advanced small modular reactor research and development, and NuScale Power and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems remain on track to operate a first-of-its-kind small modular reactor on the INL Site by 2026.
The FY-19 budget also included $20 million for a new program to develop microreactors of the kind INL plans to demonstrate in the next few years.
All of this is encouraging. But so is the process that led to these great results. In a time when Congress — and the nation as a whole — has difficulty finding common ground, nuclear energy proved its ability to bring policymakers together.
NEICA sponsors included three Republicans, Idaho U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
They came together with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (New Jersey), Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), and Richard Durbin (Illinois) to pass legislation that, along with Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s continued work on the appropriations committee, makes the future for nuclear energy very bright.