Pro-nuclear lawmakers and industry allies are eyeing the Senate defense authorization bill, which the chamber is expected to debate this week, as a pathway for a measure aimed at accelerating the development of modern reactors.
A bipartisan group of senators led by Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, argue that advanced reactors can provide clean, reliable and affordable energy to military bases and remote communities, and play an important role in national security.
Murkowski's office said she filed an amendment to the Senate's NDAA to add to it the nuclear legislation that she and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. introduced last year. That legislation also was included in her ambitious energy bill that compiled more than 50 energy-related measures. The measure stalled in March after it couldn't get past a procedural hurdle.
“Our economy and national security greatly benefit from nuclear energy,” Murkowski told CQ Roll Call through an aide. “As a safe, reliable, and zero-emissions energy source, it can power military bases, remote communities, and more all across the country. A skilled civilian nuclear energy sector will also enhance our national defense mission.”
The nuclear legislation aims to accelerate the development of modern generators as a clean energy source, including by encouraging public-private partnerships and bolstering funding for nuclear energy research.
In a joint letter last week, 44 industry groups and think tanks urged Senate Armed Services Committee leaders to include the nuclear energy measure in the NDAA.
They wrote that the nuclear bill would “accelerate the commercialization of a new generation of nuclear reactors that are designed to provide energy in multiple ways beyond traditional large-scale nuclear electricity production.”
“With China and Russia now developing and exporting advanced reactors to strategically significant countries throughout the world, it is critical that the U.S. reassert leadership in this geopolitically important field,” the groups wrote in their June 24 letter.
Every year, the NDAA attracts unrelated amendments from several lawmakers, some simply meant to highlight a message. But nuclear proponents argue there is a strong relation between nuclear energy and national security.
“There are enough connections between the aims and the goals of the civilian nuclear enterprise and the mission and the goals of the military,” said Jackie Kempfer, climate and energy policy adviser at Third Way, a center-left think tank.
The United States, Kempfer said, was once a leader in nuclear technology but has over the last two decades ceded that dominance to Russia and China. She said Murkowski’s legislation would help the country regain its lost ground.
“A robust civilian nuclear industry is critical to U.S. nonproliferation leadership and when we're leading in nuclear technology and exports, we can really hold other countries to a high standard on security and safeguards requirements,” Kempfer told CQ Roll Call.
As lawmakers concerned about energy-related carbon emissions have struggled to find consensus on solutions, there has been a growing bipartisan acceptance of nuclear as a clean energy option.
Nine of the 22 cosponsors of Murkwoski’s nuclear bill are Democrats. The bill was also introduced in the 115th Congress but didn’t get a floor vote. A companion bill in the House introduced by Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., has not received a committee markup.
Nuclear contributed about 8 percent of the U.S. energy consumption last year, according to the Energy Information Administration. The industry is struggling with an aging fleet. Nuclear reactors in the U.S. are on average almost 40 years old and the cost of building new nuclear stations is prohibitive. The industry is also plagued by the stigma of the 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Murkowski and industry allies are pushing for advanced nuclear technologies, which they argue are smaller, safer and will provide clean and affordable baseload energy to military installations and communities across the country.
“America has held a nuclear innovation tradition since the first defense nuclear reactors during World War II and the early Cold War buildup,” Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath Action, which advocates for conservative clean energy ideas., said in a news release. The Murkowski-Booker bill "would serve as the next big nuclear innovation catalyst.”