Policy

Energy Panel Advances Bills to Support New Nuclear Plants

Bills will help maintain nuclear in the domestic electricity mix, lawmakers say

Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy, says the bills will help establish a coherent and defined federal nuclear policy. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A quartet of bills meant to ease the path to commercialization of new nuclear reactors moved out of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Thursday.

The bills are intended to speed up Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing for so-called advanced reactors, including smaller units, and to spur a domestic fuel supply. Lawmakers have proposed the bills as a way to help nuclear retain its place in a domestic electricity mix increasingly powered by natural gas and cheap renewable sources, such as wind and solar.

“While individual states have taken steps to preserve specific nuclear power plants, the underlying intellectual and industrial nuclear infrastructure is at risk of further atrophy in the absence of a coherent and defined policy from the federal government,” Energy Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan said. “The bills today take important steps to establish that policy.”

Among the four bills, the subcommittee advanced along party lines, 20-13, a discussion draft that would set a 30-day decision timeline for Energy Department authorization decisions about exporting nuclear technologies to non-nuclear weapon countries. Republicans saw the measure as important to enabling U.S. nuclear companies to better compete in the global marketplace as China and Saudi Arabia, among other countries, look to ramp up the deployment of nuclear power.

“We should recognize that foreign governments’ support for expansion of their nuclear industries into new markets is driven by more than economic interests: There are profound national security and strategic implications for dominance in the civil nuclear space,” Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon said.

While Democrats expressed general support for the ideas behind the bills, they expressed fears that strict timelines for decisions could shortcut reviews and affect public safety. The main issue they cited was the expedited export authorizations, known as Part 810, for fear of proliferation of nuclear materials that could be used in weapons technology.

“I am uncomfortable with expediting the review process for Part 810 at a time when there is so much global uncertainty with regard to nuclear proliferation,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the full committee. “We can’t let industry financial interests trump our national security needs.”

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Lawmakers by voice vote advanced a bill that would waive NRC user fees for some so-called advanced reactor infrastructure and construction license applications while changing the fee collection structure for existing plants. The legislation could help control costs and timelines of the NRC application process as it considers technology that has not appeared before regulators, bringing uncertainty.

The subcommittee also moved two other bills by voice vote. One bill would direct DOE to provide financial assistance to develop and license transportation package designs for the shipment of high-assay low enriched uranium, a reactor fuel feedstock lower in the percentage of the enriched uranium-235 isotope.

The second bill would direct a report from DOE about a pilot program to site, construct and operate micro-reactors at critical national security locations.

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