US DOE seeks increase in commercial r&d programme

28 February 1998

The Department of Energy asked Congress in early February to reverse years of decline in federal spending for commercial nuclear R&D in fiscal year 1999, which begins 1 October.

The proposed budget, submitted to Congress by Energy Secretary Frederico Peña, calls for DOE to spend $361 million on nuclear R&D in the next fiscal year, an increase of $56.2 million over the amount appropriated in the current fiscal year.

If Congress concurs, DOE would begin several new initiatives. One of them would be the $24 million Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI) aimed at encouraging universities, national laboratories and industry to conduct research on advanced nuclear energy concepts and technologies. The major goals would be to increase the reliability and safety of nuclear fuel, reduce the rate of spent fuel generation, improve capacity factors, and renew the licences of existing nuclear power plants. NERI would also conduct research to find ways to apply DOE-developed technologies to reduce the storage, transportation and repository costs of spent fuel.

Another new DOE initiative, called the Nuclear Plant Optimisation (NEPO), would involve a cost-sharing programme with EPRI to address nuclear plant licence extension and other issues. DOE wants to provide $10 million for NEPO in FY’99.

Last year, Congress rejected a similar proposal to modestly increase spending to improve the operation of commercial nuclear plants, saying it was up to industry to provide the funds for such a programme. But DOE says the higher funding is justified in the wake of a report by the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a White House advisory panel, which last fall urged the Clinton administration to boost funding for commercial nuclear energy R&D by $40 million as a way to fight global warming. The Energy Department also hopes Congress will be less parsimonious now that the Clinton administration is projecting budget surpluses.

The DOE budget also includes modest funding increases to support nuclear research at universities, to help upgrade and maintain university research reactors, and to provide support for production of isotopes used in research, medicine and industry. No new funds are proposed in the FY’99 budget for the development of advanced nuclear reactors. Federal support of advanced reactor R&D ended with the completion two years ago of the energy department’s five-year, Advanced Light Water Reactor Program.

The DOE also proposes to spend $168.9 million toward implementation of the department’s two-pronged strategy for permanently disposing of excess plutonium. The DOE plan calls for converting most of it to mixed oxide fuel, while glassifying and burying some of it. In FY’99, DOE plans to design new facilities for pit conversion and fabrication of mixed oxide fuel, and it plans to continue developing the ceramic immobilisation process.

Separately, the US Defense Department is expected to provide funds in FY’99 to support the conversion of Russia’s plutonium production reactors to a mode that no longer produces weapons-grade plutonium.

In the international arena, DOE is proposing to maintain $35 million in spending during FY’99 on programmes to increase nuclear safety worldwide, particularly the safety of Soviet-designed nuclear plants. About 200 individual projects are under way at 20 Soviet-design plant sites, with 46 US commercial companies providing equipment, technical expertise and services to improve safety. The programme’s focus would change, however, to provide more money for training, quality assurance and non-destructive evaluation programmes in plants in Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania. Less money would be directed to engineering and technology upgrades in Soviet-designed reactors, owing to the completion of programmes to install SPDS safety display systems at three Russian plants.

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