The US Department of Energy is once again asking Congress for more money for nuclear energy R&D, including a modest amount of seed money for a new industry/government programme to improve the performance of US commercial nuclear power plants. The DOE is asking Congress for $87.3 million for nuclear energy R&D, up from $73.8 million last year.

The R&D funding increases are included in the DOE’s budget request of $269.3 million for FY 2000, which begins 1 October 1999. Specifically, the DOE wants $5 million for a Nuclear Energy Plant Optimisation (NEPO) programme. The goal of the programme would be for the DOE to work with industry, universities, and national laboratories to address critical technology issues associated with existing nuclear power plants. The idea was raised two years ago by the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Last year, however, Congress rejected the idea on grounds that such research, however modest, should be funded by industry, not the government. The DOE also wants to provide $25 million to expand the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI), an R&D programme begun last year that aims to make nuclear power plants and nuclear fuel cycles more proliferation resistant. NERI is budgeted at $19 million in the current fiscal year. The DOE has already received hundreds of applications for grants under the programme.

In other areas, the DOE is also asking Congress to:

• Provide $409 million for nuclear waste disposal, an increase of $49.3 million. Most of the money ($331.7 million) would go for continued characterisation of Yucca Mountain to determine its suitability as a site for a permanent repository for high-level waste.

• Discontinue research on accelerator transmutation of waste, which is currently budgeted at $4 million.

• Provide $34 million for the DOE’s International Nuclear Safety programme, up from $30 million this year. The DOE would spend most of the money on ongoing programmes to improve the safety of 65 Soviet-designed nuclear plants, and to assist nine countries that formerly were part of the Soviet bloc to implement self-sustaining nuclear safety improvement programmes.

• Provide $240.2 million for the Uranium Enrichment Decontamination and Decommissioning Fund, up from $220.2 million this year.

• Provide $200 million for the fissile materials disposition programme, which would be used to help Russia begin disposing of surplus plutonium.

The US nuclear industry described the budget as appropriate in many areas, but expressed disappointment that it includes no funds to help nuclear energy play a larger role in mitigating global warming. The NEI vice president, John Kane, expressed surprise that the budget “makes only a minimal investment in programmes that would help nuclear power play an even greater role in achieving the nation’s environmental goals”.

The industry also expressed concern that the DOE did not make a separate line item in the budget for $39 million intended for development of an above-ground, Interim Storage Facility for spent nuclear fuel. The industry wants Congress to prevent the DOE from spending this money on other nuclear waste programme activities.