ANS study calls for US to double spending on nuclear R&D

23 February 2021

A Task Force on Public Investment in Nuclear Research and Development, commissioned by the American Nuclear Society (ANS), on 17 February issued an assessment of US nuclear energy research and development funding needs for the 2020s. The 46-page study, “The US Nuclear R&D Imperative,” outlines the level of federal investments for meeting nuclear energy R&D needs and enabling a commercial scale-up of US-designed advanced reactors in the 2030s. The report also looked at maximising nuclear energy for decarbonisation, economic growth through high-paying nuclear jobs, and preservation of US influence in global nuclear safety and standards.

The task force was chaired by Dr Christina Back, vice president of the Nuclear Technologies and Materials Division at General Atomics, and Dr Mark Peters, executive vice president for Laboratory Operations at Battelle and former Director of the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Idaho National Laboratory (INL). It brought together 20 technical experts from the DOE’s national laboratories, universities, private developers, utilities, suppliers, and professional divisions within ANS. The six-month assessment focused on nuclear fission R&D funding levels of programmes within the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy.

“Accelerating R&D support now will help secure America’s clean energy future by deploying first-of-a-kind advanced reactors later this decade,” said Dr Peters. “An affordable, deep decarbonisation of the energy sector requires a significant increase in federal investments in nuclear energy research and development,” he added. “Without increased and sustained R&D support, more US reactors will be shut down by 2035 and advanced reactor systems will not be deployable, resulting in a weakened power grid, higher emissions, and higher energy costs.”

The task force determined that a near doubling in annual appropriated funding levels for core nuclear R&D activities would ensure the commercial deployment of US advanced reactors in the 2030s. It recommends approximately $10.3 billion in additional discretionary spending by 2030, compared with levelised funding at FY 2021 enacted levels. Concepts that progress from R&D to deployment may receive early market support through other federal mechanisms.

The additional funding would catalyse the deployment of an advanced reactor fleet at levels required to meet the Biden administration’s climate goals of a carbon-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050, the study said. It could also offset high regulatory costs for advanced reactor licences, jumpstart the production of hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels with advanced nuclear energy, and deploy new nuclear manufacturing and supply chain capabilities and industries across the USA.

“In the face of the threats of climate change and America’s declining world influence, sustained nuclear R&D investment pales in comparison to the cost of inaction,” said Craig Piercy, Executive Director and CEO of ANS. "It is prudent to act now to support and expand nuclear energy, rather than to pay a heftier price later under duress."

The requested nuclear R&D levels would fund and sustain programmes already authorised by Congress, including:

  • Demonstrations of two designs by 2027 under Advanced Reactor Demonstration Programme (ARDP) cost-sharing partnerships with private developers.
  • Demonstrations of additional designs expected to mature from the current ARDP Risk Reduction for Future Demonstration award recipients.
  • Support for early R&D concepts through the ARDP Risk Reduction and Advanced Reactor Concepts programmes.
  • Construction of the DOE’s Versatile Test Reactor by 2030 to provide a fast-neutron capability required for accelerated testing of advanced nuclear technology.
  • Build out of the National Reactor Innovation Centre for testing and demonstrations.
  • The construction of an advanced light-water reactor by 2029 through the UAMPS/NuScale Carbon Free Power Project at INL.

The task force also recommends modest funding increases for existing programmes which support essential research, development, and infrastructure. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Maintaining essential nuclear science and engineering infrastructure at national laboratories and universities;
  • Testing and development of advanced nuclear fuels for existing and advanced reactors; and
  • Operational improvements of the existing nuclear fleet through the Light Water Reactor Sustainability programme.

“The United States has charted a path toward an unprecedented expansion of zero-carbon energy generation,” the study said. “ The effects can be seen in the sizable shift from coal- to natural gas-fired electricity generation, as well as the significant build-out of wind and solar generation capacity and plans to expand electric vehicle charging infrastructure.”

It added, however, that it is becoming increasingly clear that organic changes alone will not build a clean energy infrastructure at the pace and scale needed to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change. “Energy systems will require the widespread availability of firm, “dispatchable” zero-carbon technologies—energy sources that can be relied upon at any time of day. The only commercially proven, zero-carbon energy technology capable of filling that role in the near term is nuclear energy.”

It concludes: “To effectively answer the national imperatives of clean energy, economic growth, and national security, the US must be equipped to sustain a strong nuclear energy enterprise both domestically and internationally. This need constitutes a new imperative, a nuclear sustainability imperative. Without nuclear sustainability, progress on our national imperatives will be impeded and the US will not maintain a leadership role in the international nuclear community.”

It advises the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy to implement a pipeline approach to managing nuclear R&D programmes. “An innovation pipeline will ensure that the US gets full value for its investment as every concept is evaluated on its merits, yielding a steady output of technological advancements for decades to come.”

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