Congress Wants To Ramp Up Nuclear Reactor Research

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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A House committee approved a bipartisan bill Tuesday to promote private sector research into new nuclear reactor designs.

The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (H.R. 4084) directs the Department of Energy (DOE) to work with private companies and researchers to develop new nuclear reactors. The bill will help private investors demonstrate novel reactor concepts and designs such as molten-salt or pebble-bed reactors.

“Nuclear power has been a proven source of safe and emission-free electricity for over half a century since it was first developed in the United States,” Texas Republican Rep. [crscore]Lamar Smith[/crscore], chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said in a statement. “Nuclear energy can be a clean, cheap answer to an energy independent, pro-growth, secure future if we let the science and market forces prevail. The U.S. has not lived up to its potential when it comes to nuclear energy.”

The high costs of new nuclear construction, competition from cheaper natural gas and political difficulties from the Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster have hampered the nuclear industry. Fears of nuclear meltdowns spurred German politicians to phase out nuclear power and force utilities to use more solar and wind energy.

Despite these concerns, nuclear power is undergoing a slow comeback in America. The United States just approved its first new nuclear reactor in 20 years which will begin commercial operations as soon as 2016. New nuclear reactor designs are much safer and even emit less radiation than coal plants. Nuclear plants take up far less space than wind or solar and do not emit any carbon dioxide.

“This legislation enables our talented engineers in the private sector, academia, and at the national labs to develop the next generation of nuclear technology here in the United States,” Smith continued.

America’s nuclear industry already receives substantial support from the DOE to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector. The DOE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear program aims to increase investment in nuclear energy research, while providing more data about government reactors to private companies. Another DOE program, called the Advanced Nuclear Energy Projects Solicitation, will expand existing financial support for building and upgrading nuclear reactors.

Despite these programs, the United States isn’t building as many nuclear reactors as the rest of the world. Global installed nuclear capacity is expected to grow 60 percent by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, while American capacity is only predicted to grow by 16 percent over the same time period. Chinese nuclear capacity, on the other hand, is expected to increase 46 percent by 2030.

Of the 59 new nuclear reactors under construction worldwide, only four of them are being built in America, just enough to compensate for retiring older reactors.

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