Top energy officials in the Trump administration said they have positioned the United States to deploy small nuclear reactors this decade and enabled companies to compete in export markets dominated by China and Russia.
Rita Baranwal, who leads the Energy Department’s nuclear energy office, and Ted Garrish, the agency’s top international affairs official, say the U.S. nuclear industry, plagued recently by cost overruns and early plant retirements, is in a better place than four years ago.
“I am very confident the work we have done in the last several years has laid the necessary groundwork to deploy and demonstrate [small] reactors,” Baranwal told the Washington Examiner in a joint interview with Garrish. “Nuclear absolutely has to play a role in decarbonization efforts. We are really excited to be at a juncture to develop these technologies to be part of that effort.”
Baranwal and Garrish expect President-elect Joe Biden to look to build upon the Trump administration’s support for new smaller forms of nuclear technology that proponents hope to be safer and cheaper, allowing it to be a tool for combating climate change.
“I would hope people understand the benefits nuclear will bring to policies on clean air and climate,” Garrish said.
It was the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, that launched the Energy Department’s small modular nuclear reactor program. But the Trump administration has accelerated these efforts.
What President Trump has done
The Energy Department recently awarded $160 million for a first-of-its-kind advanced reactor demonstration program that aims for companies to build two non-light water reactors that can be operational within seven years. Baranwal said the agency will distribute more funding from the program in December.
Last month, the Energy Department authorized a $1.4 billion grant to help defray costs for a group of small utilities that are aiming to be the first in line to buy power from reactors produced by NuScale, an Oregon-based company. This year, NuScale’s small reactors were the first to receive design approval from the Nuclear Energy Regulatory Commission.
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation reversed an Obama-era ban that prevented it from funding civil nuclear projects overseas, a move that has “changed the entire market,” Garrish said.
Garrish, who has worked in various government roles dating to the Nixon administration, said the change would put the U.S. in the game with China and Russia, who are already aggressively promoting their state-backed advanced nuclear technologies in developing countries.
The DFC announced last month that NuScale would be the first beneficiary of the new policy, signing a letter of intent to support the company developing nuclear power in South Africa.
“We may have been somewhat behind, but we are making up the distance very quickly,” Garrish said. “We are edging some of these countries out of these markets.”
Garrish also touted success in promoting exports of traditional large light water nuclear projects that the U.S. has struggled to build domestically in recent decades.
In October, Romania broke off an agreement with China to finance two new nuclear reactors.
The U.S., partnering with other allied countries, is expecting “very soon” to sign an agreement with Romania replacing China, Garrish said.
The Energy Department announced last month a first-of-its-kind agreement for the U.S. to help coal-dependent Poland develop a nuclear power program. Garrish said there is “tremendous interest” in small reactors throughout Europe, including in the United Kingdom, but Poland needs a larger baseload energy source to replace power from aging coal plants.
Blemishes in Trump’s nuclear record
But the Trump administration’s efforts to boost nuclear power have suffered setbacks. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency, rejected a contentious proposal from former Energy Secretary Rick Perry in 2017 to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants for their ability to store fuel on-site and provide around-the-clock power.
Baranwal, a former official at the nuclear power company Westinghouse, said it remains “very critical for nuclear be considered on a level playing field” so existing plants can compete with cheaper renewables and natural gas.
A coalition of bipartisan senators just this month introduced a bill to provide credits to preserve ailing nuclear plants.
The Energy Department is working to provide other revenue streams for nuclear plants, Baranwal noted, by researching and developing ways for electricity from a plant to produce hydrogen that can be used as a fuel in manufacturing or transportation.
Trump also abandoned a proposal to restart licensing at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain to store the nuclear waste, in an election year flip-flop, prolonging the government’s perennial struggle to find a permanent storage site.
In addition, critics have questioned the government’s trust in NuScale, which the government has long banked on to be the first small nuclear reactor to operate.
A number of cities that belong to the utility group buying power from NuScale have opted out of the project in recent weeks due to affordability concerns, despite the Energy Department authorizing new funding to help relieve the burden.
In August, the utility group notified NuScale that it was pushing back the timeline for when it plans to operate the first reactor from 2026 to 2029, citing an unexpected rise in costs.
Baranwal said she retains faith in NuScale.
“We hope the demonstration of government support for this project reinforces the reality of it, and other cities will want to join as members and participate in the project,” Baranwal said.
A race to the finish line
But she said there are a number of other small reactors in various stages of development with the potential to be deployed within three to seven years, so all is not riding on NuScale. That includes California-based Oklo, which is building an even smaller “microreactor” that recently became the first nuclear design that does not use water as a coolant to have its application accepted by regulators.
The winners of the DOE’s demonstration program, TerraPower and GE Hitachi, use different types of nuclear technologies, providing for more options to guard against failure.
“NuScale deservedly gets a lot of attention, and we are really excited about them, but the really good news is there are many other developers out there, and we are very proud to support many of them,” Baranwal said. “We are looking at who can get to the finish line the fastest.”
Baranwal suggested she’s interested in staying on in her role in a Biden administration to see through her bet on small reactors.
“It would be nice to be able to finish what I started,” Baranwal said.
Author : Josh Siegel
Source : Washington Examiner : Trump officials claim legacy of ‘groundwork’ for nuclear breakthrough