President Biden struck an infrastructure deal yesterday with a bipartisan group of senators to provide new investments for electric utilities, transportation, broadband, and other projects.
The deal coincided with a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (SENR) hearing yesterday, which examined the infrastructure needs of the U.S. energy sector and considered the legislative proposal released last week by SENR chairman Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) . The proposal, labeled a "discussion draft," is currently in play for ongoing bipartisan infrastructure negotiations and includes provisions that would comply with rules on budget reconciliation, including a section that fully funds the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program and other Energy Act of 2020 programs. Manchin's proposal would also look to create a Department of Energy grant program for at-risk nuclear plants on an as-needed basis.
The SENR hearing: Led by the committee’s chairman Manchin, the hearing featured testimony from, among others, Kathleen Hogan, acting undersecretary for science and energy at the Department of Energy, and Mark P. Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute (who also spoke at last week’s 2021 ANS Virtual Annual Meeting).
Friendly witnesses: In her testimony, Hogan said that the discussion draft “appropriates important funding toward key research facilities and demonstrations, including energy storage, advanced nuclear, renewable energy, critical minerals, and industrial decarbonization” and that it “broadens key DOE capabilities with the existing nuclear fleet, the loan guarantee program, and upgrading our nation’s electricity transmission system.” She added, however, that “additional capabilities, flexibilities, and funding” are needed, including a clean energy standard to “leverage private sector investment and yield locally tailored energy mixes, offering another way to provide incentives for nuclear power.”
In response to a question from Manchin on the closure of financially troubled nuclear facilities, Hogan said that the DOE is very supportive of maintaining the existing fleet of nuclear power plants and expressed interest in the draft’s nuclear-related provisions, such as requiring the DOE to report on its plans to enhance energy resilience through the use of “micro nuclear reactors” and establishing a credit program for power reactors that are projected to cease operations due to economic factors.
Mills, while a skeptic regarding the need to quickly halt fossil fuel use, seconded Hogan’s endorsement of nuclear, calling for an acceleration of next-generation nuclear energy deployment, which he termed “profoundly superior in physical infrastructure terms.”
“There are now some exciting technology options for expanding the use of nuclear energy beyond gigawatt-class grid-scale power plants,” Mills said. “More than a dozen companies are at various stages in developing innovative designs for very small nuclear power plants offering inherently safe features and are at a scale appropriate for powering a small city or even a town.” Moving forward with this new class of reactors, he posited, will require “commercial validation and scale of production.”
In case you missed it: On April 20, Manchin sent a letter to President Biden, urging him to support the continued operation of the United States’ nuclear fleet and prevent further early retirements. Preventing the closure of existing nuclear power plants, the senator said, is critical to achieving emission reduction goals while ensuring a reliable grid.
“I urge you to take action to preserve our existing nuclear fleet and prevent further closures,” Manchin stated in the letter. “I believe the federal government must use all the tools it has to protect this vital resource to the maximum extent consistent with the health and safety of the public.”