Senators probe nuclear priorities: HALEU, hydrogen, reactor siting, and more

November 5, 2021, 9:29AMNuclear News
From left, Shannon Bragg-Sitton, Paul Chodak, and Michael J. Guastella appear before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on November 4.

As Congress awaited key votes yesterday on spending bills that include production tax credits for at-risk plants and a new amendment adding $500 million in supplemental funding over five years to increase the availability of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a Full Committee Hearing On Potential Non-Electric Applications Of Civilian Nuclear Energy. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.V.), chairman of the committee, emphasized that “advanced nuclear reactors hold enormous potential to provide opportunity to communities across the country with zero-emission baseload power” and made it clear he expects new reactors to replace retiring coal plants in his home state of West Virginia.

Speaking before the committee were Shannon Bragg-Sitton of Idaho National Laboratory, Paul Chodak III of American Electric Power, and Michael J. Guastella of the Council of Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals.

Nuclear for West Virginia: West Virginia currently generates about 96 percent of its energy from coal, but a two-decade ban on nuclear construction must be overturned before the state could welcome an advanced or small modular reactor.

“This is something that I would like to see changed,” Manchin said. “I have spoken to all of my friends in the legislature, and I think they understand the need and the urgency. Noting that coal generation sites have preexisting infrastructure, Manchin asked, “Would that be our best way to get up and running quicker?”

Bragg-Sitton, director of the Integrated Energy and Storage Systems Division at INL, added, “Those coal sites offer us significant infrastructure. Another opportunity that those sites offer us is that we now have a carbon-based feedstock that isn't going to production of electricity, but we could instead use that high-quality heat and electricity from a nuclear plant that goes into that site to process that carbon-based feedstock into higher value consumer products, thereby enhancing the economic development of those communities that are being impacted by this energy transition.”

Chodak, executive vice president for Generation at American Electric Power (AEP), offered a utility perspective and emphasized the reliable baseload power that nuclear plants can provide. “Fossil generation with carbon capture storage and nuclear are the only two emissions-free, dispatchable sources that we really have that can go multi-days or even seasonal,” he said. “And when you look at West Virginia, its geology is wonderful to look at but, in terms of storing CO2, not so good. And so it’s an outstanding opportunity for a small modular reactor to come in there.”

And in Wyoming: Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) dug into advanced reactor costs and siting. “TerraPower announced plans to build its own Natrium advanced nuclear reactor in my home state of Wyoming,” Barrasso said. “This reactor will be the first of its kind, built anywhere in the world. It will also be the first time a nuclear reactor uses the infrastructure and workforce from a retired coal plant. Why are utilities interested in advanced nuclear technologies like TerraPower’s Natrium reactor?”

Chodak replied, “Senator, they're interested because it compliments renewables very well and supplies dispatchable resources.”

Barrasso asked what can be done to support private sector efforts to use nuclear energy for nonelectric applications, and Bragg-Sitton replied, “These demonstration projects get us considerably down the path toward commercial deployment, but we do need those commitments to be sustained. Not just demonstration, but deployment.”

Level the playing field: Bringing advanced reactors to the commercial sector “requires us to develop and demonstrate those technologies and get to the finish line by deploying those technologies at scale such that we can bring costs down and make them cost competitive, and producing these multiple product streams will be a part of that cost competitiveness,” Bragg-Sitton said. “When we look to build out of additional resources, we often look to just the electric sector and we make decisions based on the costs of that electricity. But bringing back that conversation on leveling the playing field—part of that is looking at all the assets these technologies bring to the forefront. Renewables will play a role, but most of those renewables provide only electricity, and that's only part of our energy use. These advanced reactors offer additional opportunities for heat and electricity that can support such a wide array of industrial applications and chemical manufacturing.”

HALEU: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) questioned Bragg-Sitton on HALEU supply and Department of Energy efforts to support its availability through research and development.

“We know how to do it,” Bragg-Sitton said. “This is something that we can do at our national laboratories and working with our fuel fabricators here in the United States, and it is essential that we have a domestic supply of this resource. It provides us the opportunity to build these advanced reactors that can be put in smaller packages and operate more efficiently.”

She added, “What do we need to do to make sure that we have that resource available? We need to make sure we put the investment in to establish that supply chain. The demand wasn't necessarily there from the commercial sector previously, and now that we see this very large interest growing in the private sector to develop and deploy these technologies, now we're beginning to have that demand for HALEU, and we need to put the investment in to develop the capability to fabricate.”

Hydrogen: In response to questions from Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho), Bragg-Sitton elaborated on the role hydrogen could play. “Hydrogen is a very significant focus right now,” she said. “And why is it such a focus? It's because hydrogen is a highly versatile energy carrier and we can produce it without emissions when we use non-emitting heat and electricity from nuclear energy, and this hydrogen can be stored so that it can be used now or it can be used later or even transported to end users. So it's essentially a chemical energy storage means and by producing that hydrogen it gives us these additional revenue streams for our operating plants.”

Chodak added that, in his experience, “If you look at the major turbine manufacturers, they're developing turbines to be able to run on hydrogen and the transportation industry. You also have oil companies looking at potentially transitioning from using hydrocarbons to generating hydrogen for the transportation industry. So, the answer is not if hydrogen is going to be part of the future, it's just a matter of when and at what cost.”

Medical radioisotopes: Michael J. Guastella, executive director of the Council of Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals (CORAR), said that the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for the United States to increase its production of medical radioisotopes. “When commercial flights were cancelled from Europe, we had a significant issue with access here in the U.S., so increasing domestic production is incredibly important to ensure access,” Guastella said.

“Various companies are currently developing reactor and nonreactor capabilities to help scale up domestic production of essential medical isotopes. CORAR believes that when diverse commercial production sources can meet U.S. demand, the DOE Isotope Program should exit the market for such isotopes consistent with the mission of the DOE Isotope Program. CORAR would recommend that the committee continue to support the DOE with research, development, and production activities,” he noted.

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