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Armond Cohen Testimony on the Advanced Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020

Watch Armond Cohen’s opening statement before the United States Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during their hearing on the discussion draft of the Advanced Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020.

Full video of this hearing can be viewed on the Senate EPW website.

SUMMARY OF TESTIMONY

Decarbonizing America’s economy by midcentury is a stiff challenge. We not only need to remake the 80% of America’s energy supply (and 60% of electricity) that is powered by uncontrolled fossil fuels; we may need to double total electricity supply by 2050 to help decarbonize industry, transport and buildings.

Fortunately, we have several options to achieve that goal, especially in the electricity sector. We have made strong progress on wind and solar energy, which now supplies 3.6% of America’s total annual energy, and 9% of our electricity. We have emerging potential renewable sources such as super hot rock geothermal. We have demonstrated carbon capture and storage that removes carbon from fossil fuel use either before (to make hydrogen) or after combustion, and there are many innovative technologies on the horizon that could make those technologies less expensive. And finally, we have America’s largest zero carbon source of electricity, nuclear energy, providing 20% of total electricity generation, but only 8% of total energy consumed.

The evidence suggests that nuclear energy can play an important role in our future economy, but there are many challenges to address, just as there are with all other zero carbon energy sources.

The advantages of nuclear energy are, first, that it is firm or “dispatchable,” and not dependent on weather, allowing us to avoid very expensive energy storage to ride through the weeks and months when wind and sun are at low ebb in most regions of the country. Second, nuclear energy plants are very compact, taking up a hundred to a thousand times less space per unit energy produced than an equivalent amount of wind and solar at very high penetrations, and significantly less transmission capacity; high power density may be a valuable attribute in a nation where siting any energy facility is controversial. And because nuclear units produce so much power, we can build them quickly when conditions are right; France eliminated 80% of its grid carbon emissions in only two decades through a scale up of nuclear energy. Third, nuclear energy can provide carbon-free heat to displace fossil fuels in industrial processes and buildings, and to efficiently create hydrogen, a zero carbon fuel that can be combusted for electric power without carbon emissions in natural gas turbines and which will be needed for decarbonizing the industrial and transport sectors. While in theory we could provide 100% of our electricity and other fuels with renewable energy, that is a risky bet; more options are likely to increase our chance of success.

At the same time, nuclear energy faces many challenges. Foremost among these are the high cost and delays associated with recent American and European projects. However, high cost and delay are not inevitable, as best construction and project management practices and the building of standardized multiple units have shown elsewhere in the world. In addition, advanced reactor designs using different coolants and other innovations could lower costs even further. We must also address another triad of issues: waste disposal, weapons  nonproliferation, and public perception of safety. Some, but not all, of these issues, can be addressed through advanced reactor designs.

The Advanced Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020 would begin to address some of these challenges. In particular, provisions that would provide incentives to support continued operation of the current nuclear fleet and examine permitting for advanced nuclear in nonelectric applications such as heat demands by heavy industry such as cement and steel are important as the world transitions to zero-carbon energy production. Beyond what is currently in this bill, I would urge this committee to do more to create incentives for using nuclear power to produce zero-carbon fuels such as hydrogen.

The discussion draft before this committee today is a start. However, this bill proposes some alterations to environmental permitting that this Committee must reconsider. These provisions
are not necessary, and could even be damaging, to the future of the advanced nuclear industry. Additional streamlining of environmental regulations such as the National Environmental
Protection Act is not helpful for the nuclear industry or for our goals for decarbonization. This Committee has already provided the framework necessary to move forward with more efficient
advanced nuclear licensing and permitting – through the recently passed Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act of 2019 and until 2022 through the Fixing America’s Surface
Transportation Act of 2015. Because of the work of this Committee, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now has a good framework in place for environmental review of advanced nuclear
technologies and development. I would urge this Committee not to include additional provisions to streamline environmental review of nuclear projects in any legislation, but instead
to let the implementation of the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act of 2019 proceed. Clean Air Task Force recommends removing Section 201 and Section 203 of this
legislation.

Additionally, Clean Air Task Force has recommended changes to this draft legislation that include but are not limited to:

  • Give NRC the authority to deny the imports of fuels by foreign adversaries, through establishment of an import license program, instead of denying domestic licenses to possess fuel that are held by utilities (Section 102);
  • Establish three prizes, one each for a light water advanced small modular reactor, a nonlight water advanced modular reactor, and a microreactor (Section 202);
  • Include study of the use of advanced reactors for repowering of existing fossil fueled generation facilities in the report requested by Congress on unique licensing issues and requirements (Section 204)
  • Put a cap on the value of the credit that can be awarded to existing nuclear generation, or consider a reverse auction for funds (Section 301)

We applaud the Chairman for proposing legislation that included the following provisions, and look forward to continuing to work with all Members of this committee to find a way to move
these provisions forward that will support advanced and existing nuclear power:

  • A report to Congress on the unique licensing considerations relating to the use of nuclear energy for non-electric purposes, specifically industrial applications and production of zero-carbon fuels (Section 204)
  • Preserving at-risk nuclear facilities through an incentive program that is transparent and prioritizes safety, while protecting taxpayers and ratepayers against unnecessary compensation for utilities (Section 301)
  • A report to Congress on advanced manufacturing and construction for nuclear energy applications (Section 403)
  • An annual report on the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste inventory in the United States (Section 502)

As this Committee considers this draft legislation, I urge you not to compromise on safety. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the best position to focus on its role as regulator for this
industry. Only with a truly independent and strong regulator can we build the trust that will be necessary for a low carbon future that includes nuclear energy in the United States. Finally, I’d like to offer some important steps that will be necessary for making nuclear a scalable option for future decarbonization:

  • Preserve the existing nuclear fleet to lower emissions during the transition and preserve our knowledge and sites
  • Create market demand for advanced nuclear through government support, as we did for wind and solar, to achieve scale, and reduce costs through learning-by-doing
  • Support research and development for advanced nuclear, particularly focusing on innovative business models, load following, and zero carbon fuel production
  • Continue our progress in vigilant but fit-for-purpose regulation that enables advanced reactor innovation and safety, including through support for international harmonization of
    nuclear safety regulation
  • Resolve key nuclear waste challenges
  • Revive a federal research program on low dose radiation health impacts
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