Department of Energy officials yesterday touted small modular reactors as a way to "change the game" in nuclear technology, pointing to the government's ability to both spur their development and use the resulting product.
"This is an opportunity not only to continue to get back into that game but to change that game entirely," Vic Reis, a senior adviser for DOE's Office of Science, told the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. "If you just take a look at what the DOE and government's needs are, they are big enough to be the first buyer."
Reis laid out the department's plans to invest more than $450 million in developing two designs for the small reactors, a move officials hope would spur companies to build off-the-shelf reactors that could become a cost-effective alternative to other forms of energy. But funding for the program is in doubt; last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, called the request inappropriate (Greenwire, July 14).
Still, Reis laid out his argument in support of SMRs at yesterday's advisory meeting, which was the third meeting of the full independent panel since Energy Secretary Steven Chu re-established it last year. The reactors are smaller versions of nuclear power plants but generate less power, can be assembled at a factory and are generally safer.
Reis compared the initiative to DOE's stockpile stewardship program, in which the agency developed simulations to test the reliability and performance of nuclear weapons. In that example, the agency "owned" the problem, enjoyed sustained funding and had a deadline from President Clinton.
For SMRs, he said, the government can build off the technology used on naval reactors in submarines, rather than rely on clean energy alternatives that have not been invented yet. DOE and other agencies can then use the new reactors to help meet President Obama's goal of cutting the government's greenhouse gases by 28 percent over the next decade.
"I don't have to create a whole new industrial base to make this happen," Reis said. "Let's use what we are really good at in this country, which is building submarines."
But while the advisory board supported the idea of SMRs, several questioned the plan's viability. John Deutch, a former deputy secretary of Defense and former undersecretary of Energy, suggested DOE reconsider its plan to fund designs from only two companies who would then own the intellectual property rights.
Susan Tierney, the managing partner of Analysis Group, also said outside factors, such as the debt ceiling talks and concerns about nuclear waste, seemed to be working against the initiative.
"Even if this is a great idea, it just feels like the combination is not going to support getting there," Tierney said.
Indeed, obstacles abound. They include public apprehensiveness in the aftermath of Japan's nuclear crisis, an uncertain budget and the question of where to store nuclear waste.
John Kelly, the deputy assistant secretary for Nuclear Reactor Technologies, told the advisory board that the last problem is technically solved. One possibility: storing radioactive waste in salt deposits.
"From a technical perspective, we have a complete handle on it," he said. "This comes down to policy."