Idaho National Lab's Grossenbacher discusses R&D bill, funding challenges

What is the outlook for nuclear energy funding under the new Congress? During today's OnPoint, Vice Admiral John Grossenbacher, director of the Idaho National Laboratory and president of Batelle Energy Alliance, discusses federal funding for nuclear energy research and development. He explains his lab's current research projects and talks about INL's new partnership with Third Way, which seeks to address immediate challenges to the deployment of nuclear energy.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Vice Admiral John Grossenbacher, director of the Idaho National Laboratory and president of Battelle Energy Alliance. Vice admiral, thank you for coming on the show again.

John Grossenbacher: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: The House recently passed a bill that would revamp and expand DOE's nuclear energy research and development programs. How necessary is this kind of funding to the research that your lab is doing right now?

John Grossenbacher: It's essential. You know, if you care about the environment, if you care about security, if you care about the economic competitiveness of our country, then I think you have to pay attention to the opportunities that nuclear energy presents for us. And at the leading edge of research and development the government has an important role to fulfill and that's DOE's role in developing and demonstrating and deploying technology, so that funding is critically important.

Monica Trauzzi: Seems like a lot of people in Congress agree that nuclear energy needs to be a part of our energy future, but, at the same time, it's been difficult to agree on how to move forward with it, how to fund it. How fierce is the competition for funding when it comes to federal dollars?

John Grossenbacher: Well, I don't think the current economic situation is a surprise to anyone. There is tremendous pressure on domestic spending and there will be for the foreseeable future. And the challenge, of course, with things nuclear, is they're all big, long-term, and expensive, but you get what you pay for. And in terms of long-term energy security, long-term positive impact, costs, risks, environmental impacts I think for our country and providing affordable, available power that is essential for our economic competitiveness, nuclear energy can contribute substantially to that. So I think the pressure is there on domestic spending. It's appropriate, but I think nuclear energy can and should compete well for those resources.

Monica Trauzzi: And heading into the next Congress, Republican House leaders have threatened to cut discretionary spending back to 2008 levels and they've also said that they'd like to rescind any stimulus dollars that haven't been used. So, do you think that that could pose issues for work that your lab is doing?

John Grossenbacher: Well, the rescission of stimulus, by and large, no. Nuclear energy did not receive a significant amount of resourcing from the stimulus funding. In terms of returning to prior years funding, that would be a reduction. Again, I think the country has important challenges there and all the needs of the country have to be considered and they have to compete. I'm convinced that nuclear energy will compete well when it's given its day in court so to speak.

Monica Trauzzi: Will compete well in the future, I mean how competitive is the U.S. right now in terms of nuclear?

John Grossenbacher: Well, I think it will compete well in the United States. I think we're in a position now in the United States that we have a choice whether or not we want to continue to be leaders in this technology or not. The rest of the world is going to move forward whether we choose to or not. And if you look in Korea, Japan, certainly France is a great example, the aspirations that China and India have, they're not going to wait for us and they're not dependent on us. So I think there's a critically important decision we have to make relative to our leadership in this area and, again, with important security, I think security concerns associated with it as well, future economic competitiveness and the environmental benefits of nuclear energy.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what types of projects is the lab working on right now that's going to help us get there?

John Grossenbacher: Well, first and foremost, light water reactor sustainability, how we take the 105 light water reactors we have today and see how many more years we can get out of them in terms of being satisfied with their safety and economics of those plants. That's very important because those plants are, by and large, bought and paid for and contributing substantially to providing greenhouse gas-free electricity to our country. So that's important. New reactor technologies, what's next in terms of new reactors beyond the big light water reactors that the country is off to try and build the first of now. And there I think there's a lot of attention on the next generation nuclear plant, which is high temperature gas reactor technology to replace natural gas in industrial processes and small modular reactors that have the potential of augmenting large light water reactors by providing electricity generating capacity and I'll call them bite-size chunks, increments that are easier to finance, increments that are easier to accommodate on the grid. And then there's of course the very important issue of post-Yucca Mountain. What's the fuel cycle policy for the United States and what are the technology choices available to us? So if those areas, keeping the reactors we have today around longer, making sure that we're ready to field new reactor technologies, and then the fuel cycle issues of what do we do with used fuel? How are we going to manage this resource for the very long term, hundreds and hundreds of years of not even a thousand years? Because it's that kind of energy resource for mankind.

Monica Trauzzi: President Obama has proposed a pay freeze for all federal workers. I'm curious what kind of impact that might have on the work your lab is doing.

John Grossenbacher: Well, you know, we have very good, dedicated people who are extremely skillful. They have marketable skills, so we have to compete to get them to work at the laboratory. I'd have to say, by and large, they just want to be paid fairly. It's the quality of the work, it's the impact that they can have that I think brings them to an institution like our lab. So our country is in a tough situation and we've got to do what we need to do to balance the budget and ensure that the deficit doesn't stifle our future and our future economic competitiveness. How we do that, if it includes these kind of initiatives, then I think our people will step up and do their part to be leaders in the country.

Monica Trauzzi: The lab has a new partnership with Third Way to help solve some of the immediate challenges to the deployment of nuclear energy. So, what are some of those challenges and why this partnership?

John Grossenbacher: Now, that's a great question. I mean the partnership with Third Way is really focused on a nuclear energy summit that, in fact, we'll be holding the 7th of December here in Washington. And it's to bring government and industry leaders together to work on a multi-decade strategy for nuclear energy, because there is no other way. You have to have a multi-decade strategy to be effective in nuclear energy because all aspects of it are long term, involve significant infrastructure investments, and long-term resources for the country. And so we're going to get the leaders together in terms of government, from the DOE and its important role in developing and demonstrating and promoting technologies; the nuclear regulatory commission, as a regulator, very important function; the policymakers, both in DOE and Congress and the administration and talk about financing, how we are going to finance, what are the barriers to financing these plants. We're also going to talk about the infrastructures that are necessary for success and that's both the industrial infrastructure, as well as the research and development infrastructure. We're going to talk about the technologies that are available and the costs and risks associated with pursuing them. And then very importantly, I think critically important, is the government-industry partnership that can result in research, development, demonstration and deployment of technologies. In many cases, to move nuclear energy forward technology is really not the issue. There are policy and regulatory issues that need to be addressed. So it's to get those on the table and come up with actionable steps forward that ensure that the citizens of the United States have the opportunity, have the choice for nuclear energy in their future.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it right there on that note. Thank you for coming on the show.

John Grossenbacher: Thank you, my pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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