Depending on how you have been counting, it seems that President Trump has completed his third or fourth “infrastructure week,” which is to say that our nation’s capital is stuck in an election year malaise with little political will to pass future legislation before the 2018 mid-terms.
A prime example of the current state of affairs is the ongoing battle in the 115th Congress to reform the excruciatingly long and complicated permitting process that currently stymies two major sources of clean energy –– nuclear and hydropower. This regulatory reform is a good idea that will cost the federal budget essentially nothing. But in years like this, even good ideas struggle to gain purchase.
With little or no impact on the surrounding natural environment, the United States could easily add roughly 50 gigawatts of additional hydropower to existing U.S. dams – the equivalent of 50 new nuclear or coal plants. Yet many of these projects are tied up in red tape. Between 2005 and 2013, it took more than 15 years for the average hydropower project to move from application to operation.
The nuclear industry faces similar hurdles. While the industry is investing in new designs that promise greater simplicity, efficiency and enhanced safety features, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is in no rush to give its approval. One company spent eight years working with the NRC on a new design that would be roughly 5,000 times safer than reactors currently in operation. Yet the NRC has just undertaken an additional 39-month regulatory review period before it will grant final permission to build a pilot plant.
To use a suitably American expression, it should be a ‘no-brainer’ to enact reform for these regulatory bottlenecks since they benefit consumers, taxpayers and expand low or no-carbon emission energy technology. It would be a win for Democrats who want to lower the costs of clean energy, while Republicans would see elements of the administrative state improved upon.
On second thought, maybe there is something to work on together.
Despite the recent paucity of political goodwill in Washington, there has been a flurry of action on nuclear energy issues that has not yet caught the eye of the national media. On March 7, the U.S. Senate approved the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) by voice vote (meaning none of the 100 Senators had an objection). The bill allows private companies to use national laboratory system facilities to test privately-funded nuclear reactor concepts. Similar language passed the House of Representatives last year, meaning President Trump could soon have a bill to sign.
Another nuclear bill, called the Advanced Nuclear Energy Technologies Act (ANETA), sponsored by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on March 8, also by a voice-vote. The legislation would have the Department of Energy (DOE) finalize agreements with private companies to move ahead on at least four demonstration project for advanced nuclear reactors by the fall of 2028.
The House has shown its willingness to pass reforms that would make it easier to place new hydro-electric generators on existing dams, but the Senate seems less eager. While it is difficult to know how this delay affects the national economy’s bottom line, we can guess that it’s at least in the billions of dollars per year.
Despite the political uneasiness that accompanies an election year, Congress has a chance to ease the regulatory burden on existing non-carbon sources of energy like hydro-electric and nuclear power. What better way to celebrate infrastructure week – every week – than to clear the red tape and make way for modern, free-market energy infrastructure.