Nuclear power is a ‘national asset’, says US think tank
U.S. federal research policy should recognize the nuclear sector as a national asset and treat it equally with other non-greenhouse gas emitting energy sources, R Street – a Washington DC-headquartered public policy research institute – says in a new report.
In The Role of U.S. Research and Development Policy in Nuclear Power, R Street Senior Fellow George David Banks says the civilian nuclear sector is key to the USA’s influential role in world nuclear safety and non-proliferation, but warns that the country’s international influence will be eroded if the country becomes a “marginal” supplier of nuclear goods and services.
Banks points to the low rate of nuclear new-build within the country, as well as a falling US market share of nuclear-related exports, competition from often state-funded foreign nuclear enterprises, coupled with challenges from deregulated markets. However, cheap shale gas and mandates and subsidies for other forms of generation, particularly renewables, are identified as the biggest obstacles currently facing the sector.
In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed its Clean Power Plan, aiming to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power generation by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. However, the R Street study contends that the EPA’s proposal as it stands fails to give nuclear power adequate recognition.
To protect its existing nuclear fleet, the report calls for a technology-neutral approach to emissions reduction, with nuclear power treated the same as other non-emitting sources.
“Regulators and grid operators should pursue initiatives that provide adequate compensation for the positive attributes of nuclear power, including on-site fuel, diversity of supply and reliability,” it notes. Moreover, the premature shutdown of reactors because of “market distortions and flaws” poses a threat to grid reliability and the attainment of environmental and climate policy objectives.
To improve its competitiveness with shale gas and subsidized generation, the nuclear sector must look to improving its efficiency, the report says. The USA should refocus federal nuclear research and development programs on advanced reactor concepts and new materials, it adds.
The study calls for federal R&D to “focus on what industry cannot do and will not do on its own – generally high-risk, high-reward research.” The study questions current R&D cost-sharing policy, whereby the private sector is required to cover typically at least 20% of the total cost of a project. This, the report asserts, can actually discourage private sector investment in some projects, particularly those viewed as higher risk or longer to reach commercialization.
The report highlights a new fast test reactor as the cornerstone for federal R&D funding, describing such a facility as “absolutely crucial” for the development of concepts and technology that would enable the required advances to be made. Owing to the expense of such a facility – estimated at $2 billion – R Street recommends exploring the possibility of cost-sharing with public-private partnerships or even partnerships with foreign governments.