By Jim Hopf
The Obama administration, and the Department of Energy, recently released their fiscal year 2012 budget request for nuclear related programs. The budget request is pretty favorable to nuclear, given the current pressure in Washington to cut spending.
The administration is, again, requesting an additional $36 billion in new nuclear plant loan guarantee volume, which would increase the total loan guarantee volume to $54 billion. This request was made last year, but was not appropriated by Congress. This increase in loan guarantee volume would increase the total number of covered projects to 9–13 reactors.
With respect to nuclear-related research and development, overall spending was reduced slightly (~3 percent), from $775 million to $754 million, versus the 2010 budget. (2011 spending was based on a continuing resolution, from the 2010 budget.) There are significant changes in funding, however—new initiatives, the termination of some existing funded programs, and some rearrangement and reorganization of some of the ongoing R&D efforts.
The most significant new initiative concerns small modular reactors (SMRs). The budget request includes $100 million in support for SMR development. This includes $67 million for sharing the licensing and development costs with industry for multiple light-water SMR designs. An additional $33 million is applied to general SMR R&D. Also increasing is the funding for fuel cycle R&D, which increased from $132 million to $155 million.
Programs that have been reduced include the Nuclear Power 2010 program, which is zeroed out because the DOE believes that the program has achieved its objective, and the Next Generation Nuclear Plant project, whose funding was reduced to $50 million. The Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems R&D program has been zeroed out, but most of that research will be funded under the new “Reactor Concepts Research” and “Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies” R&D programs, which together have a similar overall funding level.
One area of concern with the new budget request is the fact that the administration has zeroed out the $5 million in DOE funding for the “Integrated University Program.” This program was jointly funded by the NRC and the DOE in the past. The NRC has also not requested funds for this program for the new year. In response to the need for large numbers of new graduates in the nuclear field, universities across the country used the previous funding to create large numbers of nuclear faculty positions. With the cut off in funding, those universities will find it difficult to actually fill those positions.
House budget proposals
The administration’s budget request must, of course, be approved by Congress. Details are still sketchy, but it appears at present that the budget being considered by the House is less supportive of nuclear than the administration’s budget request.
Initial indications are that the House budget reduces overall nuclear R&D spending (for FY 2012) by $131 million, including a $70-million reduction in the budget for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant. The overall DOE science budget is reduced by roughly $1 billion.
With respect to loan guarantees, the House is considering eliminating all non-nuclear loan guarantees. While the budget would not eliminate the current ($18.5 billion) nuclear loan guarantee volume, it would not increase the loan guarantee volume, as requested by the administration.
Several amendments to the House budget bill have been filed, including amendments that seek to reinstate loan guarantees for renewables, and amendments that seek to remove all funding for the Yucca Mountain project and for any NRC licensing activities related to Yucca Mountain. None of these amendments are considered likely to pass, however.
How the Senate will react to both the administration’s and the House’s budget proposals remains to be seen. There is also significant bipartisan movement in the Senate to develop and introduce Clean Energy Standard (CES) legislation that would, of course, have a dramatic impact on nuclear’s future prospects. The CES is also supported (and being pushed) by the administration. It is unclear, however, if any such standard will be able to pass in the House.
Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer at EnergySolutions, with 20 years’ experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10 years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.