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US Senate committee passes bill promoting advanced nuclear power plants

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US Senate committee passes bill promoting advanced nuclear power plants

Washington — The US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a bill Tuesday supporting advanced nuclear reactor deployment by allowing the federal government to sign long-term power purchase agreements and calling for deployment of new reactor designs at government facilities.

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"Advanced reactors could be the key to affordable clean energy," committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said during a Washington event sponsored by the US Nuclear Industry Council immediately before the hearing.

The legislation is needed because nuclear plants have a history of going over budget, making some form of government support for new plants vital, Murkowski said. "Developing a first-of-a-kind technology like this is not for the risk-averse, it's not for the faint of heart," she said.

The legislation, S. 903, the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, would extend federal power purchase agreements from the current 10 years to 40 years, a change in law which the nuclear industry could help advanced reactor developers build nuclear units to power military bases and government laboratories.

The bill directs the energy secretary to take steps to ensure the operation of at least two advanced nuclear reactors by the end of 2025 and from two to five more by 2035, developed in conjunction with private industry. It also would require Energy Department to establish a program to make available a higher-enriched form of uranium that is expected to be needed by the majority of developers of advanced reactors.

Such reactors generally use a coolant other than water, now used by all US power reactors, and often rely on passive safety systems that make them less reliant on electricity or reactor operator actions to keep an accident from occurring or worsening.

The committee passed 22 energy-related bills on a "largely bipartisan basis," ranking Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia said in a statement Tuesday. The other bills included one establishing R&D programs for coal and natural gas technology, Manchin said.

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The nuclear legislation is a "must-have" for the US to develop a series of advanced reactor designs for deployment at home and export internationally, Clay Sell, CEO of X-energy, a company developing a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor design and planning an advanced fuel fabrication facility, said during the conference.

Murkowski said passage of the bill would result in deployment of advanced reactor designs, potentially first by the Defense Department.

The focus on advanced non-light water cooled reactors is a recognition that because of low power prices, cheap natural gas and the expense of the current generation of reactor designs, "conventional reactors have gone by the wayside" in the US, Murkowski said.

In order to retain its technology and export leadership in the field, new types of reactor designs that use sodium, molten salt or helium for cooling must be developed and deployed, she said.

Murkowski called on the administration of Donald Trump to reverse a policy under which the Overseas Private Investment Corp., which helps finance US vendors with international sales, is barred from supporting nuclear plant projects. The change would not require legislation, she noted.

The Export-Import Bank of the US, which also finances international sales by US companies, should create a "strategic energy portfolio" that includes nuclear energy, Murkowski said.

The Trump administration's latest nuclear energy official said at the same conference Tuesday that she will be making advanced and small modular reactors a top priority at the Energy Department. Rita Barnawal was sworn in July 11 as assistant secretary for nuclear energy, the top nuclear energy position in government.

Advanced and small reactors, which typically have capacities of below 700 MW, will benefit from factory-type manufacturing, which will lower their costs, Barnawal said. Many of the designs are modular, meaning they can be largely assembled at a factory-like facility and then shipped to plant sites for rapid installation.

-- William Freebairn, william.freebairn@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Richard Rubin, newsdesk@spglobal.com