Moniz on Nuclear
By Will Davis
One of the many distinguished keynote speakers at Monday morning’s ANS 2013 Winter Meeting Opening Plenary Session was the Honorable Ernest J. Moniz, Secretary of Energy of the United States. Secretary Moniz has often mentioned nuclear as part of an “all of the above” approach to energy, but on Monday we were treated to more extended remarks.
During his presentation, Secretary Moniz detailed the DOE’s three-pronged approach to advancing nuclear energy. The first is the DOE’s $8B loan guarantee extended for construction of two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle in Georgia. Moniz elaborated that the cost and schedule are being closely monitored, not just from within DOE but in many sectors, and expressed the opinion that if cost and schedule remain relatively within expectations and if positive returns are seen, there is no reason not to expect further investments… that is, additional utilities constructing large commercial nuclear plants in the ~1000 MWe class.
The second thrust for nuclear in the Department of Energy is the continued expenditure on Research and Development. Moniz described the Small Modular Reactor (SMR) concept as an extremely interesting development and went so far as to say it could be a possible “game changer” in the outlook for nuclear energy. He mentioned the $452M committed over 6 years by DOE for the development and construction of SMR plants in the United States (award of a second round of funding, more limited in coverage, has yet to be made).
The third DOE focus is an effort to resolve issues relating to spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Moniz warned that the nation must act to prevent a potential $20B liability to the US Government if spent fuel lawsuits by utilities, for monies paid into the fund, continue to be decided in favor of the utilities. Worse, the unresolved spent fuel situation “…limits any options we have for fuel leasing constructs to small countries wishing to build nuclear reactors – preventing us from helping to limit proliferation risk by returning spent fuel here.” He noted that the amount of spent nuclear fuel returned from such agreements back to the United States would be quite small up through the mid-century point, but that we’re blocked on any development whatsoever by having no finality in the spent fuel situation – a position that both prevents us from selling nuclear fuel under complete contract, and prevents us from affecting proliferation risk. Moniz indicated he does in fact expect action by Congress ‘shortly.’
Moniz also remarked with some pride that the final shipment of downblended uranium from the Megatons to Megawatts program will arrive on US shores soon, and lauded the program for its production of reactor fuel ‘for roughly 10 percent of US electric power generation’ while eliminating a great amount of weapons-grade material from the world. Moniz also noted the complete removal of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from 12 nations now, with the latest being Hungary.
During the Q&A session at the end of the Opening Plenary, Secretary Moniz made further remarks on how DOE is working to contribute to nuclear energy’s future. He said that the DOE program is designed to drive down the cost of generating methods (in this case referring to SMR’s as well as other competing methods) so that they can all compete in the marketplace. He highlighted the “All of the Above” approach to fuel mix and again reiterated that President Obama’s intention is that nuclear energy have a place at the table.
Moniz’s remarks once again show that DOE and the Federal Government are committed to nuclear – perhaps to a lesser extent than many here at the ANS Winter Meeting would prefer, but committed nonetheless.
Will Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is Secretary of the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants. He’s also an avid typewriter collector in his spare time.