US Secretary of Energy Moniz at ANS Opening Plenary

Moniz on Nuclear

By Will Davis

Moniz

Moniz

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.

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill 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.

8 Responses to US Secretary of Energy Moniz at ANS Opening Plenary

  1. Seems to me that the DOE and the Federal Government are as committed to nuclear with the same zeal as a deadbeat dad’s obliged to child support.

  2. Steve Foster

    One thing that continually perplexes me: why is spent nuclear fuel considered a “proliferation risk”? That simply isn’t true according to my understanding. The fraction of fissionables is too low (spent fuel itself can’t “blow up”) and the small amount of plutonium (1% or thereabouts) is “reactor grade”, i.e. with isotopic purity of Pu-239 too low rendering it basically useless as bomb material **even if** some enterprising terrorist managed to chemically separate the plutonium without killing himself first.

    I understand the risks of dodgy states having uranium enrichment capabilities; but, why do we continue with this fiction regarding SNF- or am I misunderstanding the technical issues here? My gut tells me that nuclear energy and weapons are being conflated for other political reasons that I have yet to fully grasp.

  3. Perhaps; the best thing though is that their (somewhat tepid) approval and backing is not diminishing, and statements today by the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy (relative to SMR’s) were even more encouraging. The next piece of mine that will publish on the blog will include some of those.

  4. I have to say that I agree with you, but I also have had to make myself realize that for some measurable segment of the public and some measurable segment of policy makers, the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is tight (indeed, several speakers yesterday refused to delineate, referring to everything lumped together as the “nuclear establishment.”) The real trick then is to educate this irrational fear out of those who believe in it and spread it… or vote them out of the way and allow progress to take place. But that’s just my personal opinion.

  5. Bill Rodgers

    Will,

    Okay I am struggling here.

    How is the DOE financially involved with Vogtle? Did I miss something?

    DOE has not released money to Southern since the terms have not been agreeable to Southern. Trying to state DOE is financially involved with Voglte just because they extended the loan guarantee is pretty thin ice to stand on. So what is being monitored by the DOE if DOE has not backed any loans for the project? There is no legal contract between Southern and DOE at this point, only memos of understanding if I understand the situation correctly.

    Moniz’s discussion seems like he is setting the stage for future announcements from the DOE attempting to say they assisted in keeping Vogtle costs down when reality will be significantly different. If anything DOE has thrown roadblocks in the way by requiring significantly higher loan fees for Vogtle then they required for other non-nuclear projects.

  6. Susanne E. Vandenbosch

    In general, the larger a facility the lower the cost. With small reactors the overhead costs may make the cost of small reactors higher than that of large reactors. Nevertheless, the public and especially those who fear accidents, may feel more comfortable with small reactors. This, as well as other coonsiderations, justifies the development of small reactors even if the cost is somewhat higher.

  7. Susanne E. Vandenbosch

    I am encourage by the remark by Secretary Moniz that he expects Congress to act on nuclear waste soon. I have been watching the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee but aside from hearings there has been no recent actions. It is encouraging that on Oct. 28,2013 Senator Angus King(Independent, Maine) became a cosponsor of a Senate bill joining Sentors Wyden, Murkowski, Feinstein and Alexander. I hope their bill does not get include in the end of session rush just before Christmas. Both the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act (which among other things named Yucca Mounatin ) were rushed through near Christmas.

  8. Robert Vandenbosch

    Will Davis’s report on Secretary Moniz’s remarks did not indicate whether the Secretary had identified any recent efforts the DOE had made to advance waste disposal. The DOE continues to try to prevent the NRC from examining the Yucca Mountain license application. Even if Yucca Mountain is never used, the evaluation of the license application will result in valuable information for siting repositories.