Peters screenshot

Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters, shown in this screenshot, addressed the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

The director of Idaho National Laboratory was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to testify in favor of a bill to boost nuclear energy research.

“We remain among the world leaders, but our advantage is shrinking,” Mark Peters told the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “In the worldwide energy race, our competitors, specifically China and Russia, are rapidly making up ground. When the U.S. domestic nuclear energy industry languishes, our export ability and international leadership role is adversely affected. That provides openings for our competition.”

The committee, whose members include Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, took testimony from Peters and several others on restoring American preeminence in nuclear energy and on the proposed Nuclear Energy Leadership Act. Sponsored by committee Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and co-sponsored by a mix of Democrats and Republicans including Risch and his Idaho colleague Sen. Mike Crapo, the bill would direct the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a 10-year plan to support advanced reactor research.

It would authorize the federal government to enter into 40-year power purchasing agreements with nuclear power companies, as opposed to the 10-year ones allowed now.

And, it would make some “high-assay low-enriched uranium,” which contains between 5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium and is used in advanced reactors, available from stockpiles owned by the Department of Energy for use in advanced reactors.

“The bipartisanship behind this bill demonstrates our shared values about energy policy,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

A similar bill was introduced last fall but didn’t pass before the congressional session ended. The measure is supported by many lawmakers from both parties, nuclear industry groups and organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the libertarian think tank the R Street Institute.

Groups with concerns include the Electric Power Supply Association, whose head John Shelk told the Washington Examiner he wants to make sure the bill is tailored to support developing new advanced reactors and not subsidizing current nuclear plants. The group Friends of the Earth opposes the bill; spokesman Damon Moglen told the Examiner nuclear is a “failed technology” and the focus should be on investing in zero-emission renewable energy.

Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said at the hearing he didn’t want to expand the use of nuclear power without addressing waste storage and disposal issues.

“We’re talking about future technologies and proposed projects, we’re talking about a bill here to promote nuclear power without having solved that problem,” he said. “I think we’ve got it backwards. Let’s solve the waste problem and then talk about promoting nuclear power.”

INL is being considered as a possible hub for advanced reactors in the near future, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing a proposal to build 12 small modular reactors at INL’s desert site west of Idaho Falls. These reactors would provide power to Idaho Falls and the member cities of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, and INL would also use them for research and power. Peters said two bills that passed last year that are designed to encourage reactor development will help, and called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act “the third leg of the stool.”

“NELA calls for completion of two advanced nuclear reactor demonstration projects by the end of 2025, and from two to five additional operational advanced reactor designs by Dec. 31, 2035,” he said. “We applaud those goals, recognizing they are aggressive, because they will drive the necessary prioritization and sense of urgency.”

Peters listed several aspects of the bill he thinks would help, including authorizing longer-term power purchasing agreements, making fuel available for advanced reactors and a job-training provision.

Risch introduced Peters, praising him for reactivating the Transient Reactor Test Facility last year, which had been dark since 1994. He also highlighted Peters’ work with the state to get funding to build the Cybercore Integration Center and Collaborative Computing Center, the first of which will conduct cybersecurity and infrastructure security research and the second of which will house a supercomputer to collaborate on research with universities and other institutions throughout Idaho. Risch said he thinks INL is well poised to lead an American nuclear revival.

“When we’re talking about world and global leadership in nuclear energy, it’s really appropriate that the Idaho National Laboratory and its leader be here,” Risch said. “Idaho is where it all started. The place where Mr. Peters’ office is and his laboratory is where the first electricity was generated with nuclear power. We still have the first three light bulbs that were lit with nuclear power in the history of the world.”

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.