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House panel explores research into nuclear fission and fusion technologies

12 June 2015
With some reservations, lawmakers expressed bipartisan support for continued R&D funding.

Originally published at FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News.

On 13 May, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s energy subcommittee hosted a hearing to explore the state of nuclear fission and fusion technologies, including the role that research advances in these fields might play in driving the future energy economy of the US. The witnesses and committee members presented their respective views on nuclear fission and fusion and discussed the relative merits of continued and enhanced federal investments in these areas, with some members clearly expressing preference for one over the other and others showing support for the full gamut of nuclear energy research. Witnesses testifying were Mark Peters, associate laboratory director for energy and global security at Argonne National Laboratory, which built the first working nuclear reactor and continues to be at the forefront of nuclear fission technology; Frank Batten Jr, president of the Landmark Foundation, a charitable foundation that provides support for nuclear fuel recycling; Nathan Gilliland, CEO of General Fusion, one of the three leading private fusion energy companies; and John Parmentola, senior vice president for the Energy and Advanced Concepts Group at General Atomics, a defense contractor specializing in nuclear physics.

In his opening statement, subcommittee chairman Randy Weber (R-TX) heaped praise on nuclear energy technology, touching on its unique benefits as a source of energy and the historical role of the US in founding and leading the field. In particular, he extended his support to continued development of new nuclear fission technologies: “The US has a definite national interest in maintaining our position at the forefront of nuclear technology development. Nuclear energy is in a class of its own with the highest energy density of any fuel, and yet yields zero emissions … and it’s associated with the world’s strongest economies. In the United States, we invented this technology and cannot forgo … the opportunity to export more efficient and safer reactor systems that will mitigate proliferation concerns while increasing global stability by providing a reliable energy source.”

Subcommittee ranking member Alan Grayson (D-FL) took the opportunity in his opening statement to back fusion energy. Nonetheless, he indicated his openness to supporting continued research funding for both fission and fusion energy: “This morning … we will learn more about innovative future fusion energy concepts … that have the potential to accelerate the development and deployment of commercial fusion reactors dramatically. Fusion holds the promise of providing a practically limitless supply of clean energy to the world.” Grayson continued, “I do have my reservations about fission … not about the physical process itself but the applicability of that to our energy needs. I have described fission as … a failed technology. There is a problem with spent fuel that doesn’t seem to have a solution after many decades of consideration. We’ve had three nuclear disasters worldwide. But the answer to that may not be the German solution of simply scrapping. The answer to that may be to do further research and try to find solutions to these problems.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full committee, joined subcommittee chairman Weber in backing nuclear energy broadly, saying it “represents one of the most promising areas for growth and innovation to increase economic prosperity and lower the cost of electricity over time and would keep the US globally competitive. Smith devoted much of his remarks to the value of the Department of Energy laboratory system to the country. Several DOE labs, including Argonne, Los Alamos, Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge, and Idaho National Laboratories, have major programs in nuclear physics or engineering or are connected closely to the nuclear sciences. Smith commended the DOE labs for serving as a foundation for the nation’s fundamental research capabilities and for attracting “America’s best and brightest scientists” to stay in the US to conduct research. He expressed particular admiration for DOE’s ongoing efforts to collaborate closely with the private, academic, and defense sectors: “The DOE’s national laboratories provide vital opportunities for the private sector to invest in innovative energy technologies. This includes its open-access user facilities, which are one-of-a-kind machines that allow researchers to investigate fundamental scientific questions … [and] enable a wide array of researchers from academia, defense, and the private sector to develop new technologies without favoring one type of design.”

The first witness to testify, Mark Peters of Argonne National Laboratory, spoke to the US's storied history in nuclear fission research but cautioned that the US would likely fall behind in its leadership if the prevailing trend of declining demand for new nuclear power plants holds: “The US continues to be the lead source of innovation globally for the current generation of light water reactors and small modular reactors, as well as leading in regulatory process, independence, and rigor. But a 30-year hiatus in the construction of new US reactor projects has impacted domestic production capacity, investment in technology and innovation, and the domestic supply chain.” Peters outlined some of the perils of the US slipping from its leadership perch in nuclear fission energy: “Without a commitment to advanced reactor technology development and demonstration in the US, our country runs the risk of defaulting on seven decades of investment in nuclear science and technology and infrastructure. That lead position has allowed the US to become the recognized world leader of efforts to control nuclear proliferation, ensure the security of nuclear materials, and promote safe and secure operation of nuclear power plants.” Peters called for a reinvigorated commitment to a type of public–private partnership that would see the US support and lead the development of the next generation of advanced reactors, calling the time we have short due to the age of our current reactor fleet.

The second witness, Frank Batten Jr of the Landmark Foundation, spoke of a promising US technology for processing and recycling used nuclear fuel, called pyro-processing. Said Batten, “Once the fuel is recycled, it can then be used again as fuel to generate electricity in advanced reactors. This approach could result in a continued public–private partnership related to pyro-processing for decades into the future.”

Another witness, Nathan Gilliland of General Fusion, focused on “the game-changing nature of fusion energy.” Said Gilliland: “It is energy production that is safe, clean, and abundant. … Humanity would have abundant energy for millions of years. There’s also no longer radioactive waste, no chance of meltdown in fusion reactions, and the benefits to security can hardly be overstated.” Gilliland called for continued and enhanced support for the federal government’s major research programs in fusion energy, including ITER, a large-scale scientific facility under construction in southern France that aims to demonstrate the technological and scientific feasibility of fusion energy, and the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a large laser-based inertial confinement fusion research device located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. “US support for magnetic fusion programs like ITER and inertial confinement programs like NIF have created an enormously beneficial source of research. ITER and NIF have justifiably been the highlights of the US fusion energy framework and developed key insights into plasma behavior, materials science, simulation codes, and many others.” Gilliland further highlighted what he called alternative pathways to fusion that a number of national laboratories and private companies are pursuing in parallel with ITER and NIF: “Innovation in alternative pathways to fusion have accelerated. These alternative approaches, both in private companies and in labs and universities, offer potentially faster and less expensive concepts, and demonstrable progress is being made both in these labs, universities, and the private companies.”

The final witness, John Parmentola of General Atomics Energy, warned that it appears that nuclear energy is dying in the US and called on the federal government to intervene: “I believe, as many others do, that it is important to the future national security, energy security, and environmental quality of the United States that ample supplies of competitively priced nuclear energy are available. Unfortunately … there are few new plants being built, several have closed recently, and most of the 99 existing plants will be closed down within the next 40 years. To place this in context, last year nuclear was 20% of the electricity consumed by Americans, who paid $80 billion for it. We believe this death spiral can be avoided, but it will require active involvement by the US government.” Parmentola touted the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors, which he said are designed to address “the foremost prominent concerns with nuclear power—its safety, its cost, its waste, and its proliferation risk.”

During question and answer, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) weighed in with his views on nuclear energy, strongly backing investments in the future of fission energy over fusion: “What is not a good use of our money … is something that is aimed at fusion instead of fission. … We’ve spent I don’t know how many billions of dollars to find that [fusion] is possible. No. After spending billions of dollars, we should actually be at a point where … it will be ready in two or three years, but we’re nowhere near that with fusion. But we do know that if we focus on this next generation of fission reactors—especially modular fission reactors—we actually can do it … rather than just know it’s possible.”

Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), a PhD physicist, added that he would like to see increased government support for nuclear research: “I’m a big fan of turning up research in this field. The payoff if one of these comes up with a home run and a really viable zero carbon energy source for our world is enormous.” Rep. Daniel Lipinsky (D-IL), who counts Argonne National Laboratory among the research institutions in his district, concurred, adding that he “helped to get language in the [America] COMPETES bill supporting advanced nuclear reactor test facilities.”

As the hearing came to a conclusion, Parmentola had the last word: “Nuclear is a technology that can meet the requirements that people are asking for, in terms of the economics, the waste reduction, the proliferation risk, and the safety. There’s nothing in the laws of physics that would prevent that. What has happened unfortunately to nuclear is it’s been on the same technology for 60 years. … The nuclear community is not research driven, in my opinion. … They want to build things. That isn’t the way to develop new technology. You have to do research that drives. … Right now, nuclear has remained stagnant because research is lacking. We haven’t gone to higher performance technologies and materials. … That’s what’s going to matter in the end.

Michael S. Henry works in the Government Relations Division at the American Institute of Physics.

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