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Continuing Idaho's Legacy Of Nuclear Innovation

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

Using clean nuclear energy must be part of any forward-looking domestic energy portfolio.  I am working on legislation to once again make the United States the world leader in nuclear technology and development.  One of my measures will build on the Idaho National Lab's (INL) legacy, allowing it to become home to a new center focused on the development of the next generation of nuclear technology.  My other measure will provide the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) with the resources and guidance it needs to license advanced reactor designs.   

The vast majority of plants regulated by the NRC and its predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, have been light-water reactors.  The NRC's existing regulatory framework is ill-suited to meet the needs of the next generation of reactors.  In addition, the existing regulatory framework is unnecessarily onerous and opaque, making it difficult for companies to know how long it will take to get a license or how much money they will have to spend in the process.  We must make this process more transparent and better suited to different types of reactor technologies so that advanced reactors have a path toward commercialization.

Earlier this year, I introduced the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) to encourage innovation in the nuclear industry by paving the way for further development of cutting-edge technology.  NEICA facilitates public-private partnerships between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and nuclear innovators to develop and test concepts behind advanced reactor technologies.  The DOE and NRC are directed to work together to establish the National Nuclear Innovation Center, a facility I envision being based at INL. 

I introduced this bipartisan legislation with Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois).  The Senate adopted NEICA as an amendment to the comprehensive energy bill, S.2012, the Energy Policy Modernization Act, in an overwhelmingly, bipartisan vote of 87-4.

The next step is ensuring the NRC is able to license emerging advanced reactor designs, providing a path toward commercialization.  Therefore, Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), Senator Whitehouse, Senator Booker and I introduced a second bill, S. 2795, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA).  Through hearings and discussions with officials and stakeholders, including industry and the environmental community, we developed a measure that provides the NRC with the capabilities it needs to license advanced reactor designs as companies are ready to commercialize them.  

The NRC must be able to review the safety and security of all future advanced reactors, which are technologically diverse with different performance features and characteristics.  NEIMA supports this need by directing the NRC to develop an appropriate, technology-inclusive regulatory framework that will allow the NRC to guarantee the safety and security of future reactors.

NEIMA also increases accountability and transparency at the NRC, which will benefit all who engage with the NRC moving forward.  NEIMA provides clarity and predictability in an otherwise opaque process, including in the NRC's budget and fee structure.  The EPW Committee recently held a hearing to discuss this important legislation.

NEICA and NEIMA represent a thoughtful, bipartisan approach to advance innovation in nuclear technology.  Together, these measures provide a path for private companies to test and refine scientific concepts using the national labs, then take those concepts through the regulatory process to market.  I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues to spur innovation in nuclear energy and develop measures that ensure that the exemplary work at INL will have an increased role in our nation's energy security. 

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