• Bipartisan legislation authorizes funds for research, advanced reactors
  • Would set up pilot program to buy resilient power from nuclear technologies for national security purposes
  • Addresses need for domestic source of fuel for advanced reactors

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), a bill designed to help America recapture its lead in nuclear energy technology in the face of increasing global competition. The legislation includes a comprehensive proposal to fund research, development and accelerated deployment of advanced nuclear energy technologies.

“Nuclear power provides clean, safe, efficient, flexible and reliable power to American families and businesses, but we have only scratched the surface of its immense potential,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said. “Our bipartisan bill will help rejuvenate the U.S. nuclear industry by providing the tools, resources, and partnerships necessary to drive innovation in advanced reactors.”

“Addressing the threat of climate change requires that the United States lead in the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) added. “This bipartisan bill will help accelerate energy innovation and support the start-up companies here in the U.S. that are investing billions of dollars into these next generation reactor designs.”

A transit hub powered by a small modular reactor, as envisioned by Third Way and Gensler as part of their Nuclear Reimagined project.

The bill (S 3422), introduced by Sens. Murkowski and Booker along with Sens. James Risch (R-Idaho), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), would kick-start a long-term collaborative effort between the federal government and the nuclear industry to reestablish America’s global leadership in commercial nuclear technology. Among other objectives, the legislation would create a pilot program to enter into long-term power purchase agreements between the federal government and a utility to buy resilient electricity produced by early deployment of nuclear technologies.

“The [Energy] Secretary shall give special consideration to power purchase agreements for first-of-a-kind or early deployment nuclear technologies that can provide reliable and resilient power to high-value assets for national security purposes … especially in remote off-grid scenarios or grid-connected scenarios,” the bill says.

Crucially, the legislation extends the maximum length of federal power purchase agreements from 10 to 40 years, and allows these agreements to be scored annually. This is important, because the larger upfront investments in nuclear reactors generally mean they need more than 10 years before they can begin to realize a profit. The shorter 10-year timespan has effectively locked nuclear power out of power purchase agreements with the federal government.

The bill would establish a strategic plan to reclaim America’s technological leadership in commercial nuclear technology by investing in research and development.

The legislation:

  • Directs the Department of Energy to construct a fast neutron research reactor to test advanced technology reactor fuels and materials. Currently, the only machines capable of testing these materials are in Russia and China.
  • Creates a domestic supply of high assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU). Many advanced reactors will rely on HALEU to power them, but no domestic commercial capability currently exists.
  • Establishes a University Nuclear Leadership Program to train the next generation of world-class, highly-skilled nuclear workers so that they can regulate and operate new advanced reactors.

NEI President and CEO Maria Korsnick praised the legislation, saying that a comprehensive plan to boost the country’s technological leadership in nuclear is exactly what is needed to help America compete in today’s increasingly competitive global marketplace.

“This legislation sends an unmistakable signal that the U.S. intends to re-commit itself as a global leader in clean, advanced nuclear technology,” Korsnick said. “Next generation nuclear technology is being aggressively pursued globally, and in order for the American nuclear industry to compete with state-owned or state-sponsored developers in rival nations—especially China and Russia—we must have significant collaboration between the federal government, our national labs, and private industry in order to accelerate innovation.”

The NELA bill is the latest in a series of important initiatives addressing near-term and future prospects for nuclear. Numerous states in the last couple of years have acted to preserve at-risk nuclear plants. The Federal Energy Regulatory CommissionPJM and ISO-New England are re-examining how they compensate and set prices for different generating technologies in light of recent premature nuclear plant retirements.

The introduction of the bill is an important first step in the federal legislative process. To become law, the bill would have to be passed by the Senate, along with similar legislation in the House, and then be signed by the president.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources released a one-pager detailing highlights of the proposed legislation and a section-by-section analysis. The full text of the bill is also available.