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Jordan Weaver’s Blog

DOE FY2013 Nuclear Energy Budget Request Makes Some Tough Calls, Not All of Them Good

Jordan Weaver

Posted February 28, 2012 in Nuclear Weapons, Waste and Energy

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As the Department of Energy (DOE) budget for FY 2012 continued its journey through Congress, with the House taking every opportunity to inflate the requested funds for questionable nuclear energy research and defense spending by gutting R&D efforts in renewable energy and efficiency programs, the President released the DOE budget request for FY 2013.  It calls for an overall $1.56 billion (six percent) increase over the $25.59 billion enacted for DOE in FY 2011. While this budget reflects some common sense decisions in a few key areas, there is still plenty for an environmentalist to balk over. We see again in this budget the administration’s tendency to maintain an unnecessarily aggressive nuclear weapons posture, at the expense of nuclear nonproliferation efforts and developing clean energy technologies.

As I sat listening to Secretary Chu’s presentation, at times pleasantly surprised by progressive changes that are being forced through as a result of the current fiscal climate, I realized how small these wins still are in the big picture. When the Secretary finished discussing the first half of the fund allocations, he concluded his presentation with a single slide for the other half: nuclear weapons and defense nuclear activities. As is par for the course at this point, the DOE plans to spend a staggering fraction, this year 43%, of its total budget, on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), with 27.9% of the total DOE request going to nuclear weapons activities account, such as the Stockpile Stewardship and warhead Life Extension Programs. This represents a growing disparity between the amount of money spent on clean energy research and the amount used to fund costly atomic weapons programs. Moreover, we see from the table below that civilian nuclear energy research on the whole receives over double the funding of all renewable technologies combined, and if you include fusion research, it’s 4 to 5 times larger. Despite all of the President’s policy statements about our “commitment to seek the peace and security of the world without nuclear weapons,” this year’s budget request is quite a depressing anachronism considering it proposes to spend at least 15% more on nuclear weapons activities (adjusted for inflation) than the Reagan administration ever tried to in a single year, and that was during the final phase of the Cold War.

The Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) would like us to believe that their budget decisions represent the policy advanced by President Obama in his State of the Union Address, in which he pressed for an “all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy.” I could almost buy that except for the fact that the DOE continues to fund efforts to develop nuclear spent fuel reprocessing, that which have proven to be decidedly unavailable for decades. For the immense amount of spending and research over six decades, we have yet to see an economically viable closed nuclear fuel cycle. At first glance, the newly proposed budget seems to scale back some of its fuel-reprocessing efforts under the Fuel Cycle R&D Program, through an overall 5.8% decrease in spending in comparison to 2012. However, unpacking the various subprograms reveals that NE has decided to increase its spending on the contentious joint research effort with the Republic of Korea and their development of a lab-scale feasibility study of “pyroprocessing” (electro-refining) of irradiated materials. Pyroprocessing refers to the high-temperature process of using molten salts and metals to separate the uranium, plutonium, and actinides from other spent fuel materials. Even ignoring the technical and economic hurdles to pyroprocessing, State Department officials have recently stated that this joint venture presents some fundamental nuclear weapons proliferation concerns that the DOE swept under the rug when the project was initially scoped.

Also within the Fuel Cycle Program, the NE office commendably cut funding by 31.2% ($18.3 million) for the Advanced Fuels R&D effort, partly due to the elimination or delay of various fast reactor fuel studies,. However we would recommend that DOE refocus these funds on developing fuel technologies that could improve the safety and economics of the existing Light Water Reactor (LWR) fleet. These technologies, such as silicon carbide fuel cladding, comprise part of NE’s Accident Tolerant Fuels Initiative, which aims to reduce the impacts of a severe accident on reactor core materials. Approaching the anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, it was disappointing to hear very little about any concrete steps (other than those already on the books) that the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy is taking to prioritize funding for Fukushima-related safety matters. DOE is missing an opportunity to support aspects of its research portfolio that overlap recommendations from the international community and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regarding gaps in our knowledge of severe accidents, such hydrogen generation during a loss of coolant accident (LOCA), and simulated accident progression modeling using sophisticated computer codes.

The NE office was at pains to point out that there are traces of post-Fukushima work throughout the budget, particular under the LWR Reactor Sustainability effort within the Reactor Concepts Research, Development, and Demonstration (RD&D) Program, but during the Q&A breakout session Assistant Secretary Peter Lyons made the incredible statement that the disaster in Japan less than one year ago had little to no effect on his budget, and by this I’m assuming he meant in levels of funding and not the prioritization. When pressed further, he mentioned a few of the projects I’ve noted above as being within the realm of post-Fukushima considerations, but one is left wondering whether they actually applied any insights from the Japan disaster, or if these are merely long-standing programs that will continue on at their previous pace.

The NE office will continue its efforts to support design certification and licensing activities for up to two Small Modular Reactor (SMR) designs and the proposed level of funding remains nearly flat at $65 million in 2013 compared to 2012. The focus for the upcoming fiscal year seems to be weighted more towards facilitating the development of a licensing framework for SMRs as opposed to R&D on design concepts, as the discretionary spending for the Reactor Concepts RD&D program is experiencing cuts across the board, and down 34% for SMR Advanced Concepts in particular. The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) has been tasked with posing the key questions that need to be assessed in determining whether a US-based SMR industry could gain a foothold in an already competitive global energy market. Can mass manufacturing techniques be applied to the production of small reactors in a way that sufficiently offsets the diseconomies of moving to a much smaller unit size, and the increased capital cost per kilowatt that such a size reduction currently implies? SMR technology does seem to offer a number of benefits, such as air-cooling and greater flexibility in siting and load-following operations, and could be a key element of the industry’s desire to maintain some sort of market share. But without a clear path forward and answers to some of these strategic questions, is the DOE’s funding focus appropriate at this juncture, especially considering the total funds envisioned for this experiment in licensing assistance is around $450 million over five years?

Within the NNSA budget request, the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program has remained around 21% of the overall NNSA budget in recent years and seems that it will continue to do so. Unfortunately, this program houses most of the associated activities related to the development of the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel complex, which is pursuing a costly approach (FY 2013 request of $921.3 million) to disposal of excess warhead plutonium, and manifests the proliferation risks inherent in any operation that ”recycles” plutonium as civilian MOX fuel . The new budget sees a $236 million increase above 2012 levels primarily due to support of cold start-up activities for the facility, and the requirement to look for new feedstock for the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF), with scheduled full operation and fuel fabrication occurring in 2016. The full “Life Cycle” cost of the MOX project is currently estimated to be over $7 billion, assuming operation until 2029. However, this assumed project lifetime is starting to appear doubtful now that most of the potential customers are backing out and current DOE estimates for material feedstock are not sufficient to support this timeframe.

According to the DOE, the MOX project is approximately 55% complete and the required Waste Solidification Building (also located at the Savannah River Site) is 68% complete. It also seems that the NNSA is still recovering from delays encountered in securing appropriate material feed stocks needed for hot start-up of the facility. Within the NNSA budget description is a mention of proposing legislative action to amend the law that initially required the site to meet a 1 metric ton (MT) per year production quota by January 1, 2012 and if this is not met then a required removal of not less than 1 MT by January 1, 2014. Otherwise, numerous corrective actions would be imposed such as plutonium shipment suspensions and payments to South Carolina of up to $100 million per year. The NNSA argues that these dates are now obsolete, hence the legislative action, but steers clear of explaining what particular elements of the project are fundamentally responsible for these delays.

Throughout the nuclear-related budget prose and presentations, I saw early signs of activities related to the recent report from the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) or at the very least some assurances that the Obama Administration is working on it. The Office of Nuclear Energy states that approximately $60 million of the FY 2013 requested funds will align with certain recommendations made by the BRC, which is about 8% of NE’s overall budget, but keep in mind that this would be a drop in the bucket compared to the money sent to NNSA each year. Unfortunately, the BRC did not take a stand on a number of critical issues that represent a legacy of financial burdens to the nuclear industry relating to the disposition of spent nuclear fuel, often with sparse to no commercial validation, such as various advanced fuel cycles dependent on industrial-scale reprocessing and fast-burner reactor concepts. Exactly what fraction of the $60 million is tied to scoping the new waste disposal process the BRC envisioned? How quickly do we expect to see real movement on the BRC’s recommendations? These are especially pertinent questions when one considers the uncertain nature of Yucca Mountain and whether any new decision will have implications for the DOE. Stay tuned for the conclusion. Whether this conclusion is a rational, fiscally responsible, safety-based, or even a remotely understandable one remains to be seen.

NUCLEAR vs. RENEWABLE ENERGY TECHNOLOGY FUNDING IN FY 2013 REQUEST (in millions of dollars)

Department of Energy Program

Nuclear Energy

Renewables

Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies

65.3

 

Small Modular Reactors Licensing

65.0

 

Reactor Concepts RD&D

73.7

 

Fuel Cycle R&D

175.4

 

Other (NE Facilities & Infrastructure)

391.0

 

              Subtotal (Office of NE)

770.4

 

MOX Fuel for Current Reactors*

917.5

 

              Subtotal (Fission Energy)

1,687.9

 

Solar Energy

 

310.0

Wind Energy

 

95.0

Biomass & Bio-refinery Systems

 

270.0

Geothermal

 

65.0

Water Power

 

20.0

Other (RE Facilities & Infrastructure)

 

26.4

Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) Research**

460.0

 

Magnetic Fusion Energy (MFE) Research***

398.3

 

TOTALS

3,316.6

786.4

* Managed by NNSA Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Program
** Managed by NNSA Weapons Activities Programs
*** Managed by DOE Office of Science
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Comments (Add yours)

Ruby CaratFeb 29 2012 02:22 PM

Nowhere is the solution of clean energy from the hydrogen in water -- cold fusion -- even as commercial products are being developed in Italy and Greece.

New energy companies in the US have been isolated from mainstrem funding sources, and as a consequence, our clean energy solution is not a part of the DoE energy mix.

Cold Fusion offers abundant, energy dense steam heat, and eventually, with thermoelectric turbines, clean electricity.

Shame on Secretary Chu. That the DoE spends what it does on dirty and dangerous radioactive nuclear technology and $0 on cold fusion is an example of why we need new leadership at this supposedly "progressive" agency.

Jen SierchioMar 12 2012 06:56 PM

In terms of the fusion budget, the domestic magnetic confinement fusion program is taking a severe cut to pay for ITER in France. Both the domestic program and ITER are important and should be funded. For more information, please go to http://fusionfuture.org

Sandra HaydenMay 3 2012 05:22 PM

This table is not helpful in that it groups fission and fusion together. How is fusion NOT a Renewable Energy? There is plenty of hydrogen on the planet. The NRDC needs to take another look at fusion.

Maynard WilsonNov 24 2012 02:36 PM

The uncertainity principle is easily over come by a doulbe perimid of force Feilds, unltra violet

Jose OrtizFeb 17 2013 04:36 PM

Wow, 73 million dollars for new reactor designs. yet more than 800 million for experimental fusion reactors? I'm sorry, this is ridiculous.

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