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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
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1
Introduction

Growing energy demands, emerging concerns about the emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, the increasing and volatile price of natural gas, and a sustained period of successful operation for the existing fleet of nuclear power plants have resulted in a renewal of interest in nuclear power in the United States. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct05) advanced this interest by authorizing a number of initiatives intended to both accelerate new nuclear plant construction in the near term and spur longer-term research and development (R&D). Partly as a result of EPAct05, the nuclear power industry is considering applications for the construction of new light water reactor power plants in the United States. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) reports that it expects 21 applications for 32 new units between 2007 and 2009.1

The government plays a significant role in guiding the future of nuclear power. The nuclear industry in the United States is closely regulated to promote safe and secure power plant operation. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and its 1987 amendments make the government responsible for long-term management of spent reactor fuel. In addition, because power plant construction can be an expensive and lengthy process with substantial uncertainties, particularly those associated with regulatory and environmental permitting, the industry looks to government for assistance in managing the risks of investing in the first new reactors ordered in the United States since 1973.

The Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is a major agent of the government’s responsibility for advancing nuclear power. Specifically, NE takes its mission to be as follows:

… to lead the DOE investment in the development and exploration of advanced nuclear science and technology. NE leads the Government’s efforts to develop new nuclear energy generation technologies; to develop advanced, proliferation-resistant nuclear fuel technologies that maximize energy from nuclear fuel; and to maintain and enhance the national nuclear technology infrastructure.2

One consequence of the renewed interest in nuclear power for the NE mission has been a rapid growth in the NE research budget: by nearly 70 percent from the $193 million appropriated in FY 2003 to $320 million in FY 2006.3 The turnaround over a longer period was even more dramatic; in FY 1998 the NE research budget had collapsed to $2.2 million. In light of this growth, the FY 2006 President’s Budget Request (PBR) asked for funds to be set aside for the National Academy of Sciences to review the NE research programs and budget and to recommend priorities for the programs given the likelihood of constrained budget levels in the future (DOE, 2005). Following passage by Congress of the FY 2006 budget, the National Research Council (NRC) developed a statement of task (Appendix F) for a “comprehensive, independent evaluation of DOE’s nuclear energy program’s goals and plans, and processes for establishing program priorities and oversight (including the method for determining the relative allocation of budgetary resources).”

At the time the statement of task was approved, the scope of the project focused on five elements of the NE program, which were described in the prospectus for the study approved by the National Academies:

  • Nuclear Power 2010. This is a joint government/industry cost-shared effort comprising technology development and demonstration activities that advance the National Energy Policy goals of enhancing energy independence and reliability and expanding the contribution of nuclear power to the U.S. energy portfolio. Its current focus is to demonstrate the revised licensing process by which the next generation of

1

 From the September 11, 2007, version of http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-licensing/new-licensing-files/expected-new-rx-applications.pdf.

2

 From the statement of mission available at http://www.ne.doe.gov/. Last accessed January 28, 2007.

3

These are totals only for programs within the scope of this project.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
×

nuclear power plants would be governed and to finalize the licensed designs to a point that project and private investment decisions on new plant constructions can be firmly based.

  • Generation IV. This nuclear energy systems initiative addresses fundamental R&D necessary to ensure the viability of future nuclear energy systems. The initiative is intended to address concepts that excel in safety, cost effectiveness, sustainability, and proliferation resistance and that will be attractive to the private sector for commercial development and deployment. With international participation, the initiative developed a technology roadmap that identified the six most promising nuclear energy systems, paying attention to the complete fuel cycle, power conversion, waste management, and other nuclear infrastructure issues. The concepts it identified are (1) the very-high-temperature reactor (VHTR), (2) the supercritical water-cooled reactor (SCWR), (3) the gas-cooled fast reactor (GFR), (4) the lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR), (5) the sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR), and (6) the molten salt reactor (MSR). The roadmap also serves as the basis for organizing national, bilateral, and multilateral research and development activities for the development of Generation IV systems.

  • Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative. This initiative conducts R&D on enabling technologies, demonstrating nuclear-based hydrogen production technologies and studying potential hydrogen production approaches in support of the President’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. The objective is to develop technologies that will use nuclear-generated heat to produce bulk hydrogen at a cost competitive with that of other alternative transportation fuels. Approaches such as high-temperature electrolysis and various thermochemical water-splitting cycles are being considered.

  • Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI). This initiative develops and demonstrates fuel cycles that could have substantial environmental, nonproliferation, and economic advantages over the once-through fuel cycle. Specifically, it is investigating (1) the development of separations technologies for spent nuclear fuel; (2) the development of advanced, proliferation-resistant reactor fuels that will enable the consumption of plutonium from accumulated spent fuel, thus extracting more useful energy from spent fuel materials; and (3) transmutation engineering for minor actinides and long-lived fission products from spent fuel. The initiative is also developing systems analysis tools to formulate, assess, and guide program activities and a transmutation education activity that includes support of young U.S. scientists and engineers studying science and technology issues related to transmutation and advanced nuclear fuel cycle systems.

  • Idaho Facilities Management. This program maintains DOE facilities at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) that are related to the above-mentioned R&D programs. (The FY 2006 PBR specifically asks that the relationship between the Idaho facilities management program and NE’s R&D program be evaluated.)

EVOLVING PROJECT SCOPE

In response to the FY 2006 PBR, NRC established the Committee on Review of DOE’s Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. The statement of task for the committee closely matched that of the effort described in the above-mentioned prospectus, except that it introduced two issues that somewhat extended the scope. One was the appropriate federal role relative to that of “public, nongovernmental (including universities) and international efforts.” The other charged the committee with examining program management and organization, among other things, that might be “key[s] to success of the [technical] program.”

Following the required appropriations and procurement cycle, the committee first met on August 24, 2006, more than 18 months after the request for the study first appeared in the FY 2006 PBR. During the interim period, however, NE’s research program changed significantly. EPAct05 authorized expanded initiatives for the nuclear program and also resulted in the establishment of a new position, assistant secretary for nuclear energy, within DOE. Even more important was the public emergence in early 2006 of a major programmatic initiative—the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). GNEP’s stated technical objective is to develop, demonstrate, and deploy technologies to reprocess spent reactor fuel in a way that minimizes the risk of fissile material being diverted, reduces the volume of waste in long-term storage, and recovers the energy available in the unused portion of the spent fuel. If executed as envisioned by its advocates, GNEP would result in the construction of commercial scale facilities for spent fuel reprocessing and disposal by burning4 the resultant plutonium and minor actinides together in advanced burner reactors, thereby reducing the radioactive burden on the waste repository. As proposed, GNEP would cost billions of dollars over several decades.

The GNEP initiative had major budgetary implications in the nearer term as well. To accommodate GNEP, the FY 2007 PBR proposed to increase the AFCI budget5 by $154 million, from $79 million to $243 million, while increasing the total NE budget by only $98 million. This proposal would thus have resulted in $56 million being drawn from other NE programs to fund GNEP. However, the Congress did not pass a FY 2007 appropriation for NE; instead it authorized a continuing resolution for the full year, which contained $167 million for the GNEP program through the AFCI account. The FY 2008 PBR includes $395 million for GNEP and $672 million for research and development. Between the FY 2006 appropriation and the FY 2008 request, the NE research and development budget would rise by more than 150 percent (this does not include funding for the Idaho Facilities Man-

4

In this context, “burn” does not mean to incinerate or combust; it means to convert heavy elements into lighter elements through the process of nuclear fission.

5

 The GNEP funds are carried under the AFCI budget line since there has been no such line for GNEP itself.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
×

agement account, which would increase from $99 million to $104 million). Table 1-1 summarizes the budget history of the NE program.

THE COMMITTEE’S APPROACH TO EVALUATION

The above-mentioned developments created two issues for the committee. First, the program for which the statement of task was written changed significantly between the time of the statement of task and the start of the committee’s work. Second, the dominant new program—GNEP—lacked the technical documentation, program plans, and program management organization that would ordinarily form the basis for an evaluation of program content and budget priorities. The committee believes that it has adapted to these developments in a way that is consistent with the statement of task and the structure of today’s NE program.

In the case of GNEP/AFCI, the committee relied on the Mission Need for GNEP, the GNEP Implementation Strategy, and the GNEP Strategic Plan documents for its evaluation (see Chapter 4 for further discussion). Although these appear to be the authoritative descriptions of the GNEP program, the GNEP Implementation Strategy and the GNEP Strategic Plan documents were not made public until well after the committee started its work. The committee believes that these documents provide an adequate basis for its overall assessment of GNEP but recognizes that they fall far short of the documentation needed for a detailed review. The GNEP Technology Development Plan was released late in the report process, but because it included a disclaimer that the plans it contained did “not necessarily reflect the views and decisions of the Department of Energy,” the committee could not accept it as DOE policy.

The other elements of the program were evaluated in more conventional terms, although each required its own approach:

  • Nuclear Power 2010 is not a research program but is designed to help mitigate the risk that industry will decide to build the first new nuclear power plant. The committee has evaluated it using the elements of the statement of task as the principal criteria.

  • The scope of the Generation IV program and the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative (NHI) program has changed as a result of GNEP. Within the Generation IV program, the committee has focused on the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) research effort because the fast spectrum reactor research that was part of this program has been considered in GNEP. While hydrogen production remains a goal of the NGNP program, a number of process heat applications are

TABLE 1-1 Office of Nuclear Energy Budget History FY 2003 to FY 2008 (thousands of dollars)

 

Comparable Appropriations

Actual Appropriations

Program

FY 2003

FY 2004

FY 2005

FY 2006

FY 2007 CR

FY 2008 Request

Nuclear energy plant optimization

4,806

2,863

2,412

0

0

0

Nuclear Energy Research Initiative

17,413

6,410

2,416

0

0

0

Nuclear Power 2010

31,579

19,360

49,605

65,340

80,291

114,000

Generation IV

16,940

26,981

38,828

53,263

35,586

36,145

Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative

2,000

6,201

8,682

24,057

19,265

22,600

Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative

57,292

65,750

66,407

78,408

167,484

395,000

Subtotal, R&D

130,030

127,565

168,350

221,068

302,626

567,745

Idaho facilities management

62,983

75,534

122,320

99,358

100,358

104,713

Total reviewed accounts

193,013

203,099

290,670

320,426

402,984

672,458

Radiological facilities management

62,928

63,431

68,563

54,049

46,775

53,021

Safeguards and security

52,560

56,654

58,103

71,285

72,946

72,946

University programs

18,034

23,055

23,810

26,730

16,547

0

Program direction

57,909

60,256

60,076

60,498

62,652

76,224

Total energy supply

271,307

291,186

393,339

430,565

482,191

801,703

Total NE budget

375,441

402,804

521,903

532,988

601,904

874,649

NOTE: CR, continuing resolution. Budget history for selected NE programs. NE is funded primarily from the Energy Supply and Conservation appropriations account, but the total NE budget for each year includes some funding from other accounts. The FY 2003 to FY 2005 columns are comparable appropriations, which means that they include funding from other accounts, but for similar activities. Revised updated budget numbers, which were not available to the committee during its study, can be obtained from Patrick Holman, DOE NE.

SOURCES: DOE (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007); the FY 2007 CR appropriations and some FY 2006 appropriations were supplied to NRC staff by DOE on March 9, 2007.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
×

possible as well, and these have been considered. Because this is a well-documented research program, the committee has used appropriate criteria from the Program Assessment and Review Tool (PART)6 process in its evaluation, as well as the elements of the statement of task.

  • The committee focused chiefly on the Idaho Facilities Management program because it is a major line in the NE budget—on the order of $100 million annually. This program is only one element of the Ten-Year Site Plan for INL. It supports chiefly the building of infrastructure at INL as well as technical programs that are not funded through program channels. The committee has used DOE’s criteria for the quality of laboratory infrastructure to evaluate this program and has examined whether the proposed program is consistent with its recommendations for other programs.

THE COMMITTEE’S PERSPECTIVE ON THE NE RESEARCH PROGRAM

Despite the changes in program and budget experienced by the NE research program, there are some constant features that set the context for the committee’s evaluation approach, which was influenced by two observations. One is that while the details of the NE program have shifted considerably, its high-level goals have changed little if at all. While stated in somewhat different words in various reports, the committee believes that a reasonable summary of the goals for technology development in support of the NE mission is as follows:

  • Assist the nuclear industry in providing for the safe, secure, and effective operation of nuclear power plants already in service, the anticipated growth in the next generation of light water reactors, and associated fuel cycle facilities.

  • Provide for nuclear power at a cost that will be competitive with other energy sources over time.

  • Support a safe and publicly acceptable domestic waste management system, including options for long-term disposal of the related waste forms. (The principal DOE responsibility for this function lies with its Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.)

  • Provide for effective proliferation resistance and physical protection of nuclear energy systems, both at home and in support of international nonproliferation and nuclear security regimes.

  • Create economical and environmentally acceptable nuclear power options for assuring long-term nonnuclear energy supplies while displacing insecure and polluting energy sources; such options include electricity production, hydrogen production, process heat, and water desalinization.

The committee’s second observation is that predicting the course of nuclear technology development over the next several decades entails substantial uncertainties. Indeed, the committee heard presentations from several respected analysts about how this development might take place. Their views of the technological future differed in important ways. An important reason for this divergence is that the development of new nuclear technology requires a planning horizon measured in decades, in no small part because of the capital intensity of the commercial nuclear energy sector. Over such a time period, the committee believes that the success of various candidate technologies will depend on policy and other forces outside the control of any NE technology development program. For example,

  • Waste management options and associated regulatory regimes and their likely acceptance by the public range from long-term storage at reactor sites or centralized interim storage, to direct disposal of all spent fuel in geologic repositories, as well as reduced waste forms envisioned by GNEP.

  • As yet unformulated environmental policy, especially regarding climate change, could have decisive impacts on the attractiveness of nuclear power.

  • Opinion on the cost and availability of natural uranium and associated enrichment capacity varies widely: some say it will be abundant, others say it will be “limited.”

  • If the near-term reprocessing options being pursued by other countries were to become established commercially, the resulting waste management regimes would compete with the GNEP concept.

  • Other countries might succeed in the development of next-generation nuclear technologies.

  • Nonproliferation and physical protection regimes are in flux, especially as international agreements continue to evolve.

  • Success of competing energy sources, such as clean coal, would affect the need for nuclear power.

  • The rate of near-term expansion of nuclear power plants, both domestically and internationally, would matter since it drives the timing and need for advanced reactors and fuel cycle technology.

How these uncertainties affect the elements of the NE program is discussed at the appropriate place in the balance of this report. In general, however, the committee’s view is that to select the winning technology path from among the options known today would be very premature. This conclusion is especially relevant for research that serves long-term objectives, such as GNEP/AFCI, Generation IV, and NHI.

Chapters 2 through 5 summarize the committee’s evaluation of each of the programs within the statement of task. A concluding chapter presents recommendations on program balance and priorities among the programs, as well as mecha-

6

PART is used by the Office of Management and Budget to assess the management of federal programs and contains specific criteria for that purpose.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
×

nisms for maintaining oversight of the programs as external conditions inevitably change.

REFERENCES

Department of Energy (DOE). 2004. Department of Energy FY2005 Congressional Budget Request. Available at http://www.cfo.doe.gov/budget/.

DOE. 2005. Department of Energy FY2006 Congressional Budget Request.

DOE. 2006. Department of Energy FY2007 Congressional Budget Request.

DOE. 2007. Department of Energy FY2008 Congressional Budget Request.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2008. Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11998.
×
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There has been a substantial resurgence of interest in nuclear power in the United States over the past few years. One consequence has been a rapid growth in the research budget of DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy (NE). In light of this growth, the Office of Management and Budget included within the FY2006 budget request a study by the National Academy of Sciences to review the NE research programs and recommend priorities among those programs. The programs to be evaluated were: Nuclear Power 2010 (NP 2010), Generation IV (GEN IV), the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative (NHI), the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)/Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) facilities. This book presents a description and analysis of each program along with specific findings and recommendations. It also provides an assessment of program priorities and oversight.

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