Other nations pursue nuclear energy more aggressively than U.S.

The United States continues to have more power generation from nuclear power than any other nation in the world, although it is expected to lose that position to China within the next 25 years, speakers noted during the Nuclear Infrastructure Council (NIC) Summit July 21 in Washington, D.C.

With other countries, especially China, aggressively pursuing nuclear energy for carbon-free power generation, the United States could lose its place among the top tier of nuclear power leaders, according to various speakers during the morning sessions.

It was a theme visited by both a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Jeffrey S. Merrifield, who today is a partner in the energy practice of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, as well as Verdigris Capital Principal Andrew Paterson.

“We don’t lead any longer in new construction – China does,” Paterson said. “Fukushima does not seem to have delayed the renaissance in Asia,” Paterson said.

After the 2011 Fukushima meltdown accident in Japan, 30 nations are still pursuing nuclear energy with the largest concentration of new plant orders centered in China and Asia, Paterson said.

The international competition in new nuclear power plants is growing tougher. China has a major domestic nuclear building program underway. Meanwhile, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is taking a direct role in promoting the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corp. in Russia, Paterson said.

The several-dozen electric utilities that own the U.S. nuclear fleets are gradually being overtaken by nation states that take an active role in cultivating nuclear power, Paterson said.

While the United States is building a few new nuclear units, about half of the existing domestic fleet could retire by 2040, officials said.

The U.S. government meanwhile seems more occupied with developing wind and solar power. While about 66,000 MW of wind power has been built in U.S., the bulk of it has been built west of the Mississippi, rather than near East Coast population centers, Paterson said.

Nuclear energy, with its smaller land requirements, is more suitable to serving growing urban areas and that’s why it’s being embraced in Asia, and other developing areas, Paterson said.

While former NRC commissioner Merrifield was generally more upbeat than Paterson, he agreed that “for this country to remain a nuclear leader we have got to change course.”

Merrifield served as part of the five-member NRC commission from October 1998 to June 2002 and from August 2002 to June 2007.

While Merrifield is happy to see the Obama administration’s support for small modular reactors (SMRs), he thinks more domestic investment is necessary in research and development.

“What I don’t think needs to come out of this is another white paper,” Merrifield said. “We as a country need to do some basic research if we want to remain a leader,” Merrifield said.

Internationally, Russia, France, China, South Korea and India among others are moving forward with advanced reactor research, Merrifield said.

In addition, investor-owned utilities in the United States need to take a greater sense of “ownership” in the nation’s nuclear power program, Merrifield said.

Merrifield also said that certain NRC fees and procedures act to discourage advanced nuclear technology in this country, especially when smaller, less capitalized companies are concerned.

Merrifield would prefer to see NRC adopt a pre-design certification process similar to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. There should be some means for NRC assessing whether a project can be licensed prior to a full review, said the former commissioner.

Part of the problem is NRC’s fee structure. Under current law – NRC must levy fees for 90 percent of its nearly $1 billion budget, Merrifield said.

The current fee system hinders small and advanced reactor vendors who cannot afford $277 per hour NRC fees, especially for extensive early reviews, Merrifield said. Small developers have to pay such fees with “no assurance on licensing,” Merrifield said.

Chandra Brown, the deputy assistant secretary for manufacturing at the U.S. Department of Commerce, said that nuclear power exports provide major business opportunities for U.S. vendors. Brown also stressed the need for the U.S. Congress to reauthorize the International Export-Import Bank.

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