Trump budget proposal would down throttle clean energy innovation.
In recent years, the buzz in energy circles has focused on the renewables boom and cheap natural gas pushing coal off the grid. That makes a lot of sense. Both of these stories are new and exciting. Even as renewables and natural gas are transforming the electricity sector, nuclear energy remains a vital economic, environmental national security resource for the United States. It provides 60% of our zero emissions electricity, tens of thousands of well-paying rural jobs, and the talent and infrastructure to provide global leadership on safety and non-proliferation issues.
The American nuclear energy sector — innovators, developers, operators, advocates, and regulators — currently has two goals, both of which require the federal government as a stable partner:
1. Keep existing nuclear plants online, and successfully construct new large light water reactors; and
2. Develop and commercialize advanced reactor technologies as quickly possible.
While the Trump budget is likely to be modified by Congress, it represents the Administration’s values and priorities. One thing is very clear, it would put the federal partnership that allows our country to keep a stable nuclear fleet and to move innovative nuclear energy technology to the market at grave risk. Nuclear, like many complex technologies (such as commercial spacecraft and the Internet), needs a committed federal partner to share risk for first-of-a-kind ideas and to maintain a national test bed that supports many innovators.
Here are the biggest blows threatened by the nuclear energy budget:
· Starting with the workforce pipeline. University research is about 20% of the overall research budget. This budget would significantly reduce the funds available for students studying nuclear engineering and related fields. These are our emerging entrepreneurs in the crosshairs.
· The incredibly successful Light Water Reactor Sustainability program would be cut in half (a $20 million reduction) putting the brakes on research that helps keep our nearly 100 existing nuclear power plants healthy and running.
· Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies loses critical funding for transferring modern modeling and simulation tools from the lab to the existing reactors. Aerospace, pharmaceutical, and automotive industries use modern computing. It would be good for our economy, safety, and national security for the nuclear sector to use similar computing.
· Funding for Small Modular Reactors is zeroed out right at the moment they need it most, potently jeopardizing years of federal investment that helped get the technology close to commercialization.
· Advanced Reactor Technologies is cut by an astounding $38 million, terminating promised collaborations with X-Energy and Terrapower, companies at the forefront of the emerging American nuclear innovation ecosystem. It also prematurely terminates TRISO fuel qualification, a fuel desired by multiple nuclear innovation companies, after years of effort. The taxpayers get the remnants of the fuel tests but not the value of the research.
· This budget inexplicably adds $10 million for an advanced test reactor study. This test reactor would actually be a very useful addition to the national test bed, but if we are slashing the research budgets for the labs and universities and discouraging entrepreneurs away by refusing to partner, then who are we building this awesome new capability for?
· Fuel Cycle research and development is cut by $115 million. While much of this moves to a new waste disposal office, the budget still gives up on key science and technology research on recycling nuclear fuel.
· The Loan Program Office is zeroed out, significantly harming the potential for domestic deployment of large light water reactors, small modular, and advanced reactors.
· A quick look at big numbers shows the overall effect. The proposed budget would drop the DOE nuclear energy budgets from about $1.1B to about $700M. Since facility support and security are roughly $500M of the budget, research funding drops roughly by 2/3. Hard for the U.S. to lead with so many scientists taken off the job.
The Trump budget is loud and clear to the American nuclear sector: We give up. Don’t look to the federal government to encourage young entrepreneurs wanting to start American companies, to partner with entrepreneurs willing to take risks, or to support a vibrant national test bed. Clean energy advocates, communities, and congress must push back on this regressive budget or risk losing the major gains we’ve made in recent years, and losing our global leadership role in nuclear for good. Nuclear isn’t alone- we’re seeing cuts for innovation across the board- including for key climate technologies like renewables and carbon capture, and must all push back against this ineffective approach to energy R&D.