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Nuclear Energy

Federal agencies could better oversee issues related to nuclear energy research, safety, security, and nuclear waste management.

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Nuclear energy is a key component of the nation’s current energy mix. It accounts for 20% of the electricity generated in the United States, and 55% of its carbon-free electricity.

Federal agencies regulate and promote nuclear energy. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have key responsibilities related to nuclear energy. Specifically, DOE seeks to advance nuclear energy through research and development activities; it is also responsible for siting, building, and operating a geologic repository to dispose of high-level nuclear waste. The NRC licenses nuclear power plants and oversees their safe operation and security.

A Nuclear Power Plant with Cooling Towers and Related Facilities

A Nuclear Power Plant with Cooling Towers and Related Facilities

Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

However, both DOE and NRC could better address key issues related to nuclear energy. For instance:

  • Workforce management. 11 nuclear reactors have shut down in the United States since 2010, and the NRC has reduced its staff to compensate. However, the agency could improve how effectively it manages its workforce. For example, it should set agency-wide workforce size and composition goals and establish a systematic approach to tracking employees' skills. Doing so will help the NRC know what the appropriate size and composition of its workforce should be—now and in the future.
  • Advanced nuclear energy technologies. DOE supports research to develop advanced nuclear energy technologies such as small modular reactors and microreactors. These new technologies may offer significant advantages, including smaller size, lower construction and operation costs, improved safety, and reduced nuclear waste. However, none of these technologies has demonstrated economic viability to-date. For example, DOE is helping to build and operate the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a first-of-its-kind research facility in France, to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion energy. However, since 2006, DOE’s estimated cost for the U.S. portion of ITER has grown by almost $3 billion, and the project’s estimated completion date has slipped by 20 years. DOE should propose a final, stable funding plan for U.S. contributions to this project.
  • Nuclear power plant safety and security. The safety and security of nuclear power plants has received renewed attention since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2011 disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. NRC has revised some of its safety and security processes and requirements, but it continues to face challenges in protecting against cyberthreats. To improve its cybersecurity risk management program, the NRC should develop a risk management strategy and better assess cyber risks.
  • Disposal of commercial spent nuclear fuel. Commercial spent nuclear fuel—radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants—can pose serious risks to humans and the environment. DOE is responsible for disposing of commercial spent nuclear fuel at a permanent geologic repository, but has yet to build such a facility. As a result, nearly 80,000 metric tons of this waste is being stored at nuclear power plants across the country in spent fuel pools or dry casks. Meanwhile, the federal government has paid billions in damages to utilities for failing to dispose of this waste, and may potentially have to pay tens of billions of dollars more in coming decades.

Spent Nuclear Fuel Pool (Left) and Spent Nuclear Fuel Dry Casks (Right)

Spent Nuclear Fuel Pool (Left) and Spent Nuclear Fuel Dry Casks (Right) 

Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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    • Frank Rusco
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
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