Nuclear energy appears to be an area where Democrats and Republicans can find agreement, as they advanced legislation Wednesday to update regulations and drive more advanced nuclear power plants into the market.
The Nuclear Power Modernization Act would help simplify the federal permitting process for new reactor designs at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal government's lead nuclear reactor watchdog and regulator. It also would make the commission's budget more transparent, especially on the fees it charges power plant operators.
The 18-3 vote was held in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where President Trump's choice to nominate Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency had driven a wedge between Democrats and Republicans in recent weeks. Pruitt was eventually confirmed, but not before Democrats made every attempt to block his nomination at both the committee level and on the Senate floor.
But nuclear energy appears to be an issue where both parties can find some agreement. Democrats on the environment committee like nuclear energy because it produces no emissions and can help combat the effects of climate change.
"This legislation shows how we can work together, across the aisle, to address issues that are important for our country," said Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the committee. "When done responsibly, nuclear power can help combat the negative impacts of climate change on our environment and public health, while also providing economic opportunities for Americans."
Republicans like nuclear power because it's a reliable source of electricity that can help boost the economy and create jobs. The bill would also update and simplify regulations, which is a constant theme for President Trump and the GOP.
"Our bipartisan nuclear energy legislation will simplify and modernize regulations at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," said environment committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo. "Doing so will create jobs, lower energy costs and allow America to remain a leader in nuclear development. I thank my colleagues for supporting this bill and look forward to passing it on the Senate floor."
The final bill added incentives that Carper wanted for research and development on new, safer reactor designs.
The nuclear watchdog's reactor license approval process has been weighted heavily toward approval of one technology, the more conventional light-water reactors that make up the majority of the U.S.'s fleet of 99 nuclear power reactors. But increasingly, smaller power plant designs, not all of which are light-water reactors, are close to becoming commercial with a number of states wanting to build the nuclear power plants.
The more advanced designs offer the promise of increased safety, less waste and cheaper cost than their old counterparts. Most of the U.S. power plant fleet is aging, with a number of plants scheduled to be closed over the next few years due to economic and regulatory factors. New low-cost reactor designs could help keep nuclear power as a part of the U.S. energy mix.