DOE's Funding for Nuclear Research is Too Little

Digital lithograph by the author of the interior of the Annular Core Research Reactor at Sandia Labs.

DOE's Funding for Nuclear Research is Too Little for What is at Stake

The US Department of Energy has announced its annual funding for university-level research in novel applications and techniques in nuclear power and associated fields. A total of $61 million has been allocated for this research and the majority of this funding will be provided to projects undertaken by 38 universities under the guise of the Nuclear Energy University Programs scheme of the DOE. Some of this funding (about $5 million) will also be applied to research reactor upgrades at various universities while another portion ($9 million) will fund university-lead research projects at the DOE National Labs and at some universities themselves. Altogether, it’s a serious amount of money dedicated to areas of innovation where the United States needs to take the lead now if we wish to remain in a position of technological leadership. We do have competition, certainly: Russia has announced its project to provide floating nuclear power plants, which was first begun in 2009, to be moving ahead as planned. Each barge will contain two reactors and be able to provide electrical power to whatever locality where it is docked and also desalinate sea water for the provision of fresh potable water for local needs. This dynamic concept is one that should not surprise those who follow the Russian nuclear industry which has long used nuclear-powered icebreakers and otherwise advocated innovative applications of nuclear power for non-military use. 

See the following at Russia Behind the Headlines for more on the mobile maritime nuclear power plant concept:

So, while I did praise it as a “serious amount” above, is the DOE funding for university research serious enough? Does it allow the American nuclear academic community to do what it needs to do to bring us apace with everyone else, much less to put us in the front-runner’s spot? I’m not so certain. $61 million isn’t a bad yearly budget until you look into everything it covers, including some very costly, complex, but vital research projects. In one way of providing some contrast, the USAF B-2 Spirit bomber’s base cost per unit was $737 million (the Navy’s F/A-18 costs only $80 million with its weapons systems if that B-2 seems a bit out of your price range, by the way). These figures do not include the research and development costs for those aircraft. So is a year’s funding for a diversity of research programs that should, if successful, be central to making nuclear power safer, expanding associated industries, and thus creating jobs (and producing the baseline for further earnings) not deserving of even more money than it has been promised for this year? What about the money—a mere $5 million—for the research reactors upgrade program? I am not certain of which specific university reactors will benefit from this nor what upgrades exactly are involved, but I would offer a pretty strong and faithful guess that we could double it to $10 million and do a lot more and all that we would thus provide would be quite useful and even necessary. 

The overall program cost for the USAF F-22 has been $66.7 billion. For one aircraft program. Per unit cost at $150 million a jet. That may well be necessary, but it's for one type of aircraft, one program. Not for innovations that will have an impact in a variety of directions within a whole, vast, industry.

I’m not knocking those expensive fighters and bombers, by the way: I’m a huge fan and advocate of military aviation. However, when we look at government spending and when we consider what it costs to fund programs from fighters to Food Stamps we constantly see funding for science come in far behind other government spending in terms of amounts dedicated to furthering the future of American know-how. Consider that for a moment: we are lagging in investing in the very technologies and efforts to discern cutting-edge technologies that our future competitive abilities and scientific capacity will be predicated upon. I didn’t make mention of those military aircraft prices to simply provide an example of single-item government purchases that are staggeringly expensive but to note that these aircraft are high-ticket items, yet what is known as the fly-away cost (which is the figure I provided) doesn’t include the research and development required to design and test the aircraft, only the base price of the bird itself per unit plus the costs of item-specific tooling and associated costs of manufacture. We can also calculate the cost of the research for each specific aircraft program—indeed, I was just reading over the figures of the F-35 program prior to sitting down to type this blog entry—but even that doesn’t include exactly the sort of research we’re talking about with these DOE programs, which is basic and applied research that will improve more specific programs down the road. Something DOE does today may make a nuclear power plant safer tomorrow; something a grad student is doing with DOE funding may even turn up paving the way for innovations outside of nuclear—who knows, it may even make it cheaper to build the next generation of fighter jets. 

I’ve worked on a variety of software programs germane to aerospace applications and studied a variety of aerospace development programs. Here’s the amazing thing: in ample cases, the military has thrown millions into projects that never went into production—that is, we never got a finished plane or weapons platform out of it despite the blood, sweat, tears and cash. The university-based programs that DOE funds in contrast will for the most part produce either immediate, applied innovations of actual use to the nuclear industry or else seed technologies that can be applied to further research in crucial emerging fields. Yet there seems to be a lot of political grumbling over such funding. Will the projects provide a speedy enough turn-around to see short-term results? Shouldn’t we fund in equal measure research in energy alternatives to nuclear? The bottom line to me is this: Yes, nuclear is costly in terms of basal research as well as the cost of building actual power plants. Nuclear however is also very effective in terms of doing what it’s supposed to do: serving as a viable, clean, long-term power solution. Coal, natural gas, oil, solar, wind, biomass—none of these can offer the unified solution that nuclear can in sustainable energy generation, but to make the required technology as safe as possible, as inexpensive as possible, and as long-lasting as possible industry needs research coming from academia and funding for industry-based research, too. Hence the aerospace examples: plenty of people complain programs such as the F-35 (to list perhaps the worst offender in terms of an overly-robust aircraft program in history) being far too costly, but no one will deny that the basal costs of research are in fact quite expensive, yet necessary. With the F-35, the complaint is that we didn’t get what we paid for and at that, spent too much in the process of getting what we have now on the table. That’s a valid complaint. In funding the next generation of nuclear power technologies, we are nearly certain to see a good return on the investment. Why? Because nuclear is unique: it’s really a fairly small community, even when both academia and industry are both included. Nuclear has the NRC as well as DOE in terms of oversight, so the way money is spent at every level has the built-in need for comprehensive fiscal as well as scientific review. This means if you’re a college seeking part of that DOE funding pie, you have to really make your case. You’ll be not only in competition with your peers for the money but also working alongside them. Many DOE programs are placed via the National Labs where there is additional direct oversight. The involvement of academia allows for further educated discernment: All in all, you’re not going to see money wasted when placed into nuclear-related research. 

In contrast, coal-based power generation doesn’t want new EPA regulations: that has become very clear recently if it was not in the first place. Why will they desire new, better, more ecological technologies if indeed such technologies will be costly to put into practice? Oil also doesn’t want comprehensive new technologies: when was the most-recent fully-new refinery in the United States built? How many refineries were built anew or underwent serious renovations over the past two decades? Many people in solar and wind, however good their intentions, realize they’re in a still-young field with cloistered, limited, applications so while they desire to do a wealth of research, their real ability to move innovation into practice is a bit uncertain. Nuclear, in contrast, is asking for every opportunity to innovate. “Nuclear” meaning the power utilities, meaning companies working on new reactor and control technologies, meaning grad students in the lab, meaning the NRC, meaning . . . well, really, everyone. Everyone in nuclear is aboard on this quest for the new, the better, the future. So we have that with nuclear and on the other hand, you have industries like coal that cry out that it’s too expensive to improve on the standards and technologies we already have. Where do you want to spend the research money? I would start with the people who know they can get somewhere with research and have demonstrated a dedication to doing just that. 

Read Nuclear Street's account of the current DOE funding here:

Read about DOE's grants and contracts and other funding here:

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  • Anonymous

    In the energy policy rhetoric, we have "All-of-the-Above."  In nuclear, "all-of-the-above" points out loan guarantees for new builds of Gen III+ power plants.  Please help point to the advanced reactor R&D dollars?  What happened to Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) that researched fast reactors and advanced fuel cycles?   What happened to GenIV and the Generation IV International Forum?  What fast neutron test reactor capability exists in the USA?  Where will US industry go for fuels and materials testing that is required for design certifications?  

    I ask these questions because the  "All-of-the-Above" policy appears not to include advanced reactor and fuel cycle R&D.  

  • The issues you bring up are ones I may well address in future posts. We do have firms and academic researchers alike working on next generation reactor technologies, certainly, yet still there is a lack of funding.