Advanced Reactor Research:
DOE Supports Multiple Technologies, but Actions Needed to Ensure a Prototype Is Built
GAO-14-545: Published: Jun 23, 2014. Publicly Released: Jun 23, 2014.
What GAO Found
The Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy's (NE) approach to advanced reactor research and development (R&D) focuses on three reactor technologies—high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, sodium-cooled fast reactors, and fluoride-salt-cooled high-temperature reactors—but NE is also funding research into other advanced reactor technologies. NE's approach is to conduct research in support of multiple advanced reactor technologies, while collaborating with industry and academia, with the ultimate goal for industry to take the results of NE's research to the next step of development and commercialization. This approach provides several advantages, including flexibility in responding to changes in future U.S. energy policy. Many representatives that GAO talked to from the nuclear power industry and the National Academy of Sciences agree with NE's approach, saying that current policies on controlling greenhouse gas emissions and disposing of nuclear waste do not make a compelling case for choosing a reactor technology to develop. However, others GAO talked to are critical of some of the reactor technologies NE chooses to research, citing economic and technological challenges. The Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee has criticized NE's approach, recommending that NE focus its efforts on a smaller number of technologies to help ensure that a reactor prototype is deployed. To remain aware of industry's R&D needs and international nuclear energy developments, NE regularly collaborates with industry and international organizations.
NE uses internal and external reviews to set program and funding priorities for advanced reactor R&D activities and to evaluate progress toward program goals. For example, NE conducts internal monthly and quarterly reviews to discuss project status, budgets, and technical highlights. Furthermore, NE's R&D efforts are periodically reviewed by external entities, including the Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee. Among the advanced reactor technologies that NE's R&D currently supports, the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor is the technology that is most likely to be deployed and commercialized in the near term, according to an NE planning document. NE officials said this likelihood is based on the wide range of potential industry market applications and because of substantial government investments in the technology's development. NE has been pursuing this technology under the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) Project, as established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct 2005). Under EPAct 2005, DOE is to deploy a prototype reactor for NGNP by the end of fiscal year 2021. However, in 2011, DOE decided not to proceed with the deployment phase of this project, citing several barriers. For example, NE and industry have been unable to reach an agreement on a cost-share arrangement to fund the deployment phase because of a disagreement on the applicable cost-share levels and how and when the cost-share would be applied to specific activities or project phases. Although NE continues to conduct R&D for the NGNP Project, it has not developed a strategy to overcome the cost-share issue and other barriers to resuming the deployment phase of the project. Furthermore, DOE has not selected initial reactor design parameters or reported to Congress on an alternative date for making this selection. Without doing so, it is not clear when NE is going to take this next step in deploying the NGNP prototype reactor and it risks the project not being completed by the targeted date in 2021.
Why GAO Did This Study
NE conducts R&D on advanced nuclear reactor technologies with multiple aims, including (1) improving the economic competitiveness of nuclear technology to ensure that nuclear power continues to play a role in meeting our nation's energy needs; (2) increasing safety; (3) minimizing the risk of nuclear proliferation and terrorism; and (4) addressing environmental challenges, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. External groups have been critical of NE for, among other things, how it prioritizes advanced reactor R&D.
GAO was asked to review NE's advanced reactor R&D efforts. This report (1) describes NE's approach to advanced nuclear reactor R&D and (2) examines how NE plans and prioritizes its advanced reactor R&D activities, including deploying an advanced reactor. GAO reviewed laws and reports concerning NE's efforts to develop advanced reactor technologies and interviewed NE officials and a nonprobability sample of companies developing such technology, selected because of their involvement with DOE's R&D efforts.
What GAO Recommends
To better prepare DOE to meet the requirement of EPAct 2005 to deploy the NGNP prototype reactor, GAO recommends that DOE develop a strategy for resuming the NGNP Project and provide a report to Congress updating the status of the project. DOE agreed in principle with GAO's first recommendation and respectfully disagreed with the second. GAO believes these recommendations remain valid as discussed in the report.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: According to Department of Energy officials, DOE is currently finalizing a Vision and Strategy document pertinent to advanced nuclear reactors. When this document is complete we will assess whether it meets the intent of the GAO recommendation.
Recommendation: To better prepare the Department of Energy to meet the requirement of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to deploy the NGNP prototype reactor, DOE should develop, in consultation with the Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee and independent nuclear experts, as appropriate, a strategy to proceed with Phase 2 of the NGNP Project, outlining conditions that will warrant a change in program direction, remaining research and development activities, projected project budget and schedule, and steps necessary to overcome barriers to successful completion of the NGNP Project.
Agency Affected: Department of Energy
Comments: The Department of Energy stated that it "respectfully disagrees" with this recommendation and would not be taking action to address it. DOE considers this recommendation closed. However, DOE stated that it will continue to provide information to, and work with, Congress, industry, and other interested stakeholders with respect to its activities in the area of next generation reactor research and development. As such, GAO will continue to monitor any DOE action related to this recommendation.
Recommendation: To better prepare the Department of Energy to meet the requirement of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to deploy the NGNP prototype reactor, DOE should provide a report to Congress complying with the statutory requirement for Phase 1 of the NGNP Project by providing initial design parameters or a date for providing them. The report should also provide an updated status of the issues DOE identified in its 2011 letter to Congress and outline any additional barriers to proceeding with Phase 2 of the project, including (1) the status of the establishment of a public-private partnership; (2) the project strategy, including conditions that would warrant restarting the project; and (3) a legislative proposal, if necessary, to address any barriers to proceeding with the project, including the site and cost-share requirements.
Agency Affected: Department of Energy