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Sparks

Nuclear Energy Is the One Thing Congress Can Agree On

Environmentalists, however, still aren’t sold on the ADVANCE Act.

A nuclear power plant.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

While climate change policy is typically heavily polarized along party lines, nuclear energy policy is not. The ADVANCE Act, which would reform the nuclear regulatory policy to encourage the development of advanced nuclear reactors, passed the Senate today, by a vote of 88-2, preparing it for an almost certain presidential signature.

The bill has been floating around Congress for about a year and is the product of bipartisanship within the relevant committees, a notable departure from increasingly top-down legislating in Washington. The House of Representatives has its own nuclear regulatory bill, the Atomic Energy Advancement Act, which the House overwhelmingly voted for in February.

The resulting bill — a.k.a. the one that just passed — is a compromise between the House bill and the ADVANCE Act originally introduced in 2023, has been stapled to the “Fire Grants and Safety Act,” a bipartisan bill that reauthorizes a gaggle of federal firefighting programs that has already passed the House.

The nuclear piece of it is designed to align the Nuclear Regulatory Commission around so-called “advanced” nuclear reactors, a catch-all term that covers a number of designs and concepts that are typically smaller than the existing light water reactor fleet and would, ideally, be largely factory-built to reduce costs. So far, the NRC has only approved one advanced reactor design, put forward by the nuclear startup NuScale, but plans to actually build it fell through due to escalating costs. Another advanced nuclear project, Bill-Gates-backed TerraPower, has started construction ahead of receiving approval from the NRC.

The ADVANCE Act would eliminate some fees for applicants going through the NRC approval process; instruct the NRC to develop specific rules for “microreactors,” which might only have 20 or so megawatts of capacity and could be used for single sites or rural areas; establish prizes for advanced reactors; and “streamline” the NRC process for advanced nuclear reactors. That last bit would involve beefing up the Commission with additional staffing, change its mission statement to be more supportive of nuclear energy’s benefits (as opposed to merely its risks), and come up with a way to make it easier to develop nuclear reactors on brownfield sites such as decommissioned coal plants.

The Nuclear Energy Institute said in a statement in April that the bill would “improve our ability to get more nuclear reactors approved and on the grid more quickly.” That is exactly what some environmental groups are unhappy about, however. “Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s apparent embrace of new nuclear energy development represents a stark betrayal of the clean, safe renewable energy options like wind and solar that he claims to champion,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement last week.

The ADVANCE Act is just one of a flurry of legislative and executive actions to support the nuclear energy industry. Nuclear power qualifies for a number of Inflation Reduction Act tax credits and the beefed up Loan Programs Office has committed up to $1.5 billion for the re-opening of the Palisades Nuclear Plant in Michigan.

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Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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