It’s hard to believe after so many failed attempts at subsidizing advanced nuclear reactors, Congress would think to do it again. But, wait…it’s Congress and it’s Christmas. The best time of year to start a “new” Department of Energy (DOE) program for nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, for taxpayers there is little new here, and even less to make us feel like this risky prospect will end any differently than our last go around.
This $230 million add on for a new “Advanced Reactors Demonstration Program” gives us a lot of heartburn because it looks just like other subsidy programs of Christmas past where taxpayers got nothing in return for piles of subsidies. For example, the DOE spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs supporting development Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – ‘mini-nukes’ generating less than 300MWe that were supposed to be easier to build, cheaper, safer, etc. Between FY2012 and FY2017, the SMR licensing technical support program cost taxpayers $450 million. Just last year, Congress funded SMR R&D at $100 million and the current bill would re-up the same amount for FY2020. Yet SMRs never became the game-changer they were meant to.
In the context of the whole nuclear spending and subsidy picture, the new program is just icing on the yule log. Overall, the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy budget has grown enormously in recent years. At $1.5 billion in this year’s omnibus, the Office’s total budget is 80 percent more than just five years ago! In FY2015, the total was $830 million. Plenty of that new spending has already gone to support R&D for advanced reactors. In fact, there’s already a $20 million program for industry demonstration of advanced reactors elsewhere in DOE’s budget. The gift that keeps on giving (away)!
If any of this DOE-funded research or any one of the many demonstration programs takes off, taxpayers will only have to pay more. Thanks to an expansion of the production tax credit for “Advanced Nuclear” energy that was tacked on the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, if any advanced reactor starts producing electricity, taxpayers will lose millions of dollars on tax breaks to the nuclear industry.
The truth is there isn’t enough subsidy out there to make these nuke dreams happen. The taxpayer liabilities and subsidies for the existing nuclear fleet are already as big as Santa’s bag on Christmas Eve. We cannot saddle ourselves again with another program for advanced reactors, in any budget context, but especially not considering our current exploding national debt.