A bill championed by U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito to encourage research and implementation of new ways to generate power from nuclear energy is now heading to the desk of President Joe Biden.

The U.S. Senate passed the Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act of 2024 Tuesday night as part of S.870, the Fire Grants and Safety Act. The bill passed in an 88-2 vote after the Senate concurred with amendments made by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The ADVANCE Act encourages the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to work with international partners toward developing the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors for electrical generation.

The bill reduces regulatory costs for companies wishing to license new reactor technologies, creates a prize to incentivize development of new technologies, and eases licensing pathways for micro-reactors.

It gives the NRC greater flexibility to look at improved manufacturing techniques to more quickly construct new nuclear facilities.

The bill also encourages the use of former power plant sites and brownfields for new nuclear reactor programs, as well as eases the licensing review process for new facilities at existing reactor sites.

Capito, R-W.Va., was the lead sponsor and author of the ADVANCE Act along with Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Capito, the ranking Republican member of EPW, called the bill an example of bipartisan leadership.

“Congress worked together to recognize the importance of nuclear energy to America’s future and got the job done,” Capito said. “This bipartisan piece of legislation will encourage more innovation and investment in nuclear technologies right here on our shores.

“It also directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to more efficiently carry out its important regulatory mission and redevelop conventional energy sites for future nuclear energy projects,” Capito continued. “I’m proud that the work we put into this legislation over many years is coming to fruition.”

“For years, I have worked with Sens. Capito and Whitehouse on this legislation to accelerate the deployment of our nation’s largest source of carbon-free electricity: nuclear energy,” Carper said in a statement. “The ADVANCE Act will provide the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with the tools and workforce it needs to review new nuclear technologies efficiently, while maintaining the NRC’s critical safety mission and creating thousands of jobs.”

In floor remarks made earlier Tuesday, Capito said the ADVANCE Act was first introduced in March 2023. Citing statistics from the federal Energy Information Agency, Capito said nuclear energy provides roughly 20% of the nation’s electricity while providing emissions-free energy.

“Not only is it necessary to continue developing and deploying more nuclear energy reactors from an energy and environmental standpoint, it’s also vital to our national security and it’s good for the economy,” Capito said. “So, it was important for us as lawmakers to prepare to meet the increased (energy) demand, predicted to be twice the demand, with policies that encourage investment and deployment of nuclear technologies right here on our shores.”

Nuclear power continues to have a stigma associated with it due to the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, the explosion at Chernobyl in Ukraine in the 1980s, and the meltdown at Fukushima in 2011 after Japan was hit by a tsunami. Despite these high-profile incidents, nuclear power has a high safety record. But the waste produced by nuclear plants also raises concerns for some.

The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement earlier this week in anticipation of the passage of the ADVANCE Act, accusing Congress of weakening regulations on nuclear energy.

“It’s extremely disappointing that, without any meaningful debate, Congress is about to erase 50 years of independent nuclear safety oversight by changing the NRC’s mission to not only protect public health and safety but also to protect the financial health of the industry and its investors,” said Edwin Lyman, the director of nuclear power safety at UCS.

“Make no mistake: This is not about making the reactor licensing process more efficient, but about weakening safety and security oversight across the board, a long-standing industry goal,” Lyman continued. “The change to the NRC’s mission effectively directs the agency to enforce only the bare minimum level of regulation at every facility it oversees across the United States.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, I-W.Va., also voted in favor of the ADVANCE Act. Manchin was the chief architect in 2022 of the $737 billion Inflation Reduction Act, which includes tax breaks for creating emissions-free nuclear power generation up to a 15 per megawatt hour subject to certain exceptions. Another credit would provide up to a 30% investment tax credit for new emission-free nuclear facilities built after 2025.

The West Virginia Legislature passed a bill two years ago eliminating a prohibition on the construction of nuclear power plants in the state, a prohibition that had been in place since 1996. One company — Dominion Energy — is working on site selection for small modular nuclear reactor sites in Virginia and West Virginia, including retired nuclear and coal-fired power facilities that already have access to transmission lines.

SMRs use only a small amount of nuclear fuel, making them far safer to manage, mitigating the risks of meltdowns and producing far smaller amounts of nuclear waste. A SMR takes up less space than a traditional nuclear plant and is less complex.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates is funding a salt water SMR, which would use sodium to regulate reactor temperature instead of the traditional water-cooled nuclear plant. A SMR takes up less space than a traditional nuclear plant and is less complex. Gates visited West Virginia in January 2023, including traveling to a closed coal-fired power plant owned by AEP in Glasgow that could be a future test site for a nuclear power project.