The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) announced last week its second round of awards.  A number of these awards have gone directly to advanced reactor startups, and they hope to push forward a number of technologies related to advanced reactors or next-generation light-water reactors.

We wanted to take a little closer look at the awards in this post.  To explain, GAIN awards come in the form of “vouchers” which provide awardees “with access to the extensive nuclear research capabilities and expertise available across the U.S. DOE national laboratories complex.”  Some of the advanced reactor ventures that received vouchers include Elysium Industries, Kairos Power, Muons, Oklo, Terrestrial Energy, Transatomic Power, and others, covering a broad swatch of different reactor types.  One nuclear battery startup, named MicroNuclear, also received an award—nuclear battery technologies have been gaining traction, with the “U-Battery” consortium engaging with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for pre-licensing review in March of this year.  In addition, a number of consulting and engineering companies also received awards, and the results from those projects could benefit a number of different reactor designs.

The most popular participating DOE laboratories are the Idaho, Argonne, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, although Sandia and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories also will be partnering with certain awardees.  About half of the research projects touch on molten salt reactor technologies, focusing on topics such as different salt chemistries, thermal hydraulics, and waste reprocessing.  A number of awards focus on metal-cooled fast reactors (including regulatory support), and modeling and simulation issues.  Five projects also have a focus on light-water reactor technologies, exploring areas such as small modular reactor concepts and waste reprocessing.

For any questions related to next-generation nuclear reactors or the GAIN initiative, please contact the authors.

Wednesday, the NRC staff held a public meeting related to emergency planning for SMRs and other new reactor technologies. Slides from the meeting can be found here.

A few observations from the meeting—

  • Although early in the process, if executed correctly, the NRC’s Emergency Planning rulemaking could significantly reduce costs for new small modular reactors, advanced reactors, and even medical isotope reactors.
  • There was significant discussion during the meeting on a number of areas, but in particular—
    • Whether the rule would be “risk-informed.”
    • How site-specific features would be factored into the rulemaking.
    • How proposed industrial facilities near a nuclear power plant would affect emergency planning.

The NRC staff made clear during the meeting that the rulemaking would be risk-informed and consequence-oriented, and would work to incorporate the safety advances provided by new reactor designs.

  • The NRC staff emphasized that it welcomes written comments as it moves forward with this rulemaking, and will lean on them in developing a proposed rule.  Comments on the regulatory basis document are due by June 27, 2017.

For additional discussion on the meeting, please contact the authors.

Published reports indicate that as many as 18 reactor designers are looking at the possibility of siting their first facility at Idaho National Laboratory, DOE’s lead laboratory for nuclear reactors. From time to time, there are similar expressions of interest in DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Savannah River Site.

DOE facilities have much to recommend them for such an undertaking, including incredible nuclear expertise near-at-hand, locations that are both remote and friendly to nuclear undertakings, and plenty of open space. At the same time, it is important to recognize the unique challenges that come with such sites.

Entering into a site use permit with DOE requires an understanding of certain “immovables,” including: DOE mission requirements, present and future; DOE obligations to state regulators, particularly environmental regulators; past uses of the sites that may not yet be remediated, such as environmental contamination or unexploded ordnance; and appropriations law restrictions, which mean that DOE cannot spend money to address an issue until Congress appropriates the money for that purpose.

There are also discontinuities between nuclear safety, security and liability approaches applicable to DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that have to be accommodated. These could affect matters as diverse as site access, transfer of ownership and radiation exposure standards. Likewise, dealing with two federal agencies that have different roles will complicate compliance with certain laws that apply equally to both of them, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Finally, there are also unique financial considerations arising both out of sharing common services and buying services from DOE.

None of these issues are insoluble, but it will take time and flexibility in approach to reach agreement. A reactor designer looking at a DOE site should go into it with eyes open and a large measure of patience for the negotiation that will be required.

Hogan Lovells has experience with negotiating these types of unique agreements with DOE. For additional information please contact one of the authors below.

Mary Anne Sullivan
Dan Stenger
Amy Roma
Sachin Desai

Scientists at MIT have put forward a novel idea for building a demonstration nuclear reactor—one that could limit licensing challenges with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) while still providing useful testing opportunities for advanced reactors.  The MIT facility already operates a six megawatt light water reactor.  The proposal is to build a second molten salt reactor, but one that is subcritical and which would use neutrons from the existing reactor to power the fission process, avoiding the need for a new NRC license.  If it takes off, it could only cost an estimated $15 million to build before fueling.

A lack of demonstration reactors is a critical barrier to the progress of advanced reactors, as testing is key to validating new ideas in this generally risk-averse industry.  As identified by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance,  “[a] critical obstacle to financing innovative nuclear power technologies is that there is no clear pathway for a first pilot-scale demonstration.”  The idea proposed here, even if imperfect, presents a new approach to testing new reactor designs.

There is certainly lots of attention behind advanced reactors.  Last week a Senate committee passed 18 to 3 the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, a bill to modernize the NRC’s licensing framework for advanced reactors.  And interest in the industry continues to grow.  This past week, nuclear enrichment giant Urenco discussed that it is partnering with engineers at Amec Foster Wheeler to develop a U-Battery, which would generate approximately 10 MW of power or heat (1% of a modern reactor) in a compact battery form.  But new ideas require testing—and hopefully MIT’s plan can help the industry get past a critical hurdle to future growth.

Last Tuesday, February 21, Third Way held a summit in Washington, D.C. focused on the advanced reactor industry, the Advanced Nuclear Summit & Showcase.  Among the many notable events at the conference was the strong bipartisan participation by Members of Congress.  Senator Chris Coons gave a keynote speech at the summit, and noted remarks made earlier by Senators Murkowski, Booker, Scott, and Whitehouse, leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Senator Murkowski’s remarks noted in particular the importance for advanced reactor legislation.  She, along with other Congressmen, including Senators Whitehouse and Booker, reintroduced in January the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (for more information about this and related legislation see our discussion of bills put forward in 2016 and 2017).  She pledged at the conference that she would push it forward and make it a priority in the new year.

We are excited to see advanced reactor legislation move forward in Congress this year, and will keep our readers updated.  For more on advanced reactor legislative and regulatory developments, please reach out to the authors.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) have seen some positive legal and policy developments recently.

A bill to provide tax exemptions for manufacturers of small modular reactors was introduced in the Washington state legislature.  Although in the early stages, this bill provides a new and potentially useful model for other states to follow to boost their advanced nuclear and SMR industries.  At a recent conference at Argonne National Laboratory, NuScale, the first SMR reactor to submit a design certification application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, highlighted the potential SMRs hold for creating U.S. manufacturing jobs. Washington state’s legislation is a timely effort to court NuScale and other SMR designers, with a mission to increase “the number of jobs in the small modular reactor industry in Washington.”

Public efforts to boost private-sector progress in developing next-generation nuclear reactors are essential to the growth of this societally important industry.  Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative, which seeks to leverage DOE laboratory facilities to benefit private reactor startups, was specifically called out by Secretary of Energy Perry in his confirmation hearing as an example of a successful public-private partnership.  In this vein, a recently launched organization, SMR Start, seeks to provide an additional targeted boost to policy reform efforts, with an aim towards “the successful commercialization of SMRs by enabling the establishment of supportive policies.”

Third Way, a strong promoter of policies to support the advanced nuclear industry, will likely discuss methods to provide public support for advanced reactors at its upcoming Advanced Nuclear Summit & Showcase being held this Tuesday, February 21 (and which can be livestreamed here).

For questions on encouraging public policy support for next-generation nuclear technologies, please contact the authors.

 

On February 9, 2017, Amy Roma, a partner in the firm’s nuclear practice, delivered a keynote address at the 13th annual Platts Nuclear Energy Conference, in Washington, D.C.

Her address highlighted a number of promising developments for the nuclear industry, from the debut of state incentive programs that reward nuclear energy for its zero-emissions attributes, to the growth of the advanced reactor community.  Not only have we seen advancements in the United States regarding government support and licensing of advanced reactors, but as identified in her comments, five advanced reactor designs have been submitted to the Canadian nuclear regulator for initial design approval.  Her address also discussed updates regarding spent fuel storage and took notice of international growth in the nuclear industry.

We want to share her remarks with you, click here to download. If there any questions as to her address or its contents, do not hesitate to contact the authors.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative recently launched a funding opportunity to support development of advanced nuclear energy technologies.  The funding comes in the form of “small business vouchers to assist applicants seeking access to the world class expertise and capabilities available across the United States (U.S.) DOE complex.”

According to the voucher program notice, “DOE anticipates awarding as many as 20 vouchers, each with value of approximately $50K – $500K contingent upon Congressional appropriation …. Requests for awards larger than $500K may be considered in cases where there is a clear need involving a truly exceptional innovation or technology.”  The notice indicates that applications should focus on the following topic areas:

  • Analysis and evaluation of, and for, advanced reactor concepts and associated designs, including development of licensing information or strategies;
  • Structural material and component development, testing, and qualification;
  • Advanced nuclear fuel development, fabrication, and testing (includes fuel materials and cladding);
  • Development, testing, and qualification of instrumentation, controls, and sensor technologies that are hardened for harsh environments and secured against cyber intrusion;
  • Modeling and simulation, high-performance computing, codes, and methods; and
  • Technical assistance from subject matter experts and/or data/information to support technology development and/or confirm key technical or licensing issues.

Detailed eligibility requirements are discussed in the program notice.  Among other things, the FOA requires that the applicants be small businesses that are U.S. based or have majority U.S. citizen or permanent resident ownership, and that operate primarily in the U.S.  In addition, as is customary, the program notice states that “[p]roducts embodying intellectual property developed under the assistance must be substantially manufactured in the U.S.”

Letters of intent are not required but strongly encouraged, and are due by March 9, 2017.  The requests for assistance themselves can be submitted between March 13 and April 10, 2017, and awards should be announced around mid-May.  At a recent advanced reactor conference held at Argonne National Laboratories, and at the Platts Nuclear Energy conference in Washington, DC, the DOE made specific mention of this opportunity and emphasized its interest in making DOE facilities available to advanced reactor startups through the GAIN initiative.

If there are any questions on this funding opportunity or on the GAIN initiative generally, please reach out to the authors.

Welcome to “New Nuclear,” a blog following legal and policy issues pertaining to the development of next generation nuclear power reactors in the United States. This blog is written by lawyers from Hogan Lovells who work in the nuclear industry, believe in its mission, and are passionate about seeing the nuclear dream of ubiquitous, affordable, safe, reliable, zero-carbon energy come to pass.  We hope what we write about will be useful to designers and technical leaders trying to stay up to date on legal developments that affect them, but we also want our posts to help inform members of the public interested in nuclear power generally.

More about “New Nuclear” and its authors can be found in our About page.  We have been at this for a while, writing on legal issues dealing with next-generation nuclear power technologies on the Hogan Lovells’ Focus on Regulation blog for some time—many of those posts have been transferred over to our new platform.  But for the inaugural post of the new blog, we wanted answer a simple question: what is “New Nuclear”?

It is known to many that nuclear power generates roughly 60% of the United States’ zero-carbon energy, is a reliable source of power that can operate in conditions that require other plants to shut down, and provides for thousands of high-paying jobs.  But what is perhaps less known is that today’s nuclear industry is undergoing dramatic change behind the scenes.  It is being reinvigorated by dozens of new entrants, large and small, each bringing new designs and new purpose to what used to be an sector dominated in the United States, and for the most part globally, by only two reactor designs—generally known as pressurized water reactors (PWRs) and boiling water reactors (BWRs).  Both designs use fundamentally the same reactor technology that relies on water cooling, active power core cooling systems and plant construction on-site.

 

In the United States and around the world today, there are well over fifty new ventures to develop nuclear power reactors, covering a variety of designs.  Some are government, some privately-funded.  Some want to use liquid metal coolants, and some want to use gaseous helium.  Some want to have liquid uranium (or thorium) fuel, and some want to use nuclear waste as fuel.  There are numerous fusion ventures as well.  These ventures have moved from the whiteboard to the machine shop.  Terrapower, which promises to use nuclear waste to power its reactors, is supported by Bill Gates and has garnered multiple rounds of financing.  NuScale, which promotes a factory-built-and-shipped small modular reactor design, has submitted a design certification application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Lightbridge, which is debuting a completely new type of uranium fuel rod, is publicly listed and has entered into joint development agreements with large nuclear service providers.  Tri Alpha Energy has raised 500 million dollars for its fusion energy start-up.

 

What they all have in common, and what “New Nuclear” covers, is that they are all firsts in nuclear power.  There are a number of outlets that cover important events affecting the current fleet of nuclear power reactors or the industry generally, such as the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Nuclear Notes.  We aim to serve as a legal-focused complement covering activities and events that could affect first-movers like those above, in the United States and around the world.  We hope it will be useful to those that participate in this area, and enjoyable for everyone.

If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact the authors.

On Friday, February 3, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published in the Federal Register draft “Guidance for Developing Principal Design Criteria for Non-Light Water Reactors.”  This draft new regulatory guide (identified as DG-1330) helps explain how the NRC’s “general design criteria” for traditional light-water nuclear power plants could be applied to non-light water (a.k.a. “advanced”) nuclear reactor design submissions, enabling applicants to develop principal design criteria as part of their regulatory filings.  Comments are due on the guidance by April 4, 2017.

The draft regulatory guide is a significant publication of over a 100 pages.  It provides a background of the NRC’s policy on advanced nuclear reactors, the role of general design criteria in reactor licensing, and joint NRC-U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) efforts to tailor the agency’s general design criteria to advanced reactors.  The general design criteria for traditional nuclear power plants are found at Appendix A to 10 C.F.R. Part 50, the chapter of the Code of Federal Regulations that contains the NRC’s primary regulations on nuclear power plant design.

But most interesting are the three appendices, which propose (A) technology-neutral design criteria for advanced reactors generally, (B) technology-specific design criteria for sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFRs), and (C) technology-specific design criteria for modular high temperature gas-cooled reactors (mHTGRs).  The appendices contain not only the design criteria, but the “NRC Rationale” explaining why/how they were adapted from the general design criteria.  In addition, pages 13 to 20 of the draft guide compare the three design criteria to the current set tailored to light-water reactors.

This is an important document that deserves close attention by the advanced reactor community.  It provides one of the first detailed insights into how the NRC views advanced reactors, how far it is willing to step away from the general design criteria framework, and what it finds of importance from a safety perspective for advanced reactors.

Notably, the basic approach taken by the NRC appears to mimic what the DOE suggested in its 2014 report, “Guidance for Developing Principal Design Criteria for Advanced (Non-Light Water) Reactors.”  There, the DOE likewise “proposed a set of advanced reactor design criteria” to serve in lieu of the general design criteria, but also proposed separate design criteria for SFRs and mHTGRs.  As explained by the NRC here, the DOE’s rationale was “that the safety objectives for some of the current [general design criteria] did not address design features specific to SFR and mHTGR technologies (e.g., sodium or helium coolant, passive heat removal systems, etc.).  Additional design criteria were developed to address unique features of those designs.”

It should be mentioned that this guide is just that—guidance.  As made clear in the draft guide, the proposed design criteria “are intended to provide stakeholders with insight into the staff’s views on how the [general design criteria] could be interpreted to address non-LWR design features,” but they are not binding.  It is still on the applicant to develop principal design criteria for her application, “considering public safety matters and fundamental concepts, such as defense in depth, in the design of their specific facility and for identifying and satisfying necessary safety requirements.”

Moreover, the regulatory framework for advanced reactors is still in flux.  As noted in a prior blog entry, this January legislation was introduced in Congress “to spur technology development related to advanced reactors.”  Recently, on January 23, separate legislation “to provide regulatory certainty for the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies” passed the House of Representatives.  This latter bill, entitled the “Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act of 2017” is related to a prior bill that passed the House of Representatives in 2016, and was examined by our team here.

The advanced reactor industry is certainly picking up steam.  Terrestrial Energy earlier this month informed the NRC that it plans to file a license application for its molten salt reactor in 2019.  LeadCold around the same time announced a $200 million deal to develop its lead-cooled reactor.  We hope the NRC’s actions here evidence continued support for the advanced reactor community, and a willingness to recognize the unique safety and security benefits these new designs bring.

Please feel free to contact the authors with any questions.