In time for the Thanksgiving long weekend, we want to draw your attention to a number of interesting reports on advanced reactor developments that have come out over the past couple months:

  • Most recently, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) issued a thoughtful white paper on regulatory and licensing issues for micro-reactors, in advance of the first round of micro-reactor applications expected to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) next year.  The paper highlights the safety benefits of micro-reactors, which generally boast a much smaller inventory of fission products compared to existing reactors, possess automatic or remote operations and monitoring, and often rely on inherent and passive safety features.

    The paper argues that NRC regulations for larger reactors would be unduly burdensome if applied to micro-reactors, given the latter’s relative simplicity and safety.  Instead, the NRC should develop a flexible and accommodating regulatory approach to micro-reactors.  It could borrow in part from how research and test reactors (RTRs) are regulated, as both micro-reactors and RTRs present similarly low risks to public health and safety.

  • The NRC and Department of Energy (DOE) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in October to share technical knowledge and expertise, including computing resources, with the common goal of deploying advanced reactor technologies.  This important partnership falls under the auspices of DOE’s National Reactor Innovation Center, created by the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017 (NEICA) to enable the testing and demonstration of reactor concepts from the private sector.  We previous wrote about NEICA here and here.
  • Moltex Energy raised around US$7.5 million in part through an unlikely and unique method, at least for nuclear energy – crowdfunding!  Around 170 investors helped the advanced reactor company blow past its initial target, with Moltex representatives crediting this resounding success to a widespread desire among investors to tackle climate change through advanced reactors.  The capital is designed to help support pre-licensing and development of the company’s fission-based Stable Salt Reactor (SSR) technology.  As private funding for advanced reactors continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how much companies rely on crowdfunding and other novel methods moving forward.
  • The NRC staff released a draft white paper in September to facilitate its review of advanced non-light water reactor (LWR) technologies.  This is part of the NRC staff’s efforts to develop an adaptable, technology-inclusive, risk-informed, and performance-based approach to reviewing non-LWR applications.  Among other things, the paper details vendor approaches to licensing strategy based on reactor design, provides guidance on the scope and focus of the NRC staff’s technical review, and outlines acceptance criteria that could be considered.  It is intended to aid non-LWR applications until the NRC develops a comprehensive regulatory framework by the end of 2027, as required by the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA).  We previously wrote about NEIMA here and here.
  • And speaking of NEIMA, Congress continues to show interest and leadership in promoting advanced reactor development, including the need for the NRC to develop a risk-informed framework for advanced nuclear technologies.  On November 21, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-SV), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, sent a letter to the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency regarding emergency planning requirements.  In the letter, the senators support establishing emergency preparedness requirements for advanced nuclear technologies to account for smaller, safer nuclear reactor designs, explaining:

As part of our efforts to facilitate the deployment of advanced nuclear technologies, Congress passed, and President Trump signed into law, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA). NEIMA requires NRC establish a risk-informed, technology-inclusive regulatory framework to license and oversee advanced nuclear technologies. EP requirements are a part of this framework.

The Commission is currently considering an NRC staff proposal to establish new EP requirements and implementing guidance for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and other advanced nuclear technologies. The proposal is based on a consequence-oriented, risk-informed, performance-based, and technology-inclusive approach. We urge the Commission to support requirements that align with NEIMA’s risk-informed framework and we expect FEMA’s consultation will constructively support achieving this goal.

For more information on these and other developments, please contact the authors.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held two public meetings on November 15th and 20th to solicit feedback as to whether to compile a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for the construction and operation of advanced reactors. GEISs have the potential to materially reduce the licensing burden on NRC advanced reactor applicants, given that environmental reviews can take up to a third of agency resources involved in licensing the construction of an advanced reactor.   We advocated that the NRC turn to GEISs for advanced reactors in our recent article co-authored with the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, entitled Nuclear Innovation and NEPA.

This immediate NRC effort is the result of a request from Senators Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Braun (R-In.), both Members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. In a letter sent on June 25, 2019, the Senators stated that a GEIS “will reduce cumbersome regulatory barriers, expedite the environmental review process, and enable market deployment of innovative nuclear technologies.” During the recent meetings, the NRC acknowledged the benefits of a GEIS, including reducing administrative costs to applicants, streamlining the environmental review process, and encouraging innovation in reactor technologies. A copy of the meeting slides can be found here.

The NRC is requesting interested stakeholders to provide information to help the agency make its decision. In the meetings, the NRC requested basic advanced reactor design information, such as where reactors could be sited, dimensions and power output, fuel requirements, radiological release characteristics, and construction requirements. However, the agency staff also mentioned that they would consider any input.

This is an important effort, and one for which the advanced reactor community should communicate its support—along with actionable recommendations for the agency to consider. As we emphasized in our paper with the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, GEISs can streamline the NEPA process. There are a number of environmental review issues that are common to a large selection of advanced reactor applicants, such as with modular construction, responses to accidents, use of higher-enrichment fuel, and placement below-grade. All of these and more would be better addressed now through a generic process, rather than being left to hold up individual license applications.

As for next steps, the NRC stated that it will hold a workshop in January on possible approaches. In February, the agency plans to release a report summarizing the findings of the comment process and making a recommendation on whether to proceed with a GEIS.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors.

The Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA) late last week published two papers on recommendations for addressing regulatory challenges related to advanced reactor licensing:

The blog authors had the pleasure of working with NIA to contribute to the first article, on NEPA reform, leveraging years of experience with NRC licensees and advanced reactor innovators on this challenging topic.  NEPA, as implemented by the NRC, requires that an environmental impact statement (EIS) be created for every reactor license application—an extremely costly and time-consuming process as currently structured, with uncertain benefits.  The NRC’s environmental review process, which has increased in scope over the years, can take up a third of agency resources related to the licensing of a new reactor, and delay licensing—and yet it remains an often underlooked area of potential improvement in the NRC licensing framework.

NIA’s paper examines NEPA’s impact on nuclear licensing, and how it could hamper advanced reactor innovation if left out of the regulatory reform conversation.  It then makes four recommendations to  help Congress and the NRC right-size NEPA reviews for the future:

  1. Reevaluate the Presumption that Advanced Reactor Demonstration Projects Require EISs
  2. Tailor the Scope of NEPA Reviews for Demonstration Projects
  3. Increase Use of Generic Environmental Impact Statements to Address Common Advanced Reactor NEPA Questions
  4. Allow Applicants to Draft EAs and EISs

NIA’s second paper, developed with contriubtion from Jensen Hughes, tackles the establishment of interfaces for Standard Design Approvals (SDAs).  SDA’s are being explored as a method to stage NRC licensing, specfically by seeking SDAs for “major portions” of a reactor design in separate chunks, as opposed to submitting an application for approval of a reactor design all at once.  In that regard, “[i]nterface requirements can be thought of as boundary conditions for the portion of the design for which an SDA is being sought.”  The paper provides guidance on the creation of these interfaces, so SDAs can be better leveraged as part of an advanced reactor licensing plan.

For more questions on the application of NEPA environmental reviews to advanced reactor licensing, and on licensing of advanced reactors generally, please reach out to the blog authors.

On Wednesday Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA) hosted a meeting on the Hill about how to enhance the development of nuclear energy by finding its “SpaceX” moment.  The meeting relates to NIA’s new publication, In Seach of a SpaceX for Nuclear Energy.  The talk was led by three experts: Dr. Matt Bowen, formerly Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and currently with the Clean Air Task Force; Dr. Daniel Rasky, from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program; and Dr. Per Peterson of Karios Power, representing the nuclear innovation community.  The panel was moderated by Dr. Ashley Finan from NIA.

What struck us the most about the talk was the number of ways the speakers were able to draw parallels between the aerospace sector and nuclear power, and from those parallels draw insights about ways to apply recent spaceflight innovation successes to advanced reactor development.  And the importance of disrupters—both within and outside of government—to make that happen.

With one of our blog authors being a past aerospace engineer, we appreciate that although the parallels may not always be perfect, the public-private partnership that was NASA’s COTS program does have strong lessons to teach the nuclear industry.  Some key insights from the presentation include:

  • COTS was driven by a clear national mission—resupplying the International Space Station following the wind-down of the space shuttle program.  Nuclear power, too, has a key national mission both in the context of national security and climate change.

 

  • COTS was actually a backup to the primary NASA program (using Ares rockets).  Likewise, any DOE program to support nuclear power based on a COTS-type program need not be the only play in the playbook.  A nuclear power COTS-like program, according to Dr. Bowen, would cost anywhere between $100 to $150 million a year, a sizable amount but well within the current DOE Office of Nuclear Energy budget.

 

  • A key aspect of the COTS program was its ability to do “pay for performance” or milestone-based funding, which offered clarity to companies and investors as to goals to meet.  That is, NASA provided a milestone and left it up to the private sector to determine how it was going to achieve it.  This was based on input from venture capitalists (VCs)—and frequently mirror how the blog authors see payments ramp up from the VC community in private sector investments.  These are not completely new concepts to DOE.  The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), an independent group within DOE, already exercises “pay for performance” milestone based funding, and created its programs with strong influence from the venture capital community.  So it can be done, and more can be done to develop a COTS-like program specific for nuclear power.

 

  • NASA also offered non-financial assistance that was critical to private space entrepreneurs, such as launch capabilities, flexibility in contracting, and teams of experts to come around and help as needed.  DOE is moving in this direction with its GAIN program, which opens up DOE labs to help provide non-financial assistance to companies.  ARPA-E also provides technical assistance to innovators.  DOE has unique contracting authorities in the federal government that allows it to develop customized contractual solutions.

    A key differentiating point between the COTS program and nuclear power is the level of regulation of the nuclear power industry, which inhibits rapid testing.  However, over time non-financial solutions can be found to address and potentially mitigate this important difference.

 

  • The COTS program took advantage of “Other Transaction Authority” (aka “Other Transaction Agreements,” or “OTAs”) to facilitate strong and productive coordination between the private sector and government.  The blog authors would add that OTAs are highly flexible government contracts that can mirror more closely commercial contracts, including on providing sought-after IP protections to the private sector.  These types of contracts are particularly appropriate for developing prototypes.  While other agencies, such as the Department of Defense readily use OTAs to support defense projects, including the development of prototype projects, DOE has largely stayed away from using them for nuclear projects.

 

  • The COTS program facilitated a significant opportunity for cost savings that already existed.  Elon Musk, a key player in the COTS story, saw an opportunity because while for other modes of transportation total costs are only 2-5 times fuel costs, in rocketry that was not the case (total launch costs far far exceeded fuel costs)—this represented an opportunity for huge savings.  Similarly, we heard that while with other power plants, and even cars, overall construction costs are about 10 times the cost of materials, in nuclear power overall construction costs far far exceed the costs of materials (greater than 100x).  This represents an area for savings that a COTS-type program can help achieve.

It was an excellent presentation, and thank you to NIA for putting it together!

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee passed a slew of energy related-legislation, including the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), on a largely bipartisan basis. NELA supports the development and deployment of advanced nuclear reactors and was introduced to the Senate by a bipartisan group on March 27, 2019.

NELA would establish a variety of incentives and programs to promote advanced reactors and the bill’s sponsor Sen. Murkowski touted the bill saying “[t]hese measures will help develop innovative technologies, responsibly reduce our energy and water consumption and protect our economy and national security”.

The legislation directs the Secretary of Energy to take steps to ensure there are at least two operating advanced nuclear reactors by 2025. It also would extend federal power purchase agreements from the current 10 years to 40 years, which provides an incentive for the development of nuclear power reactors at government installations.

For additional information on NELA, please contact the authors.

On June 18, 2019, U.S. Representatives Elaine Luria (D-VA) and Denver Riggleman (R-VA), along with Reps. Rob Wittman (R-VA) and Conor Lamb (D-PA), introduced in the House the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (H.R. 3306), an identical companion bill to the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S. 903) (“NELA”), which was introduced in the Senate on March 27, 2019.

The bill is designed to help the United States regain its global nuclear leadership and calls on the Department of Energy to create a 10-year nuclear energy strategic plan. But the bill’s resurgence and introduction in the House reflects the current excitement surrounding the advanced nuclear industry and its promise to provide a clean, reliable source of energy.  Use of identical bills will hopefully help expedite its passage once it is reported out of committee. The Senate Energy Committee is also coordinating with the House cosponsors and other House leadership to shepherd the bill through the legislative process.

We covered the details of NELA when it was first introduced in 2018, as well as its reintroduction to the senate in early 2019.

In Rep. Luria’s press release associated with the bill, she says:

As an engineer who operated nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers, I know that ensuring a thriving civilian nuclear industry is vital not only for our economy, but for our national security. Nuclear energy must be part of any solution to transitioning to a clean energy future because nuclear power provides over 55% of our carbon-free energy. That’s why I’m proud to reach across the aisle and introduce this critical bipartisan bill.

On the NRC side, there have been two recent papers issued this June impacting advanced reactor design:

Last but certainly not least, we are excited to pass along that Rita Baranwal has been overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate to be the Assistant Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Energy.  Her strong technical background, successful leadership of the DOE Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, and overall enthusiasm for nuclear energy make her ideally suited to help usher in the next generation of nuclear reactors.  Congratulations!

For a more information about the above topic, please contact the authors.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in early May issued a notice seeking comments on a new draft regulatory guide impacting advanced reactor licensing. Draft Regulatory Guide (DG) 1353 (DG-1353) focuses on using a technology-inclusive, risk-informed, and performance-based methodology to inform the licensing basis and content of applications for non-light-water reactors.  It is related to the industry-led Licensing Modernization Project and endorses the principles and methodologies developed under that project as one method for determining the appropriate scope of an NRC license application.  These principles and methodologies are largely embodied in NEI 18-04, Risk-Informed Performance-Based Guidance for Non-Light Water Reactor Licensing Basis Development.

Since the issuance of NRC Vision and Strategy: Safely Achieving Effective and Efficient Non-Light Water reactor Mission Readiness in 2016, the NRC has been actively working to develop guidance for a flexible regulatory review process for advanced reactors. DG-1353 advances that goal. It provides direction to developers and other applicants who are trying to navigate the regulatory review process, and it encourages them to consider regulatory review early in their development processes.

Comments on DG-1353 must be submitted by July 2, 2019. The NRC plans to issue the final regulatory guide in late 2019.

April has seen significant milestones in licensing of advanced reactors.  We take a closer look at these developments, in particular the first submission of an advanced reactor license application in Canada.

On March 20, 2019, Global First Power (GFP), partnered with Ontario Power Generation and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (Ultra Safe), submitted a license application to the CNSC for a “License to Prepare Site” for a future SMR at Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario.  GFP seeks eventually to build an Ultra Safe Micro Modular Reactor (MMR) at the site producing 15MW thermal / 5MW electric.  GFP has been an early leader in response to the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ invitation to site an SMR at one of facilities.  GFP was the first participant to progress through the second stage of the invitation process, and has been invited to participate in certain land and commercial discussions as well.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) licensing process is staged, with separate licensing actions to prepare the site, construct, and then operate a reactor (although the latter two steps can potentially be combined into one licensing action).  The License to Prepare Site is the first step in the process, and evaluates whether the proposed site is suitable for a nuclear reactor of a given general design.  As summarized by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission:

An application for a license to prepare site (LTPS) does not require detailed design information or specifications of a facility. . . . The review of the application focuses on determining whether the site characteristics that have an impact on health, safety, security and the environment have been identified, and that these characteristics have been taken into consideration and will also be considered in the design, operation and decommissioning of the proposed facility.

In this sense U.S. and Canadian licensing processes share many similarities.  For example, the License to Prepare Site mimics the “Early Site Permit” licensing process in the United States.  Under the U.S. nuclear licensing regime laid out in 10 CFR Part 52, companies can first request an Early Site Permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and then a “Combined License” to both construct and then operate a reactor on the pre-approved site.

Like in the U.S., the Canadian nuclear regulator will first conduct a sufficiency review to ensure the application has all required elements, before processing it on the merits.  Once the application has been assessed, the CNSC will issue a notice of commencement and the project description will be available to the public for comment as part of the environmental review.  The timeline for completing the license review process for a License to Prepare Site is 24 months, similar to what the NRC advertises for completing many of its related licensing actions.   Both countries have set forth long term visions to lead in siting of advanced reactors (as discussed in prior blog posts for the U.S. and Canada).  Also like in the U.S., the CNSC has set forth guidance as to the licensing process for SMRs, and what an application should contain.

What will be interesting is to see how the Canadian licensing process compares with the U.S. process in implementation, and how both can benefit from lessons learned by each other.  The U.S. arguably has a head start, already reviewing a Design Certification Application for a NuScale SMR, and recently having completed the environmental review for an Early Site Permit for a SMR system of up to 800 MWe next to the Clinch River in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (although a few further steps remain till the permit is granted).

However, the Canadian licensing strategy has received early accolades for offering a graded, and streamlined process, including with its Pre-Licensing Vendor Design Review.  In the U.S., the Clinch River Early Site Permit process is expected to take over 3 years to complete (see timeline), and the environmental review document alone comes in at near 1400 pages, including appendices (keep in mind that the costs of NRC licensing reviews are charged back to the applicant).  Although the U.S. Clinch River project is for a much larger reactor, a key metric to watch will be whether the CNSC meets or exceeds its licensing timelines, and whether it can truly adopt a graded licensing approach given the much smaller size of the GFP MMR project.

To learn more about SMR licensing, please contact the authors.

The reintroduction of Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA) caps off a week of activities focused on innovation, and follows on advancement of key U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) guidance on advanced reactor licensing.

We covered NELA when it was first introduced in 2018, focusing on its important bipartisan contributions to reestablishing global leadership in nuclear energy.  On Wednesday,  NELA was reintroduced in the Senate with a renewed push to make it into law.  It is gaining broad support not just from the nuclear community, but also climate advocates and industry leaders – with Bill Gates tweeting “I can’t overstate how important this is.”  The text of the act can be found here, and a section-by-section summary and fact sheet are also available.  To highlight some of the key provisions of the legislation, NELA:

  • Directs the U.S. government to enter into long-term power purchase agreements with nuclear reactors.
  • Promotes the development of advanced reactors and fuel by strategically aligning U.S. government and industry interests, which is intended to enable U.S. developers to compete with their state-sponsored competitors from Russia and China.  NELA also requires the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a strategic plan to foster nuclear R&D and translation of that R&D to commercial applications.
  • Helps promote a fast neutron-capable research facility, which is crucial to test important new nuclear technologies and demonstrate their safe and reliable operation. DOE has started to move in this direction with its launch of the Versatile Test Reactor project, but NELA can make sure the project becomes a reality.
  • Directs DOE to develop a source of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel, which is the intended fuel for many advanced reactor designs, from U.S. government stockpiles.  It also supports establishment of a capability to transport HALEU fuel.

The reintroduction of NELA came in the middle of Nuclear Innovation Week, a joint collaboration of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, Nuclear Energy Institute, American Nuclear Society, Electric Power Research Institute, and Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, focused on both industry and policy activities necessary to make recent innovations in nuclear reactor and fuel design a reality.  Right after NELA was reintroduced, the nuclear industry was on the Hill the next day discussing advancements in nuclear technology and the importance of legislative action.

It is important to recognize advances on the regulatory front as well.  Last week, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS), an NRC committee focused on reactor safety issues, penned a letter to the Chairman of the NRC recommending the finalization of DG-1353, guidance on technology-inclusive, performance-based, risk-informed regulatory reviews for non-light water advanced reactors.  ACRS found that the with some modifications to the guidance, DG-1353, along with accompanying NEI industry guidance, NEI 18-04, would allow advanced reactor entrepreneurs to develop a licensing basis and the other contents of NRC license applications.  Industry-led pilot projects as part of the Licensing Modernization Project have served as mechanisms to test the ability of this guidance to inform development of NRC submittals.

For more about the above topics, please contact the authors.

The start of 2019 has seen significant progress towards production and licensing of high-assay low-enriched uranium (“HALEU”) fuel.  If this momentum keeps up, it has the ability to check off what we have long-discussed to be a key prerequisite to commercial debut of advanced reactors.

As to production of HALEU, two significant events occurred around the end of January and start of February.

  • On January 17, DOE issued an Environmental Assessment (“EA”) finding no significant environmental impact with using DOE-owned HALEU feedstock currently stored at Idaho National Laboratory for production of fuel for advanced reactors.  This step moves the use of government surplus HALEU for advanced reactors one step closely to reality. The EA covers 10 metric tons of HALEU feedstock, created from processing of fuel used in the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II program.  In the DOE press release on the EA, DOE stated that “[w]ith this decision, the federal government will fabricate HALEU nuclear fuel at INL from the lab’s HALEU feedstock”—however the EA itself notes that “production requires expansion of [INL’s] fuel fabrication capability, including the purchase of new equipment and use of facilities.”
  • On February 5, URENCO USA announced that it “is now exploring the construction of a dedicated HALEU unit at the URENCO USA facility.”  While the DOE INL program would kick-start HALEU fuel testing and demonstration, URENCO USA’s announcement would secure a long-term source of HALEU for commercial fuel fabrication.  URENCO USA’s New Mexico Facility is the country’s only operating commercial enrichment facility, and produces one-third of US demand for enrichment services.  With an already-operating enrichment facility on U.S. soil, and its parent company’s experience with producing enriched uranium above 5% U235 at enrichment facilities in Europe, URENCO USA is well-positioned to bring HALEU fuel to the commercial market on a time-scale necessary to meet the demands of the domestic advanced reactor industry.

But producing HALEU for advanced reactors is just half the battle.  HALEU fuel designs need to be tested and validated before they can be licensed and used commercially.  To this end, DOE’s recent announcement launching the Versatile Test Reactor (“VTR”) project is welcome news.  The VTR will allow for testing of advanced fuel designs, particularly those fuel designs intended for fast neutron reactors.  DOE’s announcement acknowledges that the U.S. trails both China and Russia in the ability to test advanced reactor fuels and materials.  In an article by DOE Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette accompanying the VTR launch press release, Mr. Brouillette stated that the VTR, which is planned to come online mid-2020s, “eliminates this research gap” and could also “drastically extend lifetime reactor cores, boost fuel performance and even accelerate fusion research.”

With many companies moving forward with fabrication plans for advanced reactor fuel, these advancements in both producing and validating HALEU fuel cannot come soon enough.

For more about production, licensing, or use of use of HALEU fuel in nuclear reactors, please contact the authors.