On Monday, November 15, 2021, the President signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“Infrastructure Bill” or the “Bill”), which contains a number of provisions supporting nuclear energy.

On November 5, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bipartisan US$1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill in a 228-206 vote, demonstrating one of United States’ largest commitments to decarbonization and creating significant opportunities for nuclear in the current energy transition.  The legislation first passed the Senate in August 2021, but was stalled in the House as Democrats negotiated key components of President Biden’s agenda.

While the Infrastructure Bill is wide-reaching, it includes a number of nuclear energy-related provisions, including support for keeping nuclear power plants facing economic hardship operating and funding for DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP).  These provisions are briefly summarized below:

  • US$6B civil nuclear credit program. The Bill establishes a civil nuclear credit program designed to preserve the existing nuclear fleet and prevent premature shutdowns of nuclear power plants. This provision is anticipated to preserve immense amounts of carbon free electricity as well as high-paying jobs.  The Bill both authorizes and appropriates US$6 billion through FY 2026 (US$1.2 billion per year) to the Department of Energy (“DOE”) to implement the program—therefore this program is fully funded. (Section 40323; pages 591, 594.)

The program is intended to provide support for economically troubled plants so that they can remain open.  Plant owners/operators would need to apply for the program, explaining their need.

Interestingly, in applying for the credit, applicants must provide “known information on the source of produced uranium and the location where the uranium is converted, enriched, and fabricated into fuel assemblies for the nuclear reactor for the 4-year period for which credits would be allocated.” In awarding the credits, the Secretary of Energy “shall give priority to a nuclear reactor that uses, to the maximum extent available, uranium that is produced, converted, enriched, and fabricated into fuel assemblies in the United States.” (Pages 592-93, emphasis added).

According to an E&E article, DOE promised to start the US$6 billion nuclear credit program within about four months from November 2021 to help keep U.S. reactors operating, and will require plant owners to submit a formal application to demonstrate a justifiable need.

  • Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) Support. The Bill includes both authorization and appropriations for DOE’s ARDP program, one of DOE’s most important programs for advanced nuclear.  The ARDP is intended to speed the demonstration of advanced reactors through cost-shared partnerships with U.S. industry.  Specific support in the Bill includes the following:
  • Authorizes the full amount to support the DOE’s ARDP Demonstration projects. The Infrastructure Bill contains funding approvals for DOE’s ARDP Demonstration projects and authorizes US$3.2 billion through FY 2027 for the advanced reactor demonstrations, which combined with the previously authorized funding from FY 2020 and 2021, makes the demonstration projects fully authorized.  Note, this provision is an authorization and not an appropriation. (Section 41002; page 699).
  • Appropriates US$2.4 billion to fund ARDP awards from FY 2022 through 2025. While Congress had previously appropriated funds to support DOE’s ARDP awards for FY 2020-2021, this provision of the Bill appropriates additional funds for existing ARDP awardees for FY 2022 to FY 2025. These funds are limited to “projects selected prior to the date of enactment of this Act” which would appear to reserve funds for all ARDP projects selected to date. Unlike the US$3.2 billion which is authorized for the advanced reactor demonstration awards, this funding may be used for the risk reduction and advanced reactor concept projects as well.  (Section 41002; page 949).  While this appropriation does not fully fund the ARDP awards already issued throughout the lifetime of the award, it does go a significant of the way there.

For context, DOE has three types of ARDP awardees:

  • Advanced Reactor Demonstrations Projects, which are expected to result in a fully functional advanced nuclear reactor by the end of a seven year term. DOE-NE has selected two awardees under this program. The ARDP currently authorized US$2.5 billion across seven years for two cost-sharing agreements—i.e. US$1.23 billion for each awardee—for nuclear reactor demonstrations that were first funded through fiscal year 2020 appropriations, with US$80 million provided in the first phase of the cost sharing plan.  The Bill officially appropriates funding for the rest of the seven year term for the selected awards.
  • Risk Reduction for Future Demonstrations, which supports up to five additional teams resolving technical, operational, and regulatory challenges to prepare for future demonstration opportunities. The goal of the Risk Reduction program is to design and develop safe and affordable reactor technologies that can be licensed and deployed over the next 10 to 14 years. DOE-NE has selected five awardees under this program and in 2020 DOE stated it expects to invest US$30 million for each awardee in the first year of the award.
  • Advanced Reactor Concepts 2020 (ARC 20), which supports innovative and diverse designs with potential to commercialize in the mid-2030s. The goal of the ARC-20 program is to assist the progression of advanced reactor designs in their earliest phases. DOE-NE has selected three awardees under this program, and in 2020 DOE stated it expects to invest a total of US$56 million in ARC-20 over four years, with industry providing at least 20 percent in matching funds.

Other nuclear provisions of the Infrastructure Bill include the following:

  • Establishes an Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations within DOE. The Bill establishes a new Office of Clean Energy Demonstration (“OCED”) within DOE to conduct project management and oversight of the ARDP demonstrations and other covered clean energy demonstration projects, to include providing independent oversight of project execution, independent cost estimates for proposals, and ensuring a balanced portfolio of investments in covered projects.  (Section 41201; pages 702, 949).

The Bill provides US$21.5 billion for the OCED.  According to a DOE Fact Sheet, the US$21.5 billion includes the $8 billion for clean hydrogen hubs, US$10 billion for carbon capture, 1 billion for demonstration projects in rural areas and US$500 million for demonstration projects in economically hard-hit communities.  The Bill also designates US$2.5 billion for advanced nuclear to the OCED, which appears to be the same funding authorized for the ARDP.

Currently the Office of Nuclear Energy has jurisdiction over ARDP, however, it appears that the new OCED is intended to cover all clean energy demonstration projects, which would include ARDP demonstration projects.  How this structure will work remains to be seen, but we anticipate the Office of Nuclear Energy will maintain jurisdiction over the ARDP projects until the new office is fully operational, so as to not introduce project delays, and that the two offices will ultimately work together to leverage the technical expertise in the Office of Nuclear Energy with respect to the ARDP projects. Further, the Bill states that the OCED shall consult and coordinate with technology-specific program offices to ensure alignment of technology goals and avoid unnecessary duplication. (Page 948).

  • Demonstration program for regional clean hydrogen hubs, which include nuclear. The Bill establishes “hydrogen hubs” with a number of different power sources The hubs are intended to (1) demonstrably aid the achievement of the clean hydrogen production standard; (2) demonstrate the production, processing, delivery, storage, and end-use of clean hydrogen; and (3) can be developed into a national clean hydrogen network to facilitate a clean hydrogen economy.  At least one of the regional clean hydrogen hubs must be to demonstrate the production of clean hydrogen from nuclear energy. The Bill appropriates US$8 billion in total for the Clean Hydrogen Hubs. (Section 40314; page 580-81).  Additional details on hydrogen and nuclear can be found here.
  • “Clean energy” project on current and former mine lands. The Bill authorizes a new clean energy demonstration on mine lands program and appropriates US$500 million for the program.   “Clean energy” is defined to include advanced nuclear. (Section 40342; pages 603-04).
  • Advanced reactor siting feasibility studies for isolated communities. The Bill authorizes assistance for feasibility studies for siting advanced reactors for the purpose of identifying suitable locations for the deployment of micro-reactors, small modular reactors, and advanced nuclear reactors in isolated communities. (Section 40321, subpart (d); page 589).
  • Property interests for advanced reactors. The Bill provides federal government authority to transfer real property for advanced reactor demonstrations and authorizes longer term protections for intellectual property related to nuclear technology used in demonstrations. (Section 40322; page 589-90).
  • Changes to DOE Loan Program related to calculating “reasonable prospect of repayment.” The Bill made changes that are expected to make the DOE Loan Program more usable by reducing the credit subsidy costs that borrowers must pay. (Section 40401; pages 605, 609).

Overall, nuclear is well supported in the Infrastructure Bill.  In addition to the nuclear-related provisions embedded in the Infrastructure Bill, the “Build Back Better Act” agenda still pending in Congress could provide even more benefits to the nuclear industry if it becomes law by including a production tax credit for operating and new nuclear plants.

For more information, please contact the blog authors.

To demonstrate its clean energy commitments ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, the United Kingdom (UK) recently published its national strategy on fusion energy (Fusion Strategy) alongside a paper on the proposed regulatory framework (Fusion Green Paper), making the UK the frontrunner in fusion energy legislation.  As indicated in the Prime Minister’s “Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution” published in November 2020, the UK government seeks to develop innovative technologies to end its contribution to climate change, including doubling down on the goal of being the first country to commercialize fusion energy technology.

Fusion Strategy Highlights:

The Fusion Strategy highlights the need to consider fusion energy technology in helping the UK meet emissions targets and address the increasing domestic electricity demand, which is expected to double to 570-630TWh by 2050.  The Fusion Strategy also explores how the UK could leverage its expertise to create commercially viable fusion energy, and launches the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP), a program to build a prototype fusion plant in the UK by 2040 in one of five shortlisted locations.  The Fusion Strategy highlights the importance of governmental support in creating an environment conducive to innovation in the fusion sector and outlines how the UK will invest in fusion-related high skilled jobs via the expansion of the fusion apprenticeships, setting a target of training 1000 apprentices per year in fusion-related fields by 2025.

Fusion Green Paper Highlights:

Alongside the Fusion Strategy, the Fusion Green Paper focuses on a proposed regulatory structure for fusion energy and requests public consultation on the framework.  Public consultation, similar to soliciting public comment in the U.S., will ensure fusion energy facilities are regulated appropriately and proportionately in the UK to maintain public and environmental protections, provide public assurances and enable the growth of this low carbon energy industry.  The UK intends for the Fusion Green Paper to serve as a regulatory roadmap for fusion developers to plan with confidence, and for the public to understand the basis for the Government’s approach to the regulation of the emerging technology

The UK government aims to demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion by building the STEP prototype by 2040, which it hopes will be the world’s first.

A number of fusion projects are being pursued around the world.  Notable fusion opportunities were discussed in a prior blog, as well as in our overview on fusion for space exploration.  There are a number of fusion companies in the U.S., with a couple companies currently building prototypes and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission evaluating the regulatory framework for fusion. There are also a number of fusion companies across Europe.  China is also reportedly hoping to stand up an experimental nuclear fusion reactor running by 2040.

For more information, please contact blog authors.

On October 21, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight & Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing titled “Judicious Spending to Enable Success at the Office of Nuclear Energy.”  A recording of the hearing is available here. Key witnesses at the hearing included Dr. Katy Huff, Acting Assistant Secretary, Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, Dr. Todd Allen, Department Chair of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, University of Michigan, Mr. Scott Amey, General Counsel and Executive Editorial Director, of the Project on Government Oversight, and Hogan Lovells Partner, and blog author, Amy Roma.

Amy’s testimony from the House Subcommittee hearing can be found here.  Amy’s current appearance follows testimony she provided to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in March 2021, as well as an testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in August 2020.

As explained in Amy’s testimony, the benefits of nuclear power include—

  • U.S. economic interests, including creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and enabling the U.S. to participate in a robust market of nuclear trade.
  • Climate change goals, by providing over half of the U.S. carbon-free power and supporting a just transition to clean energy; and
  • U.S. national security objectives, by promoting U.S. safety, security, and non-proliferation standards globally, and strengthening U.S. influence abroad.

There are many domestic ventures in next-generation nuclear technologies and new opportunities being created every day. While these endeavors take various forms and incorporate different advanced designs and technology, one common theme is the robust list of benefits advanced nuclear can provide the U.S. if adequately supported. And we should want to take advantage of our position at the forefront of this technology: the market opportunity is immense and the stakes of climate change are too big.

Nuclear energy—

  • Supports the U.S. economy. The nuclear industry supports nearly half a million jobs in the United States and contributes about $60 billion to the U.S. GDP annually.
  • Is a non-greenhouse gas emitting power generation source, and a crucial tool in the battle against climate change. As the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes clear, the world needs to take on a “full court press” in decarbonization. The electricity and industrial sectors account for about half of GHG emissions. Nuclear power could be used to decarbonize both.
  • It has the ability to provide clean, affordable, and reliable power around the world, helping raise the global standard of living, including for the nearly billion people in the world without access to electricity, and promote energy independence and grid stability.
  • The world electricity demand is expected to double globally by 2050, presenting a huge market opportunity for the U.S. in the trillions of dollars; and
  • Advanced reactors have a wide range of sizes and applications beyond power generation, in addition to helping decarbonize the electricity and industrial sectors, it can be used to desalinate water, produce hydrogen, and support deep space exploration and space colonies.

We cannot harness this opportunity without the government and industry working together. The U.S. Department of Energy’s support for advanced reactors, including the Office of Nuclear Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Advanced Reactor Program (ARDP), is a critical part of this support. This program was discussed in a prior blog. The demonstration of advanced reactors through cost shared partnerships with U.S. industry, and the three different demonstration pathways the ARDP offers, solidify this opportunity as pivotal to supporting widespread advanced nuclear deployment in the commercial markets both in the U.S. and abroad. Currently the program is being used to support 10 different reactor projects, including two that are expected to be deployed by the end of 2027.

For more information, please contact blog authors.

Hogan Lovells is changing how we deliver our content. On November 15 we will be moving this content to our new technology platform: Hogan Lovells Engage.

Subscribers will soon receive an email with details on how to join us on Engage to continue to stay up-to-date on the latest developments for the nuclear industry. We look forward to seeing you there.

The U.S. has made significant commitments to decarbonize its electricity sector by 2035 and its economy by 2050.  As the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report highlights, following through on these commitments cannot come soon enough to combat the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change.  One theme this blog continually emphasizes is the need to use all tools at our disposal to combat climate change, including combining tools, such as renewables and nuclear power.

One very promising tool that has received a lot of attention lately, and which can be teamed with nuclear, is hydrogen production.  Nuclear power plants can supply the required heat and electricity to produce hydrogen without generating any carbon emissions.  Using nuclear in place of current energy alternatives in process heat applications, such as those required in hydrogen production, can also result in price stability and increased energy security.  Nuclear produced hydrogen can either be used as fuel for generators based on combustion or sold for industrial purposes.  As markets incorporate renewable sources of energy and the demand continues to vary – falling during the day and peaking in the early evening as people return home from work – it is becoming more difficult to sustain the supply-demand balance.  The operational flexibility and reliability enable nuclear plants to respond to seasonal demand shifts, hourly market pricing changes, and make a nuclear hydrogen combination appealing.

Increasing U.S. government support for hydrogen.  As the U.S. Government moves forward on delivering its climate change commitments, hydrogen has gained a center seat at the table discussing decarbonization of the energy, transportation, and industrial sectors—which combined account for nearly 77 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.  For example—

  • The White House demonstrated support for hydrogen in the American Jobs Plan, announced on March 31, highlighting hydrogen as part of the plan’s “climate-focused research” and “climate R&D priorities.” It is clear that diversifying the production and cost of clean hydrogen, a fuel that could reduce dependence on sources that emit greenhouse gases, is a priority across the federal agencies.
  • On April 8, the Department of Energy (DOE) set a goal to produce hydrogen with clean power, such as leveraging production with renewables and nuclear energy plants for production.
  • And on June 7, DOE unveiled its plan, the Hydrogen Energy Earthshot, to lower costs and advance clean hydrogen technologies by reducing the cost of clean hydrogen by 80 percent to $1 per kilogram within one decade. During the subsequent press briefing, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm stated “clean hydrogen is a game changer,” and that it will help “decarbonize high-polluting heavy-duty and industrial sectors, while delivering good-paying clean energy jobs.”

Further support for hydrogen appears in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“Infrastructure Bill”), introduced by the Senate on August 1, 2021.  The Infrastructure Bill, an approximately $1 trillion bipartisan package, uniquely set a large amount of money aside for the development of hydrogen-based power systems, allocating $8 billion for a regional hydrogen hub that will produce, transport, and store lower-carbon forms of hydrogen over a five-year period.

What is hydrogen and why is it so appealing?

Hydrogen is a simple element, the lightest on the periodic table consisting of just one proton and one electron, but it can pack a powerful punch.  Hydrogen fuels the stars, including our own sun, which is the ultimate source of the vast majority of the Earth’s energy, and it can be used across different industries.  And while hydrogen can be produced – or separated – from a variety of sources, currently, close to 95 percent of hydrogen in the U.S. is produced from natural gas.  However, if produced at scale from renewables like solar, wind, or even nuclear energy, its application to other sectors will contain low carbon emissions in addition to its low carbon production.  Hydrogen’s diverse application and clean properties make it an ideal fuel alternative in the fight against climate change.

To combat climate change, hydrogen has three key uses:  energy production, industrial use, and transportation.

  • Hydrogen is useful as an energy source and fuel because it has the highest energy content of any common fuel per unit of weight – three times more than gasoline.  Additionally, hydrogen can store and deliver usable energy, and hydrogen fuel cells create immense electricity.  This is why it is used in rocket fuel and to produce electricity on some spacecraft.  To create a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell similar to that of a battery to produce electricity, water, and small amounts of heat.  Many different types of fuel cells are available for a wide range of applications.  For instance, small fuel cells can power laptop computers, cell phones, and military devices, and large fuel cells can provide electricity for backup or emergency power in buildings and supply electricity in places that are not connected to electric power grids.  The electricity sector accounts for about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.  Therefore, relying on hydrogen as a standalone energy source has great potential for widespread use while being an environmentally friendly alternative.
  • Industrial: Similar to energy, the industrial sector accounts for 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and heavily relies on fossil fuels to create the extreme and consistent temperatures required for the production of steel, cement, and chemicals.  While wind and solar may never achieve these particular temperatures, hydrogen can, creating a significant opportunity for hydrogen.  According to DOE Alternative Fuels Data Center, the majority of hydrogen consumed in the U.S. is used by industry for refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertilizer, and processing foods.  Companies across industrial sectors, such as ammonia, cement, ethylene, and steel companies, could bring their carbon emissions close to zero with a combination of approaches.  The most promising approaches include energy-efficiency improvements, the electrification of heat, and the use of hydrogen made with zero-carbon electricity as a feedstock or fuel.  While the optimum mix of decarbonization options will vary between sectors, in some circumstances it is cheaper to use hydrogen for fuel at newly built ammonia or steel plants than to use carbon capture storage.
  • Transportation. The transportation industry accounts for nearly 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making it an ideal candidate for the incorporation of hydrogen. The interest in hydrogen as a transportation fuel is based on its potential for domestic production and use in fuel cells for high efficiency, zero-emission electric vehicles.  As mentioned, a fuel cell is two to three times more efficient than an internal combustion engine running on gasoline.  And several S. vehicle manufacturers have begun making light-duty hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles available in select regions of California where there is access to hydrogen fueling stations.  Most hydrogen-fueled vehicles are automobiles and transit buses that have an electric motor powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, and few of these vehicles burn hydrogen directly.  The high cost of fuel cells and the limited availability of hydrogen fueling stations have limited the number of hydrogen-fueled vehicles.

While there are other sectors that could contribute to decarbonization commitments, the above three are currently the largest greenhouse gas emitters and sectors where hydrogen-use will demonstrate quantifiable and tangible impacts.  For instance, for the energy industry, when faced with unpredictable weather events, hydrogen will be critical to strengthening the nation’s grid system.  For the industrial sector, hydrogen is used in refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertilizer, and is a prime ingredient in rocket fuel.  And for transportation, when hydrogen is combusted in an engine or consumed in a fuel cell, it combines with oxygen to form water.  Thus, a car running on hydrogen is primarily emitting water vapor as a waste product.

The Catch?  Hydrogen has a dirty secret.  Despite its immense promise, hydrogen’s dirty secret is that hydrogen’s carbon footprint really depends on how the hydrogen is produced.  In fact, there is an entire color spectrum of types of hydrogen classified by the way it is produced.  Since hydrogen is not found in free form (H2), it must be separated from other molecules like water or methane, using energy sources.  Nearly all hydrogen currently comes from energy produced with fossil fuels or natural gas, where it is bonded with carbon, separated by a process called “steam reforming” and the excess carbon generates carbon dioxide.  This type of hydrogen is referred to as “grey” hydrogen to indicate it was created from fossil fuels without capturing the greenhouse gases.  Its widespread use in industrial processes makes grey hydrogen one of the most common forms, accounting for roughly 95 percent of the world’s production and emitting about 9.3kg of CO2 per kg of hydrogen production.  With that said, if hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels, we won’t be able to transition away from fossil fuels and it still releases significant carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

To combat climate change and reach decarbonization, the hydrogen production process itself must be clear—and therefore, the current challenge is to produce hydrogen in a more environmentally friendly way.  Luckily, hydrogen can be produced with lower-carbon methods.  For example—

  • Hydrogen is considered “blue” when the emissions generated from the steam reforming process are captured and stored underground by industrial carbon capture and storage. While blue hydrogen reduces CO2 emissions, 10-20 percent of the CO2 is not captured, and so while it is a “low carbon” option, it does not go far enough to meet the commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Green hydrogen is produced using electricity generated from renewables and currently accounts for 1 percent of hydrogen production. Green hydrogen is a more environmentally-friendly option compared to grey and blue because wind, solar and hydro power are zero-carbon sources.  However, it may be difficult to achieve widespread deployment for this type of hydrogen production because of the intermittent nature of renewables and the cost.  Despite its decarbonization potential, green hydrogen must achieve cost competitiveness. In 2020, the pricing for green hydrogen was around US$6.00 per kg and a Hydrogen Council study identified US$2.00 per kg as the price point that will make green hydrogen and its derivative fuels the energy source of choice.
  • Finally, pink hydrogen is used to describe hydrogen obtained through nuclear energy which emits virtually no pollutants. In fact, an Applied Energy study concluded that hydrogen produced via nuclear energy has a comparable carbon footprint to hydrogen produced with renewables.

Advantages of combing nuclear power with hydrogen.  Hydrogen is increasingly seen as a key component of future energy systems if it can be made without carbon dioxide emissions.  Support for this endeavor is demonstrated by the “Clean Hydrogen Research and Development Program” and the clean hydrogen hubs established in the Infrastructure Bill.  For example, the Infrastructure Bill provides US$8 billion in spending to create at least four “regional clean hydrogen hubs” producing and using the fuel for manufacturing, heating and transportation.  At least two would be in U.S. regions “with the greatest natural gas resources,” and at least one of the regional clean hydrogen hubs is required to demonstrate the production of clean hydrogen from nuclear energy.

There is a clear push for the production of clean hydrogen to come from diverse energy sources, to include nuclear energy.  For instance, the Infrastructure Bill includes a section called “National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap” which requires the identification of (1) economic opportunities for the production, processing, transport, and storage of clean hydrogen that exist for merchant nuclear power plants operating in deregulated markets, (2) the environmental risks associated with deploying clean hydrogen technologies in those regions, and (3) mitigation of those risks.

In addition to the nuclear hydrogen hub in the Infrastructure Bill, DOE has partnered with a number of nuclear power plants to demonstrate the technical feasibility and business justification for hydrogen production at nuclear facilities.  For instance—

  • Arizona Public Service Co. is currently working with Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to employ advanced hydrogen production from surplus electricity at the Palo Verde Generation Station.
  • Exelon Generation announced its plan to work with DOE on a hydrogen production demonstration project at Nine Mile Point, where a containerized Proton Exchange Membrane electrolyzer will be installed using the plant’s existing hydrogen storage system to capture and store hydrogen for industrial applications in the market.
  • FirstEnergy Solutions and INL will develop a light water reactor hybrid energy system to demonstrate hydrogen production at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant. And NuScale is investigating cogeneration options, including hydrogen production by high-temperature steam electrolysis with INL.

Acknowledging the low carbon footprint associated with using nuclear energy for hydrogen production, DOE selected projects to advance flexible operations of nuclear reactors with integrated hydrogen production systems.  These projects include low-temperature steam electrolysis, which improves the efficiency of electrolysis at ambient temperatures and utilizes waste heat at up to 200°C from a conventional reactor, and high-temperature steam electrolysis (HTSE) to use both heat and electricity.

Another one of the DOE projects involves INL working with Xcel Energy to demonstrate HTSE technology using heat and electricity from one of Xcel Energy’s nuclear plants.  DOE’s Expressions of Interest for this project were discussed in a previous blog post.

Nuclear power plants and hydrogen production systems are well aligned to give nuclear an economical and environmental advantage over traditional hydrogen production energy sources.  This is because nuclear energy can supply the heat and electricity required for hydrogen production without generating carbon emissions, which may create largescale opportunities for nuclear energy. Largescale opportunities would in turn, provide an additional revenue stream, potentially reviving aging fleets in certain markets and creating more time to get advanced reactors online.  According to an Energy Options Network study, meeting the energy demands of the U.S. maritime transportation industry by 2050 alone, would require 650 gigawatts of advanced nuclear reactors for hydrogen production.

Advanced nuclear power plants are evolving and undergoing technological advances to make them more flexible.  At the same time, hydrogen generation is undergoing technical advances to become more versatile, and as the energy market evolves, hydrogen production is gaining global visibility and political support.

There are already international nuclear-hydrogen initiatives underway. The IAEA has developed the Hydrogen Economic Evaluation Program (HEEP) to assess the economics of large-scale hydrogen production using nuclear energy.  And in February 2021, the United Kingdom Nuclear Industry Association published the Hydrogen Roadmap, showing how the country might achieve 225 TWh (6.8 or 5.7 Mt) of low-carbon hydrogen by 2050.  The Roadmap proposes 12-13 GW of nuclear reactors of all types using high-temperature steam electrolysis and thermochemical water-splitting to produce 75 TWh (2.3 or 1.9 Mt) of hydrogen by mid-century.  Additionally, Russia is planning a new hydrogen industry by 2024, where Rosatom will produce hydrogen by electrolysis and is planning 1 MW of electrolyzed capacity at the Kola nuclear power plant in 2023, then increasing it to 10 MW as a demonstration project for wider adoption.

The promise of decarbonization and a cleaner, greener energy future is within reach.  This is especially true when looking at the collaboration between the public and private sectors, both domestically and abroad.  Leveraging all available carbon-free sources for hydrogen production, including nuclear, will just be another big step in the caron-free direction.

For more information, please contact the blog authors.

On September 27, the NRC held a public meeting where it invited speakers to present on their experience with environmental justice (EJ) issues and also to hear recommendations on the agency’s approach when reevaluating how to address EJ. At the outset of the meeting, the NRC defined EJ as “the federal policy established in 1994 by Executive Order (EO) 12898, which directed federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations.”

Back in July, the NRC began its review of environmental justice policies within its programs and activities with a meeting and a solicitation for comments (for which the comment period has been extended until October 29, 2021) regarding the 2004 Policy Statement on the Treatment of Environmental Justice Matters in NRC Regulatory and Licensing Actions and other EJ efforts. Now it is going beyond written comments and looking to facilitate conversations with those most impacted by EJ issues and those with the greatest experience grappling with the topic.

The meeting consisted of two parts.

Part 1 was a listening session with representatives with stakeholders from various environmental, indigenous, and community groups. During the listening session, presenters discussed the need for the NRC to modernize the way it addresses EJ and to consider EJ beyond what’s required in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA currently requires that major projects undergo an environmental analysis, either in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement, or an Environmental Assessment. The environmental analysis includes an assessment for EJ and the abovementioned 2004 Policy Statement, which is currently under review, developed a framework for EJ consideration at the NRC. For more information on the NRC EJ actions thus far, please visit our previous blog, NRC Solicits Comments on Environmental Justice.

The invited speakers also discussed the need to include people of color in the nuclear field. They remarked that the industry lacks diversity and that there should be a deliberate attempt to work in partnership with communities most impacted by nuclear. Representatives of indigenous people asked that NRC grant them an equal seat at the table. They highlighted that tribal nations are recognized by the U.S. as sovereign nations, and as such, should be included in EJ discussions by the NRC.

Part 2 was a panel discussion with industry, government entities, and indigenous/community development groups. Speakers included those from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Multiple panelists suggested that NRC establish a separate group, like an advisory committee, to facilitate involvement with indigenous communities and communities of color. These panelists felt that it is unreasonable to limit EJ to the NEPA review, which they believed does not properly measure impacts on communities.

Speakers from indigenous communities also asked that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, while not a binding piece of law, be reviewed and taken into account when making determinations regarding EJ. The panelist from the EPA suggested that EJ be a central consideration of the NRC, and not just an afterthought. However, it may take some time before a robust EJ program is developed if this is the route the NRC takes. The EPA panelist discussed that while for decades the EPA had policies and procedures for EJ, it is still working on understanding how to engage impacted communities and demonstrate accountability. The panelist from NEI remarked that EJ should not be limited to NRC considerations—industry has a responsibility as well to commit its resources to the effort.

What happens next?

Pursuant to the April 23rd “Staff Requirements” memorandum, NRC staff will use the information gathered at the meeting to develop recommendations to the Commission. The NRC will be reviewing EJ within the scope of the following goals:

  • Evaluate recent Executive Orders and assess whether EJ is appropriately considered and addressed given the agency’s mission.
  • Consider the practices of other Federal and State agencies and Tribal governments, and evaluate whether the NRC should incorporate EJ beyond implementation through NEPA.
  • Review the adequacy of the 2004 Commission Policy Statement.
  • Consider whether establishing formal mechanisms to gather external stakeholder input would benefit any future EJ efforts.

This information-gathering session is part of the NRC Environmental Justice Review Team’s efforts to assess the quality of EJ programs at the agency. The team will report its findings to the Commission by February 2022.

For further inquiries, please contact the blog authors.

 

The bad news. Right now, gigantic wildfires are burning across Siberia and the Artic Circle that are larger than all the other record-setting fires raging around the world this summer combined. The massive blazes in Russia are fueled by extreme heat waves, unusually high winds, and record-setting droughts attributed to climate change. The Western United States and Canada are combatting large wildfires also fueled by extreme heat waves and record-setting droughts, as is Southern Europe.  On the other end of the spectrum, last month extreme flooding ravaged Western Europe and China, and China is facing another round of extreme flooding right now.  These events have killed hundreds in China and Western Europe—and displaced thousands more.

The worse news.  So when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment report (IPCC Report) on August 9, 2021 saying that climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, it likely came as no surprise to anyone.  What was surprising, however, was how confident the report was in its key messages, including the following:

  • Climate change is humans’ fault. It is “unequivocal” that human activity has caused global warning, causing rapid and widespread warming of the atmosphere, ocean, and land.
  • Climate change is happening faster than we thought. Global warming was happening faster than previously anticipated, and global surface temperatures will continue to increase unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.
  • World carbon dioxide levels are at an all-time high. Carbon dioxide levels were greater in 2019 than they had been in at least two million years.  Methane and nitrous oxide levels, the second and third major contributors of warming respectively, were higher in 2019 than at any point in at least 800,000 years.
  • Changes like this to the climate system haven’t happened in thousands of years. The scale of recent changes across the climate system is unprecedented—going back hundreds and thousands of years as to global surface temperature, Arctic ice area, and rise of sea level.
  • Every place on the planet is being affected right now. Climate change has impacting every region of the world.  Evidence of observed changes in extreme weather includes heatwaves, heavy rains, droughts, and stronger tropical storms, just since the last IPCC Report seven years ago.  Many changes in the climate system have become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming—making these already intensifying events ever more intense.
  • Many changes cannot be reversed for thousands of years. Barring geoengineering, many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions will be irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes to the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.

The good news.  But like Pandora’s Box, after all the bad news, there was still a message of hope– it’s not too late to slow down and eventually reverse the most harmful effects of climate change, but the world has a lot to do and must act immediately.

Notably, if the world undertakes strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the impacts of climate change can be limited. While benefits for air quality would come quickly, it could take another 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilize.  The general global goal is net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  For the U.S, these goals also includes cutting greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030, making the electricity grid carbon neutral by 2035, and reaching a reaching net zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050.

The even better news.  While new technologies are needed to help combat climate change—such as advanced battery storage systems to pair with intermittent renewables like wind and solar—we have an incredibly powerful tool for decarbonization already available to maintain and deploy: nuclear power.

Let’s paint the big picture here:

  • Cleaning the current energy sector will be an immense task. Decarbonization is not going to be an easy task.  The electricity sector itself accounts for about 25 percent of both the U.S. and global total emissions, with fossil fuel providing more than 60 percent of electricity generated in the United States and globally.  Beyond the grid, decarbonizing other sectors—such as transportation (29% of U.S. emissions) and industry (23% of U.S. emissions)—will require access to both new clean technologies (such as batteries for vehicles) and new sources of energy to power those clean technologies.
  • Energy use is expected to double at the same time it needs to be decarbonized. At the same time the world needs to decarbonize the energy sector, there will also be a huge uptick in demand—with the Energy Information Agency estimating a 50% increase in world energy use by 2050.  There are also nearly a billion people in the world without access to electricity.  So, not only does the world need to decarbonize the energy sector we have, when we build new energy sources to meet the increased demand, they need to be non-carbon emitting.
  • Decarbonization will not succeed if the lights do not stay on. At the same time we need to decarbonize the grid, we need to make sure we have reliable power.  Ironically, abnormal weather conditions—such as the kind we keep seeing linked to climate change—can lead to elevated risks to the grid—affecting both generation and demand, as well as causing energy shortages that lead to energy emergencies.  As outlined in our recent blog post on grid reliability, when the lights go out not only does it have significant financial impacts, but it costs lives as well.  The recent Texas power crisis that occurred in February 2021 is an example of this.  As outlined in a recent report, when the storm hit this past winter, more than 4.5 million households were left without electricity during an extreme cold snap, with the storm and outages leading to the loss of over 100 lives and causing an economic loss estimated to be about $155 billion.

So, what’s the solution?  The IPCC report makes clear that we need to use everything in our arsenal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Moreover, we need immense sources of energy that do not produce greenhouse gases, that support a reliable electricity grid.

Nuclear energy fits this bill as a very powerful tool to be used to combat climate change, but is an often overlooked part of the climate change solution.  For example:

  • Effective: Nuclear is a zero-emission source of energy during operation and is far more efficient in certain key metrics than other clean energy sources. For example, it can produce reliable, continuous energy, on far less land.
  • Contributing: Nuclear power currently provides over 50% of clean energy generation in the U.S. (despite the current U.S. nuclear fleet actually decreasing in size over the past few decades, along with a massive scale-up of renewables). And on the global front, it is the second largest source of low carbon power, making up 10% of the world’s electricity.
  • Innovating: Advanced reactors in the U.S. are on the brink of deployment, showing that nuclear power can play a key role in the energy transition from fossil fuels. Advanced reactors, which produce process heat, can decarbonize the electric grid as well as heavy industry (which accounts for 23% of U.S. emissions itself).

And along with the existing fleet of nuclear power plants and advanced reactors, the world is on the brink of commercializing fusion power.  Fusion, the process that powers the Sun, has long been seen as the “holy grail” of energy production.  Whereas nuclear reactors split atoms apart to release energy, fusion facilities push them together.  A key trait that they both share is the ability to produce an immense amount of electricity without emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

As the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation, and the second largest greenhouse gas emitting country, the U.S. has a responsibility to promote innovation and deployment of technologies that can meaningfully combat climate change.  That includes, at a minimum, making sure nuclear energy is part of the discussion and part of the solution for combatting climate change.

For more information, please contact blog author.

On July 9, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a Federal Register notice, Systematic Assessment for How the NRC Addresses Environmental Justice in Its Programs, Policies, and Activities. Comments on the notice are due August 23, 2021.

In the notice, the NRC is seeking stakeholder input on the Commission’s handling of environmental justice as well as the adequacy of its prior 2004 Policy Statement on the Treatment of Environmental Justice Matters in NRC Regulatory and Licensing Actions (2004 Policy). The 2004 Policy presents the latest comprehensive statement of the Commission’s policy on the treatment of environmental justice matters in NRC regulatory and licensing actions.  It requires, among other things, that environmental justice assessments be conducted in certain environmental assessments as necessary under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It also details which factors and persons should be considered in the NRC’s environmental analyses, and directs the NRC to ensure that minority and low-income communities are consulted when considering a proposed action.

In this blog post we discuss the NRC effort, within the context of what the Biden administration has been doing to reexamine environmental justice more broadly.  We also discuss how stakeholders within the nuclear power community can contribute to the administration’s effort by considering how and where nuclear power can contribute to the environmental justice discussion, both within the NRC and more broadly.

Why is the NRC reviewing environmental justice?

The NRC’s effort draws on the current administration’s goals surrounding a “whole-of-government approach” to environmental justice.  Environmental justice can have slightly different definitions, but generally refers to the concept that all voices, no matter the race, color, national origin, or income, should be treated fairly and meaningfully involved when evaluating different projects and initiatives, and when developing and enforcing laws and regulations.  Fair treatment generally means that “no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or from the execution of federal, state, and local laws regulations, and policies.”  Meaningful involvement “requires effective access to decision-makers for all, and the ability in all communities to make informed decisions and take positive actions to produce environmental justice for themselves.”  In an Executive Order 14008, entitled Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, President Biden tasked Federal agencies to make environmental justice a goal by developing programs that help address impacts to disadvantaged communities and historically marginalized persons.

The idea of environmental justice is not new. It has been incorporated in the environmental review process as required by NEPA for decades. However, the Executive Order states that, while required, it has often not been given proper attention.  Rather than limiting environmental justice reviews to the NEPA process, the Executive Order directs agencies to make it “part of their missions by developing programs, policies, and activities” that incorporate environmental justice considerations. This presents a significant expansion to the role environmental justice has played for agencies in the past. To ensure the success of such a wide-reaching endeavor, President Biden created the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (WHEJAC) whose membership consists of leadership from agencies across the U.S.

Hand-in-hand with the directive for agencies to flesh out environmental justice programs is Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, also created within the same Executive Order. This initiative aims to deliver 40% of benefits from federal investments in certain topic areas, like clean energy and energy efficiency, to disadvantaged communities; and tracks the performance of this goal through a newly established Environmental Justice Scorecard.

What are the impacts of White House & NRC environmental justice initiatives on nuclear?

Despite an emphasis on clean energy, the full impact of the Justice40 Initiative on the nuclear industry is yet to be seen. WHEJAC issued a report on May 13 that named the procurement of nuclear power as one example of a project that does not benefit the community. However, according to a July 20, 2021 memorandum on the Interim Implementation Guidance for the Justice40 Initiative, benefits of covered programs in the Justice40 Initiative include deployment of clean energy as well as greenhouse gas reductions. While nuclear is not specifically mentioned, it’s conceivable that advanced nuclear, with its ability to replace fossils fuels with zero-emission power generation (not to mention, the creation of a significant number of well-paying jobs for the local community, which is more a factor of economic justice than environmental justice, but a critical consideration nonetheless), may be included in the Justice40 Initiative in the future.

Additionally, statements like those from DOE Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy indicate support for both the existing fleet and advanced nuclear technologies’ role in the climate transition. However, if the interagency group’s recommendation is taken and nuclear procurement is not viewed as “beneficial,” the industry stands to lose investment dollars and resources that in fact can go to help those that are underserved. Stakeholders in the nuclear industry should engage with the White House and agencies on the issue of environmental justice to examine how nuclear power can better contribute to environmental justice, while also ensuring that the environmental benefits of nuclear power are well understood.

Additionally, as the industry strives to create and maintain an accurate public perception of the benefits and safety of nuclear, it is important to encourage conversations surrounding environmental justice. To achieve this, nuclear must be viewed as an area that supports the transition to clean energy while also providing benefits to underserved communities. The July 9 Federal Register notice provides such an opportunity for industry input. The NRC is requesting stakeholder input on a number of questions, including the following:

  • How could the NRC expand how it engages and gathers input?
  • Can you describe any challenges that may affect your ability to engage with the NRC on environmental justice issues?
  • How could the NRC enhance opportunities for members of environmental justice communities to participate in licensing and regulatory activities, including the identification of impacts and other environmental justice concerns?
  • Considering recent Executive Orders on environmental justice, what actions could the NRC take to enhance consideration of environmental justice in the NRC’s programs, policies, and activities?

Comments are due August 23, 2021.

For more information, please contact the blog authors.

Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators re-introduced the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act (ANIA), which is aimed at improving the nation’s nuclear infrastructure and supply chain, growing the economy, creating jobs, reducing carbon emissions, and strengthening U.S. energy and national security. The bill was re-introduced by U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Ranking Member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, along with Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).

As discussed in a previous blog post, ANIA was introduced in a similar form in mid-November 2020.  Prior to that, the Senate EPW Committee held a hearing on the discussion draft of ANIA in August 2020, where blog author Amy Roma testified.

The premise and structure of the 2021 draft ANIA is mostly the same as the version that was introduced in 2020.  ANIA’s provisions can be broken down into four general bins: 1) international provisions to support U.S. competitiveness and global leadership, 2) supporting domestic advanced reactor efforts, 3) supporting the existing fleet, 4) revitalizing the nuclear supply chain infrastructure and workforce, and 5) nuclear cleanup and waste management. A section by section analysis of ANIA is available here.

That being said, there are changes between the bills.  Notably, while Sec. 401 and 402 of the earlier 2020 ANIA contained provisions on high-assay, low enriched uranium (HALEU) nuclear fuel licensing and establishment of a strategic uranium reserve, the 2021 version of ANIA does not mention HALEU or a uranium reserve. With respect to HALEU, at least, the provision may have been removed because HALEU was covered in the Energy Act of 2020, which was passed in late-December (and which we blogged about here). There are additional subtle changes as well between the two versions of ANIA (such as to the foreign ownership provision and countries listed within).

Some of the key provisions of ANIA include the following—

  • Reestablishing American global competitiveness.
    • Authorizes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to coordinate efforts involving international regulatory cooperation and assistance relating to reactors; technical standards to establish the licensing and regulatory basis to support design, construction, and operation of nuclear systems; and efforts to establish competent nuclear regulators and licensing frameworks in countries looking at developing nuclear power. (Sec. 101)
    • Significantly restricts the ability of the NRC to issue an import license for Russian and Chinese made nuclear fuel. (Sec. 102)
  • Supporting domestic advanced reactor efforts.
    • Creates a prize to cover NRC licensing fees related to the first operating permit for an advanced nuclear reactor, and authorizes the Secretary of Energy to make additional awards for the first advanced reactors that: (1) use isotopes derived from spent nuclear fuel as fuel for the reactor; or (2) operate flexibly to generate electricity or high temperature process heat for nonelectric applications. (Sec. 201)
    • Directs the NRC to submit a report to Congress identifying unique licensing issues or requirements related to the: (1) flexible operation of nuclear reactors; (2) use of nuclear reactors for nonelectric applications (e.g., hydrogen production, water desalination, wastewater treatment, heat for industrial processes, medical isotope productions, etc.); and (3) colocation of nuclear reactors with industrial plants or other facilities. (Sec. 202)
    • Excludes funding to support pre-application proceedings or reviews of early site permits associated with advanced nuclear reactor demonstrations on Department of Energy (DOE) sites from the Commission’s fee recovery requirements. (Sec. 203)
  • Supporting the existing fleet.
    • Authorizes a targeted credit program to preserve nuclear plants at risk of prematurely shutting down. (Sec. 301)
    • Updates the Atomic Energy Act’s “foreign ownership, control, or domination” restriction for NRC reactor licenses to permit investment by entities from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, or the Republic of Korea. (Sec. 303) (this also supports advanced reactor investment, as discussed in a prior ANIA White Paper)
  • Revitalizing the supply chain and workforce.
    • Directs the NRC to report to Congress on advanced methods of manufacturing and construction for nuclear energy applications, specifically on licensing and safety issues for innovative nuclear energy applications related to manufacturing and construction. (Sec. 401)
    • Establishes a new traineeship subprogram under the University Nuclear Leadership Program to provide focused training to meet critical mission needs of the NRC, and nuclear workforce needs relating to nuclear safety and tradecraft. (Sec. 402)
  • Miscellaneous (with a focus on nuclear cleanup and waste management).
    • Directs the Secretary of Energy to submit a report to Congress on payments and other activities under the DOE Standard Contract. (Sec. 501)
    • Authorizes the Administrator of the EPA to conduct removal actions under Superfund at abandoned mine land on American Indian Tribal land, and perform other work related to Tribal land. (Sec. 502)
    • Authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to establish a grant program and other activities to support economic development where a nuclear power plant has ceased or will cease operations as of the date of the statute’s enactment. (Sec. 503)

For more information, please contact one of the blog authors.

There is a new space race developing, with higher stakes and more ambitious goals than just going back to Earth orbit or the Moon.  The U.S. has developed a sizable technological lead in rockets and satellite technology, which has in turn grown our national and global space ambitions.  Now that it is feasible to get to low Earth orbit affordably and reliably, astronauts and private companies are now looking to go further—including establishing permanent colonies on the Moon and Mars, mining asteroids for their immense natural resources, and sending astronauts to search for life on the moons of the outer planets.  And we’re not alone in this race.  China and Russia are teaming together on a lunar base, and China claims it will be the first to colonize Mars and even mine asteroids.

Nuclear fission and fusion power will be essential to accomplishing these and other ambitions.  These technologies can deliver the performance—including immense power levels, longevity and reliability—required to take large people and cargo astronomically long distances, and support the power requirements for long-term colonies far removed from the safety net of Earth.  To this end, China is reportedly making investments in the advanced propulsion sector, including in fission and fusion contexts, that dwarf U.S. efforts.  For the U.S. to remain competitive on the world scale and win what some are calling the new “Deep Space Race,” we must double down on investment in nuclear fission and fusion technologies.

We overview below a recent proposal by the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) that further details this new space race and advocates for a $40 million Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)-style program to accelerate the use of fusion for space travel.  We discuss that in the context of recent efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work together to accelerate the use of nuclear and fusion power in space.

A Proposed $40 Million Fusion Propulsion Program to Win the Deep Space Race

The FIA—an association of 24 member companies working to commercialize fusion power—recently recommended a $40 million fusion propulsion funding program. The proposal, “Fusion Energy for Space Propulsion: Making Fusion Space Propulsion A Reality by 2030” (the “Fusion-Space Overview”) explains that there is a Deep Space Race developing as the U.S. and other world powers have set their sights not just on returning humans to orbit and stepping foot on the Moon, but building outposts on the Moon, Mars, and going much farther out.  There are compelling reasons to believe that taking the lead in exploration of deep space (beyond the near-Earth orbit) can bring tremendous returns.  This is not just in the form of national pride and scientific progress, but also financial.  Some, including Goldman Sachs, have predicted that the world’s first trillionaire will be the person that successfully mines asteroids and their tremendous amounts of mineral wealth.

As outlined in the Fusion-Space Overview, chemical-propelled rockets do not have the fuel efficiency to support this far-reaching agenda.  Fusion propulsion can be up to 100 times more fuel-efficient than chemical propulsion, while still maintaining large thrusts—making it a prime option for transporting large payloads to distant destinations or ferrying cargo to and from the Moon.  Many designs could potentially expedite travel to the Moon and Mars to hours and months respectively, and even get the U.S. to Saturn in as little as two years.

The Fusion-Space Overview advocates for an ARPA-style, milestone-based funding program to accelerate the development of critical fusion propulsion technologies and enable designs to start getting tested.  ARPA programs have a demonstrated track record of moving promising technologies on a track towards commercial deployment by the private sector.  A number of fusion space propulsion ventures spoke at the recent ASCENDx Summit held June 15, 2021, discussing how they are ready for incremental investment to further develop their prototypes, with the long-term goal of performing ground and space demonstrations.

The FIA’s recommended fusion propulsion program would synthesize best practices from the DARPA and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) programs and apply it to deep space. The Fusion-Space Overview concludes that the $40 million program “has the potential to transform the way we look at the universe and ourselves, unlock potentially trillions of dollars in scientific and economic innovation, and secure American interests for this century and the next.”

Energy, Space, and Defense Agencies Aligning on Use of Advanced Nuclear

DOE and NASA have a long history of collaboration on the use of nuclear power in space.  For more than 50 years, DOE enabled space exploration on over twenty NASA missions by providing safe and reliable radioisotope power systems and radioisotope heater units. Further, DOE has decades of experience managing plutonium-238 radioisotope thermal power generator production required for NASA’s deep space probes.

This relationship has now accelerated in scope, with a goal to enable much larger uses of nuclear power in space.  In 2018, NASA and DOE launched an effort to develop the Kilopower Reactor, with a hope to demonstrate a fission surface power system on the moon by the end of the decade.  And toward the end of the previous administration, former Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette and former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to expand the DOE-NASA partnership on space exploration. Nuclear power and propulsion were among the key areas of interest listed in the MOU. And this was followed up with Space Policy Directive 6, which sought to implement a “National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion.”

Currently NASA is examining the possibility of utilizing two nuclear systems in space exploration. The first is a nuclear electric propulsion system, which is highly efficient and allows a spacecraft to travel for longer periods although at lower thrust. The second type of system is a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system, which is a higher thrust system but still far more efficient than a traditional rocket.  (Fusion systems can also be split along similar lines).  In the same vein, Battelle Energy Alliance, which operates DOE  Idaho National Laboratory, earlier this year published a solicitation for a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Reactor Interim Design.

The efforts by NASA and DOE complements a program by DARPA, called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), to demonstrate a NTP system in orbit.  Although the program is just getting started, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics have received initial awards.  As DARPA explains, “[t]he space domain is essential to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national defense. Maintaining space domain awareness in cislunar space – the volume of space between the Earth and the Moon – will require a leap-ahead in propulsion technology.”  And to the same end, all three agencies have taken interest in the use of fusion for similar ends.

Next Steps

To successfully compete with China and Russia in the new Deep Space Race, the U.S. needs to accelerate investment in these mission-critical areas and form public-private partnerships to accelerate technology development. There are numerous private companies, including the ventures listed in the Fusion-Space Overview, pursuing innovative and advanced nuclear space propulsion concepts.  And, as evidenced in recent events held by DOE, NASA, and DARPA, a number of companies stand ready to support the development of nuclear and fusion space propulsion technologies.

However, beyond possibly the DARPA DRACO effort, these initiatives lack a significant and long-term dedicated funding program to support their commercialization. Continued investment in nuclear and fusion propulsion concepts, through the establishment of long-term programs with the clear end goal of demonstrating multiple advanced propulsion technologies in space, including an ARPA-like program like the one recommended by FIA, can have a tremendous impact on whether the U.S. will not only “win” the next space race, but even be able to compete with countries like Russia and China who are making these programs national priorities.

For more information, please contact blog authors.