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.

Many advanced reactor developers are designing their technologies to pair with renewables.  A recent report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the government entity responsible for overseeing America’s bulk power system, underscores the benefits that can be achieved through an advanced nuclear/renewable energy partnership to compensate for the intermittent nature of solar and wind power.

For power grids relying on renewable energy, supply and demand hang in a balance based on the time of day and weather forecast. To maintain equilibrium in grid systems powered by renewable energy, flexible backup sources must remain online at all times. To date, storage resources are not providing the necessary back-up, hindered by both technology and costs, leaving natural gas and hydro plants to take on the role of providing standby capacity services. As the intermittent renewable energy capacity increases in power grids as a proportion of overall capacity, the industry requires more flexible power generation options, providing an opportunity for advanced reactors to support renewables while continuing to decarbonize of the electricity sector. Advanced nuclear power technologies are intended to operate flexibly, either at full capacity (producing large amounts of reliable, carbon free-electricity) or load following paired with renewable energy (producing just enough when needed to meet demand), promoting both decarbonization and reliability of the grid at any time of day.

In May 2021, NERC published its 2021 Summer Reliability Assessment (Reliability Assessment) identifying areas of concern regarding reliability of bulk power systems and the grid for this upcoming summer. Specifically, the Reliability Assessment warns that typically hot-summer states that rely heavily on solar photovoltaic generation (Solar PV), may experience blackouts and energy shortfalls during above-normal peak temperatures.

According to NERC, states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, who are predicted to have warmer summer seasons than last year, are at an “elevated risk” of experiencing energy emergencies this summer, specifically, outages during extreme summer peak loads. While Solar PV plants provide energy to support peak demand, the generated output rapidly declines in the afternoon at the time when demand in these states remains high. The regional increase in demand and decline in resources may reduce the quantity of surplus capacity available when California, for example, is in shortfall.  The NERC Reliability Assessment puts in starker terms the challenges acknowledged in NERC’s 2020 Long-Term Assessment, issued last December, where NERC explained (with emphasis added):  “The addition of variable energy resources, primarily wind and solar, and the retirement of conventional generation is fundamentally changing how the [bulk power system] is planned and operated. Resource planners must consider greater uncertainty across the resource fleet as well as uncertainty in electricity demand that is increasingly being effected by demand-side resources. As a result, reserve margins and capacity-based estimates can give a false sense of comfort and need to be supplemented with energy adequacy assessments.”

As grid infrastructure continues to evolve and weather-dependent resources become critical to maintaining energy reliability, it is important, now more than ever for the electric industry to ensure diversity in its power  sources and fuel types. The findings set forth in the Reliability Assessment  make this clear, and the advantages of pairing advanced nuclear with renewables, like solar and wind, ensures reliable power generation can continue when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.

The NERC Reliability Assessment also highlighted how abnormal weather conditions can lead to elevated risks to the grid—affecting both generation and demand, as well as causing energy shortages that lead to energy emergencies.  The Texas power crisis that occurred in February 2021 serves as an example of why the energy industry must adapt to extreme weather events. As noted in a recent report on this event, when Winter Storm Uri struck Texas this past winter, more than 4.5 million households were left without electricity during an extremely cold snap of weather, with the storm and outages leading to the loss of over 100 lives and causing an economic loss estimated to be about $155 billion.  All major fuel sources underperformed during this event, but the nuclear plants in the state were least impacted.  Of the four nuclear reactors in Texas, three remained operational and the one that shut down re-opened within a couple days This demonstrates both the dangers that extreme weather events pose to the grid and public health and safety, and also the essential role energy diversity can play in ensuring grid stability during these events.

Advanced reactor companies recognize the significant benefits of hybrid nuclear/renewable energy systems and are developing advanced reactor designs intended to pair with renewable power. For instance, X-energy signed a tri-energy partnership agreement with Energy Northwest and Grant County Public Utility District to site, build, and operate an Xe-100 advanced nuclear power plant. The design will integrate regional electricity systems as both a base and load-following carbon-free power source to optimize grid capacity and stabilize intermittent renewable energy production.

Additionally, TerraPower, alongside GE-Hitachi, developed Natrium, a sodium-cooled fast reactor that leverages technologies used in solar thermal generation systems. Among other qualities, Natrium couples a 345 megawatt electric (MWe) nuclear reactor with a molten salt energy storage system that can flexibly operate in sync with renewable power sources. Its thermal storage has the potential to boost the system’s output to 500MWe of power for more than five and a half hours.

Other companies are developing advanced reactor designs with similar pairing capabilities. NuScale  and Oklo developed reactor designs with the ability to generate power to run in tandem with renewable energy from the grid.

And with the deployment of these advanced reactor technologies in the coming years, pairing renewables with advanced reactors can help support a quicker transition to carbon-free power while also ensuring the lights stay on.

For more information, please contact blog authors.

On May 28, 2021, President Biden submitted a proposed federal budget for Fiscal Year 2022  (FY22) that included a significant funding increase for clean energy initiatives. The budget proposal, which complements the President’s American Jobs Plan, among other things affirms support for nuclear energy as an option to combat climate change by allocating $1.85 billion to the Department of Energy (DOE’s) Office of Nuclear Energy, prioritizes the development of new, clean energy innovation offices, and takes advantage of tax credits to support clean energy innovation.

The increased funding to the Office of Nuclear Energy–a 23 percent increase from the prior Fiscal Year–demonstrates support to deploying advanced reactors. It is part of a proposed $1.9 billion increase designated for the DOE generally.  Specifically, $1 billion is dedicated to nuclear energy research, development, and demonstration programs, with $245 million to support the demonstration of two advanced reactor technologies within the next six years. The proposed budget also includes $11 million to launch the consent-based siting process to support consolidated interim storage for the nation’s used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

Additionally, the FY22 budget seeks to grow technology-neutral approaches to clean energy innovation. For instance, and possibly most noteworthy, the budget allocates $400 million for a new entity within DOE, named the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, to bring innovative technologies–without a clear technology preference–to market through multiyear projects and private-sector partnerships.  In addition, the President earmarked $200 million for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate (ARPA-C) to further the goal of producing 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035, and set $500 million, a 17 percent increase from the prior Fiscal Year, for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to help develop and commercialize clean energy technologies. ARPA-E aims to advance carbon-neutral fuels such as hydrogen, grid modernization technologies, and carbon management, while ARPA-C will be critical in advancing climate technology solutions for resilience and emissions mitigation. This type of unified government R&D approach will integrate program development across the spectrum of DOE’s science and applied energy offices.

The budget and related Treasury Green Book on revenue proposals also take a deep dive into the use of tax credits to help spur clean energy innovation, including the creation of technology-neutral clean energy generation tax credits, tax credits for operating nuclear power plants that are under financial distress, and reactivation of a tax credit for clean energy manufacturing (although that credit may have to be further modified to include nuclear).  We are following tax credit issues closely, as they have a significant impact on not just technology advancement for advanced nuclear or fusion technologies, but eventual customer adoption of those technologies and first-of-a-kind demonstration facilities.

For more information, please contact blog authors.

 

Last week, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a new funding program issued by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). An impressive $40 million in funds are being set aside to support the new Optimizing Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems (ONWARDS) program. This endeavor will focus on preventing or reducing nuclear waste and improving disposal options. The goal is for a 10x reduction in nuclear waste, through the following three options identified in the press release:

  1. Process: Improvements in fuel recycling that significantly minimize waste volumes, improve intrinsic proliferation resistance, increase resource use, and bolster advanced reactor commercialization.
  2. Safeguards: Improvements in sensor and data fusion technologies that enable accurate and timely accounting of nuclear materials.
  3. Waste form: Development of high-performance waste forms for all advanced reactor classes with an emphasis on those forms that span multiple reactor classes and disposal environments and are safe and stable over required timescales.

Following the announcement, ARPA-E posted a funding opportunities announcement (FOA) for the ONWARDS program, which indicates that selected applicants will “develop and demonstrate sustainable technologies that will significantly improve the disposal impact of used nuclear fuel (UNF) and other waste streams stemming from the implementation of [advanced reactor] fuel cycles by developing innovative and cost-effective approaches in reprocessing, material accountancy, and waste forms.” A second, almost identical FOA (with differing eligibility requirements) is also posted under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, which ARPA-E administers. Concept papers for each FOA are due July 9, 2021.

This ARPA-E opportunity tackles a critical issue of how advanced nuclear plants can address the challenging issue of disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste.  Although nuclear power plant owners and operators have set aside billions of dollars for disposal of spent nuclear fuel—those funds largely are sitting idle until the federal government can decide on where to site a nuclear waste repository.  The ONWARDS program could help mitigate this issue by reducing the amount of waste advanced reactors create in general.  One of the options considered—the use of fuel recycling, may prove to be complex given potential proliferation concerns, but new fuel recycling technologies have the potential to significantly improve the safety and security of the recycling process, while dramatically reducing the amount of fuel to be disposed of.  The NRC has been looking into establishing regulations on the use of fuel recycling, although recently the NRC staff requested to discontinue the rulemaking, with potentially using the 10 CFR Part 50 framework instead for any recycling facility applications that are submitted to the agency.

For more information, please contact blog authors.

Today the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking and request for comment on categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires that federal agencies conduct environmental reviews for any “major Federal action” that significantly affects “the quality of the human environment.”

As a background to NEPA, for major federal actions that may impact the quality of the human environment, an environmental review is conducted either in the form of an Environmental Analysis (EA), when it is unclear if a project will have a significant environmental impact or as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) when it is evident the environment will be significantly impacted. An EA can either necessitate an EIS, which is a longer, more exhaustive analysis of environmental impacts, or it can conclude in a Finding of No Significance. This latter result means an environmental analysis in the form of an EIS is not necessary.

However, neither an EA nor an EIS is required if that action is listed under a Categorical Exclusion (CE). The 1978 regulations implementing NEPA allow for agencies to determine which class of actions can be exempt from an environmental review when that agency finds there is no significant effect with that type of action. As the most utilized option under NEPA, CEs are popular mechanisms amongst agencies and more than 2,000 CEs have been developed over the past forty years. According to the NRC notice and comment publication, CEs “streamline the NEPA process, saving time, effort, and resources.” NRC’s review of CEs is an important endeavor as EISs (and even some EAs) often pose overly cumbersome requirements at the front-end of projects, resulting in smaller companies bleeding out their resources at this early stage and never achieving project deployment. It is imperative that environmental impact is considered but in an efficient and effective way.

For additional information on potential project development roadblocks under NEPA, please review Partner Amy Roma’s written testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020, and a paper issued by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, Nuclear Innovation and NEPA, which the blog authors supported.

The NRC is seeking comment on a variety of areas it proposes to be categorically excluded from the NEPA process.  Most of the NRC’s focus for this effort is on decommissioning and back-end fuel cycle activities, but advanced reactor vendors should also explore where the NRC may want to consider CEs that could benefit their licensing activities.  The NRC is also taking comment generally on other areas it should consider.  To list a few areas the NRC mentioned in their notice that could have an impact on new reactor activities (or could be expanded upon to have an impact):

  • Actions authorizing licensees to delay implementation of certain new NRC requirements, for example, where the new requirements were previously found to not result in an environmental impact.
  • Approval of relief and alternative requests under 10 CFR 50.55a, “Codes and standards.”
  • Authorizations to revise emergency plans for administrative changes such as reduction in staffing.

The NRC is receiving input on additional actions to be considered as a CE. NRC is also considering revision of and seeking comments on various components in current CEs.

For more information on what areas NRC is seeking comment, please reference the advance notice of proposed rulemaking.

Comments are due roughly 75 days from today, and we recommend our blog community consider submitting their input on this important rulemaking.

For additional guidance, please contact blog authors.