Today U.S. Senators John Barrasso (R-WY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act (ANIA) 2020.  The provisions of ANIA are intended to help ensure that the U.S. is competitive with countries like Russia and China on nuclear technology advancement and project development abroad. Among other things, the bill empowers American agencies with jurisdiction over nuclear power, addresses the revitalization of the existing nuclear fleet, and removes barriers so advanced nuclear technology can flourish. For additional details on the bill, please read our previous blog post.

This bill is a result of hard work and persistent efforts on the part of the Senators involved as well as various Senate staff, stakeholders, and industry experts. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) held a hearing on the discussion draft bill in August, during which blog author Amy Roma testified in support of the legislation’s provisions supporting nuclear innovation. Her testimony relied on and referenced several policy papers that the blog authors have written, including the following:

In her testimony, Amy discussed the current state of traditional nuclear reactors, and potential regulatory considerations for advanced nuclear. Her testimony praised ANIA for providing support for the development of nuclear technology as a source of clean, carbon-free power. It also underscored the importance of U.S. leadership on the international nuclear arena.

For more information, please contact the blog authors.

While we often speak of nuclear power in terms of electricity production for our homes and businesses, it also has a number of other uses, including nuclear power and propulsion for space and maritime use, and there are a number of recent developments here.

Space

On October 20, 2020, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to expand the DOE-NASA partnership on space exploration. Space nuclear power and propulsion is among the key areas of interest listed in the MOU. The MOU establishes a joint working group to research the concept of using nuclear power in space. In the form of a one page paper, the working group will report on “[d]eveloping a multibillion-dollar plan to research, develop, test, and evaluate nuclear propulsion systems for Mars missions transporting astronauts.” The paper will also include a legislative plan and funding network.  It is due to come out in early December 2020.

Additionally, in November 2020, DOE is expected to release two space technology solicitations: a Fission Surface Power (FSP) System Design Solicitation and a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) Industry Solicitation. The solicitation for fission technologies would build upon a DOE July 2020 request for information (RFI) on FSP. The RFI notes that “[s]mall nuclear reactors can provide the power capability necessary for space exploration missions of interest to the Federal government.” The FSP system would aid in exploration of the moon and potentially Mars.  The latter thermal propulsion solicitation would stems from a DOE August 2020 pre-solicitation notice for NTP reactor preliminary design.

These activities cap off a year where DOE has significantly increased its attention on space travel.  In February of this year DOE joined the National Space Council, and over this period a DOE Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Space Science Working Group has been evaluating DOE’s role and capabilities in space exploration—the results of which are expected shortly.

Finally, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is conducting a study on nuclear propulsion technology for space exploration. The study will pinpoint the various challenges and merits of developing and utilizing such technology. The study is expected to conclude in the early 2021. Despite the significance of these new endeavors in the area of NTP, this isn’t the first time NASA has turned to propulsion technology. In 2017, the space agency awarded nuclear contractor BWXT $20 million to explore NTP designs. For further discussion on potential regulatory and legal questions with nuclear space propulsion, please see our previous blog post, “Back to the Future — NASA Renews Interest in Nuclear Space Propulsion.”

Maritime

On November 2, 2020, UK-based Core Power announced that it is working with Advanced Reactor developers, Southern Company, TerraPower, and Orano USA, to meet the demand for disruptive energy technology in ocean transportation.  According to Core Power, the four companies have applied to the U.S. Department of Energy to be considered for its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) to create a prototype molten salt reactor (MSR) technology. ARDP is a new DOE cost-sharing endeavor where selected projects share a 50/50 financial burden. Core Power believes that MSRs could be used for propulsion or electricity generation to decarbonize the world’s commercial shipping fleet, while also increasing shipping speed and efficiency.

If you recall from our previous blog post, TerraPower’s Natrium MSR project (in partnership with GE-Hitachi) was granted $80 million by ARDP to build a 345 MW reactor.  In 2018, the International Maritime Organization created a strategy focused on reducing climate change impacts from ships. It set a goal that the carbon intensity of international shipping be cut by at least 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050, when compared to 2008 levels. It further directed that the international shipping industry cut total annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 from 2008 levels.

According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power is well suitable for vessels at sea for long periods without refueling, or for powerful submarine propulsion.  After all, nuclear power is at the core of United States’ naval strategy.  Nuclear reactors power our navy’s aircraft carriers and submarines and enable them to conduct the long-term blue-water operations necessary for sustaining global peace and security.  Indeed, there are already over 160 ships operating around the world powered by more than 200 small nuclear reactors.

For more information, please contact blog authors.

 

 

 

 

The NRC staff is moving forward with development of the 10 CFR Part 53 rulemaking, which will establish a new framework for licensing and regulating advanced nuclear reactors (and potentially also extending to fusion systems).  The agency is taking a novel approach to rule development on an expedited schedule, including hosting frequent public meetings and releasing strawman rule language early to encourage public comment.

Novel Rulemaking Approach

The  NRC staff initially proposed in SECY-20-0032 a roughly seven-year rulemaking plan, going through the standard rulemaking process with an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking in October 2020, issuance of a proposed rule in 2025, and then a final rule to be published in 2027.

However, the Commission in response to SRM-SECY-20-0032 directed the NRC staff to complete the rulemaking by 2024.  Moreover, instead of taking a standard approach, the Commission encouraged the NRC staff “implement the development and intermittent release of preliminary draft rule language, followed by public outreach and dialogue, and then further iteration on the language until the staff has established the rudiments of its proposed rule for Commission consideration.”  This approach allows for an iterative development of the Part 53 rule, with multiple opportunities for public input.

First Steps

On Wednesday, the NRC announced its first major public virtual meeting on the Part 53 rule, to occur on November 18 in the afternoon.  The first meeting will outline the rulemaking’s strategy and schedule, as well as a key part of the new rule – technology-inclusive safety requirements.  The NRC released early draft proposed safety requirements the prior day for the new rule.  It is expected that this will be the first of many ongoing public meetings, with meetings to be held every 4-6 weeks over the next 12 months.

In line with the upcoming meetings and ongoing release of proposed rule language, the NRC staff on Friday also opened up docket NRC-2019-0062 on the Federal Register, with a public comment period to be held open until November 2021.  This will allow the public to make comments on the released draft language and in response to the public meetings on an ongoing basis.

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For more information about the Part 53 rulemaking process, please contact the authors.

On October 13, 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded X-energy and TerraPower $80M each for their respective initiatives to build advanced nuclear reactors.

The proposals were evaluated under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), a new endeavor in the Office of Nuclear Energy. According to Dr. Rita Baranwal, the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, these efforts are “important not only to our economy, but to our environment, because nuclear energy is clean energy.” In a press release, X-energy’s CEO, Clay Sell expressed his excitement for being selected and touted DOE and Congress’ work on this program as contributing to “safe, secure, clean and affordable technology to the US and many countries around the world.” ARDP facilitates a 50-50 cost-sharing partnership with the nuclear industry to ensure that advanced nuclear technology is rapidly demonstrated.

ARDP has three separate Advanced Reactor Demonstration Pathways: Advanced Reactor Demonstrations, Risk Reduction for Future Demonstrations, and Advanced Reactor Concepts for 2020. Each of these pathways is geared toward different purposes in the advancement of nuclear reactors. The awards to X-energy and TerraPower, which is partnering with GE-Hitachi, were granted under the Advanced Reactor Demonstrations pathway, which requires that winning projects are fully operational within seven years of the award. The projects must also result in an NRC-licensed advanced light-water or non-light water nuclear fission reactor. Awards for the other two pathways will be announced in December of this year.

What will X-energy and the TerraPower team offer the nuclear industry?

X-energy’s Xe-100 reactor:

  • 80-MW unit scalable to a 320 MWe “four-pack”
  • High temperature and gas-cooled
  • Uses TRi-structural ISOtropic particle fuel (TRISO)
  • Flexible electricity output—can be baseload or load-following—making it ideal on its own or to pair with renewable energy, like wind and solar.
  • Heat processing for various applications, like desalination and hydrogen production
  • Includes a TRISO (TRi-structural ISOtropic particle) fuel fabrication facility
  • As it is nuclear power, it doesn’t emit carbon

TerraPower’s Natrium reactor:

  • 345-MW sodium-cooled reactor
  • Operates at a high temperature and provides molten-salt-based energy storage
  • Flexible electricity output, making it ideal on its own or to pair with renewable energy, like wind and solar.
  • Includes a new metal fuel fabrication facility
  • As it is nuclear power, it doesn’t emit carbon

For more information, please contact blog authors.

On September 21, 2020, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to develop and codify a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for the construction and operation of advanced nuclear reactors through a technology-neutral, plant parameter envelope (PPE) approach.  GEISs have the potential to materially reduce the licensing burden on NRC advanced reactor applicants, given that environmental reviews can take up to a third of agency resources involved in licensing the construction of an advanced reactor.  We advocated that the NRC turn to GEISs for advanced reactors in our recent article co-authored with the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, entitled Nuclear Innovation and NEPA.

The Commission decision results from a number of NRC staff meetings with interested stakeholders and members of the public (as discussed in our previous blog) leading to a February NRC staff paper to the Commission on the viability of a GEIS for advanced nuclear reactors.  In the paper, the NRC staff recommended that a GEIS is viable and that it plans to use a PPE approach for small-scale advanced nuclear reactors projects. While the exploratory process in the paper focused on small-scale advanced reactors, the staff determined that a GEIS would be applicable to other advanced reactor technologies, like fusion facilities.  After its exploratory process, which involved fielding stakeholder comments and gathering information on a potential advanced nuclear reactor GEIS, the NRC staff concluded that the GEIS would improve efficiency of environmental reviews and would “provide predictability for potential applicants in developing their applications.” In its recommendation, the NRC staff suggested to engage in a GEIS rulemaking at a later date. However, the Commission disagreed and proposed to codify the GEIS into Part 51 as soon as possible.

The Commission memorandum accompanying the votes instructs the NRC staff to prioritize site-specific National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews and to use that experience to inform the GEIS. Additionally, the Commission requires that the PPE is technology inclusive and that stakeholders have an opportunity to comment.  In developing the GEIS, the staff should also provide the Commission information on cost, and the number of resource areas and types of reactors the staff expects to disposition generically.

As Commissioner Svinicki noted in her comments, codifying would enhance “the efficiency of the licensing process through the procedural finality such codification would afford.”  Commissioner Wright, in his comments, suggested that codification of generic findings would result in “predictability, clarity, and reliability.”  In support of a GEIS in general, he also emphasized that “the length of a given environmental document does not necessarily equate to a higher quality analysis”—a nod to Partner Amy Roma’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ hearing on the discussion draft bill for the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020.

Please refer to our paper with the Nuclear Innovation Alliance for more information on the importance of streamlining the NEPA process for advanced nuclear.

For more information, contact the blog authors.

On September 17, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced the re-opening of its Arctic Energy Office (AEO), which was originally established in 2001, but failed to take off due to insufficient funding.  Senator Murkowski (R-AK) pushed for the re-establishment of this office in the 2020 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, which supported the “promotion of research, development, and deployment of electric power technology that is cost-effective.”

The DOE will coordinate with AEO on a variety of activities in the Arctic region, including on nuclear power systems. According to the DOE factsheet on the AEO, the Arctic region has utilized nuclear energy as a source of “power, heat and transportation,” and currently studies are exploring various applications of advanced nuclear energy, such as microreactors and small modular reactors, in the region. The goal of this effort is to create sustainable energy solutions in the Arctic region, while also prioritizing national security through coordination with a variety of stakeholders.  According to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, the AEO “will grow to strengthen and coordinate our work in energy, science, and national security and help build an Arctic future of prosperity and increased opportunity.”

This is an important step to ensure U.S. competitiveness in nuclear infrastructure in the Arctic. A substantial nuclear presence in the Arctic region would promote U.S. innovation and heightened nuclear safety standards. Just last year, Russia introduced its first floating nuclear power plant built to provide power to the 50,000 people inhabiting Pevek.  For more information on the importance of promoting U.S. innovation in nuclear please refer to the report, Back from the Brink: A Threatened Nuclear Energy Industry Compromises National Security, co-authored by Amy Roma, Partner, and Sachin Desai, Senior Associate.

The AEO will be located on the University of Alaska, Fairbanks campus, and the university will provide the office with research and resources from its Alaska Center for Energy and Power testing facility.  AEO will also receive support from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility.

For more information, please contact blog authors.

In early September, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it awarded nearly $30 million in funding to support nuclear fusion technologies.

As discussed in our in-depth whitepaper, The Regulation of Fusion – A Practical and Innovation-Friendly Approach, the U.S. is currently expanding on its nuclear technology capabilities, with commercial-scale fusion generation expected in the coming two decades.  Multiple companies are working on fusion technologies that would provide market cost-competitive power and encourage climate change thoughtfulness through carbon-free energy.

The $30 million in DOE funding will help propel technology development by backing nuclear innovation with public-sector resources. The funding will be dispersed between 14 projects, as part of the Galvanizing Advances in Market-aligned fusion for an Overabundance of Watts (GAMOW) program by DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and the Office of Science’s Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) program.  The program prioritizes research and development in the following areas:

  • All the required technologies and subsystems between the fusion plasma and the balance of plant,
  • Cost-effective, high-efficiency, high-duty-cycle driver technologies, and
  • Important cross-cutting areas such as novel fusion materials and advanced and additive manufacturing

Some notable projects include Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s development of plasma-facing components with the capability to handle “extreme heat, high-density plasma, high-energy neurons, and fuel cycling” and Phoenix, LLC’s technology to enable an ultra-flux-DT neuron source for “a cost-effective, groundbreaking, ‘fusion-prototypic’ source of neurons . . . [that] will endure in operation”.  These developments, and others, would bring us a step closer to fusion commercialization.

For additional information, please contact blog authors.

Draft legislation American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020 set to provide further support for advanced reactors

On July 29th, Senator Barrasso (R-WY) introduced a draft bill, the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020 (ANIA), which, aims to re-establish U.S. international competitiveness and global leadership in nuclear power.  Among other things, the draft bill would—

  • Empower the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to lead in international forums to develop regulations for advanced nuclear reactor designs.
  • Try to improve and streamline the environmental reviews of advanced reactors.
  • Establish a prize to support with NRC licensing fees for advanced reactors and advanced fuels.
  • Require the NRC to report on the suitability of the existing regulatory framework for commercial non-power reactors.
  • Revise the Atomic Energy Act’s foreign ownership restriction to permit investment by allies.
  • Propose a clear-carbon program at the EPA to support nuclear’s carbon-free attributes.
  • Ask the NRC to evaluate and report on modern manufacturing techniques to build nuclear reactors better, faster, cheaper, and smarter.

The Committee on Environment and Public Works, chaired by Senator Barrasso, held a full committee hearing on ANIA on Wednesday, August 5th at 10 am, where Amy Roma testified.  A copy of her testimony and a recording of the hearing can be found here.

Foreign Investment in U.S. Nuclear

In a July 28th letter to the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, ten former NRC Commissioners urged Congress to remove the foreign ownership restriction in the Atomic Energy Act.

Also in July, Dr. Matt Bowen, at Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, published a report on Strengthening Nuclear Energy Cooperation between the United States and Its Allies and the Nuclear Innovation Alliance published a report on U.S. Nuclear Innovation in a Global Economy: Updating an Outdated National Security (co-authored by Amy Roma and Sachin Desai) that further discuss how the Atomic Energy Act’s foreign ownership restriction for nuclear reactors prevents investment and progress in the nuclear industry.

The draft ANIA legislation includes a provision to revise the foreign ownership restriction to permit foreign investment by allies.  ANIA offers a refreshing revisit to the Cold War restriction, which was implemented at a time when U.S. policy focused on closely guarding nuclear technology, without the other safeguards we have in place today.  Notably, it was also implemented before the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, was established, which now polices significant foreign investments into the nuclear industry.

While it is unclear whether the foreign-ownership restriction ever served any national security benefit, but it has been very problematic in recent years when applied by the NRC resulting in projects cancelled, impeding investment, creating huge regulatory uncertainty, and costing billions of dollars for the commercial U.S. nuclear power industry.

While ANIA would amend this restriction to permit investment by certain U.S. allies, CFIUS would still retain its jurisdiction over covered transaction and the NRC would retain its own non-inimicality finding to ensure an investment does not harm U.S. interests.  This is a simple change but can open the door to investors in this industry.

RFI on Small Reactor Designs for the Moon and Mars

The draft ANIA legislation comes at a perfect time to support U.S. nuclear development.  On July 23, Battelle Energy Alliance, LLC (BEA), in collaboration with DOE and NASA, published an RFI seeking preliminary designs of a fission surface power (FSP) system to test and validate operation on the Moon.  The RFI seeks responses that in part address technology maturation challenges, development risks, and tradeoffs for leveraging mature technologies compared to developing nascent technologies.  The capability statement is limited to ten pages, and must include a description of the technical concept, the proposed approach to meet the design goals, and associated technical challenges.  It can also include a summary of the reactor design concept, the relevant power conversion and heat rejection technology, the level of work or risk reduction accomplished, an assessment of technical gaps, and a rough order of magnitude cost and schedule for each phase.  BEA recommends that respondents consider forming partnerships to provide fully informed industry responses, and if partners are intended, information about them should also be included.

BEA invites wide participation from all qualified entities, including universities and affiliated research centers, private or public companies, and federal research laboratories.  Federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) will likely not be eligible to participate as partners in response to the subsequent RFP, but proposal teams can identify the scope of work for FFRDCs to perform and negotiations with FFRDCs can begin after RFP awards are made.  BEA is asking for respondents’ input on this issue as no final decision has been made.

NASA, DOE, and BEA plan to host a technical meeting between government and industry via webcast in August.  The capability statement must be submitted by September 8.  Next steps include at Phase I a future RFP that will lead to an FSP engineering demonstration unit (FSP-EDU), and at Phase II a NASA-sponsored competitive procurement for a final FSP design with manufacturing, construction, and ground testing of a prototype FSP-EDU, culminating in an additional test-qualified FSP flight system (FSP-FS) delivered to the launch site for deployment to the Moon.

For more information, please contact blog authors.

On July 23, 2020, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DCF) announced its intention to open the door to funding opportunities for nuclear projects abroad.

In a summary of its decision following a voluntary 30-day comment period, DCF announced that it has enabled “its full suite of finance products to support all civil nuclear projects that meet the United States’ highest safety security, and nonproliferation standards and laws.”  In doing so, it modified the definition of “renewable energy” in its Environmental and Social Policy and Procedures (ESPP) to allow for consideration of nuclear projects.  The former ESPP specifically excluded nuclear power from the definition of renewable energy.  Removing this prohibition aligns the definition with the United States Energy Information Administration’s definition, as discussed in our previous blog, “US Government Proposes to Lift Ban on Financing Nuclear Energy Projects Overseas.”  DCF CEO Adam Boehler boasted that this decision will “accelerate growth in developing economies with limited energy resources,” after the proposal received over 800 comments with overwhelming support and bi-partisan participation.

According to DCF, comments to the proposed policy fell into three main categories:

(1) Driving Global Development: A majority of comments emphasized the increasing need for “affordable, reliable, and clean energy” in developing countries.  Prohibition to nuclear project funding deprived communities of energy sources best-suited for their needs.  In particular, cost competitive energy options can help contribute to economic growth and development in low income areas.  Some comments did pose concerns that nuclear energy would not help those communities that lacked access to energy and argued the benefits of renewables over nuclear energy.  However, DCF responded that it will continue to prioritize developing countries, pursuant to the BUILD Act.

(2) Advancing U.S. Foreign Policy: Commenters largely viewed the proposed change as a way to increase U.S. competitiveness in the nuclear industry.  Countries like Russia and China have long been the predominant forces in development of nuclear power projects abroad and these changes would help advance the U.S.’s heightened safety and non-proliferation standards.  Additionally, comments discussed that DCF funding will carry great weight not only as a monetary mechanism, but also as a demonstration of government support.

(3) Generating Returns for American Taxpayers: Comments that fell into this category were also largely supportive and posited that the proposed changes would lead to an increase in jobs as well as a return on investment to fund future nuclear research and development. While a few comments demonstrated concern that DCF might fund “unproven technologies,” DCF assured that it uses “stringent requirements” when deciding to fund any project and will continue to do so with nuclear projects.

What happens now?

The comments will inform DCF’s implementation strategy for the policy moving forward.  In particular, DCF promises to consider a variety of issues, like waste management, when evaluating potential funding for nuclear projects and to implement stringent requirements on safety, security, and non-proliferation standards.

For additional information, please contact blog authors.

 

Advanced nuclear reactors promising smaller, simpler, and safer nuclear energy are moving closer and closer to commercial reality.  As we recently blogged, Oklo Inc., a California-based company, recently submitted the nation’s first application to construct and operate a non-light water advanced reactor.  In response to this trend, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is exploring a new framework for advanced reactor licensing.  To help inform future regulatory engagement, blog author Sachin Desai co-authored a historical study of the NRC’s licensing framework with a member of the NRC staff—Technology-Neutral Licensing of Advanced Reactors: Evaluating the Past and Present NRC Framework.

The study, found on page 37 of the most recent issuance of the Nuclear Energy Agency’s Nuclear Law Bulletin, carefully reviews the history of the US nuclear regulatory framework, and dives into the question of why the current framework is light water reactor (LWR) focused.  It explores the development of the original 10 CFR Part 50 framework, and identifies key points in the creation of the alternative 10 CFR Part 52 framework where trade-offs were made in favor of standardization for “evolutionary light water reactors”—setting aside a more technology-inclusive licensing process for small modular and non-LWR reactors.  As the article notes, “while advanced design applicants could use 10 CFR Part 52 to certify an advanced reactor design, the NRC acknowledged that the design standardization approach and associated prototype testing [contemplated in the Part 52 framework] might not be economically feasible for advanced reactor designs.”

The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act requires that by the year 2027 NRC establish a “technology-inclusive” regulatory framework advanced reactor licensing.  But “technology-inclusive” (or, “technology-neutral,” as often referred to) will have to elevate from being more than a buzzword to a critical part of any new reactor regulatory framework.  Advanced reactors present new design features (e.g., natural circulation and convection, new types of fuel, and modular formats) that can benefit significantly from different regulatory approaches.  One of the key aims of the study is to demonstrate how and why certain choices were made in development of the current regulatory framework, so that this historical context is in mind as the industry advances towards a new regulatory framework.  Only by knowing where we have been can we understand where we need to go.

For additional information, please contact the blog authors.