The year 2020 is surely to be remembered for the pandemic that swept the globe and affected the lives of millions of people and touched practically every industry sector. Despite the hardships faced, the nuclear industry has thrived with its promise of coupling American innovation and a zero-carbon energy solution. This blog post will highlight some of the most notable 2020 activities in nuclear.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) boasts a number of accomplishments that sets the stage for advanced nuclear technology.

  • Part 53 framework: In April 2020, the NRC proposed to develop the 10 CFR Part 53 rulemaking for licensing and regulating advanced nuclear reactors, and potentially fusion systems. Part 53 is intended to be a technology neutral, risk informed framework that could provide an alternative to the traditional 10 C.F.R. Parts 50/52 route for advanced reactors. A few months later, NRC staff was directed to publish a final rule by October 2024. In furtherance of this goal, the NRC posted a request for comment so stakeholders can provide input to the proposed rule language that will be developed on an ongoing basis.
  • New guidance for non-light water reactor technologies: In June 2020, the NRC issued a new approach to licensing non-light water reactor (non-LWR) technologies using a “technology-inclusive, risk-informed, and performance-based methodology.” The new guidance is applicable to entities applying for approvals under 10 CFR Part 50 and 10 CFR Part 52.
  • NuScale Power small module reactor: After a safety evaluation report, the NRC approved the first small modular reactor design in August 2020, which boasts a 12-module design with each module producing 50 megawatts of electricity. NuScale plans to apply for a 60 megawatt version of the design in 2022 as well.
  • Submission of Oklo application: In April 2020, Oklo Inc. submitted a first of its kind application for a combined license to construct and operate a non-LWR. The design utilizes a fission battery capable of producing 1.5 MW of electrical power and operates without the use of cooling water or the need for constant refueling.

Department of Energy

Likewise, the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy and other cross-sectional offices made the most of 2020 to provide incentives for nuclear innovation and a platform for nuclear technology to be utilized across industries.

  • Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program: The DOE launched the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), which provides funding partnership opportunities for industry stakeholders looking to demonstrate advanced nuclear reactors. With an initial budget of $230 million, the DOE has already funded various projects through this program. In October 2020 it awarded $80 million each to X-energy and TerraPower for advanced nuclear reactor demonstration. In December 2020 it awarded five teams $30 million for Risk Reduction Future Demonstration projects. It also awarded $20 million to three teams to help companies in the initial phases of advanced reactor designs.
  • Hydrogen in Nuclear: In October 2020 DOE announced two funding opportunities under its ARDP program related to hydrogen production. One award of over $13 million was granted to Xcel to integrate dual projects within the regular operations of a light-water reactor nuclear power plant. One aim for the project is to develop a “fully-functional hydrogen plant” that can function as a hybrid system to test electrolysis technologies. The second reward of $12.5 million was granted to FuelCell Energy Inc. for a project that will “demonstrate how nuclear-hydrogen production operations can help nuclear plants diversify and increase their profitability.”
  • Versatile Test Reactor Project: In September 2020, DOE approved the next step in the process of developing and building the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) project. The VTR will allow testing of advanced fuel designs for fast neutron reactors and other advanced nuclear technologies. This step, known as Critical Decision 1, evaluated among other things the design, costs and potential alternatives for the project. The next step in the process will be preparing an Environmental Impact Statement.
  • Nuclear Propulsion Technology: NASA and DOE signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to solidify its partnership for space exploration and on the concept of using nuclear power in space by way of nuclear propulsion systems. This MOU followed a February 2020 Executive Order that added the Secretary of Energy to the membership list for the National Space Council.
  • Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover: The rover is equipped with a DOE Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator fueled by plutonium-238 produced in the U.S. It launched in July 2020 from the Kennedy Space Center to locate signs of life and collect rock samples.
  • Uranium Reserve: In April 2020, the DOE published the Restoring America’s Competitive Energy Advantage report, which prioritized establishing a uranium reserve to “restore the viability of the entire front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle.” The report facilitates a plan for the direct purchase of uranium from U.S. mines and a reserve to limit dependence on imported uranium.
  • Accident Tolerant Fuel (ATF) Program: The year ended with the first commercially operated Accident Tolerant Fuel samples being delivered to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in December. The ORNL will test the samples that completed a 24-month fuel cycle at a nuclear plant in Georgia for data that could lead to greater future fuel performance.

Congress

Finally, Congress took two important steps with bipartisan support to ensuring a strong future for nuclear infrastructure and development.

  • American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020: The American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020 (ANIA) was introduced on November 16, 2020, following a hearing on the discussion draft version of the bill in August, where blog author Amy Roma testified. ANIA contains a number of provisions aimed at streamlining the NRC licensing process and supporting the competitiveness of the U.S. nuclear industry against global competition. Since the bill was pending when the new Congress convened on January 3, 2021, it will need to be reintroduced in the Senate.
  • Energy Act of 2020: The provisions in the pandemic relief and spending bill related to nuclear are housed within the Energy Act of 2020 located in Division Z of the bill. These provisions authorized funding for a wide range of nuclear programs and awards, including fusion energy research and advanced nuclear technology and fuel. For a deeper dive on the nuclear provisions in the bill please visit our previous post.

2020 has been a busy year for your blog authors. In addition to our work, and various working groups on nuclear law and policy, we authored the following:

2020 Blog Posts

2020 Papers Authored