Those involved with advanced reactors are well aware of the issues associated with high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel: advanced reactors need HALEU to operate, but the U.S. doesn’t have domestic production capabilities to make it.  And there’s a “chicken” and “egg” issue to solving this problem—fuel cycle facilities don’t want to commit the resources towards developing a HALEU supply chain until they know they have an established market.  The established market cannot emerge until the reactors are built, and they cannot run without fuel.  We have blogged about this issue many times over the years, including developments in trying to stand up U.S. HALEU production capabilities (See, e.g., here).

What is HALEU?  Traditionally, the U.S. nuclear power plants are powered by uranium enriched up to 5% with uranium-235—the main fissile isotope that produces energy during a chain reaction.  HALEU is still low enriched uranium, but between 5-20%.

Who uses HALEU?  Most advanced reactor developers intend to rely on HALEU fuel.  Among other things, the higher enrichment levels enable the reactors to have a smaller design, better fuel utilization, and longer fuel cycles.  Both the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) awardees—TerraPower and X-energy—use HALEU fuel.  These projects are expected to be completed by late 2027/early 2028, and they will likely not be able to procure their enriched uranium in the U.S.  Overall, the domestic nuclear industry anticipates it may need nearly 600 metric tonnes of HALEU by 2030 in order to deploy new reactors to market.

HALEU can also be used by the existing fleet, with the nuclear industry expressing interest in using fuels for light water reactors (LWRs) enriched between 5-10%.  Some advanced fuel developers are also looking at new LWR fuel designs at just under 20% enrichment levels.

Who makes HALEU commercially for advanced reactors?  Currently, no one in the U.S.

Is that a big deal?  Yes, because it undermines U.S. energy independence and security.  Also, HALEU production capabilities are very limited globally.  The only current options right now?  Pretty much just Russia.

Are we starting from scratch?  No, but it will take time to stand up a domestic production source. There is one operating uranium enrichment facility in New Mexico—Urenco—that makes uranium enriched up to 5.5%, but advanced reactors use HALEU much closer to the 20% threshold.  Urenco could expand its existing facility to add in HALEU production—the company is exploring this option as we have previously blogged about—but that is a time intensive and expensive task. Another company—Centrus—has been working with the Department of Energy to develop a new enrichment technology that could support HALEU production, but according to the company’s last quarterly report the project has experienced some delays and DOE may not continue funding through the operational phase without a competitive bid of some sort.  And in any event, a full-scale facility would still need to be licensed and constructed before being able to supply HALEU commercially.

What’s government’s role?  The Department of Energy (DOE) is supporting HALEU development.  In December 2021, DOE issued a Request for Information (RFI) for public input on its planned program to ensure domestic availability of HALEU for the U.S. fleet (responses to DOE’s RFI are due on February 14, 2022).  The Energy Act of 2020 authorized DOE to establish a program for domestic sourcing of HALEU for research, development, demonstration, and commercial use. We summarized the Energy Act provisions in a previous blog post.  The stalled Build Back Better legislation would have funded this program with $500 million (also summarized in a previous blog).

Recent developments: This month, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) issued a white paper on “Establishing a High Assay Low Enriched Uranium Infrastructure for Advanced Reactors” which outlines their recommendations to support HALEU deployment for advanced reactors before 2030.  And late last month, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff requested Commission permission to undertake a rulemaking to evaluate and amend the NRC regulations related to HALEU for the existing fleet, taking into account enrichment levels of up to 10%.  We summarize both briefly below.

NEI HALEU White Paper

NEI’s white paper walks through many of these issues—setting forth the underling HALEU issue and recommended next steps to developing a domestic production source.  Acknowledging that the greatest hurdle facing this effort is the tremendous upfront capital required—an estimate of more than $500 million for enrichment and deconversion—the paper explains that this capacity will not emerge without a governmental push to create a sustained customer base.

As outlined in the white paper, NEI’s recommendations to support development of domestic HALEU include the following:

  • DOE should expeditiously establish the Advanced Nuclear Fuel Availability Program authorized by the Energy Act of 2020 (summarized in one of our previous posts) and immediately commence the funding processes, and Congress should provide the requisite funding for this program
  • DOE should incentivize licensing, construction, and deployment of two U.S. commercial HALEU enrichment facilities, through a competitive procurement process
  • DOE and other agencies should not impede acquisition of HALEU by industry from international suppliers within the framework of existing trade agreements, and DOE should consider assisting with HALEU transportation and storage
  • DOE should support and incentivize development and deployment of deconversion facilities
  • DOE should support the certification and manufacturing of new shipping packages for certain HALEU
  • Processing of Experimental Breeder Reactor-II fuel should be expedited

NRC staff requests rulemaking to support domestic HALEU supply chain

In an activity that would impact fuel for the existing fleet, and potentially advanced reactors, on December 20, 2020, NRC staff submitted a memorandum to the Commissioners (SECY-21-0109) that requested permission to undertake formal rulemaking to evaluate the regulations impacting LWR fuel enriched greater than 5%.

The NRC identified at least two regulations that set forth an enrichment limit of 5% that would need to be amended.  In addition, the staff would perform a more comprehensive review of regulations associated with uranium enrichment throughout the life cycle of fuels for LWRs. The goal of this review would be to identify regulations that could be modified to increase flexibility and reduce exemption requests for the use of increased enrichment fuel while maintaining safety.

The staff further explained that while a rulemaking is not necessary to support the licensing of fuel enriched over 5%, the staff is recommending the rulemaking “to reduce unnecessary exemption requests and facilitate increased regulatory efficiency and consistency while continuing to ensure safety.” The rulemaking would also enable the “staff to thoroughly review the potential regulatory implications of increased enrichment fuels and identify and assess the potential costs and benefits of changing regulatory requirements that impact their use” as well as pursue a “generic resolution of these issues.”

While the NRC staff noted in the SECY paper that the LWR community was interested in fuel enriched between 5-10%, the NRC also recognized that advanced reactors intend to utilize greater enrichment levels—something the NRC is reviewing under its advanced reactor Part 53 rulemaking.  The staff explained that it “plans to further evaluate applicability to advanced reactor fuel designs in the regulatory basis to ensure alignment with the Part 53 rulemaking.” And that “if the rulemaking schedule and stakeholder interest align, this rulemaking scope could be expanded, or a separate rulemaking could be initiated for advanced reactor fuel designs.”

For additional information regarding these developments, please contact the blog authors, Amy Roma, Partner, or Rob Matsick, Associate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”) recently completed a report titled “America’s Strategy to Secure the Supply Chain for a Robust Clean Energy Transition” on what it will take to secure the supply chains necessary to support the Nation’s clean energy goals.  The ultimate objectives DOE identifies are:  (i) to achieve diverse and resilient supply chains that will (ii) meet climate change goals, (iii) establish the United States as a leader in clean energy innovation and manufacturing, and (iv) create jobs in the clean energy economy.  DOE recognizes that nuclear energy is essential to achieving climate change objectives, and it also acknowledges the need for contributions from both the existing reactor fleet and the advanced reactor technologies and fuels that DOE has been actively supporting for some time.

The supply chain needs that DOE identifies for nuclear energy closely parallel the supply chain requirements for most other clean energy technologies.  These include secure sources of raw materials, research and development support, other financial support in the form of financing and tax credits, work force development and solutions to end-of-life waste issues.

Although the DOE report stresses the need for increasing domestic sources of supply, DOE does not present a “go-it-alone” supply chain solution.  It also recognizes the need for domestic efforts to be thoughtfully combined with foreign supplies, foreign investment and foreign markets as critical to a healthy clean energy economy.

Among the conditions DOE identifies as key contributors to supply chain problems in the nuclear industry are:

  • The lack of adequate domestic manufacturing and fabrication capabilities for advanced nuclear reactor technologies and advanced nuclear fuels.
  • The absence of clear market signals to support deployment of nuclear technology.
  • The lack of sufficient numbers of early career workers to replace retiring members of the nuclear workforce.
  • Even where domestic mineral resources are available, the complex set of issues that create challenges for uranium and other critical mineral mining.
  • The need to modernize aged and outdated nuclear equipment without further stressing the supply chain.

DOE responds to these conditions with a set of policy proposals, including:

  • In coordination with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), support deployment of advanced nuclear reactors.  Specific actions DOE recommends are:
    • Enable private sector partnerships with national labs to demonstrate novel reactor concepts and share technical expertise with the NRC.
    • Ensure successful and efficient licensing of the next generation of technology in the near term.
    • Implement DOE programs for advanced reactor demonstration projects and for HALEU availability to support timely deployment of these new technologies by private sector.
  • Continue funding critical gaps in R&D infrastructure, including a fast neutron irradiation reactor or Versatile Test Reactor.
  • Amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to enable DOE to implement a consent-based, integrated waste disposal strategy (addressing interim storage, permanent disposal, and related transportation).
  • Support RDD&D funding, not just for DOE, but also for DOD and NASA, for the development and accelerated deployment of innovative nuclear energy systems.
  • Support global exports of U.S. nuclear technology through policy and strategic investments.
  • Expand mechanisms such as competitive grants, direct loans, and loan guarantees that support domestic manufacturing capabilities and job creation, including for nuclear component and supply chain critical minerals processing.
  • Provide tax incentives that send a clear demand signal and help U.S. manufacturers build and maintain a competitive edge in clean energy technologies, including nuclear energy.

It is not a criticism of the report and the accompanying “deep dive” assessment to say that these documents contain few startling new insights into what is needed.  Rather, DOE provides a thorough survey and compilation of all the many actions and institutions that need to come together to achieve reliable supply chains to enable the transition to a clean energy economy.  It is encouraging that nuclear energy figures in almost every area of policy and legislative needs DOE identifies as necessary to overcome the supply chain concerns that have the potential to thwart national clean energy objectives.

For more information, please contact the blog author, Mary Anne Sullivan, Senior Counsel.

On Friday, November 19, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the President’s roughly $2 trillion budget reconciliation package, voting 220 to 213 in favor of H.R. 5376 the Build Back Better Act (“Reconciliation Bill”), kicking the bill over to the Senate. While the bill is not final, it demonstrates a clear commitment for clean energy, aligning with the clean energy commitments in the recently enacted $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act  (“Infrastructure Act”), which was signed into law on November 15, 2021.

What happens next? The draft Reconciliation Bill is now in the Senate where revisions to the House-passed bill are expected and passage is not certain. Democrats are using the “reconciliation” procedure that would permit the bill to be approved in the Senate with just 50 votes, which would eliminate the need for support from Republicans.  But Democrats have no room for dissent—with exactly 50 Democratic Senators, every Senator and the Vice President, with her tie-breaking vote in the Senate, will need to support starting debate on the draft Reconciliation Bill and ultimately passing it.  A few Democrats have voiced concerns about various provisions in the bill and have not yet indicated their support.

The Democrats hope to bring the bill to a vote before Christmas, but it will likely go through some further revisions before that happens.  If the Senate makes changes, the legislation will be sent back to the House for a “take it or leave it” review.

What clean energy provisions are in the draft Reconciliation Bill? Generally, the latest version of the draft Reconciliation Bill includes roughly $550 billion for climate and clean energy programs to curb fossil fuel emissions, more than $320 billion in green energy tax incentives, close to $41 billion in energy-related programs, and covers a spectrum of spending from clean electricity production credits, eligible to facilities with carbon emissions at or below zero, to a federal “Green Bank,” a national greenhouse gas reduction fund meant to assist state banks contributing to clean energy.

And like the Infrastructure Act, which we discussed in a prior blog post (available here), the House-passed draft Reconciliation Bill contains substantial nuclear fission and fusion related provisions.

The proposed nuclear and fusion provisions in the draft bill are summarized below:

  • New production tax credit (PTC) for operation nuclear power plants. The bill creates a new PTC recognizing the zero-emissions benefits of nuclear power and intending to keep existing nuclear plants running. The bill adds a new provision to the Internal Revenue Service Code of 1986, as amended (IRS Code), section 45W, titled “Zero-Emission Nuclear Power Production Credit.”  (Section 136108; pages 1402-1409).  Generally, this new PTC credit rate is equal to a base credit of 0.3 cents/kWh produced at a qualifying nuclear facility and sold to an unrelated person during the taxable year (with the credit decreased by 16% of  excess gross receipts as power sale prices increase).  (Pages 1403-1404).

The credit is available for nuclear facilities that have not already claimed a credit for advanced nuclear power facilities under the existing IRS Code section 45J and that were placed in service before the date that the legislation is enacted.

  • Funding for the availability of fuel for advanced reactors. The draft bill appropriates $500 million for the Department of Energy’s (“DOE”) advanced fuel availability program for high-assay low enriched uranium (“HALEU”), as was authorized by section 2001 of the Energy Policy Act of 2020, which initially allocated $33 to $39 million in annual funding.  (Section 90002; page 942). This program enables DOE to support HALEU for advanced nuclear reactors.  The bill directs DOE to use a competitive process, to the maximum extent possible, to carry out the program. (Page 943).  We discussed the HALEU provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2020 in a prior blog post (available here).
  • Fusion funding.  The draft Reconciliation  Bill also appropriates significant funds to support fusion R&D and demonstration.  As explained in a prior blog post, the Energy Policy Act of 2020 authorized a number of programs to support fusion commercialization.  The draft bill provides roughly $885 million for fusion R&D spending, with $325 million for a new milestone-based public-private partnership program, previously authorized by the DOE Research and Innovation Act (42 U.S.C. 18645(i)), $200 million for fusion materials R&D, $140 million for research and technology development in inertial fusion for energy applications, $200 million for alternative and enabling fusion energy concepts, and $20 million to initiate fusion reactor system design activities.  (Section 90001; pages 940-941).  The goal of the milestone-based program is to incorporate best practices from other cost-share partnerships, and for private  companies to build demonstrations in partnership with government entities to establish a new clean energy source.

A number of U.S. startup companies have made significant announcements pertaining to private sector investment in the past couple months, including Helion Energy, which announced the close of its $500 million Series E, with an additional $1.7 billion of commitments after that tied to specific milestones totaling $2.2 billion, and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), which said it has raised more than $1.8 billion in investment.  Helion is building a prototype that it intends to demonstrate net positive electricity by 2024, a key milestone to commercializing fusion.  CFS intends to complete its prototype facility in 2025.

  • Support for transitioning energy communities. The draft bill includes $1 billion, authorized by section 209 of the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 3149), to provide economic support for development and job creation in distressed markets and communities.  (Section 110009; page 1036).  Of that amount, $240 million is for providing assistance, including grants for technical assistance, planning, and predevelop activities, to energy and industrial transition communities, including oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and biomass transition communities, and manufacturing transition communities.. (Section 110009; pages 1039-1040).

While the climate spending promised in the draft Reconciliation Bill is less than the $600 billion in the original draft, its current structure still makes up the largest spending category in the bill.

For more information, please contact the blog authors, Amy Roma, Partner, and Stephanie Fishman, Associate.

 

 

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.

On February 16, the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA) and the Partnership for Global Security (PGS) issued a report to help guide the Biden Administration in its support of nuclear amidst the President’s ambitious climate agenda. The report, U.S. Advanced Nuclear Energy Strategy for Domestic Prosperity, Climate Protection, National Security, and Global Leadership, provides detailed recommendations to promote advanced reactor development that could garner bipartisan support if implemented. It discusses federal, state-level, and international goals for advancing nuclear.

The next day, February 17, the American Nuclear Society (ANS) published a report on Public Investment in Nuclear Research and Development that requests an additional $10.3B by 2030 in funding for demonstration reactors and projects aimed to streamline commercialization of advanced nuclear. While the NIA and PGS report establishes a roadmap for advanced reactor development, the purpose of the ANS report is to make a case for increased federal investment in nuclear.

Here are some of the recommendations from the NIA/PGS report:

  • The executive and legislative branches should coordinate to prioritize advanced reactors. Legislative action should ensure sufficient appropriations for U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) activities, fund demonstration projects with the goal of commercialization, provide incentives for first-of-a-kind nuclear plants (e.g. tax credits, grants, loan guarantees), prioritize research and development (R&D) funding, and support university research.
  • Industry should develop business models applicable to nuclear energy (e.g. direct power sales, project financing, etc.), strengthen the workforce through diversity and inclusion and create attractive job positions, work on providing lower costs for consumers, and ensure that reactors follow global security requirements.
  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should aim to develop a final rule for Part 53 by October 2024 and in doing so, ensure that licensing for advanced reactors is affordable and timely. The NRC should also address challenges for certain non-electric applications.
  • Congress and regulating agencies should provide support of High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) fuel and its associated commercial capabilities, while addressing impacts of uranium mining.
  • States can include advanced nuclear energy in their renewable portfolio standards and eliminate restrictions that prevent advanced nuclear power plant construction.
  • The U.S. should engage with the international community to coordinate multinational deals and develop an export control framework that ensures non-proliferation commitments. It should also assess Russia and China’s nuclear portfolios in order to identify challenges and lessons learned.
  • Congress should eliminate the foreign ownership, control, or domination (FOCD) provision in the Atomic Energy Act for U.S. allies to encourage foreign investment in American nuclear energy.

The following are some highlights from the ANS report:

  • The report recommended doubling of nuclear R&D funding to enable advanced reactor development. It noted that the recommended funding ($10.3B over 9 years) requested  is only 0.6% of President Biden’s climate plan.
  • Nuclear should receive further funding for its promise of clean energy, national security, and job creation. Nuclear power plants generate 54.8% of carbon free-electricity and prevent 505.8 metric tons of CO2 emissions. Nuclear also adds $60 billion to the GDP and contributes $42.4B a year to the U.S. national security.
  • Federal funding is necessary to lower costs, speed up deployment, and further encourage private investment, which has already increased due to a market demand for zero-carbon energy. Nuclear power is the only energy source that can fit in utility companies’ energy portfolios and still maintain grid reliability and affordability.
  • Market opportunities for advanced nuclear energy is growing. For example, nuclear reactors can be a source of hydrogen production and DOE is currently exploring this option.
  • The U.S. would fall behind countries like Russia and China if there is a lack of appropriate funding. Russia and China are leading in nuclear reactor exports and the U.S. has no foreign orders in a market valued at $500-740 billion over the next decade. Without additional funding that capitalizes on U.S. private-public partnerships, the U.S. risks losing its voice in global nuclear safety and nonproliferation norms.
  • Nuclear energy also drives a number of other industry sectors like the medical industry that relies on radioisotopes to treat cancer, and NASA which uses microreactors in space exploration.
  • Every phase of nuclear R&D must be funded, including innovation (e.g. advances in technology, research on economics and societal acceptance of nuclear, etc.), development (e.g. providing necessary data for fuels to be used commercially), demonstration (e.g. identifying opportunities for cost reductions, answering regulatory questions, etc.), and deployment (e.g. providing support for HALEU).

Both of these reports highlight the important role nuclear plays in today’s energy sector, which thrives on diversification of sources, grid reliability, and the goal of a zero-carbon future.

For more information, please contact the blog authors.

On Monday evening, Congress passed a $900B omnibus spending bill, which contains, most importantly, relief measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also various authorizations and appropriations for FY2021, including $1.5 billion for fission and fusion energy programs. Title II of the Energy Act of 2020 (located at “Division Z” of the spending bill) features a variety of programs to support U.S. innovation in fission and fusion, many of which are discussed below.

The bill currently awaits President Trump’s signature. Although President Trump has threatened a veto of the bill, there is a fair chance the provisions discussed below will have traction in Congress. They may survive into future legislation should this bill not make it through the veto process, and we wanted to make sure the community was aware of the current legislative considerations.

Below are some of the major provisions relevant to nuclear fission and fusion:

  • Fusion Energy Research (Sec. 2008):  The legislation provides a total authorization of $996M in FY2021 for Department of Energy (DOE) to establish a research and technology development program aimed at building the scientific and engineering capabilities and knowledge necessary to build a cost competitive fusion power plant and fusion industry in the United States.

Most  notably perhaps, DOE is instructed to create a “milestone-based development program” that would award participants funding to support the R&D to enable construction of new full-scale fusion systems “capable of demonstrating significant improvements” in performance within 10 years of the legislation’s enactment. Projects will be evaluated by their scientific, technical, and business merits through a peer-review process involving the private sector, investment community, and fusion experts. Authorizations for this program are a combined $325M for FY 2021-2025. The fusion industry has long sought a public-private partnership program to support commercialization of new, high-performing fusion concepts.

The legislation also authorizes $50M in FY2021 to support R&D partnerships with universities, the National Labs, and others related to developing alternative and enabling fusion energy concepts, including:

    • Advanced stellarator concepts
    • Non-tokamak confinement configurations operating at low magnetic fields
    • Magnetized target fusion energy concepts
    • High magnetic field approaches facilitated by high temperature super-conductors
    • Liquid metals to address issues associated with fusion plasma interactions with the inner wall of the encasing device
    • Advanced blankets for heat management and fuel breeding
    • Advanced scientific computing activities

In addition, the bill reauthorizes the Innovation Network for Fusion Energy (INFUSE) program with $50M per year for FY2021-2025.  There is also support for R&D for the development of inertial fusion (e.g. ion beam, laser, and pulsed power fusion systems), with $25M allotted in FY2021 out of the total authorization.

ITER Reauthorization: The legislation reaffirms U.S. participation in ITER to the tune of $374M in FY2021 and $281M for each of FY2022-25. Located in southern France, and a collaborative project among several countries, ITER is the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device, under construction. In addition to the United States, the other ITER Members are China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, and Russia.

  • Advanced Nuclear Reactor Technology (Sec. 2003): DOE is authorized to carry out a program of research, development, demonstration, and commercial application in support of advanced reactors, up to $55M for each of FY2021-25. The program prioritizes designs that are “proliferation resistant” and “passively safe,” and designs that, compared to currently-operating reactors, are: (1) economically competitive, (2) have improved on metrics such as efficiency, cost, environmental impact, resilience, and safety, (3) use proliferation-resistant fuels and have reduced high-level waste per unit of output, and (4) use advanced instrumentation and monitoring systems.

Notably, Congress reauthorized DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), which provides for cost-sharing opportunities with industry, with an authorization of $405M for FY2021. DOE recently granted $20M in awards for ARDP’s ARC-20 program to propel advanced reactor designs, building on nearly $200M in funding support for advanced reactor demonstration projects earlier in the year. For information on previous ARDP project awards, please see our previous blog post.

Congress also authorized $60M per year for FY2021-2025 for DOE to develop a program to research advanced fuel cycles, including a variety of options for nuclear fuel storage, use, and disposal. In addition, the legislation authorized $125M for each of FY2021-2025 to create a program for advanced fuel research and commercial application on next-generation light water reactor and advanced reactor fuels.

  • Advanced Nuclear Fuel (Sec. 2001): Congress authorized $31.5M for FY2021 for the DOE to establish a program to support the availability of High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) for civilian research, development, demonstration, and commercial use.

This program includes developing criticality benchmark data to assist the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in licensing and regulation of special nuclear material (SNM) fuel fabrication and enrichment facilities under 10 CFR Part 70, and certification of transportation packages under 10 CFR Part 71. The Secretary of Energy will also conduct R&D and provide financial assurance to assist commercial entities in designing and licensing canisters and other packages for the transport of HALEU compositions.

The legislation also establishes a consortium of entities across the nuclear fuel cycle, which would partner with DOE to support availability of HALEU by sharing information, making purchases of HALEU, and carrying out demonstration projects. DOE must also conduct biennial surveys of industry regarding HALEU requirements.

Note, these program discussed above had been authorized—but not appropriated—meaning they must rely on future appropriations from Congress to move forward.

The Energy Act of 2020 is an important piece of legislation for the U.S. fission and fusion industry that features federal aid and partnerships, across a range of technologies in different development stages—from fusion R&D to support for eventual demonstration and commercialization of facilities.

For additional information on this bill please reach out to blog authors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bipartisan group of nine U.S. senators has introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA) (S 3422), a bill designed to help the United States return to its lead in nuclear energy technology.  The bill sponsors explain that the U.S. has yielded this position to Russia and China–weakening our energy security, economic competitiveness, and national security.  The blog authors, in collaboration with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have recently published on just this issue in “Back from the Brink: A Threatened Nuclear Energy Industry Compromises National Security” (Jul. 2018).

The bill covers a range of activities to fund research, development and accelerated deployment of advanced nuclear energy technologies.  The one-page summary of the bill issued by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources explains–

To reestablish global leadership, the U.S. must have a healthy nuclear industry capable of designing and deploying the most advanced reactor concepts in the world at a competitive price. As we look for clean, safe, reliable, flexible, and diverse power sources to meet the nation’s energy needs, advanced reactors will play a critical role in that mix.

Notably, the bill would:

  • Direct the U.S. government to enter into long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) with nuclear reactors.
  • Promote the development of advanced reactors and fuel by strategically aligning U.S. government and industry interests, which is intended to enable U.S. developers to compete with their state-sponsored competitors from Russia and China.
  • Construct a fast neutron-capable research facility, which is crucial to test important new nuclear technologies and demonstrate their safe and reliable operation. Currently the only two facilities in the world like this are in Russia and China.
  • Develop a source of high-assay low-enriched uranium, which is the intended fuel for many advanced reactor designs, from U.S. government stockpiles. Again, both China and Russia have these capabilities domestically, but the U.S. does not.

Section by Section Breakdown

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources also released a section-by-section analysis of NEAL, which we summarize below, paying particular attention to the PPA provision, which could be a near-term game changer for the advanced reactor industry.

  • S. Government Power Purchase Agreements (Sections 2 and 3). Notably, the bill would create a pilot program for the U.S. government to enter into long-term PPAs with commercial nuclear reactors.  Under the bill—
    • The Secretary of Energy must consult and coordinate with other Federal departments and agencies that could benefit from the program, including the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security.
    • At least one PPA has to be in place with a commercial nuclear reactor by the end of 2023.
    • The maximum length of the PPA is extended from 10 to 40 years, and the PPAs can be scored annually. Currently, nuclear energy is at a disadvantage when competing for federal PPA, due to a law that pre-dates commercial nuclear power and limits PPAs to 10 years. Initial capital costs for nuclear reactors are paid for over a period beyond ten years, which means 10-year PPAs do not work for nuclear projects, so this change would be an important development for the industry.
    • In carrying out the pilot program, the Secretary of Energy must give special consideration to PPAs for “first-of-a-kind or early deployment nuclear technologies that can provide reliable and resilient power to high-value assets for national security purposes or other purposes…in the national interest, especially in remote off-grid scenarios or grid-connected scenarios that can provide capabilities commonly known as ‘islanding power capabilities’ during an emergency scenario.”

The other provisions of the bill, as described in the section-by-section analysis are summarized below.

  • Advanced Nuclear Reactor Research and Development Goals (Section 4). In order for the American nuclear industry to compete with state-owned or state-sponsored developers in rival nations – especially China and Russia – significant collaboration between the federal government, National Labs, and private industry is needed to accelerate innovation. This provision directs the Department of Energy (DOE) to establish specific goals to align these sectors and send a strong and coherent signal that the U.S. is re-establishing itself as a global leader in clean advanced nuclear technology.
  • Nuclear Energy Strategic Plan (Section 5). There has not been a cohesive long-term strategy for the direction of U.S. nuclear science and engineering research and development policy across administrations.  This section requires DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy to develop a 10-year strategic plan that supports advanced nuclear R&D goals that will foster breakthrough innovation to help advanced nuclear reactors reach the market.
  • Versatile, Reactor-Based Fast Neutron Source/Facilities Required for Advanced Reactor R&D (Section 6). For the U.S. to be a global leader in advancing nuclear technology, we need the ability to test reactor fuels and materials. Currently, the only machines capable of producing a fast neutron spectrum are located in Russia and China. This measure directs DOE to construct a fast neutron-capable research facility, which is necessary to test important reactor components and demonstrate their safe and reliable operation – crucial for licensing advanced reactor concepts.
  • Advanced Nuclear Fuel Security Program/High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium Availability (Section 7). A healthy domestic uranium mining, enrichment, and fuel fabrication capability that meets industry needs is another prerequisite for reestablishing U.S. nuclear leadership. Many advanced reactors will rely on high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), but no domestic capability exists to produce it. This section establishes a program to provide a minimum amount of HALEU to U.S. advanced reactor developers from DOE stockpiles, until a long-term domestic supply is developed.
  • University Nuclear Leadership Program/Workforce Development (Section 8). The nuclear energy industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the National Nuclear Security Administration all require a world-class, highly-skilled workforce to develop, regulate, and safeguard the next generation of advanced reactors. This section creates a university nuclear leadership program to meet these workforce needs.

The bill was introduced by  Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.).

For questions on the bill or the links between national security and the commercial nuclear power industry, please contact one of the authors listed below.