Happy New Year!  As we start off 2019, we want to motive the nuclear community by sharing a few legal updates and popular reports that have come out around the end of the last year.

  • Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (S.512, NEIMA):  On December 21, Congress adopted NEIMA, legislation that addresses NRC licensing activities for current and next-generation nuclear reactors—and which the President is expected to sign in due course.  The text of the enrolled bill can be found here.  The legislation has a number of sections devoted to budget efficiency and reigning in NRC licensing fees “to the maximum extent practicable,” but also contains a number of provisions pushing the agency to develop a new regulatory approach for advanced reactors.  These include:
    • Prompting the NRC to “Develop and implement” a Staged Licensing Program (along with conceptual design assessments and licensing project plans).  The legislation also pushes the NRC to hasten research and test reactor licensing, further adopt risk-informed regulatory processes, and train staff and hire experts to support licensing activities.  The legislation requires the NRC to provide reports to Congress to monitor agency progress.  Many of these steps are things the NRC already is attempting—for example, the NRC’s advanced reactor licensing guidance, such as its “Regulatory Review Roadmap For Non-Light Water Reactors,” already speak to staged licensing, conceptual design reviews, and project plans.  However, NEIMA authorizes $14,420,000 for this effort per year, which if added beyond current allocations could help hasten all of these activities.
    • Requiring the NRC to Report on Creating a New Reactor Licensing Framework.  As opposed to the above activities, which would occur largely under the current regulatory framework, the legislation would also ask the NRC to draft a report to Congress on developing a new, technology-inclusive regulatory framework for advanced reactor licensing, to be completed by 2027.  This builds on suggestions already put forward by the NRC staff for a “10 CFR Part 53” process for licensing advanced reactors, which is also highlighted in an article recently co-authored by one of the writers of this blog.
    • Amending the Atomic Energy Act to Allow Research/Test Reactors to Sell Energy.  This interesting provision would amend 42 USC 2134(c), one of the core elements of the Atomic Energy Act, to permit licensing of a broader variety of research and test reactors under a “minimum amount of regulation”—including research and test reactors that also generate revenue from other sources, such as through sales of electricity (although such sales would be capped at a percent of annual facility ownership & operating costs).  A goal of this provision appears to be to enhance the economics for building research and test reactors, long considered a key roadblock to advanced reactor licensing.

There is much more to this legislation than described here, and we hope it will have a significant effect on advanced reactor licensing in the United States.

  • DOE to Use 2 of NuScale’s First 12 Modules:  The same time as NEIMA moved through Congress, DOE announced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to draw on 2 of the planned 12 modules of NuScale’s first reactor project, for DOE research and facility use.  This MOU concerns NuScale’s first planned reactor project, to be procured by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and sited at Idaho National Laboratories (INL).  According to the DOE press release, one module would “be designated strictly for research activities (referred to as the Joint Use Modular Plant or JUMP program),” focusing on development of integrated energy systems. The second module would then be used to provide power to INL under a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA).
  • National Academies Fusion Report:  In Mid-December, the  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) issued a detailed new report on nuclear fusion, entitled the Final Report of the Committee on a Strategic Plan for U.S. Burning Plasma Research.  It highlights the significant progress made in fusion research, and provides guidance on a national strategy to achieve practical fusion energy.  Critically, along with supporting the multi-national International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in France, the report recommends a separate national effort “to build a compact pilot plant that produces electricity from fusion at the lowest possible capital cost.”  The report is technically focused, but also briefly discusses regulatory matters, pointing to past DOE safety guidance developed for the ITER project as a starting point.  It also posits that “[s]iting and licensing strategies for such facilities should be developed well in advance so as not to delay the progress toward the compact fusion pilot plant.”  Questions as to the final regulatory framework and regulator for commercial fusion facilities are still very much under consideration, although the report considers a transition to the NRC as the regulator for commercial fusion power facilities.

It also seems worth highlighting two other reports that came out earlier in 2018, that have been trending lately in the nuclear community.

  • The first is a U.S. Army-commissioned Study on the Use of Mobile Nuclear Power Plants for Ground Operations.  It is a thorough report that among other things, details past use of mobile nuclear reactors by the U.S. Army, including for providing power and fresh water at the Panama Canal Zone.  It also recommends the Army pursue mobile nuclear power plant acquisition through the National Defense Authorization Act, and suggests discrete performance requirements for any such plant.
  • The second is an MIT report, The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World.  It covers a number of topics, and has a whole chapter dedicated to nuclear licensing issues.  Stepping back, a unique contribution of the report appears to be the way it leads with a very detailed discussion of nuclear power plant construction costs (including the huge costs incurred from site-specific construction activities), and uses this analysis to then drive many of its technical and regulatory recommendations: including on the use of modularized construction methods, regulatory standardization and harmonization, and government support for rapid testing and prototyping of new reactor designs—all with a general aim to improve the economics for advanced reactors.  One of the report’s principle authors, Jacopo Buongiorno, discusses this further in his Titans of Nuclear podcast.

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

Significant advances in fusion energy research in recent years have helped set aside the typical storyline that fusion—long considered the “Holy Grail” of energy—is “always 40 years away.”  Instead, as we have highlighted in prior blog posts, fusion innovators are receiving millions of dollars in public and private funds to support near term deployment and testing (i.e., around the next decade).  These innovators are supported by the likes of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition and its investment arm Breakthrough Energy Ventures, large venture capitalists, and major energy companies.  As the industry has started to come into its own and looks towards testing and commercialization, last Friday a group of sixteen leading fusion ventures joined together to launch the Fusion Industry Association (“FIA”).

The FIA hopes to move the discussion of fusion energy into the mainstream.  The FIA has three specific goals, particularly focused on getting governments and the private sector to recognize the benefits of investing in and supporting the technology.

  1. Partner with Governments for Applied Fusion Research similar to what has been done to support other innovative energy and aerospace technologies.
  2. Drive Financial Support to help accelerate demonstration of fusion technologies, particularly leveraging public-private partnership models.
  3. Ensure Regulatory Certainty and appropriate regulation given the immense safety benefits the technology promises.

The members of the FIA propose very different fusion technologies, each with their own benefits and challenges.  Their coming together around a core set of goals can help make for more effective participation in the national and global energy policy discussion.  We look forward to following the development of this emerging industry.

For more about the emerging fusion energy industry, please contact the authors.

On Sunday, the popular TV show Madam Secretary gave a starring role to the climate and security benefits of nuclear power. The episode, titled “Thin Ice,” which is still available on the CBS website, proffered a full-throated defense of the climate benefits of nuclear power, turned a grassroots activist organization into a supporter of nuclear energy, and showcased how a nuclear powered ice breaker protected the Arctic from a foreign incursion. It capped with Secretary McCord convincing the show’s President to revise the national nuclear policy. As Michael Shellenberger opined following the episode (he also walks through the episode in detail), this marks a turning point for Hollywood, and “represents a popular culture breakthrough for the pro-nuclear movement.”  We encourage everyone to watch the episode!

From there, the week has only gotten better for nuclear innovation. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) completed “the first and most intensive phase of review for” NuScale’s Design Certification Application for its small modular reactor. The NuScale design review has six phases to its schedule; but the first review sets the tenor, as it establishes the NRC staff’s preliminary safety evaluation of the reactor and encompasses a large portion of the requests for additional information. NuScale performed admirably in both areas. Along with this significant milestone—which derisks the company’s regulatory path forward—NuScale also received US$40 million from U.S. Department of Energy to continue advancing its innovative new, passively safe reactor design. And even the issue of nuclear waste storage might see progress, as the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018 will get a vote on the floor of the House soon. The bill will move forward interim storage of spent nuclear fuel, and seek resolution on the licensing of a final national repository.

And apart from advancements on earth, NASA successfully tested KRUSTY, or “Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology,” a nuclear reactor for potential moon and Mars bases. NASA personnel stated after the successful Nevada trial that “[n]o matter what environment we expose it to, the reactor performs very well.” NASA, along with Hollywood and Congress it seems, has taken a renewed interest in the role nuclear power can play in space exploration.

If you wish to learn more about any of these encouraging events, please contact the authors.

Fusion is the combining of two or more smaller atoms to create one larger atom, potentially releasing large amounts of energy in the process.  A typical example is the merging of hydrogen atoms to form helium – the core process that powers our sun.  Fusion energy is moving beyond theory and becoming of increasing interest as a means of power production.  Third Way lists seventeen organizations, both government and private, working on fusion energy projects.  Each is working on a different means of dealing with the core challenges for fusion energy, including keeping the reaction stable long enough to get significant energy out, managing the high-energy neutrons that may result, and constructing materials that can work in the harsh fusion environment.

There is significant capital entering the field, led by some big names.  For example, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is invested in Tri Alpha Energy, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is funding General Fusion, two leading fusion startups.  The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (commonly known as ARPA-E) supported a funding program for fusion energy that helped spur a number of innovative ideas.  Growth in the field continues to accelerate.  The United Kingdom venture Tokamak Energy recently turned on its ST40 fusion reactor, which hopes to create temperatures seven times hotter than the center of the sun in the pursuit of fusion energy.

As a first of a kind technology, nuclear fusion presents new regulatory questions, including if it should be regulated, how, and who should regulate it.  The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) stepped its toe into the waters in 2009.  The agency’s staff issued a paper noting that recent activities had drawn attention to the area, and raised “the possible need to regulate fusion energy and specifically the role of the NRC.”  By that point, concerns had already arisen in regards to exports – specifically as to whether the NRC should regulate exports of fusion-related components instead of the Department of Commerce.  The paper then discussed various options for how the Commission could proceed.

Later that year the Commission issued its voting record and response to the staff.  In it, the Commission asserted jurisdiction “as a general matter” over fusion energy devices whenever they would be of significance to the common defense and security or could impact public health and safety.  In supporting this position, Commissioner Svinicki (now Chairman of the agency) noted that the legislative history behind the 1954 amendments to the Atomic Energy Act indicated that “atomic energy” as used in the statute includes energy from fusion.  But apart from this declaration, the Commission left future regulatory efforts to when the technology demonstrates further progress, particularly by successful testing of a specific fusion technology.

It is possible this time may come sooner than most think.  Milestones in fusion research are being routinely surpassed, bit by bit, and increasing amounts of investment are entering the field.  Our team operates at the forefront of the next-generation nuclear energy frontier, and has spent some time on issues such as the NRC’s jurisdiction over new atomic energy technologies.  If you have a question in this area, do not hesitate to contact the authors.