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.

The Department of Energy (DOE) and Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) have issued a trio of reports touching on important issues for small modular and advanced reactors:

The debut of these three reports so closely apart highlights the variety of issues new reactor developers have to work through simultaneously, from licensing to fuel supply to market dynamics.

The first report recognizes a common industry complaint—that although the legal standard for issuing new reactor licenses has not changed, in reality “the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] now requires more effort from applicants” to meet that same standard—even when new reactor designs are inherently safer.  The report recommends that the NRC:

  • Refrain from asking for design details that do not have a nexus to safety (shortening review times);
  • Modernize design requirements to “be more systematic, predictable and repeatable”;
  • Establish predictable staged licensing pathways; and
  • Reign in unnecessary detail in setting a plant licensing basis to allow for more flexibility to make changes during construction.

The second report tackles a sleeping giant, the lack of a pathway to high-assay low-enriched uranium (high-assay LEU) (that is, uranium enriched between 5% to 20% with fissile elements).  While there is no prohibition to commercial access to high-assay LEU, there is also currently no domestic source for this fuel type.  Current fuel cycle facilities are capped legally (and sometimes physically) to work with ~5% enriched LEU.  This is a bottleneck to realizing the promise of advanced reactors, as developing the infrastructure for this industry will require “a minimum of seven to nine years.”  The report recommends that DOE and NRC collaboratively:

  • Support development of new shipping packages capable of holding high-assay LEU;
  • Develop “criticality benchmark data needed” to enable the private sector to license high-assay LEU “facilities and transport packages”;
  • Directly support the design of high-assay LEU facilities and fuel types; and
  • Finalize guidance documents on Material Control and Accountability and physical security for “Category II” facilities that contain high-assay LEU.

The third report follows hot on the heels of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s decision to terminate a rulemaking proposed by DOE Secretary Perry that would establish a resiliency pricing scheme for baseload generation sources, including nuclear.  The DOE-commissioned report provides additional evidence for the resiliency benefits of nuclear power, but is more focused on the benefits of small modular reactors (SMRs) to support federal and military facilities; in particular, forward operating bases that often rely on uncertain civilian grids and/or trucked in fuel.  The report notes that SMRs are naturally hardened due to their underground construction and passive safety systems, are designed to provide scalable power that is reliable and grid-independent, and can provide years’ worth of fuel security—making them ideal for many national security contexts.

Despite its national security theme, the DOE-commissioned report suggests a novel solution to support SMRs that is based on the civilian sector—by engaging DOE support as a customer for the Tennessee Valley Authority small modular reactor project at Clinch River.  According to the report, DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and related facilities could rely on SMRs’ unique, resilient power for their mission-critical activities, use the SMRs for nuclear research, and at the same time help bring first-generation SMR technologies to market.  The report details a hypothetical transaction structure to support DOE involvement in the Clinch River project, and closes with other policy initiatives to complement this effort.

For more about the benefits and key issues facing next-generation nuclear reactors, please contact the authors.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has moved forward in developing initial regulatory positions on next-generation reactors, and reaffirming the value of its international cooperation efforts.

In support of its December 14th periodic meeting on small modular reactor (SMR) and advanced reactor regulatory reform, the agency has issued two draft papers for which it is soliciting feedback: one on siting considerations, and one on designing containment systems.  This is in addition to a December 13 meeting on physical security, for which the NRC issued a draft paper for review in November.

The draft paper on siting considerations tackles an interesting issue—the siting of nuclear reactors next to population centers.  The NRC has had “a long standing policy of siting reactors away from densely populated centers,” but this is based on traditional, large light water reactor designs.  Even though such reactors are safe, some governments have taken hardline positions as to siting these reactors next to large population centers (e.g., Indian Point).  Advanced reactors reopen this issue.  The Commission has stated in the past that for next-generation reactors, “siting a reactor closer to a densely populated city than is current NRC practice would pose a very low risk to the populace.”  And as reactor designs are starting to take shape and prove themselves even safer than expected, revisiting this policy can open up a lot of new geographic options for advanced reactors.  To note, the issue of siting of advanced reactors relates to emergency planning considerations, a topic we have covered recently here.  Apart from siting though, all the papers present multiple opportunities for interested parties to comment on developing regulatory issues.

Moving abroad, in this staff paper, the NRC reaffirmed participation with the Halden Reactor Project, located in Norway.  The research reactor is managed by  the Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology, but operates under the auspices of the Nuclear Energy Agency as a “cooperatively funded international research and development project.”  The NRC has a long-standing relationship with Halden and reaffirmed its commitment to it, which includes roughly $1.5 million of funding.  The paper explains that international cooperation greatly leverages agency funds, with a 15-1 return on investment through participation in the project.

Although not unexpected here, the NRC’s reaffirmation of international cooperation nonetheless is another indication of the now global nature of the industry, especially for advanced reactors.  But the U.S. government can do more to promote international cooperation in nuclear development.  Innovation in next-generation nuclear reactors is global, with, for example, URENCO’s U-Battery venture yesterday announcing an agreement with Bruce Power (a Canadian utility).  This includes scoping “the potential deployment of micro nuclear reactors across Canada, including Bruce Power being the owner and/or operator of a fleet of U-Battery units.”  Other Advanced Reactor global partnerships include TerraPower in China and Lightbridge and Areva,  Recently, two Congressmen penned a letter to the Department of Energy expressing serious concern with the slow pace of permitting in relation to nuclear technology cooperation, and recognizing that the slow pace of approvals of nuclear technology exports hinders nuclear commerce and U.S. competitiveness in the field.

Hopefully, the federal government can turn to doing more to promote international cooperation and support.  Just yesterday, the Department of Commerce published a notice of an upcoming U.S.-Saudi Arabia nuclear energy roundtable.  The goal of the event is “to initiate a partnership process between U.S. civil nuclear energy companies and the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE), and between the U.S. and [Saudi] civil nuclear industries.”  It presents a promising opportunity for the U.S. to regain a dominant role in new nuclear construction, as Saudi Arabia is pushing forward with an effort to develop almost 18 GW of new nuclear in the country by the mid-2030s.

For more on the recent NRC publications on regulatory reform, or recent international attention to nuclear energy, please contact the authors.

Highlighting how government support can positively benefit a transformative, nascent industry, Canada has again taken a lead role in support small modular reactor (SMR) development.  The country has already garnered significant attention through its pre-licensing vendor design review process, in which seven advanced reactor ventures are participating and many more have expressed interest.  But in October, the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) also released a report entitled “Perspectives on Canada’s SMR Opportunity,” which discusses the labs’ SMR strategy and responses to a request for information.

The report proves an interesting read and a useful resource for other countries or institutions looking to promote SMRs and advanced reactors.  It analyses the 80 submissions provided from across the industry.  Among other things, the report discusses the various benefits of SMRs, the types of reactors being developed, benefits to Canada, and comments related to how to efficiently regulate SMR innovation.  It also builds on CNL’s efforts to promote SMRs and advanced reactors—in 2017 CNL released a long-term strategy for its Chalk River Site, including a $1.2 billion push to promote the development of next-generation reactors.

For more about Canada’s work with SMRs and advanced reactors, please contact the authors.

The value of nuclear power’s reliability and resiliency are getting a closer look.  The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently issued a grid study calling for FERC to better value essential reliability and resiliency services performed by baseload generation, including nuclear.  Recent natural disasters have also reemphasized the real value of resilience, and the role advanced reactors can play in this regard.

The recent hurricane activity has highlighted the frailty of current power grids.  As a result of Hurricane Irma, over half of Florida lost power.  More than a week after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still largely without power, potentially for months.  While there are a number of factors that contribute to power loss and restoration, it is noteworthy that while Hurricane Harvey dropped torrential rainfall down onto Texas–leading to the curtailment of many of the region’s generation sources–the area’s two nuclear power reactors continued to provide essential power, due to a strong design and good training.

In a changing environment, recent weather patterns may become more common.  Especially in remote areas such as islands, reliable power for health care, airports, and basic services is going to be increasingly valued, as well as reliable heat for desalination capacity.  Modern reactors are designed to handle extreme circumstances, including aircraft crashes, which most generation sources do not have to consider.  Advanced reactors, many of which are being designed to operate underground or in a portable manner, are likely going to be even more protected from environmental challenges and responsive to environmental disasters. This should help put governments and utility operators at ease when an extreme weather event arises.  Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recently stated in fact: “Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of C-17 aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, and push it out the back end, crank it up and plug it in? . . . That’s the type of innovation that’s going on at our national labs. Hopefully, we can expedite that.”

The question then becomes: how can next-generation reactors effectively market and achieve market compensation for these benefits? This is a question that is hinted at in the DOE’s grid study, and may become a bigger part of the market compensation discussion in the future.

For more on the topic of advanced nuclear reactors and resiliency benefits, please contact the authors.

Last week China announced the launch of a company to build twenty (20) floating nuclear power stations.  Russia continues to move forward with its floating nuclear power station, which are to be mass-produced at shipbuilding facilities and then towed to areas in need of power.  In fact, it is working towards initial fuel load on its first floating reactor.  Politics aside, these developments highlight a trend in nuclear power, which is the growing interest to power our cities with smaller, more flexible  reactors—which could be located offshore.

China and Russia are not the first to suggest the concept of sea-based reactors.  The world’s first operational nuclear reactors were naval reactors for submarines, and nuclear reactors continue to power submarines and aircraft carriers around the world.  In the commercial power space, a floating nuclear reactor effort called the Offshore Power System project was explored in the 1970s to provide power onshore, although it eventually did not move forward.  Since then, Russia has taken a lead role, constructing the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating reactor that will be towed to Pevek in Russia’s Eastern half for power generation.  Private enterprise has also taken interest in the concept.  For example, a company called ThorCon is proposing a molten salt reactor power that would be located on a ship and deploy-able around the world, called the ThorConIsle.  However, China’s effort may ultimately prove to be one of the more extensive ones.  The company will be formed by five entities including the China National Nuclear Power Corporation, and will have an initial capital of $150 million.

The legal, policy, and regulatory issues posed by floating reactors are as interesting as the technology.  The location of the floating reactors next to other countries is of course a key concern. The Akademik Lomonosov had to change where it would be fueled due to concerns by Norway.  Some are alleging that the Chinese reactor project is part of an effort to help boost control of the South China Sea.  The transit of floating nuclear reactors–which do not propel the vessels they are on–by neighboring countries raises legal issues that would need to be navigated.  In addition, just as the siting of wind turbines offshore has at times generated strong local opposition, similar grass-roots opposition could arise to challenge the siting of floating reactors located offshore.  These challenges can be overcome, but should be considered early on in project development.

The regulatory framework in which a private company would construct a reactor would also need to be examined.  For example, in the United States, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) Standard Review Plan for examining the safety of nuclear reactors does not necessarily envision floating reactors.  That does not mean a floating reactor could not get licensed in the United States, however, and in fact the Offshore Power System, and the licensing of the NS Savannah provide some useful precedent.  The NS Savannah was licensed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor agency of the NRC, and although this was built to be a “goodwill ship,” a goal in the construction of the ship was to meet civilian safety requirements so the vessel could be usable by the public.  Moreover, the NRC works with the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide technical support for DOE’s oversight of the U.S. Nuclear Navy.

Extending civilian use of nuclear power to the ocean presents questions, but also significant opportunities, for both the developed and developing world.  Please do not hesitate to contact the authors if you wish to learn more.

Yesterday, NASA awarded a nuclear contractor, BWXT, nearly $20 million to explore conceptual designs for a nuclear thermal propulsion system.  This is one sign that nuclear power may see a comeback in space, raising interesting legal and regulatory questions.

Nuclear space propulsion can offer much higher thrust with less weight than chemical rockets.  The BWXT project is part of NASA’s “Game Changing Development Program,” and has the potential to significantly alter space travel.  Although the exact design of any nuclear space propulsion system to result from this effort is unclear, it is clear that any design would be a novel, next-generation reactor concept.

Nuclear power has been long embraced by NASA.  For example, the Voyager spacecraft, the farthest man-made objects in space, use nuclear batteries.  NASA’s Orion and NERVA projects directly experimented with nuclear propulsion, although those programs were terminated.  But as NASA has more closely looked at travel to Mars, nuclear propulsion has reentered the fray as a potentially suitable means of travel.

The legal questions that arise from the use of nuclear power in space are varied.  There are treaty issues.  Five treaties and five declarations of legal principles govern many aspects of the exploration and use of outer space, and these and other legal documents would touch on increased reliance on nuclear power.  The Orion project, which essentially sought to use nuclear explosions to drive spacecraft, was cut off by a treaty, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  There are also commercial issues, such as a shortage of plutonium for nuclear space batteries (radioisotope generators).

Moreover, the current legal regime focuses on the government’s use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes in space.  DOE has extensive experience with radioisotope generators, and most if not all U.S. nuclear power systems launched to date, including for both security and NASA missions, have been provided under the NASA/DOE Radioisotope Power Systems Program. Space, however, is quickly being privatized, with independent companies aiming to get to Mars far earlier than NASA is planning.  The entry of private companies into space may call for an increased role for the government to take on a role as a regulator of private nuclear spacecraft efforts.

Jurisdictional oversight would need to be addressed for commercial projects that do not fall under the authority of the Department of Energy.  For example, in the U.S., the nuclear regulator for civilian nuclear projects—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—has its oversight limited to the jurisdictional boundaries of the U.S.  Other issues that would need to be addressed include fuel sources.  The United Nations Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space provide a requirement that nuclear reactors in space use highly enriched uranium, not plutonium, which has historically been used in radioisotope generators.  Highly enriched uranium can be hard to procure in the commercial sector.  Pursuant to presidential directives, nuclear power sources in space may also need Presidential approval before launch.  Other issues that would need to be addressed include nuclear insurance and nuclear liability for third party damages.

Nonetheless, the use of nuclear power in space is not a new frontier for NASA, and the agency’s renewed interest presents a promising use of this powerful technology.  Moreover, the legal and commercial issues associated with any potential civilian use of nuclear technology in space do not appear to be insurmountable.  With the amount of energy nuclear power can provide, for long duration, while using small amounts of material, this technology makes sense for space travel and exploration.

For more on the use of nuclear power in novel applications, from space travel to micro-batteries and everything in between, please contact the authors.