Activity across the government has put advanced nuclear reactors center stage early this year.  With the signing of the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, hearings on Capitol Hill, and the release of a Department of Defense (DOD) Request for Information (RFI) for small mobile reactors, it is clear the federal government sees advanced reactors as a critical part of our country’s future energy portfolio, and that investment in regulatory reform along with public-private R&D is key to making this future a reality.

Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act: The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) was signed into law on January 14, bolstered by strong bipartisan support.  NEIMA is focused on regulatory reform strategies aimed at creating a more efficient licensing structure for advanced reactors.  One of the bill’s cosponsors touted the signing as “critical for the revitalization of our nation’s nuclear energy industry.”  For more information see our blog post Nuclear Reading to Kick Off the New Year.

Senate Appropriations Committee Hearing on New Nuclear Technologies: The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water held a hearing on January 16 focused on the cost and safety advantages of advanced nuclear reactors.  Witnesses included the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy (Edward McGinnis), the Director of Oak Ridge National Labs (Dr. Thomas Zacharia), and the Vice President of Nuclear Technologies and Materials at General Atomics (Dr. Christina Back). Although, the hearing touched on a number of issues, it focused on how new nuclear technology address financial and safety concerns associated with traditional nuclear reactors.

Dr. Zacharia touted his lab’s Transformational Challenge Reactor program as a change agent.  The program’s goal is to design, fabricate, and test the core of a nuclear micro-reactor within the next five years. The key to success, according to Dr. Zacharia, is additive manufacturing, which includes 3-D printing, digital manufacturing, and the use of digital prototypes.  Dr. Back from General Atomics also emphasized the use of advanced digital technology, but she focused on its applicability to reactor licensing and testing.  Dr. McGinnis summed up the goal of the hearing when he noted in his statement that “with a focused and sustained collaborative private-public partnership approach to support early-stage R&D…we can indeed revive, revitalize, and expand our Nation’s nuclear energy sector and restore our global nuclear energy leadership.”

DOD Request for Information on Small Modular Reactors: On January 18, the DOD Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering put out a request for information on small mobile reactors.  According to the RFI, small mobile reactors would fill a need identified by the Defense Science Board in 2016 for powering forward operating bases—adding that small mobile reactors can “fundamentally change the logistics of forward operating bases” while serving other benefits such as in addressing humanitarian crises.  The RFI explains that public input could be used as the basis for future requests under the DOD’s prototype authority in 10 U.S.C. § 2371b, including to seek development of up to three prototype reactor designs.

The RFI provides discrete specifications for its ideal small mobile reactor—it can produce 1-10 megawatts for three years without refueling, can be installed and operating within 72 hours, can be transported by military platforms such as a C-17 aircraft, requires no manpower to operate, and incorporates passive safety features. Many of these characteristics align with the 2018 U.S. Army-commissioned Study on the Use of Mobile Nuclear Power Plants for Ground Operations, discussed in our last blog post.  Responses to the RFI are due February 8.

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

The start of the month has proven to be an exciting one for nuclear innovation in D.C.  A number of legal and regulatory activities have taken place which have implications for the next-generation nuclear industry, just a few of which are noted below.  (And for those at the ARPA-E conference, see our blog author Amy Roma speak today at the 2:15 panel “Quantifying Technical Risk for Advanced Nuclear Reactors”).

  • Last week was “Nuclear Innovation Week” in D.C. It consisted of three events highlighting both nuclear innovation and legal/regulatory reform: (i) Third Way’s Annual Advanced Nuclear Summit, (ii) the Nuclear Energy Institute’s (NEI’s) Nuclear R&D Summit, and (iii) a joint symposium hosted by the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, NEI, and the Electric Power Research Institute.  Recordings of events from the Third Way summit are available online, and Amy spoke there on the topic of “Will the US Be a Global Leader in Advanced Nuclear Energy.”
  • In Congress, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (S.97) passed the Senate.  The legislation would help move advanced reactor concepts forward by encouraging the creation of a fast neutron test reactor, as well as a user facility called the National Reactor Innovation Center.  While it is unclear how money will follow, it is a step in the right direction and recognizes the critical need for test facilities for next-generation nuclear reactors. Of its other more notable elements, the bill would also push forward an “Advanced Nuclear Energy Cost-Share Grant Program,” under which DOE can make cost-share grants to applicants for the purpose of funding a portion of NRC licensing fees, including both pre-application and application reviews.
  • The NRC issued Regulatory Guide 1.232, “Guidance for Developing Principal Design Criteria For Non-Light-Water Reactors.” As we discussed when the draft regulatory guide came out, this is a critical guidance document for non-light water reactors.  Appendix A to 10 CFR Part 50 sets for the general design criteria for NRC-licensed reactors, which are essentially the bounding safety requirements every new reactor has to meet.  These requirements, however, are designed for light-water reactors and do not apply well to non-light water designs (e.g., Criterion 14 sets requirements concerning reactor “pressure” boundaries, but many advanced reactors would not operate above atmospheric pressure).  There are three appendices to the report, which set forth general “advanced reactor design criteria,” as well as specific design criteria for sodium-cooled fast reactors and modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactors.  This guidance document, which attempts to update the NRC’s general design criteria to address this disconnect, is the product of a years-long DOE-NRC effort, paired with industry and public input.

And the month is not letting up.  This week is the NRC’s annual Regulatory Information Conference, where advanced reactors are taking center stage.  This week is also the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, with Amy speaking on the panel, “Quantifying Technical Risk for Advanced Nuclear Reactors” (2:15 Tuesday).  ARPA-E has established a program to fund enabling technologies for next-generation reactors, called “MEITNER.”  The program seeks to help nuclear innovators leapfrog in development by providing advanced modeling and simulation tools, access to subject matter experts from nuclear and non-nuclear disciplines, and collaborative design assistance.  APRA-E is in itself an novel concept for how to commercialize technology research, and uses unique funding mechanisms to more efficiently fund energy innovation.

For more on any of the above topics, or on what else is going on in the nation’s Capital in support of nuclear energy, please contact the authors.

Last Tuesday, February 21, Third Way held a summit in Washington, D.C. focused on the advanced reactor industry, the Advanced Nuclear Summit & Showcase.  Among the many notable events at the conference was the strong bipartisan participation by Members of Congress.  Senator Chris Coons gave a keynote speech at the summit, and noted remarks made earlier by Senators Murkowski, Booker, Scott, and Whitehouse, leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Senator Murkowski’s remarks noted in particular the importance for advanced reactor legislation.  She, along with other Congressmen, including Senators Whitehouse and Booker, reintroduced in January the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (for more information about this and related legislation see our discussion of bills put forward in 2016 and 2017).  She pledged at the conference that she would push it forward and make it a priority in the new year.

We are excited to see advanced reactor legislation move forward in Congress this year, and will keep our readers updated.  For more on advanced reactor legislative and regulatory developments, please reach out to the authors.

January has already proven an eventful month for developers of small modular reactors (SMRs) and non-light water (i.e., advanced) reactors.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is finally starting to see significant movement in regards to SMRs.  NuScale’s January 12 submission of its design certification application for a 50 MWe SMR design garnered significant news attention.  Also of note, on the same day the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) early site permit application for a SMR power plant at Clinch River, Tennessee was docketed by the NRC.

For advanced nuclear reactors, earlier this month the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act was introduced in the House and Senate to spur technology development related to advanced reactors.  The companion bills, H.R.431 and S.97, were introduced by Representative Randy Weber and Senator Mike Crapo and have bipartisan support.  Although the text is not publicly available yet, in a press release from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Randy Weber stated that “[t]his legislation requires the Department of Energy to prioritize its R&D infrastructure on capabilities that will enable the private sector to develop advanced reactor technologies.”

Separate legislation geared towards improving the regulatory framework for advanced reactors progressed in Congress in 2016, but has since been dormant during the political transition (a detailed entry discussing this legislation is available here).  If one or both of these efforts is able to move forward this year, it could prove very helpful to the advanced reactor community.

For more on legislative developments related to SMRs and advanced nuclear reactors, please contact the authors.