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.