In a development that could cause every advanced reactor startup to reexamine its growth strategy, the US government (USG) yesterday afternoon issued a new framework concerning exports to China, which largely closes the export market to advanced reactor companies.

The framework document, which is available here and was described to a limited audience in a briefing yesterday that we attended, sets forth the following policy regarding exports of technology or technical data subject to the US Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear export control regulations in 10 CFR Part 810, and exports of equipment and materials under the NRC’s nuclear export control regulations in 10 CFR Part 110.

The DOE Part 810 export controls framework is likely of most interest to advanced reactor companies, and is summarized below:

  • Presumption of Denial for the Following Export Authorization Requests:
    • Any exports related of advanced reactor technologies (i.e., light water SMRs and non-light water reactors), and related fuel cycle exports.  It appears that fuel cycle exports that could benefit advanced reactors, even if designed primarily for traditional light water reactors, could get caught up in this “presumption of denial.”
    • Any export of codes or software.
    • Any exports at all to the company China General Nuclear (CGN) or its affiliates.  DOE will not provide a public list of affiliates, but applicants can go check with DOE beforehand.
    • Any “new technology transfers after January 1, 2018” are also presumed to be denied export authorization.  It is unclear exactly what this means, but it is potentially a catch-all to make clear the limited nature of those exports still permissible.
  • Exports for Which Approvals May Still be Attainable (Presumption of Approval, But After Heightened End User Review):
    • Amendments or extensions for existing authorizations “for technology transferred prior to January 1, 2018.”  This does not apply to advanced reactors.  It will also likely be an area of confusion going forward as to how the USG position against “new” technology transfers above will apply to these existing authorizations.
    • Certain technology transfers for operational safety purposes, with a clear operational safety benefit and after heightened review of the end user.
    • Transfers of technology required to support sale of an item that is “commercially available.”  This is likely to be limited in scope.

In case of a conflict, the presumption of denial appears to defeat the presumption of approval—e.g., exports to CGN appear off-limits no matter what.  A few other key points to relate:

  • NRC Export Control Policy Changes:  The changes to NRC export controls mimic those impacting DOE controls.  The key point is that any exports related to “direct economic competition with the United States” are presumed to be denied an NRC license.  Examples provided include sales to support the Hualong One and unique U.S. components for the CAP-1400 reactors.  Likely this would also catch any effort to support a Chinese advanced reactor.  Exports to support the AP-1000, or related projects in China that rely on current-gen technology, can potentially move forward, but will be heavily scrutinized.   In theory, sales of light water SMR or advanced reactors themselves are permitted too, but with no technology transfer above and beyond installation and operation.
  • Implications on Department of Commerce (DOC) Export Controls: Today’s action appears largely limited to 10 CFR Parts 110/810 nuclear export controls, and does not directly impact exports regulated by DOC.  However, we understand that DOC is currently considering potential new restrictions with regarding China.   These may involve changes in licensing policy, including adding licensing requirements for items that previously could be exported without a license.  Considering that DOC hosted this event, it would appear the agency staff at least agree in principle with the strong action taken there.
  • End User Reviews: There will be new, “case-by-case” heightened reviews for exports to non-CGN end users that assess risk of diversion, risk to parties in the deal, and risk to US national and economic security—and balance these risks against the economic and strategic benefits of the exchange.  DOE and the NRC may be able to place conditions on exports to mitigate the above-listed risks.    Exactly how these reviews will be conducted is likely still to be determined, including if DOE and NRC will want to go as far as what some other agencies (such as DOC) do with end user reviews.
  • Application to Chinese Nationals/Partially-Owned Businesses: To also make clear, this policy applies to hiring of Chinese foreign nationals in the United States, and can impact deals with entities that are just partially owned by Chinese nationals or businesses.  The authors asked the USG at the briefing as to whether this policy applied to deemed exports, and the USG panelists confirmed that it did.  They directed that questions related to partial ownership be directed to DOE for review.
  • Other Related Actions:  This policy change also highlights the recent CFIUS and DOC export controls legislation passed by Congress, which was again geared towards China.  To add, USG has started to implement parts of this legislation, including a CFIUS pilot program to implement the sections of that legislation concerning investments in critical technologies, likely including a broad scope of nuclear technologies.

All in all, this is just one more example of a renewed government focus on the national security implications of losing the US civil nuclear industry to foreign competitors, as highlighted in our Back from the Brink paper (which was featured in an event last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Nuclear Energy, Naval Propulsion, and National Security).

Specific to China, since 2017 the USG has been looking at this issue, following a spate of IP theft and diversion cases that have not seemed to stem in recent years.  While the Allen Ho/CGN litigation was certainly a driver, USG panelists noted in their briefing many other examples of China allegedly diverting civilian nuclear resources and technology to military end uses, using a “whole nation” strategy.  This included forcing civilian institutions to do military nuclear work, comingling civil and military nuclear efforts (for example, in the area of floating reactors), diverting IP provided for civilian nuclear use to military end uses, and repurposing US civilian nuclear IP and codes for military end use.  The FBI representative appeared to indicate that there were other, classified examples.

For more information, please feel free to contact the authors.

Recently, the Hill has been taking a flurry of legislative actions that impact the advanced reactor community across all spectra.  We provide a summary of some of the major bills going through Congress below, including a couple which have recently become law or may become so soon.

Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) (S. 97). This bill, which has a long history before Congress, finally passed both the House and Senate on September 24, and was signed by the President into law Friday September 28.  The text of the enrolled bill (the bill that has passed both chambers of Congress in identical form and sent to be signed) can be found here.

NEICA tackles a number of issues, but as a theme largely directs the US Department of Energy (DOE) to move forward on a number of actions long advocated for by the advanced reactor community—including opening up the labs more for private sector use, advancing a test reactor plan, and increasing collaboration with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  As provided in the bill summary, DOE is instructed to:

  • Determine the need for a versatile reactor-based fast neutron source, which shall operate as a national user facility, and put forward a plan to construct and operate such a facility by the end of 2025.
  • Enhance its high-performance computation modeling and simulation techniques for advanced reactors.
  • Lead a program for testing of advanced reactor concepts (including physical testing), with a focus on removing licensing and technical uncertainty.  As part of this, the DOE is to work closely with the NRC to share technical expertise developed from this testing program and grant NRC staff access to the program and related sites to learn from any testing.  The goal of this is to help ensure the NRC has sufficient resources to license any reactor designs being tested.
  • Submit a budget proposal to Congress to perform the above activities.
  • Submit a report to Congress on fusion technologies under development (fusion is included within the bill’s broad definition of “advanced reactor”), with a focus on those technologies that can provide net energy production within 15 years after the start of construction of test or prototype facilities.
  • Develop an “Advanced Nuclear Energy Cost-Share Grant Program” to assist in paying NRC licensing fees for new reactor designs, including early stage activities such as development of a licensing plan.

NEICA was signed Friday along with H.R. 589, the DOE Research and Innovation Act, which also aims to shape DOE’s research agenda and use of the national laboratories to improve research collaboration and technology commercialization.

Energy-Related Appropriations Legislation (H.R. 5895). The President signed a broad appropriations bill on September 21, which covered funding for DOE.  The text of the enrolled bill can be found here, but summaries of the bill’s core DOE funding provisions can be found in a conference report, and a summary provided by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) here.  As represented in the AIP summary, the bill is largely a victory for DOE, with funding increases seemingly across the board, including a 10% increase in funding to the Office of Nuclear Energy and $65 million set aside for the versatile fast-neutron test reactor described above.

Nuclear Utilization of Keynote Energy Act (H.R. 1320). This bill passed the House on September 25.  The text of the bill can be found here.  It is targeted at NRC reform, and seeks among other things to:

  • Codify that up to $10.3M of the NRC’s work for advanced reactor readiness is to be removed from fee recovery (it also puts a cap on many other licensees’ annual fees).
  • Study the effect of removing the Atomic Energy Act’s restriction on foreign ownership, control, or domination of nuclear licenses (primarily affecting reactor licenses).
  • Study the elimination of the mandatory hearing requirement for uncontested reactor license applications.
  • Allow for the adoption of more informal hearing requirements for licensing proceedings.
  • Instruct the NRC as to more efficiently processing license applications, with a 42 month timeline for issuing safety and environmental reports after docketing of the application.
  • Establish community advisory boards in areas where plants are undergoing decommissioning.

Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S. 3422). This bill was introduced into the Senate earlier this month, with 9  The text of the bill can be found here, and we provide a thorough summary in our past blog entry.  This bill would build on the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act to, among other things:

  • Direct the U.S. government to enter into long-term power purchase agreements 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.
  • Further push DOE to 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.

This bill recognizes the national security implications that come with the long-term neglect of our nuclear industry, which is outlined in our recent paper published by Center for Strategic and International Studies, entitled  “Back from the Brink: A Threatened Nuclear Energy Industry Compromises National Security.”

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This review only highlights some of the nuclear-related bills currently before Congress—others of which also touch on reform to, e.g., our national nuclear export controls regime.  For further information on the bills described above or on other nuclear legislation, please contact the authors.

This month, the NRC published an early draft regulatory guide on the content of license applications for non-LWRs.  The document is designed to help license applicants apply the NRC’s movement towards a risk-informed/performance-based regulatory approach towards the drafting of an actual license application.

The document is in part the result of the Southern Company-led Licensing Modernization Project, which has resulted in the issuance of a number of informal reports discussing licensing reform for non-LWR reactors.  This draft regulatory guide is designed to more formally capture the results of those reports and follow-on discussions.   It addresses the designation of licensing basis events; safety classification and performance criteria for structures, systems, and components; and evaluation of defense in depth adequacy.  importantly, it largely adopts detailed draft industry guidance set forth in March of this year, although with certain clarifications.  One area of particular NRC focus concerns probabilistic risk analyses (“PRA”), where the agency appears to show a little hesitancy with the broad use of PRA proposed in the industry guidance.

The draft guidance is being issued to support future discussions, in particular an Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards meeting tentatively scheduled for October 30, 2018.  For more about the Licensing Modernization project, or recent NRC and industry guidance on contents for non-LWR license applications, 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.

On April 4, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued Regulatory Guide 1.232, Guidance for Developing Principal Design Criteria for Non-Light Water Reactors.  The regulatory guide’s generic set of Advanced Reactor Design Criteria cover most non-light-water technologies. The guide also includes technology-specific criteria for sodium-cooled fast reactors and high temperature gas-cooled reactors.

The regulatory guide describes how the general design criteria (GDC) set forth in Part 50 of the NRC’s regulations may be adapted for non-light-water reactor (non-LWR) designs. The guidance may be used by non-LWR reactor applicants to develop principal design criteria for any non-LWR designs, as required under the NRC nuclear power plant regulations. Notably, the guide can be used by advanced reactor designers to align their concepts with relevant NRC regulations for nuclear power plants, and will assist the NRC staff when reviewing future license applications.

We had previously written about the draft regulatory guide published by the NRC last year here.  As we noted then, this is an important document that deserves close attention by the advanced reactor community.  It provides one of the first detailed insights into how the NRC views advanced reactors, how far it is willing to step away from the GDC framework, and what it finds of importance from a safety perspective for advanced reactors.

For questions on the guidance, please contact one of 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.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently re-issued its request for information from potential NRC reactor applicants, entitled: “Process for Scheduling and Allocating Resources for Fiscal Years 2020 Through 2022 for the Review of New Licensing Applications for Light-Water Reactors and Non-Light-Water Reactors.”  It is designated as Regulatory Issue Summary (RIS) 2017-18.  For small modular and advanced reactor ventures, responding to the RIS is a low-cost means by which to engage with the NRC about your technology, and help the agency improve its resource allocation for new reactor licensing.

This periodic RIS, last issued in the middle of 2016, is used to help the NRC schedule and allocate its limited resources for new reactor development.  It was created following the Vogtle and Summer AP1000 reactor licensing process, in order to facilitate pre-licensing interaction.  In particular, the agency must budget years in advanced for expected application activity—for example, although we are just at the start of 2018, this RIS will be used to determine budget allocations as far out as FY2022.  The document itself contains a further background as to its development and purpose.

The questions are relatively straightforward, and responders can request that certain information be withheld as proprietary.  Questions include:

  • What types of NRC interactions do you plan to seek?
  • When do you plan to file an application?
  • What is the fuel type/basic design information?
  • Will you be part of a working group?
  • Who is assisting in the design?
  • Have you developed quality assurance plans and/or models that may need approvals or analyses?

There is no deadline for a response, but we encourage potentially interested parties to submit a response to the NRC if they feel their design has matured to a certain threshold.  RIS responses provide the NRC with a mechanism to gain basic familiarity with new technologies under development (do not assume that they are already aware).  A healthy number of responses also allows the NRC to advocate for increased staffing for advanced reactor development in coming years.  Last but not least, the RIS itself provides some insight into what the NRC staff is looking for early on from reactor developers, and thus serves as a sanity check to make sure new ventures are doing all they can to ensure that a new technology will run into fewer licensing problems later (such as development quality assurance programs early on).

Nonetheless, despite its low risk, any response should be thought through as it likely represents one of the first significant written interactions with the agency.  We have helped multiple parties fashion responses to such information requests, and would be happy to talk further about any questions, as well as other ways to informally interact with agency staff.

On Wednesday, November 15, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff published a revised and final regulatory basis document in support of its rulemaking to reform emergency planning requirements for small modular and advanced reactors, including medical isotope reactors.  This rulemaking promises to significantly reduce costs for next generation nuclear plants by employing individualized, risk-informed requirements as opposed to rigid deterministic ones.

Fifty-seven individuals, companies, and organizations commented on the draft regulatory basis document.  The NRC staff made a number of edits to respond to the comments, including further incorporating risk-informed concepts into the text of the regulatory basis, and increasing discussion of the agency’s framework for establishing the size of emergency planning zones for new reactor designs.  According to the NRC’s rulemaking schedule, a proposed rule is due to be published early 2019, with a final rule in 2020.

This action by the NRC coincides with exciting developments for the US Department of Energy.  This week the Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) at Idaho National Laboratories successfully completed low-power operations after being brought out of standby since 1994.  As explained in industry press, the restart of TREAT is a big success story for the agency, which refurbished the facility a year ahead of schedule and $20 million under budget.  TREAT specializes in testing new reactor fuels under heavy irradiation conditions, to see how they perform particularly in accident scenarios.  Testing new fuel designs is a linchpin to commercializing new reactor designs, as many of them rely on completely new concepts for nuclear fuel.

TREAT may also be getting company.  This same week, the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology approved an exciting new bill markup, HR 4378, the “Nuclear Energy Research Infrastructure Act of 2017.”  This piece of legislation tries to deliver on repeated calls to build a new test reactor in the United States.  It calls for a fast-neutron test facility to be completed in the mid-2020s that supports (among other things) high-temperature testing, testing of different coolant types, medical isotope production, and which is designed to be upgrade-able over time.  Funding is set aside, with $35 million in 2018, scaling up to $350 million from 2023 to 2025.

For more on any of these topics, feel free to 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.