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.

 Late last week the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff released its non-light water reactor (i.e., advanced reactor) “Near-Term Implementation Action Plans,” and “Mid-Term and Long-Term Implementation Action Plans.”  These two plans follow up from the agency’s Vision & Strategy Statement for advanced reactors, and attempt to more concretely lay out the NRC staff’s next steps for developing a regulatory framework for advanced reactor licensing.  A few quick insights from the two documents:

  • Both plans are based on the same five to six strategies.  The first five are, in short: (i) develop knowledge and skills, (ii) develop computer codes and tools, (iii) develop a flexible regulatory review process, (iv) facilitate industry codes and standards, and (v) resolve policy questions (one difference here though is that the near-term plans focus on technology-inclusive issues, while the longer-term plans focus on technology-specific issues).  The near-term plan also specifically lists as a sixth strategy that the NRC would “develop a communications strategy.” But a communications strategy will certainly continue to exist and evolve as the NRC moves into the mid and long term.
  • Among the six near-term strategies, the NRC staff plans to prioritize strategies (iii) and (v), developing the regulatory review process and resolving common policy issues.  This is due to “stakeholder feedback on the draft near-term [plans] and recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards” (ACRS).  The ACRS letter making this recommendation can be found here.  This prioritization will help the agency be better prepared in case applications come in for approval to the NRC earlier than the agency expects.  The NRC’s overall plan is to be ready to address advanced reactor applications in 2025, but multiple parties have indicated they will be submitting applications earlier.
  • In the near term, strategy (iii), concerning the regulatory review process, is guidance-based and is designed to work “within the bounds of existing regulations.”  In the mid-to-long term, the NRC staff bifurcates the strategy: continuing a guidance-focused approach, while considering a rulemaking to develop an advanced reactor regulatory framework that is “is risk-informed, performance-based, technology-inclusive, and that features staff review efforts commensurate with the risks posed by the non-LWR [nuclear power plant] design being considered.”

    However, the rulemaking approach is only suggested as an option “if needed.”  In discussing its long-term strategy, the agency staff stated it “will evaluate the need for or potential benefits of such a rulemaking throughout near- and mid-term activities,” based on  whether or not it will improve licensing and regulatory effectiveness.  The upshot, though, is that a rulemaking is still very much on the table, and this furthers a long-running debate as to the extent regulatory reform is needed for advanced reactors to prosper in the United States.

  • The NRC staff appears to reinvigorate discussion of conceptual design assessments and staged review processes, which as we have discussed in a prior post the agency seemed to downplay in its final Vision & Strategy Statement.  Draft guidance for these two processes can be found in the October 2016 draft document, “A Regulatory Review Roadmap for Non-Light Water Reactors.”

These Implementation Action Plans, along with the feedback the agency staff received from stakeholders and the ACRS, will be helpful generally.  However, the increasingly likely option that reactor designers will be submitting designs to the NRC earlier than expected will present a true test of the NRC’s readiness.  According to the agency staff, “[i]n those cases, the NRC will work developers on design-specific licensing project plans . . . and the NRC may prioritize or accelerate specific contributing activities in [its action plans], as needed.”

If there are any questions on the licensing regime for advanced reactors, please reach out to the authors.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) announced last week its second round of awards.  A number of these awards have gone directly to advanced reactor startups, and they hope to push forward a number of technologies related to advanced reactors or next-generation light-water reactors.

We wanted to take a little closer look at the awards in this post.  To explain, GAIN awards come in the form of “vouchers” which provide awardees “with access to the extensive nuclear research capabilities and expertise available across the U.S. DOE national laboratories complex.”  Some of the advanced reactor ventures that received vouchers include Elysium Industries, Kairos Power, Muons, Oklo, Terrestrial Energy, Transatomic Power, and others, covering a broad swatch of different reactor types.  One nuclear battery startup, named MicroNuclear, also received an award—nuclear battery technologies have been gaining traction, with the “U-Battery” consortium engaging with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for pre-licensing review in March of this year.  In addition, a number of consulting and engineering companies also received awards, and the results from those projects could benefit a number of different reactor designs.

The most popular participating DOE laboratories are the Idaho, Argonne, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, although Sandia and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories also will be partnering with certain awardees.  About half of the research projects touch on molten salt reactor technologies, focusing on topics such as different salt chemistries, thermal hydraulics, and waste reprocessing.  A number of awards focus on metal-cooled fast reactors (including regulatory support), and modeling and simulation issues.  Five projects also have a focus on light-water reactor technologies, exploring areas such as small modular reactor concepts and waste reprocessing.

For any questions related to next-generation nuclear reactors or the GAIN initiative, please contact the authors.

On Wednesday, May 10 from 9:00 AM to 11:30 AM, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will hold a public meeting to discuss the draft regulatory basis for its rulemaking on emergency preparedness (EP) for small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced reactors.  The regulatory basis document outlines the agency’s overall approach to the rulemaking, and the background and developments leading up to it.  Participants can attend in person at the NRC or by phone.

In its regulatory basis publication, the NRC posits that its new regulations on EP will be consequence-oriented and performance-based, allowing for recognition of the inherent safety benefits of SMRs and advanced reactors.  It leaves open the possibility that for some plant designs, “the potential exists for [the Emergency Planning Zone or ‘EPZ’] to be contained within the site boundary.”

Comments on the regulatory basis document are due by June 27, 2017, and this public meeting can help those members of the advanced reactor community interested in filing comments.  Getting this rulemaking right can have a significant impact on the cost of and public perception of next-generation nuclear technologies.

For more on the EP rulemaking, please contact the authors.