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.

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