Congress Passes an Ambitious Plan for Nuclear Energy R&D


Graphic courtesy of Third Way

First of all the new law establishes a broad and sweeping mandate for civilian nuclear energy R&D and technology development toward commercial deployment. Its provisions include;

  1. Provide research infrastructure to promote scientific progress and enable users from academia, the National Laboratories, and the private sector to make scientific discoveries relevant for nuclear, chemical, and materials science engineering; and
  2. Enable the private sector to partner with the National Laboratories to demonstrate novel reactor concepts for the purpose of resolving technical uncertainty associated with the aforementioned objectives.

Advanced Reactor R&D

The think tank Third Way has tallied 78 other advanced nuclear reactor projects in North America as of November 2018. The new law creates a mandate which is now underway as a programmatic effort to develop a versatile reactor-based fast neutron source, which shall operate as a national user facility.

The user facility will provide at a minimum:

  • Fast neutron spectrum irradiation capability, and
  • Capacity for infrastructure and facility upgrades to accommodate new or expanded research needs. It adds a focus on high-performance computation modeling and simulation techniques.

Perhaps even more important, the bill establishes a program to enable the testing and demonstration of advanced reactor concepts to be proposed and funded by the private sector.

Even more interesting are the provisions that authorize construction and operation of privately funded experimental reactors at national laboratories or other DOE-owned sites.  The purpose, of course, is to carry out the physical validation of advanced nuclear reactor concepts.

NRC Collaboration

For years DOE and the nuclear industry developed reactor technologies and then tossed them over the transom to the NRC for safety evaluation reviews. This transactional relationship is amended by the new law directing DOE to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with NRC in order to share technical expertise and knowledge. This is is really a big deal because the two agencies have a lot they can do to help each other with their respective missions.

Here’s a summary of the areas in which collaboration is required by the new law

  • Testing and demonstration of advanced nuclear reactor concepts to be proposed and funded by the private sector,
  • Operating a database to store and share data and knowledge relevant to nuclear science and engineering between federal agencies and the private sector,
  • Developing and testing electric and nonelectric integration and energy conversion systems relevant to advanced nuclear reactors,
  • Leveraging expertise from the NRC respecting safety analysis, and enabling the technical staff of the NRC to actively observe and learn about technologies developed under such testing and demonstration program.
  • The NRC and DOE are also directed to set up another MOU to review the skill mix and technical capabilities of their respective work forces.

A third policy mandate for an MOU between the two agencies called for collaborative work on the use of computers and software codes to calculate the behavior and performance of advanced nuclear reactors, and that the NRC has access to use these facilities.  This provision will likely bring advanced computational facilities operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) into the picture.

Note that the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act requires the NRC to change the way it charges for safety reviews of advanced reactors and to make the review process more efficient and less costly. The legislation directs the NRC to create a licensing process for advanced reactors that is less prescriptive, the idea being it will result in faster approvals. Currently, it takes 42 months, at a minimum, for the NRC to complete the safety evaluation review of a new reactor design.

Money Needed for People, Places, and Things

The bill goes a long way towards fulfillment of a items on a “wish list” that the nuclear industry has been working on for years. The big hurdle is going to be how to pay for all the items on it.

In the new law Congress directed DOE to come up with two budget scenarios. The first is flat funding based on the 2016 appropriation, and the other one is a “skies the limit” scenario which in federal budget talk is an “unconstrained” scenario.

Getting the right level of funding, and making sure the Idaho Lab, and other national labs, can get the work done, is going to be a big challenge for DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy.  A key item is going to be recruitment of the technical expertise needed to do all the things Congress wants DOE to accomplish at the lab.  Facility upgrades are going to be needed sitewide at INL and in town for transportation, power, and labs and offices to do the work.

Similarly, as other national labs are drawn into carrying out the legislative mandates of the new law, there needs to be coordination among the various DOE offices involved in managing these labs to insure the funding shows up to get the work done.

For instance, the Office of Science, which is a major funding source for Oak Ridge National Lab, will need to ask for money to pay for the use of the lab’s world class super computing capabilities to carry out the simulation and related computer analyses of new reactor designs and their requirements for fuels to run them.

In other words, getting the R&D money is one thing, having the people and places to do it is another. If DOE wants to make the INL a success, it must ask for money for these things as well as for the R&D work scope.

Here’s a bit of arcane “inside the beltway” budgeting issue. In terms of the innovative ideas for MOUs between DOE and the NRC, while DOE gets its money from line items in its massive appropriation, $34 billion, the NRC relies almost entirely on reimbursement of its regulatory activities by nuclear plants, developers, and manufacturers and users of radioactive isotopes. These fees can’t be reprogrammed to cover the new work scope involving the requirements laid out by Congress for MOUs with DOE.

For this reason, Congress will need to provide funds as a line item in NRC’s appropriation to do this work. The agencies will cost share to implement the MOUs, but the NRC needs to be able to put cash on the table, and that money has to come from Congress not the regulated industry.

Cost Share Grants

Once DOE gets its money, or at least some of it, Congress wastes no time in telling the agency how to spend to help nuclear energy entrepreneurs. It calls for DOE to establish an Advanced Nuclear Energy Cost-Share Grant Program. This is very similar to the current GAIN program at the INL.

While GAIN is focused on technology development, a key provision is to make cost share grants to developers of advanced nuclear energy reactor designs to fund a portion of the applicant’s NRC fees for pre-application and application review activities.  Another title for this section might be “don’t bankrupt the investors teaching the NRC about their new technologies at $300/hr.”

Grant recipients will be able to use their grant funds to cover NRC fees, including those associated with developing a licensing project plan, obtaining a statement of licensing feasibility, reviewing topical reports, other pre-application and application review activities, and ongoing interactions with the NRC.

That covers a lot of ground, and not having this kind of support has been a major sore point with the new class of private sector nuclear energy entrepreneurs. It’s just about the best Christmas present they could get this year.

What’s Ahead in 2019?

Several other pieces of nuclear energy related legislation were moving through congress prior to the holiday break. The Morning Consult has a good summary of these bills, what’s in them, and what it all may mean for the industry in 2019.

Reporter Jacqueline Toth writes that experts say it’s not a certainty that Congress will enact or fund nuclear technology and research and development to the extent necessary to get new concepts to market or to more explicitly link investments in nuclear energy to climate change legislation.

She talked with  Craig Piercy, the Washington representative for the American Nuclear Society (ANS) who said, “2019 will be a year of building on our past progress.” In other words, don’t expect the new law to enable nuclear energy developers to be able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound.  Incremental progress is a more likely outcome.

John Kotek, vice president of policy development and public affairs with the Nuclear Energy Institute trade group, agrees. He said the industry continues “to see investments in the private sector in getting those technologies through the licensing process and into the market.”

However, despite these cautiously optimistic views,  Hal Harvey, CEO of the policy firm Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based energy and environmental policy firm, told the Morning Consult he is skeptical that lawmakers would direct as much funding toward nuclear energy as the new generation of reactors requires.

“The private sector’s not going to invest in nuclear power in a meaningful way,” Harvey said because the operating costs of existing plants are not cost-competitive. With a nod to the failure of the V C Summer project he noted a key barrier is that the financing, construction and operational risks are so high.

Where the billions of dollars will come from to move new reactor designs from the drawing table to commercial success is a big problem Harvey said.

“I appreciate the gall with which people do private sector startups, but they’re all going to go off a cliff without public support,” he said.

Harvey’s group is composed of some very smart people in the energy field so his agnostic views on how things might turn out for the current crop of nuclear energy entrepreneurs should be taken seriously. The experience of Transatomic may not be the last in this category.

See prior coverage on this blog – the Case for a Nuclear Energy Investment Bank

The outlook for additional legislative efforts to link nuclear energy investment to dealing with climate change remain uncertain. The Morning Consult polled a number of legislative offices all of whom were “noncommittal” about what might happen in 2019.

DOE to Buy Power from NuScale’s Idaho Plant

NuScale, the developer of a 50MW small modular reactor (SMR), and its customer, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), for the reactor to be build in Idaho, got some very good news this past week.

DOE has signed off on a plan to use some of the power generated by the Idaho-based SMRs for R&D work to be carri4ed out by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Conveniently, the 12 SMRs that will be built by NuScale for customers in Idaho will be located on a site in the southwestern corner of the 890 square mile federal reservation. The plan ties together the agency, the Battelle Energy Alliance, the contractor that manages INL, and UAMPS.

One of the 12 modules will be used for “integrated energy systems that support the production of both electricity and non-electric energy products,” DOE said in a news release. It will be called the Joint Use Modular Plant, or JUMP. And a second module will supply power to INL.

According to the Idaho Falls Post Register, INL Director Mark Peters said in an email, “Not only will this first-of-its-kind technology be located on the INL site, but it also will provide power to the laboratory while enabling valuable research,”

He also told the newspaper, “This is exciting to all of us at INL and an excellent example of how private-public partnerships will allow for the demonstration and delivery of advanced nuclear energy systems.”

The agreement sets up DOE and UAMPS work with Idaho Power to make sure it can draw enough power from the project to supply it to INL. The lab expects to need up to 70 megawatts of power in the 2025-2030 time frame.

“This agreement will allow DOE to meet its needs in the form of resilient power to a national security mission-based lab while drawing from our nation’s newest class of advanced reactors,” said Ed McGinnis, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy, in the DOE press release.

UAMPS told the Post Register that  the deal demonstrates DOE’s “high degree of overall support its Carbon Free Power Project for and confidence in” the project. The deal will increase the overall subscription in the plant by 120 megawatts, bringing it closer to the 720-megawatt use goal (Six 50 MW SMRs)

NuSclae’s SMR is going through government regulatory and safety design reviews at the NRC. Construction is expected to start in the mid-2020s. The SMR is based on conventional light water reactor technologies but has many advanced design ideas incorporated in it.

~ Other Nuclear News ~

Idaho Test Reactor will Assess Accident Tolerant Fuels

The Associated Press (AP) reports that  the Transient Test Reactor  is a key element of the DOE effort to revamp the nuclear power industry with safer fuel designs and a new generation of power plants.

The reactor at the U.S. Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has performed 10 tests on nuclear fuel since late last year.

J.R. Biggs, Manager of the reactor located at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) told the AP, “If we’re going to have nuclear power in this country 20 or 30 years from now, it’s going to be because of this reactor.,”

Test work on nuclear technologies and fuels is part of a strategy to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by generating carbon-free electricity.

Biggs notes that one of the roles of the reactor is to help develop accident tolerant fuels designed to safely shut themselves down in an emergency

Dan Wachs, who directs the lab’s fuel safety research program, told the AP only three other reactors with fuel testing abilities exist — in France, Japan and Kazakhstan. He said none can perform the range of experiments that can be done at the Idaho lab’s Transient Test Reactor, also called TREAT. The reactor is located on the grounds of the lab’s Materials Fuels Complex about 25 miles west of Idaho Falls, ID.

The strategy is to test the fuels under accident conditions, including controlled and contained meltdowns, to eventually create safer fuels. A reporter from the wire service visited the the lab’s Hot Fuel Examination Facility, where workers behind 4 feet (1.2 meters) of leaded glass examine them.

Additional work, AP noted, is done a short walk away at the Irradiated Materials Characterization Lab, where powerful microscopes can examine the fuel at the atomic level.

Wachs and his team of about 15 scientists get the results and consult with both the fuel manufacturer and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses nuclear fuel.

He pointed out to the AP reporter that nuclear energy has been identified by U.S. officials as having a key role in reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Nuclear is a primary way to get there,” said Wachs. “It’s really the only way to get there.”

Terrestrial Energy Contracts With BWXT Canada for
Development of Key IMSR Power Plant Components

Terrestrial Energy announced this week that it has signed on BWXT Canada Ltd. (BWXT Canada) for a design services contract to support development of key components in Terrestrial Energy’s Generation IV Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR) power plant.

Under the agreement, BWXT Canada will provide Terrestrial Energy with technical consultation and design assistance for development of steam generators and heat exchangers, components that connect power generation sytems to the plant’s innovative Generation IV advanced reactor.

“We’re very pleased to have been selected by Terrestrial Energy to support their reactor development,” said President of BWXT Canada John MacQuarrie.

“We look forward to applying our expertise in nuclear component design and manufacturing to help advance Terrestrial Energy’s exciting new reactor technology.”

“Steam generators and heat exchangers are critical components of any power plant, and the IMSR is no exception. We identified this work early in our development as important to achieve a practical and efficient design that can be deployed quickly, and we are fortunate to be able to engage with BWXT Canada’s world-class expertise in these areas,” said Simon Irish, Chief Executive Officer of Terrestrial Energy.

Terrestrial Energy said in its press statement that it is on a path to commission first IMSR power plants in the 2020s. The agreement between Terrestrial Energy and BWXT Canada sets the framework for the companies’ long-term collaboration.

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Dan Yurman ~ About this blog and disclaimers for NeutronBytes ~ ~ ** Contact Me ~ ~ Text via Signal 216-218-3823 ~ I am NOT active on Facebook, Reddit or Instagram. Attempt no landings there. ** Header Image Credit: ~ ** Emails sent by readers about blog posts are considered to be comments for publication unless otherwise noted. ** The content of this blog is protected by copyright laws of the U.S. "Fair use" provisions apply. The RSS feed is for personal use only unless otherwise explicitly granted.
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