Efforts to Transform US Nuclear Industry Entering Full Bloom

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Over the last several years, Congress has passed multi-pronged policy initiatives and provided billions of dollars in funding to spur the deployment of “advanced” nuclear reactors, and a sprawling array of projects are now in progress.

Workers painting the dome that once housed Idaho National Lab’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II facility.

Workers painting the dome that once housed Idaho National Lab’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II facility. The structure had been slated for demolition, but it was restored three years ago and is now set to house the DOME (Demonstration of Operational Microreactor Experiments) testbed, which is part of the lab’s new National Reactor Innovation Center. (Image credit – INL)

Congress has passed a series of bills over the past four years supporting the development and deployment of “advanced” nuclear reactor designs, which are markedly different from those currently in commercial operation. Energized by billions of dollars in funding through the Department of Energy, a sprawl of experimental efforts and technology demonstration projects are now underway.

If successful, these reactors will serve a range of functions. Larger models are aimed at reversing the decline of nuclear power in the U.S. by promising lower construction costs and stronger safety systems, while providing baseload power to an increasingly decarbonized grid. Smaller reactors would provide power for more localized applications, and some models are intended to be transportable. NASA is also developing specialized reactors for propelling spacecraft and supplying power on the surface of the Moon.

Aside from funding reactor projects directly, Congress is supporting activities such as early-stage R&D, reactor licensing reforms, development of specialized uranium fuel supplies, and assistance to communities hosting fossil fuel plants that will transition to advanced nuclear power. Like the similarly multi-pronged effort to bolster the U.S. semiconductor industry through the CHIPS and Science Act, these policies have benefited from bipartisan backing, though they have had a smaller public profile.

Demonstration plants moving full steam ahead

The most ambitious component of U.S. efforts to promote advanced reactors is DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), which congressional appropriators created in 2019 before it was formally authorized via the Energy Act of 2020. Last year, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act further cemented the program in place with a special six-year, $2.5 billion appropriation.

The funding from the infrastructure law is expected to cover the bulk of DOE’s contribution to the two full-scale demonstration projects it selected for support in October 2020. Both projects will generate electricity commercially and are targeting completion toward the end of this decade.

Xe-100. The company X-energy is building a 320-megawatt plant in eastern Washington, comprising four of its Xe-100 reactors. The Xe-100 is cooled by high-temperature helium gas and employs TRISO, a pelletized fuel that is designed to resist meltdowns and permit refueling without a shutdown. X-energy has just completed work on a six-year, $40 million grant DOE awarded in 2015 to develop the company’s designs for the Xe-100 and TRISO. Last month, the Dow chemical company and X-energy announced a preliminary agreement to install an Xe-100 at one of Dow’s Gulf Coast facilities to provide process heat and power.

Natrium. The company TerraPower, which is backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, will build a 345-megawatt reactor called Natrium in partnership with GE Hitachi. Natrium employs a liquid sodium coolant and a molten sodium energy-storage system, and it will be sited at a coal power plant in southwest Wyoming that is scheduled to be closed down.

Tax credits. Atop DOE’s funding for demonstration projects, advanced reactors are also eligible for an investment tax credit created by the new Inflation Reduction Act that will reimburse up to 30% of costs for any zero-emissions electricity facility that enters service in 2025 or after. Alternatively, companies may elect to receive a credit for electricity produced at such facilities. Both credits are increased if the facility is located at a contaminated “brownfield” site or in a community negatively affected by shifts in the fossil fuel industry.

Fossil-to-nuclear transition. The new CHIPS and Science Act incorporates legislation called the Fission for the Future Act that creates a DOE grant program to support communities where advanced nuclear reactors will replace retiring fossil fuel plants. The program may make grants to various entities, including state and local authorities, educational institutions, national labs, and companies. Projects eligible for funding include but are not limited to workforce training programs and non-electric applications of nuclear power, such as generating heat for industrial processes and community-wide heating systems. The act recommends Congress initially appropriate $75 million for the program in fiscal year 2023, rising to $250 million in fiscal year 2027.

Smaller-scale advanced reactors also in pipeline

Aside from its two marquee projects, ARDP expects to provide about $600 million over seven years to five reactor development projects that were selected in December 2020. Those grants require annual appropriations, but Congress is supporting them robustly so far, ramping up funding to $115 million this fiscal year with a further increase on deck for fiscal year 2023.

MCRE. Of the $600 million, about $90 million will support the Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment, a 500-kilowatt reactor that TerraPower and Southern Company will build at DOE’s Idaho National Lab to test technologies required for Natrium. The reactor is expected to be completed in 2025 and will not generate electricity.

Hermes. About $300 million is for a TRISO-fueled, salt-cooled reactor called Hermes that the company Kairos Power plans to build at the site of a former uranium-enrichment facility at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Lab. Expected to be completed in 2026, Hermes will be a 35-megawatt reactor that will not generate electricity, serving as a test for a full-scale 320-megawatt reactor to be built later.

BWXT mobile reactor. DOE is providing the company BWXT with $85 million to develop its design for a transportable, TRISO-fueled reactor. In June, the Department of Defense awarded BWXT about $300 million to actually deliver a prototype transportable reactor to Idaho National Lab in 2024, where it will be tested for up to three years. Operating at between one and five megawatts, that reactor would be the first operating advanced microreactor in the U.S. DOD’s award represents the final phase of an initiative called Project Pele, which in its earlier phases provided funding for the development of three candidate concepts, including $42 million to the BWXT project.

eVinci. Westinghouse’s eVinci microreactor was also awarded early-stage funding through Project Pele, and is receiving $7 million from DOE. This spring, Westinghouse and Penn State University announced they would explore installing an eVinci reactor on campus as part of a broader R&D partnership. Westinghouse also announced a similar partnership with the Saskatchewan Research Council.

SMR-160. The company Holtec is receiving $116 million for work on a small modular reactor that uses a traditional water-cooled design. Holtec is also seeking a $7.4 billion loan from DOE to deploy its first reactors and build up its manufacturing capacity.

Oklo microreactor. Although the startup company Oklo has not received funding through DOE’s new demonstration program, Idaho National Lab announced in February 2020 it will supply uranium fuel for a demonstration reactor the company plans to build on the lab’s property.

Planning for university reactors ramps up

There are currently 25 research reactors at universities in the U.S., serving purposes such as training, basic research, radioisotope production, and nuclear energy R&D.

New reactors. The CHIPS and Science Act directs DOE to support the construction of up to four new university-based reactors, specifically citing advanced reactor concepts and medical isotope production as priorities. Congress would have to provide appropriations for the effort and the act sets a target of $45 million in fiscal year 2023, rising to $140 million in fiscal year 2027. The Biden administration has requested the initial amount but it is not yet clear how much Congress will in fact provide.

Reactor consortia and renovations. New reactors aside, the act also directs DOE, pending appropriations, to support consortia that broaden access to reactor facilities for research and training. It further instructs DOE to fund reactor facility renovations, with a focus on projects that support development of “advanced nuclear technologies” or that convert the reactor to using low-enriched uranium fuel.

Abilene Christian University reactor. Backed by private funding, ACU is already preparing to build a salt-cooled research reactor to conduct nuclear energy R&D. The university is working with the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, and Georgia Tech on the project and submitted a construction permit application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in August. It is the first permit application for a new university research reactor in more than 30 years.

University of Illinois reactor. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is planning to host a Micro Modular Reactor Energy System, which is a TRISO-fueled, high-temperature gas reactor designed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation. The project aims to support research, education, and demonstrations of microreactor technology, and in August it submitted a regulatory engagement plan to NRC as it prepares to apply for a construction permit.

Space applications of fission power make headway

An artist’s concept of a fission power system on the surface of Mars.

An artist’s concept of a fission power system on the surface of Mars. (Image credit – NASA)

Over the last several years, NASA and the Defense Department have been reviving long-dormant efforts to deploy reactors beyond the Earth. Fission-powered propulsion holds out the promise of more rapid and maneuverable space vehicles, while small-scale reactors could provide power to astronauts exploring the surface of the Moon and eventually Mars.

Nuclear thermal propulsion. Congress has been directing NASA to support the development of nuclear propulsion since fiscal year 2016, and for the past four appropriations cycles it has provided at least $100 million per year for nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) specifically. Last year, NASA awarded contracts through Idaho National Lab to BWXT, General Atomics, and Ultra Safe, each worth $5 million, to develop reactor concepts.

DRACO. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been pursuing a similar NTP effort called Project DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) and in May solicited proposals for an in-space demonstration that would take place in fiscal year 2026. The project’s annual budget is currently $37 million and the administration is seeking an increase to $58 million.

Nuclear electric propulsion. Although NASA has stated it would like to study nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) as a possible alternative to NTP, Congress has not yet provided funding for it. A National Academies report concluded last year that the path forward for NEP would be more difficult.

Surface power. Driving toward a reactor that can provide about 40 kilowatts of power on the lunar surface, NASA and the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration tested a prototype called Kilopower in 2017 and 2018. Congress has not yet specifically funded work on surface power, but in June NASA awarded three contracts for concept development, each worth $5 million, to teams led by Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse, and a joint venture of X-energy and the space exploration startup Intuitive Machines.

The Biden administration sought to zero out funding for nuclear propulsion in fiscal year 2022, and for fiscal year 2023 is seeking $45 million for all space nuclear technologies, of which $30 million is for surface power and $15 million is for propulsion. Speaking at a Senate appropriations hearing in May, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson explained the White House has been reluctant to support the efforts.

“For years … Congress has rescued us on the question of nuclear energy in space. As a matter of fact, not until this year were we able to get the Office of Management and Budget to agree to put [in] — albeit a minor amount, it’s a symbolic amount — for nuclear research in space,” he said, before asking the appropriators to “consider pouring on the juice.”

Commercialization assistance has hit bumps

In 2015, DOE established the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program to provide small businesses with access to expertise and facilities at national labs in order to spur work on advanced nuclear technologies. Since then, Congress has taken various steps to expand DOE’s and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s support for commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors.

National Reactor Innovation Center. Signed into law in 2018, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) directed DOE to set up a center to facilitate companies in testing and demonstrating advanced reactor concepts. DOE established the center in 2019 at Idaho National Lab, and it is currently working toward constructing two reactor testbed facilities and has already launched a “virtual” testbed.

MARVEL: Idaho National Lab is also building a 100-kilowatt, sodium-potassium-cooled microreactor called MARVEL (Microreactor Applications Research Validation and EvaLuation) to provide an in-house capability for microreactor R&D.

Transformational Challenge Reactor. The TCR project at Oak Ridge National Lab was originally billed as an effort to construct a working microreactor using additive manufacturing methods, with the ultimate objective of simplifying reactor construction and component certification. Now, though, the project has been wound down without completing a reactor and its work has been assimilated into Oak Ridge’s advanced manufacturing and nuclear materials R&D programs.

Versatile Test Reactor. Through NEICA, DOE was directed to build a user facility called the Versatile Test Reactor that would be used to expose materials and components intended for use in advanced reactors to the high-energy neutrons those reactors would employ. Generally, companies have had to turn to Russia to access to such capabilities. However, the preliminary cost range estimate for the facility was $2.6 billion to $5.8 billion and DOE reported that it would compete for resources with the Natrium demonstration, which has a similar design. Congress then zeroed out funding for it in fiscal year 2022, having already appropriated $210 million. The Biden administration is requesting $45 million for fiscal year 2023 to keep the project on the back burner, but House and Senate appropriators have responded by continuing to propose no funding.

Licensing reform. Because advanced reactors depart from traditional reactor designs, licensing them presents a potentially serious obstacle to their deployment. To address the issue, in 2019 Congress passed a bill it developed alongside NEICA called the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA), which directed NRC to develop processes to expedite advanced reactor licensing.

DOE has previously sought to facilitate licensing of small modular reactors (SMRs), which have similar designs to traditional but larger-scale electricity-producing reactors. However, the first SMR company to pass through the regulatory process, NuScale, has still taken almost six years to finalize its design certification and does not anticipate operating its first reactor until 2029.

Oklo is the first company to initiate an application for an advanced reactor design, but in January NRC denied the application, stating the company had not supplied requested information. Oklo has indicated it plans to resubmit.

R&D expanding

Aside from supporting the development and deployment of advanced reactors, DOE has also funded earlier-stage R&D on related technologies and materials.

Office of Nuclear Energy programs. DOE R&D on advanced reactors is concentrated in the Office of Nuclear Energy, particularly what is now called the Advanced Reactor Technologies program, which currently has an annual budget of $59 million. The program typically funds early-stage reactor concepts and R&D on specific issues bearing on the design, construction, licensing, and operation of advanced reactors.

ARPA–E. Over the last several years, the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy has also funded an array of projects related to advanced reactors, including through three dedicated programs: MEITNER (Modeling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Energy Reinvigoration), GEMINA (Generating Electricity Managed by Intelligent Nuclear Assets), and ONWARDS (Optimizing Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems).

Basic research. In 2018, DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program established an Energy Frontier Research Center led by Brookhaven National Lab to study the behavior of molten salts, and another led by Los Alamos National Lab on how materials behave in nuclear reactors. The CHIPS and Science Act directs BES to establish a dedicated research thrust in “foundational nuclear science” that is focused on nuclear materials and related subjects, with an annual funding target of $50 million.

Pressure on to develop nuclear fuel supplies

Commercial reactors generally use low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, which is modestly enriched to increase its content of the rare but highly fissile uranium-235 isotope. However, many advanced reactors are designed to employ “high-assay” LEU fuel, which contains a higher proportion of U-235, but still not nearly so much as the “highly enriched uranium” used in naval reactors and some research reactors. Should adequate HALEU fuel supplies not materialize by the time the reactors are ready for operation, their deployment could be significantly hampered.

HALEU supply chains. DOE can produce a limited supply of HALEU by downblending highly enriched uranium from its stocks, but supplies can only currently be obtained commercially from Russia. Accordingly, through the Energy Act of 2020 Congress backed DOE efforts to support the development of domestic commercial supplies.

Centrus plant. To help establish commercial HALEU fuel supplies, in 2019 DOE awarded a contract to the company Centrus to restart a uranium enrichment facility it owns in Ohio. While the contract has been controversial, the project has proceeded apace and last year the facility successfully obtained an NRC license to produce HALEU that can be used to fabricate nuclear fuel.

X-energy TRISO plant. In April, X-energy submitted a license application to NRC for a facility in Tennessee that will fabricate HALEU into TRISO fuel. It is poised to be the first U.S.-based fabrication facility for HALEU fuel of any sort and X-energy anticipates it could start production as early as 2025.

Funding for HALEU. To prime the pump for commercial HALEU fuel production, Congress is providing $700 million through the Inflation Reduction Act, significantly expanding on funding it was already providing through annual appropriations. However, although uranium has not yet been subjected to sanctions, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the urgency of developing U.S. supplies. The Biden administration is therefore requesting that Congress use an upcoming stopgap spending bill to immediately provide $1.5 billion to procure supplies of both LEU and HALEU fuel so as to “address potential future shortfalls in access to Russian uranium and fuel services.”

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