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Bipartisan Bill In Senate Would Boost US Nuclear Industry

Dan Yurman's picture
Editor & Publisher NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy

Publisher of NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy online since 2007.  Consultant and project manager for technology innovation processes and new product / program development for commercial...

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  • Mar 30, 2019


A major step forward in congressional support for the next generation of nuclear reactor technology took place this past week with the introduction in the Senate of the bipartisan Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA),

It is seen by an across the board coalition of nine nuclear industry organizations as an important step in creating a comprehensive blueprint to bring these designs to fruition.

The reintroduction of NELA came during Nuclear Innovation Week, a joint collaboration of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, Nuclear Energy Institute, American Nuclear Society, Electric Power Research Institute, and Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, among others. These groups are focused on both industry and policy activities necessary to make recent innovations in nuclear reactor and fuel design a reality.

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The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, or “NELA” as it is known, aims to “spur development of demonstration projects at the Department of Energy, which could become an important source of carbon-free electricity generation.” (Full Text) (Fact Sheet) (Section by Section Summary in Plain English)

NELA was reintroduced in the Senate with a renewed push to make it into law. It has broad support from the nuclear community as well as from climate advocates and industry leaders. A key voice is Bill Gates who tweeted “I can’t overstate how important this is.”

The Seattle-based online newsletter Geekwire has more details on Gates’ enthusiastic endorsement of the legislation and its implications for his nuclear start-up TerraPower.

Key Provisions of NELA

To compete with state-owned or state-sponsored developers in “rival nations” – namely Russia and China – the bill encourages significant collaboration between the federal government, national laboratories, and private industry. The act directs the DOE to establish specific goals and ultimately demonstrate advanced reactors with the private sector.

The bill seeks to “define and establish” a domestic market for advanced nuclear reactors by extending term limits for federal power purchase agreements (PPAs) from the current 10 years to 40 years.

The bill requires the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy to develop a 10-year plan to support advanced nuclear R&D goals. Plans are not funding and success will depend on annual appropriations over the next decade. Maybe one of the elements of the plan would be creation of a fixed fund so that DOE doesn’t wind up with its usual collection of white elephants stranded by a lack of resources.

The bill calls for plans to boost the development of fast reactors. The technology also authorizes plutonium to be used and recycled several times. It calls for further development and eventual production of high assay low enriched fuel (HALEU).

To help advance US-developed fast reactor technology, the bill directs the DOE to construct a fast reactor research facility. DOE has begin work to launch the Versatile Test Reactor project. NELA, if passed, can make the project become a reality.

NucNet reports that just a few fast reactor concepts have been demonstrated and only two such units are in full commercial operation. In late 2016 Russia began commercial operation of the Beloyarsk-4 BN-800 sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor and also operates the Beloyarsk-3 BN-600 fast neutron unit, which began commercial operation in 1981, at the same site. Efforts by China, India, and Japan to develop commercial fast reactors have remained in the R&D stage.


The law firm Logan and Lovells, which publishes commentary on new nuclear matters on its blog, wrote this week that there were advances on the regulatory front as well during Nuclear Innovation Week.

The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS), an NRC committee focused on reactor safety issues, penned a letter to the Chairman of the NRC recommending the final version of DG-1353, guidance on technology-inclusive, performance-based, risk-informed regulatory reviews for non-light water advanced reactors.

The ACRS found that with some modifications to the guidance, DG-1353, along with accompanying NEI industry guidance, NEI 18-04, that advanced reactor entrepreneurs could now develop a licensing basis and the other contents of NRC license applications.

In its blog post Hogan and Lovells note that industry-led pilot projects as part of the Licensing Modernization Project (LMP) have served as mechanisms to test the ability of this guidance to inform development of NRC submittals. The objective of LMP is to develop technology-based, risk-informed, and performance-based regulatory guidance for licensing non-LWRs for the NRC’s consideration and possible endorsement.

List of NELA Co-sponsors

Senators sponsoring the legislation include: Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Cory Booker, D-New Jersey; James Risch, R-Idaho; Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island; Cory Gardner, R-Colorado; Chris Coons, D-Delaware; Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska; Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois; Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina; Michael Bennet, D-Colorado; Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia; and Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

NEI’s Korsnick Calls For Financial Support for US Industry
Exports to Meet Competition from Russia and China

(NucNet): The US International Development Finance Corporation must be allowed to support nuclear energy projects as the country fights to catch up and stay competitive in the sector, Nuclear Energy Institute president and chief executive officer Maria Korsnick said in her state of the industry address this week.

Korsnick said the US needs significant investment and bold policy to maintain its position as a world leader in nuclear safety, technology, and operations.

The International Development Finance Corporation, scheduled to begin operation by the end of the year, will be an executive agency of the federal government responsible for providing foreign aid through the financing of private development projects. Its creation was signed into law by president Donald Trump in October 2018.

Korsnick noted that nearly two out of every three reactors being built around the world are built by China or Russia.

“They are making massive investments, expanding their domestic fleet, and developing new technologies. Their efforts to promote nuclear power internationally are core parts of their foreign policy – including 100-year relationships with some nations – and America is falling behind.”

She also said export financing is a critical priority and without a fully functioning Export-Import Bank, US nuclear suppliers cannot compete in a global market on international tenders. She called on the Senate to confirm a quorum on the bank’s board and for Congress to reauthorize the bank itself.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 2, 2019

Dan, it's an embarrassment one of our senators from California didn't co-sponsor NELA, but more evidence of the eastern/northern shift in energy tech to other states (West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alaska) where the sun doesn't shine so much, and where natural gas money doesn't dominate state politics.

A few years ago there was news of a Chinese venture-capitalist who had converted a coal plant to a High-Temperature Gas Reactor (HTGR) plant - aware of any recent developments? HTGRs, as you know, are ideal for efficiently electrolyzing hydrogen from water with no carbon emissions. With the unlimited potential of carbon-neutral liquid fuels, I couldn't help but think the business model would be a perfect fit for ailing economies in the Southeastern U.S. Rumor has it, a few coal plants are sitting idle there.

From INL in 2010:

System Evaluation and Economic Analysis of a HTGR Powered High-Temperature Electrolysis Hydrogen Production Plant

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Apr 2, 2019

China has been re-thinking its HTGR work having learned from tests that the first two units at Shandong were not efficient enough to be commercially viable.  Plans to build 20 more are on hold. A re-design effort is reported to be underway since China has already pitched its HTGR for export to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

I don't know of any efforts by China to convert coal plants to HTGRs. There is interest in Poland in swapping out coal plants for LWR type SMRs. 

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