In this week’s issue, we discuss the need for civil society to play a more prominent role in guiding the next generation of nuclear power as those technologies advance. We also note a recent decision by the Department of Energy to grant $160 million to TerraPower and X-Energy in its latest bid to promote the demonstration of advanced nuclear reactors. Finally, we draw attention to a new report by the World Institute for Nuclear Security, ‘Security of Advanced Reactors’ [sign-up required], that assesses the international legal frameworks, regulatory matters, safeguards by design, and other issues associated with the security of advanced nuclear reactors.
The Role of Civil Society in the Next Generation of Nuclear Power
The potential of next generation nuclear power was boosted last week with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) selection of two advanced reactors for demonstration no later than 2027. But the project’s aggressive timeline, novel technologies, and private-public sector collaboration present major challenges, and timely success is not assured.
Despite its significant resources and current commitment, government action alone will not guarantee that next-gen U.S. nuclear technologies will thrive. To ultimately be successful, the next phase of civil nuclear power needs a deeper collaboration with the civil society sectors that understand what is at stake if this important experiment fails. This partnership needs to be much more than technology cheerleading because there is a long and thorny list of issues that need to be tackled.
At issue is DoE’s spotty track record of pushing cutting edge non-military technology projects to completion.
For example, the worthy goal of disposing of 34 metric tons each of U.S. and Russian excess nuclear weapons plutonium under a 2000 agreement was abandoned in 2018. While Russia bailed out of the effort in 2016, the U.S. project continued until it was “$13 billion over budget and 32 years behind schedule.”
Similarly, in 1993, DoE ended the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) project after 14 of 54 miles of tunnel was bored, over $2 billion was spent, and the cost projection increased to over $10 billion.
In recent years, the U.S. government decided that it needed to reinvigorate its civil nuclear capacity, including developing advanced reactors. Congress provided legislation and funding. DoE launched the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). And it created the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to centralize technical activity on the next phase of nuclear innovation.
DoE also supported the deployment of NuScale Power’s first-of-its-kind small modular reactor (SMR) which will be located at INL, and recently pledged $1.4 billion to bolster the project. The Pentagon is pursuing a parallel small reactor program for its purposes.
These steps represent significant progress and demonstrable political commitment. That is vitally important. But red flags are beginning to rise as the process moves forward and further uphill.
NuScale’s timeline for the completion of its 12 units already has been extended by 3 years to 2030. The project also could face the cost increases inherent in most nuclear construction. This financial uncertainty has caused some of the small cities allied under the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) to withdraw from the Carbon Free Power Project which would receive the electricity from the NuScale reactors.
As the lead horse in this race, if NuScale falters before the finish line it could knock out the more exotic technologies galloping behind it.

A significant delay in the implementation, or the ultimate demise, of the U.S. next-gen nuclear effort will have serious real-world consequences. The coming reactors are being promoted as a partial solution to climate change, a way to rebuild U.S. nuclear export muscle, and a lever in the intensifying technology competition with China.
Achieving all of those objectives is essential for the U.S. and its alliance partners as they collectively face a constantly evolving and highly competitive international environment.
The worry is whether the government’s and national laboratory’s traditional encumbrances, obligations, and processes are dynamic enough to allow them alone to drive and sustain this technology push in a timely and effective manner. Their rhetoric is right, but a checkered history of success, along with near-record low public trust in the ability of the government, creates concern.
A support system outside, but alongside, official channels that is credible, knowledgeable, flexible, and focused on success could provide many advantages. These include: technical support; policy analysis and recommendations; education and training; market identification and preparation; geopolitical assessment; finance and legal planning; and communications and messaging insight. In addition, it could offer informed observations if the process is failing to meet milestones.
To some degree the infrastructure for this type of collaboration already exists. Organizations in the energy, environmental, climate, and nuclear security communities are already working on the next-gen nuclear agenda, including under the Global Nexus Initiative. But much of this engagement has been ad hoc and in some cases highly siloed.
These interactions can become more systematic, cross-cutting, and beneficial. But they cannot become distorted. Civil society has the opportunity and the credibility to help ensure that the next generation of civil nuclear power is safe, secure, climate-friendly, and not a contributor to nuclear weapons proliferation.
However, while civil society’s credibility is powerful it also is exceptionally ephemeral. A candid collaboration can immeasurably strengthen next-gen nuclear and its contributions. A devolution of it into technology tub-thumping that ignores or excuses problems and failures will undermine precious public trust in the objectiveness of these organizations and erode confidence in their judgments and recommendations. If that happens, then the foundation for a new generation of nuclear energy will be significantly weakened, perhaps fatally so.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security

The World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) has released a new report titled, Security of Advanced Reactors [sign-up required] that provides an assessment of the international legal framework, regulatory matters, safeguards by design, and other issues associated with the security of advanced nuclear reactors. Offering insights into the various emerging designs across the next generation civil nuclear landscape, the report also offers five recommendations to assist nuclear developers, policymakers and other stakeholders in incorporating strong security measures.
Nuclear Collaborations
The United States has reached a nuclear energy agreement with Poland that could involve the supply of 6 reactors at an estimated $18 billion in technology and support from U.S. companies. The U.S. out-competed China and Russia in securing this arrangement. 

The U.S. and South Korea will continue to collaborate closely on the issue of nuclear security, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration confirmed earlier this week. In a discussion between the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy and the South Korean Second Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, the two also promoted joint U.S.-South Korean civil nuclear commercial partnerships. 

Canadian energy corporation Bruce Power has teamed up with Westinghouse Electric Company to develop Westinghouse’s eVinci micro reactor program, aimed at providing power to remote communities, industrial mines and critical infrastructure. The reactor itself will be distinguishable by its solid reactor core, minimal maintenance needs and up to 3-year refueling cycles

The U.S. and Canada have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to enable more effective collaboration in the area of nuclear security and safety. The five year agreement - officially named the ‘Cooperation and Exchange of Information in Nuclear Security, Safeguards, and Nonproliferation Matters’ - will last until at least 2025. 

GE Hitachi has announced that it will work with five Canadian firms on small modular reactor (SMR) designs, seeking to make the new reactors more commercially viable. The research will focus on both emerging SMR proposals and GE Hitachi’s existing BWRX-300 reactor design and is a major step in Canada’s accelerating SMR roadmap.

In a new partnership aimed at assessing the economic viability of SMRs, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Finnish company Fortum will work together for 3 years to create a techno-economic model for SMR projects.
Nuclear Policy, Governance, and Geopolitics
Up to a dozen countries will have developed their first nuclear power plants by 2030, according to the General Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi. Amongst a handful of nuclear newcomer countries, including Bangladesh, Belarus, Egypt, Turkey and the UAE, Rossi mentioned Kenya, Ghana and the Philippines as nations that will likely develop their own civil nuclear programs in the coming years. 

Japan has launched its latest three-yearly energy policy review as the country grapples with the need for decarbonization. Energy targets for nuclear power are expected to continue to fall for the year 2020, as public opinion reels from the Fukushima disaster of 2011.

China has recently passed a law restricting and granting more government control over sensitive exports, including civil nuclear technologies, by all Chinese companies and foreign-invested ones amidst mounting tensions with the U.S. 

A group of leading U.K. businesses, led by Urenco and U-Battery, have penned a letter to the U.K. Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee urging government support of nuclear energy in the nation’s COVID-19 recovery phase. The incorporation of civil nuclear power into the nation’s energy grid will be key to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the companies argued.  

The Canadian government has made a significant investment into SMR technology, granting $20 million to the nuclear technology company Terrestrial Energy. The investment is a significant step in the federal government’s promotion of next-generation nuclear technology, following the urges of several territory governments. 

The United States International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has pledged to support a nuclear power project in South Africa, led by NuScale. The move marks the first time the DFC has announced public support for a civil nuclear project overseas, following the lifting of a ban on overseas support in July.  

The United States has edged out China in its bid to secure a contract for the construction of two additional units at Romania’s Cernavoda nuclear power plant (NPP). The move follows the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between China’s General Nuclear Power Corporation and Romania in 2015, and is one of the U.S.’ latest attempts to revive its civil nuclear export program. 

The first reactor at Belarus’ Astravets NPP has achieved criticality for the first time. Situated just 12 miles from the Lithuanian border, the Russian-designed and –built VVER-1200 reactor has been a stressor in Baltic relations since its initial phases, with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all stopping electricity trade with Belarus after the completion of the plant.

Bruce Power has unveiled a NZ-2050 strategy aimed at helping Canada reach zero carbon emissions by mid-century. Next-generation and advanced nuclear technologies are key to the company’s initiative, which seeks to promote innovative low-carbon technologies in a diverse, reliable and financially stable manner.

Rosatom has joined the United Nations Global Compact, vowing to operate with social responsibility and advance sustainable development. Rosatom director general Alexey Likhachev noted the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a key driver behind the corporation’s decision to join the initiative, which places particular focus on human rights, labour, environmental and anti-corruption principles.
Domestic Civil Nuclear Developments
The Department of Energy (DoE) has chosen TerraPower and X-Energy as the recipients of $160 million in funding for its new Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). The funding, split evenly between the two corporations, will be used to build two advanced nuclear reactors that the department hopes will be operational within 7 years. In addition, the DoE has announced a further $26.9 million for three advanced nuclear reactor projects, granting a boost to U.S. domestic nuclear capability.

Betchel has been selected to assist in the engineering, procurement and construction of TerraPower’s proposed demonstration NPP, which will host the Natrium sodium-cooled fast reactor and a molten salt energy storage system.

The Trump administration has approved $1.35 billion in funding over 10 years for the construction of NuScale’s small modular nuclear power project run by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS). The move comes despite several UAMPS cities withdrawing from the project in recent months, with more than 30 municipalities to make their decision by October 31. 

Urging leadership in the global nuclear export market, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has penned a letter to the House Armed Services Committee calling for the retention of the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act. Lead by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the letter calls for the U.S. to “reestablish itself as a global leader to implement cutting edge technologies that impact military readiness and curb proliferation efforts”.

Kristine Svinicki, the chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has emphasized the opportunity for nuclear power to be more broadly accepted by the public. Speaking to an Idaho governor’s advisory group last week, Svinicki promoted the role that nuclear energy plays in the global fight against poverty and the advancement of equal opportunities for women.
Nuclear Security and Emerging Technologies
The Texas-based Nuclear Engineering and Science Center is working to develop thorium-based nuclear fuel pallets in its Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life (ANEEL) program. The fuel is a combination of thorium and high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) aimed at addressing safety, financial and non-proliferation waste issues.
Noteworthy Research
The World Nuclear Industry has released its Status Report for 2020, exploring the impacts of COVID-19 on the global nuclear energy sector and offering insights into the expansion of domestic nuclear sectors. The report emphasizes the contributions that nuclear energy has made to global electricity supplies throughout the pandemic, noting their flexibility and application in various contexts. 

In response to a recent paper published in Nature Energy, the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA) has penned a blog post refuting the argument that nuclear energy does not play an important role in decarbonizing the global economy. A key misgiving of the original paper, the NIA argues, is that it failed to offer an explanation as to why countries could not simultaneously pursue both renewable and nuclear energy.

A recent policy briefing by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society has found that much of the heat generated by nuclear power in the country is wasted. Nuclear Cogeneration: Civil Nuclear Energy in a Low-Carbon Future considers the expansion of the U.K’s nuclear power program to make the most of the energy it produces.

Confronting Systemic Security Risks: Proposals for the Next U.S. Administration is a new briefing by the Council on Strategic Risks that assesses the biological, climate and nuclear threats that may be faced by the next Presidential Administration.  

The International Energy Agency’s annual World Energy Outlook has called for renewed momentum behind nuclear power as the world pushes for a post-COVID-19 resilient energy system.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has published its 2020-2021 Information Digest, which provides a detailed account of the agency’s mission, responsibilities, accomplishments and activities. 
The Nuclear Conversation
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