Bipartisan Fusion Energy Act pushes for regulatory clarity

May 2, 2024, 12:01PMNuclear News


Sen. Alex Padilla (D., Calif.) introduced the Fusion Energy Act (S. 4151) last month with a bipartisan group of cosponsors—John Cornyn (R., Texas), Cory Booker (D., N.J.), Todd Young (R., Ind.), and Patty Murray (D., Wash.). The legislation would codify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s regulatory authority over commercial fusion energy systems to streamline the creation of clear federal regulations that will support the development of commercial fusion power plants—and would require a report within one year on a study of risk- and performance-based, design-specific licensing frameworks for “mass-manufactured fusion machines.”

“Congress must do everything in its power to ensure continued U.S. leadership in developing commercial fusion energy facilities,” said Padilla as he introduced the bill. “The Fusion Energy Act would provide regulatory certainty for investors as the NRC develops and streamlines frameworks for such facilities.”

The legislators have secured the support of Kimberly Budil, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which made headlines in December 2022 with the news that scientists at the lab’s National Ignition Facility had achieved fusion ignition. “Clear guidance through an appropriate regulatory framework is essential to the emerging fusion field. LLNL looks forward to partnering with Sen. Padilla and others in Congress in support of U.S. leadership in fusion energy,” Budil said. The bill is also backed by the Fusion Industry Association.

Work in progress: S. 4151 would make law the NRC’s unanimous decision in April 2023 to create a regulatory framework for fusion systems under the commission’s byproduct materials process—a move that would formally separate the regulatory frameworks for fusion systems (including particle accelerators) and fission power plants, which are regulated as “utilization facilities.”

The NRC in 2019 was directed by the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) to develop a regulatory framework for fusion energy systems by 2027. After conducting two years of public meetings, NRC staff issued SECY-23-0001, "Options for Licensing and Regulating Fusion Energy Systems,” in January 2023 for the commissioners’ review and vote. The five NRC commissioners voted unanimously to approve a byproduct material approach, rejecting the staff’s recommended two-phase hybrid approach to regulation. Importantly, the decision means that future fusion energy facilities could be regulated by Agreement States acting with guidance from the NRC.

Defining fusion: The Fusion Energy Act would amend the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and NEIMA to define a “fusion machine” as “a machine that is capable of—(1) transforming atomic nuclei, through fusion processes, into different elements, isotopes, or other particles; and (2) directly capturing and using resultant products, including particles, heat, or other electromagnetic radiation.”

The NRC, for its part, plans to use the term “fusion system” as it works on a rulemaking, and the definition of that term is in flux. Preliminary proposed rule language shared by NRC staff in a public meeting in March would define “fusion system” in 10 CFR Parts 20 and 30 as “a system that, through use of byproduct material or to produce byproduct material, induces plasma fusion. The term ‘fusion system’ includes particle accelerators that induce plasma fusion. The term ‘fusion system’ also includes any radiation, radioactive material, and supporting structures, systems, and components that are used to contain, process, or control radiation and radioactive materials used in or resulting from plasma fusion.”

FAA as model? The Fusion Energy Act would require the NRC to submit a report to Congress on a study “conducted in consultation with Agreement States and the private fusion sector” on “risk- and performance-based, design-specific licensing frameworks for mass-manufactured fusion machines, including an evaluation of the design, manufacturing, and operations certification process used by the Federal Aviation Administration for aircraft as a potential model for mass-manufactured fusion machine regulations.”

The report must also include an estimate of how long it would take the NRC to issue consolidated guidance or regulations for licensing those machines.

The House is on board: Congressional Fusion Energy Caucus cochairs Lori Trahan (D., Mass.), Don Beyer (D., Va.), Chuck Fleischmann (R., Tenn.), and Jay Obernolte (R., Calif.) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives in August 2023, which was passed by the House on February 28.

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