DARPA’s nuclear rocket demo gets a boost from NASA’s Mars ambitions

January 24, 2023, 3:02PMNuclear News
Artist’s concept of the DRACO spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. (Image: DARPA)

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have announced they will collaborate on plans to launch and test DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). DARPA has already worked with private companies on the baseline design for a fission reactor and rocket engine—and the spacecraft that will serve as an in-orbit test stand—and has solicited proposals for the next phase of work. Now NASA is climbing on board, deepening its existing ties to DRACO’s work in nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) technology—an “enabling capability” required for NASA to meet its Moon to Mars Objectives and send crewed missions to Mars. NASA and DARPA representatives announced the development at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Forum in National Harbor, Md., on January 24.

Looking back at 2022—October through December

January 6, 2023, 9:09AMNuclear News

Another calendar year has passed. Before heading too far into 2023, let’s look back at what happened in 2022 for the American Nuclear Society and the nuclear community. In today's post that follows, we have compiled from Nuclear News and Nuclear Newswire what we feel are the top nuclear news stories from September through December 2022.

But first:

Omnibus spending bill passes Senate

December 22, 2022, 11:47PMNuclear News

In a 68–29 vote on Thursday, the Senate approved the fiscal year 2023 omnibus bill—a $1.7 trillion spending package intended to fund the federal government through next September. The bill is now with the House, where it is expected to pass, averting the unhappy prospect of a partial government shutdown over the holidays.

Labeled H.R. 2617, the 4,155-page measure includes $858 billion for defense, a 10 percent jump from the FY2022 enacted level, and $772.5 billion for non-defense discretionary programs, an increase of 5.5 percent.

NRC accepts TRISO-X application for 30-month review, with RAIs on deck

December 21, 2022, 7:00AMNuclear News
Artist’s rendering of the proposed TRISO-X World Headquarters and Commercial Fuel Facility at the Horizon Center Industrial Park in Oak Ridge, Tenn. (Image: X-energy)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has accepted an application from X-energy's fuel subsidiary, TRISO-X LLC, for a proposed TRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility (TF3) in Oak Ridge, Tenn., X-energy announced last week. A 30-month review schedule has been developed by the NRC that would be completed by June 2025, assuming TRISO-X provides sufficient responses to expected requests for additional information (RAIs) within 30 to 60 days of their issuance. On December 16, the NRC announced that it would seek public input on the scope of its environmental review and environmental impact statement for the application and published a notice in the Federal Register.

TerraPower announces delay due to lack of fuel availability

December 19, 2022, 12:00PMNuclear News

TerraPower, the advanced nuclear company backed by Bill Gates, announced last week that the start date for its Natrium reactor has been pushed back. As Russia is currently the only commercial source of the high-assay low- enriched uranium (HALEU) the plant requires, the company faces a lack of fuel availability. TerraPower originally planned to use Russian fuel to get its demonstration reactor up and running by 2028, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dashed those plans.

DOE-NE opens HALEU Consortium with focus on information exchange

December 8, 2022, 12:00PMNuclear News
(Image: DOE))

The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy announced December 7 that its new HALEU Consortium is open for membership. And not just from U.S. enrichers, fuel fabricators, and others working in the front-end fuel cycle, but from “any U.S. entity, association, and government organization involved in the nuclear fuel cycle,” and—at the DOE’s discretion—“organizations whose facilities are in ally or partner nations.” The HALEU Consortium will essentially serve as an information clearinghouse to meet DOE-NE’s ongoing needs for firm supply and demand data as it supports the development of a commercial domestic high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) infrastructure to fuel advanced reactors. The consortium is open for business almost one full year after the DOE first requested public input on its structure.

Centrus signs to complete HALEU demo in 2023 as the DOE prepares draft RFP

December 6, 2022, 9:49AMNuclear News
These gas centrifuges operated in the Piketon facility from 2013 to 2016 as part of a 120-machine low-enriched uranium demonstration cascade. (Photo: Centrus Energy)

Centrus Energy confirmed on December 1 that its wholly owned subsidiary American Centrifuge Operating signed a contract with the Department of Energy, which was first announced on November 10, to complete and operate a demo-scale high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) gaseous centrifuge cascade.

Got Fuel? Prospective HALEU enrichers and buyers talk goals and timelines

December 2, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear News
From left: Christina Leggett (Booz Allen Hamilton), Morris Hassler (IB3 Global Solutions), Everett Redmond (Oklo), Andy Griffith (DOE-NE), Ben Jordan (Centrus), Stephen Long (GLE), and Magnus Mori (Urenco).

Whether commercial demand for high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel ultimately falls at the high or low end of divergent forecasts, one thing is certain: the United States is not ready to meet demand, because it currently has no domestic HALEU enrichment capacity. But conversations happening now could help build the commercial HALEU enrichment infrastructure needed to support advanced reactor deployments. At the 2022 American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting, representatives from three potential HALEU enrichers, the government, and industry met to discuss their timelines and challenges during “Got Fuel? Progress Toward Establishing a Domestic US HALEU Supply,” a November 15 executive session cosponsored by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy Division and the Fuel Cycle and Waste Management Division.

Centrus Energy gets more time and money to complete HALEU demo

November 15, 2022, 12:08PMNuclear News
Centrifuge casings arrive in Piketon, Ohio. (Photo: Centrus Energy)

The Department of Energy announced a cost-shared award on November 10 valued at about $150 million for American Centrifuge Operating, a subsidiary of Centrus Energy, to complete the high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) demonstration project it began in 2019. After delays that Centrus attributes in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company now has until the end of 2023 to produce the first 20 kilograms of HALEU enriched to 19.75 percent U-235 from the 16-centrifuge cascade it has installed in a DOE-owned Piketon, Ohio, facility—the only U.S. facility currently licensed to produce HALEU.

GA’s delivery of DRACO nuclear rocket design supports FY 2026 in-orbit demo goal

November 10, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear News
(Image: General Atomics)

General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) has completed the baseline design of a reactor and engine for a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) rocket and has successfully tested key reactor components under contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the company announced on November 7. The work was performed under a Track A, Phase 1 contract for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program; Phases 2 and 3 of DRACO could culminate in a demonstration of the nuclear-propelled spacecraft in cislunar space (the region between the Earth and the Moon) during fiscal year 2026.

HALEU and the promise of nuclear energy: An interview with the DOE’s Kathryn Huff

November 4, 2022, 3:01PMNuclear News

Kathryn Huff

Deploying a fleet of advanced reactors in the 2030s means deploying high-assay low- enriched uranium (HALEU) infrastructure now.

The future fleet will need more than 40 metric tons of HALEU by 2030, according to Department of Energy projections. Getting to the 5–20 percent fissile uranium-235 content of HALEU involves either enriching natural or low-enriched uranium (LEU) or downblending high-enriched uranium (HEU).

Because downblending the limited stocks of HEU held at the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory and Savannah River Site is a short-term option at best, the Energy Act of 2020 authorized a HALEU Availability Program to build a sustainable enrichment infrastructure by the time advanced reactors are ready for commercial deployment.

Comments on a request for information reached the DOE in February 2022, just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amplified global energy security concerns. While the war in Ukraine didn’t change the DOE’s plans, it “accelerated everything,” said Kathryn Huff, who leads the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE) as assistant secretary. “Our attention is now laser-focused on this issue in a way that it wouldn’t have been in the past.”

“There’s going to be a cliff”: Preparing an international SMR supply chain

November 3, 2022, 12:32PMNuclear News
Participating in the forum were (from left) John Hopkins (NuScale Power), Renaud Crassous (EDF), Daniel Poneman (Centrus Energy), Adriana Cristina Serquis (CNEA), and Boris Schucht (Urenco).

The nuclear industry leaders assembled in Washington, D.C., last week to discuss small modular reactor supply chains agreed that lost generation capacity from the expected retirement of hundreds or thousands of coal power plants over the next decade—a cliff, in one panelist’s words—represents an opportunity that developers of SMRs and advanced reactors are competing to meet.

“I think in total 80 projects are ongoing,” said Boris Schucht, panel moderator and chief executive officer of Urenco Group, as he opened the forum. “Of course not all of them will win, and we will discuss today what is needed so that they can be successful.”

Just add HALEU: TerraPower and GNF-A break ground on fast reactor fuel facility

October 26, 2022, 9:21AMNuclear News
Natrium Fuel Facility groundbreaking. (Photo: GNF-A)

Global Nuclear Fuel–Americas (GNF-A) and TerraPower announced their plans to build a Natrium fuel fabrication facility next to GNF-A’s existing fuel plant near Wilmington, N.C, on October 21. While more than 50 years of fuel fabrication at the site have supported the boiling water reactor designs of GE (GNF-A’s majority owner) and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), the Natrium Fuel Facility will produce metallic high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel for the sodium fast reactor—Natrium—that TerraPower is developing with GEH.

DOE plans offtake contracts to stock a HALEU bank “as soon as possible”

October 21, 2022, 9:13AMNuclear News
An image from the video “What is High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU)?” released by the DOE in April 2020. (Source: DOE)

Another piece of the plan for meeting the urgent need for high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) to fuel advanced reactor deployments fell into place when the Department of Energy held an Industry Day on October 14. Attendees were asked how soon they could deliver 25 metric tons per year of HALEU enriched in the United States from newly mined uranium. Offtake contracts for six or more years of HALEU production at that rate could be used to stock a DOE-owned HALEU bank to “support [HALEU] availability for civilian domestic research, development, demonstration, and commercial use.”

White House would send the DOE $1.5 billion to set up reliable LEU/HALEU supply

September 8, 2022, 3:06PMNuclear News
HALEU in the form of 1.5–3 kg reguli ready for fuel fabrication. (Photo: INL)

Those who welcomed the $700 million earmarked for high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) supply in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) in August have cause to celebrate again. The White House sent a supplemental appropriation request to Congress on September 2 that would provide more than double the IRA funds if passed—$1.5 billion—for the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy to build a reliable supply of both low-enriched uranium for existing U.S. nuclear power plants and HALEU for the advanced reactors that will be built within the decade.

The IRA: Crediting nuclear energy

September 7, 2022, 3:03PMNuclear News

While the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA), recently signed into law, has created a good deal of buzz in the nuclear community, the thought of wading through its 730 pages of legislative language can be a bit intimidating. Which is why, on August 26, the American Nuclear Society offered an hour-long, members-only webinar on the legislation and its key provisions for nuclear energy.

Moderated by John Starkey, ANS’s director of public policy, “Inflation Reduction Act: What’s in It for Nuclear” featured Benton Arnett, director of markets and policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute; Josh Siegel, energy and climate change reporter for Politico; Rory Stanley, staff member of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Elina Teplinsky, partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman; and James Wickett, partner at Hogan Lovells. (ANS members can view the full webinar here.)

Perfecting the public-private partnership: Is X-energy leading the way?

August 24, 2022, 3:00PMNuclear News

X-energy has been having a good year. Not only did Dow announce plans to invest in the company’s high-temperature gas reactor (HTGR) technology and deploy an Xe-100 reactor at a U.S. Gulf Coast facility for power and process heat by 2030, in parallel with the Xe-100 demo planned for Washington state with support from the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), but X-energy’s fuel subsidiary, TRISO-X, has applied for a fuel facility license and aims to have a commercial fuel plant operating in 2025, and Canadian provinces are signaling their interest in the technology. And while news of Dow’s investment broke with well-deserved fanfare, the company’s serious interest in HTGRs—and federal support for HTGR development—goes way back.

What’s in it for nuclear?

August 24, 2022, 7:00AMANS News

The American Nuclear Society is offering the hour-long members-only webinar “Inflation Reduction Act: What's in it for nuclear?” on Friday, August 26, starting at 1:00 p.m. EDT.

What it’s about: With the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) now signed into law, an expert panel will discuss its impact on nuclear in the coming years. The panelists will explore what it will mean for existing nuclear power plants, the deployment of advanced reactors, the production of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), hydrogen, and more.

Register now for the webinar.

Bipartisan bill to prioritize HALEU debuts in House

August 23, 2022, 9:30AMNuclear News

Donalds

Luria

Reps. Elaine Luria (D., Va.) and Byron Donalds (R., Fla.) have introduced in the House of Representatives the Fueling Our Nuclear Future Act (H.R. 8723), a measure to accelerate the availability of commercially produced high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel and boost domestic energy production in the United States.

Unveiled last week following a Senate version introduced in April by Sen. John Barrasso, the legislation directs the secretary of energy to prioritize and establish a program that ensures a domestic supply of HALEU for advanced nuclear reactors. Currently, the nation lacks the domestic enrichment capability to produce HALEU. The bill explicitly excludes uranium sourced or processed by any entity owned or controlled by the governments of Russia and China.