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November 13–17, 2022
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The United States has charted a path toward an unprecedented expansion of zero-carbon energy generation. Already, our energy landscape is being reshaped by a combination of technology advancements, federal and state tax and regulatory policies, and market forces. The effects can be seen in the sizable shift from coal- to natural gas-fired electricity generation, as well as the significant build-out of wind and solar generation capacity and plans to expand electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that organic changes alone will not build a clean energy infrastructure at the pace and scale needed to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change. Energy systems will require the widespread availability of firm, “dispatchable” zero-carbon technologies—energy sources that can be relied upon at any time of day. The only commercially proven, zero-carbon energy technology capable of filling that role in the near term is nuclear energy. Meeting decarbonization goals as rapidly and efficiently as possible will require significant additional investments in nuclear energy research and development.
The American Nuclear Society (ANS) commissioned a Task Force on Public Investment in Nuclear Research and Development to bring together 20 technical experts from the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories, universities, private companies, utilities, suppliers, and ANS professional divisions. This group assessed the R&D needs of the U.S. nuclear energy technology sector in the 2020s and the federal investment required to meet those needs and enable a commercial scale-up of U.S. advanced nuclear energy systems starting in 2030.
Chaired by Dr. Christina Back, vice president of the Nuclear Technologies and Materials Division at General Atomics, and Dr. Mark Peters, executive vice president for Laboratory Operations at Battelle, the Task Force undertook an aggressive six-month effort to assess current nuclear R&D funding levels, which included reviews of authorizing and appropriating legislation, agency budget justifications, and interviews with a broad cross section of the nuclear technology and policymaking community.
The report is not an exhaustive survey of all federal spending on nuclear R&D activities, nor is it a step-by-step plan for systemic overhaul. Rather, it is meant to serve as a prospectus for the nuclear policymaking community as Congress and the Administration consider options for expanding U.S. zero-carbon generating capacity, while preserving U.S. influence over global nuclear safety and nonproliferation norms and spurring economic growth through high-wage jobs in the nuclear sector.
Nuclear power plants operating around-the-clock generated 54.8 percent of all carbon-free electricity in the U.S. in 2019, avoiding 505.8 million metric tons of CO2.
Jobs and Prosperity
Nuclear energy creates high-paying jobs that last for decades. Nuclear adds $60 billion to GDP and provides $12.2 billion in federal and state taxes.
Nuclear energy contributes over $42.4 billion annually to U.S. national security through the added value of its workforce and supply chain infrastructure and the dependable energy it generates, according to an estimate by the Atlantic Council.
Dozens of nuclear technology companies are designing advanced reactors that will reshape how we think about nuclear power.
Backed by a recent and unprecedented surge of private investment in nuclear technologies, they recognize the market needs of a zero-carbon energy future. Some of these new reactor designs will eventually be licensed and constructed. What is not yet clear is whether they will be deployed at a scale and a pace that will rapidly impel the United States to a clean energy future.
Commercialization is not the finish line, but it will usher in a new kind of energy system—one that can be served by clean, reliable nuclear energy in a range of reactor sizes and types that share the grid with other low-carbon or carbon-free technologies. Federal investments in nuclear research and development are critical to lower costs and reduce the time to deployment, while building momentum to catalyze more private investment, more research, and more innovation. United momentum is key to deriving maximum benefit from nuclear technologies and securing America’s clean energy future.
Increased federal investment is needed now. Just as the power of compound interest rewards early investors, the benefits of increased R&D funding will accelerate future technological gains and expertise.
That is why the American Nuclear Society’s Task Force on Public Investment in Nuclear Research and Development was commissioned, and that is why the Task Force has made recommendations that look beyond the deployment of the first U.S. advanced reactors.
Nuclear energy does more than keep the lights on. It is uniquely able to deliver climate, economic, and national security benefits.
Achieving bold objectives will require the broad availability of “dispatchable” zero-carbon technologies—energy sources that can be called upon at any time to meet shifting energy demand and ensure the reliability and resiliency of the U.S. power grid. Our country’s clean energy infrastructure will require significant R&D investment if it is to become a reality.
Existing nuclear power plants and the nuclear supply chain support high-paying jobs, and future nuclear technology exports will fuel greater job growth. The U.S. has surrendered its once unassailable position as the international leader in nuclear science and technologies. Through R&D investments that maintain, expand, and upgrade national nuclear testbeds, the U.S. can prepare to export technologies that the rest of the world will adopt, thereby regaining its leadership position while creating jobs here in the U.S.
Ample, reliable electricity is essential to the way we live and work today, which makes energy security an issue of national security. Nuclear power can provide an independent electricity source for critical national security missions on land, and provide both power and propulsion in space and at sea.
As the U.S. increases its nuclear technology exports to burgeoning markets overseas, the nation can once again lead the world in nuclear safety, safeguards, and security. If, on the other hand, the U.S. does not regain its leadership role by building a strong nuclear enterprise, one day China and Russia may be selling reactors to us.
Climate change can literally reshape the planet we live on and threaten our national security in new ways, but nuclear energy is capable of slowing or preventing the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
All can agree that we need a clean energy system that is safe, affordable, reliable, resilient, and secure. Ensuring these attributes requires science, data, testing, and analysis. In short, it requires R&D.
The Task Force chose to focus on a core set of nuclear R&D programs within the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy that advance the science and applications of fission energy. While those programs also support select missions of the National Nuclear Security Administration, NASA, and the Department of Defense, the Task Force did not develop funding or programmatic recommendations for those agencies.
ANS supports the goals of fusion research led by the DOE’s Office of Science. Acknowledging the recent draft report of the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, the Task Force decided not to include fusion in the scope of its funding and programmatic recommendations.
The Task Force believes that existing nuclear R&D programs are of fundamental importance to maximize the clean energy benefits of the current fleet, ensure public health and safety, foster the technology applications of tomorrow, and provide energy security. Existing R&D programs must be sustained. But maintaining the status quo will not deliver the momentum needed now.
Recent legislation authorizing the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) has provided a blueprint for federal cost-share funding for advanced reactor demonstrations. The Task Force recommends full and sustained appropriations for the ARDP to enable full-scale demonstrations by 2027 as planned. Five additional designs are supported by Risk Reduction for Future Demonstration awards, and three Advanced Reactor Concepts 2020 awards have been made. In 2028, a subset of the designs that previously received Risk Reduction awards could become candidates for the next round of demonstrations.
Decisions need data
The ARDP will use metrics and milestones to select commercial partners, similar to the approach used with great success by NASA and its partner, SpaceX. At specific milestones reactor designs must be assessed on their technological merits. Only through testing and hard data can tough choices be made. The fast-neutron Versatile Test Reactor must be constructed by 2030 to accelerate testing of advanced nuclear fuels, materials, and components. Versatility is inherent in the design of the VTR, which will support simultaneous experiments on very different reactor concepts and fill a significant gap in the country’s scientific infrastructure.
If the ARDP represents a set of architect’s plans—a framework for advanced reactor R&D—the people of the nuclear community must build a functional structure from those plans. Just as no building would be complete after framing, nuclear energy’s future will not be secured without setting a strong foundation and building on science and data. Completing the project will require sustained funding and commitment.
The Task Force believes it is incumbent on the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy to ensure that the recommended investments will constitute a healthy, sustainable nuclear innovation pipeline—not just a set of loosely coordinated programs. A cohesive continuum of technology development, kept on target by assessments at key milestones, will produce reactors ready for deployment by 2030 and ensure innovations in efficiency and design for generations to come. The Task Force has identified four stages of the innovation pipeline:
Build and maintain infrastructure
Strengthen and expand fundamental U.S. nuclear science and technology capabilities and maintain, secure, and optimize the operations of current facilities.
Discover and innovate
Allow the U.S. research community to propose and test numerous high-risk, high-reward ideas at universities, national laboratories, and industrial laboratories aimed at improving nuclear technology now and for generations to come.
Develop promising concepts
Select and advance promising concepts at universities, national laboratories, and industrial laboratories to reduce uncertainties and to show viability.
Demonstrate and deploy
Demonstrate promising concepts to enable commercialization, often under a cost-sharing partnership with an industry-leading developer.
Every funded program, from a bench-scale university experiment to a full-scale advanced reactor demonstration, has its place in this progression. Programs must be developed apace to get maximum value from federal investments, with due consideration to every step on the pathway to deployment—from material and fuel qualification to siting and licensing. The DOE’s National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) and Gateway for Acceleration of Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) programs were established to connect private companies to federal nuclear R&D testbeds and must receive full federal support.
The Task Force determined that a near doubling in annual appropriated funding levels for core nuclear R&D activities would be required to be prepared to field the first of successive future generations of nuclear technologies by 2030. In all, the Task Force recommends approximately $10.3 billion in additional discretionary spending between now and 2030, when compared to levelized funding at FY 2021 enacted levels. Concepts that progress from R&D to deployment may receive early market support through other federal mechanisms.
Recommended nuclear R&D funding (FY 2021–FY 2030)
In this simplified graph of recommended funding, programs have been stacked in four categories—Fundamental R&D and Science, Enabling Science and Technology, Nuclear and Irradiation Facilities, and Demonstrations. Please refer to page 36 of this report for detailed graph of funding recommendations and for more details.
The recommended additional federal nuclear R&D investments are a small fraction of the total cost needed to address or mitigate climate change. In comparison to the costs of President Biden’s $1.7-trillion climate plan, for example, the requested additional nuclear R&D support of $10.3 billion over nine years is approximately 0.6 percent of the administration’s 10-year strategy.
The funding recommendations in this report reflect needs that the Task Force anticipates by 2030, from the vantage point of 2021. Increased federal nuclear R&D investment, coupled with the public and private research investment already underway, will yield advances in this decade. The Task Force members recognize that the future promises more than we can grasp now. Technologies that are still maturing, such as inline diagnostics and advanced manufacturing, may be used to support operational advances that we cannot foresee now. But we will learn, with time, just how our investments made today will pay off, while the world learns to recognize nuclear energy’s promise of clean and reliable energy.
The ANS Task Force offers its recommendations to the nuclear policymaking community as Congress and the Administration consider options for expanding U.S. zero-carbon generating capacity to meet long-term decarbonization goals and provide a secure energy future for all Americans.
Preparing the United States to deploy advanced nuclear technologies by 2030 will require a significant expansion in this decade of federal R&D investments coordinated by the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. Private investment in advanced nuclear technologies signals a level of market and technological readiness that can be accelerated by increased federal R&D support for America’s largest carbon-free energy resource—and also accelerate a successful and rapid decarbonization and electrification of the U.S. economy.
The ANS Task Force on Public Investment in Nuclear Research and Development recommends approximately $10.3 billion in additional discretionary spending over nine years, from Fiscal Year 2022 to FY 2030, when compared to FY 2021 levels. The Task Force also recommends, as a baseline, modest increases for existing programs which support essential research, development, and infrastructure.
The major funding increases proposed are focused on three key outcomes:
To effectively answer the national imperatives of clean energy, economic growth, and national security, the U.S. must be equipped to sustain a strong nuclear energy enterprise both domestically and internationally. This need constitutes a new imperative, a nuclear sustainability imperative. Without nuclear sustainability, progress on our national imperatives will be impeded and the U.S. will not maintain a leadership role in the international nuclear community.
Supplied with adequate appropriations, and with a nascent commitment to development programs measured by milestones, the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy is advised to implement a pipeline approach to managing nuclear R&D programs. An innovation pipeline will ensure that the U.S. gets full value for its investment as every concept is evaluated on its merits, yielding a steady output of technological advancements for decades to come.
Americans who are working hard every day to develop the technological solutions to global climate change are eager for increased nuclear R&D funding and a sustained commitment from the federal government. Now is the time to invest to secure America’s clean energy future.
Last modified February 24, 2021, 2:11pm CST