Despite a globe-wide shut down of economic and social activities in 2020, resulting in a plunge in greenhouse gasses of more than 10%, the year still tied for the warmest on record, further contributing to an ever-escalating temperature that has risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius over the past 120 plus years.
The need for a clean energy revolution across the technology spectrum is clear. And year-end actions in Canada and by the U.S. Congress responded to this challenge and provided important momentum to next-generation nuclear reactors and their contribution to global clean energy objectives.
The more dramatic of the developments came from the Congress in the form of the first major energy legislation that has been signed into law over a decade. It includes a number of clean energy components including actions on energy efficiency, renewable energy and storage, and nuclear energy.
The nuclear power provisions have a clear focus on the need to advance next-generation nuclear technologies. A significant focus of the legislation is the establishment of a program to support the availability of High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HA-LEU), which is a fuel on which many future reactors will depend but which is not widely available.
The legislation also updated the definition of advanced reactors, authorized the Department of Energy to move forward with the advanced reactor demonstration program, and provided funding for the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR). The VTR is a new research reactor that is designed to support the irradiation testing of advanced reactor components.
There also was support for international collaboration on research, development, and demonstration, and the commercial application of nuclear technology. The goal is to support diplomatic, financing, nonproliferation, climate, and international economic objectives. It further endorsed the development of coordinated action plans.
Usefully, the legislation is peppered with commitments to nonproliferation and nuclear security.
For example, consultation with nonproliferation and nuclear security experts and officials is required for a HA-LEU report to be submitted by the Secretary of Energy to the Congress. The advanced reactor demonstration effort is instructed to prioritize designs that are “proliferation resistant” and to consult with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to integrate safeguards and security into the reactor designs. And fuel cycle research, including on fuel recycling, must be done in consultation with NNSA to integrate safeguards and security by design. These are sound requirements that are designed to build confidence in the security and value of American advanced nuclear technologies and support strong international standards.
The Canadian government also took significant action to advance small modular reactors (SMRs) before the close of last year. It’s new SMR Action Plan builds on the 2018 SMR Roadmap and responds to, and expands, the 53 recommendations made in that report.
Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources was clear that the country is committed to nuclear power as a core element of its dedication to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. He noted that SMRs would help “phase out coal and electrify carbon-intensive industries such as mining and petroleum extraction.” This technology also can contribute to the replacement of diesel fuel in remote locations and assist in expanding “safe nuclear technologies…around the world.”
The Canadian approach to next-generation nuclear power has been very inclusive and coordinated. The Action Plan engaged over 100 diverse stakeholder organizations in the process. This included representation from: government agencies; provinces, territories, and municipalities; Indigenous peoples; power utilities; civil society, academic, and research institution; industries and their associations; reactor vendors; and engineering, procurement, and construction companies. Each of these organizations contributed their perspectives on the value of SMRs and how to effectively move the process forward in Canada.
The actions of Canada and the U.S. at the end of 2020 make clear that there is real political momentum behind the next generation of nuclear power. The climbing global temperature won’t allow any zero-carbon technology to sit on the sidelines.
The new U.S. energy bill, incoming administration, and bilateral commitment to advanced reactor technology offer an opportunity for greater cooperation across the border. Canada has done an exemplary job of organizing its next-gen nuclear stakeholders into a coordinated coalition and the U.S. needs to learn how to tackle that objective. The U.S. energy legislation makes clear the need for intensive attention to nuclear nonproliferation and security in next-generation reactors and fuel cycle. These are issues on which the governments, industries, and civil society experts of both nations can collaborate on policy development.
The U.S. and Canada have traced their own national trajectories on next-generation nuclear power so far, but those arcs are now at the point of intersection. There will always be national prerogatives and commercial competition. And, while next-generation technology on an upward track, the policy development is lagging. There is a lot of work to be done in developing new nuclear guardrails. It is an opportunity for collaboration and the creation of standards that should be seized by both nations.
Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security