US Energy Act of 2020: Provisions for Fission and Fusion

Fusión nuclear

On Monday evening, Congress passed a $900B omnibus spending bill, which contains, most importantly, relief measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also various authorizations and appropriations for FY2021, including $1.5 billion for fission and fusion energy programs. Title II of the Energy Act of 2020 (located at “Division Z” of the spending bill) features a variety of programs to support U.S. innovation in fission and fusion, many of which are discussed below.

The bill currently awaits President Trump’s signature. Although President Trump has threatened a veto of the bill, there is a fair chance the provisions discussed below will have traction in Congress. They may survive into future legislation should this bill not make it through the veto process, and we wanted to make sure the community was aware of the current legislative considerations.

Below are some of the major provisions relevant to nuclear fission and fusion:

  • Fusion Energy Research (Sec. 2008):  The legislation provides a total authorization of $996M in FY2021 for the Department of Energy (DOE) to establish a research and technology development program aimed at building the scientific and engineering capabilities and knowledge necessary to build a cost-competitive fusion power plant and fusion industry in the United States.

Most notably perhaps, DOE is instructed to create a “milestone-based development program” that would award participants funding to support the R&D to enable the construction of new full-scale fusion systems “capable of demonstrating significant improvements” in performance within 10 years of the legislation’s enactment. Projects will be evaluated by their scientific, technical, and business merits through a peer-review process involving the private sector, investment community, and fusion experts. Authorizations for this program are a combined $325M for FY 2021-2025. The fusion industry has long sought a public-private partnership program to support the commercialization of new, high-performing fusion concepts.

The legislation also authorizes $50M in FY2021 to support R&D partnerships with universities, the National Labs, and others related to developing alternative and enabling fusion energy concepts, including:

    • Advanced stellarator concepts
    • Non-tokamak confinement configurations operating at low magnetic fields
    • Magnetized target fusion energy concepts
    • High magnetic field approaches facilitated by high-temperature superconductors
    • Liquid metals to address issues associated with fusion plasma interactions with the inner wall of the encasing device
    • Advanced blankets for heat management and fuel breeding
    • Advanced scientific computing activities

In addition, the bill reauthorizes the Innovation Network for Fusion Energy (INFUSE) program with $50M per year for FY2021-2025.  There is also support for R&D for the development of inertial fusion (e.g. ion beam, laser, and pulsed power fusion systems), with $25M allotted in FY2021 out of the total authorization.

ITER ReauthorizationThe legislation reaffirms U.S. participation in ITER to the tune of $374M in FY2021 and $281M for each of FY2022-25. Located in southern France, and a collaborative project among several countries, ITER is the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device, under construction. In addition to the United States, the other ITER Members are China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, and Russia.

  • Advanced Nuclear Reactor Technology (Sec. 2003): DOE is authorized to carry out a program of research, development, demonstration, and commercial application in support of advanced reactors, up to $55M for each of FY2021-25. The program prioritizes designs that are “proliferation-resistant” and “passively safe,” and designs that, compared to currently-operating reactors, are: (1) economically competitive, (2) have improved on metrics such as efficiency, cost, environmental impact, resilience, and safety, (3) use proliferation-resistant fuels and have reduced high-level waste per unit of output, and (4) use advanced instrumentation and monitoring systems.

Notably, Congress reauthorized DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), which provides for cost-sharing opportunities with industry, with an authorization of $405M for FY2021. DOE recently granted $20M in awards for ARDP’s ARC-20 program to propel advanced reactor designs, building on nearly $200M in funding support for advanced reactor demonstration projects earlier in the year. For information on previous ARDP project awards, please see our previous blog post.

Congress also authorized $60M per year for FY2021-2025 for DOE to develop a program to research advanced fuel cycles, including a variety of options for nuclear fuel storage, use, and disposal. In addition, the legislation authorized $125M for each of FY2021-2025 to create a program for advanced fuel research and commercial application on next-generation light water reactor and advanced reactor fuels.

  • Advanced Nuclear Fuel (Sec. 2001): Congress authorized $31.5M for FY2021 for the DOE to establish a program to support the availability of High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) for civilian research, development, demonstration, and commercial use.

This program includes developing criticality benchmark data to assist the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in licensing and regulation of special nuclear material (SNM) fuel fabrication and enrichment facilities under 10 CFR Part 70, and certification of transportation packages under 10 CFR Part 71. The Secretary of Energy will also conduct R&D and provide financial assurance to assist commercial entities in designing and licensing canisters and other packages for the transport of HALEU compositions.

The legislation also establishes a consortium of entities across the nuclear fuel cycle, which would partner with DOE to support the availability of HALEU by sharing information, making purchases of HALEU, and carrying out demonstration projects. DOE must also conduct biennial surveys of the industry regarding HALEU requirements.

Note, these programs discussed above had been authorized—but not appropriated—meaning they must rely on future appropriations from Congress to move forward.

The Energy Act of 2020 is an important piece of legislation for the U.S. fission and fusion industry that features federal aid and partnerships, across a range of technologies in different development stages—from fusion R&D to support for eventual demonstration and commercialization of facilities.

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