Up & Atom

The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) submitted its annual report on Transfers of Civil Nuclear Technology to Congress for fiscal year (FY) 2019. The report fulfills the agency’s obligation under Section 3136(e) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 to submit an annual report covering its review of applications to transfer US civil nuclear technology to foreign persons.

Section 57b of the Atomic Energy Act governs the production or development of special nuclear material outside the United States. 10 CFR Part 810 implements Section 57b(2), and controls the export of unclassified nuclear technology and assistance. Part 810 also enables peaceful nuclear trade by helping to ensure that nuclear technologies transferred to foreign atomic energy activities within the United States and abroad will be used only for peaceful purposes. The Secretary of Energy has generally authorized certain exports of nuclear technology that are “non-inimical” to the interests of the United States, but requires the agency’s prior written approval in the form of specific authorizations for other exports.

FY 2019 Report

In FY 2019, NNSA received 36 applications for specific authorization. It closed out 48 applications for specific authorizations, including 24 approved by the Secretary, four applications denied by the Secretary, 15 applications withdrawn by the applicant, and five applications returned to the applicant without action. It also reviewed more than 600 reports on generally authorized activities and more than 75 reports on specifically authorized activities. The Secretary did not delegate approval of any applications in FY 2019.

On average, the 24 authorizations that the Secretary approved took nine months to review. This represents a slight increase in review time from FY 2018 (average of eight months) because of the approval of applications for transfers to China that were on hold before the release of the US Policy Framework on Civil Nuclear Cooperation in October 2018. Excluding these applications, average review time was approximately six months, which the report says demonstrates a more streamlined review process (a 50% reduction over the last few years).

What we cannot determine from the report, however, is what part of the reduction in average approval times is the result of agency-implemented efficiencies, or the result of an increase in deemed export applications vs. all others. A deemed export application is approved without the US government acquiring assurances from a foreign country. So, an increase in the ratio of deemed export applications could, by itself, significantly contribute to specific authorization approval metrics. We expect the agency-implemented efficiencies did contribute to a reduction in review times, but there would be more transparency to the report if additional metrics were included.

NNSA has been working to streamline the review process since the development of its 2013 Performance Improvement Plan, in which it committed to take all of the following actions:

  • Improve process and data management
  • Reform the interagency process
  • Reduce DOE/NNSA time in process
  • Improve assistance to exporters
  • Expand enforcement and compliance monitoring
  • Increase the use of risk-based decisionmaking

To fulfill these commitments, NNSA has, among other things, developed its online Part 810 portal to allow applicants to submit Part 810 applications electronically, adopted templates for key documents used in the review process, and updated the review process so that NNSA can review most applications in parallel with the US Department of State’s nonproliferation review.