Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the US State Department, spoke on July 11 at the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) 2018 Summer Conference on nuclear technology transfer to China. PONI is a program hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies to further discussions on nuclear technology’s role throughout the world. Dr. Ford discussed how China’s explicit national policy of removing barriers between its civilian and military industries affects US export control policy for certain commercial nuclear technologies. This speech is important because, in our view, it publicly articulates the policy toward China that the US government has been implementing behind the scenes for some time.

The New York Times recently published an important article discussing the tightening supply and uncertain future of MO-99, a short-lived medical isotope widely used for medical diagnostics in the United States and worldwide. Currently, there are only six suppliers of MO-99 in the world, all of them government-owned nuclear research reactors located outside of the United States. As noted in the article, one US company—SHINE Medical Technologies—has plans to build a domestic supply chain in Wisconsin to ensure a reliable supply, shielded from potential interruptions that could readily impact a foreign-only supply chain. They have already received Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval in the form of a Construction Permit issued in 2016 to begin work on the facility. There was no material opposition to the NRC permit for SHINE, perhaps in recognition of the importance of nuclear medicine in our day-to-day health and well-being. A few other companies are also seeking to build MO-99 domestic production facilities. While nothing is ever easy in the nuclear world and we cannot predict who will get to the finish line first, it seems that the successful addition of a domestic supply of MO-99 is an important first step towards “health independence.” And much like the current focus on US energy independence, it seems equally worthy of national attention.

Read the article here.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff recently agreed with NuScale Power’s proposal for the NuScale small modular reactor to eliminate the use of Class 1E electrical systems as part of its reactor design certification process. Class 1E is a safety classification used at all currently-operating commercial nuclear power reactors for electrical equipment and systems that are essential to emergency reactor shutdown, containment isolation, reactor core cooling, and containment and reactor heat removal. The NRC staff’s first-of-a-kind approval recognizes the inherent passive safety features and designs of an advanced reactor, which should result in attendant benefits in the ease of procurement, construction, and operation of the relevant systems. Although the NRC staff’s approval is currently limited to the NuScale design, this approval is significant as it supports the important evolution of the NRC regulatory framework to account for the design, operation, and safety enhancements of both small modular reactor and advanced reactor designs. 

The US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has published a new funding opportunity for up to $20 million as part of its Modeling Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration (MEITNER) program. The objective of the funding is to foster development of new, innovative, and enabling technologies for existing advanced reactor designs in an effort to establish the basis for a modern, domestic supply chain supporting nuclear technology. The funding opportunity encourages collaboration across disciplines and the formation of diverse and experienced project teams to facilitate scientific and technological discoveries. The Concept Paper submission deadline is December 4, 2017, at 5:00 pm ET. Further information can be found here.

Russia recently suspended or terminated its nuclear agreements with the United States, further deteriorating diplomatic relations between the two countries. Russia’s actions place on hold or end certain collaboration efforts between the two nations on peaceful uses of nuclear technologies. However, these actions do not suspend or terminate the umbrella US-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement (123 Agreement) that both countries entered into under Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act. Accordingly, the US government has a legal basis to authorize nuclear exports to Russia, and vice versa. Political forces, however, make those exports uncertain.

First, on October 3, 2016, Russia rejected the Obama administration’s alternative proposal for the disposition in both the United States and Russia of 34 metric tons each of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. This agreement, which originated in 2000 and was revised in 2010, is known as the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement. The United States intended to fabricate the mixed-oxide fuel in a facility under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. However, because of increasing cost estimates for that facility and other strategic reasons, US President Barack Obama proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin an alternative “dilution and disposal” path for US plutonium. On October 3, President Putin rejected the alternative and suspended the agreement, stating that he would consider reinstating it if the United States agreed to several conditions, such as reducing military presence in countries that border Russia and canceling financial sanctions against Russia.