Three ways the CHIPS Act will advance the nuclear energy industry — and it’s a good thing
The Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act of 2022 (the “CHIPS Act”), which contains myriad advanced nuclear energy technologies provisions, is a major positive step toward making nuclear part of our energy mix — a move we desperately need, and one that studies show U.S. citizens want.
Signed into law on Aug. 9, 2022, nuclear provisions in the CHIPS Act “promote higher education programs for nuclear science and engineering, invest in human capital for nuclear, provide funding for advanced nuclear activities, and allow for governmental and Native American Tribal entities, universities, and others involved in the nuclear supply chain to be eligible for the provided funding for such programs.”
The Commerce Department now faces the daunting task of distributing CHIPS Act funding in a way that quickly rebuilds U.S. technology supply chains and infuses new life into a nuclear industry that faltered in the wake of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
As a nuclear engineer, I am most heartened by three aspects of the nuclear provisions eligible for funding, three of the most promising levers for rebuilding the nuclear industry.
Investing in people
First, the investment in people and existing and new nuclear infrastructure in universities is of paramount importance. Having research reactors at universities and providing nuclear engineering students with experience is vital. There is only so much that can be learned in simulated environments; students must understand hands-on how reactors work to prepare them for researching and developing the processes, instruments, and systems used in full-fledged power reactors.
Another benefit: The nuclear industry currently has a very bifurcated age distribution, with some nuclear engineers who are in their 70s and 80s and others in their 20s and 30s. Bringing more skilled nuclear engineers along will build a cadre of people who can help implement nuclear energy to move the world away from fossil fuels.
It’s exciting that the government is recognizing the rising numbers of nuclear engineers in the U.S. and putting more resources into training a new generation.
Additional funding for the Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP) to expand the program’s scope and allot dollars for non-technical nuclear research will be a boon for advancing the industry. For example, universities could obtain funding for research into the legal and social science aspects of nuclear energy, such as looking at community engagement to answer questions like “How can we build nuclear reactors that communities want to have in their backyards?”
This will be especially crucial in communities retiring coal-based power plants and making the transition to clean energy sources such as nuclear.
Solving supply-chain roadblocks to advanced nuclear
Finally, some CHIPS funding will be used to help solve the supply-chain issues associated with getting advanced nuclear reactors to market. Some advanced reactors depend on exotic materials. Various molten salt reactors, for instance, rely on specific isotopes. Other reactors require radiation- and corrosion-resistant steels and new fuel forms. Building up the necessary supply chains will be crucial, not only for first-of-a-kind units, but also for scaling to dozens or even hundreds of them.
If we are to move away from fossil fuels — and we must — the advanced nuclear energy provisions in the CHIPS Act are a major positive step forward.
We need to move the needle for advanced nuclear technology going forward. With investment in university research reactors, infusion of funds into NEUP, and supply-chain fixes, the industry will make big strides to help speed the clean energy transition.
Dr. Leslie Dewan, CEO of RadiantNano, received her Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from MIT. Previously, she was CEO of Transatomic Power, a company that designed next-generation nuclear reactors. She has been awarded an MIT Presidential Fellowship and a Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship. She has served on MIT’s board of trustees. She has been named an MIT Technology Review “Innovator Under 35,” a National Geographic Explorer, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.