DOE Leans into Private Sector Nuclear Innovation

By Josh Freed

INL’s Research and Education Campus (Idaho National Laboratory)

The Department of Energy (DOE) sent a clear signal in its approach to advanced nuclear with the recent announcement of Rita Baranwal as the new director for the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program. Most recently Baranwal was Director of Technology Development at Westinghouse, a manufacturing giant with a strong nuclear energy business. The hiring of Baranwal is important because it adds needed private sector experience to GAIN’s mission of moving advanced nuclear toward commercialization in extremely competitive energy markets at home and abroad.

As a leader on the forefront of nuclear innovation, Baranwal is exceptionally well suited to take on this role. The GAIN initiative, which was announced at a White House Summit in November 2015, was created to provide support for the nearly 50 advanced nuclear startups that have been established across the U.S. Less than a year since its inception, GAIN has already made strides towards commercializing advanced nuclear reactors. Just like companies in any other fledgling sector, America’s advanced reactor startups are racing to show progress, raise capital, and beat global competitors to market, all while operating in a necessarily strict regulatory and research structure. Few people understand the unique environment advanced nuclear startups are operating in better than Baranwal.

The new GAIN director will be taking over a program that has already made real strides in the brief time it has been in operation. Recent accomplishments include:

  • Granting funding for two reactor design teams, X-energy and Southern Company/TerraPower, with a multi-year cost share of up to $80 million for both companies, as part of the Advanced Reactor Funding Opportunity Announcement. Notably, DOE received seven times as many applications as it had the resources to support.
  • Awarding eight Small Business Voucher awards that provide national laboratory support to advanced reactor developers. Like the large reactor funding awards, the demand far outstripped the available funding — 29 separate voucher requests were submitted, over three times as many as could be funded. In addition to companies pursuing complete reactor designs, some of these vouchers went to small companies who are part of the growing advanced nuclear supply chain.
  • Funding from DOE for eight advanced nuclear companies as part of the 54 grants it made for the $16 Million “Projects to Help Commercialize Promising Energy Technologies.” The eight nuclear projects will collaborate with important GAIN partners at Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
  • GAIN is also supporting the inaugural Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp at University of California, Berkeley. This competitive educational program is aimed at helping young innovators develop nuclear-specific entrepreneurial skills. Additionally, the bootcamp includes opportunities for nontechnical students with backgrounds in the arts, communications, policy, and international affairs to participate as well, opening the doors to groups who traditionally have not been a part of the workforce pipeline, but are now understood as having valuable expertise for the future of nuclear.

GAIN was initially defined as a means to provide access to specialized facilities held at the national laboratories. However, the DOE programs are using it as an opportunity to build a modern philosophy for their stewardship of federal research dollars, focusing on private sector commercialization of advanced nuclear technologies. As it moves forward, we hope that, under Baranwal’s leadership, GAIN makes it more affordable for companies to access the national labs. This can be done through the expansion of the voucher program, streamlining DOE contracting mechanisms, and encouraging the U.S. nuclear energy community to focus on taking technology all the way from concept to commercialization.

There is private sector demand for the services and funding GAIN provides. The key next step for GAIN is to continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of advanced nuclear companies that are rapidly maturing as their technologies move toward commercialization. Baranwal is the right leader to oversee GAIN as its ambition and demand for its services grow.

Josh Freed is the Vice President for the Clean Energy Program at Third Way. Josh and his team develop policies to achieve deep decarbonization and believe that nuclear energy and advanced nuclear developments are critical components of a climate solution. Read their rundown on the advanced nuclear resurgence happening in the United States right now.

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