The Benefits of GAIN
When it comes to innovation in nuclear energy, the US is a hotbed of activity. That said, new nuclear technologies aren’t moving fast enough toward commercialization—not when you consider the urgent need for more carbon-free energy to fight climate change, or the fierce competition for lucrative nuclear markets from China and Russia. The Department of Energy (DOE) has expertise, facilities, and data that could help private companies and universities move their projects into the market faster, and make them more competitive. But taking advantage of these world-class resources isn’t as easy as you might think.
That’s why, in 2015, DOE launched a new initiative called the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN). GAIN was designed to provide the nuclear energy community with greater access to technical, financial, and regulatory resources that can speed up commercialization of new reactor designs and other technologies that can improve the performance of today’s nuclear plants.
Having engaged with 112 organizations since 2016, GAIN is providing a significant boost to America’s nuclear innovators. This paper offers a brief explanation of what GAIN is doing, how it’s helping, and what more could be done to build on the success of this high-performing initiative.
What is GAIN, exactly?
GAIN is a public-private partnership framework dedicated to the quick and cost-effective deployment of innovative nuclear energy technologies. Basically, GAIN integrates and facilitates efforts by private industry and government research institutions to test, develop, and demonstrate nuclear technologies in order to accelerate licensing and commercialization. It’s not a formal program, like Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies (NEET) or the Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP). Think of it more like a tool that the Office of Nuclear Energy uses to organize resources across several programs in order to establish partnerships between private sector developers and the National Labs. Essentially, GAIN helps to fill in some of the gaps in the innovation cycle and connect developers to available resources. It also helps reduce uncertainty about the commercial potential of technologies by providing the resources to evaluate the technical qualities and economic potential of innovative nuclear technologies.1
GAIN is managed by a small team at Idaho National Lab, Argonne National Lab, and Oak Ridge National Lab. GAIN’s director, a position currently held by Rita Baranwal, is supported by a deputy director, coordinator, technical interface, and senior advisor. GAIN’s lean leadership structure, in contrast to the vast network of private companies and stakeholders it engages with, highlights the effectiveness of this initiative.
How GAIN helps
The DOE complex is flush with technologies, tools, and staff expertise that could help get new nuclear technologies out into the market sooner. DOE facilities maintain experimental capabilities, computational capabilities, and state-of-the-art modeling and simulation tools. There are also resources related to program management, economic analysis, technology road mapping, seismic analysis, and regulatory planning. Additionally, there is data on land use and site information that could make it easier to build a demonstration facility. DOE also has hundreds of scientists and engineers who have operated in the complex for years, and have a deep understanding of the resources, data, technologies, and capabilities available. However, for a number of reasons, private sector technology developers have had trouble accessing these resources. GAIN is stepping in with a variety of solutions to fix this problem.
With so many unique resources spread across the DOE complex, developers could easily become overwhelmed. It’s not like there’s one comprehensive catalogue that keeps track of the countless opportunities available across all national labs and other DOE facilities. For instance, there are specialized X-ray technologies and systems located at Brookhaven National Lab in New York.2 Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) manages the design information, operating experience, and safety data from the decommissioned Fast Flux Test Facility – a sodium-cooled fast reactor that operated adjacent to PNNL for ten years – to support industry and DOE Office of Nuclear Energy in resolving core and plant performance questions for new reactor concepts. The lab also focuses heavily on advanced nuclear materials and fuels R&D.3 Many of the foundational data and technical systems to support new and established nuclear reactor concepts, as well as capabilities like TRANSFORM, a unique system analysis code implemented with a simulation framework, can be found at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee.4 And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Overwhelmed yet?
This is where GAIN really comes into play. One of the major achievements of the GAIN initiative is that it offers developers single point access to the DOE complex, which ensures that developers have clear guidance on how to move methodically through the complex and find the expertise and resources that best fit their specific needs.
Unfortunately, even if private sector developers figure out which National Lab resources would be the most useful in propelling them toward commercialization, many can’t afford to use them. That’s because the facilities needed to conduct the necessary R&D activities are expensive to operate and maintain, and there are the technical experts, scientists, and engineers who have to be compensated for their time and dedication. Users of National Lab resources and facilities pay fees to cover some of these expenses. Many developers, especially smaller firms and startups, simply don’t have the budget for this.
GAIN is such a success partly because the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy is able to routinely announce funding opportunities that developers can use to help pay for access to the National Labs. Specifically, the Office of Nuclear Energy voucher system is a competitive funding award system meant to help cover the National Labs’ cost of engagement with developers, with particular consideration to small businesses. The vouchers essentially serve as coupons that these companies can present to specific National Labs to reduce the cost of access. The voucher system is meant to help balance the financial cost of private sector RD&D between the National Labs and the developers. It also benefits companies in less obvious ways, such as establishing a technical relationship between developers and laboratory staff. Between 2016 and 2018, 34 vouchers worth about $11 million were awarded to 26 different companies. Voucher recipients have used the vouchers to test advanced materials, analyze innovative fuels, assess fuel cycles, and prepare for NRC licensing requirements.
But those aren’t the only developers that benefit from GAIN. The GAIN framework is also meant to ensure regular and impactful engagement and collaboration opportunities among GAIN participants and industry stakeholders. In July 2016, GAIN held three workshops to determine the needs of advanced nuclear reactor developers. With support from GAIN, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the developers formed three Technology Working Groups (TWGs) focused on Fast Reactors, Molten Salt Reactors, and High Temperature Gas Reactors. Each year, GAIN holds various workshops to determine the needs of the advanced reactor developers and update them on the capabilities of the National Labs. In addition, each TWG has a National Technical Director, who provides expert guidance to members, directs research priorities in that specific field, and serves as a bridge between the National Labs and industry stakeholders. By getting a better handle on the challenges and needs of industry, GAIN is helping DOE better plan out its research objectives and award funding.
The GAIN initiative has an open communication channel with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), so participants have easier access to regulatory assistance. There is a designated DOE GAIN official who is responsible for talking with developers about the regulatory process, and a NRC point of contact is available if the DOE GAIN point person is unable to answer specific questions or concerns.5
What More Could Be Done?
Funding for More Opportunities
Although GAIN has been a highly successful initiative, there are still opportunities to improve. One issue that has come up is the need for more funding for awards, since the voucher system has consistently received significantly more proposals than could be awarded funds. Greater funding for the Office of Nuclear Energy will help ensure that innovative nuclear technologies continue to have access to the DOE complex through GAIN. There are other award opportunities that may help developers, such as the Technology Commercialization Fund, which is available to a wide array of DOE offices, ARPA-E funding, and the Small Business Innovation Research funds managed by the Small Business Administration.
Going Beyond Technical Expertise
Additionally, industry stakeholders have requested that GAIN focus on providing developers with access to social science skills and expertise (particularly related to business and economic models, best practices, and design studies), as well as tools to facilitate engagement with academia and local communities. Essentially, many stakeholders asked for help getting exposure to skills that complement their technical expertise. And GAIN has been quick to respond. GAIN leadership made it a mission for FY2019 to employ advanced reactor economics expertise to support data gathering and analytics efforts for advanced reactor developers.
Adding a Focus on Security
A complex issue being discussed by industry stakeholders is the safety and security features of US nuclear reactors, and how these details may affect their international competitiveness. In countries like Russia and China, international safeguards rules require developers to incorporate safeguards and security features both in domestic builds and when exported internationally. That’s not the case in the United States, where domestic reactors are not subject to international safeguards standards, but ultimately will be in the countries where the reactors are exported. This is why safeguards and security are sometimes treated as an afterthought, with US developers modifying their technologies later in the export process, which can run up overall costs. So the request for GAIN leadership becomes, can advanced reactor developers use GAIN to access the expertise of the National Nuclear Security Administration labs to help maximize security and reduce hurdles to export? This is a complex issue US federal agencies and industry stakeholders are actively working on to help guarantee US competitiveness in a dynamic international nuclear power sector. And GAIN will likely be a critical part of the solution.
What They’re Saying about GAIN…
“Strong engagement between federal agencies, the research community, and technology developers is vital to bring new nuclear technologies to market, and is a core mission of GAIN,” said former Under Secretary of Science and Energy, Lynn Orr.6
Argonne’s Nuclear Engineering Division Director Jordi Roglans-Ribas has stated, “The capabilities of the national laboratories are unique in the world, and we are happy to work with our sister laboratories to provide access to those capabilities through the efforts of GAIN.”7
“The Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) has been very beneficial in expanding access to the U.S. national laboratories for advanced reactor companies.” Nuclear Energy Institute President Maria Korsnick8
“PNNL [Pacific Northwest National Laboratory] has provided insights and guidance from a reservoir of experience and expertise within both the DOE and NRC and has assisted CBCG in awareness of the many activities within various government sources that would not be visible to CBCG due to the high financial investment requirements of such a knowledge network.” Columbia Basin Consulting Group (CBCG) feedback on the 2016 GAIN & Office of Nuclear Energy voucher process9
Simon Irish, CEO of Terrestrial Energy USA Ltd, says “we would like to join with other recipients of GAIN awards to thank the DOE for the formation of the GAIN program and for its strategic support for advanced nuclear technologies.”10