Legal & Regulatory

The ADVANCE Act—Legislation Crucial for a U.S. Nuclear Renaissance—Clears Congress. Here's a Detailed Breakdown

The U.S. Senate has passed the Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act, sweeping legislation that seeks to promote U.S. nuclear leadership, accelerate advanced nuclear technology development while preserving existing nuclear generation, bolster national security measures, and enhance regulatory efficiency to support new nuclear deployment.

The Senate passed the bill on June 18 with a vote of 88–2 as part of the Fire Grants and Safety Act (S. 870). The measure passed the U.S. House in May by a vote of 393–13, and it now heads to the president’s desk, likely to be enacted.

The bipartisan nuclear bill’s enactment is a significant legislative endorsement of nuclear energy, marking the most comprehensive recognition of nuclear’s future role since the 2019-enacted Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA).

The bill’s passage in Congress, notably, follows a suite of new measures unveiled by the White House on May 30, aimed at slashing risks associated with new nuclear reactor development and construction. The White House highlighted recent efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE) to revive and revitalize existing nuclear plants, support advanced reactor demonstrations, and facilitate siting and financing. But it also acknowledged key risks and long-standing barriers that have hindered an expansion of the 70-year-old industry, shining a light on necessary licensing reforms, supply chain and workforce gaps, and high capital costs.

According to think tank the Breakthrough Institute, the ADVANCE bill’s most notable effort is perhaps to require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to update its mission statement so the regulatory body does not “unnecessarily limit” the use of nuclear energy or the benefits it could provide for society. The bill also gives the NRC more flexibility to hire staff to ready for a ramp-up in license applications, reduce fees for some applicants, and require more timely processing of applications, including for coal-to-nuclear repowers.

For decades, “the NRC has tried to regulate to make risk from nuclear energy as close to zero as possible, but has failed to consider the cost to the environment, public health, energy security, or prosperity of not building and operating nuclear energy plants,” said Ted Nordhaus, founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute. “This reduces rather than improves public health and safety.” No other regulator in the U.S. takes a similar approach, he noted. “But with passage of the ADVANCE bill, Congress is telling the regulators that public benefits are and have always been part of their mission.”

A Closer Look at the Sweeping Legislation

The ADVANCE Act (full text), however, tackles several other notable aspects, including measures to re-establish U.S. global leadership and competitiveness in the sector, which is enjoying an international renaissance, with climate change and national security as key priorities. 

This bipartisan legislative package ensures the U.S. maintains its leadership on the global stage and helps meet our climate and national energy security goals,” noted Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the nuclear trade group the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). “The passage of the ADVANCE Act allows us to bolster U.S. international competitiveness at this crucial junction, accelerate the domestic deployments of innovative advanced nuclear technologies, and modernize the oversight and licensing of the operating fleet of reactors.”

The following is a brief summary of each of the ADVANCE Act’s provisions. 

American Nuclear Leadership

The bill seeks to enhance U.S. nuclear leadership and security through international and domestic measures.

A Definitive International Role for the NRC. It champions a role for the NRC in coordinating a slew of international collaborative measures, including coordinating work relating to the import and export of nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel materials with Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) members.  The NRC will engage with these countries and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency to develop international technical standards for nuclear reactor design, construction, and operation. The bill also promotes U.S. support for foreign nuclear programs, including helping countries build competent nuclear regulatory bodies and legal frameworks as well as training programs. The bill allows the NRC to establish a dedicated international branch, ‘‘International Nuclear Export and Innovation Branch,” to carry out these international nuclear export and innovation activities, and it ensures they are funded separately from domestic regulatory activities.

A Comprehensive Global Study. In another important clause, the bill requires the Energy Secretary, within one year of its enactment, to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the global status of the civilian nuclear energy industry and its supply chains. The study will include an evaluation of long-term risks to the industry, how the nuclear industry can reduce climate emissions compared to other energy subsectors, and the U.S. nuclear sector’s role in U.S. foreign policy. Specifically, it will require “information on utilities and companies” involved in nuclear, and it will look into those companies’ financial challenges, nuclear liability issues, foreign strategic competition, and risks to continued operation. In addition, the study will look at how other countries use nuclear energy when crafting their own foreign policy, “including such use by foreign countries that are strategic competitors.”

Protective Measures Now Include China. Meanwhile, adding to Congress’s recent ban—by unanimous consent—on imports of unirradiated low-enriched uranium (LEU) produced in Russia, the ADVANCE Act expands the definition of “covered fuel” to include fuel assemblies fabricated by Chinese state-owned entities. It also forbids U.S. entities from possessing or owning “covered fuel” without a specific NRC license. Getting that license will require prior consultation with the Energy or State secretaries, with an approval timeframe of 180 days. The NRC must also notify Congress if it issues export licenses for unirradiated nuclear fuel, reactors using such fuel, and specific components related to reprocessing and separation of plutonium and uranium-233 to countries without comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreements. The DOE and State Department are expected to identify factors for determining a country’s eligibility for general nuclear export authorizations within 90 days of the bill’s enactment.

Foreign Ownership to Preserve Existing Nuclear Energy Generation. The ADVANCE Act, however, appears to make a sizable change to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which contains prohibitions on issuing licenses for nuclear facilities to certain foreign entities. The prohibition—known as the “Foreign Ownership, Control, or Domination (FOCD)” clause—has historically barred the NRC, “in any event” from issuing licenses to any alien, corporation, or entity if the NRC knows or has reason to believe it is “owned, controlled or dominated” by an alien, a foreign corporation, or a foreign government. The bill makes concessions. As long as this does not threaten national security or public safety, it allows the NRC to issue licenses to foreign entities “owned, controlled, or dominated” by a government of a country that is a member of the OECD or the Republic of India and not under specific U.S. sanctions. The concessions also apply to corporations headquartered in those countries or aliens who are nationals of those countries.

Developing and Deploying New Nuclear Technologies

NEIMA Fee Amendments. Under this section, the bill sets out to amend NEIMA to revise the fee structure for advanced nuclear reactor application reviews by the NRC. Specifically, it caps fees at the hourly rate for mission-direct program salaries and benefits. Changes will be effective in October 2025 with a sunset clause on Sept. 30, 2030.

Advanced Nuclear Reactor Prizes. As significantly, the bill will introduce “prizes” to incentivize the development and deployment of advanced nuclear technologies—and, prominently, to encourage “first-of-a-kind” licensing. The prizes will cover the total costs assessed by the NRC for obtaining an operating license (under Part 50) or a combined license (under Part 52), including related costs for construction permits or early site permits. It also exempts recipients from repayment or dividend obligations on the prize amounts, ensuring the awards serve as direct incentives without financial penalties. All “non-federal entities” and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will be eligible for the prizes. The bill specifies that the Secretary of Energy is authorized to make these awards “subject to the availability of appropriations,” meaning that the prizes will be funded through the federal budget as allocated by Congress.

The bill specifies different award categories:

  • The first advanced nuclear reactor to receive an NRC-issued operating license under Part 50 or a combined license under Part 52. Eligibility applies only to advanced nuclear reactors not approved by the NRC by the date of enactment.
  • The first reactor to use isotopes from spent nuclear fuel or depleted uranium and receive a license or NRC finding. ( A finding is a determination made by the NRC that all inspections, tests, analyses, and acceptance criteria [ITAAC] have been met).
  • The first reactor to use nuclear-integrated energy systems that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and maximize energy efficiency. This prize, like the others, will focus on the first system to receive a license or NRC finding. It will focus on systems “composed of two or more co-located or jointly operated subsystems of energy generation, energy storage, or other technologies.” The bill stipulates at least one of the subsystems needs to be a nuclear energy system.
  • The first reactor to demonstrate operating flexibility, specifically, that reactors can switch between generating electricity and producing high-temperature process heat for industrial applications. Again, the reactor will be the first to receive a license or NRC finding.
  • The first advanced nuclear reactor granted NRC approval to load nuclear fuel under the NRC’s technology-inclusive framework (presumably under Part 53, which is under development and could be completed by 2027).

Licensing for Nonelectric Applications. The bill requires the NRC to submit, within nine months, a report to Congressional committees addressing unique licensing issues or requirements related to advanced reactor flexible operation (ramping power output and switching between power and heat), advanced reactor nonelectric uses, and colocation with industrial facilities. Nonelectric uses the bill highlights include: the production of hydrogen or other fuels, desalination, heat production, district heating, in relation to energy storage, and isotope production.  The NRC must seek input from the DOE, the nuclear industry, technology developers, the industrial sector, and nongovernmental organizations, and it will look for ways to address these issues or requirements through Part 53 or a new rulemaking.

Preparing for Demonstrations on DOE or Critical Infrastructure Sites. To expedite the demonstration and deployment of advanced technologies at DOE sites and “critical national security” sites (such as as military bases and defense manufacturing plants), the bill adds new measures to NEIMA to provide funding for early site permit reviews and pre-application activities. The provision will take effect on October 2025.

For some important context, the U.S. States Army in May announced it was readying to release a request for information (ROI) to “deployment program” for advanced reactors to power “multiple” Army sites in the U.S. The measure follows efforts by the Air Force to pilot a microreactor at Eielson Air Force Base (AFB) in response to the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act by the end of 2027 through a power purchase agreement. The Defense Department is separately developing Project Pele, featuring a high-temperature gas reactor design from BWXT, which it plans to install no later than December 2027.

Fusion Energy Regulation. The bill also updates regulatory definitions and frameworks to adapt existing regulations so they accommodate and support fusion energy. It directs the NRC to report on risk- and performance-based licensing frameworks for mass-manufactured fusion machines while requiring that it evaluate the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification process as a model for fusion regulations.

Nuclear Facilities at Brownfield Sites. To streamline the licensing process, promote the reuse of existing infrastructure, and support the development of new nuclear facilities on previously used industrial sites, the NRC will be expected to evaluate and address regulatory issues for siting nuclear facilities at brownfield and retired fossil fuel sites. NRC should consider reusing existing infrastructure (such as electric switchyard components, transmission infrastructure, heat-sink components, steam cycle components, roads, railroad access, and water availability), using early site permits, utilizing standardized site parameters, and employing standardized applications for similar sites to streamline the licensing process for nuclear facilities at brownfield and retired fossil fuel sites. The NRC must submit a report to Congress within 14 months detailing any regulations, guidance, and policies identified that need modification.

The bill’s measure bolsters the executive branch’s push for coal-to-nuclear. The DOE recently released ainformation guide for communities considering replacing their retired or retiring coal power plants with nuclear power plants. In 2022, the DOE found a potential of 64.8 GWe could be backfit at 125 sites, and for operating plant sites evaluated, a potential of 198.5 GWe could be backfit at 190 sites.

Combined License Review Procedure. To accelerate the deployment of new nuclear reactors, the NRC will establish an expedited procedure for issuing combined licenses. This includes setting qualifications for applicants, such as referencing existing design certifications and meeting specific siting requirements. The NRC will adhere to timelines for completing technical reviews, environmental assessments, and public hearings, ensuring accountability by informing Congress of any delays and providing plans for completion. The NRC is required to complete the technical review process and issue a safety evaluation report within 18 months of application docketing. Environmental assessments and public hearings must be completed within two years, and a final decision on the combined license must be made within 25 months. In addition, the NRC will inform Congress of any delays and other plans for completion.

Regulatory Requirements for Microreactors. Finally, the NRC will develop and implement risk-informed and performance-based licensing strategies for microreactors within 18 months. In addition, the NRC, along with the DOE and other stakeholders, will consider the unique characteristics of microreactors, such as physical size, design simplicity, and source term. It will also assess various regulatory aspects, including staffing and operations, oversight and inspections, safeguards and security, emergency preparedness, risk analysis methods, decommissioning funding assurance methods, and transportation of fueled microreactors. Licensing strategies will examine population density criteria, mobile deployment licensing, and environmental reviews. The bill sets a three-year timeframe for the implementation of the strategies and guidance through existing regulatory frameworks or new rulemaking (under Part 53).

Pushing Forward on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Supply Chain, and Workforce

Development, Qualification, and Licensing of Advanced Nuclear Fuel Concepts. To enhance the qualification and licensing of advanced nuclear fuel, the NRC will establish an initiative focusing on agency coordination with the DOE. The federal commission and the federal agency will within 180 days of the bill’s enactment develop a memorandum of understanding to share technical expertise, enable testing and demonstration, and ensure technical staff access to facilities. The measure will also leverage modeling and simulation capabilities. A report detailing these efforts, including assessments and planned activities, will be submitted to Congress within two years, with input from the DOE, the national labs, industry, and other stakeholders.

A Biennial Report on Spent Nuclear Fuel. In a small step forward for nuclear waste management, the bill requires the DOE to report to Congress on the status of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level radioactive waste starting on Jan. 1, 2026, and biennially thereafter. The report is expected to detail payments made due to contract breaches under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, cumulative and projected lifecycle costs for storage and disposal, mechanisms for better accounting of liabilities, and recent actions taken regarding interim storage and technology developments for safe transportation and storage. Congressional action on the measure is notable given its long-standing impasse on SNF management.

According to the NEI, the inventory of SNF has now grown to more than 86,000 metric tons while the taxpayer liability for government inaction continues to increase. Taxpayers “are assessed between $400 million and $800 million annually (approximately $1 to $2 million per day) because of the federal government’s failure to meet its obligation to dispose of used fuel that currently resides at nuclear plants across the country,” it says.

Report on Advanced Manufacturing and Construction Methods. To support innovation in nuclear energy projects, the bill directs the NRC to submit a report on advanced manufacturing and construction methods within 180 days of enactment. That report is expected to be a collaborative effort, crafted with input from diverse stakeholders, including the DOE, the nuclear industry, and the national labs. The report will address unique licensing issues, safety aspects, and opportunities for standard materials and parts in nuclear projects. It will provide options within the existing regulatory framework or propose new rulemaking and detail cost estimates, budgets, and timeframes for implementing risk-informed and performance-based regulatory guidance.

Nuclear Energy Traineeship. In addition, the NRC will establish a nuclear energy traineeship subprogram in coordination with institutions of higher education and trade schools. The program aims to provide focused training for the nuclear tradecraft workforce, prioritizing nuclear workforce needs and mission-critical areas of the NRC.

A Significant NRC Overhaul

A Critical Mission Update. As discussed above, the NRC will revise its mission statement within one year of enactment to include that “licensing and regulation of the civilian use of radioactive materials and nuclear energy be conducted in a manner that is efficient and does not unnecessarily limit—(1) the civilian use of radioactive materials and deployment of nuclear energy; or (2) the benefits of civilian use of radioactive materials and nuclear energy technology to society.”

However, the bill also includes new provisions that could strengthen the commission’s workforce as it prepares for a deluge of new applications. The bill allows for the direct hiring of exceptionally well-qualified individuals for critical positions. This includes a maximum of 210 direct hires at any time and 20 term-limited positions annually, with compensation capped at Executive Schedule level III. In addition, the NRC will submit a report within three years of enactment detailing progress on meeting budget authority caps for corporate support. The corporate support costs will be capped at 30% starting from fiscal year 2025.

Nuclear Licensing Efficiency. To ensure its efficiency, the NRC will update its performance metrics and milestone schedules for licensing and regulatory activities every three years. Meanwhile, the bill directs it to also work to enhance its its licensing process by establishing techniques and guidance for evaluating applications for nuclear reactor licenses. This includes periodic assessments and modifications of these techniques to ensure timely and predictable reviews. The NRC will also streamline the use of information from existing licensed sites for new applications to expedite the licensing process.

Finally, within 180 days of enactment, the NRC will report to Congress on efforts to streamline environmental reviews for nuclear reactor applications. This includes expanded use of categorical exclusions, environmental assessments, and generic environmental impact statements. The bill requires the NRC to consider various measures to avoid duplicative reviews, use prior analyses, and coordinate with other agencies, aiming to provide efficient and predictable environmental reviews.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

SHARE this article