An Introduction to the Advanced Nuclear Industry
Exciting News! There’s now a film about advanced nuclear entrepreneurs and their mission to save the planet! It is called The New Fire, and it was made by Emmy-winning director David Schumacher about a generation of young nuclear engineers and scientists — concerned about climate change — who are working to design and develop the ideal energy source for the 21st century. There are private screenings for the film being scheduled across the country.
Background on the Industry: Nuclear energy development first began in the late 1940s and 1950s, with the U.S. National Labs developing a range of differing reactor designs that could generate continuous power through atomic fission. By the 1960s, after the successful development and deployment of the pressurized light water reactor (PWR) in nuclear submarines by Admiral Rickover, the Atomic Energy Commission made a fateful decision to abandon other designs and just focus on PWR development. Thus, the PWR was what became the standard for commercial energy, even though this was a type of reactor optimized for use below the surface of the sea.
These historic decisions may have set back development of alternative reactor designs but now the broader array of reactor types, fuels and coolants that were initially explored back in the 1950s and 1960s are being reassessed. Many countries and companies, a sizeable portion of which have been emerging recently as a result of climate concerns by young nuclear engineering Ph.D’s. These brilliant young people are founding start-ups to seek solutions for climate change, and have been evaluating alternative technologies that provide energy optimized for terrestrial power generation. In 2015, the think tank Third Way, found that there were “nearly 50 companies, backed by more than $1.3 billion in private capital, developing plans for updated reactor designs in the U.S. and Canada.”
News about Advanced Nuclear
By Jacqueline Toth, October 17, 2019.
Oklo, the miniature nuclear reactor developer, claims they have successfully fabricated the prototypes of metallic fuel. The company became the first advanced fission company to begin paid pre-application talks with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They approached the NRC with the intent of using U-10wt.%Zr fuel for their first reactor and, with the work of the Energy Department’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program, the successful testing of this fuel is a huge leap for the company and the nuclear community as a whole. Jacob DeWitte, CEO of Oklo, said that the successful experimentation is “one of the bigger steps on the pathway for us moving towards ultimately submitting a license application and trying our first reactor on.” Oklo is aiming to submit its construction and license operation application for the construction of their first reactor within the next six months.
By Sonal Patel, November 1, 2018.
As the hubbub of interest and activity surrounds development of small modular reactors (SMRs) hovering between 60 MW and 300 MW, and medium-sized nuclear reactors of under 700 MW, several nuclear technology vendors have quietly been developing micro-reactors—which are of 10 MW or less. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), it’s highly possible that a first-of-its-kind micro-reactor could be successfully deployed at a domestic U.S. defense installation by the end of 2027. Since the 1950s, when nuclear power generation became established, the size of reactor units has evolved from 60 MW to more than 1,600 MW. But interest in smaller power reactors has also grown in recent decades, due partly to high capital costs associated with large power reactors and the need to serve smaller grids. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), only three small reactors currently operate around the world today: a 300-MW CNP-300 in Pakistan; a 220-MW PHWR-220 in India; and an 11-MW EGP-6 at the Bilibino cogeneration plant in Siberia. Among small reactor designs under construction are the 35-MW KLT-40S and 50-MW RITM-200 in Russia; the 27-MW CAREM-25 in Argentina; and two 250-MW HTR-PM units and the 60-MW ACPR50S in China. Development is well-advanced for 10 other reactor designs, including NuScale’s 60-MW SMR, Holtec’s 160-MW SMR-160, and Terrestrial Energy’s 192-MW molten salt reactor. Despite the simplicity of their designs, however, commercialization of SMRs has been slow, mainly due to licensing challenges, noted the WNA. “Design certification, construction and operation [license] costs are not necessarily less than for large reactors, placing a major burden on developers and proponents,” it said.
An article by Tyler Orton in BIV, annouced that Burnaby-based General Fusion, an advanced nuclear clean-energy pioneer was being considered for a sizeable government investment to create hundreds of new jobs. The Canadian government announced October 26 it’s investing $49.3 million in General Fusion through the federally-funded Strategic Innovation Fund, with the intent that the money will help create 400 new jobs, according to representatives in Ottawa. General Fusion was established in 2002 by CEO Christofer Mowry with the mandate of harnessing fusion power — a process by which atoms release energy when merged together and lose mass. Last December, General Fusion unveiled what it described as the world’s largest plasma injector, the P13, as it’s called, which is ten times more powerful than all the other iterations the company has experimented with in the past. Unlike fission power, which uses highly radioactive uranium and produces long-lived radioactive waste, the radioactive residuals of fusion power would be short-lived, and there is no risk of runaway meltdowns.
According to Chris Charles, writing at NEI on October 4, 2018, small advanced nuclear designs, being called “Micro-reactors,” are one class of a range of innovative technologies which offers capabilities with special promise and interest to the nation’s largest energy user—the United States military. Micro-reactors are just one type of more than 70 advanced nuclear reactor design projects already in various stages of development in the United States, and the U.S. is not even alone.
The Pentagon has been interested in small nuclear reactors for nearly a decade, as robust and reliable power sources for military installations within the territorial United States and overseas. The very small “micro-reactor” designs now emerging from companies like General Atomics, NuScale Power LLC, Oklo Inc., Westinghouse Electric Co. and X-energy LLC are particularly well aligned with DOD’s needs for energy security and resilience.
According to an August 9, 2018 announcement from the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Southern Company, a leading energy company in the United States, is partnering with TerraPower to develop a molten chloride fast reactor (MCFR) that uses liquid salts as both a coolant and fuel.
The U.S. Department of Energy already invested more than $28 million in cost-shared funds for the project to further identify and test materials used in the reactor.
Southern Company and TerraPower are in the early stages of the design phase. They are working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University and the Electric Power Research Institute to assess the viability of a MCFR as a commercial reactor. They expect to begin testing in a $20 million test loop facility starting in 2019. The team is also scaling up their salt manufacturing process for testing in the loop. Data generated from the test loop will be used to validate thermal hydraulics and safety analysis codes for licensing of the reactor.
L.A. Times, The future of nuclear power? Think small, by Keith Schneider, February 1, 2018.
“In January, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that the design of the NuScale reactor — which relies on air circulation for cooling — is so safe that it does not need the expensive emergency pumps and backup electrical systems required of big conventional reactors. The decision brings NuScale closer than any company in decades to gaining a license to operate an entirely new reactor design in the U.S. for commercial use.
“The NuScale reactor has crossed a very important safety threshold,” said Todd Allen, professor of nuclear engineering at University of Wisconsin. “It’s an inflection point for advanced reactor designs. The question we can’t answer yet is, will they make it work in the market?”
Reyes and his backers are gambling that nuclear power will play a big role in energy markets in coming decades as safer, smaller and easier-to-operate reactors replace big conventional ones. With more than $700 million in government and private investment, Reyes’ company already has a customer: A consortium of municipal utilities in six Western states hopes to string 12 of the reactors together in Idaho to create a 600-megawatt power plant for the bargain price — compared with other nuclear facilities — of $2.85 billion.” (Click here to read The future of nuclear power? Think small at the LA Times.)
October 20, 2017: ARPA-E Provides up to $20 Million in Funding for Technologies to Enable Lower Cost, Safer Advanced Nuclear Plant Designs
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced up to $20 million in funding for projects as part of a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program: Modeling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration (MEITNER). MEITNER projects seek to identify and develop innovative technologies that can enable designs for lower cost, safer, advanced nuclear reactors. The ARPA-E team developed this funding opportunity in close coordination with DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. (Read the full press release here.)