Energy Dept Plans Advanced Reactor Surge

The blue, red and green lines depict the generating capacity of the current U.S. nuclear power plant… [+] fleet under different scenarios for the maximum license period granted to these plants (i.e., blue: original expiration, red: the 20-year extension most have received, and green: 40-year extension). The purple line illustrates an approach to climate-change mitigation that doubles present capacity and launches advanced reactor technologies. (DOE image)
The Department of Energy quietly released a draft this month of a plan to double America's nuclear power capacity, not only with the small modular reactors championed by Secretaries Ernest Moniz and Steven Chu, but also with advanced reactors that do not rely on water for cooling.
DOE's "Draft Vision and Strategy for the Development and Deployment of Advanced Reactors" seems to have escaped media attention until now. It calls for two advanced reactor concepts to be licensed and ready for construction in the early 2030s as the first phase of a strategic deployment.
"Vision: By 2050, advanced reactors will provide a significant and growing component of the nuclear energy mix both domestically and globally," according to the document, "due to their advantages in terms of improved safety, cost, performance, sustainability, and reduced proliferation risks."
Not coincidentally, 2030 is when license extensions begin to expire for most of the nation's current reactors. The U.S. has vowed to reduce its carbon emissions 32 percent by 2030, and it could be more challenging to maintain those cuts without a nuclear fleet, which provides 60 percent of the nation's emissions-free electricity.
"I don’t think you can come up with a viable, clean electricity scenario without nuclear playing a role in that," said Tanju Sofu, manager of the Engineering Analysis Department at Argonne National Laboratory's Nuclear Engineering Division.
Some experts, like Berkeley Professor Daniel Kammen, believe the nation's needs can be met with a combination of renewable energy and storage. DOE also forsees a massive expansion of renewable energy, Sofu said Friday, as he briefed participants in a "Physics of Renewable Energy" seminar hosted by Argonne, Fermilab, the APS Forum on Physics & Society, and the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago. By 2050, he said, renewable electricity production will grow from 200 TWh to 2,200.
But DOE also wants to maintain the share of electricity now provided by nuclear plants and to double capacity as demand grows.
To do that, DOE envisions another extension of licenses for existing reactors, enough small modular reactors (SMRs) to produce 700 TWh of electricity by 2050, and an array of advanced reactor concepts.
"Advanced reactors, those are beyond SMRs, those are beyond light-water reactors," Sofu said. “Advanced reactors are not water-cooled reactors, except one, and they try to address issues associated with safety, sustainability, reliability, economics, and non-proliferation. That’s in order of how well they actually achieve those.”
The advanced reactor technologies favored by DOE include:
Sodium-Fast Reactors (SFRs)
High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactors (HTGRs)
Lead or Lead-Bismuth Cooled Fast Reactors (LFRs)
Gas-Cooled Fast Reactors (GFRs)
Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs)
Super-Critical Water Cooled Reactors (SCWRs)
Asked if thorium reactors were included in the MSR category, Sofu said, "They could be."
Most of those technologies will be safer than the light-water reactors in use today, Sofu said, some because of passive cooling designs that prevent a meltdown even without backup power. Some are more sustainable because they produce less noxious waste, and some are more reliable because of simplicity and ease of use.
But "economics is a big open question," he warned. “The economic argument for advanced reactors in competition with light-water reactor technology cannot be made for advanced reactors at this point.”
Light-water reactors are already struggling to compete with cheap natural gas and renewables. Exelon announced plans earlier this month to close two plants in Illinois.
DOE intends to support the advanced reactor concepts financially, and it made an $82 million downpayment on that support on Thursday. The agency will grant developers increased access to experts at the national laboratories, stage demonstration projects, tackle technical risks, develop fuel pathways, lubricate financing and lower regulatory hurdles.
At a DOE workshop in Bethesda, Ma. in early June, developers of advanced reactors had asked for many of those concessions.
“DOE funding for industry is definitely needed, alongside funding for test facilities,” Rita Baranwal, director of technology development at Westinghouse Electric Co., said at the workshop, according to Bloomberg BNA. An engineer from GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy told DOE the current regulatory framework won't accommodate advanced reactors.
DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy is expected to finalize the draft within the next year. In it, DOE also promises to develop a workforce to operate advanced reactors, principally by maintaining its Nuclear Energy University Program, but there's some question whether that will be enough.
"Right now in the United States only about 29, 30 universities have nuclear engineering programs," said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. "Back in the 1970s-1980s, it was a lot more than that."
Universities develop programs based on student interest, he said, and student interest has been waning.
"Most of the workforce in the nuclear industry, they're middle aged or older."

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