After hemming and hawing for decades, the United States is taking some big steps in developing advanced nuclear reactor technologies.
Last week, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) selected two teams – one led by TerraPower in partnership with GE Hitachi, and one led by X-energy – to receive $80 million each in initial funding under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). In this program, DOE provides initial funding to develop, test, license and build advanced nuclear reactors within five to seven years of the award. DOE plans to invest about $3.2 billion over seven years in these projects that will be matched by the industry. Recommended For YouCommunities Surrounding Closed Nuclear Power Plants Face Terrible Challenges Moving ForwardWhy Vanadium Flow Batteries May Be The Future Of Utility-Scale Energy StorageAs Trump Dismisses Renewables, Energy Sector Doubles DownThese plants will generate carbon-free electricity to help meet the nation’s carbon reduction goals, which is in keeping with most climate experts, like Jim Hanson, who warn we cannot achieve any of our climate goals without significant nuclear power. TerraPower, the brainchild of Bill Gates, together with GE Hitachi, has developed the 345 MWe Natrium™ sodium fast reactor with a molten salt energy storage system (figure above). Says Chris Levesque, TerraPower President and CEO, “In addition to its superior economics, the Natrium technology solves an entirely new problem that utilities face today, the need for clean, firm generation and power storage to operate in tandem with wind and solar.” Natrium’s innovative thermal storage has the capability to boost the system’s output to 500MWe of power for more than five and a half hours when needed. This allows for a better ability to follow daily electric load changes and helps customers capitalize on peaking opportunities driven by renewable energy fluctuations. Natrium employs metal fuel with HALEU that offers improved reactor economics, greater fuel efficiency, enhanced safety, and lower volumes of nuclear waste. X-energy’s Xe-100 is a modular 80 MWe (scalable to a 320 MWe four-pack) high temperature gas-cooled reactor that can integrate into large, regional electricity systems as either a base-load source or to load-follow renewables, making it ideal for optimizing the grid’s use of low-emission, intermittent renewables and other clean power. X-energy’s Xe-100 modular high temperature gas-cooled reactor uses TRISO fuel, uranium particles … [+] sealed in a protective coating which cannot melt under any conceivable conditions in this reactor. X-energy X-energy The reactor is also ideal for project sites and other power applications, including a source for industrial process heat for things like desalination and hydrogen production. One of the key aspects of the Xe-100 reactor is the TRi-structural ISOtropic particle fuel (TRISO). This fuel is uranium particles sealed in a protective coating (see figure above) so it’s inherently safe and retains the nuclear waste inside forever. It cannot melt under any conceivable conditions in this reactor. X-energy manufactures this fuel itself. At the same time, DOE just approved a $1.4 billion multi-year cost-share award to the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) for the development and construction of the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP), a 720 MWe NuScale small modular nuclear power plant (see figure below), made up of 12 small 60 MWe modules, to be located at DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory site. NuScale is the first of the new designs to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. NuScale’s SMR is perfect for replacing fossil fuel as necessary baseload power as well as backing-up … [+] intermittent renewable power sources. NuScale This is important as UAMPS is phasing out fossil fuel, especially its old coal sources. So they need this new nuclear plant to load-follow, or back-up, their extensive wind farms which ordinarily need natural gas plants to do that. Small nuclear plants are ideal for load-following renewables, an aspect that needs to be repeated again and again as no large-scale deployment of renewables can be successful without sufficient load-following sources. That means natural gas, hydro or nuclear. Since none of these new reactors can actually melt-down, they don’t need large emergency evacuation zones and all the unfounded fear that that generates. What is not widely known about these awards, and their deployment strategies, is the presence of Energy Northwest as a key collaborator in almost all of these applications. While these projects are not far enough along to start planning their siting, the applicants for these awards needed to have some ideas about where they might place them. A few other companies like Duke Energy DUK have said they could step up, but Energy Northwest is the obvious choice to have in mind. That’s because Energy Northwest can provide a physical place to site the reactors that is already approved for siting nuclear plants, as well as various envelope capabilities such as a working nuclear operating license, experienced operators and nuclear maintenance personnel, and a surrounding community in the Tri-Cities, Washington that is favorable to nuclear power. Energy Northwest also has previously-approved environmental impact statements for more reactors on its property, although they would have to be redone for a new technology. Fortunately, these new reactors are easier, smaller and simpler than previous ones and have less environmental impact, making their EIS’ even easier. Energy Northwest is a not-for-profit state utility agency created in 1957 that sells its power at cost to 27 public utilities districts and municipalities across Washington State. Energy Northwest produces low-carbon energy from nuclear, wind, solar and hydro and is the obvious … [+] choice as a partner to any new advanced nuclear reactor technology. Energy Northwest Energy Northwest is one of the region’s largest producers of carbon-free energy, operating the only commercial nuclear power reactor in the Northwest, the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, as well as solar, hydroelectric and wind projects (figure above). Their combined output, over 10 billion kWhs per year, can power the city of Seattle. So these advanced reactor projects fit right into their mission. “Energy Northwest’s partnership in the development of this concept will provide Energy Northwest with the opportunity to pursue appropriate advanced reactor designs once experts and regional leadership are confident in the technology’s viability,” said Brad Sawatzke, CEO of Energy Northwest. The Tri-Cities also has Framatome, a company that manufactures nuclear fuel for various reactors. Not to mention more nuclear scientists and radworkers in the region than almost any place on Earth, compliments of DOE, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, all the nuclear contractors and all the nuclear history that has gone on here in the last 77 years. So if you want nuclear to work as planned, this is the place to put it.