Advanced nuclear projects stumble despite the support of the White House

(Original signature) Palo Verde, AZ- Every switch, indicator light and instrument in the control room … [+] The simulator here is identical to the control room in each of the three Palo Verde plants. The computer can duplicate 214 possible malfunctions that operators may encounter. The qualification program for nuclear operators, which all operators must pass, includes safety reviews, psychological profile tests and annual physical examinations. Undated colored foil.

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During COP26 climate change conference, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the United States is “all in” on nuclear power – that it provides 20% of the country’s electricity and more than half of its carbon-free electricity. She said the Biden administration would focus its limited resources on maintaining the existing nuclear fleet and developing small modular reactors.

The White House supports expansion for all next-generation nuclear reactors – facilities that are safer and more efficient than current designs. It also wants to build a “test reactor” that could accelerate the commercialization of these cutting-edge technologies, but so far the legislature has been shy.

“One of the main advantages of advanced nuclear power is that we believe it can have a lower cost,” said Judi Greenwald, executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, at a conference held by the Global America Business Institute last week. “It can also be built in smaller steps and adapted to the growing demand for electricity. That makes the financing easier. ”

According to the third way, total electricity consumption could double in 30 years. And much of that demand will come from emerging markets. The think tank says that advanced, futuristic nuclear power could meet 16% of electricity needs by 2050.

There are currently 32 countries operating nuclear power plants, and the fuel source makes up 10% of the world’s pie, says the International Atomic Energy Agency. She adds that the use of nuclear energy would have to double by 2050 to meet the goals of previous climate conferences – to limit the temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

All of this is related to the actions taken by the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, where lawmakers have “zeroed” funding for the so-called Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) at Idaho National Laboratories. This test location can accelerate improvements such as B. the shutdown of potentially disturbed reactors and at the same time the amount of radioactive waste generated by these units. For example, through research and development, the capacity rate could be increased from 60% 50 years ago to 90% today.

“Utilities can avoid 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plants,” said Jackie Toth, Senior Advisor of the Good Energy Collective, at the conference. “But with a new set of advanced reactors, they take a second look. You can reduce costs, increase the safety benefit and use fuel more efficiently … VTR has cheap financial support. But we have to beat the drum. We will amortize our investment. In terms of engineering and design, there is progress. “

Messy politics

(Original Caption) Palo Verde, AZ – A cooling tower under construction for the Palo Verde Nuclear … [+] Kraftwerk, where work began in June 1976. The first of three blocks is scheduled to go into commercial operation in 1984. The cooling towers cool water that has passed through the condensation system that condenses the steam as it exits the turbine. Slide shows the foundation of the cooling tower laid in the dirt. Undated colored foil.

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Small modular reactors – 50 megawatts to 300 megawatts – can use these advanced nuclear designs as well. Today’s larger nuclear reactors use second generation light water systems that are operated near capacity. But third generation light water reactors are coming, while fourth generation reactors will follow.

Third generation nuclear units improve safety protocols using water as a coolant and uranium as a fuel. The fourth generation, known as high temperature reactors, can use molten salt as a coolant while varying the type of fuel. They achieve superior thermal efficiency with more potential for industrial applications such as steelmaking and hydrogen production.

Russia is currently the only country with a VTR-like test reactor that can simulate conditions in commercial locations to improve the operation of future plants. Given the current geopolitical differences between the US and Russia, there is little reason to believe that the two countries would have a formal cooperation agreement. Even then, it is in the interests of the United States to lead the effort and export its state-of-the-art nuclear technology.

The cost of a VCR could be as high as $ 6 billion in six years – remarkable considering the Department of Energy’s budget this year is nearly $ 40 billion, says Jennifer Gordon, senior fellow at the Global Energy Center of the Atlantic Council. She adds that Russia’s state nuclear industry provides Russia with a guaranteed source of funding. In contrast, the United States’ private model requires investors to buy-in, let alone elected policymakers in a democratic system.

“You don’t want to be the company that uses Betamax, that comes first, but then gets over-innovated,” Gordon said during the discussion, pointing out the need for a nuclear test facility, or VTR. “There is a need for nuclear innovation” – a result of global leadership and passion for solving the climate crisis.

Better mousetrap

A general view from May 18, 2018 shows the Russian northern port city of Murmansk. – Academy … [+] Lomonosov, the only floating nuclear power plant (FPU) in the world so far, has arrived at the roadstead of the port of Murmansk, where it will be transported to Eastern Siberia on the 19th. The 144-by-30-meter (472 by 98-foot) ship, built by the state-owned Rosatom nuclear power plant, houses two reactors with two 35-megawatt nuclear reactors similar to those used to power icebreaker ships. (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP) (Photo credit should be ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP via Getty Images)

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To be clear, a demonstration project and an experimental facility are different animals. TerraPower and PacifiCorp, for example, said in June that they would build a right-sized nuclear reactor in Wyoming, where a coal-fired power station once stood. His sodium plant, founded by Microsoft MSFT Bill Gates, is a power generating reactor supported by the Department of Energy: $ 80 million, a small fraction of the total cost. The aim is to be operational by 2030.

The VTR does not generate electricity for consumers. It is a test facility that can, for example, predict the long-term wear and tear of reactors through modeling. The process can take several weeks. Designers can therefore build a better mousetrap.

However, some experts say that VTRs are too expensive and that advanced nuclear reactors are unproven. The Union of Concerned Scientists says the jury has not yet decided whether these units can cut costs, limit nuclear waste, burn uranium more efficiently, and increase safety.

“Despite the hype around them, none of the non-light water reactors we reviewed met all of these requirements,” says Dr. Edwin Lyman, physicist and director of nuclear energy safety, in a report. “High temperature gas cooled reactors may have the potential to be safer, but that remains unproven and problems have arisen during recent fuel safety tests.”

However, these points are refuted by Ted Nordhaus, executive director of the Breakthrough Institute. In a column written for The Hill, he writes that peer reviews of Dr. Lyman objected. In addition, Nordhaus differentiates between publicly financed and innovation-promoting video recorders and the sodium project, a private facility for generating electricity.

“Both the VTR and the Sodium Reactor are smart investments in critical technology that we will likely need.”

The Biden administration recognizes that without carbon-free nuclear energy that can be operated around the clock, global climate goals will be difficult to achieve – especially to satisfy the anticipated energy thirst of emerging economies. The United States has an opportunity not only to lead the way, but also to export these next-generation technologies – one reason it should resume funding current projects.

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