Report: ‘Advanced’ Nuclear Reactors No Better Than Current Fleet

WASHINGTON (March 18, 2021) – A report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analyzed the designs of a number of so-called “advanced” non-light-water nuclear reactors currently under development and found that it did none are better – and in some respects significantly worse – than the light water reactors in operation today.

The 140-page “Advanced” report does not always better evaluate the pros and cons of three main types of non-light water reactors: sodium-cooled fast reactors, gas-cooled high-temperature reactors, and molten salt. fired reactors. They are rated according to three general criteria: security and protection; nuclear proliferation and terrorism risks; and “sustainability,” which refers to how efficiently they use uranium and how much long-lived nuclear waste they generate.

“If nuclear energy is to play a bigger role in combating climate change, new reactor designs must be safer, safer and present a comparable or – even better – lower risk to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism than the existing reactor fleet,” says the Report author Dr. Edwin Lyman, physicist and director of nuclear safety at UCS. “Despite the hype surrounding them, none of the non-light water reactors we reviewed met all of these requirements on the drawing board.”

The report delves into unsubstantiated claims developers make about their designs, largely based on unproven concepts from more than 50 years ago. With little hard evidence, they claim their reactors have the potential to cut costs, reduce nuclear waste, burn uranium more efficiently, increase security, and lower the risk of nuclear proliferation.

One of the proposed sodium-cooled fast reactors, TerraPower’s 345-megawatt sodium, has received significant media attention recently, as TerraPower founder Bill Gates quoted him in interviews on his new book “How to Avoid Climate Disaster”. In mid-February, Gates told 60-minute correspondent Anderson Cooper that the sodium reactor would produce less nuclear waste and be safer than a traditional light water reactor.

According to the UCS report, sodium-cooled fast reactors like sodium would likely be less “uranium efficient”. They would not reduce the amount of waste that would require long-term isolation in a geological repository. You could also have safety issues that are not a problem for light water reactors. For example, sodium coolant can burn if exposed to air or water, and a sodium-cooled fast reactor can experience uncontrollable performance gains that lead to a fast core meltdown.

“When it comes to safety, sodium-cooled fast reactors and reactors with molten salt are considerably worse than conventional light water reactors,” says Dr. Lyman. “High temperature gas-cooled reactors may be safer, but that remains unproven and problems have arisen in recent fuel safety tests.”

Timing is also an issue. Some developers promise that they will be able to demonstrate, license and deploy their non-light water reactors on a commercial scale by the end of this decade to help tackle the climate crisis in the short term. For example, the Department of Energy (DOE) granted both TerraPower and X-Energy, developer of a high-temperature, gas-cooled, pebble bed reactor, US $ 80 million last fall to commission a unique product into commercial units through 2027, most likely at the Columbia Generating Station site in Washington .

According to the report, commercializing non-light water reactors, associated fuel cycle systems, and other associated infrastructure could take at least 20 years and billions in additional costs if federal regulators demand the necessary safety demonstrations.

“One of the new reactor designs, the ‘breed and burn’ reactor, has the greatest potential as it does not require reprocessing or recycling of spent fuel, which poses an unacceptable risk of proliferation,” says Dr. Lyman. “However, the concept is still fraught with considerable technical obstacles and safety risks, since the fuel stays in the reactor longer than in a light water reactor, which can cause fission gases and pressure to build up.”

The report recommends that the DOE suspend its advanced reactor demonstration program until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determines whether full prototype testing is required before licensing designs for commercial use that the report believes are essential. She also calls on Congress to call on the DOE to convene an independent commission to review the technical merits of all proposed non-light water reactors and only approve projects with a high likelihood of commercialization that are clearly safer and safer than the current fleet. Finally, the DOE and Congress should consider spending more research and development money on improving the safety of light water reactors rather than commercializing immature, overhyped, non-light water reactor designs.

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