Southern Co. builds groundbreaking small nuclear reactor

Southern Co. yesterday announced plans to build a small experimental nuclear reactor in Idaho using technology from TerraPower, a company supported by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

The project, which is partially financed with federal funds, is considered an important step towards bringing new nuclear technologies to scale. Southern is a staunch advocate for nuclear energy, and many segments of the energy sector see technology as key to meeting its carbon reduction goals.

Yesterday’s announcement promotes a partnership with Southern and TerraPower, a next-generation nuclear design and engineering company. They received a $ 40 million grant from the Department of Energy in 2015 to develop the infrastructure needed to support high speed molten chloride reactors (MCFR) (Energywire, Jan. 20, 2016). A fast molten chloride reactor uses liquid salts as a coolant and fuel. A fast reactor can extract more energy from its primary fuel so that it can operate more efficiently.

The Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment in Idaho is one phase of an extensive, multi-year research and development program at DOE, Southern Co. said in an email to E&E News. To be clear, the experiment is less than 1 megawatt and is intended to provide data to support the eventual construction of a demonstration of a rapid chlorine melt reactor.

The companies will build the small reactor system at the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory as part of a collaboration that includes the Electric Power Research Institute and 3M. DOE will fund 80 percent of the $ 170 million project while Southern, TerraPower, and the other partners are funding the remainder.

“The Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment will help commercialize a revolutionary technology within a timeframe that incorporates climate change benchmarks and meets Southern Co’s goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” said Mark Berry, vice president for Research and Development by Southern, in a press release yesterday.

The Idaho experiment will be the first fast molten chloride reactor capable of a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, according to Southern.

The companies will use highly enriched uranium to advance the project “to be agile and to keep the critical experiment on a very small scale,” Southern said in his email.

Southern Co., the country’s third largest utility company, is building the country’s only nuclear construction project, Plant Vogtle, in southeast Georgia. The twin reactors will be the first to be built from scratch in nearly three decades and will be vital to the company’s net-zero carbon goals. They also reflect one of nuclear power’s greatest pitfalls: its cost. The reactors are now double their budget of $ 14 billion and are more than six years behind schedule.

Many electricity companies are now seeking approval to operate their traditional base load reactors for an unprecedented 80 years while small modular reactors and other so-called Generation IV technologies are developed on a large scale.

The $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed by President Biden this week will, among other things, support advanced nuclear technologies and provide $ 6 billion over five years for a new DOE loan program to keep ailing nuclear reactors afloat keep.

Proponents of Generation IV reactors argue that they can operate at lower temperatures, have a less volatile radioactive environment, and have fewer problems with spent fuel than traditional generators. Southern CEO Tom Fanning has endorsed technologies like molten salt instead of small modular reactors.

“We believe that Generation IV nuclear generation will be of central importance for a net zero future – driving the reliable, resilient and controllable production of clean electricity while at the same time providing the hydrogen, other alternative energy sources and process heat necessary for decarbonization are required by the economy. “The company said in a statement.

To that end, it is possible that these types of reactors could become part of the generation fleet of Southern’s regulated operating companies in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. However, this will be set out in future long-term energy plans that these utilities will submit to state regulators.

Generation IV technology also has its share of critics.

“I’m not a big fan of molten salt reactors in general, whether they’re fluoride-cooled or chloride-cooled,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In the case of the Idaho project, Lyman said he was concerned about the release of gas fission products into the atmosphere. The reactors must therefore be very large in order to accommodate a large part of the neutrons.

“You can’t go out,” he said. “They generate a lot of additional radioactive waste.”

By and large, Lyman said that he believes that nuclear safety is minimized in order to have as much low carbon generation on the grid as possible. A nuclear accident could undo the expansion of the technology, which he believes is a way to curb climate change.

NEPA and TerraPower in Wyo.

An environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act is required before final design and construction of the Idaho project can begin. DOE will be the primary regulator for the project. Approval from the Nuclear Supervision Commission is currently not required.

“I’m afraid there is so much rhetoric about how safe these reactors are and that distorts the political debate and that is a dangerous thing,” Lyman said.

This is the second big announcement for TerraPower this week. On Tuesday, the company announced it was building its experimental sodium facility, a sodium-cooled rapid reactor, for demonstration purposes in Kemmerer, Wyoming, a small town of 2,600 in southwest Wyoming that is home to a coal-fired power plant slated to close in 2025.

This project will employ up to 2,000 people during construction and 250 when commissioned in a state where the coal industry has lost jobs. If it were as reliable as conventional nuclear power, the 345 MW system would produce enough climate-friendly electricity to supply around 250,000 households.

Other electricity suppliers in the southeast are looking for advanced nuclear technologies. The Tennessee Valley Authority announced a partnership in May with Kairos Power, a California-based developer of a high-temperature, fluoride-salt-cooled reactor. The DOE-funded project will generate about 15 MW of electricity, or about 150 MW on a scale (Energywire, May 7).

TVA was also optimistic about building a small modular reactor at the Clinch River site near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, arguing that it could serve as a catalyst for development across the country.

The Associated Press helped.

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