A new wave of scientific interest surrounding nuclear reactors has emerged ever since President Obama urged an “all-of-the-above” US energy policy. The Department of Energy recently announced plans to help fund a new, efficient and cost-effective blueprint for a small modular reactor design.
These reactors may be less powerful compared to their more well-known counterparts, but there are other benefits to investing in a search for a reliable small reactor design. It could boost employment, make the US less energy dependent, and make the country more competitive with other nations doing the same type of research, especially Russia, China, and India. Currently the venture is being pursued in cooperation between the private and public sectors, with support from the White House.
Overall, the DoE plans to help fund up to half the project, or $452 million, to help design a working model that could be mass-produced, transportable, and serve as a low-carbon substitute to oil and natural gas power. The rest of the costs will be shared between the other companies involved in building and distributing the power. Not all of the government money will go towards one plan or one company, giving smaller manufacturers a chance to present their designs.
Currently, one of the selected designs is from the contractor Babcock & Wilcox, a larger producer, and planned in conjunction with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which already operates three full-size reactors. Christopher Mowry, of B&W, said that the funding from DoE “lets us put our foot on the accelerator” and plan to have up to four mini-reactors online in Tennessee by 2021. The goal will be to have two designs to work with by 2022 that are approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, has placed a lot of confidence in these new designs and future R&D:
Just as advanced computer modeling has revolutionized aircraft design—predicting how any slight adjustment to a wing design will affect the overall performance of the airplane, for example—we are working to apply modeling and simulation technologies to accelerate nuclear R&D. Scientists and engineers will be able to stand in the center of a virtual reactor, observing coolant flow, nuclear fuel performance, and even the reactor’s response to changes in operating conditions.
In terms of both environmental and national security, small modular reactors are safer. Since they are generally one-third the size of regular reactors, they cost less and can be placed underground. This shields them from terrorist attacks, and the earth can absorb shock from earthquakes.
Additionally, the nuclear waste generated from these plants is recyclable. The nuclear material is likely to continue to be uranium, but there has been a push for a material called thorium as a uranium substitute. Thorium is three times more abundant than uranium and thorium-based fuel cycles produce less waste. Uranium is the much more common core and as such, is more well known among regulators. Thorium would require more research, and likely new regulations, which could hold up the licensing and approval of a thorium-fueled SMR.
Aside from the obvious safety concerns, the other major challenge facing SMRs are the cheap natural gas prices. Philip Moor, a nuclear consultant and chairman of the SMR committee at the American Nuclear Society, notes that natural gas is a cheap, and therefore more attractive, substitute to nuclear energy. Advancements in fracking technology has made an even stronger case against SMR, but Mr. Moor noted that if a carbon tax was instituted, it would even the playing field and open the market for SMR. A carbon tax would make natural gas and oil much more expensive and nuclear research and energy more economical.
Nuclear energy powers 20% of the US energy grid. That number will likely go up in the next decade, but it depends on the success of many components, both public and private. Imagine, driving down the interstate and seeing a trailer transporting a nuclear reactor that will be planted in the ground to give power to the home. The plans are still in the design stage, years from licensing and actual construction, but given a particular necessity and encouragement to innovate, it could become a reality.
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I suppose that it is too much to hope for that they will choose the General Atomics GT-MHR proposal. This is a Helium gas cooled reactor using TRISO fuel elements and the Thorium high burnup fuel cycle. It is high temperature and uses a Brayton turbine. Since there was already a GA HTGR prototype built in Colorado that used this type of fuel, there should be no problem accepting Thorium.
Nice article, but why not mention the design that many scientists and engineers believe most likely to succeed, the Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). Flibe Energy expects to power up a LFTR in 2015. The Chinese government is giving 100% financing to the development of their own LFTR and plans on owning the international patents. I hope Flibe Energy can beat them.
This is really interesting and I had never heard of such a thing previous to this article. If we can make nuclear energy safer, more reliable, and cheaper is it still worth proliferating rather than spending money on searching for or investing in alternative energies?
If nuclear energy can recycle its waste to put back into the energy cycle, that would be amazing (if it hasn't done so already). I'm not sure if the public is ready for large dependence on nuclear energy as there are safety concerns fresh in our minds.
The economic appeal of natural gas seems to be an obstacle for many alt. energy projects at present. It will be interesting to see if/how the gov'nt makes the market more competitive, because that's what the people seem to want.
incentivizing these kinds of technological breakthroughs in energy production are what will keep america competitive globally
It's great to consider alternatives. The risk associated with nuclear power may not be worth the investment in some areas which could be more prone to seismic activity or natural disasters that would create a leak.
That sounds like a good idea. Nuclear plants are so expensive that building smaller and less expensive one will allow states/cities/companies to build them more easily.
Interesting that you brought Flibe Energy up. I read a bit about their founder, Kirk Sorensen as a proponent to a thorium model. Thorium has the support of former US congressman from Pennsylvania and Navy admiral Joe Sestak and I mentioned it briefly because thorium does have benefits. Unfortunately it will likely not replace uranium anytime soon in US reactors as there is a lack of infrastructure to support it.
India is also working on an LFTR and it may hopefully catch on in America in the next decade
France gets over 70% of their electricity from over 58 nuclear reactors, from medium to extra large. Their most recent was built around 2000 and they have another going online in 2016. Since they have such a strong history in this area, they have regulations, safety precautions, and a good deal of research in conjunction with their European neighbors in building new models (R&D). Although the US has twice as many reactors, it is easy to see where the emphasis has been on nuclear R&D in this country over the past few decades.
Aside from Mother Nature attacking nuclear reactors, the NRDC pointed to three other factors that could cause a severe meltdown. the type of reactor used. (1) Boiling Water Reactors are more dangerous and these are one of two current designs already in use in the US. If the US continues down this road, its a good idea to research safer ways. (2) The reactors age. Newer is better and safer is best. These SMR reactors can last 60 years while the normal large ones can last 40, meaning less replacements and less nuclear fuel. (3) The power level of reactor. Small modular reactors don't need as many fuel rods to power the community. This lasts longer and they also serve an extra function, "plug-in-play." B&W could build two reactors and connect them to form a medium sized reactor to power, say, a portion of Tennessee or Georgia. It is finding the right outpput for a given area and a large reactor may just be the wrong size. To be able to moderate the power output makes SMRs safer and much easier to incorporate into a power grid.
No need to replace uranium fueled Light Water Reactors (LWR). They are doing fine. LFTR will replace coal burning power plants. Two MIT PhD students have started a company called Trans Atomic Power that will be a Molten Salt Reactor MSR similar to LFTR that will burn waste from LWRs. They call it the Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR). I read your article so you should read mine at http://home.coloradomesa.edu/~jerry/LFTR/
Better yet, read Robert Hargraves' excellent book "Thorium: energy cheaper than coal".
Having studied the alternatives, the LFTR design of molten salt reactor, holds the major advantages. 1. No high pressure vessel to explode. 2. No contents in the reactor that can meltdown (as already molten) or that could be released as a cloud to contaminate large areas.3. One thousand times less waste products that are mainly safe within a few decades. 4. Waste that also can provide valuable medical isotopes for imaging and/or treatment of cancer. 5. Absolute safety that is totally passive requiring no human or computer intervention to automatically shut down. 6. Automatic Load following, so that these reactors can provide more than just base load power. 7. Enought heat output to run closed cycle Brayton Gas Turbines. 8. A high enough temperature for industrial and chemical plat use. 9. No water supply required so no cooling towers to build. 10. Small modular design that can be produced on production lines. 11. Waste heat can be used to desalinate water. 11, No fuel rods or pellets to make before thorium can be used in a liquid fuelled reactor. 12. The LFTR design uses 95% of the fuels energy instead of the meagre 1-2% extracted by current reactors. 13. Continuous refuelling - so no down times- LFTR's can run for years. 14. No major technical or material problems to solve. 15. Liquid thorium reactors have already be run and tested.
There are many more benefits, but I would suggest rich investers get on this bandwagon early as thorium is so plentiful that the rewards will come from being the first to get modular production running. Due to outmoded regulations in the US, this would only seem to be viable in third world countries.
I like your enthusiasm. i was reading your article right after I read yuor comment as clicking on yuor name directed me there. I learned about Thorium through joe Sestak, but Sorensen's name kept popping up. Interesting topic and I will continue to keep track of it. Thanks.