Advanced nuclear power projects stumble despite White House backing


At the COP26 climate conference, the United States 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 energy. She said the Biden administration would focus its limited resources on preserving the existing nuclear fleet and developing small modular reactors.

The White House supports an expansion of all next-generation nuclear reactors – safer and more efficient plants than current designs. He also wants to build a “test reactor” that could speed the commercialization of these advanced technologies, but so far lawmakers are fearful.

“One of the main advantages of advanced nuclear power is that we believe it can have lower costs,” said Judi Greenwald, executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, at a conference last week. speak World Institute of Business in America. “It can also be built in small increments and matched with growing demand for electricity. This facilitates financing.

According to Third way, total electricity consumption could double in 30 years. It will grow to 50,000 terra-watts per hour per year – the equivalent of adding five US during that time. And a large part of this demand will come from emerging countries. The think tank says advanced and futuristic nuclear power could account for 16% of electricity demand by 2050.

At present, 32 countries operate nuclear power plants, and the fuel source accounts for 10% of the global pie, according to the international atomic energy agency. He adds that nuclear power use is expected to double by 2050 to meet the goals of previous climate conferences – to keep temperature increases no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.

This all comes against the backdrop of actions in the United States House and Senate, where lawmakers “rejected” funding for the so-called multipurpose test reactor (VTR) at Idaho National Laboratories. This test site can speed up improvements, such as shutting down potentially struggling reactors while limiting the amount of radioactive waste created by these units. Such research and development, for example, has increased capacity rates from 60% 50 years ago to 90% today.

“Utilities can avoid 1,000 megawatt nuclear facilities,” Jackie Toth, senior advisor to the Good Energy Collective, told the conference. “But with a new set of advanced reactors, they’re revisiting the problem. They can reduce costs, increase safety benefits and use fuel more efficiently… VTR has the right financial backing. But we have to beat the drum. We will get our investment back. Things are progressing in terms of engineering and design.

Messy politics

Small modular reactors – 50 megawatts to 300 megawatts – can also use these advanced nuclear designs. Today’s largest nuclear reactors use second-generation light-water facilities that operate near full capacity. But the third generation light water reactors are coming while the fourth generation reactors will follow.

Third generation nuclear power plants improve safety protocols while using water as coolant and uranium as fuel. Fourth generation reactors, called very high temperature reactors, can use molten salt as the coolant while varying the type of fuel. They achieve higher thermal efficiency with greater potential for industrial applications such as steelmaking and hydrogen production.

For now, Russia is the only country with a test reactor similar to the VTR, capable of simulating conditions at commercial sites in order to improve the operation of future plants. Given the current geopolitical differences between the United States 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 advanced nuclear technologies.

The cost of the VCR could reach $ 6 billion over six years, which is remarkable given the Department of Energy’s budget this year is nearly $ 40 billion, said Jennifer Gordon, senior researcher at Global. Atlantic Council Energy Center. She adds that the Russian state nuclear industry gives her a guaranteed source of funding. In contrast, the private model of the United States requires buy-in from investors, let alone elected policy makers in a democratic system.

“You don’t want to be the company that rolls out beta max which is the first thing to come out but then gets over-innovated,” Gordon said, during discussion and referring to the need for an installation of nuclear tests, or VCR. “There is a need for nuclear innovation” – the result of global leadership and a passion for solving the climate crisis.

Best mousetrap

To be clear, a demonstration project and a testing facility are different animals. TerraPower and PacifiCorp, for example, announced in June that they would be installing a decent-sized nuclear reactor in Wyoming, where a coal-fired power station once stood. Its Natrium installation, which Microsoft

Bill Gates, Founded, is a power generation reactor that receives Department of Energy backing: $ 80 million, a small portion of the overall cost. The goal is for it to be operational by 2030.

The VCR will not produce electricity for consumers. It is a test facility that can, for example, predict the long-term wear of reactors through modeling. The process may take a few weeks. So designers can build a better mousetrap.

But some experts say the VCR is too expensive and advanced nuclear reactors have not been proven successful. the Union of concerned scientists says the jury is still out on whether these units can cut costs, limit nuclear waste, burn uranium more efficiently, and boost safety.

“Despite the hype surrounding them, none of the non-light water reactors on the drawing board that we examined meet all of these requirements,” says Dr Edwin Lyman, physicist and director of nuclear safety, in a report. “High temperature gas-cooled reactors may have the potential to be safer, but this remains to be proven, and problems have emerged in recent fuel safety testing.”

These points, however, are refuted by Ted Nordhaus, executive director of the Breakthrough Institute. In a column written for The hill, he writes that peer reviews have contradicted Dr. Lyman’s analysis. In addition, Nordhaus makes a distinction between the state-funded, innovation-promoting video tape recorder, and the Natrium project, a private facility that will generate electricity.

“The VCR and the Natrium reactor are both smart investments in critical technology that we’re likely to need. “

The Biden administration understands that global climate goals will be difficult to achieve without carbon-free nuclear power that can operate 24/7, especially to fuel the expected energy appetite of emerging countries. The United States has the opportunity not only to lead, but also to export these next-generation technologies – a reason why it should resume funding for ongoing projects.

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