Advanced reactor designs garner interest

But they may be a long shot when it comes to getting a safety design review from the NRC

The Long Shot Artist Howard TerpningWhile large light water nuclear reactors in the U.S. are falling by the wayside due to market rate and technology issues, this emerging pattern of decline in this country for nuclear energy has not deterred developers of new advanced reactor designs.

In the past week two of them announced initiatives to develop molten salt and thorium fuel based designs.

The developers include Terrestrial Energy and ThorCon Power (see summaries below), also have announced advanced reactor initiatives that function more like entrepreneurial startups than national laboratory sandboxes.

All of these projects are long shots for the simple reason that it is one thing to design a technology, and even license the intellectual property to a firm or government to build a prototype, it is entirely another to complete a safety design review with the NRC.  Even if that hurdle is overcome, the nascent vendor must still convince a customer to order one. Years of testing and development of operating procedures stand in the way of the transition from design to a sale.

These are also the hurdles faced by developers of small modular reactors (SMRs) which are scaled down designs of the 1000 MW versions of light water reactor designs, usually in the range of 50-300 MW of electrical power output.

Because the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has only licensed large light water reactor designs, it faces a steep learning curve to figure out the safety issues associated with all types of fast reactors as well as SMRs.

The agency has given some thought, at the insistence of Congress, to the longer term issue of licensing advanced reactors and laid out its thinking in 2010 policy paper.  In the near term most of the NRC’s attention has been on licensing challenges for SMRs as reflected on a web page about them.

It has had a faster than expected learning curve with SMRs, but even NuScale has told this blog it is at least a year away from submitting a design review to the agency. Both B&W and Westinghouse have mothballed their SMR efforts, at least for the time being, citing the lack of customers and a predictable timeframe and path to a defensible return on investment for shareholders.learning-curve

The difference, in dealing with the NRC, for one SMR developer, NuScale, is that it won the competition in 2013 for up to $452 million over five years in cost sharing funding through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for first-of-a-kind engineering and design certification work on small modular reactors.

So the question you might ask is why isn’t Congress simply putting some of this money into the NRC instead of having DOE dole it out choosing winners and losers? Wouldn’t it make sense to fund the NRC’s learning curve instead of charging reactor vendors nearly $300/hr to learn about the technologies?

Readers interested in how Canada handles these issues are referred to the 2013-2014 Annual Report of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, especially pgs: 22-23 of that document which covers the early review of licensing requirements and verification at a high level of compliance issues for a specific vendor application.

Readers are also reminded that 90% of the NRC’s funding comes from reimbursement of its regulatory costs by the nuclear facilities it covers and that includes the cost of conducting a safety design review.

Without the DOE money, investors in NuScale, or any other SMR, would likely go broke paying for the NRC’s learning curve. The same threat to financial success faces entrepreneurial efforts to develop fast reactors.

So what is to be done? For starters, Congress could authorize and appropriate funds for DOE to develop a similar cost sharing program for fast reactors including thorium, molten salt, and sodium cooled reactors.

poker chipsWhy all three? The reason is that in high risk R&D which is way over on the left side of the Technology S curve, you need to place multiple bets in each R&D initiative to see what emerges from the mix and what falls by the wayside.

It is way too early for any of these entities to say with certainty they will make it to the commercial new build finish line signified by a customer order.

That said, the government ought not be in the business of picking winners or losers. Rather, the government should be funding as many of these technology development efforts as possible to cover the emerging market opportunities for different types of reactors.

Finally, if the U.S. is to be taken seriously in terms of its nonproliferation efforts, it must be a leader in nuclear technology exports showing the world that peaceful uses of the atom are desirable and profitable. Access to electricity is a critical success factor for sustainable development and raising the living standard of nations.

It doesn’t matter what nuclear reactor technology a utility chooses as long as regulatory agencies can certify the design as being safe and investors can kn0w they can take the design to the bank. That’s why we’re seeing these start-ups.

Summary of recent fast reactor announcements

Terrestrial Energy Inc.

A Canadian firm, Terrestrial Energy Inc., said this week it would collaborate with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to bring its proprietary small reactor concepts from research and development phase to the engineering blueprint stage. It expects this phase of the design work to be completed by the end of 2016. The firm is basing its work on a molten salt reactor (MSR) prototype that operated at ORNL in the late 1960s.

The basis for Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR development includes concepts and operational data first developed in Oak Ridge, the company said in a statement. The company hopes to complete a design that would also fall with a power range (electrical) of SMRs, “ideally suited for remote communities and industrial operations, including on- and off-grid power provision,” The company said it has the objective of beginning commercial deployment of its proprietary Molten Salt Reactor technology by early next decade.

Canon Bryan, a spokesman for the firm, said in an email to this blog:

“Terrestrial Energy has no designs whatsoever on pursuing licensing in the USA. Nor is the USA our target market. Terrestrial Energy is pursuing licensing in Canada, where a completely different regulatory environment prevails – namely, a non-deterministic one.”

Bryan added that Non-OECD countries are more likely markets for the firm’s products,

ThorCon Power

ThorCon is also a molten salt reactor design. It is billed by its developers as “a complete system of power generation modules, interchange maintenance, and liquid fuel service that produces energy cheaper than coal.”

In addressing the challenges of completing an NRC safety design review, the firm advocates a return to staged testing of physical prototypes for new nuclear reactor designs. It supports adoption of the same license-by-test model that has enabled US leadership in aviation and drug discovery.

See also Rod Adams blog at Atomic Insights has an indepth review this week on ThoCon’s efforts.

Transatomic Power

Transatomic’s product is called a “Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor.” It focused on another type of molten salt reactor, a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, or LFTR. The developers say it is fuel-agnostic in the sense that it can run on either uranium or thorium; as the name implies, its signal feature is that it can consume spent fuel from conventional light-water reactors.

The new firm has enjoyed robust press coverage as documented on its website. See also their video on Youtube

Fast reactor work at Argonne National Laboratory

In a separate development, the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Argonne National Laboratory announced this week it will work with three developers of advanced nuclear reactor designs.

The three projects involve Areva Federal Services, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, and Westinghouse Electric Company. The projects are expected to work on
technical challenges to the design, construction and operation of fast reactors.

According to the ANL press release:

  • Areva is partnering with TerraPower Company, Argonne and Texas A&M University to conduct thermal hydraulic modeling and simulations and an experimental investigation for liquid metal-cooled fast reactor fuel assemblies.
  • GE Hitachi is partnering with Argonne to develop an updated safety assessment of the company’s PRISM sodium-cooled fast reactor.
  • Westinghouse is partnering with Argonne and the University of Pittsburgh to develop thermo-acoustic sensors for sodium-cooled fast reactors.

The five industry-led projects will receive $13 million in cost-share agreements to help address significant technical challenges to the design, construction and operation of next-generation nuclear reactors, based on needs identified by industry designers and technical experts. DOE created the program in 2013.

The awards are part of the US President Barack Obama administration’s “all-of-the-above” energy approach and Climate Action Plan. Funding for the awards is provided by the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy.

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