- Bipartisan legislative efforts in the Senate and the House show that Congress is serious about promoting the development of advanced nuclear reactors.
- In the Senate, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), both members of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committte, reintroduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S.903). Murkowski chairs the committee and Manchin is the ranking member.
- In the House Elaine Luria (D-VA) and Denver Riggleman (R-VA) introduced a companion bill (H.R. 3306). Significantly, Luria served 20 years in the U.S. Navy reaching the rank of Commander and operated nuclear reactors on-board ships.
The legislation has four major elements all designed to open up paths forward to develop advanced nuclear reactors. Here’s a brief summary.
- DOE would be required to complete at least two advanced reactor demonstration projects by the end of 2025 and two to five more additional projects by 2035. The Versatile Test Reactor, for which work is underway now, falls in the latter timeline with an operational target of 2026. As part of this effort DOE must come up with 10-year strategic plan to guide its work in this area.
- DOE would be required to increase production of high-assay low-enriched fuel (HALEU). It contains U-235 greater than 5% and less than 20%. Many new advanced reactor designs include the use of this type of fuel, such as TRISO pebbles at 9-10% U-235, in their designs. See prior coverage on this blog Advanced Nuclear Fuels Open the Door to New Applications.
- Development of a workforce capable of building and operating these advanced designs is the objective of the legislative section devoted to enhancing DOE’s University Nuclear Program. (See note at end about DOE’s recent $49M funding decision to support this program.)
- Purchase power agreements with DOD facilities are included in the bills which require one new agreement for an advanced reactor by 2023 and special consideration to be given to other advanced designs thereafter with terms of the deals to run for up to 40 years.
Idaho Lab Director Testimony in Support of NELA
At a hearing on the legislation held this past April , Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters talked about to the importance of the targets NELA would set for completing demonstration projects. (Full Text)
“We applaud those goals, recognizing they are aggressive because they will drive the necessary prioritization and strong sense of urgency that we must have.”
Peters added that more than 50 advanced nuclear companies across North America are examining a number of advanced reactor concepts, often in partnership with INL and other DOE national laboratories. Among the things they are looking at:
- How to make reactors smaller and modular – small enough even to be mass-produced in factories.
- How to use coolants other than light water.
- How to operate at normal atmospheric pressure.
- How to use physics in addition to engineering to keep reactors safe.\
- Some designs can even use recycled nuclear waste as fuel.
Peters said some utilities, and the U.S. Department of Defense, are thinking smaller. Westinghouse, NuScale, General Atomics, Oklo, X-energy, and others are working on micro reactor designs.
He said these 2-to-20-MW reactors could provide electricity for military bases and remote communities that currently run their electrical grids on expensive and highly polluting imported diesel fuel. He added that micro reactors also are a good option for off-grid industrial and mining operations, and large energy consumers in developing nations. See prior coverage on this blog – DOD seeks SMRs for tactical readiness at military bases
Prior Legislation to Support Advanced Nuclear Energy Efforts
Last December Congress passed an ambitious plan for nuclear energy R&D.
- Congress passed and the president has signed into law in late September the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017
- Also, in December it passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act
- The legislation has an ambitious agenda and its implementation may test the limits of the Department of Energy’s capabilities to fully execute its intent.
The new law establishes a broad and sweeping mandate for civilian nuclear energy R&D and technology development toward commercial deployment. Its provisions include;
- Provide research infrastructure to promote scientific progress and enable users from academia, the National Laboratories, and the private sector to make scientific discoveries relevant for nuclear, chemical, and materials science engineering; and
- Enable the private sector to partner with the National Laboratories to demonstrate novel reactor concepts for the purpose of resolving technical uncertainty associated with the aforementioned objectives.
DOE’s Work on the Versatile Test Reactor
U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced (02/28/19) the launch of the Department of Energy’s Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), one of the top priority projects specified in the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017.
The focus of the Versatile Test Reactor will be to conduct fast turnaround testing and qualification of advanced fuels and materials to support development of advanced nuclear reactor designs. Fuels and materials testing will include sodium-cooled, lead/LBE, HTGR, and molten salt designs.
The reactor itself will be a sodium-cooled reactor using HALEU fuel with a start date targeting 2026. GE-Hitachi and Bechtel are adapting the design of the PRISM concept for the VTR mission. Separately, GE-Hitachi is seeking an NRC license for the PRISM reactor design.
According to the presentation by INL, 12 universities are collaborating with the VTR project in 9 key areas. Industry collaboration with the university teams includes Framatome, Westinghouse, TerraPower, General Atomics, and GE-HItachi.
DOE investments in Advanced Reactors
In recent months DOE has awarded federal funds for development of advanced reactors to Westinghouse and Moltex. Like other DOE funding, these are cost-share grants which require the funded firm to also invest its funds in the project.
Westinghouse – Last March DOE awarded Westinghouse $13 million for the eVinci (TM) Micro Reactor Nuclear Demonstration Unit Readiness Project is for Westinghouse and its team to prepare for the Nuclear Demonstration Unit (NDU) of the eVinci micro reactor through design, analysis, testing and licensing to manufacture, site and test the NDU by 2022.
Westinghouse has not made public information on substantial collboration efforts with other firms or universities for the project. Also, it has not announced a potential customer for the design.
Westinghouse told Power Magazine that it faces several key challenges. First among them is getting enough HALEU fuel. The Department of Energy is supporting multiple efforts to address that issue including a contract to produce it by Centrus Corp by 2020 and deployment of a HALEU-based TRISO-X fuel fabrication pilot line at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Other issues which are faced by all SMR developers include the question of how many deals are needed to be inked in their order books to get investors to provide the funds for factory production facilities.
Because the design is unique, Power Magazine noted that Westinghouse will have to go through the long and expensive safety evaluation process at the NRC. The firm told Power Magazine it faces “first of a kind” challenges in licensing, instrumentation, remote reactor monitoring, and logistics. See prior coverage on this blog – Westinghous Launches New SMR Effort
Moltex – In July DOE awarded Moltex Energy USA LLC $2.55 million to develop technologies that will be capable of shortening Stable Salt Reactor (SSR) construction timelines to under three years. The funding, from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), will be used to develop composite structural technologies (COST) for the reactor.
Moltex will work in collaboration with Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Electric Power Research Institute, Purdue University and Vanderbilt University on the SSR, exploiting innovative technologies such as advanced structural composites and coatings to enable rapid construction.
Moltex Energy has secured a substantial investment from IDOM Consulting, Engineering, Architecture SAU, a prestigious and innovative global consulting & engineering company with a large, experienced and successful nuclear engineering practice worldwide. The multi-million dollar (USD) investment allows Moltex to expand its New Brunswick office and accelerate its pre-licensing progress through CNSC’s Vendor Design Review (VDR).
World Nuclear News reports that Moltex last year signed an agreement with the New Brunswick Energy Solutions Corporation and NB Power to build a demonstration SSR-W at the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant site in Canada. The second-generation SSR envisaged by the company, which will use uranium fuel, is aimed at those countries which do not have existing nuclear reactors and therefore have no waste to burn. The company also envisages a thorium breeder version of the reactor.
Also, at that site ARC Nuclear and New Brunswick Power (NB Power) have agreed to work together to take the necessary steps to develop, license, and build an advanced small modular reactor (SMR) based on ARC Nuclear’s Gen IV sodium-cooled fast reactor technology. See prior coverage on ths blog – Argonne’s IFR to Live Again at Point Lepreau, New Brunswick
University Programs – On June 28, 2019, in its latest round of funding, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $49.3 million in nuclear energy research, facility access, crosscutting technology development, and infrastructure awards for 58 advanced nuclear technology projects in 25 states.
The awards are part of DOE’s nuclear energy programs called the Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP), the Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF) program, and crosscutting research projects. DOE noted that since 2009 it has awarded $678 million in funding through its university programs.
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