Advanced Reactor Nuclear Power Resurgence in the U.S.
“I was not always pro-nuclear power,” former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner declared Wednesday at the Advanced Nuclear Summit and Showcase in Washington, D.C. She changed her mind 12 years ago, because she “couldn’t be responsible about my views on climate change and carbon pollution without taking this clean energy source seriously.” Now Browner has joined the Nuclear Matters’ Leadership Council, which seeks to make sure America’s 99 operating nuclear power plants—which currently supply nearly 20 percent of the country’s electricity and two thirds of its no-carbon electric power—are not unnecessarily and prematurely shut down.
The Summit, organized by the self-described centrist think tank Third Way, featured panel discussions on advanced power plant designs, how the private sector was financing new plants, and what the federal government could do help jumpstart a nuclear era. Like Browner, many participants argued that ramping up nuclear power is necessary to help avoid the climate change produced by burning fossil fuels. Ross Koningstein, who headed up an energy supply study for Google, asserted that in the best-case scenario renewables like solar and wind could cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by around 50 percent. If climate change is a problem, they argued, then nuclear power must be part of the solution.
So what’s standing in the way of building innovative new nuclear plants? Regulation. The summiteers danced around this a bit; after all, disrespecting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) bureaucrats in attendance is not a good way to get your project to the head of the administrative queue. More on that below.
But first, the most exciting part of the conference: the showcase of new nuclear technologies being developed by various companies. One of the more intriguing designs is Terrapower’s traveling wave reactor, a fast reactor that will use depleted uranium as a fuel source. Depleted uranium is now essentially a waste product leftover from producing fuel for conventional reactors. The company signed a memorandum of understanding last year with the China National Nuclear Corporation with the goal of building a 600-megawatt demonstration plant by 2020.
Transatomic is developing a molten salt reactor. The low-enriched uranium is dissolved in lithium fluoride salt that enables the reactor to burn nuclear spent fuel to produce heat to drive the turbines that generate electricity. The company claims that its reactors could convert the current stock of 270,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel into enough energy to power the entire world for 72 years. They also claim that their reactors would be “walk away safe.” Unlike conventional light water reactors, Transatomic reactors operate at atmospheric pressure; if the reactor should lose electrical power, the molten contents would dissolve a salt plug and safely drain out into an auxiliary container, where it would cool and freeze in just a few hours.
The Canadian/U.S. Terrestrial Energy is also developing a molten salt reactor. Terrestrial’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor design is fashioned around core units that function for seven years and then are swapped out for new units. The company is seeking regulatory approval for its first plant in Canada, which would begin generating power in the early 2020s. The company makes the remarkable claim that the levelized cost of its electricity—that is, the cost taking capital, fuel, operation, and maintenance into account—would be 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the levelized cost of electricity from natural gas power plants is around 7 to 8 cents per kilowatt-hour.