Nuclear energy storage? Advanced reactor developers trying to expand nuclear power’s selling points
Towers of concrete blocks as tall as skyscrapers, a ski lift-like contraption on the side of a mountain, underground caverns — the quest for more ways to back up the increasing amount of wind and solar energy on the grid has recently driven investment toward a number of unusual technologies.
Now, the ability to serve a cleaner but more variable grid has become part of the pitch for a technology that has been around for decades but is still seeking commercialization: molten salt nuclear reactors, which have been promoted for years by investors like Bill Gates, who say that a new version of nuclear power is necessary to provide on-demand, carbon-free energy.
Developers of so-called “advanced reactors” — those that use designs fundamentally different from the light-water reactors that make up the existing U.S. power reactor fleet — want to combine a number of revenue streams into a package for potential customers. These uses include load-following to help the grid deal with intermittent renewable energy, the ability to provide power when not connected to external transmission lines (blackstart capability) and heat for industrial processes.
Advanced reactor developers believe these additional capabilities can provide an escape from the current situation facing the nuclear industry, which is struggling with high capital costs that have made the construction of new conventional power reactors extremely challenging in North America and Europe for the foreseeable future.
“We are innovating to solve what we believe is the biggest limit on new nuclear builds in the west — conventional technology is unaffordable and non-cost-competitive,” Simon Irish, CEO of advanced reactor developer Terrestrial Energy, told Utility Dive in an interview.
The molten salt reactor is just one type of nuclear design but, due to the ability of molten salt to contain and store heat at extremely high temperatures, proponents say it is particularly well-suited to the grid of the future.
“Having the ability to sell ancillary services, the ability to sell heat on the side – that really helps the economics of the reactor,” TerraPower Director of External Services Jeff Navin also said in an interview.
U.K. and Canada-based developer Moltex Energy is working on a design it calls a “Stable Salt Reactor” that the company says could eventually store energy for around eight hours but up to 24, significantly longer than the four-hour duration period that lithium-ion batteries typically provide.