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Advanced Nuclear Technology: Future of Nuclear Energy

Those of a certain age who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s took our cues from the pop culture of our times. MASH’s Hawkeye Pierce was our moral compass. Gratuitous naughtiness from bygone movie franchises like Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds was our sex education. And films like War Games that introduced us to thermonuclear war – not to mention the meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl – fed our paranoia towards anything to do with nuclear energy. The result today is a meltdown of the nuclear energy industry, culminating in the bankruptcy last year of the venerable Westinghouse Electric Company. The bankruptcy came about after efforts to build the first new nuclear power plants in the United States, after more than 30 years, became mired in billion-dollar cost overruns. Despite these and other setbacks, more companies and projects are emerging in what’s being touted as the advanced nuclear technologies industry.

What is Advanced Nuclear Technology?

You can think of advanced nuclear technology a bit like how we talk about NewSpace, which is the second coming of the Space Age, with the private sector, and especially startups, leading the way with smaller satellites, new rocket engines and innovative technological applications such as space mining. Nuclear energy, of course, was born out of the nuclear arms race with the defunct Soviet Union. The first nuclear reactors were developed by U.S. national labs, though by 1960, companies like Westinghouse and General Electric began producing pressurised water reactors and boiling water reactors. Both are variants of light water reactors, which use water to slow neutron speeds down to split atoms like uranium-235 and plutonium-239. They also use water to cool the reactor.

All 99 nuclear reactors in the United States today are light water reactors, providing about 20 percent of our electricity. They also account for 65 percent of our carbon-free power, according to an analysis by Third Way, an “apolitical” think tank that advocates for private-sector economic growth. One of the catalysts behind the push to revive nuclear energy is that it would complement renewables to reduce carbon emissions and ratchet down the greenhouse effect from heat-trapping gases. One best-case estimate says the world needs 40 percent of electricity to come from zero-emissions sources by 2040 to stave off the effects of climate change. As we recently noted, artificial intelligence is doing its part to make renewables cheaper and more efficient toward that goal.

The evolution of nuclear reactors.

The evolution of nuclear reactors. Credit: Third Way

Advanced nuclear technology is something of a catch-all term for nuclear energy solutions outside of the sort of huge light water reactor nuclear plants that exist today. The next generation of nuclear reactors promises to be safer, cheaper and to produce less nuclear waste. We’ve covered one type of advanced nuclear reactor – molten salt – but other technologies employ fuels and/or coolants based on high-temperature gas or even liquid metal. Another area of advanced nuclear technology is the development of small, modular nuclear power plants, sort of like how the space industry favors nanosatellites for being cheaper and easier to deploy. We’ll explore some of these technologies further below, but let’s first talk a bit about the market.

Advanced Nuclear Technology Market

The current state of nuclear technology, particularly in the United States, isn’t especially encouraging, as we alluded to with the Westinghouse bankruptcy. Since that happened, only one new nuclear power plant remains under construction in the United States – but that project in Georgia has been plagued by in-fighting, delays and cost overruns that have seen the price tag double to $27 billion. U.S. firms once dominated the market, but now only account for 7 percent of the nuclear capacity planned and under construction around the world today comes out of the United States, according to Third Way.

Past, present and future market share of nuclear energy industry by country.

Past, present and future market share of nuclear energy industry by country. Credit: Third Way

However, the current U.S. administration is very keen to prop up the industry and invest in advanced nuclear technology. In fact, the Department of Energy (DoE) has doled out $60 million of $100 million earmarked for advanced nuclear R&D this year. That’s in addition to $30 million pledged last year for a project called Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), which provides companies with access to the technical, regulatory and financial support for commercializing advanced nuclear technologies. As of this year, the advanced nuclear industry has climbed up to 75 projects in North America, Third Way reported. In 2015, the think tank had counted more than $1.3 billion in private capital invested in advanced nuclear projects. (Some of that money recently went down the proverbial toilet with the shuttering of Transatomic, a startup that made big promises to use spent nuclear-reactor fuel in a molten salt reactor that proved to be so much nuclear fallout.)

But there’s lots of competition out there, with 81 advanced nuclear reactor projects under development in 20 countries outside of the United States and Canada. And let’s not forget our friends in China, which is projected to be one of the largest producers of nuclear-based electricity by 2030, with a couple of nuclear energy utilities investors can buy into today. But there’s also lots of wealth to be made: The world will add 559 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity between now and 2050, according to Third Way. That equates to an annual investment of $75 to $90 billion, which doesn’t include contracts for fuel and maintenance – or all of the lobbying in the perpetual hot potato game of nuclear waste.

The number of reactor projects from around the world.

The number of reactor projects from around the world in 2017. Credit: Third Way

Now let’s wrap up by taking a look at some of the advanced nuclear technologies being funded and the companies behind them.

Advanced Nuclear Technology Goes Small

Some experts see the development of Small Modular Reactors (SMR) – defined as anything less than 300 megawatts, about a quarter the size of a typical light water reactor – as one way to help revitalize the industry because they are cheaper and faster to build. They can also incorporate some of the advanced nuclear technologies in development today at a more modest scale, as well as be linked together like Legos. For comparison, the smallest nuclear power plant in the United States with one reactor generates nearly 600 megawatts. A 1,000-megawatt reactor operating at 90 percent capacity – a high operating capacity is a major advantage of nuclear, in general – can power about 740,000 U.S. households or probably all of North Korea.

The U.S. military is particularly interested in SMRs for its installations and bases, providing them with a reliable power supply that’s not subject to sabotage in a foreign country, for example. Such deployable nuclear power plants were first tested way back in nuclear’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, there was even a nuclear power plant, nicknamed Nukey Poo, at a U.S. research station in Antarctica. Unfortunately, it leaked like a sieve and was constantly down for maintenance.

Mock-up of NuScale nuclear reactor facility.

Mock-up of NuScale nuclear reactor facility. Credit: NuScale

Today’s small modular reactors are an advanced nuclear technology, partly for what they leave out as much as what they contain.

Click for company websiteTake the example of Portland-based NuScale Power, which has raised $42.6 million, including a $40 million grant from that DoE money we mentioned earlier. The NuScale Power Module incorporates all of the components for steam generation and heat exchange into a single integrated unit capable of generating 60 megawatts. The reactor operates using the principles of buoyancy-driven natural circulation, meaning no pumps are needed to circulate water through the reactor. The electrical system is also greatly simplified because the plant doesn’t rely on AC or DC power for safety. The compact design allows it to be built and assembled in a factory and then shipped by truck, train or even barge. Plug it in, and you’ve got your own generator for the end of the world and beyond.

Advanced Nuclear Technology Reactors

The move away from light water reactors is the future of nuclear energy, according to many industry experts, and we’ll dive into this topic more deeply in a future article. For now, let’s highlight a couple of recently funded DoE projects that show the breadth of innovation starting to emerge.

San Diego-based General Atomics has been around since 1955, receiving a $3.3 million DoE grant as part of that $60 million pool of money. The company does a little bit of everything, from developing advanced nuclear technologies to building unmanned aerial systems. It recently announced it would team up on a NASA project to build a lunar lander, working alongside a Japanese startup called ispace that wants to mine the moon. Back on Earth, General Atomics is developing a new reactor fuel that features silicon carbide composite fuel cladding containing uranium carbide fuel pellets. The cladding allows fuel rods to withstand temperatures more than twice that of metal cladding used in current reactor cores. 

General Atomics is developing nuclear reactor fuel rods that can survive temperatures far beyond that of current materials.

General Atomics is developing nuclear reactor fuel rods that can survive temperatures far beyond that of current materials. Credit: General Atomics

Better cladding = less chance of glowing in the dark.

Click for websiteFounded shortly after the end of the Civil War, BWX Technologies (BWXT) out Charlotte, North Carolina, received $5.4 million in DoE funds to investigate the ability of using 3D printing to fabricate nuclear components cheaper and faster, without sacrificing safety. Specifically, BWXT will test what additive materials could be used that would stand up against the rigors of a nuclear reactor. The company appears to be a pure-play stock for investing in nuclear energy, so we’ll look to cover them in a coming article.

Click for websiteAnd the DoE wrote a check for $8.99 million to a company out of Maryland called X Energy for the continued development of nuclear fuel fabrication facility for advanced nuclear applications. Specifically, the facility will produce specially coated uranium kernels using carbon and ceramic layers to prevent the release of radioactivity while producing high-quality fuel. The company is also designing a helium-cooling reactor, Xe-100, that it says will be meltdown proof.

Conclusions

The world is lurching toward carbon-free sources of electricity, and if the nuclear industry can solve the problems of cost, safety, scalability and public perception – obviously huge, huge obstacles – then it could become a hotter alternative than even solar. The market could be worth several trillion dollars over the next 30 years if advanced nuclear technology delivers on its promises. Or the meltdown could be spectacular.

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