The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced on Aug. 15, 2019 the launch of the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC). The new initiative will assist with the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies by harnessing the world-class capabilities of the DOE national laboratory system. Authorized by the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, NRIC will provide private sector technology developers the necessary support to test and demonstrate their reactor concepts and assess their performance. This will help accelerate the licensing and commercialization of these new nuclear energy systems.
“NRIC will enable the demonstration and deployment of advanced reactors that will define the future of nuclear energy,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. “By bringing industry together with our national labs and university partners, we can enhance our energy independence and position the U.S. as a global leader in advanced nuclear innovation.” NRIC will be led by Idaho National Laboratory and builds upon the successes of DOE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative…
The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act was signed into law in 2018 by President Donald J. Trump and eliminates some of the financial and technological barriers standing in the way of nuclear innovation. It directs DOE to facilitate the siting of advanced reactor research demonstration facilities through partnerships between DOE and private industry. The House Energy and Water Development committee has allocated $5 million in the FY2020 budget for NRIC, which plans to demonstrate small modular reactor and micro-reactor concepts within the next five years.
Excerpts from DOE, Energy Department Launches New Demonstration Center for Advanced Nuclear Technologies, Press Release, Aug. 15, 2019
Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) are relatively small and flexible: they have a power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) and their output can fluctuate in line with demand. This makes them particularly attractive for remote regions with less developed grids, but also for use as a complement to renewables and for non-electric applications of nuclear power. SMRs can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site, so they are expected to be more affordable to build.
Globally, there are about 50 SMR designs and concepts at different stages of development. Three SMR plants are in advanced stages of construction or commissioning in Argentina, China and Russia, which are all scheduled to start operation between 2019 and 2022…Some SMR designs have features that could reduce the tasks associated with spent fuel management. Power plants based on these designs require less frequent refuelling, every 3 to 7 years, in comparison to between 1 and 2 years for conventional plants, and some are even designed to operate for up to 30 years without refuelling. Nevertheless, even in such cases, there will be some spent fuel left, which will have to be properly managed.
Excerpts from Small Modular Reactors: A Challenge for Spent Fuel Management? IAEA News, Aug. 8, 2019
In January 2019, the Defense Department issued a call for information in support of the aptly titled Project Dilithium. It seeks to develop a tiny, readily transportable, yet virtually indestructible nuclear power reactor for use at forward operating bases, the military facilities that provide logistical and troop support to the front-lines of conflict zones.
To be sure, the type of reactor it is seeking could be a great military asset: all the benefits of nuclear energy with none of the risks. The costly and dangerous process of trucking diesel fuel to bases, sometimes through hostile territory, may eventually be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the need to store and ship irradiated nuclear fuel in a war zone will introduce different problems. And the odds that a meltdown-proof reactor could be successfully developed any time soon are vanishingly small.
The Defense Department…is seeking a nuclear reactor capable of producing 1 to 10 megawatts of electricity. …The reactor, at a minimum, should be less than 40 tons total weight; small enough to be transported by truck, ship, and aircraft; able to run for at least three years without refueling; and capable of semi-autonomous operation… The reactor should have an “inherently safe design” that ensures “a meltdown is physically impossible in various complete failure scenarios;” cause “no net increase in risk to public safety … by contamination with breach of primary core;” and have “minimized consequences to nearby personnel in case of adversary attack.
An Octrober 2018 report commissioned by the army’s Deputy Chief of Staff admits, quite reasonably, that exposed mobile nuclear plants would “not be expected to survive a direct kinetic attack.” If commanders need to expend significant resources to protect the reactors or their support systems from military strikes, such reactors could become burdens rather than assets. Can one really invent a reactor robust enough to suffer such a strike without causing unacceptable consequences? …If a severe accident or sabotage attack were to induce more extreme conditions than the reactor was designed to withstand, all bets are off. How long would passive airflow keep nuclear fuel safely cool if, say, an adversary threw an insulating blanket over a small reactor? Or if the reactor were buried under a pile of debris?
Moreover, it is hard to imagine that a direct explosive breach of the reactor core would not result in dispersal of some radioactive contamination. An operating nuclear reactor is essentially a can filled with concentrated radioactive material, including some highly volatile radionuclides, under conditions of high pressure and/or temperature. Even a reactor as small as 1 megawatt-electric would contain a large quantity of highly radioactive, long-lived isotopes such as cesium-137—a potential dirty bomb far bigger than the medical radiation sources that have caused much concern among security experts.
At best a release of radioactivity would be a costly disruption, and at worst it would cause immediate harm to personnel, render the base unusable for years, and alienate the host country. For any reactor and fuel design, extensive experimental and analytical work would be needed to understand how much radioactivity could actually escape after an attack and how far it would disperse. This is also true for spent fuel being stored or transported.
The 2018 report describes several existing reactor concepts that it thinks might meet its needs. One is the 2 megawatt-electric “Megapower” reactor being designed by Los Alamos National Laboratory. But a 2017 INL study of the design identified several major safety concerns, including vulnerabilities to seismic and flooding events. The study also found that the reactor lacked sufficient barriers to prevent fission product release in an accident. INL quickly developed two variants of the original Los Alamos design, but a subsequent review found that those shared many of the safety flaws of the original and introduced some new ones.
The other designs are high-temperature gas-cooled reactors that use TRISO (“tristructural isotropic”) fuel, which was originally developed decades ago for use in reactors such as the now-decommissioned Fort St. Vrain plant in Colorado. TRISO fuel consists of small particles of uranium coated with layers of different materials designed to retain most fission products at temperatures up to 1,600 degrees Celsius.
TRISO fuel enthusiasts have long claimed that reactors utilizing it do not need containments because each particle essentially has its own. This would seem to make TRISO an ideal fuel for small, mobile reactors, which can’t be equipped with the large, leak-tight containment structures typical of commercial power reactors. The army report buys into the notion that these “encapsulated” nuclear fuels can “avoid the release of radioactive volatile elements” and prevent contamination of the surrounding area, either during normal operations or accidents.
TRISO fuel’s actual performance has been inconsistent, however, and much is still not known. The Energy Department has been carrying out a program for more than a decade to try to improve TRISO fuel, but final results are not expected for years. In addition, if the fuel temperature rises above 1,600 degrees Celsius, fission product release can rapidly increase, making it vulnerable to incendiary weapons that burn hotter, such as thermite. The Defense Department may have already realized that TRISO fuel is not as miraculous as it first thought.
The RFI also specifies that the reactor should be capable of being transported within seven days after shutdown, presumably with the irradiated nuclear fuel still inside. While this requirement is understandable—if forces need to retreat in a hurry, they would not want to leave the reactor behind—it is unrealistic to expect this could be met while ensuring safety. Typically, spent nuclear fuel is stored for many months to years after discharge from a reactor before regulators allow it to be shipped, to allow for both thermal cooling and decay of short-lived, intensely radioactive fission products. Moving a reactor and its irradiated fuel so soon after shutdown could be a risky business.
Finally, the proliferation risks of these reactors and their fuel is a concern. The original RFI stipulated that the reactor fuel had to be high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which is uranium enriched to levels above the 5 percent uranium-235 concentration of conventional power reactors, but still below the 20 percent that marks the lower limit for highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is usable in nuclear weapons….If the Defense Department goes forward with Project Dilithium, other nations, including US adversaries, may be prompted to start producing HALEU and building their own military power reactors.
Excerptsf rom Edwin Lyman The Pentagon wants to boldly go where no nuclear reactor has gone before. It won’t work, Feb. 22, 2019
Worried the U.S. may be falling behind rivals in nuclear-power technology, the Energy Department plans to spend $115 million to help develop advanced fuels for next-generation reactors. Under a three-year pilot project announced, the money would go to an Ohio company to produce a more energy-dense uranium, which the nuclear industry has been asking for to support a budding industry of smaller reactors. Department officials say they plan to award the contract to American Centrifuge Operating, a unit of Centrus Energy Corp. , unless rival companies can make a compelling case by Jan. 22, 2019.
The U.S. nuclear industry is at a crossroads that has jeopardized its workforce in the U.S. and helped fuel the rise of U.S. rivals abroad. The industry, faced with safety concerns, expensive regulations and competition from other fuels, is pushing to reinvent its core technology to be simpler, cheaper and often much smaller….China has become one of the few countries building nuclear-power capacity, and Russia has taken a dominant position in developing projects elsewhere…Russia is the only country capable of producing the higher-enriched uranium the Energy Department’s new program would produce. Without it, the U.S. risks being left out of the global industry’s next stage, said Dan Brouillette, Deputy Energy Secretary.
Excertps from Timothy Puko, New Effort to Develop Advanced Nuclear Fuel, WSJ, Jan. 7, 2018
Westinghouse founded in 1886 is the company that brought electricity to the masses. Its AP1000 pressurised water reactor was supposed to make nuclear plants simpler and cheaper to build, helping to jump-start projects in America and around the world. But those nuclear ambitions have gone awry. On March 29th the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York. Its troubles have been a running sore at Toshiba, its Japanese parent, a headache for its creditors, and the latest bad tidings for a nuclear industry beset with problems.
Toshiba was triumphant in 2006 when it paid $5.4bn for Westinghouse after a bidding war, beating out General Electric. Around the same time, Southern and SCANA, two big utilities based in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, chose the AP1000 design for new nuclear plants.But these American projects soon faced the problems that have long plagued nuclear construction. In Westinghouse’s bankruptcy filing, the company explains a dismal chain reaction. Unexpected new safety and other requirements from American regulators caused delays and additional costs. That sparked a fight between the utilities, Westinghouse and its construction contractor, a subsidiary of Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I), about who should bear them. The brawl exacerbated delays…
There have been rumours that Korea Electric Power, a state-controlled utility, might take over, but Westinghouse’s steep losses may keep it away. “This has bankrupted Westinghouse,” says Mr Byrd. “Why would another firm step into that situation?”
The future for other AP1000 reactors looks bleak. A plant in China is years behind schedule. In America, the troubles in Georgia and South Carolina may bolster support for more modest nuclear projects, says Tyson Smith, a nuclear-energy expert at Winston & Strawn, a law firm. On March 15th, 2017 the country’s nuclear regulator said it would review an application for America’s first small modular nuclear reactor (SMR), from a company called NuScale, in Oregon. The SMR technology has been touted as a cheaper, easier way to build nuclear capacity. But it will have to compete with inexpensive natural gas, wind farms and solar plants. Those hoping for an American nuclear resurgence may have to wait a long time yet.
Excerpts Fallout Westinghouse files for bankruptcy, Economist, Apr. 1, 2017