If nuclear power is going to succeed in the 21st century, there will need to be major innovations in controlling costs and enhancing safety.
The generation of nuclear reactors constructed in the 1970’s and 1980’s are showing their age. In just the past week, several U.S. reactors faced some equipment problems, forcing them to shut down. The Fermi 2 nuclear power plant outside of Detroit was taken offline after a water leak on March 19. The Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey was forced to temporarily shut down due to an electrical problem. These problems are minor, to be sure, but illustrate some of the issues plaguing America’s nuclear fleet, the world’s largest.
Tougher safety standards are raising costs of compliance. Japan is weighing a return to nuclear power after shuttering more than 50 nuclear reactors after Fukushima. But four Japanese utilities decided earlier this month to permanently decommission a total of five older reactors after the costs of making safety upgrades were deemed to be too high. Related: The $6.8 Billion Great Wall Of Japan: Fukushima Cleanup Takes On Epic Proportion
Most of the world’s 434 reactors were built several decades ago, so it will become increasingly commonplace for these older reactors to face problems and rising costs, ultimately pushing them into retirement. An estimated 200 reactors, or nearly half of the global nuclear capacity, are heading for retirement over the next 25 years, according to the International Energy Agency.
The nuclear energy industry wants to not only replace that lost capacity, but grow its market share. The next generation of nuclear technology will need to demonstrate significant improvements over these hulking 20th century beasts.
There is no shortage of ideas. A venture capital firm cofounded by Peter Thiel has provided a small investment of $2.5 million in Transatomic Power, allowing the start up to run experiments to verify its design for a small meltdown-proof molten salt reactor while Bill Gates is pushing a “traveling wave reactor” through his company TerraPower.
However, the industry, along with the Obama administration, is placing a lot of hope in small modular reactors (SMRs), nuclear power plants that are around one-tenth the size of a conventional large-scale nuclear power plant. The fact is, getting a nuclear power plant through the design licensing process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is not only a long and expensive process, but it is the only practical way that a specific design will reach commercialization. The fact that the Obama administration has singled out SMRs suggests that it is probably the only game in town in the near future. Related: Three Triggers That Will Send Oil Crashing Again
SMRs have been trumpeted as the way forward for nuclear: smaller, cheaper, and safer. SMRs could theoretically be mass produced in factories, allowing for modularization and cost reduction.
NuScale says that construction of its 50-megawatt reactor design will be possible in factories, with transportation to its destination by rail, and due it its small design, a power plant owner can incrementally add more modules to ratchet up electric capacity as needed. NuScale successfully installed a steam generator in Italy in February, which validated the company’s computer codes ahead of its design application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, expected to be submitted in 2016. “This is another key milestone for the development of our innovative technology,” NuScale’s Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Jose Reyes, said in a statement. Related: Wall Street Losing Millions From Bad Energy Loans
Not to be outdone by its southern neighbor, Washington State is hoping to become a leader in SMR manufacturing. The state senate passed a bill in early March that would require Washington’s Commerce Department to figure out citing for SMR factories, hoping to kick start the fledgling SMR industry. Although there is a big slice of the state’s population that is skeptical of nuclear power, it could fit nicely into the Governor’s plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions. “Nuclear energy accounts for 63 percent of carbon-free electricity in the U.S. and people need to know that,” State Senator Sharon Brown, a major champion of the bill, said in response to its passage.
SMRs got another little push forward on March 19 when President Obama issued an executive order that will require federal agencies to acquire 25 percent of their electricity from “alternative energy” by 2025. Conventional nuclear energy does not meet that standard, but the executive order does classify “small modular nuclear reactor technologies” as one of the admissible energy sources along with solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and fuel cell technologies.
That provides a bit of boost to the growing prospects for commercialized SMRs. Ultimately, the industry’s hopes depend on NuScale Power’s ability to push its design through the NRC licensing process. If all goes according to plan, NuScale could build an SMR in Utah, which could be online by 2023. The nuclear industry has a spotty record in terms of meeting timelines on schedule and on budget, but if NuScale prevails, SMRs could pave the way for nuclear power in the 21st Century.
By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com
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