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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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A Look At The Future Of Nuclear Power

A Look At The Future Of Nuclear Power

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.

The leader on this front is NuScale Power LLC, an SMR company based in Oregon. The Department of Energy has already awarded $217 million to NuScale to help it through the design application process.

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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  • smayer97 on March 24 2015 said:
    what about Thorium reactors? Where do they fit in the mix?
  • Roland on March 25 2015 said:
    These SMRs are pressurized. Any leak can be catastrophic. And the pressure vessels are huge, expensive, and prone to neutron degradation. That's why they are NFG. And these 'steam generators' are actually heat exchangers that operate at high temps, high pressure, and high flowrates, which has caused failures. Molten salt units run at ambient pressure and won't melt down. SMRs have the same flaws as older designs, but are smaller.
  • Jerry Nolan on March 25 2015 said:
    I guess this article is talking about the U.S., but I would like to point out that we live in a global economy. Russia's nuclear giant Rosatom did $100 billion in foreign sales in 2014 and in 2015 signed a $10 billion dollar deal with Jordan and another $10 billion deal with Egypt. Russia is now selling reactors that are bundled with desalination plants that can desalinate 170,000 cubic meters of water per day using waste heat from the reactor as it generates lots of electricity. (Too bad California will never be allowed to buy one.) Russia is also way ahead of the curve with Generation IV reactors. It's fast neutron breeder reactor the BN 600 has been generating electricity for 35 years, it's larger brother, the BN 800 is now in operation, and the BN 1200 is under construction. Marin Katusa—head of the energy division of investment advisory service Casey Research— describes Russia's purchasing of virtually all uranium mines around the world in his book The Colder War.

    And then there is China. China is also betting heavily on a nuclear future. China is using an “all of the above” approach to nuclear. It's buying reactors and reactor designs from all over the world, especially the U.S. (Westinghouse AP1000 and Oak Ridge National Labs molten salt reactor), Canada (CANDU reactor which can burn Thorium), and Russia (BN800) and plans on making the most of all of them. China will own all the international rights to the molten salt reactor which the United States is helping them design and build at minimal cost to China. Too bad the NRC will not let the U.S. buy one from China when it is finished. Westinghouse will license China to build and sell its AP1000 design, presumably at a lower price.
  • Travis on March 25 2015 said:

    Thorium is mostly tied in with molten salt reactors. Terrestrial Energy is planning on building a burner that'll run on the waste from current reactors to get the technology off the ground. At the same time a few other companies, ORNL and the Chinese are working on developing Thorium and eventually producing LFTRs (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors).


    Yes there is no operational difference with SMRs and their larger counterparts in terms of design. That being said, SMRs are able to improve on several of the problems found with traditional reactors because facilitate mass production. Some of these improve faster turn around for both construction and clearance, quality control, standardization and overall safety. To add to this the SMR label can be applied to all reactor designs. In fact MSRs were initially designed following the SMR model.
  • Mike Keller on March 25 2015 said:
    There are other approaches that do not involve pressurized water or steam generators. Helium cooled gas reactors. The fuel used by these reactors cannot melt and the plants are nearly twice as efficient as water reactors.

    These types of reactors are more likely the future of nuclear power and represent a fully fail-safe design.
  • Jerry Nolan on March 26 2015 said:
    @Roland, Travis, and Mike: Pressurized water reactors ARE SAFE! Quit dreaming about future designs and support current nuclear technology. Global warming will not wait for a dream design that will please everybody. The new designs will come, but we need nuclear energy now.
  • Peter Sipp on March 26 2015 said:
    The four reactors in the U.S. that are behind schedule and way over budget are being built in a factory, the parts sent to Ga.& S.C. Why will it be any better on SMR's??? Then there is all the waste & irradiated metals left over at the end. Not good enough.
  • Mike Keller on March 27 2015 said:
    I support the cost effective supply of energy. Nuclear power does not fit that criteria in the U.S. because we have low-cost natural gas. Different story in other parts of the world.

    As for future designs, I am not dreaming but am making it happen. I invented (several U.S. patents) the hybrid-nuclear power plant and the design is about to be submitted to the NRC.
  • Mike Keller on March 27 2015 said:
    A hybrid-nuclear plant is based on using a simplified, advanced, helium cooled gas reactor driving a combustion turbine's air compressor. The reactor is easily modified to "burn" plutonium from conventional water reactors while using Thorium as the fertile material. The gas reactor's fuel is essentially useless for making nuclear bombs (too hard to reprocess the stuff).
  • Greg Goble on April 02 2015 said:
    Airbus Defence and Space GgmH Germany filed a modular nuclear reactor patent in 2013.

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