New Technology To Save Nuclear Power

New nuclear reactors are emerging in the US, providing a safer and cheaper alternative to traditional nuclear power plants.

A traditional nuclear reactor, being cooled with water to lower temperatures. Smaller nuclear reactors are being built with a new technology to passively keep things cool.

The nuclear industry may have a new outlook in the near future, courtesy of investors like Bill Gates. The start of this new look may begin in an isolated area about 100 miles southwest of Yellowstone National Park. Here a plan has been made to build an innovative nuclear reactor to produce electricity.

The blueprints for the new reactor’s design belongs to the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems. This consortium of 45 municipal agencies wishes to create better alternatives for their outdated coal power plants.

Approval from the US Department of Energy was awarded to them this year, giving the go-ahead for Idaho National Laboratories to start analysing the impacts a small nuclear reactor may have. If the safety and environmental impacts are low, the consortium intends to build the nuclear power plant. It will be equipped with 12 small reactors and have the ability to produce 600 megawatts of electricity.

The lab’s analysis will determine whether the mini nuclear power plant will be the right business endeavor.

While Nuclear plants emit no emissions, the traditional designs require substantial amounts of water to cool them. This makes their existing argument of being a preventative measure against climate change incredibly weak.

By building new smaller reactors the price of maintaining lower temperatures should be much cheaper.

Other groups are interested in the new passively cooled reactors as well. In May, the Tennessee Valley Authority applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a permit to build one of these reactors, becoming the first utility to do so.

Traditionally large nuclear reactors produce about 1,000 megawatts of electricity. These large reactors use this energy for the pumps and motors that circulate coolant throughout the system. This can be very troublesome if the power plant overheats.

In comparison, the small modular reactors Utah plans to build only generate between 50 and 300 megawatts, and do not use pumps or motors. Instead, a new technology was invented using gravity and conduction to passively lower the reactor’s temperature.

Inside view of a small reactor compared to a traditional one.

The small size of these new reactors allows for each one to be built in the safety of a factory, rather than onsite. In theory, this will make building each reactor much faster and cheaper than their larger counterparts.

Traditional nuclear power plants are about $10 billion and can take up to a decade to build.

This is a burden on many nuclear power plants, who continue to struggle financially long after the large towers are built. With these new smaller reactors, the nuclear industry may have a brighter outlook in the future.

Not having to pay all of the funds up front is a really great selling point for investors, according to the former president of the American Nuclear Society. The society represents engineers and scientists who continue to improve nuclear technology.

Research is also being conducted presently to advance reactor concepts beyond their present use. One idea is to have the reactors take used fuel and reprocess it to reduce the amount of fuel used, the current co-chair of the policy advisory committee said.

This idea of using spent fuel includes repurposing spent uranium fuel and is backed by the startup companies TerraPoweras, Transatomic, and Terrestrial Energy. A different start-up company called Oklo is trying to invent a 2-megawatt reactor that will fit inside shipping containers, and provide energy to various isolated locations.

Unfortunately, many small nuclear companies do not have potential customers yet. A notable exception, however, is Oregon’s own NuScale Power. Their technology will be used for the Utah consortium project in Idaho.

Before the project gets underway, NuScale will apply for their certification from the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency.

This is a process that all nuclear engineering firms must go through before using their designs to build power plants. NuScale expects the agency to approve their design by 2020, if the permit process goes smoothly, reported the company’s chief commercial officer.

Currently, NuScale has spent over $30 million on testing ahead of its NRC submission. If their design is approved, the construction costs are estimated to be less than $3 billion for the first 12 reactors built.

To compare, Vogtle Power Plant plans to build a 2,200-megawatt power plant in Georgia, and it is expected to cost $8 billion for 46% of its share in the project.

If Utah and NuClear’s small reactor project remains within estimated costs, it will be very pricey initially. Especially when you compare the price to subsidized wind and solar. The estimated price of constructing and operating power plants averages $50.90 per megawatt every hour for wind, and $58.20 per megawatt hour for solar according to the US Energy Information Administration.

NuClear estimates that initially, their megawatt hour will be about $101. The prices should decrease over time as more utilities build small reactors. The Utah consortium, however, estimates the cost to be closer to $85 per megawatt hour. This lower amount may be due to the city’s ability to borrow money at cheaper rates.

Increasing pressure from state and federal regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan, is being felt by power companies across the country to cut their emissions. For Utah consortium, NuClear’s size and design alleviates this pressure.

Their small reactor design eases the challenge of using nuclear power while complimenting their intermittent renewable energy sources. Large nuclear power plants are designed to produce energy without interruption, and having to rapidly adjust their power levels due to a sudden increase or decrease of energy from the renewable sources is very hard to do.

The smaller reactors have the ability to operate independently, allowing a nuclear power plant to easily vary its output accordingly.

Energy Northwest was hired to maintain Utah consortium’s 12 reactors in Idaho if they are built. The project’s estimated completion date is 2024.

Initial high prices almost guarantee that the mini nuclear reactors will be built in states that allow utility monopolies. The utility companies will need to win state approval for charging customers more money to cover the new plant’s cost, however, without any competition, it’s unlikely they’ll be denied.

Other sustainability scientists, such as Mike Pasqualetti from Arizona State University, suggest that the world doesn’t need this technology. These plants may, in theory, cost less to build than their traditional predecessors, but it delays the transition to a more sustainable future where 100% of the US’s energy needs are met with renewable sources and storage, he suggested.

Mini nuclear reactors have their advantages, but there is still waste. They may be safer, and cheaper to build, however, we have no experience with them, Mike noted.

The active nuclear research that is being conducted to reduce the complexity of building and operating a nuclear power plant is an important step forward. Unfortunately, there is a long way to go in making nuclear energy an important solution for fighting climate change, Dan Bakal the head of Ceres’ electricity power concluded.

If there is a breakthrough, it could lead to new plant construction. Right now I wouldn’t be betting on it, Bakal said.