By - Michael Drost

Advanced nuclear reactors are key to fighting climate change: report

Energize Weekly, June 17, 2015

Around 40 companies, backed by $1.3 billion in private capital, are developing plans for new nuclear plants in the U.S. and Canada in order to reduce carbon emissions and make investments in electricity generation less costly, according to a new report by Washington D.C.-based think tank Third Way.

The report, which specifies the number firms backing advanced nuclear power and the total amounts invested, says that while other technology innovations in the energy sector (such as Tesla’s home battery system and advanced thermostats) have gotten more media attention, what has gotten less noticed is that nuclear power is “poised to join the innovation list.”

“In total, we have found over 45 projects in companies and organizations working on small modular reactors based on the current light water reactor technology of today’s reactors, advanced reactors using innovative fuels and alternative coolants like molten salt, high temperature gas, or liquid metal instead of high-pressure water, and even fusion reactors, to generate electricity,” according to the report.

Among the projects listed in the report include TerraPower, which seeks to produce reactors fueled by liquid metal and is partially funded by former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, as well as Tri Alpha Energy, the secretive fusion energy research company bankrolled by Gates’ Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Established companies which have embraced advanced nuclear tech include Lockheed Martin, which recently claimed to have a working fusion prototype capable of being commercially viable within the next decade, as well as Holtec International, which is building a $260 million technology campus in New Jersey to develop its modular nuclear reactor and expand its current line of nuclear products.

The report comes as federal officials back initiatives to promote the construction of small modular reactors (SMRs), which have lower initial capital investment requirements and a shorter construction timeline than conventional light water reactors. The U.S. Department of Energy has dedicated $452 million over six years to help SMRs get licensed, including working with such companies as mPower America to develop an operational SMR by 2022.

Third Way says that SMRs can complement light water reactors by providing electricity to sparsely populated regions or other areas unattached to the larger grid, enable grid independence for critical facilities such as military bases; and deliver load following electrical production.

Critics of SMRs say that the reactors offer few safety advantages to conventional reactors, and would have a significant cost penalty because of diseconomies of scale.

“No utility will want to buy them unless they can be exempted from a lot of costly regulations that large reactors must meet,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, to The Hill. “But in light of the Fukushima disaster, one must be very wary of the safety claims made by the nuclear industry, especially for reactor designs that have never been built or tested.”

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