Is the U.S. Finally Getting Serious About Advanced Nuclear?
By Jim Vess
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it will fund cost-shared research and development of two advanced – Generation IV – reactor designs. Following a competitive process, the two designs selected for funding are X-energy’s Xe-100 Pebble Bed Advanced Reactor and Southern Company Services’ Molten Chloride Fast Reactor (MCFR). The projects will allow industry-led teams, which include universities and national laboratories, to advance nuclear technology and enable further development of advanced reactor designs with potential for demonstration in the 2035 timeframe. The DOE’s initial investment will be $6 million for each project with the possible multi-year cost-share value of up to a total of $80 million.
X-energy is teaming up with BWX Technology, Oregon State University, Teledyne-Brown Engineering, SGL Group, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to further develop its Xe-100 advanced pebble-bed reactor design. According to X-energy, “The Xe-100 is a time-tested nuclear reactor concept. Pebble-bed high temperature gas-cooled reactors were first proposed in 1944, and the Xe-100 builds upon an extensive heritage of worldwide development and operation. Each reactor will generate 125MWt and approximately 50MWe. The standard Xe-100 ‘four-pack’ plant generates approximately 200MWe and will fit on as few as 10 acres. All of the components for the Xe-100 will be road-transportable, and will be installed, rather than constructed, at the project site to streamline construction.”
Southern Company Services is partnering with TerraPower, EPRI, Vanderbilt University, and ORNL to develop its MCFR. The MCFR uses a fluid fuel in the form of a molten chloride salt, unlike conventional nuclear reactors that use solid fuel. Since the fuel is in a liquid form, it functions as both the fuel to produce power and the coolant to cool the system. Researchers believe MCFRs could provide enhanced operational performance, safety, security and economic value, relative to other advanced reactor designs.
The awards to X-energy and Southern Company Services are part of the public-private partnerships envisioned under the DOE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative to provide the nuclear energy community access to technical, regulatory and financial support to accelerate the commercialization of new and advanced reactor designs.
“In order to ensure that nuclear energy remains a key source for U.S. electricity generation well into the future, it is critically important that we invest in these technologies today,” said Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz in a press release. “Public-private partnerships to develop advanced nuclear capabilities will enable low-carbon nuclear energy to power America for years to come.”
“This grant represents one of the many steps DOE is taking in a renaissance for nuclear research and development in the U.S.,” American Nuclear Society (ANS) President Eugene S. Grecheck said in an ANS release. “Grants such as this, along with expanded nuclear research and development at DOE labs, have nuclear energy poised for growth.”
Nuclear power is a critical part of the U.S. energy mix, providing almost 20 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, and over 60 percent of the nation’s carbon-free electricity. In order to meet the demands of the Clean Power Plan, nuclear power is going to have to remain a part of the energy mix. While it may be decades before we see them in operation, the next step is to develop more reliable and efficient advanced reactor designs. DOE and the industry appear to be taking that next step.