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Nuclear Energy Innovation – Getting off the bench

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Over the past two months, the U.S. nuclear power industry has seen significant events occur including the first approval for new reactor construction in more than three decades and the Nuclear Regulator Commissions’s release of a new set of orders aimed at increasing plant safety post-Fukushima. Both appear to signal that the U.S. federal government is ready to support some degree of growth in the industry. But, it is still unclear how much support there is for innovation in this field, especially when it comes to moving ideas off the lab bench.

In their February 9, 2012 vote, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the addition of two new reactors at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle Plant. Jointly owned by Georgia Power, Oglethorope Power Corporation, Municipal Authority of Georgia, and Dalton Utilities, this plant originally came online in 1987 and currently runs with two Westinghouse pressurized water reactors (PWRs).

The NRC’s February vote approved the addition of two Advanced Passive 1000 (AP1000) reactors in Plant Vogtle.  Like their 1980s counterparts, these pressurized water reactors will be built by Westinghouse. But, they will be the first of their kind in the United States . In fact, the 3rd generation AP1000 design was only added to the NRC’s approved list in December (the original design was approved in 2006).

On the other hand, outside of the United States, the 3rd generation AP1000 design is expected to “account for close to 60 percent of China’s future projects,” according to Dave Dai, a Hone Kong-based analyst at Daiwa Securities Capital Markets Company. Already, the Chinese government is planning to build at least 60 reactors by 2020, with four already under construction.  The country is already running 11 nuclear power generating units with 2nd generation AP1000 technology.

This relatively slow rate of acceptance of new nuclear technology in the United States compared to other countries is not only seen in the deployment stage. New innovations in reactor design are treated with a skeptical eye as concerns regarding safety butt heads with discussions regarding the impact of power sector greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. And, while caution is certainly appropriate when dealing with a technology that could pose significant threat to human health and safety, just how cautious one should be is less clear.

For example, take a look at the Bellvue, WA-based startup TerraPower and its traveling wave reactor.

TerraPower is a unique venture – one of the only privately funded research companies in the U.S. nuclear industry. And, its technology is also a step apart. Instead of focusing on making incremental improvements to existing reactor designs, this company’s traveling wave reactor would shift the type of uranium used to generate electricity in nuclear power plants. In fact, this technology might be able to take existing nuclear waste and turn it into fuel that could allow these plans to run for decades without needing to shutdown to refuel.

A traveling-wave reactor is designed to convert nonfissile material (like the nuclear waste currently sitting in dry or wet storage at power plants around the nation) into fuel to generate electricity. Today’s conventional reactors use uraium-235, while the TWR would primarily use the more common uranium-238, with only a small layer of enriched U-235 required.

What does this mean?

According to TerraPower’s CEO John Gilleland, their TWR design “can represent a nearly infinite supply of low cost energy – carbon free energy – for the world” which also addressing some of the “social and technical problems associated with nuclear power.”

According to Gilleland, after the initial layer of enriched U-235 is used to ignite the process, the fissile U-238 material can maintain the nuclear fission chain reaction for decades. In other words, it is possible that no refueling or waste removal would be required for the life of the reactor, which could decrease electricity generation costs and increase nuclear power plant safety.

But, this traveling wave reactor (TWR) is a fourth-generation nuclear reactor. This means that it is still in the theoretical stage, currently undergoing research to determine its potential. But, thanks to the power of supercomputing and the support of investors like Bill Gates, the promise of this reactor design has been shown “on paper” and is now ready for some serious testing.

At last month’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, Bill Gates took the stage with Secretary of Energy Steve Chu. In their conversation regarding energy technology, Gates spoke directly to the underfunding of U.S. energy research and the potential for nuclear technologies – like TerraPower’s traveling wave reactor – to help the world transition from carbon-intensive baseload power generation to carbon neutral technologies (see 2:30 – 3:30 of this highlights video – or the entire discussion here) .

But, to test this theory and to address concerns regarding some key materials problems in TerraPower’s TWR design, a demonstration project is needed.  And, this demonstration is unlikely to occur in the United States due to regulatory constraints and public concerns.

Last summer, TerraPower announced that it was seriously looking outside of the U.S. to put portions of its TWR theory into practice with a pilot version of this reactor.  According to Roger Reynolds, TerraPower’s technical advisor, “[TerraPower has] had conversations with the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians, the French…We have an aggressive schedule where we think it is important to get something built and accumulate data so that we can eventually build them in the U.S. Breaking ground in 2015, with a startup in 2020, is more aggressive than our current [U.S.] regulatory structure can support.” To date, TerraPower has not announced a demonstration project partnership with any organization in- or out-side of the United States.

While it appears that the United States is prepared to move forward in developing its nuclear power industry through the approval of new reactor construction, it is unclear if the country is ready to move forward in its support of nuclear innovation past the bench. And so, while two new reactors have been approved and existing reactors are being improved, nuclear energy innovation might struggle with its ability to get off the bench.

Photo Credit:

  1. Photo of nuclear power plant and sunflower field by Jess and Peter and used under this Creative Commons License.
  2. Photo of TerraPower TWR reactor design from TerraPower.
Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Carlyle 10:32 pm 03/19/2012

    Well written Melissa. Thanks.

    Link to this
  2. 2. jgrosay 6:17 am 03/20/2012

    Travelling wave is also the name of a modern development of the Stirling external combustion engine, there are examples of this type of motor in YouTube. Stirling cycle, although inherently less efficacious than the internal combustion engines cycles, does work with a very low level of noxious exahaust emissions, and its efficiency increases as the temperature in the surrounding air is lower, such as in northern winters. In the opposite, heat-pump heating, the reverse use of the concept in air conditioning, a very economical and efficient way of housing heating, does work better when the outside temperatures are not extremely low, such as in mild winter climates. There are still lots of ways to improve fuel efficiency and reduce environmental pollution, and engineers are constantly producing many improvements in everyday life appliances and machines, just the consumers need to be well informed to make the right choice. Salut +

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  3. 3. mwils356 11:11 am 03/26/2012

    Hey! Check out my podcast on opposing viewpoints on nuclear energy!
    http://soundcloud.com/mwils356/nuclear-energy-an-ongoing

    Link to this

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