The quest for an alternative for fossil fuels continues. Nuclear power is one of the most efficient, scalable, and practical alternatives to fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, but its history has marred its potentially good name.
While "nuclear power" may seem like one technology, it's actually an amalgamation of technologies used in various different reactors and processes, some more efficient, some more scalable. There's not just one kind of nuclear reactor or just one way to harness nuclear energy. In fact, there are 10s to hundreds of different reactor designs that could, in theory, transform the public perception of the energy source.
In the United States, the U.S. Department of Energy runs something called the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, or ARDP. This program is the country's way of ensuring that it stays on top of the best nuclear power technologies globally by incentivizing companies to speed the demonstration of advanced reactors through cost-shared partnerships with the U.S. industry
The program leaders recently announced 5 new nuclear reactor types that they want to fund and examine in greater detail.
They range from small modular reactors to molten salt high-efficient reactors. According to the U.S. DOE, they all have the potential to compete in the global energy market once they are investigated and scaled enough.
An overview of the new reactor designs
Notably, the ARDP program was recently awarded an additional $30 million dollars for distribution to some of the companies it had already selected to participate in its program, aiming to help them get their reactors approved by 2030.
The money will be utilized by the companies to address the "technical, operation, and licensing challenges that they currently face," with the goal of lowering the development risk faced by these companies, due to their lack of infrastructure, facilities, and computer models needed to gather the data that’s required to prove to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that their reactors work as designed.
The additional funds are provided, "to improve technology readiness and prepare them for future demonstration and eventual deployment," according to Alice Caponiti, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Reactor Fleet and Advanced Reactor Deployment.
Taking a look at the 5 different reactor designs included by the Department of Energy gives one a perspective of where the future of nuclear energy is headed.
BWXT advanced nuclear reactor
BWX Technologies is one of the companies working on new reactor tech for the U.S. government as part of the ARDP program. Specifically, they are developing microreactors that can be easily transported and run in off-grid and remote areas. Imagine a tiny portable nuclear reactor that can be lugged around to power large scale projects.
The reactor isn't slated to be completed until the 2030s, but the design uses a high-temperature gas design and a uranium nitride fuel kernel to produce an estimated 50 megawatts of thermal energy.
BWX is currently working on the reactor jointly with the Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
BWX Technologies isn't just developing this one reactor either, they are also working on optimizing nuclear fuel to allow the cost of nuclear reactors to drop. This new fuel technology is also poised to help other nuclear reactor designs.
eVinci micro reactor
This next microreactor seems like it was pulled straight out of a science fiction moving. Developed by Westinghouse Electric Company, the eVinci Micro Reactor is about the size of a shipping container and can generate 15 megawatts of thermal energy. It can be set up in less than 30 days and outputs minimal radiation. Take a look at the short promotional video for the reactor below and step into the future.
As part of this new funding from the Department of Energy, Westinghouse will work with Los Alamos National Laboratory, INL, and Texas A&M University to manufacture all of the necessary components to develop a demonstration unit of the micro-reactor. The goal is to have a functional prototype by 2024 with the product being fully commercially scalable by the end of the decade.
Hermes reduced-scale test reactor
The Hermes reactor isn't a new design, rather it's a scaled-down version of Kairos Power's existing commercial reactor. Specifically, the KP-FHR reactor will be scaled down for this project to produce 140 megawatts of thermal energy.
Of all of the nuclear reactors as part of this new development, this reactor might be commercially available the soonest, slated to be commercially operational by 2026.
Holtec SMR-160 reactor
The SMR-160 reactor is the largest on this list of five future technologies in terms of megawatts. The US company Holtec is partnering with several industry counterparts, including Mitsubishi Electric Power Products and INL to create a light-water small modular reactor that can generate 160 megawatts.
The small reactor can also be adapted to use air-cooled condensers on its secondary side, allowing it to be used in the aridest regions of the world. The design could also serve as a scalable alternative to more permanent nuclear infrastructure.
Once the prototype is developed, the company is planning on displaying it at Oyster Creek in New Jersey.
Molten Chloride Reactor
Finally, Southern Company is also investigating the development of a small nuclear reactor that is based on molten chloride reactor technology. Molten chloride fast reactors, or MCFR can be scaled commercially while also functioning on a number of fuel sources, including spent fuel from existing nuclear reactors. Molten salt reactors as a whole pose significant benefits over traditional reactors, something I've discussed in great detail in my other post on the topic here.
The goal of the Southern Company project is to develop the world's first fast-spectrum salt reactor, which transfers heat efficiently and can even be utilized for thermal storage. The experiment being conducted with the molten chloride reactor will be operational within the first half of the 2020s.
Looking to the future of nuclear reactors
As you might notice with all of the projects that the Department of Energy funded, the timelines are all relatively quick. Nearly all of the projects are planned to be commercially viable within the next five to 10 years.
The U.S. D.O.E. believes these expedited timelines are necessary to ensure that the U.S. stays on the cutting edge of the nuclear reactor market globally. Advanced micro-reactors are one of the most exciting fields in the nuclear space right now, because they present the most scalability and universal useability, compared to traditional reactor designs.
Nuclear power is beginning to make a stronger and stronger case for itself in the global energy market. Do you sense that the tides may be shifting to a nuclear future?