With $160 million appropriated to two matching grant nuclear projects, the time for dreaming and talking is over, the Department of Energy announced this week.
“After talking about it for decades, the United States is finally ready to take the next step in demonstrating advanced nuclear technologies,” said Dr. Rita Baranwal, the assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy in an essay posted on the DOE website.
In nuclear energy’s favor, “We have the bipartisan support from Congress. We have the best innovators in the world,” she said, adding, “now it’s time to see what U.S. nuclear companies can really do with the support and resources of the federal government.”
The recent matching grants went to TerraPower LLC and X-energy to support their efforts to “test, license and build their advanced reactors under this aggressive timeframe,” the DOE said.
With support on both sides of the aisle in Congress, the DOE expects to invest $3.2 billion over the next seven years through matching grant opportunities.
Baranwal says, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) “is all in on new nuclear technologies,” noting the recent grants were “our boldest move yet” for nuclear technology advancement.
Through fading economic strength, political ambiguity and the recent glut of natural gas on the energy market, construction of nuclear power facilities on any level, from the point of view of research and commercial generation, nuclear power in the United States has taken a decidedly back seat position on nuclear power over the last three decades. New technologies could alter that. The DOE is ready, says Baranwal, “to develop a portfolio of new reactors that will ultimately be competitive in both the U.S. and global markets.”
TerraPower’s effort to develop a sodium-cooled fast reactor that makes use of technologies used in solar thermal electricity generation, includes cooperation with GE-Hitachi, Bechtel and Energy Northwest. Called Natrium, the project envisions “a 345 megawatt electric (MWe) nuclear reactor with a molten salt energy storage system that can flexibly operate with renewable power sources.”
“The simplified design and decoupling of nuclear and non-nuclear systems allow for expedited licensing and construction. The team expects to reduce the amount of nuclear-grade concrete required for the plant by 80 percent compared to traditional large-scale reactors. That’s a major cost saver!” said Baranwal.
The thermal energy storage system will help boost power production to 500 MWe and improve the economics of the plant by matching grid demand or providing other services, such as the hydrogen production, she said. “The demo project also includes an initial one-year scope to start the design and licensing of an enrichment facility that would support the fueling of advanced reactors with high-assay, low enriched uranium.”
Meanwhile, “X-energy is partnering with Energy Northwest and Burns & McDonnell to develop its Xe-100 reactor and specialized uranium-based pebble fuel. The team will demonstrate a prototype four-unitl 320 MWe plant that uses high-temperature helium gas to produce heat and electricity more efficiently. It leverages previously DOE-supported high-temperature gas technologies and uses TRISO particles … the most robust nuclear fuel on earth”
“Each 80 MWe reactor continuously refuels, meaning it can operate for a very long time before needing maintenance that might normally be done during refueling outages. The major components will also be factory-fabricated, making the plant faster and cheaper to build.
This project also includes the completion of X-energy’s TRISO fuel fabrication facility that would support additional advanced reactor designs that choose to use this specialized fuel, such as high-temperature molten salt and gas reactors.
We recognize that many U.S. reactor vendors need support in order to accelerate the development of their designs. Additional pathways will be provided to these private companies to help advance their technologies toward commercialization.
DOE will provide an additional $30 million to help reduce the risk of up to five additional advanced reactor designs that we plan to announce later this fiscal year.
Many U.S. companies lack the facilities and resources required to build, operate and collect the data on their reactors to prove to regulators that they work as designed.
“This program is extremely ambitious and will ultimately show significant performance and cost improvements over today’s reactors that can be readily licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Baranwal said.
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