New Technologies for a New Industry
Innovation is a key tenet of the advanced nuclear industry. After decades of light-water reactors dominating commercial nuclear power, startups and incumbents alike are looking at new technologies and business models to offer products that meet the needs of today’s world. There are now dozens of new reactor designs in the United States and many more abroad. As these companies work to expand nuclear as a climate mitigation tool, they are looking beyond electricity to decarbonizing other sectors through co-products and other specialized applications.
Greater diversity in reactor designs, sizes, and business models increases competition in the sector, which should lead to the best technologies to drive decarbonization. The advent of microreactors and small modular reactors allow nuclear to compete in areas where it never has – remote areas, mining operations, municipal utilities, and industrial users.
Nuclear innovation is enabled by technological advances in multiple fields, including:
- Material technologies enable the use of higher temperature coolants and processes.
- Computing power and artificial intelligence allow the construction of high-detail simulation of new designs and fuel forms.
- Construction innovation, such as modular production techniques and additive manufacturing (3-D printing) lower costs and risks of building new facilities.
Research and private-sector innovation is driving new uses for nuclear and spin-off technologies. Floating nuclear power plants and mobile reactors can offer power for disaster response. The military is looking at nuclear power for resilient, distributed power sources for U.S. bases. In outer space, both government and the private sector are developing space reactors. The government aims to use them to power and heat remote outposts on the Moon and Mars while providing propulsion for interplanetary missions. Meanwhile, commercial nuclear companies are looking to nuclear energy to support space mining, orbital towing, and even fusion propulsion.
Beyond nuclear applications, research projects by the government and private-sector for advanced nuclear are leading to new technologies for other sectors. Company research supports new discoveries in medical science, with improved diagnosis and treatment technologies and new methods to produce medical isotopes. Integrated salt storage can unlock new thermal storage technologies to complement renewable generation. Research in using supercritical CO2 as a working fluid can support the development of carbon capture systems.
Underlying nuclear research and new applications is an emerging innovation ecosystem.
The government provides central services in the ecosystem. The Department of Energy and the national laboratories provide research, funding, and other technological support to the emerging industry. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently pursuing regulatory innovation, through regulatory modernization and technical regulatory research. As called for in the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, the NRC is starting the process to develop a new technology neutral, risk-informed, performance-based licensing process for advanced nuclear technologies.
The private sector is the driver of recent technological innovation. Companies of all sizes, from large existing incumbents to new startups, are pursuing new reactor designs. Critically, companies and financiers are experimenting with multiple business and investment models. Even demand is changing as new products expand the range of potential customers. During commercialization, the private sector can drive down costs through financial innovation and competition.
Universities and non-governmental organizations further support the ecosystem. Universities support elements of basic research, serve as a platform for new nuclear designs, and train the next generation of nuclear engineers. Non-governmental organizations, such as the NIA, play a key role in supporting sector-wide activities through policy research, stakeholder engagement, and educational activities.
A Government Platform for Nuclear Demonstration Projects
The Department of Energy supports basic research and commercialization through:
- National Energy Laboratories
- The Gateway for Advanced Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN)
- The Nuclear Reactor Innovation Center
- Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)
As with renewables and other technologies, government research provides a basis for private sector innovation and global competitiveness. Many national labs are currently releasing data from reactor experiments from the early years of the nuclear era, informing private sector R&D efforts.
Beyond information, government entities are also providing key facilities for testing and other activities. In the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, the U.S. government authorized the construction of a fast neutron test reactor. The project, now named the Versatile Test Reactor, will provide a testing resource for new materials, fuels, and other design features, among other things. The design and environmental review is underway now, supported by national labs with industry contractors.
In fusion, the Federal Government is supporting research into inertial confinement fusion through the National Ignition Facility. Internationally, a consortium of many countries is building ITER to conduct basic research into magnetic confinement fusion.
Moving forward, with many companies advancing to early stages of demonstration and commercialization, the Federal Government can play a key role in helping them bridge the “valley of death.” When commercial nuclear power was first developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the government played a key role in researching, funding, demonstrating, and supporting the commercialization of light-water reactors. Today, it can play a similar role to accelerate the industry and enable it to help meet 2050 climate goals.
A key element of achieving this acceleration can be government cost-share or public-private partnerships for demonstration projects. As with any new technology, U.S. and international utilities need to see a working first-of-a-kind demonstration before incorporating it into their system. Demonstrations may also be needed in some cases to train operators and regulators and to verify materials behavior and operating behavior. DOE’s national laboratories, particularly Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, have decades of experience in these types of projects and make ideal test beds for first-of-a-kind projects due to their testing and examination facilities.
Further, the Federal Government can support nuclear technologies through direct federal procurement of electricity generation and other energy services. The government already does this with renewable energy and advanced nuclear offers an opportunity for diversification with a reliable, resilient resource. In particular, the Department of Defense, the largest institutional consumer of energy in the world, is looking at microreactors and other advanced reactors to provide off-site power supply and base resiliency. By providing long-term power purchase agreements and an early market government can provide the market demand for nuclear power to reach economies of scale and reduce cost.
Nuclear energy innovation is gaining momentum through increasing interest from all of the ecosystem players, and through a growing recognition of the urgent need to develop new tools to address climate change. A sustained effort by public and private players will be needed to carry that through to realization of new energy products that meet society’s needs.