New generation nuclear designs remain elusive

A decommissioned small reactor at the State University of New York, Buffalo.
Image: By Darmon via Wikimedia Commons


New generation nuclear power stations that produce cheap electricity and less waste always seem about to appear, but so far they have not materialised.

LONDON, 10 August, 2017 – New generation nuclear reactors, promised for the last 18 years by the United States Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) as a way to provide cheap and plentiful supplies of electricity, are unlikely to be fulfilled any time in the next 30 years.

That is the conclusion of university researchers who have used the US Freedom of Information Act to obtain the programme’s budget history to find out what designs the government has spent $2 billion of public money on supporting.

Researchers from the University of California San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University described the research programme as “incoherent”, and said the government was “unlikely” to deliver on its mission to develop and demonstrate an advanced nuclear reactor by mid-century.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters,  says much of the money that was supposed to be spent on civilian reactors was spent instead on supporting infrastructure, where the main focus was defence programmes and not commercial opportunities.

Promising technology

The report’s authors are not against nuclear energy. In fact they are concerned that the government’s failure to conduct a proper research programme will lead to other nations taking the lead with the technology.

In theory, they say, the new breed of advanced reactor the US is trying to develop are a promising carbon-free technology. They could operate for decades without refuelling, and would generate smaller volumes of waste.

But lead researcher Dr Ahmed Abdulla, from the University of California, said: “No such design is remotely ready for deployment today.

“One example of this lack of vision is the gap that exists between the advanced reactor and advanced fuel programs. Investing in advanced fuels research is critical to developing a new nuclear reactor technology.

“This failure means that the US will cede its leadership on nuclear matters to other nations, limiting its ability to exert influence in key areas such as safety and non-proliferation”

“However, NE has mostly invested in one fuel type while exploring multiple reactor designs, most of which do not use that fuel. This disjunction between the two programs is naturally problematic.”

Overall, the technology’s prospects appear grim, with implications that go beyond energy. Dr Abdulla warned: “Without a sense of urgency among NE and its political leaders, the likelihood of advanced reactors playing a substantial role in the transition to a low-carbon US energy portfolio is exceedingly low.

“From a broader perspective, this failure means that the US will cede its leadership on nuclear matters to other nations, limiting its ability to exert influence in key areas such as safety and non-proliferation as well.”

These reported failings in the US research programme come at a difficult time for the industry when across the world the current “new” generation of large nuclear reactors is proving difficult to build on time and on budget, and some projects are being abandoned mid-way through construction.

Defence links

Yet governments still pour money into research and development of nuclear projects. The US, China and the UK are all backing a new breed of small reactor, similar to the ones that power nuclear submarines, in the hope that they can be built in factories and assembled on site. This is supposed to streamline production and cut delays and costs.

Europe, the US and China are also spending astronomical sums on nuclear fusion, which is an attempt to replicate the way the Sun produces energy. The theory is that once achieved it will be an unlimited source of power, but decades of trying have so far still left success always just over the horizon.

While the fusion project has nothing to do with the military, all other nuclear projects have had defence links. The original nuclear reactors were developed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, and as a result almost all future designs could always be used to produce weapons-grade materials as well as electricity.

Most of the money now being spent on research into new generations of nuclear power stations is being provided by nuclear weapon states. Most countries that have never had nuclear weapons but have invested in nuclear power stations are now phasing them out and putting their development money into cheaper renewables. – Climate News Network

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