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Investments to Advance Nuclear Energy Quietly Move Forward for Carbon-Free Reasons

nuclear plantsNuclear energy will be getting some research funds. It’s not much. But it does symbolize that this country is looking to the baseload fuel that is relatively carbon-free.

To be exact, it’s just $82 million. But the US Department of Energy says that this is just a downpayment on advancing the cause and that more such investments will be forthcoming, and monies that eventually will head to 93 different projects in 28 states. Things like energy research, technology development and building infrastructure are the targeted areas, all through the so-called Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative. It was launched in 2015 as a way to speed up promising nuclear technologies

“(T)o ensure that nuclear energy remains a key source for US electricity generation well into the future, it is critically important that we invest in these technologies today,” said US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “Public-private partnerships to develop advanced nuclear capabilities will enable low-carbon nuclear energy to power America for years to come.”

“Nuclear power is our nation’s largest source of low-carbon electricity and is a vital component in our efforts to both provide affordable and reliable electricity and to combat climate change,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “These awards will help scientists and engineers as they continue to innovate with advanced nuclear technologies.”

Nuclear energy provides nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and more than 60 percent of its carbon-free electricity. To that end, the Energy Department is awarded the money to support university research and the development of technologies, especially more advanced reactors and the infrastructure that supports them. The Argonne National Lab and Virginia Tech are two such research centers participating, and Westinghouse is a private partner.

The two advanced nuclear power projects receiving awards this week are, according to the press release:

  • X-energy – partnering with BWX Technology, Oregon State University, Teledyne-Brown Engineering, SGL Group, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to solve design and fuel development challenges of the Xe-100 Pebble Bed Advanced Reactor.  This type of reactor has next generation design and the most advanced safety features and it is also smaller than traditional nuclear reactors.  These factors would potentially enable such a reactor to serve a wider array of communities – particularly densely populated areas – while ensuring public safety.
  • Southern Company Services – partnering with TerraPower, Electric Power Research Institute, Vanderbilt University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to perform integrated effects tests and materials suitability studies to support development of the Molten Chloride Fast Reactor.  The MCFR is also a next generation design with the most advanced safety features that enable its potential use across the country.

To be clear, advanced research into nuclear energy is ongoing, especially fourth-generation reactors called “Very High Temperature Reactors.”

“Third generation” and “fourth generation” high temperature reactors differ in that the latter may operate at about three times the temperature of today’s light water reactors. That results in higher thermal efficiency and the potential for use in industrial applications and hydrogen production — making them economically appealing. Advocates furthermore say that the odds of any leaks are near zero.

“They can prevent a Fukushima-type disaster,” says Mitch Farmer, senior nuclear engineer at the Argonne National Lab in Chicago, in an earlier interview.

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