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Advanced reactors could bring next nuclear era, report finds

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Nuclear power

TerraPower Founder and Chairman Bill Gates speaks to the crowd in a recorded video message during a June press conference announcing efforts to advance a Natrium reactor demonstration project at a retiring Wyoming coal plant. The location of the project is set to be announced later this year. 

As Wyoming continues to carve out a niche in the next-generation nuclear industry, researchers are following along. Already, some have begun to envision the advanced reactor proposed for one of the state’s four retiring coal plants as a possible building block of decarbonization.

The vast nuclear facilities already operating in the U.S. supply close to 20% of the country’s total electricity, and contribute close to half of low-carbon generation. In the decades since most of those reactors were built, nuclear has proven to be safe and dependable. But with new construction now largely uneconomical, the aging nuclear fleet faces looming plant closure dates amid stiff competition from cheaper energy sources.

Increasingly, researchers are studying the potential of small modular reactors to revitalize the nuclear industry.

According to a report published last week by doctoral students at the University of Pennsylvania, advanced nuclear projects like Wyoming’s Natrium plant could prove cheaper, more flexible and more efficient than traditional nuclear reactors, providing the same benefits without the current financial constraints.

Wyoming announced a new modular nuclear power facility in conjunction with TerraPower, a company co-founded by Bill Gates, Rocky Mountain Power and the U.S. Department of Energy. The facility will use Natrium molten sodium technology and will be the first of its kind. It's expected to replace one of Wyoming's coal-fired plants and may help the state reach Gov. Mark Gordon's goal to be carbon neutral or carbon-negative while still using fossil fuels.

“I think the technologies are there,” said Zakaria Hsain, a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s department of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics and a lead author of the report. “Nuclear reactors have been producing energy for, now, like 60 years. The technology and the expertise and the supply chains are already there.”

If small modular reactors meet expectations, and the technology is widely adopted, advanced nuclear could become the lowest-cost source of electricity across most of the U.S., the report found. In eastern Wyoming, including Natrona County, wind would still be cheaper, but nuclear could help to balance out its fluctuations.

The reactors’ components are designed to be made in factories, driving down cost as production expands. Making that jump, and maximizing economies of scale in order to minimize electricity prices, will likely take federal support, Hsain said.

“Having the federal government as your support and your backer, in something as big as transitioning from a fossil fuel-centered grid to a grid that’s centered on renewables and nuclear and other emissions-free energy, you need that as a state government,” he said.

Advanced nuclear isn’t ready for commercialization. It has to be tested first, and the earliest small-scale demonstration projects are expected to become operational near the end of the decade. The report emphasized that action on climate change can’t wait that long.

In the meantime, the authors wrote, the U.S. could upgrade its existing reactors by replacing older components and modernizing control rooms and safety mechanisms. It’s an approach already being taken by other countries, such as France, as they look to expand their nuclear capacity, Hsain said.

Upgrading older nuclear plants would keep them operational for decades, he said, potentially until newer reactors could be scaled up enough to take their place. But he emphasized that a revolutionary era of next-generation nuclear power isn’t guaranteed.

“I wouldn’t bet on the success of modular nuclear reactors,” Hsain said. “They’re there, they’re an option, but they still need some more development.”

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