Energy

Could A $30 Million Investment Make Nuclear Power Dramatically Cheaper?

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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A new British design for nuclear reactors could be safer and cheaper than current technology. It just needs $30 million to get off the ground.

The molten-salt-fueled nuclear reactor could generate electricity for less than one-third the cost of current nuclear technology because it wouldn’t require expensive high-pressure containment vessels. Designers at the company Moltex Energy LLP are asking for $30 million to complete the first stage of regulatory approval from the British government.

“The Stable Salt Reactor is a U.K.-developed technology that can produce electricity at a third of the Hinkley-C strike price,” Dr. Ian Scott, a managing partner at Moltex, told Bloomberg. “It can store energy at grid scale — catalyzing the further rollout of renewables — and can be powered by the country’s existing nuclear waste.”

Scott says that the idea behind the reactors builds off old molten-salt technologies developed at the U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which were abandoned because they couldn’t be used militarily since the reactors are fueled by plutonium. The reactor design would operate under regular atmospheric pressure, eliminating the risk of the kind of explosion that caused the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents.

Scott isn’t the one attempting to revolutionize the nuclear industry with new designs. China has plans to build a similar reactor at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics over the next few years. Power companies in Idaho and Utah announced plans in June to build the first small modular nuclear reactors in the world to provide electricity to nine Western states.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) submitted the first-ever permit application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a small modular nuclear reactor in May. The NRC still does not have a working regulatory process for modular reactors,  so the project could be bureaucratically delayed until 2024.

Small modular reactors can generate 50 megawatts of energy and the plan is to build six to 12 of them. Modular reactors could be a game changer for nuclear power as they have the potential to be much cheaper than conventional reactors since they can be manufactured completely in a factory. These reactors would also require far less up front investment, making them much more capable of powering remote areas. These reactors would also be cost competitive with natural gas electricity.

New innovative nuclear designs could cause a nuclear renaissance, despite a recent downturn in the British and U.S. nuclear industry. Of the 59 new nuclear reactors under construction worldwide, only four of them are being built in the U.S., just enough to compensate for shutting down older reactors. The average American nuclear reactor is 35 years old, nearly obsolete by modern design standards and near the end of its operating license. Within the past two years, six states have shut down nuclear plants and many other reactors are risking premature retirement.

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