Senate Looks Into Unconventional Nuclear Power

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Unconventional nuclear reactors based on molten salt and modular designs sparked the interest of the U.S. Senate Wednesday.

The Senate Committee was extremely supportive of advanced nuclear concepts, as was Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz.

“Nuclear remains our most reliable clean energy source. It is our clean energy workhorse supplying almost 20 percent of our energy supply and more than 60 percent of our clean power,” Jay Faison, founder and CEO of the conservative ClearPath Foundation, told the committee. ” I believe that nuclear should be between 30 and 40 percent of our electricity mix if we are to maintain price stability, affordability, and reliability while greatly reducing emissions….[however] the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) overly conservative regulatory approach could squelch advanced nuclear efforts even before they get off the ground.”

Unconventional nuclear reactors based on molten salt and modular reactors could restart the atomic age by providing cheap, meltdown-proof and waste-free nuclear power. These reactors were originally developed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but were abandoned because they couldn’t be used by the military.

Such reactors can’t cause major nuclear accidents, like those seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima, because they operate under regular atmospheric pressure and use a more stable fuel source. These reactors produce no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and could be directly integrated into the existing power grid.

Small modular reactors could be a game changer for nuclear power. 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 cost competitive with natural gas and more capable of powering remote areas.

“What should the United States do?” Sen. Lamar Alexander said during the hearing. “In summary, build more reactors, relieve the burdens of expensive regulations, stop picking winners and double energy research. If we do those things the U.S. won’t see without nuclear power and our energy future will be bright.”

Current U.S. nuclear reactor designs are required to spend an estimated $4.2 million every year to meet government paperwork requirements, according to American Action Forum (AAF). In addition to paperwork requirement costs, the average plant is required by the NRC to spend approximately $14 million on various government fees, along with another $4.4 million to pay government-mandated security staff.

Power companies in Idaho and Utah announced plans in June to build small modular reactors to provide electricity to nine Western states. These reactor designs can generate 50 megawatts of energy. The plan is to build 12 of them.

New innovative nuclear designs could cause a nuclear renaissance, despite a recent downturn in the 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 older reactors that are shutting down. 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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