Advanced, unconventional nuclear reactors could shake up the industry as soon as 2030, according to a new reports by leading scientists.
If the government promoted advanced nuclear technology and streamlined the permitting process, such reactors could become operational in the next 15 years, according to Britain’s government-backed Energy Technologies Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The report found that the biggest hindrance to unconventional reactors is bureaucratic delays in government approval processes and the public’s fear of nuclear power.
“Like any other nuclear power technology, this one is potentially compelling because the world desperately needs carbon-free sources of non-intermittent power,” the MIT Technology Review report states. “But fears about the safety of nuclear plants have made them so costly as to discourage investors.”
Even if the U.K. government gets on board, the country’s unconventional reactors will still lag behind America, according to MIT.
In May, the federal Tennessee Valley Authority applied for a permit to build the first U.S. unconventional reactor. Power companies in Idaho and Utah announced plans in June to build small modular reactors to provide electricity to nine western states.
If approved immediately, these facilities could potentially be operational in the late 2020s. However, the bureaucratic U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not yet have a regulatory framework in place to approve unconventional nuclear reactors.
Small reactor designs can generate 50 megawatts of energy and the plan is to build six to 12 of them. Some of the largest of these unconventional smaller reactors are intended to generate 450 megawatts of electricity. America’s largest conventional nuclear power plant generates about 3,937 megawatts.
1,000 megawatts of electricity provides enough energy for roughly 700,000 homes.
Unconventional nuclear reactors based on molten salt and modular designs 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. These reactors simply 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.
Such nuclear reactors could potentially be much cheaper as well, generating electricity for less than one-third the cost of current nuclear technology because it wouldn’t require expensive high-pressure containment vessels to hold potential releases.
Getting regulatory approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) or the British government to build a new reactor can take up to 25 years. It takes the NRC an average of four to eight years to process the paperwork to approve new reactors. These huge delays caused a declining interest in the construction of new nuclear plants, resulting in 40 percent fewer licensing requests and about half as many license renewal applications from the NRC.
Despite the bureaucratic hurdles, 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 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 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.
Additionally, these produce no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and could be directly integrated into the existing power grid. But Obama administration policies supporting wind and solar power are huge obstacles to integrating new nuclear reactors into the electric grid.
Environmental regulations require that solar and wind power always be used if they are available and give substantial financial incentives to encourage green energy use. These regulations compromise the reliability of the entire power grid. The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is currently investigating how green energy undermines the reliability of the electrical grid.
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