Advanced nuclear

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Advanced nuclear is an emerging area of the energy industry focused on designing and commercializing next generation reactors for nuclear energy production. Encompassing more comprehensive and radical technological innovations and design advancements, these innovations aim to dramatically improve performance and eliminate known problems associated with the existing generation nuclear reactors (Gen I and Gen II) currently in use around the world.

The earliest Gen I and Gen II nuclear reactors built utilized the light-water reactor design in one of three variants: the pressurized water reactor (PWR), the boiling water reactor (BWR), and the supercritical water reactor (SCWR). The use of the light-water design (i.e. using regular water, H2O and not heavy water, 2H2O) as both its coolant and neutron moderator but needing a plentiful supply) in all commercial reactors was a trade-off that enabled the industry to leverage the purchasing clout of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who was keen on procuring nuclear-powered submarines for the Navy, to grow quickly. The choice, however, imposed a riskier design that many argued was not optimized for terrestrial energy, bringing both competitive advantages as well as fateful disadvantages to the initial development and subsequent growth of the commercial nuclear power fleet. Despite operating to the military's exacting specifications and winning praise and massive contracts from government buyers, the industry quickly earned the distrust of the public. (See the Anti-nuclear movement.)

Generation III reactors contain yet further incremental refinements to aspects of Generation II nuclear reactor designs but were not very popular. Improvements were developed for fuel technology, thermal efficiency, to safety systems to reduce maintenance and capital costs. The first Generation III reactor was Kashiwazaki 6 (an ABWR) in 1996 but the declining support for the underlying Generation II light-water design, caused relatively few third generation reactors to be built.

Generation IV designs are the first generation where innovator in Advanced Nuclear technologies are exploring paradigm shifts in methodologies. Gen IV projects encompass not just innovative nuclear fission concepts, like the Molten salt reactor, Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors, and High temperature gas cooled reactors, but also Fusion power and even Low Energy Nuclear Reactors (LENR), which generate heat through a series of controlled chemical reactions that then cause a nuclear bond to shift, which results in heat output. Gen IV is still in development as of 2017, and are not expected to start entering commercial operation until after 2020.

ORNL director Alvin Weinberg notes the 6,000 hour of molten salt reactor experiment full-power operation in 1968.

Ironically, some of the different reactor design ideas being explored and developed for Advanced nuclear reactors, now thought of as Generation IV reactors (Gen IV) today were actually first conceived within the National Labs back in the 1960s. Several of these concepts, including Alvin M. Weinberg's Molten salt reactor (MSR) developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), even had the benefit of being prototyped and tested over a period of time. Weinberg's MSR became the first reactor to run on Uranium 233 in 1968 and logged more than 13,000 hours at "full power" before being shut down in 1969.[1] Today, the concept of using a molten salt brew that acts both as the fuel and the "containment" of the reaction by using the ionic bonds of the salt to capture and contain the heat generated from the nuclear reaction, thereby dispensing with the need for expensive containment structures and eliminating much of risk and cost, remains of keen interest to those exploring Advanced nuclear technologies.[2]

The birth of a new industry

In November 2015, the Obama White House hosted a Summit on Nuclear Energy to examine the role of nuclear energy in reducing carbon emissions as part of its efforts to combat the threat of climate change.[3] January 2016, the first "Advanced Nuclear Summit and Showcase" was held in Washington D.C., hosted by Third Way (think tank), in partnership with the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.[4] This event was also attended by a bi-partisan group of senators—Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Cory Booker (D-NJ)—along with representatives from more than 150 organizations to show support for advancing nuclear innovation in the U.S. According to Third Way, Advanced Nuclear technologies are developing more rapidly than most experts expected and, as of 2015, there were 48 companies, start-ups or projects with funding of more than $1.3 billion in private capital working to "build the next generation of nuclear reactors."[5] Much like the growth in technological innovation in other parts of the energy industry, which has seen the emergence of hydraulic fracturing as a means of extracting methane from shale formations where previously it was unavailable and improvements in solar panel efficiency and wind turbine efficiency, there's been a resurgence of interest in nuclear from younger engineers, physics Ph.Ds and investors seeking scale-level solutions to meeting global energy need with non-carbon-emitting energy. (See for example Transatomic Power, whose website says "We at Transatomic Power are nuclear engineers with a new approach for electricity generation. We started this company because we believe it is possible to power the world while helping it thrive."[6])

Despite the reported $1.3 billion in private funding, in fact experts worry that the lack of federal support for nuclear innovation in the U.S., means that most of the critical design and development work in Advanced Nuclear reactors is now being done in India, Russia, China, Canada, France, Japan, Korea and even Saudi Arabia, where in 2010 a royal decree said: "The development of atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom's growing requirements for energy to generate electricity, produce desalinated water and reduce reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources."[7] Saudi Arabia will be investing $80 billion in nuclear development over the next decade or two. India, Russia and China have all made enormous investments in support of their country's nuclear energy capabilities and, in 1983 Russia became the first country to put a Molten Salt Reactor, the BN-600 reactor online, which it did without much fanfare in the aftermath of its Chernobyl disaster. India, which "published about twice the number of papers on thorium as its nearest competitors, during each of the years from 2002 to 2006"[8] is expected to complete the world's first Advanced Thorium Molten Salt Reactor in late 2017,[9] even while it is already in the process of building the next six reactors taking the advances even further, and hopes to provide as much as 25% of its future electricity needs with clean advanced nuclear energy, utilizing its abundant thorium reserves.[10]

Not to be outdone, China plans to spend $570 billion building more than 60 nuclear power plants over the next decade, with a portion of this to develop its Advanced Nuclear capabilities,[1] positioning itself to be the "" of nuclear commerce, according to Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security.[11] A study by the Global Nexus Initiative (GNI) found that, with the U.S. practically ignoring the needs of those working on Advanced Nuclear, the U.S. will lose significant competitive advantage within the energy industry as well as forego geopolitical influence by allowing its nuclear power industry to stagnate and fall behind, even while fossil fuels become increasingly supplanted by clean alternatives. Richard Meserve, former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a member of the GNI study working group, said:

“This report draws attention to nuclear power’s geopolitical dimension, which often is overlooked in the debate. The nuclear rules are shaped by the countries with the largest market share, and traditional leaders like the US will soon be overtaken by China and Russia. There is a danger that the U.S. will lose the capacity to influence the global norms for safety, security and non-proliferation. There thus are national security issues at stake.”[12]

Fighting an uphill battle to change a bad reputation

Despite having funded the birth of nuclear age, the U.S. has not chosen to fund the refining work needed to optimize nuclear reactors for terrestrial energy. Into this void, the Generation IV International Forum, founded in 2001, has stepped, as "a co-operative international endeavor . . . to carry out the research and development needed to establish the feasibility and performance capabilities of the next generation nuclear energy systems." There are currently ten active members: Canada, China, the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), France, Japan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, and the United States. The non-active members are Argentina, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. Whether this framework will enable the job to get done is yet to be seen.

The global race is on to design and commercialize cheaper, safer, and more efficient nuclear reactors to provide clean energy to the world. Even though many of the original ideas, technologies and research came out of the U.S.'s early investments in nuclear research and the work of thousands of American nuclear physicists and engineers laboring in the National Laboratories and nuclear industry in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, whatever patents and Intellectual property protections there were have long been expired. Now anyone anywhere can look at the achievements of people like Alvin M. Weinberg and start to develop the perfect thorium molten salt reactor. Already it is evident that Russia, India and China have been investing heavily in such efforts. American entrepreneurs, while appearing to be up for the challenge, are handicapped by having no clear government support, no federal funding, no regulatory pathway and very little in the way public support for their search for technological solutions that could unleash a vast new clean energy industry, producing jobs and retaining geopolitical influence on nuclear performance and safety standards, while simultaneously contributing to our solution for climate change. Even with growing bipartisan support for maintaining a robust and innovative nuclear industry in the face of all of these challenges, the lingering opposition of the Anti-nuclear movement makes the work of America's Advanced Nuclear entrepreneurs an uphill battle.[13]


  1. ^ "Time Warp: Molten Salt Reactor Experiment—Alvin Weinberg's magnum opus | ORNL". Retrieved 2017-07-17. 
  2. ^ Orr, Jr., Robert (September 2013). "The Molten Salt Reactor: Nuclear Energy Without Fear?". Infinite Energy. Issue 111: 35–36. 
  3. ^ "White House Summit Spotlights Nuclear Energy's Value in Climate Change Fight". November 5, 2015. Retrieved July 17, 2017. 
  4. ^ "Advanced Nuclear Summit & Showcase". Third Way. Retrieved 2017-07-17. 
  5. ^ "The Advanced Nuclear Industry". Third Way. Retrieved 2017-07-17. 
  6. ^ "Homepage - Transatomic". Transatomic. Retrieved 2017-07-17. 
  7. ^ "Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia - World Nuclear Association". Retrieved 2017-07-17. 
  8. ^ Banerjee, srikumar (September 2010). "Thorium Utilisation for Sustainable Supply of Nuclear Energy (pdf)" (PDF). Virginia Tech. 
  9. ^ "India Has Almost Finished The World's First Advanced Thorium Nuclear Reactor". The Daily Caller. Retrieved 2017-07-17. 
  10. ^ "India Goes Large in Plans to Build Next Round of Reactors - The Energy Collective". The Energy Collective. 2017-02-13. Retrieved 2017-07-17. 
  11. ^ Follett, Andrew. "Study: U.S. "Losing Ground" To Russia And China On Nuclear Power". The National Interest. Retrieved 2017-07-17. 
  12. ^ "Nuclear Energy's Role in Fighting Climate Change Under Threat – GNI". Retrieved 2017-07-17. 
  13. ^ "Nuclear". Global Energy Institute. 2014-08-15. Retrieved 2017-07-18. 
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