Southern Nuclear eyes demo advanced reactor by 2025 as tests progress

Southern Nuclear's advanced reactor funding spans several technology types and U.S. public-private partnerships are supporting the development of new testing facilities and conceptual design phases.

Alabama's Southern Nuclear is developing a multi-technology advanced reactor research and development (R&D) program, forging separate partnerships with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), X-energy and TerraPower.

In October, Southern Nuclear and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) announced a joint project to develop and license advanced reactors, including GEH's PRISM sodium-cooled fast reactor design.

Southern Nuclear had already agreed in August to jointly commercialize and deploy X-energy's Xe-100 High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR) and the operator is also jointly-developing TerraPower’s Molten Chloride Fast Reactor (MFCR). The X-energy and TerraPower projects are both being funded through public-private partnership arrangements.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) estimates U.S. electricity demand will grow by around 24% from 2013 to 2040 and nuclear generating capacity would need to rise by around 25 GW to 125 GW for nuclear to maintain its 20% share of energy production.

The DoE has already allocated some funding towards advanced reactor development and licensing and plans to provide further support going forward. In a strategy document published in January, DoE set a target of "at least two non-light-water reactor advanced reactor concepts" licensed and ready for deployment by the early 2030s.

Southern Nuclear believes the nuclear industry could bring online demonstration advanced reactors by 2025 followed by commercial units in 2030-2035, Jessica Nissenbaum, company spokeswoman, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

“This mission will require public-private collaboration, resulting in innovation policies, licensing frameworks and regulatory structure that facilitate efficient and predictable deployment of these new technologies and encourage private investment,” she said.

Technology race

Advanced reactors could present significant export opportunities and centrist think tank Third Way has warned that the U.S. risks falling behind other nuclear power nations as only a fraction of the U.S. nuclear energy budget is directed at advanced reactor research programs.

            US clusters of advanced reactor development

Source: Third Way

In a speech earlier this month, Maria Korsnick, CEO and President of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said U.S. provides less federal support for advanced reactors than other major nations.

Russia and China own stakes in two thirds of nuclear power plants currently under construction and they have continued to support next-generation technologies, Korsnick said.

"The first time around, nuclear energy was a government-driven project. In many countries, such as China, this framework is still in place,” she said.

The U.S. is leveraging a “far more entrepreneurial spirit” in the current wave of advanced reactor development, Korsnick said.

This approach involves private startups and private capital, in addition to the established reactor design firms, she said.

Southern Nuclear’s commitment to advanced reactor technologies was highlighted in a statement by Stephen Kuczynski, Southern Nuclear chairman, president and CEO, following the GEH partnership.

“We are fully committed to moving the industry forward, and by pursuing this goal together, we are best able to leverage our combined strengths in research and commercial operations to bring advanced nuclear technology to market,” he said.

Multiple applications

Advanced reactor developers are targeting a wide range of applications to harness the power and heat capabilities of their designs.

The development of different reactor capacities with adjustable output controls opens up a large number of potential customers, Nissenbaum told Nuclear Energy Insider.

Key target markets include power generation to supplement intermittent renewable energy supply, replacement of diesel-fired generators and the supply of heat to industrial processes, she said.

In January 2016, the DoE awarded the X-energy and TerraPower projects $40 million each, over a five-year period, to support their advanced reactor designs.

Southern Company Services (SCS), a Southern Company subsidiary, is leading the TerraPower project development and other partners include Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Vanderbilt University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The project team plans to design, build and operate a material testing facility by 2019, which will demonstrate the suitability of the science and materials behind the MCFR design and consolidate the safety analysis, Nissenbaum said.

SCS is providing project management, carrying out the technical review of technology concepts, design input, operations and maintenance, and is supporting the development of the licensing strategy, she said.

Design boost

The X-energy Xe-100 Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR) project is being developed in collaboration with BWX Technology, Oregon State University, Teledyne-Brown Engineering, SGL Group, Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The project formally began the conceptual design phase on March 9, X-energy announced in a statement.

This follows a review by a panel of industry experts from Southern Nuclear, engineering consultancy Burns & McDonnell, and energy consultancy Technology Insights.

For the next phase, the project has brought on board Clint Medlock, Project Manager of Nuclear Development at Southern Nuclear, as consultant, X-energy said.

"We value our partnership with Southern Nuclear as we move through conceptual design and look towards deployment," X-energy said.

By Karen Thomas