North America's private sector invests over $1 bil in new high-spec plants

Nuclear power’s competitiveness is set to hike as a new generation of industry experts and investors prepare to commercialize advanced nuclear technology, Third Way, a centrist public policy think tank, said.

The Third Way believes nuclear power development is key to meeting climate change objectives. (Image credit: Artyfree)

A study by Third Way found that there are nearly 50 companies in US and Canada developing next generation technology, armed with $1.3 billion of private capital.

Investors range from start-ups to large international corporations and well-known names such as Bill Gates.

"In total, we have found nearly 50 projects in companies and organizations working on small modular reactors based on the current light water reactor technology of today's reactors, advanced reactors using innovative fuels and alternative coolants like molten salt, high temperature gas, or liquid metal instead of high-pressure water, and even fusion reactors, to generate electricity," the think tank said.

There is significant activity in small modular reactors based on the current light water technology, and this technology could see a surge in commercial activity in the next 5 to 10 years before more advanced reactor designs are introduced, it said.

As well as advanced reactor technologies, other projects are improving nuclear fuel technologies, and these developments are set to boost the competitivity of nuclear power in the US market and beyond.

MIT works on Fluoride Salt Reactors

The Third Way study highlights seven molten salt-based reactor projects.

“We are concentrating more on the development of the Fluoride Salt-Cooled High Temperature Reactors (FHR),” said Dr. Charles Forsberg, director of the MIT’s fluoride-salt-cooled reactor project.

MIT and its partners University of California, the University of Wisconsin, and Westinghouse, are conducting a three-year research project which aims to reduce the cost of nuclear power to 30% below Light Water Reactors.

The FHR technology has the potential to transform base-load nuclear electricity production by adding peak electricity using auxiliary natural gas or stored heat, Forsberg said.

The natural gas or stored heat to peak electricity efficiency is between 66-70%, higher than stand-alone natural gas plants, which typically have an efficiency rate of up to 60% for the newest plants.

Higher efficiency peak power implies greater FHR net revenue when competing against stand-alone natural gas plants, whatever the gas prices.

This is highly relevant to the US market, where the shale gas boom has led to a wave of new gas-fired plants.

The peaking capability would also make the nuclear plants more competitive in markets with significant wind or solar capacity, as this can cause wide variations in electricity prices.

“Everybody is looking to produce base load electricity and the FHR can produce variable electricity to the grid, which improves the economics when wind and solar are added to the grid,” Forsberg said.

MIT believes that the FHRs can be commercialized in the next 20-30 years and highlights that China is developing a 10 MW FHR, which could be ready by 2020.

Third Way's map above shows the projects are spread from coast to coast.

Fast development: time for demonstration reactor

The Argonne National Laboratory Research Centre’s liquid metal cooled fast reactor project was also highlighted by the Third Way research.

“I am very excited by the research in this area that has been going on for many years. It is good to see the broad group of advanced reactor interest noted in the Third Way article from US nuclear vendors,” Dr. Bob Hill, Technical Director of the Nuclear Engineering Division of Argonne, University of Chicago, said.

The Argonne National Laboratory Research Centre has also worked heavily on sodium cooled fast reactors and Hill is also National Technical Director of a multi-laboratory advanced reactor research with the US Department of Energy (DOE).

Major fast reactor advancements under development include dealing with actinide elements, allowing higher energy production from uranium, Hill said. This is because the fast reactor technology can recycle more uranium in the reactor and this will lead to less nuclear waste.

In a conventional system only about 1% of the uranium is used, the rest is released into the waste stream.

According to Hill, there have been demonstration reactors for the past 30-40 years using the sodium fast reactor technology, with the most recent one constructed in Russia.

A modern demonstration reactor is now needed to establish cost competitiveness by providing a record of high operational capacity, he said.

Lightbridge focuses on fuels for light water reactors

Lightbridge’s advanced nuclear fuel designs were also highlighted by the Third Way think tank. The company is developing improved nuclear fuel which can improve the efficiency of light water reactors.

Lightbridge takes the view that despite rival reactor technologies, light water reactors will continue to be dominant for the next 100 years. There are an estimated 400 light water reactors in use, including the entire US nuclear power fleet. There are almost 100 light water reactors in the US, providing around 20% of US electricity and some 65% of carbon free production.

Lightbridge is working on a range of all-metal fuels which can increase power operates by as much as 30% for an 18 month operating cycle for new build Pressurised Water Reactors.

“Conventional nuclear fuels, such as ceramic pellets of uranium dioxide, have just about reached their limits for achieving power up-rates and improving reactor safety margins,” said Seth Grae, President and CEO of Lightbridge.

Lightbridge's new fuel technologies aim to address operators concerns about improved reactor operating economics and enhanced safety, Grae said.

Lightbridge has largely focused on advanced metallic nuclear fuels since 2009, developing improved operating economics and improving safety of existing pressurized water reactors around the world.

The firm's research has attracted a lot of interest from four major utilities, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It is expected that the company’s first lead test assemblies with commercial reactors could be operational as early as 2020.

Third Way said that while renewable power capacity must grow to help stem climate change, "the need for nuclear power has never been clearer" and the range of projects under development in the US highlights the investor interest in this sector.

"Nuclear power is on the cusp of a comeback. The technology may be the best opportunity we have to address climate change and meet the world’s growing energy needs," Third Way said.

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