by Judy Li
On January 15, 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy granted awards to two projects, X-energy and Southern Company, to further nuclear energy technology. Each company can get up to $40 million over many years, with initial investments of $6 million each to support their research and development of next generation nuclear reactors. Secretary Moniz emphasized that investments are important for developing nuclear power as a source of carbon free energy in the future. The Obama Administration wants to expand nuclear power as part of its plan to reduce emissions and fight climate change.
X-energy is working on a pebble bed reactor where the uranium fuel is encased in ceramic and graphite balls. According to their website, the pebbles help to prevent the release of radioactivity, maintain the individual integrity of particles and moderate reactions. The fuel cannot melt down in an accident and the reactor is smaller than traditional reactors, making the system safer and practical for more communities.
Southern Company is working on a molten chloride fast reactor, which they claim “provides enhanced operational performance, safety, security and economic value, relative to other advanced reactor concepts.” Molten chloride is both the coolant and the medium for the fuel, and it is designed to be self-cooling in an accident.
In his New York Times article about the DOE announcement, Henry Fountain agrees that new investment and research are vital for the nuclear sector. In addition to safety and radioactive waste issues, inexpensive natural gas has made some nuclear plants unprofitable. A few plants have closed and only five new plants are under construction. Thus, even though the DOE has been working to extend the lifetime of some existing plants, many of the nation’s 99 operating plants will be shut down by 2030. Also, the government has been financing research for new reactor designs for a while, but none of them have reached the market. (The DOE expects the first new designs to begin operating in the mid 2020’s. The newest investments are for even more advanced technologies implementable by the mid 2030’s at the earliest.) Overall, Fountain believes the U.S. is lagging behind China who is aggressively pursuing nuclear power.
Southern Company (www.southerncompany.com)