The US Energy Department on Monday announced $24 million funding for 10 nuclear reactor designs as part of an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program.
Nuclear Energy in the US
- Nuclear reactors generate about one-fifth of the electricity consumed in the US
- These plants are conventional light water reactors, a technology first deployed in the 1950’s
- Nuclear energy’s future here is unclear; high costs and a rapidly changing grid— including growing wind and solar—present new challenges for existing and new nuclear plants
- The next generation of nuclear plants need to achieve lower capital costs, “walkaway” safe and secure operation, shorter construction times.
- There are multiple new advanced reactor designs at various stages of development that may be able to attain these goals.
Federal officials with the MEITNER (Modeling Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration) program will identify and help develop innovative technologies that enable designs for lower cost, safer, advanced nuclear reactors.
“Nuclear energy is an essential component of the U.S. energy mix, and by teaming up with the private sector to reduce costs and improve safety, we are keeping America ahead of the curve in advanced reactor design and technology,” said US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.
“These next-generation ARPA‑E technologies help us maintain our competitive, technological edge globally, while improving the resilience of the grid and helping provide reliable, baseload electricity to each and every American.”
Nuclear power generates nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity, offering a reliable source of power that complements the country’s diverse portfolio of energy generation sources. Existing nuclear power plants, however, face comparatively high operational and maintenance costs.
MEITNER projects will leverage design, new manufacturing processes, and technologies to lower costs and increase the competitiveness of nuclear power. Funded projects will support advanced reactor designs that achieve lower construction cost and autonomous operations while also improving safety.
ARPA-E developed this funding opportunity in close coordination with DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and MEITNER teams will have access to Department modeling and simulation resources as they develop their concepts.
The 10 projects are:
General Atomics – San Diego, CA; $1,455,762
General Atomics plans to develop a detailed and dynamic model of a nuclear power system using a helium-driven Brayton cycle engine (a type of heat engine). The team will use a variable-speed turbo-generator that will allow operators to control the plant temperature, as well as power electronics to connect the plant to the grid. A quantitative assessment will be done on the capability of the proposed system of sharing the grid with renewable resources like wind and solar.
General Atomics – San Diego, CA; $1,532,752
General Atomics team aims to figure out a new construction method for concrete components used to build nuclear power plants. The team’s approach will reduce cost by using pre-cast modules made of ultrahigh-strength concrete in the factory before delivering to the building site. This saves time and allows quality control to be conducted in a standardized, efficient environment.
HolosGen, LLC – Manassas Park, VA; $2,278,200
HolosGen plans to create a transportable, gas-cooled nuclear reactor with load following ability. By using a closed Brayton cycle engine with components connected directly to the reactor core, the team expects to simplify plant construction, leading to lower costs and shorter commissioning times. The reactor can be packaged in a standard shipping container, making it highly portable and reducing cost.
North Carolina State University – Raleigh, NC; $3,386,834
The North Carolina State University seeks to develop a highly automated management and control system for advanced nuclear reactors. The system will provide recommendations to plant operators and will use artificial intelligence and continuous data monitoring to predict future plant status through machine learning.
State University of New York at Buffalo – Amherst, NY; $1,443,635
The State University of New York at Buffalo plans to reduce nuclear power plant complexity and cost by integrating seismic protection systems into the development of advanced reactor buildings and their supporting structures. All nuclear power plants require seismic protection against earthquakes, made of large components that are typically custom-produced for each new plant construction.
Terrestrial Energy USA, Inc. – New York, NY; $3,150,000
The Terrestrial Energy USA team will design a novel, magnetically suspended circulation pump for molten salt reactors. Compared to state-of-the art cantilever type pumps that are used today in harsh environments, the team’s next-generation molten salt pump is self-contained, does not require vulnerable mechanical seals, and is sturdy enough to meet the requirements set by the reactor core’s seven-year operating lifetime.
Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation – Seattle, WA; $2,350,000
The Ultra Safe Nuclear team will develop advanced technologies for gas-cooled reactors to increase their power density, thus allowing them to be smaller. Specifically, the team seeks to develop a high performance moderator—which slows down neutrons so they can cause fission—to enable a compact reactor with enhanced safety features.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Champaign, IL; $774,879
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will research fuel processing system for molten salt reactors that allows these reactors to lower their output during times of reduced electricity demand. To enable this load following capability, the team will conduct simulations to determine how to remove unwanted fission by-products that slow reaction rates and, thus, energy production.
Westinghouse Electric Company, LLC – Cranberry Township, PA; $5,000,000
Westinghouse Electric will design a self-regulating “solid core block” that employs solid materials (instead of bulk liquid flow or moving parts) to inherently regulate the reaction rate in a nuclear reactor. The nature of the design will allow the reactor to achieve safe shutdown without the need for additional controls, external power source, or operator intervention, enabling highly autonomous operation.
Yellowstone Energy – Knoxville, TN; $2,599,185
Yellowstone Energy seeks to develop a new reactor control technology to enhance passive safety and reduce costs for its molten salt reactor and other designs. Materials embedded in the control rods will vaporize at elevated temperatures, producing a vapor that captures neutrons and slows reaction rates, even in the absence of external controls.