Advanced Reactors Could Bring Next Nuclear Era, Report Says | Regional news


As Wyoming continues to carve a niche in the next generation nuclear industry, researchers are following suit. Already, some have begun to envision the proposed advanced reactor for one of the state’s four coal-fired power plants as a possible building block for decarbonization.

The vast nuclear facilities already in operation in the United States provide nearly 20% of the country’s total electricity and contribute almost half of low-carbon generation. In the decades since the construction of most of these reactors, nuclear power has proven to be safe and reliable. But with new construction now largely unprofitable, the aging nuclear fleet faces impending plant shutdown dates amid fierce competition from cheaper energy sources.

Increasingly, researchers are studying the potential of small modular reactors to revitalize the nuclear industry.

Advanced nuclear projects like Wyoming’s Natrium plant could prove to be cheaper, more flexible and more efficient than traditional nuclear reactors, providing the same benefits without current financial constraints.

Wyoming announced a new modular nuclear power plant in collaboration with TerraPower, a company co-founded by Bill Gates, Rocky Mountain Power and the US Department of Energy. The facility will use Natrium’s molten sodium technology and will be the first of its kind. It is expected to replace one of Wyoming’s coal-fired power plants and could help the state meet Governor Mark Gordon’s goal of being carbon neutral or carbon negative while using fossil fuels.

“I think the technologies are there,” said Zakaria Hsain, a PhD. candidate in the department of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics at the university and lead author of the report. “Nuclear reactors have been producing energy for about 60 years now. The technology, expertise and supply chains are already there.

If small modular reactors meet expectations and the technology is widely adopted, advanced nuclear could become the cheapest source of electricity in most of the United States, according to the report. In eastern Wyoming, including Natrona County, wind would still be cheaper, but nuclear could help balance its fluctuations.

Reactor components are designed to be manufactured in factories, reducing costs as production increases. Making that leap and maximizing economies of scale to minimize electricity prices will likely require federal support, Hsain said.

“To have the federal government as your backing and backing, in something as important as the transition from a grid focused on fossil fuels to one focused on renewables, nuclear and other zero emissions energies,” you need it as a state government, ”he said.

Advanced nuclear is not ready for commercialization. It must first be tested and the first small-scale demonstration projects are expected to become operational by the end of the decade. The report stressed that action on climate change cannot wait that long.

In the meantime, the authors wrote, the United States could modernize its existing reactors by replacing older components and modernizing control rooms and security mechanisms. This is an approach already taken by other countries, like France, as they seek to expand their nuclear capacity, Hsain said.

Upgrading old nuclear power plants would keep them operational for decades, he said, potentially until new reactors can be developed enough to take their place. But he stressed that a revolutionary era of next-generation nuclear power is not guaranteed.

“I wouldn’t bet on the success of modular nuclear reactors,” Hsain said. “They are there, they are an option, but they still need more development.”

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