It is time for nuclear energy to provide energy security as a safe, affordable and abundant source of carbon-free energy. To do that, we must first change how society views the way nuclear power is produced. We can do that if we base the industry on how the fuel is used.
New fuel designs and innovative reactor technologies like X-energy’s Xe-100 pebble bed and NuScale’s VOYGR reactors are advancing quickly toward a prominent role in safely decarbonizing the grid. Used in baseload, peaking or even district energy configurations, these nuclear power facilities can be built at costs that are roughly comparable to new advanced-class gas-fueled power facilities.
Additionally, a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) design that utilizes thorium as fuel in a reactor filled with molten salt has been researched for decades in prominent labs in the U.S. and abroad. If approved for a pilot demonstration project, it is easy to envision the LFTR design emerging as one of safest and most cost-effective technical paths now being developed.
The flexibility and safety of these designs address several challenges confronting global carbon reduction schemes. For example, carbon-free nuclear energy could potentially be utilized to produce clean hydrogen via electrolysis of water.
Approximately $10 billion has been authorized under U.S. Department of Energy programs for various demonstration projects over the next five budget cycles. These investments, along with private sector funding, will be directed toward development of microreactors and other types of advanced nuclear reactors.
Are These Pathways Too Good to Be True?
It’s logical to question why molten salt, small modular or pebble bed reactor designs have not gained commercial-scale use after decades of research and development. Though there are many plausible answers, comparing development of these technologies with the development of VHS versus Betamax videocassettes may be a helpful analogy.
It is generally agreed that VHS technology was inferior to Beta, with lower quality and many other issues. However, it had one overriding advantage: VHS was developed faster and introduced to the commercial market first. Once consumers began buying VHS systems, manufacturing scaled up and costs went down, giving that technology an advantage that Beta could not overcome.
The same general dynamic has been in play with development of nuclear power. Conventional light water reactors were developed first and gained momentum and the support of several presidential administrations, leading to the emergence of a robust federal safety administration and regulations governing every aspect of the industry. Alternative nuclear energy programs could not gain acceptance and remained in the development laboratory.
With the energy industry rapidly transitioning toward renewable sources, we can’t afford to ignore the potential of carbon-free nuclear energy to address many of the challenges facing the power industry. New fuel types and reactor designs can solve many of the problems that have hindered the nuclear power industry for too long.
Three advanced nuclear reactor designs could change public perceptions about the safety and efficiency of nuclear power. Explore these nascent technologies in greater detail.