The hurdles advanced nuclear developers face

25 January 2021

The use of advanced nuclear technologies could help the world meet increasing electricity demand whilst reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, the deployment and commercialisation of advanced reactors faces many challenges, according to a discussion on nuclear innovation at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum.

The participants in the session on Nuclear Innovation: Projections for the Next Decade on 20 January

"Just as the original prototypes do not resemble today's solar panels and wind turbines, tomorrow's nuclear looks very different from the plants of today," said session moderator Jackie Kempfer, senior policy advisor for Third Way's climate and energy programme and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center. "The next generation of nuclear power promises to be more cost-effective and safer than ever," she said.

"Over the last five years, advanced reactors have progressed far more rapidly than anyone predicted and over the next 10 years we will see the construction and operation of multiple first-of-a-kind advanced nuclear technologies and the development of a global supply chain to support them," she said. "But where there is progress and opportunity, there remain challenges that must be addressed in order to set the world on a path to a safe and secure advanced nuclear age."

Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower, said the nuclear industry faces different institutional barriers that have slowed its progress. These include issues with regulation, as well as issues with public perception.

"It's really caused nuclear science to be under-leveraged to solve today's problems ... With regulatory reforms, we are really making a place not just for a resurgence of nuclear energy, but for advanced nuclear energy and nuclear innovation to be leading the way," Levesque said. The under-utilisation of nuclear science has not just been limited energy, but also in fields such as medicine, he added. "We need to keep working on public support and regulatory support because nuclear does start with that disadvantage and I think people more and more are realising we need to use nuclear science."

Oklo Inc has developed the Aurora energy plant, which is powered by a small reactor with integrated solar panels. The company's co-founder and chief operating officer, Caroline Cochran, said some issues US advanced reactors developers face stem from the US government and the regulator. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "determine how nuclear power is developed, regulated and deployed", she said.

"Nuclear in comparison with other clean energy technologies - regardless of inherent safety advances for technologies such as Oklo's, regardless of being orders of magnitude smaller than existing plants, and so forth - we are still forced to meet all the same regulations and so we're inherently at a disadvantage," she said.

The DOE "needs to modernise how it works with companies and, flowing out of that, how the national labs work with companies", she said. "I think there are still things that need to be updated and how they integrate and how they can support companies without just giving money."

There are also challenges with the supply chain, including for fuel, for advanced reactors, Centrus Energy President and CEO Daniel Poneman said. "High-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) is the fuel of choice for these very exciting fourth-generation designs. The bottom line is that there isn't any supply chain whatsoever for it yet." However, he noted that within the next year Centrus will begin enriching uranium hexafluoride gas to 19.75% under NRC licence.

Canadian view

"From the regulator's perspective ... our role is to protect Canadians from risk. It's not to protect them from progress and innovation" said Rumina Velshi, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). "The CNSC has made it our priority to be in a state of readiness to regulate SMRs and not to be an unnecessary impediment."

She noted there is "growing interest and momentum in nuclear and SMRs, and the SMR Action Plan is an indication of that." The action plan was published in December and responds to the recommendations identified in Canada's SMR Roadmap that was launched in November 2018. The plan lays out the next steps for the development, demonstration and deployment of SMRs for multiple applications at home and abroad. "It's an action plan that sees the deployment of SMRs - the larger SMRs - by the late 2020s," Velshi said.

She outlined CNSC's pre-licensing vendor design review service for small modular reactor designs. The objective of this service is "to give proponents an opportunity to learn about the Canadian regulatory framework and the regulator's expectations. It's also an opportunity for them to hear what the regulator's concerns and issues are. From our perspective as a regulator, it's an opportunity for us to learn about these new technologies and truncate a very steep learning curve."

The CNSC is reviewing its regulatory frameworks to make them applicable to advanced reactor designs. "Our regulations and requirements have all been developed with our experience of Candu technology ... These are new designs - great safety systems, passive systems, a lot smaller - and some requirements simply don't make sense with these new technologies.

"One thing we have been doing is to make sure our requirements are technology-neutral. We're modifying our requirements to make it more performance-based, which allows the proponents [of advanced reactors] to come to us with a safety case. It gives them more flexibility on how they are going to meet our requirements rather than us dictating on how that should happen."

Velshi added: "We, as the regulator, are working on building public trust, confidence and social acceptance in these new technologies. Part of our mandate as the Canadian regulator is to disseminate objective and scientific information about nuclear matters."

Asked what nuclear supplier countries and potential nuclear newcomer countries can do to prepare for a global advanced nuclear market, she said: "You need standard designs that can be deployed readily and easily and safely ... We know nuclear is a very sophisticated technology and so for emerging countries, if they can benefit from the expertise, the experience, the infrastructure of mature regulators, I think that can go a long way in making these new technologies more readily available and accessible and, from my perspective, make them safer to deploy."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News