Infographic|Energy   7 Minute Read

Nuclear’s Continuing Evolution

Published March 17, 2015

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After more than 60 years of operation, the nearly 100 light water reactors (LWRs) operating in the U.S. supply nearly 20% of the U.S.’s electrical generation and 64% of its carbon-free electricity. These plants are a critical element in the low-carbon emissions energy mix that must remain in operation, and they are an American technological and technical accomplishment to be proud of. But what’s the next step in nuclear power’s evolution? Just as some companies require supercomputers and other companies require laptops, the next generation of nuclear engineers are designing advanced and innovative reactors to provide different types of power for the very different energy needs around the globe.

Small modular reactors (SMRs), defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as anything less than 300 MWe (or less than one-fourth the size of a typical LWR), might hold the key to a transition toward advanced nuclear reactors. SMRs are about to begin the final stages of commercial development. With a lower initial capital investment and shorter construction timeline than LWRs, SMRs could replace aging and carbon-emitting coal power plants. The next generation of nuclear reactors hold even greater promise of addressing challenges faced by the nuclear industry including nuclear waste management, proliferation concerns, and costs of construction.

The SMRs and advanced reactors can complement light water reactors by providing a broader range of applications. Both can provide a dependable electricity source to sparsely populate areas or regions unattached to a grid, and may be deployed easier and for less upfront cost. Similarly, both SMRs and advanced reactors can provide distributed generation of process heat to industrial sites, such as a desalination plant; enable grid independence at critical facilities such as military bases; and even deliver load following electrical production.

Advances in Design

The following information provides a quantitative context to the evolution from the light water reactor to the small modular reactor and advanced reactor. Please note that most values for the small modular reactors and advanced reactors are estimates.

Nuclear

Endnotes

  1. This is measured in Megawatts-electric (MWe). One MWe can roughly power 1,000 homes.
  2. John Deutch et al., “Update of the MIT 2003 Future of Nuclear Power”, Report, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative, 2009. Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/.
  3. Mario D. Carelli et al., "Economic features of integral, modular, small-to-medium size reactors" Progress in Nuclear Energy, Volume 52, Issue 4, 2010, p. 403-414.
  4. Kyle Russell, “YC-Backed UPower Is Building Nuclear Batteries”, TechCrunch, August 18, 2014. Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://techcrunch.com/2014/08/18/yc-backed-upower-is-building-nuclear-batteries/.
  5. This is the estimated overnight cost in $/kWe (dollars per kilowatt-electric).
  6. Ahmed Abdulla, Inês Lima Azevedo, and M. Granger Morgan, "Expert assessments of the cost of light water small modular reactors", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 110, Issue 24, 2013, p. 9686-9691. Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/24/9686.abstract.
  7. John Deutch et al., “Update of the MIT 2003 Future of Nuclear Power”, Report, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative, 2009. Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/.
  8. Ahmed Abdulla, Inês Lima Azevedo, and M. Granger Morgan, "Expert assessments of the cost of light water small modular reactors", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 110, Issue 24, 2013, p. 9686-9691. Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/24/9686.abstract.
  9. Eric Wesoff, “NuScale Progresses with Small Modular Nuclear Reactors”, GreenTech Media, May 25, 2010, Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/nuscale-progresses-with-small-modular-nuclear-reactors.
  10. Robert E. Chaney, et al. “Galena Electric Power – a Situational Analysis”, Draft Final Report, Prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, December 15, 2004, Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://www.uxc.com/smr/Library%5CDesign%20Specific/4S/Papers/2004%20-%20Galena%20Electric%20Power%20-%20A%20Situational%20Analysis.pdf.
  11. Transatomic Power, Technical White Paper, V 1.0.1, March 2014, http://transatomicpower.com/white_papers/TAP_White_Paper.pdf.
  12. Ray Henry, “Construction time uncertain for Vogtle nuclear project”, PennEnergy, August 29, 2014, Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://www.pennenergy.com/articles/pennenergy/2014/08/construction-time-uncertain-for-vogtle-nuclear-project.html.
  13. Kristi Swartz, “Timeline for U.S.'s newest reactor stretches into 2019”, E&E News, January 30, 2015, Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060012611.
  14. Ondrey,”Modular design would shorten construction times for nuclear plants”, Chemical Engineering, Volume 116, Issue 10, p. 16.
  15. Transatomic Power, Technical White Paper, V 1.0.1, March 2014, http://transatomicpower.com/white_papers/TAP_White_Paper.pdf.
  16. This is measured in metric tons of used nuclear fuel produced or consumed per year for one Gigawatt-electric year of capacity. As a note, an elephant generally weighs roughly one metric ton. http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-a-metric-ton.htm.
  17. Samuel Brinton, “Used nuclear fuel storage options including implications of small modular reactors”. Dissertation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014. Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/90067 .
  18. Samuel Brinton, “Used nuclear fuel storage options including implications of small modular reactors”. Dissertation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014. Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/90067 .
  19. Samuel Brinton, “Used nuclear fuel storage options including implications of small modular reactors”. Dissertation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014. Accessed March 13, 2015. Available at: http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/90067 .
  20. Christopher Pannier, and Radek Skoda, "Comparison of Small Modular Reactor and Large Nuclear Reactor Fuel Cost" Energy and Power Engineering, Volume 6, Issue 5, 2014, p. 82.
  21. Pavel Hejzlar et al. "Terrapower, LLC traveling wave reactor development program overview." Nuclear Engineering and Technology, Volume 6, 2013, p. 731-744.
  22. Transatomic Power, Technical White Paper, V 1.0.1, March 2014, http://transatomicpower.com/white_papers/TAP_White_Paper.pdf.

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