Washington goes nuclear

Source: politico

Date: June 24, 2024

By: Derek Robertson

Nuclear power has turned into a key part of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda — and the subject of a bipartisan bill just passed that reveals the technology’s appeal and limitations.

The ADVANCE Act — yes, because this is Washington, it stands for “Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy” — would push the American nuclear industry forward by speeding up permitting and authorizing new research initiatives. The bill is currently waiting for Biden’s signature after passing the Senate last week by a nearly unanimous vote.

“We are determined to build a world-class nuclear industry in the United States, and we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said at a ceremony last month celebrating the opening of a new nuclear plant in Georgia’s Burke County. The U.S. is among more than 20 countries that pledged last year to triple their nuclear output by 2050.

The push has rekindled familiar fights about nuclear’s impact on the environment and the risks of its weaponization. It’s also inspired new innovations — but few of them have borne fruit.

One new trend in nuclear is the development of modular “microreactors.” Microreactors are small nuclear reactors that can be hauled on a semi truck and theoretically provide portable, reliable, clean energy to almost anywhere on Earth. The only problem: No one on Earth has… actually deployed one yet.

Private firms are exploring the possibility of deploying microreactors in Wyoming and in Canada’s Sasketchawan, with the DOE touting various experiments powered by its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which facilitates partnerships between government and industry on advanced nuclear power. But as E&E News Energywire reported last November, Idaho Falls, Idaho scrapped what would have been the world’s first microreactor project after utilities said they couldn’t commercially justify the investment.

Another idea comes from Bill Gates, who announced earlier this month that his nuclear company TerraPower broke ground in Wyoming on a plant that will be cooled by liquid sodium, not water. Boosters say it will produce more fuel, more safely. It’s not a new idea: More than 20 “sodium-cooled fast reactors” have been operative at various points since 1973. But Gates and his team say their new sodium-cooled reactors will be safer thanks to precautions enabled by modern computers.

Then there’s fusion, which uses extreme heat to combine two atoms and produce massive amounts of energy as a byproduct. It remains very much a pipe dream. Still, the field continues to inch forward: the ADVANCE Act directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to report on fusion development, and the International Atomic Energy Agency announced this morning that it’s opening a new database for member states to share data that can support fusion modeling and simulation.

The CHIPS and Science Act, the previous Congress’ signature tech achievement, also set aside funding for innovations in nuclear energy. It expanded an Energy Department program to provide expertise and funding to universities pursuing nuclear research. The law bolstered the supply chains for rare minerals that could power new, cleaner and more stable nuclear plants, and authorized NASA to start a program exploring nuclear propulsion and a potential nuclear reactor that could be deployed on the moon.

Given the diffuse (no pun intended) state of the technology at the moment, much of the ADVANCE Act is aimed at expanding experimental work and speeding up regulation around deploying nuclear power. It tells the nuclear commission to include in its mission statement that regulation “does not unnecessarily limit the civilian use of radioactive materials and deployment of nuclear energy or the benefits of civilian use of radioactive materials and nuclear energy technology to society,” a clear warning shot to those who would use red tape to slow down nuclear projects. It also encourages expedited review processes for technology like microreactors and sodium-cooled reactors.

Still, the real roadblock to developing and deploying new forms of nuclear energy isn’t on the government’s side of the equation: it’s the massive outlays of capital required to make the technology profitable, as seen in the scrapped Idaho microreactor project. As Ars Technica’s John Timmer pointed out in a detailed breakdown of the ADVANCE Act: “what nuclear needs is a massive financial intervention into the energy market by the government to get it built despite these issues — and this bill does not provide it.”



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