Tomorrow’s Nuclear Reactors Are Closer Than You Think

on March 03, 2016 at 5:00 PM
INL blog

Dr. Rachel Slaybaugh is among the new generation of scientists seeking to revolutionize nuclear energy. She is an assistant professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California-Berkeley. | Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley. 


A new generation of innovators is pioneering the future of nuclear energy in partnership with our National Labs. Citizens and policymakers leading the global transition to a low-carbon economy are focusing efforts on developing — and building — advanced nuclear reactors. To support these efforts, the Department of Energy is working to forge key partnerships and support a culture of nuclear innovation driven by this new generation of scientists, university researchers, entrepreneurs and investors.

“Nobody told today’s students that nuclear innovation is supposed to be slow. They chose nuclear because they want to save the world.” – Dr. Rachel Slaybaugh

The current nuclear reactor fleet is the low-carbon workhorse of the electricity world. In 2014, nuclear power generated about 60 percent of the carbon-free electricity in the United States. Today’s light-water reactor designs provide a safe, effective and affordable bridge to new nuclear reactor technologies — promising increased flexibility and the ability to match electricity generation with demand.

First across that bridge may be small modular reactors (SMRs), which vary in size from 50 to 300 megawatts (about one-fourth the size of current reactors). With lower initial capital investments and shorter construction timelines than traditional-sized reactors, SMRs are progressing toward commercialization. They could replace aging, carbon-emitting coal power plants, and their smaller size provides more flexibility in where they can be located.

Tomorrow’s fission reactors will broaden our energy options by using innovative fuels and, potentially, alternative coolants such as high-temperature gas and liquid metal or molten salt instead of water. Since many advanced reactor designs operate at a higher temperature than light-water reactors, they are ideally suited to replace fossil fuels for industrial applications that require high temperature process heat (such as oil refining and biofuel production) with nuclear-generated heat at an enormous savings in carbon emissions.

Nuclear innovation doesn’t stop at fission. Companies large and small, along with labs such as Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory are studying nuclear fusion — the energy source of the sun and stars — in the hopes of someday harnessing fusion for power on Earth.

Nuclear innovators are also reshaping the federal government’s role in nuclear energy. The Department of Energy recently established the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) to provide the new nuclear energy community with access to the technical, regulatory and financial support necessary to move new nuclear reactor designs toward commercialization. GAIN is based on feedback from the nuclear community and provides a single point of access to the broad range of capabilities — people, facilities, infrastructure, materials and data — across the Energy Department and its national laboratories.

Led by Idaho National Laboratory in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, GAIN integrates and facilitates efforts by private industry, universities and national laboratories to test, develop and demonstrate innovative nuclear technologies to accelerate the licensing and commercialization of these systems. Focused research opportunities and dedicated industry engagement ensures that Energy Department-sponsored activities make a difference for companies working to bring new reactor designs to market.

University of California-Berkeley professor Rachel Slaybaugh summed up the buzz around nuclear technology innovation during a recent roundtable on advanced nuclear power: “Now is an exciting time to be in nuclear energy,” she said. “Nobody told today’s students that nuclear innovation is supposed to be slow. They chose nuclear because they want to save the world. Defining how the universities facilitate collaboration between students and industry will be key to our success.”