Technology

A new model for a nuclear future

 By Amanda Saint

World leaders are calling for innovative approaches to nuclear to tap into its emissions-free potential and help solve current climate change issues…

The call has come hot on the heels of a recent report issued by the US-based think-tank, Breakthrough, entitled How to Make Nuclear Innovative: Lessons from Other Advanced Industries, which highlights a new approach that the authors claim could see the world’s energy problems addressed with new, safer nuclear technologies. Authored by Jessica Lovering, Energy Director, and Ted Nordhaus, Executive Director, at the Breakthrough Institute, along with Loren King, Economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research, the report “makes the case for an entirely new model of nuclear innovation.”

A complete nuclear industry overhaul

The authors advocate for abandoning the old state-led, top-down approach for nuclear projects, and adopting a policy environment that allows entrepreneurial startups to commercialize their innovations. They explored successes from other industries, highlighting which processes and solutions might be adapted to the nuclear sector to help meet the challenge of providing clean, sustainable energy across the world.

Byron nuclear generating station (Bill Tracey, Wikimedia)

The report identified the US as the potential leader for a new model of nuclear, saying that it is best placed to modernize nuclear innovation through a combination of public and private sector organization partnerships; licensing reforms; targeted public funding for R&D; and a culture that encourages sharing of knowledge and experience among organizations. The first step is significant nuclear policy reform, which means getting political parties on board. In the current political climate this could prove to be the biggest challenge of all and one that is possibly insurmountable. The Trump administration has made it abundantly clear that its energy policy is one driven by fracking for shale gas and wider adoption of clean coal technologies. But current American energy policy aside, the innovations being developed in the nuclear sector could prove an answer to the world’s energy crisis. But one big question remains: is a safe nuclear energy world possible?

A new nuclear reactor

According to X-energy it is. The company has developed a new nuclear reactor, which received a $40 million investment by the US Department of Energy under the Obama administration in March 2016. The XE-100 reactor is based on pebble-bed nuclear technology, which was originally developed in the 1940s. X-energy claims that its pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) resolves the safety issues that have plagued traditional nuclear reactors. Not only does the core not contain any water, it is also impossible for it to go into meltdown. The radioactivity is completely contained in the tennis-ball sized fuel pebbles made of layers of carbon and ceramic, which are then encased in a layer of graphite. According to X-energy the pebbles cannot crack or leak.

XE-100 Reactor (www.x-energy.com)

The PBMR concept can be integrated into existing nuclear power stations. Its advanced safety features mean that any new stations will not have to inhabit such remote locations—they will no longer pose a radioactivity threat to local communities. It also has the advantage of incurring low capital costs, with a short construction time and a high conversion efficiency. Plus, it will be constructed off-site and just installed at the plants. But despite these advantages, there are also arguments against the future use of pebble-bed nuclear reactors. While these design features mean the threat of radioactivity contamination and leaks is ostensibly removed, the criticisms of the technology include the use of graphite, which is combustible, and the fact that PBMRs create more waste than traditional reactors, which raises issues of storage. So while steps are being taken in the right direction for a new, safe nuclear future, it appears that the industry still has a long way to go to become the definitive answer to the world’s green energy needs.

SEE MORE: Rethinking nuclear by Mike Scott

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.