Nuclear and defense supplier General Atomics announced in February, 2010 that they would launch a 12-year ($1.7 billion) program to develop a new kind of small, commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S. that could run on spent fuel from big reactors.
The General Atomics reactor, which is dubbed EM2 for Energy Multiplier Module, would be about one-quarter the size of a conventional reactor and have unusual features, including the ability to burn used fuel, which still contains more than 90% of its original energy. Such reuse would reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste that remained. General Atomics calculates there is so much U.S. nuclear waste that it could fuel 3,000 of the proposed reactors, far more than it anticipates building.
The EM2 would operate at temperatures as high as 850 degrees Centigrade, which is about twice as hot as a conventional water-cooled reactor. The very high temperatures would make the reactor especially well suited to industrial uses that go beyond electricity production, such as extracting oil from tar sands, desalinating water and refining petroleum to make fuel and chemicals.
General Atomics intends to complete a preliminary design for the reactor and demonstrate that it can manufacture fuel elements in the next few years. It wants to be in a position to seek NRC design certification within five years, and, if no big problems emerge, to gain required approvals to sell reactors and make fuel assemblies by 2022