ARPA-E funding safer and lower cost nuclear energy

The US Department of Energy (DOE) will be providing $20 million of funding for projects to identify and develop innovative technologies for lower cost and safer advanced nuclear reactors as part of the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) program.

ARPA-E’s Modelling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration (MEITNER) programme will focus on new, innovative enabling technologies aiming to help achieve “walkaway” safe and secure operation, extremely low construction capital costs, and dramatically shorter construction and commissioning times for the next generation of nuclear power plants.

According to ARPA-E, MEITNER encourages a “rethinking of how pieces of the nuclear reactor system fit together when developing the technologies that will make these plants viable.” In the building phase, that could mean cost savings through modular and advanced manufacturing techniques. Robotics, sophisticated sensing, model-based fault detection, and secure networks to enable substantially autonomous controls could reduce operational costs as well as contributing to a high degree of passive safety, the organisation said.

23 thoughts on “ARPA-E funding safer and lower cost nuclear energy”

    • Because we’re running out of uranium?
      Because Russia control’s the world supply (thanks Hillary)?
      Because it is super-easy compared to uranium, (conspiracy: suppressed)?
      Because it is TMI / Chernobyl / Fukushima proof?
      Because it is proliferation no-go?
      Because it produces almost no nuclear ash that’s radioactive for 10,000 years?

      Seriously. WHY?

      Oh, because it is a novel reactor topology, novel nuclear reactions, novel heat flow. Because its been done a few times, but hasn’t taken hold yet commercially. Because India has a LOT of thorium potentially, making ITS LFTR reactor potential great. Uranium independence for India.

      I see.

      • I’d just like to see something built. As it is, my son’s likely to be dead of old age before any serious movement on this issue is accomplished.

      • I’m not sure what the question is, if it is rhetorical, or tongue-in-cheek, or who it is addressed to… NBF’s recent dry spell WRT nuclear technology has me thirsty for discussion on this subject, so I address each of Goat’s points from a contra perspective assuming he was serious:

        Running out of uranium?

        Well, it isn’t as abundant as monazite sand, but “economic concentrations of it are not uncommon” and it is “as common as tin or zinc” per the World Nuclear Association website. Arguments about the scarcity of uranium are questionable like those for peak oil. Demand is actually weak right now; uranium is relatively abundant and cheap; there is a spectrum of ore grades out there too. We buy 390T/year; the price is about $20/pound; it peaked at $135 when a high grade mine flooded in 2006.

        Russia control’s the world’s supply?

        Well Russian satellite Kazakhstan is by far the top producer, but friendly nations like Canada and Australia mine 80% as much together.

        Because it is super-easy (sic) compared to uranium?

        What? It isn’t fissile and it requires blending with, or assembly with an enriched uranium or (gasp) plutonium driver to sustain a reaction. Thorium fast fission cross section is 10% of 238U; Th is just a poison albeit fertile, whereas 238U is fertile and fast fissionable. Fast fission factor with UO2 could be 1.05 (depende). From a reprocessing standpoint, discreet Th target elements apart from uranium is easier to work with than a thorium/uranium blend; the former contains only fissile U whereas the latter would contain junk. Worry-wart proliferation arguments aside, the former makes economic sense for breeding/reprocessing; the latter does not. Proliferation resistance is of nebulous value.

        Because it is TMI/Chernobyl/Fukushima proof?

        There is somewhere more than 200 PWR reactors in the world operating today that could technically “achieve” TMI with gross malpractice. Sure, low pressure systems have their benefits, but the lack of fission product retention is a fundamental MSR design problem, which coincidentally is the reason we don’t already have a fleet of these otherwise exceedingly simple devices. Keeping that sh1t away from the public is priority #1 in the industry. Every reactor besides the RBMK is Chernobyl proof. It would be interesting to see how tsunami-survivable a ThorCon installation would be, but we’ll never see it. All bets are officially off when it comes to natural disasters of such severity. Paper reactors are always very survivable, ask Rickover.

        Proliferation no-go?

        Ahhh. That is a boring subject more for politicians than futurists. See above?

        Nuclear ash?

        Ahhh. If there was a ranking system with WordPress I would give you -1 just for using that phrase. Also not true if there is U in the mix. Fission product activity would be similar and although it might not last 10,000 years, neither will we.

        India does need to worry about keeping the lights on. They can worry about Th fuel cycle after they install flush toilets.

        The various MSR groups need to consolidate and push for a modest pilot plant with a cradle to grave plan for no more than several tons of fuel salt. They can build from there after they demonstrate the materials, offgas handling, long term spent fuel storage. If they can demonstrate good handling and effective reprocessing on a laboratory scale, then lobby to bring the tech into production. Nothing else prudent IMHO.

        • You don’t like nuclear ash term? Who knew! I have kind of taken a shine to it of late: like a wood fire, after the wood is gone, there’s ‘ash’ left over. Same for nuclear fuels. The radionuclides or fission products just kind of seem to come from whole fuel magically. Ash from wood. Moreover, it becomes a metaphor that’s easy for people to digest.

          I was actually being rhetorically contrarian. My points were basically the same as your responses: there is no shortage of uranium today; there’s no credible shortage for some time to come. 30 to 50 year window. With that window opening, if things go poorly for uranium prospecting, we have millions of tons in “depleted” stock to re-enrich at first … then take the further-depleted stuff and feed it to fast-neutron breeders.

          Russia doesn’t control the world supply. As you noted.

          The “super-easy” part was relating to the nuclear power fuel cycle. As you note, thorium isn’t particularly “easy”. Can be made to work though.

          And as you note subsequently, the problems with radionuclides and needing at least at the outset to have a LOT of uranium mixed with the thorium … renders arguments as to thorium-power being free of the things that beset uranium … as false.


          • A molten salt reactor should run on a mix of Thorium and Uranium depending on requirements. The Thorium will break down to Uranium anyway. The advantage should be that either will be almost completely used up as fuel, changed to smaller atoms and energy released leaving much less than 90% Uranium waste or completely used up. Even using up Uranium waste from water reactors. That is the claims I have read. Heard lots of great claims about different molten salt reactors, MSR, LFTR, waves and others. Hoping to see these claims proven soon. $20 000 000 will amount to nothing. What they need to do is develop a quicker and cheaper licencing for experimental reactors. In Britain it can take 15 years to get approval. We need next generation nuclear now.

          • The LFTR isn’t needed from a rational tech perspective, but perhaps from a cultural perspective. What’s stopping conventional LWR fission from gaining momentum is extreme regulation and that regulation is predicated on notions about the current technology’s dangers, waste and mining issues. While these notions are fairly ridiculous in the grand scheme of things, they won’t go away anytime soon. The LFTR might be novel enough and address the objections enough to generate cultural support for specific new and non-adversarial regulation. If so, that would be a true game-changer.

    • Agreed. It is good for about 100 PhD projects in the universities.
      DO NOT give ANY to Babcock&Wilcox; they wasted $80E6 of DOE money on mPower and then closed shop.

      • Gentle critique: you know how to use semicolon, thus comma. I do prefer that we stick to “common bloke” notation for money.

        Either $80,000,000
        Or $80M

        And if you are going to use the “E” scientific notation then exclude money. For science values 80×10⁶ is just fine. Or 8×10⁷. But oddly, I prefer the tri-decadal notation. 3, 6, 9, 12 like much of humanity’s numerical spoken tongue. thousands, millions, billions, trillions. 80×10⁶ is so much easier to look-at-and-immediatey-get than 8.0×10⁷ or 0.8×10⁸. People get used to slogging decimals around, but few are really comfortable doing so.

        You’re welcome.

  1. It’s crazy that Bill Gates backs nuclear reactors called traveling wave reactors because of how safe and inexpensive they are, then has to build them in China because of our insane nuclear regulatory environment. Who the heck wrote the regulations, the oil and gas industry?!? Oh….

    • New hotness buzzwords like “traveling wave” certainly do stir up the public’s interest. That said, the traveling wave reactor (called the pool-type sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor for 60+ years) could eventually approach LWR Core Damage Frequency (CDF), but they’ll never be as easy to operate as LWRs because of mere technical issues. My personal take on the BM Gates Foundation bankroll is that he wants to be magnanimous and doesn’t really care about bang for his buck (wants to fund some jobs for PNNL and ArogonneNL ninnies). GE has had an EBR-II upgrade known as PRISM on the shelf since the 1980s; it is way more far along than TerraPower and has an FSAR-like safety analysis available on (ADAMS). Additionally, the Russians are actually operating a BIGDOG sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor this very moment (BN-800). The BN-800 could actually test TerraPower fuel if actual results were expected in return for the funding.

      Buzz it up! Give it a gimmick! Say it will feed starving children and elevate the lives of millions and will be fueled with dirt (reasonably accurate). Don’t mention the 100 tons of liquid sodium. Just build the thing. If I were the main TerraPower project manager I would cut contracts with General Electric AND the Russians, and I would start testing fuel in BN-800 ASAP. The traveling wave thing is a gimmicky way of saying high burnup fuel, but it caught your attention and that is what matters.

      • You miss the point entirely. It doesn’t matter if the technology is a total flop. The point is that he had to go all the way to China to build it. Same for thorium reactors, or any reactors for that matter. Why are they not built here? THAT was the point. You are obviously up on nuclear power designs, good for you. Why don’t you build one here then? lol

        • +1

          Yeah, don’t want to move to China. Joe Wong says I’m too much of a puss to go where the real work is being done (i.e. China). I’ll just sit here and make sure your lights are on and pine for a creative outlet.

      • One thing that is for sure. As it sits right now the nuclear industry is dead in the US. Trotting out all these obviously great reactor designs in a post means nothing, the industry is still dead.You may not like this observation, but you also cannot argue with it either. The last thing you want to do in college in the US is get a degree in nuclear engineering. It would make you overqualified for McDonald’s and unable to find a job in your field. Unless you learn to speak Mandarin anyway. Then you could steal our designs and make decent money.

  2. For wind and solar, unabashed adoption of state-of-the art technology and economies of scale have delivered an exponential reduction on the cost of installed capacity. For nuclear, out-of-control regulatory oversight and a industry wide pervasive reluctance to adopt change and technology has led to stagnation – Most nuclear plants literally look like museums taken out of a 1960’s movie. If we could figure out how to reconcile innovation while assuring safety…

    • Most nuclear plants literally look like museums taken out of a 1960’s movie…

      Uhhh. Because they were designed in the 1960s, largely built in the 1970s and can operate for 60+ years because they were well designed. Should we mock the Apollo program too for being old fashioned?

      True about

      out-of-control regulatory oversight

      , but every year the NRC proves just how necessary its role is when they catch poor behaviors. Kinda like the FDA, assuming that you like clean food.

      Not so true about reconciling innovation… Nuke plants as a fleet have up-rated well above their nameplate outputs (up to 20% greater than original license) and none of this would be possible without innovative upgrades. True, nuke plants are slow to adopt the latest fads in computing, but then again, apps aren’t really needed to boil water.

      • I think we would have a hard time beating the original Apollo. Even with all the computing power we have now. Designing, prototyping, testing, contracting, training and extremely high quality control. I think the Apollo missions were close to being a miracle. Amazing they all returned and crews survived. Hard to beat even with current technology. I think a salt reactor would be a lot easier. Just leave it for the Indians and Chinese.

  3. Twenty million ….Wow ! They’ve reduced funding on fusion to only 300 million. No point spending too much on something that actually works already, I guess.

    • If LFTRs and others meat only 50% of their claims they are still amazing. Revolutionary. We need it now. At least it can bridge a gap to develop renewables or Fusion. Maybe even quark fusion. Renewables are developing to slowly. Some proving problematic. I think next gen nuclear could be in production in 10 years if it had more support. Coal is the major problem we face and LFTR could replace coal and replace the old Nuclear plants. But most greenies will not even listen, Not enough profit for big business and politicians to get their interest..

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