Nuclear is getting a facelift and it could play a huge role in supporting the world’s transition to cleaner energy sources.
Dozens of U.S. companies are working on a fourth generation of reactor designs that will soon come in a variety of sizes. These reactors offer enhanced versatility and could be more affordable to build and operate. Some of them could even help reduce the volume of spent nuclear fuel required for permanent disposal.
But in order to realize this potential, reactor developers need help lowering the risk of these clean energy technologies before key infrastructure and supply chains are lost.
Enter the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)—a uniquely positioned office at the U.S. Department of Energy that focuses specifically on supporting early-stage technologies that could fundamentally change the way Americans get, use, and store energy.
Here are three ARPA-E programs helping to make advanced nuclear a reality.
1. Lowering Capital Costs Through MEITNER
One of the biggest challenges facing the nuclear industry is building new power plants on time and on budget. ARPA-E’s MEITNER program identifies and develops new technologies to help lower the cost of building advanced reactor systems.
Ten projects were selected to develop new enabling technology. These innovations range from lowering construction costs through new modular or advanced manufacturing techniques to reducing operational expenses through robotics, autonomous controls, and advanced sensors.
All of them could help modernize the nation’s domestic nuclear supply chain and make new nuclear power plants financially more attractive to build and operate.
2. Lowering O&M Costs Through GEMINA
Despite the nuclear industry’s high performance in generating more than half of the nation’s clean energy, nearly a quarter of the U.S. nuclear fleet is experiencing financial hardship.
Roughly 80% of a reactor’s total generating cost is attributed to operations and maintenance (O&M) expenses. ARPA-E’s GEMINA is looking to drastically slash fixed O&M costs at advanced reactor power plants by a factor of 10 over the current fleet.
Nine projects are currently underway developing digital twins, or similar technologies, for an advanced reactor design. Teams are utilizing artificial intelligence, advanced control systems, predictive maintenance, and other cutting-edge breakthroughs to help inform and optimize O&M procedures for advanced nuclear power plants designs.
The overall goal is to achieve fixed O&M costs for the advanced reactor fleet at nearly $2 per megawatt-hour—ultimately making advanced nuclear power plants more economical, flexible, and efficient.
3. Reducing Spent Nuclear Fuel through ONWARDS
Finally, ARPA-E’s ONWARDS aims to develop breakthrough technologies that will help facilitate a 10 times reduction in the volume of spent nuclear fuel required for permanent disposal.
Eleven project teams are focused on improvements to fuel recycling, safeguards in accounting for nuclear materials, and developing high-performance waste forms that span across multiple reactor classes.
ONWARDS plans to achieve global back-end disposal costs of advanced reactor waste forms in the range of $1 per megawatt-hour.
ARPA-E recently launched a separate program, CURIE, focused on technologies to improve the methods for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from current reactors. These efforts could not only reduce the volume of spent nuclear fuel required for disposal but also produce a secure, domestic feedstock supply for new fast reactor designs.
Project teams are expected to be selected in October 2022.
A Department-Wide Approach
ARPA-E is one of several offices within the U.S. Department of Energy supporting the development and deployment of advanced reactor technologies.
The Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) works to enable the deployment of advanced reactors through several initiatives, including the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which aims to mature and demonstrate a variety of advanced reactor designs within the next 15 years.
NE funds research, development, and demonstration projects to reduce the risk and cost of advanced nuclear technologies, and to improve nuclear energy’s contribution to meeting the nation’s economic, energy security, and environmental challenges.