The General Chair’s Special Session of the 2020 ANS Virtual Winter Meeting was held on November 17. Moderated by Paul Kearns, director of Argonne National Laboratory, and Bryan Hanson, executive vice president and chief generation officer of Exelon Nuclear, the session, titled “Nuclear Science and Industry: The next transformation,” featured a panel of science and industry experts discussing how innovation is transforming both the current fleet of reactors and preparing for a future with advanced reactors, integrated systems, and smarter grids.
In addition to the session’s respected panel members, the Zoom meeting included appearances from some top names in nuclear, including Holtec International’s Kris Singh, Sama Bilbao y Leon of the World Nuclear Association, Warren Miller, Jr. from Kairos Power and Texas A&M University, Terrestrial Energy’s David Hill, and many more. In a short, prerecorded video, these experts discussed many of the issues facing the nuclear industry today, which were then expounded upon by the panel members.
Challenges and opportunities: The difficulties of incorporating new innovations into the nuclear industry, solving the issue of spent nuclear fuel management, and decreasing nuclear’s costs were some of the challenges brought up by the video participants. Others, however, highlighted the opportunities presented by a growing demand for carbon-free energy and the potentially large market for advanced reactors such as small modular reactors and microreactors.
- While acknowledging the challenges posed by low-cost natural gas, Marianne Walck, chief research officer at Idaho National Laboratory, touted the promise of microreactors, which she said can be quickly and inexpensively built in a factory. “Idaho National Laboratory is working with both [Department of Defense] and [Department of Energy] and leveraging the National Reactor Innovation Center on microreactor demo programs that can help accelerate both the technology and the technology demonstration,” she said.
- Kathryn McCarthy, associate laboratory director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, noted the challenges nuclear faces in being cost competitive with other energy sources and the need for nuclear to embrace both evolutionary and revolutionary innovations. “We really need both of them,” she said, pointing to the adoption of digital instrumentation and controls as an example of evolutionary innovation and advances in additive manufacturing and 3D printing as an example of revolutionary innovation.
- Agreeing with McCarthy, Jon Ball, executive vice president at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, said driving the cost of nuclear down is key to its success. “We think you drive that through simplification of design,” he said, adding that advanced reactors present a great opportunity for the nuclear supply chain if they can become cost competitive.
- Tara Neider, senior vice president of TerraPower and program director of the company’s Natrium project, highlighted how the Natrium technology, which integrates a 345 MWe sodium fast reactor with a molten salt-based energy storage system, can make nuclear more competitive by working in concert with renewable energy. “We had to rethink what nuclear was,” she said. “Instead of being a baseload technology, we’re now making it so that we can enable wind and solar to coexist.”
Key enablers: Talking about some of the prerequisites for helping enable technical innovation in nuclear, the video participants argued for an integrated public-private partnership approach to advancing new technologies, the need for a nation-wide price on carbon, and more investment from the private sector.
- Ball noted that public-private partnerships were historically a key part of the creation of the nuclear industry in the United States and need be continued to keep the technology advancing. Ball also stressed the importance of partnerships among private nuclear developers, using as an example GE Hitachi’s partnership with TerraPower in the development of the Natrium reactor. “I would argue that either one of our companies alone could not have accomplished what we have done in just a short amount of time,” Ball said.
- Changing the traditional model of public-private partnerships is the growth of private developers and investors in the nuclear industry, said Jake DeWitte, co-founder and chief executive officer of Oklo. “It creates a different kind of ecosystem that accelerates [development] and draws on better diversification of ideas not just in technology, but in business modeling, financing modeling, and culture,” he said.
- In helping advance nuclear innovation, McCarthy highlighted the importance of diversity in all its aspects, including not just technical and academic diversity, but diversity in gender, nationality, race, etc. “We have some challenging problems, and to solve them we need all those different viewpoints,” she said.