The final plenary session of the American Nuclear Society's 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting was the General Chair’s Special Session, held on Wednesday, June 10. The session contained much information about the current and future role of advanced reactor technology. The session, with the subtitle “The Promise of Advanced Reactors during Uncertain Times: National Security, Jobs and Clean Energy,” featured two panels: the Lab Directors Roundtable and the Advanced Reactor Panel. The general chair is Mark Peters, Idaho National Laboratory director. The session was moderated by Corey McDaniel, of Idaho National Laboratory, and the assistant general chair of the Annual Meeting.
A few of the issues covered during the dual plenary session included challenges to advanced reactor deployment, public-private partnerships in research and development, nuclear non-proliferation and security, workforce issues, and market conditions and demand.
Following are a few highlights from the session.
Lab Directors Roundtable
Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters led the Lab Directors Roundtable with a discussion about the role that U.S. leadership will play in seeing advanced reactor innovations developed, demonstrated, and deployed by 2030. Panel members included Department of Energy lab directors Thomas Zacharia of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Thom Mason of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Paul Kearns of Argonne National Laboratory.
Peters opened by noting the importance of recognizing that the national laboratories were born out of the Manhattan Project and World War II. “It was determined that the importance of multidisciplinary science and technology at that time were vital to addressing large national and global challenges,” he said. Peters added that while the labs are sometimes in competition, there is also “a tremendous amount of cooperation.”
Zacharia noted that ORNL is not only involved in nuclear reactor research and development, but it is also making strides in computing and machine learning, as well as advanced manufacturing techniques, all of which he said can be used to support advanced reactor concepts.
“At ORNL, we are combining what we learned from CASL [Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors] and some of our other work to shape a new approach to reactor design, manufacturing, licensing, and operation,” he said. “Reflecting on our history, where the [X-10] Graphite Reactor was constructed and put into operation in 9 months, with all of the technology advancements we have today, we ought to be able to do better than that.”
Mason, speaking on the success of LANL’s work on the KRUSTY (Kilowatt Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY) experiment on behalf of NASA, said, “It’s worth noting that within the space of about 3 years, and for about $20 million dollars, [LANL and NASA] were able to design, build, and operationally test an entirely new reactor. As much as we like to talk about how difficult it is and how long it takes to do these things, it turns out that under the right conditions you can actually move pretty quickly, which is important if you’re trying to develop a technology rapidly.”
Kearns highlighted a collaborative nonproliferation effort by the DOE laboratories called the Reduced Enrichment Research and Test Reactors program, which was established in 1978. “It’s been a really successful program,” he said. “We have converted some seven reactors from operating with highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium. We’ve also been able to shut down 30 reactors across the nation and world to reduce the concerns of proliferation.”
Kearns added, “We are excited and committed to working with U.S. industry to deploy the next generation of advanced reactor designs and technologies. We are fully engaged and looking forward to contributing significantly to maintaining U.S. leadership in nuclear technology.”
Advanced Reactor Panel
Christine King, director of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) at INL, moderated the session’s Advanced Reactor Panel. Panel members included professionals from the DOE and private industry, including venture capitalist Ray Rothrock; Chris Levesque, president and chief executive officer of TerraPower; Kemal Pasamehmetoglu, executive director of the DOE’s Versatile Test Reactor; Clay Sell, CEO of X-Energy; and Ashley Finan, director of the National Reactor Innovation Center at INL.
King, highlighting the role GAIN plays in the development of advanced reactor technologies, began by saying, “We see GAIN not just as an initiative, but as a philosophy. We believe in meeting advanced nuclear developers where they are to understand their approach and their needs.”
Rothrock, who serves as partner emeritus of Venrock, an early-stage tech investment partnership, said that the advanced reactor community needs to think about how it presents itself to capital markets. “I would posit the following: This advanced reactor business needs capital now more than it needs uranium,” he said. Rothrock proposed the formation of a task force of capital investment experts that have a commitment to nuclear and decarbonization. “Capital is important,” he said. “We have to organize ourselves and help investors take an interest in advanced nuclear and help get it going again.”
Levesque, in talking about the current state of advanced reactor technology, related the situation to the COVID-19 pandemic, said, “When nature acts, it can act exponentially.” He added that the mathematical growth rate of the virus is something that should be easily understood to those familiar with nuclear reactor kinetics. “But too often, decision makers, the public, and even us engineers and scientists have difficulty in comprehending and acting upon anything other than linear change ... Unfortunately, the climate is not a simple linear system. This is what has driven TerraPower’s urgency in pursuing reactor designs that are ready to build.”
Pasamehmetoglu noted that his group, in designing the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), used some of the existing design features of the PRISM reactor. “Basically, what we did was to take an old, reliable car with a simple design, threw away the old engine, and replaced it with a high-performance engine that meets all our requirements.”
Pasamehmetoglu also addressed some of the debate going on regarding whether the United States should be building a test reactor or if it is better to invest in a demonstration advanced nuclear power reactor. “In my opinion, that is really an artificial debate,” he said. “If we are serious about sustaining our leadership in advanced reactor technologies, we need both. It is not one or the other.”
Sell, taking a bit of a contrarian view of the role of advanced reactors in uncertain times, said, “It is our view at X-energy that the times are not nearly as uncertain as they seem. There is a tremendous business opportunity that is before us now.” That certainty about the competitiveness of advanced reactors is driven by four converging factors, Sell said, which include a growing demand for energy, a need to decarbonize energy production, the attrition of the current light-water reactor fleet, and the technological readiness of Generation IV reactors.
Finan, the session’s final speaker, discussed the promise of advanced reactor technology. “We are on the cusp of demonstration and commercialization and being able to apply these technologies to solving our most demanding and urgent challenges,” she said, adding that getting to a demonstration reactor will require “investment, commitment, and persistence.”