Climate change needs an Operation Warp Speed

The government of the United States should throw its muscle behind ramping up a mammoth, rapid rollout of all forms of renewable energy through Operation Warp Speed, similar to what is being done with COVID-19, Clive Thompson writes in an Ideas column for Wired.

The rollout should include energy sources that we already know how to build—like solar and wind — but also experimental emerging sources such as geothermal and small nuclear, and cutting-edge forms of energy storage or transmission.

NuScale SMR chosen for U.K. wind-nuclear hybrid

British hybrid clean energy company Shearwater Energy announced on January 15 that it is joining with U.S.-based NuScale Power to develop a hybrid project using wind energy and small modular reactor technology to produce power and green hydrogen.

According to news reports, the two companies signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on an initial project, which could be sited at the now-decommissioned Wylfa nuclear power station on the island of Anglesey, off the northwestern coast of Wales. No land agreements have been reached, however.

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Fuel innovation: Powering nuclear modernization

Today’s U.S. commercial nuclear power plants are fueled with uranium dioxide pressed into cylindrical ceramic pellets—and have been for decades. These pellets are stacked inside long fuel rods made of a zirconium alloy cladding. Innovation in nuclear fuel, however, can improve safety, reduce operating costs, and further enable the development of a new generation of non-light-water reactors.

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Understanding the ITER Project in the context of global Progress on Fusion

(photo: ITER Project gangway assembly)

The promise of hydrogen fusion as a safe, environmentally friendly, and virtually unlimited source of energy has motivated scientists and engineers for decades. For the general public, the pace of fusion research and development may at times appear to be slow. But for those on the inside, who understand both the technological challenges involved and the transformative impact that fusion can bring to human society in terms of the security of the long-term world energy supply, the extended investment is well worth it.

Failure is not an option.

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General Fusion boasts backing from Shopify, Amazon founders

Shopify founder Tobias Lütke is backing General Fusion with an undisclosed capital investment through his Thistledown Capital investment firm, the Canadian fusion technology firm announced January 14.

In an article published the same day by TechCrunch, Jonathan Shieber noted that a separate investments by Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, first made through his venture capital fund nearly a decade ago, means General Fusion “has the founders of the two biggest e-commerce companies in the Western world on its cap table.”

U.K. launches study into nuclear-powered space exploration

A new research contract between the U.K. Space Agency and Rolls-Royce will see planetary scientists working together to explore nuclear power as an energy source for deep space missions in the decades to come. The effort is similar to one that the United States is undertaking through NASA.

"Space nuclear power and propulsion is a game-changing concept that could unlock future deep-space missions that take us to Mars and beyond," said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the U.K Space Agency, on January 12. "This study will help us understand the exciting potential of atomic-powered spacecraft, and whether this nascent technology could help us travel further and faster through space than ever before."

INL’s MARVEL could demonstrate remote operation on a micro scale

The Department of Energy launched a 14-day public review and comment period on January 11 on a draft environmental assessment for a proposal to construct the Microreactor Applications Research Validation & EvaLuation (MARVEL) project microreactor inside Idaho National Laboratory’s Transient Reactor Test (TREAT) Facility.

The basics: The MARVEL design is a sodium-potassium–cooled thermal microreactor fueled by uranium zirconium hydride fuel pins using high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU). It would be a 100-kWt reactor capable of generating about 20 kWe using Stirling engines over a core life of about two years.

The DOE proposes to install the MARVEL microreactor in a concrete storage pit in the north high bay of the TREAT reactor building. Modifications to the building to accommodate MARVEL are anticipated to take five to seven months. Constructing, assembling, and performing preoperational testing are expected to take another two to three months prior to fuel loading.

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Fusion and the bounty of electricity

From the time we discovered how the sun produces energy, we have been captivated by the prospect of powering our society using the same principles of nuclear fusion. Fusion energy promises the bounty of electricity we need to live our lives without the pollution inherent in fossil fuels, such as oil, gas, and coal. In addition, fusion energy is free from the stigma that has long plagued nuclear power about the storage and handling of long-lived radioactive waste products, a stigma from which fission power is only just starting to recover in green energy circles.

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The year in review 2020: Research and Applications

Here is a look back at the top stories of 2020 from our Research and Applications section in Newswire and Nuclear News magazine. Remember to check back to Newswire soon for more top stories from 2020.

Research and Applications section

UGA profs call for coalition of civilian nuclear partners

The rising influence of Russia and China in the development, construction, and deployment of civilian nuclear reactors around the globe raises significant geopolitical challenges for the United States, according to “Twenty-First Century U.S. Nuclear Power: A National Security Imperative,” a recent paper by two University of Georgia (UGA) researchers.

Scientists use nuclear magnetic resonance to identify olive oil blends

New research confirms the growing relevance of nuclear magnetic resonance technologies for the olive oil industry, according to the Olive Oil Times, based in Newport, R.I.

The latest Italian study, published in the scientific journal Foods, hints at the new opportunities emerging from the identification of the molecular footprint of extra virgin olive oil blends, which could be used to not only certify their contents but also to determine the transformational processes applied to the product.

Nuclear undervalued in European hydrogen strategy, report says

The European Commission’s current strategy for developing a hydrogen economy—part of its overall goal of achieving a climate-neutral European Union by 2050—needs to make more room for nuclear power. That’s according to a report published in December by the New Nuclear Watch Institute (NNWI), an industry-supported think tank based in the United Kingdom.

The 28-page report, On the Role of Nuclear Power in the Development of a European Hydrogen Economy, notes that the commission’s strategy, set out in last summer’s A Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate-Neutral Europe, sees the long-term future of the European hydrogen economy as one based on hydrogen production solely utilizing renewable power, thereby excluding nuclear from a lasting role in the market.

Game-playing AI technique may lead to cheaper nuclear energy

In this AI-designed layout for a boiling water reactor, fuel rods are ideally positioned around two fixed water rods to burn more efficiently. MIT researchers ran the equivalent of 36,000 simulations to find the optimal configurations. Colors correspond to varying amounts of uranium and gadolinium oxide in each rod. Image: Majdi Radaideh/MIT

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Exelon show that by turning the nuclear fuel assembly design process into a game, an artificial intelligence system can be trained to generate dozens of optimal configurations that can make each fuel rod last about 5 percent longer, saving a typical power plant an estimated $3 million a year, the researchers report.

The AI system can also find optimal solutions faster than a human and can quickly modify designs in a safe, simulated environment. The results appear in the journal Nuclear Engineering and Design.

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Award Winners: Fostering innovation in student research

The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy created the Innovations in Fuel Cycle Research Awards program for university students in 2010. Now known as the Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Awards, the program aims to engage faculty and students in innovation and innovative thinking, increase experiential activities related to nuclear technology, and prepare students to engage in nuclear policy discussions.


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Savannah River contract awarded to Battelle-led group

A new M&O contract was awarded for SRNL. Photo: DOE

A management and operating (M&O) contract for the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) valued at approximately $3.8 billion was awarded to Battelle Savannah River Alliance (BSRA), a consortium of universities and private firms led by Columbus, Ohio–based Battelle. Awarded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, the cost-plus-award-fee contract will include a five-year base period (inclusive of 120-day transition period) and potential term of up to five more years, for a total period of up to 10 years.

As announced by the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management on December 22, the new SRNL M&O contract is expected to enhance the laboratory’s ability to focus on research and development, increase its flexibility to pursue more diversified projects, and attract talent and the involvement of other research and academic institutions in its projects.

BSRA takes over responsibility for the SRNL work scope from the larger Savannah River Site (SRS) M&O contract with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. The transition of the management and operation of SRNL to the new contract will start following issuance of a notice to proceed to BSRA, the DOE said.

ARC-20 cost-share funds go to ARC Nuclear, General Atomics, and MIT

Designs chosen for ARC-20 support could be commercialized in the mid-2030s. Graphic: DOE

The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE) has named the recipients of $20 million in Fiscal Year 2020 awards for Advanced Reactor Concepts–20 (ARC-20), the third of three programs under its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). The three selected teams—from Advanced Reactor Concepts LLC, General Atomics, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—will share the allocated FY20 funding for ARC-20 and bring the total number of projects funded through ARDP to 10. DOE-NE announced the news on December 22.

The DOE expects to invest a total of about $56 million in ARC-20 over four years, with industry partners providing at least 20 percent in matching funds. The ARDP funding opportunity announcement, issued in May 2020, included ARC-20 awards, Advanced Reactor Demonstration awards, and Risk Reduction for Future Demonstration awards.

DOE issues Versatile Test Reactor draft EIS, confirms INL as its “preferred alternative”

The Department of Energy has begun the environmental review of its proposed Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), releasing a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for public review and comment on December 21. The sodium-cooled, fast-neutron-spectrum VTR is intended to enhance and accelerate U.S. research, development, and demonstration of innovative nuclear energy technologies.

New U.S. space nuclear policy released

An artist's concept of a fission power system on the lunar surface. Image: NASA

A national strategy for the responsible and effective use of space nuclear power and propulsion (SNPP)—Space Policy Directive-6 (SPD-6)—was released by the White House on December 16 as a presidential memorandum.

Space nuclear systems include radioisotope power systems and nuclear reactors used for power, heating, or propulsion. Nuclear energy can produce more power at lower mass and volume compared to other energy sources and can shorten transit times for crewed and robotic spacecraft, thereby reducing radiation exposure in harsh space environments. SPD-6 establishes a road map for getting space nuclear systems into service and sets up high-level goals, principles, and federal agencies’ roles and responsibilities.

Advanced reactors take center stage in Popular Mechanics

The January/February 2021 issue of Popular Mechanics hit subscriber mailboxes this week with a stark cover image of a single small reactor under the headline, “Tiny nuclear reactors are about to revolutionize American energy.” The story looks at advanced reactors as a pivotal step to “redeem nuclear’s stature in American energy.”

A good primer: The article does a good job introducing the casual reader to the idea that “bigger is no longer better” and that the future of nuclear power in the United States will most likely be “a combination of traditional large plants and smaller, safer megawatt reactors.”

Advanced reactors, including small modular reactors, show that nuclear is no longer a one-size-fits-all operation, the article notes. The industry now “is all about personalization,” says Ken Canavan, Westinghouse’s chief technical officer, who is quoted in the article. The capacity and scalability of SMRs “is just irreplaceable,” he adds.

The article explains that SMRs, microreactors, and other advanced reactor designs will be able to bring reliable, carbon-free power to small or remote locations, replacing fossil fuel power plants and supplementing the “resource-sucking downtimes left by renewables.”

Five advanced reactor designs get DOE risk reduction funding

The Department of Energy today announced $30 million in initial fiscal year 2020 funding—with the expectation of more over the next seven years—for five companies selected for risk reduction for future demonstration projects. The chosen reactor designs from Kairos Power, Westinghouse, BWX Technologies, Holtec, and Southern Company collectively represent a range of coolants, fuel forms, and sizes—from tiny microreactors to a molten salt reactor topping 1,000 MWe. They were selected for cost-shared partnerships under the Office of Nuclear Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) through a funding opportunity announcement issued in May 2020.

“All of these projects will put the U.S. on an accelerated timeline to domestically and globally deploy advanced nuclear reactors that will enhance safety and be affordable to construct and operate,” said Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. “Taking leadership in advanced technology is so important to the country’s future, because nuclear energy plays such a key role in our clean energy strategy.”