What is "New Nuclear"?
I. Old New
One of the most surprising things to learn is that nuclear energy production in the United States was completely “new” within a year after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. Remember, there has not been another such accident in the U.S. in 43 years. Following evaluation by the Kemeny Commission, with significant advice from the Navy who knew how to do nuclear correctly, nothing would be the same after that accident. From that time on, nuclear plants in the country, through the Institute for Nuclear Power Operators, shared information, created required rigorous training programs for operators, completely redesigned control rooms, and built a solid foundation for a professionally operated, safe, and reliable nuclear industry. For several years now U.S. nuclear power plants have been operating with a Capacity Factor above 90%, well above any other source of power.
II. New Old
Even “old”, i.e. conventional, nuclear is being reborn. New fuel rods are being tested that cannot react with steam to create hydrogen, new fuel forms that cannot melt down, even fuel forms that can incorporate plutonium from legacy spent fuel and “burn it up”. Anything built in the future will have double or triple passive safety features to deal with any rare and unlikely loss-of-coolant event. The first NRC certified Small Modular Reactor, the Nuscale YOYGRTM, is, in fact, an intrinsically-safe pressurized water reactor. The water-cooled reactor field has not remained stagnant.
III. NEW NUCLEAR
Dozens of companies and governments throughout the world are busy on truly revolutionary developments in nuclear power generation. One key aspect of most of these developments is the fact that safety will no longer be a complex “engineered” aspect of reactor design, as it is today with highly pressurized water-cooled reactors. Rather, the safety will be intrinsic to the technology. One example is the Molten Salt Reactor. With this reactor the numerous difficulties associated with solid fuels are eliminated. There can be no hydrogen or steam explosion. Meltdown is irrelevant. In fact, in case of an unexpected event the liquid fuel mix will solidify and retain within itself each of the most troublesome isotopes, Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and Iodine-131. Other developments include so-called TRISO fuel which cannot melt in a reactor, gas-cooled reactors which can enable economic hydrogen production and industrial heat, and many other novel approaches with great promise.
One of the biggest advances offered by “New Nuclear” is the Small Modular Reactor format. This allows for economical, rapid manufacture of reactors in a factory or shipyard, as opposed to expensive, multi-year on-site construction. Such reactors afford much greater flexibility, and wider application to smaller electrical markets, desalination, district heating, and industrial heat. Another opportunity for new nuclear is shipping, one of the world’s largest sources of pollution. The U.S. Navy has been doing this safely for decades. Use of marine reactors for commercial tankers and container ships would be an enormous contribution to the reduction of fossil fuel pollution.