The US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) said on 24 May that dozens of US 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,” NE noted.
However, in order to realise this potential, reactor developers need to help in “lowering the risk of these clean energy technologies before key infrastructure and supply chains are lost”. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is a uniquely positioned office at DOE that “focuses specifically on supporting early-stage technologies that could fundamentally change the way Americans get, use, and store energy”. Three ARPA-E programmes are helping to make advanced nuclear a reality:
- One of the biggest challenges facing the nuclear industry is building new power plants on time and on budget. ARPA-E’s MEITNER programme 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.
- ARPA-E’s GEMINA is looking to drastically slash fixed O&M costs at advanced reactor power plants by a factor of ten over the current fleet. Nine projects are currently underway developing digital twins, or similar technologies, for an advanced reactor design. Teams are utilising artificial intelligence, advanced control systems, predictive maintenance, and other cutting-edge breakthroughs to help inform and optimise 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 MWh making advanced NPPs more economical, flexible, and efficient.
- Finally, ARPA-E’s ONWARDS aims to develop breakthrough technologies that will help facilitate a tenfold reduction in the volume of used 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 MWh.
ARPA-E recently launched a separate programme, CURIE, focused on technologies to improve the methods for reprocessing used 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.