Power Engineering

Are Gen IV Nuclear Reactors the Future?

Terry Garrett, P.E., Burns & McDonnell

Today's nuclear power plants generate electricity at stable costs and produce near-zero carbon emissions. Currently, there are 437 operating nuclear reactor power plants and more than 60 under construction (five in the US) ranging from 500 megawatts electrical (MWe) to 1,700 MWe. However, not all reactors are competitive and such large power plants are not well suited for deployment in emerging countries. The next generation of nuclear power plants will continue to be carbon-free, but even more importantly, they will be a viable energy source for both emerging and developed countries.

The 1950s saw the first generation of commercial nuclear reactors. Between 1970 and 1990, utilities were placing orders for large MWe reactors. Around 2008, small modular reactor designs (SMRs) emerged. These smaller MWe versions of current reactor technology have improved safety features and modular construction that lead to shorter deployment times and improved economics. SMRs are an important and arguably an evolutionary step to advancing the next generation of reactors (Gen IV).

International cooperation is being realized, most notably through the Generation IV International Forum (GIF). The GIF was created in January 2000 and today has 13 members. The Mission Innovation initiative was launched in November 2015 on behalf of 21 governments to accelerate public and private global clean energy innovation with the objective to make clean energy widely affordable.

Gen IV global research and development is expanding with several Gen IV technology types under consideration. In 2002, GIF selected six types, from nearly 100 concepts, as Gen IV systems. Further, GIF has divided the research and development amongst working groups formed by laboratories, universities, and government agencies, according to the experience and interest of each. Multiple nations have both SMR and Gen IV reactors in various phases of market readiness.

Government, industry, and environmental support for nuclear is increasing. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed to develop design-specific guidelines for SMRs. In November 2015 at a White House Summit on Nuclear Energy, the executive branch reinforced the important role nuclear plays in providing reliable, zero emissions electricity. The U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council is working with National Labs to bring advance reactors to the market place. The Department of Energy's (DOE's) Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear will provide access to the technical, regulatory, and financial support necessary for commercialization. At the COP21, four of the world's leading climate experts, urged countries to recognize that nuclear energy is "the only viable path forward" to the needed rapid decarbonization of the world's energy systems. [COP is the Conference of the Parties, referring to the countries that have signed up to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.]

Industry investment is broad. The Mission Innovation participating governments will seek to double their research and development investment over the next five years. Twenty-eight wealthy individuals from ten countries have formed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to increase the public research pipeline. DOE awarded $40 million matching funds for development of two advanced reactors. Over $1.6 billion of investment is going to 46 new reactor companies. Some of the U.S.'s largest companies have made public announcements on investments to create a Gen IV design including General Electric, General Atomics, and Lockheed Martin.

According to The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an accessible, affordable and sustainable energy source is fundamental to the development of modern society and they predict a global demand for primary energy 1.5 to 3 times higher in 2050 as compared to today. Being a carbon-free source of energy is a huge advantage, but Gen IV reactors will need to be economically competitive to renewables. With the simpler Gen IV technology, improved safety, and physical protection, the economics should prove to be less costly to build, operate, and maintain. All of these attributes contribute to a viable energy source with more sustainable commercialization.

However, obstacles remain and the new technology will be challenged to expand in the open power market without a guaranteed cost savings. Gen IV will be more likely to expand in state-owned utilities willing to take the technology risk such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, KEPCO in Korea, and South Africa. In the U.S. market there are several large utilities (TVA, Southern Company, Duke Energy) that have a history of accepting similar technology risk.

Investments to commercialization, continued international cooperation, government support, and multi-years' worth of effort are needed, but by many indications, Gen IV reactors will be the next nuclear renaissance.

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