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The future of nuclear energy will be decided in Idaho

Will Wade, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

The global resurgence for nuclear energy starts in the barren, high desert of Idaho.

Almost every nuclear plant in the world today can trace its lineage back to Idaho National Laboratory’s sprawling 890-square-mile complex. Researchers there were the first to generate electricity from splitting the atom back in 1951, and countless scientists have since visited the remote site to test reactor designs.

But while it's been a crucial stop on the path from drawing board to deploying systems in the field, it’s been 50 years since the last reactor was switched on there. The lengthy gap speaks to the challenges of harnessing a fission reaction. The lab stands poised to shepherd a new wave of nuclear technologies to market, but the recent cancellation of a major project at the site shows INL’s research prowess alone isn’t enough to ensure the industry will play a major role in combating climate change in the coming decades.

Dozens of companies are developing advanced reactor designs, which are typically smaller than the mammoth power plants widely used today. That approach has been touted as a faster, cheaper way to build reactors. Many companies are planning pilgrimages to INL, which is home to a vast array of facilities to evaluate reactor cores, fuels, coolant materials and other critical components. These new designs will need rigorous testing to ensure safety and reliability before they can go into service, and research this decade will have a major influence on the shape of the nuclear industry over the rest of the century. Scientists at the lab are eager to get going.

“This is the hard part, but also the fun part,” said Ron Crone, associate lab director for INL’s Materials & Fuels Complex. ”This is Disneyland for nuclear energy.”

Research groups, including the International Energy Agency, have called for an aggressive expansion of carbon-free nuclear technology to help rein in climate change. But startups have had to contend with rising costs and the glacially slow regulatory approval process. The industry got a hard reality check in November, when NuScale Power Corp. canceled plans to build a commercial power plant at the INL site that would’ve been the first in the U.S. to use several so-called small modular reactors (SMR) instead of a single large one.

 

Rising prices for steel and other key materials, as well as higher interest rates all drove up the cost at which the company could deliver electricity by more than 50%. That made it very challenging for the company to line up enough customers to justify the project. NuScale is the only company with approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an SMR design and the Idaho project was its flagship effort. Pulling the plug is a big setback for the industry’s revival, said Chris Gadomski, lead nuclear analyst at BloombergNEF.

“INL is trying to position itself at the forefront of advanced reactor development,” he said. “But commercializing advanced reactors in the US is not so easy.”

INL calls itself America’s nuclear energy laboratory, and its core missions include keeping the existing fleet of reactors in service and developing the next generation of fission power plants. A total of 52 reactors were built and operated at the facility as the technology became a mainstream source of electricity. The last new one to go into service there was in 1973, though.

”We’ve been stalled at 52,” said Brady Orchard, projects director at the Materials & Fuels Complex. “As a country, we have stepped away from nuclear energy.”

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