International Conference on Fast Reactors and Related Fuel Cycles: Sustainable Clean Energy for the Future (FR22) | U.S. Plenary Remarks
As prepared for delivery by Alice Caponiti, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Reactor Fleet and Advanced Reactor Deployment in the Office of Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
Vienna, Austria, April 19, 2022
The United States Department of Energy (DOE) would like to thank the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for organizing and hosting this important event, as well as the international and local organizing committees, for assembling the conference attendees to share information on fast reactors.
DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy is working to address the challenges in the nuclear energy sector and to leverage nuclear energy’s role in combatting the climate crisis by:
- Enabling the continued operation of existing light water nuclear reactors;
- Enabling the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors; and
- Developing advanced nuclear fuel cycles.
President Biden continues to make addressing climate change a priority and the Administration has set ambitious goals of achieving:
- A 100-percent clean electricity generation mix by 2035; and
- A net-zero economy by 2050.
DOE recognizes that we cannot meet these ambitious goals without the clean, reliable power provided by nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy remains an important source of clean energy generation in the U.S. as well as globally. In the U.S. today, approximately 20-percent of our country’s total electricity production and more than half of our emissions-free electricity generation are provided by our 93 operating nuclear power plants. Globally, nuclear energy provides about 10-percent of total electricity and about 28-percent of the world’s clean electricity and will continue playing an important role in addressing the climate crisis.
Currently, U.S. nuclear plants are operating with 92-percent availability, which is higher than any other generation source. This makes nuclear energy the largest and the most reliable source of clean, carbon-free electricity on the U.S. grid today.
Access to affordable, reliable energy is essential to ensuring the quality of life and economic prosperity for the world’s population; and nuclear energy is one of the most resilient, environmentally sustainable, and reliable energy sources. That is why the U.S. is focused on both preserving the existing fleet and driving deployment of innovative advanced reactors.
While the current landscape for nuclear energy in the U.S. is our large existing plants providing reliable baseload power for distributed grids, the future energy landscape is expected to look quite different. A combination of existing fleet and advanced nuclear plants, coupled with fossil and renewable sources, will produce electricity, and enable the flexibly to provide heat and electricity to decarbonize other sectors of the economy and support the needs of the grid.
To meet these needs, multiple U.S. companies are working on advanced nuclear projects for a wide array of capabilities. These newer technologies are being offered in a variety of sizes including light water-cooled advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), as well as advanced sodium-, gas-, and molten salt-cooled reactors.
In the U.S., we see significant levels of private sector investment, including from international partners, to build out the supply chain. Revenue diversification beyond electricity will enable the decarbonization of industrial processes that rely on thermal energy, like hydrogen production, as well as the electrification of new sectors, like transportation.
The U.S. fast reactor program is focused on science-based research that supports increasing the performance and economic competitiveness of fast reactor technology and providing validated experimental and operational data supporting fast reactor licensing cases.
One key component of the U.S. fast reactor program is operation of the Mechanisms Engineering Test Loop Facility (METL) at the Argonne National Laboratory. METL is an intermediate-scale liquid metal experimental facility that uses approximately 3,000 kilograms of reactor grade sodium in four vessels. Since 2018, the Department has used METL to test industry identified fast reactor components. DOE will continue to use METL to perform experiments that will yield results that can be useful to multiple fast reactor developers.
Also, the U.S. fast reactor program is qualifying Alloy 709, to replace 316H stainless steel for sodium fast reactor (SFR) applications. Alloy 709 is an advanced austenitic alloy with a significant creep strength advantage compared to 316H. The use of Alloy 709 in fast reactors would decrease capital cost of the reactor plant and will lead to higher safety margins.
The U.S. has a rich history with fast reactor design, construction, and operation which includes work on several major SFR facilities and demonstration programs, including two Experimental Breeder Reactors, the Fermi-1 commercial power reactor, and the Fast Flux Test Facility. Most of the data from these fast reactors is in hardcopy reports or older storage formats. Significant work has been performed to recover, organize, digitize, and quality-assure this valuable measured data to support the licensing of current fast reactor designs.
The U.S. has been engaged in many code validation and verification tasks via participation in numerous national and international benchmark projects. Like many of our international partners, the U.S. has shared our fast reactor data through specifications for international benchmarks conducted through the IAEA and bilateral collaborations.
The U.S. is developing several advanced fast reactor fuel forms and the tools and methodologies to accelerate the qualification of these fuels for use in advanced reactor designs.
The Versatile Test Reactor is an important piece of infrastructure to work in harmony with demonstration reactors to help us discover, test, and advance the innovative nuclear energy technologies that we need to help our planet achieve zero carbon emissions.
Through the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) Initiative, DOE facilitates private sector access to technical, regulatory, and financial support, which is necessary to move new reactor designs toward commercial deployment. GAIN supports funding opportunities to accelerate deployment through its voucher program, providing companies direct access to national laboratory expertise and facilities to advance the commercial readiness of their technologies.
The National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) is led by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and is providing a range of capabilities to support nuclear technology demonstrations, including the establishment of demonstration test beds. These test beds will provide the infrastructure where developers can demonstrate and test their technologies, such as fueled test reactors, and obtain the data that they need to support their designs and licensing applications. One of these test beds is expected to house the Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment (MCRE) which is based on the molten chloride fast reactor technology.
In 2022, NRIC initiated the Advanced Construction Technologies Initiative. This Initiative aims to reduce cost overruns and schedule slippages that have plagued the construction of nuclear power plant projects. NRIC in collaboration with industry partners, will develop advanced nuclear plant construction technologies that can drive down costs and speed up the pace of advanced nuclear deployment.
DOE is deeply invested in private-public partnerships with a range of nuclear developers to address the highest technical and regulatory risks for commercialization of advanced reactor designs, including an award with Southern Company Services to support the design, build and operation of MCRE at INL. MCRE is planned for operation by the end of 2025 and is expected to provide critical operational data to inform the design, licensing, and operation of a molten chloride fast reactor demonstration.
Also, DOE is supporting three demonstration projects to deploy first-of-a-kind reactors on the grid by the end of this decade, to include an SFR design. These reactors will be commercially licensed plants supported by both public and private funds at a 50-percent cost share. These demonstration projects are critically important to resolve regulatory uncertainty and to stimulate and establish the necessary supply chains for widescale deployment.
The Carbon Free Power Project will result in a first commercial demonstration of the NuScale light water-cooled SMR technology at INL in 2029, with initial site characterization work already completed. This plant will demonstrate NuScale’s six-module configuration, with each module providing 77 megawatt-electric (Mwe) and a total plant output of 462 MWe. The plant will also use an air-cooling option that will reduce water use by 95-percent.
The Natrium reactor is an SFR that is being demonstrated by TerraPower in partnership with GE-Hitachi. This reactor has a nominal electric power output of 345 MWe. However, a novel molten salt thermal energy storage system allows the plant to ramp its electricity output from 100 MWe to 500 MWe over five hours, making this plant a price follower on the grid. Additionally, the heat produced by the plant can be paired with industrial use.
The Natrium plant will be sited at a retiring coal plant site in the state of Wyoming, which is in the U.S. top coal producing region. Demonstrating the Natrium reactor in Wyoming is huge for both bringing clean energy online and helping communities achieve a just transition. The Natrium reactor will be an energy powerhouse for Wyoming, providing hundreds of high paying jobs and attracting industrial manufacturing to the region. DOE is committed to seeing TerraPower’s Natrium SFR demonstrate that a clean energy transition can become a reality.
The third demonstration project is the X-energy high-temperature gas-cooled reactor. This four-module plant configuration of the Xe-100 will provide 320 MWe. With its high outlet temperature, the plant can produce high quality steam that is ideal for hydrogen production and other industrial processes. This plant is also load following, making it ideal for pairing with renewable energy sources.
All three of these demonstration plants are ideally sized to take advantage of the infrastructure and workforce of retiring coal plants, bringing energy security to regions seeking to transition away from fossil fuels.
In conclusion, advanced reactors are crucial for achieving national and global carbon reduction goals. The U.S. is continuing to perform foundational research and development on advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies to improve nuclear energy safety and performance. Specific to fast reactors, DOE is supporting efforts that are focused on technology innovation for cost reduction, closing regulatory gaps, and providing validated experimental and operational data supporting fast reactor design and licensing.
DOE is connecting developers with the expertise and capabilities of our national laboratories. In addition, private-public partnerships are bringing first-of-a-kind demonstrations to the grid within this decade. Finally, international engagements and partnerships continue to be a high priority for DOE, including the work we do with the IAEA and Generation IV International Forum. DOE appreciates the opportunities for engagement at this conference.