Smaller nuclear reactors, more cost efficiency on horizon for DoE

The current Energy Department administration is more invested in nuclear power options than ever before, according to one insider.

“The health of the nuclear sector is good,” Ed McGinnis, principle deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Department of Energy, said on Energy Department Month“I can assure you after 26 years in the federal government, I have never seen a time where the administration is more strongly supportive of the role of nuclear energy as a clean base-load source of energy to complement the other sources of electricity in our nation.”

The U.S. has the largest nuclear fleet in the world with 99 nuclear power plants operated at the highest performance level, according to McGinnis.

But turning the spotlight on any government sector may highlight the positives, but also shines a light on its challenges.

McGinnis said one challenge the DoE faces, along with both industry and the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission responsible for issuing licenses for plant operators, is the need for more innovative ideas to streamline efficiency, lessen cost and bring in more revenue for the government and industry.

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One solution is currently in a development stage.  McGinnis spoke highly of smaller nuclear reactors called Advanced Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs.

“The small module reactors are exciting in many ways. For once, they’re much smaller, some of these are units of 50 megawatts that can be brought together,” McGinnis said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “It allows utilities that have smaller capital wherewithal, where they may have difficulty financing an $8 billion per unit … class reactor, and rather have a [smaller] unit to start with —  a smaller bite at the apple — which seems very reasonable.”

In other words, it could provide an outlet for industry and plant owners to be able to get a smaller unit online generating electricity much sooner at much less of a cost.

“[By] operating that unit at an earlier time than what you would be able to do for larger, you’re able to sell the power [and] generate [industry] revenue while you’re building a second scaled-up unit,” McGinnis said.

While smaller, the SMRs will still produce the same type of year-round, weather-resistant electricity, he said. Many of the current projects now in the development stage will be designed as in-ground reactors with strong safety features. McGinnis said they could be “walk-away safe” reactors.

“Those hold great promise and great potential. At the Department of Energy, we are partnering with industry in our appropriate role, to work and validate and prove out some of these technologies and materials that are going to ultimately be part of these new systems,” he said.

Another challenge? The growing question of how nuclear fuel and waste can be disposed of without causing adverse effects.

McGinnis agreed with Energy Secretary Rick Perry that the department and industry need to develop a clear path forward for disposing of the spent fuel. Currently, those fuels are being stored onsite at many of the nuclear power plants.

Different proposals were included in the department’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal.

“Some of these reactors that we are focused on and partnering with industry on are looking at deployment as early as mid-2020 in the United States,” McGinnis said. “Now we are looking to Congress … to respond to our budget proposal.”