Is DOE’s Advanced Reactor Program a Bust?

Despite spending more than $2 billion over the past 18 years, the Department of Energy’s advanced nuclear research and development program (NE) is a bust, according to an article in Environmental Research Letters and reported at Phys.Org, the website of the Institute of Physics.  According to lead researcher Ahmed Abdulla of University of California San Diego, DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy is unlikely to deliver on the goal of a successor to the now 80-year-old light water reactor technology.

 

Ahmed Abdulla

Ahmed Abdulla

 

“In theory,” said Abdulla, “advanced, non-light water reactors are a promising carbon-free technology, which could complement or replace light water reactors. Some of these reactors would operate at higher temperatures, providing energy services that existing reactors cannot. Others, meanwhile, could reduce future nuclear waste burdens by operating for decades without refueling, burning up more of their fuel and generating smaller volumes of waste. However, despite repeated commitments to non-light water reactors, and substantial investments by NE (more than $2 billion of public money), no such design is remotely ready for deployment today.”

Using data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the researchers reconstructed the DOE program’s budget history. They found a program filled with systemic problems and poorly managed throughout its history. “The budget itself varies significantly over the period of study,” said Abdulla, “which is fine if these variations are part of a coherent vision that is being pursued, but that is not the case. At all levels NE favors existing technologies existing technologies and fuels over innovation, and, where it does truly innovative research, it is prone to changing priorities before any concrete progress has been made.”

Abdulla’s team also found that NE spent large portions of its budget on research infrastructure that relates only marginally to advanced reactors, but mainly to DOE’s weapons program. Nor has the $2 billion budgeted over 18 years been enough to mount a coherent program. “While that may appear to be a substantial sum,” said Abdulla, “by NE’s own estimate it is not enough to ready even one such design for commercial deployment.”

The paper suggests a new approach: a transparent process to lay out performance requirements for advanced designs, with open debate on the strengths and weaknesses of the various designs. Then an independent panel, working with stakeholders, should select the one or two that best meet the standards.

Abdulla concluded, “Without a sense of urgency among NE and its political leaders, the likelihood of advanced reactors playing a substantial role in the transition to a low-carbon US energy portfolio is exceedingly low. From a broader perspective, this failure means that the US will cede its leadership on nuclear matters to other nations, limiting its ability to exert influence in key areas such as safety and non-proliferation as well.”