The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced five awards to a total of five companies that are designed to help advance key nuclear energy research and development projects supporting advanced reactor technologies. The awards were framed as being part of the administration’s Climate Action Plan and are part of a DOE program launched in 2013.

The projects included in the Oct. 31 announcement will receive $13 million in cost-share agreements “to help address significant technical challenges to the design, construction and operation of next generation nuclear reactors, based off needs identified by industry designers and technical experts.”

The companies are:

  • AREVA Federal Services partnering with TerraPower Company, Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), and Texas A&M University—Modeling and simulation for longer life cores: Thermal hydraulic simulations and experimental investigation for liquid metal cooled fast reactor fuel assemblies.
  • GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy partnering with ANL—Development and modernization of next-generation probabilistic risk assessment methodologies.
  • General Atomics partnering with the University of California at San Diego and the University of South Carolina—Fabrication and testing complex silicon carbide structures pertinent to advanced reactor concepts.
  • NGNP Industry Alliance partnering with AREVA, UltraSafe Nuclear Company, Westinghouse, and Texas A&M University—High-temperature gas reactor post-accident heat removal and testing.
  • Westinghouse Electric Company partnering with ANL and the University of Pittsburg— Development of thermo-acoustic sensors for sodium-cooled fast reactors.

When the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out its proposed Clean Power Plan in June, Administrator Gina McCarthy commented that “States also have the opportunity to shift their reliance to more efficient, less polluting plants. Or, instead of low carbon sources, there’s always the opportunity to shift to “no” carbon sources like nuclear, wind, and solar.” Although support for nuclear has been part of the administration’s rationale for the plan, it has been unclear exactly how nuclear would be incentivized, especially given the high capital costs and the challenges some existing units are facing in a market with low-cost gas-fired generation. Even this award announcement is unlikely to have any short-term effect given its focus on research and development (R&D).

That’s not to say that R&D isn’t needed. As William D. Magwood, former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told POWER in an exclusive interview earlier this month at the World Nuclear Exhibition, “I think where the U.S. is not keeping up is when you’re looking over the horizon. On our panel yesterday, we heard from our colleagues in Russia and France talking about their Gen IV reactor programs. Those programs are much more aggressive than what’s happening in the U.S. right now. In the U.S., there is a very vibrant program, at the Department of Energy, looking at a variety of different science and technology issues, but we don’t have in the United States a very broad-based, integrated technology program aimed at developing any particular technology at this point. And that’s something that I hope gets resolved in the near future.”

The DOE’s award announcement quoted Secretary Ernest Moniz addressing the science and technology part of the challenge: “This type of public-private research in advanced nuclear reactors will help accelerate American leadership in the next generation of nuclear energy technologies, and move the United States closer to a low carbon future. . . . These types of investments are crucial to the continuing role of nuclear power as a significant contributor to the U.S. energy economy.”

Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Editor (@GailReit, @POWERmagazine)