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Author: Gail H. Marcus
After many years of reduced research activity, the status of nuclear energy is changing dramatically. Many of us in the field have envied those who pioneered the development of the industry when nuclear power was a technological frontier. Very recently, however, the situation has changed, and we may be on the threshold of a "second frontier" that promises to be as exciting as the first. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has recently launched plans to strengthen the nation’s nuclear power option through the development of short-term and long-term road maps that address issues related to technology, safety, and human resources.
Generations of Nuclear Power Technologies
These road maps will build on more than 40 years of experience with commercial nuclear power. The earliest plants, which we now call Generation I nuclear power plants, were small prototypes and demonstration plants built during the 1950s and early 1960s at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, Dresden, Germany, and elsewhere. Generation II plants followed. These are the currently operating commercial power reactors, primarily light-water reactors of both pressurized and boiling-water designs, and some other technologies.
Since the Generation II plants were built, several superior designs (Generation III) have been developed. These include both advanced pressurized-water reactors and an advanced boiling-water reactor. Two advanced boiling-water reactors have already been built in Japan, and one is under construction in Taiwan. Two designs for pressurized-water reactors and one for a boiling-water reactor have been certified in the United States, but none has been ordered. The apparent lack of interest in these designs in the United States is largely because of their high cost. Although recent increases in natural gas prices have made nuclear power economical enough to make these advanced designs more attractive, the cost of construction is still very high.
It is clear that the world will require more electrical generating capacity in the future. Because of the significant environmental and other advantages of nuclear power (especially the absence of carbon emissions), it will certainly be an important element in the future global energy mix. We can keep existing plants running longer through license renewals, but in the long run, we will have to build new nuclear power plants. In addition to being more economical to build and operate, new nuclear power plants must address public concerns about safety, proliferation,1 and waste disposal.
The development and construction of replacement nuclear technologies will take place in two time frames. In the short term (the evolutionary time frame), Generation III technologies will be further developed and implemented. Technologies that could be put into service in the next decade or so--approximately by the year 2010--are called Generation III+. These new designs, based largely on existing reactor and fuel cycle technologies, will require little new research and development (R&D). Nevertheless, they would be technologically and economically superior to Generation III reactors.
In the decade or two beyond the implementation of Generation III+, by 2020 or 2030 perhaps, truly revolutionary, next-generation (Generation IV) technologies could be available. These technologies will require substantial R&D and considerably more time to realize than Generation III+ designs. Generation IV technologies are expected to improve economics significantly, produce minimal waste, improve safety, and be proliferation resistant.
Nuclear Energy Research Initiative
DOE has embarked on a multitrack approach to the design and development of both near-term and long-term nuclear reactors. The first track is a research program known as the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI), which is now in its third year. The purpose of NERI is not to build new reactors but to support small, discrete research projects on innovative technologies that have been selected for their potential to improve safety, be more economical, increase proliferation resistance, or minimize waste.
The NERI approach differs from DOE’s past approach to nuclear research. Under NERI, DOE funds investigator-initiated projects that have been selected by peer review, much the way the National Science Foundation and the DOE Office of Science fund their projects. NERI projects are typically funded for three years at $500,000 to $1 million a year. The objective is to encourage the development and demonstration of innovative concepts that might otherwise lack support. Among the 50 or so research projects under way are studies of the thorium fuel cycle and metal fuels; light-water, liquid-metal and gas-cooled concepts; large and small designs; and direct energy conversion.2
The second track of DOE’s planning process is an ambitious program to develop a comprehensive plan, or road map, for future nuclear power development. The program is being conducted under the auspices of the Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee (NERAC). The Subcommittee for Generation IV Technology Planning (also known as Generation IV Roadmap NERAC Subcommittee) was established under NERAC in October 2000 to provide guidance for the development of a road map for Generation IV technologies and to oversee Generation III+ activities.3 Subcommittee members include representatives of industry, government laboratories, and universities. The subcommittee’s mandate includes these goals: