In This Issue
The Future of Nuclear Energy
September 1, 2001 Volume 31 Issue 3

Technology, Safety, Human Resources, and Nuclear Power

Saturday, September 1, 2001

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.

Road Mapping
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:

  • Define the requirements for Generation IV nuclear energy plants.
  • Review all potential design concepts and select a small number of concepts that would be significantly more economical, safe, and proliferation resistant, that would minimize waste, and that could be developed to be available by 2030.
  • Recommend a Generation IV R&D plan that includes sequencing of R&D tasks, initial cost estimates, and the promotion of national and international collaboration to ensure that these technologies would be ready for deployment by 2030.
  • Suggest developmental pathways likely to resolve technical and institutional issues for near-term deployment of Generation III+ technologies (by 2010).

Near-Term Road Map
About two-thirds of the members of the NERAC near-term deployment group represent utilities and vendors of nuclear plants, who are well placed to evaluate near-term needs. This group will consider a limited number of technologies that require relatively little R&D and recommend support for those with the following characteristics:

  • likelihood of winning regulatory acceptance
  • compatibility with existing infrastructure
  • credibility of the commercialization plan
  • suitability for cost sharing, as appropriate
  • demonstrable economic competitiveness
  • compatibility with the existing industry fuel cycle

The objective is to select at least one competitive nuclear energy option that has been or could be certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in time for construction to begin by 2005 and operation to begin by about 2010. Technologies that may fit this description include the AP 1000 and the pebble-bed modular reactor.

Although industry will probably not require major government assistance for near-term deployment, cost sharing is included as a criterion because firms or utilities may decide to spread the costs among themselves to reduce their risk and encourage innovation. The committee may also pinpoint areas in which government help will be necessary.

The committee is also working with NRC staff on all aspects of the near-term technologies. DOE is consulting with the NRC and industry to determine the need for staff training and regulatory modifications that would facilitate the licensing review process.

Long-Term Road Map
As a first step in creating a road map for Generation IV technologies, the Generation IV Technology Roadmap Subcommittee recently completed a report outlining challenging goals that are concept independent and have a wide range of applications. These goals address the issues of safety, economics, waste, proliferation, and sustainability. At the same time, an evaluation methodology group has developed some quantitative metrics for formulating first-round criteria for selecting long-term technologies.

The Generation IV subcommittee is attempting to define challenging but attainable goals for advanced technologies, which will be evaluated by several technical working groups with appropriate areas of expertise, such as water-cooled reactors, gas-cooled reactors, liquid-metal-cooled reactors, and "nonclassical" concepts. Another subcommittee of members chosen from the technical working groups will examine crosscutting issues, including fuel, operations, maintenance, and instrumentation and control, that may involve a number of technologies.

All of these activities are being coordinated by a road map integration team composed of experts from the lead laboratories for reactor technology, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory.

The technical working groups represent a very broad spectrum of expertise drawn from all over the world. Each group has two cochairs, one from the United States and one from another country; two representatives each from industry, the national laboratories, and academia; and six international representatives. The first goal of the working groups was to solicit and identify concepts worldwide and screen them. Initial screening was completed during the summer of 2001.

The technical working groups will now gather more detailed information on the most promising concepts for meeting the Generation IV goals and identify the R&D needed to bring them to fruition. Ultimately, they will select a small number of technologies (probably three or four) that DOE, working with other countries, can reasonably expect to support. These might include both small-reactor and large-reactor concepts, as well as quite different technologies to meet varying needs worldwide. A small-reactor concept would be essential to developing countries with small electricity grids. Small reactors may even be useful in a large country like the United States to provide power for "energy parks." Some countries will wish to focus only on a large-reactor concept, particularly if potential sites are limited.

Finally, a road map for R&D for the selected technologies will be developed. The target date for completion of this road map is September 2002, approximately two years after the initiation of the Generation IV subcommittee.

International Collaboration
R&D for Generation III+ and Generation IV reactors will be more collaborative and international than ever before. The nuclear power community is becoming increasingly global, and the future designs must meet the needs not only of large, developed countries but also of smaller countries and countries in the developing world. Because the market for Generation IV technologies will be international and because research budgets are limited, international research teams are the best way to ensure the effective development of future technologies.

DOE has been involved in bringing together a group called the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) to facilitate international collaboration. Two subgroups, a policy group and a technical group, have been formed. The forum includes representatives of major nuclear power developers and users in the world, as well as smaller countries involved in the development and use of nuclear technologies. The international partners, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, are involved in the working groups developing the road map. Other participants include the NRC, the U.S. Department of State, and observers from international agencies, including the European Commission, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Over time, the IAEA and NEA are expected to participate in various ways, and other countries may be invited to join the GIF. The forum has met four times, twice in Washington, D.C., once in Seoul, and most recently in Paris.

Other Challenges
In order to develop Generation III and Generation IV technologies, the United States and the global community will also have to address the challenges of an aging workforce and aging infrastructure. For a long time, the nuclear power industry has been in a downward spiral; industry has been doing less research, and engineering departments at universities have attracted fewer students to the field. I believe we can reverse this spiral and support a resurgence of expertise and activity. The decline in student enrollments seems to have leveled off, and enrollments are expected to rise again as the Generation III and Generation IV programs move forward.

In my view, the renewed interest in nuclear power is part of a general change in the energy environment. As recently as two or three years ago, few people were optimistic that nuclear power would be an option for the generation of electricity in the 21st century. Now such optimism is indeed being expressed, and a good deal of planning is being done both by government and industry. As a result of the recent energy disruptions in California and a growing awareness of global warming, public opinion also seems to be more favorable, and an increasing number of members of Congress have voiced their support. In this new environment, many people in the nuclear field believe we are indeed on the threshold of an exciting period of innovation and discovery in the development of the next generation of nuclear technologies to meet our growing nuclear needs.

1. Proliferation is the diversion or theft of nuclear fuel, such as plutonium-rich fuel, that can be converted to explosive devices.
2. A list of NERI projects can be found online at <>.
3. Other subcommittees of NERAC provide advice on other activities under the Office of Nuclear Energy, such as research on radioisotopes and on space nuclear power.
About the Author:Dr. Gail H. Marcus is principal deputy director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, U.S. Department of Energy, and is currently president of the American Nuclear Society.