Promotion by Dept. of Energy comes after Saudi nuclear power deal
WASHINGTON, D.C. — While much of President Donald Trump's administration has been credited with focusing on placing a station on the moon for future travel to distant Mars, his officials have also been placing focus on advancing Earth-based science.
Specifically, the U.S. Department of Energy as of recently has posted a number of media releases including advancements in nuclear power reactor technology and the development of fuels that are safer than conventional uranium rods. Furthermore, the department has kicked off a "Clean. Reliable. Nuclear" campaign to promote nuclear energy.
Not only is the department indicating that nuclear energy is clean, reliable and getting safer, it asserts there could be a resurgence around the country in the construction of more nuclear power facilities. With increased pressure for energy producers to get away from fossil fuels, nuclear power was responsible for generating 807.1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2018, according to the Department of Energy. But "clean" energy in the minds of many in the public is often equated with "green" energy solutions, such as wind and solar. What prohibits nuclear from being deemed "green" is the nature of what happens in the event of a nuclear disaster — ranging from an accidental emission of a radioactive cloud to a full reactor meltdown. Such incidents occurred in recent history in Chernobyl in the former Soviet republic, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and in Fukushima, Japan. Such scenarios may become the risk of a bygone era as technology advances.
In March, Reuters reported that secret documents indicate Secretary of Energy Rick Perry approved the sale by U.S. companies of six nuclear power technologies and assistance to Saudi Arabia. It is also reported the Saudis intend to build two nuclear power plants. Although the tech sales are not complete, Reuters reports Arabia's decision on who to buy from — the U.S., South Korea or Russia — will be made later this year. Perry's approvals allow initial work to be completed for sales, but not for any actual shipments overseas to occur. DOE representatives told Reuters the requests and approvals had not been made public as in the past because of proprietary information the companies wished to keep secret from competitors or foreign tech developers.
Dept. of Energy reports more than 50 companies are developing reactor designs to bring "safety, efficiency and economics to the nuclear energy industry." In one example, the company X-energy is working on the Xe-100 reactor, which uses a uranium-based pebble floor with high-temperature gas cooling that the company claims cannot have a meltdown. X-energy hopes to have the reactor available for energy market use in the late 2020s. The company is working on the development in a cost-sharing venture with Dept. of Energy, which has invested more than $30 million into the project. Each Xe-100 is of modular design, but can produce about 76 megawatts of power. The reactor core is made of graphite and filled with enriched fuel pebbles the size of billiard balls. Each ball or pebble contains "thousands of specially-coated Tri-Structural Isotropic (TRISO) uranium fuel particles that are virtually indestructible" according to the Dept. of Energy.
Dept. of Energy states each pebble has an airtight seal around the uranium kernel to retain fission products and gases produced during operation. This would allow a power plant to be within 500 meters of factories and urban areas. Helium is pumped through the pebble bed to extract heat for a steam generator that produces electricity. Fresh pebbles are added daily as older ones exit the core through the bottom. Pebbles stay in the core for about three years and are circulated through the core six times. Spent fuel is stored on site. DOE states while some of the newer reactors are gas cooled, others are cooled by molten salt.
TRISO particles themselves are touted by Dept. of Energy as being "The most robust nuclear fuel on Earth." Furthermore, DOE states the fuel cannot melt down. TRISO particles are uranium, carbon and oxygen fuel kernels encased in three layers of carbon- and ceramic-based materials. The capsules prevent the release of radioactive fission products. Each kernel is the size of a poppy seed, and it is these kernels that are encased in a fuel pebble. TRISO fuels are also more resistant to neutron irradiation, corrosion, oxidation and higher temperatures, which is a limitation of traditional reactor fuels.
"Simply put, TRISO particles cannot melt in a reactor and can withstand extreme temperatures that are well beyond the threshold of current nuclear fuels," DOE stipulates. Although TRISO was first developed in the U.S. and United Kingdom in the 1960s, it was not until 2002 that the DOE began focusing on improving the technology and enhancing irradiation performance. Having a high-performance fuel on hand was believed to be a catalyst for developing high-temperature gas factors. Beginning in 2009, a three-year test concluded that the fuel exposed to more than 300 hours of testing at more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit exceeded all worst-case accident conditions.
X-energy and Kairos Power are expected to submit license applications to the U.S. Nuclear Regulation Commission once more testing is complete and there is assured demand by the nuclear power industry for the fuel and the special reactors.
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