Anyone concerned about climate change should support efforts to build a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors. These new reactor designs can deliver clean, reliable electricity and support our carbon-reduction goals. Nuclear power is the only current technology able to generate the amount of electricity required to support our standard of living without emitting carbon dioxide and nitrogen compounds. Our nation's, and indeed the world's, future well-being depends on innovative technologies like the traveling wave reactor.
Therefore, it is surprising that little attention was given to a recent announcement. The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNP) along with TerraPower — a Seattle-based start-up financed in large part by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his longtime associate, Nathan Myhrvold — announced a plan to build a traveling wave prototype. This reactor can use a variety of materials for fuel, however, an exciting option is the use of depleted uranium. This is the by-product of the uranium enrichment process with significant volumes stored in secured locations. We have sufficient quantities of depleted uranium to generate electricity for centuries. Also, this reactor can use "spent" fuel from our existing reactors.
The core in a traveling-wave reactor gradually converts fertile material into the fuel it needs. Cooled by liquid sodium instead of water, the reactor is designed to be safer than conventional light-water plants. Research is ongoing to address challenges using liquid sodium as the reactor coolant. In some respects, its waste is much easier to handle and is only radioactive for a few hundred years — not thousands.
The prototype, to be built in China, will be a mid-sized 600-megawatt reactor that will be ready for start-up by 2020. It will be followed by development of a 1,150-megawatt reactor for commercial use, with Asia as the principal market.
It is no surprise this reactor will be built in China. It is a long, arduous and very expensive process to license new reactor designs in the United States. Many energy experts believe the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is resource constrained. Additional funding would allow the NRC to hire engineers and scientists and hopefully reduce the licensing period. This is important because each new reactor design for the domestic market must be approved by the NRC, and this approval is considered the "Gold Standard" by many potential international customers. Shorter licensing time frames would have a positive impact on domestic employment. However, current efforts to increase funding have encountered resistance in Congress.
It can take a decade or more, and hundreds of millions of dollars, to license a prototype reactor with the NRC. While this situation does not sit well with nuclear entrepreneurs, some policymakers prefer the licensing process essentially as is. Allison Macfarlane, who was NRC chairman from 2012 until earlier this year and is now the director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University, opposes efforts to expedite reactor licensing. It is her view the current regulatory process best serves the public interest.
Hence, TerraPower has opted to build its prototype in China. Other U.S.-based nuclear startups have indicated their intention to find other countries in which to prove their technologies. Even the Department of Energy, working through the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is collaborating with the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics to build a prototype molten salt reactor in China. It would be unfortunate if the U. S. lost its leadership in nuclear power technology as a result of suboptimal energy policy and regulation.
Dan Ervin (DMERVIN@salisbury.edu) is a professor of finance at the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University. This commentary does not represent the official position or views of Salisbury University.