NEWS: Will Shutdowns Lead to Next-Generation Nukes?

Posted by Lexie Briggs on Jul 12, 2013 11:00:00 AM

Advanced Nuclear PowerNuclear energy provides nearly one-fifth of America’s electricity generation capacity but the most recently constructed nuclear power plant dates back to 1978. So far this year, four of America’s aging nuclear reactors have been shut down permanently, reducing net electrical capacity by 3 percent nationwide this summer. Globally, nuclear power generation has declined from a peak of 17 percent of the power mix in 1993 to roughly 10 percent last year, as the average age of the nuclear reactor fleet reached 28 years.

The Fukushima Daiishi disaster may have taken the air out of the “nuclear renaissance” talk of several years ago, but plenty of new nuclear plants are still getting built around the world.  A total of 66 nuclear reactors in 14 countries are currently under construction, two-thirds of them in China, India, or Russia.

A few are even being built in the United States. Last year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved two new nuclear reactors to be built in Georgia, which could be operational as early as 2016. Late last year, Florida regulators approved funds for a nuclear power plant, which could be operational by 2022. A new movie, Pandora’s Promise, interviews environmentalists who make the case for nuclear power.

Just as important is a recent push for innovation in nuclear power technologies. GigaOM this week pointed to a new breed of experimental robotic snakes from Carnegie Mellon that can wiggle through pipes to inspect nuclear power plants. Fun stuff. More exciting than robotic snakes, however, is the prospect of new nuclear power designs widely accepted as secure, clean, and affordable. 

One company on the cutting edge of nuclear technology, Transatomic, was recently profiled in the New Yorker. The piece, entitled “A New Way to Do Nuclear,” focuses on innovations Transatomic Power hopes could change the face of nuclear power. As designed, the company’s generators would be small, cheap (relative to traditional power plants), and “walk-away safe.” In other words, the reactor would keep itself cool in the event of a power outage—effectively negating a nuclear meltdown scenario. 

In addition, the Transatomic reactor is a molten salt reactor, a concept first tested at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. Molten salt reactors are able to use fuels that other reactors would consider “spent” but which are still radioactive. In a molten salt reactor, the salt dissolves nuclear fuel, which enters a critical state and produces steam.

“We had this sense that there are so many unexplored aspects of nuclear technology,” Leslie Dewan, one of the co-founders of Transatomic, told the New Yorker. “We knew that there would be something out there that would work, and would be better.”

The world’s largest offshore wind farm opened up off the coast of Great Britain this week, with enough capacity to power 500,000 households, bringing Great Britain's offshore wind capacity to 15 gigawatts. For perspective, that's an amount equal to 25% of the United States’s onshore wind generation capacity. The London Array stretches across 20 kilometers and incorporates 175 colossal wind turbines. Meanwhile, on the shores of New England, NPR asks if a former energy hub could regain its status. New Bedford, MA, once “the City that Lit the World” as the nation’s whale-oil capital is positioning itself as the construction staging ground for the Cape Wind offshore wind project – and potentially many more projects in offshore tracts to be put out to bid by the federal government later this month – with a state-funded port facility designed to accommodate offshore wind turbine installation that recently broke ground. 

Stella solar sedan videoSomething you don’t hear about every day – solar transportation – was in the news this week. The Solar Impulse airplane made its much-anticipated landing at JFK, completing its cross-country solar-powered flight. Then a group of Dutch students unveiled the world’s first “solar sedan,” a solar-powered car that looks like a bus that’s been squashed. Named “Stella,” it seats four, has a trunk, and collects more energy in its solar panels than it consumes. In more mundane – and all-too-familiar – solar news, thin-film start-up Nanosolar is selling off its assets to German and Swiss investors.

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Topics: News Update