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U.S. agency issues update on new nuclear reactor designs.

THE U.S. GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE has issued a technology assessment of new concepts for nuclear reactors.

The report, prepared for Senator Dianne Feinstein, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, looks at the current status of several advanced designs, including a high temperature gas-cooled reactor, a sodium-cooled fast reactor, and four small modular light water reactors.

The nearest to completion are the light water reactors. Small modular light water reactors have some features, including the coolant used, in common with the current fleet of large U.S. nuclear power plants.

Design groups for all small modular light water reactors have held preliminary discussions with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about possible certification. One of the designers in that group, NuScale Power LLC, has said it plans to apply for design certification in 2016.

None of the other reactor design programs has announced a schedule for application.

The GAO's report considers both the expected benefits of small modular light water reactors and challenges remaining before they can be put into operation.

A small footprint is expected to provide flexibility, possibly opening new markets for nuclear power plants. Modular designs can be manufactured in factories, and so reduce construction time and cost compared with current large-scale nuclear plants.

Challenges include demonstrating that the reactor designs are safe. According to GAO, "If the light water SMR designers are unable to demonstrate that their designs can operate safely without adding to the complexity of the design, their construction and maintenance costs may increase and thus weaken their economic competitiveness."

The Department of Energy has provided financial support to the designers of two small light water reactor programs for reactor certification and licensing work. The DOE also supports research and development activities on the high-temperature gas reactor and the sodium fast reactor.

The Energy Department provides this support in areas such as fuels and material qualification and reactor safety studies, the report said. Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said they do not expect applications for design certification of advanced reactors for at least five more years.

Reactor designers told GAO's researchers that one of the major challenges they face is the cost to develop and certify a design, which can run to $1 billion or even $2 billion. From the time a completed reactor design has been submitted to NRC, the licensing process and construction can take years, possibly a decade or more, before a reactor is operational.

The GAO consulted a group of 20 experts, who provided information on reactor development, economics, and licensing. The experts also reviewed comments that were included in the final report.

DOE officials, members of GAO's expert group, and reactor designers said that the cost and time needed to certify or license a reactor design and construct it, and uncertainty about the energy market in the future and potential customer interest, pose serious obstacles to the opening of new nuclear power plants.

The title of the 46-page report is "Nuclear Reactors: Status and challenges in development and deployment of new commercial concepts." The text is available online at assets/680/671686.pdf.
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Title Annotation:TECH BUZZ
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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