CRANBERRY, Pa. — Westinghouse Electric Co.’s CEO Danny Roderick in January challenged his employees to come up with the next big thing in nuclear energy — the next generation reactor.
It had been a very long time since such words were uttered at the Cranberry-based nuclear company.
“His charter was to take a clean sheet approach and come up with the most economic (option),” said Cindy Pezze, chief technology officer. The central question was: “How can we get to a more economic future for nuclear?”
No new nuclear reactor has been built in the U.S. on time and on budget, and the overruns haven’t been trivial. That track record, along with cheap and plentiful natural gas and a lack of environmental policy that incentivizes low carbon generation, has held back the nuclear renaissance predicted a decade ago.
Even operating nuclear plants with capital costs far behind them are having trouble competing. A handful are headed for premature retirement.
For that reason, economics and scale are top priorities.
“I think that the industry in total — that includes the vendors, the government — is looking at this saying, ‘We have to figure out a way of doing this more efficiently than we have done in the past,'” Pezze said. “Everyone is talking about (how) we need to have some change.”
The Westinghouse team wasn’t given a budget or a cost target for the new reactor design and Pezze declined to speculate.
“We’ve been down this road before,” she said. “I won’t give you a number at this point.”
The timeline, she expects, will be rather lengthy.
The company’s first step was to whittle down the possibilities. There are six types of Generation IV reactors being researched today. Westinghouse chose the lead-cooled fast neutron reactor concept, which submerges the nuclear core in molten lead and operates at extremely high temperatures.
In most of the nuclear reactors now operating, the nuclear core is placed in a pool of water. That prevents radiation from escaping into the air, but as the nuclear reaction heats up the water, cooler water must be constantly pumped in.
Lead offers a more static solution. It absorbs radiation and doesn’t boil until it reaches 3,182 degrees Fahrenheit. Those properties mean a lead-cooled reactor would need fewer pumps, thinner walls and have fewer “uncomfortable byproducts,” shaving off a portion of capital and operating expenses. The whole operation would be smaller, Ms. Pezze said.
DOE seeks new ideas for reactors
Last month, Westinghouse submitted its proposal to the Department of Energy, which had solicited ideas about advanced nuclear reactors that could be built by 2035. The agency plans to award $80 million to two teams over the next five years, but that depends on Congress’ approval going forward. In the meantime, the department is getting ready to announce the winners of a much smaller opportunity.
Westinghouse hasn’t said yet who else it has enlisted to be part of its team, only that there are more than a dozen entities and that they include universities, national labs and vendors.
A spokesman for the agency said the response has been strong with more than a dozen teams vying for funding. The winners — there will be two, and each will be awarded $6 million — are expected to be announced before the end of the year.
By nuclear standards, that’s a drop in the bucket.
“At one time, there was a fair amount of investment going on in Generation IV,” said Larry Foulke, adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering.
An international consortium, Gen IV, sprung up in 2000 to guide research and collaboration in advanced reactor activities.
“A number of nations were working together on these reactors,” he said. “But as with most research activities where you’re studying reactors on paper and not making them,” investment dwindles.
“Generation IV reactors are suffering from a lack of funding worldwide,” he said.
Europe and Russia are pulling ahead.
Russia is due to start construction on a demonstration lead-cooled reactor next year, and European groups are working on three reactor designs.
The investment needed to start from scratch and get to that demonstration stage is staggering. It’s not something Westinghouse can do alone, Pezze said.
The last time the company tried at its hand at getting DOE funding for a new reactors design was in 2012, when the agency snubbed its pitch for funding for a small modular reactor. The following year, the DOE again passed over Westinghouse for a small modular reactor award and last year, citing unfavorable market conditions, the company pulled back on its program.
Some 35 years ago, Westinghouse was at the forefront of a new reactor design — the liquid metal fast breeder reactor, which would have used sodium as a coolant, was designed to produce more fuel than it uses to generate electricity.
The first of its kind reactor was to have been built at on the banks of Clinch River in Tennessee. The project received hefty government funding, nearly $1 billion, and had more than 600 Westinghouse employees devoted to it.
Then, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter decided to kill the project. He didn’t want reprocessed fuel crisscrossing the country, worrying it might get into the wrong hands.
But, according to newspaper reports from that time, the industry and Congress were slow to get the message. Federal funding continued to flow for several years and the majority of equipment was either delivered to the site or on order before the effort was finally canceled in 1983.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This article was written by Anya Litvak from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.