WARSAW – A senior official in the U.S. Department of Energy said here on Monday that as safe as conventional nuclear is, it is incumbent upon governments around the world to help industry develop even safer designs.
“Do we need to continue on behalf of our respective citizenry to advance the ball and come up with even safer designs – more secure, more efficient? Yes we do,” said Edward McGinnis, deputy assistant secretary for international nuclear energy policy and cooperation. “And so government has a key role in that.”
McGinnis was addressing the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 2012 conference, organized by New Zealand-based conference firm Strategic Communications.
His remarks contrasted with those last week by World Nuclear Association acting director general Steve Kidd, who said he opposed any nuclear rebranding effort that might suggest that existing, safe reactors are not safe.
“I want to be clear that we have great faith in the reactors in our country and the situation worldwide,” DOE’s McGinnis agreed. “We have strong regulatory bodies, we have strong multilateral groups looking at regulatory.
“But in nuclear just like many things in life there is never one single end point where you should stop trying to improve. We should always be seeking to improve. It doesn’t suggest that we don’t have effective systems today, which we do. But we need to continuously advance the technologies and the approaches and processes.”
While that includes adding safety features and improving fuel tolerance in conventional reactors, it also “absolutely includes” developing other reactor types, McGinnis said.
“We’re looking beyond light water (conventional) reactors through R&D,” he said, noting that DOE has taken a particular interest in sodium cooled fast reactors and in high temperature gas reactors.
Technical experts at the DOE “need to validate” whether technologies like those as well as molten salt designs are suitable for applications that could include serving as a source of industrial process heat, he said.
China intends to use the coolant in a reactor that uses liquid thorium fuel, similar to the liquid thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) that Oak Ridge National Laboratory built in the 1960s before President Nixon terminated the project.
DOE has said it wants to test the coolant in a high temperature reactor, but not necessarily one that uses liquid fuel such as in a TMSR.
Some thorium supporters have criticized the collaboration, claiming that the U.S. should advance TMSR technology itself rather than help provide it to China.
“We ensure that our collaboration is balanced, reciprocal and appropriate,” McGinnis replied when I asked him about those concerns. “We have a positive technical set of collaborations with them that extends into the high temperature gas reactor and other areas.”
He noted that China is a major developer of nuclear energy and is investing heavily in research and development of alternatives.
“It’s a shrinking global world, and so we have to work together and I think it’s a very positive reflection of China and the United States – that we’re collaborating,” he said.
The project, which includes DOE’s Oak Ridge lab in Tennessee and three U.S universities – MIT, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin – could be an example of how the DOE finds what McGinnis called the “sweet spot” of assisting industry in R&D without getting involved in commercial power generation.
In a notable step toward facilitating alternative nuclear, DOE last month awarded funding to a group led by Babcock & Wilcox to develop a “modular” reactor that is much smaller than traditional reactors and that could cut end user costs.
Photo by Mark Halper