In November 2015, the US department of energy launched GAIN (the gateway for accelerated innovation in nuclear). The aim is “to provide the nuclear community with access to the technical, regulatory, and financial support necessary to move new or advanced nuclear reactor designs toward commercialization while ensuring the continued safe, reliable, and economic operation of the existing nuclear fleet.”
Now the first initiative of GAIN has been launched: $80 million for development of advanced nuclear reactors. Specifically, the focus of the funding will be on the Xe-energy’s Xe-100 Pebble Bed Advanced Reactor and Southern Company Services’ Molten Chloride Fast Reactor. The two companies will each receive $6 million over a number of years.
The Xe-100 pebble bed high temperature gas-cooled reactor design builds on earlier DOE investment in Triso (tristructural-isotropic) fuel technology. The DOE states its selection for funding was based on its advanced safety features as well as its smaller size than conventional reactors meaning it could safely serve a variety of communities including densely populated areas. X-energy said that the funding would focus on technology development, including core modelling, fuel fabrication and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) “outreach”.
The Southern Company Services’ Molten Chloride Fast Reactor draws on the experiments of Alvin Weinberg and his team in the 1960s. The key advantages of the technology relative to other advanced reactors are the potential enhanced operational performance, safety, security and economics. Due to their advantages molten salt reactors are under development globally but the USA research specifically focuses on performing integrated effects tests and materials suitability studies to support reactor development.
Both projects represent significant partnerships of academia and industry. X-energy is working in partnership with BWX Technology, Oregon State University, Teledyne-Brown Engineering, SGL Group, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Southern Company Services is developing their reactor in partnership with TerraPower, Electric Power Research Institute, Vanderbilt University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Nuclear power is a critical energy source that provides almost 20 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, and over 60 percent of the nation’s carbon free electricity. However as Weinberg Next Nuclear reported in 2015, the US nuclear industry is currently in danger of withering. Therefore this new investment is vital for nuclear in the USA and globally. As Thomas Fanning, the Southern Company CEO argues, “nuclear energy’s importance will continue to grow as the USA transitions to a low-carbon energy future [and] this collaborative research effort will help accelerate the development of next generation nuclear reactors”.