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Nuclear Notes—Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022

Matthew Wald

Welcome to Nuclear Notes, a weekly update from the Build Nuclear Now campaign by the Breakthrough Institute and Third Way. Every Thursday, I’ll be bringing you the most important news in advanced nuclear energy—the safe, zero-carbon energy solution the United States needs—as we push for the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors by 2030.

Poland Picks Westinghouse, But Likes Korea, Too

Poland is seeking independence from Russian gas and from dirty coal, and it wants to build six big nuclear reactors—and possibly some small ones as well—to do so.

This week, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced the selection of Westinghouse for the first phase of the project. Westinghouse, headquartered near Pittsburgh, is offering the AP1000, a refinement on the current generation of reactors based on light water. The letters stand for “advanced passive,” with a design that relies more heavily on natural forces like gravity and heat dissipation for safety, and requires with fewer pumps, valves, critical piping, and other emergency equipment than most light-water reactors now in operation.

Georgia Power is building two AP1000s at its Vogtle nuclear energy plant, and the first of those is now approaching operation. China operates four AP1000s, including one that generates steam for heating nearby homes and businesses.

Poland also recently signed a memorandum of understanding to explore construction of a Korean APR1400 reactor. That reactor is derived from a Westinghouse design, and South Korea sold four of them to the United Arab Emirates. Two of those are in commercial operation and a third is in start-up mode.

Another American company, NuScale Power, is exploring construction of a cluster of small modular reactors of its own design with a Polish copper and silver producer, KGHM Polska Miedź SA.

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Testing the Components of a New Technology

TerraPower, which is Bill Gates’ nuclear company, and Southern Company, the giant American gas and electric utility, have built a test rig to do preparatory work for TerraPower’s Molten Chloride Fast Reactor. Called the Integrated Effects Test, the system is non-nuclear and heated with electricity, and will be used to test the accuracy of computer models of thermal hydraulics, or how fluid and heat move through the system.

In a working reactor, the molten chloride would be the coolant, the material that carries off heat so it can be converted to a form that can do useful work. But it would also be the fuel; that is, it would have dissolved in it materials that can be split by a reactor. “Fast” means that the neutrons that are released when an atom is split are not “moderated,” or slowed down, by the coolant or other materials. Those high-energy neutrons can consume more materials as fuel.

The research is partly funded by the Energy Department’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, in a category of technologies that are still a few years away from demonstration.

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Like The Sims, But with a Reactor

For more than 40 years, nuclear control room operators have trained on simulators, through which they can be drilled on how to respond to pipe breaks, pump failures, valve malfunctions, and other extremely infrequent upsets that reactor systems could face. Now, students at Idaho State University’s College of Technology, in Pocatello, can do the same, with a simulator built to specifications from NuScale Power, the small modular reactor company that is preparing to build a cluster of SMRs at the Idaho National Laboratory.

NuScale’s design has a fully computerized instrumentation and control system. It operates a control room simulator at its Corvallis, Oregon center for testing and research. (A virtual tour is available here.)

If installations of small modular reactors proceed as projected, Idaho State’s simulator will be busy training operators and technicians for years to come.

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Reactor Ahoy

NuScale and a Canadian partner, Prodigy Clean Energy Ltd., have released a conceptual design for a nuclear energy plant that would be floated into place in a protected harbor. Electricity would be transferred to shore. The reactors—the plant could consist of anywhere from one NuScale module, at 77 megawatts electric, to 12 modules—could also produce hydrogen and ammonia, which could be used on shore or for powering ships.

The idea is not new; the U.S. Army operated a floating power station in the Panama Canal Zone in the 1960s and 1970s, and Russia operates one now in the arctic. But it has not competed successfully with on-shore power generation.

But if the world moves to rapid decarbonization, which would include rapid electrification of work now done by fossil fuels, floating power plants—of small, medium, or large size—could be built in industrialized areas and installed in many coastal locations quickly.

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How Many Reactors Will It Take to Decarbonize PacifiCorp’s Service Territory?

The PacifiCorp electric power company’s Rocky Mountain Power subsidiary has plans for one Natrium reactor, a new design that integrates a heat battery and is intended to mesh well with solar energy. Now TerraPower, one of the Natrium partners, has agreed with PacifiCorp for a joint study to explore deploying up to five more by 2035.

“This is just a first step, as advanced nuclear power needs to be evaluated through our resource planning processes as well as receive regulatory approval,” said Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power. “But it’s an exciting opportunity that advances us down the path to a net zero energy future.”

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