RICHLAND -- Research will be moving forward this year toward development and design certification of small modular nuclear reactors, said Peter Lyons, the Department of Energy assistant secretary of nuclear energy.
Lyons, the primary policy adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu on nuclear energy research and international nuclear activities, visited Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland on Tuesday and then spoke at a meeting of the Eastern Washington Chapter of the American Nuclear Society.
While no one source alone can meet increasing demand for electricity, both in the United States and also in developing countries, nuclear energy must be part of the mix as a clean and reliable source, he said.
He is interested in the development of small modular reactors as an alternative to the trend of developing increasingly larger nuclear plants, he said.
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If there is enough demand for the small plants, large numbers could be built in a factory and then one or more would be transported to sites for use, he said. More modules could be added as needed for electricity production.
The factory model has potential to be more economical, and quality could be more readily controlled in a factory, Lyons said.
There is a renewed interest in nuclear energy worldwide with 66 full-scale plants under construction. The interest in the U.S. is not as great as he would have predicted five years ago, but four new plants are under construction and construction has resumed on a fifth after no new plant being licensed in the U.S. for more than 30 years, he said.
The low cost of natural gas and lack of financial incentives for low carbon generation help explain some of the lower interest in the U.S., he said.
Increasing nuclear construction is needed for the nation to prosper and it is one of the objectives of the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, he said.
There is also a need to use existing plants in the U.S. to the greatest advantage. More understanding is needed about the how long existing plants can continue to operate safely to meet the nation's electricity demands, he said.
Nuclear production provides about 20 percent of the nation's electric power, but it provides 70 percent of what Lyons said he considers clean electricity.
He is proud of the Obama administration's reaction to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, he said. In contrast to some other countries, the U.S. calmly called for an evaluation of improvements that might be needed in U.S. reactors.
Those improvements are largely continuations of efforts already in place, such as moving toward passively safe reactor systems, he said. New reactors will have safety systems requiring little or no operator action, rather than current systems than rely on well-trained operators taking the correct actions.
"Passive safety is critical -- vital -- as we move ahead with new construction," he said.
Long-term research also is under way to look at better barriers to reduce complications, such as new fuel claddings and enhance the robustness of fuel, he said.
Seismic issues are being re-evaluated in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and universities are being enlisted in research, he said. Among university projects is studying the limits of storage of used fuel in dry casks as the nation develops a new policy for reusing or disposing of spent nuclear fuel.
Lyons is convinced new disposal initiatives must be based on the consent of communities and states. Scandinavian countries have shown that is possible, with communities competing for projects, he said.
It's also worked at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, where Hanford's plutonium-contaminated waste is sent for underground disposal. The project has support of the community and state, he said.
The Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository never could have been successful because the state of Nevada would not have approved the permits to build railroads needed to transport high level waste to Yucca Mountain, he said.
Lyons also is interested in research being done to determine whether extracting uranium from sea water is economical. Concentrations may be small, but the amount of water is vast, he said.
Lyons spent most of Tuesday at the DOE national lab in Richland, learning about its capabilities for assessing radiation effects on materials, radiochemical processing, non-proliferation and basic modeling methods.
He was scheduled to tour the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory and part of the new Physical Sciences Facility. A stop at the Applied Process Engineering Laboratory also was planned.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org; more Hanford news at hanfordnews.com