Nuclear power figures prominently in our country’s energy portfolio and is essential to our economic and environmental security. About one-fifth of the electricity generated in the United States comes from our nation’s 100 nuclear reactors. The Columbia Generating Station, right here in Richland, generates enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle. And when it comes to clean energy, nothing beats nuclear. It provides more carbon-free electricity than solar, wind, hydro and other renewable energy sources combined.
According to Nuclear Energy Institute data, meeting our nation’s energy needs without nuclear energy would increase carbon dioxide emissions by about 563 million metric tons each year. Considering the average passenger vehicle produces 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, taking nuclear energy out of the picture would be equivalent to putting an additional 120 million vehicles on the road.
However, our existing nuclear fleet is aging and plants will be operating decades beyond their originally intended lifespans. At the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, researchers apply their expertise and experience to help sustain these plants, ensuring they can continue operating safely and reliably well into the future. They also research new reactor concepts and address challenges associated with spent nuclear fuel.
Drawing on our materials science capabilities, our scientists are studying how materials in nuclear plants age and potentially degrade; focusing on metallic components, such as reactors and pipes, as well as electrical cables. Through laboratory testing and computer modeling, we are helping DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the commercial nuclear power industry to proactively maintain various plant components.
For example, we have some of the world’s leading experts in the area of stress corrosion cracking. By understanding the fundamental physics of metal cracks, we can determine what causes them and how to identify their precursors. We also are developing advanced monitoring instrumentation, including acoustic methods that actually “listen” for cracks and allow operators to take action long before the problem would be discovered by conventional physical inspections.
Looking at the future of nuclear energy, PNNL is supporting national efforts to design advanced reactors that burn fuel more efficiently, generate less waste and incorporate even more safety and proliferation-resistant features than today’s light water reactors. Beyond reactor design, our researchers collaborate with the nuclear power industry on advanced instrumentation and controls, advanced fuel design and monitoring systems for proliferation prevention.
Last year, the White House announced GAIN—or Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear — to facilitate partnering between the nuclear power industry and the national labs to move new reactor designs toward commercialization. Through this program, Kennewick’s Columbia Basin Consulting Group is working with PNNL to draft a safety basis document and potential regulatory infrastructure for a lead bismuth-cooled fast reactor concept. They are drawing on our extensive experience working with liquid metal-cooled fast reactors and providing support to the NRC.
With the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada not opening as planned in 1998, PNNL is working with others to develop safe, secure and reliable interim storage solutions. Reactors are getting more power out of their fuel and can go longer before the fuel needs replacing, but this “high burn up” fuel poses new technical challenges. Through computer modeling and lab tests, PNNL scientists are helping the NRC confidently extend storage periods for high burn up fuel by learning more about its behavior and confirming its integrity during long-term storage.
At PNNL, we combine our science and technology expertise, Hanford heritage and specialized facilities to help address the nation's nuclear energy challenges. Our work today will ensure that nuclear power remains an important part of a low-carbon energy mix that will fuel our future economic prosperity.
Steven Ashby is director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.