The future of nuclear energy

The future of nuclear energy
Credit: TasfotoNL/iStock

Early this year, Rachel Slaybaugh attended a campus mixer on technological innovation. When she introduced herself as a professor of nuclear engineering, other attendees would pause and ask for clarification. She remembers, "People were like, 'Wait. What? You're from where?'"

"I don't know if you've noticed," she would reply, "but the is a little behind in terms of innovation."

The sector is often perceived as a last-century industry. But that is changing. A growing market of venture-backed startups signals that we are on the verge of a nuclear do-over.

Despite a turbulent history, the allure of nuclear energy—electricity production on a massive scale with minimal emissions—remains attractive. Its low emission rate is why the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change recommends doubling the world's nuclear capacity by 2050.

Nuclear energy as an effective strategy to combat climate change, along with the fascinating physics of nuclear fission, is what drew Slaybaugh to the field in the first place. "I keep going back to the numbers for safety and impacts," she says. "Even without considering climate change, just look at the public health impact of air pollution. I just can't come to any answer that isn't nuclear."

Yet the bulk of the 100 nuclear reactors currently operating in the U.S., which continue to produce about 20 percent of the nation's energy, are reaching retirement age, and energy market forces don't always favor nuclear.

In June, California's Pacific Gas and Electric utility announced plans to shutter its long-controversial Diablo Canyon reactor within a decade. The reason cited was not environmental issues or safety concerns, but economic: the aging reactor can't compete price-wise with other energy sources. "It's ironic that as environmental groups switch to pro-nuclear or at least neutral on nuclear, existing nuclear plants are closing—not because of increased public backlash, but because of distortions in the electricity market," Slaybaugh says.

"I'm very pro-renewables, but production tax credits are paid to some resources that don't emit air pollution and not others," she continues. "That doesn't make a lot of sense."

Many realize that for nuclear energy production to have a future, the entire industry needs an overhaul—including how regulatory structures and energy markets are constructed, as well as how nuclear reactors are designed, financed and built. The need for industry-wide modernization is clear even in highly partisan Washington, D.C., where lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are largely in agreement that the nuclear sector—one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world—needs to be more accommodating to new ventures.

Likewise, training a new nuclear workforce will also need an overhaul. That's why, with a sense of urgency and favorable political tailwinds, Slaybaugh launched a nuclear innovation bootcamp. Held in August, the two-week bootcamp hosted 25 university students from around the world and encouraged them to envision what "new nuclear" would look like. Slaybaugh collaborated with Third Way, a D.C.-based centrist think tank working on nuclear energy-related issues, along with the Nuclear Innovation Alliance industrial consortium, to develop the curriculum for the two-week course.

The future of nuclear energy
Rachel Slaybaugh, assistant professor of nuclear engineering. Credit: Noah Berger
"One of the reasons it makes sense to have this bootcamp at Berkeley," says Todd Allen, a nuclear energy expert and senior visiting fellow at Third Way, "is because there is a culture of innovation. One of the Department of Energy's first incubators, Cyclotron Road, is located at the Berkeley Lab. The Bay Area has all of the pieces that could support something like this."

The atomic age

The golden age of nuclear began immediately following World War II, when the federal government started pouring research and development money into commercial designs.

In 1951, in a concrete building nestled in the sagebrush scrub plains of eastern Idaho, scientists working at the National Reactor Testing Station (now part of the Idaho National Laboratory) flipped the switch on the first reactor designed to convert heat derived from splitting uranium atoms into electricity. During its first flickers of life, the reactor lit up four 200-watt lightbulbs, kicking off a decade of pioneering research and engineering—followed by four decades of controversy and catastrophic technological failures.

By the late 1950s, the first large-scale commercial nuclear reactors came online across the country. In 1960, the Atomic Energy Commission estimated that the nation would be powered by thousands of nuclear reactors by the year 2000.

"Back in the day, the philosophy was that commercial deployment had to be done as quickly as possible," says Per Peterson, nuclear engineering professor and the college's executive associate dean. "We became competent in building and operating water-cooled reactors for submarines. And then we got locked into that one kind of technology."

Despite early developments using other reactor designs and fuel configurations, the industry settled on that single design—water-cooled reactors, also known as light-water reactors—as a universal standard. The time and money involved in the nuclear regulatory permitting process made deviating from the accepted design prohibitively expensive.

Light-water reactors produce electricity by creating steam to spin a turbine. The solid fuel, usually uranium arranged in rods that need replacing roughly every four years, is cooled by pressurized water. An accident at a light-water reactor can release radioactive materials as fine particles. With high pressure steam, these particles can leak from a reactor building, as in the high-profile accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

"The consequence space for severe accidents is pretty substantial with this type of reactor," Peterson says. "Therefore, it took a lot of effort to develop extremely reliable active systems to provide cooling, low leakage and high-pressure containment structures, which make these reactors more expensive. So they were built bigger and bigger to achieve economies of scale."

"In the end, that didn't seem to work too well," he says.

The future of nuclear energy
Research team next to the Compact Integral Effects Test facility they built to study models of molten sal effectiveness. From left, James Kendrick, Christopher Poresky, Charalampos Andreades, Per Peterson. Credit: Peg Skorpinski

In 1979, a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had a partial meltdown because of valve failure and human operator error, resulting in the evacuation of 140,000 people. Following the accident, anti-nuclear sentiments became a foundation of the country's budding environmental movement, raising questions about the safety of nuclear facilities and what to do with the growing pile of spent nuclear fuel rods.

Over the next 30 years, the vision from nuclear's early days—of thousands of reactors pumping out emissions-free energy—was tempered by economics and politics.

A design problem

Despite the grim outlook for growth, Slaybaugh became curious about a career in as an undergraduate at Penn State in the early 2000s. She was initially interested in physics when she happened to get a work-study assignment at the university's research reactor.

In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, she began studying the Boltzmann Transport Equation—"a single equation that describes where all of the neutrons are in a nuclear system," Slaybaugh explains. "Anything in a nuclear system starts with where all of the neutrons are, so it lets you figure out everything else."

Working with the equation can be challenging, so Slaybaugh developed expertise in creating algorithms and software to solve the equation faster and more efficiently, which ultimately can be applied to designing and modeling new nuclear technologies.

"Truly predictive modeling will end up making it a lot more feasible, affordable and practical to ask questions about what's going to happen in new reactor design scenarios," Slaybaugh says. "I also have this serious concern about best practices and quality: You want to make sure that the codes you are using in nuclear systems work."

"Fundamentally," Slaybaugh says, "I make the tools that other people use to do analysis. So I get really excited about making better hammers so that other people can make better houses." Slaybaugh, recently appointed by the Secretary of Energy to the Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, also works with the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), a group organized by the Department of Energy to provide guidance on technical, regulatory and financial issues facing this emerging "advanced nuclear" industry.

Advanced nuclear is the umbrella term used to describe novel research on smaller reactor designs that incorporate alternative nuclear fuels and cooling systems. Some advanced designs reuse existing nuclear waste as fuel; or use fuel that does not require enrichment, which reduces security concerns associated with nuclear energy.

"The big thing is that the government is making national lab resources available to private companies in a way that it wasn't before," Slaybaugh says. "If you are a nuclear startup, you can only go so far before you need to do testing, and you are not going to build a nuclear test facility, because that is hard and expensive. But now you could partner with a national lab to use their experimental resources. I've been talking about how to set up a pathway from universities for this kind of research."

Over the past year, Third Way, a supporter of Slaybaugh's nuclear innovation bootcamp, published a number of reports and white papers defining the advanced nuclear industry. They found 48 projects and startup companies working on advanced nuclear energy technologies, worth over $1.3 billion, all over the U.S. and Canada.

One of those projects is led by Per Peterson's research group at Berkeley. Following his Ph.D. research in mechanical engineering at Berkeley, Peterson began designing passive safety systems for light-water reactors, with an eye toward replacing and greatly simplifying the active safety systems the industry had originally adopted.

"Back in 2002," he says, "the U.S. launched an international effort on advanced nuclear technologies called Generation IV. This got us thinking about what we wanted to see in advanced nuclear technologies, beyond just passive safety."

Those experiences led Peterson to conceptualize entirely new designs. "Now the majority of my research relates to advanced reactors cooled by molten fluoride salts, which have undergone major advances since molten salts were first studied for reactor applications starting in the late 1950s," he says.

Molten-salt reactors are cooled by fluoride salts that liquefy and remain stable at high temperatures. They do not need to be pressurized like light-water reactors do, reducing the probability of large-scale accidents.

"Molten salts are fantastic heat-transfer fluids; they have enormous volumetric heat capacity, which means they are remarkably compact. This puts you in a position to design reactor vessels to have limited service life, to be replaced multiple times during a life of a plant," Peterson says. "As soon as you focus on limited service life, you are in a very different space in terms of innovation and upgrading old components."

Named to the Department of Energy's Blue-Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future in 2010, Peterson also contributes to the national discussion about new nuclear regulatory standards. "Here we are just 10 years after NASA launched its Commercial Orbital Transport Services program to fund startup companies like SpaceX, and massive change has occurred with the idea that private-sector startup companies can be significantly more nimble and still work in areas requiring high levels of technical sophistication."

Drawing inspiration from successes from other heavily regulated industries, Peterson says, is what keeps him optimistic. "There is the potential for rapid innovation to occur, and we can make major changes in nuclear technology. This is what we need to be working on this coming decade."

Explore further

French group to help Japan dismantle nuclear reactors

Citation: The future of nuclear energy (2016, November 28) retrieved 17 June 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 28, 2016
Give it up. We are proving we do not need this dangerous technology.

Got another 40 years and $150,000,000,000? That's what they think Fukushima will cost us, but they have not yet invented the ways to do what they want to do, so what do you think is going to happen to the cost?

Why do we put up with these folk who impose this dangerous and costly disaster on us? They bully their way around using their political and economic muscle, or we would have no more of this Faustian Bargain.

Nov 28, 2016
Give it up.
reliable baseload energy is unnecessary, cheap(subsidized) unicorn fart energy is replacing fossil fuels everywhere ... in fairyland.

Nov 28, 2016
The nuclear industry was produced to provide an economy of scale for the production of large stockpiles of fissiles which are an indispensable material for a civilization at our stage of development. They can provide power in locations where nothing else can, as in beneath the ocean or deep underground. They can be used as explosives for large geoengineering projects or as propulsion. They are of course essential for military defense.

But perhaps their most important utility is in providing a means of establishing permanent colonies in space. The threat is that economic collapse from disaster or design could close the window we now enjoy to spread ourselves around the solar system, leaving us vulnerable to extinction.

And as we are the only known intelligent species in the universe, we are morally obligated to do everything we can to survive and thrive.

And so as soon as we became able to produce fissiles in great quantities, we could not refrain from doing so.

Nov 28, 2016
Nuclear power had to be field-tested in long-term projects designed to mature the technology. Subs have been plying the oceans for decades now in conditions similar to what ships and stations would experience in space. Reactors have been operating in communities in many different environments and under different forms of duress with what most would admit has been spectacular results.

A few have even been tested to destruction to guage the manageability of remediation and reclamation.

In retrospect this sort of R&D has been absolutely essential to the development of a very complex and powerful method of providing for the continued survival of the human race in what is a very dangerous and indifferent universe.

Nov 28, 2016
"Subs have been plying the oceans for decades now in conditions similar to what ships and stations would experience in space"

Nope. Try to think of bubble formation and our dependence of convection currents and other sides of gravity upon which we count unconsciously.

Sorry, but we cannot trust them with nuclear technologies anymore. The projected costs of Fukushima rise every year, and the timescale gets put back, and so far they admit it will take at least 40 years, assuming we can invent the technology necessary to do a "clean up".

But what does that mean? They are not going to get rid of the radiation. They can put the remnants of what they can handle somewhere else, but that makes two contaminated sites.

The crime and the biological effects of Fukushima will remain long after all humans are gone.

Nov 28, 2016
How many alternative energy power plants could we build for $150,000,000,000??

That is the projected (and hoped-for), costs of "cleaning up" the three disasters at Fukushima.

No need for alternative renewable sources. Once installed, there will be no fuel cost, no waste, almost no maintenance, and no danger at all.

Dec 05, 2016
Nuclear energy is not the way to go. If you ever read about the genetic mutations from incidents from Chernobyl, you would never want a nuclear plant to be built. Nuclear energy has high risk death potential.

Dec 06, 2016
If you ever read about the genetic mutations ...
genetic mutations, scary fables, all based on fictional data, biased extrapolations, junk-science, myths, beliefs, and conspiracy theories. While peer-reviewed data and statistics prove that carbon-free nuclear power is the safest and the most ecologically friendly source of clean energy.

Dec 06, 2016
Just besides the obvious waste issue and environmental safety issues in case of a rupture of the containment vessel: I don't think there's much point in investing a lot of money into basic research for fission just now - when a fraction of the money that would be needed to do just that (never mind the actual comissioning and building of these powerplants) is enough to get the world on full renewables from existing (safe!) sources.

Not to mention that nuclear on a large scale just exchanges dependencies from oil producing countries to dependencies from countries that mine fissionables. And it is these kinds of dependencies that have been a pretty big problem for the past century.

Dec 06, 2016
How many alternative energy power plants could we build for $150,000,000,000??

Not very many.

According to data from Subsidy Tracker — a database maintained by Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C.–based organization that promotes "corporate and government accountability in economic development and smart growth for working families" — the total value of the subsidies given to the biggest players in the U.S. wind industry is now $176 billion. That sum includes all local, state, and federal subsidies as well as federal loans and loan guarantees received by companies on the American Wind Energy Association's board of directors since 2000.
the $176 billion figure in wind-energy subsidies is a minimum number. It counts only subsidies given to companies on AWEA's board.

Dec 06, 2016
If you take the figures as is and consider all the subsidies as the price of the current wind power arsenal, the US has 74 GW worth of wind power, and the subsidies paid at $176 billion, that's $2.38 billion per GW of capacity.

Note that these are idealized figures, representing self-reports of only working turbines (i.e., not accounting for downtime for maintenance, repair, or accident). For example, according to the WIA's annual data reports and averaging the installed capacities at the ends of 2011 and 2012, the overall capacity factor in the U.S. in 2012 was 30.4% rather than 31.8% as reported here.

At 30.4% capacity factor the figure goes up to $7.82 billion per GW actual production capacity.

So to the question of how much alternate energy $150 billion would buy: 19.17 GW of renewable wind. That would be roughly 4% of the approximately 460 GW of electricity demand in the US.

Dec 06, 2016
..the world on full renewables..
for each gigawatt of renewables, it is needed around a gigawatt from fossil fuels, because batteries/energy storage is prohibitively expensive and when sun is not shinning or wind is not blowing or during prolonged droughts it is fossil fuels that keep lights on.
"Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy." - Dr. James Hansen(climate scientist)

Dec 06, 2016
Of course, "many" is a relative term. In terms of energy it's not much, but in terms of actual 1 MW turbines it's 63,000 units.

Dec 06, 2016
Nope. Your figures do not include all aspects. You choose what you want to project. And at the same time, how much did we dump into nuclear power with the never-ending subsidies? Nuclear power was born subsidized.

So,we could have gotten the entire wind generation system for just what it will cost to clean up one nuclear disaster. Not a good trade, is it?

Dec 06, 2016
Want to see the future of nuclear power?

Go to Fukushima.

Bring money.

Dec 06, 2016
...the never-ending subsidies... was born subsidized.
huge subsidies on solar and wind, while for nuclear it is next to nothing.

Dec 06, 2016
for each gigawatt of renewables, it is needed around a gigawatt from fossil fuels,

That is an argument that was marginally relevant 20 years ago. Maybe.

Today the backup can come from biomass and hydro. And no: there was never a point where you need to back up every GW from renewables with 1 GW of something else. That's what we have an energy-GRID for.
(even if it were not a lie it would still be an argument for renewables, since you wouldn't need to run the backup most of the time - producing FAR less CO2 overall)

Here's a study for 100% European renewabls grid in which - even under worst case scenarios - it only requires less than 10% backup from fossil fuels.

So get your rear in gear and do some reading before spouting more outdated crap from the last millenium.

Dec 06, 2016
Hm. For some reason the link didn't make it. Second try:

Dec 06, 2016
Today the backup can come from biomass and hydro.
"...are leading to deforestation, biodiversity loss and putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than burning coal."
"Burning forest biomass on an industrial scale for power and heating has proved disastrous,"
"Europe's green energy policy is a disaster for the environment" - 2 December 2016
backup from fossil fuels.
Germany(Oct 25, 2016): 40GW of solar at 2.7% capacity factor, 48GW wind at 4.6%. Blessed fossil fuels.

Dec 06, 2016
Thorium pebble bed reactors don't seem too bad with respects to the negative side of their operation. Molten fluoride salts are a tad corrosive, I'm yet to be impressed with how this problem can be overcome to make them not have the hot stuff leak all over the floor.

My money is on fusion, even if we make a few fission reactors to cover the gap, fusion is where it will go in terms of energy production. Tokamak is not the only solution to fusion technology. I'm open to the idea of 'cold' fusion, or LENR as it modern incarnation is termed. But there is no evidence it will ever have the energy density to rival real fusion. Polywell technology is a real candidate for hot fusion.

Dec 06, 2016
"low emission"
Extremely laughable, shows the dangers of climate mumbo jumbo.

Dec 06, 2016
We do not need the magic box, we need to use more intelligence, not concentrated power we cannot completely control. Sorry, but you have had too many costly failures for us to believe anything you say. We now have he chance to develop our own power, become more efficient and independent, . . . and clean.

What kind of society generates and leaves behind it the disgusting load of toxic and radioactive poisons, with which we cannot deal, but we still produce, . . and abandon? Yes, abandon, since we admittedly have no sure way of storing them for even a small fraction of the 200,000 years required for much of it.

What kind of character is required to keep on doing it?

Dec 06, 2016
We do not need the magic box
We do not need the magic box, because we have unicorn fart energy that is replacing fossil fuels everywhere, and only people like gskam that use more intelligence are able to see it.

Dec 10, 2016

So,we could have gotten the entire wind generation system for just what it will cost to clean up one nuclear disaster. Not a good trade, is it?

Technically - if we believe your $150 billion cleanup cost in the first place - but you also have to pay all the subsidies to run it, and that costs something on the order of $20 billion a year at the current rate, so you need another $400-500 billion to keep the turbines running to the end of their lives. Then you need to rebuild them, and pay more subsidies again, over and over, so keeping the 4-5% of wind power on the grid ends up costing you trillions of dollars without end.

The IRS Is Giving Away $13 Billion A Year In Wind Energy Subsidies, Without Congressional Authorization

Dec 10, 2016
What kind of society generates and leaves behind it the disgusting load of toxic and radioactive poisons

The kind of society where hippies and greenies protest every time they try to put the waste away.

And you're completely ignoring the radioactive poisons from REE mining due to renewable energy; motors, inverters, solar panels, batteries etc. require metals and minerals that are found along with uranium and thorium which get dumped in the environment all over Asia.

Dec 10, 2016
No, I'm not.

You are just looking for something to throw back at me. we have pollution problems with most of what we do. We do not need more pollutants. Nuclear power depends on them. It is far too costly in financial terms, and the nuke folk are, let's be honest, . . liars.

What kind of folk intentionally load us up with nasty stuff we cannot even store safely, while their dangerous plants continue to plague us?

Their plea for "cheap reliable power" has been proven wrong, and the technology is costly and dangerous. Who continues to heap this stuff on us, knowing the crime they are committing against our survivors, our children and grandchildren, who will be made to deal with our hubris?

What kind of person does that?

Dec 10, 2016
No, I'm not.

Yes you are. You're obviously holding nuclear waste from nuclear power a much greater problem than nuclear waste elsewhere - and that's a double standard. It's hypocricy.

What kind of folk intentionally load us up with nasty stuff we cannot even store safely

The kind of people who dig up monzanite for the neodymium it contains, so they can manufacture magnets for wind turbine generators, and in the process pile up uranium and thorium containing waste rock which leeches radioisotopes into the environment; the natural breakdown products of uranium and thorium are identical to the nuclear waste coming off of reactors - it's just more dispersed.

You are raving against putting nuclear waste back into the ground, claiming it's not safe there, whereas the people and technologies you advocate (electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels...) involve digging it UP from the ground and leaving it laying around.

Isn't that just stupid?

Dec 10, 2016
Nope. You are conflating different things. You cannot compare the tailings of other mining with the entire fuel cycle of nukes. It STARTS with the mining you decry, and finishes in the most toxic and nasty stuff on Earth, thousands of tons of exothermic and intensely-radioactive material.

Isn't that just dishonest?

Dec 10, 2016
" the natural breakdown products of uranium and thorium are identical to the nuclear waste coming off of reactors"
Nope. ALL the Plutonium, named for the God of the Underworld, which exists on Earth has been made by us. That is the nastiest stuff.

Dec 10, 2016
...thousands of tons of exothermic...
"..exothermic.." as a self-entitled engineer, gskam sounds so stupid and illiterate, or worse, dishonest. LOL.

Dec 10, 2016
Let's make the nuke industry show us they really can "clean up" their disasters before we let them operate their nasty devices.

Why do WE have to take the risk and pay the cost of THEIR greed and hubris?

Dec 10, 2016
The Future of Nuclear Power is probably in the hole previously occupied by Unit Three. Its use of MOX, Mixed Oxide, which means it was spiked with Plutonium, made it much more dangerous than the others, and you can see by the great differences between the explosions.

Monju and Unit Three were going to be the future of Japan's energy, and the Corporate/Government/Yakuza triad were all in line for their share of the bucks. It was unfortunate that reality has repeatedly intruded on such a good scheme, but that-there science stuff overrides the schemes and definitions of reality we get from the "official" and the greedy.

Dec 10, 2016
The Future of Nuclear Power
Carbon-free nuclear energy is so powerful and reliable that just one power plant can represent a meaningful share in the energy mix of a big country.
While a wind/solar farm needs coal and/or natural gas/fracking to prove reliable. LOL


Dec 11, 2016
Nope. ALL the Plutonium, named for the God of the Underworld, which exists on Earth has been made by us. That is the nastiest stuff.

Conventional wisdom tells us that plutonium (Pu) does not exist in nature. Plutonium and other so-called transuranic elements are considered by most to be man-made elements. Thus, they assume that when plutonium is found in the environment, human technology has put it there.

This element has usually been considered synthetic because it is produced most efficiently in nuclear reactors. But in the strictest sense, the answer to the question is yes, plutonium does occur naturally. Plutonium appears at very low concentrations in nature, on the order of one part in 10^11 in pitchblende, the ore of uranium (U).

Plutonium IS a component of the natural breakdown products of Uranium and Thorium.

Dec 11, 2016
That is the nastiest stuff.

The members of the UPPU club are some of the most studied cases of plutonium poisoning in the world. Which is important. Many news stories about the substance focus on its toxicity and danger. Both scientists and journalists have sparred over the past half-century about the potential dangers.

It may be a surprise to learn that the members of the UPPU club have all done well, especially when compared to national averages.

During the Manhattan project, over two dozen people were exposed to or ingested high enough doses of plutonium that it could be measured in their urine for the rest of their lives. 26 people in total, and nothing remarkable happened. So far the group mortality has been 50% lower compared to the population average.

Dec 11, 2016
Okay, eat it. Better yet, go have lunch near one of the holes at Fukushima.

Yeah, we have been told they cannot go bad, that they have "Defense in Depth", that meltdowns are impossible. We were told how cheap it was going to be, but it is already twice the price of alternatives.

And the intensely-radioactive waste still cannot be safely stored. What kind of person makes more of that stuff just to leave it for others to deal with? Who does that?

No morality? No common sense?

Just greed?

Dec 11, 2016
Okay, eat it...
No morality? No common sense?
a notorious sociopath, an exposed pathological liar claiming morality. funny and sad.

Dec 11, 2016
Has anyone looked up Monju? It is just another of the great failures of nuclear power, and more contaminated equipment.

How many more immense failures are we going to forgive the nuclear folks? When are we going to stop them?

Send the nuclear apologists to work at Fukushima!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more