Recommendation. DOE should fund a taskforce to work with industry groups on construction technology and planning to ensure that consortia construction time goals of 4 years or less will be met.
Neither DOE nor industry has proposed any R&D for the NP 2010 program.
Recommendation. DOE should evaluate the need for a reinvigorated R&D program to improve the performance of existing nuclear plants in a DOE–industry cost-shared effort separate from NP 2010. The estimated benefits to society should substantially exceed the government investment. In the event of funding constraints, NP 2010 funding for new plant deployment should have priority over this R&D for LWRs.
DOE has engaged other governments in a wide-ranging effort to develop advanced next-generation nuclear energy systems, known as Generation IV, with the goal of widening the applications and enhancing the economics, safety, and physical protection of the reactors and improving fuel cycle waste management and proliferation resistance in the coming decades. Six nuclear reactor technology concepts were identified in the DOE-initiated, international Generation IV Technology Roadmap completed in 2002. Each of the six technologies, as well as several areas of crosscutting research, is now being pursued by a consortium of countries as part of the Generation IV International Forum (GIF). Three concepts are thermal neutron spectrum systems—very-high-temperature reactors (VHTRs), molten salt reactors (MSRs), and supercritical-water-cooled reactors (SCWRs)—with coolants and temperatures that enable hydrogen or electricity production with high efficiency. In addition, three are fast neutron spectrum systems—gas-cooled fast reactors (GFRs), lead-cooled fast reactors (LFRs), and sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFRs)—that will enable better fuel use and more effective management of actinides by recycling most components in the discharged fuel.
From 2002 to 2005, the primary goal of the U.S. Generation IV program was to develop the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), focusing on high-temperature process heat (850°C-1000°C) and innovative approaches to making energy products, such as hydrogen, that might benefit the transportation industry or the chemical industry. At the end of 2005, DOE shifted the fundamental emphasis of the overall Generation IV program, making spent fuel management using a closed fuel cycle the main goal of the NE program. This new GNEP priority led to reduced funding for the NGNP programs; phasing out of the SCWR, GFR, MSR, and LFR R&D programs, and refocusing of the SFR concept to near-term demonstration. With these changes, NGNP’s VHTR remains the only major reactor concept that is not integrated into the GNEP program.
Economic benefits of early commercialization of high-temperature reactors (HTRs) and VHTRs based on NGNP technology could be realized in four market segments where HTRs could make products at a lower cost than competing technologies: base-load electricity, combined heat and power, high-temperature process heat, and hydrogen. A long-term goal for the NGNP is to demonstrate hydrogen production as an energy carrier for a hydrogen economy. However, in each of those four segments, there are specific applications where HTRs will have near-term advantages. By directing NGNP and the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative (NHI) R&D toward those specific applications, stronger near-term industry interest and investment is more likely, which in turn will support continued R&D investments for subsequent expansion of HTR technology into additional market segments and, in the longer term, support the transition to a hydrogen economy.
The NGNP program has well-established goals, decision points, and technical alternatives. A key decision point is the nuclear licensing approach. However, little planning has been done on how the fuel for the NGNP would be supplied. There is a particle fuel R&D program, but it will take up to two decades to complete the development and testing of this new fuel. To keep to the apparently preferred schedule, which has a FY 2017 plant start-up date, some of the technical decisions must be made quickly, so that detailed design, component and system testing, and licensing can be initiated. However, it is unlikely that the plant can begin operation by 2017 owing to the significant funding gaps that developed in FY 2006 and FY 2007 and affected the scope and schedule for testing fuel and structural materials as well as the heat transport equipment. A schedule that coordinates the elements required for public-private partnership, design evolution, defined regulatory approach, and R&D results should be articulated to enhance the potential for program success.
The main risk associated with NGNP is that the current business plan calls for the private sector to match the government (DOE) funding. So far, however, not a single program has been articulated that coordinates all the elements required to successfully commission the NGNP. The current disconnect between the base NGNP program plan and the complementary public/private partnership initiative must be resolved. DOE should decide whether to pursue a different demonstration with a smaller contribution from industry or, alternatively, a more basic technology approach for the VHTR.