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A nuclear energy comeback—one that features cleaner, cheaper power— may occur in the next few decades, said Samuel Thernstrom, the executive director of the Energy Innovation Reform Project.

The Energy Innovation Reform Project recently conducted a report, titled “A Standardized Cost Analysis of Advanced Nuclear Technologies in Commercial Development,” which discusses the future of nuclear energy. The report specifically focuses on future costs to commercialize nuclear reactors as well as how to create technology that is safer than the nuclear reactors used in the past. To learn more, R&D Magazine spoke with Thernstrom in an exclusive interview regarding where he feels the future of nuclear power is heading.

R&D Magazine: What was the focus of the report?

Thernstrom: My organization advocates broadly for innovation policies for the advancement of the portfolio of clean energy and technologies. We are in advanced nuclear but carbon capture, advanced renewables, storage. This report is looking at the nuclear question and it is not saying that all of these reactors are right around the corner about to come into the market immediately, but it is a bit of a chicken and egg thing. If people think that nuclear will never be cost effective or competitive then they won’t focus on the policy measures that I think would facilitate the development and the commercialization of these technologies. We wanted to try to get a firmer sense of what the potential cost of these advanced reactors would be if they could get into the market and get up. What would a fully commercialized reactor potentially cost? Obviously, that is an uncertain calculation but we thought it was important to take a look at it.

R&D Magazine: When do you think nuclear energy was phased out?

Thernstrom: This is a longstanding trend going back to the 60’s. It has its roots in both the political anti-nuclear movement, which particularly gained a lot of power in this country after Three Mile Island but was very strong well before that, and also the fact that there were these expectations of the cost of those reactors. The famous “too cheap to meter” pledge, of course turned out not to be the case. A lot of these were the spoke designs built to particulars of each site and a lot of the building was almost simultaneous. It was a very compressed build period so there wasn’t a lot of learning by doing but rather each reactor was a one-off so the cost curves weren’t especially positive.

R&D Magazine: What were some of the major technological advancements that could lead to a new era of nuclear energy?

Thernstrom: The reactors that this report is looking at are all what is called advanced reactors or Generation IV reactors. The basic idea is that these are not light water reactors; they don’t use water as a medium to cool the fuel rods and control the reaction. There are several different types of advanced reactors that all use different mediums other than water, such as sodium cooled reactors and molten salt reactors.

R&D Magazine: How far away are we from this new era?

Thernstrom: This report doesn’t really answer that question; it’s really hard to say. It just depends on a lot of different variables. These are all paper reactors, they have not been demonstrated much less commercialized, much less into the kind of assembly line manufacturing that we would hope to determine the cost. These are not things that are going to be on the market next year or in this decade. More like 15 to 20 years out I think is the timeline you hope to see these reactors. It is a very uncertain process and I think it depends a lot on policy decisions.

R&D Magazine: Do you ultimately believe that a cleaner reactor and cheaper reactor is possible?

Thernstrom: Absolutely and I feel strongly. I think as a technical basis, if you dig into the literature and you talk to people in the industry these advanced reactor designs, a lot of them are working off technologies that were demonstrated in the national labs back in the 50’s and 60’s. It is not really new science, it is new commercialization of old nuclear science, sometimes using a lot of new materials research and a lot of new engineering. Basic technologies have been demonstrated, so we could build these advanced reactors that feature true passive safety mechanisms where by design the reactor can’t melt down the way we were concerned about with the Three Mile Island situation or Fukushima or Chernobyl. Those types of melt downs become physically impossible because of the design of the reactor. So we know we can build reactors like that, we know if we want to we can close the fuel cycle and build reactors that will burn up previously accumulated nuclear waste. We can solve the waste problem by burning up those fuels; we know we can do all these things from a technical matter. The reason we did this report is because the question of whether these reactors can be built affordably is crucial to the reality to that whole vision. We don’t think this report is definitive. It allowed us to take a snapshot of the industry and the estimate they have for their costs. How close it is to reality in the future we’ll have to see.

R&D Magazine: Is one of the bigger issues the branding of ‘nuclear power.’

Thernstrom: I think the branding and the history, both with politicians and the public, is obviously a difficult thing. I wish there was a way to talk about these advanced reactors using a different term because they are so different technologically from the Generation II or Generation III reactors  that people are familiar with that it really does deserve a different term. I refer to it as essentially a nuclear battery as opposed to a reactor. If you can get people’s head around the fact that these technologies are in fact very different, I think that would help the conversation. Terminology is very stubborn and very, very difficult to change.

R&D Magazine: What is Energy Innovation Reform Project’s next step in advocating for nuclear energy in the future?

Thernstrom: We work on public education about these ideas, public policy maker education and assessment of the policy framework for innovation, demonstration and commercialization of advanced energy technology. We are assessing policy changes that can be made to foster the demonstration of these advanced reactor designs, as well as other important advanced energy technologies in other sectors like carbon capture and advanced renewables.

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