Nuclear Vision's at the Idaho National Lab

April 7, 2008

By Richard Korman

The people planning the future of nuclear energy measure time in decades and time is already running short for Philip C. Hildebrandt.

As director of the Next Generation Nuclear Project for the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho, Hildebrandt's job is to build a big prototype nuclear reactor that is safe enough to site near gas and chemical plants all across North America's industrial backyard. And he's only got until Sept. 30, 2021.

Although Congress in 2005 authorized the U.S. Department of Energy, which is funding the work at the lab, to spend $1.25 billion on the prototype over the next eight years, the allocations by the department had languished at around $30 million each year. Hildebrandt's team said it hoped to get three times as much, and the National Academy of Sciences, in a report released in October, expressed concern that among the several federally funded nuclear development programs, NextGen was underfinanced and couldn't finish on time.

In December, Congress handed NextGen $100 million. The infusion "isn't enough to put us back on track for the end dates," Hildebrandt cautions, but "Congress came through to help. It's substantial and very important. We're better than we thought we were, but we're still behind."

An electrical engineer and consultant with deep experience in nuclear power and chemical waste, Hildebrandt shares a vision with atomic engineers in Japan and South Africa of nuclear energy as an industrial heat source. If NextGen is successful, between 15 and 20 years from now North Americans will build dozens - maybe hundreds - of comparatively small, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors to breathe heat into refineries and chemical plants, especially plants to make hydrogen. Right now on-site industrial heating plants are fueled with gas, coal or oil and most nuclear power today is generated from big light-water reactors to meet base-load electrical demand.

At the core of this plan are heat and hope. Light-water reactors that operate today drive turbines by attaining temperatures of 300 degrees C or so but high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors can reach 900 degrees C or higher. That means such reactors can provide more than enough heat to refine crude oil or to separate bitumen from shale or sand in the Western United States and Canada - all of which helps extend domestic energy supplies.

Even more hope is needed when you consider the project's main industrial goal, hydrogen production, which requires temperatures of 800 degrees C.

If all this is to happen in a by 2021, engineers and scientists must perfect heat-resistant materials and other aspects of the design while private companies must risk billions beyond the federal tax dollars on the $3 billion to $4 billion project.

Fast Pace

Nuclear engineers first operated test-and-demonstration high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors in the United States and Europe from the 1960s to the 1980s with mixed results. East Germans operated a small, 30- to 40-megawatt test reactor successfully for 21 years, according to a report by France's Nuclear Energy Agency. But an American high-temperature, gas-cooled power plant near Denver ultimately failed in the 1980s.

Two years after the Colorado project was shut down, Japanese nuclear engineers started construction on a promising sequel, a high-temperature test reactor at the Oarai Research Establishment. That small reactor successfully reached 950 degrees C and the researchers are now designing a hydrogen production system to hook to the reactor, according to a report by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

To develop a U.S. demonstration prototype, the Idaho National Laboratory is counting on "leveraging" that high temperature, gas-cooled reactor and another one being developed in South Africa, where the Pebble Bed Modula Reactor design is being used.

No matter which design is adapted, Hildebrandt and his colleagues must put together an industry alliance that pairs two largely separate branches of business, nuclear energy and petrochemicals, to shoulder the majority of the development and construction costs. As is done with conventional gas-fired industrial turbines, the manufacturer and energy company would co-develop the new plant in a business deal that would span decades with the reactors and heat sources dedicated to a specific purpose.

As with everything nuclear, there are fundamental disagreements. Hildebrandt admits there will be a challenge in gaining acceptance for the idea of nuclear reactors co-located with industrial plants across the country, although he says that it can be done. Meantime, there's the issue of regulation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission "today is an agency primarily in the business of licensing light-water reactors; as we go to alternative concepts, like high temperature, the regulatory process will have to change."

The ghosts of prior failed efforts in public-private nuclear development are also at play. The Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project in Tennessee, for instance, tried to produce electricity with liquid metal fast breeder reactors and sodium cooling systems. It costs more than $1 billion in public money when Congress stopped it in 1983.

"A number of things changed and both government and industry decided the time wasn't right," says Harold McFarlane, Idaho lab associate director of nuclear science

His main concern with NextGen is to "make sure we're designing the right reactor for the first applicant" to license as a private project beyond the prototype.

Meanwhile, the work goes on. In late 2006, the Idaho lab announced that it had subcontracted engineering studies and pre-conceptual design activities to three design teams led by Westinghouse Electric, AREVA and General Atomics. More contracts for studies and conceptual design work must be issued in fiscal 2008. And the race is on to get an advanced nuclear reactor up and running by 2021.

More information is available from Energy Central:

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EnergyBiz magazine is the thought-leading, award-winning publication of the emerging power industry. This article originally appeared in the March/April 2008 issue.

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