July 14, 2024

Flex Tech

Innovation in Every Curve

Technology gives nuclear energy next-level safety features

Technological advances, from drones to autonomous driving, have revolutionized safety systems throughout history. The evolution of nuclear energy technology is no exception.

Much of the current U.S. fleet of 93 commercial nuclear reactors were constructed 40 to 70 years ago. These older-design plants have proven their safety, through robust protocols, redundant safety systems, rigorous operator training and a culture of continuous learning and global knowledge sharing.

If an event happens in the nuclear energy industry, it happens to the entire industry. The learnings and lessons are shared by everyone.

“Industrywide collaboration is a primary reason safety has evolved exponentially in the nuclear power industry,” says Kenneth Langdon, Nuclear Development general manager with Energy Northwest. “Our industry benefits from advancements in materials, control schemes, human-machine interface, monitoring and instrumentation technology and nuclear scientific knowledge.”

“Generation II” reactors provide 45% of the U.S.’s carbon-free energy, and they are even safer today because of technology modifications over the years that include reactor internals, advanced fuels and sophisticated instrumentation that monitors every system and process at the facility.

While the current fleet steadily hums along, the industry is on the brink of deploying new advanced nuclear energy designs, such as small modular reactors (SMRs). In the next decade, SMRs could provide a new source of reliable, clean and affordable power. New nuclear technologies are moving away from the large, gigawatt-sized plant – they’re going small – using modular systems that are roughly a third of the size, or less, of a traditional nuclear power plant.

The new “Generation III and IV” reactor designs incorporate decades of advancements in nuclear physics, materials science, systems engineering and digital controls.

There are many proposed SMR technologies, and each has a unique design and safety basis. However, the designs all have similar features, and the safety concept for each SMR is based on passive systems and the inherent safety characteristics of both the fuel and the reactor. This means in the event of a natural disaster, like an earthquake, no operator intervention or external power source is required to safely shut down the reactor and prevent overheating. That’s because passive systems rely on physical phenomena, such as natural circulation, convection, gravity and self-pressurization.

Small modular reactors will produce carbon-free energy that can integrate seamlessly with other clean energy resources to balance the energy grid. This efficient combination of energy production cuts our dependence on fossil-fuel-based power plants.

“SMRs use very little land to generate large amounts of electricity,” says Langdon. “This minimizes the habitat impact needed for new generation.”

Similar to conventional nuclear energy reactors, current SMR designs use nuclear fission technology, harnessing the thermal energy fission produces to generate electricity.

Several SMRs and other advanced reactors are also in development to use tri-structural isotropic particle fuel (TRISO). Each fuel particle contains a kernel of uranium wrapped in multiple layers of carbon and ceramic-based materials. The fuel can withstand extreme heat without degradation. The relatively low power density also prevents meltdown. The Department of Energy calls TRISO “the most advanced fuel on Earth.”

The Northwest Power & Conservation Council, based in Portland, Oregon, says the nationwide push for low-cost, carbon-free energy requires the development of non-greenhouse gas-emitting technologies that can provide annual and winter peak capacity. The council believes the most promising of these technologies in the Northwest are enhanced geothermal, solar photovoltaic, and nuclear small modular reactors.

Energy Northwest has dedicated nearly a decade to studying SMR technology and believes it to be a strong potential for the region. Energy Northwest supported the early stages of the Carbon-Free Power Project with UAMPS and NuScale and has been involved in advancing both of the federal Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program projects since their selection in 2020. Additionally, since 2019 when the Clean Energy Transformation Act was signed, Energy Northwest has ramped up planning for a potential advanced nuclear energy SMR in the Northwest and built a nuclear coalition that includes private and public utilities, labor and tech, all in support of successful development of a commercially operated nuclear facility.

“We have numerous utilities both public power and investor-owned who have contributed funding to support our continued due diligence process,” Langdon said.

A Navy veteran with 35 years of experience in the nuclear energy industry, Langdon notes, “SMR projects within Washington state will utilize the state’s skilled workforce in the transition to 100% clean energy. Once operational, these plants have the potential to employ hundreds of employees within various functions of the organization such as operations, engineering, security, finance and human resources.”

From the inception of nuclear power to the growing need for SMRs, the evolution of the nuclear energy industry underscores the remarkable impact of human ingenuity and innovation. Through  innovations like advanced control systems, passive safety features, and enhanced materials, the latest generation of nuclear reactors is poised to elevate reliability and efficiency to even greater heights.

Energy Northwest owns and operates diverse electricity-generating resources, including hydro, solar, battery storage and wind projects, and the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power facility. These projects provide enough clean, cost-effective, reliable energy to power more than a million homes each year.