Source: co ered | Jesse Jenkins

Experts from across the United States will gather March 3-5th for a unique, nationwide dialogue on the future of nuclear energy. Simultaneous collaborative workshops in six cities will bring together more than 120 participants to craft a new vision for the role of nuclear energy in 21st century energy systems and generate innovative solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing the nuclear energy sector today. Spearheaded by Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the workshops will convene researchers and engineers from six U.S. national laboratories and some of the nation’s top engineering universities as well as representatives from industry, regulators, and nongovernmental organizations.

In many ways, the nuclear energy industry in America is at a crossroads. The existing fleet of 99 reactors, which provide nearly one-fifth of America’s electricity and 60 percent of our low-carbon power, is aging. Reactor operators must decide whether or not to pursue license extensions and life-extending retrofits that could keep the fleet operating for decades more.

Yet with cheap natural gas and growing adoption of wind and solar energy depressing wholesale market prices and thus nuclear plant revenues, economic headwinds and technical troubles have alreadyforced several plants into early retirement. Many more reactors are now on the fence.

Already, the recently shuttered San Onofre Generating Station in California, Vermont Yankee,Kewaunee Power Station in Wisconsin and Crystal River Generating Plant Unit 3 in Florida have idled a total of 4,170 megawatts of combined generating capacity, enough to meet the annual electricity needs of more then 3 million U.S. households.

At the same time, five new reactors are under construction at three sites in Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina, the first new nuclear plants built in the United States in two decades. Once complete, these plants will bring online more than 5,600 megawatts of new capacity—enough to offset recent reactor retirements.

Perhaps more promising for the long-run, a new generation of nuclear innovators are working to bring novel reactor designs to market that promise improved economics and safety and new capabilities. Many of these companies, including MIT spinouts Transatomic Power and UPower, Oregon’s NuScale, and Bill Gates-backed TerraPower, have secured private sector investment and are embarking on the long haul to bring their creative designs to market.

Yet for nuclear power to play a sustained and expanding role in the United States and global energy system, the industry will have to address a set of persistent challenges and key questions:

  • How can new innovations improve the economics of both existing and new reactors?
  • How can the nuclear industry secure the public’s trust and rebuild confidence after the Fukushima meltdowns?
  • How can regulation be streamlined or reformed to create a smoother path to market for nuclear energy startups working to commercialize novel designs?
  • How should used nuclear fuel be safely stored, recycled, or permanently sequestered?
  • How can nuclear reactors become more flexible in operations and adapt to a grid with greater penetrations of variable renewable energy sources?
  • How can the federal government and national laboratories best support a new era of nuclear energy innovation?

The timing is ripe for a new national conversation on the future of nuclear power. These and other topics will be at the heart of the dialogues organized by INL along with Pacific Northwest, Los Alamos, Argonne, Brook Haven, and Oak Ridge national laboratories in partnership with Oregon State, Boise State, University of New Mexico, Ohio State, MIT, and North Carolina State universities.

Eschewing the prepared speeches and canned presentations that are the hallmark of the traditional conference format, the workshops this week will instead be structured around facilitated discussions designed to surface innovative strategies the United States could pursue to accelerate innovation in the nuclear energy industry. Participants will tap into a collaborative software suite designed by ThinkTankto capture and discuss creative ideas in real-time and virtually connect the discussions going on simultaneously across the six workshops.

The workshops aim to generate a new, more focused direction for the Department of Energy’s nuclear innovation efforts and a renewed mission for the participating national laboratories. But the program’s ambitions extend beyond rejuvenating federal research efforts.

“If these workshops are absolutely successful, we will have identified the key things we need to do to change the trajectory for nuclear power in the United States,” said Dr. Todd Allen, Deputy Laboratory Director for Science and Technology at INL. “We will have helped entrepreneurs with an innovative idea understand the pathway to market in the U.S., designed a set of public private partnerships to help them get there, and generated new ideas to improve regulation of the sector.”

The national laboratories played a critical role in launching the first era of nuclear innovation in the 1960s and 1970s, designing and testing multiple reactors, advancing basic fission sciences, and expanding the frontiers of nuclear capabilities.

The labs hope to play a similar catalytic role today, while recognizing that the landscape for this new era is quite different.

“What’s different today is there’s less effort solely driven by the federal government and more by the entrepreneurial side than we’ve ever see in the past,” Dr. Allen observed.

A new landscape will thus require new ideas and a new role for the government laboratories.

“Historically, we’ve thought a lot about how to build a big demonstration reactor, or things like that,” Dr. Allen explained. “But today, maybe it’s a small company that wants to move things forward, and they are looking for a way to advance their novel design a stage, de-risk their concept, and then pass things off to a larger vendor,” similar to the way the medical community brings new drugs to market.

“There’s a lot of examples out there now from aerospace or biomedical or other sectors where people have figured out how to improve their innovation cycle. The nuclear industry is in a position to learn from all of that,” Dr. Allen said.