US funding for advanced reactor enabling technologies

23 October 2017

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has announced up to $20 million of funding for projects to identify and develop innovative technologies for lower cost and safer advanced nuclear reactors. The funding is part of a new programme under the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) initiative.

The comparatively high operating and maintenance costs of the USA's current operating fleet of light water reactors - which supply nearly 20% of the country's electricity - means there is now a "compelling opportunity" to leverage new manufacturing processes and technologies to increase the competitiveness of nuclear power, the DOE said. ARPA-E's Modelling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration (MEITNER) programme will focus on new, innovative enabling technologies aiming to help achieve "walkaway" safe and secure operation, extremely low construction capital costs, and dramatically shorter construction and commissioning times for the next generation of nuclear power plants.

"When ARPA-E examined the challenges facing nuclear energy, we found an important opportunity to support the advanced reactor design community with early-stage technologies that could enable the development of safer and less expensive plants," ARPA-E acting director Eric Rohlfing said on 20 October. "MEITNER projects are developing technologies that will accelerate fabrication and testing, making construction cheaper, while integrating high levels of automation and built-in safety measures across the plant to reduce operational costs."

The funding opportunity will encourage interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists, engineers and practitioners from different organisations, scientific fields and technology sectors, to form diverse and experienced project teams. Such collaborations will be able to facilitate scientific and technological discoveries that a single group alone would not be able to achieve, the DOE said.

Advanced modelling and simulation tools will be used to improve and validate MEITNER programme projects, and project teams will have access to subject matter experts from nuclear and non-nuclear disciplines. An ARPA-E-provided resource team will coordinate sub-teams for modelling and simulation, techno-economic analysis, and subject matter expertise. Project teams will leverage these resources for modelling and simulation support, advanced technical information, design assistance, and information on the state of the art in relevant areas.

According to ARPA-E, MEITNER encourages a "rethinking of how pieces of the nuclear reactor system fit together when developing the technologies that will make these plants viable." In the building phase, that could mean cost savings through modular and advanced manufacturing techniques. Robotics, sophisticated sensing, model-based fault detection, and secure networks to enable substantially autonomous controls could reduce operational costs as well as contributing to a high degree of passive safety, the organisation said.

ARPA-E was established in 2009 to advance high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. The agency provides R&D funding for innovative ideas from from academia, private industry, national laboratories, start-up companies, and small businesses, focusing exclusively on early-stage technologies that could fundamentally change energy generation, use and storage. Project teams receive an average award of $2-3 million over several years. As of February this year, the agency had funded more than 580 energy technology projects.

Interested parties have until 4 December to submit concept papers for consideration under the MEITNER programme.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News