BOISE, Idaho — In 1949, the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was built in the southeast Idaho desert. Just six years later, the power produced by the nuclear energy reactors was enough to light up the town of Arco — making it the first in the world to do so.
That technology was just in its infancy then. Now, more than seven decades later, nuclear energy has evolved into a power source that produces almost 20% of the country's electricity, and generates 50% of the country’s carbon-free electricity.
“We're at a point in our evolution as a country and as humankind, of realizing that we're incredibly power intensive, and this is only increasing the need. So you have to have a clean energy solution” John Jackson, a staff scientist and engineer at INL and the national technical director for the DOE office of Nuclear Energy's Microreactor Program, said. "People are recognizing the potential for nuclear energy as a clean baseload source of power.”
The INL has been a pioneer in the field of nuclear energy since 1951, but its continued focus has been on what the future of nuclear energy can look like.
Over the last 70 years, nuclear energy has gone from factory-sized power plants to things that could soon be made in factories. P-CAT is a prototype for the MARVEL microreactor, a term used to describe a small nuclear reactor that can be shipped to different locations with enough power to energize a small city.
“It can power a few thousand homes to get an idea. And most of the time, they can produce both heat and electricity,” said Yasir Arafat, the chief designer and project lead for MARVEL said.
In traditional nuclear plants, teams of people would work around the clock to produce power. Now the new microreactors can self-regulate, meaning fewer people are required to operate the system. The microreactors can also be placed in remote areas and are only about the size of a semi-truck.
“So very small amount of fuel, smaller reactors, smaller facilities, that you can actually have spread around in various communities," said Arafat. "So, the benefit of microreactors then becomes, instead of a centralized power generation, now, you can have smaller microgrids serving different communities in a decentralized way. And obviously, that gives a higher resilience to the overall grid infrastructure."
Arafat believes that the higher resilience of the microreactors can help prevent wide-scale power outages during disasters. It can also benefit rural communities where energy costs are high.
"The idea is, we can actually transport a system like this one, and be able to power it for multiple years before refueling as needed,” said Arafat. "So that gives us a huge advantage, and potentially a lower energy solution than what they're currently using."
"We're trying to get to a net zero on this campus by 2031. And we already have energy sources from solar, some wind. So we want to be able to bring all the clean energy technologies together, including nuclear, to show that with nuclear and renewables combined, we can actually establish a grid that is stable, that can provide 24/7 reliable power and can emit zero to no carbon by 2031."
Before the INL finishes construction on the MARVEL Microreactor Project next year, a microreactor prototype is being tested to model how the final product will work.
"We built a full scale prototype to understand how the overall dynamics work out from heat generation, the heat rejection, all the fluid circulations, the cooling, the power generation, the cooldown of the system, how does that all work out, we can use this machine to predict that," Arafat said. "Once we can compare the data from this experiment with our software simulation, that will give us the right level of confidence on how accurate our models really are."
Just east of the INL site - in Idaho Falls, the Integrated Energy Systems Laboratory (ESL) is researching different types of energy production and distribution.
"It all comes down to one benefit and that's carbon emission reduction," said TJ Morton, a fluid systems design engineer at INL. "So allowing a nuclear power plant to stay cost-effective is sort of a side benefit. But you know, really reducing our carbon footprint from industrial and commercial processes.
ESL's goal is to demonstrate any conceivable configuration of a grid and how electricity is generated, and how nuclear energy can work in tandem with renewables like wind and solar.
"It's mostly just not burning fossil fuels. So that's where the big gains come from with an integrated energy system," Morton said.
Arafat echoed that idea, saying the INL's long-term goal is to make a blueprint for other organizations to follow so they can also get to net zero. Arafat believes MARVEL plays an essential role in that process.
However, not everyone is happy about the new developments in nuclear energy, with one major concern focusing on the waste generated and how it is disposed of.
"It's radioactive waste. So it's probably the most dangerous waste that we can create," Leigh Ford, executive director for the Snake River Alliance said. "We can't treat it, we can't make it less radioactive, all we can do is let it become less radioactive with time. It's dangerous to have around people. It's dangerous as we're creating it over our aquifer”
The INL's self-proclaimed watchdog, Snake River Alliance, is also opposed to new nuclear waste.
“So it's very dangerous, it's very dirty. And it's not getting any cheaper,” said Ford.
But the alliance acknowledges the INL has made advancements in cleaning up the nuclear waste from decades ago, when scientists did not know how to fully handle waste.
The nuclear waste is now stored in casks underground where it slowly decays over time. Some advanced reactor technologies are also able to reuse or recycle some of the waste according to INL, but the waste still needs to be stored somewhere safe.
“Presumably, it will leave the state and go to this repository that doesn't exist," said Ford. "So there seem to be a lot of balls in the air. It will be here indefinitely. And I fear that means forever. It's not really fair, to put it on other people really when we're creating it here.”
"You think about the size of the world and the size of the United States of America, you'll hear reference to the size of a football field 10 yards deep as encompassing all of the nuclear waste that's been generated," Jackson said. "Some of these advanced reactor technologies will reuse light-water waste, it's reusable. We only tap a small percentage of the actual energy from these these fuels with our light-water reactor fleet. So there's there's incredible potential and R&D is happening in this very space right now for of nuclear fuels.”
While the waste generated by nuclear energy continues to be a concern, the demand for an improved energy source is greater than ever. The INL hopes it can continue to be a trailblazer when it comes to improving nuclear energy.
“We take full accountability of that waste. We contain it, we secure it, we store it, we monitor them, and make sure that nothing is nothing comes out into the environment or affects people,” Arafat said. "97% of that used fuel that comes out of our reactor can be reusable, only 3% is actually used up. So technically, it's not a waste. It's a fuel that you can recycle."
"There are solutions that we can recycle the fuel, but it's not a technical challenge. It's a policy-driven challenge that we have with the waste, whether we want to recycle the fuel and make other fuel for nuclear reactors or should we just store them in long-term storage in geological sites," Arafat said. "There's pros and cons on both solutions, right? So it's just a matter of which direction the country wants to go. That's going to be the ultimate deciding factor of what we do with the nuclear waste."
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