The Next Generation of Commercial Reactors

Reactors

When I started my nuclear career at Seabrook Station in 1981, the facility was under construction. I was concerned that the industry was going to be severely challenged because of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident that occurred in 1979. Over the years, I was impressed by the resiliency of our industry and the progress made in moving the fleet of commercial reactors to amazing overall reliability, performance, and safety records. The safety record of the U.S. nuclear fleet since the TMI accident should make everyone in our industry proud.

Later in my career, the sustainability of the U.S. commercial nuclear fleet was challenged again because the market conditions changed through deregulation of electricity pricing. The overall cost of nuclear contributed to the inability to compete against cheaper natural gas units. Unfortunately, some smaller, older units that were good performers were shut down based on the change in the market. The average customer focused only on the price they paid for their monthly electricity bill and not on how the power was being produced.

Again, I witnessed how our industry responded and challenged the overall cost performance to operate a well-performing U.S. fleet of reactors. The changes — decreasing long refueling outage times, decreasing staffing, and overhauling outdated processes — transformed the industry and reduced total production costs. The industry initiative, Delivering the Nuclear Promise (DNP), was a significant testimony to this challenge. The DNP effort was embraced and paid dividends that continued to help control overall costs.

As in all scientific industries, political agendas have influenced public opinion and helped target the shutdown of well-operated units in the U.S. fleet. Renewed safety concerns of people living near commercial reactors after the Fukushima accidents, and the surge in the “not in my backyard” mindset, became fodder for politicians. The public discussion became, “Let’s use renewables like wind and solar to offset using nuclear power.” While renewables cannot carry baseload demands and will become a failed strategy, no real scientific data about this penetrated the message to the public. The Texas February 2021 freeze event and the California rolling blackouts this past summer offered new windows to expose the flawed logic of relying solely on renewables to maintain a stable electrical grid.

Currently, the climate change debate is capturing headlines everywhere. It is becoming clear that the impact from severe weather events across the globe has put decarbonization of the atmosphere on the minds of average citizens across our country and world. This is great news for the current U.S. nuclear fleet. The messaging of how nuclear power contributes to the prevention of carbon emissions has begun to reach politicians, and they are now acting to promote our industry. The recent decision by Illinois legislators to help the Exelon fleet keep the Byron and Dresden units in operation was a direct response to this public awakening. Our strong U.S. fleet performance and safety record, along with our positive low environmental impact, is part of the conversation today. So, the current focus is on trying to save operating U.S. nuclear reactors to counter carbon emissions and ensure grid stability.

But what does the future look like for nuclear reactors operating here and abroad? The answer lies in supporting the emerging market of Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs. They will be the next generation of operating reactors to meet our baseload power demands.

Recently, the Accelerant Solutions team has partnered with our Tecnatom colleagues in Spain to support the development of operations training programs for the X-energy, the new small modular reactor design being deployed within the U.S. With the announcement to build a 320-MW X-energy unit in Washington state, the reality of having SMRs to support our nation’s future generation of commercial reactors is here.

The new XE-100 reactor design will use a pebble-bed reactor configuration which is cooled with high-temperature helium. This is vastly different than the large light-water reactor designs we currently have operating in the U.S. The X-energy fuel design is built to withstand extreme high temperatures and cannot melt, which provides a huge safety-factor margin. Additionally, it is more cost effective compared to other fuel designs currently being used. You can read about these reactor design features on the X-energy website.

Conversations between the Accelerant Solutions/Tecnatom project team with the X-energy training leads have been very interesting. Our goals include challenging status quo decisions with the design and implementation of the training programs. The X-energy training program design will be structured to meet all Systematic Approach to Training (SAT) elements required by regulations. In other areas, however, we will step back to discuss and question the cost and efficiency of the program implementation.

The Accelerant Solutions/Tecnatom team brings combined years of training content design and delivery experience to the X-energy program, enabling us to present proven, innovative platforms. The project team has discussed the multiple oversight features of current U.S. training programs, and that led to a discussion to request using only an NRC-approved program, where applicable. We are also exploring the use of qualified control room operators versus individually licensed operators to run these new, safer reactor designs. This is the operating model being used in the United Kingdom today. As you can imagine, these discussions offer a totally different perspective to the way we do things now and the ways in which we can support the new generation of safer operating SMRs of the future.

As I look to the future in my career in supporting nuclear power, I am optimistic that we have the right new technology and resources to support a forthcoming fleet of commercial SMRs, like the XE-100 design, here in the U.S. and abroad. I am certain that the community of nuclear professionals, of which I am a part, will once again rise to the challenge of making this a reality for the future of energy production for the generations to come.

If you would like to hear more about our training products and services, please contact us today at hello@discoveraccelerant.com or visit our website at www.discoveraccelerant.com.

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