Why Nuclear Heat, Alongside Electricity, Could Be Important


Yucca Mountain might be “off the table,” for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, but nuclear technology innovation certainly is not. The Obama Administration is planning on allocating $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear technology development out of the Department of Energy’s 2011 budget, along with $38.8 million for small nuclear reactors, and this morning the DOE announced another $40 million to nuclear bigwigs General Atomics and Westinghouse Electric to help develop the Next Generation Nuclear Plant.

Never heard of that project? The Next Generation Nuclear Plant is a program that started back in 2005 (under the Energy Policy Act of 2005) to create a nuclear plant that uses high-temperature, gas-cooled nuclear technology that can create not just electricity, but also heat for industrial processes. The high temperatures can produce electricity more efficiently than traditional nuclear tech and the excess heat can be used to make hydrogen and steam that can be used for industrial applications like desalination, oil refining and biofuel production. The DOE describes the benefits of gas-cooled reactors as:

They are inherently safe, efficient, and can use less fuel than the current generation of light-water reactor designs. Gas reactors can be used to extend the benefits of nuclear energy beyond the electrical grid by providing industry with low carbon,
high-temperature process heat for a variety of applications, including petroleum refining, biofuels production, and
production of chemical feedstocks for use in the fertilizer and chemical industries.

General Atomics, a 60-year old San Diego-based division of defense contractor General Dynamics (s GD), won part of the $40 million in funding, alongside Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Co. But that $40 million won’t be enough to build the entire plant, and the research that General Atomics and Westinghouse do will help the DOE determine how — and even whether or not — to proceed with the Next Generation Nuclear Plant, says the DOE.

Nuclear process heat for industrial uses could turn out to be an important application for nuclear beyond electricity. The DOE points out that 16 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from industrial process heat applications, and heat generated by these high-temperature nuclear reactors could be used for efficient electricity co-generation. The World Nuclear Association digs into some of the history of using nuclear process heat for industrial applications, including what temperatures are required, and what companies have innovated in this area.

With the grants and loan guarantees for nuclear from the U.S. stimulus funds, nuclear technology innovation in the U.S. has started to see a renewed renaissance. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates recently highlighted TerraPower, an early stage startup developing traveling wave nuclear reactors in his talk for the TED conference, and here’s 6 companies that are working on modular nuclear reactors.

Image courtesy of Westinghouse Electric.

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