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Nuclear power option for developing nations gaining steam

Raising the global standard of living with an emissions-free energy source

An example of a small-grid reactor is IRIS, International Reactor Innovative and Secure.

Global energy demand is forecasted to be 50 percent higher in 2030 than it is today and according to the International Energy Agency, seventy percent of this growth is expected to come from developing countries.

The question is: what will provide the additional energy?

A team at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is developing nuclear reactors that are cost-effective and a better-fit for developing nations—giving them the exciting prospect of access to clean, safe, and reliable nuclear power. Widely known as grid-appropriate reactors, these nuclear reactors are smaller in size, generating typically between 250 megawatts and 500 megawatts of electricity, making them far more affordable and practical for nations that cannot accommodate current light-water reactors that can generate up to 1,600-megawatts of electricity. This is in part because these nations have smaller power grids and less well-developed technical infrastructures.

"These reactors hold the promise of economic development by introducing a clean and affordable source of electricity to a developing nation. These reactors are also projected to have construction times just over half the time that is required to build a large nuclear power plant," said ORNL's Dan Ingersoll, Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) project director for grid-appropriate reactors.

With a staggered build strategy, two or more reactors can be built in a series, which minimizes up-front capital costs and can potentially result in quicker return on investment. Many nations have entered the nuclear age using reactors of this size range, and GNEP has identified grid-appropriate reactors as a keystone in the global expansion of nuclear energy.

"The ultimate goal is energy security for parts of the world that are facing the rapid rise in electricity demands," Ingersoll said. "Next-generation, appropriately-sized reactors will be safer, simpler to operate, highly secure, and will reduce proliferation risk."

Making nuclear power an option for developing countries is of great importance; the developing world will act to meet its growing energy demand, but may pursue less environmentally-friendly sources of energy. By gaining access to affordable nuclear energy, countries can offset negative environmental consequences through investing in the only near-term option for producing large amounts of emission-free electricity. "Equally important is the fact that affordable electricity translates into a stronger economy, a more skilled workforce, and improved quality of life for people living in these countries," said Ingersoll.

Issues of grid capacity, financing, project risk and other factors limit the majority of the targeted countries to consider only nuclear power plants with less than 700 megawatts capacity. For economic reasons, including economies of scale, only large plant designs are commercially available from traditional vendors. That will change if the grid-appropriate reactors campaign is successful.

In 2008, members of the grid-appropriate reactor team will develop a solicitation for a public-private partnership to select a U.S.-based light-water reactor design for safety and licensing support beginning in fiscal year 2009. This campaign aims to speed the development, demonstration and deployment of grid-appropriate reactors, with the first reactor ready for construction in as early as 2016.

Domestically, this effort could lead to specialized uses for nuclear reactors such as an independent power source for military bases, biofuel production, coal-to-liquid conversion and economical oil shale and tar sand recovery. Utilities in many parts of the nation may also look to smaller reactors to supplement their power generation needs as demand for energy rises.


For additional information:

The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a multiprogram science and technology laboratory conducting basic and applied research and development to create scientific knowledge and technological solutions that strengthen the nation's leadership in key areas of science; increase the availability of clean, abundant energy; restore and protect the environment; and contribute to national security.

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is an initiative to expand safe, clean, reliable, and affordable nuclear energy worldwide. Grid-appropriate reactors is one way that GNEP safely expands nuclear energy in developing nations and small-grid markets without increasing proliferation concerns.


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