The decade of nuclear innovation: Progress in advanced reactors means good news for clean energy goals
- April 1, 2020: Vol. 7, Number 4

The decade of nuclear innovation: Progress in advanced reactors means good news for clean energy goals

by Robbie Hayunga

Virginia-based utility Dominion Energy recently committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, joining 28 electric sector companies that have publicly put forward ambitious clean energy targets. Policymakers on the state and federal level — and even internationally — are also calling for a reduction in carbon emissions. The momentum is clear: The future will be carbon-free.

Any zero-carbon electricity system will have to rely on wind, solar and nuclear, which currently make up nearly 80 percent of the carbon-free energy in the United States. Nuclear energy — which will include new advanced reactors — will play a key role since it generates reliable electricity around-the-clock.


In the coming years, current plants will continue generating clean energy and the state-of-the-art reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia will come on-line. But some of the most exciting innovations in nuclear energy will come (and have been coming) from the entrepreneurs designing advanced reactors.

The Tennessee Valley Authority received the nation’s first approval to potentially build and operate a small modular reactor (SMR) at its Clinch River site. This year, NuScale Power is expected to receive a design certification for its SMR from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Southern Co. is teaming up with Bill Gates’ TerraPower on molten salt reactor technology. Additionally, Oklo Inc. will partner with Idaho National Laboratory to reuse nuclear fuel for its reactor design. GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Kairos Power and X-energy are also investing in advanced reactor designs.

Congress has shown bipartisan support for advanced reactors too. Appropriations for fiscal year 2020 included historic levels of funding for nuclear energy programs, with money for the Versatile Test Reactor (a project to build a fast-neutron test reactor by 2026), as well as demonstration projects. In response to this funding, the U.S. Department of Energy is initiating an advanced reactor demonstration program to help produce two operational reactors within five to seven years and accelerate the deployment of other similar projects.


The next generation of nuclear reactors will offer a variety of benefits beyond carbon-free electricity, including the ability to desalinate water, provide high-temperature heat for industrial processes and assist in hydrogen production for alternative fuels.

Small modular reactors and micro-reactors will help bring electricity to hard-to-reach places where traditional plants are not necessary to meet the needs of those communities. And some advanced reactor designs will also integrate better with wind, solar and batteries.


If we want to reach any clean energy goals, we need as much carbon-free electricity as we can get. Along with the continued contribution of current plants, the innovations in advanced reactors will play an important role in reaching a carbon-free future.


Robbie Hayunga is content manager at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

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