A quiet revolution of innovators and entrepreneurs is working on the next generation of nuclear reactors, which won 't look like the gigantic light-water models of the 1970s and won 't be built by the same companies or in the same countries.
Advanced nuclear designs have the capability to be meltdown-proof, using a combination of coolants, fuels, and basic physics. Reactors that are intrinsically safe can also be radically cheaper, especially by making much smaller, modular reactors in factory settings.
Other energy generators, such as wind turbines and solar panels have fallen in price because they are mass-produced like cars or planes. Yet nuclear is still built as large, one-off infrastructure projects. For this reason, nuclear projects are famously over-budget and behind schedule, eventually costing billions of dollars and taking decades to complete.
Building modular reactors in factories makes a significant cost difference, but advanced reactors offer other benefits needed by modern energy markets. Most advanced nuclear designs don 't use water as primary coolant, and some don 't use any water, making them viable for power generation in arid or inland locations. China is now demonstrating a pair of high-temperature, modular, gas-cooled reactors. New nuclear designs can be better at load-following, ideal for balancing grids that increasingly use variable renewable sources like wind and solar.
Many of the companies making the fastest progress are small, nimble start-ups and university programs. More than 150 teams are working on advanced nuclear designs. NuScale Power has submitted a design licence for a 50MW small modular reactor in the US and plans its first project in the early 2020s — a 12-pack of modular reactors like a battery unit. Other designs range from lead-cooled fast reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, to a molten salt design.
Australia 's abundance of uranium, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and diverse off-grid industries needing reliable power make it a perfect market for such reactors. But Canberra would first need to amend federal legislation to allow the construction of not just low-carbon nuclear plants, but fuel fabrication facilities, uranium enrichment plants, and reprocessing facilities.
It 's not just demand that will drive development and deployment of these new designs. Regional governments are also investing heavily in infrastructure that encourages and fosters such innovation. Rather than just export raw uranium to East Asia, Australia should invest in research and development across the fuel cycle and into novel fuel cycles and fuel reprocessing.
South Australia 's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission concluded there was $6 billion in annual economic benefits from siting a global spent-fuel repository in the state. But those benefits could be greatly increased if the facility was also allowed and supported to conduct research and development on advanced fuels, fuel fabrication, and reprocessing. Many advanced reactor designs burn nuclear waste as fuel, so having a research and development facility alongside waste storage makes sense; it also increases employment at the site.
Australia is well-placed to be a major player in this nuclear future, if it takes the time now to pivot on legacy policies and invest in innovation.