Advanced Nuclear Reactors: Technology Overview and Current Issues

An “advanced nuclear reactor” is defined in legislation enacted in 2018 as “a nuclear fission reactor with significant improvements over the most recent generation of nuclear fission reactors” or a reactor using nuclear fusion (P.L. 115-248). Such reactors include LWR designs that are far smaller than existing reactors, as well as concepts that would use different moderators, coolants, and types of fuel. Many of these advanced designs are considered to be small modular reactors (SMRs), which the Department of Energy (DOE) defines as reactors with electric generating capacity of 300 megawatts and below, in contrast to an average of about 1,000 megawatts for existing commercial reactors.

Advanced reactors are often referred to as “Generation IV” nuclear technologies, with existing commercial reactors constituting “Generation III” or, for the most recently constructed reactors, “Generation III+.” Major categories of advanced reactors include advanced water-cooled reactors, which would make safety, efficiency, and other improvements over existing commercial reactors; gas-cooled reactors, which could use graphite as a neutron moderator or have no moderator; liquid-metal-cooled reactors, which would be cooled by liquid sodium or other metals and have no moderator; molten salt reactors, which would use liquid fuel; and fusion reactors, which would release energy through the combination of light atomic nuclei rather than the splitting (fission) of heavy nuclei such as uranium. Most of these concepts have been studied since the dawn of the nuclear age, but relatively few, such as sodium-cooled reactors, have advanced to commercial scale demonstration, and such demonstrations in the United States took place decades ago.

The 115th Congress enacted two bills to promote the development of advanced nuclear reactors. The first, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017 (NEICA), was signed into law in September 2018 (P.L. 115-248). It requires DOE to develop a versatile fast neutron test reactor that could help develop fuels and materials for advanced reactors and authorizes DOE national laboratories and other sites to host reactor testing and demonstration projects “to be proposed and funded, in whole or in part, by the private sector.” The second, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA, P.L. 115-439), signed in January 2019, would require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop an optional regulatory framework suitable for advanced nuclear technologies. The 115th Congress also appropriated $65 million for R&D to support development of the versatile test reactor in the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, FY2019, along with funding for ongoing advanced nuclear research and development programs (Division A of P.L. 115-244).

Continued debate over advanced reactor issues is anticipated in the 116th Congress. A fundamental question may be the role of the federal government in advanced nuclear power development. DOE’s budget request for FY2020 focuses the federal role on “early stage research” rather than the more expensive stages of demonstration and commercialization. Controversy is also likely to continue over the need for advanced nuclear power. Supporters contend that such technology will be crucial in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and bringing carbon-free power to the majority of the world that currently has little access to electricity. However, some observers and interest groups have cast doubt on the potential safety, affordability, and sustainability of advanced reactors. Because many of these technologies are in the conceptual or design phases, the potential advantages of these systems have not yet been established on a commercial scale. Concern has also been raised about the weapons-proliferation risks posed by the potential use of plutonium-based fuel by some advanced reactor technologies.