Even a group of expert nuclear enthusiasts is despairing for the technology’s future, according to their paper recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
Investigators from the University of California at San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University submitted freedom of information requests to the U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy, seeking to learn what progress has been made on a long-promised next-generation breeder reactor after 18 years and US$2 billion worth of research investment.
The concept promises to produce years of low-carbon energy from one fuel charge, with little radioactive waste. But the reality has been elusive.
“No such design is remotely ready for deployment today,” said lead author Ahmed Abdulla of UC Davis. Abdulla and colleagues describe the U.S. agency’s civilian nuclear research as “incoherent” and “unlikely” to deliver an advanced nuclear reactor before mid-century, if then.
For one thing, EcoWatch writes, the study found that “much of the money that was supposed to be spent on civilian reactors was spent instead on supporting infrastructure [for] defence programs.” As well, Abdulla said, the Office of Nuclear Energy “has mostly invested in one fuel type while exploring multiple reactor designs, most of which do not use that fuel. This disjunction between the two programs is naturally problematic.”
With the main American funding source for breeder reactor research in disarray, Abdulla and his co-authors worry not just about the loss of a next-generation source of low-carbon energy, but also the loss of U.S. leadership in nuclear technology.
That leadership may already have been put in doubt, however, with the bankruptcy earlier this year of Westinghouse, the last U.S.-based (but by then, Japanese-owned) company still building nuclear power plants to current designs.