The Next Generation
I was pleased to see an article in Time magazine called New Nukes, which provided a rather positive and optimistic view of the need for nuclear power and its future. [Note: On-line access by Time magazine is by subscription, so I'm not sure this link will provide the full article or be permanent.]
What proved most interesting to me about the article, however, was not so much the content of the article as the approach. Rather than highlighting the "usual suspects" for the next generation of designs--that is the integral pressurized water reactors (iPWRs) that most people acknowledge have an edge right now in terms of the stage of development and the knowledge base of conventional PWRs on which they build--they take the leap of focusing on non-light water concepts. And rather than drawing on the national laboratories and other places that have been exploring non-LWR technologies for decades, they focus mostly on young graduate students--the next generation of reactors from the next generation of reactor designers.
I want to make sure it is clear that the article did mention all the options. It described the AP1000s and the EPRs currently under construction, it mentioned Babcock and Wilcox and the US Department of Energy (DOE) award as well as the Hyperion and NuScale contenders, and it discussed larger, more established efforts on non-LWRs, such as Terrapower's traveling-wave reactor.
But the article began and ended with a focus on two graduate students who have founded start-up companies in the hopes of promoting non-LWR technologies. (One is a molten-salt design, and the other, although not stated in the article, seems to be a very small module.) It almost glossed over the prospects for the iPWRs on the grounds that, "to really change the economics of nuclear...you need to fundamentally change how plants operate."
I was pleased to see such an optimistic article in a major publication like Time. I am very pleased to see the enthusiasm and enterprise of the next generation of nuclear engineers--and I certainly wish these two young entrepreneurs the best of luck. Yet, when I see stories like this, I worry about the next "too cheap to meter" criticism. The article tries to say that there are hurdles ahead, and that it will take time--and lots of money--to bring new designs to market--but I am afraid those cautions are almost lost. Furthermore, while I think it is important to pursue more advanced technologies, we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss the near-term technologies.
Therefore, I hope to see Time, or other publications, continue to cover new developments in nuclear technology. Over time, I hope these will provide the general public a more complete picture of the iPWRs and their promise and prospects.