Can nuclear energy systems be shrunk? Idaho National Laboratory is working to find out.

Posted at 5:04 PM, Sep 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-28 19:04:02-04

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — As the country continues to grapple with the cost of natural disasters, Idaho National Laboratory races to meet the energy demands of the future.

One aspect of that, is modernizing and growing domestic supply of nuclear power.

President Joe Biden signs Inflation Reduction Act
President Joe Biden signs Inflation Reduction Act in August 2022

Biden signals nuclear energy commitment

President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law in August, signaling a commitment to the nuclear energy industry. The bill included tax credits and incentives for existing facilities as well as the deployment of advanced reactors.

Nuclear energy provided 50% of America’s carbon-free electricity in 2021 and provides just under 20% of the country's total energy production.

But modern development of the energy source has been slow and the plants have limited lifespans without updates to their technology. Currently, 25 U.S. reactors are undergoing the decommissioning process.

“When you shut down nuclear plants, oftentimes the carbon emissions in the state go up dramatically, because they're not immediately able to replace that with also non-carbon," John Wagner, Director of Idaho National Laboratory, told Idaho News 6.

Related: Idaho National Laboratory aims towards net-zero operations

The national lab is working to improve nuclear technology to decrease reliance on fossil fuels in efforts to fight climate change. Dramatic changes in global temperatures and other impacts of climate change attributed largely to emissions. Electricity production accounted 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2020.

“Use of fossil fuels is growing across the world. While we talk about decarbonizing, we're actually going in the opposite direction," Wagner said.

Still, the federal government is putting money into decarbonizing the energy sector. The White House Budget for Fiscal Year 2023 requests funding for new nuclear development.

Related: Plans for the 'Versatile Test Reactor' underway at Idaho National Laboratory

"A very effective way of reducing our carbon input would be nuclear power, replacing coal power or gas fired power plants," said TJ Morton, Integrated Energy Systems Engineering Lead at the lab.

Nuclear provides energy without emitting greenhouse gases, just like solar and wind. Advocates of the source tout nuclear as a 24/7 supply on days when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. Still, nuclear, like every energy source, still produces material waste if the technology reaches the end of its lifespan.

Can nuclear energy systems be shrunk?

One development the lab is working on to modernize nuclear by making it safer and more efficient, is shrinking the systems.

These 'microreactors' could revolutionize the way nuclear is deployed in the U.S.

"A microreactor by definition is below a certain threshold and able to be transported on a truck," Morton said, “it would be a lot easier if we could take a smaller reactor and power a town like the size of Idaho Falls."

TJ Morton, Engineering Lead at Idaho National Lab
TJ Morton speaks with Idaho News 6 about ongoing nuclear research.

Morton said the systems could be taken to disaster sites, remote outposts, or elsewhere.

"A military installation or a research station in Antarctica or somewhere like that," he said.

The lab first tests new reactor designs with electricity in order to make improvements safely.

“It is a non-nuclear testbed or non-nuclear platform to test microreactor designs," Morton said.

The lab is also exploring new uses for nuclear-generated heat. Hydrogen batteries, for example, could be a new end product of the energy source.

“Incorporating thermal energy storage into heat use from a nuclear power plant for alternate uses is relatively new, the last several years," Morton said.

Non-nuclear testbed for 'microreactor' at Idaho National Laboratory
Non-nuclear testbed for 'microreactor' located at Idaho Falls site for the national laboratory.