The United States’ nuclear sector is in trouble. And it has been for years now. While the United States remains the largest producer of nuclear energy in the world, producing about one-third of the world’s total nuclear power supply, the industry has been in a state of decline for quite a while. The nuclear sector has never recovered from the influx of cheap natural gas that came along with the domestic shale revolution, and now the country’s aging nuclear fleet faces even bigger problems coming down the pike. Nuclear, like so many other industries (especially in the energy sector), was hit very hard by the pandemic. As Oilprice reported earlier this summer, climate change will hold particularly difficult challenges in store for the nuclear sector, which has to keep its reactors cooled down at all times to avoid meltdowns. And heat is just one risk factor–there are also extreme weather events and catastrophic floods to consider. In 2019, Bloomberg carried out a review of “correspondence between the commission and owners of 60 plants” and made some particularly worrying discoveries. According to nuclear companies’ own risk assessments, “54 of their [60] facilities weren’t designed to handle the flood risk they now face.”

There were also questions as to whether the U.S. nuclear energy industry would be able to weather another storm, so to speak, when the sector was hit hard by COVID-19 earlier this year. While the entire global energy industry suffered from a drop in demand around the world, U.S. nuclear posed particular challenges as one of the lowest-profile domestic energy sectors, and therefore one of the least likely to get the kind of bailout they would need to stay afloat. 

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Just two weeks after Oilprice wondered “Can The Nuclear Industry Survive COVID-19?,” however, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) offered the nuclear sector a lifeline. On June 18, the DOE announced “it would be awarding more than $65m in nuclear energy research, crosscutting technology development, facility access, and infrastructure awards.” According to reporting by PowerTechnology, “the awards fall under the department’s nuclear energy programs – the Nuclear Energy University Programme, the Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies, and the Nuclear Science User Facilities.”

The PowerTechnology article highlights some of the more important and exciting ventures that will be funded with the new influx of money, the first of which is an initiative from Purdue University that seeks to explore the use of artificial intelligence to monitor and measure the relative risks of using 3D-printed reactor parts. In more scientific terms, this project “examines the risk of nuclear reactor parts fabricated via additive manufacturing that uses a novel rendition of an artificial intelligence (AI) learning strategy, the so-called multi-armed bandit reinforcement learning (RL).” In a word: 3D printing, which will allow for more efficient and inexpensive manufacturing of extremely complex parts, which in turn creates more room for experimentation and innovation. 

Another promising initiative being spearheaded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a transformational challenge reactor program, which aims to address the problem at the heart of the nuclear industry–economic viability. “The TCR programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is designed to help change ‘the economic paradigm of nuclear energy’, according to the research team. The current basis for this TCR design is a gas-cooled reactor with multiple solid material types in a unique arrangement. The planned demonstration of the project will last over 60 months.”

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Ohio State University is tackling another huge challenge for the nuclear industry in its project that aims to evaluate the risk of a cyberattack on nuclear power plants. There is good reason for U.S. nuclear to be worried about the cybersecurity of their nuclear fleet, as the U.S. and Israel already launched a successful cyberattack against an Iranian nuclear plant from around 2005-2010 with what has been called the “world’s first digital weapon,” a malicious worm called the Stuxnet virus (which infected more than 200,000 computers around the world before it finally hit its target). It makes good sense, then, that the U.S. would be scared of retaliation and of vulnerability to a cyberattack in general. 

The last two projects highlighted by PowerTechnology are an “Integrated solar and nuclear cogeneration via a sCO2 cycle” by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and “Infrastructure for examination of irradiated structural materials” by the University of Nevada, Reno. 

The wide scope of these projects points to the multiplicity and complexity of the challenges faced by the U.S. nuclear industry today. While the money awarded by the DOE this June is a good sign for the sector, this is not the first time the DOE has tried to bail out the U.S.’ ailing nuclear industry. “Since 2009, the Office of Nuclear Energy, part of the US Department of Energy, has allocated more than $800m to research, aiming to boost American leadership in clean energy innovation and train the next generation of nuclear engineers and scientists,” Power Technology writes. But so far all efforts have been too little, too late.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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