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One of the U.S. nuclear industry’s emerging success stories in recent years has been the building of public-private partnerships among the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories, academia and private sector companies to accelerate the development of advanced nuclear technologies.

The Nuclear Energy Institute this week sponsored a discussion by a panel of national laboratory and industry leaders on these partnerships and the innovations being incubated by them. The Senate National Labratory Caucus and the House Science and National Labs Caucus were honorary co-hosts of the well-attended event. Sen. Jim Risch(R-Idaho) opened with a statement expressing the importance of the national laboratory complex to the future of nuclear energy.

“The United States led the world into the age of nuclear energy, and even today the U.S. nuclear industry is the global leader in technology innovation. The U.S. benefits in many ways from the presence of a strong domestic nuclear energy industry—including the ability to create domestic jobs, build long-term international influence, and strengthen safety and nonproliferation behaviors around the globe,” NEI Vice President of Suppliers, New Reactors and International Programs Dan Lipman said at the event’s opening.

“To maintain our competitiveness over countries like China that are pouring ever more resources into advanced nuclear technologies, the U.S. must have policies in place and provide the resources to support U.S. R&D and the partnerships between industry and the national labs that will enable the rapid development, commercialization and deployment of new reactors, including SMRs and advanced nonwater cooled reactors,” he added.

The national laboratory system is uniquely capable in assisting the nuclear industry’s push to commercialize technology innovations, Argonne National Laboratory Associate Laboratory Director Jeffrey Binder said. Public-private partnerships can provide for the industry’s research and development (R&D) needs on a cost-competitive basis, and the labs also have reactor demonstration and testing capabilities not available in the private sector. Binder did note, however, that the lab complex does not have advanced fast neutron test reactor capabilities, the lack of which “inhibits U.S. nuclear systems development.”

The House appropriations bill for fiscal 2018 includes $35 million for research and development to support efforts to develop a versatile fast test reactor.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Associate Laboratory Director Alan Icenhour described the activities of ORNL’s Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), whose 10 partners from the labs, industry and academia provide the technical foundation for the first of DOE’s Energy Innovation Hubs. CASL uses its world-class comprehensive modeling and simulation capabilities to predict the performance of existing and new commercial nuclear reactors and fuels. The CASL team has developed a virtual nuclear reactor, the Virtual Environment for Reactor Applications (VERA), which can simulate the operation of an entire nuclear reactor down to a single fuel rod.

VERA’s predictive capabilities are being extended from modeling operating reactors to advanced and small modular reactor (SMR) designs, including the Westinghouse AP1000and NuScale Power LLC’s SMR, and to innovations such as Westinghouse’s advanced accident-tolerant fuel, Icenhour said.

DOE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative was begun in 2016 with the mission to provide private nuclear energy innovators with access to DOE’s technical and regulatory expertise, facilities and capabilities in order to accelerate new nuclear technologies toward commercialization.

“In the past two years, GAIN has enabled public-private partnerships that normally would not be achievable,” GAIN Director Rita Baranwal said.

Harlan Bowers, president of X-energy LLC, a private company that since 2009 has been developing an advanced high-temperature gas-cooled pebble-bed reactor, agreed that the progress his company is making “could not have happened without the collaboration, partnership and expertise that resides in the ORNL and Idaho National Laboratories.”

“The most feasible way to get past the more than $1 billion required to complete our reactor design is through public-private partnerships with DOE to help us through detailed design and construction,” Bowers said. “If we continue on this path, both the advanced reactor industry and the labs will continue to thrive.”

“The activity now going on in the advanced reactor arena is pretty breathtaking,” added Jacob DeWitte, chief executive officer and co-founder of small reactor developer Oklo. The capabilities of the national labs are vital to small reactor innovators such as Oklo, DeWitte said.

“Thanks to the availability of DOE’s facilities and their expertise, it’s cheaper than ever in the United States to design, model and develop new reactor technologies. Also, because of the work of the national labs, the U.S. has a huge advantage in advanced nuclear fuel technologies, with relatively fast pathways to develop, demonstrate and commercialize new fuel designs.

“There is now a wave of nuclear innovation being driven by private companies. Our agility gives us a further advantage over other countries’ more government-driven R&D programs. We should capitalize on those advantages,” DeWitte said.

Nick Irvin, Southern Co.’s program manager for advanced energy systems R&D, praised the workers in the national labs for “extending the art of the possible.”

“The folks at CASL, at DOE’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program, and at GAIN give us great comfort. They’re superheroes to us,” Irvin said.

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