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Advanced nuclear reactors no safer than conventional nuclear plants, says science group

FILE PHOTO: Cooling towers are seen near the Golfech nuclear plant on the border of the Garonne River between Agen and Toulouse, France

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A new generation of so-called “advanced” nuclear power reactors that Washington believes could help fight climate change often present greater proliferation risks than conventional nuclear power, a science advocacy group said on Thursday.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has made curbing climate change a priority and has supported research and development for advanced nuclear technologies.

The reactors are also popular with many Republicans. Last October, the month before Biden was elected, the U.S. Department of Energy, awarded $80 million each to TerraPower LLC and X-energy to build reactors it said would be operational in seven years.

Advanced reactors are generally far smaller than conventional reactors and are cooled with materials such as molten salt instead of with water. Backers say they are safer and some can use nuclear waste as fuel.

“The technologies are certainly different from current reactors, but it is not at all clear they are better,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“In many cases, they are worse with regard to … safety, and the potential for severe accidents and potential nuclear proliferation,” said Lyman, author of the report UCS released Thursday called “‘Advanced’ Isn’t Always Better”.

Nuclear reactors generate virtually emissions-free power which means conventional ones, at least, will play a role in efforts to decarbonize the economy by 2050, a goal of the Biden administration. But several of the 94 U.S. conventional nuclear plants are shutting due to high safety costs and competition from natural gas and wind and solar energy.

That has helped spark initial funding for a new generation of reactors.

But fuel for many of those reactors would have to be enriched at a much higher rate than conventional fuel, meaning the fuel supply chain could be an attractive target for militants looking to create a crude nuclear weapon, the report https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/advanced-isnt-always-better said.

Also, nuclear waste from today’s reactors would have to be reprocessed to make fuel. That technique has not been practiced in the United States for decades because of proliferation and cost concerns. Other advanced reactors emit large amounts of radioactive gases, a potentially problematic waste stream.

Lyman said advanced nuclear development funds would be better spent on bolstering conventional nuclear plants from the risks of earthquakes and climate change, such as flooding. The report recommended that the Department of Energy suspend its advanced reactor demonstration program until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires prototype testing before reactors can be licensed for commercial use.

The DOE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation at Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit that supports advanced nuclear to fight climate change and cut harmful emissions, said the report’s conclusions were not based on rigorous assessment of the industry. Rampal said if the DOE acted on the recommendation it would “essentially cease innovation in nuclear energy today.”

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Stephen Coates and David Gregorio)

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