Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Idaho lab's long range vision for NGNP

Comes up short on cash [update 04/10/08]

There is great profile of the plans by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) at the Energy Central web portal. It reports that the people planning the future of nuclear energy measure time in decades and time is running short. Philip C. Hildebrandt, who is the director of the Next Generation Nuclear Project has the job to build a prototype nuclear reactor and he's only got until Sept. 30, 2021.

In 2005 Congress authorized the DOE, which funds the lab, to spend $1.25 billion on the prototype over the next eight years. However, funding hangs around at $30 million each year. Hildebrandt's team said it hoped to get three times as much, and the National Academy of Sciences, in a report released in October, expressed concern that among the several federally funded nuclear development programs, NextGen was under funded and couldn't finish on time.

In December 2007, Congress gave NextGen $100 million. The infusion "isn't enough to put us back on track for the end dates," Hildebrandt cautions, but "Congress came through to help. It's substantial and very important. We're better than we thought we were, but we're still behind."

Alberta and Idaho

While NGNP is chasing money, Idaho and the Alberta Research Council are chasing ideas. The two R&D agencies have held discussions about using process heat from nuclear reactors to help recover oil from the tar sands.

They're not the only one's interested in this idea. The South African PBMR project says they'd like to do a deal with Idaho along the same lines.

Overall, if ideas for using new nuclear energy technologies were sacks of potatoes, they'd be piled up pretty high. The problem is getting someone to pay for them.

Funding Challenges Ahead

There a plenty of challenges ahead. Congress will probably put the government on a continuing resolution due to the upcoming election. Assuming Democrats retain their majorities in both House and Senate, they're not going to let a lame duck session set the funding in December. This means it will be February 2009 before the 2008 appropriations bills are enacted.

For Idaho, with Sen. Larry Craig, a long-time advocate for nuclear programs, now politically out of the picture, the burden falls on Sen. Mike Crapo to bring support for NGNP. Crapo's staff told me in a telephone call last week the Senator is an advocate for the lab and will work to assume the leadership role on the Senate side. Over in the House Rep. Mike Simpson sits on the Appropriations Committee. Despite some shortfalls for NGNP, Idaho isn't out of the running just yet.

Update 04/10/08

Platts reports that DOE plans to issue a request to industry for expressions of interest in building the Next Generation Nuclear Plant, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon said this week.

The RFI will be the next-step in developing a cost-sharing arrangement to build the reactor, Spurgeon told the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

DOE plans to work with industry to build a demonstration high-temperature reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) that will begin operating by 2018. The prototype plant is expected to both generate electricity and produce hydrogen.

See prior coverage on this blog NGNP Costs higher than expected

That should be no surprise to anyone as we are talking about a demonstration nuclear plant.

The INL's home page at which it explains its work on NGNP is a good place to start if you are interested in the range of emerging reactor technologies associated with the program. Note that the lab recently upgraded its portal software for its external web site so some prior links on this blog may no longer work. Let me know in a comment if you find any.

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See related coverage on this blog "How will INL build NGNP"

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