Friday, September 18, 2009

DOE releases $40M for NGNP

The funding opportunity is for design work on a high temperature gas cooled reactor

vhtr-ngnp-lgThe Department of Energy announced Sept 18 a significant funding opportunity for work on the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that up to $40 million in funding will be available from the Department of Energy to support design and planning work for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP).

The announcement comes the same week Energy Sec. Chu announced a rescue plan for South Africa's Pebble Bed reactor project. In the rescue plan Chu called for joint development of R&D work on high temperature gas cooled reactors.

It’s not clear whether the timing of this funding opportunity announcement is linked to Chu’s actions earlier this week or whether it is simply coming out as the bureaucratic wheels make their turns. A DOE spokesperson said the opportunity is open to US and international applicants, but that there is no specific linkage to Sec. Chu's actions earlier this week.

Process heat applications


DOE said in a statement NGNP will extend the application of nuclear energy for process heat production into the broader industrial and transportation sectors, reducing fuel use and pollution and improving on the inherent safety of existing commercial light water reactor technology.

NGNP will use new, high temperature, gas-cooled reactor technologies (HTGR) to integrate multiple industrial applications in one plant or facility, such as generating electricity while producing process heat for refining petroleum. For instance, the reactor could replace the use of natural gas in Alberta’s tar sands region.

“Support for new developments in nuclear technologies will be critical to meeting our energy, climate and security goals for years to come,” said Secretary Chu.

“Next Generation Nuclear Plants hold the promise of safe, cost-effective, zero-emissions energy for major U.S. industries that are some of the largest energy consumers in the country. By integrating multiple industrial processes, this next generation technology will offset imported fossil fuels, reduce pollution and create tens of thousands of quality jobs in industries across America.”

According to DOE 40% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial processes in high energy heat consuming sectors. With NGNP systems, the process heat or steam generated by the high temperature nuclear reactors will be used to power applications like advanced highly efficient turbines, manufacture plastic components from raw materials, or produce ammonia for fertilizer. Chu said producing process heat with nuclear energy will make these industries more competitive.

Link to Pebble Bed rescue?

PebblesOn Sept 14 Energy Secretary Chu and South African Minister of Energy Dipuo Peters signed the bilateral agreement on cooperative R&D for nuclear energy on Sept 14 in Vienna. The agreement sets the basis for cooperation in the areas of advanced nuclear energy systems and reactor technologies.

The two countries will collaborate on improving the cost, safety, and proliferation-resistance of nuclear power systems. The agreement will also expand efforts to promote and maintain nuclear science and engineering infrastructure and expertise in both countries.

Chu’s action this week is an answer to a long-standing quest by PBMR, the firm developing the Pebble Bed design, to collaborate with the Idaho National Laboratory to build a full scale, 300 MW prototype. At this time construction is not anticipated to start on the Arco desert before 2016. The new relationship with the Pebble Bed project could produce new funding, a faster path to an NRC license, and to breaking ground.

In August 2008 the NRC published an NGNP licensing strategy. The strategy lays out a process, but says nothing about anyone’s design for the reactor. Further, the agency is on record as being reluctant to assign any of its engineers to reviewing licensing applications from small reactors, e.g., less than 500 MW, until they have bona fide reactor designs and, most significantly, real customers.

By the time NGNP is ready with a reactor design for NRC review, at least four-to-six years from now, Sec. Chu and the current administration will be long gone. Like other nuclear reactor projects, the life support for a radical new design will depend on political commitments which are not yet on anyone’s event horizon.

The good news is that South Africa’s Pebble Bed project is now potentially engaged in a joint venture to design and build a prototype. There may be more wind in the project’s sails over the long term. Keep your fingers crossed.

First of two project phases

Building a business from scratchThe NGNP project is being conducted in two phases with Phase 1 comprised of research and development, conceptual design, and development of licensing requirements.

Phase 2 comprised of detailed design, license review, and construction that would lead to operation of a demonstration plant by 2021 that is capable of producing hydrogen, electricity, and/or process heat.

The Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) released by DOE will support the following Phase 1 activities:

  • the development of cost-shared conceptual design(s),
  • cost and schedule estimates for demonstration project completion and
  • a business plan for integrating Phase 2 activities.

More information on the funding process

DOE will use the information and data gathered in Phase 1 as a basis for determining whether the project should continue to Phase 2. DOE said applications for the FOA are due November 16, 2009.

Applications must be submitted through to be considered for award. DOE expects to make up to two awards in February 2010 with each supporting a unique reactor concept. The full Funding Opportunity Announcement is available at and under DE-NE0000149, CFDA No. 81.121.

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