The National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) accelerates the deployment of advanced nuclear energy through its mission to inspire stakeholders and the public, empower innovators, and deliver successful outcomes. NRIC is a national program led by Idaho National Laboratory, allowing collaborators to harness the world-class capabilities of the U.S. National Laboratory System. We are charged with and committed to demonstrating advanced reactors by the end of 2025.
NRIC accelerates technology from proof of concept to proof of operation by allowing innovators to leverage the U.S. government’s investment in nuclear energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment. By bridging world-leading laboratory infrastructure and expertise with the promise of visionaries working to commercialize new nuclear energy systems, NRIC is enabling a new era of clean, affordable, reliable energy.
Global environmental challenges have the potential to harm vulnerable populations and disrupt fragile ecosystems, and some analyses suggest these effects are already being felt. The Fourth National Climate Assessment estimates that if climate change continues at its current pace, the annual costs to the U.S. economy could reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of this century.
Historically, the fastest deployments of carbon-free energy generation have taken place in countries with major expansions of nuclear, solar, wind, and other renewable energy. It is notable that, in the case of France, an industrialized nation’s power grid was 80% decarbonized in less than two decades via scale-up of nuclear energy.
The most affordable and efficient pathways to deep decarbonization consistently include firm low-carbon resources like nuclear. Nearly 20% of America’s electricity and more than half of its zero-carbon emitting electricity is produced by nuclear power. This track record proves that it is a strong candidate to continue filling this firm low-carbon role.
In 2016, household and ambient air pollution together accounted for roughly 8 million deaths, or about 14% of mortality globally. Because it emits no noxious emissions, nuclear power provides a way for communities to clean up their air and water. In fact, a NASA study found that air pollution reduction from nuclear energy prevented about 1.8 million deaths between 1971 and 2009 and has the potential to prevent 4 to 7 million more air pollution deaths by 2050.
Advanced nuclear provides the United States with a compelling opportunity to develop a low-carbon technology that will help to provide the world with an affordable, scalable tool to address the global need for expanded access to clean energy.
U.S. nuclear energy leadership has important implications for both geopolitics and for the environment. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the U.S. Cooperative Power Reactor Demonstration Program (CPRDP) established public-private partnerships for 11 demonstration projects and two commercial-scale reactors spanning eight technologies. This program provided assistance with construction costs, fuel leasing, fuel fabrication, research and development costs, decommissioning, and various other items.
Since the first decade of American civilian nuclear energy development, the U.S. has developed groundbreaking technologies that are embedded in nuclear power systems used around the world. These include the first commercial nuclear power plant, the first submarine reactor, the first demonstration of a self-sustaining fuel cycle, and the foundational approach to light water reactor safety, security, and nonproliferation protocols.
Today, advanced designs build upon this legacy by applying subsequent decades of technological progress in fields including materials science, computing, and mechanical engineering.
In September 2018, the bipartisan Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017 (NEICA) was signed into law, creating NRIC and beginning the next chapter of this technology’s evolution. The Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) establishes the framework for public-private cost-sharing in several demonstration projects that are characterized by having reliable, cost effective, licensable designs. The objective of the ARDP is to stimulate commercial enterprises in advanced reactor deployment and enable a market environment in which safe and affordable commercial reactor services are made available to government and private sector customers. NRIC is a key partner in this effort.
U.S. nuclear energy vendors face many challenges today. A declining U.S. nuclear energy industry constrains U.S. influence in key global relationships and standards, but the emergence of innovative, best-in-the-world technology provides the option to recapture a leadership role. NRIC and other Department of Energy programs in nuclear energy are designed to re-establish U.S. leadership in energy technology that will enable global clean energy access as well as access to new frontiers in space and on earth.
By more effectively harnessing the power of the market and private-sector entrepreneurialism, NRIC is building upon American ingenuity to deliver 21st century advanced reactor systems better and faster.
Advanced nuclear technologies will serve new sectors of the economy by providing more than just clean electricity. This includes heat production for a variety of purposes. New end-uses will allow for the decarbonization of energy-intensive processes like water desalination and hydrogen production.
Hybrid energy systems will benefit from the flexible output of advanced fission plants that can balance renewables and deliver low-carbon electricity in all conditions. Innovative applications for maritime propulsion and space technologies will provide unmatched reliability on new frontiers.
We have not done this recently, but we have done this before. At the desert site at Idaho National Laboratory, formerly the National Reactor Testing Station, the United States built 52 different reactors over 25 years. The X-10 reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory was built and started up in under a year. By 2025, NRIC will develop at least two more reactors, extending the legacy of American nuclear innovation and establishing a foothold for advanced nuclear in this century.
NRIC is equipped to facilitate the construction and demonstration of advanced reactor systems through a suite of services and capabilities. This includes a core, multidisciplinary team that can leverage government resources to meet private sector needs. Support from NRIC means assistance in navigating from start to finish permitting and regulatory pathways, and help with contracting and local stakeholder engagement. The team also assists with site preparation for new projects and can collaborate to support existing ones.
Digital Engineering at NRIC
Powerful new software allows for the development of new products, services, and capabilities by using digital tools to improve real world outcomes. Industries ranging from construction to aerospace have implemented these techniques to bring down costs and increase productivity. NRIC is leading the way to begin applying these digital tools to advanced nuclear concepts.
Advanced Construction Technologies
On April 13, 2020 NRIC published an Expression of Interest (EOI) for partnerships related to the development and/or demonstration of advanced construction technologies and processes that would be transformative in improving nuclear power new-build economics and scheduling. Reducing nuclear energy construction and deployment costs can increase confidence in the capability of nuclear energy systems to be delivered on schedule and on budget.
NRIC collaborates with communities, innovators, and the U.S. National Laboratory System to identify appropriate sites and resources to enable successful projects for all stakeholders. As a destination, NRIC provides a space to convene for outreach, showcasing, and events.
Permitting and regulatory assistance, contracting support, and channels for local engagement are all offered by NRIC to help communities and innovators navigate new-build timelines.
NRIC empowers innovators by providing access to government resources, facilities, and infrastructure. These capabilities will ultimately support a timely and cost-effective path to the licensing and commercialization of new nuclear energy systems.
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The NRIC team is passionate and guided by its mission. We rely on teamwork to overcome our biggest challenges and believe that diversity and inclusion are directly responsible for better outcomes. We are committed to the safety of ourselves, our peers, and our community. We are dedicated to protecting the natural environment today and for generations to come.
Dr. Ashley Finan is the Director of NRIC and Nicholas Smith is the Deputy Director.