Are you still waiting for the molten salt reactor?
It is Federal Budget time again and if the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water subcommittee hearings on the FY2016 Department of Energy budget is any indication, this Administration has recommended another 33% decrease from 2014 budgets for any new nuclear technology, whether Small Modular Light Water Reactors (SMLWR) or for Molten Salt Reactors ($0 budget). Both of these reactor types are being invested in by several other nuclear nations around the world, even some that still don’t have nuclear energy in use.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the day, just after the end of WWII, the public realization of the power and significance of nuclear weapons led to pronounced debates on who should control the new nuclear technology, and under whose authority they should be developed. On one side were those who felt that the US Army had shown their capability in administering the Manhattan Project, and that they should continue to lead any effort to develop weapons. On the other side were many of the scientists of the Manhattan Project who felt that a power so vast should come under civilian control.
Freshman senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut put forward a Bill in the US Senate: an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) that consisted entirely of civilians, from which military personnel were specifically excluded. It was known as “The Atomic Energy Act of 1946”, and it created the AEC, which would relieve the Manhattan Project of their responsibilities to develop nuclear weapons and other nuclear activities. President Truman signed the Act and the nuclear era was on it way to bringing the power of the atom forward for the benefit of humanity.
The budgets within the AEC prior to 1974 were quit extraordinary, like in the millions of dollars (billions today), mostly because the Cold War with the USSR had developed. Even as the atomic bomb became the focus of Cold War anxiety, radioisotopes represented the government’s efforts to harness the power of the atom for peace; advancing medicine, domestic energy, and foreign relations. The AEC used a portion of their budget and began mass-producing radioisotopes which started the use of low dose radiation for medical diagnoses and therapy.
The most significant event that changed the course of Nuclear Science and Technology in the United States was; The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 which transferred the regulatory functions of the AEC to a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and dissolved the AEC by placing the promotional functions within a new Energy Research and Development Administration. This was the beginning of the end for advancing nuclear technology at a pace that preceded the Act, especially in the area of advanced reactor designs.
A year before its demise, the AEC predicted that, by the turn of the century, one thousand reactors would be producing electricity for homes and businesses across the United States. Today, under control of the NRC, there are only 100 commercial nuclear power plants producing less than 20% of the nation’s electricity. What happened? What happened was that in 1979 the first public nuclear accident happened at Three Mile Island and the NRC quickly (and hastily) over regulated nuclear power plants nearly out of business.
Since 1974, the NRC has issued only 4 new nuclear power plant licenses, and all 4 occurred during 2012. As a result, fossil fuels have had to pickup the void and now everyone blames that industry for climate change. Really! (Th)ink about it. Fortunately, other countries are investing heavily in clean non-CO2 nuclear power and next weeks article will be a brief on what China is doing.