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Special Report - Creative Energy: PNNL researchers are generating real-world solutions to a global problem

Nuclear energy and the 21st century

The world is entering a period of renewed interest and growth in nuclear energy, driven by rising oil prices, growing demand for electricity, new passively safe plant designs, and low emissions of greenhouse gases, which some governments need to meet Kyoto Protocol standards. The Kyoto Protocol assigns mandatory targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to signatory nations.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is well positioned to be a major player in this nuclear energy "renaissance." The Laboratory has a long history of evaluating nuclear systems, developing new technologies and improving nuclear facility operations for clients such as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

A major opportunity is materializing on the horizon for PNNL to assist the NRC in reviewing and evaluating construction and operating licenses for as many as 20 new nuclear power reactors in the United States over the next decade. Ten companies have announced they will seek licenses to build new power plants in the United States. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman recently announced that DOE would provide $2 billion in federal risk insurance to companies applying to build nuclear power plants-part of an incentive package designed to encourage construction of the country's first nuclear reactors since the 1970s.

PNNL is part of a consortium comprising four DOE Office of Science laboratories that has submitted a proposal to the NRC to provide assistance with reviewing the Combined Construction and Operating License applications for these new reactors. "Our staff has extensive nuclear licensing-related experience such as revising the NRC standard review plan for light-water reactors and operating licensing requirements," said Al Ankrum, PNNL's relationship manager for NRC. "We also have people with strong operations background honed from years of experience at the N Reactor at Washington's Hanford Site, the Trojan nuclear power plant in Oregon and other nuclear plants around the country." Currently, the Laboratory is conducting a number of environmental reviews on behalf of NRC for siting the planned new reactors.

PNNL also is well positioned to play a major role in the newly created Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) program, a comprehensive strategy to increase U.S. and global energy security, encourage clean development around the world, reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and improve the environment.

While the nuclear energy renaissance in the United States is just starting to unfold, "the growth in nuclear power overseas is phenomenal," said Jon Phillips, manager in PNNL's International Security and Nonproliferation group. China, for example, is building two to four reactors a year, and India is constructing more than 10 civilian nuclear power reactors to meet growing demand. Other nations such as Japan, which lack natural resources, are building new reactors to meet their energy security needs, while countries in Europe are reconsidering the possibility of using nuclear power to meet carbon emission standards. "GNEP is about addressing this phenomenal growth and the challenging issues, such as disposal of spent fuel and proliferation of nuclear weapons, related to it," Phillips said.

DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) serves as steward of GNEP and partners with other organizations, including the National Nuclear Security Administration, which covers all aspects of GNEP's nonproliferation objectives. PNNL plays a lead role in supporting the NNSA as it develops plans to implement the safeguard and security elements of GNEP.

PNNL also has been approved by NE to receive funding for GNEP research in 2007, according to Jim Buelt, PNNL's account manager for DOE Nuclear Energy activities. These new projects include on-line instrumentation for process monitoring and materials control and accountability, waste form development, systems analysis, fast reactor materials analysis, and sodium technology for fast reactors. Other potential opportunities include hot testing of unit operations within the separations flowsheet and remote fuel fabrication for fast reactor fuels.

"PNNL's greatest strength is that it has capabilities spanning every single area associated with nuclear power, from nuclear engineering technology to national security," Phillips said. "Our capabilities across the spectrum will enable PNNL to effectively serve the R&D interests of the U.S. government in meeting energy security, environmental and international security needs."

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