By Irina Slav
3D printing has been getting a lot of hype as an innovative way of manufacturing everything from keychains, aircraft engine parts, and ventilators. Now, 3D printing is creating a nuclear reactor core in a development that could change nuclear energy technology forever.
Researchers in the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are 3D printing the nuclear reactor core, with plans to have the first one up and running by 2023.
“The nuclear industry is still constrained in thinking about the way we design, build and deploy nuclear energy technology,” the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory said in a news release. “DOE launched this program to seek a new approach to rapidly and economically develop transformational energy solutions that deliver reliable, clean energy.”
The anti-nuclear lobby would argue that nuclear reactors are neither reliable nor clean. Indeed, nuclear power has got a lot of bad rap, and most of it is deserved. However, the historical body of evidence against it is arguably as strong as the evidence for nuclear energy. In terms of emissions, it is a much cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. It is more costly than renewables, but it lacks the intermittency problem of renewable installations. In short, there are as many arguments for nuclear as there re against it.
Amid the push/pull surrounding nuclear technology, one fact remains: we need nuclear energy. The International Energy Agency last year issued a dire warning: the retirement of old nuclear power plants in the coming years could compromise the international effort to arrest the rise in global temperatures and result in an increase in carbon emissions instead. That’s despite the growth in solar and wind capacity additions, making the warning all the more dramatic.
“Without policy changes, advanced economies could lose 25% of their nuclear capacity by 2025 and as much as two-thirds of it by 2040,” the IEA said in May 2019. This loss of nuclear power capacity comes at a time when coal capacity is also being reduced fast because of emission concerns while wind and solar additions are stalling. Now, they are likely to stall further over the short term because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy.
If the share of nuclear power generation capacity drops as much as the IEA estimated based on the situation in 2019, before the pandemic, the planet could suffer as much as 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide in additional emissions. Estimates now will be different because of the drop in energy demand resulting from the pandemic. Still, there are already warnings governments should make an effort to prevent a return to pre-pandemic emissions by enabling a “green recovery.”
So where does 3D printing come in all this? First, it is a cheaper method of manufacturing things, even things as complex as a nuclear reactor core. Second, it is a very accurate method of manufacturing even complex objects. Third, it combines nicely with automation and artificial intelligence to produce what the NREL scientists call “a highly optimized, efficient system that reduces cost, relying on scientific advances with potential to shape a new path in reactor design, manufacturing, licensing and operation.”
In the end, the reactor with the 3D printed core could end up being cost-competitive with the renewable challengers. And this will be a good thing, the scientists say.
More than half of existing nuclear reactors in the U.S. will be retired within two decades. Yet nuclear energy still makes up for a hefty chunk of the country’s energy mix, at 20 percent. In other words, the United States still needs nuclear power, just like the rest of the world.
“The TCR program will provide a new model for accelerated deployment of advanced nuclear energy systems,” NREL’s director, Thomas Zacharia says. “If cost and construction times are not addressed in the very near future, the United States will eventually lose its single largest source of emissions-free power.”
This source is indeed quite large–not just as a portion of the energy mix but as output. In 2019, U.S. nuclear plants recorded an all-time high in terms of electricity generation. They produced a combined amount of energy of more than 809 billion kWh kin 2019. That’s enough to power 66 million homes, so it is no wonder that the Department of Energy launched an initiative to build a uranium reserve to ensure the long-term sustainability of the nuclear power industry.
There are solid reasons to mistrust nuclear power. There are also equally solid reasons to recognize it as a necessary part of the world’s energy mix during the inexorable increase in energy demand as the planet’s population grows. Technology is making a lot of traditional challenges obsolete.
Perhaps 3D printing, coupled with the cutting-edge monitoring systems that NREL has deployed in its reactor, would help make the biggest challenge in nuclear power obsolete, too, providing consumers with a low-emission and reliable alternative to fossil fuel power plants.