New generation nuclear reactors, promised for the last 18 years by the United States Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) as a way to provide cheap and plentiful supplies of electricity, are unlikely to be fulfilled any time in the next 30 years. That is the conclusion of university researchers who have used the US Freedom of Information Act to obtain the programme’s budget history to find out what designs the government has spent $2 billion of public money on supporting. Researchers from the University of California San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University described the research programme as “incoherent”, and said the government was “unlikely” to deliver on its mission to develop and demonstrate an advanced nuclear reactor by mid-century. The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, says much of the money that was supposed to be spent on civilian reactors was spent instead on supporting infrastructure, where the main focus was defence programmes and not commercial opportunities. The US, China and the UK are all backing a new breed of small reactor, similar to the ones that power nuclear submarines, in the hope that they can be built in factories and assembled on site. This is supposed to streamline production and cut delays and costs. Europe, the US and China are also spending astronomical sums on nuclear fusion, which is an attempt to replicate the way the Sun produces energy. The theory is that once achieved it will be an unlimited source of power, but decades of trying have so far still left success always just over the horizon. While the fusion project has nothing to do with the military, all other nuclear projects have had defence links. The original nuclear reactors were developed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, and as a result almost all future designs could always be used to produce weapons-grade materials as well as electricity. Most of the money now being spent on research into new generations of nuclear power stations is being provided by nuclear weapon states. Most countries that have never had nuclear weapons but have invested in nuclear power stations are now phasing them out and putting their development money into cheaper renewables.
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The US Office of Nuclear Energy is unlikely to deliver on its mission to develop and demonstrate an advanced nuclear reactor by the middle of the century, according to a new analysis.
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