NUCLEAR POWERFast Reactor Technology Is an American Clean, Green and Secure Energy Option

By Kristen Mally Dean

Published 14 November 2023

Pivotal partnerships between industry and national laboratories steer advances that will help combat climate change. Companies in the nuclear industry work closely with national labs and the DOE Fast Reactor Program to develop next-generation nuclear reactors.

Nuclear fission — the energy-producing phenomena that happens when an atom splits and produces energy — has been happening safely and efficiently inside U.S. nuclear reactors for decades. These reactors, which are all water-cooled, produce clean, green power through use of a basic approach: Initiate and control a fission chain reaction and use the resulting energy to power turbines that make electricity.

Today, 93 nuclear reactors produce about 20% of total electricity used in the U.S. Of the country’s clean electricity, nuclear energy accounts for close to 50%. According to U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE), it is a high energy density power generation source. And, while there is no energy source that produces zero carbon and zero waste over the course of its lifetime, scientists believe advanced nuclear designs could come close. Exciting new research into advanced nuclear technologies is a major reason why nuclear energy is considered a central pillar of U.S. efforts to combat climate change and meet rising demand for electricity.

“We’re always trying to think about the future,” said Bo Feng, national technical director of DOE-NE’s Fast Reactor Program and manager of DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory’s Reactor and Fuel Cycle Analysis Group. “Currently operating U.S. nuclear reactors work really well, but we want to do things even better, especially regarding resource sustainability and waste management. Fast reactors will play a crucial role in reducing our country’s carbon footprint while minimizing nuclear waste.”

Fast reactor technology uses liquid sodium, lead or other coolants in place of water to remove the heat produced by fission. (That heat is what nuclear reactors use to create the steam that turns turbines to generate electricity.) Fast reactor technology can reuse nuclear fuel which means fast reactors can produce more fuel than they consume. Ultimately, this produces less waste.

DOE-NE’s laboratory-led research and development (R&D), including the Fast Reactor Program, is essential to support industry’s demonstration of these advanced reactors.

“Thanks to investments in our national laboratories through the Department of Energy’s R&D programs, we’ve developed an extensive portfolio of design experience, software, experimental data, and test facilities for many types of advanced reactor technologies,” said Kaatrin Abbott, manager of DOE-NE’s Fast Reactor Program. ​“It’s a major objective to complete the design, licensing, construction and start of operations on a demonstration fast reactor by the end of this decade.”