The Future of Nuclear Energy Will Be Decided In Idaho

(Bloomberg) -- The global resurgence for nuclear energy starts in the barren, high desert of Idaho.

Almost every nuclear plant in the world today can trace its lineage back to Idaho National Laboratory’s sprawling 890-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) complex. Researchers there were the first to generate electricity from splitting the atom back in 1951, and countless scientists have since visited the remote site to test reactor designs.

But while it's been a crucial stop on the path from drawing board to deploying systems in the field, it’s been 50 years since the last reactor was switched on there. The lengthy gap speaks to the challenges of harnessing a fission reaction. The lab stands poised to shepherd a new wave of nuclear technologies to market, but the recent cancelation of a major project at the site shows INL’s research prowess alone isn’t enough to ensure the industry will play a major role in combatting climate change in the coming decades.

Dozens of companies are developing advanced reactor designs, which are typically smaller than the mammoth power plants widely used today. That approach has been touted as a faster, cheaper way to build reactors. Many companies are planning pilgrimages to INL, which is home to a vast array of facilities to evaluate reactor cores, fuels, coolant materials and other critical components. These new designs will need rigorous testing to ensure safety and reliability before they can go into service, and research this decade will have a major influence on the shape of the nuclear industry over the rest of the century. Scientists at the lab are eager to get going.