Idaho test reactor is pivotal in US nuclear power strategy

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A nuclear test reactor that can melt uranium fuel rods in seconds is running again after a nearly quarter-century shutdown as U.S. officials try to revamp a fading nuclear power industry with safer fuel designs and a new generation of power plants.

The reactor at the U.S. Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory has performed 10 tests on nuclear fuel since late last year.

“If we’re going to have nuclear power in this country 20 or 30 years from now, it’s going to be because of this reactor,” said J.R. Biggs, standing in front of the Transient Test Reactor he manages that in short bursts can produce enough energy to power 14 million homes.

The reactor was used to run 6,604 tests from 1959 to 1994, when it was put on standby as the United States started turning away from nuclear power amid safety concerns.

Restarting it is part of a strategy to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by generating carbon-free electricity with nuclear power initiated under the Obama administration and continuing under the Trump administration, despite Trump’s downplaying of global warming.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 98 nuclear reactors at 59 power plants produce about 20 percent of the nation’s energy. Most of the reactors are decades old, and many are having a tough time competing economically with other forms of energy production, particularly cheaper gas-fired power plants.

Some nuclear plants have closed in recent years, and Illinois, New York and New Jersey have approved subsidies in the past two years to bail out commercial nuclear plants. Officials in some areas are considering carbon taxes on coal and natural gas to boost nuclear power.

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