NSE - Nuclear Science & Engineering at MIT


Leading with nuclear innovation

Ashley Finan, MIT

“To address climate change and the enormous increase in energy demand likely in coming decades, we need the resource of nuclear power,” says Ashley Finan ’07, ScM ’07, PhD ’12 in nuclear science and engineering. “Now is the critical moment for making this happen.”

After years of researching innovation, investment, and policy in nuclear and renewable energy technologies at MIT, and then advocating for nuclear energy in the non-profit sector, Finan is now uniquely situated to make the case for nuclear power. As the first director of the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC), based at the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Idaho National Laboratory, she is spearheading an ambitious effort to test and demonstrate advanced nuclear reactors by 2025, with the goal of launching commercial next generation nuclear energy by 2030.

Finan is following a playbook she had a major role in devising. Her job application laid out a vision in which the US, by demonstrating the best advanced nuclear technologies, reestablishes its global nuclear energy leadership within the decade.”

“I’m optimistic, because the community is inspired by the promise of these technologies, and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to combine government support with private sector innovation, and the deep market and societal need for the technology,” says Finan.” It’s really all come together, and now we need to execute it.”

Getting to the demo stage

Since her start at NRIC in 2019, Finan has been focused on shepherding a cluster of highly promising advanced nuclear projects toward successful demonstrations. “In order to be successful by 2025 we need to pursue with urgency and resolve a number of efforts,” she says. “We know not all of them will be successful so we need to support diverse projects — and we do have many of them right in front of us.”

The DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program helped get the ball rolling, with awards to ten advanced reactor projects, representing a range of approaches and applications. NRIC is providing strategic resources to private sector technology developers behind these projects, with the aim of validating their reactor concepts, helping resolve technical challenges, and enabling the kind of tests that could lead swiftly to commercialization.

Several reactors are preparing for on-site demonstrations in coming years, including a sodium-cooled fast reactor with molten salt storage developed by Terrapower, and X-energy’s high temperature gas reactor. Kairos Power is building a small fluoride salt-cooled high temperature reactor for their demonstration, and Southern Company’s molten chloride reactor experiment will use a test bed NRIC is developing at Idaho National Laboratory.¬† Other advanced nuclear concepts supported by NRIC and DOE are still in the early phases of R&D, including one from MIT — a horizontal, compact, high-temperature gas reactor.

Finan believes the only way to achieve deep and rapid decarbonization will come from dipping into a deep pool of nuclear innovation. “It’s the mix of technologies that will get us there,” she says. She points to microreactors (a kind of nuclear reactor that generates one to 20 megawatts of thermal power) as one example. While they cannot address the climate challenge alone, she says, they are part of the solution, “both because they inspire, and also because they fit into niche markets.”

Microreactors can serve a key function in integrated energy systems that utilize renewables, offering firm energy backup, especially in emergencies when grid transmission falters, believes Finan. NRIC is a partner in developing such a reactor, slated for demonstration in the next few years.

Other nuclear technologies she deems essential include small modular reactors generating hundreds of megawatts of power. These could replace fossil fuel plants for industrial purposes, powering for instance the extraction of “green” hydrogen for the production of heat or fuel.

“Then there are gigawatt-scale reactors that will be important for areas of the world where there’s enormous energy demand growth, like the Middle East or Africa,” says Finan. “There are markets that are going to see enormous increases in energy demand if we’re going to see people lifted out of poverty, and that is a global imperative.”

Such reactors will also prove critical as nations around the world pursue largescale electrification, and seek to power carbon removal and sequestration.

Clearing hurdles

There are substantial challenges in driving this range of advanced nuclear projects to successful demonstration and beyond. “It can be hard to move quickly in an environment where government processes must be followed,” she admits. “We really need the laboratories, the DOE, the private sector, the policymakers, all pulling in same direction.”

Another hurdle she’s encountered: “The nuclear industry has earned a reputation as being not skilled at stakeholder communication,” she says. “We need to find ways to have productive, two-way conversations, really more effective engagement with communities, policymakers, and help folks see their way to a nuclear future.”

Finan views environmental justice as a problem for the industry that can no longer be neglected. “My level of ignorance is something I’m working to address and I believe and we must educate ourselves quickly,” she says. “While siting for nuclear plants might take into account seismic activity, we might not also consider the cumulative impact of industrial facilities around communities.”

But these are precisely the kind of challenges Finan views as opportunities. She believes that demonstrating this next generation of nuclear reactors will do much to bolster confidence among users and stakeholders. With tough new safety and security safeguards, novel processes to reduce spent fuel or reuse it, and the capacity to offer ready access to clean energy virtually wherever it is needed, at whatever scale is required, ¬†advanced nuclear reactors are poised to transform the world’s energy systems.

Finan knows that working through this agenda will demand much from her. But, she says, “Following through and trying to get the job done has been a theme for me for a long time.” MIT served as a proving ground, exposing her to different ways of thinking, and to the policy and technology issues she deals with today. Among Finan’s mentors: NSE professor Andrew C. Kadak, who, she says, “assigned me hard open-ended projects to figure out on my own, which gave me the confidence to try new things.” She points as well to Richard K. Lester, the Japan Steel Industry Professor and associate provost, and Finan’s thesis advisor. “He demonstrated how to listen actively to whomever he was speaking, how to communicate complex topics with simple, illustrative communication tools,” she says. “He also always looked to the big picture, and I credit him with a deep influence on my successes.”

She confesses that it is sometimes frustrating to be working in a clean energy field that is highly politicized and at times critical of nuclear power. “It is hard to be discouraged by people questioning your motives and intent, asking whether what you’re doing is really for the public good,” she says. “Maybe I should have done something easier.”

But she won’t be deterred from her calling: “We have the opportunity and mandate and responsibility to change the world’s energy future,” she says. “In large part, I have the tools to effect that change and that gets me up and energizes me each day.”

Written by Leda Zimmerman. Photo courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory.

April 2021