Power cheaper than coal – thorium AND uranium make it possible

Bob Hargraves, the author of Thorium: Energy Cheaper than Coal, recently traveled to Shanghai to present a 30 minute talk summarizing the main points of discussion that he covered in his book. The occasion of the trip was Thorium Energy Conference 2012.

Bob is a professor with a good facility for numbers and a talent for clear explanations. He provides reasonably accurate figures for most types of energy production systems available today using credible sources and showing his math. As he demonstrates, there is little hope of driving down the total cost of producing energy from unreliable, weather dependent sources because the capital investment in those sources will often be idle and not producing any revenue. That characteristic makes the revenue requirement for capital cost recovery impossibly uncompetitive.

He persuasively demonstrates that well-designed and built nuclear plants whose operators successfully achieve capacity factors in the range of 85-90% are already cost competitive with coal. He also shows how nuclear plant designers can apply well understood techniques to achieve even better economic performance.

There are a few areas where Bob and I part ways. My major beef with his analysis is his acceptance of old cost estimates for vaguely defined thorium power plants and his method of adjusting those already unreliable cost estimates by applying a standard inflation adjustment factor. As Bob acknowledges later in his talk, there really is no basis for estimating the initial cost of any power plant until there is a pretty solid design concept that is not going to change. Without a design, any cost estimate has about the same chance of hitting a target as a dart from a blindfolded thrower who has been spun around a few times before letting loose.

Bob also fails to apply his well explained learning curve logic to other forms of nuclear power. There is nothing that stops them from going smaller and adopting series production techniques. There is also no evidence that conventional nuclear plant builders have used up the potential gains from that technique already. Hargraves and I agree that the best way to reduce the cost of building nuclear power plants is to apply the same series production techniques and the same kind of factory-based quality control systems that enable economical commercial aircraft or large commercial ship production.

During the Q&A session after Bob’s talk, one of the conference attendees, Baroness Byrony Worthington, raised a question that I have often faced when discussing future energy systems. She seemed almost offended that Bob had revealed the true cost of weather dependent unreliables (aka renewables). She told Bob that he should be seeking a big tent with room for all “low-carbon” energy systems in the battle against coal.

There was a time when I had essentially the same belief and enthusiasm for alternative energy systems. I used to think about effective ways to use the fallen logs I saw as I drove through forested land and about building solar collectors. Even during that stage in my energy thinking, I had already spent a lot of time as a competitive sailor, so I was pretty skeptical about the prospects for commercially using wind energy. I’d experienced too many becalmed days on the ocean and missed too many days of racing due to lack of wind to be very excited about wind as being anything but a challenging source of hobby power.

The thing that opened my eyes to the limitations of biomass, solar, ocean thermal, and wave energy was taking a series of 400 level alternative energy engineering classes taught by Chih Wu, one of the men who wrote the book about Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC). Chih (who told his colleagues to call him Bob) was a well-respected professor of mechanical engineering at the US Naval Academy, which is where I landed after my engineer officer tour on USS Von Steuben.

As a member of the Naval Academy staff, I could audit courses for free; it was an employment benefit that few of my colleagues used. I However, I was motivated because I wanted to bulk up my engineering knowledge level: even though I had completed a successful assignment as an engineer officer, I recognized that my English undergraduate degree would be inadequate if I wanted to pursue a technical career outside of the Navy.

After three semesters of pretty intensive study, I had convinced myself that there was no way that unreliable systems with capacity factors in the 18-40% could ever be made economical. The project assignment that I remember most clearly designing a solar heater for a swimming pool located on the coast of California. Even if I used very optimistic numbers for the solar energy input, the collectors still required a surface area that was larger than the pool. The pool also had to be covered for about 15 hours per day to prevent evaporative losses from cooling it below a moderately comfortable temperature of 72 degrees.

Bob and I often conversed about his choice to become a renewable energy expert. It took some time, but he finally admitted to me that he would have preferred to pursue his initial interest in nuclear energy. Unfortunately, the money for research projects in that field had virtually disappeared by 1972. Even though Bob taught at the Naval Academy, a place where research success is less important than teaching performance, he wanted to pursue interesting intellectual projects, obtain grants that would support student research and find ways to fund experimental construction efforts.

My motivation for learning more about energy options was to provide energy that is cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable than coal. That energy is also cheaper and more reliable than any form of energy that depends on the vagaries of the weather. I recognize that there is no hope for a big tent because successful pursuit of my goal will drastically reduce the market opportunities for all other forms of energy production.

The people who stand to lose market share will never like the effect of enabling nuclear energy to succeed, so they are unlikely to invite nuclear energy into their tent unless their intention is to sabotage its prospects for success. People who talk or write about energy might see logic in trying to bring all supporters of low carbon energy together, but people who want to sell systems will have a different point of view.

The most likely allies in the battle to make nuclear energy cheaper are energy consumers; they are motivated to ensure that their sources are the cleanest and cheapest available. Since nuclear energy is unlikely to ever power personal transportation or aviation, there is also a coalition possibility with coal, as unlikely as that might sound at first.

Cheap nuclear energy could be used to upgrade coal into a clean hydrocarbon fuel that could compete directly against oil in the liquid fuel market. Burned directly, coal sells for about $1.50 – $3.00 per million BTU. Crude oil, on the other hand, commands a market price of about $16.00 – $24.00 per million BTU in the recent world price range of $90.00 to $135.00 per barrel.

If nuclear energy can be used to economically convert coal to a liquid hydrocarbon that could be piped to market, it would open a large range of new opportunities for coal miners and coal mine owners. Since the US has large domestic coal resources and since I like union laborers, I think that is a match worth pursuing.

The key enabler of a vision of a cleaner, more abundant, less costly energy system is infusing nuclear technologists with a cost conscious culture that is as much a part of their decision process as their already important safety culture. That cost conscious culture must be well understood to discourage cheap, short-term thinking. It requires a full system view that recognizes the enormous cost that would be incurred from early failures due to using inadequate materials. It must also recognize the hazard and potential cost of taking short cuts that eliminate necessary steps or useful second checks. Experienced operators can help designers understand the value of simple, well-constructed equipment that lasts and lasts.

However, the industry has some work to do to eliminate the “cost is no object” mentality that pervades the industry. We have to stop allowing people to cloak their cost-increasing demand for zero defects or perfection in low priority activities as motivated by a “safety culture.” True comprehension of the meaning of safety leads to recognition of the way that unreasonable expenditures of time or resources on unimportant matters will, by necessity, reduce the resources – time and money – that can be focused to solve more important issues.

A true understanding of the importance of affordable energy will help people understand that absolutely, perfectly safe nuclear energy that costs too much to compete is actually a hazardous form of energy. It will be replaced in the market by something that is less safe and more dirty. I can testify from direct experience that infusing those thoughts into a nuclear workplace will not be easy or universally appreciated. It is, however, an activity worth pursuing with vigor and patience.

About Rod Adams

60 Responses to “Power cheaper than coal – thorium AND uranium make it possible”

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  1. James Greenidge says:

    Seasons Greetings All!

    I’m all for Thorium but I wouldn’t hawk an idea that’s not even yet a commercial demonstration plant to the public who’d then expect thorium replacing current nuclear plants overnight. Disillusion can morph into doubt and distrust easy in this arena! A nice nuclear article or conference would be sitting down with major energy reps and Thoriums to discuss how Th might be integrated into today’s systems and publicize realistic time scales that this could be done. For the present — yes, ironically — it behooves Thoriums’ own future interests to help promote and educate the public on current in-place nuclear technology to make them comfortable with its record and technology because one shouldn’t assume the public will feel any more safe and positive towards Thorium once they catch that it’s nuclear too.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • SteveK9 says:

      There are brave souls like Kirk Sorensen (Flibe Energy) trying to develop a Thorium Reactor from the ORNL work (it is not that nothing has been done), but this development is likely to require the effort of a national government … most likely China for molten salt reactors, and India for solid-fuel thorium (where development their three-stage program is well along).

      • George Carlin says:

        Honestly, the only reason I think it would require a national government to finance the development here is because of our over-regulation. Our over-regulation makes any sort of nuclear research and development a time consuming and very expensive proposition with a very small chance of anything developing out of it. The West has fostered an environment of large uncertainty and large costs in the nuclear arena. Who wants to invest in that? Nuclear development is completely capable of being handled by the private sector, the risk on investment is just far too high with our regulatory environment.

        Kirk, the last I know of, is trying to go around the NRC by propositioning the defence department to invest in the MSR as a military project. Outside of Kirk’s plan, if there is not a large change in the way the US views nuclear power, innovation will likely take place somewhere else with less regulatory hurdles. Likely the only way the MSR gets developed here before China is if the NRC moves closer to the regulatory philosophy of the AEC.

        • Robert Steinhaus says:

          “There are a few areas where Bob and I part ways. My major beef with his [Robert Hargraves] analysis is his acceptance of old cost estimates for vaguely defined thorium power plants and his method of adjusting those already unreliable cost estimates by applying a standard inflation adjustment factor. As Bob acknowledges later in his talk, there really is no basis for estimating the initial cost of any power plant until there is a pretty solid design concept that is not going to change. Without a design, any cost estimate has about the same chance of hitting a target as a dart from a blindfolded thrower who has been spun around a few times before letting loose.”

          It is an unfortunate fact that people frequently request cost estimates for technology while development R&D is in progress and before the is a finalized design or the technology is built and commercialized. The quality of the estimates for new technology can be less than estimates for current manufactured technology, but with assiduous application, responsible estimates for commercial technology that does not yet exist can still be responsibly made.

          Most of the existing estimates for the costs of Molten Salt Reactors are based on estimates prepared by the designers at Oak Ridge National Lab. In fairness, these estimates are pretty responsible estimates and include many factors not often included in budgetary estimates for preliminary reactor designs. In addition to the costs of engineering, materials, fabrication, and labor, the ORNL cost estimates also included the cost of real estate that the reactor was built on, the cost of money for financing the project, and a built in 25% contingency reserve for handling contractor cost over-runs in the estimates. The ORNL cost estimates included over 52+ separate categories of cost and used responsible cost accounting practices in effect in the 1970s, at the time these estimates were prepared.

          Several ORNL Molten Salt Reactors intended for commercial power generation were detailed out to a respectable preliminary design level, including ORNL-TM-3996 Design Study of a 1000MWe Molten Salt Breeder Reactor [1]. This is one of ORNL’s more complete MSR designs and I think deserves greater credit than “old cost estimates for vaguely defined thorium power plants”.

          I would invite readers of this comment to identify deficiencies in ORNL’s approach to cost estimates for new technology and provide Thorium advocates with help in preparing better and more realistic cost estimates for new reactors. How about providing Thorium MSR proponents with some guidance on the right way to do cost estimates? It would certainly be of some help for the Thorium MSR supporters to see an example of cost estimates for new reactors that do a better job and provides greater accuracy than the estimates prepared by ORNL.
          Is there a current budgetary estimate for a conventional LWR new reactor, like perhaps the B&W mPower SMR, that exemplifies greater transparency or higher standards, that could be publicly shared (for the good of the community)?
          [1] – http://energyfromthorium.com/pdf/ORNL-3996.pdf

    • John Tucker says:

      Wait a minute Im not an expert here – Thorium works as a replacement in current reactors by producing uranium after bombardment is my understanding. Its not only demonstrated but tested and ready to go.

      Why would you need a special reactor? unless you were trying to make it a one stop process?

      Thorium fuel utilization: Options and trends( http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2011/ph241/birer1/docs/te_1319_web.pdf )

      • Engineer-Poet says:

        Handling of U-232 and its decay products is enough of an issue that you don’t want to try to close the thorium fuel cycle with oxide fuels.  Going to metal or liquid fuels requires a new type of reactor.

  2. David Walters says:

    Rod, you noted that nuclear energy (high temp reactors I assume) can be used or developed to liquefy coal into something ‘cleaner’. While from a particulate point of view this is of course true, how is cleaner in terms of GHG emissions?

  3. William Vaughn says:

    Rod, I’d like to take issue with your method for salvaging the coal industry with cheap nuclear energy. But maybe I’m not sure what you meant by “clean hydrocarbon fuel”. Syngas still emits GHG when burned.

    I’m not against mining coal, I’m just against burning it. It has uses as a feedstock for processes in which it is either incorporated into the product(steel) and/or is easily recovered and sequestered. But we should not put the waste products in the atmosphere. Mother nature has spent many millions of years stabilising the carbon cycle on this planet and we should not expect the planet to adapt to our 200+ year “bolus” of carbon in any non-catastrophic way.

    Humans have got to stop using hydrocarbon chains as energy carriers; we’re eventually toast if we don’t. We should try hydrogen, although water vapor is a mild GHG too. We need a lot more research to investigate boron, iron or some other metal or metalloid as an energy carrier using nuclear power to convert the oxide back to the metal form. These kinds of systems are like nuclear power in the sense that the waste products stay put and can be recycled or easily sequestered.

    In my opinion, a good way to redeem the coal industry is to use small nuclear reactors as drop-in replacements for the boilers. Maybe we can upgrade the turbines. Maybe we can recover uranium and thorium from the coal ash. Instead of mining the coal, mine the uranium and thorium that’s certainly there, but we shouldn’t have to do any more strip mining.

    Just google “coal2nuclear”. There are plenty of ideas out there that use nuclear energy to transform the coal industry. And, most likely, we’ll need MORE jobs not fewer to make this transition. IMHO, it has got to happen and the sooner the better.

    • KitemanSA says:

      You seem to advocate the Gaia philosophy. Have you ever stopped to think that humanity was developed to figure out a way to INCREASE the CO2 levels without burning up the planet? Perhaps our inventiveness should be focused on ways to radiate more heat and not on ways to diminish the amount of plant food? After all, the recent spate of ice ages prove pretty conclusively that the CO2 temperature control system has become rather UNstable.

      More CO2 and better radiators, that is the solution….. Orz

  4. John ONeill says:

    I’m surprised that, not being subject to the NRC, and having plenty of experience with nuclear technology, the military hasn’t used nukes a lot more than it has. They had power plants for a while in Greenland, Antarctica and the Panama Canal zone, but nothing much now , when fuel prices are much higher. They’re working on ‘bio’ blend jet fuel; wouldn’t putting reactors in all the Navy’s surface ships save a lot more oil ? ( Have to admit my country, New Zealand, did it’s best to torpedo that option. Sorry about that.)
    Rod, any thoughts on putting power plants underwater, offshore from the cities they power? Seems a very attractive idea, though I’m sure you’d have negatives too.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      any thoughts on putting power plants underwater, offshore from the cities they power?

      Delivery of floating plant set for 2016

      • John ONeill says:

        I like the French design for underwater reactors better than the Russian floating ones. Floating things have a long history of getting trashed by weather, while some wrecks have sat on the bottom for millenia. They should be below tsunami effects too, but most importantly, they’re out of sight. The NIMBY’s will have nothing to fixate on, and if Greenpeace want to dice with death by chaining themselves to something, no one will see it. Also, it’s hard to think of a situation where passive cooling wouldn’t happen naturally.

        • Rod Adams says:

          @John ONeill

          I like underwater nuclear power plants (surprised?). Sinking a steel tube full of equipment that can be completely finished in a shipyard is a lot easier than digging a deep hole and building a power plant underground. As you note, the heat sink is readily available. Water is also a capable shield that doesn’t crack and a great filter for water soluble isotopes if they happen to somehow escape from their first three barriers to the environment.

          Once again, I need to remind people that I do not speak for my day job employer. Atomic Insights and my commentary on the web are strictly my own work and my own intellectual property.

  5. Jason C says:

    China makes dimethyl ether DME from coal now. Though DME is a very clean fuel when burned itself, the manufacturing process on the backend may cancel out a lot of that clean profile. It would be very interesting to know just how much that manufacturing process could be cleaned up with a nuclear heat source.

    It would also be interesting to know about how close a nuclear heat source would need to be to a DME manufacturing plant to provide the needed heat. I’ve seen pictures of what these plants look like in China. They’re a maze of pipes contained in a vertical open air structure. China may be more willing to give this a go, but I could imagine our USA regulators would be very uncomfortable with the idea of a potentially flammable chemical processing plant in close proximity to a nuclear facility.

    If there were cleaner methods to process coal into a cleaner burning value-added fuel, this could be coal’s future lifeline. There are many coal plants scheduled for decommission in the next 10 years and it’s already seen its market share diminish about 10% because of natural gas.

    There was also a lot of chatter about bringing nuclear process heat to the oil sands processing. Perhaps if there were ready-to-order small pebble bed reactors available this could happen, but now that the price of a barrel makes the current process economical enough there doesn’t seem to be much interest.

    • Robert Hargraves says:

      An early stage milestone in China’s thorium MSR project is laboratory scale demonstration of producing methanol (CH3OH) from CO2 and nuclear hydrogen.

  6. David says:

    I like Thorium because as people learn about it in a LFTR configuration, it opens the conversation to many types of Nuclear power and the fact that the dangers are WAY over-blown. I also like Thorium because it shows that we have a fuel supply that will last the age of the earth. Uranium from the Ocean can also last this long used in breeders. I like thorium in LFTRs for the same reasons I like every type Small to Medium sized reactor. They can be built in a “Right Sized” Configuration.

    Finally, I like options. I like having many kinds of designs that can meet many types of needs. The current one design fits all model is hurting us by restricting people’s concept of what Nuclear is. LFTR brings a quick change in that concept.

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      “I like Thorium because as people learn about it in a LFTR configuration, it opens the conversation to many types of Nuclear power and the fact that the dangers are WAY over-blown.”

      Yes it does. I’ve spoken to prominent Greens and (ex)-Greenpeace in my country – the Netherlands – and I was very surprised to hear that they *do* agree that thorium based reactors would be acceptable technology, even to them! This was a major surprise for me, since I always thought they hated nuclear power in whatever form. But this is not the case, apparently.

      Personally, I don’t care whether its uranium, plutonium or thorium. I think all nuclear systems could be made safet enough, and cheap enough. The cost is defined more by the regulatory environment and the political uncertainty, I think.

      • Brian Mays says:

        I’m not surprised. These folks really only like one type of nuclear reactor, the type that is not running.

        It will take a while for any thorium-based concept to be ready for large-scale commercial deployment. Thus, they have plenty of time to suddenly “discover” a reason to oppose the technology.

        I wouldn’t pay too much attention to what they say now.

      • George Carlin says:

        What do they consider a “thorium” reactor? Do they consider a solid fueled, light water reactor with thorium a “thorium” reactor? Do they realize it is still a “uranium” reactor?

        • Brian Mays says:

          Yeah. I’d be curious to hear what they think of the THTR-300 (thorium high temperature reactor), which was located just across the border in Germany.

          • EL says:

            Construction delays (164 months instead of 61 months), cost overruns (563% of initial cost), synchronized to grid in 1985, full power operation in 1987, and shut down in 1989. High cost, broken components, and fuel pebble incident (releasing radioactive dust to environment), near bankruptcy and government bailout cited as reasons for shutdown.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/THTR-300

            At a cost of $2.68 billion USD and an additional $556 million for decommissioning (converted from €) … I’d say not much. Private investors would be wise to stay away (and governments seem hard pressed to take on most of the risk for such high capital and experimental energy projects). Energy markets appear to be trending in other directions at the moment.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @EL

            The real reason for the shutdown was that the THTR was only licensed to operate for 1000 days since it was a first of a kind unit. In the German system, the owners had to go back to the regulator with data accumulated during the shakedown period and apply for a permanent license.

            Unfortunately, THTR was a graphite moderated reactor that was seeking a permanent license soon after a graphite moderated reactor experienced a famous accident and all of the light water manufacturers publicized their assertion that graphite was one of the technology choices that made Chernobyl especially vulnerable.

            They did not attempt to explain that it was the combination of graphite moderation and water cooling that was the real issue.

            THTR was not a perfect machine. First of a kind machines rarely are. It was, however, a good idea that could have been improved to be very competitive and safe.

          • Brian Mays says:

            EL – Two words: Altamont Pass.

            We should never build another wind turbine again. Private investors would be wise to stay away from industrial-sized wind projects (and governments seem hard pressed to take on most of the risk for such high capital and experimental energy projects).

            At least the THTR-300 was shut down in 1989. High cost, broken components, and a death toll of 1300 raptors killed each year means that the Altamont Pass ecological disaster should have been shut down even before then. It’s still running and still killing today.

            Forget near bankruptcy, the Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS) in California, the largest solar thermal energy generating facility in the world, drove it’s owner, Luz Industries, to complete bankruptcy in 1991. It still operates today only because it was bailed out by the government of California.

            It seems that being branded as “renewable” and “environmental-friendly” means never having to say that you’re sorry.

            “Environmentalists” are masters of hypocrisy. EL is no exception.

          • EL says:

            SEGS is doing fine (all plants are operating and have power purchase agreements in range of 14 cents kWh and are returning profits for owners). Luz was developer, and did go bankrupt. But SEGS is investor owned, and bankruptcy did not impact plant ownership. In 1993, a partnership with Sandia Labs reduced O&M costs by 37% through improved collection efficiency, improvements to loop hardware, and changes to operational strategy of plant.

            http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2010.03.012

            Additional solar thermal plants have been planned or are under construction in California, and already have power purchase agreements (citing storage capabilities as basis for approval).

            http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-10-25/brightsource-approved-for-two-of-five-california-solar-contracts.html

            Altamont Pass … really?

            http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Altamont_Pass_Wind_Farm_2759200296.jpg

            We don’t build turbines anymore with lattice type towers. Avian mortality with modern turbine, rotor dimension, swept areas, and siting guidelines are negligible (less than 0.003% of other anthropogenic sources).

          • David says:

            @EL,

            14 cents a KWh? wow that’s some expensive power. I sure hope I could make money at that price. The retail home cost of Electricity in Indiana is less than that with all the distribution costs included.

            It always amazes me that you will quote high prices as a problem for Nuclear power – when a Light Water Reactor can last close to 100 years so that depending on the type of financing the reactor has 80 percent to 90 percent of it’s productive life at less than 2 cents cost per kwh.

            This will be even more true for LFTRs which do not need the fuel processing costs of a LWR. But basically, once the capital cost is paid – ANY kind of Nuclear power is Cheap!!

            This is NOT true of Solar. Despite the fact that the fuel is “free” the capital costs are much higher since the life span of the plant is much less. Since the value of the power compared to the productive life of the materials is at such a poor ration Solar will never decrease in cost.

            It is just tough to beat Nuclear at a million times the power per kg more than Fossile fuels which already have a much much higher power density than solar or wind.

          • EL says:

            SEGS was designed as a peak energy plant. Time of use pricing in California (summer peak) can be as high as 25.4 cents/kWh (SDGE). So solar at 14 cents represents a saving.

            http://www.sdge.com/clean-energy/overview/overview-nem-rates

            Newer contracts for solar (under California’s RAM) have already been beating the 20 year MRP for natural gas at 9.674 cents/kWh (2010 contract prices).

            http://votesolar.org/2012/03/ram-results-11-projects-130-mw-total-most-solar-all-under-8-9-centskwh/

            Not bad for something whose costs continue to decline with new technology, learning curves, lower installation and operating costs, larger scale plants, reliable financing, low cost storage alternatives (thermocline), and more. Wind is mature, but CST still has a long ways to go (with energy costs as low as 3.5 to 6.2 cents/kWh projected by some).

          • Rod Adams says:

            @EL

            What might “time of use pricing” be if CA had not worked so hard to protect its fossil fuel industry by restricting nuclear energy development? The high price that you quoted only exists because the supply of energy available in the market has been artificially constrained.

          • Brian Mays says:

            EL – As usual, you are deeply misinformed.

            Luz was not only the developer, but the owner of the facility in 1991. The whole project would have been scrapped, but for provisions in the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA), which allowed California to require that its utilities purchases electricity from facilities such as the failed SEGS, no matter what the cost.

            Seriously, are you really naive enough to believe that SEGS would be operating today if it were not for California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS)?!

            If not, then I’d love to see you advocate that California’s RPS be repealed and abolished.

            To give you some background, the average retail price per kWr in California last year was 13.05 cents. The price for industrial customers was 10.11 cents per kWr. Do you realy think that 14 cents per kWh is a fair wholesale price? Or is the California government just propping up this renewable energy market failure for political reasons?

            More importantly, however, you missed the main point of my comment, which is not surprising.

            The THTR-300 was a first-of-a-kind prototype and, thus, should be compared to other first-of-a-kind prototypes, such as Altamont Pass. A better example for solar would be Solar One, Sandia Lab’s failed solar experiment, which like the THTR-300 also was shut down in 1988. You mentioned bankruptcy, however, so I figured that SEGS’s financial troubles and government bailout would be more relevant to the discussion.

            Finally, how can a non-dispatchable plant, such as SEGS, be considered a peaking plant? Are you trying to say that SEGS is operating under the same contracts and pricing structures as the small gas-powered plants that really produce the peaking power for California?!

            You really don’t have the first clue, do you?

          • EL says:

            You don’t seem to understand SEGS. It has some thermal storage (3 hours), dispatchability provided by HTF, and natural gas back up (10% of overall generation) to operate at full power while the sun is shining to meet summer peak loads.

            http://www.nexteraenergyresources.com/content/where/portfolio/pdf/segs.pdf

            “The SEGS plants are designed as peaking power plants, supplying power during peak demand periods, particularly hot summer afternoons with high electrical use loads. This schedule is an ideal match for the SEGS plants, which operate at full power during these periods.”

            Brian Mays wrote: “Luz was not only the developer, but the owner of the facility in 1991.”

            LUZ was never an owner of SEGS. Luz “designed, constructed, financed and operated all the SEGS plants.”

            http://www.solarpaces.org/Library/docs/PiStaRep.pdf

            “In 1991, Luz declared bankruptcy … However, the SEGS plant ownership was not affected by the Luz situation, because the plants had been developed as independent power projects, and were owned by investor groups (typically composed of large corporations, insurance firms, utility investment divisions and some individual participants) and in fact, at present still continue routine operation” (p. 1704).

            http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2010.03.012

            If you know differently, please provide a credible source (beyond your personal and stubborn conviction to be incorrect) that suggests otherwise.

            Brain Mays wrote: “A better example for solar would be Solar One, Sandia Lab’s failed solar experiment”

            Solar One became Solar Two (adding second ring of heliostats, upgrades to tracking system, and molten salt storage) for 10 MW of test operation. I’ve never heard the project wasn’t successful and didn’t contribute to gaining operational experience with CSP, commercial viability of molten salt storage, or “paving the way for similar technology” to be used elsewhere (especially in US and Spain).

            http://www.desertdispatch.com/news/bang-7374-daggett-going.html

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Solar_Project#Solar_Two

          • Brian Mays says:

            EL – Sorry, but I was referring to the solar part of SEGS. Rather than calling SEGS a “peaking plant,” a more accurate description would be a solar plant that produces electricity only during the middle of the day, which is coupled to a natural gas peaking plant.

            And sorry, you were right about the ownership of SEGS, but that doesn’t change the fact that the state of California essentially had to bail the project out.

            Solar One operated for only four years (1982-1986). The THTR-300 operated for only four years (1985-1989). If you’re going to label the THTR-300 a technical failure, then clearly, Solar One must also be considered a failure.

            If you’re going to consider the THTR-300 an economic failure, then SEGS — which drove its operator to bankruptcy and had to be bailed out by California and is currently only economically feasible today because of government mandates and subsidies — must also be considered an economic failure.

            Yes, I realize that Solar One contributed to gaining operational experience with CSP and other stuff. That’s why one builds pilot plants. Duh. The THTR-300 also contributed valuable operating experience for pebble-bed designs and the thorium fuel cycle, both of which is being exploited today.

            The Chinese are currently working on their own pebble-bed design, which is almost entirely based on German technology and experience gained from the operation of the THTR-300. Several countries are working on thorium-fueled reactors of one kind or another.

            But do you really want to call Solar One a “success”? It’s successor, a solar plant in Spain, cost $260 million to build! All this for a mere 20 MW (peak) of generating capacity and only 110 GWh per year of production.

            Solar One and Solar Two lasted only four years each before being shut down. Assuming that this new experiment lasts as long as both combined (eight years), the levelized cost of the investment, not including interest or maintenance, is about 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, a ridiculously high price for electricity, even in Europe.

            Apparently, the main lesson that was learned from Solar One and Solar Two is how to milk the government for subsidies to pay for ridiculously expensive ways to generate electricity.

            Perhaps the owners in Spain can connect up a natural-gas plant to the project, so that it can be considered a “peaking plant,” and sell electricity at a more reasonable rate most of the time.

  7. Robert Hargraves says:

    Rod, you are right that the advantages of traversing the learning curve also apply to small modular reactors such as the B&W mPower units. Producing such SMRs will entail about 8 more production experiences that producing one large Westinghouse AP1000. If the learning ration is (conservatively) 10%, then such SMRs would enjoy a cost reduction to 0.9**3 = 73%, compared to the 100% cost of the single AP1000 production experience. This runs counter to the usual engineering argument about economy of scale reducing costs.

    The learning curve benefits are not nearly as strong for the wind turbine industry, because with about 100,000 installed turbines, that learning curve has already been largely traversed, with costs per average watt of $19/W, compared to new nuclear power plants like the AP1000 at $5/W, or the LFTR goat of $2/W to produce energy cheaper than coal.

    My projected costs for the thorium molten salt reactor are not just based on historical proposals. The high-temperature, high-efficiency, atmospheric pressure LFTRs will have much less mass and presumably cost that LWRs.

    The book also reviews the potential of units such as the AP1000, which is now being built in China at the $2/W capital cost target for energy cheaper than coal.

  8. William Vaughn says:

    @Rod I’d like to take issue with your method for salvaging the coal
    industry with cheap nuclear energy. Maybe I’m not sure what you meant by
    “clean hydrocarbon fuel”, but Syngas still emits GHG when burned.

    I’m not against mining coal, just burning it. It has uses as a
    feedstock in processes in which it is not oxidized. But we have to
    start reducing our CO2 emissions. Mother nature has spent many millions
    of years stabilising the carbon cycle on this planet and we shouldn’t
    expect the planet to adapt to our 200+ year “bolus” of carbon in any
    non-catastrophic way.

    So humans have got to stop using ancient hydrocarbon chains as energy
    carriers; the planet won’t handle it in a way that is survivable for us.
    We should try carriers that produce a minimum of gaseous waste products
    including water vapor. We need a lot more research to investigate boron,
    aluminum, iron or some other metal or metalloid for use as an energy
    carrier using nuclear power to convert the oxide back to the metal form.
    These kinds of systems are like nuclear power in the sense that the
    waste products stay put and can be recycled or easily sequestered.

    In my opinion, a good way to redeem the coal industry is to use small
    nuclear reactors as drop-in replacements for the boilers. Maybe we can
    upgrade the turbines. Maybe we can recover uranium and thorium from
    the coal ash. Instead of mining the coal, mine the uranium and thorium
    that’s certainly there, but we shouldn’t have to do any more strip mining.

    Just google “coal2nuclear”. There are plenty of ideas out there that
    use nuclear energy to transform the coal industry that don’t involve
    burning coal. And, most likely, we’ll need MORE jobs, not fewer,
    to make this transition. But IMHO, the bottom line is we have to stop
    burning coal and the sooner the better. Oil and gas have to get the
    boot as well, eventually.

    And remember one of Hargraves’ main points: Thorium nuclear is or will be
    cheaper than coal even without consideration of coal’s external costs.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @William Vaughn

      I believe we need to reduce CO2 emissions to a level within the ability of natural systems to remove it. We can plant lots of growing things to help increase that natural rate.

      However, I am not willing to give up all of the good things that burning hydrocarbons can do. They are an excellent energy carrier and we have an enormous infrastructure of devices specifically designed to use them.

      If we are going to keep burning hydrocarbons, I would love to produce more of them here in the US using American labor than to buy them at inflated prices from overseas despots.

    • Cal Abel says:

      If nuclear is to have a rapid deployment in the primary energy market it needs to be able to reuse existing infrastructure. Here the continued use of coal cars and mines, potentially even coal processing yards is the main issue. There is a significant amount of capital invested in these systems and continuing to use them will reduce market forces against reducing GHG emissions.

      Here there are two choices (as I understand it) to countering those market forces: first to override them with policy, the second to work within them. Overriding them with policy establishes and entrenches (even more than already) government intervention in the economy, under the pretense the market cannot respond thus giving the government warrant to act on behalf of the social good. I find this an anathema, leaving the second option.

      So how do you work within the market. First, apply a constraint, a price for pollution. As Rod notes, there is significant social value gained from our consumption of hydrocarbons. Why do we want to make something that benefits our lives illegal? That is counter productive and self destructive, we will be worse off. Here a price for the harm done is an appropriate signal. It allows individuals to tailor their consumption patterns of everything based off of those price signals.

      Then how do you work within the market to advance technology options without dictat on what exactly is supposed to be done (RES are only ways of advancing fossil consumption). Here the first step is to acknowledge the wealth invested in fossil fuels and desire to preserve that wealth, not destroy it. So how do we move toward a low carbon world, while preserving the value of our existing assets? Here nuclear coal to liquids is an elegant solution (I think so anyway).

      Using Nuclear Coal to Liquids (NCtL) 63% of carbon in coal is converted into liquid fuels. the remaining 37% is CO2 which can be emitted to the atmosphere, sequestered, or reduced into more liquid fuels. On a lower heating value basis, just emitting the CO2 or sequestering it, 88% of the heat in the coal is preserved during gasification. If the CO2 is reduced then the heating value of the product gas is 140% of the coal feedstock. Because of the cost associated with reducing CO2 that technology would not become economically viable until the price of carbon increased and/or the cost of technology of reduction was reduced.

      What this then creates is a massive infrastructure built on existing infrastructures allowing an orderly reallocation of capital without unnecessary government intervention. Here there is a problem, to enable this sort of innovation the stranglehold the EPA and the NRC have on new nuclear plants or coal plants or anything needs to loosen up, otherwise we will continue to use all of our old coal plants, because the cheap natural gas that is driving out coal won’t last for very much longer.

      Disclaimer, I adapted the NCtL process to nuclear reactors with core temperatures well below that needed for gasification. What I laid out above are the constraints/logic I used to guide my design work.

      • John ONeill says:

        In the next few years, if most climate scientists are right, people will have to choose between a fossil fueled economy and a liveable climate. I don’t think just slowing CO2 emissions will be enough; we’ll have to actively suck it out of the atmosphere ( or the ocean, which is in equilibrium with the air at the surface.) There are already five times more known reserves of oil, coal and gas than would be needed for runaway warming. After the civil war, deeds to slaves became worthless ; coal may too. As for oil, governments will bring back their ration cards and ‘ Is your journey really necessary ?’ signs if they have to ; if crops are failing and cities getting flooded, no one will argue. Since uranium or thorium mining could match coal for energy production with less than one percent as much dirt being moved, some of the machinery could be repurposed to digging up olivine. Crushing and scattering a cubic kilometer of that would take a billion tons of CO2 out of the air. Nature would do the same thing for free, but a thousand times too slow.

        • warpmine says:

          That’s a pretty big “if”. Considering that most of these “climate” scientist have been caught numerous times fudging the collection data I wouldn’t trust anything they’ve put to paper EVER. Translation, they’re damaged goods and cannot be trusted ever.

          Life on Earth for the last 500 million years has gone through mush in the name of change in climate from continental drift to redefining oceans and rivers. In all that time, the CO2 content of the atmosphere has changed numerous times including having much greater concentration amounts and the core samples prove it. “Mother Nature” can handle the changes as she already has and will but mental midgets bent on gloom and doom never will.

          Besides, longer growing seasons would increase food production and supplies so long as we refrain from using our food for energy substitutes. If you will kindly research the history of these doomers, you’ll find they all have roots leading up to Fabian society which strongly presented the idea that the Earth’s population wasn’t sustainable and at only one billion. They were proved to be wrong(no surprise) but still those bad theories are with us today AND hurting our logical course in producing energy for the world’s hungry populations.

          Quit worrying about something that has more to do with fiction than fact and concentrate on energy production. The only thing we should concern ourselves concerning coal is sulfur which can be scrubbed and mercury which in gas to liquids can also be collected/separated.

      • EZ says:

        There are a number of ways that coal can be made into a transportation fuel. These include coal to liquid, coal gasification and I imagine that it would be possible to create a modern version of the steam car that runs of coal slurry. The problem I have with all these ideas is the coal part. The idea of humanity burning all the coal on earth scares me quit a bit. I am also not that fond of solutions that involve growing things because I don’t like the idea of wasting precious resources like water, soil and fertilizer if we don’t have to. I really like the idea of using nuclear power to make ammonia and using that as a transportation fuel.

  9. Jeff S says:

    Rod: I’ve come to agree with you about Wind. Everything I’ve seen about wind just makes it look like a complete non-starter that can never be economical at any scale.

    Solar, I think, *might* be able to play a niche roll. . . it all depends on whether researchers are successful in delivering dirt-cheap thin-film plastic type PV that can go on windows, sides of buildings, etc. I don’t think solar will ever, realistically, provide more than maybe 5 or 10% of our power, but I could see a future where around 75-80% of energy on the grid is provided by nuclear, with existing hydro filling in most of the rest, and maybe some natural gas plants providing peaking – they’re just really well suited to that role, it seems like – relatively low capital costs, so having them idle most of the day is not a large economic downside.

    But back to solar. Yeah, it’s unreliable, but if it’s super cheap, and people have some batteries (which will be more expensive, but if the thin-film is cheap enough, you can afford some batteries and still come out ahead), then it can make sense to put it on homes, lower-power usage businesses, to provide some part of the power for that building – maybe 20-50% of the power for those buildings most of the year.

    But again, I don’t think current PV tech is cheap *enough* yet for PV to make much sense at the present, even on people’s homes, but I’m not yet convinced those concepts of cheap film PV is a totally failed idea.

  10. Jeff S says:

    Wow – I love that slide Bob presents of the “learning curve”. It gives a reasonable answer to a question I’ve been wondering – just how much could we reasonably expect mass production to lower costs. He said that after about 1000 reactors have been built, the price per reactor will have dropped by about 60% – that is a huge potential drop in price.

  11. Joris van Dorp says:

    “A true understanding of the importance of affordable energy will help people understand that absolutely, perfectly safe nuclear energy that costs too much to compete is actually a hazardous form of energy. It will be replaced in the market by something that is less safe and more dirty. I can testify from direct experience that infusing those thoughts into a nuclear workplace will not be easy or universally appreciated. It is, however, an activity worth pursuing with vigor and patience.”

    Absolutely, well put if I may say so. But this is one of the most difficult things to convey – to anti nukes. Anti-nukes that claim that nuclear energy is too expensive should understand *why* it has *become* so expensive. In my experience a very difficult thing to explain. Anti-nukes are very comfortable believing the ‘negative learning curve’ narrative of nuclear power history, even though a ‘negative learning curve’ of anything humans do should always be regarded as an anomalous and highly suspect situation, that should prompt people to find out exactly what is the cause of it, instead of blindly accepting there ca be such a thing as a ‘negative learning curve’.

    • George Carlin says:

      It is a losing argument with the die-hards because they will never agree that the NRC (or any regulatory body) is doing enough to insure nuclear reactors are safe. If it is running, it isn’t safe in their minds. If we can show that a reactor is perfectly safe with zero chance of accident, they would still go on about the spent fuel “problem”.

      This is where it gets interesting because if you can show them that we can develop a reactor that is perfectly safe and which can “digest” the spent fuel from a 100,000 year decay problem to a <1000 year problem (and produce cheap energy), they won't want that either. They will go on and on about nuclear waste, but when you present them with a solution, they won't listen. It is against the prime directive: stopping nuclear power. This ideological inconsistency is because stopping nuclear power, and not human health and well-being as they would have you believe, is their main goal.

      • David says:

        Hi George,

        This is because they view Nuclear energy like the Genesis project in Star Trek movies. Yes it can do amazing things but it will destroy what it builds. They view Atomic power as inherently evil. It will “destroy the world.” They are thinking using years of movies and cartoons which create a mindset that “evil scientists” will destroy the world with their creations. To reject this world view will require a total rethink for them. I can hardly watch most movies these days because the script writers insist on mocking political stances with barely concealed changes in names. They also insist on mocking Christianity constantly by portraying nearly every minister as evil, a hypocrite, or a dunce. (I am finding that this is not limited to Christianity as Buddhism is getting the same treatment in the place I am living currently).

        Nuclear power suffers from this same false categorization. Is is ASSUMED to be evil and then treated as such. When I ask people how many have been killed by Nuclear power, I will hear “millions,” “thousands” “more than you can count.” I wait for the answers and then tell them about 6 people in the Western World and even with Chernobyl and Fukushima only about 56 total and a few more that have gotten treatable cancer. They are totally amazed. In these contexts I am talking to people who will trust what I say to them and believe it.

        Keep the larger picture in view. While die hard opponents must change a total world view – most of our audience are NOT die hard, and can be convinced with basic facts. This is why I like the LFTR. But it is also why I like to mention the old Hyperion design, pebble bed reactors and small light water reactors like MPower, NuScale and such. These reactors can supply cheap power safely. Most of them are inherently safe – meaning that if the operators walk away you will not get Electricity from them but you won’t get any damage either. It is impossible to have damage from them.

        I did not say this in my previous comment but another reason I like LFTR is that the Molten Salt configuration is simple enough to put into many areas that need power but have a weak educational system. Adams Atomic Engines, and Hyperion share that same Characteristic. In fact, actually I like Rod’s design best for that purpose. Thermal efficiency is not much of an issue when your fuel is so powerful and cheap!! The real costs in power production are capital costs – as Dr. Hargraves points out above. Once you get past the capital costs in about 10 years – EVERY form of Nuclear is cheaper than coal.

        • Joris van Dorp says:

          Here’s another thing that tends to surprise people:

          Ask them if they are against nuclear power – most will say they are neutral, some will say they are for it, especially after you have talked to them a while about the advantages and potential of nuclear power.

          Then ask them whether they think the public at large is against nuclear power. Always (in my experience) they will reply that in their opinion the public at large is mostly against nuclear power.

          But this is not true. Not in most countries. This is – in my opinion – one of the myths about nuclear power that is under the radar of most pro-nuke advocates: the fact that most members of the public are themselves neutral or pro-nuclear, while they think that *other* people are mostly anti-nuke. So this is what I always include now in my talks with people about nuclear power: that the idea that ‘most people are against nuclear power’ is *itself* an anti-nuclear myth that needs to be dispelled.

        • donb says:

          Dr. Hargraves is exactly on the right track. Presently, the cost of power generated from nuclear is close to that generated using coal. If nuclear were clearly less expensive, say by a factor of 2 or more, we would see a change in attitude towards nuclear power by most people. Certainly the die-hards would not be convinced. But most people “vote their pocketbooks.” The mass of support would be too great and would overcome the FUD from the anti-nukes.

  12. Cal Abel says:

    Rod,

    Thank you.

  13. Robert Hargraves says:

    In Bill Gates’ TED talk, Innovating to Zero, he states, “If I could have but one wish in 50 years, it would be for CO2-free energy at half the cost.”

  14. James Greenidge says:

    Re: Brian Mays. “Altamont Pass. We should never build another wind turbine again…and a death toll of 1300 raptors killed…”

    I believe that’s much more than the bird count actually killed by the Gulf spill last year (not oily birds washed and dried).

    Re: David “This is because they view Nuclear energy like the Genesis project in Star Trek movies.”

    What REALLY gets me is this Darth Vader nuclear image is reversible. Tylenol wasted no time grabbing the bull by the horns and pushing one hard PR campaign to reverse the wrongful poison pill image some SOB slimed them and dispel a near hysteria that was in no small way fanned by media sensationalism. There’s NO reason why the nuclear industry/pro orgs can’t clobber FUD and the likes of Arnie and Helen the same way.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • George Carlin says:

      This is it. There is no positive PR campaign going on to counter the massive anti-nuke campaign regarding Fukushima and nuclear in general. Rod and others help tremendously with their informative blogs, but the nuclear industry needs to hit the main stream media with pro-nuke PR. Most people don’t search out info on nuclear power, the nuclear industry needs to search them out. This means laying down some real cash on buying ad’s and paying experts to make the rounds on the 24h news channels.

      • George Carty says:

        The problem is that there isn’t really an independent “nuclear industry”. The vast majority of nuclear companies also have financial interests in fossil-fuel and/or renewable energy systems.

      • Daniel says:

        The issue with marketing, as it relates to Nuclear, is that falls within the domain of industrial marketing, not that of mass marketing targeted to day to day consumption by the masses.

        Industrial marketing is among players in the same industry and is a closed circuit.

        However, guys likes Gates and Branson are heavily invested in nuclear and should understand that a bottom up push is needed. This is where these guys with influence should pave the way for mass acceptance of SMR’s for example.

    • David says:

      @ James,

      Yes the “Darth Vader” image is reversible. I think that the companies who are vying for new designes – B&W, FLIBE, NuScale, and Gen4 Energy should spend about a million dollars each on Advertising. This would be a small percentage of the amount needed to get through the design and NRC licensing process and build the first few units. It could do a GREAT deal to move legislators to apply reasonable regulations to Nuclear power.

      I would start every add with “Nuclear power has been the safest industry ever created by humans… we can make it even better.” Point out what it can DO. Run Ships, trains, power remote communities and small towns. Run factories and mega cities. Purify water, and create medical isotopes that can cure many diseases.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @David

        Though I agree that nuclear focused companies should budget for and execute ad campaigns, I don’t advise leading with any comment about safety. We should be confident enough in our record and the facts we can bring to the discussion to lead with the benefits and only respond – with argument destroying effect – to safety-related accusations that the opposition will inevitably introduce to the discussion.

        You can score points on defense and with special teams. One good way to use offense is to consume the clock and keep the other team off of the field.

  15. Meredith Angwin says:

    David and Brian Mays said that the anti-nuclear forces will be equally against thorium. Nuclear opponents only like reactors that don’t (and can’t) exist. David and Brian are correct, and I have some proof of that.

    If you go to the fairewinds site (Gundersen’s site), there’s a relatively new post (not dated) by Peggy Conte under the heading Demystifiying. This post attacks thorium and LFTRS whole-heartedly, including this quote from a “fact sheet” from Physicians for Social Responsibility

    If the spent fuel is not reprocessed, thorium-232 is very long lived (half-life: 14 billion years) and its decay products will build up over time in the spent fuel. This will make the spent fuel quite radiotoxic, in addition to all the fission products in it. It should also be noted that inhalation of a unit of radioactivity of thorium-232 or thorium-228 (which is also present as a decay product of thorium-232) produces a far higher dose, especially to certain organs, than the inhalation of uranium containing the same amount of radioactivity. For instance, the bone surface dose from breathing an amount (mass) of insoluble thorium is about 200 times that of breathing the same mass of uranium. 1

    Or, in conclusion of the same post

    To date, Fairewinds has seen no evidence that Thorium Reactors are ready for prime time. Thorium Reactors face the same environmental risks as the current fleet of nuclear power plants.

    As far as I can tell, there is no way to comment on the post.

    The nuclear opponents are not going to change their tune, just because we change reactor types.

    On a radio debate between Howard Shaffer and Ray Shadis,a local nuclear opponent, Shadis took a solid crack at thorium when a caller asked about it. “There are hundreds of kinds of reactors,” Ray said (with his signature chuckle) then he added something about all the reactors being unsafe. (I’m remembering his quote, may not be exact

    http://www.nhpr.org/post/vermont-yankee-debate-heats

    • David says:

      @ Meredith,

      Yes, which is why Fuson is so popular, it’s not real. I learned from Bill Clinton that you need to reply to every negative charge. An un-replied accusation is believed.

      I am encouraged that more and more replies are going on now and being picked up by many people on comments to articles. Nearly every one I have read has had at least one person and often several in the comments sections that give positive and accurate information about Nuclear power.

      • Meredith Angwin says:

        David,
        You are right. Pro-nuclear people are speaking out more. It is great to see this. As a group, we may finally be finding our voice.
        Thank you for pointing this out!
        Meredith

  16. Robert Hargraves says:

    My book and the talk just skim over the technology for producing carbon-neutral synthetic fuels. Navy officers and veterans should be interested in a paper by Locke Bogart and friends at General Atomics describing shipboard fuel synthesis systems using high temperature heat from reactors such as LFTR or the General Atomics GT-MHR. Production of Liquid Synthetic Fuels from Carbon, Water and Nuclear Power on Ships and at Shore Bases for Military and Potential Commercial Applications was presented at the ICAAP ’06 ANS meeting. It’s not on-line; here’s the abstract.

    It is demonstrable that synthetic fuels (jet/diesel/gasoline  (CH2)n) can be produced from carbon, water, and nuclear energy. What remains to be shown is that all system processes are scalable, integrable, and economical. Sources of carbon include but are not limited to CO2 from the atmosphere or seawater, CO2 from fossil-fired power plants, and elemental carbon from coal or biomass. For mobile defense (Navy) applications, the ubiquitous atmosphere is our chosen carbon source. For larger-scale sites such as Naval Advance Bases, the atmosphere may still be the choice should other sources not be readily available. However, at many locations suitable for defense and, potentially, commercial synfuel production, far higher concentrations of carbon may be available.
    The rationale for this study was manifold: fuel system security from terrorism and possible oil embargoes; rising demand and, eventually, peaking supply of conventional petroleum; and escalating costs and prices of fuels. For these reasons, the initial parts of the study were directed at Synfuel production for mobile Naval platforms and shore sites such as Rokkasho, Japan (as an exemplar). Nuclear reactors would provide the energy for H2 from water-splitting, Membrane Gas Absorption (MGA) would extract CO2 from the atmosphere, the Reverse Water-Gas Reaction (RWGR) would convert the CO2 to CO, and the resultant H2 and CO feeds would be converted to (CH2)n by the Fischer-Tropsch reaction. Many of these processes exist at commercial scale. Some, particularly MGA and RWGR, have been demonstrated at the bench-scale, requiring up-scaling. Likewise, the demonstration of an integrated system at some scale is yet to be done.
    For ship-based production, it has been shown that the system should be viable and, under reasonable assumptions, both scalable and economical for defense fuels. For the assumptions in the study, fuel cost estimates range from ~ $2.55 to $4.75 per gallon with a nominal cost of ~ $3.65 per gallon.
    For large installations and advanced nuclear power and hydrogen production systems (high temperature reactors and thermochemical hydrogen production), then fuel production might be produced at near-commercial fuel prices. For the H2-MHR and plausible assumptions and estimates of CO2 extraction and fuel synthesis capital and operating costs, such fuels might have nominal and low production costs ranging from ~ $2.40 to $1.70 per gallon, respectively, for a Public Sector Fixed Charge Rate of 5%.
    Next, it was shown that for CO2 provided from a fossil-fired power plant, a CO2 “disposal” fee of $30/tonne and a Fixed Charge Rate of 10%, then synfuel might be produced at ~ $3.00 & $2.45 (nominal cost values) and $1.90 & $1.85 (low cost values) per gallon by LWRs and H2- MHRs, respectively.
    Last, it was shown that nuclear-produced H2 and O2 could convert coal to liquid fuels at very low cost. For a Fixed Charge Rate of 10% and nominal plant costs, fuel costs ranged from ~ $1.60 (LWR) per gallon to ~$1.30 (H2-MHR) for an assumed CO2 avoidance credit of $30/Tonne.
    Our studies have shown that the addition of nuclear-produced hydrogen and oxygen to the coal synfuel process can greatly reduce CO2 production and, for modest CO2 credit, can further reduce the cost of the synfuel. Capturing CO2 from stack gas or even the air will further reduce the amount of CO2 that must be dealt with. This last case is independent of the price of fossil fuels and liquid fuel production costs and prices will have been capped. Of possibly even greater importance, the carbon fuel cycle will have been closed — thus minimizing or eliminating concerns with Global Climate Change.

    • Robert Steinhaus says:

      Direct Carbon Fuel Cells are a more efficient way to extract the chemical energy in coal to produce energy without having to burn the coal, which produce smoke, fly ash, and particulates that include radioactive uranium and thorium. The output of DCFC’s is industrially pure, odorless, and particulate free CO2 that should be easier and cheaper to use in a nuclear synfuel process.
      Turning coal directly into electricity (at an efficiency of 80%) -
      https://www.llnl.gov/str/June01/Cooper.html

      • cyril r says:

        Robert, this reference is more than a decade old. There’s very little new information on DCFCs. Do you know of any recent developments or has the technology gone cryogenic?

  17. Andrew says:

    Here’s navy feasibility study on producing jet fuel using seawater by HEATHER D. WILLAUER et all, September 29, 2010.

    Goal was to produce 80,000 gallons per day. Two companies’ methods are quoted, Lockheed Martin used an estimate of 12 cents/kwh and Solar Sea Power (SSP) using 7 cents/kwhr to make 8.70 dollars/gallon and 5.78 dollars/gallon.

    http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA539765

    Regards,
    Andrew

  18. cyril r says:

    Rod, I’ve read Robert Hargraves’ book and it’s a lot more nuanced than you put it out here.

    Robert is simply stating that we need nuclear energy cheaper than coal for much faster adoption and solving the various CO2, energy security etc. problems.

    For example he’s mentioned that the AP1000 is a contender for energy cheaper than coal, and has a very positive writing about it.

    In addition Robert has suggested that LMFBRs could provide energy cheaper than coal as well, mentioning the advantage of eg more R&D and prototypes done than LFTRs.

    Regarding the cost estimates, it’s important to consider some inherent features. For example, the molten fluoride salts have about 4 to 5 times the volumetric heat capacity as sodium. This reduces equipment size and thus, costs. They don’t have the chemical reactivity of sodium, reducing costs (eg no double walled steam generator tubing, fast responding sodium-water reaction engineered systems etc.). They don’t have the pressure of a PWR, reducing materials quantities and with that again, costs. They don’t have the huge containment structure or need for various safety grade LOCA systems, pumps, accumulators etc etc. Lots of equipment can be eliminated.

    There is also the lack of fuel fabrication and enrichment services, which reduces fuel cycle costs.

    These things are inherent, how much they will affect costs remains to be seen but there’s clearly some inherent cost reduction potential that we can identify at this early stage of development.