Last night I participated in a well-attended meeting of the Virginia chapter of the American Nuclear Society. It was great to be surrounded by a bunch of nukes who were interested in learning about technical developments and in discussing the current local and national political situation from an energy perspective.
Before dinner, I had the opportunity to engage in several interesting conversations about the difficulty the Virginia Uranium people have in attracting vocal and visible supporters to attend public meetings. One of my friends and occasional colleagues (a man who is semi-retired but still offering his sage advice as a consultant) described his membership in the Virginia Energy Independence Alliance.
He told me about attending a recent meeting where there were 28 detractors and just 2 or 3 supporters of the project to take advantage of a 119 million pound, $7 billion dollar asset in the form of an accessible uranium deposit in Chatham, VA. When I told him I might have attended had I known about the meeting – I live less than an hour away – he told me I could join the Alliance and receive regular email notifications of upcoming events. So I did – just a couple of minutes ago.
Another conversation involved a former B&W employee who was very interested in learning what we were doing on the mPower project and finding out more about the facility that we had constructed just off of US 460 in New London. We talked for a while about the Integrated System Test (IST) facility and the scaling effort that was undertaken so that we could prove out some of our models.
He asked if Fukushima had made any impact on our design; I told him that we had taken a hard look at the lessons learned and were confident that the lessons relearned during that event were not really new. They were already accounted for in the design from its earliest inception. The basic conceptual design has always included a large quantity of carefully protected water and ways to move it around without any sources of power.
While we were waiting for our salads to be served, I got an update from Bob Bailey, the head of the Center for Advanced Engineering Research, which is the home of our IST. He described several exciting advances in the control room simulator and several interesting testing and training programs that are planned for the coming years.
Bob also mentioned that there is a certain amount of caution on the part of the people planning those future endeavors because of the uncertainty associated with the very real possibility of budgetary sequestration. He mentioned that some have calculated that sequestration would immediately increase the Virginia unemployment rate by at least 1%.
Several people asked if B&W is hiring; our mPower project is seen as one that is really moving forward and it is generating some serious interest from people who like building things. I simply smiled and provided my business card.
After dinner, we received a good update on the status of the Virginia section of ANS and then Dr. Finis Southworth provided an interesting presentation on the Steam Cycle High Temperature Gas Reactor. That reactor, which was chosen in February 2012 as the basic design of the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project, is being designed for both process heat production and electricity production. It is a 625 MWth reactor with a prismatic, annular core that has a large mass of graphite in the center.
The reactor is designed to achieve the same level of passive safety that has always fascinated me with high temperature gas reactors. With certain design choices that keep power density limited, total power output limited (less than about 625 MWth for a prismatic core), and heat rejection through the containment walls, the reactors can withstand a total loss of cooling without inserting control rods and still never exceed a temperature that will damage the fuel.
NGNP is challenged by the normal obstacles facing any new nuclear power plant project; they have not yet figured out how to attract sufficient amounts of patient capital to move from concept to the actual starting line of construction – a process that Finis described as taking 12 years at $100 million per year.
In addition to that issue, one of the major challenges facing the NGNP reactor is convincing the regulators at the NRC that the limiting case accident is the possibility that a meteor might somehow impact the facility and physically distribute the core. Even using a lot of creative thinking, the designers cannot come up with any other case that would result in more than a few millirem to someone at a site boundary just a few hundred yards from the reactor.
Though Finis jokingly asked me not to write this, he mentioned several times that during recent discussions with the NRC one of the young regulators interrupted the discussion about design basis events to say – “are we trying to say that this reactor is too safe to license?” Somehow, I would bet that Finis expected that I would find it too hard to pass up that line.
I asked Finis why some of the NGNP Alliance partners were not willing to fund the project themselves. After all, $100 million per year is pocket change to some of the members. His answer was that most of the participants were not “comfortable” with nuclear energy yet and were not willing to make that kind of request of their board of directors. I have a different interpretation of why some of the current and former members of the alliance have been willing to participate in low expenditure research without any serious private investment in completing the design and licensing effort followed by producing machinery and displacing fossil fuel consumption.