Many of those who care about finding solutions to the physical distress that our climate is experiencing, as reported on this week in a landmark 1,300 page … [Read More...] about A Path from Coal to Nuclear is Being Blazed in Wyoming
On the morning of September 12, 2021, reactor number 1 of the eagerly awaited HTR-PM project was taken critical for the first time. Initial criticality for any new reactor is a big deal for the people involved in the project; this one is a big deal for the future of nuclear energy. It might also become a big deal for humanity’s ability to effectively reduce CO2 emissions enough to slow climate change.
HTR-PM is a demonstration reactor that uses two identical gas-cooled high temperature modular reactors to produce the heat for a modern, subcritical, 200 MWe steam turbine. The steam system operates at the same temperature and pressure as many recently constructed coal heated steam plants that China has been mass producing for more than a decade as it rapidly industrialized and became one of the world’s leaders in manufacturing, metals production and chemicals.
The press release from China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) includes the following statement.
They [HTRs) have broad commercial application prospects in nuclear power generation, combined heat, power and cooling, and high-temperature process heat. They are my country’s optimization of energy structure and guarantee of energy supply. An important path to safety and to achieve the “dual carbon” goal.China National Nuclear Corporation press release dated 09-13-21 (https://www.cnnc.com.cn/cnnc/xwzx65/ttyw01/1112318/index.html) Note: Original in Chinese simplified, translated by Google Translate
Though the announcement does not specifically include coal furnace replacement, producing steam at the same temperature and pressure as used by modern coal plants qualifies as “high-temperature process heat.”
HTR-PM criticality is the most recent step in a long process of commercializing high temperature gas cooled reactors. Though they have a long history, proponents (like me) believe they are an advanced type of commercial atomic fission power technology. (See the high temperature gas reactor history description below.)
China has been purposefully working on high temperature gas reactor technology development for the past 30 years. They have absorbed lessons from HTR experience in Japan, the United States, the UK, and South Africa while also building their own domestic intellectual property and manufacturing capability. According to the China Huangeng Group Co. LTD (CHGC) press release, the project’s direction includes a strong emphasis on building indigenous capacity to build HTR without outside assistance.
As the world’s first pebble-bed modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, the demonstration project used more than 2,000 sets of equipment for the first time, and more than 600 sets of innovative equipment, including the world’s first high-temperature gas-cooled reactor spiral-coil once-through steam generator. The first high-power, high-temperature thermal magnetic bearing structure main helium fan, the world’s largest and heaviest reactor pressure vessel, etc., are of great significance to promote my country to seize the world’s leading advantage in the fourth-generation advanced nuclear energy technology.China Huangeng Group Co. LTD press release dated 09/12/21 (https://www.chng.com.cn/detail_jtyw/-/article/ccgb60va5Gwc/v/962479.html) Note: Original in Chinese simplified, translated by Google Translate
Aside: The above includes a statement that helps explain why HTRs have not been universally popular and why they still face headwinds, even from nuclear energy advocates. Each reactor module produces about 250 MWth, which compares to about 3300 MWth in a 1000 MWe PWR or BWR. Even with higher temperatures and higher efficiency, each core can produce 1/10th of the electricity of light water reactors, but the first HTR pressure vessel is described as “the world’s largest and heaviest pressure vessel.” Pressurized gas has a far lower capacity to move heat than pressurized water.
But there are more factors to be considered in atomic fission power plant economics than the size and weight of the pressure vessel. End Aside.
China is rightfully proud of its accomplishment in achieving HTR-PM initial criticality. There are many more steps in the journey, but this step is important. It marks one more milestone in the process of creating nuclear fission power stations that can take full advantage of the world’s vast coal fired power station infrastructure.
Brief high temperature reactor history
Arguably, the basic idea for HTRs was initially proposed during the earliest days of nuclear power development – immediately following WWII. Dr. Farrington Daniels proposed a high temperature gas reactor as the heat source for what was then a modern steam system. The Daniels Pile project was initially funded by the Manhattan Commission and gathered some momentum before being abruptly cancelled by the nascent Atomic Energy Commission in early 1947.
In the late 1950s Germany’s Rudolf Schulten followed through on the idea and led the project to build the world’f first high temperature pebble bed reactor, the AVR. That small (46 MWth, 15 MWe) prototype operated for about 20 years. Its construction began in 1960, it was connected to the grid in 1967 and it was shut down in 1988.
The US and the UK built their own version of high temperature reactor prototypes, the US at Peach Bottom and the UK’s Dragon reactor at Winfrith in Dorset.
General Atomics, the US company that designed and built the successful prototype at Peach Bottom built a scaled up, significantly different design at Ft. St. Vrain (330 MWe). That reactor had a dismal operating history due to several FOAK system design problems. By the time the defects were corrected, the designer had lost all of the follow on orders. The plant owners had lost patience, didn’t want to own and operate an orphan plant design and shut the system down.
Germany built a larger, 300 MWe pebble bed reactor (THTR) but that reactor had unfortunate timing. It began operating in 1985 with a 1000 day temporary operating license. Before THTR had operated long enough to complete testing and rise to full power operation, the Chernobyl reactor exploded. Reports claimed that the graphite moderator was a primary contributor to the accident and there was a widespread, durable misinterpretation that the graphite actually caught fire.
THTR was a graphite moderated reactor. Owners could not convince the public or the regulators that there are fundamental differences between graphite moderated, helium cooled reactors and graphite moderated, water cooled reactors. THTR was shut down in September 1989 when its initial license expired and that license was not extended.
In the 1990s, South Africa invested several billion dollars and a lot of engineering effort in developing the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR). A primary reason that effort did not achieve success is that it started with the notion that it was reasonable to build a 200 MWe turbine generator with high pressure helium as the working fluid and then to mount that large machine vertically inside a pressure vessel. That concept works on paper, but executing it proved to be extremely difficult and expensive. Before the project ended, designers had decided to mount the helium turbomachine in a more conventional, horizontal alignment, but the South African government had lost patience by that time.
Chinese technologists, led by Prof. Zhang Zuoyi, learned from PBMR’s experience. They chose to step back to what had worked well for the AVR and to gradually make improvements. They built the HTR-10, a 10 MWe prototype system with a helium to water steam generator that helped them learn on an affordable scale while planning for the next iteration.
HTR-10 has operated well as a prototype. Its capacity factor has been modest, but it wasn’t conceived as a steady state, commercial electricity producer. It has been used to test fuels, test materials, test equipment, train operators and refine operating procedures. In other words, it has done what prototypes are supposed to do.
Construction on HTR-PM began in 2012. It has taken a bit longer than initially planned, but part of the delay rests with the fact that some of the necessary components – like the unique, spiral-coil once-through steam generator – were difficult to design and refine into something that could be efficiently replicated.
The Shidaowan site is planned to eventually host 16 more HTR-PMs. There are already plans underway to design and build an HTR-PM600. That system will use pebble bed reactor models – each the same as the reactor modules used for the HTR-PM) to provide the required heat for a 600 MWe steam turbine power station.
Many of those who care about finding solutions to the physical distress that our climate is experiencing, as reported on this week in a landmark 1,300 page report by the IPCC‘s Sixth Assessment Working Group 1 (Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis), are not looking at Wyoming.
But based upon the announcement made in early June by Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, together with senior Senator John Barrasso, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, TerraPower founder and Chairman, Bill Gates, President and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power Gary Hoogevene and others, maybe they should.
In a well-orchestrated 30-minute event, Wyoming’s political leadership, while making no bones about their total support for coal, announced that Bill Gates’ advanced nuclear venture, TerraPower, had selected Wyoming and a yet-to-be-determined retiring Rocky Mountain Power coal plant, as the site to build and operate the first sodium-cooled advanced Natrium™ reactor, with matching funding from the DOE’s ARDP program.
Aside: Several times during the presentation, a speaker mentioned their interest in carbon capture and sequestration. Many of the technologies being pursued for that capability require nearly continuous clean power in massive quantities. Nuclear plants are the leading source for that kind of power. End Aside
The Governor’s plan to test the conversion of coal plants to new nuclear is being supported with a combination of private and federal funding as well as advance work by Wyoming’s legislature, which passed HB 74 with overwhelming bipartisan support, allowing utilities and other power plant owners to replace retiring coal and natural gas electric generation plants with small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). The bill was signed by the Governor immediately and is now House Enrolled Act 60.
Wyoming will see the development of a first-of-a-kind advanced nuclear power plant that validates the design, construction and operational features of the Natrium technology and enables Wyoming, which currently leads the country in coal exports, to get a lead in the form of energy best suited to replace coal—built right at coal plants, potentially around the world. This conversion path not only reuses some of the physical infrastructure at the coal plant but also takes advantage of the skilled people and supporting community that have been operating that plant.
In December, 2020, Staffan Qvist, Paweł Gładysz, Łukasz Bartela and Anna Sowizdzał published a study that looked at the issue of retrofitting coal power plants for decarbonization in Poland. They published their findings in Retrofit Decarbonization of Coal Power Plants—a Case Study for Poland, showing that decarbonization retrofits worked best using high-temperature small modular reactor to replace coal boilers.
What makes this announcement truly “game-changing and monumental” in the Governor’s own words, is just how cost-effective and efficient converting a coal plant to advanced nuclear might be. According to the Polish study, retrofitting coal boilers with high-temperature small modular nuclear reactors as a way to decarbonize the plant can lower upfront capital costs by as much as 35% and reduce the levelized cost of electricity by as much as 28% when compared to a greenfield installation.
The analysis looked at the potential within a coal retrofit of re-using the existing assets that are already there. While there will be large differences across plants as to the effective age and useful life condition of major plant components, the study found that “compared to very early retirement, re-using non-coal-related auxiliary buildings and electrical equipment, turbogenerators, cooling water systems, cooling towers, and pumphouses can thus avoid the stranding of up to 40% of the initial investment at a new coal plant.” (See Qvist p. 7)
Additionally, converting to nuclear can maintain the level of energy output from the plant and even exceed it, while eliminating emissions. In contrast, annual output replacement would not be possible using other clean energy options such as biomass, wind, solar or geothermal. (See Qvist p. 11)
In October, 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), awarded TerraPower $80 million in initial funding from the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) to demonstrate the Natrium reactor and energy system with its technology co-developer GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) and engineering and construction partner Bechtel. The award will provide TerraPower and its partners with up to $1.6 billion in federal funding during the project to build the reactor, to be operational within five to seven years. TerraPower is also partnering with PacifiCorp and Rocky Mountain Power, subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Energy Northwest and Duke Energy, which will also provide expertise in the areas of licensing, operations, maintenance, siting and grid needs.
Currently, the DOE is funding a number of promising reactor development projects and President Biden’s recently passed Infrastructure Bill appears to have increased those budget allocations. That is very good news for the climate. According to the Qvist study, some 1,300 GW of coal power units globally could be suitable for retrofitting with advanced nuclear reactors by the 2030s. If large-scale retrofitting were to be implemented starting then, up to 200 billion tons of CO2 emission could be avoided, which equates to nearly six years of total global CO2 emissions, and “would make the prospects of reaching global climate targets far more realistic.” (Qvist p. 33)
For those of us anxiously logging milestones along the way towards our future 100% clean grid, TerraPower’s decision to site its new plant in Wyoming and Wyoming’s embrace of this opportunity—where not that long ago the legislature reacted with an “‘unheard of’ IRP investigation” to push back on PacifiCorp’s 2020 IRP showing the retirement of 20 of 24 coal plants—is remarkable. It is definitely worthwhile keeping an eye on Wyoming, where some entirely miraculous brew of audacious political leadership, climate-fueled economic anxiety and job-seeking technological brinkmanship appears to have paved the way for Wyoming to become a birthplace of 21 century clean energy. As Governor Gordon said, this is truly “game-changing and monumental” news—not just for Wyoming but also for the world. You can view the full announcement below.
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