Alvin Weinberg’s liquid fuel reactors
A nuclear pioneer’s work on safer, cheaper, inexhaustible nuclear power is still inspiring nuclear environmentalists.
by Robert Hargraves
Physicist Alvin Weinberg worked on the Manhattan Project and later co-invented the pressurized water nuclear reactor. As Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory he led development of liquid fuel reactors, including walk-away-safe liquid fluoride thorium reactors with inexhaustible fuel. Today such cheap, safe, clean energy has the potential to economically displace worldwide coal burning, inspiring many efforts to implement Weinberg’s achievements.
Alvin Weinberg was a Chicago product, born there in 1915, educated in Chicago schools, attending the University of Chicago, earning BS, MS, and PhD degrees in physics. Ironically, his master’s thesis dealt with the infrared absorption spectrum of CO2, presaging his later efforts to warn of global warming. His PhD work in cell metabolism taught him about diffusion, which turned out to be applicable to neutron diffusion, of interest to the Manhattan Project.
Obtaining his PhD in 1939 he joined the University Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, conducting work for the nascent Manhattan Project. There he rubbed shoulders with physicists Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, and Nobel-prize-winners Arthur Compton, Eugene Wigner, and Enrico Fermi.
Fermi led the project to demonstrate the first nuclear chain reaction. Neutrons from fission of uranium-235 needed to be slowed down to have a good chance of fissioning more uranium-235 before escaping. Collisions with carbon atoms slowed neutrons, so Fermi designed a lattice of graphite and uranium, separated so that the slowing took place outside the uranium, where the neutrons might be absorbed by uranium-238.
After many experiments Fermi developed a design in which the criticality constant k, the ratio of the number of neutrons produced to those absorbed, was 1.007 – enough to sustain a chain reaction. Weinberg didn’t get to see the December 1942 criticality demonstration of Chicago Pile 1 under the football stadium at Stagg Field; his priority number was 54 out of 50. Fermi’s first pile produced 0.5 watts so needed no cooling.
Meanwhile Wigner had been leading a team including Weinberg to design a large reactor for making plutonium for an atomic bomb, a surprise to Weinberg. Extra neutrons from a uranium-235 chain reaction would be absorbed by uranium-238, which became fissile plutonium-239. This reactor, which would generate 100 megawatts of heat, did require cooling. Helium gas, molten bismuth, and water coolants were studied and water was selected even though it absorbed some precious neutrons. The design was done 5 months before Fermi’s criticality demonstration. The final reactor, producing 500 grams of plutonium per day, requiring cooling of 500 megawatts, was built at Hanford, Washington, in 1944.
Before the Hanford reactor was completed, the Army wanted a pilot plant to create small quantities of plutonium and to test the chemical reprocessing to extract it. Wigner assigned Weinberg to design this one-megawatt, air-cooled, graphite-uranium-lattice reactor. It became operational 9 months later in November 1943, hosting the world’s second man-made nuclear chain reaction, successfully demonstrated isolation of the plutonium.
Deuterium is a form of hydrogen that has both a proton and a neutron. Heavy water, D2O, is much less likely to absorb precious neutrons. While DuPont was building the Hanford reactor, Wigner and Weinberg designed a backup alternative – a heavy-water-moderated, light-water-cooled reactor. In 1944 they discovered that the extra neutrons saved from absorption by H2O meant the design could dispense with the elaborate graphite-uranium lattice used to prevent loss of too many neutrons to the uranium-238. Rather the uranium could be mixed homogeneously with the heavy water, with k = 1.08. “Gone would be the thousands of carefully machined uranium slugs; gone, too, would be the intricate system of piping…”. This sparked Weinberg’s lifelong interest in fluid fuel reactors, temporarily deferred.
Breeder reactors and thorium
Although the Hanford reactor made plutonium-239 for the atomic bomb, some of it was undesirably converted to plutonium-240 by neutrons in the reactor. The contaminating plutonium-240 spontaneously fissioned, emitting neutrons that would pre-detonate the bomb before two plutonium metal chunks were explosively forced together sufficiently. Alternatively, in 1944 Wigner proposed the idea of a reactor that would fission the plutonium, using the generated neutrons to breed thorium-232 to fissile uranium-233, possibly suitable for a bomb. This was not done, for Robert Oppenheimer built a spherical implosion device that did compress the plutonium together fast enough.
But Weinberg had learned about uranium-238/plutonium-239 and thorium-232/uranium-233 breeding and understood the potential of thorium as a nuclear fuel. Later Wigner designed a uranium/plutonium fast breeder reactor with unslowed, fast neutrons, while Weinberg designed a intermediate breeder, with partially slowed neutrons. Wigner never liked his fast breeder design with its huge plutonium core and multiple critical masses. He preferred the thermal breeder with a slurry of thorium and uranium-233 particles in heavy water, actually built in the Netherlands in 1974. The liquid-fuel thorium thermal breeder idea dominated Weinberg’s thinking for many years.
Pressurized water reactor
Weinberg returned to the idea of a light-water reactor, discovering that although k = 0.96, it was tantalizingly close to 1.0 needed for a chain reaction. A tank of ordinary water with fuel rods containing uranium slightly enriched beyond the natural 0.7% uranium-235 isotopic composition could sustain a chain reaction.
Thus Weinberg invented the idea that water could be both moderator and coolant, if uranium were slightly enriched. He wrote, “such a system…would probably be much more compact and consequently simpler to build”. In his September 18, 1944 memo he also invented the idea of harnessing nuclear energy for power, “…it may be possible to run such a system under pressure and obtain high-pressure steam which could be used for power production.” This pressurized water reactor design first harnessed the explosive force of atomic power. In a 1946 paper Weinberg wrote, “We actually described the thorium power breeder that was built at Shippingport, Pa, some twenty-five year later.”
Rickover, the Nautilus, Shippingport, and commercial nuclear power.
In 1944 Hyman Rickover’s team came to Oak Ridge to learn of the potential of nuclear power for the US Navy. Rickover favored sodium-cooled reactors, but Weinberg convinced the Navy that the simpler, more compact pressurized water reactor (PWR) would fit better in a submarine. In 1955 Rickover’s atomic-powered Nautilus was launched.
“Thus was born the pressurized-water reactor—not as a commercial power plant, and not because it was cheap or inherently safer than other reactors, but rather because it was compact and simple and lent itself to naval propulsion.” Weinberg went on, “It was chosen for Shippingport after President Eisenhower had vetoed the Navy’s proposal to build a nuclear aircraft carrier powered by a larger version of the Nautilus power plant. A demonstration of a power plant that would operate as part of an electrical utility was being urged by the Atomic Energy Commission. The only reactor that was on hand was the one designed for the canceled aircraft carrier.” A hundred commercial PWR-style electric power plants were consequently built by US utilities and staffed largely by veterans of the Navy’s nuclear submarine corps. Weinberg was long astonished at the resulting 100% US market dominance.
Although “Rickover’s thorium-based U-233 seed-blanket light water breeder” at Shippingport also demonstrated a 1.01 breeding ratio, producing more fissile fuel than it consumed, Weinberg was disappointed that the public hardly noticed this proof that the world had an inexhaustible energy source – thorium.
Oak Ridge National Laboratories’ liquid fuel reactors
Wigner returned to Princeton and in 1948 Weinberg became associate director, research director, then laboratory director of Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL). Weinberg felt that the liquid fuel reactors they had conceived were much simpler than the Swiss-watch-like sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor technology advanced at Argonne National Laboratories back in Chicago. Furthering development of the thorium-uranium liquid-fuel breeder required chemical expertise, fitting the talents at ORNL, so he made this the lab’s goal.
Rather than removing, reprocessing, and replacing solid fuel rods multiple times, ORNL pursued the idea of putting the thorium and uranium compounds in solution in heavy water. The fission products could be removed continuously; noble gas xenon could bubble out; solid fission products could be removed by centrifugal separation. Wigner and Weinberg had come to this idea while conceiving the uranium-thorium breeder reactor, but ORNL first implemented it as a uranium-only power reactor. ORNL scientists learned that uranium sulfate would be stable dissolved in water at the 250°C operating temperature, pressurized to 67 atmospheres.
This first liquid fuel reactor began operation in 1953. This aqueous reactor at ORNL fed 140 kW into the electric grid for 1000 hours. In operation it successfully removed xenon fission products. The intrinsic reactivity control was so effective that the reactor was idled simply by turning off the steam turbine generator. Weinberg called this the “forerunner of a true thermal breeder”.
Aircraft Reactor Experiment
The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) put ORNL out of the reactor development business in 1948, only to be promptly returned to it because the Air Force wanted a nuclear-powered airplane. Powering a jet engine requires red-hot, 860°C heat. A PWR achieves only about 315°C temperature. Weinberg’s team hit on the idea of a molten mixture of zirconium and sodium fluoride salts, in which would be dissolved the fissile uranium fluoride fuel. The stable ionic fluoride salts did not corrode stainless steel, and the salt would stay liquid at atmospheric pressure even at 1400°C. An ORNL team of chemists tested and studied various molten salt compositions, the solubility of uranium fluorides, and many alloys of nickel, chromium, iron, and molybdenum that could be pipes, vessels, and pumps. In 1954 this Aircraft Reactor Experiment produced up to 2.5 MW of thermal power at red-hot 860°C for 100 hours. It demonstrated intrinsic reactivity stability, automatically adjusting power with no control rods, as the heat exchanger airflow varied.
This ARE success led to the design of the compact, 200 MW Fireball reactor to power jet engines of an airplane, however President Kennedy cancelled the aircraft nuclear propulsion project after his 1960 election.
Molten Salt Reactor Experiment
Weinberg continued pursuit of the thorium-uranium breeder goal. ORNL designed a 10 MW molten salt reactor with uranium fluoride dissolved in molten fluoride salts of lithium and beryllium. By 1966 the 7.5 MW Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) began operation, continuing until 1969. This prototype did not include thorium-uranium breeding. It was tested with uranium-235 and then uranium-233 bred from thorium in other reactors. No turbine generator was attached; the fission energy heat was dissipated with a salt-to-air radiator.
MSRE was a success. Fission product xenon gas was continually removed to prevent unwanted neutron absorptions. Online fuel addition was demonstrated. Minor inter-grain boundary corrosion of the Hastelloy vessel, piping, and heat exchanger was later addressed. Oak Ridge also developed chemistry for separation of thorium, uranium, and fission products in the fluid fluoride salts. Fluorination and distillation processes could separate fission products from the salt.
Weinberg was thrilled with the success that would lead to inexhaustible energy. ORNL then developed a conceptual design for the Molten Salt Breeder Reactor for sustainable commercial power generation. Considering the burgeoning global population demand for resources, he wrote, “humankind’s whole future depended on the breeder”. His Energy as the Ultimate Raw Material described applications of cheap energy: desalination, gasoline from coal, ammonia, iron by electrolytic reduction, chlorine, steel, and aluminum production. Burning the Rocks pointed out that ordinary dirt contains thorium with energy content far exceeding that of the same amount of oil.
But Weinberg’s dream was not to be achieved in his lifetime. The Oak Ridge work was stopped when President Nixon decided instead to fund work on the solid-fuel liquid-metal fast breeder reactor in California. Weinberg wrote to NRC Commissioner Glenn Seaborg, “Our problem is not that our idea is a poor one, rather it is different from the main line and has too chemical a flavor to be fully appreciated by non-chemists.” Later Weinberg said “It was a successful technology that was dropped because it was too different from the main lines of reactor development.” Colleague Herbert MacPherson explained, “Political and technical support is too thin geographically. Oak Ridge is the only stakeholder.”
Weinberg and Wigner knew that loss of water cooling of the graphite-moderated, war-essential plutonium-production reactors at Hanford might cause them to blow up and spread radioactive materials, later evidenced at Chernobyl. In 1947 these reactors were replaced by ones with temperature-reactivity stability. Back in 1942 Weinberg and Teller were concerned with and had computed possible radioactivity releases for a air-cooled graphite reactor. Edward Teller made reactor safety a central element of reactor engineering, leading in 1948 to the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, still operating today.
Weinberg directed ORNL to become engaged in nuclear-safety research, by 1959 establishing the journal Nuclear Safety. A hundred scientists and engineers were engaged in safety research at ORNL. Before that time the pressurized water reactor had been deemed safe because there were three barriers between the public and radioactive materials: (1) the zirconium solid fuel cladding, (2) the pressure vessel, and (3) the containment vessel or building.
But as reactors became larger “million-kilowatt monsters”, ORNL expressed concerns that in a loss-of-cooling accident, shutdown residual afterheat might breach all three barriers. Weinberg wrote, “we had to argue that, yes, a severe accident was possible, but the probability of its happening was so small that reactors must still be regarded as safe. Otherwise put, reactor safety became probabilistic, not deterministic.” Analyses of common-source failure modes of supposedly-independent safety features forced extremely expensive back-fitting and emergency core cooling systems. The lack of ECCS forced the closure of Indian Point 1 outside New York. By 1972 reactor safety became a primary source of contention among the industry, the AEC, interveners like Union of Concerned Scientists, ORNL, and Weinberg.
Hyman Rickover’s protégé Milt Shaw was director of the AEC Division of Reactor Development and Technology. Shaw had the confidence of California representative and committee chair Chet Holifield. In 1970 Holifield had blown his stack at Weinberg’s efforts with Senators Howard Baker and Edmund Muskie to establish a National Environmental Laboratory at ORNL because Holifield “didn’t want nuclear labs tainted with the environmentalist brush”. Shaw had also stopped MSR development in favor of the LMFBR. Weinberg’s pursuit of nuclear safety led to a 1973 meeting where Holifield told him, “Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it may be time for you to leave nuclear energy.” Weinberg was fired shortly thereafter. The Three Mile Island accident occurred six years later.
Aside from editor: The Three Mile Island accident proved to many experts that Weinberg’s concerns about reactor safety were exaggerated. Despite numerous equipment failures, minor design faults and incorrect actions, the multiple barriers did their job and protected the pubic from harm.
The recently completed State of the Art Reactor Consequences Analysis (SOARCA) indicates that light water reactors built to US licensing standards are safe. They will not harm the pubic even in the case of numerous failures in safety systems. End Aside.
After a stint as Director US Office of Energy Research and Development in 1974 Weinberg had managed to found the Institute for Energy Analysis (IEA) at Oak Ridge Associated Universities, concerned with the future of energy. IEA invented today’s energy-return-on-investment (EROI) analysis concept.
In 1976 at IEA Weinberg rather accurately predicted the 21st century climate crisis, “….atmospheric concentration of 375-390 ppm may well be a threshold range at which climate change from CO2 effects will be separable from natural climate fluctuations … The consequences of an increase of this magnitude in atmospheric CO2 make it prudent to proceed cautiously in the large-scale use of fossil fuels.”
“So I went from office to office in Washington, curves of the carbon dioxide buildup in hand… I reminded them that nuclear energy was on the verge of dying. Something must be done. I almost screamed.” For eight years IEA was the center for CO2 and climate matters, summarized in the 1982 Carbon Dioxide Review.
Inherently safe reactors
Instead of festooning reactors with safety systems, Weinberg pursued research into reactors with intrinsic or passive safety systems. “Can we develop nuclear reactors whose safety is deterministic, not probabilistic, and which, if developed, would meet the public’s yearning for assurance of safety, not simply assurance of the probability of safety?” Even after Three Mile Island the Department of Energy was not interested, but the Mellon Foundation funded the work.
One result was the PIUS (Process Inherent Ultimately Safe) reactor from Sweden. It had a gigantic concrete vessel with no failure-sensitive cooling rods. Cooling water circulated atop a pool of dense water containing boron, which would absorb neutrons and quench the chain reaction if coolant circulation stopped, causing the borated water to mix. Safety depended on the fundamental laws of thermodynamics, not control systems.
Another design endorsed by Weinberg and cohorts was the high temperature gas-cooled pebble-bed reactor designs by General Atomics, Germany’s Siemens-KWU, and later by Adams Atomic Engines, PBMR Pty Ltd, and Tsinghua University. The overheat safety has been demonstrated for loss-of-coolant accidents in Germany and China. Similar safety demonstrations with loss-of-cooling have been conducted with the US EBR-2 liquid-sodium fast-breeder reactor.
Today’s new PWRs incorporate passive safety features. The Westinghouse AP1000 overhead water reservoir can cool a powerless reactor for three days after shutdown. The B&W mPower continues passive cooling for fourteen days on battery power and large volumes of stored water. The smaller NuScale reactor continues with air cooling indefinitely after its water reservoir boils away.
Weinberg colleague Edward Teller, who had headed the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safety, became interested in reactors that were inherently so safe that schoolchildren could use them. Weinberg taught nuclear reactor physics to Princeton’s Freeman Dyson and others at General Atomics, where Dyson and Teller led a project that developed such a reactor. The 10 MW TRIGA reactor used uranium zirconium hydride (UZrH) metal fuel. Moderation of neutrons takes place with the hydrogen in the metal as well as the hydrogen in the water. If the metal fuel overheats, the neutrons do not slow down effectively and are captured before they cause fission, stopping the chain reaction. Rapid removal of the reactor control rods will peak the power to 22,000 MW, but the intrinsic reactivity control turns off the reactor in milliseconds. Today at Reed College the TRIGA operators are undergraduate students.
Weinberg’s molten salt reactors at ORNL had also demonstrated temperature stability when cooling was cut. Additionally a molten-salt freeze plug would melt if overheated and dump molten salt into a drain tank where the reaction stopped. Both reactivity-temperature stability and the freeze plug relied on immutable physical properties, not control systems.
Working with Ralph Moir at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Edward Teller gained interest in walk-away-safe molten salt reactors. Together they proposed an underground version of a thorium-fueled MSR. Teller died in 2003 just before the paper was published.
Weinberg’s nuclear environmentalists
Weinberg’s work on a totally different sort of safer, cheaper nuclear reactor continues to inspire many people to pursue this alternative to the PWR.
Ralph Moir continues studies of these fluid fuel reactors, advising three start-up ventures who seek to bring the technology to commercial success.
Kirk Sorensen was formerly a NASA employee researching nuclear power plant designs for a moon base. He discovered molten salt reactor R&D document dormant in ORNL’s records, published them on the Internet, and later founded Flibe Energy to commercialize the technology here on earth.
Robert Hargraves and Ralph Moir published Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors in American Scientist in 2012, sparking China’s Academy of Science to undertake a $350 million development project.
Canadian David Leblanc writes and presents articles as well as starting up Terrestrial Energy, which may first harness process heat from a commercial MSR.
Recent MIT PhD Leslie Dewan and student Mark Massie founded Transatomic Power to promote an MSR design moderated with zirconium hydride.
Other, quiet private ventures continue in Florida, New York, and South Africa.
The French government has funded MSR R&D for several years and the group at Grenoble has published much leading research.
The US DOE has provided funding for university nuclear science programs at MIT, UC Berkeley, and U WI Madison, which along with ORNL research the use of molten salts in reactors, primarily as a high temperature coolant.
Seeking “safe, clean and affordable nuclear energy technologies to combat climate change and underpin sustainable development for the world”, the London-based Weinberg Foundation’s “core objective is to rapidly re-catalyse the research, development and deployment of MSRs first designed, built and proven by Alvin Weinberg”.
All these people and organizations have similar goals. Cheaper nuclear power can discourage construction of CO2-emitting coal and natural-gas electric power plants. Ending particulates from burning fossil fuels can save lives of millions of people. Affordable electric power can end energy poverty and develop lifestyles that include diminishing birthrates, reducing contention for natural resources. As petroleum-sourced fuels become more expensive, low-cost, high-temperature energy sources may be used to fabricate economic, carbon-neutral, synthetic vehicle fuels.
Inexhaustible nuclear power emits no CO2, disturbs a tiny fraction of the land of coal mining, and has the smallest number of deaths per unit of energy produced of any energy source. When the cheaper, safer power from fluid fuel reactors enables these benefits, we will thank Alvin Weinberg.
About the author
Robert Hargraves, has lived a life of achievement including writing a well received book titled Thorium: Energy Cheaper than Coal, founding a business, serving as Chief Information Officer for Boston Scientific, serving as an assistant professor and associate director of the computation center at Dartmouth College, publishing numerous peer-reviewed articles on a variety of topics and earning a PhD in Physics from Brown University. He is the author of “Radiation: The Facts.”
Much of this material comes from Alvin Weinberg’s 1994 memoir, The First Nuclear Era. It’s newly available in a Chinese translation. http://www.amazon.com/The-First-Nuclear-Era-Technological/dp/1563963582/
Syd Ball and Richard Engel, who worked for Weinberg, discuss the MSR at dinner. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENH-jd6NhRc Syd Ball Richard Engle
Ralph Moir and Edward Teller’s proposed underground thorium molten salt reactor http://www.ralphmoir.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/moir_teller.pdf
Robert Hargraves’ book on the world climate/energy/poverty crises and the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, http://www.thoriumenergycheaperthancoal.com.
Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Remembering a Nuclear Pioneer: Alvin Weinberg, http:// http://www.orau.org/weinberg/default.html
About the article This is an expanded version of an article titled The Passion of Alvin Weinberg that Hargraves wrote for The Breakthrough Institute.
A while ago, Rod labelled the US aging nuclear fleet as a ‘national asset’.
Well yesterday in an article, Donald Hoffman, president of the American Nuclear Society, concurred with Rod and reiterated calls for the government to treat the U.S. nuclear fleet as a “national asset.”
Here is the link:
Also noteworthy today, Korea is restarting yet another reactor that was idled a while back due to faulty equipment and fraud.
In the meantime Japan’s NRA is keeping everybody in the dark and blames the applicants for submitting lacking documentation for allowing restarts.
At their last meeting in front of Congress, a Congressman from Texas asked MacFarlane why it was that after 7 years of efforts, an applicant in Texas was getting nowhere with his application for a reactor?
MacFarlane was very quick to answer that in most cases, applications are delayed because of the quality of the paperwork submitted.
What is wrong with Korea ? So many restarts in such a short time. Surely, they have not received the visit of the NRC.
As for Japan’s NRA, it is a joke. The reactors will never restart. We are kept in the dark.
The leadership at the NRC loves the “quality of the paperwork” issue as an excuse for its inability to move promptly. Recently, Kepco submitted a design certification application for the APR-1400. Insiders at the NRC have informed me that it was the best initial application they have seen. It met nearly everyone’s definition of a “high quality application.”
However, managers, perhaps influenced by commissioners, spread the word that they did not want to accept the application. Doing so would put them on the hook for trying to complete the review in the 30 month period that has been implicitly promised as the standard for a high quality application.
The application has thus been rejected with comments for how it can be improved. Scuttlebutt says that the review has been quietly started while the applicant works on the “improvements”. Once the application is resubmitted, the NRC will then be in a position of being able to review the new application in what looks like a shorter period of time.
In the meantime, the blame for the performance failure gets shifted to the applicant.
It must be nice to be able to sit back and criticize the NRC for doing its job, but you should at least do so without providing misleading information First, if you read the letter that the NRC sent to KHNP and KEPCO, which is available in ADAMS, you see that most of the chapters of the APR1400 application were found to be acceptable; however, there were specific areas–detailed in the letter–that were found to be deficient, as well as a number of supporting technical reports that (apparently) were promised but had not been submitted. Now, it may be true that in the past, the NRC would have gone ahead and docketed the application, and allowed the applicant to fill in the blanks while the review was moving forward. If that’s the case, the policy has apparently been changed (possibly by the relatively new head of the Office of New Reactors), and if so, it has probably been done so as to avoid the current practice of going through round after round of questions (“requests for additional information”), which has greatly delayed previous (and current) design certification reviews. Second, the “30 month period” to which you refer comes from a SECY paper from more than 10 years ago, and does not account for the many regulatory changes that have occurred since then, e.g, the new aircraft crash rule, post-Fukushima requirements, etc. It cannot be considered as a current reasonable estimate for the duration of the technical review. (And that period does not count the acceptance review or the time needed for rulemaking after the technical review has been completed.) As a practical matter, the NRC has finished only one design certification technical review in less than about 6 years: the initial AP1000 review–primarily because it had just finished certifying the predecessor AP600 design. And that really does not count anyway, because as soon as the certification was done, Westinghouse submitted an amendment to the AP1000 certification that took longer to review than the original certification application. (That points up one of the many significant flaws in the design certification process, but that’s a subject for another time.)
This is not meant to let the NRC completely off the hook; part of the blame for new reactor review delays does reside there. For example, the staff has been unconscionably slow to develop guidance in a variety of areas, such as digital instrumentation and controls, which has led to the “bring me a rock” method of regulatory review. There are other issues as well, some of which involve the staff (including staff changes because of retirements and reassignments), along with changes in the makeup and leadership of the Commission. And while you’re at it, you may as well also blame Congress for the way in which incentives were written into the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which resulted in the NRC being inundated with applications (most of which were subsequently suspended or withdrawn) when it had inadequate resources to review them. The bottom line is that neither the NRC staff nor the Commission bear all of the responsibility for the duration of the reviews of new reactor designs, and your post vastly oversimplifies a complex set of issues.
Note: I am not currently employed by nor affiliated in any way with the NRC.
My comment was just that – a comment. It was not intended as a detailed, balanced article. I’ve written many articles about the NRC and its resource decisions. One reason it has budget constraints is that two chairmen in a row have chosen to request less than needed.
Sure, I’m critical. That is my job. At least I criticize with the goal of stimulating improvement. Many NRC critics do so with a goal of slowing or stopping nuclear energy.
I’ll concede your latter point. But I see a lot of posts on this site that seem to imply that the best way to “fix” the NRC is to get rid of it. That’s not a solution–nor is it likely to happen.
The problems with nuclear power regulation in the US have many underlying causes. Some are the NRC’s fault, some are the industry’s. Some are political (see: Reid, Harry and Yucca Mountain). Criticizing the NRC for things over which it has little or no control is unproductive. Keep in mind, too, that the NRC is constrained by the requirements of the Atomic Energy Act, which–while it has been amended many times–was originally written in 1954. Many of the provisions that made sense 60 years ago are woefully outdated, but have not been changed.
Griping on this blog is easy. Actually participating in the processes that are needed to effect real regulatory change is a lot more challenging.
I’m pretty sure you have never seen a “post” on Atomic Insights that advocated getting rid of the NRC. You might have seen comments, but I do not take responsibility for those unless I sign them.
There are many times when I have advocated that the NRC should act more like the FAA as a regulatory body that focuses on safety but also acknowledges the inherent value of the activity that they have been tasked to regulate.
I have also pointed to the mission of the NRC and advocated that the people who are supposed to follow that mission need to read it carefully so that they understand what it means in the context of making choices about energy sources.
If the NRC’s method of regulation is so burdensome that it results in burning natural gas, coal or even diesel fuel instead of using radioactive materials, that does NOT protect the public health and safety, does not promote the common defense and security and does not protect the environment. In other words, that kind of regulation does not meet any of the NRC’s three mission imperatives.
I fully recognize that the way I read those words is not the way that many other NRC observers read them, but it is time for the adversarial system to begin working the way that it was designed to work. One side should never unilaterally disarm itself.
One more thing – I do not limit my activities to “griping” on Atomic Insights. I may not fall into the “old nuke” category, but I have been around for a while and have some idea how to get things done.
Old Nuke – “Actually participating in the processes that are needed to effect real regulatory change is a lot more challenging.” That is an understatement. It is like participating with a brick wall.
A good example is the TMI-II lessons learned requirements. Many if not most of these “safety requirements” had no basis for safety at all. They were pure “feel good” actions. Many have been eliminated over the years after the plants spent 100’s of millions of dollars implementing, testing, and maintaining. Others still exist. A prime example is the reactor trip on loss of load or TG trip for a NPP that was designed, tested, verified and licensed to continue operating after these incidents. These plants had a history of surviving that incident with no problems and no reactor trip. Please explain why/how it is “safer” to trip the reactor dead with loss of load, which may mean loss of offsite power also? The plant could make an orderly normal shut down, if conditions warrant. Instead the plant is drastically tripped and could cause other problems in the plant, be unable to restore the grid, could have caused another plant to trip and who knows what else. Where is the SAFETY? This seems about on par of requiring that automobiles have an automatic engine kill feature on low lube oil pressure. That means no power steering, no power brakes, and who knows what else after that. Would you have a car that did that? Go out on the interstate, get up to the legal speed limit and SHUT OFF THE ENGINE. (Caution, do not do this on a curve or you will not be making many more comments here.) That is what the NRC calls “safe.” The NRC completely ignored all of the industry reports, studies, and analysis detailing that this trip was a STUPID idea and it is still the rule today.
So fresh news regarding restarts in Japan. Not bloody likely. The NRA is killing the process with improvised requirements and tons I mean tons of paperwork.
No progress can be ascertained by anyone. This is as pure an NRC black box process as you can get.
Here is the latest :
Why are Alvin Weinberg’s books so expensive? I would love to read his memoir, but not for $75. Can anyone sell “The First Nuclear Era” for around $30? Just a thought.
Google Play is selling an e-book version of Weinberg’s First Nuclear Era for $31.69.
Why print editions so expensive? Gotta keep dem biomass reactors fueled. Wood pulp don’t exactly grow on trees, you know!
When the author writes:
Affordable electric power can end energy poverty and develop lifestyles that include diminishing birthrates, reducing contention for natural resources.
Surely since he was once a baby too he means diminished infant fatalities.
God has endowed this Earth with enough uranium and thorium for tens of billions of people for tens of thousands of years. This Malthusian idea of overpopulation that assumes our species is a blight on the face of the planet has got to be smashed. I want nuclear energy for safe, clean, cheap electrical power for all the human babies yet to be born. Human life is sacred from conception till natural death. There is mo debate, no arguing, no dialogue, no equivocation to be had. I am human as is everyone reading this. To not love humanity is to be as suicidal as all the anti-nukes are with their nonsense.
thank you my fuhrer.
The Fuhrer is the one who despises human life.
Read Humanae Vitae and Donum Vitae. Google the titles.
Hate to say it, but I’m calling Godwin’s Law on your comment.
Don’t infer any agreement or sympathy on my part with Paul’s position from said call.
But mankind needs more than just energy, and needs the earth to provide that too. Lifestyles that let people choose to have less children are a great boon to earth. I want our species to live a good life on an earth that can sustain us. So no endless population growth, but neither a forced diminishing.
Can one really claim to love humanity and simultaneously desire them to be packed in on top of one another in warrens like bees in a hive?
A desire for a reduced birthrate, allowing each child to grow up in a household with adequate resorces, is not incompatible with a love for humanity.
I want 100 billion actualizing children. The population of Ganymede is zero. What’s your problem with people?
I am not the David invoking Goodwin’s law… But a long time commenter here. When I read Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” for the first time I was surprised to learn that he documented a direct inverse correlation between the wealth of a family and the number of children they had. This was long before any contraceptives were invented. This relationship means that as the wealth of everyone increases broadly the size of families – as an average – will decrease. This puts a natural limit on the number of humans which will exist, even if no birth control is used. So by advocating nuclear power and the wealth creation from additional energy – the result each side of this population debate are asking for will be achieved. Human life will be preserved without needing to kill people to do it and the population of the earth will level off at a sustainable level.
People are able to live in a very small area. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manila
If some people are concerned about population growth, help to convinced the Philippines to use Nuclear power. This will do much more to curb population growth than all the contraceptives in the world. SMR’s would be a good fit for this island nation. Especially load following ones since in most cases it will be the only source on the grid.
As income and life expectancy grows, birthrates drop. The world population is expected to peak at around 10 billion in 2050 and begin declining. The neo-Malthusian notion of never-ending exponential population growth is nonsense.
Paul Ehrlich, the butterfly scientist who became a Zero Population Growth guru, used to say something to the effect that people who are not concerned about population growth do not understand the exponential function. His problem was that he thought thinking people were too much like the insects that he studied. He was unaware of the feedback mechanisms introduced by rational thought that ensure that exponential growth stops before it causes the impacts that he purported to be concerned about.
By the way, there was a huge influence from the petroleum dynasties on the ZPG movement. They recognized that continued economic growth would lead people to shift their focus from limited fossil fuels to virtually unlimited nuclear fuels.
While that would be good for almost everyone, it would not be good for the people whose wealth and power is tied to the current forms of power generation.
Robert, Thank you for the post. Rod, thank you for posting Robert’s essay. Unfortunately your readers are not intelligent enough to carry on an informed discussion about Alvin Weinbergs contributions to past, present and future nuclear technology.
Boy, RH and PL, and the other “guest authors” here have really been knocking out some top notch and informative letters and articles lately. Many post here too. Here is another one I will end up reading a few times.
“But I see a lot of posts on this site that seem to imply that the best way to “fix” the NRC is to get rid of it”
I vote for getting rid of the NRC. I also vote for the abolishment of other stupid ideas such as sodium reactors, molten salt reactors, and other distractions away from either light or heavy water reactors.
Enough with the visionary garbage already. Especially the LFTR hype. Incrementally improve what already works.
What is wrong with those reactors if a privately funded company is prepared to develop them? You come off as a troll more than anything. I cannot pin your economic/political philosophies because you don’t seem to follow any consistent logic.
I may agree with you with the abolishment of the NRC though. But that is simply because I do not see the value it provides to public safety. I believe that full liability including financial liability of CEO’s would do much more for the nuclear industry than a regulatory board that has proven time and again that it is politically motivated with little to no concern for efficiency.
@Paul, you write:
“God has endowed this Earth with enough uranium and thorium for tens of billions of people for tens of thousands of years.”
I would direct your attention to the following website
where it’s shown that God’s second law of thermodynamics puts some pretty strict limits on what can happen, wrt to heat production on the Earth’s surface.. Pay special attention to the third figure in that essay.
Bottom line: We can’t grow forever assuming that humanity will need energy from non-solar energy sources. If we do, we will cook ourselves to death. And this has nothing to do with global warming caused by excess CO2
I would also like to point out that Dr. Hargraves is not implying that limiting global population is a goal of providing all of earth’s people with the per capita energy consumption of, say, current day Japan. But it is very likely a consequence of such a process given the evidence we see before us in developed countries.
In spite of those consequences, providing poorer countries with access to electricity is still a worthwhile human endeavor.
The population of the Oort cloud is zero.
Paul does not say that human population should grow at an unlimited sustained rate. Of course if you continue any level of growth – say the Federal Budget at a 7% base line which has been the “standard” for over 30 years – you will eventually absorb all resources in the universe. But Paul’s actual statement, that the earth could sustain several 10’s of billions of people, is cogent. Supplied with enough energy from uranium and thorium, people could live in dense urban environments leaving most of the world to return to a native state.
Over 5 million people live in Singapore on a land area of only 716.1 km2 (276.5 sq mi). This is a very livable city and the population is declining with a birth rate of less than 1. If that same population density was used to cover the state of Texas – almost 5 billion people could live in Texas alone. Yes, the world could sustain 10’s of billions of people and not harm the environment, unless you count gardening as a harm. With unlimited energy food can be grown in high rise fashion as well. We would not even need the full surface of the earth to grow food. Only some very high rise / skyscraper farms.
But the main point is that our population would never reach those levels. For some reason people stop having very many children – on average – when they become wealthy.
That might be feasible, but only in an economy that recirculates every or almost every bit of material it uses. Our current, often opencast, mining of minerals and metals isn’t sustainable any better than our current way of using fossil fuels. Whether humans will count in the single or double digit billions, we will need to find ways to really reuse and recycle our stuff.
Cheap energy is an absolute necessity for that, but not alone. I can imagine a situation where cheap energy makes mining and discarding cheaper than using that same amount of energy for recycling. So we need well thought-out ideas about how to use energy so it will be part of a circular economy, not bring us farther way from it.
I’ve now had TWO failures which lost responses in the midst of composing replies to this. It’s as if something doesn’t want certain ideas to see the light of day.
Anything which can be made from elements abundant in the atmosphere (CHON) is recyclable indefinitely; any product can be returned to the atmosphere. Graphene in particular seems to have so many useful properties that it may be The Material Of The Century (that we’re not even fully 14 years into). Then we have to consider the elements and compounds abundant in the seas and terrestrial crust. Magnesium and aluminum abound in seawater and clays, and Mg in particular is infinitely returnable to the sea from which it can be mined all over again.
Plasma gasification may be the key to closing loops. It’s costly in energy, but it disposes of garbage and yields only gases and slag. Perhaps a refinement of the process will allow separation of the slag into chemical elements. Once that’s done, around it goes again. All it needs is cheap energy and a “waste not” ethos.
I absolutely agree with the comments about the value of these recent posts about how we got where we are today. So thanks again Rod Adams and Dr Hargraves. The NRC historian, Thomas Wellock also posted a great one on the NRC Blog site yesterday, about the history of transition from AEC to NRC. It is mind boggling to me to realize I was alive when this stuff started (just an infant), and I was a qualified nuke plant operator in the navy in late ’60s, followed by being a licensed commercial nuke plant operator in late ’70s. Then I watched it all die post TMI. This history is very important to anyone working in the nuke field. The commercial nuke industry is in a unique position today; all your people who were there “from the time they dug the hole” are about to walk out the door on retirement. You better pick their brain before they are gone, or negative history may repeat. As I learn more I am astounded to see so much of what we do today was influenced by the whim of a particular President. That seems to be a strange idea to me; a nation’s energy security dependent on the whims of a particular man. Thank god they come and go (especially the go part), but don’t ever think this history is not important; our very future depends on it. mjd.
For my own edification – are you referring to Jimmy Carter as the particular president whose whim influences our current state? I only ask because there have been other contributors – Nixon established EPA and split up AEC, Clinton defunded all advanced nuclear energy research for a couple of years, Reagan, Bush 1 and Bush 2 didn’t build anything during their collective 20 years in office, Obama killed Yucca Mountain and waste confidence, etc.
I’m referring to all of the above, as you point out. Starting back with Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, which didn’t pick any particular flavor of nuke technology as the favorite, but rather endorsed the concept as a good long term energy strategy for the US. As I read more of this history I see tons of money and effort, both private and tax payer (National Labs) has been extended to that end. But it appears to me there really has not been a consistent belief at the “top” that nuke energy is really needed as part of the US energy goal. So the direction seems to change as each administration reacts to whatever global event of the moment is causing a bump. If we as a nation really believed collectively in the need for nukes for long term energy independence, it wouldn’t matter which flavor was in charge in DC, would it? Everybody would be keeping their eye on that same ball wouldn’t they? Maybe I’m just naive, but it is hard for me to accept that any leadership that really believed nukes were really needed for our security would, for example, sell out to fossil fuel interests. Isn’t that like eating your own children? So it must be that we don’t share that collective vision that nukes are really needed. mjd.
Maybe I’m just naive, but it is hard for me to accept that any leadership that really believed nukes were really needed for our security would, for example, sell out to fossil fuel interests. Isn’t that like eating your own children? So it must be that we don’t share that collective vision that nukes are really needed.
I hate to say it, but it just might be that you are naive. I spent 9 years working in Washington; my painfully gained insight is that there are many people at the top echelons of our government who are not “leaders” but are actually driven by a thirst for wealth and power. There is a huge difference.
Fossil fuel interests have an enormous amount of clout because they control an incredibly large cash flow and influence the distribution of a commodity that is fundamentally important to the functioning of the rest of the economy. That commodity is also a fundamental ingredient of military capability.
For those in the fossil fuel business and its supporting enterprises, the world functioned just fine before fission was discovered. Their children are not the ones that are threatened by halting the growth of nuclear energy; they will always be protected and have enough resources for abundant living.
“….my painfully gained insight is that there are many people at the top echelons of our government who are not “leaders” but are actually driven by a thirst for wealth and power”
“Many”???? Don’t you mean “most”? And much to Paul’s chagrin, this is true of BOTH sides of the aisle.
Speaking about Paul, after reading this thread, I’d be interested in his opinion of Darwin. Pretty sure I know. Mighty surreal thinking a guy waxing eloquent about nuclear energy might just believe Fred Flinstone had Barney on a leash.
Oops….meant to say “Dino on a leash”. Apologies to Fred and Barney for the implication.
Rod, the ORAU link doesn’t work.
It should be http://www.orau.org/weinberg/default.html
@Joel – Thank you. Fixed.
For reference, a link to a 2002 talk form Weinberg at the University of Tennessee is near the bottome of the page here: http://www.engr.utk.edu/nuclear/colloquia/Archive/fall02.html
And a 2004 talk, also at UT can be found here: http://www.engr.utk.edu/nuclear/colloquia/Archive/fall04.html (along with a talk about the restart of Browns Ferry Unit 1 which I may need to try to go back and watch sometime)
This is a great article- a great piece of research and writing. I’m happy and proud to be associated with Prof. Hargraves.
A piece of the puzzle for another time is documenting the policy that led to the building of all the PWRs and BWRs. Obviously to me, who lived in it, the intent appeared to be to develop the market-customers and supply base, and then introduce the next generation-just as the auto companies do, on a shorter time scale.
“A piece of the puzzle for another time is documenting the policy that led to the building of all the PWRs and BWRs.”
While you boys are writing the history books don’t ignore the “other” nuclear industry that was spawned from the work of those great scientists of the forties. I refer, of course, to the bomb making and massive cleanup that is even now taking place at Hanford, Savannah River and other such places.
Considering some of the Fuku “studies” recently published this is a good read. There is a link to a full article on that peer review sting a science journalist set up. [ Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? ]
Blind eye to scientific fraud is dangerous ( http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/06/opinion/wong-scientific-fraud/index.html?hpt=hp_t4 )
Its quite depressing.
Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?
Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately.
Over the past 10 months, I have submitted 304 versions of the wonder drug paper to open-access journals. More than half of the journals accepted the paper, failing to notice its fatal flaws. ( http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/60.full )
First, I apologize for saying “posts” instead of “comments.” You are right–I have never seen you argue for the abolition of the NRC, though others commenting on this site certainly have done so.
I think that you and I could have an interesting–and extensive–debate on the positive and negative aspects of the NRC’s activities. Your comparison to the FAA is one that has been brought up many times before, and I’ll address that briefly. However, with regard to your comments about the NRC not acknowledging the value of the activity it regulates, I must observe that you either have a very short memory or are viewing the world through a very distorted lens. Just looking at reasonably recent history, the majority of NRC commissioners have been openly pro-nuclear power: Merrifield, Lyons, Magwood, Meserve, Diaz, Klein, Svinicki, Apostolakis, Ostendorff, to name several. You may not remember, but after the 9/11 attacks, Chairman Meserve made a number of speeches discussing why it was NOT necessary to shut down nuclear power plants in the face of potential terrorist threats. As for the NRC professional staff, all of the people I know there want to see today’s nuclear power plants continue to operate–safely–and would like to see new ones built, as well.
One of the comments above expresses the view that the Commission is “politically motivated.” I’d say, instead, that the commissioners are extremely aware of the political pressures under which they operate–from both sides of the aisle–and the potential consequences of what they say and do. Recall, if you will, the profane broadside that Harry Reid leveled not long ago at Bill Magwood, because he believed that Magwood misled him during his confirmation hearings. (When’s the last time you heard that kind of language used about an FAA administrator?) Do I agree with everything the NRC does? Of course not. Do I think there are rules on the books that are outdated or ought to be reconsidered because of new technical information? Yes. Have there been commissioners and staffers who have not acted in the best interests of enlightened regulation? Absolutely. But on balance, I think the NRC does a pretty darn good job, and the fact that the current fleet of reactors operates at about an average 90% capacity factor is indicative of both an industry that does it right and a regulatory agency that does not shut down plants unless it has a very good reason for doing so. (Such as an acid-eaten hole in the reactor vessel head.)
As far as the FAA/NRC comparison is concerned, would you really want a single administrator instead of a 5-member commission? You might get Dale Klein–but you might also get Greg Jaczko. And consider as well the sort of congressional scrutiny that the NRC gets versus that given to the FAA–despite the facts that the FAA’s budget is nearly 10 times that of the NRC and that airplane accidents kill and injure many more people each year than does the use of nuclear power. However, much of the dissatisfaction with the NRC that I read about on this site seems to be about approvals for new reactors. Personally, I believe that the problems in this area result, in large part, from a deeply flawed licensing model (the “combined license” of 10 CFR Part 52), and especially the process of design certification. Consider: What do you think the FAA would do if it were asked to certify a new plane design based on design drawings and analyses, but without ever having the plane fly before it’s certified? That, in effect, is what the NRC is asked to do with design certfication–approve a design that has never been built and then issue an operating license to a plant using that design before the plant has been built; AND remember that once a technical issue has been “resolved” in design certification, it cannot be raised again during subsequent licensing proceedings (unless new technical information is provided to call into question the previous approval). The NRC’s response has been–I think–predictable: It has taken an extremely conservative approach to the certification reviews, which has resulted in the sorts of durations (6-8 years or rmore) that have been typical of these activities. Fix this process, and perhaps there would be a better chance of seeing more new plants, sooner.
Finally, concerning the comments above about participating in regulatory change–yes, it can be difficult. But it does work–and NEI has developed a pretty good (I think) working relationship with the NRC and has been able to exert significant influence in rulemaking activities, especially with regard to post-Fukushima activities. And if Rich Lentz thinks that the rule he describes is “stupid,” then he should put together a petition for rulemaking and submit it, along with the technical justification for making the change. Who knows–it might just get the consideration he desires.
I think there are pluses and minuses to U.S. Combined Operating License scheme. On the downside yes, first-of-a-kind plant takes long time to certify. On the upside, once certified it might actually be built. Subsequent COL applications for the same plant design can be approved much quicker — NRC estimates 36-42 months but the truth will out after Vogtle and VC Summer go online. We’ll see…
Well, I might point out that of the four designs that have been certified, only one is being built (the AP1000). The South Texas Project expansion (ABWR) seems to be on indefinite hold, and no one is looking at the AP600 or System 80+. Whether any of the other designs currently under review will actually be constructed is a matter of speculation. As far as I know, none of the prospective customers for those designs have actually committed to build.
I hesitate to “hijack” this thread to get into a long, technical discussion of the Part 52 process and my views on some of its major problems. Suffice to say that almost every other nuclear regulatory agency in the world uses something similar to our “old” two-step (construction permit/operating license) process, and some of them seem to be able to get plants licensed a lot faster than we can. On the other hand, the US is the only country that issues an operating license to a plant before the plant is even built. We’ll have to wait until Vogtle and/or Summer begin operation to see whether that turns out to have been a wise decision.
It may be true that the COL process (using certified designs) will turn out to be simpler, faster, and cheaper for “subseqent COL applications” than the “old” licensing process–assuming, of course, that those subsequent applications materialize. The question then becomes whether the long lead time to get the first plants licensed and the associated additional cost are worth it in order to reduce the cost of follow-on plants–and as a corollary, whether the same savings might have been realized simply by employing a standardized design under the two-step licensing model.
(Note: The combined license process has been referred to as “one-step” licensing, which is why I used “two-step” to describe the old–Part 50–process. In fact, depending on how the applicant decides to proceeed, the COL process can be 2, 3, or 4 steps, but it’s rarely actually one step.)
It may be time for me to write an article or two about the challenges I see with the COL process. Based on what you have said so far, I share some of your opinions on the matter.
I look forward to seeing your views on the issue.
“I think that you and I could have an interesting–and extensive–debate on the positive and negative aspects of the NRC’s activities”
As a kid in the fifties, living directly below the Rocketdyne facility, I used to awake to the rumble of rocket engine tests. No one really had any idea that there was an operational reactor up there. (Not meant to say anything about the NRC, just reminiscing.)
Anyway, the elementary school that I attended used to disallow outdoor recess because of the smog in that end of the San Fernando Valley. Literally, there were times you could barely see across the school playground. The EPA was a necessary construct. Had the government not of stepped in, and had allowed industry to “regulate” itself, I shudder to think what our environment would be like today. I think this applies to ANY industry.
Entities designed to profit cannot be self policing. End of story.
In the paragraph above Figure 2, should that really be 1946? Need we add clairvoyance to Dr. Weinberg’s talents?
I am glad these were American discoveries. Even if we abandoned some of it for a time plenty of people seem to be interested in both comparatively inexpensive, clean and abundant energy now to revive enough interest to at least get research moving again.
Much of Europe seems to have given up on the prospect of abundant and inexpensive energy now. They are not doing so well on the clean thing either. Contrasting the European position with some the assessments of what is occurring in Argentina is striking. On one side energy is said not to even matter. On the other it is everything:
Energy prices have overstated impact on EU industry – report
Thursday’s report found that for 92 percent of Germany’s industry, energy accounts for a very small share of total costs – on average, only 1.6 percent of revenue.
The Commission’s own research has also downplayed the impact of energy costs in Europe, which are between three and four times as much for gas and around twice as much for electricity as in the United States. ( http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/06/eu-energy-idUSL5N0LB3DC20140206 )
Power cuts in Argentina: a crisis foretold
Supply started growing again in 2007, fuelled by an increase in public spending, including importing of natural gas from Bolivia, liquefied gas from Qatar and other destinations and fuel oil from Venezuela, an expensive and inefficient solution which has transformed Argentina into a net fuel importer with an energy deficit of U$6,500 million in 2013.
The mismanagement of the energy sector lies at the root of the government´s economic woes. Importing fuel contributes to the drainage of Central Bank reserves, since fuel has to be paid with actual dollars. This drainage in turn generates uncertainty regarding macroeconomic stability, and fuels speculation regarding a future devaluation, feeding the rise of the black market dollar, currently trading at almost 12 pesos. At the same time, the government allocates public funds to buy fuel and pay for energy subsidies to keep prices low. ( http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/149949/power-cuts-in-argentina–a-crisis-foretold )
In the European study I imagine they just assessed the energy costs at very end of the industrial process. In reality of course it contributes to costs at every step in the raw materials supply chain, among other things. Hopefully in the Argentina situation they will find a way to diffuse things. I am fearful for them if the situation is not brought under control.
US enrichment tech isn’t in such good shape it seems.
Company Struggles to Keep U.S. in the Uranium Enrichment Game
The end result may be that uranium enrichment, which was pioneered by the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the atomic bomb, may become primarily a European and Russian technology….
….the company has to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Energy Department that its machines will run nearly flawlessly for years. And if it gets the $2 billion loan guarantee, it will still have to raise approximately another $2 billion to build the project.
( http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/28/business/energy-environment/company-struggles-to-keep-us-in-the-uranium-enrichment-game.html )
The same article mentions that Urenco continues to operate plants on US soil and is looking to expand.
Given the tiny mass of LEU fuel, shipping costs wouldn’t be much of a factor. Unless there is some prospect of a fuel restriction or embargo, it hardly matters where on earth uranium enrichment is done. Within the USA, it can be considered irrelevant.
About half. I guess I have been reading too many energy horror stories lately and I am biased towards US owned industry.
USEC seems to be confident in their new process. I dont know if there are other issues there.
I am biased towards US owned industry.
I am biased towards industry that operates in the US and employs Americans that spend money in their home communities. Ownership is less important to me; I think it’s wonderful that investors from around the world think that America is a good place to put their money.
I think it’s wonderful that investors from around the world think that America is a good place to put their money.
It would seem so, and certainly you and EP know more about it than I do.
Hopefully neither of you have overlooked any situation which could see restrictions in fuel supply or significant jumps in cost as that would not be helpful to keeping existing reactors operational and expanding.
Overlooking any possibility of a conspiracy of price manipulation as a factor in USEC’s issues I wonder if bad business practice or bad management is a factor. But indeed companies need loans routinely to conduct normal business. I see where Urenco just issued a new bond after its plans for its sale have hit major obstacles (?).
Certainly fuel prices are low now as Japan (about a 10th of fuel demand) is off line. That could change quickly and drastically. Nuclear fuel has a significant lag time in production and with over 400 NPPs in the world and about 60 more coming on line demand will regardless remain strong. Additionally the program to use weapons materials as fuel has received its last shipment. No extra capacity waste reprocessing has come online to the best of my knowledge.
News of a large uranium mine closing in Africa until prices rise came in the last few days.
So with all the ample supply, wonderful new tech options and delightful international participation these days my worries are a lot less about the availability of nuclear fuel and more about some bottleneck, market obstacle or lag time in processing causing supply issues, post impending reorganizations, in the not too distant future.
Try interfacing a nuclear reactor with a chemical plant and guess who comes knocking at the door with concerns over tritium transfer? The NRC.
Thats why a prototype will never be built of the LFTR concept now because its impossible to grow technology expertise at scale without the NRC shutting you down waiting for a 100 years of computer models, ceramics materials implementations, etc to occur before you can build anything.
And when will Robert Hargraves finally give up on the idea of educating the public on the irrational fear of radiation? Shift the discussion to the economics of light water reactors and give up on the Walmart fools already
Your contempt for the NRC really is quite tiresome. I suspect you know very little about the agency and the people who work there. I also suspect you actually know very little about nuclear engineering, but that’s another issue altogether.
“Thats why a prototype will never be built of the LFTR concept now because its impossible to grow technology expertise at scale without the NRC shutting you down waiting for a 100 years of computer models, ceramics materials implementations, etc to occur before you can build anything.”
“give up on the Walmart fools already
Maybe, it will be built first in China. I doubt whether the NRC can knock on their doors. In addition Walmart does a lot of business in China, although I don’t see a direct connection between Walmart and the LFTR.
I tell you what. These walmart free check loving welfare fools and their always tryingness to build liquid fluoride thorium reactor’s in their welfare ghettos. Its just has to end. (John T. ft. Starvington)
Not sure if many folks here are aware of it, but a remarkably close parallel development to ORNL’s thorium fluoride molten salt breeder reactor – what is commonly referred to now as the LFTR – was under development at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) back in the fifties & early sixties.
Parallel in the sense that both concepts used graphite moderator and a combination of core and blanket for breeding U233 fissile material from Thorium.
The only significant difference was the choice of carrier fluid: fluoride salts at ORNL, and Bismuth metal at BNL, for their Liquid Metal Fuelled Reactor (LMFR).
Of course Bismuth is a LOT cheaper than high-purity Lithium-7, and also cheaper than Beryllium.
These days, FLiBe salt with high-purity Li-7 is a serious show-stopper for would be LFTR developers, including China.
Also, like ORNL’s fluoride MSR, molten Bismuth in the LMFR does not react violently with air or water (LFTR fluoride salts react to form oxy-fluorides when exposed to air, and must therefore use an inert cover gas, like Bismuth, to avoid the formation of undesirable contaminants which may plug up or corrode the system, especially heat exchangers…)
Aside from the ready availability of Bismuth, this carrier fluid offers other advantages which are unavailable with fluoride salts, such as simpler processing for fission product removal (only fissile material and Bismuth recycling to worry about, instead of fissile plus Li-7 and Beryllium fluorides, as in the LFTR), as well as potential alternatives to the standard centrifugal pumps for fuel circulation through the reactor and heat exchangers (such as Electro-Magnetic, or “EM” pumps, with no part of the driving mechanism immersed in the fuel fluid, and no risk of leaky seals..)
It’s interesting that EM pumps for liquid metals were tried as early as the 1940s – initially in the UK, and then in lab experiments at BNL, where the LMFR (Bismuth carrier with a small % of HEU), was being developed.
This is briefly mentioned in the old publication Liquid Fuelled Reactors (Addison-Wesley, 1958).
It notes that the pumping efficiency was very low – not least because the tubing was made of stainless steel, which apparently short-circuited the EM drive to some extent.
This problem would of course vanish with non-metal tubing (such as SiC and some types of graphite).
Unfortunately, there is no indication of the resulting improvement in efficiency for non-metal tubing. Nor is there any way to know how different it might be, if pure molten U-metal were substituted for bismuth (or perhaps by a eutectic of U-Si, which contains a few % Si, to lower the m.p. by about a hundred degrees, plus the usual fission product contaminants…)
Lastly, the book also mentions “linear induction pumps”, which are presumably different from EM pumps: not being an electrical engineer, I have no idea what the difference is, or whether the latter might be a better option, under some circumstances….
Regardless, even if the best possible pumping efficiency is on the low side, compared to centrifugal pumps, I believe that the tremendous advantage of having a completely sealed tube element, instead of trouble-prone centrifugal impeller bearings and seals, make the choice a plain no-brainer !!
SIXTY YEARS ago, the obvious choice for both LMFR and MSR fuel tubing and reactor vessels was metal, simply because no other technology was available at the time.
The unfortunate consequence of that was that corrosion issues limited the operating temperatures to such low levels, that a low-melting carrier metal like bismuth was an absolute requirement: molten Uranium was simply out of the question, due to the much higher operating temperature and associated corrosion rates, when coupled with metal tubing and reactor vessels.
Worse yet, since the solubility of U in bismuth is only about 1.3% (at 600C), it had to be HEU – fully enriched fissile material – to have any hope of the reactor ever reaching criticality (Actually, the solubility governing an engineering design is much lower, referencing the figure of 0.048% U at the melting point of Bismuth, 271C, because at no time can we allow a significant amount of HEU fissile material to precipitate out of solution; in fact, BNL considered 0.10% U the maximum allowable; Thorium is ten times less soluble still, necessitating the use of a particle slurry in the blanket fluid).
Like ORNL’s MSR, BNL’s use of HEU in the LMFR was considered entirely acceptable back then – as BOTH research teams in fact assumed at the time.
But it makes both concepts total non-starters politically, in today’s far less permissive nonproliferation environment.
It is EXACTLY the same issue that makes the development and deployment of classic-type pure Thorium-U233 breeders (LFTRs) impossible today.
On the other hand, the evolution of composite and ceramics materials technology make feasible the use of much higher-temperature metal fuels today, including carrier-free U-metal or U-Si eutectic.
With such high fuel loading (no carrier metal or FLiBe salt) the fissile enrichment level can be far lower – right down to NU (natural uranium) – to achieve reactor criticality (when matched with an appropriate moderator material, or even a moderator-free fast reactor, if enrichment is in excess of about 10% U235 equivalent).
The governing political constraint is thereby entirely avoided – albeit with some technical risk. But any such risk is LOWER COST than for LFTR, as it doesn’t involve Li7 acquisition.
Moreover, the fission product cleaning process is simplified, since one need not worry about extremely efficient recycling of the carrier metal (if any!) the way one must with precious Li7.
The process described in Fluid Fuel Reactors for Bi-U cleaning was evidently quite effective for removing the important neutron poisons, especially xenon and samarium (helium sparging was found to be NOT required for Xe removal in liquid metals!)
It included the “fluoride volatility” purification line, which should work reasonably well for plutonium recovery & return to the reactor, along with unused uranium (both in the form of hexafluoride gases, subsequently reduced back to metal, but never separating any pure fissile material, as in the case of LFTR breeding blanket U233 separation and feed to the core…)
Obviously, with low-enriched or natural uranium (LEU or NU) in the core, the cycle automatically changes from Th-U233 conversion to U-Pu239 conversion, due to the abundance of U238 in the mix.
No breeding blanket is used, as no sequestration of long-lived Pa233 is required to avoid neutron absorption & conversion to useless U234, instead of the desired U233.
Molten Uranium metal reacts with air, so must also be protected by an inert cover gas, like FLiBe salt or Bismuth. In addition, a thin layer of liquid Tin may be floated on top (pool-type core arrangement) to protect against accidental cover gas loss (the reactor vessel hot cell may include a small puddle of tin on the floor below, so that if the fuel leaks, it will again end up under a cover of tin, regardless of the cover gas situation above… Barring any leaks, normal shutdown procedure drains the fuel to decay tanks, just like LFTR)
All in all, it seems like a reasonable trade-off, considering the current state of materials technology, versus our terminally fatal nonproliferation policies, as well as the perennial Li-7 “unobtainium” issue…
By contrast, typical fluoride fuel reactor concepts – particularly those using cheaper alternatives to FLiBe carrier salt – do NOT offer a politically compliant alternative with similar fissile breeding potential.
It may take many decades or even centuries to change national and global nonproliferation policies: in the mean time, engineers should concentrate on finding technical solutions which are politically acceptable and licensable. Other concepts are little more that science fiction: a waste of engineers’ time & effort.
Fascinating. Is that all from the book, or are there other sources?
Information is hard to find — it seems even people at BNL have all forgotten AND lost all interest in what their predecessors did. Very sad.
A similar situation appears to exist at ORNL, where little trace remains of their “Fireball” reactor project, cancelled as it was nearing completion of construction. It was a far larger project than MSRE, which benefited from all the research done for Fireball, but ran at hundreds of times lower power level.
A Google search found a few small scraps of information on BNL’s LMFR project, but mostly it’s from old books.
Linear Induction pumps:
“Lastly, the book also mentions “linear induction pumps”, which are presumably different from EM pumps: not being an electrical engineer, I have no idea what the difference is, or whether the latter might be a better option, under some circumstances….”
Here’s a link to a pdf. There’s a pretty good short explanation. It had pictures so even I could understand most of it.
Another link said these pumps are good for liquid Sodium. No moving parts in the picture except for the fluid. Maybe, they would have used these at the Clinch River breeder.
The LFTR runs at high temperatures requiring the need for high temperature components. Would the LMFR also need to run at the high temperatures? Wikipedia says Bismuth melts at 520 degrees F so it’s not too bad. Perhaps, it could be a more practical alternative to the LFTR.
I am an electrical engineer, and I have run the math for induction motors, and the math for a pump to move non-ferrous liquid metal is something that it would take me some time to work back up to.
I can tell you this: the eddy currents in a stainless-steel pipe carrying a liquid metal coolant would seriously impair (by shielding) the pumping of the fluid within. What you want for such applications is a piping material with a high magnetic permittivity in the field direction, a low permittivity in directions which would allow flux to leak around the path which accomplishes work, and very low electrical conductivity. It’s probably easiest to get the insulating properties and not worry about the rest.
“I can tell you this: the eddy currents in a stainless-steel pipe carrying a liquid metal coolant would seriously impair (by shielding) the pumping of the fluid within.”
I believe a ceramic pipe was suggested. This would not be subject to eddy currents and would take the high temps. The problem is material strength. I’d guess it would have to continue for some pipe diameters beyond the pump.
Would a charged metal fluid induce electrical currents beyond the pump? Would those moving charges cause a galvanic reaction to other materials?
Maybe you could simply ground the piping on both sides of the pump to avoid leakage current, additional eddy currents and other induced currents.
There’s no such thing as a “charged metal fluid”. Absent an applied current, potentials in a conductor are equalized almost instantly. Moving charges don’t cause corrosion absent the ability to create and exchange ions, and liquid metals are not ionic.
Good – The AC stops, the fluid is dead. No galvanic corrosion.
So the pump is better than I thought. No moving parts! Just like a transformer only mushy.
What kind of valves are used for liquid metal? Is there any inductive electromagnetic trick for this one?
“Liquid metal” is too broad a term to answer your question definitively. For example, liquid sodium does just fine with conventional valve designs and materials (e.g., stainless steel). Corrosion in liquid sodium systems results primarily from dissolved oxygen, and sodium can be purified by cold trapping impurities, down to a few parts per million. Experimental facilities (e.g., liquid sodium test rigs at ORNL about 30-40 years ago) and sodium-cooled reactors (e.g., EBR-II) have demonstrated excellent materials compatibility in this regard. No “EM tricks” are needed. On the other hand, my understanding is that compatibility with stainless steels is an issue with heavy liquid metals (e.g., liquid lead, lead-bismuth eutectics). Whether innovative valve designs or technologies may be required for these system is something I cannot answer.
Incidentally, EM pumps work fine in liquid sodium systems, but they are less efficient than centrifugal pumps, and I think that EM pump efficiency decreases as the size of the pump increases. Nonetheless, some small sodium-cooled designs (e.g., Toshiba’s 4S) do use EM pumps in both the primary and secondary sodium systems.
Thanks for posting and informing people about the many different ways to stop excess CO2 emissions.
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