For most of the past thirty years, there has been little incentive to develop nuclear energy systems that release more than a tiny portion of the potential energy found in uranium. The same lack of market incentive has nearly completely kept thorium out of the energy supply market. The perception was that we were doing just fine with the available fossil fuels and were using nuclear energy so sparingly that it was considered okay to use only the 0.7% of natural uranium that was most easily fissioned.
There was a vast quantity of uranium discovered during a brief period of exploration during the Cold War, and the rate of new plant construction and operation was much lower than envisioned by some early planners. For decades, there was enough uranium available on the world market to keep the price at levels that encouraged the wasteful behavior of setting aside used fuel bundles after only a few percent of the potential energy had been extracted. Many businessmen and political leaders just could not be bothered to invest the money required to improve the systems when it seemed like the low fuel prices would last forever.
That situation is changing slowly, partially driven by a Chinese nuclear construction program that will soon exceed the build rate that was achieved in the US during the first Atomic Age. Just a few years ago, the goal in China was to increase nuclear plant capacity from about 9 GWe to 40 GWe by 2020. The current plan will achieve that goal within the next five years and could hit a number closer to 80-120 GWe by 2020. The reactor construction and manufacturing enterprise will not suddenly stop at that level. As the construction continues, China could be operating 300-400 GWe of nuclear plant capacity by 2030. If history is any guide, that capacity should be operating at a capacity factor of 75-90%, displacing a tremendous quantity of fossil fuel consumption.
The rate of uranium consumption at that level of installed capacity would cause some significant tightness in the market. The prospect of significantly increased fuel consumption and the associated supply-demand imbalance is already encouraging people to reconsider their expectations about the continued availability of low cost natural uranium. Here is a quote from Steve Kidd, director of strategy for the World Nuclear Association:
“If you go to 300 or 400 GW of total capacity, you’re going to have to start looking at something else because you are getting into very high-cost uranium,” Kidd said.
“By then they should develop the next generation of reactors, but you only get to the next generation when you are successful with the current generation. If China is suddenly doing 10 (third generation) pressurised water reactors a year, there will be an incentive to come out with something better,” he said.
Fortunately, there are known technologies that do a much better job of extracting energy from the 99.3% of natural uranium that is a bit more reluctant to fission than the fissile part. As uranium usage increases, it becomes increasingly valuable to employ technology that uses higher energy neutrons to split U-238 “logs” instead of just using the U-235 “kindling” that fissions easily with low energy neutrons.
According to a May 19, 2010 post on NextBigFuture.com titled China Adding Twelve More AP1000 Nuclear Reactors to Existing Build Plans and China, Russia, Japan and France in Forth Generation Nuclear Reactor Talks the Chinese may start construction on two 800 MWe fast neutron reactors by 2013 and have them operating by 2020.
There are some devoted technologists in the US who are fanning the flames of interest in reactor systems that offer better fuel efficiency, but most of the established industrial and political leaders cannot be bothered to consider fast neutron systems like the IFR or in-core thermal conversion systems like the LFTR. The technologists often lament – at least on the email lists that I read regularly – that other countries are passing the United States by using technology that we developed and tested during our heyday of reactor development. It is not too late for the US to get back in the game. We still have a tremendous range of assets that can be applied to the task, but we cannot continue to wait if we want to capture any of the available market share.
I am encouraged by the fact that the American Nuclear Society has recently elected Eric Loewen as its President Elect. Eric works for GE-Hitachi as its chief consulting engineer for advanced plants technology. He was recently featured in Esquire Magazine for his work on the PRISM, a sodium cooled fast reactor design that uses some of the technology developed in the Integral Fast Reactor program.
Keeping eyes on the current energy needs
The Chinese fast reactor effort is in addition to, not instead of the rapid development of light water reactors that are currently limited to producing heat with the easily fissioned part of natural uranium. They know that they need power now to reduce their coal consumption and it attendant air pollution issues and they know that fuel that gets used once in light water reactors can be recycled into fast reactors when they become available.
In addition to the large third generation light water reactors originally designed in France, the US, and Russia, China is refining its own designs for somewhat smaller plants using some of the knowledge they have gained from working with Westinghouse, Areva, and Rosatom. According to Reuters, the detailed design work for the ACP600 should be completed by 2013. That 600 MWe power plant is aimed at more remote sections of China, like the island of Hainan, off the southern coast and lying across the South China Sea east of Vietnam.
Chinese leaders have apparently decided that they no longer want to “dabble” in nuclear technology development. They have learned enough in their early programs to decide that the technology has enough immediate value and growth potential to go all in.
Here is food for thought for energy policy makers in the US and Europe. So far, all of China’s nuclear activities have been aimed at building plants for domestic use. In contrast, Chinese manufacturing companies are exporting a very large portion of the wind turbines and solar panels that their factories are producing, preferring to collect cash instead of whatever energy those systems could have produced if installed locally.
My in-laws were once stationed in Taiwan and learned to play Mah-jong while they were there. They shared that game with all of their children and it has become a popular pastime during holiday gatherings. That popular Chinese game requires multiple rounds of decision making. Each round you draw a new tile, but you also must discard a tile that can be picked up by other players. You keep the ones that you draw secret – most of the time – and you openly display the ones that you are discarding. Skilled players keep tiles that improve their long-term chances of winning and discard the ones that lead to dead ends.
I think there is a metaphor there somewhere.
TimesOnline (Jan 31, 2010) – The great uranium stampede