There are countless stressed people who have been convinced that we are facing an existential crisis as a result of global heating driven by increased concentrations of carbon dioxide.
In contrast, I get more excited and enthusiastic with every passing day. And, no, I do not take drugs or live a cloistered life. I’m deeply involved with my community both online and in real life. I’m also an actively engaged grandparent who is excited about the future for my grandchildren and their grandchildren.
While I accept climate science, believe the models that show the potential effects of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and fully comprehend the nearly impossible task of altering the routine behavior of billions of residents of Planet Earth, I’m aware that effective tools are nearly ready for market introduction and rapid deployment.
These tools enable the production of abundant clean energy that can eventually be accessible to everyone. The available resource base of fuels needed to supply these tools is large enough provide both the energy needed to power society for thousands of years of increasing prosperity and the power required gradually correct the damage done by centuries of treating the atmosphere as a zero cost waste dump.
Nuclear fission is the enabling technology. The tools for using it are not limited to the same machines your grandfather learned about and that we are still operating today.
Though many may disagree with my thesis, I am convinced that a path requiring modification or replacement of thousands of power sources has a better chance of success than one depending on alterIng the behavior of billions of people.
Generally applicable truths about existing nuclear plants
In almost every available source of information about energy, nuclear plants are described as almost overwhelmingly expensive and difficult to construct. In works produced by authors that favor nuclear energy, those assumed characteristics are justified by the durable facilities, reliable output and emission free nature of the power.
Nuclear energy proponents routinely cite the vast number of labor hours required for each enormous project, but they often describe that characteristic as an advantage by talking about the numerous well-paying jobs that are created during the project design, approval and construction phases.
Nuclear energy opponents focus on high costs and delayed schedules, but they rarely acknowledge that the majority of the costs associated with nuclear power are in the form of solid wages and family-sustaining salaries paid to their fellow citizens and taxpayers. That money does not disappear and does not get concentrated into the coffers of multinational fossil fuel corporations.
Aside: This characteristic might be one of the reasons why nuclear energy opponents can accurately point to the lack of interest on the part of “Wall St.” to invest in nuclear energy development. Vendors haven’t produced outsized profits and investors have not realized generous capital gains. End Aside.
Older nuclear plants that are complete and operating are having difficulty justifying their continued existence to their corporate owners. The product those plants manufacture and sell is wholesale electricity. For the past dozen years, dating to a dramatic fall during the Great Recession, there has been a continued growth in supply capacity in a market with a flat or slowly growing demand.
As can be learned in any entry-level economics course, abundance in supply in absence of demand leads to low prices. That is even more true when the product in question is difficult to stockpile and must be used at the instant it is produced. Sustained low prices lead to lower total revenues, particularly for facilities that have minimal ability to increase their rate of production.
Basic economic theory holds that low prices driven by a market imbalance will eventually correct themselves. That happens with a combination of increases in demand caused by customers finding new uses for products that are more affordable to use and higher cost suppliers choosing to exit the market.
Low market prices are driving nuclear plant owners to closure decisions. Closing nuclear plants helps to correct the market imbalance and may restore wholesale market prices to a more profitable level for all production facilities that continue operating.
That natural market behavior gets confusing to outside observers when the suppliers that choose to exit seem to be some of the cleanest, highest quality, lowest cost sources in the market.
The overall message many informed people receive is that nuclear isn’t going to provide much help in addressing future energy needs or in addressing global atmospheric carbon dioxide budgets.
The conventional wisdom is a reasonably accurate picture of what nuclear energy is, but there are numerous reasons I believe that conception isn’t an accurate portrayal of what fission can be.
Fundamental truths about nuclear energy
Actinide fuels – a term that includes uranium, plutonium and thorium – contain about 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as petroleum. That is the next most concentrated fuel per unit mass. To visualize that advantage consider the fact that a pound of uranium contains as much potential energy as 30 standard tanker trucks full of oil.
Because actinides are dense metals, a pound of uranium occupies 53 cubic centimeters. That’s a sphere slightly larger than a standard golf ball (40 cm^3)
That energy dense fuel contributes to the fact that nuclear power systems need substantially smaller amounts of input material – including consumed fuel – per unit of energy output than other power sources.
Nuclear fission has the potential for impressive cost reductions and improvements in the amount of time needed to deliver additional power once the decision is made to make a new investment.
Making fission less costly
With some exceptions, several generations of nuclear designers and operators did not place a high priority on cost control.
That changed in 2008, when the combined effects of the shale revolution and the global financial crisis lowered the market price of natural gas by a factor of 3-4 over the levels that were common during 2003-2008.
A whole generation of mid-level nuclear engineers and nuclear business innovators has been inculcated with a different awareness of cost than the one that influenced previous generations.
Though still understanding the importance of creating, operating and maintaining safe systems, they are aware that they must address cost effectiveness. If they don’t, the technology that attracted their interest will fade away as customers opt for cheaper competitors.
Two primary avenues exist for substantial cost reductions.
One path focuses on radical simplification that can eliminate the potential for system damage from postulated situations. If engineers, operators and regulators can be convinced that there is no potential for any damage, they can be convinced that it’s safe to eliminate the multiple layers of active safety systems designed to mitigate the postulated damage.
Another path focuses on improvements to fission reactors that can enable higher operating temperatures and more efficient heat conversion cycles. Many of the reactor technology improvements are also aimed towards more efficiently using actinide resources. Light water reactors use just 0.5%-0.7% of mined uranium.
Improved resource efficiency can reduce the amount of material mined, enriched and fabricated per unit of electricity or heat produced. It results in smaller quantities of highly radioactive waste needing careful storage and eventual permanent isolation. Improved cycles can reduce the duration of required isolation from several thousand years to roughly 300 years.
These improved cycles can reuse or recycle some of the fuel materials that have previously been categorized and stored as “waste.” That’s why it’s more common to hear nuclear professionals referring to nuclear waste as future fuel.
Nuclear energy system designers are incorporating technological advances from fields outside of nuclear energy to make their systems more attractive. They are working to reduce initial capital costs, to capture and analyze more operating data, and to improve their ability to effectively address public and regulatory concerns.
All are keenly aware of the fact that replication is a key path towards lowering costs. They know that scale economies do not result from driving towards ever larger unit sizes. Instead, they come from scaling the entire enterprise of supply, training, and project management.
It’s often said that countries should seek to “standardize” their nuclear programs by focusing on just one or two specific designs. In a country with an energy supply system as vast as the United States, that advice is likely to be counter-productive.
Vendors should seek to stabilize and standardize their own designs to take advantage of series production economies, common training, standard licensing processes, and interchangeable parts. But there is sufficient market need for clean electricity, heat and motive power to allow a variety of solutions to compete.
Examples of exciting advanced nuclear developments
It wouldn’t help improve anyone’s mental state if I failed to point to specific examples of the improved fission power systems under serious development.
Here are two brief overviews of projects that have captured my attention and revived my own thinking during the past several months.
NuScale and UAMPS
NuScale is a fifteen year old start-up company that grew out of several research projects at Oregon State University. It has designed a standard module that produces 60 MWe. NuScale filed a design certification application with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December 2016.
All indications are that the review has been progressing on schedule with a final approval expected by the end of 2020.
Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) is lined up to be NuScale’s first customer for a 12-unit (720 MWe) power station that should be complete and operating on a site within the boundaries of the Idaho National Laboratory sometime in the 2026-2028 time frame.
NuScale’s application required 12,000 pages. It represents an investment of more than 2 million engineering hours and cost more than $500 million.
While the NRC has been reviewing NuScale’s application the company has been working diligently to create an effective supply chain of component and material vendors. As the probability of successful review has increased through the various stage of the process, that effort has intensified.
Oklo and INL
Any day now, Oklo will be formally submitting a combined license application (COLA) for its 1.5 MWe sodium cooled fast reactor. The company has an site use agreement with the Idaho National Laboratory. If the review proceeds as planned, the license might be issued within 2 years and construction might be completed within a year or two after that.
That news might be shocking to people who have not been paying close attention.
Oklo isn’t a well-known name, but the company has earned its credibility through quiet, but effective engagements with national laboratories, the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
At a recently conducted Advanced Reactor Summit, Jake DeWitt, the company CEO and co-founder, gave a detailed presentation on his company’s license application status. It might have sounded incredible to some in the audience, but it was closely followed by a presentation from the NRC’s Daniel Dorman that supported Jake’s statements.
Unlike several advanced reactor developers that chose to take their designs outside of the US, Oklo chose to work with with the NRC to develop a process for reviewing and approving applications that describe advanced technology with a different safety case from the standard large light water reactor.
The payoff of their engagement investment can be illustrated by comparing their application to the advanced light water-cooled SMR designed certification application (DCA) that NuScale submitted a little more than 3 years ago.
NuScale submitted their application under a “design specific review plan” that was a lightly modified version of the Standard Review Plan (SRP) applied to conventional light water reactors. That SRP is more than 4,000 pages long and has countless references to accumulated guidance. As mentioned above, NuScale’s DCA required 12,000 pages.
The NRC-Oklo agreed process for their very small sodium cooled fast reactor system was based on fundamental design criteria, written regulations, and a vendor described safety case.
Oklo’s DCA will be approximately 500 pages long. If application weight is an indicator, the level of effort required has been reduced by a factor of 24.
History isn’t destiny
There are many skeptics who claim that they cannot trust the nuclear industry to deliver on promises to reduce cost and accelerate schedules. They claim that the industry has made and broken promises for those identical improvements in the past.
But the improvements being undertaken today seem quite real and productive. Perhaps the nearly complete demise of the industry has made it possible for new thinking to be more acceptable and has silenced the voices of those who used to be able to say “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
Though nuclear technology is as hot and as exciting as its always been, it would be difficult to find anyone inside or just slightly outside of the industry who claims that it is healthy, vibrant and growing.
There are real signs of vibrancy, and they have a chance of flourishing in today’s environment.
That is a very good thing. Our common perception of the future of humanity will be far brighter when nuclear fission begins fulfilling its natural potential.