I hope some of you have missed having regular updates to Atomic Insights during the past week, but I also hope that you have been able to take some time away from normal routines to think, visit with friends and family and consider future actions in the coming year. For people of many cultural traditions, the time between the winter solstice and the New Year is a time to relax. I have been engaging in that tradition myself. I took the photo associated with this post yesterday morning; it seems fitting to associate a sunrise with a coming new year.
There is no doubt that 2008 will be remembered. It has been filled with incredible political and economic events and dramatic shifts in relative financial positions for a lot of people and industries. I am pretty sure there has never before been a year like it.
For nuclear fission technologies, however, there has not been as much change. Existing power plants in most countries continue running at about the same production level as in recent years, new applications keep coming for regulators, a thin trickle of new projects actually broke ground, and new hires are studying hard to capture the knowledge of those people who are ready to move on and to improve their organization’s ability to respond as new construction slowly gains momentum.
While short term energy price signals have caused some to doubt the viability of new projects, most thinkers in the energy business recognize the importance long term planning and action. That is especially when talking about projects that may still be producing power when the next century turns over. With a growing world population and no indication that weather dependent “renewables” will ever replace the need for reliable, controllable energy sources that can enable human development and comfort, the importance of assured heat supplies is hard to dismiss.
There is an ever increasing focus on ways of producing power without causing environmental impacts from acid rain, smog, water pollution, carbon dioxide, fly ash, bottom ash, arsenic and mercury. The really thoughtful people in the discussion are recognizing that it does not make sense to put fission at the bottom of a list of potential alternatives when it has nearly all of the characteristics desired in terms of producing reliable, affordable, emission-free power. Nuclear advocates are winning hearts and minds with their logic and facts, and some are doing a terrific job of capturing attention through interesting writing and speaking. Passion for atomic power is a valuable asset that must be supported and nurtured. The effort will continue and will gain momentum as more of us get engaged in the conversation.
The predictions of increasing shortages of the raw materials needed for constructing new nuclear power plants have been overcome by events. Many important ingredients in plant construction are now “on sale” and should be purchased with long term commitments to lock in the current prices. Interest rates are also very favorable for long term financing. With good planning, careful management, and excellent project execution, it should be possible to achieve overnight prices of less than $2000 per kilowatt capacity for Generation III light water reactors and possibly significantly less for simpler designs that can be factory produced.
There are certainly clouds and challenges in front of us. I am particularly interested in working to change policies at the NRC that seems designed to lock the US out of the innovation that is occurring in many of our current and future economic competitors. A safety regulator like the NRC should not be used as a means of protecting existing enterprises, but it is hard to interpret the following “for the record” NRC position paper in any other way.
December 15, 2008
FOR THE RECORD
“Small” Reactor Reviews
There has been much media attention and speculation about the development of small reactors for use in applications other than large-scale power generation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to receive any applications for such reactors. When, or if, formal applications are received, they will be subject to a very rigorous review process that will take several years to complete. And submission of an application is no guarantee that the NRC – whose mission is to protect people and the environment – will find any particular design meets the agency’s high safety and security standards.
The NRC is aware that Hyperion and others have proposed building such reactors. Hyperion has advised the NRC it intends to provide technical reports on its proposal in the fall of 2009 as part of a pre-application review. That is only the first step in a process that could take years and years (emphasis added). The licensing of new, small reactors is not just around the corner. The NRC’s attention and resources now are focused on the large-scale reactors being proposed to serve millions of Americans, rather than smaller devices with both limited power production and possible industrial process applications.
In our innovative society it is not unusual for firms like Hyperion and others to propose reactor designs that are radically different from the existing generation of technology. And examining proposals for radically different technology will likely require an exhaustive review before the NRC could approve them as safe for use. Until such time as there is a formal proposal, the NRC will, as directed by Congress, continue to devote the majority of its resources to addressing the current technology base.
Here is my own for the record comment – smaller, simpler reactor power systems are nothing new. There is a long history of deployment and very straightforward physics and thermodynamics that can be used to understand that the main challenges of fission power plant operation are reduced when core sizes and power levels shrink dramatically. Source terms are reduced by factors of ten to several hundred, pressures can be lower, defense in depth can be achieved with less complexity, and passive cooling without off site power can be more readily achieved. Operators can become plant experts more quickly if there are fewer systems to learn and license applications should be able to fit on fewer bookshelves if there are fewer systems that are important to safety.
From a safety point of view, larger systems have no inherent advantages; they might have an advantage in “economy of scale”, but I am pretty sure that is not supposed to be a consideration for the NRC license reviews.
If there is really Congressional language that requires the NRC to push smaller, simpler systems to the back of the line, that language needs to be changed. I am not advocating that innovative systems should slow down the review processes for the Generation III projects; the long lines at the light water reactor checkout line simply mean t
hat there needs to be additional lines opened that are more suited for reviewing the other technologies that might represent leaps forward for US manufacturers. Our system must be open to innovation, otherwise we will become followers. That is not a sound competitive position for a country like the United States to accept.
I hope that you and yours have a happy, healthy, prosperous nuke year.