During the period of September 28 – October 1, 2008, Washington, DC is hosting the 4th International Topical Meeting on High Temperature Reactor Technology. If you are reading this on the day that I post it, you still have a little time to get over to the Renaissance Washington DC Hotel. (I wonder if the choice of venue had anything to do with the hotel name?)
Just under 600 experts from all over the world are engaging in detailed technical discussions and presentations about the current status of their technology and are getting progress reports on projects in South Africa, China, Japan, France and the United States. The participants have invested a great deal of time, energy and resources in preparing their presentations for their colleagues. For technical specialists, conferences like HTR 2008 give them the opportunity to engage in conversations about their passion with people whose eyes will not glaze over. When you are in an area of research and development like high temperature reactors, you take full advantage of those opportunities whenever they occur.
Even among nuclear specialists, high temperature reactor enthusiasts can be fairly lonely people – speaking for myself, at least. As a group, they have been working for more than 50 years to find the words to explain their enthusiasm for a technology that often gets little interest or respect. Part of the challenge is the pace at which things change – some of the participants have been working on essentially the same project for several decades and still have several years to go before they will be allowed to build a complete unit. This is not a space where sprinters thrive.
Despite the challenge of maintaining focus on a slowly developing technology where the key breakthroughs were often made many years ago, there are still many reasons for excitement about high temperature reactors.
- They use materials that allow a large margin between operation and material damage.
- They provide heat energy at temperatures that normally REQUIRE fossil fuel combustion.
- They are adaptable to advanced heat engines like Brayton cycle gas turbines.
- They avoid some of the material limitations that make typical light water reactors somewhat challenging.
- They offer the potential for reduced component count and reduced cost.
- They offer the opportunity to prove, through physical tests, that any problem at the plant will not affect any neighbors.
- They even offer the possibility of being able to withstand the worst case conditions without any material breakdowns that prevent repair and recovery.
It can be difficult to articulate why, with that list of characteristics, high temperature gas reactors are not in widespread use. My flippant answer was that if it was easy to move the world, we would all get dizzy.
Even if you have a long enough lever, it takes steady pressure applied over time to budge a very large object. In this case, the people at one end of the lever number in the hundreds and the people who built the object at the other end have numbered in the tens of millions and they put that object into a deep pool of gooey tar. Over the years, the object has looked like it was ready to move, but then some of the people on the lever either dropped out or got involved in arguing with their teammates.
I attended the keynote session yesterday and listened carefully to the speeches. There has been measurable progress in the past half a dozen years, and there is a small, but growing body of important decision makers who are starting to “get it”. The lever is strong and shows no signs of breaking. I just hope that the people pushing on the lever keep up the pressure and continue to recognize the advantage of working together. Most of all, I hope that they welcome any assistance; one risk in long term projects is the tendency to defend against newcomers even if the fresh minds and bodies would greatly aid in the ultimate success.
One key example of a newcomer with the resources to have a big impact is the fact that one of the conference co-chairmen, Bernard Esteve, listed in the conference program as the Executive President, North America AREVA, has just moved to a new job. He announced that he has taken a job with Total, the world’s fourth largest integrated oil and gas producer as their advisor on nuclear matters.
After the keynote session, I was given what I consider to be an immensely interesting opportunity – four of the keynote speakers sat down with the press to answer questions for nearly an hour. As a demonstration of one of the public outreach challenges that the HTR advocates face, there were apparently only three of us there. Can you imagine how cool it was to be able to talk nearly one on one with Vice Admiral Grossenbacher the head of the Idaho National Laboratory, Linden Blue – the vice chairman of General Atomics, Regis Matzie, the Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Westinghouse, and Dr. Allistair Reuters, representing the government of South Africa.
Each of them patiently answered some probing questions from all three of us, and I applaud them for their openness.
Now, I am going to leave the keyboard and put on the earphones to listen again to our discussion. I want to make sure that I get the words right when I share them with you, but I also wanted to make sure that I posted something to whet your appetite and to give you the opportunity – if you happen to be in the DC area and have a interest in the topic, to visit the conference. There are still a number of sessions remaining.