I participate in a number of email lists and forums populated by people who have an incredible optimism for a wide variety of nuclear fission power systems including sodium cooled Integral Fast Reactors, molten salt based Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, helium cooled Next Generation Nuclear Plants, the molten salt cooled Pebble Bed High Temperature Reactor and lead bismuth cooled Hyperion reactors.
Every once in a while, I jump in to the passionate discussions, not to take sides, but to remind the participants what the real battle should be – fission versus fire. Here is my most recent reminder letter – it received some favorable comments, so I thought it would be worth sharing with a wider audience.
Rickover’s observation about paper reactors needs a modern update to account for the speed of thought evolution made possible by the flow of bits that do not require commitment to paper.
I’d like to add a few thoughts. I hope no one takes offense.
It is important to have an up-to-date understanding of nuclear energy costs that is not locked into assumptions that were made 20, 40 or even 60 years ago.
There are many things that are true today that were not true or not understood then.
- Uranium is cheap and abundant.
- Uranium mining is at least as safe as mining for metals like aluminum and iron ore and we need a lot less of it each year, even with our current method of using only 0.5% of the potential energy and then carefully isolating the rest for future generations to use.
- Thorium is four times more abundant than plentiful uranium, but because it is not mined in commercial quantities yet, it costs more per pound to purchase it today.
- Enrichment is cheap. Its energy efficiency has improved by an incredible amount since the mid 1980s when the Clinch River Breeder Reactor program was finally abandoned. The new centrifuge based Georges Bessee II, for example, will produce as many Separative Work Units each year with 50 MWe as the gaseous diffusion based Georges Bessee I did while consuming 2700 MWe. Avoiding the need to enrich fuel does not save much in the way of actual cost or technical effort.
- Our manufacturing processes for producing solid ceramic UO2 fuel clad with zirconium alloys have improved dramatically, lowering the cost to the point where it is a high profit margin operation. The improvement has reduced the probability of leakers, easing the challenges associated with primary H2O coolant and reducing after shutdown radiation levels.
- Construction processes and materials have improved; the NRC has finally, after years worth of testing and demonstration, recognized the strength and durability of steel composite concrete as a replacement for steel reinforced concrete. The impact of that innovation will be seen after we have started building new reactors and have refined the manufacturing process.
- I could go on, but will stop here.
People who know me may remember that I spent the better portion of the 1990s developing and promoting what I thought was a leap around many of the cost drivers associated with light water reactors that was based on system concepts that had been proven but abandoned prematurely.
That effort taught me that the technical components of many of light water cost drivers were better addressed through evolution. It also taught me that the really significant components of the costs associated with existing nuclear technology were artificially imposed by humans, not by the fundamental nature of the technology.
Nuclear fission reactors are just heat sources. They operate at a slightly lower temperature than furnaces, but they can be an almost one for one replacement in nearly exactly the same kinds of heat engines as are used to convert fossil fuel combustion into useful motive power for propulsion or electricity production. The heat can also be used directly for process applications.
Compared to their fossil fuel competition, fission reactors are incredibly cheap and produce virtually zero waste that needs to be dumped into the atmosphere. The “all-in” cost for nuclear fuel is just 65 cents per million BTU. That compares to coal at $2.50-$4.00, natural gas at $3.50-$15.00 and oil at >$20.00. Here is what the Nuclear Energy Institute’s commercial nuclear fuel cost number includes:
This cost is based upon the amortized costs associated with the purchasing of uranium, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication services along with storage and shipment costs, and inventory (including interest) charges less any expected salvage value.
The competition’s substantially greater cost (revenue) per unit of heat does not include transportation or waste disposal.
There are many reasons that the machinery that we use in nuclear power stations costs so much, but the most important reason is that a loose alliance of humans with a variety of interests WANT it to cost that much. The multiple layers of costs that have been imposed on the effort required to design and build plants is the only way to keep the price of nuclear electricity high enough so that other sources of power have any hope at all of competing in the market place. It is the only way to ensure that human society does not have access to all the power it could possibly want or need to do whatever it is the members of that society want to do with it. It is also the way that the engineering, procurement and construction firms that build the plants think they can make more money; most of them have a cost-plus-percentage mark-up business model.
This email conversation has just scratched the surface of all of the wonderfully diverse ways that it is possible to use fission (uranium, thorium, and plutonium) energy. Some of those ideas might even help to reduce the fundamental costs. They should be the basis for an unpredictably large amount of creative effort enabled by the resources that could be freed up by an almost unlimited source of cheap power using the technology we have been improving for 55 years.
Instead of moving logically towards a low emission, low cost, fission based economy, society spends $6,000,000,000,000 dollars per year to purchase fossil fuels that we will immediately burn and whose waste products will eventually choke us all. (That huge number that is “cost” for most of us is “revenue” for some very rich and influential people.)
Fission beats fire hands down. We need to work together to help people understand that basic fact so that we can all have the resources we need to creatively think about ways that may eventually make fission even better.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Fission Fan for Life
And here is a little dessert to reward you for completing the above thought piece.
Hat tip to George Carty, who has shared several other creative works in progress.