Open letter to advocates of Generation IV reactors (IFR, LFTR, NGNP, PBHTR)
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.
Britain is about to reach a tipping point regarding nuclear.
France will have to go through a process to formerly accept nuclear since it was not done 30 years ago. But the benefits are everywhere in french society. The old slogan ‘no coal, no gas, no choice’ needs an overhaul.
This is where George Carty comes in!
I was dismayed to hear that France had a significant anti-nuclear movement (I though that country had gone to far to even think of turning back now…)
Glad you like my video, especially since it’s my very first YouTube upload!
I got a little teary eyed. Thank you.
The extremist marginals that end up on the left in Europe are one of a kind. It is tolerated by the government so that they do not tackle the real issues. (You should see the criminal records of some key members of the french anti nukes. They could almost play basketball in the US were it not for height)
But it is an election year. And it is an issue that never was settled in a proper way. Now is the time.
I know your personal focus is on the mPower, but for humanity I think job-one is to build 100 AP1000’s (ESBWR’s, EPR’s, VVER’s). I keep talking about China, but that seems to be the center of the nuclear universe right now. When they have the module factories up and running and the CAP1400 prototype built, we may finally see what the true costs of nuclear energy are.
@SteveK9 – we already know what the true costs of nuclear are. It is energy that is so cheap it can be sold on a monthly subscription plan of power that is only limited by the size of the wires that you buy.
It is “too cheap to meter”. I have written about that several times on Atomic Insights, but if you cannot locate the posts, just let me know.
I think I have made it quite clear here that I am a huge fan of the AP1000 and its cousins and wish them all the best. My employer and most of the rest of the industry agrees – the best thing that can happe for us all now is for those systems to be built on a reasonable schedule with reasonable cost certainty.
We are working on systems that can fit where the AP1000 is simply not an option.
And Japan has decided to freeze to death this winter by not restarting the idled reactors.
Later summer, elderlies died of heat stroke. This winter, they’ll freeze. Japan had got to wake up.
It’s OK though, at least they won’t have to worry about the extremely remote possibility of their lifetime cancer risk increasing ever so slightly. We all know that death by radiation well after you’ve already kicked the bucket is a fate much worse than freezing to death.
Better to let a few people get irradiated. They wont even die!
We should take notice of how many extra deaths from hypothermia occur this winter in Japan, and remember that their blood is on the hands of the anti-nuclear activists. Make these victims of anti-nuclear policy into martyrs — a reason to hate the anti-nuclear movement.
From NHK news. Season’s biggest chill descends across Japan:
A severe cold air mass has caused temperatures across Japan to drop to their lowest levels so far this season.
Spinoza has a great quote, “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.”
Our goal should not be to incite, but to confront their rationale with a full and consistent framework, based on the simple premise of valuing all life, not just human life. It is a radical alternative, it is consistent with maximizing individual welfare through industry and technology. If we give up on industry we will kill millions if not billions. If we do not evolve industry the same will occur because we killed the planet.
When industry and policy take our impact on the physical world into account, we will see that our lack of ecological value is only serving to kill us. Abandoning industry and technology out of course is Luddism, and is equally suicidal.
So how do we change in a short amount of time to a truly sustainable technology, which renewables cannot provide under this logical framework?
From a deep-ecology definition that actually values life, our only choice of survival is through industry and nuclear power.
Under this framework burning coal is not necessarily bad, nor is taking shale oil from the ground. What is bad is when the known cost externalities are not included in the specific price of the good. It is also bad when something is over regulated, like nuclear power because it takes value away from the society.
I pose these ideas to draw criticism and to bring a radical alternative forward, one that is not inconsistent with our observations in the world. If you think I am full of crap in writing this, let me know. If there is merit, let me know.
I think Lovelock has already ventured this path with his GAIA theory. The planet on which we live is a living organism.
Not so sure I buy Gaia hypothesis. It is like saying there is an “invisible hand” in the economy. All I am hypothesizing is that life needs other life to survive, we all have to eat something.
I looked at system optimizations methods, economic, ecological, and physical. They all center around the use of Euler-Lagrangian conditions to find stationary points in equilibrium systems. This approach is a specific action of entropy maximization. That that is what physical objects do, is to find the point of least action and go with it. The act of expending only as much internal energy as is absolutely necessary is fundamental to any motion. We call this elegance.
It is why I do not think wind/solar lack the elegance to contribute significant amounts of electricity to the grid. They require too much effort to produce power to the grid reliability standards when there are better more effective alternatives. Wind and solar have their use, but that use is when the effort to construct a grid is not economic.
Stated more simply,
The act of destroying that upon which we rely is an act of self destruction.
So Cal, we could say that with its energy density, nuclear is the most elegant form of energy known to man.
You ARE the nuclear poet.
You want to wreck me?
Upon what do I rely?
That’s what you should wreck.
Rod, First, I think you meant “dessert”, not “desert”. A desert is a place that is almost devoid of life, and you open yourself to snide jokes from anti-nukes.
Remember, “dessert” has two s’s because it’s so good, you want seconds.
Ok, with that out of the way, I have a more technical question: 65 cents is already pretty good in terms of competing against fossil fuels, but is there any prospect of being able to make that price even cheaper? 65 cent per MMBTU is good. 6.5 per MMBTU would be even better, though.
I recognize your point about the fuel costs not being the real “driver” of the price of electricity from fission, but instead, the regulatory costs associated with building and maintaining a nuclear plant, so that’s definitely the place to focus, for the time being.
I like to hope that maybe, someday, we get to a point where the cost of building new reactors is much lower, and so fuel costs become a place where we can further reduce the price of electricity. Anti-nukes like to snidely deride nuclear power prices with “too cheap to meter”, but I can’t help but feel that “too cheap to meter”, or at least, much cheaper than today’s electricity, is really, still, someday possible with fission.
I mean, just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it never can, or will, happen, right?
If we can get the cost of building each GW of nuclear generation down within spitting distance of a Billion dollars (instead of the 10-12 Billion it costs right now), we could already reduce the cost of electricity by a factor of ten. If we could further reduce the price to *less than* a Billion dollars, at that point, fuel price starts to play a more meaningful part in the price, and fuel cost reductions could further drive down the price.
Wouldn’t it be grand to live in a world where your electricity cost less than 1¢/kWh? Where instead of paying $200/mo in the summer months to run your AC, you pay $20/mo, or $10/mo? (Well, OK, even if the “generation” portion of electricity was free, the transmission costs would probably mean I still pay $80-100/mo for electricity – I think TX costs are about 1/2 of what I pay for electricity right now; I don’t suppose there’s any hope that transmission costs can come down?)
Jeff, I read it as the other “desert”, the one that’s pronounced the same as “dessert” and rarely seen outside the phrase “your just deserts”. It’s what you deserve.
Oh yes, and if you can find a project that’s costing 10+ billion $ per GW to build, I’ll oppose it. We really don’t need that kind of nuclear. But that isn’t any project I’ve heard of.
Jeff – Fix the big noise first.
Yes, there is plenty of room for fuel costs to fall, but that is a less pressing matter. Besides, someone in the nuclear industry needs to be really profitable to encourage the kind of boom that we need. There is no need to wring out all of the costs (aka revenues.)
Rod, Oh, I agree. When you have a problem, and 95% of the problem is due to one thing, and 5% of the problem is due to something else, you worry about the 95% first. Totally.
And, yes, I agree there still has to be profitibility. It’s not like we’d ever get companies to willingly run at a loss. =)
I was just hoping that maybe companies can still be profitable at lower cost to the end-user. However, after I posted what I did before, I got to thinking about it. The problem with fuel costs coming down is this:
Companies can only keep or increase profitability, despite falling prices, if their volume and/or profit margin goes way up (and they are still making at least some profit on each unit sold).
There is, on the one hand, room for growth in the nuclear fuel market, simply through construction of more power plants. But, because each plant uses so little fuel, relatively speaking, there’s not a lot of room for large growth in fuel sales volume.
As reactor designs use fuel more efficiently, that will only create massive downward-pressure on fuel sales volumes, meaning if anything, the price would have to go up to keep companies profitable. So, I suppose, realistically, the price of fuel would probably not come down much more than it is right now.
I’d like to see expanded markets for Electricity and process heat as a source of revenue for cheaper electricity. I pay 15 cents per KWH. I’d like to see that at < 9 cents. I'd like to see more foundries with electric furnaces, more Aluminum smelters, and possibly seeing a whole new Titanium smelting and fabrication industry launch. I'd like to see opportunities for new business in specialty fabrication, diversification of smithing, that could come from cheaper electricity.
I'd like to see revenues from sales and creativity unleashed, in the market that can come from cheaper more plentiful Electricity. If we can get Electricity cheap enough, the focus should turn to supply increases to support revenues.
The whole idea that permeates the culture, however, is to drop as much electrical generation redundance as possible, pinch every watt hour, and don't use any power that can't be generated by giant whirligigs and sunshine panel farms. The idea is either that we should all hunker down and live with it, or this "renewable" future is to be some sort of utopia.
If we stay on the current track, we will have a future where the Oil and Gas companies are doubling revenues all while, over time, halving product sales. They will ride their "good thing" to the bottom of a deep social decline. We could have $200 or $400 /bbl oil being sold at half or quarter today's quantities.
I'd rather see $25 /bbl oil being sold at quarter today's quantities, but that can never happen if the Oil and Gas companies are successful in helping to maintain the view that Whirligigs and sunshine panels are the best and only future of energy.
I want to see these things too, and I think they are achievable in the near term (next 40 years)
The marvelous thing about reactors is that they have an amazing power density. With SMR Gen IV reactors we have a potential technology (S-PRISM being the closest to commercialization) to repower the coal plants around the US. Swapping MW for MW and in so doing we can reduce our emissions (CO2) by about a third. The key is the reuse of the generation and transmission infrastructures.
As for process heat use. I developed a technology that amplifies heat from 450C to 820C. This will allow reactors like PRISM to be used for process heat with no further modification. Now Can you say keep the coal coming! We need that fixed carbon, it is the lifeblood of our economy. The converted coal plants can be used to now produce synthetic liquid fuels. We mine enough coal to completely displace all imported oil by 2035 using this technology suite.
Once you produce CO and H2 with a reactor you have the fundamental building block of organic chemistry and even some inorganic chemistry. The reactor can then be used for direct reduction of iron, which still molten would flow into an EAF for refining. The H2 produced from the reactor can be used for Haber-Bosch process to produce ammonia. Industry, heavy industry would become centered around all the old coal plants. The utilities would sell heat from the reactors to be used in these processes. Electricity generation would only be something done on the side. Can you imagine heavy industry flocking back stateside and being pollution free.
I like the IFR very much. I think it is an elegant solution to many problems. It does have a distinct advantage over other fuel cycles is that the fissile production and fuel fabrication infrastructure is scaled as the plants are being built and are notionally collocated with the reactors.
I see thorium begin used in light water reactors. Any widespread and rapid implementation of nuclear power is going to strain conventional mining and enrichment.
The LFTR will have a place as will NGNP and HTGR’s. All of these reactors have niche capabilities that they are particularly well suited to fill. It’s not just one particular technology it is all of them. We should not be in the business of picking winners and losers. Invite the competition and relish in it. It will only make all of us stronger.
Here is the roadmap that I see happening (after the introduction I am the first presenter):
I disagree. IV gen or nothing.
Someone at a certain point have to cut the line with the past, we can’t use 50 year old technology forever. And I think the moment is now, because the current fleet of nuclear plants are aging and soon need to be replaced.
Current nuclear is not sustainable.
Using just the 0,5% of the energy available is simply unacceptable in this time and age; it has very bad perception for safety (core can melts, pressure vessel can explode) even if they are actually quite safe; it has unresolved problems with waste.
Since is very possible to have much better technologies to extract energy for the nucleus that have none of the problems above (real or perceived, is not much different) we should simply go for those.
Is not a technical problem to make IV gen reactors. Is PEOPLE problem: people don’t like to change. They prefer to do what they’ve always did. This is true also for current nuclear engineers and regulators.
But they DO change is someone have the authority to force them.
Is as simple as that.
And Blees, in Prescription for the Planet, only wants IFR technology. None of the other stuff.
This way we could use all of the waste of the last 40 years and burn it for a century without having to mine another pound of Uranium.
Do you mind if I do not change just because some poorly informed judgmental idiot tells I should change?
You are not going to change regardless of how bright and articulate your critic is. There are somethings that are immutable.
I disagree. IV gen or nothing.
That is a statement that exposes you as a petroleum pusher. Society will not simply stop functioning because people oppose nuclear energy; it will instead keep doing what it is doing today which is to burn about 6 trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel each year and dump the waste products from that action into the environment.
But they DO change is someone have the authority to force them.
And who do you think has the authority to force me to forget what I know about nuclear energy and to change my mind?
I will answer – nothing short of actually firing a gun properly aimed at vital areas of my body can make that happen. No one can force an unwilling human mind to change.
As far as ending the bickering over Generation IV technology, I am among the long ago converted. What particularly irritates me is the attempt to advance the cause of Gen IV as a solution to several non-problems like ‘nuclear waste’ and proliferation. Not only are these claims inaccurate, (bordering on fraudulent in some instances) but they also serve to legitimize these issues in the eyes of the public.
Supporters also tend to gloss over some very important issues with their designs for which there are only theoretical solutions. While this doesn’t mean that work should stop being done to move these concepts forward, claims that they are waiting in the wings to break out and solve all energy problems is very premature.
Furthermore, attempts to generate public support for these technologies may well precipitate a “wait for Gen IV” mood that will hinder development of current offerings to the determent of the nuclear industry as a whole.
Well said, Rod. The old industry guys at work like to say of overly-optimistic nuclear evangelicals that they haven’t been run over by the nuclear bus yet. And then backed over, and run over several more times. The energy sector has incredible momentum and low tolerance of any risks whatsoever. Just accepting MOX has been a huge deal.
Like some of the commenters, however, I agree that we can’t rely on Alvin Weinberg’s first idea of LWRs to get us into a world-scale sustainable system (pending cheap Uranium from seawater, that is). The need is not urgent, but we need to see exploratory advanced reactor work to see if we can work out any really big wins. Conveniently, large places like India and China know this well and are poking around with different advanced concepts.
Your point is perfect though, that fission > fire. We need to work together on that and not bicker about which type of fission to use. None of them are going to sweep the world in 5 years. Slow and steady. Thanks for sharing!
Energy is a very cheap commodity and meeting the needs of society is just a case of letting engineers do it. I would suggest that talk of high energy bills is a case of a loss of critical thinking skills (LOCTS). Here is an example of a false perception:
“Where instead of paying $200/mo in the summer months to run your AC, you pay $20/mo, or $10/mo? ”
Where I live in Virginia we have hot humid summers and we set the thermostat just where SWMBO (she who must be obeyed) want it. I wear a sweat shirt inside in the summer. The added cost for AC is $30/month or $1/day or 30 cents per day per person. I do have an efficient heat pump and more than average insulation.
Can anyone tell me a better investment for a good night sleep.
I have calculated the the cost of a Hollywood shower at 25 cents. So enjoy long hot showers.
So when POTUS tells me to set the thermostat higher because of some rubbish about the poor in China I think we should build nuke plants in China. Any bets on which SWMBO tells Obama where to set the AC in the Whitehouse.
Unfortunately, not all of us own our own homes and can get them as thermally insulated as we want. I currently live in a 2 bedroom apartment that I swear has the worst thermal properties of any place I’ve ever lived, and I suspect there’s something wrong with the A/C unit too. Our electric bill in the summer months was seriously like $170+/mo – and we didn’t even run the A/C half the time. I lived in miserable heat, and still was paying through the nose on electricity.
Of course, the landlord doesn’t give a shit – they don’t have to pay the electric bill, so why would they give a damn about making the place more energy efficient. I really am looking forward to moving out of here as soon as I can. I pretty much regret ever moving here.
@Kit – I live in the same area as you do. We are some of the fortunate people in the US who only pay about 7 cents per kilowatt hour for power. Our plants are fueled with locally mined coal – the coal trains we see are mostly heading out of our area.
However, I have made different choices than you. We picked out a home that is as well insulated as is possible while still having very large windows on the side of the house that looks out on the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains. We live in an all electric home because there is no piped gas available. Our winter bills peak in excess of $300 and our summer bills tip the scales well above $200. In the spring and fall when our central heat pump units are not running very much, the bills are just slightly above $100.
Those costs are not a big deal for me, but I recognize that I am fortunate. I think about the poor people who live in areas where silly politics or poor geography result in higher power demand for the same comfort level and much higher prices per unit of electricity. I also think about those days when I was running a small factory that had monthly bills on the order of $5,000 to $8,000 depending on how many shifts we ran. We were fortunate then – we had a power company whose generators were mostly low cost coal and a small portion of nuclear energy.
Cheaper energy would put a lot of money into the pockets of people and businesses that could use those resources productively. It would be even better than a tax cut.
Just to pick a nit: the loaded coal trains you see running through Lynchburg are mostly headed towards Hampton Roads for export. Most of Lynchburg’s electricity is coal based but imported from West Virginia.
@Bill – I hardly think of West Virginia coal as being “imported”. It is practically around the corner from here. Remember, what is now the state of West Virginia was once part of Virginia.
Kit, don’t ignore that energy-intensive industries could be much more successful with the availability of cheaper energy. Cheaper energy would free up a lot of resources to be productive in other ways than producing energy.
> That is a statement that exposes you as a petroleum pusher
I’m a pusher of no one. I’m not even american, where I live nuclear is banned for now.
I just dislike old bad things when new better things are available.
And really dislike this bad habit of no innovation and risk adversion, where people just make some small safe refinements of old things instead to try to build the next BIG THING that is proved to be ready.
To really progress you have to cut with the past, you have to take your risks.
“And who do you think has the authority to force me to forget what I know about nuclear energy and to change my mind?”
Of course a strong political/technical leader.
Like Roosevelt with Manhattan project: that letter from Einstein “needed action”, and they took action!
Like Kennedy with the Apollo program: he wanted americans to go to the Moon in 7 years, and you did.
Also without a strong personality like Rickover, who really pushed nuclear in the navy, I doubt anybody would ever do that.
Unfortunately today you can’t find this kind of personalities in western countries. People in command don’t take unpopular or risky decision. They play safe, the try to reach broad consensus.
But in China they don’t seem to have this problem. They want to get rid of fossil fuel by the end of century and I believe they will. They want their breeders (IFR or MSR clones, whatever they can get to work) and they are really pushing to build them. They won’t wait for us.
@Alberto – your comment about not even being American is a non sequitur. I said nothing about any nation in my statement. Being a petroleum pusher means you support burning fossil fuel, the bad old way (to use your words) that humans have been supplying reliable power for 150 years.
You dismiss light water reactors as old when they are about the same technical age as the semiconductors that are the basis for the world’s high tech industry.
Current nuclear technology (LWRs), right or wrong, is not really accepted by the public opinion. Also in USA. You also don’t build new plants from decades there.
IV gen power plants (IFR, MSR) promise to resolve 3 critical aspects of the current technology:
– unlimited supply of energy (if we waste 99.5% of the energy of uranium, it does’t last very long)
– no possible ‘explosions’ (no pressure, passive safety, walk-away safety)
– no waste problem (almost)
These are real problems and the main reason why nuclear was never really successful (apart from France). I don’t think is very smart to insist on a death horse, especially now that we have the technology to really resolve those long lasting problems and finally reconcile with the public opinion.
And semiconductors… in 40 years they passed from the 2.300 transistors of the Intel 4004 to 2.3 BILLION transistors of the current Intel 8-Core Xeon. That’s a 1.000.000x efficiency improvement!
There was almost ZERO efficiency improvement in nuclear in the last 50 year. Just increase in cost.
IV gen would at least remedy some of that. A 100-200x efficiency improvement would be NICE 🙂
There was almost ZERO efficiency improvement in nuclear in the last 50 year. Just increase in cost.
Nuclear plants went from 70% uptime to close to 98% uptime. That is efficiency improvement from where I sit.
LWR’s are particularly suited for thermal spectrum thorium conversion to U-233. The thorium reprocessing using U-233 as the heaviest isotope has waste actinide concentrations that are on the order of IFR. LWR’s can be very energy efficient. It matters how we go about working with them.
The amazing demonstration of LWR safety characteristics in Japan shows conclusively how safe they are. You can blow up the reactors and still not kill anyone.
When it comes to baseload power fast reactors cannot compete with LWR’s. The capital investment required for a LWR is much less than an equivalently priced high temperature reactor (~30% by some estimates) The nice thing about LWR’s is they are not hot and are comparatively inexpensive. The problem with LWR’s is they are not hot. The converse can be said for higher temperature reactors.
The point is we don’t have this technology. Supporters paint a rosy picture of how things are but the fact is that it will be twenty years before any of them are ready to go commercial. On top of which the private money, which will be needed to really build these designs out to the point where they can make a difference will want to wait even longer to see how the first ones behave before risking money.
In practical terms they are a generation away. Meanwhile the problems with fossil-fuels will multiply.
We ran the Shippingport Breeder Experiment, the Thorium oxide fuel is qualified.
We qualified the fuel for S-PRISM
We qualified TRISO with Fort St. Vrain.
We ran a pool type sodium reactor for 30 years. The French had Super Phenix and Phenix.
We have run HTGR’s in one way shape or another over the past 30 years.
The technology is there. There will be problems but they are engineering problems, build, learn, refine, retrofit.
DV8 there is a book I suggest you read by Ted Rockwell, “The Rickover Effect” The comment that Rod made about paper reactors is true. We can now do finite element modeling, Computational Fluid Dynamics, we are building codes to evaluate long term neutron embrittlement in reactors.
You can build a 3-D reactor, run through various major component replacements, design the facility for preventive maintenance items based on actual equipment models. None of which was possible before. Yes there will be materials limitations. Those mainly come from temperature restrictions. Back off a few degrees until you have more information. The first plants are not going to be optimal and they are going to have abysmal forced outage rates. The next generation will be better, then we will retrofit the existing plants and they will be better.
Somewhere along the way a turbine is going to eat itself there will be sodium leaks and fires. As for the reprocessing. Learning by doing will be the hardest school. Fortunately, preventing the real problem (uncontrolled criticality) is relatively strait forward and technology insensitive. Initial through puts are going to be terrible equipment reliability awful. Those electro-refiners are small and relatively inexpensive to build, and are simple enough to readily incorporate design changes.
All it takes is the will to act. Without action there is nothing other than a self fulfilling prophecy of inaction.
I love Ms. Frizzle on the Magic School Bus, “It’s time to take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” It is the message I want my kids to have.
I have written this before so I beg the indulgence of those that have seen it in the past: I spent a long career in the technical end of aviation, and I witnessed many new ideas as they were brought forward. In general the good ones that I saw at the beginning of my career only started to show up as products just before I left – 35 years later. Unless you have worked in industry especially one that has a culture of safety inculcated into its very structure, and where capital expenditures are necessarily very high, can you understand how conservative they can be.
In the end good enough is the enemy of better, particularly in cases like this where the risks are so great.
On top of which, outside influences are also acting without regard to the long-term. As I am sure everyone has seen, Bill Gates is pushing the TWR in China. I’d like everyone to remember that this was the guy that picked DOS to hang around our necks like an albatross for a decade or more. Now he off to push what he thinks the next GenIV technology should be.
Good point and quite right on. We are now at the 20-30 year point on these technologies, so hopefully we will see some action. Barring someone with Rickover’s drive 10 years is very optimistic.
However, a catalyst can make a significant difference to speed the reaction. What would it take to crystalize the thought of the government, vendors, and utilities to take action in a rapid fashion? What catalytic event or individual? What need?
If there was an easy answer to that, we would be doing it. My position is that the current generation of reactors are more than sufficient to bring about a Nuclear Renascence, and thus should be promoted over newer designs.
The thing is energy demand over the long run, isn’t going to get any less, thus there will be a market for Gen IV systems when they are mature enough to go on sale. Why so many want to push the river on this question is a mystery to me.
@DV82XL – I like to remind the earnest people in the Gen-IV or bust camp that the coal industry was one of the biggest supporters of the Atomic Energy Commission’s early 1960s decision to halt investment in improving light water reactors in order to focus their full resources on developing the next big thing called a fast breeder reactor.
Their lobbyists supported that diversion of funds for 30 years until the IFR was just about ready for a commercial demonstration.
Then, the natural gas-influenced Clinton Administration pulled all funding from the IFR and from all other advanced nuclear energy research. Lucy strikes again, pulling the ball from a trusting Charlie Brown, who fell flat on his back for several years.
So right about how natural gas interests killed IFR. What can be done about it though, short of shooting politicians who take bribes from the fossil fuel pushers?
Energy cheaper than from coal should be the objective of all nuclear power plant designers. I advocate LFTR because I think it has the lowest capital cost potential. Maybe small modular LWRs can achieve this — great. Maybe Hyperion? Maybe TerraPower> The best global strategy is to invest in several technologies.
@George – exposure works better than your suggested option. We need to keep telling the story – no one likes to find out they have been lied to for years, but recognizing that opinions are based on misinformation makes it easier to change minds and directions.
I was for a long time a advocate of LWR’s but in light of the events in Japan, I have come to the conclusion that the best course for the future of nuclear power is the development of the pebble bed reactor. This and other types of advanced reactors provided they are meltdown proof or nearly so are our best course of action to deal with the public’s fears and the anti-nuclear forces. Another possibility is a fusion -fission hybrid. We have the time, global warming is a well exposed fraud there is no need to rush building LWR’s. I don’t think private industy will ever build nuclear power plants in the U.S. again. We will have to set up Federal or State run agencies to build and operate the reactors and allow the private utilities to distribute the power.
@Donald – though I am a long time fan of high temperature pebble bed reactors that cannot melt – see Adams Atomic Engines for historical evidence to back up that claim – I am curious about what might have happened in Japan to cause you to turn so far away from light water reactors?
Yes, I admit that the advertiser supported media has – so far – successfully spun a remarkable story of a resilient machine operated by resilient people that failed slowly under extreme duress into a breathless story about a disaster that we were lucky to escape alive, but the reality is different from the spin.
I deal in reality. Perception is not real. People who suffered through a hot summer without AC and are looking forward to a cold winter without heat are not just perceiving that there is a problem when you do not have enough reliable power, they KNOW there is a problem when you do not have access to power.
The reason I no longer support the LWR’s is the basic problem of the design, if something causes a loss of coolant and that coolant is not restored fast enough you have a condition that ethier causes panic, stoked by the news media even if the safety systems function like they did at Three Mile Island or even the very rare event where a fairly large area is effected by a radiation release. Pebble bed reactors avoid this. We know how to build them, lets concentrate on a better design and a rebirth of nuclear power
Well a few points.
One…there have been increases in LWR efficiency:
#Longer burn periods can now be obtained.
#More GWs per ton of uranium fuel.
#Lots of uprates to existing old Gen II plants allowing them to put out more MWhrs per ton of fuel, mostly be upgrading existing turbines and generators.
#shorter and shorter outages for fuel changes
All of the above lead to noticible increases in LWR efficiencies. As Gen III reactors come on line this is becomes truer still.
I agree with Rod. There is a small but significant minority that wants to ‘dis’ Gen II and Gen III technology in favor of IFR and/or LFTR. The development of which, and deployment of, are supported by most of us here and, in other venues in the pro-nuclear world. I’m a very big LFTR fan and I am active in LFTR circles but the success of of LFTR and any other Gen IV technology in my opinion is *wholly predicated on the success of Gen III*, specifically the current crop of AP1000s, CAP1000s, ABWRs, EPRs and APR1400s to name most of the first-of-a-kind-soon-to-be-built-or-already-being-approved Gen III reactors.
The Chinese really understand this which is why they are investing in ALL forms of modern advanced reactors. They made a decision to basically abandon further deployment of their Gen II reactors in favor of the Gen II+ (VVER 1000s) and Gen III (EPR, AP/CAP1000s) and, phase into advanced breeder reactors by the middle of this century. They seem both generations as linked intrinsically at many, many levels.
Increase of efficacy is just RIDICULOUS with LWRs.
When you can have a MSR with a burnup of 200x of the LWR. AND thermodynamic efficiency 50% better or more!
I don’t understand even why spend time to make those little “increases” in efficiency with LWRs.
Don’t want to innovate? OK, don’t spend time and money studying such useless “improvements”, just build the ancient thing CHEAP.
@Alberto – I am far more worried about reducing our consumption of fossil fuels as fast as possible than about the perceived inefficiencies of light water reactors. The important thing to remember about fuel inefficiency is that we are not throwing away any useful material. It is being carefully stored away for for future use as technology improves. It is not remotely analogous to the the situation in fossil fuel where any losses from inefficiency or incomplete fuel consumption represent permanent losses and potentially additional environmental pollution.
I have no problem with innovation – I just think that evolutionary improvements have a better chance of success than radical departures from what we know will work pretty well.
In Europe they really build those deep geological repositories, they vitrificate “waste”, they mess with them in other ways (Mox, etc). And you were SO close to dump for good all your unburned uranium in Yucca Mountain, too.
So… too risky to leave all those spent uranium around without a SOLID plan on what to do. And the plan is EASY. Go ahead with IV gen reactors!!
Rod – I would like to suggest a few additional follow on points to add to your mostly fine suggestions:
You state in point 3. “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.”
The USGS estimates that 2011 Thorium costs are $5.46 per kilogram (welding grade Thorium Nitrate (Formula: Th(NO3)4) which can be reduced to Thorium Metal or Thorium Fluoride (Formula: ThF4) which would be the form most likely used in a Thorium LFTR). – USGS MINERAL COMMODITY SUMMARIES 2011
The current cost of Thorium as Thorium Nitrate ($5.46/kilogram) is significantly below the cost of 3.6% enriched uranium as reported by the Wise Uranium Fuel Cost Calculator – http://www.wise-uranium.org/nfcc.html
While Thorium metal is relatively hard to obtain because there is currently only minor industrial use, there is more of a market for Thorium Nitrate, as it is used in making welding rods and lamp mantles and as a result Thorium Nitrate is easier to reliably price. Thorium is the true fuel of a Thorium LFTR as only Thorium needs to be supplied to the reactor once the reactor is started on some form of fissile (U-233, U-235, or Pu-239). The start up fissile need only be supplied at the start, and from that point on the reactor produces all of the U-233 fissile it needs to run from Th-232. Traditional LWR require constant addition of fissile fuel and normally do not typically breed their own fuel.
In point 4 you suggest that enrichment is cheap (but unfortunately the same cannot be said for enrichment plants). While the electrical power required to enrich uranium to the ~3.6% enrichment levels of typical Light Water Reactors has been reduced by the introduction of centrifuges in modern enrichment plants, it still requires a respectable amount of electrical power to make each kilogram of enriched fuel (see Wise Uranium calculator provided above). Building the enrichment plants is where the big money is in costs and the costs for current plants range from USEC’s plant Piketon, Ohio, which is targeting production of 3.8 million SWU/year and is estimated to cost $3.5 billion to AREVA’s ‘Eagle Rock’ uranium enrichment plant estimated to cost $2.4 billion. The introduction of centrifuges has reduced some of the production costs involved in enriching uranium fuel but the majority of the cost is really in building the enrichment plants. It is not necessary to enrich fuel for a Thorium LFTR and the low costs of Thorium (~$10 kilogram or less) is all you pay for fuel as there is no fuel manufacturing cost for fuel assemblies, you just dissolve the Thorium into the blanket salt.
I agree with you that the contrast of fission versus fire is the more productive contrast than Uranium versus Thorium, however.
@Robert – quoting the capital cost of an enrichment plant has little or no meaning without a recognition of the magnitude and value of the output. The George Besse II plant that I visited in France will produce virtually of the enrichment services required to keep France’s 58 operating nuclear plants supplied with fuel. It is going to cost about $2.2 billion. It will use just 50 MWe to produce the same amount of SWU each year as George Bessee I produced while consuming 2700 MWe, that is a 95% reduction and essentially frees up the output of three of the relatively standard 900 MWe nuclear plants that are right outside the enrichment facility gates.
Therefore, for $2.2 billion, France is essentially adding 2650 MWe to its power grid AND providing a capability to fuel 58 operating nuclear plants for many decades into the future. Those SWUs are pretty darned cheap, just like the microprocessors that come out of a $3 billion fab plant can be pretty darned cheap.
You gloss over the conversion of thorium nitrate to thorium metal. Do you have any estimates of the cost of building a chemical conversion facility with the requisite capacity to fuel a given number of MSRs while following all applicable regulations?
BTW – it was not too long ago that the world market price for uranium was less than $10 per pound. The break even price for many operating mines today is in the range of $20 per pound, but there are also a large number of high quality resources that have been put off limits by various laws and regulations. I have no idea what the cost per pound could be if some restrictions were lifted and the market allowed to expand.
The point I am trying to make is that it is unfair and unrealistic to compare the fully burdened cost of using uranium with the idealized cost of using thorium. There are many hurdles to overcome and many opportunities for the people who do not like competing with nuclear energy to think of creative ways to add even more hurdles and cost barriers.
Rod, my understanding is that LFTR doesn’t have to use ‘thorium metal’ but can use it in its raw, milled (meaning pure, without spoil or dirt) state. Powered, dropped in through a hopper into the return loop. Not very expensive.
In the days when the rewards for violence were high it made sense to have better military technology (e.g. the British Navy) than your competitors.
Today, the rewards for violence are much diminished so warfare is more likely to impoverish a nation than enrich it.
In the long term, the power and influence of nations will depend more and more on good technical decisions especially in the area of energy policy. Nations that make sound decisions will reap the benefits of cheap and abundant energy.
Right now China, India and Russia seem to be making better technical decisions than western Europe and Japan. Thirty years from now the consequences will be obvious to all.
Which path will the USA choose? The next election may prove to be the turning point for good or ill.
Are you running for office?
Your post here could almost be re-purposed as decent portion of a campaign platform.
I ran for office in 2002 and got badly beaten by Eleanor Kinnaird whose politics are somewhat to the left of Karl Marx.
Nevertheless, I am delighted to find some of today’s presidential candidates picking up on my ideas from 9 years ago. For example, Newt Gingrich has discovered the benefits of replacing “Targeted Industrial Incentives” with low corporate taxes as in the Republic of Ireland, Singapore and some ex-Comecon countries:
Rod Adams says that nuclear fuel is so cheap that efficiency does not matter. Whether your reactor consumes 0.5% of the fuel or 99.5% will make no significant difference to the bean counters.
So in the short term we can stick with LWR technology, especially since the efficiency of enrichment technology has improved so dramatically.
Nevertheless we need to keep working on generation IV technology (FRs, LTTRs etc,) to take care of the long term (millennia) but by definition there is no rush.
My guess is that by 2100 MSRs will rule and fusion power will still be 40 years in the future.
“My guess is that by 2100 MSRs will rule and fusion power will still be 40 years in the future.”
Camel, your guess sounds about right. I would guess that by then thorium-fueled (after initial start-up fissile loading) MSRs will be the work-horses, with some fast reactors operating to burn legacy actinides and disposition DU.
There will probably also either be a separate class of non-liquid-fueled high temperature reactors to provide needed heat for high temperature processes, OR the MSR’s tied into industrial processes will have their temperatures amplified above their core outlet temperatures (see: Abel, Cal).
OK, so…this is where people start projecting way too much. I encounter this with anti-nukes all the time who think the word will run on PV.
I’m writing this as a LFTR advocate and would LIKE to see LFTR develop into a planetary “Thorium Economy”. But that’s not happening. Materialist philosophers like Hegal and Engels would say “What is, is”. That is, what IS happening is that while LFTR is developing in fits and starts slowly, Fast Reactors are *fast* becoming a standard, or at least the policy maker are planning on them becoming such: India, China and Russia are all putting down big bucks (or rubles, yaun or rupees) on developing Fast Reactors in various forms.
Thus the Chinese “as of today” see 1500 GWs of Fast Reactors eventually displacing Gen III reactors (with a huge overlap by 2050) by the end of this century.
Where does LFTR come in then? The Chinese are developing their version: the “Thorium Fueled Molten Salt Reactors” (we have some work to do to develop the meme of “LFTR” in the PRC).
Until this gets going, it cannot challenge that IFR paradigm. Until there is an actual *dynamic* of proof-of-concept, the IFR future is assured *over* any MSR tech.
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