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16 Comments

  1. Hate to break it to you, Rod, but the DOE’s NGNP program has become a long train to nowhere. Seven years after it dreamed up the term “Next Generation Nuclear Plant,” the DOE still hasn’t decided on a design for this plant (pebble vs. prismatic).
    So today, the DOE is giving money to two companies — one of which doesn’t have the engineers to build anything nuclear, the other is in such dire straights financially that it is laying off hundreds of engineers. So these companies will produce what? More studies?
    Nevertheless, Kennedy’s piece is really piss poor and shows very little research or understanding of nuclear technology (hasn’t Kennedy ever heard of MOX for goodness sake?!), so it’s not surprising that this person comes down on hard on gas-cooled reactors. Kennedy simply lacks the knowledge to see the advantages that modular gas-cooled reactors could provide.
    It’s just a shame that development of this technology in the US is left to the DOE.
    P.S. I really shouldn’t be too hard on the DOE. They have made remarkable progress when it comes to TRISO fuel for these gas-cooled reactors.

    1. I have no experience with General Atomics but I can assure you that Westinghouse does have the engineers to design and build new nuclear devices. Both senior personnel and the new crop out of college.

      1. Westinghouse is pretty much relying on PBMR Pty Ltd. for their work on the NGNP.
        Westinghouse has lots of experience with Pressurized Water Reactors, but not much with TRISO-fuel gas-cooled reactors.

        1. I foresee Westinghouse abandoning its share in PBMR due to Eskom’s financial troubles. I have heard many possibilities for Westinghouse’s NGNP but I’d put my money on it being funneled towards more IRIS design.
          Westinghouse has the most experience of anyone with PWRs and prefer to keep this as their bread and butter. Servicing PWRs and fuel fabrication make up the bulk of their profits. Almost none of the major nuclear vendors have experience with TRISO fuel and I feel that most gas-cooled reactor engineers have gone by the wayside or are all located in England.

          1. I don’t think so. The NGNP is, by definition, a high temperature gas-cooled reactor.
            Westinghouse doesn’t make the rules. The DOE, particularly Idaho National Lab, makes the rules, and if Westinghouse wants to continue to receive money to do studies, it will play by those rules.

            1. My apologies, I did not realize that NGNP is now defined as gas cooled. Well then you are correct that the PBMR is the only gas reactor that westinghouse has its hands in. However, 40 million or so is an extremely small amount and won’t be able to dig the current south african designed PBMR out of it’s current financial problems.

          2. Maybe someone should ask the Brits to put in a tender, then? They’re the only ones out there who actually have large quantities of even remotely similar plants. From what I know, the AGCRs have been successful.

    2. Mr. Mays, you sound disappointed that AREVA got thrown under the bus in the NGNP competition. Was their proposal technically superior to Westinghouse’s and General Atomics?

      1. I have no idea, since I haven’t read any of the proposals.
        Can’t you read? I said that NGNP has been going nowhere for years, long before the latest round of grant funding. If NGNP was going somewhere, they would be funding only one design by now, not still playing around with two.

        1. @Brian – The NGNP program is certainly moving “deliberately” (aka slowly), but as near as I can tell, the program is still on the same projected timeline that the Office of Nuclear Energy showed me when I visited them in the spring of 2005. I was there to present on the Adams Engine(TM).
          A major part of the long timeline and the delay in choosing pebble versus prismatic is that there was a lengthy fuel testing and qualification regime for the TRISO particles that allowed plenty of time for design concepts. Until the particle tests are complete (still a couple of years into the future), there really is no need to make a decision about the next higher fuel assembly configuration – prismatic versus pebble. Keeping the options open keeps some competition in the program and broadens the field of engineers who are familiar enough with the concepts to train others. (BTW – that timeline in 2005 led to initial operation in 2021. That was part of the reason why we decided to put the Adams Engine concept back to sleep until there is an available, tested, certifiable fuel being manufactured in more than prototype quantities.)
          At some point, all programs need to make decisions, but making important decisions too early leads to an early lock. Though I personally favor pebbles because I believe they provide more flexibility in unit sizing, reduce some of the inherent manufacturing costs (drilling precision holes in the large prism elements that GA likes will never be “cheap”, but making millions of balls can be a very automated process), and provide the potential for online refueling, I can see where prisms have some attraction due to the ability to precisely control fuel and poison loading and provide easy location for control rods. Each design’s inherent limitations can be mitigated somewhat depending on how the engineers solve the detailed design issues – that is the step that is in progress now.
          It would be great if there was a way to move faster or if more companies could see the advantages in using gas coolants without a demonstration. Sometimes really valuable concepts require time and patience – it takes a long time to test fuel to the satisfaction of the regulators because actually achieving a burn-up in excess of 100,000 MW-days/ton of heavy metal requires a lot of neutrons. The testing can only be accelerated so much before the test conditions greatly exceed the stresses that will actually be seen in operation and produce results that are not really valid.
          I see great potential for gas cooled systems; there are technical hurdles that are being lowered and licensing issues that are being solved by the NGNP program. The technology offers a path that can lead to a variety of systems that can do things that even the most refined light water systems will have trouble doing.

          1. A very-high-quality HTGR fuel is its own containment – this is one of the most attractive features of the HTGR design.
            As for pellets vs. prisms – I actually favor a reverse of what Rod proposes. Pellets are attractive in large reactors for several reasons – continuous online fuel inspection and refueling, “brilliant pebbles” capable of in-core realtime telemetry, and the ability to dump the core into pellet storage through gravity as a reserve means of shutdown.
            In a small modular reactor, I’m not sure that you would be able to get as many benefits from a variable geometry core as you would in a large reactor, because there would probably be no integral pellet-handling and refueling machinery – pellet dump system – or in-core “brilliant pebbles” expected to last throughout the small modular reactor’s refueling cycle (likely many years). Rather, in the small modular reactor, I would argue that pre-cast prisms would make sense, as the geometry of the core would be fixed and stable. For mass production, you wouldn’t necessarily need to drill holes in prisms. You could have several different prism mold types – each with pre-arranged channels built into the mold, perhaps? Wouldn’t that be nearly as inexpensive as the pellet design?

          2. Well, it’s nice to know that the Chinese and Japanese will have the ability to buy first-rate technology for manufacturing TRISO fuel for their gas-cooled reactors.
            “A major part of the long timeline and the delay in choosing pebble versus prismatic is that there was a lengthy fuel testing and qualification regime for the TRISO particles that allowed plenty of time for design concepts.”
            More like plenty of time to do nothing. Has anything significant really changed in these designs in the last half decade?
            “Keeping the options open keeps some competition in the program and broadens the field of engineers who are familiar enough with the concepts to train others.”
            I fail to see how giving money to South African engineers or the old-timers at GA, who normally would have retired over a decade ago, to write a couple of reports on pre-conceptual designs is going to do much to train a “field” of new American engineers to understand gas-cooled reactors.
            (Aside: Don’t get me wrong, I know that these guys are sharp. I’ve hoisted beers with a few of them.)
            Actually building something, on the other hand, would employ plenty of Americans to do the detailed engineering, construction, operation, and maintenance of these plants.
            “that timeline in 2005 led to initial operation in 2021.”
            Heh … do you really think that NGNP is going to be funded until 2021!? Do you really think that NGNP is ever going to be funded to the extent that they’ll actually be able to build something? (Hint: It will require much more than $40 million.)
            The problem with keeping two designs is that your progress on each design is effectively cut in half. Thus, it takes twice as long and twice the resources to get where you’re going.
            When it comes to projects such as the NGNP, time is not something that’s on your side. People lose interest, as we’ve already seen. It’s not just private companies that are losing interest (remember Entergy’s “Freedom Reactor”?), but other entities with deeper pockets as well. Both South Africa’s Eskom and France’s EdF have apparently given up on gas-cooled reactors. It’s only a matter of time before the US Congress loses interest as well.
            What happens then? Well, NGNP will join the many other projects to build a gas-cooled reactor that went nowhere: the NPR, the Russian plutonium-burning GT-MHR, the HTR-Modul, etc., etc.

            1. The answer is to work around the NRC. Fabricate a reactor (minus fuel); purchase outright some large, old, but intact cargo ship; install reactor on board; sail it 500 miles off the Atlantic coast (outside of the US EEZ), get an export license and hire a transport to bring the fuel to you; load the reactor, and start it up.
              Or, if you must have ground under your feet, find some Third World country with a deserted island out in the middle of nowhere. Deposit several millions in El Presidente’s Swiss bank account to get El Presidente’s Special Decree on Reactors decreed. Use island for reactor demonstration.
              When reactor is successfully running, invite press, colleagues, and First World regulators, IAEA inspectors, and other interested international parties to examine.
              All perfectly legit (I think), and the budget could be very low, doable with private capital.

  2. China still is in the HTGR business (HTR-PM at Shidaowan). I hear they are in actual construction. It’s too bad we can’t do likewise.

  3. I’m not sure I’d cut back on any nuclear fission research. Long time climate reporter Andy Revkin formerly of the NY Times often points out the relative starvation of all types of research into better sources of energy. Although Revkin does not “get” nuclear, i.e. he will not mention it when discussing the “most promising” ways to deal with CO2 emissions, the charts he published include the nuclear story, classed as it is with all other energy research.
    This AAAS chart: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/04/what-would-an-energy-moon-shot-look-like/ shows relative and absolute federal R&D expenditure 1953 – 2007 on Health, Space, all forms of Energy, General Science, Nat.Res/Env, and Other.
    Revkin describes the graph, looking at the energy portion relative to the rest, as “an emaciated python that had one decent meal” which was after the oil shock of the 1970s.
    This NYTimes chart assembled from AAAS and other sources shows that military research simply dwarfs all other research to the point it couldn’t fit onto the previous graph. http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2006/10/29/business/1030-nat-ENERGY2-for-web.gif
    The IEA has called for urgent research into what they call “nonpolluting energy technologies” to limit climate risks and security problems, which Revkin reported on as “akin to the Apollo space program or the Manhattan Project”. This call specifically included nuclear. John Holdren, now President Obama’s science advisor, stated for publication at that time

    1. I wouldn’t say that climate change is a species survival threatening contingency, or even a civilization-threatening contingency. It will be nasty unless we get off our buttocks, however, and start moving very deliberately to roll back carbon emissions to a sustainable level. In this, we need all the help we can get – and we need it now.
      HTGRs are kind of the “low hanging fruit” of the Generation IV nuclear designs – and they need to be pursued – and pursued now.

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