Kennedy Maize published a Power Magazine blog post titled Curmudgeon’s View: Waste, DOE, and New Reactors that provided a view of high temperature gas reactors that conflicted with mine. (Ken Maize happens to share my view about Yucca Mountain and the efficacy of simply storing used fuel in safe containers on reactor sites, so I figured that he is worth a bit of correspondence.)
Here is what Ken had to say about high temperature reactors that piqued my ire:
Along those lines, DOE has also announced $40 million in R&D money for a nuclear reactor technology that has been around for five decades, sucked up hundreds of millions of federal money, and failed to demonstrated anything approaching commercial viability. Failed nuclear reactor technologies never die at DOE. They just smell that way, and continue to rake in money, despite the odor.
The energy agency says it will split the $40 million between Westinghouse in Pittsburgh and San Diego-based General Atomics for work on what it calls, with no sense of shame, history, or irony, the “Next Generation Nuclear Plant” or NGNP. Please, this is a last generation technology: high temperature gas-cooled reactors. Looks good on paper, doesn’t work on the ground.
Ken’s comment has some validity; I can understand how an outside observer who is good at reviewing projects and history with a bit less understanding of the engineering and physics aspects of the underlying technology could reach that conclusion. If I did not have a strong background in thermodynamics, reactor operations, high temperature reactor fuel development, and Brayton cycle gas turbine technology, I might agree with Ken’s assessment.
Since I also have some direct knowledge of the history and personalities associated with the specific programs that he does not favor, I really disagree with his technical assessment. The reasons for the failures in the past have little to do with whether or not high temperature gas reactors have a technical future. Here is the first comment that I posted on Ken’s blog:
Kennedy – one of the reasons that Gulf General Atomics did not succeed in actually building the 10 or so HTGR’s that were ordered as follow-ons to Ft. St. Vrain is that its chosen capital partner got “cold feet.” At least that is the official story. As an energy historian and established energy industry skeptic, I believe that the real reason was that the chosen capital partner for the building projects recognized that the HTGR’s, like all of the other reactors that were being built at a total rate of 10 or so per year during the period between 1963 and 1973, were formidable competitors in its primary business of selling heat.
Time to end the mystery – the capital partner that Gulf General Atomics chose to help it build nuclear power plants was Royal Dutch Shell. That company bought into GGA in 1973 and changed the name to General Atomics. Within a year of that event, the order cancellations started rolling in.
I have it from pretty good sources that as soon as Shell came on board, they sent their sales teams out into the field in an attempt to get the orders cancelled at the lowest possible cost. Some have told me that Shell did that because their engineers determined that the design was too immature to build, but I have a nagging suspicion. Why wouldn’t they have figured that out BEFORE spending the money to buy into the company. Is DUE DILIGENCE a new concept in the business world?
Some of the above can be found on Wikipedia, but the interpretation of history is my own.