Pro-nuclear advocates should stop bashing advanced nuclear 1

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  1. I often wonder if the alternative designs that get government funding and do a lot of public relations outreach/marketing are a planned opposition to building a nuclear fleet that provides 80% baseload in the USA… We kick this nuclear grid option down the road with the excuse that we’re waiting for better technology, while most of that “better tech” is 100MWe pebble beds and SMRs that can’t fill that baseload demand unless built in the thousands… The microreactors take this to comical conclusions arguing that more people and industry will relocate to the arctic tundra once $300/Mwe (at the crank) power is locally available. I also look for the interchange of executive level employees between government agencies and the startups; collusion, favoritism, and academic elitism is universally present. I’ve come to believe the DOE is funding these things to look busy, to give the appearance of moving the technology forward, while appeasing the interests that want nuclear energy suppressed. I’m a mechanical engineer with a master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering. I’ve spent 20 years in fuel design and reactor engineering mostly for operating, but also conceptual nuclear plants. I’ve done a deep enough dive to satisfy my curiosity about literally every power reactor concept ever put forth from ‘GEN4’ to MHD space reactors. There aren’t that many ways to skin this cat (fission); there are 98 elements in the periodic table, only a handful of them have any use in the reaction zone. Any fluid that enters the reaction zone needs to be simple, and relatively inert across a wide range of temperatures; there are similarly few candidates (water, helium, CO2, sodium, arguably Pb) – some of these are only inert in a carefully controlled system (sodium, fluorides) – while others present no real hazard in any context (water, helium, CO2) and are thus much preferred operationally. Let’s not forget that reactors are intended to spend most of their time in operation (decades) and very little time in design (years), so while a fluoride salt or lead might look good in a conceptual design they usually present crippling challenges in operation over years where the reactors are operated and repaired by meat bags. In the context of my experience at operating plants, I find it illogical to assume that the 38 year-old reactor that was shutdown 10 times in the last 3 years for various mechanical problems would be more reliable if the RCS were full of lead – it truly is a non sequitur.

    1. Well, there a saying out there: “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.”

      Michael – It seems that you envision the third option for the United States. These designs (not all of them, but certainly some of them) will be built, but by other countries. As an example, let’s take your own words:

      “… while most of that ‘better tech’ is 100MWe pebble beds and SMRs that can’t fill that baseload demand unless built in the thousands.”

      China now has its HTR-PM (pebble bed design) in commercial operation, which produces 210 MWe, not 100. This is a country that has been bringing online a new coal plant EVERY WEEK. They definitely have the capability and the will to build these things in the thousands.

      Meanwhile, there are plenty of people in the US who think like IBM’s Thomas J. Watson, who supposedly said (probably apocryphal): “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

      To me, defenders of Generation II LWR technology are like defenders of “core memory,” which was the standard technology for “mini-computers” 50 years ago. It worked, it was dependable (even kept state if the power was shut down), but it was expensive as hell due to specialists needing to “weave” the wires through tiny annular pieces of metal (thank goodness for women with first-class knitting skills). As a result, it was nearly gone by the 1980s.

      At the same time, semiconductor manufacturing relocated from California to outside of the US. Coincidence?

    2. I agree that microreactors and 100 MWe SMR’s are not going to get us to nuclear providing 80% of our baseload. However, SFR’s and GFR’s can be built in sizes equal to the largest LWR’s and are far more efficient both in terms of electricity generation and fuel usage. They also enable the fuel cycle to be closed. The idea that we’re stuck with LWR’s for large-scale baseload is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the worst kind. LWR’s are completely and utterly unsustainable and unjustifiable as a long-term energy/climate solution. There are no significant technological obstacles to designs like GA’s Energy Multiplier Module or the European GFR-1200. Those are the designs that we should be investing in if we’re talking about nuclear providing 80% baseload.

    3. A good writeup Michael. A couple of poimts though.

      Actually water without precise chemistry control is very corrosive. All reactors require good chemistry control (there’s no such thing as pure helium). Davis Besse shows that borated water isn’t too nice either. And 155 bar borated water at 320C doesn’t qualify as “no hazard”.

      Fluoride salts are stable, don’t generate hydrogen, and corrosion control rests on having the salt reducing toward the structural alloy rather than the passivation layer required with water. Fluoride salts also do not cause stress corrosion. So it ends up a simple matter of allowance thicknesses.

      I like LWRs. Much better than coal plants. But they are basically glass cannons. The power goes out, the core melts down, generating explosive hydrogen in the process that detonates the containment and spreads radionuclides all over the country. Or someone thinks there is water in the core when there isn’t and the core melts down. A glass cannon like that just begs for military grade bureacracy not unlike a nuclear missile silo. Said bureaucracy is very expensive and results in all manner of bloat that inflated prices and build times. With advanced reactors focussing on inherent safety you at least have a case for a more rational regulatory approach.

      A 3000 MWt LWR gets you 1000 MWe. An advanced reactor of 3000 MWt gets you 1500 MWe. That’s a quarter billion bucks a year more revenue.

      By the way, 3 outages in 10 years is very good. Solar power stations have 365 outages a year.

  2. I have other theories where a side-objective of funding ‘next-generation’ technology is a knowledge retention and transfer effort. For instance, one benefit of the various microreactor funding efforts is training the new graduates in nuclear engineering. Maybe training is THE GOAL, since it should be clear that a 5 MWe reactor that costs $20M and achieves 10% of LWR burnup with HALEU, while requiring 24-hour staffing and security in the desert or tundra or on the moon, has no valid commercial argument. Rod, we saw about $500M go up in smoke at BWXT from 2010-2015 – there was no accountability – the spending was wildly out of control – I will never forget that! mPower gave me the perspective of a lifetime. I still follow Christofer Mowry’s career… after the golden parachute received after BWXT, he left the General Fusion CEO in 07/2022, and is now at his second fusion startup. There is a lot to unpack there.

    1. The trajectory of one company with a certain dominating leader isn’t indicative of the entire advanced nuclear sector.

      I have plenty of personal stories from that experience that I could, but won’t, share.

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