Brad Plumer on Nuclear Learnings from France & South Korea

Brad’s excellent essay on Vox interprets the recent Energy Policy paper by Jessica Lovering, Arthur Yip, and Ted Nordhaus. I have really just one quibble with Brad’s “Four broad lessons” summary where he wrote:

1) Stable regulations are essential for nuclear power to thrive. More than, say, solar or wind, nuclear will always need strict safety and environmental regulations. No way around that. The risks are inherently higher.

That’s an example of the “see I’m not pro-nuclear” positioning that we often notice even in informed commentary on how nuclear power fits into the menu of low carbon options. The relative risks of nuclear power are not inherently higher! In his marvelous “Sustainable energy without the hot air” David Mackay’s Chapter 24 Nuclear? examines nuclear power. From that chapter I extracted following graphic. This is David’s computation of deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year), which he has extracted from two of the studies we’ve previously referenced: the EU ExternE research, and the Paul Scherrer Institute.David MacKay relative risks of energy options

  • Our goal is to substitute low-carbon for fossil, especially coal, and especially in the developing fast-growing nations.
  • Amongst the low-carbon options, nuclear has proven to be the safest and really the only scaleable option that can displace coal and natural gas.
  • Nobody is proposing to build more unsafe Chernobyl RBMK unsafe. Yet Chernobyl deaths dominate the tiny comparative death-print statistics of our generation options. Take away Chernobyl and commercial nuclear’s death-print is effectively zero.

When I first studied the relative risks of our energy options I quickly realized that my fears of nuclear catastrophe were based entirely on media mythology. The media don’t report on the thousands of people killed by fossil fuels every year. Even major accidents like the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion are not widely reported or investigated (this 2010 accident was in a suburb of San Francisco: 8 fatalities, 52 injured). Fossil energy causes real people to die every year – real deaths versus theoretical nuclear deaths.

San Bruno gas pipeline explosion

We have a civilizational choice to make: whether we organize political support to scale up construction of advanced nuclear plants that are both economical and orders of magnitude safer than the existing safe 3G plants. If we fail to do that we are going to squander our wealth on the renewables dream – only to find ourselves blockaded by the economics when we are only halfway to our goal of zero emissions energy.

UCB’s Per Peterson on China’s advanced nuclear program

In this essential Breakthrough interview Per Peterson summarizes China’s advanced nuclear development – including the US – China collaboration. I think this collaboration is the one global effort that could have a material impact on climate change. US support for the cooperation seems to be hidden from the usual political shout-fest — at least if there is anyone in the executive who is taking credit for even allowing the cooperation I’ve not heard of it. Imagine what could be accomplished if there was enthusiastic, high-level backing and 10x as much funding? This is just a fragment of the interview focused on China:

What are China’s plans for advanced molten salt nuclear reactors?

China has a huge nuclear program and is building almost every kind of reactor possible, including a number of experimental advanced reactors. Two years ago the Chinese Academy of Sciences decided to pursue a thorium liquid-fueled molten salt reactor, but first decided to build an intermediate reactor that uses a solid fuel with salt as coolant. (The choice to build a solid fuel reactor reduces the licensing risk without heavily compromising performance.) In 2015, China will be starting the construction of the 10 MW solid-fueled thorium molten salt test reactor. By 2017 they hope to have this reactor operating. And by 2022, they hope to have commissioned a 100 MW thorium molten salt commercial prototype reactor. Alongside this effort, the Chinese will be developing a 2 MW liquid-fueled reactor that will enter the final stages of testing in 2017.

Are you collaborating with the Chinese on this effort?

There is an ongoing formal collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the US Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE has a memorandum of understanding with the CAS. Under this formal umbrella, our research group has an informal relationship with the Shanghai Institute of Physics. There is also a cooperative research agreement being developed between China and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which would provide funding for China’s thorium molten salt research effort.

Tell us more about US involvement in the Chinese effort to commercialize advanced nuclear technologies.

The US DOE has been reviewing the Chinese effort to build a molten salt reactor. The Chinese program has been using US expertise in reactor safety, and US experts have reviewed the early test reactor design and remain engaged. So far, China’s nuclear regulatory policy has been to adopt and follow the safety and licensing regulation of the exporting country. Russian-built reactors in China are have adopted a regulatory approach similar to that of Russia. Likewise, licensing for the Westinghouse AP1000s that are being built in China is following a US approach. There appears to be an emerging, consensus approach in the US and in China for safety for molten salt reactors as well.

How should the US participate in the commercialization of these reactors?

My view is that the United States needs to maintain the capability to independently develop advanced nuclear designs that are being studied and will be commercialized in China. Maintaining such capability could encourage US-China joint ventures, which could accelerate development and thus ensure that commercial designs are deployed at large scale as soon as possible. The United States has a lot of expertise in the areas of nuclear safety and licensing, and could bring such expertise to US-China partnerships. If new advanced nuclear designs are simultaneously licensed in both the US and China, the possibility for large-scale deployment increases.

Do you think such reverse engineering is possible? Isn’t China keeping their plans secret?

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has been remarkably open and transparent in their effort to build their thorium molten salt reactor. They’ve been doing a lot of international collaboration. All of the reports are published in an extraordinary level of detail. This collaboration is really important if we want to see this technology developed and deployed soon enough to make a real difference in helping reduce climate change. If China can stay on track to commission a 100 MW commercial scale reactor by 2022, it would be fantastic if this reactor could include substantial contribution by US industry as well. This kind of collaboration could lead to a joint venture effort that could result in more rapid and larger near-term deployment.

The April 2014 Breakthrough interview is a very concise and up to date informed perspective on the current status and the future of nuclear power: UC Berkeley’s Per Peterson Pursues Radical New Design with Off-the-Shelf Technologies. Please help everyone you know to read and understand.


Geoff Russell: bizarre imaginings are blocking mass deployment of clean nuclear energy

Geoff wrote a pithy comment on the 2012 Nature article on advanced nuclear.

The characterisation of India's 1974 bomb as being “from reactor fuel” inviting “rampant nuclear-weapons proliferation” is unsupported by consequent events. There has not been rampant nuclear weapons proliferation. The invitation was clearly declined. John Mueller's “Atomic Obsession” goes into substantial detail in its explanations of why this hasn't happened, but the brute fact is that it hasn't. The fact that something is technically possible says nothing about its likelihood and the world now faces real climate dangers while being hamstrung in the deployment of our most scalable energy system because of bizarre imaginings. Had the US and other countries followed France and not been scared by these imaginings, they'd all be producing electricity for 90 grams of CO2/kWh instead of the current global average of 500 grams CO2/kWh and the world would be a much, much safer place with a far more manageable climate problem. We must not let over active imaginations stand in the way of a massive deployment of clean nuclear energy.

The whole article is worth a read.


Miniature Nuclear Plants Seek Approval

“We’re building iPhones when the nuclear industry has traditionally built mainframe computers”

Said John Deal, CEO of Hyperion Power Generation in an interview with Business Week.

While utility-scale reactors cost about $2.3 billion apiece and produce 1.2 gigawatts of power, Hyperion’s price tag is $50 million for a 25-megawatt reactor more comparable to a diesel generators or wind farms.

Transportable by truck, the units would come in a sealed box and work around the clock, requiring less maintenance than a fossil fuel plant, the developers say. They’d cost 15 percent less per megawatt of capacity than the average full-scale atomic reactors now in on the drawing board, according to World Nuclear Association data.

“A 25-megawatt plant would put electricity into 20,000 homes, and it would fit inside this room,” James Kohlhaas, vice president at a Lockheed Martin Corp. unit that builds power systems for remote military bases, said in an interview. “It’s a pretty elegant micro-grid solution.”

Certifying and building small reactors will require the same multi-year licensing procedure necessary for bigger plants. And since no small-scale systems are operating, there’s no track record to know how well they will work.

That last paragraph flags one of the most insurmountable roadblocks to mass-manufactured modular nuclear power. The NRC is structured for mega-nuclear only. Only the US Congress can fix that problem, by amending the charter of NRC to provide realistically priced services to the modular plant innovators like Hyperion, or NuScale. The head of the IAEA agrees:

“Whether it’s a small or large reactor, the hoops you have to jump through are the same,” said Hans-Holger Rogner, head of economic planning at the International Atomic Energy Agency. “You open up a Pandora’s Box of intervention from society every time you try to build any kind of nuclear plant.”

TCASE 3: Projecting energy demand through 2050

Univ. of Adelaide Prof. Barry Brook tackles the essential and tough challenge of projecting future energy demand. My very rough summary of Barry’s estimates is that, on average, we need to commission the equivalent of two AP1000 size nuclear reactor every three days through 2050. Since GDP is an exponential, and we are so far behind on initiating this scale of new construction, obviously the actual construction function is going to be exponential. Does anyone believe that this challenge can by achieved by continuing to build reactors on site? Factory mass production of standard units is the only answer, many of them small reactors.

Updated 13/10/2009, based on post comments. Bottom line: 2050 power demand will be ~10 TWe of electrical generating power — a 5-fold increase on today’s levels, requiring the construction of ~680 MWe per day from 2010 to 2050. Before we look in detail at the various low-carbon energy technologies that may provide the means to move […] [From TCASE 3: The energy demand equation to 2050]

There are a number of informed comments. E.g., this closing paragraph from John Newlands

…I question whether it is now even politically possible to do that since the required investment will take money away from retail consumption, the military and so on. The public mindset is not ready to be challenged with ideas like a quadrupling of the number of reactors. It seems both the economy and the climate will have to deteriorate a while longer.

See David Walters’ discussion of mass manufacturing small to very large LFTRs (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor). David contributed many useful comments – e.g., this one paragraph from his 12th October.

First, I doubt we’ll seen an additional “800GWs”. I’ve seen different numbers on this as well, because it assumes uninterrupted growth, which I doubt they will have, and growth in areas that demand increases in power. I know other consultants, albeit all Western, who have doubts as well. The common number I’ve seen is 1,000 GWs more by 2050.

Nuclear power and the low carbon economy

Prof. Barry Brook was interviewed on ABC Radio/Counterpoint (downloadable MP3 and complete transcript). In this excerpt Barry discusses the old way, custom built reactors, vs. the promise of manufactured fast breeder reactor designs:

Paul Comrie-Thomson: (…) You say that we now have standardised modular passive safety designs which can be factory built and shipped to site. You say they’re game changes for the industry. How does it change the game?

Barry Brook: One of the biggest problems with the American reactor program and why it stalled in the ’70s and ’80s, Three Mile Island notwithstanding, was that the costs were escalating. When it cost $300 million to build a reactor in 1972 and it cost $6 billion in the early ’80s, something has gone terribly wrong. Part of that was the legal suits that extended the reactor certification time over to a period of decades. So part of it was the anti-nuclear movement that did that, but also a part of it was each design was different. So everything was built anew, new features were tried out, every design needed a special certificate to actually be built and then another certificate to be run. So the whole system ultimately was set up to fail and things became more and more expensive.

If you can have a system where you have a standardised design with components that are built to a particular specification, if you can have components that are built in a factory and shipped to site rather than everything needed to be constructed on site, if you have modules where they’re smaller such as they can be put on a rail car or on a large truck and taken to site and the many of these units put together to constitute a plant, then you can start to see that there’s huge benefits in terms of efficiency, the fact that you don’t need a standardised certificate for each and every new reactor, that there are economic benefits in building multiple units at a given factory. The places where this is happening is China and India right now. So although these have often been blamed as some of the worst carbon polluters, ultimately and ironically they could be the nations that lead us out of the carbon economy and into a low carbon economy based on nuclear power.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: The 2006 Switkowski Report on nuclear power in Australia, it hardly mentioned fast reactors. How do you see their potential?

Barry Brook: Fast reactors are an old type of reactor design. The first reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 built in the US to work out many of the glitches in nuclear power production was a fast reactor, but almost every reactor that’s been built since and all of the currently commercial reactors in the US, in Japan and in France are what’s known as light water reactors. They’re basically two designs; a pressurised water reactor and a boiling water reactor. They use water to slow down neutrons in a nuclear reaction to make the fission of uranium 235 more likely…it’s a bit of a technical topic, I know, but basically it makes it a lot easier to generate power from uranium 235.

Fast reactors use a different technology where instead of using water to cool the fuel and transfer heat to a steam turbine they use a liquid metal. Sodium is often used, lead is another possibility. It’s hard to imagine that you could have a molten metal as the coolant in a reactor but that’s exactly what it does. And it has a number of advantages because you can not only burn all of the uranium 235 but you can burn the uranium 238 which people may have heard of as depleted uranium, the uranium that’s left over after you’ve tried to enrich it to increase the concentration of uranium 235. It’s the stuff they use in bullets and tank armour, it’s very common. If you can get the energy out of that, which is what fast reactors can do, then potentially you can unlock 100 to 300 times the energy we’re currently using out of uranium. And even better than that, we can take all of the spent fuel that’s been generated by all the world’s nuclear reactors to date and generate power from that, and change it from a 100,000-year management problem to about a 300-year management problem.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Which is why you say nuclear power is the world’s primary source of sustainable carbon free energy. It’s a big claim.

Please continue reading… to learn the answer to Paul’s question and more.

Highly recommended.

A Preassembled Nuclear Reactor

Babcock and Wilcox have a new small, modular reactor design. B&W are old hands, having built nuclear reactors for the United States Navy ships for about 50 years. En excerpt from MIT Technology Review:

…The new Babcock and Wilcox reactor design could make nuclear power plants less of a financial risk, Kadak says. The reactors are much smaller, designed to generate 150 megawatts each, but could also be strung together to generate as much as a conventional nuclear power plant. They also integrate two separate components of a conventional power plant in a single package: the reactor itself and the equipment used to generate steam from the heat that the reactor produces. As a result, the entire system is small enough to be shipped on a railcar. And because the system can be shipped, it can be manufactured at a central facility and then delivered to the site of a future power plant.

Building a reactor in a factory should save construction time, says Kadak. He estimates that what takes eight hours to do in the field could be done in just one hour in a factory. Once the reactor is manufactured, it would then be shipped to the site of a power plant along with the necessary containment walls, turbines for generating electricity, control systems, and so on. Christofer Mowry, CEO of Babcock and Wilcox, estimates that total construction time will be three years–at least two years less than conventional construction would take.

The reduced construction time could save on both construction and financing costs, since less time would be spent waiting for the plant to start producing power. The design also avoids a bottleneck in conventional nuclear power plant construction, which is that the large reactor vessel–a pressurized chamber containing the reactor core and necessary coolant–can only be manufactured in a few plants in the world, and none of these is in the United States, Mowry says.


Although the new reactors are smaller than conventional ones, they use the same underlying technology–they’re light water reactors–so Mowry says that it will be possible to get them certified under existing regulations. At least two other companies in the United States are developing small, modular light water reactors. One design, from Westinghouse, provided the template for combining the steam generator and the reactor, although it isn’t designed to be built in a factory. A startup called NuScale also has a design for a small modular system that can be built in factories and shipped to power plants. Those reactors would generate only about 40 megawatts each. Other companies and researchers, including Kadak, are developing designs for future modular reactors using more advanced technology that will require a new regulatory process.

TWiN 62 – Nuclear Energy and the Obama Administration

Episode 62 of This Week in Nuclear examines the key new Obama people — will they help or hinder new nuclear power? My bottom line is there is almost no hope for a sane nuclear policy out of this crowd. A possible exception is Steven Chu — he is a very bright guy, a critical thinker. If somehow the nuclear case can get on his desk, then Dr. Chu will probably figure out that this is his best option for zero-carbon economic growth.

Listen to the podcast here

It’s hard to get into any kind of discussion about energy these days without someone asking, “What will happen under the new administration?” or “Do you think we’ll start building new nuclear plants with President Obama in power?” Those are tough questions to answer. Probably the best way to predict the future under the Obama administration and congress is to look at the recent statements and past actions of the people who are in positions of authority or influence in the new government. You cannot focus just on President Obama and his White House team; you also have to look at congress and at the various committees that will create new energy and climate legislation. In this episode, I’ll try to provide my views on a few of the leaders who will guide the creation of new laws and policies that will influence the near term, and perhaps the long term future of nuclear energy in the USA.

I’ll start with the obvious. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is a long time opponent of any legislation that might benefit the nuclear industry. His opposition goes well beyond a practical and fact-driven position to the verge of fanatical. Yucca Mountain, the designated long term geological storage facility, is in his state and he will do anything and everything to block or slow its progress. In fact, he’s already doing that with the power that congress has over the budget. He’s slashed the Yucca Mountain budget to the lowest amount in years which has the same effect as killing the project all together. The nuclear industry will get no help from Harry Reid.

Representative Nancy Polosi of California, the Speaker of the House, was once strongly anti-nuclear. Fortunately she has become more supportive of nuclear energy over the last two years or so because she realizes that any credible strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has to include expanding nuclear energy. While she’s saying some of the right things, she has yet to demonstrate leadership through real action to support new nuclear construction, so the jury is still out on Nancy Polosi.

Rep. Henry Waxman, also from California, and the new Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is a strong advocate for raising automobile mileage standards, reducing energy consumption through efficiency, and expanding wind and solar energy. Rep. Waxman is influential because new energy and climate legislation will originate in his committee. While I was unable to find a single instance in which Mr. Waxman demonstrated support for nuclear energy, in a reasonable and logical world his strong opinions on climate change would translate into support for new nuclear plants. Unfortunately Washington is not always reasonable or logical. Case in point: Mr. Waxman has appointed Rep. Edward Markey (MA) to draft his committee’s climate change laws. Markey is rabidly anti-nuclear and entrenched with people who hold the irrational fear that nuclear plants are bombs waiting to happen. He’s active in the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, an anti-nuclear advocacy group. Edward Markey will never sponsor legislation that would put nuclear energy on level playing field with other energy options.

Steven Chu, the new Secretary of Energy, comes across as philosophically neutral on nuclear power. On a number of occasions he has stated that nuclear energy has the “potential” to contribute to energy security and climate change, but he is concerned about costs and about nuclear waste storage. On the other hand, Sec. Chu is vocally supportive of efficiency efforts, wind and solar energy, and biofuels. I continue to believe that any fair and logical person, when presented with the facts on safety, cost, and performance will recognize the need to give nuclear energy a priority in our energy policy. I am cautiously optimistic that Sec. Chu will work in favor an objective and fact-driven assessment of the nation’s energy options, and if that is the case Nuclear Energy will get the support needed.

Carol Browner, the new White House Coordinator for Climate and Energy Policy is President Obama’s primary adviser on how to integrate our nation’s actions to meet the goals of energy security and greenhouse gas reduction. She has been around Washington for years. As the EPA Administrator under Bill Clinton, Browner revised water quality standards for Yucca Mountain in a way that many experts feel was unreasonable and was, in reality, a tactic to delay the project. She has also stated reservations about nuclear energy because of what she termed “the waste issue.” Carol Browner is comes from the Al Gore school of climate change, and Al Gore has consistently avoided acknowledging nuclear energy’s advantages as our largest source of CO2-free energy, Browner will probably do the same.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated that energy security and supply is a mater of national security, and I could not agree more. In the past she has been a tough critic of nuclear power. She has been particularly opposed to Indian Point nuclear plant that is located only a few miles from her home in New York. In fact, she sponsored an addition to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that singled out the plant for new emergency warning system requirements. I would not oppose new nuclear regulation if I believed it would have a positive impact on safety that was commensurate with the costs, but in this case the result was millions of dollars of added costs with virtually no increase in safety. Like Nancy Polici, Mrs. Clinton’s position on nuclear energy has moderated in the last two years, so I am optimistic that she will weigh the pros and cons with objectivity and will thus support nuclear energy’s expansion as a means to increase energy security and reduce reliance on imported oil.

During the campaign President Obama was repeatedly asked about his position on nuclear energy. His consistent response was nuclear should be “on the table” while he emphasized his concerns over cost and safe storage of used fuel. There’s a common theme here; except for Edward Markey who is an anti-nuclear extremist, the two main concerns shared by leaders in the new government nuclear power are the long term storage of used nuclear fuel and the cost of new construction. If you listened to episode 60 of This Week in Nuclear you’ll know that building wind capacity is at least 2.5 times more expensive than nuclear, and new solar plants would cost 14 times more than nuclear plants for the same amount of energy generated. As for the waste issue, it is a political one, not a technical one.

It remains to be seen if the new government will be able to look beyond the panacea of cheap, abundant wind and solar energy and instead make policy based on science, fact, and engineering realities. If they are able to be objective, they will reach logical conclusions that nuclear energy can create a secure, constant, emissions-free, and cost effective energy supply we need.

On the other hand, if congress and the new administration stick to their out-dated perceptions and bias, then we’ll embark on a different course. In that case, the USA will spend the next several years and hundreds of billions of dollars promoting wind and solar energy. That scenario will NOT provide the quantity of constant, clean energy we need. Just look at Germany; their experiment into wind energy has failed – their grid in unreliable, they are growing ever more dependent on Russian natural gas, and they are importing more coal than ever. In fact, the United States exports coal to Germany! A focus on wind and solar is equivalent to the status quo: burning coal and gas at ever increasing rates. The winners under that scenario will be manufacturers of wind turbines and solar panels, and of course the coal, oil and gas suppliers.

NuScale Power: 45 MWe nuclear heat source

Rod Adams #100 podcast is especially interesting — even exciting when you consider the possibilities of mass manufactured, modular reactors. There are at least two venture-backed companies developing small reactors: NuScale Power and Hyperion Power Generation.

For this podcast Rod interviews CEO Paul Lorenzini and Chief Scientist Jose Reyes about their company’s 45 MWe natural circulation light water reactor. The NuScale reactor is about 1/30th the size of a typical modern light water reactor. Rod summarizes:

…Its advantage is that it produces power with a greatly simplified system that has no valves, pumps or external piping systems. It operates at temperatures and pressures that are familiar in the industry, uses fuel that can be manufactured on the same lines as conventional reactor fuel, and uses conventional pressure vessel technology that is small enough to be produced in a number of qualified factories.

One key feature of this small reactor is that it will be completely assembled in a factory and shipped to the site ready for installation.

The entire reactor assembly is only 60’ x 15’, prefabricated and shipped by rail, truck or barge. There are a number of other important advantages to the NuScale design. E.g., an expandable generation plant can be rapidly constructed from any number of 45 MWe modules. So a plant of say ten modules can then be online refueled one module at a time, temporarily taking offline only 10% of the baseload capacity. Of course, as load grows the operator can just add bite-size modules as required.

An overview of the technology and company is here [PDF]. Not discussed in the interview is how the NuScale economics compare to the large gigawatt size reactors such as the Westinghouse AP1000 — where the operator needs initially, or expands to a 30 module size plant.

More background on both NuScale and Hyperion can be found in this CleanTechnica article, also by Rod Adams — excerpt:

The system grew out of a DOE funded effort at Oregon State University (OSU) (corrected from initial post) called MASLWR (Multi-Application Light Water Reactor) that was developed to enable smaller markets to gain access to the benefits of nuclear fission energy – zero emissions, independence from fossil fuels, greater reliability, and increased levels of technical employment.

After the initial federal research grants ended and OSU published its results in 2003, the University continued funding the research and made continued improvements and refinements to the design. Several patents were filed in November 2007 and the company received its initial round of venture funding in January 2008.

NuScale’s employee roster is full of OSU graduates. It is also teaming with Kiewit a well established architect engineering firm with a history that dates back to before the depression.

NuScale is backed by venture firm CMEA Ventures – whose energy technology portfolio includes advanced battery innovator A123 Systems. So NuScale is in company with the fast horses.