Sunday, September 27, 2009

Greens, Small Reactors

My online encounter with David Roberts during the spring and summer of 2007 had the indirect impact of radicalizing my thinking about nuclear power. I was certainly willing to meet David half way, and propose ideas that could meet his objections to nuclear power, if he had been willing to participate in a dialogue. I had hoped that a rational alliance of nuclear supporters and Greens could overcome opposition to Global Warming mitigation, but David Roberts and his associates including Joe Romm and Amory Lovins proved to be diehard enemies of nuclear power who preferred burning fossil fuels to reactors, in other words glorified lobbyists for the natural gas industry.

It was probably a mistake to take Roberts complaints about nuclear power literally, the cost of reactors could dramatically lowered by. Roberts' complaints were simply excuses to make his opposition to nuclear power seem rational and socially acceptable. But it was not a bad thing to treat them seriously. One of Roberts' strongest objections was the cost of nuclear power. It struck me that nuclear costs could not be controlled as long as reactors were constructed on site. Manufacturing reactors in factories like other 20th century industrial objects would open the door to lower labor cost and improved manufacturing quality. Small size would ease the problem of transporting complete reactors from a factory. The adoption of Molten Salt Reactor technology, assured large power output from a small size reactor core, design simplicity, safety, virtual solution of the problem of nuclear waste, and rapid reactor scalability as a means of quick replacement of fossil fuel fired power plants, with safe and efficient nuclear power plants. Small factory built reactors built on less sophisticated designs still hold similar advantages. Take for example the Babcock and Wilcox proposed mPower factory built small Light Water Reactor.

Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear engineering at MIT, recently explained some of the advantages of small mPower reactor manufacture in factories,
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.
Reactors like the mPower seem to offer considerable flexibility, but despite their the labor saving potential of the mPower factory built design, even more labor and manufacturing savings may be possible in factory built reactors that utilize advanced Generation IV nuclear technologies. Such reactors have the potential of short construction times and low cost, combined with solutions to the traditional problems of nuclear power. Some Generation IV Reactors produce little or no waste. The same Generation IV Reactors solve the problem of nuclear fuel sustainability. Generation IV reactors use passive safety features and have superior inherent safety. In short a movement to Generation IV nuclear technology would either completely resolve or greatly lesson the problems that the Greens complain about. Do the Greens want that? Do the Greens want the list of problems they recite as reasons for their opposition to nuclear power resolved? No they do not.

At any rate, I did come up with solutions to the problems that David Roberts complained about, and Roberts ignored my solutions.

The small reactor is an idea whose time has come. Lots of people saw the same things that I did. B&W wants to build the small mPower, but the mPower is still a Light Water Reactor, and factory manufacture is not going to make the complexity problem disappear. B&W still says it is going to take a long time to assemble a mPower reactor in a factory. Sandia National has a simpler Generation IV reactor, which no doubt can be assembled in less than a year. They call it the "Right Size" reactor. The beauty of the right size reactor is that it is based on well tested technology. All you have to do is build a production prototype, run some tests on it, and there you go, you have got a commercially viable, factory producible small reactor that will be simpler and lower cost than the B&W mPower.

Once Greens like Roberts catch on to the potential of the "right size" reactor, they will foam at the mouth. The Indians don't care. The Indians are going ahead with a plan to build a middle size fast reactor that will be similar to the "Right Size" reactor but a little larger, but which has revolutionary potential. The Indians have spent a lot of time and money perfecting their design, and the FBPR is likely to work. That will no doubt ease the way for the right size reactor. The greens will fight it of course, but then things will not be going well for the Greens.

The Green problem is simple. They have no real solution to the problem of global warming. Green thinking on AGW mitigation is so messed up that they actually think that making electricity with natural gas is a superior option to producing it with nuclear power. This is just crazy. I keep holding out the LFTR as a reactor which answers all or almost all Green objections to nuclear power. Some Greens are listening. Laurence Aurbach left this comment on my post "David Roberts and intellectual narcissism":
I have been a nuclear skeptic and I've posted my skeptical comments to Grist and other sites. Compared to fossil fuels, I see LWR's as a "less bad" option for decarbonized baseload power, but that doesn't mean I am enthusiastic about them.

On the other hand, LFTR's resolve 90% of the concerns I have with LWR's. They are far more robust and forgiving of error, and the volume of waste is much less and it's shorter-lived. And your ideas about modularity are very important from a financial and political point of view. Smaller, cheaper reactors are far easier for investors and utilities to sign on to compared to the multibillion dollar behemoth reactors that are the status quo.

I think one thing that would help generate enthusiasm for LFTR's is a comprehensive FAQ written for laypeople. The introductory material that's available doesn't cover all the important issues that policymakers, environmentalists, investors, and other potential supporters need to make their own judgments. If I could write it myself I would -- I can think of a lot of questions, but I don't know a lot of the answers.
The Green choices are simple, accept he necessity of of nuclear power for AGW mitigation, and back the "greenest" possible option, or to make a common cause with AGW skeptics in the services of the interests of coal and Natural Gas.


LarryD said...

I wonder where the Greens think natural gas comes from?

Unless and until someone develops the technology to mine methyl hydrate, natural gas come from the same fields as oil. Rationally, all the arguments and prejudices against oil should apply to natural gas as well.

Since this is not the case, it is reasonable to start wondering about their real motives, since their behavior is inconsistent with their stated motives.

DocForesight said...

So which parties will collaborate on developing this FAQ document? No doubt, it's been considered before but perhaps now the momentum is too strong to ignore?

Like the guys at Clean Energy Insights - they have compiled a concise FAQ sheet on nuclear power in general. Printable pdf version.

jagdish said...

Coal2nuclear has an interesting post on small size (dimension) reactors. It is Russian BN-800 fast reactor under development which is admired.
Sodium is the only limitation of this reactor as well as the IFR. IFR could be used with an integrated or a central processing unit, depending on the site.

Frank said...

Charles -

I will help write the FAQ.

As you know, not all "greens" are anti-nuclear. What I have found is that when there is a moderated rational debate of the issues, nuclear wins converts.

I am this lifelong environmentalist, and have the scars (financial and professional) to prove it:

Frank J.

Charles Barton said...

Frank, I distinguish between "environmentalists" - I count myself as one - and greens - anti-nuclear environmentalists. Members of the Sierra Club understand that REI stors will have to be lit by nuclear power in the future.


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