I have characterized our present energy situation as the Era of Confusion. The cause of the confusion is a fundamental change in the world's energy economy. That change has two fundamental changes, the first is the probable peaking of world oil production within a few years, if it hasn’t happened already. At present oil plays a nearly indispensable role in the world's economy, and it will be extremely difficult to replace it. Peak production of other fossil fuel energy sources, coal and natural gas, are not expected quite so soon, but neither would be expected to last at a prolonged period at the present rate of consumption. However, the rising atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gas CO2 raises profound questions about the wisdom of continued fossil fuel use in energy production.
The fundamental source of our confusion is the impending end of our established energy order. Humans as a species are not good at collectively and clear sightedly addressing changes in their way of life. The news that change is impending is often greeted with fear and denial. Ideology can contribute to poorly thought out proposed solutions. Rather than collectively seek solutions, people are less inclined to listen than to offer their own solutions, solutions that reflects their own interests and beliefs.
Knowledge is often problematic because of human cognitive capacities are limited. Furthermore our emotional commitments often determine what we believe to be true, rather than the other way around. Thus we may ignore or deny uncomfortable facts that contradict emotionally directed beliefs. Rather than sort our feelings after we make determinations of facts, we often chose what facts to believe because of feelings that may not have any rational basis.
Confusion is a product of dissonance between beliefs and facts. Confusion can be seen in the demand by German Greens and Socialists that nuclear plants be shut down and replaced by CO2 emitting coal fired electrical plants. The scheme of Greenpeace to shut down nuclear plants and replace them with CO2 emitting natural gas fired power plants. The advocacy of CO2 emitting micro-generation technology by nuclear critic Amory Lovins, and the advocacy of CO2 emitting natural gas technology by nuclear critic Joe Romm, who scorns others for their failure to fight global warming.
Defenders of nuclear power have attempted to reason with its Green critics, only to be scorned as shills of the nuclear industry. We have offered fact based answers to their objections, only to see the facts ignored. We have pointed to flaws in their logic, only to see the same thinking errors repeated over and over. Yet these seemingly irrational opponents of nuclear technology insist that they are committed to the fight against climate change. Green enemies of nuclear power present us with incarnate evidence of the confusion of our present era.
Critics of nuclear power are correct are right in one respect, the present nuclear formula cannot replace all CO2 emitting energy technologies. Large, Light Water Reactors require too much time to build, and are more expensive, that would be good for society. But the same critics go on to tout renewables, which also lack the potential for rapid deployment, and are even more than nuclear, while being far less reliable.
The solution to the rapid deployment and cost issues of nuclear is not throwing out the nuclear baby with the LWR technological bath, but to adopt more rapidly scaleable and lower cost nuclear technologies. The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) represents what is by far the best of these technological options, but it still needs a major development program. The rapid development of LFTR technology is highly desirable, not only because the LFTR is highly safe, because it is more efficient than LWRs, will cost far less than renewables, largely solves the problem of nuclear power and indeed of post-carbon energy.
The term interim solution refers to potential or actual nuclear technologies, which can be deployed before the LFTR is ready for large-scale deployment, and which can take advantage of at least some of the scalability features of the LFTR. Such features might include factory production of small reactors, the use of innovative approaches to nuclear sites. Innovative approaches to nuclear finance will also be important.
Successful interim nuclear approaches are likely to come from sponsors with deep pockets. Even with a deep pocket, a well-developed technology is an advantage. Scalability is the name of the game for interim nuclear technology, and a successful interim technology should be feature rapid and mass manufacture, with quick and easy set up of manufactured units.
Long run nuclear solutions will feature low energy cost, mass manufacture and solutions to all of the major problems of nuclear power. I will later discuss the candidates for interim solutions in some depth, but I will conclude this post with a mention of a few small reactor (100 MWe to 400 MWe) candidates what would be quickly available as interim nuclear solutions.
The first surprisingly comes from India. It is the Indian 220 MW PHWR. Although this particular reactor is not mass-produced at present, it is a successful small reactor that could be mass-produced. As such it offers attractive features including the potential for electrical generation in third world countries. The PHWR uses natural uranium, and thus proliferation issues related to uranium enrichment are not matters for concern. Even without factory production the Indian PHWR qualifies as a low cost reactor. The introduction of factory manufacture in India would lower that cost further, creating the probability that PHWRs could be produced in India and China for under $1000 per kW of generating capacity. This would make the Indian PHWR a very attractive candidate for interim nuclear technology. In addition the PHWR could be factory manufactured in a Western Nation - perhaps Canada - at a very competitive price.
Another advantage of the Indian PHWR is that an advanced replacement is already under development. This is the Indian AHWR, a reactor Like the PHWR, the AHWR could be built in Asian factories at a fraction of the price of LWRs in Europe or the United States. Again factory construction of AHWRs in Europe or North America would lower nuclear cost. The AHWR will operate as a thorium breeder, reduce the problem of nuclear waste, and finally the AHWR will feature the most advanced cooling/safety features of any water-cooled reactor. Thus the AHWR represents perhaps the most advanced and attractive form of wholly conventional nuclear technology likely to be available as an interim solution.
Although the Babcock & Wilcox Company (B&W) 125 MW mPower reactor is not as advanced as the AHWR it is a modern conventional LWR design, B&W has obtained the support of the TVA in the development of the mPower reactor, and TVA is likely to be their first customer. It is likely that B&W and TVA will have deep enough pockets to bring the mPower reactor to market.
* Integral nuclear system design
* Passive safety systems
* Underground containment
* Five-year operating cycle between refueling
* Scalable, modular design is flexible for local needs
* Multi-unit (1 to 10+) plant
* Used fuel stored in spent fuel pool for life of the reactor (60 years)
* North American shop-manufactured
Rod Adams has published the best information likely to be available in the near future on mPower costs. The $5000 per kW figure is highly competitive with renewables, given that the mPower reactor would have a capacity factor of .90 and will be able to provide electricity on demand. The $5000 per kW figure is probably very conservative. My own estimate is that the factory manufactured mPower reactor will cost no more that $3500 per kW to install in large numbers, and could quite possibly be mass produced for even less.
These candidate technologies can compete with much larger reactors on features, and potentially blow the large reactors out of the water on price. Given the availability of the technology and deep pockets they should at the very least be classified as promising harbingers of the interim nuclear future.