Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Interim Nuclear Future: An Introduction

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.

We have known about peak oil for a long time. Scientist began to suspect the climate changing potential of burning fossil fuels about the same time.

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.

Advantages of the mPower include:

* 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.


DV8 2XL said...

I tend to believe that most of the apparent opposition to nuclear power is driven more by a program driven by fossil-fuel interests than any cultural malaise. Poll after poll for the last five years has shown that there is an increasing number of people in the general population that want a nuclear powered future, both here in North America and in Europe as well. The fact is that antinuclear forces are playing the old game of simply identifying themselves as representatives of the majority in the same way the Bolsheviks and later the German National Socialists usurped power by asserting that they were the embodiment of will of the people.

To me it is clear, and we have uncovered evidence supporting the fact, that many of the more vocal antinuclear players are on the payroll of carbon-based fuel interests. In Australia they aren't even bothering to deny it anymore, and it is clear upon any review of the strength of the antinuclear movement by country, that the stronger the coal sector, the stronger the antinuclear forces there.

Therefore I can't see the apparent popularity of the renewable sector as being anything but artifact of propaganda that really doesn't have the broad support that it breathlessly claims. Our role then has to be to advance the nuclear option by gathering support, and not by wasting time attacking the unworkable renewable options - the fact is that they will fail, because they are unworkable, and because they are unpopular without any need for us to be involved. For example it is almost at the point of violence in some rural areas scheduled for windfarms. The sector is doing its best to keep this out of the press, but a few minutes with Google will show that all is not well on this front.

As for PHWR's while I am sure the Indian's will find a market in the Third-World for this product, the fact that CANDU's have never been approved in the U.S., the U.K., the E.U., or any other major nuclear market should be indication enough of how what is essentially a CANDU III will fare. This is only to underline our other enemy is our own regulators, that seem to have been charged with keeping the industry suppressed for as long as possible. Again a political issue that needs to be addressed with political tools.

The only practical solution that I can see to all of these is to mount a campaign that will bring more of the general population to support the nuclear option, and this should be the focus of our efforts.

The North Coast said...

Of course there is confusion concerning nuclear power vs. "green" and "renewable" energy.

What do you expect? The citizenry -if that's what you could call our uneducated, complacent, passive, fantasy-addled, entertainment-addicted populace-is confused about everything, and most of all, so are our political leaders.

If our leaders believe that the way to cure the financial debacle is to double down on the same crap that caused it to begin with and generate another few hundred billions of dollars in house loans destined to default within 2 years; and to print $9 Trillion to throw the fraudulent financial industry as well as the obsolete and failing auto and housing industries, then how will we ever convince them that the perpetual motion machine known as renewable energy is a scam?

It is tragic that while China and India are forging ahead in the development of nuclear, including thorium, that the United States will commit nothing to thorium research. We'd rather invest in the sclerotic Detroit auto industry and in more housing "starts" when we already have 10 years' worth of unsold houses and condos moldering with For Sale and Foreclosed signs on their weed-choked lawns.

China, India, and other formerly "third world" countries know the score and are investing in the future, and they're locking up the materials they need to make it happen. China is paying us back for exporting our manufacturing and jobs to them by locking down exports of rare minerals needed for many advanced technologies. China is also taking advantage of our current financial predicament to lock up future oil supplies all over the globe, while we twiddle our thumbs and pay people to buy more cars.

Sorry for the rant, but I'm in a bad, mad mood tonight. I just watched my city sign on for unlimited liability for the costs of an athletic event, and I'm watching my country throw away every chance at a decent future and assure itself of a future as a technologically backward fourth-world poverty pit.

Kirk Sorensen said...

North Coast, that was a totally depressing but totally spot-on rant! I almost want to post that whole comment to my blog (with attribution) but I'm trying to keep things more positive. But dang, you sure do call a spade a spade!

LarryD said...

Go over to Brave New Climate and check out Langs cost comparison between nuclear and solar power.

When you sit down and do the capital costs for any given power requirements, the folly of wind and solar quickly become apparent.

Charles Barton said...

Larry, thanks for the heads up.

The North Coast said...

"we've known about Peak Oil for a long time."

No kidding, and it is one of the best-kept open secrets in the world.

When I read the Hubbert report and the warning of Adm. Rickover, I am overwhelmed with a sense of tragedy. The whole business is an object lesson in how people deliberately, knowingly, with their eyes wide open, choose to take a course opposite that which the most current information tells them is appropriate, and instead deliberately chooses the path that they cannot possibly NOT know will lead to disaster.

But they all figured, it won't play out in ours lifetime and we will be long in our graves ere the upward line of population growth crosses the downward line of terminal resource depletion. The people who gave us the interstate highway system, government-subsidized suburban sprawl, and the resulting dependence of 90% of our population on systems that are completely reliant upon unending supplies of cheap oil, knew, or had no excuse for not knowing, that they were setting us up for disaster and cascading failure down the road, yet they did it anyway. Their policies have cascaded and amplified down through decades, destroying our small towns and cities, bankrupting our railroads and transit companies, and creating a structure we will nowise be able to maintain as fossil fuels go into steep decline.

We,or more precisely, our leaders at that time, KNEW that our policies were designed to trigger prodigious fuel consumption, destroy our towns and cities, and steer our population to locations and into lifestyles with built in high fuel demands. We could have continued to live a live of very high tech amenity with less than half the fuel consumption, and a third the car ownership, and would now be positioned to make a much easier adjustment, at a much lower cost, had we taken the other path.

We need now to assess every policy in place everywhere that uses tax money to promote a particular growth or development path, or technological development, for how it might play out over decade, for we are going to be stuck with the consequences of today's misbegotten energy and economic policies for many decades out. That might not matter to those of us born before 1965, for whom the distant future is a moot point at best.

The task is urgent, for right now our leaders are making energy policy decisions in their choice to promote "green" energy at the expense of nuclear, that will be disastrous in the near term, and could collapse our civilization completely over the coming decades, by what time it will be much to late to correct the course.


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