Monday, September 21, 2009

The Nukes Have Won. What Comes Next?

The enemies of nuclear power keep coming like the brain dead Zombies of the movie, Dawn of the Dead. By now the debate has taken on a ritual aspect, The critics of nuclear power recite the same old pat arguments that have not changed since Amory married Hunter.

The defenders of nuclear power by now have refined their answers to the point that they are as ritualized as the arguments of the anti-nuclear zombies. The latest trick of the anti-nukes is to charge that nukes are so, so, so expensive. So the nuke defenders come back with the argument, "not as expensive as wind or solar," and that seems to be effective, at least it quiet the zombie hoard down.

Every once in a while someone comes up with improbably low cost figures on renewables. When reviewed, the great numbers on renewables turn out to be the product of the same sort of creative accounting once practiced by Enron. The most salient evidence for the victory of the pro-nuclear camp, I can point to was the withdrawal of Amory Lovins from his Gristmill debate with David Bradish at the end of the Spring of 2008.

Lovins' withdrawal from the debate, was hardly the only sign of the of the anti-nuclear defeat. Anti-nuclear Greens such as Joe Romm, and Greenpeace, have taken to touting natural gas as a green alternative to nuclear power. The last time I checked burning natural gas produced a great deal of CO2, although not quite as much as burning coal. This is intellectually bankrupt, because as any fool will tell you burning natural gas will add to he atmospheric carbon burden. Thus the anti-nuclear greens appear to think that fighting nuclear power is far more important than fighting AGW. Given the option of opposing and/or obstructing nuclear power or mitigating AGW, I suspect that most sensible people are going to end up on the side of the nukes. Better glowing in the dark than frying, should be the new slogan for nukes.

While Nukes are clearly going to be the victors in the war against the anti-nuclear zombies, what is not clear what shape that victory will take. First, in order for nukes to be a successful tool in combating AGW, there will have to be a very rapid deployment of massive numbers of reactors, not just in the United States, but world wide. And almost no one has worked on the question of what shape that deployment would take. The two exceptions to this statement, at least exceptions that I know about, are a motley crew of collaborators from the Energy from Thorium Discussion Forum. and a group of French scientists primarily associated with the Reactor Physics group of the Laboratory for Subatomic Physics and Cosmology, of Grenoble, FRANCE. The EfT group has generated much of the outlines of a Grand Thorium Plan, but have not produced a single document that contains all of the details.

These two groups are in agreement on one major point, although they start with somewhat different assumptions. The point of agreement is that in any major deployment of post carbon nuclear technology up to 2050 and beyond, Molten Salt Reactors will be the predominant tool for fighting AGW. In particular both groups agree that Molten Salt Reactors using a thorium rather than uranium fuel cycle will be the the predominant reactor type used to stop global warming. In Europe these reactors are called Thorium Molten Salt Reactors (TMSR), while in North America they are called Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR). There is one big difference between the TMSR and the LFTR, as conceived the TMSR is about 10 times bigger than the LFTR. That has to do with deployment concepts. The EfT crowd thinks that building small LFTRs in factories would have enormous deployment advantages, including mass production, easy transportation to the generation site, quick building of the generation site, and dramatically lower costs.

Both the Grenoble group and the Eft group rely on Molten Salt Reactor technology developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory between the late 1940's and the mid 1970s. Oak Ridge scientists carefully documented their research, and those research reports now serve as the basis upon which recent thinking about the TMSR/LFTR is based. In addition to the Grenoble group and the Eft group, research on MSR design constructs is being constructed in the Netherlands, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Japan,

It should be noted that the very possibility that a singular unconventional nuclear technology could play a majpr role in the struggle to control AGW, contradicts much conventional wisdom. Slogans such as "there are no silver bullets," are often tossed around discussions about the future of energy, without the slightest supporting evidence. The conventional wisdom simply assumes that there are no advanced nuclear technologies that could contribute to the fight against AGW. Most energy writers, and so called experts on energy, are completely uninformed on advanced nuclear technology. Politicians and the general public are completely in the dark,

Scientists say that the TMSR/LFTR is very safe, and will solve most of the problems associated with the current generation of nuclear technology. Depending on design options, the TMSR/LFTR could produce little or even no nuclear waste. Indeed the the TMSR/LFTR could be used to produce energy from current nuclear waste stockpiles. It is impossible to know the exact cost of future LFTRs, but my understanding of old ORNL cost studies suggests that costs could run between $1000 and $2000 per kW of generating capacity. This cost would be lower than the cost of coal fired steam plants, or wind generators.

I have pointed out that the LFTR is an industrial product that would be similar in size, complexity and cost to large modern passenger aircraft. The Airbus A-380 cost a little over $13 billion to develop and around $300 million to build. A LFTR o up to 400 MWe capacity would be similar in size, complexity and most likely cost, to the A-380. Thus the cost of the LFTR would be low enough to deploy in large numbers in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and in Latin America,


DV8 2XL said...

The time is rapidly approaching where people are going to have to pick teams. We may all broadly agree on the objective of promoting nuclear energy, but the fact remains that only some technologies will survive, and history clearly shows that it is not necessarily the best that wins, but the one who's supporters have the most political acumen.

DocForesight said...

Can anyone direct me to a resource that indicates the currently approved or certified reactor designs, be they American, French, Russian, Japanese or other country; the power output and the approximate cost of construction?

I recall seeing that somewhere, maybe World Nuclear News? Thanks for any help you can provide.

Jim Baerg said...

As usual Wikipedia is a good place to start

DocForesight said...

Jim - Thanks for the link. I also found a resource at World Nuclear Association.

Charles Barton said...

DV8 2XL I think that the plans of the RPG reflect a business as usual approach, that is quite detached from a sense of crisis.

France already has post carbon energy. But the detachment of the RPG is also an advantage, because they are thinking through clearly, post-caqrbon energy solutions. The RPG asks the question, how can the world energy system begin to switch to post carbon energy sources, by 2050. We ask how can we implement the TMSR/LFTR solution, and what would be its limitations,


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