Monday, September 7, 2009

On the future of Nuclear Green

I have for some time felt that I was not well qualified to do in depth studies of the cost and performance of renewables. I hoped that better qualified people would step in begin blogging about these important issues. They now have two important new blogs have emerged, that present exceptionally high quality material. They are Brave New Climate and The Capacity Factor. Both of these blogs are offering first rate materials. Barry Brook is a climate scientist who also has an in depth grasp of energy issues. Barry's intelligence, energy, grasp of energy issues, and ability to connect with people who have contributions to make. My only disagreement with Barry is that he has accepted the Argonne/Idaho line on the IFR, and has not really thought through its limitations. Advocates of a particular nuclear technology, should be better informed on the limitations of that technology than any potential opponents. IFR supporters have not thought through potential problems in anything like the depth that LFTR supporters have. The Molten Salt Reactor was first developed because Oak Ridge engineers were concerned about sodium cooled reactor safety issues. Argonne has developed some work surrounds for those issues, but it is not clear that they have been mastered. I would like to see something like the level of honesty and concern from IFR supporters that LFTR supporters demonstrate on the EfT Discussion Forum.

The Energy from Thorium Discussion Forum is unique among Internet discussions of energy and energy technology issues for its honesty, its broad scope, and for its depth. As of this morning the 403 members of the EfT discussion forum had generated 21387 posts on 1317 topics. The scope of EfT comments is in no small measure is supported by the Energy from Thorium Document Repository. The Document Repository is a major resource not only for the EfT discussions, but for anyone who wishes to understand an advanced approach to capturing the potential of nuclear energy. I will continue to point to important discussions in the EfT forum.

If the IFR supporters wish to make a convincing case that the IFR has a major role in the energy future they need to develop something like the EfT discussion forum. And perhaps Barry, who is after all a climate scientist, is not the best person to do this. Barry and "uvdiv" of The Capacity Factor do a very good job of comparing potential and actual post carbon energy sources. The Institute for Energy Research has also offered some sound analysis of post carbon energy costs. Probably no one has a better grasp on the Energy Information Administration (EIA) data than the IER's Mary Hutzler. I have some reservations on the IERs take on climate issues, but that should not distract from the potential value of Hutzler's analysis.

I will continue to cover comparative energy cost and performance issues, but will leave the heavy lifting to others.

I will continue to focus my interest on the corrupting influence of anti-nuclear ideologues and ideology on the energy dialogue. Rod Adams is looking at this as well, but we come to the field with different tool sets. I will be looking at not only the cognitive errors of figures like Amory Lovins, but also attempting to understand why Lovins continues to exert influence over not only the energy dialogue but over the thinking and decisions of journalists, politicians, and funding foundations.

Secondly, within the last year a number of small reactor candidate technologies have emerged. Some of them will probably will never bring a product to market, but I would expect that the demand will be such that at least one stand alone nuclear battery will be marketed. In addition the Babcock and Wilcox mPower concept looks promising. Significantly B&W has formed an alliance with TVA, and the first B&W mPower reactor is slated to be built in combination with TVA at the old Clinch River Reactor site near Oak Ridge.

The emergence of the mini-reactor nuclear battery concept, and the mPower reactor project, marks the beginning of the interim nuclear process. The process of developing lower cost, factory produced nuclear technology, that can begin the process of supplanting carbon based energy technology, but might not be sophisticated enough to finish that process. The interim process may prove important, because some mini-reactor projects have the potential of ramping up quickly, provided the NRC does not obstruct. The interim process would include the development of the PBMR in China and South Africa, and the development of Indian AHWRs and FBRs. All of these projects involve small to mid size reactors, that can or will be factory produced. Factory production, and other cost lowering approaches, will play increasingly important roles in the interim nuclear process. The interim reactor process ought to become increasingly important in the discussion of post-carbon energy, and so I will talk about it until better qualified people come along to replace me, or until the interim period has past.

So for the moment I am issuing my own marching orders. It remains to be seen if I will follow them.


Rod Adams said...


Though I understand the reasoning behind a private forum like Energy from Thorium, I find that I do not have enough time to participate both there and in the public arena where I might be able to change a few minds that might influence the future course of energy development.

I also do not quite understand the dismissal of the use of sodium - certainly there are engineering issues that have to be taken into account, but the world has a LOT more experience with sodium in operating reactors producing large quantities of power over a long period of time than it does with fluoride salts. Yes, there is great potential in the chemistry and concepts that your father worked on, but the progress that got made was mostly on paper, not in actual machinery. I realize that was due to political issues, choices by people at the top of the AEC, and funding, but facts and history remain - we operated EBR II for decades, Seawolf core I for a couple of years plus a prototype on land, Fermi I for several years, and the Japanese, French, Brits and Russians also have a significant level of operating experience.

Many of the people that I respect the most in the nuclear technology field - people like Alan Waltar, Tom Sanders and Pavel Tsvetkov (Texas A&M) are long time supporters of liquid metal coolants.

As a former operator, I can understand some of the disadvantages, but most of my objections are overcome in pool type designs.

No machinery system will be perfect, but we nukes should not waste our time squabbling amongst ourselves when the fossil fuel industry controls 85% of the world energy market. That is the big target that we should all aim to overcome.

Keep up the good work on Lovins and others and never forget to look for sources of their support and political strength. I am pretty sure you can find it in that big target that I mentioned.

Charles Barton said...

Rod, The EfT forum is unique in the energy discussion. Forum members attempt to identify problems and try to develop solutions. Other energy technologies may have a lot of problems, but there is no forum in which they can be openly discussed. You contributions are outstanding, and I would not divert you from what you are doing. We should spend a day together sometime, and talk out our concerns.

The big problem with sodium cooling is the safety issue. Sodium becomes very dangerous in the p[resence of Air or water. Sodium supporter claim that all of the ssafety issues have been solved, but my review of IFR working papers suggest that this might not be the case. There is no IFR forum where such issues can be aired, so it al boils down to how much we trust those who assure us that there are no safety problems with the IFR. I go back to those working papers that I look at, and I find troubling doubts. I would prefer a reactor in which the worse consequences of the worst coolant leak can be lived with. A coor rupture of a pool type IFR would be a hugh disaster.

If you look at the massive documentation of ORNL MSR research found in the EfT archive, you will find that a great deal of lab research as oppossed to theoretical research was going on. My father was a laboratory chemist, and the fociuse of his lab research was on the development of production methods that were suitable for large scale implementation. ORBL researchers spent a lot of time building prototypes, This is actually not often appreciated.

Barry Brook said...

Charles, thanks for the kind words on my efforts on looking critically at the future role of renewable energy. Your efforts in this sphere of inquiry have also been outstanding, especially your clear headed dissection of the work of Mark Jacobson, as has your breakdown of the cognitive dissonance of Lovins and other anti-nuclear 'activists' who are uninterested in evidence, logic or science, and are obstinately innumerate (to borrow a useful phrase from one of my commenters).

I support what Rod said about LMFBRs. There is an active discussion group on the IFR (of about 35 members, most experts in the fast reactor field), but it currently does not have quite the same function as the EfT forum, instead taking the form of a private forum. Perhaps that will change in time.

You are clearly honestly concerned about the safety issues surrounding the sodium coolant. But I wonder -- under what circumstances do you envisage the coolant will be exposed to air or water? If there is some air exposure, what do you imagine will be the result? What is your nightmare scenario of the 'worst consequences of a coolant leak' -- is it the rupture of the reactor pool that you mentioned? How do you propose this breech would occur? What are the disastrous consequences you fear?

Charles Barton said...

Barry, you have to understand that the initial impulse to build the MSR in Oak Ridge came from the perceived safety problems of a sodium cooled reactor. In studying LFTR safety issues, I realized that how ever improbable, I had to acknowledge the possibility of a core rupture, as a serious safety concern. If I acknowledge the possibility with a LFTR, that I should acknowledge the possibility of a core rupture with a IFR. Such a core rupture would involve a lot ofd hot and radioactive sodium coming into contact with O2 in the air, and comming into contact with cement. Since a large percentage of cement is actually water, for liquid sodium to come into contact with cement would bring a reaction to the water in cement.

Research reports pointed to metal creep in tank containment, and this would be a possible source of rupture. Consequences would be burning of liquid sodium in contact with air. and the burning of sodium on the reactor building floor, in close proximity to the core. the fire could potentially transfer to the core, as air leaked into it, and the air sodium reaction inside the tank would lead to fime and more collant escape. Eventually the very hot Uranium metel in the core would catch fire too. Not very likely I grant you, but not impossible.

By the way my father pioneered the research into the use of Chloride salts as a collant/carrier in fast MSRs. Chloride salts are quite safe.

Anonymous said...

Charles, I share your concerns over sodium to some extent.

Lead or lead/bismuth seems more attractive. The biggest concern would be any mechanism that could introduce a large abrupt reactivity insertion in excess of $1 resulting in a large pulse of energy being released. How do we insure that the worst case possibility has been identified? The containment building must be strong enough to withstand the worst case.

I am not up on the latest analysis of reactivity issues, so they may be in hand. A public site to air these issues would be beneficial as you point out. I am reluctant to commit on the basis of a few expert opinions.

I strongly dispute the idea that we can pick the best design based on paper studies. The HTGR looked good on paper but the Fort St Vrain reactor failed miserably, not that the reactor core design was bad, but the associated mechanical circulators were woefully under engineered.

I think the most important point we all should all be pushing is the need for a massive R&D program with heavy emphasis on the D, to develop prototypes of all the contenders. This should not be done under the heavy hand of the NRC. It should be done by the national labs in association with private companies where possible. There should be several independent teams in competition with each other pushing their preferred technology as fast and far as possible. If they blow up a few experimental reactors in a remote desert that is a small cost compared to the ongoing damage from fossil fuel.

The enormous amount of money we are wasting on massive wind and solar installations based on irrational mandates and feed in tariffs would easily pay for a real R&D program.

There is no doubt that some country will develop advanced reactor technology, and I would like it to be ours. We really need some leadership here. That means doing the right thing and educating people as to why it is the right thing, not taking a poll.

Bill Hannahan

Anonymous said...

I would like to say that I read all Charles' posts as he posts them on this blog because I think a. we need the LFTR b. this blog allows those of us who are not in the nuclear field, but who are concerned about future energy supplies, to be better informed, with particular emphasis on the LFTR. While I am a layman, I know a nuclear physicist who thinks the LFTR looks like a good idea. I've looked over the possibilities that I can find, and so has he (and also the fusion possibilities, since that is the field my nuclear physicist friend was actually working in), and the LFTR appears the best contender by some way. The greenies may be smarter than me, but I just can't see that our ability to go forward can be constrained by energy, and the LFTR seems to me the best possibility to provide a safe and abundant supply of energy.
Keep up the good work Charles.

LarryD said...

How practical would it be to maintain an atmosphere of nitrogen around the reactor environment? That would seem to reduce the possibility of a sodium fire by quite a bit. The concrete issue would still remain, of course.

donb said...

Let me go off on another tangent. Charles Barton wrote:
I will be looking at not only the cognitive errors of figures like Amory Lovins, but also attempting to understand why Lovins continues to exert influence over not only the energy dialogue but over the thinking and decisions of journalists, politicians, and funding foundations.

I think Lovins continues to influence because his message is seductive and "feels good" to those who can't do math and engineering. Even I as an engineer like the feel-good idea of using every bit of heat at each level of quality down the chain. But then I break out my calculator and find that the expense of this use of heat to be way beyond that of simply producing a bit more heat.

One reason that journalists, politicians, and funding foundations have a hard time with nuclear energy is that there is a problem with immediate "relate-ability". I can see and feel the combustion of natural gas in my home. I can feel the wind blow. I can put a water wheel into the local creek. I can see my children doing science projects to convert sunlight into electricity. The things Lovins proposes I can demonstrate or implement myself.

However, I am not able build a nuclear reactor in my basement. I am not going to see a small reactor in operation at the local high school science fair. It is (at least in it present form) always something "out there", something operated by the "priesthood" of nuclear engineering and technicians, owned by "big business".

Perhaps if small reactors become common in the workplace, or as a heatsource for neighborhoods or even apartment building (e.g., the "Slowpoke" reactor), then journalists, politicians, and funding foundations will view folks like Lovins with the jaudiced eyed they deserve.

LarryD said...

Donb, if that's a major part of it, then if Polywell works out, "they" are going to hate it. While a power reactor would be impractical to build in your basement, a demonstration of principle reactor could be built by a hobbyist and shown at a science fair.

donb said...

LarryD wrote:
Donb, if that's a major part of it, then if Polywell works out, "they" are going to hate it.

There are already fusion hobbyists. It is not that hard to do. Faulty memory here, but it only requires about 8 kev to do D-D (?) fusion. Fusion events are quite rare and require sensitive instruments to detect what few neutrons result.

Fission is a whole 'nuther matter. It is not that hard to do with enough sufficiently enriched material, but where is the average high-schooler going to come up with that? And who would want them playing around with it if they could?

Tom Blees said...

Larry D said: How practical would it be to maintain an atmosphere of nitrogen around the reactor environment? That would seem to reduce the possibility of a sodium fire by quite a bit. The concrete issue would still remain, of course.

Actually, Larry, argon is what's used. It's a great fire retardant, and is heavier than air. So you design the reactor containment with no egress below the level of the top of the reactor, and fill it with argon. That keeps air from entering and interacting with sodium. As for concrete, the Russians long ago dealt with this and developed sodium-resistant concrete that won't interact with it as described. I have the papers on that somewhere, I don't have it right at hand now. But there's a reference to using such heat-resistant concrete that doesn't interact with sodium in Atomnaya Énergiya, Vol 67, No. 6, pp. 420-426, December 1989. I don't know if the French developed it or if the Russians did originally, but it's been figured out.

Charles Barton said...

Tom, You had better get ready for a fight over IFR safety. If there is a practical path to IFR development, IFR safety will become a huge issue. If there are any significant IFR safety issues, now is the time t9 put them on the table to be addressed. It would look really bad for IFR supporters to say we have solved all of the problems now, and then turn around later and say, "Opps we missed that one." The IFR supporters have a problem, because not obnly do they have opponants in the anti-nuclear mainstream, but their is a legacy of mistrust and suspicion within the pro-nuclear community. There are those of us who feel that sodium is inherently unsafe as a nuclear coolant, and that sodium has no business inside a reactor. You have to show us that we are wrong, and you will not do that by acting like an IFR cheerleader.


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