Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Letters to Jesse: 1 Labor and Factories.

Jesse Jenkins is the Director of Energy and Climate Policy of the The Breakthrough Institute, an active Energy/Environment Blogger, and an active participant on the Energy Collective. Yesterday Marc Gunther posted an essay on Lemar Alexander's recent speech on land use. Marc's post is titled Nuclear power: An inconvenient solution. I commented,

Lemar Alexander's most useful role may be to provide political cover for Democrats who are beginning to see the light on renewables. My own case studies, over the last two years, suggest that nuclear power will be less expensive than renewables, and far more reliable. The case for energy efficiency is seriously flawed, and energy efficiency may never yield its projected benefits. That leaves nuclear as the only viable option. The question will not be, should we invest in nuclear? The right question is what form of nuclear will give us the lowest cost power, and what form of nuclear will produce the most rapid deployment. So far Senator Alexander is following the conventional nuclear route. This my not be, however, the best plan for a nuclear future. For far to often the advocates of nuclear power have been stuck in trying to defend it, without considering what would be the best form for nuclear to take. I have tried to point to alternatives, lower cost and faster routs, I hope that others will see the point in future discussions of a nuclear future.
Jesse responded,
Charles, nuclear power cannot be the only viable option. If it is, we will not see the world transition sufficiently to clean/low-carbon power sources. To de-carbonize the global energy supply and transition away from coal and oil over the next 50 years while keeping up with growing global wealth and energy demand, we will have to provide 2-3 times the total global energy supply entirely from clean energy sources. And that's assuming the world becomes 2/3rds more efficient overall (matching nation's like Japan's energy intensity of economic activity). Nuclear power, while a viable and probably necessary component of that mix, cannot fill the entire gap. No single technology can. I'm open to and increasingly supportive of nuclear power in our energy mix. I wish nuclear power advocates were not insistent on knocking down every other alternative in order to build the case for nuclear. We're going to need a lot of energy from a lot of sources, and not all will be anyone's definitely of ideal. Time to get the scale of our energy challenge clear, prioritize a portfolio of energy sources, and make the investments necessary to catalyze their development and deployment.
I suspected that Jesse did not know a lot about nuclear power, but at this point might be open to a dialogue, so I wrote back,
Jesse I would be happy to hold a serious conversation with you about the potential of nuclear power. My view is quite different than yours. I believe that I have identified nuclear deployment approaches that would be far more effective than your assumptions would allow. If you are interested in talking, let me know.
Jesse's response was very encouraging,
Hi Charles,
Do you write here for This would be a great forum for you to sketch out your vision for nuclear power expansion. The trick will be providing on the order of 15-30 terawatts of carbon-free power by 2050 and 25-45 TW by 2100. Can nuclear scale to that magnitude? That would be my question for you. Thanks for your honest answers.
So it is 1:00 AM and here I am writing the first part of my explanation to Jessee.

Dear Jesse, Some time ago Westinghouse estimates that it will take between sixteen to twenty million hours of labor to build an AP-1000 reactor. Most of those hours are performed by highly skilled laborers an large construction sites. Organizing such large scale construction projects has in the past posed very large problems. Past reactor builder climbed very steep learning curves, and received very expensive educations on efficient reactor construction. Research on labor utilization at reactor building sites suggested a high degree of management disorganization, with an average worker not performing construction related tasks for 2 or more hours a day,. Even when they are actually working reactor builders are not performing in a very efficient fashion. How can labor efficiency be improved? The answer is simple, build more of the reactor in a factory. We can build big reactors in a lot of small price at factories, and assemble them on site. Westinghouse plans to do this,l but as we have seen building the reactor will still take 3 years, and is quire expensive. We will call the lot of little pieces approach the Kit reactor. Another approach, which Babcock & Wilcox plan to take, is to assemble most of a small reactor in a factory, and then ship a few large pieces to the reactor site for final assembly. Babcock & Wilcox executives say that tasks that require a wholes day of labor to perform on site, can be acomplised in one hour in a factory. Construction of the small B&W reactor still requires two years, and I suspect a lot of assembly has to be performed on site.

We could decrease labor by simplifying reactor design, including decreasing the number of parts used in the reactor, and decreasing materials input. Westinghouse has already do this in in their AP=1000 design, and I suspect B&W will do it in their small 125 MW mPower reactor. Technological improvements now being research could potentially increase the power outputs of the Westinghouse and B&W reactors by as much as 50% without increased labor or materials input.

In the end however, Light water reactors are going to be complex, require a lot of labor, and potentially have limitations to their scalability. For rapid deployment we will need to turn to far more simple reactors. Fortunately there are two alternative reactor technologies which potentially could be mas produced in factories, with significantly less labor, and materials input, and be deployed in far less time than the B&W mPower reactor. These candidates have the potential for rapid ramp up of production, massive deployment, and resolution of many of the major problems that have plagued the Light Water Reactor. The candidate technologies are the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Both designs produce little nuclear waste, both have significant safety features, both use nuclear fuel far more efficiently than current, and both could stretch nuclear fuel reserves for thousands and potentially even millions of years. Of the two, the IFR is potentially more controversial. I will discuss these options in another post.

Jessy you talk about 15-30 terawatts by 2050. I am skeptical about the value of energy efficiency. I also believe that if we are going to replace 80% of carbon based fuel we will probabnly need more like 100 terawatts(e) by 2050 of nuclear power by 2050. With factory production of advanced reactors, and innovative implimentation of reactor deployment that can be acomplished, indeed a world wide deployment of 1000 terawatts of nuclear power would be possible by 2050. There is, of course, much more to the story, that i have told so far. - Charles


Barry Brook said...

Great post Charles. Scalability is a key issue, and people need to understand two things:

1) Just because we haven't deployoed one yet, there is no fundamental reason to believe that there cannot be a 'silver' bullet (whether it is actually made of U or Th) to the energy problem. Oil and coal have historically been 'silver bullets' - incredibly dominant because they work so well, that they permitted the development of a truly modern, industrialised, high tech society. Time for a new bullet to take us to the next phase.

2). The energy replacement job doesn't get any easier by pursuing multiple options. It's huge no matter whether it represents 15,000 large power plants or hundreds of millions of wind turbines and huge volumes of pumped hydro to back it up. Indeed, logically, you want to choose the most compact and energy-concentrated source available...

Anonymous said...

Charles, I strongly agree with your comment, “For far too often the advocates of nuclear power have been stuck in trying to defend it, without considering what would be the best form for nuclear to take. I have tried to point to alternatives, lower cost and faster routes, I hope that others will see the point in future discussions of a nuclear future.”

As strongly reinforced in this discussion, nuclear power is capable of providing clean affordable energy needed to maintain a decent standard of living for future generations. Nuclear phobia seems to retard research needed to develop generation IV reactors. Government must play the major role in subsidizing reactor research and the training of nuclear scientists. Substantial investments in government labs should be a priority in order to develop new generation nuclear reactors. On the basis of past research, Argonne should be given the funding to complete the development of the Integrated Fast Reactor (IFR), ORNL should be funded to bring the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) to commercial status, and Sandia should be put to work on the development of smaller size reactors. In addition adequate staffing of NRC should be mandated so as to facilitate timely approval of new reactor designs.

John Tjostem, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Biology

DocForesight said...

Good job, Charles! While some are tempted to be verbal bomb-throwers and leave a scorched-earth wake,you chose to be diplomatic and were rewarded with an invitation to present the atomic alternatives to an open recipient.

There is a time and a place for calling a spade a spade in no uncertain terms. This wasn't the time and you recognized that. Well done.

PS: Where possible, do a spell-check before posting as typos detract from your credibility. I understand your visual handicap but place your best foot forward, nonetheless.

Jesse Jenkins said...

Hi Charles,
Thanks for the series of posts. I appreciate your candor and effort in tackling the challenge I posed to you and am reading these three letters so far with interest. Cheers,
Jesse Jenkins


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