Sunday, August 8, 2010

MSRs and IFRs, the Emergence of Future Nuclear Technology

Over the last 4 years, a new paradigm for nuclear power has emerged. One which involves the use of Molten Salt nuclear technology and the thorium fuel cycle. The paradigm also includes the factory production of small, relatively low cost, and rapidly built reactors. Proponents believe that this paradigm could would produce a rapidly deployable form of post carbon energy, that could potentially meet high levels of energy demand for millions of years to come. A reactor concept, called the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor in Europe, and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactor is associated with this idea, and several potential competing paper designs will potentially embody the concept. No TMSR/LFTR design has yet to emerge as as a project, but considering the fact that 4 years ago, the number of people in the world who knew about the concept, probably numbered in the few hundreds, a great deal of progress has been made towards making Thorium dreams a reality.

A second reactor concept has emerged to potentially compete with the LFTR idea. This is the Integral Fast Reactor, an advanced reactor concept that emerged from Argonne National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory between 1970 and 1990. The sociology, and business model of IFR support is different. IFR support relies heavily on the activism of old research veterans, and a small band of insiders, while LFTR support has emerged from a diverse group of scientists, engineers, and thinkers, few of whom were directly involved in Molten Salt Reactor research, prior to their LFTR activism.

There are some significant differences between the way MSR/LFTR supporters and IFR supportors argue their case. Kirk Sorensen, early on, posted a large number of Oak Ridge National Laboratory research reports, and technical papers on line in an archive, as support for his contentions. Although a similar, and indeed even larger set of technical documents could potentially be drawn on to support their contentions, they have chosen the testimony of the old research vetrans, rather than their reports as the primary documentation of their claims.

Indeed, anyone who is curious about what some of those IFR research reports have to say, might discover to their wondermont, that reviews of those reports are more likely to appear on energy from thorium, than on pro IFR web sites like Brave New Climate.

I must say that reading the IFR research literature has given me a somewhat better oppenion of the project, and although I have noted contradictions and discrepancies between the claims of the old Argonne National Laboratory vetrans and the research reports, those contradictions are explainable, especially if the research reports are understood in their political setting. In most instances, I have concluded that the contradictions probably will be settled in favor of the vetrans claims,. But there are still a number of troubling issues which cannot be settled by attempts to resolve the reports, and the claims of the vetrans. Perhaps the most troubling IFR issue yet to be resolved, is that of cost. Marketability is a second, related and troubling issue.

While it is clear that the IFR concept offers utilities many attractive features, it is far less clear that those features would attract utility purchasers to the IFR unless the maufacture could offer reactors at attractive prices. Manufactures will not be able to do that until they have assessed how much it would cost to manufacture and set up IFRs in the field. Such cost estimates are unlikely to be realistic, unless an IFR project has access to a manufacturer with experience building large, high technology projects, and construction engineers who have experience building large construction projects. Among current small reactor projects, only Babcock & Wilcox appears to have reached the organizational stage, that would permit it to begin to understand what it might charge customers for a finished product.

I have already discussed the status of the B&W mPower reactor project, in relationship to the ARC-100, a small IFR project. I have noted that the ARC-100 lacks the mPower project's maturity. The problem here raises a significant issue about the overall viability of the IFR.

General Electric has had a long term interest in the IFR concept, and a set of GE concept reactors, the S PRISMs have been developed as projected commercial implimentations of the IFR concept. All of these concepts require further investments in research and development, presumably with major US government involvement. In contrast, the ARC-100 is based on technology that is past the research and development stage. The ARC-100 technology has already been tested in a prototype, and thus can be considered mature.

If GE and its Japanese partner Tosheba were really interested in moving forward with an IFR the ARC-100 ought to be of interest to them. First because it would serve as a groundbreaker for IFR technology. Secondly, it would provide useful manufacturing and deployment experience. Thirdly, because if the ARC-100 is successful, its success would encourage public acceptance of larger and more ambitious S PRiSM projects.

From the viewpoint of the ARC-100 project, GR-Toshiba would bring many advantages to the table, including both manufacturing and construction engineering capabilities necessary for the ARC-100 project's success. Thus if GE-Toshiba is serious about the development of IRF technology, it would appear to have a stake in the ARC-100 project. Yet no evidence has yet to emerge that GE-Tosheba has the slightest interest in participating in the ARC-100.

This raises a question about how interested GE-Toshiba really is in the IFR as a potential future commercial product. I will be blunt, if GE-Toshiba is not interested in the ARC-100 project, unless another qualified candidate that could bring the necessary skills to the table, the project is likely to fail. But if GE-Toshiba is interested in developing a commercial IFR product, then it has an interest in the ARC-100's success. Therefore a lack of GE-Toshiba interest in the ARC-100 is very bad news for the prospects of the IFR.

The most likely problem would be IFR costs. If the ARC-100 is not cost competitive with small reactors such as the B&W mPower, then investments in it will carry a high risk. And if the ARC-100 is not cost competitive, investments in the IFR are unlikely to lead to big payoffs.

MSR/LFTR backers still firmly convinced that they offer a route to significantly lower nuclear and indeed post-carbon energy costs. While we don't know enough to offer a definitive view, it is likely thatr LFTR costs wiill be substantually lower than IFR costs. This judgement is based on a number of likely factors including lower materials input, simpler reactor design, lower labor costs, the possibility that a larger percentage of the finished product can be factory as opposed to field manufactured.

If I am right about this, potential serious MSR manufacturing efforts will begin to emerge within the next five years, while projects like the ARC-100 will not get past the drawing board stage, and other IFR projects will advance even less. Of course I might be wrong.


Rod Adams said...


I see no potential for GE and Toshiba to work together on a fast reactor project. I might be misreading history, but that possibility ended about the time that Toshiba purchased Westinghouse, the remnants of a company that has been an arch rival for more than 100 years.

Though Toshiba and GE were once partners in reactor development and construction in Japan - notably on BWRs like the ABWR - that cooperation ended rather abruptly, with significant cost to the NRG ABWR project for South Texas units 3 and 4.

With regard to GE's potential participation in the ARC-100, I again do not see it happening. GE wants the taxpayers to fund technology development and first of a kind construction expenses while it walks away from the project as the proud owner of a new array of patents and other intellectual property. This has been their business model for at least the past 50 years, but I think it might actually date to an earlier time than that.

If GE was still a major employer of US workers in US factories, I might not object too loudly to that kind of taxpayer support, but ever since the Jack Welch reign at the company, its style has been claiming to be an American champion while steadily moving as many jobs as possible to cheaper overseas locations.

No one knows how much something will cost until the industrialists get involved and begin offering real prices for the various components. mPower and NuScale have both reached that level of design maturity; LFTR and IFR supporters still have a lot of work to do on their cost estimates. That is not meant as criticism, just as an observation.

seth said...

What about India's Gen IV program.

Their 500 Mw grid connected fast metal demonstration unit was built in 6 years for $1.5B/Gw and will due for service next year. For a FOAK, that's a damn good deal. Before the unit is even in service they are so happy with it they plan to have 4 more ready for 2020 service.

I have no doubt that Sorensen's employer is going to surprise us with a working dirt cheap $200M/Gw DMSR within the next 3 years or so.

Charles Barton said...

Rod, The standard of evidence for future nuclear costs should not be regarded as stronger than probable cause. We have some reason to believe. This is the case for conventional nuclear power. Unconventional nuclear technologies cannot and should not be held to a higher standard. I have discussed reasons why LFTR supporters have cause to believe in lower LFTR costs. These include a simple, compact reactor design, low material and labor inputs into manufacturing,high thermal efficiency and potential for rapid manufacture. All of which can contribute to lower costs. Despite these factors, costs may not turn out to be as low as we expect. This is a game without certainties. But the reasonable expectations of lower energy costs, creats a motive for taking the risk.

htomfields said...

You can learn more about INL's nuclear energy projects by visiting the lab's facebook site


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