Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lowering Nuclear Costs

I am a big fan of Barack Obama, but the folks who are advising him on his energy policy are playing him for a fool. Blogger "uvdiv" recently demonstrated the incongruity of Mr. Obama's message and its setting in a recent speech the President gave at a new Florida Power & Light Solar generating facility. In order to fully appreciate the unintentional Irony of the president's speech, the reader is also encouraged to read a post on it in Rod Adams' blog. Rod calculates that given a capacity factor of 25%,
the capital cost of the facility is roughly equivalent to paying $21,600 per kilowatt for a plant that has a capacity factor of 90%, which is a bit less than average for a US nuclear power plant.
Rod's calculation is probably low since it fails to take into account the effect of Florida's frequent cloud cover on the solar plants generating capacity. Given the huge cost of the solar facilities rather modest power output, the President's remark that the traditional grid
costs us too much money
seems downright absurd.

The president talked about

The President then ascended into the realm of the transcendentally silly.
a clean energy superhighway that can take the renewable power generated in places like De Soto and deliver it directly to the American people in the most affordable and efficient way possible.

Oh please, please, please Mr. President, tell us that you did not write that. Tell us that you did not think about what you were saying. The president talked about saving consumers $20 billion, saving $150 billion, cutting utility bills, without the slightest insight into the huge cost of the facility where he chose to make his speech.

The President clearly does not have a clue, furthermore he sets himself on the side of "Green" rhetoric, and against a sensible dialogue about our energy future.
I have to be honest with you, though. The closer we get to this new energy future, the harder the opposition's going to fight. The more we're going to hear from special interests and lobbyists in Washington whose interests are contrary to the interests of the American people.

There are those who are also going to suggest that moving toward a clean energy future is going to somehow harm the economy or lead to fewer jobs.

What the President does not seem to understand is that his view of the energy future is going to be enormously expensive, so expensive that it will be possible for this country to afford it, and ruinous if it tries.

In 2007 when I began to explore our national energy options, the high cost of the "green" renewable energy option quickly became clear. It also became quite clear to me that the cost of conventional nuclear power plants would be too high to make Light Water Reactors the technology of choice for carbon mitigation. This is not to say that Light Water Reactors are impossibly expensive. In fact the levelized cost of power produced from LWRs built during the next decade appears to be lower than the Levelized cost of Solar or wind generation facilities. The problem then is that all carbon replacement energy forms currently on the table are too expensive.

As I have noted else were, the current cost of reactor construction in India is already competitive with the cost of coal fired electrical generation plants, and improving the economies of scale of Indian reactors would appear to hold the promise of even lower capital costs. In addition Indian nuclear technology is rapidly developing, and it appears that India will be the first nation to develop a low cost thorium fuel cycle. It is clearly the case that unless the cost of post-carbon energy in the United States can be dramatically lowered, that the United States will become an economic backwater.

Given the high price of renewable electrical technology, and the high price of Light Water Reactors, alternative low cost electrical technology should be given the highest priority for the sake of maintaining the nation's economy. I have long been aware that advanced nuclear technologies were explored at American National Laboratories from the 1940's until the 1990's. These technologies were not rejected for technical reasons, but because they did not receive political support for their further development and implementation.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory regarded Molten Salt Reactor technology as being particularly promising. In 1967 ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg wrote:
Nuclear power, based on light-water-moderated converter reactors, seems to be an assured commercial success. This circumstance has placed upon the Atomic Energy Commission the burden of forestalling any serious rise in the cost of nuclear power once our country has been fully committed to this source of energy. It is for this reason that the development of an economical breeder, at one time viewed as a long-range goal, has emerged as the central task of the atomic energy enterprise. Moreover, as our country commits itself more and more heavily to nuclear power, the stake in developing the breeder rises—breeder development simply must not fail. All plausible paths to a successful breeder must therefore be examined carefully.

To be successful a breeder must meet three requirements. First, the breeder must be technically feasible. Second, the cost of power from the breeder must be low; and third, the breeder should utilize fuel so efficiently that a full-fledged-energy economy based on the breeder could be established without using high-cost ores. The molten-salt breeder appears to meet these criteria as well as, and in some respects better than, any other reactor system. Moreover, since the technology of molten-salt breeders hardly overlaps the technology of the solid-fueled fast reactor, its development provides the world with an alternate path to long-term cheap nuclear energy that is not affected by any obstacles that may crop up in the development of the fast breeder.

The molten-salt breeder, though seeming to be a by-way in reactor development, in fact represents the culmination of more than 17 years of research and development. The incentive to develop a reactor based on fluid fuels has been strong ever since the early days of the Metallurgical Laboratory. In 1958 the most prominent fluid-fuel projects were the liquid bismuth reactor, the aqueous homogeneous reactor, and the molten-salt reactor. In 1959 the AEC assembled a task force to evaluate the three concepts. The principal conclusion of their report was that the "molten-salt reactor has the highest probability of achieving technical feasibility."

This verdict of the 1959 task force appears to be confirmed by the operation of the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment. To those who have followed the molten-salt project closely, this success is hardly surprising. The essential technical feasibility of the molten-salt system is based on certain thermodynamic realities first pointed out by the late R.C. Briant, who directed the ANP project at ORNL. Briant pointed out that molten fluorides are thermodynamically stable against reduction by nickel-based structural materials; that, being ionic, they should suffer no radiation damage in the liquid state; and that, having low vapor pressure and being relatively inert in contact with air, reactors based on them should be safe. The experience at ORNL with molten salts during the intervening years has confirmed Briant's chemical intuition. Though some technical uncertainties remain, particularly those connected with the graphite moderator, the path to a successful molten-salt breeder appears to be well defined.

We estimate that a 1000 MWe molten-salt breeder should cost $115 per kilowatt (electric) and that the fuel cycle cost ought to be in the range of 0.3 to 0.4 mill/kWh. The overall cost of power from a privately owned, 1000-MWe Molten-Salt Breeder Reactor should come to around 2.6 mills/kWh. In contrast to the fast-breeder, the extremely low cost of the MSBR fuel cycle hardly depends upon sale of byproduct fissile material. Rather, it depends upon certain advances in the chemical processing of molten fluoride salts that have been demonstrated either in pilot plants or laboratories: fluoride volatility to recover uranium, vacuum distillation to rid the salt of fission products, and for highest performance, but with somewhat less assurance, removal of protactinium by liquid-liquid extraction or absorption.

The molten-salt breeder, operating in the thermal Th-233U cycle, is characterized by a low breeding ratio: the maximum breeding ratio consistent with low fuel-cycle costs is estimated to be about 1.07. This low breeding ratio is compensated by the low specific inventory* of the MSBR. Whereas the specific inventory of the fast reactor ranges between 2.5 to 5 kg/MWe the specific inventory of the molten-salt breeder ranges between 0.4 to 1.0 kg/MWe. The estimated fuel doubling time for the MSBR therefore falls in the range of 8 to 50 years. This is comparable to estimates of doubling times of 7 to 30 years given in fast-breeder reactor design studies.

From the point of view of long-term conservation of resources, low specific inventory in itself confers an advantage upon the thermal breeder. If the amount of nuclear power grows linearly, the doubling time and the specific inventory enter symmetrically in determining the maximum amount of raw material that must be mined in order to inventory the whole nuclear system. Thus, low specific inventory is an essential criterion of merit for a breeder, and the detailed comparisons in the next section show that a good thermal breeder with low specific inventory could, in spite of its low breeding gain, make better use of our nuclear resources than a good fast breeder with high specific inventory and high breeding gain.

The molten salt approach to a breeder promises to satisfy the three criteria of technical feasibility, very low power cost, and good fuel utilization. Its development as a uniquely promising competitor to the fast breeder is, we believe, in the national interest.

It is our purpose in the remainder of this report to outline the current status of the technology, and to estimate what is required to develop and demonstrate the technology for a full-scale thermal breeder based on molten fluorides.
Less than two years after Dr. Weinberg wrote these encouraging words, the Nixon Administration began to shut down Molten Salt Reactor research in Oak Ridge.

Except for the cost estimate number, little appears to have changed in the prospect for this technology. Reviving the development of Molten Salt Reactor technology would be relatively inexpensive, and the cost savings potentially could be enormous.

President Obama needs to stop floundering around delivering silly speeches about his failing energy policy. He needs to find a new policy direction, one which will lead to low cost energy.


DocForesight said...


I'm a little surprised at your dismay with Pres. Obama's "floundering" on energy policy and his sop to the pseudo-Greens promoting expensive intermittent wind and solar power schemes.

At any time during the primaries and the general campaign, did Mr. Obama demonstrate any command of the complexity, breadth and ultimate future of our energy needs? Honestly, he did not.

Rarely does he ever make clear comparisons of cost/benefits. His constant use of strawman arguments are tedious, tiresome and beneath the dignity of the office he holds. It is beyond time for him to "man-up" and offer substance, not just style, in his pronouncements.

Charles Barton said...

This is about what I had expected, but not of course what i hoped. My purpose here is to sound out a protest, against the present idiotic course.

The North Coast said...

Obama is as clueless on energy matters as he is on economic and fiscal matters.... not that his opposition would have done any better in the economic department. I have lost faith in our government's ability to even maintain order and basic financial stability, let alone handle the challenges we're facing as fossil fuels deplete.

The current administration's handling of the energy situation, like our economic problems, shows that our leaders are in deep denial regarding energy realities just as they are regarding our financial situation.

We are expecting too much of our government and the people who run it, and we need to take economics and energy out of their hands if we want to survive financially and have electric power going forward. Both our raw economic survival and our ability to power our systems are in far graver danger than most people realize.

We have tossed $13 trillion into the rathole that is the housing and debt market (both very linked), and have gone to the end of the treasury's borrowing power to prop that garbage up, and the attempt will prove unsuccessful. As long as our rulers skew our economy towards the creation of evermore unrepayable debt, we simply WILL NOT HAVE THE CAPITAL to build even the nuclear plants we need to replace our aging nuclear fleet and coal fleet, let alone build those necessary to power our transportation and meet growing demand elsewise.

Why? Because no one is going to lend at these interest rates except the government, which has no more money to back up loans with. That's why there is a lot of debate about the extension of the housing credit.. they know we couldn't really afford it to begin with.

And we aren't going to get any more loans from foreigners. Utilities will be on their own capitalizing the next round of power plant construction in a country that has been economically reduced to the status of Argentina or Wiemar Germany. We will not be able to even capitalize oil shipments, if our currency continues to deteriorate to the point where it ceases to be the reserve currency. Skyward-ratcheting oil prices will drive the cost of constructing these plants to unaffordable levels if oil ceases to be denominated in the dollar.

As for the kind of renewable energy the "greens" have Obama hooked on, well.... count on electricity being unavailable to most of the population if that happens.

We are in very deep trouble, folks.

Bunion said...

Could you please explain the terms; low specific inventory & fuel doubling time

Charles Barton said...

Bunion low specific inventory refers to the amount of nuclear fuel required to sustain a chain reaction. In a moderated reactor less fissionable material is needed in order to maintain a chain reaction. This is referred to as low specific inventory. Fuel doubling time refers to the amount of time required to double the amount of fissionable material present in the reactor.


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