Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Energy costs and advanced nuclear technology

Energy costs are a major concern for Nuclear Green. I am on the lookout for cost data on renewables, and one of my stated concerns is lowering nuclear costs. I contend that renewable generated electricity cost more than nuclear generated electricity, but that the cost of conventionally generated nuclear power, while lower than cost of renewable generated electricity will still be far to expensive to be satisfactory.

I have noted that nuclear generated electricity sells for 4.5 cents per kWh. The Indians seem to be making money at this price even when the power comes from new reactors and is only generated part of the time, due to a uranium shortage. Other nations that will be competing in a post-carbon energy environment, will have to match Indian energy costs, or loose the competition for energy intensive industries. Indian labor costs are lower than those of Western Europe and North America, and if Indian energy costs will also be lower, India will have a significant economic advantage during this century.

Thus it would be highly advantageous for the United States to adopt low cost nuclear technologies. Both labor costs and the cost of materials and parts play a significant role in nuclear costs. So low nuclear costs requite a simple, cheap to build, reactor with low material input as well as relatively few parts. Building reactors in factories could lower costs. Small simple reactors could open the door to other approaches to lowering nuclear costs.

I am hardly the only person who has seen the potential value of this course. Senator Mark Udall has just introduced legislation titled "the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative Improvement Act of 2009,calling for the following,
AUTHORIZED RESEARCH INITIATIVES—In carrying out the program under this subsection, the Secretary shall conduct research to lower the cost of nuclear reactor systems, including research regard
‘‘(A) modular and small-scale reactors; ‘
‘(B) balance-of-plant issues;
‘‘(C) cost-efficient manufacturing and
‘‘(D) licensing issues; and
‘‘(E) enhanced proliferation controls.
Someone in Washington is starting to get the right ideas. We still need to look at what sort of reactor is going to fulfill Senator Udall's expectations. We can expect to see a push for the GE-Hitachi PRISM reactor to accompany this legislation. Steve Kirsch is telling people:
One nice thing about the S-PRISM is that they’re modular units and of relatively low output (one power block of two will provide 760 MW). They could be emplaced in excavations at existing coal plants and utilize the same turbines, condensers (towers or others), and grid infrastructure as the coal plants currently use, and the proper number of reactor vessels could be used to match the capabilities of those facilities. Essentially all you’d be replacing is the burner (and you’d have to build a new control room, of course, or drastically modify the current one). Thus you avoid most of the stranded costs. If stranded costs can thus be kept to a minimum, both here and, more importantly, in China, we’ll be able to talk realistically not just about stopping to build new coal plants but replacing the existing ones, even the newest ones.

There may be a fly in the ointment, as a recent Reuters story suggest:
The drawbacks of the system by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy are that the fast reactors involved are very costly and the reprocessing technology involves handling highly radioactive material yet to be proven on industrial scale. . . .

The challenge lies in the high costs of building fast reactors, . . .

Tim Abram, professor of nuclear fuel technology at Manchester University in Britain [says,]

The big challenge is: can we make it economic? Today, the answer is no, so this remains one of the main goals of the Generation IV initiative . . ."
The Reuters story attributed the expensive assessment to "experts". So we have two different stories about cost. is a backer, and of course backers is his more private moments, when he looks at himself in the mirror, yours truly knows full well, that it is difficult for a backer of advanced technology to be fully objective. I have indeed written about LFTR costs, and indeed have probably gone so far out on a limb, that no expert would willingly be quoted as endorsing my claims. Yet I do have a rational for my LFTR cost claims, several as a mater of fact. So we have some conflicting evidence about S-PRISM costs.

A note on history. History would suggest that as a research project, developing the S-PRISM will be very expensive, and the production of the S-PRISM is likely to be expensive by LFTR standards. This statement is not going to make Steve Kirsch, Barry Brook or Tom Blees happy, but I am not trying to step on their toes. None of them have been LMFRR supporters for very long, and they are relying on the Argonne National Laboratory crowd for their information. The history is that a lot of money has already been put into LMFBR research, In the 1970's ORNL research planners estimated that about 10% of the money spent on LMFBR were spent on Molten Salt Breeder Reactor technology, that is LFTR technology could be made viable. Steve, Tom, and Barry will tell you that the money spent on LMFBR technology has not been wasted. Perhaps not, but we need to look at deployment costs.

Features of the S-PRISM are likely to lead to higher cost than could be expected with the LFTR. First, the S-PRISM requires an expensive fuel reprocessing technology, while a low cost fuel reprocessing technology will be included in the LFTR design. Paying for the LFTR will get you fuel reprocessing too, and LFTR advocates will suggest that LFTRs with attached fuel reprocessing units, will cost less than S-PRRISM reactors with comparable power output. A second S-Prism cost issue has to do with a safety feature, the large pool of liquid sodium that the reactor core will be immersed in. The pool structure will probably not be factory built, and on site construction adds to reactor cost. In addition the large pool structure means a larger reactor housing. The solid fuel has to be mechanically removed from the reactor and transferred to a separate processing unit. Than means that space inside the reactors inner housing has to be allowed for fueling and defueling equipment. The NRC will be concerned about the safety of a reactor that uses a coolant as dangerous as liquid sodium.

Reservations about the safety of sodium cooled reactors first lead Oak Ridge scientists and engineers to develop liquid salt cooled reactors as a safer alternative to Sodium cooled reactors. I have no doubt that sodium cooled reactors can be made safe enough to satisfy the NRC, but because of the sodium safety issue, there will be a cost.

At the moment the S-PRISM reactor has business, institutional and governmental sponsors. These include GE-Hitsachi, Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories (with Sandia jockeying for its own smaller LMFBR candidate), and The US DoE. LFTR advocates can point to a viable research program in France, and a very lively interest community in the United States. It is perhaps a sign of the progress of nuclear power that nuclear advocates feel they can have controversies. In fact the controversies are old, and it is almost inevitable that they will resurface as the case for nuclear power grows stronger.

The future of nuclear power will be dependent on lowering nuclear cost. Although most prognosticators suggest that it will take a generation or longer for low cost nuclear technology to emerge, such judgements are based on business as usual assumptions that are likely to quickly fall by the wayside. The desire for low cost, rapidly scaleable nuclear technology is about to become very urgent. The cost of developing either the LFTR or the IFR to a production phase, is very small compared to world spending on energy during the next 40 years. No one yet knows how much money developing advanced nuclear technology will save, but place that sum into the trillion dollar range.


Robw said...


With the apparent lead that IFR/S-PRISM reactors have over LFTRs, do you think it would be wise to develop them into production first?

Or do you fear that if that happens, LFTR will be left by the wayside, mostly because of funding?

With the modest amount of capital needed to develop the LFTR, I can't see why both could not be developed. Then again, maybe I'm not living in reality here. Comments?


Charles Barton said...

Rob, There is no reason why both can't be developed on a fast track. But my suspicion would be that the development of the IFR would take longer and cost more that the development of the LFTR. As i indicted this issue has a long history. In 1972 the AEC thought that the LMFBR re[resented a "mature technology" and that its development was a slam dunk. Billions of dollars later, the United States has yet to produce the first LMFBR commercial prototype/ We have an open question if the S-PRISM prototype how expensive it would be to reproduce for commercial deployment. As a nuclear waste disposal system, the LFTR offers many advantages at potentially a much lower cost.

Robw said...


So you think the LFTR could be developed quicker then the IFR/S-PRISM?

Tom Blees and Steve Kirsh make it sound like the S-PRISM could be made into a commercial prototype 'tomorrow'. Are they correct or being overly optimistic?

Charles Barton said...

Robw from the recent Reuters story:

"GE Hitachi says it could develop the technology in 10-15 years as it has been working on it since the 1980s, partly funded by the U.S. government."

That does not sound like they could start building the prototype tomorrow.

Frank Kandrnal said...

Even though IFR and LFTR reactors achieve similar end results, high conversion of fertile material to fissionable material and low waste production with relatively short half life, there is a serious difference between the two designs.
IFR reactor requires highly enriched start up fuel and liquid sodium coolant. Since liquid sodium is extremely reactive with water it practically eliminate the steam operated supercritical pressure steam turbomachinery from sodium heat recovery loop for safety reasons. IFR is more suitable to operate with helium or other inert gases to extract heat from sodium coolant. Even though gas turbines can achieve greater efficiency these systems are not yet used in any large power systems except natural gas combustion turbines. On the other hand, the steam turbines are present in all large thermal power plants worldwide, including gas fired combined cycle, hence the steam turbomachinery absolutely dominates electric production from heat recovery.
Molten salt in LFTR does not react with water, hence steam cycle is very suitable to recover heat with satisfactory efficiency. Ultra high efficiency is not critical in nuclear power plants where the fuel cost is minimal, as would be the case with thorium. What is far more critical at this time is to utilize the existing steam turbomachinery manufacturing infrastructure and steam turbomachinery in existing coal fired power plants for quicker and cheaper conversion to nuclear power. Later on it would be desirable to go with more efficient gas turbines to reduce cooling water consumption.
At present, I am far more inclined to use LFTR reactor rather than IFR. Such a conversion is more realistic. Another benefits of LFTR were already discussed by Kirk Sorensen and others many times before.
It is also more likely that technical and proliferation problems in thermal breeder are easier to overcome than the problems in fast breeder. As Charles pointed out, there was not much success with fast breeders so far despite a lot of money sunk into the research and development.

Nathan2go said...

I think the big problem with supporting S-PRISM is there are too many great reactors we desperately need to develop.

Obviously, we need the LFTR: a two-fluid LeBlanc tube with on-site reprocessing and breakeven breeding.

But reprocessing is not for everyone/everywhere.

ORNL's single fluid denatured MSR near-breeder with 30 year batch reprocessing would suit many applications (particularly if scaled down to the 200MW range).

And Per Peterson's Advanced (salt cooled) High Temperature (Pebble bed) Reactor is another near-breeder which would be perfect for many locales that are not a fit for reprocessing technology or who don't like the idea of radioactive fluids getting loose in their backyards. And it’s a great stepping stone toward LFTR. And the solid fuel will create lots of quality jobs and business opportunities in the nuclear fuels industry.

What about hydrogen production (for fertilizer and liquid synthetic fuels)? A reactor that can put out 1000C heat (for S-I chemical synthesis) could have a 20% cost advantage over electrolysis based systems. Because corrosion is worse at higher temperatures, a helium cooled pebble-bed design maybe the only solution.


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