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A need for new nukes? “Modular reactors” for energy attract interest

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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nuclear-reactorThe entire budget of the U.S. Department of Energy branch that covers today’s energy mix—from cleaning up energy generation’s environmental aftermath to energy efficiency programs and renewable energy development—is $10 billion. That’s enough to "either build one supercollider on the basic end or one nuclear power plant on the applied end," said Kristina Johnson, the undersecretary in charge of the branch, at the ARPA-E conference on March 3. In other words, nuclear power ain’t cheap.

Although estimates vary, there is no doubt that the up-front cost of conventional nuclear power plants—so-called light water reactors that use lightly enriched uranium for fuel—is high compared with any alternatives. Hence, the nuclear loan guarantees from the federal government: no single electric utility can afford to, in effect, bet the company on one nuclear power plant.

Yet nuclear power supplies 70 percent of the electricity in the U.S. that does not directly release carbon dioxide, according to Daniel Poneman, deputy secretary of energy. So are there ways to make it cheaper?

One idea is to create enclosed, small "modular reactors," like the one developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory and now proffered by Santa Fe, N.M.’s Hyperion Power. Its $50-million product would be an enclosed reactor roughly 1.5 meters wide by 2.5 meters tall; generating 25 megawatts, it would be buried underground and good for at least seven years. In fact, the promotional materials, on display at a booth at the inaugural ARPA-E conference, show nothing but a green field with a single tree. Think large (hidden) battery, the company urges.

Of course, the reality is that a steam turbine, generator and cooling device of some size (likely larger than the reactor itself, just like the big boys) would need to be sitting on top of that green field, displacing the one tree from the marketing materials. And the reactor, though enclosed, actually operates at a higher temperature than traditional reactors, roughly 500 degrees Celsius, and would require cooling by a liquid metal to enable its fast neutron fission. Much of that heat would then be passed to water to turn the turbine and produce electricity.

These small reactors are equally capable of having a runaway chain reaction, a so-called meltdown, so they have control rods to shut down fission just like traditional reactors. In fact, such "enclosed" reactors have several sets of control rods, including ones that slowly pull back over time as the fissionable fuel is consumed to enable fission to continue.

Hyperion is not alone in advancing this concept. Though the designs vary, Toshiba, Babcock & Wilcox and other major companies have similar small reactors and there has been initial interest from some potential customers, such as the village of Galena in Alaska. Yet the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has in the past refused to evaluate these smaller reactors (pdf), preferring to concentrate its efforts on enabling a renaissance in conventional technology.

That may be changing. This February, the NRC issued a call for such would-be small reactor builders (anything less than 700 megawatts, per NRC criteria) to alert the commission whether they would apply for site permits, licenses and certification in the future—to enable the regulatory body to plan its workload.

But Hyperion isn’t waiting for the NRC, says Deborah Blackwell, the company’s vice president of licensing and public policy. According to her, Hyperion is grappling with "hundreds" of applications from other parts of the world and plans to deliver its first product by the end of 2013.

Of course, such reactors do nothing to solve the problem of nuclear waste, as the spent modules would presumably end up in a similar situation to the spent fuel rods of the nuclear industry today—waiting for a permanent repository. Other designs at the ARPA-E conference might address that—so-called traveling wave reactors that could conceivably transmute some highly radioactive waste as part of their fission process, minimizing the amount of radioactive waste though not eliminating it.

Regardless, of the 52 nuclear reactors being built or planned around the world, exactly none employ these alternative designs. In fact, the only thing small about nuclear may be the amount of energy it ultimately contributes to the world at present rates of construction. "Nuclear will still be a small portion based on what’s seen today," said General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt at the ARPA-E summit, one of the would-be manufacturers of new nuclear power plants who notes that either new nuclear, coal with carbon capture and storage or both will be absolutely necessary going forward for reliable electricity with low greenhouse gas emissions. "Someday there’s going to be some CEO of GE that makes money on nuclear. I can tell you honestly the last two have not."

Image: Courtesy of Idaho State University





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  1. 1. sethdayal 12:51 pm 03/5/2010

    The worst sort of journalism. Yet another utterly biased Sciam article straight out from the backrooms of Big Oil.

    "..52 nuclear reactors being built or planned around the world, exactly none employ these alternative designs…"

    Now there is Whopper of Giant proportion.

    Google india fbr Kalpakkam 500 MW – a 500 Mw nuclear waste burning GenIV power plant is coming into service next year at a cost of $1.5B/Gw and six year construction time for a first of a kind reactor. China will begin construction of two BN-800 fast breeders in 2012. Hows that for an alternative designs.

    More of the usual Sciam Giant Whoppers on nuclear costs.

    AECL’s Qinshan Canadian regulatory agency approved 2 Candu 6′s , 4 year construction time, $2B /Gw

    Asian built American designed NRC approved twins of Vogtle AP-1000 are being built in 4 years for $1.2B/Gw, and two 60 year 1.5 cent a kwh bids are out – one AECL bid in Canada for OPG and one Korean bid in UAE.

    These are some real recent sale prices and actual nuclear build costs and time frames without American bureaucrats and attorneys using state owned public power like Bonneville and TVA.

    AECL has projected a cost of less than $1B/Gw – and 3 year build times for its new ACR-1000 after only few dozen sales and Toshiba is doing the same with its AP-1000. That is the cheapest power available to us – much less even than fossils.

    See how the NRC puts the shaft to American nuclear without any real safety improvements here in a paper by well known respected nuclear power expert Bernard L. Cohen, DSc,Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Pittsburgh

    http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/chapter9.html

    Obama could fix all that with a federal agency similar to Bonneville armed with nationwide site licences for any coal plant in the US it wanted to convert to nuclear. Better yet let Canada’s very efficient public power companies rim the border with AECL reactors and make $trillions selling power to attorney operated US utilities.

    A worldwide investment in 10000 mass produced nuclear reactors paid for by ending fossil fuel use, would eliminate most air pollution saving millions of lives annually, end the global warming/ peak oil problem within a ten year time frame, provide a huge job producing boost to the economy, require only a small part of our industrial capacity, and pay for itself in less than three years.

    Reasoning progressives and almost all Cons and Deniers will go along with nuclear power. It’s politically doable in a reasonable time frame – renewables are not.

    Link to this
  2. 2. quincykim 2:21 pm 03/5/2010

    I’m not a naturally suspicious person, but I have noticed a number of SciAm articles that seem biased toward big oil, both in tone and content. The Shell ads that often pop up just serve to reinforce my doubts about objectivity.

    Also, much to my surprise, I am becoming more receptive to the idea of nuclear. Not because it’s at all perfect, but because it does help solve the imminent problem of climate change while its inherent problem of radioactive waste allows for more time to solve. Any solution short of reversion to pre-industrial civilization will be a compromise, anyway.

    Link to this
  3. 3. youknowimright 3:40 pm 03/5/2010

    WHY oh why does no one ever mention thorium. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium_fuel_cycle

    Link to this
  4. 4. c141clay 3:41 pm 03/5/2010

    Harumpfff! Oil was good enough for My daddy, good enough for me, you kids want all this fancy nuckler gizmos.

    -Just not American I say. Now, get off my yard!

    (get a haircut too)

    Link to this
  5. 5. E Howard 4:21 pm 03/5/2010

    There is no need for new nukes. There is a need to conserve energy which would reduce the number of existing power plants.

    Link to this
  6. 6. mikecimerian 5:50 pm 03/5/2010

    Decommisioning trust funds should be mandatory for any new nuclear power plant. It can cost more than two billion dollars to decommision a plant.

    As things are, many utilities run their plants to the ground. A nuclear plant melt down would be a national crisis forcing federal government to step in thus forcing tax payers to cover the cost of an emergency.

    Link to this
  7. 7. mikecimerian 5:51 pm 03/5/2010

    Decommisioning trust funds should be mandatory for any new nuclear power plant. It can cost more than two billion dollars to decommision a plant.

    As things are, many utilities run their plants to the ground. A nuclear plant melt down would be a national crisis forcing federal government to step in thus forcing tax payers to cover the cost of an emergency.

    Link to this
  8. 8. sethdayal 9:30 pm 03/5/2010

    Nukes all pay a NRC mandated fee into a decommissioning fund.

    Hopefully, Chu will be spending a lot of DOE money this year on thorium reactors.

    Meltdown’s can’t happen in a modern reactor as the reaction stops when it gets too hot.

    Link to this
  9. 9. mikecimerian 10:37 pm 03/5/2010

    Thanks.

    Does the fee covers full decommissioning costs?

    I used melt down as metaphor … accidental releases are more likely.

    I remember Three Miles Island. Did anything substantial change in the Fund’s ability to cover cleaning costs? No rhetorics, just plain curious. :-)

    Was there a cap on existing older plants or are they all covered by the same Fund?

    Link to this
  10. 10. mikecimerian 10:48 pm 03/5/2010

    One other point. Does the NRC have jucicial authority? One other question. Did the previous administration weaken it as it happened with the FDA and the EPA ?

    Link to this
  11. 11. fisixisfun 12:53 am 03/6/2010

    I am somewhat receptive to the idea of nuclear, but it was annoying to read that few if any reactors being built are "next-gen". Of course, the ultimate unresolved issue is the waste, since so far we haven’t devised a way to dispose of it. Nevada threw such a fit that after decades of work and billions of dollars invested, Yucca Mountain won’t be used, all because of NIMBY attitude. I wonder if it’s possible that the ITER, if it can’t get fusion going with a net energy output, could be used to destroy nuclear waste, since the energies inside it are supposed to be high enough to affect atomic nuclei.

    Link to this
  12. 12. mikecimerian 2:31 am 03/6/2010

    I would like to hear more about next generation "slow poke" reactors. They are small scale sub critical reactors usefull for heating water distribution for instance. They could provide heating for urban complexes.

    They require little maintenance and do not require all the safeties of high pressure enriched uranium reactors since they are not required to produce electricity but just heat like kettles.

    Link to this
  13. 13. JamesDavis 8:18 am 03/6/2010

    It seems like all these nuke articles are trying to make coal and natural gas seem cleaner and healthier. Coal and natural gas extraction and use is killing our planet and every living thing on it. Eventhough nuclear is not the best, cheapest, or healthiest form of energy producing solutions – it only kills humans and 90% of animal life around it.

    To partically quote "youknowimright" comment… Why oh why do they not tell us about geothermal and hydropower production? I reckon these two clean energy producing sources are not dangerour enough, not destructive enough, and not costly enought to push to mass production. We want something that is frightfully destructive, frightfully expensive, and frightfully deadly to human life. Yeah! That’s what we want. Bring it on, we can afford to build twenty billion dollar nuke plants all over America.

    Link to this
  14. 14. sethdayal 11:23 am 03/6/2010

    @mike – you seem to want to learn about nuke issues. Spend some time and do the research yourself. You’ll learn a lot.

    " Even though nuclear is not the best, cheapest, or healthiest form of energy producing solutions – it only kills humans and 90% of animal life around it."

    Outside of Chernobyl where 56 people were killed and a few uranium mining accidents nuclear power kills nobody and nothing. Far more people die falling off roofs putting up and cleaning solar PV which to date produces almost no energy.

    The chance of a major nuclear accident with modern reactors is so close to zero you would have more luck betting on a double asteroid strike on the same city on the same day.

    ". Why oh why do they not tell us about geothermal and hydropower production? "

    The major hydro resources are already used, the rest are way out there in cost. Large scale geothermal causes earthquakes and requires not yet invented pumps.

    Next gen reactors can supply all the worlds energy needs for the next few centuries burning existing nuclear waste. Problem solved.

    Link to this
  15. 15. dslaby 1:50 pm 03/6/2010

    I hope that commenters in Scientific American would respond with less emotional cynicism and more matter of fact. Cynicism has the effect of casting doubt on what might otherwise be reasonable commentary.

    Link to this
  16. 16. DrAlexC 3:03 am 03/7/2010

    There has been a nuclear solution for >40 years — Thorium Fluoride Molten-Salt reactors, as designed for the atomic plane. Hatch & reid need to be encouraged to add it to their Thorium Power bill — http://tinyurl.com/ye27k98

    Some history — http://tinyurl.com/yb2qgex

    Link to this
  17. 17. mikecimerian 3:20 am 03/7/2010

    If a full reactor capable of delivering electricity for 50,000 homes can fit in the hull of a submarine then a good answer sits under our noses where modularity in concerned.

    Link to this
  18. 18. DrAlexC 4:22 am 03/7/2010

    I have!

    http://tinyurl.com/yb2qgex
    http://tinyurl.com/ye6leml

    Link to this
  19. 19. Wayne Williamson 3:13 pm 03/7/2010

    DrAlexC…thanks for the links…very much enjoyed them….although the video seemed alittle rushed(even at 25min)….I hope this moves forward….

    Link to this
  20. 20. mikecimerian 5:29 pm 03/7/2010

    Aren’t breeders a key component for rising plutonium output? I don’t feel too good about a nuclear weapons race with China. Tron knows how MAD is pure madness.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Biodiversivist 12:49 pm 03/8/2010

    Reframing Nuclear Power as an Ally of Renewable Energy

    The cost of a nuclear plant is moot if it turns out to be the only zero carbon technology capable of backing up a mostly renewable grid.

    Look at the grid as a giant circuit board. Look at nuclear power plants as the more expensive but necessary components of a circuit board design. Imagine trying to design a circuit board if all you get to use are admittedly less expensive resistors.

    http://biodiversivist.blogspot.com/2010/02/reframing-nuclear-power-as-ally-of.html

    Link to this
  22. 22. jcdhall 4:47 am 03/9/2010

    Further to sethdayal
    The Canadians could also take used SNF and convert it to DUPIC fuel for CANDU reactors.

    Link to this
  23. 23. dwbd 10:54 pm 03/9/2010

    Biodiversivist – why would use a high capital cost – low operating cost energy source such as Nuclear to complement a fluctuating Renewable power source? That makes no sense.

    A high capital cost power plant – you want to run full out 24/7 to recover your investment as quickly as possible.

    The best backup for fluctuating renewables is Open Cycle Gas Turbines. But that condemns us to high GHG emissions, reliance on Fossil fuels and Energy imports – so who needs the STUPID, IDIOTIC RENEWABLE ENERGY!

    Far more economical to simply skip the Renewables (except of course for Hydro, where available) and build the Nuclear.

    And this David Biello character has not even the slightest glimmer of an idea as to how to significantly reduce Fossil fuel consumption, Energy Imports or GHG emissions. And as is typical of Astro-Turfers, they only talk about Business-As-Usual Nuclear rather than Save-Our-Civilization Nuclear. They are two completely different concepts.

    It is correct to say that the former will not do a whole lot to solve the above problems. But it is certainly true that the latter can solve them, and save hundreds of billions of dollars on fossil fuel costs at the same time. A win-win endeavor, and a NO-BRAINER, the only reason it isn’t done is due to the corruption of government, the media and "Greenie" organizations, such as Greenpeace & the Sierra Club by the Money-No-Object Fossil Fuel Lobbies.

    Link to this
  24. 24. kaitsu50 8:34 am 03/12/2010

    I agree,
    what has SciAm to say for this:
    US Secretary of Energy, Stephen Chu commented: This investment reflects President Obama’s commitment to building the next generation of nuclear reactors that will create thousands of jobs and supply the clean energy to power our economy.

    It’s time for America to recapture the lead in the nuclear energy industry and lay the foundation for a stronger, cleaner, and more competitive economic future, he said.

    http://www.neimagazine.com/story.asp?sectionCode=132&storyCode=2055645

    Link to this
  25. 25. kaitsu50 8:35 am 03/12/2010

    What has SciAmto say for this:

    US Secretary of Energy, Stephen Chu commented: “This investment reflects President Obama’s commitment to building the next generation of nuclear reactors that will create thousands of jobs and supply the clean energy to power our economy.”

    “It’s time for America to recapture the lead in the nuclear energy industry and lay the foundation for a stronger, cleaner, and more competitive economic future,” he said.

    http://www.neimagazine.com/story.asp?sectionCode=132&storyCode=2055645

    Link to this
  26. 26. Sisko 4:32 pm 03/14/2011

    EHoward wrote- There is no need for new nukes. There is a need to conserve energy which would reduce the number of existing power plants.

    That is a really silly statement- 70% of the world’s population does not currently even have electricity. you think those poor folks might want electricity??? duh. The US building modern nuclear power would eliminate the need to transfer capital to foreign governments and well as to reduce our CO2 emissions

    Link to this
  27. 27. ggreeves 2:19 pm 03/16/2011

    The problems with present nuclear power plants are cost and safety. The small modular plant solves both. Serial production in a factory is much less expensive than custom building out in the field. No large plant can be fully tested for safety because it is too expensive to risk. A small module could be put through extensive tests similar to airliner certification to ensure that there is no conceivable danger of radiation leakage under any circumstances other than willfully opening it up. Small reactor cores are much easier to fully contain in all circumstances due to their larger surface to volume ratio. There is an industrial enterprise similar to and about the size of Boeing waiting to be born. One of the present nuclear countries will get it.

    The problem with nuclear waste is that people think "disposal" when they should be thinking "perpetual care".

    Link to this
  28. 28. ggreeves 2:46 pm 03/16/2011

    Another observation:
    Read the NRC reference. You will be astonished to learn that it is beyond the NRC’s imagination that a 1000MW plant could be replaced by a 10 by 10 array of 10MW plants. Remember, these are the people who are supposed to imagine all possible failure scenarios to input into the computer models to keep us safe from the 1000MW plants which are too large to actually test.

    Link to this

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