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Making nuclear energy cheap: The view from the Breakthrough Institute

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

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A very high temperature reactor (VHTR) design created for higher efficiency (Image: Wikipedia)

I have been wanting to highlight this review of strategies to make nuclear energy cheap and efficient from the Breakthrough Institute for a while. The report contains many cogent recommendations and projects a promising future for nuclear power if the right steps are taken. What I like about it is that it takes a kind of systems engineering approach to the problem, highlighting not just technical but also economic issues related to supply chains and the use of existing materials and frameworks to make nuclear both cheap and safe.

The report illuminates four major factors inherent in the successful operation and deployment of nuclear reactors – including new designs – and then explores them in the context of Generation III and Generation IV reactors. These are:

1. Safety:
Includes being able to operate reactors at ambient pressures and using high tolerance and safe fuels and coolants.
2. Modularity: Entails being able to build reactors piecemeal and ship them to sites. The design also makes for quicker disassembly and promises reductions in both costs and risk.
3. Thermal efficiency: Being able to operate reactors at higher temperatures using more temperature-resistant materials can clearly make their more efficient and cheaper.
4. Readiness: Readiness involves being able to use existing materials, supply chains and even legal and technical frameworks to make the design and commissioning of new nuclear reactors as easy as possible.

The report then studies these four factors in the context of Generation III and IV reactors. It is apparent that there are several promising avenues for optimizing the performance of these new reactors within these four constraints and making them an important part of the energy equation. The good news is that in most cases the technology and materials already exist, and what is necessary is to put them together and then navigate the legal and political hurdles.

One of the most striking feelings I got from the report is how rather unimaginative the development of nuclear energy was in its first few decades. For instance, the light water reactor (LWR) design which was suitable for submarines was simply carried over to land-based reactors and thereby to thousands of reactors around the world. The other feeling you get from reading the report, or the history of nuclear energy in general, is one about lost opportunities. For instance Generation III-type reactors had been explored in the early days but were then abandoned for a variety of reasons, including economic and political. Alvin Weinberg who was one of the most inventive nuclear scientists of all time had explored novel, safe designs like the molten salt reactor (MSR) which was again abandoned and is only now seeing a resurgence. The history of nuclear technology is littered with promising ideas that were never followed up, limited and clumsy designs which were frozen and applied indiscriminately and out of context and monopolies by companies that edged out small, upstart entrepreneurs and thinkers.

All this again reminds me of Freeman Dyson’s admonition that the problem with nuclear power was not the cost or the waste or the political outlook; it was the fact that people did not play with it, that they did not let their imagination roam in pushing the boundaries of the paradigm and trying out as many ideas as possible to find successful ones. That is what happened with computer technology, that is what happened with biotechnology and those fields became very successful because so many people were allowed to experiment, come up with new ideas, discard the failed ones and retain the successful ones in a Darwinian process; if society had treated nuclear energy the way it treated chip design, our energy history could have been quite different.

It’s time that nuclear technology too becomes the beneficiary of such a Darwinian process. The good news is that it’s not too late; some young entrepreneurs are breaking the mold and launching new startups devoted to exploration of novel nuclear designs, and the threat of climate change has forced the public to take a fresh new look at nuclear technology. Hopefully some of the developments sketched in the Breakthrough Institute’s report will finally allow us to build a promising future for this promising energy source. The whole thing is worth reading.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

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

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  1. 1. Chryses 8:29 pm 06/20/2014

    I would like to see these new designs in operation. They certainly seem to have the potential for success.

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  2. 2. Jordan13 12:45 am 06/21/2014

    I find the public’s understanding of nuclear power, and radiation shameful. People fear both, and never care to learn anything about either, while perpetuating a stigma foolishly rooted in ignorance. If we, as human beings wish to move BEYOND fossil fuels, nuclear power sources are the only practical solution to actually meet the demand for electricity. This kind of experimentation, and advancement are critical to the future of hummanity.

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  3. 3. robert.hargraves 6:49 am 06/21/2014

    Here are some of the startup ventures that are pursuing energy from molten salt reactors.

    Martingale, a DMSR, with shipyard-like mass production in Florida by Jack Devanney

    Flibe Energy, a LFTR, two-fluid MSR, looking to miedical isotope co-products , in Alabama, by Kirk Sorensen

    Terrestrial Energy a DMSR, possibly process heat for oil sands, in Ontario by David LeBlanc

    Transatomic Power, to consume spent LWR fuel , in Massachusetts, by Leslie Dewan, Mark Massie, Russ Wilcox

    TerraPower, besides liquid metal cooled fast reactor, exploring molten salt reactors, in Washington state and China, by Bill Gates, John Gilleland, Jeff Latkowski

    Academic research goes on at UC Berkeley, MIT, U Wisc Madison, and Grenoble.

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  4. 4. larkalt 1:31 pm 06/21/2014

    Perhaps innovation in nuclear reactor designs has been constrained by the anxiety associated with things nuclear – coming from nuclear weapons and from the anxiety-causing aspects of radiation. Anxiety inhibits innovation.

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  5. 5. Asteroid Miner 1:42 am 06/22/2014
    Commercially available fast [neutron] reactor eats nuclear “waste” alias spent fuel.

    4. larkalt: Anxiety is from ignorance. Please read this book: “Radiation and Reason, The impact of Science on a culture of fear” by Wade Allison. 2009. [The Wade Allison in England, not the other Wade Allison at Harvard.]
    Professor Allison says we can take up to 10 REMs per month, a little more than 1000 times the present “legal” limit. The old limit was 5 REMs/lifetime. A single dose of 800 REMs could kill you, but if you have time to recover between doses of 10 REMs, no problem. It is like donating blood: You see “4 gallon donor” stickers on cars. You know they didn’t give 4 gallons all at once. There is a threshold just over 10 REMs/month [100 millisieverts/month]. You are getting .35 rems/year NATURAL background radiation right where you are right now if you are where I am.

    Radiation workers were allowed 5 REMs /lifetime. Divide 5 REMs by your present Natural Background Radiation. For Americans, Natural Background Radiation is at least .35 REMs/year. Our Natural Background Radiation uses up our 5 REMs/lifetime when we are 14 years old. That old regulation is nonsense.

    Natural Background Radiation is radiation that was always there, 1000 years ago, a million years ago, etc. Natural Background Radiation comes from the rocks in the ground and from exploding stars thousands of light years away. All rocks contain uranium. Radon gas is a decay product of uranium.

    1rem = .01 sievert = 10 millisievert
    milli means .001

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  6. 6. larkalt 4:35 am 06/22/2014

    @Asteroid Miner
    I suggested that the psychology surrounding nuclear energy influences how it’s regulated, the consequences of nuclear accidents and the thinking of nuclear engineers.
    Yes concerns about radiation are overblown. That is part of the *point* of what I said. Radiation freaks people out because it’s invisible, it invades the body, it causes cancer … Radiation engenders anxiety.
    And the threat of nuclear weapons hangs over us all, there’s nothing people can do about, so they don’t think about it very much – but that fear also influences how people think about nuclear energy.

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  7. 7. Paxus 11:10 am 06/22/2014

    The idea that nuclear scientists have not been permitted to “play” with the technology is laughable. Few in the history of science have had as much opportunity to waste public money on technologies with no future as nuclear scientists. From nuclear powered aircraft, to fusion reactors, to breeder reactors, to pebble bed or nuclear “reprocessing” to MOX – nuclear scientists have had a giant playground which has produced precious little in the way of useful results.

    The nuclear industry has always received special subsidies from the state from insurance, to not being responsible for their own waste, to loan guarantees, to investment credits and more. If we went with a more “Darwinian” approach to nuclear power, we would no doubt have less of it than we already do. Markets have little interest in nuclear, or as the Economist Magazine said “Nuclear was once billed as too cheap to meter, now it is too expensive to matter.”

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  8. 8. GuestPosting 11:12 am 06/22/2014

    Nuclear energy can never be cheap because:

    (1) Nuclear waste is the largest form of long-term debt any country with nuclear energy will ever have.

    The cost to store nuclear waste for 100,000+ years is infinite.

    (2) Nuclear power plants use up to 35 MILLION gallons of water per day. That’s not cheap.

    (3) Nuclear power plants release radiation into the environment (RADIOACTIVE EFFLUENT) which pollutes the air and water from decades to thousands of years.

    (4) Two studies found higher cases of childhood leukemia in children living around nuclear power plants.

    What is the cost of that?

    (5) Studies found higher incidences of breast cancer in people living around nuclear power plants.

    What is the cost of that?

    (6) Nuclear energy requires hugely expensive subsidies and agencies to oversee it. This costs the taxpayer/ratepayer billions and billions of dollars every year.

    (6) Learn how EVERY state can be powered ENTIRELY by Renewable Energy at www dot thesolutionsproject dot org

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  9. 9. SAULT18 11:38 am 06/22/2014

    I wish TBI the best of luck in trying to make nuclear power cheaper. Another reason why nuclear technology was “locked in” at the expense of fostering innovation is because a lot of the technology in the LWR was designed during the Manhattan Project and provides an expedient way to make plutonium. As long as newer reactor technology still carries this legacy, proliferation issues will limit it to countries that already have nuclear weapons (with a few exceptions) and political opposition to nuclear technology will always be a problem.

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  10. 10. SAULT18 12:08 pm 06/22/2014

    Re AsteroidMiner #5:

    The GE PRISM reactor is NOT commercially available. This is probably the 3rd or 4th time I’ve had to correct you on this point yet you keep perpetuating the falsehood that we’ll start seeing PRISM reactors relatively soon. There was some news in 2010 that they may build a demonstration PRISM reactor at the DoE’s Savannah River site and the UK government showed some interest as well, but since then, nothing. Most serious analyses pegs the first PRISM reactors breaking ground in 2030 with operation beginning in 2040:

    That is HARDLY “commercially available”. Please look a bit deeper into the claims you are making and it will prevent you from misleading the people on these boards in the future.

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  11. 11. SAULT18 12:14 pm 06/22/2014

    Re: GuestPosting #7:

    I have a link to the studies concerning higher rates of childhood leukemia near nuclear reactors:

    “The study, conducted by the Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire (INSERM) and reported in the International Journal on Cancer in January 2012, looked at child leukaemia cases nationwide diagnosed between 2002 and 2007, with addresses coded around 19 nuclear power plants. It demonstrated a stastically signficant doubling of the incidence of leukaemia childhood near nuclear power plants.

    The French study confirms an earlier German study, known as the KiKK, which found a doubling of the incidence of child leukaemia near nuclear power plants, and an increased risk of 60 per cent for all childhood cancers. The KiKK findings were confirmed by the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection.”

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  12. 12. lillymunster 1:05 pm 06/22/2014

    Breakthrough Inst. is a lobbyist arm of the nuclear industry. Hardly an impartial party on the issue. Any of these ideas are largely untested and come with the massive price tag that any nuclear power concept has. Money would be better spent on something known to work efficiently and with a lower operating/start up cost.

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  13. 13. phalaris 4:17 pm 06/22/2014

    For those who are new to these blogs and not aware that Sault18 cites selectively from green/leftie lobby organisations, see extremely thorough and definitive 2013 study:

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  14. 14. Dr. Strangelove 11:34 pm 06/22/2014


    Are the authors mechanical engineers? They want to apply Brayton cycle to nuclear reactors. They seem to be unaware that nuclear reactions are not a combustion process. “Little things” like this undermines the credibility of the report though nuclear energy is promising.

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  15. 15. SAULT18 8:11 pm 06/23/2014

    Wow, phalaris, you are indeed a crack investigative reporter! Too bad the article I linked to mentioned the VERY SAME REPORT you linked to. I was merely providing a link to the studies showing increased leukemia risk around nuclear plants that GuestPosting mentioned.

    If you want to talk smack about me, why don’t you just come out directly and say it instead of this passive aggressive crap you always pull?

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  16. 16. DaRaco 6:50 pm 07/14/2014

    The Breakthrough Institute is nothing more than a PR firm for toxic corporations. Just another bunch of professional liars for hire.

    Here’s just one of the many analyses that destroy their credibility:

    The real reason nuclear power is dying is cost. “[The Breakthrough Institute] Shellenberger and Nordhaus have backed up their arguments with junk accounting on nuclear energy’s costs. The Breakthrough Institute elects to ignore all of this real-world complexity and offer its own extremely distorted way of comparing power generation costs. They appear to have begun with the predetermination that nuclear power is the only solution to everything, and then rounded up a highly selective, distorted, and outright wrong pile of evidence to make their case. … the cost of US solar PV is already as little as half that of advanced nuclear generation in 2018. Further, we should bear in mind that the cost of solar and wind is still falling, while the cost of nuclear keeps rising.”

    I guess the nuke lobby and their fan club must be getting very desperate if they’re scraping the barrel this much. Their nuke propaganda movie, Pandora’s Promise, was a total flop. And now they are using a bunch of non-experts with a history of demonstrated incompetence and false claims to effectively admit nukes are too expensive! Priceless!!

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  17. 17. DaRaco 7:02 pm 07/14/2014

    > “if society had treated nuclear energy the way it treated chip design”

    How exactly could “society” “treat” nukes like computer chips?

    Chips are very small, very cheap and quick to make, produced in their millions, have a short lifespan before being replaced.

    Nukes are very big, very expensive, very slow to build, very dangerous, they operate for many decades.

    In other words, computer chips can *scale*, nukes cannot. This is why nukes are getting *more* expensive as time passes – unlike chips and solar PV and wind turbines which are all falling in cost.

    > “a promising future for this promising energy source.”

    Uh, you do know that nukes have been around for 60+ years and have received massive investment and subsidy all that time? But the cost just keeps on going up. That’s why nukes have been in global decline for 20+ years. It’s a tried and failed technology. The pretty PDF from the Breakthrough Boys won’t change a thing.

    Here’s some science that this blogger should read:

    The economics of a US civilian nuclear phase-out. “Nuclear power faces complex and ultimately existential challenges in adapting to stiff competition from efficient, diverse, distributed, renewable alternatives. The inevitable US nuclear phase-out, whatever its speed, is therefore just part of a far broader and deeper evolution from the remarkable electricity system that has served the nation so well to an even better successor now being created.”

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