The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Making nuclear energy cheap: The view from the Breakthrough Institute


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.

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

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