Nuclear power: Going fast

By Felix Salmon
June 23, 2009

I was offline most of yesterday attending a high-intensity series of presentations hosted by Esquire magazine in the magnificent suite of rooms at the top of the new Hearst tower. GE’s Eric Loewen was there, talking about nuclear power, and specifically what he calls a PRISM reactor — a fourth-generation nuclear power station which runs on the nuclear waste generated by all the previous generations of nuclear power stations.

PRISM is GE’s name for an integral fast reactor, or IFR, and it’s a pretty great technology. The amount of fuel which already exists for such reactors would be enough to power the world for millennia — no new mining needed. Fast reactors also solve at a stroke the problem of what to do with the vast amounts of nuclear waste which are being stockpiled unhappily around the world. They’re super-safe: if they fail they just stop working, they don’t melt down. And they can even literally replace coal power stations:

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.

And best of all they’re eminently affordable: Loewen showed that they could be profitable selling energy at just 5 cents per KwH — which means that you don’t need to price carbon emissions at all to make these power stations economically attractive. With pricing on carbon emissions, of course, they become even economically compelling.

So what’s the problem? They’re untested, and the regulators in the US will take many years and many billions of dollars before they will approve such a project. And legislation is needed, too — including legislation allowing the use of nuclear waste as a fuel. But mainly all that’s needed is political will. It’s unclear the degree to which Steven Chu, the US energy secretary, supports this technology. But if he puts the weight of the Obama administration into supporting this technology and trying to make it a reality, then a lot of private capital will start flowing into the area. And it might be much, much easier to achieve ambitious carbon-emission reduction targets than many people currently think.

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20 comments so far

They need to sell these things overseas because the US is so regulatory risk averse – in everything except financial regulation, of course, because the markets do no harm.

Posted by jonathan | Report as abusive

Oh WOW – another technological solution to another technological problem …. just like clean coal – and clean coal is like Godot … will be here in just a moment ….

Posted by croghan27 | Report as abusive

My junior year in high school, the debate topic was reducing pollution worldwide. My debate partner and I presented a case based on IFR technology (at the time being developed in the INEL in eastern Idaho). This was in the early 90′s. Back then they tested the safety of the reactor by *turning off the coolant flow.* The reactor, by the physics of the design, shut down before reaching critical heat levels.

Shortly after Clinton was elected, the administration shut down all funding for the project.

These things are really cool. Needless to say, our debate case was overwhelmingly successful.

Posted by Aaron | Report as abusive

> legislation allowing the use of nuclear waste as a fuel

This is a little bit remarkable to me. At what point did Congress ban the use of nuclear waste as fuel, and why? Was it the unintended consequence of some sort of security bill?

This reactor will not be built for decades precisely because it is the solution to the energy problem. The greatest enemy of an environmental crises is a solution, it is like a good deed that purges original sin, it defeats the entire purpose.

Posted by gorak | Report as abusive

Nuclear waste reprocessing was stopped during the Carter administration due to proliferation concerns – you can create stuff closer to bomb-building material by doing it, and the US already had military reactors supplying our arsenal.

and best of all: if you should ever have to shut one down, you’re left with a gigantic Billion-dollar-lump of useless metal (sodium).

No seriously. This smells like a spinny attempt to re-open the Uber-funding spigots that Bill Clinton cut off 15 years ago.

Now the “Nuclear Battery” from Hyperion and Toshiba’s 4-S that they want to install in Galena Alaska – those are interesting Micro power concepts.

Small scale and super simple in design: no control rods to get stuck, no cooling pumps to fail. They cost more per Kilowatt/hour but capital costs are way smaller. Because, you know: they are small and simple.

These will see Real World use in less than 5 years. No Bajillion dollars of further R&D and “feature creep” and scaling for production.

Posted by Bryan X | Report as abusive

Sounds like you have been captured “in the magnificent suite of rooms at the top of the new Hearst tower.”

Posted by IF | Report as abusive

FYI: if you’d care to see an insider’s take on life in one of today’s plants, see the link at my name. It’s not The Simpsons and its not Star Trek.

[Loewen showed that they could be profitable selling energy at just 5 cents per KwH]

did he “show” this, or did he “claim” it? The difference is often quite important when the subject is long-dated claims about economic viability made by the nuclear industry.

Posted by dsquared | Report as abusive

How many breeders are running in the whole world at the present time? How many years have they been working on breeders? What’s the track record on sodium cooled reactors? Why is it that these “too cheap to meter” plants can’t get money from the private sector?

Finally, how about a bit of historic perspective in your stories rather than just writing down what these people tell you?

One finally note, Ford put a halt to reprocessing and Carter only put the finishing touches on that option. Reagan re-instated the opportunity but most realized that it was way too expensive and nothing was done with it that the government wasn’t involved in directly.

A study of reprocessing in France around 2000 indicated that France took a multi-billion bath on reprocessing vs. once-through burial.

Posted by A Bit of History | Report as abusive

By the way, “runs on the nuclear waste generated by all the previous generations of nuclear power stations” is a wonderful piece of nuke industry spin. It *sounds* like you can just take the nuclear waste, shovel it into your wonderful IFR and bingo!

In fact, you have to process the nuclear waste, via some means that nobody knows how to do on a commercial scale, which is the real “big problem” with IFRs. It is yet another example of a problem that’s been solved in the lab but not on a commercial scale, and the nuclear industry’s track record in scaling these things up is, shall we say, poor.

Posted by dsquared | Report as abusive

Just a few facts to educate those who supplied a few bits of misinformation above;
- France reprocesses spent fuel and creates MOX fuel for their reactors. When a fuel rod is no longer capable of sustaining fission and is replaced, it still contains 80-90% of usable, fissionable uranium.
- Reprocessing fuel does in-fact separate the plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons. This was the primary reason for the Carter administration’s reasoning for shutting down fuel re-processing in the US, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
- MOX fuel (short for mixed-oxide) is a mixture of uranium and weapons grade plutonium. To date, one US reactor has purchased and used this fuel successfully. Production of this type of fuel has also reduced the worlds inventory of wepaons grade plutonium present in the 70s to less than 50% today.
- If spent fuel is recycled, the leftover waste products will be drastically reduced. However, a lot of mining companies will be put out of business, and I’m sure they have lobbyists in Washington to keep in business.

We’d be building `em now if the Clinton administration didn’t cancel the IFR and order scientists who worked on the project not to talk about it in 1994!

Posted by Zachary Moitoza | Report as abusive

The pyrometallurgical processing and electrorefining used in the IFR is very different from the PUREX process now used in France. The IFR mixes materials in such a way that plutonium is not weapons grade and dangerous to handle. They took this stuff over to Lawrence Livermore labs and it was determined that making a bomb from IFR fuel would be the most technically challenging way to make a bomb possible i.e. its not going to happen. Just enriching uranium with a centrifuge and making a uranium bomb would be vastly easier.

Posted by Zachary Moitoza | Report as abusive

One of the decision makers behind the choice to kill the IFR was Hazel O’Leary, a woman who had just finished a stint as executive VP at an electricity/natural gas company. From her Wikipedia entry:

“In 1981, O’Leary and her husband established the consulting firm of O’Leary & Associates, where she served as vice president and general counsel. From 1989 to 1993, she worked as an executive vice president of the Northern States Power Company.
In 1993 President Bill Clinton nominated O’Leary as Secretary of Energy.”

The chief of staff at the White House at the time was a guy named Mack MacLarty an FOB whose Wiki entry contains the following paragraphs:

“McLarty was born in Hope, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1969. He is a member of Sigma Chi Fraternity. He was elected to the State Legislature at the age of 23 and served as chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1974–1976.”

In 1976, he became the youngest member ever elected to the Board of Directors of the Arkla Gas/Arkla, Inc., a Fortune 500 natural gas company. In 1983 he became Arkla’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. During his tenure, the company was recognized by Forbes, The Wall Street Transcript, and The Financial Times for management excellence, in addition to his automotive endeavors.”

Killing the IFR and slowing nuclear development as much as possible was part of the plan to pay back the natural gas interests that helped to get Clinton-Gore elected.

Simple – reduce competition, drive up the demand, increase the price. Econ 101. By 2000, the price of gas had more than doubled. It doubled again by 2004 and again by 2008. Pretty effective plan, you might say.

(Gas price chart – http://www.oilnergy.com/1gnymex.htm#sinc e30)

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast

There is a web site on this topic. http://coal2nuclear.com

I have been touting the idea over at Energy From Thorium:

http://www.energyfromthorium.com/forum/v iewtopic.php?f=39&t=1569&st=0&sk=t&sd=a

Crystal River has 4 coal plants and 1 nuclear plant. If the coal plants were converted to IFR, then the spent fuel they already have on site could run them into the 22nd century.

Mike – *some* technologies of reprocessing of the spent fuel separate Pu. The kind of reprocessing used in IFR/PRISM, pyroprocessing, does _not_ separate Pu, only separates fission products and keeps all the fuel – U, Pu, Am, … together. Therefore IFR is proliferation resistant.

Posted by Josh Witt | Report as abusive

Hello, sorry always the same discussion. Switch off the politicians in Germany to discuss the nuclear reactors when they want. Other states want to build new plants. Which is correct? I do not want to live next to radioactive garbage!

Posted by ascoss | Report as abusive

The biggest commercial problem with nuclear power, and especially from breeder reactors, is that it costs next to nothing to run.
If you count on the energy companies to embrace it, you’re asking them to put all their other businesses out of business.

Plus, for too many liberals, the distinction between nuclear weapons and nuclear power is emotionally too difficult. Any decent American knows that we should be ashamed of the bomb we dropped on Nagasaki, three days after the Hiroshima bomb for which we might have an excuse.

For my part, ascoss, I’d rather live next to (or downwind of) an Integral Fast Reactor power plant that’s got a few tens of tons of radioactive fuel, none of which can escape, than a comparable coal burner emitting millions of tons of poisonous gases, aye, and even radioactive thorium fly ash.

And I’d rather have a 1000 MW nuclear power plant at the bottom of my favorite range of mountains than 800 wind turbines, each 600 feet tall, over the same mountains, generating maybe the same total annual amount of energy, but without regard to the actual demand.

The crucial advantage of nuclear power is that chemical processes involve the atom’s electron energy, which is about a millionth of what holds the nucleus together.

So a very small amount of uranium, which produces an even smaller amount of waste products, gives you as much energy as millions of barrels of oil.
Or put it another way:
Uranium and Thorium are the product of the violent cataclysmic death of a huge star, an event that we call a supernova.
Fossil carbon was laid down during about 64 million years, by energy from our quiet little sun.
Our rate of consumption of fossil carbon could use it up, and all of the oxygen in our atmosphere, in a few hundred thousand years.

It’s not likely that we can find ways to use solar energy to keep up with that rate.

Posted by AuldLochinvar | Report as abusive
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