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.