There is something afoot in North Dakota.
A reliable source tells me that lobbyists and some legislators there will soon push to cut the state loose from the oversight of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. North Dakota would instead establish its own body that would regulate nuclear operations within state boundaries.
The impetus? A nuclear technology called a molten salt reactor (MSR) that would provide a welcome, affordable industrial heat source to the state’s booming fossil fuel business.
For example, a small MSR could help blast solid coal into a liquid form that suits many uses. Coal liquefaction is energy intense. An MSR represents an efficient, CO2-free way of hitting the necessary temperatures. (Yes, the end product, liquefied coal, would serve up flagons of CO2 when burned by end users, but the MSR would at least take the greenhouse gas out of the production process).
Likewise, I could imagine an MSR providing the heat to bake the oil out of North Dakota’s shale, assisting tremendously in the “shale oil” bonanza that has given the state a neo-1849 Gold Rush feel. Small MSRs are well suited to safely power these high temperature industrial operations, with no threat of a meltdown.
COME OUT COME OUT WHEREVER YOU ARE
And that’s where the NRC comes in. Or more to the point, where it does not come in.
MSRs are one of several alternative reactor designs that the NRC never gets around to approving. The NRC devotes almost all of its attention to conventional reactors – the ones powered by solid fuel and cooled by water. In many ways, those reactors are inferior to options such as MSRs, pebble beds, and others, which use some combination of liquids, gases and solids for fuel and coolants.
Yet reactors running on these novel designs could be particularly well suited as CO2-free furnaces replacing fossil fuels bellows not just on oil fields but in steel mills, cement factories, you name it. They would also, of course, make splendid electricity generators.
To help expedite the approval and development of these sensible alternatives, President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future at one point seemed interested in establishing a federal regulatory body separate from the NRC.
NUCLEAR’S MASON DIXON LINE
That idea seems to have stalled. A North Dakota secession, if I may phrase it that way, would accomplish the same goal, albeit for just one state out of 50. Nebraska is making some noise as well.
At any rate, the stirrings are at least evidence that the MSR is now regaining mindshare following its dubious cancellation at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory by President Nixon some 40 years ago.
Whether or not the people behind the idea truly stand a chance of shaking free from the NRC is hard to gauge. I have my ear to the ground, and I’m at least picking up the rumblings that they’re trying to make it happen. It seems they’re planning a January offensive (who can resist January in North Dakota?). In the spirit of blogging, I’m letting you know now about the radical stirrings along the Missouri River, well west of the Mississippi’s headwaters and just south of Saskatchewan.
I hope to bring you some names and faces in a subsequent post. Speak up below if you care to wave the flag – or even if you’re on the other side. We settle heated issues via level headed discourse here at Weinberg.
The MSR movement will take root somewhere. The barren lands of North Dakota could make fertile soil.
Photo: Michael Oswald via Wikimedia.