Say the phrase “nuclear power” and people generally assume you’re talking about generating electricity.
But lest we forget, the energy from nuclear reactors can also serve other purposes, such as propelling submarines, which it has done since the 1955 launch of the USS Nautilus.
Reactors can also potentially provide clean heat for industrial processes, replacing the CO2- emitting fossil fuels that keep furnaces roaring in industries like oil and gas, cement, steel and others.
Correction: Scratch the word “potentially” in the preceding sentence because as it turns out, at least one reactor is already helping to power industry.
The reactor is a familiar one to regular Weinberg readers. It’s the so-called “test” reactor in Halden, Norway. I wrote about it earlier this month, when I noted that Thor Energy, a privately held Oslo firm, will begin experimentally burning thorium fuel there this January.
While I was revisiting my story, I stumbled across some striking information stating that steam from the Halden reactor “is normally delivered as process steam to the nearby paper mill.”
That insight, from the French government nuclear agency Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA, or in English, the Energy and Alternative Energies Commission) , notes that while Halden sometimes simply dumps the steam into a river (what a waste – why NOT put it to use?) it typically pipes the hot stuff over to a paper mill that uses it somewhere in the paper making process.
The steam goes to Norske Skog Corp.s’ Saugbrugs paper mill, according to Wikipedia. “The Halden Boiling Water Reactor is a research reactor located … adjacent to the Saugbrugs paper mill,” the online encyclopedia notes. “It is in operation about 50% of the time and, in addition to research data, supplies steam to the mill.”
So there you go. The process, so to speak, has begun. Industry is using nuclear generated steam.
The temperatures that Halden deliver – the heavy water reactor runs at about 240 degrees – would not be high enough to support many of the high temperature operations run by heavy industry like oil and gas, cement and steel.
The same is true of the 430-plus commercial electricity generating reactors in use around the world today, all of which run on water-cooled technology and solid uranium fuel. As the World Nuclear Association explains, conventional reactors “produce heat at relatively low temperatures in relation to many industrial needs.”
HOW TO TURN UP THE DIAL
All the more reason why nuclear investors should be funding alternative designs like liquid molten salt and pebble bed reactors that can operate safely at 700 degrees C and higher.
It’s the sort of thing that China is developing to facilitate fossil fuel processing such as coal gasification. (An irony of clean alternative nuclear is that it could well get its start by supporting carbon intensive fossil fuels, albeit, it would help decarbonize one aspect of the fossil fuel production chain. The oil sands industry in North Dakota and Canada may also serve as a proving ground.)
On a cleaner note, China is eyeing thorium molten salt reators to help extract hydrogen which it would use to produce environmentally friendly methanol as a clean petrol and diesel replacement for cars.
Industrial heat could also propel Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd.’s South African pebble bed reactor to the market.
WALK, THEN RUN
Back at Halden, putting the steam to use for paper making marks an exciting baby step onto the industrial heat walkway.
Halden is operated jointly by the Paris-based 34-nation Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and by research groups from a variety of countries, including host Norway’s Institute for Energy Technology (IFE). One could imagine industrial companies from any of the OECD countries keeping a watchful eye on the performance of the reactor’s process steam.
It’s also notable that one of Thor’s partners in the thorium test at Halden is Westinghouse, the U.S. unit of Japan’s Toshiba. Westinghouse, based in the Pittsburgh area, must at least be entertaining the idea of furnishing heat to industrial companies such as its Pittsburgh neighbor, U.S. Steel.
The heat might not yet be really on for nuclear industrial applications, but the temperature does appear to be rising.
Photo: Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) via Wikimedia.