Archive for December, 2012

Flexible fuel. These two CANDU reactors at China’s Qinshan site can run on thorium and on uranium recovered from other reactors.

LONDON – The end of the year marks a typical time to look back over the previous 12 months. Who are we at Weinberg to break with such annual tradition?

In that spirit, I present you not a January-through-December review of highlights. Rather, I revisit an August development that resurfaced here in London a few weeks ago, and that, as much as any nuclear event this year, reflects the spirit of alternative nuclear technologies.

We were not yet blogging on this website in the summer (there’s a 2012 highlight for you – Weinberg spruced up its pages with this blog in the early autumn), so we didn’t get a chance to headline it when Canada’s Candu Energy Inc. announced that it and China are well on their way to converting Candu’s conventional reactor design into one that runs on nothing but alternative fuels including thorium.

After speaking with Candu vice president of marketing and development Jerry Hopwood over lunch at the UK Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) conference earlier this month, I couldn’t resist dusting off the news, especially since the development promises to improve the operating efficiencies and waste problems of nuclear power as we know it.

“As Candu reactors are very fuel efficient and very adaptable, this is a way to get started on some of this expansion of the fuel cycle,” Hopwood told me as we discussed ways to improve nuclear operations via fuel types that are different from today’s standard enriched uranium.

PRAGMATIC POWER

Many advocates of thorium say that the optimal way to deploy it would be in entirely different reactor designs such as high temperature liquid molten salt reactors and pebble reactors that depart radically from conventional lower temperature water-cooled schemes.

Pragmatists say it would be best to start by burning it in existing reactor designs that already have regulatory approval. One such test is about to start in Norway.

Candu’s CANDU reactor counts among the conventional category, albeit it uses “heavy water” (water with a high concentration of hydrogen isotope called deuterium) as its coolant, as opposed to the far more common ordinary water, also known as “light water.”

China already operates two grid-connected CANDU reactors that burn natural uranium (CANDU is already something of a fuel alternative in that it does not require enriched uranium as do most of the world’s operating 430-plus commercial electricity generating reactors), at its Qinshan site about 90 miles southwest of Shanghai.

China’ China National Nuclear Corp. and Candu recently completed a successful two-year test of bundles of alternative fuel in those reactors, in which the bundles operated alongside conventional fuel in the same reactor. The alternatives included thorium as well as uranium “waste” recovered from light water reactors. It also included depleted uranium left over after uranium enrichment.

The success of those operations has helped pave the way for what Candu calls the Advanced Fuel CANDU Reactor (AFCR), which would burn nothing but recovered uranium, depleted uranium and thorium.

ENERGY SECURITY

The two uraniums would help China reuse a fuel – uranium – of which it does not have an abundant supply within its own borders (although it has been buying into foreign uranium operations).

The thorium, which transmutes into the uranium 233 isotope, would extend the life of the reactor’s fuel cycle, because the 233 would burn longer than natural uranium, Hopwood explained. “Thorium will help the fuel bundle keep going longer and produce more power,” he said.

As another advantage, China can access thorium through its own abundant natural supply.

“China has very large resources of thorium, very limited resources of uranium,” Hopwood noted. “So it’s a matter of their national supply security. They have a strong interest as a nation in bringing thorium into their fuel supply.”

Candu hopes to complete the AFCR design by 2014 and to build a small demonstration model by 2016, in partnership with China. Hopwood said he’s confident that AFCR would pass Chinese regulatory approval, as it’s an “incremental” change to on an already approved CANDU design.

The first version would be optimized for use with recovered and depleted uranium.

“Tests of full core thorium are still in the future,” Hopwood said.

Candu Energy is also talking to the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority about using CANDU reactors  “for managing that country’s fissile material stocks,” Hopwood noted. That would entail “mixed oxide” fuels (MOX, or in the case of Candu, CANMOX) that would presumably include plutonium, which the UK stores at its National Nuclear Laboratory in Sellafield, England.

Back in China, the Qinshan AFCR project is just one several Chinese initiatives aimed at deploying alternative nuclear fuels.

As we’ve written here recently, China is also developing thorium fueled high temperature reactors that it would use to generate industrial process heat, as well as electricity. It envisions using the alternative reactors to help produce hydrogen and make methanol for use as an automotive fuel.

Photo: Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., via Wikimedia.

The bill for connecting German renewable energy, such as from these Siemens wind turbines in the Baltic Sea, will be substantial.

As Japan’s new prime minister took office today with a view toward reversing the nuclear ban that the previous government sought, it doesn’t take too much mental latitude to wonder whether the other country well known for its nuclear abolition might also reconsider.

I’m talking of course about Germany, which in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear meltdowns announced it would close all 17 of its nuclear power stations by 2022.

The decision has thus far cost the country dearly environmentally, as Germany, like Japan, has had to increase the percentage of electricity it generates from CO2-emitting fossil fuels.

And then there are the financial costs of Germany’s longer term, ambitious push toward renewable energy.

We already knew that solar and wind farms do not come for free, and that the German consumer is looking at hefty rate hikes to help pay for them.

ON THE LINE

But news began emerging earlier this month of an extra bill:  €42.5 billion ($56 billion) to upgrade Germany’s electricity grid so that it can handle the unique requirements thrown at it by renewables.

That’s according to the country’s own state-owned energy agency, Dena, as reported by Bloomberg.

The costs would cover new lines that carry power extra distances from the new locations of wind and solar installations. It would also cover equipment and processes to help prevent grid overloads that can happen when intermittent solar and wind spike high.

“We will be able to consume the electricity from decentralized renewable generators only if we expand the grid infrastructure accordingly,” Dena head Stephan Kohler said.

A Dena study estimated that Germany would have to build 120,000 miles of new lines, and upgrade 15,500 miles of existing ones if the country were to expand the share of renewables from 26 percent today to 82 percent by 2030, as targeted,

The cost would be €42.5 ($36.4 billion) if Germany were to settle for a 62 percent renewable mix, Dena calculated.

Opposition Green Party member Oliver Krischer told Bloomberg that Dena’s observation is misleading because the costs reflect neglect in the power grid over the last decade, and are not tied to a shift to renewables per se.

Photo from Siemens.


The case for global nuclear warms as temperature rises in Antarctica

Posted by Mark Halper on December 24th, 2012

Southern exposure. Global warming is not sparing Antarctica.

Here’s an argument for nuclear power: A portion of Antarctica is warming twice as fast as previously thought, a trend that threatens to accelerate rising sea levels.

The finding would seem to call out for a low-CO2 energy future such as what nuclear power could provide.

Scientists writing in the new edition of Nature Geoscience report that the average annual temperature in central West Antarctica rose by 2.4 degrees – give or take 1.2 degrees – between 1958 and 2010.

An abstract on the journal’s website says that new interpretations of data from Byrd Station establish central West Antarctica as “one of the fastest warming regions globally.”

One of its most startling findings was that rising summer temperatures could exacerbate melts.

“There is clear evidence that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is contributing to sea level rise,” the abstract notes. “A continued rise in summer temperatures could lead to more frequent and extensive episodes of surface melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.”

The authors – led by David H. Bromwich and Julien P. Nicolas from The Ohio State University – note, “We confirm previous reports of West Antarctic warming, in annual average and in austral (southern hemisphere) spring and winter, but find substantially larger temperature increases. In contrast to previous studies, we report statistically significant warming during austral summer, particularly in December–January, the peak of the melting season.”

FROM BOTH ENDS

In a summary of the full Nature Geoscience report, the BBC reports that the temperature rise is double what scientists had previously thought.

The air temperature increase means ice is more likely to melt on the surface as well as from below – which it has been doing in response to increasing ocean temperatures, the BBC notes.

“What we’re seeing is one of the strongest warming signals on Earth,” says Andrew Monaghan, a co-author and scientist at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research, in the BBC story.

Many experts believe that global warming is man-made and linked to CO2 emitted by fossil fuels.  An increase in the share of nuclear and renewables in electricity and heat generation would help alleviate the warming trend, they say.

Monaghan says that the study does not confirm the man-made nature of global warming.

“The jury is still out on that,” he notes. “That piece of research has not been done. My opinion is that it probably is, but I can’t say that definitively.”

I’m writing this blog from a deluged England, which these days could go by the name Lake England. I have little trouble believing the man-made angle, and that nuclear could help cool things down.

Photo: Vincent van Zeijst via Wikimedia. 

Nuclear power’s hidden role in Japan

Posted by Mark Halper on December 21st, 2012

Freezing irony. This nuclear powered icebreaker is helping to bring natural gas to Japan to replace         nuclear power.

Today’s post is an ironic salute to small nuclear reactors.

As I’ve written here recently, reactors that are much smaller than the gigawatt-plus giants that typically feed electrical grids hold great promise in moving the world onto CO2-free energy.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) can: reduce the upfront cost for a utility that wants to add capacity; provide electricity to remote off grid locations, replacing CO2-intense and expensive diesel; blast heat into industrial processes that rely on fossil fuels. They can even co-locate with renewables and provide the round-the-clock electricity that renewables cannot.

In principle manufacturers will be able to make SMRs in assembly line style, and ship them on trucks, which should lead to lower costs.

Although the planet has yet to really deploy SMRs for these various new purposes, SMRs have been around as propulsion devices for nearly 60 years, ever since the launch of the USS Nautilus nuclear submarine in 1955.

MAKING ATOMIC WAVES

So it is here that I tip my hat to one of the latest examples of small reactors helping to literally carry things forward.

Hail Russia! The only country in the world with a fleet of atomic icebreakers has just completed an astonishing mission.

Three of its hearty vessels – powered by small pressurized reactors – have escorted a cargo of Gazprom liquefied natural gas (LNG) through the Arctic Sea along Russia’s northern coast to…get ready for the irony…Japan.

Two nukes and a tanker of gas head toward Japan (a third icebreaker is out of the picture).

Yes, Japan, the same country that has shut down 52 of its 54 nuclear reactors, is now essentially relying on nuclear power to help deliver the natural gas to help replace its nuclear power!

The gas came from Russian behemoth Gazprom. The Greek registered Ob River LNG tanker left the port of Hammerfest in Norway on Nov. 7., and arrived in Japan’s port of Tobata on Dec. 5.

Along the way, it ploughed through the icy Northern Sea Route, assisted by the nuclear powered ships 50 Years of Victory, Vaygach and Russia, according to Gazprom’s website. They’re all part of the Atomflot collection of nuclear icebreakers.

The Arctic Sea is a much better option than say, Panama or Suez for shipping gas to Japan from northern areas. That is, as long as you have access to decent nuclear-powered icebreakers.

BREAKING NUCLEAR OPPOSITION

Gazprom says that the route cuts the journey time by about 40 percent, which in turn reduces LNG loss from evaporation and cuts CO2 emissions. The northern climes also reduce the risk of pirate attack, Gazprom points out (pirates seem to like warm weather).

The irony of the nuclear delivered gas is probably not lost on Japan, where political sentiment is now shifting back to a pro-nuclear position with the election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The country has been struggling to fill the power void and has been relying on CO2-ladened fossil fuels. It also faces potentially severe economic consequences in a non-nuclear future.

As Japan and the rest of the world grow more aware of the capabilities of small reactors – as so dramatically displayed by Atomflot – sentiment should continue to shift more in nuclear’s favour.

Photos from Gazprom

Japan’s new government expected to bring back nuclear

Posted by Mark Halper on December 19th, 2012

Political observers believe incoming Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe will smile upon nuclear power.

Could Japan’s election last weekend of a new government help revitalize the outlook for nuclear power in the country that has all but shut it down?

Japan’s Kyodo News thinks so.

In a story published by The Mainichi newspaper, the news service notes that the incoming Liberal Democratic Party under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will reverse the outgoing government’s intention to abandon nuclear by 2040.

The headline over an English language version of the story reads, “LDP’s victory likely to lead Japan to retract nuclear phase-out goal.”

POWER SCRAMBLE

Abe’s predecessor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his Democratic Party, pushed Japan away from nuclear following the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011. All but 2 of the country’s 54 nuclear reactors are currently switched off.

Prior to the events at Fukushima, nuclear had supplied about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity. The shutdown has left Japan scrambling to fill a power gap, which it is doing in  part with environmentally hazardous fossil fuels.

“Japan’s recently compiled energy strategy aimed at phasing out nuclear power by the 2030s is likely to be reviewed under the next government expected to be led by the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been critical of totally giving up on atomic energy despite the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis last year,” Kyodo wrote just prior to the election. (The LDP’s victory was widely anticipated, and it won by a landslide).

NO RUSH

But don’t expect any rash declarations. As Kyodo notes, “It remains uncertain whether the new government will swiftly compile its own medium to long term nuclear policy, with the LDP saying in its election pledges that it plans to spend up to 10 years in determining the best energy mix for the resource-poor country.”

It quotes an anonymous government official as saying that, “The new government may prefer to take plenty of time to work out a new energy policy, saying something like ‘We will think whether it is appropriate or not to choose a nuclear-zero path.'”

The story adds that, “The LDP’s supportive stance on the role of nuclear power has also fueled speculation that Japan could see the reactivation of more reactors as long as they clear safety standards to be set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, an independent nuclear regulatory body launched in September.”

They would be well advised to do so. As we noted here in a recent post, Japan could struggle economically without nuclear power.

The LDP has indicated it could reach a decision on restarting reactors within 3 years. Abe is expected to form a cabinet on Dec. 26.

Photo: TTNIS via Wikimedia

Sir Richard Branson supports “fast reactors,” which should feature in the film Pandora’s Promise.

The case for alternative nuclear power will hit the bright lights next month when a film premiering at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival makes the case for reactor designs that are superior to conventional models.

The documentary Pandora’s Promise will show how nuclear can operate more efficiently, avoid any meltdown risks, and not leave dangerous waste – thus addressing public objections and helping fulfil nuclear’s promise of delivering CO2-free energy.

“The atomic bomb, the specter of a global nuclear holocaust, and disasters like Fukushima have made nuclear energy synonymous with the darkest nightmares of the modern world,” a promotional Sundance website announces.

“But what if everyone has nuclear power wrong?,” it continues. “What if people knew that there are reactors that are self-sustaining and fully controllable and ones that require no waste disposal? What if nuclear power is the only energy source that has the ability to stop climate change?”

FAST FOCUS

Details of the film are sketchy, but promotional material on the Web suggests that it will focus on integral fast reactors (IFRs), which use nuclear “waste” as fuel rather than leaving it behind as a potential weapons threat.

It is produced and directed by Robert Stone, whose website lists Charles Till as a cast member.

Till led the development of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II in the U.S. until 1994, when Congress withdrew funding, in part for safety concerns and also because opponents argued that the reactor would actually increase the weapons proliferation threat, rather than decrease it as breeder proponents claim.

According to the Sundance site, executive producers include Steve Kirsch, a Los Angeles-area venture capitalist and an IFR booster.

IFR supporters include entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, who earlier this year wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama encouraging the president and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to facilitate the development IFRs.

Branson wrote the letter along with U.S. climate scientist James Hansen, and with Eric Loewen, the chief engineer for GE-Hitachi’s PRISM fast reactor.

The letter criticizes the 1994 cancellation of the fast reactor project, and notes that IFRs are superior to the conventional uranium-fuelled, water-cooled reactors that dominate the industry. Conventional reactors slow down or “moderate” neutrons, making less use of fuel and leaving more waste.

Russia and China both have ambitious plans for fast reactors.

CHANGING SIDES

The film chronicles shifting allegiances among former anti-nuclear scientists and activists who are now backing nuclear –a theme that will resonate with Weinberg Foundation co-founder Baroness Bryony Worthington, a nuclear advocate who once campaigned against it for  Friends of the Earth.

Stone’s website notes:

“Pandora’s Promise is a feature-length documentary that explores how and why mankind’s most feared and controversial technological discovery is now passionately embraced by many of those who once led the charge against it.

“The film is anchored around the personal narratives of a growing number of leading former anti-nuclear activists and pioneering scientists who, in the face of considerable controversy, are directly challenging the anti-nuclear orthodoxy that is a founding tenet of the mainstream environmental movement.  Their stories and ideas will be brought to life through a combination of incredible archival footage from 1945 to the present and original filming across the globe.”

The Sundance premier will mark another example of the growing public attention for alternative nuclear. Earlier this month, the journal Nature published a feature stating that,  “For decades, one design has dominated nuclear reactors while potentially better options were left by the wayside. Now, the alternatives might finally have their day.”

Pandora’s Promise is scheduled for release in U.S. cinemas in the summer of 2013.

Photo of Richard Branson from Google Plus.

Why the world needs a “Thorium Bank”

Posted by Mark Halper on December 14th, 2012

Bank on it. Jim Kennedy of the Thorium Energy Alliance says a “Thorium Bank” would help avoid predicaments like the one Australian mining company Lynas faces in Malaysia. It would also assure a     reliable supply chain of thorium and rare earths.

The Malaysian government this week abruptly threatened to shut down a brand new rare earth processing plant – a move that dramatically underscores the need for international co-ordination of rare earth mining and its valuable energy related by-product, thorium.

Four Malaysian cabinet ministers said they would revoke the license of Australian mining company Lynas Corp. to process rare earth metals unless Lynas exports all “waste material” Mining.com reported.

The “waste” is believed to include thorium – the mildly radioactive element that could replace uranium as a nuclear fuel and help establish safer, more efficient and less proliferation prone nuclear power.

Thorium typically co-exists in rocks that also contain rare earths, the metals that are vital to the world’s economy. Manufacturers build them into missiles, radar, cars, wind turbines, iPods, mobile phones, light bulbs and many other everyday products.

WASTE NOT

A couple of weeks after Lynas opened its Lynas Advance Material Plant in Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast, the government ministers joined forces to tell the company it could not keep the waste in the country, according to Mining.com.

The trade publication said that Lynas had intended all along to treat and store the waste on site, and implied that Lynas was caught off guard by the government’s demand.

Lynas responded in a stock exchange filing that it planned to process the waste into a “co-product” which it would either export or sell in Malaysia, Reuters reported.

The story did not make clear what those “co-products” are. Advocates of thorium noted that they could not include thorium, because there’s no significant current market for the substance. A thorium nuclear movement would, of course, open new trade outlets.

“Unfortunately for Lynas, there is no place to take the waste thorium,” said Jim Kennedy, president of St. Louis, Missouri- based ThREEM3, a thorium and rare earth consulting firm that also owns rights to rare earth by-products from Missouri’s Pea Ridge iron ore mine. “This is a serious problem for Lynas.”

ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Lynas does indeed appear to literally be between a Malaysian rock and a hard place.

Kennedy, with whom I corresponded via email, said the company’s predicament underscores the international need for what he calls a “Thorium Bank.”

His proposed institution would oversee and store thorium gathered from rare earth processing operations. It would assume liability for thorium, which governments regulate because of its mild radioactivity. It would help assure a reliable supply chain of thorium for a thorium nuclear power future.

The Thorium Bank would work in conjunction with a rare earth co-operative that would oversee rare earth processing and the extraction of thorium from the rare earths.

Kennedy and his Thorium Energy Alliance (TEA) are lobbying U.S. Congress to establish the entities.

“Thorium is easy to deal with and store safely,” said John Kutsch, Kennedy’s Chicago-based partner at the TEA.

SEPARATION ANXIETY

Rare earth separation and processing is potentially environmentally hazardous. Environmental breaches and strict government control helped lead to the closure of rare mining in the U.S. in the 1990s, after which China rose to control over 95 percent of the rare earth market – a situation that today is the source of global trade tension.

Internationally, countries like Australia and the United States have made recent moves to gain some of the market – such as Lynas’ opening of the Malaysian plant.

Kennedy and Kutsch’s Thorium Bank echoes a similar initiative proposed by Takashi Kamei of Japan’s Research Institute of Applied Sciences. As we wrote here recently, Kamei’s Organisation of Rare Earth Exportation Companies would raise a tax from international rare earth consumers to help fund the safe handling of thorium at its origins.

Photo: Screen grab from Gordon McDowell video of Thorium Energy Alliance Conference, Chicago, May 2012. Via YouTube.

The geopolitical case for nuclear power in Japan

Posted by Mark Halper on December 12th, 2012

Straight talk. Former IEA boss Nobuo Tanaka says that as the U.S. relies less on Middle East oil, the flow to other countries could come under threat if the Strait of Hormuz becomes more volatile.

WARSAW – Japan needs nuclear power to avoid a potential economic catastrophe that could result from Middle East conflict, the former head of the International Energy Agency argued here this week.

Nobuo Tanaka, who was executive director of the Paris-based IEA  from 2007-2011, said that the United States’ rising energy independence and its decreasing reliance on Middle East oil could give the U.S. less incentive to patrol the Strait of Hormuz – the Persian Gulf sea lane through which 17 percent of the world’s crude petroleum passes, and on which Asian countries are increasingly relying.

“If blockage happens, the oil price will double and then the Japanese current account surplus will disappear very quickly and even go to a huge deficit,” Tanaka said in an address to the World Nuclear Power Briefing 2012 conference in Warsaw. Japan is the world’s third largest importer of oil according the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

THERE GOES THE ECONOMY

Tanaka outlined a potential flip from a ¥9 trillion ($108 billion) current accounts surplus in 2011 to at least a ¥6 trillion ($72 billion) deficit that could undermined confidence in Japanese bonds and lead to a flight of capital and manufacturing.

“So this may lead us to a significant – not energy crisis – but an economic crisis or catastrophe,” said Tanaka, who is currently a global associate for energy security and sustainability with Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics (IEE). “The best way to at least reduce that risk is starting nuclear reactors at this moment. But the current government is in no way promoting that.”

The government has uncertain intentions to abandon nuclear power by 2040,

Japan has temporarily shut down all but 2 of its 54 reactors following preventable meltdowns in 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant triggered by the tragic tsunami and earthquake. The 54 had provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity, and it’s not clear how many of them will start up again.

EXPENSIVE GAS

The country is relying more on expensive natural gas imports and oil to replace some of the shuttered nuclear capacity, according to the U.S. EIA.

But Tanaka said nuclear would help Japan offset the price of importing natural gas and keep the country economically competitive with countries like the U.S., which is benefiting from its own low priced natural gas and potentially from high priced exports.

“We have paid 5 times more on gas price than the U.S, and 50 percent more than European price,” Tanaka said. “One of the solutions is to use nuclear power. Then we have some leverage in the negotiations for gas price.”

He also said that end user price for renewable electricity in Japan will be “very high,” and noted that abandoning nuclear would destroy Japan’s energy security.

ALTERNATIVE REACTORS

To overcome public opposition to restarting nuclear in Japan, he said that the country must consider new types of reactors.

His favourite: The integral fast reactor such as the Experimental Breeder Reactor II developed at Argonne National Laboratory in the U.S. and abandoned in 1994. Fast reactors can use nuclear waste as fuel.

They face challenges. Some experimental fast reactors have been prone to malfunction. Japan’s test reactor Monju, for example, is currently shut down after a fuel replacement device fell into it in 2010.

The cost of reprocessing fuel – such as at Japan’s Rokkasho reprocessing plant – can also be extremely high. But Tanaka said that the industry could potentially solve that problem by replacing the conventional PUREX reprocessing method with a “pyroprocessing” technique.

Fast reactors are gaining popularity elsewhere. Both China and Russia plan significant deployments.

Photo by Mark Halper

 

Safe, safer, safest. There’s always room to improve, says U.S. Dept. of Energy deputy assistant secretary Edward McGinnis.

WARSAW – A senior official in the U.S. Department of Energy said here on Monday that as safe as conventional nuclear is, it is incumbent upon governments around the world to help industry develop even safer designs.

“Do we need to continue on behalf of our respective citizenry to advance the ball and come up with even safer designs – more secure, more efficient?  Yes we do,” said Edward McGinnis, deputy assistant secretary for international nuclear energy policy and cooperation. “And so government has a key role in that.”

McGinnis was addressing the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 2012 conference, organized by New Zealand-based conference firm Strategic Communications.

His remarks contrasted with those last week by World Nuclear Association acting director general Steve Kidd, who said he opposed any nuclear rebranding effort that might suggest that existing, safe reactors are not safe.

“I want to be clear that we have great faith in the reactors in our country and the situation worldwide,” DOE’s McGinnis agreed. “We have strong regulatory bodies, we have strong multilateral groups looking at regulatory.

“But in nuclear just like many things in life there is never one single end point where you should stop trying to improve. We should always be seeking to improve. It doesn’t suggest that we don’t have effective systems today, which we do. But we need to continuously advance the technologies and the approaches and processes.”

ALTERNATIVE SAFETY

While that includes adding safety features and improving fuel tolerance in conventional reactors, it also “absolutely includes” developing other reactor types, McGinnis said.

“We’re looking beyond light water (conventional) reactors through R&D,” he said, noting that DOE has taken a particular interest in sodium cooled fast reactors and in high temperature gas reactors.

Technical experts at the DOE “need to validate” whether  technologies like those as well as molten salt designs are suitable for applications that could include serving as a source of industrial process heat, he said.

DOE’s international projects include a collaboration with China to develop molten salt coolants, an initiative in which U.S.-based Westinghouse is serving as commercial adviser.

China intends to use the coolant in a reactor that uses liquid thorium fuel, similar to the liquid thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR)  that Oak Ridge National Laboratory built in the 1960s before President Nixon terminated the project.

DOE has said it wants to test the coolant in a high temperature reactor, but not necessarily one that uses liquid fuel such as in a TMSR.

CRITICAL REACTION

Some thorium supporters have criticized the collaboration, claiming that the U.S. should advance TMSR technology itself rather than help provide it to China.

“We ensure that our collaboration is balanced, reciprocal and appropriate,” McGinnis replied when I asked him about those concerns. “We have a positive technical set of collaborations with them that extends into the high temperature gas reactor and other areas.”

He noted that China is a major developer of nuclear energy and is investing heavily in research and development of alternatives.

“It’s a shrinking global world, and so we have to work together and I think it’s a very positive reflection of China and the United States – that we’re collaborating,” he said.

The project, which includes DOE’s Oak Ridge lab in Tennessee and three U.S universities – MIT, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin – could be an example of how the DOE finds what McGinnis called the “sweet spot” of assisting industry in R&D without getting involved in commercial power generation.

In a notable step toward facilitating alternative nuclear, DOE last month awarded funding to a group led by Babcock & Wilcox to develop a “modular” reactor that is much smaller than traditional reactors and that could cut end user costs.

Photo by Mark Halper

The missing ingredients in nuclear’s rebranding

Posted by Mark Halper on December 7th, 2012

It would be a new Springfield if Homer worked at a thorium reactor.

LONDON – The World Nuclear Association is making a laudable start at trying to “rebrand” nuclear. But as became apparent here yesterday, it’s missing a trick.

“In the aftermath of Fukushima, we have to take a lead in rebranding nuclear power,” WNA acting director general Steve Kidd said in an address at a conference organized by the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA).

The WNA is the global trade body for the conventional nuclear industry. It wants to assure that the public broadly perceives nuclear as an effective, safe source of carbon free energy. And as Kidd noted, following the meltdowns at the Fukushima plant after Japan’s tragic 20110 earthquake and tsunami, “That’s a pretty tall order.”

Indeed it is. Even though the nuclear industry has a stellar safety record, and even though – to consider the gravest of statistics – it has killed few people over the years compared to the deaths caused by fossil fuels, it still struggles around the world against impassioned nuclear opposition.

One way to help offset that would be to champion the safer and more efficient alternative nuclear designs that the industry rejected 40-some years ago, when it instead settled on inferior designs that rely on solid uranium fuel and water cooling.

OPTIONS

Alternatives such as liquid molten salt reactors, high temperature pebble bed reactors, fast reactors (which to be fair were the industry’s objective at one point) and others represent improvements in both safety and operating efficiency, especially in some cases where they run on thorium fuel instead of uranium.

The liquid thorium molten salt reactor that Alvin Weinberg designed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in the 1960s serves as one stellar example.

Among its benefits: It runs safely at high temperatures; it could serve as an effective industrial heat source as well as an electricity generator; it leaves behind less dangerous waste than today’s reactors and its waste lasts only a fraction of the time; it does not require potentially dangerous pressurization; and in the unlikely event of a serious problem, a “freeze plug” melts away and allows fuel to drain harmlessly into tank – meltdown averted.

The design is undergoing a revival, with companies like Flibe Energy and Ottawa Valley Research working on related models, and with China intent on building them.

Likewise, other designs are poised for a comeback. Russia is accelerating its fast reactor program, and South Africa’s Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd is advancing a pebble bed reactor.

IF IT AIN’T BROKE

So, wouldn’t it make sense for the WNA to embrace these ideas? To leverage them as something like a “not the same old nuclear”?

No, says Kidd.

“I’m very strongly against that idea,” Kidd replied when I inquired whether the WNA should be promoting safer alternatives.

“We cannot be seen to be suggesting that current operation of reactors is unsafe,” he said. “These reactors (conventional reactors) are licensed by the national regulators as being safe to operate and the public trusts in their national regulator…The point is, the reactors in operation around the world today are safe.”

The irony is that WNA is a group that’s highly knowledgeable about the potential advantages of the alternatives. Its impressive website is rich in information about them. As just one example, read what the WNA has to say about thorium.

But as the industry association controlled by the makers of large, conventional nuclear plants the WNA just isn’t ready to parlay that wealth of knowledge into a promotional push. The WNA, founded in 2001, is not far removed from its roots as the former Uranium Institute.

NOT JUST THE FACTS

It has been steadily attempting that, among other ways, by building a fact-rich website full of information on nuclear’s advantages, not the least of which is that it’s a carbon-free source of round-the-clock power.

Kidd said that facts alone will not be enough.

“We’ve really got to get into people’s psychology, into their emotions, because obviously the factual approach can only get you so far,” Kidd said, noting that the industry is fighting against people’s preconceived notions of safety and weapons threats.

“I think the best branding people, the best marketing people, in the world, can probably overcome that,” he said.

It would be easier if they started to work with words like “thorium.”

Image: Andrea Omizzolo via Flickr.

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