Archive for March, 2013

The UK embarks on its alternative nuclear venture, hat in hand

Posted by Mark Halper on March 29th, 2013

Beddington RoadmapAnnounce Halper

Chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington “cannot see a future” for UK energy without nuclear, but says that the new nuclear R&D programme will need more funding.

Watching a panel of top British scientists set the UK on the road to new forms of nuclear power this week looked a bit like a scene from an American film where an impoverished farmer puts his son on a bus with a five-dollar bill to start life anew in the big city.

There were plenty of wise words from the scientists – led by the government’s outgoing chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington – who were making public their year-long study and recommendations on nuclear research and development. There was that intriguing mix of promise and uncertainty.

As a bonus, there was even action, when over in a separate location government ministers announced they had taken some of the scientific advice to heart and were implementing measures to support new nuclear R&D.

But as with the underwhelming fiver handed over by the father, there was an unconvincing amount of money. The centrepiece investment was a £15 million starter kit to encourage industry, academia and government to work together – hardly an amount that will construct, say, a thorium molten salt reactor.

No doubt the vision and early groundwork was there, put forth by the scientists who besides Beddington included – among others – David MacKay, the chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC); John Perkins, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS); and Robin Grimes, the chief scientific adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

NO FUTURE WITHOUT NUCLEAR 

Beddington said at the London gathering that he “cannot see a future” for the UK energy sector without nuclear.

“If it’s going to meet its obligations for greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time have some degree of resilience in the system, there has to be a significant component for nuclear,” noted Beddington, before he revealed the recommendations of a study that goes by various names including “Nuclear R&D Roadmap.”

The roadmap helped shape the simultaneous government announcement led by BIS and joined by DECC of a nuclear “industrial strategy.”

The strategy included £15 million for research at three institutions that will bring together government, academia and industrial interests – key in a deregulated energy environment like the UK, where market forces rather than government runs the energy sector.

It also included the expansion of DECC’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) into a full-fledged central government research and advisory institution.

MacKay Roadmap Halper4

DECC’s David MacKay says that in the highest nuclear scenario, nuclear could contribute as much as 86 percent of Britain’s electricity, possibly through a variety of reactor types.

NNL is a government owned, commercially operated group that has primarily conducted contract research programs. Its chief science and technology officer Graham Fairhall was part of the 6-person panel that presented the roadmap. NNL’s managing director Paul Howarth was another of the roadmap’s authors, as was Andrew Sherry, the director of the Rolls-Royce-backed Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester. Sherry participated on this week’s panel.

(For a full list of the report authors, click here and go to “Annex B”).

The scientists urged the development of alternative nuclear technologies if the country is to choose the more nuclear-intensive of the government’s proposed scenarios for cutting British CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2050.

DECC’s MacKay said that in a high nuclear scenario with 75 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, nuclear could provide up to 86 percent of the UK’s electricity, providing 525 terawatt hours (tWh) per year out of a total of 610 tWh, a level he noted is “comparable to France.” Nuclear today provides about 18 percent of the UK’s electricity.

“Clearly I think that if we’re going to be thinking about a significant expansion of nuclear capacity as we move toward our goal in 2050 of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we need to keep options open,” Beddington said. “And part of those options is … having the R&D to think about taking it forward.”

NUCLEAR VARIETY SHOW

That “R&D” includes the development of a number of unconventional nuclear reactor types, elaborated MacKay, who noted that, “there are a variety of ways of delivering 75 gigawatts of nuclear.”  Among the alternatives that he and others mentioned: reactors such as “fast” reactors that can burn nuclear waste in a “closed fuel cycle”, molten salt reactors, thorium-fueled reactors, and fusion.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because I broke the story of the then forthcoming roadmap here on the Weinberg blog nearly two months ago.  I subsequently tipped it in The Guardian and on my CBS SmartPlanet blog.

During the course of their year-long study, the Beddington crew gave ongoing advice to the government. That has already resulted in action, as BIS secretary Vince Cable and his DECC counterpart Ed Davey announced the £15 million for coordinated industry, academic and government nuclear research at NNL, Dalton, and at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Oxford.

The government’s BIS-led “industrial strategy” announcement also noted that BIS has provided £18 million to 35 different nuclear R&D projects, including £6 million to OC Robotics, a Bristol, England company that makes a robot controlled laser cutting tool for decommissioning reactors (important for taking down old sites, but not a direct step toward new, alternative reactor technologies).

To further help coordinate industry, academia and government – a theme that the panel repeatedly emphasized – BIS and DECC announced an alphabet soup of agencies that will work under the government’s recently formed Nuclear Industry Council.

The new Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) carries on the work of Beddington’s ad hoc Nuclear Research and Development Advisory Board, which wrote the advisory report. Another new group, the Nuclear Innovation Research Office (NIRO), will reside at NNL to advance NIRAB’s work.

Perkins Roadmap Announce Halper

BIS’ John Perkins hopes for much more industry, academia and government collaboration, including between fission and fusion research.

The government stated in its BIS-led announcement that, “It is keen to explore opportunities to back future reactor designs, including the feasibility of launching a small modular reactor (SMR) R&D programme to ensure that the UK is a key partner of any new reactor design for the global market.”

On a related note, the Beddington advisory panel recommended that the UK join SMR development efforts with the U.S. where the Department of Energy (DOE) has a $450 million SMR development programme.

“There’s a potential synergy by working with the Department of Energy in the USA, which is actually setting up a fairly large programme with significant finance in it,” said Beddington.  “In a sense we can work with them, and that is rather attractive. It generates a potential for piggybacking on work that’s going to be done in working closely with the Department of Energy.”

SMRs provide utilities and other end users with lower cost options for adding incremental power, and provide cleaner and lower cost energy in remote areas, where dirty and expensive diesel generators typically serve.

While SMR designs come in conventional uranium-fueled water-cooled varieties, many of the alternative reactors such as molten salt, pebble beds and fast reactors lend themselves to small form factors. In fact various fusion companies are also trying to develop small fusion reactors.

FUSION MEETS FISSION

BIS scientific adviser Perkins described fusion “as a long term opportunity, where the UK has a significant position,” given its research at Culham, which participates in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion project in Cadarache, France. Perkins pointed out that, “there are crossovers in R&D between fusion research and fission research,” as both involve developing materials that can withstand intensive neutron bombardment.

At the scientific advisers’ press conference, Beddington said it is too early to choose any one SMR technology.

Other recommendations by the scientific advisers included that Britain:

  • Rejoin the international Generation IV International Forum on nuclear development
  • Participate in EU and other spent fuel recycling research
  • Invest in “closed fuel” cycles and reactors that don’t require constant replenishing of fuel as conventional reactors do
  • Work on nuclear development with other countries including key partners France, the U.S., China, India, Japan and South Korea. (Such as with NNL’s recently announced £12.5 million project at the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France)
  • Invest in nuclear fuel fabrication and infrastructure
  • Develop exportable nuclear expertise

Back to my farmer’s analogy.

That £15 million is a good start. But like junior’s five-spot, it’s barely a token in an industry that the government this week valued at £1 trillion globally.

Serious development of alternative reactors will require serious money. To single out just one example, anyone I’ve ever talked to about building a thorium molten salt reactor sets the ultimate development cost in the billions of dollars. The £15 million pales next to that. So does the £12.5 million that DECC’s NNL two weeks ago said it was investing in the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France, which to be facetious, could buy some pumps and valves and several cases of Chateau Pétrus, but won’t come anywhere near getting the job done.

Grimes Roadmap Panel Halper2

Foreign Office’s Robin Grimes expects an additional £10 million next year for irradiation studies.

Nonetheless, these are undoubtedly significant developments.

Beddington called this week’s announcement “an important and exciting first step,” that “will reverse the years of decline in taking nuclear R&D seriously.”

And additional government funding appears set for next year, when Grimes anticipates another £10 million for irradiation studies.

At some point, though, those numbers will have to grow by an order of magnitude.

“We probably do need to up the investment in nuclear R&D,” Beddington said. “Unless we get that, I have concerns that there are issues around the nuclear program. But we’ve set out a fairly comprehensive R&D roadmap which I think will have an implication of additional money.”

CHINA ENVY

Given that the UK handed over real control of its energy sector to the market 20-some years ago in Prime Minister Thatcher’s privatization movement, the hope might have to be that the newly strengthened industry-academia-government collaboration instigates more financial interest from industry.

To make up an example: How about if BP invests in SMR development? It’s not so far fetched. Oil giant Shell has shown recent interest in a molten salt reactor.

In what looks like another step to help catalyze industry involvement, BIS – the government’s business department – rather than DECC, ran this week’s nuclear industrial strategy announcement. Prime Minister David Cameron echoed that same business emphasis later in the week when he gave BIS’ business minister Michael Fallon the second job of energy minister within DECC (under secretary Davey), replacing former energy minister John Hayes, who is now an adviser to Cameron.

Fallon should encourage private investment across different energy sectors, including nuclear.

Until industry ponies up large sums for nuclear R&D, the government will continue to suffer from China envy, watching Beijing pour money into nuclear R&D, which it can do because it – not the market – controls the energy sector.

Once the real funding arrives in the UK, the ride could lead somewhere. Maybe even on an electric bus powered by nuclear.

Photos by Mark Halper

The government published a number of in-depth documents this week relating to the UK’s nuclear future: 

 

 

Statement on the UK Government’s Fission R&D Roadmap

Posted by David Martin on March 26th, 2013

Following the release of the UK Government’s new nuclear R&D ‘roadmap’ today, we thought we ought to release a brief statement outlining our views.

Incisive blogs from Mark Halper will follow over the next few days.

The Weinberg Foundation welcomes the release of the British Government’s long-awaited Review of nuclear research and development policy. We are pleased that the Government has recognised the need for greatly increased coordination between the UK’s academic, government and industrial nuclear researchers, and welcome the commitment to fund additional research facilities to support the leadership of the UK academic community.

However, whilst the Review does recognise nuclear power’s essential role in safeguarding our climate and energy security, we believe that the initiatives announced today must be only the first step towards a large-scale revival of the UK’s nuclear research and industrial base.

Many of the Government’s own Energy Pathway scenarios envisage that nuclear will supply 40-85% of UK electricity by 2050. So, the amount of nuclear power will at least double in the next three decades. The Government’s proposed funding of fission R&D is not commensurate with the scale of the task.

Failure to fund the research and development of at least 50% of the UK’s future energy supply is short-sighted. “Market-led” solutions to nuclear R&D are not enough. It is time for Government to take the lead.

We must make sure the UK utilises the safest, most efficient and most sustainable nuclear technology available. The UK has a unique opportunity to become the world-leader in the development of safer fuels such as thorium and more efficient next-generation reactors like the breakthrough Molten Salt Reactor. The Government must fund the research and development of next-generation nuclear power as a matter of urgency, in cooperation with industry, and with international partners if needed.

Lord Hanworth, Treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy, said: “While I welcome Ad Hoc Nuclear Research Board’s emphasis on the importance of increased nuclear fission research in the UK, it was disappointing that the report did not stress the vital importance of further research into thorium, a cleaner, safer nuclear fuel.  Coupled with advanced reactor designs, such as the molten salt reactor, thorium could bring about a more sustainable era of nuclear power, and make a huge contribution to both our energy security and the fight against climate change.”

For further information please contact David Martin on david.martin[at]the-weinberg-foundation.org.  

A PDF of this statement can be downloaded here.

Motoyasu Kinoshita NRKno

Moto-yasu Kinoshita speaking in Norway in 2011. Kinoshita hopes to run molten salt fuel tests at Norway’s Halden reactor.

Japan’s fleet of conventional nuclear reactors remains mostly shut following the Fukushima meltdowns two years ago but a significant aspect of it lives on – its high level nuclear waste.

One company has a plan that would use that waste for fuel in an altogether different type of reactor and thus turn Japan’s troubled nuclear past into a revived future.

Tokyo-based Thorium Tech Solution (TTS) wants to combine the reactors’ waste – their spent fuel full of actinides like plutonium – with thorium, the element that many people believe makes a superior alternative nuclear fuel to today’s uranium.

And rather than use the fuel in conventional solid rod form, TTS would put it into a liquid, molten salt form. TTS’ molten salt reactor (MSR) would thus deliver the classic advantages of an MSR, while also helping Japan deal with its nuclear waste. Compared to conventional solid fuel uranium reactors MSRs are safer, cannot melt down, generate less long-lived dangerous and weapons-prone waste, and are more efficient. All the better if they use thorium instead uranium, many believe.

TTS, founded by the late Dr. Kazuo Furukawa, bases its designs on the work of Dr. Alvin Weinberg, who built a thorium MSR in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Furukawa started TTS in 2011, soon before his death in December of that year at the age of 84. TTS picked right up where his previous company, ITheMS (International Thorium Energy & Molten Salt Technology Inc.) left off. It aims to build a 160–megawatt electric MSR called a FUJI, and a smaller 7-megawatt model called a miniFUJI (in this case, the word “fuji” implies “the only one” – as in the only solution for a carbon free energy future).

ITheMS, which was run by Japanese politician Keishiro Fukushima with Furukawa as its chief scientist, closed in 2011 after it was unable to secure $300 million it had sought.

MOLTEN IN THE BLOOD

Furukawa, who devoted much of his career to molten salt nuclear research (in the early1980s he worked on an accelerator-drive molten salt system before shifting to the Oak Ridge design), was steeled on making TTS the success that ITheMS was not.

His successors at TTS are working hard to realize that. In a stroke of abject determination, his younger brother Masaaki Furukawa, who is the company’s president, has declared that TTS will build a working prototype by 2018 – not one near the scale of even a miniFUJI, but a tiny primitive version that will produce electricity and prove the concept.

Masaaki Furukawa’s fellow shareholders at TTS include Kazuo Furukawa’s son Kazuro, who is a professor at the Koh Energy Kasokuki higher energy accelerator research group; and chief engineer Moto-yasu Kinoshita.

Kinoshita is also a vice president of the International Thorium Molten Salt Forum and a researcher at the University of Tokyo. We featured him on the Weinberg blog last November from Shanghai, where he was proudly displaying a Chinese language version of Alvin Weinberg’s autobiography, The First Nuclear Era – The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer.

Motoyasu Kinoshita Weinberg Book Halper

The source. Kinoshita displays a Chinese language version of Alvin Weinberg’s autobiography at the       Thorium Energy Conference in Shanghai last November. Weinberg’s MSR design has inspired TTS and other new MSR companies.

I spoke with him  at length this week via Skype, when Kinoshita told me that TTS could begin building commercial FUJIs and miniFUJIs by around 2025.

Obviously, a lot has to happen between now and then, not the least of which will be that TTS has to secure funding.

The company is taking things in stages.

The focus at the moment will require that TTS raise a mere $300,000 – pocket change in the world of nuclear development – to soon test different molten salts. TTS wants to establish which it will use, as it tries to develop a fluid that will not corrode common nickel alloys such as hastelloy and inconel that would form the plumbing in an MSR.

While some competing MSR researchers want to substitute and develop exotic metal replacements, Kinoshita says that TTS is determined to stick with existing materials, an approach he calls “practical and cheaper.”

SEARCHING FOR CHEMISTRY

Instead of material moves, Kinoshita says TTS will apply “chemistry control” to come up with the right recipe of molten salt ingredients that would avoid corroding common alloys.

A typical fluid in MSR designs is a compound known as FLiBe, which is a mixture of lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride. Kinoshita notes that it is the fluid that Oak Ridge National Laboratory used in the MSR it built in the 1960s under the direction of Weinberg (from whom the Weinberg Foundation, publisher of this blog, takes its name; “FLiBe” is also the namesake of Huntsville, Ala.-based MSR company Flibe Energy, another Oak Ridge inspired group).

In fact, Oak Ridge included beryllium to help avoid corrosion.

But Kinoshita notes that beryllium has its own problems.

“It is not easy to use beryllium – it’s a controlled material because of its toxicity,” he says.

And perhaps more to the point in TTS’ plans – beryllium does not get along well with plutonium, which is one of the “waste” elements that would help form TTS’ mixed thorium fuel.

So TTS is investigating other solutions, such as adding sodium to FLiBe. It is also considering another molten salt called FLiNaK, which is a combination of sodium, potassium and lithium.

Kinoshita is confident that TTS will be able to raise the $300,000, which he thinks could come from anti-nuclear weapon groups who would back the idea of destroying weapons-linked nuclear waste.

THE NEXT TEST

TTS could wrap up its molten salt tests by “this year or next,” Kinoshita says.

It could then focus on a bigger project, would require about $5 million: Testing the behaviour of nuclear waste’s transuranic elements like neptunium, plutonium, americium and curium.

For that, TTS plans to burn simulated-fuel versions of molten salts in a test reactor. It hopes to use the Halden reactor in Norway – the same place where Norway’s Thor Energy will soon begin irradiating a thorium-plutonium mix, with backing from Westinghouse and others.

Other possible test sites would be the Nuclear Research Institute in the Czech Republic, and Japan’s currently halted Japan Materials Testing Reactor.

Kinoshita envisions about five years of the transuranic tests. Then begins the heavy lifting of building the MSR and overcoming technical challenges that all MSR developers face.

FREEZING HOT

Among the hurdles: molten salts in MSRs tend to solidify when temperature drop to around 460 degrees C.  Molten salt reactors are meant to operate at somewhere between 700 degrees C and 900 degrees C. That’s much higher than conventional reactors, and is a reason why MSRs can make more efficient use of fuel (higher temperatures burn more fuel). One of the great attributes of molten salts is that they don’t boil easily – thus they can flow as they need to in an MSR system at high temperatures.

But if things cool too much, they solidify, and pipes can burst. So-called “freezing accidents” would not pose meltdown type threats associated with extreme accidents in conventional reactors, but they would destroy the reactor.

Another challenge: TTS will have to develop chemistry to separate waste from fuel within its reactor. TTS is using a single fluid approach, unlike the dual fluid approach under development at other MSR projects. In a dual fluid MSR, one fluid produces fissile uranium 233 fuel from fertile thorium, and feeds that into a second fluid where reactions take place. TTS’ single fluid technology will have to apply a still unproven technique for separating the fissile uranium 233 from the fertile thorium and from wastes.

On the other hand, companies developing the two fluid approach will have to overcome materials challenges – in a typical MSR design, the silicon carbide that separates the two molten salt fluids can fail (which is why Furukawa decided on the single fluid approach in the first place).

All told, Kinoshita thinks TTS can start building commercial miniFUJIs and FUJIs by around 2025.

As for the 2018 proof of concept model? That will be tough, but not impossible. Scientific geniuses are welcomed to apply at TTS.

Photos: Kinoshita in Norway, Aksel Kroglund Persson/NRK. Kinoshita with Weinberg book, Mark Halper

Bangladesh Map GreenwichMeantime

Newcomers like Bangladesh will help drive a nuclear revival, says GlobalData.

Is the nuclear renaissance back on?

A new report from London-based business intelligence firm GlobalData would suggest it is, triggered in large measure by a demand for power from emerging markets and from some 45 countries that have yet to deploy it.

“Global nuclear energy generation will climb by almost 30% by the end of the decade, thanks in part to an influx of new nations developing nuclear programs,” GlobalData says in a press release.

It forecasts that 198 new reactors will begin commercial operations by 2020, by which time worldwide nuclear generation will jump to 3.1 million GWh, up from 2.4 million GWh in 2012.

“At present there are around 45 nuclear-free countries looking at adding the controversial power source to their energy portfolio, including the UAE, Turkey, Poland and Bangladesh,” GlobalData notes.

China, India and South Korea will lead the surge, as nuclear generation in the Asia Pacific region will jump from 324,000 GWh last year to 852,000 GWh by 2020, GlobalData says.

ASIAN ACTIVITY

In China alone,the World Nuclear Association (WNA) has identified 79 nuclear reactors either under construction or planned, and another 86 proposed, for a total of about 165 reactors. WNA’s World Nuclear Fuel Cycle 2013 conference in Singapore next month will include presentations from Asian countries not generally known as nuclear energy centers, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam.

Growth in those nations contrasts sharply with some Western countries like Germany, which decided to abandon nuclear power after the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors following the tragic tsunami and earthquake two years ago.

RENAISSANCE RESUMED

A 30 percent expansion indicates that the nuclear renaissance which was building prior to Fukushima is returning.

The reasons for a nuclear revival are just as compelling now as they were pre-Fukushima: Nuclear provides a low carbon energy to help combat climate change, is not subject to price volatility the way fossil fuels are, and offers a steady supply of baseload power, unlike intermittent renewables like wind and solar.

Such mounting interest should help underpin research, development and ultimately, deployment of alternative forms of nuclear power that can improve on the safety, efficiency and waste of conventional reactors. These would include thorium fuel, as well as reactors built on molten salt, pebble bed, “fast” and fusion designs, among others.

Map from greenwichmeantime.com

Chu Obama Charles Watkins Wiki

“Before I go Mr. President, let me tell you about these molten salt reactors.” That’s a completely made-up conversation. But outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu (l), this week did say that small modular reactors will be key to the country’s low carbon energy future. MSRs are one variety of them.

You might have missed the quiet announcement earlier this week: The U.S. Department of Energy has opened a second round in its $450 million program to fund small modular nuclear reactors, following its grant to Babcock & Wilcox late last year.

In a logical scenario, the next recipient would receive about $227 million, or roughly the same as what B&W is believed to have won.

“The Energy Department will solicit proposals for cost-shared small modular reactor projects that have the potential to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and achieve commercial operation around 2025,” DOE said in a press release.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are much smaller than the gigawatt-plus size of new conventional designs. DOE said it is “seeking 300 megawatts or smaller.”

They auger lower costs because they can be manufactured in more of an assembly-line manner and transported complete to a site, and because they would allow utilities and other end users to add power in increments. They also lend themselves to installation in remote areas where they could provide a less expensive alternative to diesel generators.

CLEAN MACHINES

Another advantage: they can potentially serve as sources of clean heat for industrial processes in factories and oil fields.

Outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu made it clear that they are an important part of a low carbon energy future.

“As President Obama said in the State of the Union, the Administration is committed to speeding the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” Chu said in the release. “Innovative energy technologies, including small modular reactors, will help provide low-carbon energy to American homes and businesses, while giving our nation a key competitive edge in the global clean energy race.”

The DOE release also says that SMRs will offer “innovative and effective solutions for enhanced safety, operations and performance.”

SMALL, MODULAR AND SALTY

With all that in mind, it seems to me that DOE should take a serious look at molten salt reactors (MSRs) and pebble bed reactors (PBRs), rather than only look at shrunken versions of conventional uranium fueled, water-cooled reactor, such as what B&W is building with its 180-megawatt mPower reactor (utility Tennessee Valley Authority plans to deploy two mPower units by 2021).

“Conventional” SMR companies like Nuscale Power, Gen4 Energy  and Westinghouse could well vie for the next round with small water-cooled reactors. But is this not also a funding opportunity for MSR companies like Huntsville, Ala.’s Flibe Energy and Cambridge, Mass.-based Transatomic Power?

Most MSR designs tick the “smaller” box, and would certainly qualify in the “enhanced safety, operations and performance” category. They are meltdown proof, operate at normal atmospheric pressure rather than at the high pressure of  many water-cooled designs, and they make more efficient use of fuel because they operate at higher temperatures. They also leave less waste, and in certain designs, can use nuclear wast as fuel. DOE’s 2025 target would be feasible.

Transatomic might be counted out if it sticks firmly to its intention to build a 500-megawatt reactor, which is above the 300 megawatt ceiling stated by DOE. But it seems that at their early stage of development, Transatomic could tinker with size.

Flibe fits right into the modular size, as it’s targeting between 10 and 50 megawatts, and up to 250 megawatts.

DON’T FORGET THE PEBBLES

And don’t rule out a pebble bed option, either. Like MSRs, gas-cooled PBRs run at high temperatures. They fit well into small, modular form factors. A DOE-China collaboration ties the two ideas together, as it is looking into using molten salt coolants in solid fuel high temperature reactor (MSRs uses molten salts as part of their liquid fuel mix, as well as for the coolants that aborb the heat of a nuclear reaction and transfer it to a turbine).

In fact conventional giant Westinghouse is the commercial adviser to the DOE-China project, so it could have an interest in applying for funding for an alternative design, although it is almost certainly much further along with its small conventional reactor.

There is plenty of cross-pollinated interest among the various alternative parties that together could build a case for funding alternative nuclear. Westinghouse  – the commercial adviser to the U.S.-China molten salt coolant project – ran the Advanced Reactors track at last November’s American Nuclear Society’s annual winter conference (ANS) in San Diego, where the presentations included molten salts and high temperature reactors.

They also included talks by University of California Berkeley nuclear engineering head Per Peterson (he chaired the 5-day conference as well), who is known for his  interest in pebble bed reactors and in molten salt coolants. Peterson is also on the board of advisors at MSR company Flibe. In fact Peterson chaired the 5-day conference. Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist Charles Forsberg, a member of the DOE-China team, also presented in the alternative nuclear track.

Another MIT expert, Richard Lester, is a key adviser to MSR company Transatomic. Lester is the head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where he is also the “Japan Steel Industry Professor” (I conjure up images of molten salt reactors supplying heat to steel mills when I see that).

A MORE NUCLEAR DOE?

And MIT, of course, is home to President Obama’s nominee for Chu’s replacement as Energy Secretary, the pro-nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz.

These individuals are not all united behind all the same causes and companies, but most of them share a big vested interest in alternative nuclear. It seems as though together, they could raise government interest – and backing – in the area.

Of course they’ll have to find funding elsewhere as well. I could imagine an oil company getting behind the development of a small MSR, for among other reasons, to use as a heat source. Or space agency NASA. The military might also want to invest – an MSR could help domestic bases disconnect from the creaky public grid, as Flibe president Kirk Sorensen has pointed out.

How about venture capital? Maybe. Flibe has added Bram Cohen to its board of advisers. Cohen is the founder of Internet company BitTorrent, where he has experience at raising $40 million in venture capital. Transatomic is getting ready to attempt a “Series A” round of venture financing.

Those possibilities could make a good mix. A DOE award should be a possibility. In the current round it might be a long shot. But so was the moon.

Photo from Charles Watkins, White House photographer, via Wikimeda

UK joins test reactor project in France with £12.5m commitment

Posted by Mark Halper on March 13th, 2013

Davey EmieFrenchAmbassador

Splitsville. UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey (r) and French Ambassador Bernard Emié at the London       signing of Britain’s £12.5 million commitment to the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France, where the two countries and others will test new techniques and materials for splitting atoms.

The research and development of alternative nuclear technologies received a boost yesterday when the UK committed £12. 5 million ($18.6 million) to join a group of nine other governments and three utilities in a French test reactor.

The Jules Horowitz Reactor (JHR), under construction in Cadarache, France (the same southern city where the ITER fusion tokamak is rising) is scheduled for completion by 2016, at a cost of €750 million ($972 million). The JHR website says that the reactor will support the development of  “different power reactor systems” including those based on “existing and future technologies.”

“It will have the potential to look at thorium fuels, fast reactors, novel fuel designs for SMRs (small modular reactors), etc.,” explained Adrian Bull, director of external relations at the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in an email exchange.

NNL is the Sellafield, England-based privately run research lab owned by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is leading the UK’s involvement at JHR, where it joins government research groups from France, the Czech Republic, Japan, Spain, Belgium, India, Finland and Israel who were already active there.

The project also includes the European Commission, as well nuclear company Areva, French utility EDF, and Swedish utility Vattenfall.

GAINING ACCESS

“It’s vital that we cooperate on issues like safety and R&D,” said John Hayes, Minister of State for Energy at DECC, in a press release. “We are putting our money where our mouth is by confirming our contribution of £12.5m to the Jules Horowitz research reactor in France and guaranteeing the UK access rights to the project.”

NNL managing director Paul Howarth said the commitment to the JHR “is an important step towards returning the UK to the international ‘top table’ in the arena of civil nuclear R&D.”

The JHR will also supply hospitals with medical isotopes.

It is part of a fleet of six European Union “material test reactors” including the Halden Reactor in Norway, which will soon begin irradiating thorium fuel here, and which supplies heat to a nearby paper mill

JHR will replace the older Osiris Reactor, also in France. At 100 megawatts, it will be the largest of the European test reactors.  France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), a major backer at JHR, has also been involved in the others.

EUROPE’S NUCLEAR DOZEN

Also yesterday, the UK and 11 other EU nations in London announced a “Joint Ministerial Communique on Nuclear Energy in Europe” affirming collaboration on making nuclear “a part in the EU’s future low carbon energy mix.”

“It’s vital for our economy that we work with our European partners to make the EU a leading destination for investment in new low-carbon energy infrastructure,” said Ed Davey, the UK’s energy secretary (Hendry’s boss). “This communiqué signals a move to a stronger, better and closer working relationship between Member States on nuclear energy. By working together to enable low carbon energy projects to come forward we will go some way to reducing the EU’s carbon emissions and ensuring greater energy security.”

The 12 countries will hold their next ministerial meeting in the Czech Republic, a country where nuclear research includes a thorium-fueled molten salt reactor.

The 12 are the UK, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Holland, Finland, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania.

Photo from UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, via Flickr

Bill Gates’ excellent case for new types of nuclear power

Posted by Mark Halper on March 11th, 2013

“Nuclear innovation stopped in the 1970s.”

 

Bill Gates has been making nuclear headlines over the last few days after the told a gathering of international energy executives near Denver that solar and wind technologies won’t cut it as a source of baseload power, and that the U.S. government should fund nuclear research and development.

His remarks were reported by Reuters and have been widely picked up – including here on the Weinberg blog.

I thought it would make sense to bring you some more detail of his thinking. To do so, I’ve reached back to April 2010, when Gates delivered a convincing pro-nuclear presentation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that conveys the same message as his Colorado remarks (MIT is the same university, incidentally, which is home to President Obama’s pro-nuclear nominee for Energy Secretary, physicist Ernest Moniz).

In his MIT speech, presented about a year before the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima, Gates advocates not simply for nuclear, but for new, alternative nuclear technologies, such as the breeder reactor under development at the company that the Microsoft billionaire co-founded, called TerraPower. He even gives some lip service to molten salt reactors, even if he doesn’t seem enamored of them.

“Nuclear is one of the directions that we should innovate in,” he says, a little less than four minutes into the clip. “Nuclear innovation stopped in the 1970s. We basically have this sub (submarine) designed thing that was put into Shippingport (Shippingport, Pa.) for the first power generator and we basically built 400 of those that are all kind of custom but not in any interesting way. They’re all LWRs (light water reactors)  and PWRs (pressurized water reactors) and the industry did not innovate much at all. There’s this third generation passive safety AP 1000, but except for that they didn’t do much.”

CUTE SOLAR

Gates points out that the energy per atom from nuclear fuel “is about a million times better than coal or natural gas.” But without the development of new types of nuclear power, the industry will struggle to take advantage of that in an economically competitive fashion, he notes.

Reactors like TerraPower’s and like molten salt reactors can burn fuel more efficiently and safely than do conventional reactors, can use nuclear waste as fuel, and leave less waste.

I encourage you to watch the entire video – it’s less than eight minutes – to hear Gates’ analysis of solar and wind which he calls “cute up to a point,” of the material science problems associated with the “damn neutrons” in his own reactor, and the  even greater materials challenges facing fusion developers.

“If you look at the fusion guys, their neutrons are like a thousand times worse than our neutrons,” says Gates. “Those guys have 14 MeV neutrons – good luck to them.”

As a popular New York sportscaster used to say, let’s go to the video. It was posted by the Washington, D.C.-based  Nuclear Energy Institute, which calls it “I Love Nuclear” (words Gates actually uses). Click anywhere on the image of Gates above to start watching.

Video from NEINetwork via YouTube. 

Ernest Moniz MITEI JustinKnight

Could he encourage nuclear R&D? President Obama’s nominee for U.S. Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz,     is a pro-nuclear physicist from MIT.

Today calls for a review of the week, and not simply because it’s Friday and the weekend is upon us. Rather, the last seven days have provided several high level endorsements for nuclear power from regions of the world that have been giving it a hard time. Consider these examples:

Japan. One week ago, the Japan Daily Press reported that “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged that nuclear plants that pass the new safety guidelines could restart within the year. This is to ensure maintenance of a stable energy supply.”

It was the latest, and perhaps the strongest indication yet, that Japan will return to nuclear power following the near complete shutdown after the Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 forced the evacuation of over 100,000 residents.

Abe won’t have carte blanche to flip the switches on. Each reactor must first pass new, tougher safety measures. Don’t expect anything close to a complete return to pre-Fukushima days, when nuclear provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity.  And the anti-nuclear movement has by no means evaporated.  As the JDP noted in a separate article, anti-nuclear protestors are holding weekly rallies in Tokyo.

But the economic and environmental costs of shutting nuclear, as I’ve written several times recently, are mounting. Watch for a significant return by the summer.

Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder and billionaire yesterday told an international gathering of prominent energy executives in the oil hub of Houston of all places that, as Reuters paraphrased him, “safe and reliable reactors were the best option and dismissed wind and solar energy as less practical.” At the IHS CERAWeek conference, Gates said that nuclear trumps wind or solar because it can supply round-the-clock power. (CERA is the former Cambridge Energy Research Associates founded by Pulitzer Prize winning author and oil maven Daniel Yergin; IHS is the Englewood, Colo. research group that acquired it 2004).

There’s no big surprise here really. Gates is the chairman of TerraPower, the Bellevue, Wash., company that is developing a new type of nuclear reactor meant to replace conventional reactors. TerraPower’s “traveling wave reactor” is a “fast” reactor that breeds its own fuel.

But we haven’t heard publicly from the nuclear Gates for a while. His timing is encouraging, coming amid recent U.S. press reports suggesting doom and gloom for nuclear, and as the country gets ready to install a new Energy Secretary. Speaking of which..

Obama goes nuclear? U.S. President Obama on Monday nominated a pro-nuclear physicist, Ernest Moniz, as the next Energy Secretary. If approved by the U.S. Senate, Moniz would replace the outgoing Steven Chu. Moniz as head of the Department of Energy. Moniz currently heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative.

More MIT. A couple of MIT experts, including one from Moniz’ MITEI,  together wrote a compelling case for nuclear power published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Monday. MITEI principal research scientist Sergey Paltsev, and MIT Sloan School of Management Henry Jacoby said that a nuclear phaseout by 2050 in the U.S. would increase carbon emissions and electricity prices, and would shrink gross domestic product.

The consequences would hold true to varying degrees depending on which regulatory path the U.S. takes in terms of restricting greenhouse gas emissions. I wrote a summary of the scenarios on my CBS SmartPlanet blog (the Jacoby and Patlsev analysis was part of a package of stories on U.S. nuclear, some of which presented an economic case that renewables trump nuclear).

One oversight by Jacoby and Paltsev: They made no mention of alternative nuclear technologies, such as the sort that Gates’ TerraPower is developing, or such as thorium fuel or molten salt reactors. These options could further support the economic and environmental case for nuclear, by providing reactor options that are safer, more efficient, and ultimately less expensive than conventional nuclear.

As Gates said at IHS CERAWeek, the U.S. DOE should increase energy research and development.

“We should put a lot more into innovation, ” he noted. “When we get a carbon tax we should put some of that into innovation.”

I agree Bill. And I know some molten salt researchers and some thorium enthusiasts who might like that idea too.

Photo by Justin Knight is a screen grab from the MITEI website.

In Britain, the true meaning of ‘new’ nuclear

Posted by Mark Halper on March 4th, 2013

Nuclear warning. Member of Parliament Tim Yeo says that Britain needs to do more than just “cross its fingers” if it is to get the nuclear power it needs to meet climate goals.

If you’re a supporter of nuclear power, then you’ll probably like the warning issued today by the UK Parliament’s House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee.

And if you’re a fan of alternative nuclear technologies like thorium fuel, molten salt reactors and fast reactors, you’ll probably appreciate the nod the committee gave to alternative forms of nuclear. But you might be left wondering when the nod might turn into a more vigorous, positive shaking of the head up and down.

First, a quick review for those of you not following the blow-by-blow travails of nuclear power in Britain: Nuclear currently supplies about 18 percent of the UK’s electricity, and has a capacity of about 10 gigawatts.  However, all but one of the country’s nuclear plants are scheduled to close by 2023. The government wants a new fleet of nuclear stations that would have a capacity of about 16 gigawatts by 2025

WHO’S GOING TO PAY?

The problem is, the UK privatized its energy sector a long time ago, so the government no longer outright builds these plants itself. That’s the job of companies like France’s EDF, Japan’s Hitachi, and other candidates – Chinese, Russian or Canadian companies could play a role, as could, theoretically others.

Generally speaking, these companies are balking at the chance to invest the billions of pounds required to build a nuclear plant. The closest to committing at the moment is EDF, which says it’s “shovel ready” with two new reactors totaling over 3.3 gigawatts at the Hinkley Point site in southwest England, where costs are estimated at around £14 billion ($21 billion)  – £7 billion ($10.5 billion) for each reactor.

But EDF is waiting for guarantees from the government that it will receive a minimum amount in electricity fees – believed to be around £100 per megawatt hour once it starts operating – a condition that many critics say represents an illegal “subsidy.”

With those challenges in the way, the House committee, chaired by Member of Parliament Tim Yeo, today effectively warned the country to get its act together and build the 16 gigawatts of nuclear by 2025.

Otherwise, it warned of  falling well short of its national commitment to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

“Without these power stations, it will be extremely difficult to meet our low-carbon obligations, and potentially more expensive too,” the committee stated in its report, Building New Nuclear: the challenges ahead.  “A failure to deliver nuclear new build would pose less of a threat to energy security, but there could be some indirect security risks as a result, such as increased reliance on imported gas.”

WAITING FOR THE NUCLEAR FAIRY

The committee accused Prime Minister David Cameron’s government of merely “crossing its fingers” and hoping that private industry comes up with the nuclear goods.

Crossing one’s fingers is not an adequate or responsible approach when the UK’s legally binding climate change commitments and energy security are at stake,” the report stated.  “For a department whose principal priorities are to ensure energy security and carbon reductions, DECC appears to be overly reliant on aspiration and hope. While we share the Minister’s hope that new build will be delivered as planned, we nevertheless recommend that DECC begins exploring contingency options as a matter of urgency.”

Those “contingencies”, or the “Plan B” as the media was calling it today, would include energy efficiency and other energy sources.

We shouldn’t really have to talk about “contingencies.” And some of those Plan B  measures – energy efficiency and a reasonable mix of renewables – should certainly  be part of an energy future – and one that includes a solid dose of nuclear.

But the committee warned that Britain’s nuclear future sits on its own version of a fiscal cliff, because “if this tranche of new nuclear projects is not successful, it could undermine investor confidence in the sector, making it difficult (or impossible) to finance any subsequent attempts at nuclear build.”

THE NEW ‘NEW’

That could, in turn, spell disaster, for any significant research and development of the type of nuclear technologies that ought to really carry the country’s nuclear future – alternatives like thorium, molten salt reactors, pebble bed reactors and fast reactors. Between them, they offer a bevy of advantages over the behemoth conventional water cooled, solid uranium fueled reactors that will cost an estimated $10.5 billion each at Hinkley Point.

I’ve enumerated these benefits many times here on the Weinberg blog, so I’ll simply summarize them now. Each offers some degree of: safer, meltdown proof, more efficient, of producing less waste, of using existing waste as fuel, and of being less expensive. Most of them fit readily into smaller “modular” forms that cut manufacturing costs and make it more affordable for utilities to add power incrementally.

Today’s Commons report acknowledges that thorium molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors could start making energy contributions after 2030. It acknowledges that fast reactors such as General Electric Hitachi’s PRISM could burn existing nuclear waste. But it pretty much discounts all three from the current discussion for the reasons that they are not getting funding, are not yet ready or not yet commercialized.

It is good to see these alternatives entering the mainstream nuclear discussion in Parliament. It is discouraging to see them pushed to the margins for what feels like convenient, self-defeating reasons. The current challenge of funding nuclear in Britain is an opportunity to shout loudly about these alternatives, to help rebrand nuclear and win over public support.

As I reported last month, a separate government report, due out this month by top scientists including the chief government scientific adviser Sir John Beddington, is expected to encourage the alternatives.

It is phrases like “thorium” and “molten salt”  – not “$10.5 billion giant reactor” – that should start to define “new nuclear.”

Image from timyeo.org.uk via sodburypeople.co.uk

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