Archive for February, 2016

South Australia could provide a long term solution to nuclear spent fuel

Posted by Katherine Chapman on February 22nd, 2016

by Priya Aggarwal

A Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was set up in March, 2015 to independently look into South Australia’s potential future role in four prominent areas of the nuclear fuel cycle – exploration and extraction; processing of minerals and manufacture of materials containing nuclear substances; electricity generation from nuclear fuels; and, management, storage and disposal of radioactive waste. The commission will have to submit a final report by May, 2016 after considering the following:

     the effect on the environment;


     the effect on other sectors of the State’s economy, in particular the tourism, wine and food sectors; 

     technical issues.

South Australia (SA) is currently home to four of Australia’s five uranium mines, and the possibility of the state developing nuclear power generation, enrichment and waste storage facilities have hitherto been contentious issues. The Royal Commission comes at a time of economic contraction for SA, which is suffering from job losses in mining and manufacturing sectors.

Since the commission saw no opportunity to commercially develop further uranium processing capabilities as it says the market is already oversupplied and uncertain, it sees SA could benefit from forging contracts with those that buy its uranium to store the waste products as well, as part of a concept entitled “fuel leasing”. Kevin Scarce, the Royal Commissioner, said the timeframe of building a deep geological disposal project would take 30 years, based on the timeframe it took for Sweden and Finland, who currently store their own waste at present (but, Sweden intends to receive waste from further afield) to set up similar successful projects buried 400 to 500m underground. While avoiding the nomination of a site for nuclear waste, the inquiry found the “likely” development of a storage and disposal facility of used nuclear fuel could be operational in the late 2020s.

Mr Scarce said SA could take 13% of the world’s nuclear waste and had unique characteristics that made it suitable, such as a stable geology and relatively stable seismologically. He feels confident about tapping the market’s potential in this segment and says, “Mind you, we’ve had waste now for 50 to 60 years and there has not been an international solution yet.” After revealing the tentative findings, a consultation period has now begun.




Edit: Post previously included the line “The government also faces the task of convincing the locals at six shortlisted sites, of which three are in SA.” which was deleted as it is a separate and mostly unrelated issue.




2017 in China set to be the year of advanced nuclear

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on February 16th, 2016

The Chinese have long responded to rapidly growing demand in energy by pursuing progress in all technologies. Now, they seem to be about to have a breakthrough with nuclear power, announcing that they plan to have an advanced reactor online by the end of next year.

The hopeful design is a high-temperature, gas cooled, pebble-bed reactor. The key advantage is its passive safety – it is unable to melt down. This is due to the fact the uranium fuel is encased in pebble sized balls, preventing the fuel from breaking down, and also because the reactor is meant to operate at high temperatures, so does not need constant cooling systems which can fail. The pebbles also lessen waste problems by making the uranium easier to dispose of. Eventually China aims to recycle all of its nuclear waste products as part of a sustainable nuclear programme.

The technology itself is not new. It was developed in Germany decades ago, but has never been built on a commercial scale. The construction is underway in the Shandong province south of Beijing and is nearing completion. A series of tests will be conducted this year before energy production can start in 2017.

Successful demonstration of this advanced reactor will be a significant step for nuclear progress not only in China but also in the rest of the world. And the Chinese are determined to take this significant step. As Charles Forsberg, executive director of the MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle Project, said, “What you are seeing is serious intent.” If this serious intent is translated into reality, it could have global impacts on making energy more sustainable, and the climate more secure.


Weinberg Next Nuclear’s response to DECC consultation

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on February 11th, 2016

We are often in discussion with political departments recommending progress on energy. Recently DECC set up a consultation on new energy technologies and below is Weinberg Next Nuclear’s response where we advocate not only nuclear power but a sensible and sustainable diverse energy mix.


  1. How can legislation and enforcement frameworks help support new technologies and business models to encourage growth?

New technologies need security and a clear, fair entry to the market. If these are guaranteed, it is likely that the advantageous legislative conditions will encourage growth.

Security includes both funding and legislation. For renewables, changes to feed-in tariff rates have reduced confidence in the market and deterred investors. A long-term strategy on funding, incentives and taxes would limit such damage in future. Early decision on carbon budgets, representing a long-term signal of energy ambition, would also help increase confidence.

Firm regulation is essential, for public health, decarbonisation and environmental protection. However, regulation can also hold back innovation and act as a bottleneck by limiting technologies going through the regulatory process. This is especially true in nuclear regulation. The Office for Nuclear Regulation only carries out Generic Design Assessment for two designs at a time. This slows progress, deters investment and means that the energy market is not as competitive as it could or should be. This bottleneck should be removed, not by limiting safety checks, but by increasing resources to speed up the process and thus encourage growth.


  1. How is new technology likely to shape the energy sector?

The energy sector is facing a generation gap as old nuclear and coal plants go offline. Although existing technologies could fill this gap, it is an excellent opportunity to pursue new technologies. Advanced nuclear power has the potential to be a key technology to fill the energy supply gap as well as providing other services such as lessening the UK’s spent fuel and plutonium waste stockpile by using it as fuel. A variety of low-carbon technologies will be necessary in future but nuclear’s key advantages are that it is not intermittent and can produce industrial heat.

Successive governments have accepted the benefits of nuclear through their commitment to plans such as Hinkley point but new technologies have the potential to offer more benefits. Advanced generation 4 reactors can be even lower-carbon, have a reduced proliferation risk and waste output, and are passively safer, and with inbuilt safety, have the potential to be cheaper than conventional reactors. In addition, unlike the large scale, one-of-a-kind, reactors such as the European pressurised reactor at Hinkley, advanced reactors can be smaller and modular, meaning they can be mass-produced. These benefits are starting to be realised as shown by the Autumn statement announcement of £250 million to nuclear research and development.

Thus, in terms of shaping the energy sector, advanced nuclear could provide the potential for a rapid roll-out of low carbon plants, which can serve a variety of demand including small communities. The impacts of this roll-out could be greater energy security and self-sufficiency. It would allow a faster de-carbonisation of the energy sector and a better ability to meet climate change targets. With baseload power in place, there would also be potential for greater investment in existing and new intermittent renewable technologies. The development and deployment of advanced nuclear technologies would make possible the export of electricity, plus technology and expertise. In this way, Britain can regain its place as a leader in the nuclear sphere.

In contrast, it is important to recognise what is not going to shape the future energy mix of the UK. Fracking has been successful in certain areas of the world, but for a number of reasons, it is unlikely to be successful in the UK. The UK does not have large, empty land areas that could easily be turned over to industry. It also is unlikely to have significant fuel reserves due to its geology. Of the reserves it does have, there is unlikely to be enough that is economically recoverable to make a significant difference to the market.


  1. How can regulators better utilise new technologies to generate efficiency savings and reduce burdens on business?

The cost of energy is a concern for businesses and industry, as the recent steel crisis has shown. New technologies are often expensive. But it is important to see past the initial project costs. Economies of scale often means that new technologies deliver in the medium and long term.

A current example of this can be seen with the Swansea tidal lagoon, with a high strike price now but great potential to be replicated again at a much cheaper cost. Tidal lagoon technology and expertise could also to be exported overseas.

The same would true of advanced nuclear. Small modular reactors could be mass produced, so have the potential to deliver the benefits of nuclear at a lower cost and faster rate than existing developments. It is also important that the financial costs of energy be put within the context of environmental (in terms of air quality) and climate costs of the “cheaper” alternatives.



From steam engines to nuclear power: innovation for a better future.

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on February 9th, 2016

Weinberg Next Nuclear are excited to again publish a guest blog by John Laurie of Energie du thorium. Have a look at their website for more information and a french perspective on nuclear.


Watch out! Trick question:

Who invented the steam engine?


Give up?

They all made major contributions. Such is the nature of technological development – each inventor stands on the shoulders of the giants that have preceded them.

The history of human development is closely linked to the cost of energy. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers needed a large land area per person to survive. A much larger population of humans was possible with the invention of agriculture, and then by replacing human mechanical energy with that of animals. But at the end of the middle ages, Europe was faced with the ecological catastrophe of deforestation. People started to obtain thermal energy from coal, but the reserves available close to the surface were soon used up.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen combined the ideas of Denis Papin and Thomas Savery to invent the first commercial steam engine for pumping water out of mines, allowing deeper mining operations.


With this heat engine, humans were finally able to convert thermal energy into mechanical energy, marking the start of the industrial revolution.


The cost of energy from a heat engine is made up of

– The capital cost of the machine

– The cost of the fuel for the heat source

– Operating costs

Newcomen’s engine could convert only 1.3% of the coal’s energy into mechanical energy. With such poor efficiency fuel costs were extortionate, but it took another 58 years until the invention of James Watt to improve things.


Watt’s genius was to realise that the Newcomen engine wasted almost three quarters of the energy in the steam through heating the piston and cylinder. With a separate condensation chamber, efficiency was more than doubled. As the cost of the machine was similar, the energy produced was much cheaper.

Watt partnered with Matthew Boulton, and their company “Boulton & Watt” derived most of their profits from charging a licence fee to the engine owners, based on the cost of the fuel they saved.

Had you thought that James Watt invented the steam engine?


(Source: “Dynamics of Technological Change”, L.A. Girifalco, p.484)

The history of the industrial revolution is a race for ever greater heat engine efficiencies. It’s true that Watt made a major contribution, but the democratisation of the cost of energy which makes modern life possible was the work of many inventors and engineers.

Newcomen’s engine, used only in mining, was rapidly replaced by Watt’s. With energy costs reducing thanks to continuous improvement at Boulton & Watt, their machine soon also replaced wind energy from windmills and hydraulic energy from water-wheels, becoming more and more useful.

It is remarkable in the graph above to note that it took 200 years to go from an efficiency of 1.3% to the 20% efficiency of Charles Parsons’ first steam turbine. We should never underestimate the difficulty of technological change – often the technologies needed to manufacture a profitable machine progress slower than the theories and ideas of inventors.

Today’s combined cycle gas turbine power plants attain efficiencies of over 61%, but in recent times steam engines have been improved in a different way, by changing the heat source.


A large steam engine currently under construction at Flamanville

Uranium and thorium nuclear fuels have an energy density around 1 million times greater than fossil fuels, but the machines required to extract this energy are much more complicated than steam engine boilers. Nuclear energy has very different economics, with minimal fuel costs and the majority of cost coming from the capital invested in the machine.

In 2016 humanity is facing a global warming crisis. Renewable and nuclear low carbon energies are making progress, but energy from fossil fuels is progressing faster because it is cheaper. The history of the steam engine shows us that human prosperity improves when the cost of energy reduces. The greatest challenge of the 21st century is to provide each human with a decent level of prosperity and to simultaneously stop global warming and reduce the impact of humans on the environment. The COP21 conference failed to establish a carbon tax because making dirty energy more expensive is politically impossible. Clean energy is an engineering problem – it must be cheaper than coal.

The commercial development of nuclear fission is at a point which shares remarkable similarities with that of the steam engine 250 years ago.

– Following initial experiments, only one principle has been commercially deployed

– This technology has reached its limits

– The technology has been on the market for over 50 years

– Fuel use is low

– The cost of energy produced is not very competitive with the alternatives on the market

– A few hundred machines have been produced

– The machines have only one commercial use

– Human civilisation is facing an environmental crisis

– The rate of deployment of the machines is insufficient to solve the environmental crisis

– The theoretical potential remains enormous

– An improved system has been invented, with the potential for a disruptive reduction in the cost of energy

– This new system is in development

– The existing industry is saying that the new system is not feasible [1]

Just like Boulton & Watt, today’s nuclear innovators have realised the critical importance of reducing the cost of fission energy. But instead of trying to reduce fuel consumption, the economics of nuclear power require a reduction in the cost of the machine.

So why are current nuclear energy systems expensive?

When we split the atom, two new atoms are produced which are called fission products. They are highly radioactive and hazardous for humans. These atoms decay at differing rates until they become stable isotopes which are no longer hazardous.

In today’s pressurised water reactors, the fuel is a solid. The fission products remain trapped in the solid material but can escape if the fuel heats up and melts. Because some of the fission products are gases, containment of the reactor is required to avoid their dispersion in the atmosphere in the case of an accident. This containment is complicated and expensive because the system runs at very high pressure. These inherent fragilities require the use of many complicated and expensive safety systems to guarantee an acceptable level of safety.

The capital cost of a nuclear energy system is a function of the inherent safety profile of the reactor system.

In a molten salt reactor the fuel is a liquid. The mixture of salts is designed to remain liquid over a wide temperature range, and to allow the fissile material and most of the fission products to be dissolved in the form of salts which are chemically very stable. Expansion of the liquid according to its temperature ensures a strong inbuilt negative feedback mechanism which gives dynamically stable operation, at atmospheric pressure. With intrinsic safety assured by the physical and chemical design, “liquid fission” enables a much simpler and cheaper reactor.

An international race has begun to bring this technology to market. The magic of entrepreneurship, where a technical architect with an idea meets an investor with funding, is at work to build these machines, with millions of dollars already in play. The disruptive innovation of liquid fission is no longer a question of “if” – it is a question of “who” and “when”.


So who will be the Bolton & Watt of the 21st century?

Nuclear energy will follow the same development curve as the steam engine, but with a difference of about 250 years. Once it has competitive cost and a large production capacity, it will make an active contribution to the fight against global warming.

For liquid fission systems currently under development, the main elements which create value and allow cost to be reduced are:

– The intrinsic safety of the chemically stable liquid fuel

– Elegant, simplified design and well thought out architecture of the whole reactor system

– A higher operating temperature

– A modular approach to building construction, component manufacture, assembly and commissioning

For the future, there remains much potential for further cost reduction, with:

– Breeder reactor systems

– Smaller heat engines which better exploit the high operating temperatures

– A fuel cycle based on thorium, or which incinerates waste from existing reactors

– Material improvements to prolong the life of certain components

– A streamlined process for obtaining operating licenses

…not to mention inventions yet to come.

And like the steam engine, cheaper and smaller nuclear energy systems will find many new applications:

– Supply of industrial process heat

– Production of synthetic liquid fuels using water and carbon dioxide

– Desalination of sea water

– Production of electricity for off-grid communities

– Marine propulsion

This future is possible. It is even probable because it is necessary. With Boulton & Watt’s spirit of entrepreneurship we can build cheaper modern steam engines which will bring progress to humanity and to the planet.


[1] When John Smeaton saw the first Watt engine he reported to the Society of Engineers that “Neither the tools nor the workmen existed who could manufacture such a complex machine with sufficient precision”.

Fast reactors front-running in Russia

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on February 2nd, 2016

In December, Russia began generating more electricity from nuclear power as Unit 4 of the Beloyarsk plant in Sverdlovsk was connected to the grid. The new addition is a BN-800 fast neutron reactor with a capacity of 789MWe making it the world’s second most powerful fast reactor. It is fuelled by a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides and, as a breeder reactor, produces more fuel as it burns.

The connection of the reactor has been heralded as an outstanding event for the Russian nuclear industry as it is the first of its kind to be launched in 35 years. Andrey Petrov, general director Rosenergoatom (a subsidiary of Rosatom) said that although the fast reactor had presented challenges the achievement marked “another important step in the transition of Russia’s nuclear industry to a new technology platform”.

In line with the aim, last week the Russian energy ministry approved Rosenergoatom’s 2016-2018 investment programme, allocating the equivalent of almost $7 billion to the civil nuclear power plant operator. It is thus likely that there will be more developments and achievements in Russia’s nuclear industry to come.

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