Archive for the ‘Efficiency’ Category

Report Launch: Next Steps for Nuclear in the UK

Posted by Stephen Tindale on April 27th, 2016

Next Steps for Nuclear in the UK

A new report from pro-nuclear think tank Weinberg Next Nuclear, outlines what the Government should do to make the UK a world leader in advanced nuclear technology. The report argues that the British government should support small nuclear reactors as well as large new reactors, and that by the early 2020s at least three advanced reactor designs should have been assessed by the regulator.

Existing civil nuclear reactor designs provide large amounts of clean, low carbon energy, so improving energy security and air quality and mitigating climate change. But they have high upfront capital costs, and are not sufficiently flexible to back up wind and solar power. Advanced nuclear designs could address these drawbacks.

In November 2015 Weinberg Next Nuclear published a report on ‘The Need for Nuclear Innovation’. Chancellor George Osborne subsequently promised, in his 2015 Autumn Statement, £250 million over five years for nuclear R&D. In the March 2016 Budget, he announced a £30 million competition for advanced manufacturing in nuclear, and a competition to support innovation in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

This report:

– outlines criteria which government should use in selecting reactor designs to support (but does not say which designs should be chosen);

– recommends that at least one of the reactors supported should be a Generation IV design, because this could re-use spent nuclear fuel, and also use plutonium as fuel. The UK has the largest plutonium stockpile in the world;

– suggests that SMRs and micro-reactors (less than 20 megawatts) will be cheaper to construct than large reactors because they can be made on production lines then transported to site. Generation IV reactors may also be considerably cheaper than existing nuclear designs due to less complex designs – though this will not be known until one has been constructed;

– supports the Office for Nuclear Regulation’s proposal to increase its capacity by expanding staff numbers. Lack of regulatory capacity is currently the major barrier to nuclear innovation in the UK;

– proposes that UK nuclear regulators should work closely with their Canadian and US counterparts, with the aim of developing a regulatory approval mechanism that would cover all three countries.


Download the report.

Stephen Tindale, director of Weinberg Next Nuclear, said:

“The UK’s energy mix must be based on diversity. So the policy argument should not be whether to support solar, wind, CCS or nuclear. ‘All of the above’ will be needed.

Existing nuclear technology is very good, but future nuclear technology can be even better. If the £250 million is sensibly spent, it could contribute to the UK becoming a world leader in both small and Generation IV reactors.”



07941 433780


Notes for editors

1) Weinberg Next Nuclear is part of the Alvin Weinberg Foundation charity. The Foundation plans to continue work on advanced nuclear energy, and to expand its work into other clean energy sources – wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, CCS.

2) Three companies contributed sponsorship support to the workstream behind this report: Terrestrial Energy, URENCO and Moltex Energy. Editorial control remained with Weinberg Next Nuclear alone.


Decarbonising the UK – review of CCC report by Climate

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on October 26th, 2015

The UK’s statutory adviser on climate change, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has this week published a report on Power sector scenarios for the fifth carbon budget


CCC’s role is not to set policy, but to analyse options and make recommendations. This report is primarily analysis, but it does contain an important recommendation:

“a portfolio approach is appropriate”.

In other words, the sensible approach is not solar or wind or biomass or marine renewables or nuclear or carbon capture and storage (CCS), but all of the above.

The fifth carbon budget will run from 2028 to 2032. Unless the UK parliament repeals the Climate Change Act, the British government is legally required to keep UK emissions within that budget, and on track to reduce emissions by 80% (from 1990 levels) by 2050. Around a third of all UK greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy supply sector (though this covers heat as well as electricity). So the power sector is the major player in the decarbonisation debate.

Britain is going to need a lot of new power stations in the 2020s. CCC says:

“With no growth in demand during the 2020s, around 25 GW of new capacity would be needed to replace retiring firm capacity and maintain system security.”

If electricity demand grows by 23%, as it does in one of their scenarios, CCC say that 40GW of new capacity will be needed. Demand for energy in the UK could and should reduce, but within that demand for electricity should increase as it becomes more widely used for heat and for transport.

So around 40 GW of new power capacity will be needed in the UK in the next 15 years. To meet the carbon budget, almost all of it will have to be clean power. In a logical world, low-carbon energy providers would unite with climate campaigners in a Clean Power Alliance. But we do not live in a logical world. NGOs and companies remain stuck in the era of technology tribalism.

The CCC lacks a crystal ball, so accepts that it does not know what technologies will be available in 2030 or how much they will cost. But the Committee says, correctly:

“Uncertainty does not imply that nothing can or should be done. The statutory 2050 target implies that the direction of travel must be towards sharply reduced carbon emissions. However, it is not possible to say in advance exactly what the mix of options should be, and there are likely to be limits to generation potential of some technologies.”

To meet the carbon budget despite these limits, CCC recommends:

“developing a wider portfolio of options to ensure cost competition between technologies and that other options are available should circumstances change. A narrow focus solely on the current lowest cost options in the short term is not an appropriate strategy given the different risks and the importance of low-carbon power, and could increase costs in the longer term.”

I think that this wider portfolio should include tidal lagoons and next-generation nuclear reactors. I am working for Weinberg Next Nuclear, and am a consultant to Tidal Lagoon Power, so I would say that, wouldn’t I? In my defence, I also think that the clean power portfolio should include CCS, tidal stream and wave, and I don’t get any money for saying that. (Always open to offers…)

CCC acknowledge that:

“Low-carbon technologies are, and will continue to be, a more expensive way to generate electricity than burning gas and allowing the emissions to enter the atmosphere for free.”

It is important that CCC have said this. UK energy policy debate is dominated by discussion of subsidy. All forms of clean power need some form of public financial support: grants, loans, Contracts for Difference (which, for readers who are not energy policy wonks, give clean energy operators a higher income from sales than they would get from selling electricity from gas without CCS).

The CCC says that:

“To keep down costs of delivery, clarity is needed about how policy will adjust as areas of uncertainty are resolved.”

Clarity would certainly be helpful. But it is not very likely. We are being promised a ‘reset’ of UK energy policy in the next few weeks. If Amber Rudd, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, delivers a speech which reconciles the views of the pro-climate action Prime Minister and the anti-climate action Chancellor, and finds a way to expand the least expensive type of renewable energy, onshore wind, in the face of Tory grassroots opposition, she will be the Harry Potter of British politics.

Then there’s the minor issue of Europe. You want clarity on what the European energy union will be and how it will be delivered? Don’t hold your breath. Will the UK still be a member of the EU in 2030? Nobody knows. I hope we will, but am increasingly worried that the referendum will vote out. The chair of CCC is John Gummer, a pro-European Tory (yes, they do exist). The report doesn’t say much about Europe, but does note that:

“the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive… has restricted the use of coal on air quality grounds”.

I tweeted this quote, and commented that it shows why we are better off in. To which a UKIP activist responded that this Directive has increased the cost of energy. Which it has. Bloody Brussels bureaucrats. If we were an independent country we could have cheaper energy. And allow more of our kids to get asthma.


See this and other blogs on the Climate Answers website:

Exploring space by exploiting nuclear

Posted by Stephen Tindale on June 16th, 2015

The Philae lander has woken up. When Philae landed on the comet, it was on its side in a valley, so its solar panels could not generate enough electricity to keep the lander’s technology operating once the batteries ran out. As a result, Philae did excellent scientific research for 60 hours, then ‘went to sleep’. Seven months later, the comet is closer to the sun so the solar panels are generating enough power to resume research. This is excellent news. But seven months of research have been lost unnecessarily. Philae should have carried a nuclear power source, as NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover did. Stephan Ulamec, Philae lander manager, was asked last November why Philae didn’t have one. He replied that ‘launching nuclear power sources carries safety and political implications and, in any case, Europe does not have that technology’. (

The safety issue is – as so often with nuclear power – overstated. Mars Curiosity was powered by a small, solid amount of Plutonium-238, completely insoluble in water. Physics professor Ethan Siegel writes that: “This means that even if there’s a disaster on launch, the radioactive material won’t go anywhere, and can not only be retrieved, but reused in future missions.” ( )

Would Europe have been able to obtain the necessary nuclear equipment from NASA? Surely the answer is yes. The space race is over. The Soviet Union put the first person in space; the USA put the first person on the moon. The European Space Agency, Philae’s owner, has been working with NASA on the International Space Station since 1998.

So it was down to politics. Theological opposition to all things nuclear, led by Germany (as most things in Europe are at present), meant that Philae was sent to land on a comet with only intermittent solar photovoltaics to replenish its power supply. Angela Merkel, who has a PhD in quantum chemistry, allowed her politics to obscure her scientific desire for knowledge.

Why I have joined the Alvin Weinberg Foundation

Posted by Stephen Tindale on June 4th, 2015

“I cannot really complain too much about solar utopians: their dreams are noble and ought to be encouraged. On the other hand, when these dreams of solar utopia are used as political instruments to eliminate the nuclear option, I believe it is most important to object.”

Alvin Weinberg, ‘Toward an acceptable nuclear future’, 1977.

I am a former renewable energy utopian – though, since I live in the UK, I am more excited about wind power than I am about solar. I spent 20 years campaigning against nuclear, the last 5 of them as head of Greenpeace UK. I protested outside nuclear power stations. Then I realised that I had been wrong; that renewable energy cannot expand quickly enough to phase out fossil fuels and protect the climate. I concluded that opposition to nuclear power is not compatible with any attempt to control climate change. And, because many of my former colleagues in green groups were continuing with anti-nuclear campaigns, I too felt that it was important to object. So for the last 6 years I have been speaking out in favour of nuclear power, and was delighted last month to start working for the Alvin Weinberg Foundation.

Alvin Weinberg was not only a world-renowned nuclear scientist, but also one of the world’s first climate campaigners. He warned of the dangers of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the 1970s; over a decade before James Hansen’s historic Congressional evidence in 1988. (That is not in any way intended to downplay Hansen’s immense contribution to climate science or, indeed, to campaigning.) Weinberg also spoke out against the dangers of technology tribalism. We need to use every tool to mitigate the climate and energy crises. We do not need nuclear or renewables; we need nuclear and renewables. That is even more strongly the case today in 2015 than it was in the 1970s.

In the 1977 paper quoted above, Weinberg speaks of the need “to set the nuclear ship back on course”. Thirty -eight years later, it definitely needs to be set back on course again, particularly in Europe. The European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) that is supposed to be constructed in the UK may well get abandoned; EDF have not yet taken a final investment decision, and the EPRs being built in France and Finland are well over time and over budget. The latest in a long line of problems is that Areva have used the wrong type of steel at the EPR site in France, and the steel is already encased in concrete.

The EPR is a very complex design. Other existing nuclear reactor designs (so-called generation 3 or 3+) are less complex and need to be built, because they are proven, demonstrated and ready to go. However, more advanced designs must also be researched, developed and demonstrated. This should include both Integral Fast Reactors and Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs), the technology which Weinberg himself pioneered at Oak Ridge in the 1960s. MSRs have many potential benefits over current nuclear reactors:

* The plant can operate at near atmospheric pressure. The fuel salt used in MSRs has no chemical reactivity with air or water. So MSRs cannot explode.

* The liquid salt returns to a solid form at ambient temperatures. This, combined with installed passive safety systems, would automatically shut down advanced reactors avoiding future situations like  Fukushima and Chernobyl.

* Some advanced reactors could be fuelled by existing nuclear waste from conventional nuclear reactors. This ‘waste’ still contains over 90% of the energy that was in the uranium, so can be used many times as fuel. At the end of the process these advanced reactors would still produce some waste, but much less by volume than the waste produced by a conventional nuclear plant.

* Certain next-generation reactors can use plutonium as fuel. The UK has the world’s largest stockpile of plutonium, a result of two decades of reprocessing and failure to use mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel.

* Advanced reactors could be very fuel efficient – up to 75 times more electricity per ton of fuel than an out-dated conventional light-water reactor.

*Next generation reactors could be designed to be small and modular (producing up to 300 megawatts) which would suit power needs in remote locations. Compact versions of MSRs could be built in a central factory and assembled on site. This would reduce costs.

* Modular reactors could be constructed adjacent to industrial sites so that waste heat from the reactor could be used for heat-intensive processes such as desalination or the production of aluminium, cement, ammonia and synthesised fuels.

* Some advanced reactors are ideally suited to the sustainable production of medical isotopes, used for scans and to treat cancer. These isotopes are currently in short supply.

* Most next generation reactors would use approximately 97% less water than conventional nuclear reactors.

The Alvin Weinberg Foundation is committed to highlighting these benefits, to politicians and the public, and seeing the potential of advanced nuclear power realised. There are companies seeking to build prototype MSRs in the UK. If the EPR is abandoned, a sensible reaction by the new British government would be to support an advanced nuclear technology demonstration project in the UK.

Could molten salts do for low carbon energy what it did for aluminium?

Posted by Laurence Watson on February 17th, 2015

Sodium Nitrate Salt

Sodium Nitrate salt crystals – by Ondřej Mangl via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1800’s if you wanted to impress your dinner guests you dusted off the aluminium tableware – it was a metal once valued more highly than platinum. That was until American and French engineers Charles Martin Hall and Paul Heroult discovered if you used molten salts in the process for extracting the metal from its ore, you dramatically reduced the costs of production. Today aluminium is so cheap that we use it to wrap our sandwiches. A light and corrosion resistant metal, it has also revolutionised countless industries including aircraft design, helping to make flying affordable enough for us all to enjoy.

In order to keep within a reasonable carbon emissions budget, avoiding risks of greater than 2 degrees global warming, we will need to see a massive scaling up of zero carbon technologies and fast. However, it’s still not yet clear which low carbon technologies are going to be able to deliver reliable power at an affordable cost. Could molten salts do for low carbon power what they did for aluminium production?

Molten salts and solar energy

Mirrors reflecting sunlight at a CSP plant

Compact Linear Fresnel Reflectors – mirrors reflecting sunlight onto structure containing molten salts – from Flickr

Molten salts are already used today as the storage medium for Concentrated Solar Power. The huge arrays of parabolic mirrors currently cropping up in deserted parts of the planet, concentrate the suns rays at a tower filled with molten salts. Salts have a high melting point, which mean they are ideal for absorbing the intense heat of the sun’s rays and for storing that heat even when the sun isn’t shining. A heat exchanger then transfers the heat (using water or heated air) to the turbines to make electricity. Concentrated solar power, in countries where it is viable, offer the tantalising prospect of energy from solar 24/7, making it a reliable form of base-load renewable energy. One of the key limiting factors aside from geography, however, is the availability of the particular type of salts being used today. This is a new source of demand for chemicals at an industrial scale and the supply chain has not yet been established so the cost of procuring the salts is currently very high. Salts are, however, very abundant and if CSP technologies take off there is nothing to stop costs tumbling, if and when chemical companies have the confidence to invest in increased production.

Molten salts and grid storage

Germany’s largest aluminium producer, Trimet Aluminium SE, is exploring how to make best use of the large amounts of molten salts it keeps on site for the electrolysis process. By varying the aluminium production rate at its Essen plant, Trimet can store a lot of energy – up to 3,360MWh over two days – to take advantage of the volatile power prices due to intermittent renewables. Using the plant as a virtual battery could pave the way for more of the same, providing the large amounts of grid storage needed to accommodate more renewables.

Molten salts and nuclear power

Molten salts could also be instrumental to a breakthrough in nuclear power. In the 1960’s, at Oak Ridge laboratories in Tennessee, a team of engineers prototyped a nuclear reactor that used salts instead of water to cool the reactor and transport the heat. They were trying to find a reactor that was inherently safe and realised that unlike water salts could tolerate the extreme heat from a nuclear reactor very well, removing the need to keep coolants under pressure, vastly simplifying things and reducing the risk of accident. The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) has become one of the most talked about alternative nuclear reactor designs in recent years – thanks in no small part to the work of ex-NASA engineer Kirk Sorensen who unearthed reams of information about the MSRE and the men behind it making it available on the web. The question is, dogged by high costs and a legacy of rare but nevertheless significant accidents, can the nuclear industry be persuaded to look again at reactors using molten salts? There is already research underway in the US and China and even a small under-funded effort in the EU. Several new start-ups have emerged relatively recently. If the early promise of molten salts can be properly exploited they could offer a much simpler alternative to today’s reactors – helping nuclear to live up to its true potential in the fight against climate change.


The last area where molten salts could have a role to play is in Carbon Capture and Storage. Even though we are burning fossil fuels at an alarming rate, we are not going to run out of them any time soon. If we want to stay within a safe global temperature increase we will have to stick to a carbon budget of emissions that is fast running out. Either the fossil fuels will need to stay in the ground or, if they are dug up, they will need to be burned in a way that captures and stores the greenhouse gas pollutants. The CCS plants being built today use solvents to scrub out the unwanted gases, which are then concentrated ready for transportation and permanent storage (in, for example, depleted gas fields or saline aquifers). However, there is another way of scrubbing CO2 from flue gases that is currently being explored in the lab and that is to bubble it through molten salts containing a metal anode and cathode. Add an electrical charge and the carbon then plates itself out onto the metal rods giving a pure form of carbon – a useful commodity that could be sold. This form of CCS requires energy to run it since reversing the combustion process, which creates the CO2, cannot be done without additional energy being used. However, the prize of being able to harvest pure carbon – a commodity much in demand for a range of applications including electric vehicle batteries – could mean the economics stack up especially if the extra energy to power the process is being harnessed from waste heat, new kinds of nuclear batteries, and renewables.

The UK has a proud heritage of research in molten salts and there are academic networks like the REFINE consortium and the RSC’s Molten Salts Discussion Group devoted to the subject with scientists from numerous Universities participating. If we want to be at the cutting edge of low carbon technology development we should seriously consider how to increase support for molten salts research and stimulate more commercial investment in the field.

We have no doubt that human ingenuity will crack the challenge of delivering large scale, reliable low carbon energy – the question is whether we do it quickly enough to avoid locking ourselves in to runaway climate change. Our industrial chemists could hold the key and it is high time we supported them in the task of developing the technologies we so urgently need.

Nuclear new build and the challenges of climate change

Posted by Laurence Watson on September 26th, 2014

The carbon budget, visualised - by Carbon Visuals from Flickr

The global carbon budget, visualised next to existing fossil fuel reserves- by Carbon Visuals from Flickr

This year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their 5th assessment of the science of climate change. The message was stark – there is near complete certainty in the scientific community that we are contributing to elevated levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that those higher concentrations are going to lead to higher global average temperatures threatening the stability of our climate.

Already we have witnessed an average increase of almost 1 degree, unevenly spread across the globe. For the first time this year, in attempting to explain the problem, the IPCC set out what it considers to be the limit for how much we can emit before we lose the chance of limiting average temperature increases to less than 2 degrees forever.

The IPCC expressed this limit as a total global carbon budget of 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. Since the industrial revolution we have used up around half of this budget, and at current global emissions rates we will use up the remainder before 2040. Reader, hopefully that is within your lifetime, but it is certainly well within the expected life time of our children. This means that within the next 25 years or so if we are to stay within these limits – and these only give a 50/50 chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees – we will have to have completely decarbonised our global energy system. 

This is a significant challenge, and one that requires us to urgently deploy substantial volumes of all known low carbon energy technologies and to rapidly develop the new ones that we know engineers can bring to market with sufficient incentives and support from policy makers.

Nuclear new build undoubtedly has an important role to play. However,  it is scarcely formally mentioned currently in climate discussions at an EU level and in the UN. Energy Ministers within many countries including the UK, China, and India agree that nuclear is needed going forward, but there is still a nervousness when it comes to international climate negotiations about expressly stating this.

The EU

In the EU, we know that this is partly the result of public opposition – especially in Germany and Austria where there are powerful anti nuclear lobbies. But encouragingly recently a group of 10 EU member states led by the Czech Republic wrote to the outgoing European Energy Commissioner to call for nuclear to be treated on a level playing with other low carbon technologies. A new Commission is in the process of being established and with Poland’s Prime Minister assuming the role of President of the European Council and a new Spanish Energy and Climate Commissioner we might see some changes. Certainly Poland was a signatory to the letter but sadly Spain was not.

The reason why we should look again at nuclear are clear. The EU’s electricity comes in at around 300g/kwh thanks to around 30% of its demand being met by nuclear and the two countries in the EU who have most rapidly decarbonised their economy are France and Sweden, both using substantial amounts of nuclear. Denmark and Germany on the other hand have so far had a more limited impact with their recent investment in renewables.

The UK with its ‘all of the above’ energy policy is looking to join France in reaching a carbon intensity of between 50-100g  CO2/kWh by 2030 but it will need to hold on to and expand its current nuclear capacity to do so.

The UK

The proposed reactor at Hinkley Point C is a vast project with a budget to match. 3.2 GW of clean power is almost certainly worth the wait – to match its output with wind would require, depending on assumptions around 3-6000 turbines – or expressed another way increasing by 75% the proposed 10GW target for offshore wind by 2020.

Depending on the outcome of this 3 way negotiation between EDF, the UK government and the European Commission, at least two other large scale projects are waiting in the wings with their proposals. If all go ahead as planned then we can expect to maintain our existing nuclear capacity.

But can we expand nuclear’s role? Can we use nuclear to help fully decarbonise electricity and then start to make in-roads in to emissions from transport and heat?

This is a key question – a lot depends on whether any progress can be made on reducing the costs of nuclear power – wind and solar may not be despatchable when we want them, but they have shown impressive abilities to reduce costs with deployment. There has been no such breakthrough in nuclear where, if anything, costs seem to rise inexorably over the years.

A new way

I remain convinced that were we to start with a blank sheet of paper to design the optimal civilian energy reactor we would be deploying very different reactors to those that we have come to equate with nuclear power today.

By focusing on maximising passive safety, eliminating risk of explosion through loss of coolant accidents and reducing the waste management problem, I am convinced we could arrive at a reactor that has a very different cost profile – and potentially also a much wider application: high temperature reactors for industrial applications may well prove to be a new and important market as the world seeks to fully decarbonise the economy.

Sadly over the last few decades R&D in nuclear fission has fallen away to almost nothing in the UK. Thanks to a House of Lords report which decried this situation in no uncertain terms, there has been something of a reversal of fortune but the sums involved are still so small as to be almost insignificant and there are lots of different views on how best to spend what little R&D money is being made available.

This situation saddens me and as a policy maker I believe we need to think again about how we can direct more money into nuclear fission R&D so that we can design nuclear reactors up to the challenges of the 21st century.  Perhaps then nuclear power can begin to take its rightful place in climate negotiations as a solution for rapidly decarbonising and providing access to clean energy for all.

– Baroness Bryony Worthington

Adapted from a speech given by Baroness Worthington to the UK Nuclear New Build Congress in September, 2014

Transatomic Power publishes details of MSR concept

Posted by David Martin on May 20th, 2014

Transatomic Power

Back in 2012, we blogged about Transatomic Power (TAP), a Boston-based start-up aiming to design what they call a Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR). TAP have now released a technical white paper which provides greater detail about their reactor concept.

The paper reveals that their 520MWe MSR concept makes use of a zirconium hydride moderator combined with a lithium fluoride fuel salt. This innovative combination would enable the reactor to run on spent nuclear fuel, or fresh low-enriched uranium, thus providing both a high level of proliferation resistance and an efficient way of consuming existing nuclear waste. TAP also suggest that the use of hydrogen-dense zirconium hydride as moderator, instead of graphite, will reduce the size and cost of the reactor vessel.

Like all MSR concepts, TAP’s reactor offers very high fuel burn-up, up to 96%, and a range of passive safety features. TAP believe that their reactor could be constructed for just $2 billion per plant, with a 3-year build time.

This is just one of many exciting MSR concepts being developed around the world. As others have reported, start ups are now home to some of the boldest innovations in nuclear energy. For more information on other MSR projects worldwide, see our world map.

We’ll be following TAP’s progress with great interest. Check out the technical white paper here.

Nuclear power clobbers the polar vortex

Posted by Mark Halper on January 17th, 2014

Frozen_Schuylkill_River,_Philadelphia_Shuvaev Wiki

Cold call: When it’s frigid enough for Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River to look like this, as it did last week, who you gonna call for electricity? Dial nuclear.

It’s been a little over a week since bone-chilling, skin-mangling, tear-freezing temperatures gripped more than half the population of the United States and Canada, and the results are in: Nuclear Power 1, Polar Vortex 0.

It seems that America’s nuclear power stations, more so than its over-challenged gas-fired and coal-fired plants, kept the place warm, the lights on and businesses running when the sub-zero Fahrenheit numbers swept across the midwest to the eastern seaboard, taunting “see if you can survive this.”

Americans did get by – except for an unlucky few – thanks in large measure to nuclear power, which was able to stand up to the challenging conditions where other power sources could not, and which chipped in with a much higher share of the supply than normal.

To bring you the story in more detail, I’m going to crib from a few other sources, like Forbes Magazine. It ran an edifying piece headlined “Polar Vortex – Nuclear Saves the Day” by scientist James Conca, who noted that nuclear – and to a lesser extent wind – “stepped up to the plate to relieve natural gas and coal when they failed to deliver on demand.”


Keep in mind that coal and natural gas are the leading sources of electricity generation in the U.S., far ahead of nuclear. In the nine months through October 2013, coal’s share was 39 percent, natural gas was 28 percent and nuclear’s was 19 percent according the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration.

But not during a polar vortex, which in case your eyes and ears were frozen shut and you didn’t even hear about the whole thing, is basically when Arctic air spins further south than normal.

As Conca noted: “In New England, natural gas electricity generation faltered so much that regional grid administrator ISO New England had to bring up dirtier coal and oil plants to try to make up the difference. Nuclear energy didn’t have many problems at all and actually became the primary provider of electricity in New England, just edging out gas 29% to 27% (Hartford Business). Oil generation made up 15% while coal accounted for 14%.”

What went wrong with fossil fuels? Conca explained: “Coal stacks were frozen or diesel generators simply couldn’t function in such low temperatures. Gas choked up – its pipelines couldn’t keep up with demand – and prices skyrocketed.”


Ah, prices. Environmental impact aside, one of the great criticisms of the world’s reliance on fossil fuels is that they are subject to wild price volatility. The polar vortex delivered a jarring example. With many of the frozen states reliant on natural gas both for heat and electricity, the ravaging laws of supply and demand kicked in.

Yes, even all that “cheap” natural gas associated with America’s fracking craze is susceptible to the forces of market economies and the vagaries of weird weather.

“In Nebraska, natural gas prices were up more than 300 percent,” Conca reported, noting that in that state, a temporary boost in wind energy’s contribution to the grid helped keep down costs.

“The tight constraints on fuel supplies sent prices for gas soaring in New York City from about $13 per million British thermal units over the weekend to nearly $50 on Monday,” the Washington Times reported amid the event. “Wholesale electricity prices also soared from about $139 per megawatt hour to $225 on Monday in New York.”

In contrast, nuclear prices remained steady.


What’s more, the cold did not stagger the plants. On the contrary, output rose.

“Nuclear did quite well throughout the vortex period,” Conca wrote in Forbes. “The entire fleet operated at 95% capacity, a ridiculously high value (NEI).”

World Nuclear News chimed in on the same note, pointing out that nuclear plants in Canada as well as the U.S. operated at over 90 capacity.

WNN cited U.S. trade body the Nuclear Energy Institute, which described American nuclear reactors as “unfazed” and noted that “No nuclear energy facility has reported unusual issues during the cold snap, due in part to Nuclear Regulatory Commission and plant procedures to ensure continued safe operation in extreme weather conditions.”

“Without nuclear, we would have had blackouts, and real public danger at these temperatures,” Conca concluded.

The vortex episode reminds us that nuclear is not a lumbering, centralised, un-resilient dinosaur, as detractors would have it. Rather, nuclear power’s stringent engineering and expert operators makes U.S. reactors more dependable in a crisis than other more “flexible” energy sources like fossil fuels or intermittent renewables. It is an ultra-reliable source of “base load” electricity.


Not only do we need nuclear power, but we should be developing new and even better reactor types than what the world operates today. As steady as the current fleet of reactors were in during the frosty spell, there are improvements on the horizon. Molten salt reactors and other high temperature models, for instance, could lower nuclear costs, improve on nuclear’s already impressive safety record, and mitigate waste and weapons proliferation concerns.

Of course, you could also read the wintry fossil fuel jams as a call for more fracking for natural gas and for more pipelines, to help keep the gas fired plants running in the future.

But do we really want that? Do we really want more fossil fuels, the finitely available stuff that with its greenhouse gas emissions (nuclear generation does not release CO2) is contributing to extreme weather? (That’s not to say that climate change specifically set off last week’s deep freeze, but the overall correlation between CO2 and the increasing incidents of unusual weather patterns is there). Do we want to subject ourselves to the ongoing price volatility that has forever been the whim of the fossil fuel industry?

That thought alone is enough to send a sub-zero shiver down the spine. Nuclear, on the other hand, can keep the fires burning.

Photo is from Shuvaev via Wikimedia 


NuScale OnTruck ChenectedAichieOrg

Alternative nuclear rolled ahead a bit this week, as the U.S. DOE agreed to fund NuScale’s small modular reactor, transportable on the back of a truck.

The U.S. Department of Energy has taken another “small” step toward shaking the nuclear industry out of its uninventive ways and towards innovative reactors that augur lower costs and improved operations and safety for a low CO2 future: It has granted up to $226 million in funding to an Oregon startup that is developing a “small modular reactor.”

The award to Corvallis, Oregon-based NuScale Power marks the second tranche of a $452 million program that DOE announced in March 2012. It comes a year after DOE’s first grant to North Carolina-based Babcock & Wilcox. That grant was reported at up to $225 million at the time, although DOE told me today that it has so far committed $101 million to the five-year B&W project through March 2014 and that it is currently reviewing the release of additional funds.

“Small modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable, low-carbon nuclear energy technology,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in announcing the award to NuScale. “The Energy Department is committed to strengthening nuclear energy’s continuing important role in America’s low carbon future.”


Like B&W, the NuScale design calls for a scaled-down conventional reactor, fueled by solid uranium, cooled by ordinary water and operated in a pressurized environment. By virtue of its smaller size, the NuScale “Integral Pressurized Water Reactor” (IPWR) portends lower costs because in principle it could be factory-built in more of an assembly line manner than could large conventional reactors; the idea is to ship them to a site via truck, rail or barge for final assembly. The “integral” design fits a reactor and a steam generator in an 80-foot by 15-foot cylinder.

The small size would also allow users such as utilities to purchase new reactors in less expensive increments rather than paying billions of dollars up front for conventionally sized reactors, which reach well over a gigawatt in electrical capacity. At 45 megawatts electric, the NuScale reactor provides about 3 percent the output of a 1.3-GW reactor. NuScale’s “modular” design permits up to 12 of the pressurized water reactors in a plant, for a total capacity of 540 MW.

NuScale, founded in 2007, has designed the IPWR to sit underground, thus protecting it from attack. The IPWR deploys a “passive cooling” system that would release a pool of water from above the reactor in the event of an emergency, rather than rely on pumps to circulate water (failed auxiliary electricity systems knocked out cooling at Japan’s Fukushima reactor, leading to meltdowns there).


NuScale partner Energy Northwest, a Richland, Wash. company that produces power for utilities, said that NuScale could develop a commercial six-to-12-reactor plant on the site of Idaho National Laboratory by 2024, which Energy Northwest would have the right to operate. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a cooperative of government entities that pools electrical power resources, is also part of the scheme.

U.K. engineering stalwart Rolls Royce is also part of the NuScale small modular project. NuScale is majority owned by $27.6 billion engineering company Fluor Corp., based in Irving, Texas.

The presence of several companies in the NuScale project echoes the B&W small modular reactor venture which won the first tranche of DOE’s $452 million in SMR funding. B&W is working with U.S. construction firm Bechtel, and with federal power provider Tennessee Valley Authority. They hope to deploy four 180-MW reactors at TVA’s Clinch River, Tennessee site, via a joint venture called Generation mPower that is 90 percent owned by B&W and 10 percent by Bechtel.

That project took a peculiar turn recently, when B&W said it plans to sell 70 percent of its interest in mPower – including intellectual property.

A DOE spokeswoman said that DOE has so far committed $101 million to B&W through March, 2014. Possible further funding is currently under review, she said. B&W’s five-year federal funding period began in December, 2012. If DOE released more funds, the total would not exceed $226 million, the same five-year cap on the NuScale funding, which runs through Dec. 2018. In both cases, DOE would also be limited to funding no more than half of project costs, the spokeswoman said. She added that there will be no more grants under the $452 million Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA).


While the DOE grant helps to push U.S. nuclear in a new direction of smaller and less expensive reactors, it stopped short of endorsing altogether new reactor designs that would support much higher operating temperatures.

These so-called “fourth generation reactors” include liquid fuel reactors known as molten salt reactors, as well as solid fuel reactors using “pebble bed” and “prismatic” fuel structures rather than conventional rods.  They would provide many additional advantages. For instance, they typically operate in unpressurized environments, which is a safety benefit over today’s pressurized reactors. They tend to leave less long-lived waste.

At higher temperatures they also generate electricity more efficiently, which lowers generating costs and would help nuclear compete in a market where natural gas prices are currently low. Unlike natural gas generation, nuclear power generation is carbon free, and the nuclear lifecycle is low-carbon.

And as Secretary Moniz himself noted last month, high temperature reactors could serve as sources of low-carbon heat for industrial processes and thus expand nuclear power beyond its role of generating electricity.

A number of high temperature reactor developers vied for the DOE award that went to NuScale, including San Diego’s General Atomics, and X-Energy Inc., a Greenbelt, Maryland-based company that is developing a pebble bed reactor based on older South Africa designs.

Stay tuned to the Weinberg site as we delve into some of these alternative reactor designs in our upcoming blog posts.

Photo is from NuScale via ChenectedAiche

Cancel the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Assistant Energy Secretary Pete Lyons called off his trip to Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory when the government shut down last month. He's pictured here on an ORNL visit earlier this year, but not one relating to the advanced nuclear collaboration with China.

Cancel the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Assistant Energy Secretary Pete Lyons called off his trip to Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory when the government shut down last month. He’s pictured here on an ORNL visit earlier this year, but not one relating to the advanced nuclear collaboration with China.

Those of you who object to the U.S. sharing advanced nuclear reactor designs with China might snigger at this news. Those of you who support the collaboration will find it dismaying: Last month’s U.S government shutdown forced the Department of Energy to cancel a rare high level meeting with China regarding the two nations’ ongoing partnership in molten salt reactor development.

But while the collaboration’s bosses failed to meet for the key appointment, the roster of U.S. contributors has been expanding to include additional universities and industrial members, such as Bill Gates’ nuclear company TerraPower.

According to people familiar with the situation, DOE Assistant Secretary Peter Lyons was due to travel to Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in October to meet with the project’s Chinese co-leader, presumably Jiang Mianheng. Lyons and Jiang were the two co-chairs of the collaboration when it began in Dec. 2011.

With the itineraries set and with sensitive travel visas in place for Jiang and his Chinese delegation, something happened on the way to Tennessee: The U.S. government closed its doors for two weeks when Congress failed to agree on general budgetary appropriations.

The shutdown took out all manner of government operations including national energy labs such as Oak Ridge (ORNL), where in the 1960s the U.S. built a molten salt reactor, the designs for which are part of the DOE/China advanced reactor partnership.

I’ve sent several emails to Lyons and to a DOE spokesperson asking whether Lyons and Jiang have rescheduled, but they have not replied. Around the time that DOE and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) entered the agreement in December, 2011, Jiang was the president of CAS’ Shanghai branch. He is the son of China’s former president, Jiang Zemin.


The two countries are sharing information related to a molten salt cooled, solid-fuel reactor that would safely operate at high temperatures and thus serve as a more efficient electricity generator than today’s “cooler” conventional reactors, and that would also serve as a valuable source of clean industrial heat, replacing fossil fuels. The reactors also portend safety, waste, and proliferation advantages over traditional nuclear.

China plans to build a prototype of a 2-megawatt “pebble bed” reactor by around 2015, and a 100-megawatt demonstrator by 2024.

It is also planning to build a reactor that is both cooled and fueled by liquid salts – a “molten salt reactor” (MSR). It plans a 10-MW prototype by 2024.  DOE has said that the collaboration only entails salt-cooled technologies, and is not specifically exploring MSRs, which many experts regard as a logical and superior next step after the development of a salt-cooled reactor.

Jiang has expressed intentions of using high temperature reactors not just to feed the grid with electricity – cleanly powering future fleets of electric cars –  but also to provide heat for processes like hydrogen production (he wants to then turn the hydrogen into methanol) for coal gasification, and to turn coal into products including olefin and diesel.

Earlier this month, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a nuclear conference in Irvine, Calif. that the U.S. could have similar uses for high temperature reactors.

“Small modular reactors, especially high temperature ones, may have a particular role there essentially as heat sources,” Moniz told delegates at the Future of Advanced Nuclear Technologies gathering organized by the National Academy of Sciences and the Keck Futures Initiative. He outlined a number of possible applications, including “process heat, water desalination, hydrogen production, petroleum production and refining.”


Moniz told the conference that he recently traveled to China to help promote the Westinghouse AP1000, a conventional reactor with improved safety features, designed by Westinghouse, the U.S. subsidiary of Japan’s Toshiba. There are currently four AP1000s under construction in China, with more planned. Westinghouse and China are co-marketing AP1000 reactor technology beyond China.

At the Irvine gathering, Moniz did not mention the DOE/China high temperature reactor collaboration.

He also did not provide any details on how the U.S. might beef up its commitment to advanced reactor development; when I asked him, he would say only that he hopes to “marshall” resources. By comparison, China’s commitment is much more significant and multifaceted. It is backing the molten salt project at CAS  – just one of China’s several advanced reactor projects – with about $400 million, and hopes to produce a prototype as soon as 2015.

DOE has provided $7.5 million in funding to three universities – MIT, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin – for advanced reactor development, with a focus on molten salt cooled, solid fueled designs.  Those three universities plus ORNL were seminal members of the DOE/China collaboration, and Westinghouse has been advising them on how to eventually commercialize their technology.

Researchers from those entities and from China have met for four separate collaborative workshops over the last two years, my sources tell me. Those gatherings have not included chairmen Lyons and Jiang. A fifth workshop is planned for January, at UC Berkeley.


Meanwhile, the core group of workshop participants has grown to include TerraPower, the Seattle company chaired by Gates which has been widening its nuclear net.  TerraPower continues with its original mission to develop a fast reactor that it calls a traveling wave reactor, but has encountered a few technical snags and is now investigating other possibilities as well including molten salt reactors and thorium fuel.

Other new participants have included San Diego-based General Atomics which is developing a high temperature solid fuel, helium-cooled reactor that it calls the Energy Multiplier Module (EM2). From academia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of New Mexico have also joined the workshops.

General Atomics has submitted its EM2 as a candidate for the second tranche of DOE’s $452 million award for small modular reactors — reactors that are smaller than today’s gigawatt-plus behemoths and portend significant costs savings. Most advanced high temperature reactors are suitable for small modular form, with sizes ranging from around 30 MW to around 500. GA is competing against other high temperature reactor makers for the award, including X-Energy. Conventional temperature machines are also in the hunt, including one from Westhinghouse and another from Corvallis, Ore.-based NuScale.

A year ago DOE awarded the first tranche, of around $225 million, to Babcock & Wilcox for its mPower reactor, a scaled down version of an ordinary temperature conventional reactor. B&W announced earlier this month that it needs to sell a 70 percent stake in the joint venture company developing mPower in order to continue.

Photo is from U.S. government via Flickr

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