Weinberg Next Nuclear has been working closely with new reactor designers and finding out about the different innovations that companies are developing to provide a low carbon energy future. As part of this, our director, Stephen Tindale, recently interviewed the Co-Founder of Moltex Energy, Ian Scott, about their Stable Salt Reactor design. Ian talks about how he came up with this design from the work done by Alvin Weinberg decades earlier, and the benefits that come with this new design.
This interview is part of our current work on a report entitled “How Nuclear Innovation Should be Delivered”. The report has generously been sponsored by three Nuclear companies: Terrestrial Energy, Moltex Energy and URENCO on behalf of their reactor design, U-Battery. This project specific funding allows us resources to research and publish papers that we hope will have significant influence on the future success of the nuclear industry. Vital as this funding is to our work, we are careful to ensure it does not limit our objectivity and balanced view of the industry. Weinberg Next Nuclear retains editorial control and does not lobby for any particular company’s design. We are in agreement with our sponsors that nuclear power is vital for a sustainable future and we will continue to work together to achieve the changes necessary to achieve it.
In February, some of the Weinberg Next Nuclear Team travelled to Canada to learn more about the exciting developments that Canada is achieving in advanced nuclear. In this series of videos, Weinberg Next Nuclear’s director Stephen Tindale interviews Terrestrial Energy’s director Simon Irish in Tornoto about his reasons for joining the nuclear industry, opinions on the molten salt reactor design and views on the future of nuclear power.
The Canadian trip and interviews are part of our current work on a report entitled “How Nuclear Innovation Should be Delivered”. The report has generously been sponsored by three Nuclear companies: Terrestrial Energy, Moltex Energy and URENCO on behalf of their U-Battery design. This project specific funding allows us resources to research and publish papers that we hope will have significant influence on the future success of the nuclear industry. Vital as this funding is to our work, we are careful to ensure it does not limit our objectivity and balanced view of the industry. Weinberg Next Nuclear retains editorial control and does not lobby for any particular company’s design. We are in agreement with our sponsors that nuclear power is vital for a sustainable future and we will continue to work together to achieve the changes necessary to achieve it.
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. http://www.sciencealert.com/china-says-it-ll-have-a-meltdown-proof-nuclear-reactor-ready-by-next-year
Hitachi-GE’s improvement on the Boiling Water Reactor has progressed to the final stage of the UKs regulatory process. The office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) announced the completion of Step 3 of the Generic Design Assessment on 30 October, with the whole assessment scheduled to finish in 2017.Step three focuses on the safety and security of the ABWR and requires Hitachi GE to present arguments and evidence to support their safety and security claims. The assessment is designed to be extremely rigorous and continues to assess the safety of every aspect of the design throughout its process.The fourth and final phase of the process includes a detailed assessment of the design as well is further scrutiny of the safety and security. The environmental impact of the reactor will also be assessed, with a consultation with the Environment Agency (EA) and National Resources Wales (NRW).A completed Generic Design Assessment must be coupled with a nuclear site license and regulatory approval for the construction of the reactor before a new nuclear power station can be built. Horizon Nuclear Power, a subsidiary of Hitachi Ltd, plans to build two ABWR is in the UK; in Wylfa Newydd on the Isle of Anglesey and Oldbury-on-Severn in South Gloucestershire.This milestone in the regulatory process for an updated reactor design is a step in the right direction for building new and improved nuclear power reactors in the UK, and possibly paves the way for the next generation of advanced reactors to follow in the ABWR’s footsteps.
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’. (http://www.spacepolicyonline.com/news/is-philaes-time-coming-to-an-end.)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.” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/ethansiegel/2015/06/15/first-probe-to-land-on-a-comet-is-awake-but-our-nuclear-fears-cost-us-seven-months-of-data/ )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.
“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.
Is nuclear over-regulated due to public fear and misconceptions of risks?
“Nuclear power seems to be being singled out for treatment that is not necessarily commensurate with the scale of risk. I say that because, in aggregate, as US climate scientist James Hansen often points out that nuclear has a massively beneficial impact on health in terms of lives saved from avoiding air pollution… There is a need for a public discourse about our perception of risk.”– Baroness Worthington
Our patron, Baroness Worthington, recently brought up an important point in a debate in the House of Lords about the formal regulatory process justifying consideration of the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor for deployment in the UK, which Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy Ltd and Horizon Nuclear Power have proposed to construct at Wylfa and Oldbury. The regulatory justification is just part of the broad legal basis that needs to be covered when planning a new nuclear reactor.
Baroness Verma, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change noted in reply that “the sector by its very nature is heavily regulated, and rightly so in order to build confidence”. But why does ionizing radiation receive such special treatment when it comes to assessing risk and if excessive regulation to build public confidence is slowing the development of nuclear power should we look at it again, especially in the context of the growing threats of climate change and air pollution?
Understanding relative doses
The EPR regulatory justification document (2010) describes some of the issues and factors at work when it comes to regulation around ionising radiation.
“The overall average annual dose to a member of the public from all sources of radioactivity is 2.7 millisieverts (a measure of dose and abbreviated as mSv) per year. Of this, about 84% is from natural sources, about 15% from medical procedures and about 1% from all other sources, including existing nuclear power stations….[exposure to radiation from these other sources] is limited to 1 mSv per year.”
“But the regulatory regime goes further than the legal 1 mSv limit. It requires operators to use BAT (Best Available Techniques) and ensure that the resulting exposures are below the statutory limits and as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA) [emphasis ours].
However, while the Health Protection Agency describes the increased risk of cancers from 1mSv as undetectable from background levels, the document goes on to say:
“The maximum occupational dose limit which applies to people at work is 20 mSv per year.”
So, while nuclear plants contribute a very small fraction of radiation exposure and are required to minimise this amount as far as is ‘reasonably’ possible, workers can be exposed to more than twenty times this amount. A chest CT scan will give you 6.6mSv. This great video on the most radioactive places around the world covers the workers and places most highly exposed – the very worst place might surprise you.
Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford writes in his book ‘Radiation and Reason’ that health risks from ionising radiation have been overestimated, and that the body does not have a linear response to ionising radiation.
The Linear No-Threshold (LNT) assessment of dosage to risk declares that as a certain dose of ionising radiation results in an increased chance cancer in a proportion of a population, this proportion will stay constant even if the dose becomes very small. If LNT is not correct for ionising radiation, then proceeding on the basis of ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable) is not an appropriate practice for regulation.
As Baroness Worthington pointed out, James Hansen among others has estimated the benefits of nuclear power from decreased air pollution, as well as avoided carbon emissions. Climate scientists have written en masse to call for more nuclear power. It is clear that in their minds the relatively small risks associated with nuclear power are vastly outweighed by the risks associated with continued dependence on unabated fossil fuels for our energy. It is therefore high time we had an informed public debate about these relative risks and looked again at the nuclear regulatory regime in light of our most recent understandings of risk.
Fortunately Baroness Verma the Government’s Energy Minister in the Lords appears to agree with us as she ended the debate saying:
“I also agree that the discussions need to be much fuller and more informed, and of course I hope that we will take the opportunity to open that debate going forward…
I accept that what we do not want to do is single out a sector which is helping us to meet our carbon targets. We should not overly prescribe for one sector against others.”
So it appears that whichever party wins in the UK elections in May of this year it might herald the start of a debate about nuclear power, risk and regulation that is long overdue. We will be working hard to make sure that happens.
The recent film Pandora’s Promise does an excellent job of covering nuclear fear-mongering (if you haven’t seen it, it’s available on itunes and soon to be on Netflix). Many myths and scares have muddied the debate about realistic safety concerns.
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 EUIn 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 UKThe 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 wayI 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 WorthingtonAdapted from a speech given by Baroness Worthington to the UK Nuclear New Build Congress in September, 2014
The Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution has been the cultural of heart of Highgate Village in north London since it was founded in 1839. It hosts lectures and events on literature, politics and… next-generation nuclear technology.I was very pleased to represent The Alvin Weinberg Foundation and speak to members of the HLSI and the public about the possible futures for nuclear energy. This included an outline of our favoured design, the Molten Salt Reactor and its various benefits and differences with respect to current technology, as well as some discussion around thorium as a nuclear fuel.The questions ranged from the more technical, such as how does one maintain criticality with a liquid fuel (answer – the same as with solid fuel, by the configuration of your fuel channels, or tubes such that there is enough nuclear material in one place to achieve criticality), to the amount of waste produced by a Molten Salt Reactor (answer – far less than with a conventional one!). As is often the case, many people by the end asked why, if all the benefits are true, we are not yet using these technologies?The history of the MSR, the development of the nuclear industry, and subsequent dismantling of our research base provides some of the answers. The challenges to bring these concepts to market are large, but we have the capability to do it. The audience, I hope, were left with a new enthusiasm for a brighter future for nuclear energy and for the solutions needed to decarbonise our world as quickly as possible.