Posts Tagged USA

Nuclear energy in 2017

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on December 16th, 2016

An increasing number of countries are embracing nuclear as one solution to their energy needs. Much progress has been made in 2016, and progress is likely to continue into 2017. However, with the scale of the energy and climate challenges, greater ambition is needed in the nuclear sector. 2017 should be the turning point in which a new, advanced nuclear age begins.

This year the UK finally approved the Hinkley Point C European Pressurised Reactor. Although far from the best design, the first nuclear power plant in a generation is worthy of celebration. The UK continued its support for advanced nuclear too, with the Small Modular Reactor competition launched and further funding for nuclear innovation allocated. In 2017 the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) for the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor will likely be completed and the results of the SMR competition announced. But progress remains slow and the UK should combat this with greater regulatory capacity as well as investment in options which use spent fuel and plutonium as a resource rather than waste.

New nuclear is making more progress across the Atlantic in North America. In the USA, four new reactors are being constructed and many more are planned. The Obama administration gave grants to two emerging reactor designs under its GAIN initiative. It is unclear whether this support will continue in 2017 with President Elect Donald Trump being pro-nuclear, but also pro-fossil fuel.

Justin Trudeau’s government in Canada has been more supportive of nuclear than many had expected when he was elected in 2015. Candu reactors continue to be pursued around the world, but in Canada itself policy has turned towards new designs, including Molten Salt Reactors. Canada has also committed to working on a new long-term energy plan for the future. In 2017 Canada should push ahead with MSRs and ensure its new energy plan recognises the benefits of nuclear power.

Despite this progress in Europe and America, it is in the East that the greatest progress on nuclear power has been achieved. Russia continues to lead the world on fast reactors, with its Beloyarsk reactor turned up to 100% power. In 2017 the Russians should continue this trend and build on their ambitious sodium cooled fast reactor program.

Japan has continued to restart its nuclear power stations in 2016 following the nation-wide shutdown post-Fukushima. As the country begins to benefit from the lower bills and reduced demand on often-imported fossil fuels, this trend should accelerate with Japan re-embracing its nuclear infrastructure.

China has been pushing ahead with all types of energy and all types of nuclear reactors. As air pollution and energy security cause concern, the government is planning a doubling of nuclear capacity to at least 58 GWe by 2020-21, then up to 150 GWe by 2030. China is working on some of the most advanced reactors in the world, including the molten salt program, and intends to export this expertise more in the coming years.

Similarly India has made great progress with nuclear in 2016. Multiple projects comprising multiple types of reactors are under construction or planning. The prototype fast reactor is expected to go critical in 2017 allowing India to enter the second stage of its 3 stage nuclear power program for Thorium.

2017 looks likely to be a year of global progress on nuclear energy. Leadership in this field is certainly shifting East. The West should take note of this progress, and do more to keep up. The energy security advantages of nuclear are more widely recognised and the commercial rewards on offer from the global nuclear market are growing. Other low-carbon energy sources – renewables and carbon capture and storage – are important and much greater energy efficiency is essential. But with the challenges the world faces in 2017 and for the rest of the century, nuclear is more vital than ever, to provide safe, secure and sustainable energy for all.

Working together to achieve Nuclear progress

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on August 31st, 2016

Earlier in the year, Weinberg Next Nuclear reported on the exciting GAIN initiative that the Obama administration launched to support nuclear progress in the USA. The companies chosen were X-energy and Southern Nuclear Operating Company. X-energy is working in a partnership to develop its Xe-100 pebble bed high temperature gas-cooled reactor whilst Southern’s partnership is pursuing the Molten Chloride Fast Reactor.

In August, these two companies announced that they will work together to further their projects. They have signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on development and commercialization of their respective advanced reactor designs.

As World Nuclear News reported, X-energy said its collaboration with Southern aims “to make available an additional nuclear solution that supports the global clean energy movement.” The X-energy CEO Kam Ghaffarian added, “We are thrilled to have Southern Nuclear involved in our project. I founded X-energy in 2009 out of a desire to make a significant and lasting contribution to clean energy generation in the US and around the world. This relationship firmly puts us on that path.”

Southern Nuclear chairman, president and CEO Stephen Kuczynski said, “Our relationship with X-energy builds upon the DOE awards we each received and puts the industry on a strong path to providing clean and safe nuclear enrgy for generations to come.” He added, “We understand fully the time and manpower it will take to bring the first advanced reactor to market and feel confident that pursuing this goal together will best leverage our combined research and commercial operation experience to do so.”

This partnership in the USA is a great step in the right direction and should help to realize the promise of an advanced nuclear future. However the future of nuclear power in the USA is in doubt with the upcoming election. Although Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton is an advocate of the “all of the above” approach of the Obama administration to tackle climate change, Republican candidate Donald Trump is a climate denier. Whilst Clinton has said “rapidly shutting down our nation’s nuclear power fleet puts ideology ahead of science and would make it harder and costlier to build a clean energy future”, Trump has said he supports nuclear power but favors gas, and now focuses more on promoting a coal regeneration. Energy is not a key debating issue in the US election, but there is potential for significant change based on the outcome, so it must be hoped US energy policy continues to be progressive and pro-nuclear innovation.

What does the US election mean for American Nuclear?

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on April 1st, 2016

If, for a change, we ignore the worryingly popular climate deniers on the Republican side of the debate, we can see there is a schism developing on the Democratic side about how best to clean up US energy. Although both Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton are agreed on tackling climate change, they disagree on whether nuclear power should be part of the solution.

Sanders has long been against nuclear power, associating it with nuclear weapons and citing issues with the current reactors such as waste, cost and proliferation. His policy is to stop relicensing existing nuclear power plants, and move the staff to new renewable ventures. His total clean development plan aims for a cut in emissions of 40%, greater than that promised by Clinton. But it would also involve an early and rapid shrinkage of the US nuclear sector, currently 19% of electricity supply, at a time when electricity demand would be drastically growing to replace fossil fuels in other energy sectors.

This approach has however faced criticism with many claiming it is neither politically nor practically possible. Phasing out fossil fuels, which supply 67% of US electricity demand, would be very difficult to achieve whilst simultaneously phasing out nuclear. As Steve Clemmer, director of energy research for the Union of Concerned Scientists, has said “we don’t think anything should be off the table, including building new nuclear plants because decarbonizing the energy sector by 2050 is going to be a huge challenge”. The climate consequences of such a nuclear phase out is thought to be an increase in US carbon emissions of 2 billion tonnes.

In contrast, Hilary Clinton has also faced criticism from environmentalists over her defense of nuclear power as a low-carbon technology. Although she has been agnostic about nuclear in the past, in a recent press statement she stated “proposals to end natural gas production or rapidly shut down our nation’s nuclear power fleet put ideology ahead of science and would make it harder and more costly to build a clean energy future”. In addition, though Sanders has not mentioned advanced nuclear in his blanket ban of new build reactors, Clinton has said on her campaign fact sheets that she favours “advanced nuclear,” which requires “expand[ing] successful innovation initiatives and cut[ing] those that fail to deliver results.”

The incoming president will have big shoes to fill. Obama has prioritised climate change more than any other president in history, and has initiated many clean energy and environment policies, including the recent Gateway for Advanced Nuclear Innovation (GAIN). Though there is much reason for concern from the Republican camp, it is positive that both the Democratic front-runners are committed to climate change mitigation, though Weinberg Next Nuclear will always recommend achieving this mitigation with an “all of the above” approach that includes advanced, clean safe and sustainable nuclear power.

Nuclear GAINs in the USA

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on January 22nd, 2016

In November 2015, the US department of energy launched GAIN (the gateway for accelerated innovation in nuclear). The aim is “to provide the nuclear community with access to the technical, regulatory, and financial support necessary to move new or advanced nuclear reactor designs toward commercialization while ensuring the continued safe, reliable, and economic operation of the existing nuclear fleet.​”

Now the first initiative of GAIN has been launched: $80 million for development of advanced nuclear reactors. Specifically, the focus of the funding will be on the Xe-energy’s Xe-100 Pebble Bed Advanced Reactor and Southern Company Services’ Molten Chloride Fast Reactor. The two companies will each receive $6 million over a number of years.

The Xe-100 pebble bed high temperature gas-cooled reactor design builds on earlier DOE investment in Triso (tristructural-isotropic) fuel technology. The DOE states its selection for funding was based on its advanced safety features as well as its smaller size than conventional reactors meaning it could safely serve a variety of communities including densely populated areas. X-energy said that the funding would focus on technology development, including core modelling, fuel fabrication and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) “outreach”.

The Southern Company Services’ Molten Chloride Fast Reactor draws on the experiments of Alvin Weinberg and his team in the 1960s. The key advantages of the technology relative to other advanced reactors are the potential enhanced operational performance, safety, security and economics. Due to their advantages molten salt reactors are under development globally but the USA research specifically focuses on performing integrated effects tests and materials suitability studies to support reactor development.

Both projects represent significant partnerships of academia and industry. X-energy is working in partnership with BWX Technology, Oregon State University, Teledyne-Brown Engineering, SGL Group, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Southern Company Services is developing their reactor in partnership with TerraPower, Electric Power Research Institute, Vanderbilt University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Nuclear power is a critical energy source that provides almost 20 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, and over 60 percent of the nation’s carbon free electricity. However as Weinberg Next Nuclear reported in 2015, the US nuclear industry is currently in danger of withering. Therefore this new investment is vital for nuclear in the USA and globally. As Thomas Fanning, the Southern Company CEO argues, “nuclear energy’s importance will continue to grow as the USA transitions to a low-carbon energy future [and] this collaborative research effort will help accelerate the development of next generation nuclear reactors”.

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’. (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.

US EPA State intensity targets

Sources: EPA Proposed Rules – Clean Power Plan 2014, WNA data from US EIA data to Sep 2013, company websites and PRIS

The Environmental Protection Agency of the USA has just proposed new targets for limited power sector emissions. President Obama spoke of the need to prevent climate change and ensure a decent standard of air quality for his nation’s children.

The proposed rules in the Clean Power plan, which will be open to consultation for a year, would cover greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired electric generating units. The EPA is proposing the guidelines for states to follow, including a carbon intensity target per MWh generated.

States running on a higher proportion of nuclear energy or renewables have significantly lower carbon intensity targets for their power sectors thanks to the low-carbon generation already provided. States further to the left of the above chart with lower targets are the top producers of renewable energy: Idaho, Washington, Oregon, South Dakota and Maine are the top five, with California in seventh place and New York the eleventh highest. Vermont, which doesn’t get a target from the EPA as it has no fossil fuel generation at all, would stretch our chart’s axis at 50% nuclear capacity!

California closed half of its nuclear generation in 2012, shuttering San Onofre nuclear plant, which once powered 1.4 million homes with clean power. This surely resulted in a higher target for its troubled power sector.

During cold temperatures at the end of 2013, nuclear kept the lights on reliably across the USA. We already have the technology to supply clean, reliable power and protect the quality of our air. Current nuclear equipment can supply that, but when the world is looking for scalable, reliable low-carbon generation we cannot afford to miss the chance to bring about a new paradigm of safer, smarter fourth-generation reactors, like the Molten Salt Reactor.

Choosing 2005 as a base year makes the targets easier, as that was when CO2 emissions from the US power sector were peaking. Obama’s actions are in the right direction, but they are nowhere near the level of ambition needed to avert dangerous levels of climate change. The USA has lost its lead in advanced nuclear technology – it should prioritise returning to the top table of nuclear research and development. The country where the Pressurized Water Reactor and the Molten Salt Reactor were invented should be leading the way with better nuclear technologies, not half-measures.

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.

PASSING THE SALT

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.”

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

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.

OPENING THE GATES

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

Do molten salt reactors have a lithium problem?

Posted by Mark Halper on June 4th, 2013

StephenBoyd

Looking for lithium. Chemist Stephen Boyd cautions that lithium-7, a key element in the MSR salt FLiBe,    can be difficult to obtain.

When it comes to fission reactor designs, there’s nothing quite as safe, efficient, meltdown-proof, waste-light and proliferation-resistant as a molten salt reactor (MSR), many nuclear experts believe.

But as the community of MSR developers perfects its designs, it will have to overcome a number of engineering and materials challenges. One of those, according to a leading expert: Obtaining the elements to make the elixirs – the molten salts – that define the reactor.

First, a quick review. As it says on the label, a molten salt reactor (MSR) uses a liquid salt as the fluid that both carries the fuel (uranium, thorium or even a mix of plutonium among other possibilities) and serves as the coolant that picks up heat from a reaction and transfers it to a turbine.

It is the liquid nature that underlies all the reactor’s advantages, not the least of which is safety.  As guest blogger John Laurie pointed out here recently , liquid reactors – MSRs – cannot encounter a meltdown accident because they are already “pre-melted”. If things overheat, MSR designs allow the liquid fuel to drain harmlessly away into a holding tank.

A good MSR salt can continue to flow as a liquid at temperatures far above the operating temperature of conventional solid-fuelled, water-cooled reactors. MSR developers envision temperatures in the 700 degree C and 800 degree C range, a level that improves generating efficiencies and that makes the MSR highly useful as an industrial heat source.

WORTH ITS SALT

Not all salts are up to the task, however. The one that many MSR developers believe best suited for the job is called lithium fluoride beryllium fluoride, or FLiBe. (It’s so much associated with MSRs that it’s the namesake of one well known MSR company, Huntsville, Ala.-based Flibe Energy).

But there’s potentially one big problem with FLiBe: Obtaining the lithium isotope called lithium-7 that FLiBe requires.

Lithium-7 occurs in natural lithium, where it is the main isotope, cohabitating with a little bit of another isotope, lithium-6. Common lithium is 92.5 percent “7” and 7.5 percent “6.”

The two isotopes together form regular lithium found in everyday items like cellphone and computer batteries. But separating them is not straightforward. According to chemist Dr. Stephen Boyd, chief technology officer of Aufbau Laboratories, Blue Point, N.Y., only two countries do it – China and Russia – and they use a separation process that relies on mercury, a hazardous substance that requires great care. Mercury is infamous in history for causing neurological disorders among 19th-century hat makers – giving rise to the term “mad hatter disease.”

The U.S. government abandoned the mercury method a number of years ago at its former lithium separation facilities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It recently announced a $120 million mercury clean up program there. Some reports have suggested that the inexplicable loss of a large amount of mercury from Oak Ridge also played a role in the decision to halt mercury-based lithium separation.

ThermonuclearBikiniAtoll DOE

Another use for lithium. The U.S. used lithium-6 and hydrogen to fuel this thermonuclear detonation on   Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean on March 1, 1954. The Department of Energy’s defense-linked Y-12 group monitors lithium production.

So why was the U.S government extracting lithium-7 in the first place? Because it uses lithium-7 as a neutralizing agent – a pH balancer – in the small reactors that power the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers (commercial nuclear operators use it in the same way). Lithium-6 cannot be used in this process because it would transmute into potentially dangerous tritium (more on that in a moment).

The U.S. lithium separation process has been closely controlled by the federal government over the years, and not just because it wants to assure a supply of lithium-7 for its naval vessels.

Another reason: The enrichment of lithium into lithium-7 by definition also yields lithium-6, a substance with nuclear weapons links. Lithium-6 can be used to make tritium, a hydrogen isotope that is a fuel in hydrogen bombs (which work on the principles of fusion power, releasing energy by fusing tritium with another hydrogen isotope, deuterium).

OAK RIDGE IS WATCHING

With such deadly and national security implications, the government controls lithium-7 and lithium-6 enrichment through its Y-12 program, an Oak Ridge-based operation that resides in the Department of Energy but which serves national security and defense purposes.  As the DOE group’s website notes:

“Y-12 helps ensure a safe and effective U.S. nuclear weapons deterrent. We also retrieve and store nuclear materials, fuel the nation’s naval reactors, and perform complementary work for other government and private-sector entities.”

What this all suggests is that there’s an opening for a new lithium-7 extraction process. However, any company attempting such a development will have to work under the watchful eye of DOE’s Y-12 group.

That’s what Dr. Boyd has in mind at Aufbau.   Boyd, who wrote a guest blog here earlier this month in which he cautioned about other materials challenges facing MSRs, says he is developing a non-mercury process.  He declines for now to reveal details of his technology, but says he has been in contact with Y-12.

The knock-on effect for anyone in the MSR business is that they might find supplies of lithium-7 to be tight, at least until new potential supplies such as Aufbau’s or others come around.

REACHING FOR ANOTHER

That might be one reason why several MSR developers about whom I’ve written recently are considering salts other than the lithium-7 reliant FLiBe. A number of salts have the similar “eutectic” properties of FLiBe that minimize the chance of them solidifying (just like you don’t want your salt to boil, you also don’t want it to turn into a solid).

Canada’s Terrestrial Energy, for instance, is considering using sodium-based salts. Thorium Tech Solution is contemplating FLiNak, which is a combination of sodium, potassium and lithium. (There are reasons other than the lithium component for choosing a different molten salt. TTS has expressed concerns with FLiBe’s beryllium, an element that might disagree with the plutonium that will form part of TTS’s liquid fuel).

Each of these has its trade-offs. They can be less expensive and easier to obtain, but some of them can damage MSR plumbing.

Boyd believes it makes the most sense to stick with FLiBe for commercial, scientific and national-security reasons.

“FLiBe is a very good eutectic for MSRs,” he notes. “It’s one of the best, but you can run into the lithium problem right away.”

He also notes that there’s a business case for sticking with lithium-based FLiBe, because there are valuable markets outside of nuclear reactors for lithium isotopes and related products. He claims that lithium-6 sells for $1 million per kilogram.

Stay tuned for more on Boyd’s lithium enrichment ideas.  I met with him and with other MSR and materials mavens at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in Chicago last week,  a gathering that was full of bright ideas on the development of alternative and safe nuclear power. Among them: How one U.S. politician thinks thorium reactors developers can find funding. Watch for my reports.

Photos: Stephen Boyd by Mark Halper at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, June 1, 2013. Bikini Atoll thermonuclear detonation from the U.S. DOE.

Chu Obama Charles Watkins Wiki

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLEAN MACHINES

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

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

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

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

SMALL, MODULAR AND SALTY

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

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

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

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

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

DON’T FORGET THE PEBBLES

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

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

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

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

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

A MORE NUCLEAR DOE?

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

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

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

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

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

Photo from Charles Watkins, White House photographer, via Wikimeda

Another union of nuclear and renewable power

Posted by Mark Halper on January 8th, 2013

Small vision. Addressing a nuclear conference in Warsaw last month, Grizz Deal saw many uses for small reactors, including baseload power at solar plants.

The pairing of nuclear power  supporters with renewable energy advocates might have until recently struck most people as a case of “strange bedfellows.”

But more and more, the combination is looking like a logical match of kindred spirits intent on moving the world off of CO2-spewing fossil fuel energy sources. We noted last autumn how the nuclear and renewables industries were joining hands in the UK, for instance.

Now, a couple of new cases in point: Two utilities in the United States are contemplating co-locating small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) at solar power stations, as a way to assure  round-the-clock power  – which intermittent solar cannot provide.

That’s according to Grizz Deal, the co-founder a Denver-based SMR company formerly called Hyperion Power Generation and now called Gen4 Energy.

“There’s actually a couple studies being done, one by Pacific Gas and Electric in California, and one by Florida Power & Light, as a way to beef up their renewable program,” Deal said in an address to the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 2012 conference in Warsaw last month.

GOOD THINGS IN SMALL PACKAGES

An SMR, as its name suggests, is smaller than the gigawatt-plus sized conventional reactors. Its size can vary widely, from a range of around 10 megawatt electricity capacity to around 300. Several companies like Gen4 are developing SMRs with the intention of selling them as both electricity and heat sources to utilities, industry and governments and as power sources in remote areas. When Deal was with Gen4 (he left about two years ago and now runs a Denver-based clean water firm called IX Power), he was targeting the water purification market.

Developers are also applying different designs, including conventional water-cooled uranium fueled mini conventional reactors, as well as liquid molten salt reactors (MSRs), pebble bed reactors, and others.

Kirk Sorensen, co-founder of Huntsville, Ala.-based Flibe Energy, hopes to sell small MSRs fueled by liquid thorium (rather than uranium) to the U.S. military bases, which would allow them to disconnect from unreliable public electricity grids.

Another company, South Africa’s Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd., is developing a 35-megawatt (electric) thorium fueled pebble bed reactor that it hopes to sell as a source of industrial heat and for other purposes.

The U.S. Department of Energy last year announced that it would help fund a uranium-fueled SMR under development by Charlotte, N.C.-based Babcock & Wilcox, for use by utility Tennessee Valley Authority.

DOE is expected to soon award funding to at least one more SMR developer.  To hear Deal talk, it sounds as though the solar and wind industry might want to play close attention.

Photo of Grizz Deal by Mark Halper.

 

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