Ecocentric

Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?

Outside of the developing world, nuclear energy is on the retreat, thanks largely to the spiraling costs of new atomic plants. But innovative reactor designs could change the equation

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Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The San Onofre nuclear plant in California is set to be shut down early, eliminating a carbon-free source of electricity

Is it safe? That’s what most people — brought up on Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and The Simpsons — want to know about nuclear power. And for the most part, the answer is yes. Accidents are rare, and those that have occurred — including the partial meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 — have resulted in few deaths. On a megawatt-per-megawatt basis, nuclear kills fewer people than almost any other source of electricity — especially compared with air pollution from coal, the single biggest supplier of electricity in the U.S., which contributes to the deaths of 14,000 Americans each year. And nuclear energy, unlike every other form of electricity — save hydro and renewables, doesn’t contribute to man-made climate change.

But while nuclear energy supplies about 13% of global electricity — and dozens of new reactors are being built in countries like China, India and Russia — in the U.S. and much of the rest of the developed world, nuclear energy is in retreat, with new reactors on hold and aging ones being retired. And while fears of accidents and radioactivity clearly play a role in that decline, cost is an even bigger factor. Existing nuclear reactors produce inexpensive electricity, but the price of a new nuclear plant keeps ballooning, with reactors running billions over budget, forcing some utilities to abandon projects in midconstruction. Nuclear plants — most of which are derived from Cold War–era designs — actually became more expensive as they scale up, with larger plants requiring bigger and stronger containment domes that used expensive concrete and steel. Outside of France, nuclear plants largely weren’t standardized, which meant that nearly every reactor was produced bespoke — much like buying a suit from a tailor instead of off the rack. Add in the fact that the economic costs of an accident could be enormous even if the human costs weren’t — the Fukushima meltdown, which killed no one, could cost more than $100 billion — and you have a very expensive way to generate electricity. With the fracking revolution pumping out cheap natural gas in the U.S. and renewables preferred in much of Europe, nuclear will remain in decline in the developed world unless it can get cheaper.

(MORE: Radioactive Green: Pandora’s Promise Rethinks Nuclear Power)

The key, suggests the Breakthrough Institute in a new report, is the development of entirely new reactor designs, ones that can employ modular, mass-produced components with inherent safety characteristics that eliminate the need for the expensive backup systems that have helped inflate the costs of new plants in the past. (One of the think tank’s co-founders, Michael Shellenberger, appears in a new pronuclear documentary, Pandora’s Promise — I reviewed it here.) Current nuclear designs require — correctly — layer after layer of backups and safety systems to prevent meltdown in the event of a loss of power. (We call it a meltdown for a reason — if a current nuclear plant loses power, as the Fukushima Daiichi plant did after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, it can lose the ability to control the escalating temperature of nuclear fuel, which can lead to explosions and the release of radioactivity.) That means battery-powered backup systems and other fail-safes, all of which add to the bill. Reactors with passive safety systems are likely to be cheaper — as well as safer, since there would be no need to worry if power couldn’t be restored to the plant quickly in the event of disaster.

What might those new reactors look like? Last month in the New Yorker online, Gareth Cook profiled an innovative Cambridge-based start-up called Transatomic Power that would use molten salt as a coolant, rather than water:

It’s based on a method that worked successfully at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, in the nineteen-sixties. Called a molten salt reactor, it eschews rods and, instead, dissolves the nuclear fuel in a salt mixture, which is pumped in a loop with a reactor vessel at one end and a heat exchanger at the other. In the vessel, the fuel enters a critical state, heating up the salt, which then moves on to the heat exchanger, where it cools; it then travels back to the vessel, where it heats up again. Heat from the exchanger is used to make steam, and, from this, electricity. At the bottom of the reactor vessel is a drain pipe plugged with solid salt, maintained using a powerful electric cooler. If the cooler is turned off, or if it loses power, the plug melts and all of the molten salt containing the fuel drains to a storage area, where it cools on its own. There’s no threat of a meltdown.

(MORE: Carbon Regulations and Keystone Silence: Previewing Obama’s Climate Speech)

The reactor design could also potentially run off nuclear waste — addressing another problem that holds back atomic expansion. Nor is the molten-salt reactor the only next-generation nuclear design that could be cheaper and safer. Other designs exist that would cool reactors with lead, sodium or gas. And of course there’s always the great, unfulfilled dream of fusion. Any of those designs might be able to deliver the environmental advantages of nuclear power — carbon-free base-load electricity — in a way that won’t break the bank.

Of course, nearly all of these advanced nuclear designs are just that — blueprints and concepts. Transatomic has a good idea, but it hasn’t built anything. Even with massive help from the Obama Administration, renewable energy start-ups like Solyndra went bankrupt, challenging existing technology. Nuclear start-ups face even more daunting odds given the cost of building anything like a pilot plant — venture capitalist Ray Rothrock, who has invested in Transatomic, told Cook that for nuclear power, “the valley of death might as well be the Grand Canyon.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees atomic power in the U.S., is a conservative body, which makes getting permission to build a new kind of plant very difficult. “The interest in supporting nuclear innovation just doesn’t seem to be there,” says Jessica Lovering, a policy analyst at Breakthrough and a co-author of the report.

That needs to change. According to statistics from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, between 1993 and 2002, carbon-free sources — meaning nuclear, hydro and renewables — made up 19% of total increase in global energy consumption. Between 2003 and ’12, as the rate of global energy consumption doubled, carbon-free sources made up only 14% of that increase. (Hat tip to Roger Pielke Jr. for pointing out these trends.) Despite the very rapid increases in renewables like wind and solar over the past decade — albeit from a very tiny beginning — we are losing the war to decarbonize our energy supply. I think nuclear can play a significant role in decarbonization, but it will only happen if atomic power isn’t expensive — all the more so given that most of the increase in global energy consumption will be coming in developing countries that are especially price sensitive. Pass the molten salt.

MORE: From Forests to Fossil Fuels: U.S. Energy Consumption Since 1776

71 comments
jdhy
jdhy

The very last sentence in the article is “Pass the molten salt”. This means that the writer wants more nuclear reactors built. In terms of job markets for workers that help produce more energy what does this mean for them?

 

KeytoClearskies
KeytoClearskies

Mark Goldes, starting in the mid-seventies, engaged for several years in the pretense that his company SunWind Ltd was developing a nearly production-ready, road-worthy, wind-powered "windmobile," based on the windmobile invented by James Amick; and that therefore SunWind would be a wonderful investment opportunity.

After SunWind "dried up" in 1983, Goldes embarked on the long-running pretense that his company Room Temperature Superconductors Inc was developing room-temperature superconductors; and that therefore Room Temperature Superconductors Inc would be a wonderful investment opportunity. He continues the pretense that the company developed something useful, even to this day.

And then Goldes embarked on the pretense that his company Magnetic Power Inc was developing "NO FUEL ENGINES" based on "Virtual Photon Flux;" and then, on the pretense that MPI was developing horn-powered "NO FUEL ENGINES" based on the resonance of magnetized tuning-rods; and then, on the pretense that his company Chava Energy was developing water-fueled engines based on "collapsing hydrogen orbitals;" and then, on the pretense that he was developing ambient-heat-powered "NO FUEL ENGINES." Goldes has even claimed that Jacob T. Wainwright already patented an ambient-heat-powered engine 100 years ago - even though Wainwright himself certainly never made any such claim, at all. Wainwright's only patent for a turbine or engine was not for any ambient-heat-powered engine, but for a pressurized-gaseous-fluid-powered engine. The innovation of the patent was the use of water to reduce speed - not for any use of ambient heat.

Goldes' forty-year career of "revolutionary invention" pretense has nothing to do with science, but only with pseudoscience and pseudophysics - his lifelong stock-in-trade.

KeytoClearskies
KeytoClearskies

Most Ludicrous Scamvention: Mark Goldes' "POWERGENIE"

One of the most laughable of Mark Goldes' many invention scams is his "POWERGENIE" sound-powered generator. The brilliant idea of this revolutionary breakthrough is to blow a horn at a magnetized tuning rod, designed to resonate at the frequency of the horn, and then collect the electromotive energy produced by the vibrations of the rod.

I'm not making this up.

POWERGENIE tuning rod engine explained - from the patent:

[The device incorporates] "an energy transfer and multiplier element being constructed of a ferromagnetic substance possessing magnetostrictive characteristics, magnetoelastic characteristics,or both; and having a natural resonance, due to a physical structure whose dimensions are directly proportional to the wavelength of the resonance frequency..."

"In this resonant condition, the rod material functions as a tuned waveguide, or longitudinal resonator, for acoustic energy."

"Ferrite rod 800 is driven to acoustic resonance at the second harmonic of its fundamental resonant frequency by acoustic horn 811, resulting in acoustic wave 816 within the rod having two nodal points. Each nodal point exhibits instantaneous acoustic pressure opposite the other nodal point. Bias magnet 801 produces magnetic flux 802 extending axially through both nodal points developed within rod 800. Since both nodal points within the rod develop oppositely signed instantaneous acoustic pressure, the electromotive force developed via the magnetoelastic effect at each nodal point is oppositely directed. Coils 820 and 821 are wound oppositely and connected in electrical series, such that their developed electromotive forces add. The sum electromotive force of coils 820 and 821 develops electrical current and power in resistive load 830."

- But the patent doesn't tell us who is going to volunteer blow the horn at the rod all day. Perhaps it will come with an elephant.

Goldes claimed in 2008 that this wonderful triumph of human genius would bring his company, Magnetic Power Inc, one billion dollars in annual revenue by 2012. Magnetic Power Inc is now defunct, having never produced any "Magnetic Power Modules" - just as his company called "Room Temperature Superconductors Inc" is also now defunct, having never produced any "room temperature superconductors."

KeytoClearskies
KeytoClearskies

Chronicles of Mark Goldes, Aesop Institute's Perpetual Scam Machine

1976: Goldes seeks investors with fraudulent claims to have developed a production-ready wind-propelled, wind-rechargeable motorcycle that can reach 60 mph:

1998: Goldes fools the witless US Air Force with his "room temperature superconductor" scam, receiving over four hundred thousand dollars in "Innovative Research" grants. Goldes has never produced any superconductor.

2005: Goldes seeks investors with fraudulent claims that his company, MPI, is developing "Magnetic Power Modules":

2008: Goldes seeks investors with fraudulent claims that "MPI is also developing breakthrough magnetic energy technologies including POWERGENIE (Power Generation of Electricity by Nondestructive Interference of Energy)." The basic idea of POWERGENIE is to generate electricity from sound energy, by blowing a horn at a magnetized tuning rod. Goldes claims to have "run an electric car for more than 4,800 miles with no need to plug-in." According to Goldes, "[MPI] Revenues from licenses and Joint Ventures are conservatively projected to exceed $1 billion annually by 2012."

2009: Goldes seeks investors with fraudulent claims that his latest scamporation, Chava Energy, "has been developing enhanced theoretical and practical paths that lead towards commercialization of energy conversion systems that utilize hydrinos." He now claims to be "developing a Self Powered Internal Combustion Engine – SPICE(tm) powered by hydrinos."

"For over 20 years Mark Goldes has claimed his company MPI has been developing machines that generate energy for free. In over 20 years his company has not presented one shred of evidence that they can build such machines...

"For the past five years Mark Goldes has been promising generators 'next year.' He has never delivered. Like 'Alice in Wonderland' there will always be jam tomorrow, but never jam today."

- Penny Gruber, December 2008

- Gruber's comment was written almost five years ago - but it's just as true today - except that MPI, Goldes' corporation that he claimed would bring in one billion dollars in revenue from his imaginary generator in 2012, is now defunct, having never produced any "Magnetic Power Modules" - just as his company called "Room Temperature Superconductors Inc" is also now defunct, having never produced any "room temperature superconductors." Evidently there's a limit to how many years in a row the same company can claim it will finally have something to demonstrate "next year." Now Goldes has a new scamporation, Chava Energy.

ArtWilliams
ArtWilliams

I forgot two important things in my earlier comment.  First, both the safety and cost of molten-salt reactors benefit from the fact that they operate at atmospheric pressure, which greatly reduces potential dangers and the containment required.  

Second, I think that Bill Gates' TED lecture on this topic should be watched by all:

http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

Also, numerous references that I have found informative in this context are contained in my Physics Today essay.

http://www.physicstoday.org/daily_edition/points_of_view/nuclear_power_the_only_available_solution_to_global_warming


ArtWilliams
ArtWilliams

Good summary, but you did not mention two important virtues of the molten-salt family of nuclear reactors: 1) they produce negligible waste and 2) they can consume existing nuclear waste.  Also, because their need for clean power is so urgent, the Chinese may well lead the development of molten-salt, breed-and-burn reactors.  

RussFinley
RussFinley

That $100 billion estimate is spread out over almost half of a century. In that same link they said that Japan could save $20 billion this year just by restarting some reactors. They could pay for the whole mess by restarting all reactors. Last year Climate Progress claimed it was $500 billion but you can't believe anything they have to say about nuclear.


justplncate
justplncate

"largely due to spiralling costs"????   How about largely due to environmentalist pressure campaigns?  A little honesty, please!

alasdairrr
alasdairrr

It's fantastic that there has been a huge resurgent interest in Molten Salt Reactors, in part thanks to Kirk Sorensen rediscovering it and spreading the message through outlets such as TED.

There are quite a lot of companies now hoping to build MSRs. Kirk has a company, FLiBe Energy who hope to build LFTRs (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors), there's Transatomic Power mentioned in the article, and there's Terrestrial Energy in Canada.

China are also building an MSR at their National Academy of Sciences - they're investing $300M and the project is being headed up by Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin.

So this is a serious technology - if they work, and we have every reason to suspect they will as Oak Ridge proved the technology in the 60s, then we have a potential solution to the CO2 problem. Unfortunately misinformation about Nuclear in general (safe/unsafe levels of radiation, nuclear waste, safety of plants and possibilities of meltdowns etc) might stop our last best hope of solving the climate crisis. Which would be ironic - the Green movement stopping one of the biggest potential solutions. :(

DwightJones
DwightJones

You can't write an article like this, calling for new reactor designs, when pebble reactors are in full production and doing exactly what is called for.  It's the "not invented here" dodge that is disingenuous at best.

alasdairrr
alasdairrr

@DwightJones Pebble Beds are still solid fuel reactors, with all the downsides that entails. Molten Salt Reactors have the fuel as a circulating liquid, allowing incredibly high burnup rates and continuous online reprocessing. Vastly more efficient.

Rather than settle for mediocre, we should aim for excellence. If we stuck with existing traditional designs for stuff on the internet we'd all be still using Dial Up Modems and Internet Explorer 5.

DwightJones
DwightJones

@alasdairrr @DwightJones I do have to agree with you, the engineering is a major point. The main problem will be the political friction, as always, and my best advice would be to sell it to China if you want a more or less impartial opinion (and the major market) at one stroke. The Chinese are using pebble beds now, to some degree - over to Engineering Sales.

obidonkenobei
obidonkenobei

I would request everyone seriously consider what I deem to be the ultimate power resource for our planet: Space-Based Solar. Think about it: there is no limit to the size or number of arrays that could be put in orbit around the Earth; the power would be beamed down to airport-sized receivers via harmless microwaves without the need for long and expensive transmission lines; the solar panels would not be subject to night, or weather (well, except for space weather, which could be a concern); the supply is clean, virtually infinite, and the technology is well within our grasp - there are already plans to explore this technology by industry. If we could get our government behind the R&D, we could lose fossil fuels and nuclear power by the middle of this century, or sooner.

alasdairrr
alasdairrr

@obidonkenobei Why bother, when a LFTR can harness the power of the atom safely and cheaply, and has been proven to do so?

Oak Ridge built and operated a Molten Salt Reactor in the 60s - it's a proven technology. It's completely safe. It's incredibly efficient. It produces a fraction of the waste of conventional nuclear. It's the only viable tech on the table which could produce energy *cheaper than coal* with *zero CO2*. All we have to do is build them.

MarkGoldes
MarkGoldes

Radioactive fuels are neither safe nor cost-competitive.

Remarkable new energy technology is emerging.

For example, engines that substitute atmospheric heat, a form of solar energy, for fuel.

This monumental breakthrough was ironically first shown to be possible by Jacob Wainwright in 1903.

Read NO FUEL ENGINE at www.aesopinstitute.org and see a link to a free google download of Wainwrights papers, as well as a much more recent paper that provides the theoretical background for modern engines that will run on atmospheric heat.

Think about what could have been avoided if Wainwright was taken seriously.

We can soon begin to rapidly replace fossil and radioactive fuels.

New engines and other Black Swans - extremely improbable inventions with enormous implications - are likely to give electric cars unlimited range and the ability to become substantial power plants, selling electricity to utilities when suitably parked. No wires needed. These cars might pay for themselves. See more on the same AESOP Institute website.

Cars, trucks and buses can become the power plants of the future. And that will open a path to a strong economy with millions of new jobs.


 

william.mchale
william.mchale

@MarkGoldes Aesop is mostly famous for fables, so this seems to be a good name for that site.  Mostly it looks like they are pushing an version of a Stirling engine.  The basic problem here is that when relying on ambient heat, they don't generate much power by volume.  Might as well just use solar cells or wind power.

MarkGoldes
MarkGoldes

@william.mchale @MarkGoldes  This is not a Stirling engine. It is new science. The possibility was first suggested by Jacob Wainwright in 1903. The inventor holds an earlier U.S. Patent on an engine that runs on ambient heat. When he read the Wainwright papers they opened a simpler path and thereby a new invention. These engines are likely to replace diesel generators of all sizes in the future. They may also power homes 24/7 as an alternative to solar roofs.

schuess-dogg
schuess-dogg

Nuclear fusion is not as far fetched as this reference makes it out to be.  It's entirely achievable.  I visited a fusion research plant last year in the UK and was blown away by the progress and the world shaping effects its commercial realization would bring.

I encourage everyone to read up the promise of fusion power as it relates to safety, carbon emmissions and radioactive waste and see for yourself that as a society we should make this one of our top priorities!

http://www.iter.org/

alasdairrr
alasdairrr

@schuess-dogg ITER is enormously complex and expensive. Yes we should continue to invest in fusion but it's still in the research phase.

MSRs/LFTRs are viable *today*, which is convenient because the CO2 situation needs solving ASAP, not in 10-50 years. 

roberttcan
roberttcan

I love the comments.

Renewable do not work cost effectively in large portions of the world including the Northern U.S. most of Europe, etc. except for a supplement. Battery technology as currently available adds $0.15/KWH to the cost of electricity and has disposal and transport issues. You can't produce and store for less that $0.25 and that is not going down really. In northern climates on most houses the angle is too poor for enough winter production.

Thorium would be great, need to explore more.

MarkGoldes
MarkGoldes

@roberttcan Ultraconductors are polymer equivalents of room temperature superconductors.

Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage is well proven technology at cryogenic temperatures.

When wire is developed, and it is on the horizon, Ultraconducting Magnetic Energy Storage will open a path to replacing batteries.

See www.chavaenergy.com. Look under Learn to read about Ultraconductors.