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Nuclear powers: New concepts and the outlook for the global nuclear fleet

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – Among the most interesting events this week at an energy conference hosted by Los Alamos National Laboratory were back-to-back presentations on nuclear power by two prominent experts.

On a day devoted to the future of conventional and alternative energy systems, a former director of a national nuclear weapons laboratory and the chief technology officer of the AREVA NP, the American subsidy of the French-owned nuclear conglomerate, gave two different views of the current state of the so-called nuclear renaissance.

After 30 years of declining public interest and support during which no new nuclear plants were built, the prospects for future nuclear power generators turned sharply upward in the early years of this decade,

The trend has continued with the prospect of peak-oil and uncertain oil supplies added to the growing demand for carbon-free energy to slow global warming. Also favorable has been a period of industry-friendly legislation, regulatory simplification and loan guarantees, which have encouraged new applications.  

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently evaluating proposals for 24 reactors from 16 companies around the country. Many more are on tap around the world.

Paul Robinson, formerly director of Sandia National Laboratory, said he is “failing in his retirement,” and spoke as an officer in Advanced Reactor Concepts. He gave what he said was one of the first public talks about the company’s “modular proliferation resistant” nuclear generator based on a sodium-cooled fast reactor.

Establishing the context, Robinson offered what he called “the Gospel according to Paul, for why nuclear power declined.”

“It was not the anti-nukes,” he said. “The industry brought it on itself.”

He said the long period of steady, 7.5-percent growth during the ’50s and ’60s came to an abrupt end with the oil embargo of the ’70s, when American’s sudden shift to “saving energy” focused on saving electricity,

Growth plummeted to 1.4 percent before climbing slowly back to a new level of 3.2 percent.

But with that, he said, it now took, not 8.5-9 years to double electricity demand as before, but 24 years, which disrupted the predictable expansion of power generation and particularly nuclear power.

Robinson said his company’s proposed system has taken into account a number of public concerns about nuclear power, including resizing them to include smaller plants or modular reactors that can be added in parallel. ARC’s fast reactors would be built faster as well, in two years in a factory and then shipped or trucked to the site.

Finally, people want safer reactors, he said, and the sealed-core sodium-cooling system they have designed would be built underground and would be “walk-away safe,” and with well below grade nuclear materials for terrorists who would not find it very interesting for bomb material.

“You don’t need to touch it for 20-30 years, and then we only replace the core, not the fuel elements, at the site,” he said. “Duracell is almost what we’re doing.”

In answer to a question from the audience, he said, “The biggest obstacle to throwing these around the country is that we don’t have a U.S. customer yet.”

Following Robinson’s talk, Finnis Southworth of AREVA, described a company with 72,000 employees worldwide that is hiring one new employee every hour.

Many people these days are asking, “Is there a nuclear renaissance?”

“It is a reality,” he concluded, noting that it is more apparent in the global arena than in the United States, where there have been a few setbacks in recent times.

Around the world, there are 41 fully planned plants and another 113 being talked about, Southworth said, with much of the future growth expected to come from China and India.

Domestically, Progress Energy of North Carolina announced earlier this month that a plant they had hoped would be the first new nuclear plant in the U.S. would be delayed by two years or more to at least 2018.

Just before that, the Missouri utility company Ameren suspended plans to build one of Areva’s 1600 megawatt Evolutionary Power Reactors.

The Missouri legislature balked on a law that some other states have passed that allows the utility company to recover costs during the construction phase of the contract.

Interest costs during construction are a particular burden and the government’s promise of substantial loan guarantees for the last several years have yet to be realized.

Southworth said what is different about the new generation of reactors, known as Gen III, is a whole lot of concrete and steel, which means they are safer in terms of occupational exposure and major accidents. They have improved operational efficiencies and a 60-year life cycle.

“Lots of single point vulnerabilities have been eliminated,” he said. Quicker refueling means 94-95 percent power availability as opposed to 91 percent for the current plants.

Southworth is an advocate of using nuclear plants to make hydrogen fuel with excess loads and said he was very annoyed that Energy Secretary Chu had decided to disband a hydrogen fuel cell program last week, as a longer range alternative to electric vehicles.

Asked what’s holding nuclear back, he blamed public acceptance.

“The public is nervous and we make them nervous,” he said. “You’re always going to get a quote about any new nuclear project that says three-fourths of nuclear experts say this plant sucks,” because they have a different technological preference.

From a perspective informed by three part-time visits over the five days, the conference as a whole dabbled at affirming conventional political and economic assumptions and stuck close to established interests.

There was very little feeling for the environment itself or the intense economic crisis in the world. Meanwhile, there was much zooming in to close-up views of tantalizing and nearly incommunicable solar and biofuel technologies, along with Smart Grid solutions and highly speculative carbon storage schemes. Speakers also zoomed out to sobering overviews of planetary peril.

In short, the conferees seemed to be doing what they’ve always done, but with more awareness that time was running out.