Third Generation Nuclear Reactors Are Simpler and Even Safer

WestinghouseAP1000Reactor2009-10-28.gif Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. R1) Researchers are working on reactors that they claim are simpler, cheaper in certain respects, and more efficient than the last generation of plants.

Some designs try to reduce the chance of accidents by automating safety features and minimizing the amount of hardware needed to shut down the reactor in an emergency. Others cut costs by using standardized parts that can be built in big chunks and then shipped to the site. Some squeeze more power out of uranium, reducing the amount of waste produced, while others wring even more energy out of spent fuel.
“Times are exciting for nuclear,” says Ronaldo Szilard, director of nuclear science and engineering at the Idaho National Lab, a part of the U.S. Energy Department. “There are lots of options being explored.”
. . .
(p. R3) As a whole, . . . , the U.S. nuclear industry has a solid safety record, and the productivity of plants has grown dramatically in the past decade. The next generation of reactors so-called Generation III units is intended to take everything that’s been learned about safe operations and do it even better. Generation III units are the reactors of choice for most of the 34 nations that already have nuclear plants in operation. (China still is building a few Gen II units.)
“A common theme of future reactors is to make them simpler so there are fewer systems to monitor and fewer systems that could fail,” says Revis James, director of the Energy Technology Assessment Center at the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent power-industry research organization.
The current generation of nuclear plants requires a complex maze of redundant motors, pumps, valves and control systems to deal with emergency conditions. Generation III plants cut down on some of that infrastructure and rely more heavily on passive systems that don’t need human intervention to keep the reactor in a safe condition reducing the chance of an accident caused by operator error or equipment failure.
For example, the Westinghouse AP1000 boasts half as many safety-related valves, one-third fewer pumps and only one-fifth as much safety-related piping as earlier plants from Westinghouse, majority owned by Toshiba Corp. In an emergency, the reactor, which has been selected for use at Southern Co.’s Vogtle site in Georgia and at six other U.S. locations, is designed to shut down automatically and stay within a safe temperature range.

For the full story, see:
REBECCA SMITH. “The New Nukes; The next generation of nuclear reactors is on its way, and supporters say they will be safer, cheaper and more efficient than current plants. Here’s a look at what’s coming — and when.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., SEPTEMBER 8, 2009): R1 & R3.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Government Regulatory Costs Impede Energy Innovation

MetcalfeRobert_National_Medal_of_Technology.jpg

Robert Metcalfe receiving the National Medal of Technology in 2003. Source of photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Metcalfe

The author of the commentary quoted below is famous in the history of information technology. His Harvard dissertation draft on packet switching was rejected as unrealistic. So he left the academy and became the main innovator responsible for making packet switching a reality, through the ethernet.
(He is also the “Metcalfe” behind “Metcalfe’s Law” about the value of a network increasing at a faster rate than the increase in the network’s size.)

(p. A15) . . . new small reactors meet important criteria for nuclear power plants. With no control rods to jam, they are far safer than the old models — you might well call them nuclear batteries. By not using weapons-grade enriched fuels, they are nonproliferating. They minimize nuclear waste. And they’re economical.
. . .
As venture capitalists, we at Polaris might have invested in one or two of these fission-energy start-ups. Alas, we had to pass. The problem with their business plans weren’t their designs, but the high costs and astronomical risks of designing nuclear reactors for certification in Washington.
The start-ups estimate that it will cost each of them roughly $100 million and five years to get their small reactor designs certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. About $50 million of each $100 million would go to the commission itself. That’s a lot of risk capital for any venture-backed start-up, especially considering that not one new commercial nuclear reactor design has been approved and built in the United States for 30 years.
. . .

As we learned by building the Internet, fiercely competitive teams of research professors, graduate students, engineers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are the best drivers of technological innovation — not big corporations, and certainly not government bureaucracies. So, if it’s cheap and clean energy we want, we should clear the way for fission energy start-ups. We should lower the barriers at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the approval of new nuclear reactors, especially the new small ones. In particular, we should drop the requirement that the commission be reimbursed for reconsidering new fission reactor designs.

For the full commentary, see:
BOB METCALFE. “The New Nuclear Revolution; Safe fission power is our future — if regulators allow it..” Wall Street Journal (Weds., JUNE 24, 2009): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Kantrowitz Failed at Fusion for Lack of Funding

KantrowitzArthur.jpg “Arthur Kantrowitz, the “father” of laser propulsion, with a cone-shaped model in 1989, first suggested the use of ground based lasers to launch vehicles into orbit.” Source of the caption and photo: the online version of the somewhat different December 9th version of the obituary at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/09/science/09kantrowitz.html?scp=1&sq=Kantrowitz&st=cse

(p. B13) Arthur R. Kantrowitz, a physicist and engineer whose research on the behavior of superhot gases and fluid dynamics led to nose cones for rockets, heart-assist pumps and the idea of nuclear fusion in magnetic bottles, among many other things, died in Manhattan on Nov. 29. He was 95.
. . .
After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from Columbia in 1936, he went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, the precursor to NASA, at Langley Field in Virginia. It was there, in 1938, that he and Eastman N. Jacobs, his boss, did an experiment that might have changed the world, had they succeeded.
The idea was to harness the energy source that powers the sun, the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium, by heating hydrogen with radio waves while squeezing the gas with a magnetic field. At the time, nobody had tried to produce a fusion reaction; the Manhattan Project and other attempts to create nuclear fission were still in their infancy.
Knowing that their superiors would disapprove of anything as outlandish as atomic energy, they labeled their machine the Diffusion Inhibitor, and worked on it only at night. The experiment failed, and before the experimenters could figure out why, their director found out about the project and canceled it. Physicists unaware of the Langley experiment later reinvented the idea of thermonuclear fusion in a magnetic bottle, and they are still trying to make it work.
”It was a heartbreaking experience,” Dr. Kantrowitz recalled. ”I had just built a whole future around this; I wanted to make it a career.”

For the full obituary, see:

DENNIS OVERBYE. “Arthur R. Kantrowitz, 95, Is Dead; Physicist Who Helped Space Program.” The New York Times (Weds., December 10, 2008): B13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

“Nuclear Power Provides 77 Percent of France’s Electricity”

FrenchNuclearReactorFlamanville20080824.jpg “France is constructing a nuclear reactor, its first in 10 years, in Flamanville, but the country already has 58 operating reactors.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 6) FLAMANVILLE, France — It looks like an ordinary building site, but for the two massive, rounded concrete shells looming above the ocean, like dusty mushrooms.

Here on the Normandy coast, France is building its newest nuclear reactor, the first in 10 years, costing $5.1 billion. But already, President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced that France will build another like it.
. . .
Nuclear power provides 77 percent of France’s electricity, according to the government, and relatively few public doubts are expressed in a country with little coal, oil or natural gas.
With the wildly fluctuating cost of oil, anxiety over global warming from burning fossil fuels and new concerns about the impact of biofuels on the price of food for the poor, nuclear energy is getting a second look in countries like the United States and Britain. Even Germany, committed to phasing out nuclear power by 2021, is debating whether to change its mind.

For the full story, see:
STEVEN ERLANGER. “France Reaffirms Its Faith in Future of Nuclear Power.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., August 17, 2008): 6. (Also on p. 6 of the NY edition)
(Note: ellipsis added.)

FranceNukeMap20080824.jpg

Source of map: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

McCain Supports Construction of Nuclear Power Plants

McCainNuclearFermi2Plant.jpg “Sen. John McCain, center, visits the Enrico Fermi nuclear plant in Michigan. From left: shift manager Phil Skarbek, CEO Anthony Earley, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.” Source of caption and photo: http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/election2008/2008-08-05-mccain-nuclear_N.htm

I believe that the market is the most efficient institution for deciding the best mix of technologies for providing energy. But I am ‘pro-nuclear’ in the sense that the government should reduce past regulatory barriers, that have unjustifiably increased the cost of nuclear power relative to other energy technologies.

(p. A16) NEWPORT, Mich. — Senator John McCain toured a nuclear power plant in Michigan on Tuesday to highlight his support for the construction of 45 new nuclear power generators by 2030, a position that he said distinguished him from his Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama.

Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, portrayed his support of nuclear energy as part of an “all-of-the-above approach” to addressing the nation’s energy needs at a time of $4-a-gallon gasoline. He called it “safe, efficient, inexpensive and obviously a vital ingredient in the future of the economy of our nation and in our mission to eliminate over time our dependence on foreign oil.”
“If we really want to enable new technologies tomorrow like plug-in electric cars, we need electricity to plug into,” he said in a statement after touring the Fermi 2 nuclear plant, its twin cooling towers spewing vapors used as a backdrop. “We need to do all this and more.”
. . .
But market conditions have improved as demand for power has risen and the price of natural gas, a competing fuel, has jumped. Lately some environmental groups that had been critical of nuclear power have embraced it, seeing the technology as a way to meet the nation’s growing energy demands without contributing more heat-trapping gases.
In addressing the nation’s energy demands, Mr. Obama has focused on alternative energy sources like wind and solar, as well as conservation, which would apparently also be the main beneficiaries of the decade-long $150 billion government investment effort he promises if elected. He barely mentions nuclear power, usually just alluding to it in a sentence here or there.

For the full story, see:

MARY ANN GIORDANO and LARRY ROHTER. “McCain at Nuclear Plant Highlights Energy Issue.” The New York Times (Weds., August 5, 2008): A16.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

California’s Unreliable Power Supply

(p. A11) . . . consider the story of the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station. Opened in 1975, it was capable of generating over 900 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power upward of 900,000 homes. Fourteen years after powering up, the nuclear reactor shut down, thanks to fierce antinuclear opposition. Eventually, the facility was converted to solar power, and today generates a measly four MW of electricity. After millions of dollars in subsidies and other support, the entire state has less than 250 MW of solar capacity.
. . .
. . . : California now imports lots of energy from neighboring states to make up for having too few power plants. Up to 20% of the state’s power comes from coal-burning plants in Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Montana. Another significant portion comes from large-scale hydropower in Oregon, Washington State and the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas.
“California practices a sort of energy colonialism,” says James Lucier of Capital Alpha Partners, a Washington, D.C.-area investment group. “They leave those states to deal with the resulting pollution.”
. . .
The unreliable power grid is starting to rattle some Silicon Valley heavyweights. Intel CEO Craig Barrett, for instance, vowed in 2001 not to build a chip-making facility in California until power supplies became more reliable. This October, Intel opened a $3 billion factory near Phoenix for mass production of its new 45-nanometer microprocessors. Google has chosen to build the massive server farms that will fuel its expansion anywhere but in California.

For the full commentary, see:
MAX SCHULZ. “California’s Energy Colonialism.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 3, 2008): A11.
(Note: ellipses added.)

“Merchant Generator” Leads Nuclear Renaissance

 

  Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article quoted, and cited, below. 

 

(p. B1)  In a move that could mark the beginning of a nuclear-power revival, a New Jersey-based energy company today plans to submit an application to build and operate two new reactors. The request, the first submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 31 years, comes from an unlikely source: NRG Energy Inc., a company that has never before built a nuclear plant.

The application — for a two-reactor addition to the company’s existing South Texas nuclear station — could offer the first full test of the nuclear agency’s new licensing process, which has been under development since the 1980s. The new process allows companies to submit a single application for a construction permit and conditional operating license, eliminating the risk that a firm could build a plant but not be allowed to run it.

. . .

(p. B2)  . . . , the industry has regained momentum, partly because other forms of power generation have continued to show significant flaws. Coal-fired plants undermine efforts to combat global warming. Many natural-gas-fired plants rely on a fuel with volatile prices. And renewable energy mostly comes from intermittent forces like wind, rain and sunlight.

This first application comes from a somewhat unlikely source; NRG is a so-called "merchant generator," a company that makes electricity and sells it on the open market. NRG has never built a nuclear plant, and because it doesn’t own a utility, has no ratepayers to whom it could bill the estimated $5.5 billion to $6 billion expense.

"We’re like the uncola," says David Crane, NRG chief executive in Princeton, N.J.

. . .

So far, it appears merchant generators think Texas provides the most promising market. Deregulation in that state has resulted in a sharp run up in wholesale power prices since 2004. A recent decision by Dallas-based TXU to abandon efforts to build eight coal-fired plants could result in shrinking electricity reserves in the coming years, creating an environment receptive to operators looking to bring large units online and sell such units’ full output.

 

For the full story, see: 

REBECCA SMITH.  "Nuclear Energy’s Second Act? Bid to Build Two New Reactors In Texas May Mark Resurgence; NRC Gears Up for Many More."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., September 25, 2007):  B1 & B2.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

New Nuclear Design Reduces Already-Low Risks, and Increases Efficiency

 

  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. C1)  WASHINGTON, Sept. 24 — In a bid to take the lead in the race to revive the nuclear power industry, an energy company will ask the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday for permission to build two reactors in Texas.

It is the first time since the 1970s and the accident at Three Mile Island that an American power company has sought permission to start work on a new reactor to add to the existing array of operable reactors, which now number 104.

. . .

(p. C11)  NRG is planning to build the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, which represents a relatively low-risk choice in an industry where few American companies have current experience with building a plant.  . . .

. . .

The new design has several innovations that are aimed at sharply reducing the risk of meltdown, a risk that is described by the industry and by regulators as very low in any case. Other innovations are supposed to reduce the time and cost of construction.

 

MATTHEW L. WALD.  "Approval Is Sought For Reactors."  The New York Times  (Tues., September 25, 2007):  C1 & C11.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

Liberal Actor Paul Newman Endorses Nuclear Power

 

   Paul Newman.  Source of photo: http://www.philly.com/dailynews/columnists/howard_gensler/7660986.html

 

WASHINGTON: Venerable actor Paul Newman, known for his movies, his auto racing and his organic salad dressings, weighed in Wednesday on a nuclear power plant in New York’s suburbs that some fear is a terrorist magnet.

The Indian Point plant is safer than military bases he has visited, Newman said.

Newman, the star of such films as "Cool Hand Luke," "Hud" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," visited the facility in Buchanan, New York, on Monday, according to Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear, the company that owns Indian Point.

The veteran actor, restaurateur and organic-food producer praised the nuclear power facility as an important part of the region’s energy future because it does not produce greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.

 

For the full story, see: 

"Renaissance man Paul Newman endorses nuclear power plant some consider a risk to New York."   International Herald Tribune  (Weds., May 23, 2007).

 

Nuclear Expensive “Because of Exaggerated Popular Fears”

 

In his public testimony Mr. Gore seemed to be convoluting several things, suggesting somehow that nuclear plants are too expensive and take too long to build because they only come "extra-large." This is not true.

Nuclear plants take more time to build and are more expensive than comparative coal plants, but they are not prohibitively expensive. The Japanese are now building reactors in five years at competitive prices. Higher construction costs are more than compensated by lower fuel costs and higher capacity ratings. America’s existing nuclear plants are now operating so profitably that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal recently proposed a windfall profits tax because the state’s reactors were making too much money.

. . .

The reason building nuclear plants has been expensive and time-consuming is because of exaggerated popular fears of the technology. The public is now coming around. Seventy percent now consider nuclear plants acceptable, meaning new plants will probably not become bogged down in endless court delays.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

WILLIAM TUCKER.  "Our Atomic Future."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., March 28, 2007):  A16.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

Entrepreneur Bets on Nuclear Power Revival

 

Entrepreneur Kyle Kimmerle at one of his 600 uranium claims.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

Kyle Kimmerle is an entrepreneur, risking his own money.  If he guesses right, he will make himself rich, by helping provide the fuel needed for generating electricity for us. 

 

(p. C1)  . . .   Prices for processed uranium ore, also called U308, or yellowcake, are rising rapidly. Yellowcake is trading at $90 a pound, nearing the record high, adjusted for inflation, of about $120 in the mid-1970s. The price (p. C4) has more than doubled in the last six months alone. As recently as late 2002, it was below $10.

A string of natural disasters, notably flooding of large mines in Canada and Australia, has set off the most recent spike. Hedge funds and other institutional investors, who began buying up uranium in late 2004 to exploit the volatility in this relatively small market, have accelerated the price rally.

But the more fundamental causes of the uninterrupted ascendance of prices since 2003 can be traced to inventory constraints among power companies and a drying up of the excess supply of uranium from old Soviet-era nuclear weapons that was converted to use in power plants. Add in to those factors the expected surge in demand from China, India, Russia and a few other countries for new nuclear power plants to fuel their growing economies.

“I’d call it lucky timing,” said David Miller, a Wyoming legislator and president of the Strathmore Mineral Corporation, a uranium development firm. “Three relatively independent factors — dwindling supplies of inventory, low overall production from the handful of uranium miners that survived the 25-year drought and rising concerns about global warming — all have coincided to drive the current uranium price higher by more than 1,000 percent since 2001.”

. . .  

. . .   “We won’t build a new plant knowing there’s nowhere to put the used fuel,” Mr. Malone of Exelon said. “We won’t build one without community support, and we won’t build until market conditions are in place where it makes sense.”

But that is not holding back Kyle Kimmerle, owner of the Kimmerle Funeral Home in Moab. Mr. Kimmerle, 30, spent summers during his childhood camping and working at several of his father’s mines in the area. In his spare time he has amassed more than 600 uranium claims throughout the once-productive Colorado Plateau.

“My guess is that next year my name won’t be on the sign of this funeral home anymore and I’ll be out at the mines,” he said.

He recently struck a deal with a company to lease 111 of his claims for development. The company, new to uranium mining, has pledged $500,000 a year for five years to improve the properties. Mr. Kimmerle will receive annual payments plus royalties for any uranium mined from the area.

 

For the full story, see: 

SUSAN MORAN and ANNE RAUP.  "A Rush for Uranium; Mines in the West Reopen as Ore Prices Reach Highs of the 1970s."  The New York Times  (Weds., March 28, 2007):   C1 & C4.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

UraniumPriceGraph.gif   Yellowcake, which is processed uranium, is in the third jar from the left of the top photo.  The photo below it is of old equipment at a dormant uranium mine.  Source of the photos and the graphic:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.