Updates on Alternative Energy Sources, Part 2: Nuclear Power

Stephen DeAngelis

March 12, 2010

I introduced this series on alternative energy sources with an article by Michael Totty [“The Long Road to an Alternative-Energy Future,” Wall Street Journal, 22 February 2010]. Totty concludes his article by offering “a closer look at a handful of the most-promising clean-energy alternatives, and the reasons they’ll be a long time coming.” He breaks down the alternatives into five areas: New Nuclear Reactors; Algal Biofuels; Carbon Capture and Storage; Wind; Solar; and Electric Vehicles. In today’s post and those that follow, I will discuss each of these areas separately and conclude with any other odds and ends that might not fit neatly into any of those categories. Let’s start with nuclear power.

 

If you harbor any doubts about whether nuclear power remains controversial, a recent vote by Vermont’s senate not to renew the operating license for the state’s only nuclear power plant should convince you that not everyone believes that nuclear power should play a significant role in the future of energy [“Vermont Deals A Blow To Nuclear Industry,” by Margaret Kriz Hobson, National Journal, 24 February 2010]. Two issues are almost always raised when discussing nuclear power: safety and nuclear waste disposal. Safety was the big issue in Vermont. As Hobson reports, “The 40-year-old Vermont Yankee has been at the center of controversy since radioactive tritium was recently discovered leaking from the plant’s underground pipes into local groundwater.” The Obama administration believes that nuclear power does have a role in the future and recently approved $8.33 billion in loan guarantees to construct new nuclear power plants in Georgia [“U.S. Supports New Nuclear Reactors in Georgia,” by Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, 17 February 2010]. Wald reports, however, that “the president’s embrace of nuclear energy has drawn the ire of environmental groups that have long opposed any return to a reliance on nuclear power.”

 

Environmental issues are not the only reasons that people oppose nuclear power. Some opponents offer economic arguments. “Nuclear power plants ‘are simply not economically competitive now, and therefore they can’t be privately financed,’ said Peter Bradford, an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School and a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. ‘There are many cheaper ways to displace carbon, and there are many cheaper ways to provide for electric power supply.'” [“Obama offers loan to help fund two nuclear reactors,” by Michael D. Shear and Steven Mufson, Washington Post, 17 February 2010]. Regardless of what happens in the U.S., however, many other countries continue to move forward with plans for new nuclear plants — especially China, which “has 11 nuclear power reactors in commercial operation, 20 under construction, and more about to start construction soon” [“Nuclear Power in China, World Nuclear Association, 15 February 2010]. One consequence of this building boom is that China could increase its requirement for uranium five fold over the next decade. Currently 30 nations generate nuclear power and that number could rise to 50 nations over the next ten years. Another way to look at the explosive growth of nuclear power is to look at the number of reactors in operation. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are presently 436 reactors in operation and that number is expected to rise nearly 1,400 between now and 2050. That’s a lot of nuclear fuel and nuclear waste with which to deal.

 

The leading providers of uranium (Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Niger, and Namibia) are encouraged by the projected growth of the nuclear industry. But not all reactions have been positive. For example, the anticipated windfall from the sales of uranium has caused unrest in Niger [“Battle in a Poor Land for Riches Beneath the Soil,” by Lydia Polgreen, New York Times, 14 December 2008]. And frantic mining activity in Kazakhstan has raised environmental concerns there [“In Kazakhstan, the race for uranium goes nuclear,” by Philip P. Pan, Washington Post, 25 February 2010]. Nuclear waste issues are included in the discussions below. First, I’d like to review what Michael Totty said on the subject of nuclear power [“The Long Road: New Nuclear Reactors,” Wall Street Journal, 22 February 2010]. He discusses the technology involved, the current status of the sector, and why he thinks it will take so long to make an impact.

“THE TECHNOLOGY: Advanced nuclear reactors use simplified, standardized designs that should be cheaper and quicker to build and easier to operate. Passive safety features lower the risk of accidents. These ‘generation 3+’ reactors consume more of the nuclear fuel, lowering operating costs and trimming waste. Looking ahead, some generation IV designs can recycle used nuclear fuel, producing even less waste and relying less on new uranium supplies.”

For more about new reactor designs, read my posts entitled The Future of Nuclear Power (which discusses pebble bed reactors), More on Nuclear Power (which talks about third and fourth generation reactors), and The Future of Thorium (which discusses using thorium rather than uranium as a primary reactor fuel). Totty continues:

“CURRENT STATUS: About a dozen generation 3+ reactors are under construction around the world, and several more are planned, including nearly two dozen in the U.S. awaiting certification and licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. For generation IV reactors, an international group of scientists and researchers is coordinating research and development, and they’ve agreed to a list of six technologies to pursue.”

Generation I systems were based on reactors developed for naval propulsion. They pioneered the pressurized water reactor (PWR) design which is the basis for most of the generation II nuclear reactors now in operation. According to The Economist, “most new reactors will continue to be PWRs. A forthcoming crop of ‘generation III’ and ‘generation III+’ reactors build on the light-water design with new safety mechanisms. Some can also run on mixed oxide (MOx) fuel, which is produced by reprocessing spent fuel to extract the plutonium and uranium and combining them to make a new fuel. But although MOx is currently used in around one-third of French reactors, the idea of reprocessing is controversial and has yet to gain widespread international support. Critics say it is uneconomic and increases the risk of proliferation” [“Nuclear’s next generation,” 12 December 2009 print issue]. For more on that subject, read my post about thorium mentioned above. On the subject of generation IV reactors, The Economist reports that “the six most promising ‘generation IV’ designs identified by the GIF [Generation IV International Forum] from an original list of over 100 concepts depart markedly from the light-water moderated, once-through models that dominate the existing fleet. Even those reactors that draw upon aspects of current designs add some new twists.” The six new designs that are being pursued are: supercritical water-cooled reactor (SCWR); the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR); the sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR); the gas-cooled fast reactor (GFR); the lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR); and the molten salt reactor (MSR). The article provides brief descriptions of each design. Totty concludes:

“WHY IT’S GOING TO TAKE SO LONG: While China and others are moving ahead with construction of the generation 3+ reactors, the first new plants in the U.S. aren’t likely to appear until late in the decade; NRC certification of the first of the new designs may not occur before early 2012, and construction, even if accelerated, will take at least four or five years. Another hurdle is financing. So far, four companies have been short-listed to receive $18.5 billion in federal loan guarantees designed to reassure investors worried about delays and cost overruns. President Obama is seeking total guarantees of $54 billion, which might spur more companies to proceed with construction plans. The first $8.3 billion in guarantees were approved. … But at the current pace, only about 10,000 megawatts of new nuclear power is likely to come online by 2020. That’s about the amount of wind capacity added last year, and about 10% of current nuclear capacity, or nearly 1% of total U.S. capacity. Supply-chain problems, such as the limited number of forges capable of making large reactor containment vessels, also could hinder more rapid deployment. Generation IV reactors, meanwhile, aren’t expected to enter commercial development until well after 2020.”

General Atomics just announced that it is developing a small reactor that can be operated using the spent fuel from larger reactors [“General Atomics Proposes a Plant That Runs on Nuclear Waste,” by Rebecca Smith, Wall Street Journal, 22 February 2010]. She reports:

“Nuclear and defense supplier General Atomics announced … it will launch a 12-year program to develop a new kind of small, commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S. that could run on spent fuel from big reactors. In starting its campaign to build the helium-cooled reactor, General Atomics is joining a growing list of companies willing to place a long-shot bet on reactors so small they could be built in factories and hauled on trucks or trains. The General Atomics program, if successful, could provide a partial solution to one of the biggest problems associated with nuclear energy: figuring out what to do with highly radioactive waste. With no agreement on where to locate a federal storage site, that waste is now stored in pools or casks on utilities’ property. The General Atomics reactor, which is dubbed EM2 for Energy Multiplier Module, would be about one-quarter the size of a conventional reactor and have unusual features, including the ability to burn used fuel, which still contains more than 90% of its original energy. Such reuse would reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste that remained. General Atomics calculates there is so much U.S. nuclear waste that it could fuel 3,000 of the proposed reactors, far more than it anticipates building.”

Wide acceptance of the kind of reactor proposed by General Atomics would pull the floor from beneath the uranium commodities market. Smith explains that because the reactor operates at temperatures “about twice as hot as a conventional water-cooled reactor” it could be “well suited [for] industrial uses that go beyond electricity production, such as extracting oil from tar sands, desalinating water and refining petroleum to make fuel and chemicals.” Its potential utility, however, may be overwhelmed by potential shortfalls. Smith explains:

“Success is far from certain. High-temperature reactors place special stress on the metals used in reactor components, and there isn’t any commercial certification process at the NRC to assess the reactors’ unique characteristics and to verify that they could operate safely for an expected 40- to 60-year life. That process would need to be developed or such reactors couldn’t be certified. The regulatory agency would also have to decide how to handle license requests from companies that might want to locate reactors near industrial facilities, such as oil refineries, something that current regulations don’t contemplate and that could pose special safety risks in the event of an industrial fire or explosion.”

Many of those issues will have to be addressed for other generation IV designs as well. The sooner the NRC starts down the road that leads to certification the sooner the future will come. One of the areas Totty failed to mention in his discussion of nuclear power was fusion. Fusion reactors will also be a long time coming, but the wait may be worth it [“Nuclear fusion may be worth the long wait,” by Clive Cookson, Financial Times, 19 January 2010]. Cookson writes:

“Although some optimistic scientists continue to work on small-scale fusion devices – successors of the largely discredited ‘cold fusion’ experiment by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons 20 years ago – the main action is taking place on a far grander scale. Most experts believe that to obtain useful power through controlled fusion, extreme temperatures and/or pressures are needed to force atomic nuclei to join together and release immense amounts of energy – as occurs in the sun and (uncontrollably) in the hydrogen bomb. Research is concentrating on two ‘big science’ approaches, both costing billions of dollars. One is magnetic fusion: heating hydrogen ions, which are held inside a doughnut-shaped reactor with ultra-strong magnets, to more than 100m°C. The other is ‘inertial confinement’ or laser fusion: shooting a small pellet of solid hydrogen fuel with an array of lasers so powerful that they trigger nuclear fusion.”

Cookson reports that the magnetic fusion reactor drawing the most attention has been named Iter (originally an acronym for International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor but is now defined as the Latin for “the way”). “Iter is a partnership between the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea, the US, Russia and India.” The cost of creating a functional reactor is estimated to be over $20 billion and a demonstration model isn’t expected to be operational until 2018. A full-scale operational model is expected to be completed by 2026 but even that version of Iter won’t be capable of generating electrical power. Cookson explains:

“While Iter will eventually produce a ‘burning plasma’, with a self-sustaining fusion reaction lasting at least 10 minutes and generating 500MW of energy, it is not designed to be a power station. The task of demonstrating sustained large-scale power generation from fusion will fall to Iter’s successor, called Demo. On the most optimistic timescale, Demo would come into operation in the 2030s and feed power into the grid around 2040. But widespread commercialization would take much longer.”

The other approach, laser fusion, doesn’t appear likely to produce any quicker results. Cookson continues:

“Its showcase is the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. NIF has been built by the US government during the past 10 years at a cost of about $4bn. It is a dual-purpose facility, offering a means of testing nuclear weapons without actually detonating a bomb, as well as energy generation. The world’s most powerful laser system will have 192 x-ray beams focusing all of their energy on a small pellet of frozen hydrogen which – if all goes well – will burn for a short while like a miniature star. Laser testing at NIF is going well and the first hydrogen targets may be introduced later this year. … But it will be a long engineering step from igniting miniature stars in a laser facility to building a commercial fusion power station. There is no good reason to assume that lasers would be any quicker than magnets to come to fruition, although it seems reasonable for the world not to put all its fusion eggs in one basket. Doubters have long scoffed at fusion for being a power source that always lies 50 years ahead. Whichever route is eventually chosen, it is likely to be more than half a century before fusion energy becomes routine. But our grandchildren may find that it is worth the wait.”

Ed Crooks believes that even our grandchildren shouldn’t hold their breath hoping for some amazing breakthrough to provide limitless and cheap power [“Wonder of new technology may be a dangerous diversion,” Financial Times, 19 January 2010]. He writes that it is more important to concentrate on the practical than dream of the possible:

“Nuclear power is an industry that is perpetually in thrall to dreams of a better tomorrow. From the earliest claims that electricity would be ‘too cheap to meter’, there have always been engineers holding out the prospect of technological breakthroughs that would transform energy production. Today there are plenty of those putative advances competing for attention, from the proposed small-scale reactors that would fit in a garden shed, to Iter, the €10bn international research project into nuclear fusion, based in France. The technologies that have the most immediate promise are ‘fourth-generation’ reactors: designs intended to offer advantages over current state-of-the-art third-generation models in terms of fuel efficiency and waste production. James Hansen, the Nasa physicist who has become a campaigner for action on climate change, is a strong advocate of fourth-generation nuclear power. None of these new reactors is likely to be available for deployment this decade. However, one version of the technology is now being put forward for political support as a ‘timely’ answer to the question of what to do with US nuclear waste, because it can use the waste created by today’s reactors as a source of fuel. Yet for some in the nuclear industry, the lure of the fourth-generation reactor is a distraction. They worry that a focus on technologies of the future risks diverting investment from reactors that can be deployed today.”

Crooks points out that the issue of nuclear waste continues to grow and was exacerbated in the U.S. when President Barack Obama killed off the plan for a national repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That is one reason that fourth generation reactors are looked on so favorably; they generate less waste and some can even burn waste from earlier generation reactors. One of those reactors, called the Prism, is being pushed by GE Hitachi.

“GEH’s Prism reactor is a version of the Integral Fast Reactor that was developed with US government backing until funding was cut by president Bill Clinton in 1994. Now the company believes its time has come. Last summer, GEH launched a plan to develop Prism reactors as part of what it calls an Advanced Recycling Center for radioactive waste. The pitch, delivered by GEH in the US House of Representatives in June [2009], is that the Prism reactor will allow a sustained expansion of nuclear energy, meeting objectives for securing energy supplies and curbing greenhouse gas emissions, while providing a solution to the perennial problem of what do do with nuclear waste. … GEH’s proposed facility would take used fuel waste from nuclear power stations and separate it into three parts: uranium that can be re-used as conventional reactor fuel, waste that is suitable for storage, and fuel for the Prism reactors. … The reactor uses molten sodium as its coolant – a metal that burns in air and explodes in water; GEH argues that sodium-cooled reactors have operated safely at many sites around the world but regulators will want to be certain such hazards can be managed successfully.”

Builders of generation III and generation III+ reactors aren’t keen on policymakers pushing off the construction of their reactors to build generation IV reactors. Crooks continues:

“The concern of John Ritch, the director-general of the World Nuclear Association, which represents the industry, is that the prospect of fourth-generation technology becoming available should not be used as a reason to defer investment in today’s third generation reactors. ‘Fourth generation technology is neither imminent nor urgent because it will represent an evolution rather than a breakthrough. The reality is that third-generation technology already deals successfully with the problems that are often alleged to exist with nuclear technology today,’ he says. Third-generation reactors, such as the EPR offered by Areva of France, the AP1000 from Japanese-owned Toshiba Westinghouse, and GEH’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor, already offer advantages over earlier designs, such as longer working lives – 60 rather than 40 years – and safety. The central problem, as seen at Areva’s EPR, under construction at Olkiluoto in Finland, is cost. Capital costs are running at three or more times the cost per unit of capacity of a gas-fired plant. However, Mr Ritch argues that during the next 15 years there will be substantial reductions as engineering companies acquire more expertise.”

Before ending, there is one other article that recently caught my eye that touches on both the nuclear power and coal-fired power sectors [“Out of the Ashes,” by David Winning, Wall Street Journal, 22 February 2010]. Winning explains:

“Sparton Resources Inc., a small Toronto mining company, is betting that a global renaissance in nuclear power will create a market for an unlikely fuel source: waste coal ash. Natural coal contains trace amounts of uranium, and when it is burned to produce electricity, varying amounts of the radioactive element are left behind in the ash. Sparton has developed a method for recovering it and says a project under way at a coal-fired power station in southwestern China is yielding uranium that could be reused as a fuel for nuclear reactors. The company is exploring other sites in China, South Africa and in Eastern Europe, where ash was buried when Soviet-era power plants were shut down, to determine whether they have similar potential. Sparton’s efforts come as concerns about climate change thrust nuclear power back into the spotlight as a way to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. Some analysts and mining companies are predicting a supply shortage of uranium within four to eight years if, as expected, China and other Asian nations accelerate programs to build nuclear reactors and European nations such as Sweden abandon their moratoriums on new nuclear plants. … Not all waste ash is suitable for uranium recovery. Coal needs a uranium content of at least 50 parts per million to be comparable to a low-grade uranium deposit, says Robert Finkelman, a research scientist with the University of Texas at Dallas. In the U.S., the average coal deposit has only about two parts per million. In addition, some coal-fired power plants inject lime into burners to control emissions of sulfur. That can leave large amounts of excess lime or calcium carbonate in the ash, which makes it harder and more expensive to get at the uranium. Sparton says it is confident that its Yunnan project, in which it has invested more than $5 million to date, can overcome these and other challenges.”

Spartan’s assumptions may be correct in the near-term, but as reactors come on line that can use nuclear waste from older plants, fuel supplies should become plentiful. Nevertheless, the concept is interesting. The article is accompanied by a good image that shows how uranium is recovered.

 

Cost and controversy will remain the two greatest challenges to the nuclear industry. Unless costs can be brought way down for constructing and operating nuclear plants, consumers and politicians alike will push for cheaper alternatives. For their part, environmentalists will continue to rage against the potential safety and environmental hazards associated with nuclear power plants — especially the issue of nuclear waste storage and disposal. As you can see, there remain more questions than answers about the future of nuclear power. My guess is that the challenges will eventually be overcome. A truly nuclear future, however, is a long, long way over the horizon — if ever.