Cheaper, Clean, Reliable, Safe
The Next Generation of mass power production
Something different from the usual Auckland issues this morning. In this post I am going to talk about an “evil” that might have been mislabeled as such (although there is no discounting the accidents – all human and design errors that have occurred) but owing to the current Philippines disaster and the climate change debate that spawned off from it, I thought might be time to highlight this option.
It is known as Generation IV Nuclear Power, the most advanced and safest designs of commercial nuclear power generation known to man thus far. And yes I have mentioned the evil word – nuclear. The same nuclear that have given us:
- Aided the Space Age
- The Bomb
- The Cold War (in part)
- Other technologies like finding cracks in metal
- Accidents – all owing to design and human errors
Like any human development there is always the good, bad and ugly – fact of life and one we grapple with every day.
I have been keeping an eye on the Philippines disaster and the general consensus that climatic change “contributed” to the Super Typhoon. That is another debate in itself but the issue along with an article from The Economist re-sparked an interest in the latest methods on mass power production.
Us humans do need to get on top of the amount of crap we pump into the atmosphere. That said if a large volcano decided to go up or the Sun increased its solar activity we are in trouble anyhow. But that is beside the point – for the moment.
Right now the cheapest source of mass production in power (and I mean to support large cities and industry) is coal, oil and gas-fired power plants. We know even with scrubbers and filters that those plants pump out both solid (soot) and gaseous waste into the atmosphere. We know this is not good but in order to have a readily supply of cheap power constantly fossil fuel plants are the way to go.
Generation II and Generation III nuclear power plants were devised as a way to replace or supplement fossil fuel plants with cheap power. These Gen II and III designs all use uranium (some use plutonium) as the fuel and water at high pressure as the coolant and often moderator. We have seen nasty accidents come from these kind of plants and we also know these plants leave long life deadly waste behind and often fuel to produce nuclear weapons (often why these plants were and still are built).
Owing to the three major nuclear accidents we have had, nuclear energy has fallen out of favour and we either revert back to fossil fuels or more expensive and relatively inefficient solar and wind power. I say inefficient using this example: Kyocera launches 70-megawatt solar plant, largest in Japan.
316 acres of solar panels to produce 70 megawatt of power for 22,000 homes. Now for half the size you could build four Generation IV Molten Salt Thorium Nuclear Reactors each producing between 250-800MW (depending on size of each reactor). So four large reactors at 800MW each or 3.2 Giggawatts (Three Gorges Dam in China produces that amount and more at full power) and 1 million homes powered approximately.
That is a big difference in energy production and relative efficiency between a solar plant and Generation IV reactors (first developed in the 1960’s) for a nation like Japan.
So what is a Generation IV Molten Salt Thorium Nuclear Reactor and why I bring this up?
This article from The Economist outlines the history of Generation II and III nuclear power generation, how some countries are foolishly dumping the nuclear industry, and how some nations are re-embracing nuclear generation and are embarking on either Gen III+ (Britain) or Gen IV (India) nuclear power production.
The Economist article with some key quotes:
The nuke that might have been
DOES the world need more nuclear power or less? Seared by the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in March 2011, Japan has now taken all its commercial reactors offline. The last was powered down on September 16th. Tokyo Electric Power, owner of the ill-fated reactors on the Fukushima coast, still hopes to restart an idled nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture next July—if it can overcome entrenched local opposition.
Meanwhile, measures are underway in Germany and Switzerland to phase out their nuclear stations. Another 11 European countries, plus Australia and New Zealand, remain adamantly opposed to nuclear power. In recent years, more reactors around the world have closed than opened.
Yet nuclear reactors do one thing no other mainstream source of electricity can boast: they generate large blocks of power without producing carbon dioxide in the process. Hydro-electricity is largely carbon-free, but most suitable sites have long since been exploited. Certainly, renewables like solar, wind and biomass can deliver power largely free of greenhouse gases. But renewables are nowhere near reliable nor cheap enough to displace conventional fuels—be they coal, natural gas, oil or nuclear. Nor can they be scaled up fast enough to meet the world’s insatiable demand for electricity.
Overall, opposition to nuclear power—despite the graphic footage of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima—seems to be on the wane. Last year, The Economist held an online debate on whether the world would be better off without nuclear power. Readers voted 61% to 39% in favour of keeping it (see “Debate on nuclear power”, April 15th 2012).
All told, 40-odd countries—mainly in the Middle East and Asia—have now committed themselves to building their first atomic-power plants, or to adding new ones to their existing nuclear capacity. As the poster-child for pollution, China is keenly aware that it cannot go on building dirty coal-fired power stations indefinitely and needs a cleaner alternative. Hence the 32 new reactors China has under construction, which will add 70 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2020. Russia is building ten new ones and India seven. Britain is about to start work on its first nuclear reactor since 1995. With eight of its nine nuclear plants now reaching the end of their lives, Britain plans to build a dozen new ones by 2030.
Most of today’s reactors, whether they use boiling water or pressurised water, trace their ancestry back to the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, launched in 1954. At the time, the LWR was just one of many reactor designs that existed either on paper or in the laboratory—using different fuels (uranium-233, uranium-235 or plutonium-239), different coolants (water, heavy water, carbon dioxide or liquid sodium) and different moderators (water, heavy water, beryllium or graphite).
The light-water reactor of the day, with its solid uranium-dioxide fuel and water for both moderator and coolant, was by no means the best. But Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of America’s nuclear navy, chose it because it could be implemented faster than any of the others, making it possible for Nautilus to be launched on time. The LWR also appealed to Rickover because it produced a lot of bomb-making plutonium as a by-product.
Passive safety features aside, the new generation of reactors being hawked around the world are still basically old-fashioned light-water reactors with solid-fuel cores that are cooled and moderated by water. “Maddeningly,” say two leading light-water critics, “historical, technological and regulatory reasons conspire to make it hugely difficult to diverge from our current path of solid-fuel, uranium-based plants.”
In what has become a classic account of America’s missed opportunity to make nuclear power cleaner, safer and potentially an alternative to coal, Robert Hargraves of Dartmouth College and Ralph Moir, formerly of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, have made the most compelling case yet (in the July-August 2010 issue of American Scientist) for reactors that use a liquid fuel instead of a solid one. “Knowing what we now know about climate change, peak oil, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Deepwater Horizon oil well gushing in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010, what if we could have taken a different path?” asked the authors.
One advantage of liquid fuels is that they are not subjected to the radiation damage or structural stresses that cause the fuel rods in conventional reactors to swell and distort. Also, because they use a liquid fluoride salt for a coolant, there is no high-pressure water to deal with. Operating at atmospheric pressure, no containment vessel is therefore needed. The xenon gas that poisons the fuel rods in a conventional reactor simply bubbles out of a liquid fuel, while other fission products precipitate out and cease absorbing neutrons from the chain-reaction underway.
The spent fuel from a light-water reactor contains radioactive plutonium with a half-life of over 24,000 years. The fuel used in a liquid-fuel reactor is liquid fluoride laced with thorium. The toxicity of what little waste it produces is 10,000 times less than that from a conventional reactor. Overall, the half-life of a liquid-fuel reactor’s byproducts is measured in hundreds rather tens of thousands of years.
The liquid-fluoride thorium reactor, developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee during the late 1960s, ran successfully for five years before being axed by the Nixon administration. The reason for its cancellation: it produced too little plutonium for making nuclear weapons. Today, that would be seen as a distinct advantage. Without the Cold War, the thorium reactor might well have been the power plant of choice for utilities everywhere.
You can read the full article over at The Economist: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/11/difference-engine-0
For more on Generation IV nuclear power you have these articles here:
And a graphic of Generation IV reactors:
This technology has been around since the 1950’s and was developed successfully in the 1960’s. However, as noted above as these kind of reactors could not produce fuel for nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War they were in the USA dumped from further development.
That said and as mentioned above Generation IV reactors have the potential to replace coal-fired power plants as the common and “cheapest” source of power production – with no Greenhouse Gas emissions to boot. Waste is less of an issue compared to the older Generation II and III water based reactors and meltdowns with Gen IVs should be theoretically impossible as the thorium fuel is inter-mixed with the coolant – rather than applied separately like a water-based reactor.
Even better news is that the Gen IV reactors especially Molten Salt Thorium Reactors (as India are developing) can be very easily adapted to scale. Whether it be a micro-50 mega Watt portable reactor or large-scale reactors to power massive mega cities, this new (well old actually) phase of nuclear energy could be a viable and economic solution to replace our fossil fuel power plants.
Quoting: Today, the thorium reactor is a non-starter, at least in America and other countries that have invested heavily in light-water technology. But things are different in India, a country with no uranium but an abundance of thorium. India plans to produce 30% of its electricity from thorium reactors by 2050. Being plentiful and cheap, thorium is the only fuel that stands a chance of generating electricity as cheaply as burning coal. As such, it is the only fuel capable of weaning the world off the biggest single polluter of all.
If we want to make a serious move away from fossil fuel plants towards a cleaner source power – Generation IV Thorium Nuclear Reactors should be a given.
Oh as for this:
That is because in my SC4 cities I start with oil-fired plants, then to Thorium Plants, then for the mega cities I use Fusion Reactors 😉
- Generation IV (actinideage.wordpress.com)
- Former NRC Chairman Says U.S. Nuclear Industry is “Going Away” (spectrum.ieee.org)
- The Clean Energy Way to Fight Climate Change (huffingtonpost.com)