Off to Russia

Well, I’m just about to hop on a plane to Russia to visit for a week — destination Moscow. This is part of my duties as a member of the International Awards Committee for the Global Energy Prize (see here for details).

Whilst in the heart of the former Soviet Union, I’ll hook up with Tom Blees (President of SCGI) and Evgeny Velikhov (President of the Kurchatov Institute), among others. It’s going to be my first trip to the country, and although I’ll only get to see Moscow this time around, I’m returning to the country in again June (partly for the GEP awards ceremony, after which I go directly to the U.S. for lots of other exciting activities); on the June trip, I’ll go to the wonderful old city of St Petersburg. Lucky me, eh?

Anyway, I hope to be able to post one or two updates on BNC during the trip, provided I can hook up to the internet from time to time.

In the meantime, here is something that will be of interest to many readers, given recent discussions on the blog. Apologies if you’ve seen it before.


Economic/Business Case for the Pyroprocessing of Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF)

While many still claim that conservation together with wind and solar will solve the world’s energy problems, they are dead wrong. Nuclear power is the only proven alternative source of carbon-free energy that can be developed rapidly enough and to sufficient scale to meet the world’s growing need for energy. This report outlines the actions which must be taken; both to reduce the amount of troublesome nuclear waste called Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) and simultaneously create the fuel needed by Fast Reactors. The authors are certain the use of Pyroprocessing to close the nuclear fuel cycle, and Fast Reactors, particularly in the form of Integral Fast Reactor (IFRs), are inevitable in a fossil fuel-free world.

Read entire article (This is a large file. Please be patient while it loads.)

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  1. Hello Frank. Couple of comments. I think if you talk to mining geologists they will tell you that we are a very long way from running out of Uranium. I like this article, but I’m sure you can find others.

    Also you have a typo in your note. We don’t use only 0.01% of energy, it’s 1%.

    Of course that doesn’t mean we should not be looking to advanced technologies that use it all. (LFTRs, IFRs).

  2. SteveK9,

    Thanks for the additional information and the link. I’m glad that you made a post to the web page to which I provided the link; perhaps others will also.

    However, I do question one thing in the linked-to article. According to the article, our present nuclear technology makes use of only the U235. It was my understanding that some of the U238 is transmuted to plutonium and that most of the plutonium is then fissioned. If my understanding is correct, then our present reactors actually do some limited breeding.

  3. Frank: I’m a scientist but there are people on this site much more knowledgeable than I am. From what I have read we do get some limited breeding in a PWR. So, with natural U at 0.7% U235, we get a good portion of that in the enrichment to ~5% U235 for fuel (and throw away some), then we get some addtional energy from Pu production from U238 and overall obtain about 1% of the energy in the original U compared to fissioning it all.

  4. wilful, no, I do not buy emissions offsets. Why? (i) offsets are typically difficult to verify, usually don’t result in net emissions reductions, and are often little more than a sham, and (ii) we are not going to solve the greenhouse problem by stopping flying (it’s just not going to happen, any more than Ted Trainer’s “Simpler Way” or a 100% renewable Australia by 2020 will) – we need to instead deploy energy sources that can produce low or zero emissions jet fuel, e.g. nuclear synthesised ammonia, genetically engineered short-chain hydrocarbons from biofuels, etc. I’m not sure what will work out as most economic.

  5. The Breakthrough Institute also has some articles suggesting offsets are illusory and by implication fraudulent. Could be why we are supposed to spend billions on them as a nation if we are not on-track with emissions by 2015.

    I haven’t done the numbers but I think we could make some reasonably priced jet fuel from coal and gas if we didn’t also burn those fuels in power stations. That’s for an overall 80% emissions cut not 100%. Bullet trains travelling at 350 kph powered by electricity might replace some air travel with the slight problem of underwater tunnels any further than the English Channel.

  6. p5 of the pdf:
    “The DOE can look to the utility industry’s $24
    Billion Nuclear Waste Trust Fund (growing at approximately $1.8 Billion
    per year) as a source for funding this expenditure”

    then on p8:
    1) $500 Million Investment Required for a 100 Ton/yr Pyroprocessing
    Demonstration Pilot Plant
    Basic Assumptions:
    • Total Investment- $500 Million
    • Plant cost – $400 Million
    • Borrow 60% of plant cost ($240 Million @ 6% – 15 year pay back)
    • Capital Investment – $260 Million

    Seems like a no brainer. The Nuclear Waste fund has 1.8$ billion and they only need a capital investment of 260 million. W/ Yucca mtn shut down this seems like the way to go…..and why isn’t GE spear heading this??? (maybe they are and I missed it).

  7. When I was a kid, we were more inclined to travel by train than by air and trains are, or at least can be, much more energy efficient. At that time, trains didn’t often exceed about 85 mph. It was a very pleasant way to travel.

    I can’t see intercontinental air travel being replaced by any other travel means, but probably intercontinental air travel is a relatively small percentage of air travel anyway. However, high speed rail surely could replace most of air travel within a continent and, if the trains were electrically powered without fossil fuels, air travel would cease to be a significant source of CO2 emissions.

    For about 12 years, I did considerable intercontinental traveling by air and really didn’t feel guilty for doing so.

  8. Cyril R:

    On another thread, having promoted the virtues of lead cooled fast reactors, you went on to suggest that uranium/thorium hybrid fuel for SFRs would offer anti proliferation advantages.

    I would appreciate more information as I set great store on your opinions. I think this may be the appropriate thread to make this approach because, in part, I’m seeking information on pyroprocessing.

    First, lead.
    I had understood that lead bismuth was generally preferred to lead because of lower material damage. However, I have also read that you can only expect to get isobreeding from a lead/bismuth fast reactor and need sodium cooling for true breeding (without understanding why this should be so).

    Have the corrosion problems of pure lead coolants been overcome?
    If so,could one expect lead to be equivalent to sodium with respect to breeding ratios?

    Second, hybrid fuels and pyroprocessing.
    Suppose one wished to use RG Plutonium as fissile and uranium/thorium as fertile, what would be the composition of the fuel elements? Would one operate a core and blanket for maximum breeding with both uranium and thorium in the blanket for proliferation resistance and plutonium and uranium in the core? Alternatively, what would happen in terms of breeding if one used homogeneous fuel assemblies of mixed metals and no blanket? What would be the reprocessing implications of either approach? Would thorium go to the cathode along with other heavy metals? Would thorium get there together with (other) actinides (I’m not sure whether thorium is classed as an actinide) or sequentially? If the latter, what would be the proliferation implications?

    i hope you can bear with me. I’m aware that a little learning is a dangerous thing and can understand, therefore, that these questions may be irritating.

  9. GeorgeS writes,

    p5 of the pdf:
    “The DOE can look to the utility industry’s $24 Billion Nuclear Waste Trust Fund (growing at approximately $1.8 Billion per year) as a source for funding this expenditure”

    I think that must be a typo. The correct rate is $0.8 billion a year: 800 billion kWh (which is sold to distributors for, I guess, about $56 billion) times $0.001/kWh.

  10. Douglas Wise:

    Lead bismuth eutectic is more corrosive than pure lead. That is because, even though the temperature can be lowered with the lower melting point of lead-bismuth eutectic, bismuth dissolves more metals much more strongly. That then results in dissolution-deposition in hotter/colder parts which is what causes the corrosion. Also bismuth is surprisingly rare for large scale application in fast reactors, and produces a couple orders of magnitude more polonium. So for a large reactor, where dealing with freezing is easier, pure lead is preferred. The corrosion issues are very easy to overcome; you weld overlay ordinary high temp high strength steels with a metal that is noble in lead, eg molybdenum or niobium. Corrosion on these two metals by lead is zero. Nothing special here; today’s PWRs all do this. They use cheap strong low and high temperature steels for the pressure vessel etc. and then line it with stainless steel on all water contacting internal parts.

    Re the breeding of different metal coolants. Sodium, lead, and lead bismuth can all breed just fine in fast spectrum. Lead is actually a bit better in the neutronics than sodium. For example its neutron slowing and absorption is less and boiling point much higher than sodium, this results in no issues with void reactivity. Because of this lead allows a wider spectrum, either faster or slower than a sodium reactor. Going faster means better breeding than with sodium. But it also means a higher fissile startup is required.

    Re the core configuration. It depends on your priorities. If blankets are allowed from the proliferation angle and you don’t mind producing less power (blankets produce less power than the seed region) then you want to use blankets. If you are worried about proliferation (but you wouldn’t really with a hybrid Th232-U238 cycle) and/or want to maximise core power for a given core size (important economical consideration!) the you use homogeneous fuel elements. Those elements would then contain Pu, Th232 and U238 all together. In terms of breeding and fissile startup, it favors blankets especially for smaller cores (these leak more neutrons due to their higher surface area to volume). My own preference is for a larger core with homogeneous fuel elements, moderate to high burnup, but use a thick layer of lead around the core for reflecting leaked neutrons. Keep it simple.

    Re the reprocessing. Thorium is quite predictable. It will follow the rare earths and plutonium. But you can recover it by simple distilling of the chloride salt; ThCl4 comes at at acceptable temperatures. Alternatively you can use distillation of the metals directly, that is something I’m preferring if it is possible (because all the actinides including fertile always stay together homogeneously and it is chemically very simple).

  11. Lead cooled SVBR-100 requires 16.5% LEU as UO2.
    Larger sizes will require lower enrichment.
    Pu239 will be required in higher proportion. Less U233 will be required.
    Metallic fuel enrichment required is lower.
    Thorium requires higher fissile inventory. U238 undergoes some fast fission.
    You have to match processing to the fuel.

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