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Nuclear

Integral Fast Reactors for the masses

There was both interest and confusion over at the ABC Unleashed site when I wrote my first piece there on nuclear power. Going by the comments, most folks who were traditionally anti-nuclear continued to harbour their old beliefs and misconceptions about the technologies involved, even after reading my short piece. I did briefly (in one paragraph) explain the advantages of advanced nuclear power (Gen IV, the exemplar being the Integral Fast Reactor) — that is, it eliminates or at least minimises the major concerns held against Gen II (Gen III also solves some, but not waste/supply) and carries a bunch of advantages (like a huge amount of concentrated, zero-carbon energy). But that first Op Ed was always meant primarily to get people thinking more broadly about energy solutions — pointing out that mitigating climate change is the crucial end game: if you don’t get this right, everything else is ceases to matter.

Anyway, in order to take the basic idea of IFR to the masses, I wrote a second piece which is focused specifically on this tech (and a little more on Gen III+, which are also attractive as a transition/stop-gap). I’ve reproduced the essay at the end of this post. For regular BraveNewClimate readers, there is probably nothing new there. On the other hand, it contains almost too much detail for those unfamiliar with the concepts (at least that is what GR says!).

For another popular audience take on it, Steve Kirsch has written a nice piece for a The Mercury News, a Silicon Valley newspaper. It’s called “How a 24-year-old technology can save the planet“. It’s also well worth a read.

Finally, Jim Green from Friends of the Earth, has posted a critique of IFR. Check it out, and see what you think after reading the details of the IFR technology here on this site and elsewhere (follow those links). As a head’s up, I plan to post a rejoinder to Jim’s critique, here on BNC, once I clear a few other things off the desk.

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Why old nuclear power is not new

Previously in this forum I have expressed the view that nuclear power will likely play a key role in the world’s future energy mix. My bottom line was this: the climate and energy crises need fixing with extreme urgency, and both require solutions which completely solve their underlying causes. Half measures at best merely help to delay the same eventual result as business-as-usual (and at worst encourage complacency) — saddling future generations with a climatically hostile planet with a scarcity of available energy.

The comments in response to my openness about the nuclear option were not unexpected. In short, five principle objections were mounted against the viability or desirability of nuclear power.

First, uranium supplies are small, such that if the world was wholly powered by nuclear reactors, there would be at most a few decades of energy to use before our resource was exhausted and the power plants would have to shut down. Second, nuclear accidents have happened in the past, and therefore this power-generation technology is inherently dangerous. Third, expansion of nuclear power would axiomatically risk the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Fourth, in taking the short-term nuclear energy option, we would be bequeathing future generations with the legacy of long-lived nuclear waste requiring thousands of years of management. Fifth, large amounts of energy (and possibly greenhouse gases) would be required to mine, mill and enrich uranium, and to construct and later decommission the nuclear power stations themselves.

Cost and embedded energy arguments used against nuclear must be left for another day, because to be addressed fairly, this also requires a critical examination of the costs and embedded energy requirements for the alternative sources (renewables and fossil fuels).

Now all five of the above points have some merit, although their relative importance compared to threat of climate change and the societal disruption caused by critical energy shortages is debatable. The chaos and bitter complaints which stemmed from the power shortages experienced during the current heatwave in southern Australia demonstrate how dependent we are on a secure, reliable energy supply. But to be honest, there is little point in even having a debate on how persuasive these five objections are, because none will be applicable to future nuclear energy generation.

Of the more than 440 commercial nuclear power stations operating worldwide today and supplying 16 per cent of the world’s electricity, almost all are thermal spectrum reactors. These use ordinary water to both slow the neutrons which cause uranium atoms to split (fission) and to carry the heat generated in this controlled chain reaction to a steam turbine to generate electricity. Because of the gradual build-up of fission products (nuclear poisons) in fuel rods over time, we end up getting about 1 per cent of the useable energy out of the uranium, and throw the rest out as that problematic long-lived waste.

Modern reactors are incredibly safe, with physics-based ‘passive’ safety systems requiring no user-operated or mechanical control to shut down the reaction. Indeed, a certification assessment for the ‘Generation III+’ Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) put the risk of a core meltdown as severe as the one which occurred at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979 at once every 29 million years. For reference, the TMI incident resulted in no deaths. Similarly, comparing the inherently unsafe Chernobyl reactor design to an ESBWR is a bit like comparing an army revolver to a water gun.

Fast spectrum reactors, also known as ‘Generation IV’, are able to use 99.5 per cent of the energy in uranium. There is enough energy in already-mined uranium and stored plutonium from existing stockpiles to supply all the world’s power needs for over a century before we even need to mine any more uranium. Once we do start mining again, there is enough energy in proven uranium deposits to supply the entire world for at least 50,000 years. Fast reactors can be used to burn all existing reserves of plutonium and the waste stream of the past and present generation of thermal reactors.

The safety features of Gen IV designs, due for instance to the metal alloy fuel used, is superior even to the ESBWR. The nuclear fuel used by fast reactors is fiendishly radioactive and contaminated with various heavy elements (which are all eventually burned up in the power generation process!), making it impossible to divert to a nuclear weapons programme without an expensive, heavily shielded off-site reprocessing facility which would be easily detected by inspectors.

Yet in reality the only nuclear waste material that will ever leave an Integrated Fast Reactor complex (a systems design for power stations which includes on-site reprocessing) are fission products, which decay to background levels of radiation with a few hundred years (not hundreds of millennia), and can be readily stored because they produce so little heat compared to ‘conventional’ nuclear waste.

For further details, I refer you to my review of the book Prescription for the Planet, which discusses the Integral Fast Reactor technology in-depth, as well as ways to transform our vehicle fleet to use zero-emissions metal-powered burners and how to convert our municipal solid waste to plasma.

Business-as-usual projections suggest that at current pace, we may have Gen IV fast spectrum reactors delivering commercial power by 2025 to 2030. Too late, you say! True enough, but these same sort of forward projections resulted in the International Energy Agency recently predicting that non-hydro renewables will go from meeting 1per cent, to 2 per cent, of global energy use. Either option therefore requires radically accelerated research, development and deployment, if it is to make a difference to climate change and energy supply. A project of Manhattan-style proportions (America’s development of the atom bomb, three years after the first controlled chain reaction) or the audacity of the moon-shot vision (12 years from Sputnik to Neil Armstrong’s famous small step), is required.

There is no doubt in my mind that we have the means to ‘fix’ the climate and energy crises, or at least avert the worst consequences, if we have full recognition of the scale and immediacy of the challenges now faced. New generation nuclear power is one possible path to success, and one that all nations should actively support – though certainly not to the exclusion of other zero-carbon energy options such as renewables and efficiencies. So let’s be sure, when rationally considering energy planning, that we are not mired in old-school thinking about exciting new technologies.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

145 replies on “Integral Fast Reactors for the masses”

Barry Brook – Sorry I cannot hold back any longer. I will try to demonstrate with real world examples why overbuilding baseload is impractical and it is mainly operational reasons not economic.

Consider a system that has a peak summer demand of 20GW. It may only reach that peak 1 day in the year however you have to overbuild to the peak so you install 20GW of baseload. Also in the scenerio you need about 15GW of load (desal plasma torches etc) to balance the off-peak demand which could be as low as 5GW.

So on a typical day you have this situation. Grid demand is 10GW and you have 10GW of make up load running to keep the baseload generators running flat out. Suddenly another 200MW of load hits the grid. Your system can do nothing at all as all generators are running flat out and cannot give any more. You have no peak generators to start up so the voltage and/or frequency sags. If it sags enough other loads will trip off. This will cause the grid demand to drop from 10.2GW to 8GW as loads trip off due to low voltage. This now causes a excess in supply which your baseload generators still cannot do anything about because they are still running flat out. This will now cause a massive voltage spike as supply exceeds demand. As the voltage increases the devices that tripped off may or may not switch back on causing demand fluctuations and before you know it the entire grid crashes. The only way to cope with this with generators in base load mode is to modulate the discretionary loads somehow. The problem with this is that desal plants do not like being turned off and on quickly. Plasma torches have feed hoppers etc and also cannot be switched on and off in the small increments required to balance the grid. You would have to have huge dummy loads that can be precisely controlled to accurately match supply with demand over the course of the day.

The solution to this is to change say 5GW of your generators to load following mode. This way you have grid demand at 10GW, discretionary load of 5GW and 5GW of load following headroom to cope with demand fluctuations. In this case if 200MW of demand hit the grid the load following generators can increase to meet the rising demand. This means however that 25% of your generating capacity is idle. Also you have another problem. Lets say 50MW of load trips on. Large turbo generators are large and heavy and take time, even in load following mode, to speed up or slow down. So at the best 5 mins after the demand rise your generators start to produce the extra 50MW required. However in this time the voltage has sagged and 150MW of load has tripped off. Now your generators are ramping up to supply the extra 50MW of load but the grid demand has slumped 200MW lower than the supply leading to a voltage spike that can damage loads. Also the fluctuations in loads is very damaging to turbogenerators and nuclear power plants which are much happier running flat out. So your load following nukes will have much shorter lifetimes and higher maintenance costs.

Finally you have the problem of spinning reserve. In the NEMMCO it is legislated that there is 800MW of spinning reserve. Spinning reserve is there to cope with the quite frequent dropout of whole generators. Now you have 20GW of baseload consisting of possibly 250MW or larger turbo generators and power plants of 1GW or larger. Now you have to keep at least enough spinning reserve to cope with the loss of one or possibly two of your largest generators. This means that of your 10GW of baseload power has to have at least 2GW of spinning reserve as you do not have any peaking generators to assist.

Your final generating system would consist of 12GW of baseload with 5GW of load following plants and only 3GW of discretionary loads which is hardly worth the trouble really. 7GW or more of this would be doing nothing at all. Really you would have to have 5GW of baseload, 2GW of spinning reserve, and 15GW of load following to really cope with modern fast moving grids especially in Australia as we have very long transmission lines out to rural areas.

You would still need ancillary service to stabilise the grid so there is no getting away from small generators fuelled from some sort of hydrocarbon fuel that can start and stop in seconds and modulate their output to precisely balance the grid.

I am not just being argumentative. You have argued that the only reason we do not overbuild baseload is economic. I hope that I have demonstrated that there are operational reasons not to overbuild baseload as well. A balanced properly working grid has about 60% baseload and 35% peaking power with the remaining 5% the panic, lets get any generator we can scrape up and throw it on the grid, days when it is 45deg and every has their aircon on flat out. It also has the absolutely vital ancillary services that keep the grid at a precise voltage, a precise frequency and a precise phase. Changes in any of these can cause damage. This balance has evolved because it works after a fashion.

An overbuilt baseload grid is simply not workable.

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Ender, re: overbuild, that’s generally a good illustration though I still disagree about the need for much load following.

In the situation you describe, you could have IFRs running the 60% baseload and the 35% peaking power (being used for desal, plasma, boron-reduction etc. when not required). The other 5% (perhaps 10%) you keep as ‘spinning reserve’ (e.g., syngas plants — with the gas derived from the plasma burners, standard + pumped hydro storage, thermal molten salt storage). You can still overbuild IFRs above baseload, right through peak load, but just not to the point to cope with the extreme 5-10% ‘ultra-peak’ demands.

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Ender @ 115 (sorry, I couldn’t help myself): The problem with this is that desal plants do not like being turned off and on quickly.…and…nuclear power plants which are much happier running flat out.

Aside from the rather odd anthropomorphic quality about what makes machines happy, a desal plant run off the heat at a nuclear plant wouldn’t have any trouble being shut off quickly, it’s basically a boiler. PRISM reactors are very good at load following, and a hybrid plant could quickly shift its desal and electricity ratios.

You would still need ancillary service to stabilise the grid so there is no getting away from small generators fueled from some sort of hydrocarbon fuel that can start and stop in seconds and modulate their output to precisely balance the grid.

Fine, then make your hydrocarbon fuels out of syngas from garbage and/or agricultural waste and built that sort of system. Just don’t talk about using natural gas from wells. Or do as Barry says and use stored heat or any other of the power storage system championed by solar and wind advocates.

Ultimately, if the power plants are reasonably economical to build and there are these other uses for them when they’re not peaking, and if nuclear is all a state-operated enterprise, there should be no problem with sufficient overbuilding to supply whatever is needed at all times.

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Barry – “Ender, re: overbuild, that’s generally a good illustration though I still disagree about the need for much load following. ”

Thank you for considering what I said and perhaps we do not need so much load following as my example may not be completely realistic as I am still a layperson in this and do not work in the electricity industry so I am winging it only from what I have read.

Tom Blees – “Fine, then make your hydrocarbon fuels out of syngas from garbage and/or agricultural waste and built that sort of system.”

As I have not read your book yet as I promised to do, I will not comment on the IFR however this is exactly how I envision the renewable grid working. Clean Break has an interesting article on gas engines. One of these in every town where there is biomass waste would supply the required peaking power that renewables need for a balanced grid. Peaking is much cheaper than storage so perhaps this is the way we can both supply the required peaking power for our respective solutions. As my preferred solution has a wind farm and an solar thermal plant in as many communities as is possible, adding a biomass generator of this nature makes the island scenerio that much more plausible. Also these generators will also be connected to the virtual power stations that will be possible soon.

“http://www.cleanbreak.ca/2009/02/24/nexterra-ge-energy-partner-up-on-commercial-scale-biomass-power-systems/”

The gas engines here are perfect for using the syngas from plasma torches as well.

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We should bear in mind here that irrespective of opinions on the relative contribution of IFR vs renewables to the electricity supply, I think no one here is disagreeing that boron-powered cars and plasma burners for syngas are a great idea, and they or similar concepts, must be pursued vigorously.

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Barry Brook – “I think no one here is disagreeing that boron-powered cars and plasma burners for syngas are a great idea, and they or similar concepts, must be pursued vigorously.”

I think the plasma torch is a great idea however for biomass I would like to see some BioChar – http://www.biocharengineering.com/ – to give some much needed improvement to our soils. BioChar can also release syngas for energy though not as much.

The boron car? Do you really want me to start or shall I give it a miss considering the Ender fatigue experienced by yourself and Tom.

[Ed: Wait until you’ve read the P4TP chapter on boron cars, then go for it]

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Tom, I’d like to buy your book, but I’m afraid I’m unemployed at the moment. (If anyone has any work available I can wash dishes, clean floors, do research, perform economic analysis and so on.)

While it would be possible for an international non-profit to overbuild reactors, I don’t see why they would. Why would they build 38 reactors to meet Australia’s peak electricity use when 25 reactors with thermal storage could do so at less cost?

I have expressed doubts that nuclear energy will be cheap enough for Australia to use compared to other low emission sources of electricity. To demonstrate why I have these doubts I will compare the cost of current new nuclear power and current new solar thermal. The Cloncurry solar thermal plant will produce electricity at a cost of about $10,300 per average kilowatt and includes thermal storage. New nuclear in the US costs about $7,300 per average kilowatt and up. I’ll use the lower figure of $7,300. Tom has kindly supplied us with the marginal cost of nuclear power in the US which is 2.6 cents Australian per kilowatt-hour. The marginal cost of solar power is extremely low so I will set it at 0.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. I will set the cost of the money to build the plants at ten percent. This is approximately the average real return people or companies can expect if they invest in things other than generating capacity such as shopping centres, pharmaceuticals or mines. As this represents a permanent income stream that could have been generated with other investments we don’t need to concern ourselves with when the generating capacity pays for itself. I will ignore depreciation in the calculations and simply assume they depreciate at equal rates. This gives the following results:

Average cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity from nuclear = 10.98 cents

Average cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity from solar = 11.85 cents

So currently nuclear power appears to have an advantage over solar thermal, but this is not the complete story. In Australia electricity provided in the eight hour period of peak use sells for about twice as much as electricity provided during the eight hours of lowest consumption. Since nuclear is base load and solar produces almost all its output in the peak use period, electricity produced by solar power is about 25% more valuable than nuclear power, so to compare it with nuclear we should cut its cost by that amount giving a figure of 8.89 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is cheaper than nuclear.

Now Cloncurry is a very sunny place and building solar thermal plants in other parts of Australia may increase the cost of electricity. However, it is mainly greater cloud cover that will reduce the amount of electricity produced. As solar thermal tracks the sun, changes of latitude within Australia have little effect. Also, as our figure for solar thermal includes the cost of storage, which won’t be necessary for grid connected systems, it seems likely that solar thermal can currently produce electricity cheaper than nuclear in most of Australia.

Some people may be concerned about the amount of land solar thermal uses, so I will mention that this isn’t really an issue in Australia. I may be unemployed, but even I can afford to buy over 160 square kilometres of grazing land.

Tom suggests that nuclear reactors could be built for $1,400 US a kilowatt, which is less than the cost of modern coal plants. This seems unlikely to me, but if correct then nuclear energy would cost about 2.71 cents a kilowatt-hour. To compete with this the cost of solar would have to drop to below $2,800 per average kilowatt of output.

The cost of nuclear power may become much cheaper than it is currently. However, in order to become competitive with solar in Australia, the cost of nuclear would have to drop faster than the cost of solar. Nuclear energy is a mature technology and has had difficulty in reducing its costs for several decades. While improvements in design and construction may dramatically reduce its cost in the future, solar has been rapidly decreasing in cost and appears likely to continue to do so. While I of course have no way of knowing for certain, my guess is that solar will maintain its lead.

Before I go, I would like to investigate a scenario where an international non-profit group or the government gives financial aid to low emission generating capacity. In this scenario the cost of money is only 5%. The current cost of new nuclear power would be 6.83 cents per kilowatt-hour and solar would be 5.97 cents per kilowatt-hour or 4.48 cents after being adjusted for its greater market value. Under this scenario solar performs even better in relation to new nuclear than before. If the cost of nuclear dropped to $1,400 US a kilowatt then nuclear would cost 2.71 cents a kilowatt-hour and the capital cost of solar would need to drop to below $4,600 per average kilowatt of output to be competitive.

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Barry, if electrified transportation and or other energy storage developments result in electrical demand becoming flat, then using base load generating capacity to supply demand would not be overbuilding, it would simply be meeting demand. It would also decrease the cost using intermittent sources of energy such as wind and solar.

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I’ll just correct myself here. The effect of changes in lattitude on solar thermal depend on its type. Some use two axis tracking while others only track the sun on a single axis.

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Ron @ 122: Average cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity from nuclear = 10.98 cents

Where do you get these numbers? Paid-off nuclear plants in the USA produce electricity for 1.68 cent/kWh. GE says they can produce it for 4.6 cents from complete ground-up IFRs, all costs in including interest. That’s a far cry from your number.

Chris, I’ve tried to get through to Monbiot but he’s not answering me. Don’t know why.

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Tom, I provided all the numbers I used. If you disagree with them please use your own figures and see what results you get. Note that the Australian government borrows money at about 6% so even if an energy project is government funded you your capital costs will be at least that high. But actually, I think I made a mistake with the marginal cost of solar thermal. I’ve been reading about how it would create rural jobs and obviously the more jobs it creates the higher the operating costs. So if I raise the marginal costs by a factor of ten to one cent per kilowatt-hour then the cost in my simple calculation rises to 9.89 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is still cheaper than nuclear.

If GE can produce nuclear power at 4.6 US cents per kilowatt-hour all costs included, then that might be just profitable in South Australia where the average wholesale price of electricity was 4.84 US cents a kilowatt-hour in 2007. Since reactors are generally large, bringing one online in Australia will tend to push baseload market prices down, so I don’t know if a reactor would be profitable at that price. I also expect that GE would face increased risks and costs building in Australia, but if they want to take the risk and build a reactor here, we should let them.

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Ron #127: You cited the Cloncurry CSP plant:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloncurry_solar_power_station

If these figures prove correct once it’s operated, this would be a $31M venture resulting in a plant with a 10MW nameplate and an average capacity of 35% with thermal storage, based on the estimate of 30 GWh/year. Which is, as you say, power at about 11c/KWh. I’ll be interested to see how the project develops — let’s check back when it’s been running for a year. These sort of demo projects are certainly exactly what is required to get a better handle on these numbers — whether for new renewable or new nuclear projects. Same deal.

A point not explored much on this blog so far is how costs change when CSP and wind become a large fraction of the grid — molten salt or block graphite heat storage really helps with this, but still leaves problematic gaps (e.g., during cloudy winter days, especially strings of them).

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I imagine that CSP would handle a string of cloudy winter days through geographic dispersal of solar plants, through wind power tending to pick up when it’s cloudy and through the use of peak generating capacity such as gas turbines. (These turbines could potentially use biogas which last year in Europe supplied energy equal to over 20% of Australia’s natural gas consumption.) Currently we have large amounts of gas turbine capacity that sits idle in winter. The effect of a nuclear plant shutting down for what is generally a month long refuelling and maintenance cycle would be a greater problem as the economics of reactors works against building many small ones, and when shutdown the reactor will produce no electricity at all while clouds will only reduce the amount of electricity produced by solar.

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For starters, PRISM reactors can be refueled in a few hours. As for shutting down for maintenance, they’re small reactors (~360MW) designed to be built in twin power blocks, then clustered as needed to match demand. So on the rare occasions when they do need to be shut down for extended maintenance, you could shut down one or two at a time and still have the rest of the power plant running.

Since you mentioned overbuilt capacity, I’d just like to make a couple comments. Any way you cut it, electrical capacity will be overbuilt to some extent, and until storage systems are up and running and efficient and economical, it will be to a fairly large extent, for electricity use is extremely variable. Which begs the question of why utility companies haven’t yet built energy storage systems like those being proposed for wind and solar, rather than building more power plants. But as long as we can put the overcapacity to good use (desalination, electrolysis, etc) I don’t see the issue if the power plants are reasonably economical to build and don’t contribute any GHGs to the atmosphere.

After weeks of lengthy exchanges on Barry’s board here (which I really appreciate as a forum for discussions like this), I find myself wishing that wind and solar proponents would lighten up on the competition attitude. I don’t see Barry or I or anybody else who believes we should build some safe nuclear power plants saying that we shouldn’t build wind and solar projects. But from the other direction there’s this frequent air of desperation and antagonism, often accompanied by, frankly, some pretty lame arguments against nuclear power. Why is that? In general I don’t see people arguing much (at least on this board) on a safety or proliferation basis, but almost always on an economic basis. Yet the data that’s available on the most recent actual built and operating projects for both nuclear and solar certainly seems to favor nuclear by a wide margin. Is that what all the sturm und drang is about? I’m perfectly willing to just build a single IFR to see if it turns out to be as economically unfeasible as its critics claim. Where would be the harm in that approach? What’s all the fuss about? One would almost think that someone’s afraid of actual data.

Having long been researching all this, here’s my prediction: IFRs will in fact be very economical to build, and will use far less construction materials per megawatt compared to wind or solar. They will also be able to provide power 24/7 and thus have a tremendous advantage in that regard. In terms of life cycle GHG emissions as well as economics and reliability, IFRs will be the superior choice, complete with free fuel for hundreds of years. Will I be proven wrong? Let’s find out. Let’s build one and compare it to the upcoming wind and solar projects, and let the chips fall where they may. I’m fine with that.

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Tom#130: Read “Safe food” by Marion Nestle. She talks about “dread and outrage” issues related to food — GM food, irradiated food, terminator genes. The nuclear industry provokes the same response and probably for similar reasons. People comfortable with nuclear are just like people comfortable with GM, they just don’t understand what the fuss is about and that attitude infuriates people who feel dread, outrage and distrust. Nestle understands better than most scientists that failure to deal with the dread and outrage factors can bring many a project undone. Every time some company tries to coverup an accident, however “trivial” (Monju springs to mind), the dread and outrage index rises. I don’t feel comfortable with nuclear, but I feel less comfortable with climate change, so its a bit like chemotherapy — horrid stuff, but it can save your life.

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That’s very well put Geoff.

The problem as I see it is that human kind has lost control over its own destiny, because we have gone over the tipping point. It could be that the only remedies available to us now can also lead to our demise, but we have to consider them all the same because not to do spells a fatal prognosis. Some potent drugs are in that category. They can kill the patient, but the patient will die without it.

I think many people think we still have time to pull away from the brink. Maybe naively, but I admire their optimism. I would like to share it.

But if they are correct, then now is not the time to suffer a failure of nerve. And that’s where the caution lies.

All sorts of madcap, desperate ventures will be put forward as the planetary condition worsens. And many of them will make matters worse, simply because they try to resolve a problem through escalation. As potable water supplies dry up we build power-hungry desalination plants to keep up with growing water demand… and so forth.

Escalatory strategies run counter to de-escalatory strategies.

Yet, like scurrying ants on a burning log, we feel like we have no choice but to take desperate measures as the log gets intolerably hot under our feet.

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But the power that the power-hungry desalination plants would require is readily available. I would guess that we’ll see a lot more talk of draconian population limitation ideas in the near future too, and believe me I’d love to see the population start heading in the other direction. The desal goes hand in hand with population, though, so no matter how much we might deplore the population bomb we at least know that we can deal with it, rather than look forward to decades of water wars.

I agree that we’re in dire straits. That’s why I, like so many others, am trying to come up with workable solutions.

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Tom, it’s good to know that the GE-Hitachi PRISM can be refuelled in few hours. However, we don’t know its actual capacity as it doesn’t currently exist. Modern reactors generally have capacity factors of around 90%. This could be improved upon in the future, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Power companies in general haven’t used the power storage methods suggested for wind and thermal solar because they have mostly used fossil fuels and their energy comes pre-stored in the form of coal, oil and gas. As for putting over capacity to good use, if you can’t sell electricity at a price that covers your costs it means that there are other goods that people prefer over electricity. Overbuilding reactors will cause whoever does it, whether private companies or government, to lose billions of dollars. That’s billions of dollars that could have been spent on healthcare, feeding the hungry, scientific research, low emission cars or Playstations.

As for basing discussions on economics, there is no point in building reactors in Australia if other low emission alternatives, such as wind, are cheaper. Why bother having long discussions on safety or proliferation if reactors aren’t going to be built on economic grounds?

I’m interested to know if you think there is anything wrong with my calculation that shows new solar that hasn’t been completed yet will be cheaper in Australia than new nuclear in the US that hasn’t been completed yet.

You predict that new reactors will be cheaper than alternatives in the future, but I’m afraid I don’t understand why. Currently reactors under construction are very expensive. While some of their current cost is probably due to temporary factors, nuclear was not economical in Australia prior to this. We had two rounds of tenders for a nuclear plant at Jervis Bay but none of the proposals were considered worthwhile, and as far as I’m aware no one has offered to compete in the Australian electricity market with nuclear since then. While I think nuclear costs can come down, I don’t think costs will drop low enough to become competitive. Large amounts of money are spent on nuclear research every year, Japan alone spends about $6.7 billion a year on nuclear research, but this has not succeeded in significant cost reductions. Commercial nuclear energy is a mature technology that has been around for over fifty years. Mature technologies generally don’t reduce in cost by more that 1% a year. Wind power has declined in cost on average by over 3% a year for the last quarter century and appears likely to continue to decrease in cost. The cost of solar power is dropping by roughly 5% a year. It seems unlikely to me that nuclear will be able to compete. Even if GE could build a nuclear plant that produces electricity at 4.6 US cents per kilowatt-hour in Australia, at current average cost decreases it would only take about two years for wind to become cheaper.

What is the harm in building an Integral Fast Reactor? The cost, mainly. Current nuclear power is not competitive in Australia and designing and building a new kind of commercial reactor will cost a lot of money. This is money that could be spent reducing greenhouse gas emission by other means. If an IFR cost as much as the new Finnish reactor, then for the same price Australia could afford to install wind turbines with an average output of over two gigawatts. And I don’t understand why there are any significant advantages to building IFRs. Steel and concrete is less than 1% the cost of a nuclear plant so reducing the amount required is not of large benefit, and fuel and waste storage are not a large part of the cost of nuclear power so even they were eliminated it would only reduce the cost of nuclear power by about 7%. Wind and solar currently drop in price by about that much or more every two years. And while I certainly don’t expect wind and solar to continue to rapidly drop in price indefinitely, I do expect it to continue for some time.

Of course, if a private company wants to go ahead and spend their own money to build and Integral Fast Reactor and compete with other low emission alternatives, then good luck to them. But I would not invest in such a company as I doubt they will be able to compete.

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I’m interested to know if you think there is anything wrong with my calculation that shows new solar that hasn’t been completed yet will be cheaper in Australia than new nuclear in the US that hasn’t been completed yet.

I’ve often described how broken the US system is when it comes to nuclear power, and how that has to be fixed so as not to throw away billions of dollars when we start building nuclear again. What I have pointed out is that the most recent (and thus most germane to our discussion) experience of plants already built, both solar and nuclear, indicate that nuclear is far cheaper per kWh of electricity produced. If you take the best-case scenario of solar as yet unbuilt and the worst-case scenario of nuclear plants as yet unbuilt and compare them to make your point that solar is better, while ignoring solar and nuclear plants that are actually built and producing that prove the opposite with hard data, then you may convince some people who really want to believe, but I’m sorry, you won’t convince me.

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Tom, there is no need to for anyone to really believe in order to look at the figures for the projected cost of the Cloncurry solar thermal station and decide if it will produce electricity at a lower cost than the contracted for cost of the Virgil C Summer Nuclear Plant in South Carolina. You say I won’t convince you that solar is better than nuclear, but that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m asking if you see anything wrong with my estimate. Note that if the projected cost of the Cloncurry solar plant is cheaper than the contracted for cost of the new Virgil C. Summer reactors it does not logically follow that solar is better than nuclear. Also note that new reactors in South Carolina are not the worst case example of new nuclear power in the US with regard to cost. That would presumably be the new reactors at Vogtle which have a contracted cost of $10,400 per average kilowatt of output or $12,600 when transmission upgrades are included.

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I’m asking if you see anything wrong with my estimate.

Yes, what I see wrong with your estimate is that you insist on using what I’ve gladly admitted is a broken regulatory/corporate/government system and implying that it represents the necessary future of nuclear power. I point to nuclear plants built within the last decade that cost about an eighth of what Cloncurry is projected to cost if Cloncurry operates at a 25% capacity factor, which is better than any solar plant of any kind has yet managed, even without storage. To pretend that it can achieve 31%—with the energy penalties of storage, no less—is a far stretch of optimism. Remember, capacity factor isn’t how many hours it can produce power. It’s how many kWh it can produce over time.

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Thank you. The 31% capacity figure is high but given that the PS10 solar thermal station in Spain, which also uses 2 axis tracking, has a capacity of over 25%, and given that Cloncurry receives about 30% more insolation than the PS10, a capacity of about 31% does not seem unobtainable. I don’t know what the efficiency of the graphite heat storage the Cloncurry station will use is, but molten salt thermal storage systems have heat losses of about 1%.

I do think that the costs of new nuclear power in the United States have been increased by government subsidies. So I looked up the price of electricity from the new French reactor in Flamanville, which has been under construction for 15 months. Originally electricity from the plant was costed at 8.44 Australian cents per kilowatt-hour. However, now it is estimated to cost 10.8 Australian cents per kilowatt-hour, so it is not just the US which is having difficulty producing new low cost nuclear power at the moment.

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Flamanville is a different animal than the PRISM. As for the PS-10, I read it was expecting to get a 22% capacity factor without storage. 31% definitely seems unattainable if you look at a graph of solar intensity. Think about it: you’d have to be putting out maximum capacity from about 10 AM to 5 PM to get that sort of capacity factor. Ain’t gonna happen on this planet.

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The figures I have for the PS10 say that it is an 11 megawatt station and produces 24.3 gigawatt-hours a year.

With 2-axis tracking almost maximum capacity is obtained from about 10 am to 5 pm. Between those times it should operate at about 85-100% of capacity. The only factor attenuating light falling on the receiver is the greater amount of atmosphere it needs to pass through when the sun is closer to the horizon. A graph for direct beam sunlight should be considered, not sunlight falling on a fixed panel.

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I’m late to the party and that was a really long stack of comments to read but I’m glad I’m here. Tom Blees is very convincing. I’ve ordered his book.

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[…] As you might have guessed from the previous declarations, TNE is a relatively short (173 pages). It has a mix of some very brief chapters and other more extended discussions; you can finish it in four or five hours.  The first phase (chapters 1 to 7) deal with energy and the economy (the GFC, peak oil, global warming, economic growth, the nature of electricity), the middle section of the book (chapters 8 to 21) reviews a whole raft of energy generation and storage technologies (from standard stuff such as coal, natural gas, solar, wind, wave, hydro, biomass, through to more ‘out there’ options like space-based solar arrays, methane hydrates and fusion). The final section (chapters 22 to 27 plus conclusion) — energy phase five — describes nuclear power with an emphasis on the IFR. […]

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