Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Post # 90: Nuclear Power, Natural Gas, Lemons, and Lemonade

Everyone reading this blog knows I'm a strong advocate of nuclear power.  I've spent much of my career in the commercial nuclear power safety and advanced reactor concept development arenas. But I like to think I'm a realistic and honest advocate.  Thus the following thoughts...


Readers of this blog are aware the technology of fracking has unleashed hitherto unrecoverable reserves of natural gas and petroleum in the U.S.  Barring any unforeseen complications, it appears two of the most significant impacts of the attractive price and availability of these new-found fossil resources in the U.S. will be:
  1. the greenhouse gas emissions footprint of electricity production in the U.S. will be significantly reduced on a "per MWhr" basis (that's good); and
  2. the sense of urgency and support for development of new non-fossil electricity production technologies will be reduced (that's bad, because if results in over-dependence on a single energy source). 
The U.S., for all its strengths, has a lack-luster record of innovation during periods in which two conditions exist:

     (A) there is no imminent threat to our lives and livelihoods, and

     (B) a low-risk, financially-attractive option exists to meet our immediate needs.

Thankfully, there appears to be no "A" on the horizon, and fracked natural gas wonderfully fits the condition "B".

I've blogged before (November 2011, Post # 57: Energy Technology: The Innovation Challenge)  about the embarrassingly-low rate of innovation in the nuclear energy business and the reasons for it.  As I said then,

"The environment in today’s nuclear energy enterprise is hostile to innovation.  Not by intent, but in reality nevertheless.  The industry is highly regulated.  It is very costly to do research, development, and demonstration.   It’s a very capital-intensive business.  The barriers to entry are incredibly high.  The down-side risks of innovation are more easily rendered in practical terms than the upside gains.  Often it seems everyone in the enterprise (federal and private sectors) are so risk-averse that innovation is the last thing on anyone’s mind.  In this environment, “good-enough” is the enemy of “better”.  Humans learn by failing.  It’s the way we learn to walk, talk, and ride a bicycle.  Our environment today has little tolerance for failures at any level.  There’s no room for Thomas Edison’s approach to innovation in today’s world.  On top of all of this, or perhaps because of it, the nuclear industry invests less on R&D, as a percentage of gross revenues, than practically every other major industry you might name."

This reality, in combination with the absence of an imminent threat or external forcing function, and in the presence of an abundant and "cheap" supply of natural gas; leads me to conclude:

the "U.S. nuclear renaissance" so longed-for by those in the nuclear power community is dead – for the foreseeable future. 

Stated differently, we seem destined to see, at best, only a handful of large commercial nuclear power plants, and a few evolutionary small modular light water reactor (SMR) power plants constructed in the U.S. over the next twenty years...

That's the "Lemon"This is the "glass half-empty" view.


You've heard the old adage, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade..." ?  So, what's the "Lemonade"?

The era of cheap, abundant natural gas will eventually come to an end.  What then? What arrows will we have in our "energy quiver" to replace it?

  • no major commercial nuclear accidents occur that impact public health and the environment;
  • the Vogtle and Summer construction projects are successful;
  • the world-wide deployment of current and near-term nuclear power plant technologies continue; and
  • someone(s) actually deploy evolutionary Small Modular Light Water Reactors...
nuclear power will remain an important element of the energy generation mix in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.  Thus, nuclear power will have an opportunity to win its way back to the deployment table when conditions change if suitable technology is available at that time.

The question, then, is "What will/should that future nuclear energy option be?"  Can we do it better - far better – that we've done it to date?

Thanks to fracking and natural gas, we now have the luxury of considering different approaches to nuclear energy.  It appears we will have at least a few decades to ponder that question and to develop the answer.

This grace period to incubate and develop improved nuclear energy options is the "Lemonade".  This is the "glass half-full" perspective.


So, what are the functional attributes of my imagined future "Generation Phoenix" nuclear power plants?  

F. J. Bertuch (1747-1822)
I suggest nine attributes that combine to provide a starting point for those who wish to tackle the grand challenge of reverse-engineering Generation Phoenix nuclear energy system concepts for the latter half of the 21st century:
  1. SAFETY/RISK: the plants should be much "safer" (measured in terms of public health risk, investment risk, and environmental risk) than today's plants.  The risk of an accident that would result in major land contamination and long-term relocation of surrounding human populations, or major investment loss in the plant, should be significantly lower than that presented by today's plants.
  2. CAPITAL & OPERATING COST: the plants must be affordable and, yes, even attractively priced in terms both of their capital and their operating costs.  This implies an attractive cost of electricity and process heat delivered to the customer.
  3. SIZE: the technology should be scalable. The plants should be available in sizes appropriate to meet the needs of diverse deployment strategies;
  4. LOAD FOLLOWING CAPABILITY: the plants should have the robust load-following capabilities required to meet dynamic, mixed-generation electrical grids (i.e. grids with significant wind/solar generation components);
  5. DUAL USE: the plants should operate at sufficiently high temperatures to supply the process heat requirements of the (then) current major industries required high-temperature process heat;
  6. RELIABILITY: the plants must be at least as reliable as today's fleet of commercial light water reactors – preferably even more reliable;
  7. PLANT LIFETIME: the plants should have a design lifetime of at least 100 years.  They should be designed in such a way that major components can be replaced easily.  (I coined the term "Centurion Reactors" a few years ago to describe such reactors.)
  8. WASTE: the plants must have a radioactive waste management approach that society (not simply the industry) embraces as acceptable and sustainable;
  9. PROLIFERATION: the plant designs and their operating strategies, when combined with (then) extant nuclear proliferation protocols, must not present an unacceptable nuclear proliferation threat.
So there you have it.  My nine performance criteria / functional requirements for future Generation Phoenix nuclear power plants in the "post fracking" or "post-natural-gas" era...


Just Thinking...


  1. Sherrell,

    There is some good discussion which relates to your Centurion Reactor concept and the best use of nuclear power sites at Atomic Insights. http://atomicinsights.com/westinghouse-ceo-decommissioning-part-nuclear-life-cycle/


  2. Thanks Joel, for the heads-up. I'll check it out now...
    Thanks for reading my blog. I don't post as often as I should, but I try to share something worthy of my readers' time when I do post.

  3. Thanks for writing this post. I see that you worked at ORNL...
    I'm aware that the solar "option" would require close to half a million square miles to power "everything" including electric cars (and its storage). This seems rather "impossible" from an environmental view.

    Can molten salt reactors be made to deal with variable electrical demand, or would the heat have to be used to make synthetic fuel (and or simply store the electricity into large batteries)?