Thursday, August 12, 2010

New Reactor Designs:

Comparative Assessments

With the proliferation of possible new reactor design concepts bombarding us recently, it is encouraging to see some efforts starting that can help us compare the claims of the competing ideas on similar grounds. The first such effort to come to my attention is a recent article in IEEE Spectrum. Amusingly, the article is titled "Reactors Redux" in the hard copy of the journal, and "Nuclear Reactor Renaissance" on the Internet.

Perhaps I've missed some other comparative assessments, but most of what I have seen to date are claims by the proponents of each individual technology. If I have seen independent analyses at all, they have been targeted toward a particular technology, and did not provide a sense of where that technology stood with respect to others. Since some of the new design concepts are very different from current operating nuclear power plants, it is really helpful to have assessments that compare technologies on more or less equal terms.

The IEEE Spectrum article is at least a start in the right direction. Unfortunately, it doesn't go as far as I would have liked. And quite a few other people share that view, judging by the comments. A more serious flaw, in my view, is that the article does not provide a clear rationale for why they picked the designs they picked. Did they judge these to be the best of the crop? Were these the ones for which they had the most information? It makes a difference. The comments help in identifying some of the other potential options.

One could also argue that this article does not do an in-depth assessment of every one of the technologies. Clearly, it would not be sufficient to make a decision among the options, but that was not its purpose. It does help the reader understand in general terms some of the major issues associated with each technology, including the very important issue of its status of development.

I am aware that there are now other such efforts underway, and the coming months should provide us more and better comparisons between competing technologies. In particular, I know that Ed Kee of NERA Economic Consulting is presently starting a study that should greatly exceed the scope of the IEEE Spectrum article--covering more designs and more issues at greater depth. That study should be a great contribution to the dialogue. There will hopefully also be other articles in general technical publications in the future.

Until then, this article at least starts to put things in perspective for those of us with insufficient time or energy to have probed the details for ourselves.


1 comment:

  1. As a member of the IEEE myself, I found article disappointing since the publication is aimed at technical professionals (electrical engineers). For example, from the article where it talks about the Westinghouse AP1000:
    Waste: Spent fuel, consisting of leftover uranium 235 and other highly radioactive waste, similar to standard PWR waste.

    From this, one would think that U235 is highly radioactive waste, when it is really the mildly radioactive fuel on which the reactor runs.

    When talking about the EPR it states:
    Their main concern is the spent fuel: The reactor's higher burn-up rate makes the waste more radioactive, raising concerns about proliferation.

    While it is true that the spent fuel is more radioactive, it is so only because of concentration. On the basis of radioactivity per unit of electrical energy produced, the waste is no worse or perhaps even less radioacitve than the spent fuel from other reactors. The proliferation worry is a red herring, as there are much easier ways to make practical nuclear bombs than from used commercial reactor fuel.

    Also, there is no mention of thorium reactors.