Sunday, May 31, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--May:

A Slightly Belated Report

I just realized that I failed to post the monthly report on nuclear milestones for May that I had planned to do at the beginning of this month.  I will blame it on a couple of back-to-back trips, but I realize that's a poor excuse.  It is still May, so I guess I will make it under the wire--but just barely.

The month of May saw its greatest activity at the very beginning of nuclear power development, with two events occurring in two different US laboratories in 1944.  In other years, May saw significant developments, both in the US and elsewhere, for research reactors, a non-electric application, and expansion beyond the weapons countries.  Specifically:

May 1, 1964:  First nuclear power plant planned and operated primarily for district heating (Agesta, Sweden)

May 3, 1958:  First "inherently safe," pulsed, high-flux reactor built for widespread research (TRIGA Mark-1, San Diego, California)

May 9, 1944:  First reactor to use enriched uranium (LOPO, or Y Reactor, Los Alamos, New Mexico)

May 12, 1963:  First large-scale reactor in a country not involved in weapons development (Latina, Borgo Sabotino, Italy)
May 15, 1944:  First heavy water reactor (CP-3, Argonne, Illinois)

Each of the 1944 achievements were key milestones in the development of what would become two major classes of reactors, still in use today:  the enriched uranium operation that would allow the development of the light water reactors that currently produce most of the world's nuclear electricity, and the use of heavy water, which led to another major class of reactors.

Likewise, the TRIGA reactor proved to be a powerful and versatile research tool, and is still in widespread use around the world today.

[These events, and others, are covered in greater detail in:  Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.]


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Nuclear Power Reliability:

A Key Issue for Our Energy Future

I recently attended an interesting briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Global America Business Institute (GABI).  The subject of the briefing was "The Role of Nuclear Power in Energy Reliability: U.S. & International Perspectives," and the speakers were David Brown, Senior Vice President of Federal Government Affairs and Public Policy for Exelon Corporation, and Andrew Paterson, a Principal of Environmental Business International and financing affiliate Verdigris Capital.

I expected to be familiar with most of the issues, and for the most part, that was the case.  However, the two speakers raised some interesting points that I thought I should pass on.

First, David Brown showed a bar graph with the capacity factors for all forms on electrical energy supply.  I knew nuclear power was high, and I knew wind and solar power were low, but I did not realize just how much higher nuclear was than all the other sources until I saw his graph of 2013 data (which comes from the Nuclear Energy Institute):

Granted that some of these numbers may reflect how various types of power plants are used rather than how it might be possible to use them.  Still the magnitude of the gap between nuclear power and its closest competitor deserves more attention than it seems to get.

Brown further reminded the audience how nuclear power far outperformed other energy sources during the Polar Vortex in January 2014, and how wind power was lower in the summer, when demand was higher.  The consequences of this are significant.  Brown pointed out that, looking at annual figures, one would project that a wind farm would need to have 3 times the capacity of a nuclear power plant to provide equal output.  However, looking at summertime supply and demand, a wind farm would need more like 10 times the capacity of a nuclear plant to provide equal output.

Of course, that is a one-for-one comparison that does not consider storage or alternative sources, but it graphically made the point about the large difference in performance of nuclear versus wind power when demand is highest.  Also, as noted in the Q&A session that followed the talks, solar power does peak when demand peaks in the summer.  Nevertheless, there is still a large gap in capacity factor. 

On a slightly lighter note, Brown mentioned that we all believe that the public wants electricity to be clean, economical, and reliable, as we generally speak of them in that order.  However, judging by the volume of calls Exelon receives if the power goes out, the public is far more concerned about reliability than about anything else.  If you doubt that, just think about the last time the power went out where you live!

Andy Paterson's talk, which was co-authored by his colleague, Walter Howes, focused more on international issues.  He raised the troubling question of whether the US might be in danger of losing a vital industry, and drew an analogy to what happened in the UK as a consequence of its "dash for gas" in the North Sea in the 1980s.  He observed that they let much of their nuclear capability lapse, and now the gas fields have largely played out. 

He also made a point that I think we have all come to recognize--we simply cannot return to the status quo ante.  We cannot snap our fingers and return to a position of "US leadership" in the world.  We have lost the capability to manufacture major components.  Compared to other countries, where the utilities are very large and join vendor bids for overseas reactor sales, US utilities are relatively small (even Exelon) and are not active internationally.  He also argued that "getting government out of the way" is not a viable strategy for the nuclear sector.  Among other things, the governments of other countries support, and even lead, the bids for international sales.  Even domestically, he projected that half the US nuclear capacity could be shut down before 2040 without government leadership.

He then presented some interesting statistics showing the growth of nuclear power over time in different regions of the world, as well as population projections.  In fact, even now, more than half the world's population lives in Asia.  Further, there is a trend in both Asia and Africa for rural populations to move to cities.  By the year 2030, most of the cities in the world with a population of more than 10 million will be in Asia.  Air pollution from coal plants and vehicles is already a critical problem in China and will grow without a change in direction.  He raised the interesting question:  Where can those countries put large arrays of wind turbines or solar panels, sufficient to power their homes--and their mega-factories?  What sources can provide the required reliability?

Answering his own question, he pointed out the very small land requirements of nuclear power plants compared to wind and solar plants, and the fact that the areas of highest solar intensity are not even near the cities, where the greatest need exists--and where air pollution is greatest.

Although his focus was mainly on the global situation, Paterson also addressed the situation in the US.  He showed that, even with license renewals to 60 years for all plants in the US, without new build or further license renewals, nuclear capacity begins to drop after 2030, and is almost nonexistent by 2050.  If plants are shut down prior to 60 years, the situation is much worse.  Given my previous and repeated (2009, 2010, and 2014) interest in acronyms, I was pleased that he presented one that was new to me--YIMBI, or "Yes, in my backyard, immediately!"--noting that, in large parts of the US, the public is very positive about nuclear power.  Nevertheless, the extended outlook for low gas prices in the US is trumping most other options, and it is primarily gas that is replacing coal.  He touched on the possibility of small modular reactors (SMRs) having a role in the future.   

Toward the end, Paterson returned to a point he had made at the outset--the UK let their nuclear capability atrophy, and there is a risk that the US and the EU could do the same.  "US" vendors are now foreign owned.  Once "excellence" is lost, it cannot easily be rebuilt.  He did express a caution for Asia.  The pressure to build rapidly there creates incentives to cut corners and avoid needed regulatory discipline, leading to a risk of accidents later.  For the US, he concluded that market forces alone are not enough.  Policy drivers--national security, air pollution, reliability of supply for urban areas--are important, and that means the government has to play a role.  Furthermore, nuclear power is a long-range effort, and decisions made now will affect the nuclear scene for decades.

He noted that no nation is self sufficient.  The US has lost its manufacturing capability, but Asia lacks fuel.  It thus is consistent that his conclusion was that global partnerships in nuclear energy investment and innovative public-private financing approaches will play an important role in bringing a full set of capabilities to projects and in balancing risks.


Friday, May 15, 2015

The Nuclear Future:

Looking Beyond the Horizon

I was a bit startled a week or so ago to get a question from someone asking me to take a really long view on the future of nuclear power.  I'm not sure my answers really addressed the entire picture, but it was interesting to think about the subject, and I thought others might want to consider the issue as well.

The first question was not all that surprising.  It asked about the prospects for the Gen IV nuclear reactor technologies.  The answer, of course, depends on so many things that I found it a difficult question.  To be honest, I didn't come up with specifics, like which technology might be most likely to succeed, or how many Gen IV reactors might be built, or where they might be built.  Rather, I tried to identify factors that might play into that decision, and how--the economy, R&D funding, other energy technologies, environmental requirements, market factors, financing options, etc.  But all of these points were points that I'd seen discussed many times.

It was the next questions that really got my attention.  What future nuclear technologies, they asked, might lie beyond Gen IV?  I must admit that the Gen IV technologies cover such a broad spectrum that it is difficult for me to think of much that Gen IV doesn't cover, at least partly.  And given that most of the Gen IV technologies are based on concepts that were first conceived in the early days of nuclear power development--and yet still have a long road ahead of them to achieve a practical role as a source of energy--it is difficult to think when we might envision a next generation beyond Gen IV starting.

Yes, I limited my thinking mainly to fission technologies.  In part, I thought I was the wrong person to answer a question about the prospects for fusion, and in part, I assumed that any breakthrough in fusion would so clearly be a new generation technology that they didn't need me to tell them that.  Perhaps concepts like accelerator-driven fission reactors might fit the "beyond Gen IV" description, but I really wasn't sure.

The last question, in a way, proved the hardest.  They asked what novel applications I envisioned for nuclear power beyond the ones presently in use or being considered.  Again, so many possibilities are on the table that I wasn't sure what would be truly novel.  We are already talking about direct use of thermal energy from high-temperature reactors for industrial processes, including hydrogen generation.  We are also already talking about small reactors for remote applications, such as small communities in the Arctic, or mines.   

One can envision space colonies--or cities under the ocean--powered by nuclear reactors.  That would be a new application, but might not necessarily entail significant developments for the nuclear technology needed.  I once worked briefly on the concept of a nuclear-powered aircraft, but I don't see that as being a likely future application.  Perhaps the most futuristic thing I could think of might be some sort of advanced nuclear technology for long-range space propulsion.  But again, not only were we getting to the farther edges of time and space, we were also getting to the limits of my knowledge about how such a technology might work.

So, I was left a little frustrated that I hadn't done an adequate job of answering the questions, but intrigued by the opportunity to look beyond what I already had thought was the future for nuclear power.  It made me think that others might want to engage in the same exercise.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Projecting the Future:

Some Bad Omens?

I am going to depart a little from my normal themes in this blog and talk about issues that are not themselves directly related to nuclear power.  However, they do relate to some indicators in the areas of research and of technical training that apply to a broad range of disciplines, nuclear among them. 

The first warning bell I saw in the last few days was a report on an MIT study that warned that the U.S. is falling behind in a number of key areas of research.  While none of the areas they mention included fission-related research, the very fact that the report identifies a broad range of cutting-edge research areas is troubling.  First, the areas they identify represent some of the key areas of technology today.  Second, it is not hard to guess that the key areas are indicators of a broader trend that affects many more areas of research.

Like the slow loading of straw on a camel that ultimately breaks the camel's back, each small budget cut in science and technology areas probably seems inconsequential to most people.  However, adding them all together--fewer research programs, less research in the remaining areas, cuts in staffing, cuts in training--suggests that the impact will be far greater than even the programs the MIT study names.  Not only will we not realize the benefits of the advances that R&D can bring, we will end up without a next generation of scientists to carry R&D further in the future.

The second warning bell I saw was a study that suggested that environmental sciences programs have a bias against nuclear energy.  At one level, of course, this clearly has a direct effect on nuclear energy.  It reinforces the gulf that many believe already exists between the environmental community and the nuclear community.  It hampers the ability of two groups who should be natural allies from working together.

However, what is even more troubling to me is, once again, the broader implications of biased education.  If environmental sciences students are not being trained to look dispassionately at nuclear power, I have to wonder what other biases are coloring their judgment.  Are they ignoring the downsides of some technologies because they are perceived to be "green"?  Are they dismissing options that should be considered because they are perceived to be "dirty"?  Are they failing to look beyond the surface to see the balance of pros and cons between different options, or to look at how a perceived weakness in one technology can be compensated?  If environmental sciences students are not being trained to look analytically at all issues and all possibilities, they will not come up with the best solutions.

The investments we make today will inevitably shape the future.  Just as we need robust research in a broad range of areas, we also need to train future scientists, engineers and decision-makers to approach all issues without preconceived biases to assure that the decisions they make are based on sound science.  This applies to decisions about nuclear power, but it also potentially applies to many other issues as well.

As perhaps a fitting postscript, I include here a photo of a package of irradiated hamburgers.  I covered the issue of food irradiation before, so I won't repeat myself here.  However, irradiated beef strikes me as just the kind of issue that people often approach with preconceived biases.  Perhaps in this case it isn't environmental science students who have this bias (or perhaps it is!--I really don't know), but to me, it is another graphic reminder of how biases sometimes seem to block people from looking at issues objectively, and how those biases sometimes prevent, or make it difficult, for us to enjoy the full benefits of some technologies.