Thursday, September 25, 2014

Could nuclear power become cheaper than coal?


The Telegraph reports that new technology could enable nuclear power plants to undercut the costs of even coal-fired power stations in the not too distant future.

The cost of conventional nuclear power has spiralled to levels that can no longer be justified. All the reactors being built across the world are variants of mid-20th century technology, inherently dirty and dangerous, requiring exorbitant safety controls.

This is a failure of wit and will. Scientists in Britain, France, Canada, the US, China and Japan have already designed better reactors based on molten salt technology that promise to slash costs by half or more, and may even undercut coal. They are much safer, and consume nuclear waste rather than creating more. What stands in the way is a fortress of vested interests.

. . .

We have reached the end of the road for pressurised water reactors of any kind, whatever new features they boast. The business is not viable - even leaving aside the clean-up costs - and it makes little sense to persist in building them. A report by UBS said the latest reactors will be obsolete by within 10 to 20 years, yet Britain is locking in prices until 2060.

The Alvin Weinberg Foundation in London is tracking seven proposals across the world for molten salt reactors (MSRs) rather than relying on solid uranium fuel. Unlike conventional reactors, these operate at atmospheric pressure. They do not need vast reinforced domes. There is no risk of blowing off the top.

The reactors are more efficient. They burn up 30 times as much of the nuclear fuel and can run off spent fuel. The molten salt is inert so that even if there is a leak, it cools and solidifies. The fission process stops automatically in an accident. There can be no chain-reaction, and therefore no possible disaster along the lines of Chernobyl or Fukushima. That at least is the claim.

. . .

It would be hard to argue that any one of the molten salt technologies would be more expensive than arrays of wind turbines in the Atlantic. Indeed, there is a high likelihood that the best will prove massively cheaply on a kW/hour basis.

There's more at the link.

Back in 2011 I wrote about progress being made with thorium reactors.  It looks like things are moving right along in that field, and others too.  Our children may be very grateful for that one day.

Peter

7 comments:

Rolf said...

The biggest problem with the MSR is not the technology, it's the political will being blocked by vested interests in the current systems. And that will not change until things reach the breaking point. I'm guessing 2017.

Glen said...

Peter,

A molten salt reactor operated there in TN for several years. I toured the site, many years ago. Union Carbide was the operator, I think.

It was not a successful operation.

You may wish to go re-read Rickover comparison of a real reactor and a paper reactor. His rules apply now just as much as then. (http://ecolo.org/documents/documents_in_english/Rickover.pdf )

The largest obstacle for the nuclear industry at present is a lack of component vendors.

Such things as instrumentation, class 1E switch gear, and "N Stamp" mechanical components are produced in very limited numbers by a small number of suppliers.

For construction and operation you have a very, very limited pool of qualified personnel. The number of US shipyards doing nuclear work has been greatly reduced, and only two yards are building nuclear powered ships. The USN's program has been the traditional training ground for for the US nuclear industry. No other source of trained technician is in place to supply these workers for any large construction program.

The government promised (when I was in high school) waste storage site has not been built. I'm in my mid-50s now.

The basic idea of nuclear energy continues to hold promise. Implementing that promise will always be enormously difficult and expensive.

Given the current price and availability of natural gas, it is extremely unlikely that there is a practical way to fund nuclear development in the near future.

Once one finishes with the engineering and financial issues, the regulatory burden is HUGE. To license a virgin site for nuclear plant would require more years than I have left in my lifetime. The more new technology included in the design, the more expensive the safety analysis becomes.

Certainly development is possible, but it will be difficult and expensive. That saddens me, as nuclear energy was my chosen career.

Dirk said...

So, what...we wait until we exhaust fossil fuels before we move on to something else? Seems like that's the only way the move to nuclear is ever going to happen. We won't get the push for research and training that we need until after we need it, it would appear. Nothing like not thinking/planning ahead.

Billll said...

The biggest impediment to nukes is ambulance-chasing lawyers who must be paid enough to buy a high government elected position from which they continue to extort campaign contributions in return for not legislating you out of business.

Very profitable for them.

Anonymous said...

"The biggest problem with the MSR is not the technology, it's the political will being blocked by vested interests in the current systems."

"The biggest impediment to nukes is ambulance-chasing lawyers . . ."

Whatever else one might say about the Russians, it looks like they've avoided those obstacles:

[snip]
"After decades of research, practically all breeder reactor projects around the world, including in the US, France, Japan and several other countries possessing nuclear energy technologies, were closed down. The only country that currently has operating breeder reactor power generation is Russia. "
[snip]
"Overall, eight BN-1200 breeder reactors are expected to be constructed by 2030, which means that Russia is the only nation that is entering a new era of nuclear energy power generation - the closed nuclear fuel cycle, in other words truly clean and practically unlimited nuclear power generation."
[snip]

http://rt.com/news/188332-mox-nuclear-fuel-production/

Paul said...

I pray that our children's children praise us for our intelligence rather that curse us for our stupidity.

I fear the later.

I think thorium has a good potential to solve most of our energy needs well into the future.

We have the distribution model for electricity in place. We do not have a viable natural gas delivery method in place.

I would have to say power generation based on thorium should be followed as it will have a shorted implementation curve.

But I am some poor red neck without any advance degrees or political desires so I sure I will be a lone voice in the wilderness.

Y. said...

Lockheed hired a MIT graduate whose phd thesis proposed a new way of fusion confinement. They claim all of the tests so far are good and that they are going to have a functioning prototype by 2017, with mass production of 100 MWe units by 2022.