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I Oversaw the US Nuclear Power Industry. Now I Think It Should Be Banned.

“Their amount of shrinking is currently insignificant unless you compare to a country with a growing population.”

And yet, several analyses of their decreased energy consumption have mentioned their population shrinkage as a factor. My hunch is that it isn’t just about the raw number of humans alive, but also a matter of what happens to their energy consumption profile as they age out and retire.

“It is quite frustrating that so many politicians or people who speak out about nuclear power can’t be bothered to learn some of the basics about Gen IV reactors.”

I routinely see remarkably well-informed politicians speaking about Gen IV reactors. The frustrating part for me is that they all happen to be Republicans. Gen IV development should have been a natural opportunity and cause for people on the left, for environmentalists against carbon emissions, and fossil fuel pollution and degradation, for people who don’t want to see any more old-tech nuclear plants built and would like to see the existing old-tech plants retired as soon as possible, for people who worry about the long-term issues for spent fuel, for people who pride themselves for being on the side of science, for people who don’t want to undercut the credibility of climate scientists like Hansen and Caldeira, and for people trying to convince the public climate change really is serious enough to be an all-hands-on-deck situation. Instead, the left, through both neglect and opposition, handed the issue as a gift to the right, and even though some centrist Dems went along, it was really Republicans who seized the initiative and did the heavy-lifting on getting NEICA, NEIMA, NELA other initiatives passed to help foster Gen IV research, development, and deployment. And if any of the new designs work out, it will be Republicans who will justifiably be crowing and claiming credit for that, and using it as a cudgel to portray Dems and especially greens and progessives as hypocrites and backward luddites on the wrong side of history. That just chafes the hell out of me.

“I wish Tulsi or Bernie would educate themselves a bit on the topic as well.”

Elysium Industries is headquartered in New York State–practically in AOC’s back yard. They are definitely in Dem. Rep. Paul Tonko’s congressional district. The issue Tonko is most passionate about, and the one he says he knows best, is energy. Prior to entering Congress, he was president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. He serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He’s also co-chair of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. And one of his first acts in Congress was to sponsor a bill to get $800 million research program in wind energy technologies (which would largely benefit GE in his home district). So one would think Tonko, with all of his focus on clean and sustainable energy, energy commerce, and technology and a big proponent of funding research, would be psyched to have a leading team in his home district developing a form of nuclear which can never melt down and which can actually consume spent fuel. So what are we hearing from him about this? Crickets.

“What is your current assessment in terms of MSR demonstration reactors? Are we going to see them in other countries first and then the political discussion here may mature? Or are there going to be any in the US in the same time frame?”

The only reactors in development I’ve seen so far that I think have real potential to be game changers are of the liquid-fuel molten salt class, and out of those, there are four teams that hold lead positions. At this time, it looks like Thorcon (thermal spectrum-uranium burner) has the inside track for deploying the first commercial operating plant–a marine based unit they are developing for Malaysia, and they think they can get that running by around 2025. Close behind is Moltex UK, (fast-spectrum uranium breeder) who has site approval to build a unit at Point Lepreau in New Brunswick–about 30 miles from Maine. Elysium, and now Terrapower, (fast-spectrum uranium breeders) are looking to develop in the U.S. but how fast that can happen is totally up in the air right now. Before Trump came in, the NRC was basically operating as a high obstacle to innovation, and the general view was that development would take place first elsewhere. That’s why Thorcon went to Malaysia and Terrapower went to China. The Trump administration has shut down the Terrapower project with China, but for now, they are letting the Thorcon project in Malaysia stand. The legislation has been passed mandating an overhaul of how the NRC deals with new classes of reactors, but we don’t know yet what shape those reforms will take. Technically, both Elysium and Terrapower think they could have something running in 8 - 10 years, but the regulatory reforms will determine what the actual timetable will be. If the reforms are good, private investment will ramp up substantially, and the field could grow. Moltex had previously indicated that they would have liked to pursue certification in the U.S., but the regulatory mess looked insurmountable. They might revise their position if the mess gets cleaned up. On the other hand, if the NRC drops the ball and Congress doesn’t ride herd on them, I expect that would kill the current momentum toward American Gen IV reactors, and the overseas teams will take the lead.

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“We can’t predict what the technology or political climate will be in the next two or three centuries.”

Yes, things change, but storage is not especially high-tech, it’s something we have a lot of experience with, and there will be ongoing monitoring and processing operations taking place. If it looks like the storage accommodations need to be modified, or relocated, that can happen as needed, and the fact the spent fuel is a usable, revenue-generating fuel resource gives it value and makes it more likely it will be looked after.

“Why not invest in something less poisonous, like solar or wind power, rather than assume that we can safely store those spent rods for all that time?”

The solar industry has produced thousands of tons of toxic waste, and it’s not contained anywhere near as well as spent fuel–especially in China. And if we develop the means to burn spent fuel, then storage becomes a much easier investment. A kilogram of spent fuel in a molten salt fast reactor could generate roughly a megawatt-year worth of electricity. Sell that for about 4 cents per kWh, and that’s roughly $350,000 per kilogram. For comparison, pure gold is only worth around $42,000 per kilogram. Do you think capitalists would have any problem figuring out how to store and look after something that is around eight times as valuable as gold? And the alternative to storing it is what? Not storing it? How is that supposed to work?

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I guess I’d have to see the histogram of energy consumption vs age in Japan. It isn’t obvious to me it would go down that much with age - if retired Japanese had less money I suppose they might spend less and thus consume less energy. But they have more free time to travel. I guess I’d need to see the statement in context but my hunch is that someone threw in an effect that went the direction of the point they are making regardless of the magniude of the effect. I’m afraid that is just human nature.

The info on Rep Tanko is interesting. Which Republican politicians are most knowedgable on the topic?

And thanks for the summary. I will be interested to see what happens in 2025. I know we need to move forward on other climate change related decisions before then but I don’t see how people in the US can be convinced to back the all hands on deck approach until a successful reactor is online for a year or two.

I say personal automobile use is central to the climate crisis. It also enables our urban isolationist culture that is structured by corporate interests. You relied on a simple solar array power system while out sailing away. Rooftop solar works the same way, wouldn’t you say? The difference is in scale - household energy consumption is greater (than your sailboat) as would be a rooftop array and the battery pack. I favor plug-in hybrids because their smaller battery pack makes for a smaller rooftop array with all the other advantages I’ve already mentioned.

Here’s a rule of thumb: Daimler Truck is ready to produce 2 all-battery models with 325kwh & 550kwh battery packs. So, should we build and continuously recharge 1 big freight truck, 6 Tesla sport coupes, 32 Honda Clarity or 100 Ford Fusion plug-in hybrids?

Our opinions aren’t that far apart. It’s good to discuss the subject. Years ago I owned a power boat christened “O’shundor” from the Beach Boys song “Surfer Girl” (standing by the ocean door). Sunk it first time in the water. Forgot to untie the stern from the trailer. Burned up the clutch pulling it out! That experience was enough to swear off owning anything bigger than a canoe or kayak. Had a lot of fun with it though.

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I searched for nuclear Paul Tanko and saw (from https://energycommerce.house.gov/newsroom/press-releases/tonkos-floor-remarks-on-nuclear-waste-policy-amendments-act):

The only alternative to not moving this waste is keeping it spread out in 121 locations for tens of thousands of years.

There is another alternative: keep it onsite until we figure out if it makes semse to put an MSR at the particular site. I’m sure we’ll eventually move some it somewhere (a repository or another site with an MSR as not all old reactor sites would automatically get MSRs). I certainly don’t want to move any of it for at least a decade.

I too am a kayaker! Used to teach with my ACA canoe-kayak instructor rating. Again, thanks for your reply. Skip

The thermal-spectrum MSR’s that use uranium for fuel are going to have similar production rates for the heavy actinides that today’s reactors have, but if we develop fast reactors, those can consume all the actinides. For fast reactors, the ultimate output stream would be nearly 100% fission products, some of which will need a short sequester to drop to ambient levels of radiation or below (at least 99.9% stable by the ten-year mark). After the short sequester, you are left with about 20 elements that have significant quantities (more than 2 kg per tonne). By mass, roughly 80% of fission products will not be radioactive at this point, but some of the non-radioactive isotopes will be mixed with radioactive isotopes of the same element, and those would not be practical to separate out. Xenon would be the largest product by mass (~160 kg per tonne) and after 10 years it would all be stable except for two isotopes both of which have half lives longer than a billion-trillion years–far below ambient levels of radioactivity, so all of it would be usable. Cesium, on the other hand (~70 kg. per tonne) would contain enough Cs 137 that you either use it for its radiation (as a source for gamma rays, or a source of heat) or you throw it all away. Same deal with strontium (~23 kg per tonne). Elements like Samarium would be in a grey area (26 kg per tonne, but less than 10% of it mildly radioactive with a beta decay energy of less than 80 keV with no gamma). After glassification, the elements we are most likely going to want to throw away would make around 200 kg. of vit-rock for a gigawatt-year worth of electricity production. That’s about 0.075 cubic meters or about 2.7 cubic feet. Cast into 10 inch dia. cylinders to go down into a borehold, that would be 4 cylinders, 15 inches long. Maybe 8 cylinders if you throw away a bunch of the grey-area elements too. For a gigawatt-year of electricity, that is a very modest waste profile.

“And on this topic, do you know of public statements from companies developing MSR about how they can exist with a worldwide moratorium on uranium mining?”

I think it’s unlikely we’ll see a worldwide moratorium on uranium mining. But even if that happens, mining is not the only way to harvest uranium.


And for molten salt fast reactors, those would probably be tasked with burning spent fuel, DU, surplus or decommissioned bomb fuel, and some of the waste from bomb fuel production first. Those supplies taken together are already enough to produce nearly 12 times the total amount of energy we have ever gotten from all fossil fuels combined, and each five years at the current rate of accumulation, you can increase that factor by one. If we develop the ability to consume uranium efficiently, supply will never be a problem.

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Bernie closed the nuke plant in Vermont and the air got worse.
Vermonters resorted to coal, wood and oil.

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Some of the early advocates have actually retired already, they’ve been at it that long. Of the ones still in office, the more outspoken advocates who appear to have done some homework on this include Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan (Alaska–both want small reliable power for remote communities in areas too rugged for pipelines and for which shipping fuel can become impractical when they are snowbound), Lamar Alexander (Tennessee–home of Oak Ridge, accepts climate change and advocates a “Manhattan project” to develop better solutions than we have now), Lindsay Graham (SC–wants the U.S. to regain global nuclear leadership), Mike Crapo and James Risch (Idaho–home of INL), John Barrasso (WY), Greg Walden (OR-Energy and Commerce Committee leader), Adam Kunzinger (IL–the state with the highest dependency on nuclear power), Rob Portman (OH–longtime advocate of growing the economy while reducing emissions and wants an advanced nuclear export industry), and Steve Daines (MT) has been quite active on this, but has also had some comments which sounded maybe not so well-informed. I think there are a lot of Republicans who fall into this category, but still go along with the party leaders on this issue.

“I know we need to move forward on other climate change related decisions before then but I don’t see how people in the US can be convinced to back the all hands on deck approach until a successful reactor is online for a year or two.”

At this point, all that is needed to be consistent with the message is to say that climate change is serious enough that we should investigate advanced nuclear, or at least, allow prospective developers to investigate it. There doesn’t have to be any commitment to anything at this point. Just saying we should develop all our options and then evaluate them would be a big improvement over saying we should block or ban what could be one of our strongest low-carbon options without even exploring it to the point of finding out what we would be throwing away. It would also be helpful if Progressives didn’t shoot themselves in the foot with unforced errors, like that anti-nuclear statement that accompanied the release of the Green New Deal resolution, even though the measure itself was not explicitly anti-nuclear. Even people who have become so jaded by old-tech nuclear that they think there is hardly any chance new nuclear will actually work would still benefit from endorsing investigating it. The only reason there is any interest in building new models of old-tech nuclear is because of the perception that better forms of nuclear are still a long ways off. If it looked like something better might be available as soon as ten years from now, that would seriously undercut the rationale for building any new old-tech plants.

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“I certainly don’t want to move any of it [spent fuel] for at least a decade.”

A lot of it is fine where it is, like the casks at decommissioned plants that are just sitting on pads out in the woods. Some of it, like San Onofre, really would be better sited somewhere else. It’s probably secure enough from a plane impact, but right on the water like that, I’m not sure they can make that assurance against a large ship impact. It wouldn’t be that much worse logistically to move the fuel out of highly populated areas first, and then decide what to do with it later.

“solar thermal towers do have the advantage that thermal storage is a cheaper add on than grid battery storage.”

That could also work for storing heat from molten salt fuel (in case I haven’t already mentioned that).

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To all those “progressive environmentalist” types
who currently push for a Nuclear Solution as Alternative Energy,
which on the surface seems SO logical … to some, :
• LOOK at our History … and WHO we’d be Dealing With!
• This is NOT a Physics Problem …
… it is about Human Behavior & its Limits, …
… & about Greed & Control of A FEW questionable souls,
over a powerful Power Source !!
— … not to mention the likely continuing nuclear weapons paths
• • • • • • • • • •
OUR FUTURE & PLANET CANNOT BE TRUSTED TO THIS CREW !
– P • E • R • I • O • D –

The great thing about logic is that you can use it to show when something isn’t logical.

" LOOK at our History … and WHO we’d be Dealing With!"

The old-line nuclear companies, like GE, Westinghouse, and Siemens, also made coal and gas plants and now they make wind turbines. They aren’t particular about the kind of generation they make, so long as it’s profitable. And fossil fuel companies like Shell, BP, Chevron, Statoil, Total, and Equinor are building, owning, and/or operating wind and solar facilities. So the “who” argument cuts at least as strongly against the alternatives to nuclear power. In fact, if you want to get away from the old players, advanced nuclear may be a better bet than renewables. Siemens is out of the nuclear business entirely now, and Westinghouse is headed that way, while nearly all of the next-gen nuclear development work is being done by new companies.

“This is NOT a Physics Problem …
… it is about Human Behavior & its Limits, …
… & about Greed & Control of A FEW questionable souls,
over a powerful Power Source !!”

For the old line companies, wind and solar look like they would be more profitable than advanced nuclear. It takes hundreds of wind generators to match the output of one small nuke plant. And intermittent wind and solar will typically have gas plants for backup, which holds the door open for gas sales.

“… not to mention the likely continuing nuclear weapons paths”

Continuing? Nuclear power plants have produced none of the weapons-grade fuel that is used in nuclear bombs. They have, on the other hand, destroyed enough bomb fuel to make over 17,000 nuclear warheads–more than exist in the world today. I know of no other anti-proliferation group, campaign, or technology which has had effectiveness anywhere close to that record. Do you?

“OUR FUTURE & PLANET CANNOT BE TRUSTED TO THIS CREW !”

If advanced nuclear is developed by different people and different companies, wouldn’t that be a different crew?

Which alternative crew do you think we should trust?

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I believe the Big Island in Hawaii is requiring solar hot water on all new construction which doesn’t need solar panels, just heat absorbing piping on the roof. Most cruising sailboats complement their solar panels with wind generators since when the sun is shining the wind is not blowing hard, and when the sun isn’t shining the wind tends to be blowing…they compliment each other. Local generation seems to be the way to go if you want to avoid the Puerto Rico problem where the entire grid can be down for months due to transmission problems. Line losses in transmission also need to be considered. Check out the reflector generator near Searchlight Nevada:

Thanks. Solar, wind, tides are the answer. Now scientists, working backwards, just have to figure out the equation. We can do this.

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There is such a thing as a next generation of small modular non-pressurized reactor designs, but these devices have not yet entered any market, and this for reasons that have nothing to do with knee-jerk antinuclearism. The biggest stopper is their very high prospective per-MWh cost, since they forego the economies of scale of multi-gigawatt plants. To compete, the power cost of new-generation nukes (of whatever scale and type) must first catch up with and then undercut the costs of firmed renewables, which are already beating not only nukes but fossil fuels in many markets and are declining steadily ( https://www.irena.org/publications/2018/Jan/Renewable-power-generation-costs-in-2017 ). The nuclear tortoise proposes to catch a solar-and-wind hare that already has three legs over the finish line. Industry claims of affordable per-kWh cost for small modular reactors depend on advocates’ mass-production projections, which (a) must be viewed skeptically, in light of the failure of literally all previous estimates of nuclear costs, (b) project a mass market that there is no intelligible prospect of attaining. Nagging waste and safety issues also dog the new generation of (so far) paper reactors:

After ~20 years of hearing about a “nuclear renaissance” that never happens (because of high costs, not the omnipotence of Greenpeace), hailing new-generation nuclear designs as salvific appears to me to be the faith-based or knee-jerk position. How may of these techo-utopian nuclear fantasies have to crumble into high-priced dust before we stop crediting the next round?

Correct. It is because they have not been developed yet. But the position Jaczko is taking it that nuclear power should be banned. A blanket ban would stop them for reasons that have everything to do with knee-jerk anti-nuclearism.

“The biggest stopper is their very high prospective per-MWh cost, since they forego the economies of scale of multi-gigawatt plants.”

Small in size does not necessarily translate into small output. The Moltex design is tiny compared to an AP1000 of similar capacity:
(image:)
tinyurl (dot) com/y46eetoe

“To compete, the power cost of new-generation nukes (of whatever scale and type) must first catch up with and then undercut the costs of firmed renewables,”

For nuke plants that are specifically designed for flexible operation, they only have to compete with the cost of firming, such as gas-powered backup. Any molten salt reactor could be the heart of a flex-plant merely by adding thermal storage tanks to the secondary cooling loop, and uprating the output generators, and the overall system costs could come down without the nukes ever having to approach the cost of intermittent renewables.

“which are already beating not only nukes but fossil fuels in many markets and are declining steadily”

It doesn’t matter that intermittent renewables are cheaper than natural gas wherever they need natural gas as their backup. In such cases, their lower cost doesn’t displace the cost of the gas plant, it only displaces the cost of some natural gas fuel–which is cheap, so the savings payback is very slow.

“The nuclear tortoise proposes to catch a solar-and-wind hare that already has three legs over the finish line.”

Solar and wind are still a long way from catching up with just the growth in energy demand. That means they are both rolling out too slowly to even halt the growth in fossil fuel consumption. On our current trajectory, all non-combustion energy sources combined are not expected to halt the growth of fossil fuels until sometime in the 2030’s, and only after that point could they actually start reducing fossil fuel consumption.

This should not be viewed as a zero-sum competition between various forms of clean energy. The competitor that must be defeated is fossil carbon, and we need the combined rollout of all our best options to do that as quickly as possible. Old-tech nuclear is helping, but not enough. Modular manufacturing could be a game changer. Thorcon projects that they could manage a build rate of 100 GW(e) capacity per year from a single production yard–if their design happens to be popular enough. Whoever comes up with the most competitive design, modular fabrication will ensure that any level of demand can be met.

“Industry claims of affordable per-kWh cost for small modular reactors depend on advocates’ mass-production projections,”

Moltex has had an outside evaluation done for a first-of-its-kind build cost, and the projection is roughly $2 per watt (e) capacity–without the cost savings of mass production. Thorcon is planning to adapt the manufacturing techniques they developed for building some of the world’s largest supertankers, which involved a lot of automated repetitive tasking within each ship build. They were able to realize cost savings through modular manufacturing on their very first ship.

“which (a) must be viewed skeptically, in light of the failure of literally all previous estimates of nuclear costs,”

The whole idea behind advanced reactors is that they will be attempting something very different from what’s been done before.

“(b) project a mass market that there is no intelligible prospect of attaining.”

Next-gen developers like their odds. I think they should get the chance to try. If you are right that there will be no market, then a ban would be completely superfluous. But if it turns out there is a need and a market, then a ban would be utterly inexcusable.

“Nagging waste and safety issues also dog the new generation of (so far) paper reactors:
[Union of Concerned Scientists article
Small Modular Reactors: Safety, Security and Cost Concerns (2013)]”

That’s an article talking about reactors like NuScale–basically smaller versions of conventional last-generation reactors. That has nothing to do with the next-generation non-pressurized designs you initially acknowledged. And some of the next-gen reactors are being designed to consume existing spent fuel for a net-negative waste profile. How is that a waste “issue”? And what safety issues for molten salt reactors are you referring to?

“After ~20 years of hearing about a “nuclear renaissance” that never happens (because of high costs, not the omnipotence of Greenpeace), hailing new-generation nuclear designs as salvific appears to me to be the faith-based or knee-jerk position.”

A renaissance is a revival of something that took place before. What is happening in nuclear power research and development today is unprecedented. Old-tech nuclear was researched in national labs and first developed by and for the military, and then the same contractors that built for the military were given government directive, protection and support to adapt those reactors to civilian power applications. Today, nearly all next-gen development work is being done in the private sector, and are being developed specifically to be market-competitive. That’s a big change from the old model. Market-responsiveness is also something that private research excels at, and national labs are terrible at. And sure, anytime people try something new, the odds of failure are substantial. In fact, there are so many next-gen teams now that it is highly likely most of them will fail. But that’s the story of human progress. We try, we fail, we learn, and we do better. And out of the many who try something new, it only takes one success to kick off a revolution.

“How may of these techo-utopian nuclear fantasies have to crumble into high-priced dust before we stop crediting the next round?”

It’s not about crediting. It’s about not foreclosing future potential. How many times did we attempt powered flight before we finally succeeded? Would any number of such failures have justified banning all future attempts? Dozens of companies through the last century tried and failed to make a go of electric cars. Should they have been banned at some point? We don’t know yet what the next-gen developers will be able to come up with. But how about we find out first, and then decide whether we want it? Besides, it’s not like a ban could happen anyway. Republicans have already embraced next-gen development as one of their signature causes. Promoting a ban at this point would only play into their hands and give them a way to highlight the luddite hypocrisy of anti-nuke greens, environmentalists, and progressives, and they’d wind up with more credibility and political capital. (Triple that if any of the next-gen designs actually succeed.)

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The primary concern with nuclear power is that it uses pressurized radioactive water as a coolant ~ a nuclear meltdown means that pressurized water escapes as steam and contaminates the region for decades. The newest generation of molten salt reactors don’t have that problem, they are fail-safe ~ the problem comes in convincing the public to invest in switching over when even safer renewable alternatives exist, as we need every tool in our toolbox to mitigate global warming, and lessen our dependence on coal and fracking. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602051/fail-safe-nuclear-power/

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“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” ― Upton Sinclair

This fellow has joined the green energy “boondoggle for profit”…he is not longer serving the interest of humanity, as there is presently no green path to realistic energy production (in useful quantities).

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