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  (Source: Washington Times)
Smaller reactors means lower costs, which in turn mean lower risk to investors

Argonne National Laboratory's former chief scientist and director, Robert Rosner, is on a mission to sell the nation on a clean "small modular reactor" (SMR) nuclear power solution.

I. Good Things Come in Small Packages

As the new director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), Mr. Rasner has devoted much his energy into guiding public policy towards financially optimal "green solutions."

With funding from his former research facility, Professor Rasner and his colleague Stephen Goldberg -- a special assistant to Argonne's new director -- examined reactors ranging from the tradition gigawatt scale, down to smaller megawatt-scale designs.

The report simplified the equation a bit, removing interest and construction time.  It dubbed this simplified metric "overnight construction costs".  It puts the cost of a kilowatt of new nuclear capacity at $4,210 USD for a large plant -- nearly twice what large-scale capacity cost in 2004.  The remedy, it argues, is smaller reactor designs.

Professor Rasner cites "commodity price changes and other factors".  While he does not explicitly elaborate on those "other factors" in his press, release, he's likely referring to the strong public animosity for nuclear power in the U.S., in the wake of the Fukushima Japanese nuclear disaster.

But the veteran researcher says those who lump modern nuclear reactors with decades old legacy designs like the reactors at Fukushima are ignorant of the scientific reality.  He states to the contrary, "[Modern reactors] would be a huge stimulus for high-valued job growth, restore U.S. leadership in nuclear reactor technology and, most importantly, strengthen U.S. leadership in a post-Fukushima world, on matters of nuclear safety, nuclear security, nonproliferation, and nuclear waste management."

CSIS president and CEO John Hamre concurs, commenting that the new reactors are virtually meltdown-proof.  He remarks, "The entire heat load at full power can be carried passively by thermal convection. There's no need for pumps."

Critics, it would seem -- tend to write a blank check to solar and wind power when it comes to environmental impact, land impact, safety, government funding, and risk -- while looking to sharply admonish nuclear power firms from seeking those same benefits.

II. Modular Mass Production Holds the Key to Profits, Halting Lawsuits

Again, he says the cheapest way to get their is to develop a modular construction process, perhaps somewhere around the 600 MW scale.  Rather than being custom-built on site, parts could be mass-produced at factories and then shipped to the new reactor for "easy assembly".

Mr. Hamre says its not just public sentiment that's holding reactors back -- it’s the staggering scale of large reactor cost.  A gigawatt scale reactor would cost a company $10B USD to deploy and would not see a pay for 7 to 9 years.

He opines that small reactors currently look like the best energy solution, other than natural gas use.  He says natural gas is less desirable too, because it's a commodity and its cost in 15 years could radically shift.

Mr Hamre and Professor Rasner say that the government must step in as a customer to help small nuclear manufacturers build up factories and deployment networks.    Even at small scales, initial costs will likely be too high versus traditional "dirty" power technologies like oil and coal, they argue.  

"The faster you learn, the better off you are in the long term because you get to the point where you actually start making money faster." says Professor Rosner.  But while there is a rush to get these solutions out there, he warns that he's not advocating a rush to judgment.  He adds, "It's a case that has to be argued out and thought carefully about.  There's a long distance between what we're doing right now and actually implementing national policy."

Another good thing about SMRs mentioned in the report is that they could serve as direct replacements to fossil fuel power plants.  Given the fact that many coal plants produce around 200 to 400 MW, a SMR could be fitted as a direct drop-in, versus current larger designs, which require special grid accommodations.

Another positive not mentioned in the report, is that SMRs would likely strike a blow to opponents who hope to cripple the clean power technology with lawsuits and protests.  Rather than having just one target to focus their wrath on, landowners and "environmentalists" would be forced to divide their time and money between several deployments per state, depleting their resources.

Georgia Plant
U.S. nuclear power stands at a crossroads.  Proponents want it to move ahead to new technologies, and they have backing from some top scientists.  But for every ounce of science leverage in support of nuclear there's and equal violent emotional backlash from public critics [Image Source: Georgia Times Blog]

So what do you think?  Should the U.S. follow in France's bold footsteps and invest big in nuclear, even if it requires mild government "seed funding"?  Or should it go in the opposite direction and pull a Japan, turning its back on nuclear energy?  Or should politicians simply sit there and keep their mouths shut, as President Obama has appeared to do (a reversal of his vocal pre-Fukushima support of nuclear development) -- in an effort to avoid angering either side?

For more reading, dive into the full report below.

Sources: Univ. of Chicago, EPIC



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RE: thorium
By m51 on 12/15/2011 11:30:26 AM , Rating: 3
Unfortunately HE3 doesn't pass a reality check. The neutron flux over Deuterium-Tritium fuel will only be reduced by about a factor of 3, not enough to make a difference. The drawback is much higher temperatures are needed to achieve practical reaction rates and increased losses due to Bremsstrahlaung radiation etc. may put it out of reach as a usable fuel.
There is also the supply problem. It would not be cost effective within orders of magnitude to try and 'farm' this stuff off the moon compared to standard old nuclear reactors or other power generation systems.

As to Fusion power in general it doesn't look like commercial power generation via Fusion power will happen in my lifetime or several generations after. A number of intractable problems remain such as the first wall problem for which there are no solutions and no viable options. This after 60 years of fusion research. Even if break even power generation with fusion is technically possible it appears it will be orders of magnitude too expensive as a commercial power source. It does us no good if it is not economically feasible.

The only small hope I have is that one of the alternative non-tokamak approaches pans out like the Dense Plasma Focus, Polywell, or the Field-reversed technique. If one of these can be made to run with Boron-11 fuel then we may have a new ballgame.


RE: thorium
By Namey on 12/15/2011 12:07:29 PM , Rating: 2
Say "Bremsstrahlaung" three times fast


RE: thorium
By ppardee on 12/15/2011 12:36:30 PM , Rating: 2
Three times? I can't even say it once without choking on my tongue!


RE: thorium
By Gondor on 12/15/2011 5:24:23 PM , Rating: 3
It is not that difficult once it is spelled correctly. Split it into syllables:

Brems - like "Brahms", but with an 'e'
strahl - "trall" ('a' as in "bar" or "car") with "sh" (from "shoot") in front of it
ung - "oong"

and it's not the soft 'r' of English language, it's a hard 'r', more like that of Spanish ("perro").

Bremsstrahlung - easy ;)


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