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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 geddarkstorm on 12/15/2011 2:50:02 PM , Rating: 2

Population growth around the world is slowing--our population is nearing what is called the "stationary phase", and will not grow beyond that (unless we start colonizing space). 9 billion will probably be the top out, or even lower, since higher technology actually decreases human population density (or conversely, makes birth rates decline more sharply with increasing density. Consequently, most first world countries have negative growth rates, and are shrinking as technology can do more, requiring less people to be born).

Population is always a function of density, need, and resource allocation. It will never grow indefinitely or cataclysmically. It's a natural process seen with ALL types of populations, from bacteria to humans, to abstracts like product adoption, markets, and the like.

Nothing to be afraid of at all. The only real woe we have right now is the UNDERDEVELOPMENT of most of the world's population.

And now on to the fuel.

You do realize that uranium fissions into thorium, correct? That's where most of the thorium comes from.

The poster you are replying to is completely correct. Even with everyone consuming as much power as the US does, we have enough uranium and thorium in this planet to last a million of year. And this is ignoring OTHER types of radioactive elements we may one day be able to use as fuels, and OTHER types of sensible renewable power generation like hydroelectric. Radioactive elements are everywhere: uranium is in your soil, your drinking water, and your body. And let's not even get started on the ubiquitous amounts of radon gas, which gives you the biggest dose of radiation every year that you will ever receive, sans being hit by a nuclear weapon.

And then there's outer space.

Us humans are really in no danger from resource depletion, just our own idiocy and self destructive policies, and the mindless fears driving them.

RE: thorium
By lagomorpha on 12/15/2011 3:21:28 PM , Rating: 3
While population growth is slowing, it is unlikely yo stop before we actually do stretch our resources to the limit. New humans are not manufactured on a by need basis, they are produced by adults who either want children or lack family planning. As the proportion of the population that is willing to use family planning shrinks you are going to see another factor in the population growth rate - willingness to limit yourself to 2-3 children is a massively powerful selective force. What would prevent entire cultures from using family planning even at the risk of their family's wellbeing? Well religion for one.

Also a million years of thorium does not invalidate 5 billion years worth of hydrogen inour oceans.

RE: thorium
By Ringold on 12/16/2011 2:30:36 PM , Rating: 2
While population growth is slowing, it is unlikely yo stop before we actually do stretch our resources to the limit.

People have been saying that since, most famously, Malthus. Been wrong ever since. At the end of the day, innovation has always kept us ahead and moving forward.

RE: thorium
By m51 on 12/15/2011 4:00:21 PM , Rating: 2
I think you meant uranium decays into thorium, not fissions. U238 and Thorium 232 are actually in two different decay chains and U238 does not decay to Thorium 232. Uranium 238 Does decay into other Thorium isotopes (Th234 and Th230) but these are relatively short lived and do not consitute a significant fraction of the Thorium in the crust.

The source of Thorium is from the primordial super nova that created most of the elements with a higher atomic number than iron in our earths crust. It has a half life of about 14 billion years. U238 has a half life of about 4.5 Billion years.

You are quite right about radioactive material being distributed everywhere on earth. People have a distorted view of the risks of radioactivity, like people on the west coast of the US fearing the radioactivity from Fukushima when the naturally occuring radioactive Potassium-40 in the person sleeping next to them is giving them a bigger dose of radiation than any fallout from Fukushima. Neither of which constitute any measurable danger. Driving to the grocery store once would increase your risk of dying prematurely more than the miniscule radiation doses. Yet people have no sense of the scale of the dangers and are terrified of radiation completely out of proportion to the risks.

RE: thorium
By lagomorpha on 12/15/2011 10:34:19 PM , Rating: 2
How big boned would the person sleeping next to you have to be to give you a lethal dose of radiation from potassium-40 decay?

"The Space Elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing" -- Sir Arthur C. Clarke

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