Friday, August 13, 2010

A Renaissance Reimagined

Imperial college Here comes the nuclear renaissance, reimagined. Robin Grimes of London’s Imperial College, with a group of scientists from there and the University of Cambridge, has put together a two-stage plan that aims to facilitate a large scale expansion of nuclear energy beginning in 2030. Stage 1 involves replacing or extending the life of current plants and stage 2 is the expansion beyond countries that now use nuclear energy.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because both these stages are happening right now. While I was curious about the ideas behind this plan, it does seem that industry has not waited for him before acting on them.

The study will be published in the magazine Science, but a lengthy announcement was published on Imperial College’s site. Let’s see what’s on offer.

The researchers also suggest building small, modular reactors that never require refueling. These could be delivered to countries as sealed units, generating power for approximately 40 years. At the end of its life, the reactor would be returned to the manufacturer for decommissioning and disposal. Because fuel handling is avoided at the point of electricity generation, the team say radiation doses to workers would be reduced, meaning that the plants would be safer to operate.

Here’s a description of NuScale’s reactor:

NuScale plants are compact. Each component is modular and is designed for fabrication off-site at numerous existing facilities in the USA and around the world. Construction is less complex, lead times shorter, and costs more predictable and controllable. The NuScale containment and reactor vessel measures approximately 60 feet in length and 14 feet in diameter. It and all other modular components are transportable by barge, truck or rail.

The reactor does not address recycling, as the United States does not, either, but it does seem to fulfill a lot of Grimes’ ideas. (And I’m not promoting NuScale, only noting that Grimes says it fits his specifications.)

Well, let’s try out something else:

Another idea is to develop reactors with replaceable parts so that they can last in excess of 70 years, compared to 40 or 50 years that plants can currently operate at. Reactors are subjected to harsh conditions including extreme radiation and temperatures, meaning that parts degrade over time, affecting the life of the reactor. Making replaceable parts for reactors would make them more cost effective and safe to run over longer periods of time.

Hmmm, that sounds a lot like a Department of Energy program described by Rebecca Smith-Kevern, the DOE’s director for light water reactor technologies, in this interview with NEI’s Insight newsletter:

Q: What is the light water reactor sustainability program?

Smith-Kevern: It is a research program aimed at providing the technical basis for enabling the safe extension of reactor operation beyond the 60 years that  nuclear plants typically operate. It is research that recognizes the fact that these plants are fundamental assets to the country in terms of greenhouse gas reduction and it’s in the national interest to keep them running as long as it’s safe and economical to do so.

Q: What does the research entail?

Smith-Kevern: We want to do research on aging effects and also look at economics to give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a basis to say that the nuclear plants are safe beyond 60 years, and give utilities the knowledge they need in terms of where they need to do extra maintenance and what components they would need to replace.

Grimes throws out some ideas I’ve heard before but might be hard to implement, politically or practically:

Flexible nuclear technologies could be an option for countries that do not have an established nuclear industry, suggest the scientists. One idea involves ship-borne civil power plants that could be moored offshore, generating electricity for nearby towns and cities. This could reduce the need for countries to build large electricity grid infrastructures, making it more cost effective for governments to introduce a nuclear industry from scratch.

I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just put it on land to serve the same purpose – it’d certainly be easier to secure. (Even if it were at sea, so to speak, the country hosting it would still need a nuclear industry. I think the idea is that a third party would run the floating reactor, with the country hosting it incidental, but that seems a very tough sell. No country thinks it’s incidental.)

I guess I’m not very impressed by the actual ideas bruited here – YMMV - but I do appreciate Grimes’ motives and enthusiasm:

“Our study explores the exciting opportunities that a renaissance in nuclear energy could bring to the world. …Concerns about climate change, energy security and depleting fossil fuel reserves have spurred a revival of interest in nuclear power generation and our research sets out a strategy for growing the industry long-term, while processing and transporting nuclear waste in a safe and responsible way.”

And maybe the study itself will show more careful research than the article suggests. I certainly can’t muster up harshness toward Grimes when he says things like this:

“In the past, there has been the perception in the community that nuclear technology has not been safe. However, what most people don’t appreciate is just how much emphasis the nuclear industry places on safety. In fact, safety is at the very core of the industry. With continual improvements to reactor design, nuclear energy will further cement its position as an important part of our energy supply in the future.”

Very true, all along the line. See what you think.

Imperial College. Visionary or Ivory Tower?


SteveK9 said...

Russia is already building a floating nuclear power plant and has plans for more.

Anonymous said...

Made me immediately think of this statement over 56 years ago