Monday, July 07, 2014

Nuclear Energy Decrepit? We’ll See About That

In a story about new nuclear technologies at Fortune, Mark Halper makes a formulation that defines what seems a, shall we say, critical mass in the nuclear energy business:

A host of startups are experimenting with different approaches including the use of liquid fuel, the use of solid fuel with different shapes (such as bricks or pebbles), and the use of alternative coolants and moderators such as salts and gases. Many of the designs draw on ideas that politics suppressed decades ago. Some, like Bill Gates-chaired TerraPower in Bellevue, Wash., are designing “fast reactors” that don’t moderate neutrons. Some envision using the element thorium instead of uranium.

Between them, they portend leaps in safety, cut way down on nuclear waste, use “waste” as fuel, minimize weapons proliferation risks, slash costs and tremendously boost efficiencies. Many fit the “small modular” form that enables mass production and affordable incremental power. (Oregon startup NuScale Power recently secured $217 million in federal funds to develop a small but comparatively conventional reactor.)

We can discuss the “politics suppressed” bit some other time – another way to see it is as “decision making” – but what Halper does is recognize that a lot is happening in the nuclear energy sphere and, by so doing, he heartily rebuts the argument that nuclear energy is a decrepit technology tottering into the grave.

Nuclear power, once the cutting edge of technological progress, is now a dinosaur, all the more anachronistic when one looks at the price of renewables, whose costs have plummeted over a decade and will, say experts, continue to decline as technology improves.

Like that. This next one is a favorite.

They emerged from the philosophy of the 20th century and waste large amounts of energy.

So 20th century, nuclear energy, as outmoded a philosophy as fascism (this was written by a German, who ought to be better aware of what constitutes bad philosophy.)

Halper, who pins the first part of his story to fusion (which means he can write the same story five years from now), does turn to  the more grounded world of fission and picks up a good quote:

There is a growing market pull for innovation in the nuclear space, so you’re beginning to see a blossoming of startup companies doing different things in nuclear,” says Simon Irish, CEO of startup Terrestrial Energy, Mississauga, Canada, which is developing a “molten salt” reactor (MSR) based on liquid fuel.

Halper wrote more about Terrestrial Energy here, so he knew where to get his quote. Molten salt reactors are not new technology, as Terrestrial is the first to admit – and does, right on its home page – but Halper covers a few other ideas, too. Still, Irish is exactly right – Terrestrial, TerraPower, NuScale, etc. are doing “different things in nuclear.” The article is well worth a look.


Anonymous said...

Halper, not Halpin?

Charles Barton said...

I was the 33rd member of the energy from Thorium discussion group, the only open discussion group devoted to nuclear power in 2007, At that time Molten salt nuclear technology was virtually unknown, even in the small nuclear community. We started out as a grass roots effort, and look at how much we have accomplished in the last 8 years. Not too long ago, thorium was even discussed in The House of Lords. In 8 more years the movement may have MSRs nearing sales in North America, while in China a Thorium Molten Salt Breeder may be nearing completion.