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Small, Modular Nuclear Reactors — the Future of Energy? 314

Posted by Soulskill
from the until-everybody-gets-their-own-mr.-fusion-machine dept.
cylonlover writes "This year is a historic one for nuclear power, with the first reactors winning U.S. government approval for construction since 1978. Some have seen the green lighting of two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to be built in Georgia as the start of a revival of nuclear power in the West, but this may be a false dawn because of the problems besetting conventional reactors. It may be that when a new boom in nuclear power comes, it won't be led by giant gigawatt installations, but by batteries of small modular reactors (SMRs) with very different principles from those of previous generations. However, while it's a technology of great diversity and potential, many obstacles stand in its path. This article takes an in-depth look at the many forms of SMRs, their advantages, and the challenges they must overcome."
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Small, Modular Nuclear Reactors — the Future of Energy?

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  • Distributed Grid (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sanosuke001 (640243) on Friday February 17, 2012 @11:59AM (#39075077)
    Distributed power is how our grid should be set up. Also, being self-contained, these would allow us to put them closer to the actual users and cut transmission losses and costs. Why the hell aren't we doing it yet?
    • by everett (154868) <<moc.tdlefe> <ta> <tdlefe>> on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:05PM (#39075157) Homepage

      nimby

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:07PM (#39075187)

        You can put them in my backyard! I totally don't mind if it means I can get cheap power in exchange!!!

        • Re:Distributed Grid (Score:4, Interesting)

          by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:32PM (#39076351)
          I am weird, but I'd actually want to have an electronuke in my backyard...well, perhaps not in my backyard, since it wouldn't fit there (and there is a steel hill behind said backyard), but somewhere close. Just for the fun of it. And for the open-to-public days. And because I'm a geek who actually knows some physics and I'm not scared by people who guide their life by newspaper horoscopes. The only sad thing is that the new reactors would probably be imported, not locally built. We've build something like thirty good, reliable power reactors in the past and had them exported to other countries.
      • by sycodon (149926) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:04PM (#39075979)

        Actually, I don't think NIMBY is a factor simply because no one has yet to produce such a device, propose to install it somewhere, and then generate the hypothetical NIBY reaction.

        These devices face an intrenched anti-nuclear lobby that trades off of ignorance and fear. In other words, the nuke Haters. If ever such a device was ready to be deployed, the nuke Haters would be at every hearing, file endless lawsuits and finally, pull some kind of OWS garbage to delay the actual deployment.

        In my opinion, any person who has been adequately informed of the device's safety measures and economic benefits would not be bothered by having one installed at their local power plant.

        • by AmiMoJo (196126)

          Actually, I don't think NIMBY is a factor simply because no one has yet to produce such a device, propose to install it somewhere, and then generate the hypothetical NIBY reaction.

          There are plenty of NIMBY complaints over local generators like solar and wind turbines. Stop taking it so personally.

          In my opinion, any person who has been adequately informed of the device's safety measures and economic benefits would not be bothered by having one installed at their local power plant.

          We are not talking about power plants outside cities, we are talking about small scale generation in urban areas. Even assuming it were possible to build a small reactor that could withstand things like vehicles and aircraft crashing into it, nuclear plants in the UK regularly leak dangerous amounts of radioactive material. It isn't so bad because they are a long way from populated areas and

          • Re:Distributed Grid (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Eponymous Coward (6097) on Friday February 17, 2012 @02:07PM (#39076839)

            You're describing previous generations of reactors. The new ones are more like a giant battery. They are sealed, self contained, and walk-away safe. The big reactors you are describing produce less expensive electricity, but I'm not sure we will ever defeat the cheap / safe tradeoff.

            • You're describing previous generations of reactors. The new ones are more like a giant battery. They are sealed, self contained, and walk-away safe.

              Walk Away safe is a pretty big claim for something that has never actually been built yet. (And no, Navy shipboard reactors don't count. Operation of those reactors is top secret, and they are way too small.)

              At some level, the concept of "walk away safe" is just another example of The Arrogance of Engineers. There are just too many things assumed.

              The real problem with this design is that it might actually be built in reasonably large numbers, installed in places that are less well planned, operated by your

              • by nukenerd (172703)
                Icebike wrote :- concept of "walk away safe" is just another example of The Arrogance of Engineers

                I am a nuclear engineer and would never make such a claim about anything, let alone a nuclear power plant, nor would any of the guys I have ever worked with. If you know such an engineer then he does not deserve to be called one.

                In fact it is easy to make the mistake that someone talking about a subject (energy, medicine, economics) is a practising professional in that topic when in fact they are more l
          • by profplump (309017)

            Most reactors in the UK were built without any secondary containment -- even at the time they were built they knew it was dangerous, but they did it anyway. It's really not fair to compare them to any of the more reasonable designs, including similarly aged US reactors.

            As for physical protection of these small reactors, the plan is simply to bury them. It's really hard to smash a car or plane into something that doesn't start until 6' under the local terrain.

            And I'm not sure what your logistical concerns ar

      • Re:Distributed Grid (Score:4, Interesting)

        by EvilBudMan (588716) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:18PM (#39076135) Journal

        Well I would take one in my back yard for free power. Anyhow, this may also be some type of way to dispose of high level waste. Generating electricity off of the decay might power something.

      • by treeves (963993) on Friday February 17, 2012 @02:48PM (#39077383) Homepage Journal

        BANANA - build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yea, totally. I mean, I can't think of one single reason why there isn't a small nuclear reactor on every block in the country. Everyone wants to live next to a nuclear reactor, right? I assume that's the reason the government hasn't approved construction of one in 34 years.

      • Assumption is wrong. (Score:2, Informative)

        by Medievalist (16032)

        I assume that's the reason the government hasn't approved construction of one in 34 years.

        Nope. Two mistakes!

        First, no approvals have been made because no proposals have been up for approval. Nuclear power isn't viable without government subsidies and there weren't any between 1980 and 2005, because the government in that time frame actually attempted to reflect the will of the taxpayers (oh, for such innocent times to come again!).

        Second, the government doesn't actually do the approvals - the NRC does.

        • by Shadow99_1 (86250)

          I know of at least a dozen times where someone has started to build a new nuclear reactor since 1978, but it never made it through the process. Unfortunately searching for references isn't something I'm willing to do on my tablet, but some searching should get you a few. So in fact there have proposals have been made, but a range of issues has stopped them.

          Subsidies are not required, but frankly what business doesn't want free money? And while the NRC has some approval authority, so does local and state gov

      • by lightknight (213164) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:05PM (#39076007) Homepage

        Fear, justified or not, was the hold-up. The original light-water reactors have some...issues. To run one, you need qualified staff (supposedly Three-Mile was hiring high-school students (or someone equally unqualified) to run their plant, at the time of the incident, I imagine as a cost-cutting measure), and you need to use quality building materials (do not scrimp, and I'd favor capital punishment for any contractor who is caught using lower-grade materials while pocketing the difference; you probably want some more than low-grade cement / concrete for the outer shell, and a substitution here by less scrupulous people is a serious concern). As for the components here, Chernobyl suffered from, among other things, an untested emergency cooling system component (I believe it was a turbine or pump) which failed at a critical moment (it was shipped, apparently without adequate testing, so quickly, so that the staff at the manufacturing plant could declare a 'Worker's Victory' and claim their Christmas bonuses).

        As for these micro-reactors, they are potentially a good idea. Uranium is relatively inexpensive these days, and the primary target for an environmentally sound operation is the careful disposal of the waste. However, before they are put into use, I'd advocate bringing up the general population to some level of actual understanding regarding nuclear fission reactions -> there is a lot if disinformation out there regarding nuclear fission, and it's treated as magic by the populace. The only cure for ignorance, which breeds fear, is information. Show them how hard it is for something to undergo an uncontrolled nuclear fission reaction, show them how the danger of fallout and radioactivity is inversely related to time. Explain to them what a rem is, and how the sun gives you more radiation in a day than most people will experience, with the exception of medical imaging devices and flying on high-altitude airplanes, throughout their lives. And above all, no lies. No propaganda. Just the truth, detailing what we do know, what we do not know, and where any potential problems may be.

           

      • Re:Distributed Grid (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Ol Olsoc (1175323) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:27PM (#39076289)

        Everyone wants to live next to a nuclear reactor, right? I assume that's the reason the government hasn't approved construction of one in 34 years.

        I've had the huge reactor/small reactor argument with nuc-e's for years. A long time ago, it was apparent to me that the huge plants make for huge problems. Part of enhancing safety is getting smaller plants that don't stress materials as much. The old paradigm was an economy of scale thing, one huge reactor in one location. Unfortunately, it was like building a dragster. Dragsters don't get 100 thousand miles on them. Little Toyota pickup trucks get 300 thousand.

        Small reactors operating conservatively will not only have less problems, but will actually strengthen our power grid, as they add redundancy.

        Of course, we could just go back to the 1300's.

    • Re:Distributed Grid (Score:5, Informative)

      by nospam007 (722110) * on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:23PM (#39075383)

      "...put them closer to the actual users and cut transmission losses and costs. Why the hell aren't we doing it yet?"

      Exactly! Here in Europe we had a cold spell of a few weeks and the French, with their dozens of nuclear reactors had to import electricity from Germany, who shut theirs down after the Japanese 'incident'.
      French officials were grinding their teeth, they had predicted the Germans the opposite would happen in winter.
      The Germans have tons of solar roofs and while it was cold as hell, the sun shone quite nicely as well as the wind was blowing.

      • Re:Distributed Grid (Score:5, Informative)

        by gadget junkie (618542) <gbponz@libero.it> on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:36PM (#39075569) Journal

        "...put them closer to the actual users and cut transmission losses and costs. Why the hell aren't we doing it yet?"

        Exactly! Here in Europe we had a cold spell of a few weeks and the French, with their dozens of nuclear reactors had to import electricity from Germany, who shut theirs down after the Japanese 'incident'. French officials were grinding their teeth, they had predicted the Germans the opposite would happen in winter. The Germans have tons of solar roofs and while it was cold as hell, the sun shone quite nicely as well as the wind was blowing.

        Sources? I freely admit that I do not speak german, but a friend of mine who does told me that Der Spiegel [spiegel.de] had this article stating that net net, solar production was negligible this winter."[..]The only thing that's missing at the moment is sunshine. For weeks now, the 1.1 million solar power systems in Germany have generated almost no electricity. The days are short, the weather is bad and the sky is overcast.[...]"

      • Re:Distributed Grid (Score:5, Interesting)

        by tp1024 (2409684) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:43PM (#39075669)
        That's the story that's being told in the newspapers. The truth is rather different.

        Peak demand for electricity is in the evening hours - about 6pm. But sunset is before that in winter and Germany certainly didn't export any electricity to France during that time of peak demand. Rather, the exports were at noon, when solar power has its peak production. And since the decentralized eletricity grid in Germany is incapable of transmitting solar power to other parts of Germany beyond narrow margins (power plants are built within 50-100km of demand, with limited transmission capacity beyond that), the only place for solar power in south-west Germany to go is France. (And southern Germany is the place where the rich house owners live who can afford to put solar cells on their roofs - paid for by all private customers, regardless of how poor they are.)

        In the evening, none of this was there. France did make do with its own reserves and all German reserves had to be used for Germany. Had the environmentalists of the BUND had their way, there would have been no reserve capacity at all - all of which was in fact needed during peak demand, even reserves in Austria had to be used to meet the needs in Germany when temperatures dropped. All that without any major technical problems, no powerlines cut, not major faults in power stations.

        But hey, physics is just a corporate conspiracy.
        • by Medievalist (16032) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:19PM (#39076159)

          Local battery storage is cost-ineffective for most small solar producers/ homeowners. If you don't aggressively manage your batteries they don't last worth a damn, and even if you do daily hygrometer checks etc. and get every last minute of life out of them, battery banks are unfortunately quite costly. I have an antique lead-acid electric tractor so I speak from experience!

          But nickel iron batteries [ironedison.com] are back on the market - and despite their poor energy density, high mass & volume, and high cost they are still a great alternative for homeowners because they are so extremely robust. Market capitalism to the rescue? It's certainly a different approach than nuclear socialism, which is the model France and Scandinavia are on (and which the USA is attempting to emulate, only with our own special sauce of corporate profiteering liberally slathered over the top).

          • by tp1024 (2409684) on Friday February 17, 2012 @02:39PM (#39077269)
            I think you underestimate the size of the storage problem. The main problem with wind and solar are seasonal variations - even though we currently can't even manage to cope with the short-term ones. You will need at least 2 months of storage to deal with the time around winter when demand is largest and supply is smallest. (That's without some extra reserves to deal with unforeseen events.) For Germany that's 100TWh. For short-term variations about 2 days or so could be sufficient, about 3-4 TWh. Pumped storage in Germany has a capacity of about 0.04 TWh. (Of course, 40GWh sound a lot more impressive, but really isn't.)

            The elephant in the room is of course that the majority of energy use is not electricity, but oil and gas used for transport, process heat and heating, only some of those can be significantly reduced through the use of electricity. (Process heat, for example, is too hot for effective use of heat pumps. 1kWh of heat takes 1kWh of electricity there. For space heaters, you may get 4kWh of heat for 1kWh of electricity.) About 30% of the primary energy (30% of about 15000 PJ) in Germany is converted into electricity - with some 40% efficiency. Thus, current electricity generation (600TWh per year, or 2200PJ or 70 GW) is just a small fraction of total energy use (15000PJ per year or 480 GW). Electricty supply would need to at least double, more likely triple, to replace oil and gas. Which is a pretty optimistic assessment - you're doing with perhaps 5000PJ per year (160GW) of electricity what used to take 15000PJ (480GW) of energy.

            As for storage? Well, batteries are not enough for long term storage, but short term, they are a very efficient and very expensive alternative. The bulk will inevitably need to be some derivative of hydrogen, probably methane (for much easier storage). The problem with that is that efficiency is quite bad - some 33% round-trip. (Not accounting for energy used in liquification or pressurization for storage. But 33% is a reasonable estimate if you take probable technological improvements into account. This is limited by turbine efficiency, which is actually better than fuel cells for large, multiple stage, plants.) So, you will need to roughly double the figure of electricity generated by wind or solar, if you want to know what you will get out. So, you're now talking about generating on the order of 8000PJ per year (250GW) with wind and solar. (Biofuel and hydro is not scalable, tidal quickly gets huge, but so does wind and solar at this kind of scale.)

            On average, Germany is now producing 2.75 GW of solar (with 27GW installed capacity) and 4.5GW of wind power (also 27GW installed capacity - but without current downtimes due to electricity net congestion, it could be over 6GW). So, you would need roughly a 25 fold increase wind and solar, as the only scalable renewables, provide renewable energy to Germany. And that is huge all by itself.
            • by fyngyrz (762201) on Friday February 17, 2012 @03:01PM (#39077561) Homepage Journal

              The bulk will inevitably need to be some derivative of hydrogen, probably methane (for much easier storage).

              Nah. It'll inevitably be ultracaps. Capacity is coming up steadily, and when they pass batteries, they'll be the tech to use. Why? Extremely long lifetime; extremely high charge and discharge rates; excellent environmental operating ranges; modular nature and ease of swapping components as they improve or require maintainance; relatively low cost (partially because of life expectancy, partially because they simply aren't that hard to make, at least so far.)

              Right now, UC's are below battery storage capacities and all the hype is about batteries, but that's to be expected. I guarantee you that at some point, all else - pumped storage, molten salt, batteries, flywheels... will fall by the wayside. Ultracaps are the way storage should be done, period. The only issue is capacity, and that is rising steadily. It's coming. Inevitable.

        • by AmiMoJo (196126)

          Actually Germany is trying to increase its peek demand capacity via renewables. They already produce well over 20% of their energy from green sources [spiegel.de], and the focus now is not just expansion but on increasing the amount of peek demand and base load that can be covered by them.

          Water and geothermal in particular are suited to peek demand coverage. All you need is a reasonable mix of sources. It isn't rocket science, although if it were the Germans are pretty good at that too.

      • The Germans have tons of coal fired plants, too.

    • by jellomizer (103300) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:25PM (#39075421)
      Because we as Americans do not understand what a trade off means.

      We want clean energy but we don't want power facilities near our homes. Nuclear is clean however it needs to be done right and there are too many complaining about the scary Nuclear and are unfortunally happy when they see a problem with a facility because it shows they are right.
      Except a more responsible approach would be to support nuclear energy understand that it will be a long term investment and make sure it is done right and any mistakes will need to be fixed the right way before damage comes along, can solve many of our big pressing problems and only create smaller manageable problems.
    • Re:Distributed Grid (Score:5, Interesting)

      by BlueParrot (965239) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:33PM (#39075513)

      Because it is horribly economical.

      With the exception of solar cells every major energy source used for electricity generation benefits greatly from economies of scale. As an example, the cost of building wind-turbines scale approximately linearly with their size (up to a point ), but the power generated increases as the square of the turbine radius, and with the third power of wind speed. As a consequence you want to build them big, you want to build them where wind conditions are the best, and you want to make them tall. The most economical wind turbines are quite large, and those little toys you see people put on their roof is a complete joke.

      For nuclear power the maximum possible output of the reactor is largely dependent on the capacity of the cooling and safety systems. Since fuel costs are only a small part of the electricity cost, most of the cost is construction and operation of the plant. Since cooling capacity is related to volume ( how much coolant passes through the pipes ) it scales rapidly with reactor size, making larger reactors more economical ( the cooling capacity increases more rapidly with size than does material costs ). The limit in size is mostly determined by what can safely be built, transported and operated.

      Now, there is one way distributed generation could become economical. If many small power generators could be mass produced, then one could take advantage of economies of volume. This works well for things where energy production scales at about the same rate as material costs. Solar cells would be a good example. The energy they produce is proportional to the surface area of the cells, and the cost of the cells is also proportional to the area. Thus if mass-production allows for reduced manufacturing costs per area of cell, it helps the economics.

      I still think solar power would be more economical built to scale however, because the amount of electronics needed match the energy produced to the grid would then be much smaller per area of cells. Furthermore, roof-top solar cells are frequently poorly aligned and maintained. A larger facility could afford tracking devices and professional cleaning and maintenance, which increases the efficiency dramatically.

      • "Uneconomical"

        Siiiigh.

      • Re:Distributed Grid (Score:5, Interesting)

        by dj245 (732906) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:49PM (#39075747) Homepage
        I think you are ignoring the distribution costs, which are not trivial. The distribution fee is a significant part of my utility bill. It means that Solar or a small wind turbine doesn't have to be compeditive with the efficiency and cost of retail electricity at all. It could be miserably inefficient actually. But if the generation cost is cheaper than the utility's generation+distribution fees, then it may be financially viable.
        • by poszi (698272) on Friday February 17, 2012 @02:12PM (#39076897)
          The distribution fee is a significant part of my utility bill

          Distribution fee covers the infrastructure costs. Ever seen a footage after a big storm with fallen trees, broken lines? Maintaining and repairing the lines is costly. It costs much more than power losses due to transmission over large distances. You would have to pay fees to cover infrastructure costs no matter if there were one power plant per 100,000 households or one per 100.

      • by sycodon (149926)

        What part of Small and Modular did you not understand?

        The whole point of small and modular is to be able to manufacture these things in a plant and ship them to a location.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

        Because it is horribly economical.

        With the exception of solar cells every major energy source used for electricity generation benefits greatly from economies of scale.

        Yeah. So what. Build a mega plant, have it run as hot as possible to gain thermodynamic efficiency, and when there is a problem, it gets real big, real quickly. And we've seen the effects. Wanna build that new huge mega plant? Be ready for the videos from Chernobyl and Fukushima.

        People are for some reason cynical. Maybe it's because those plants were "perfectly safe". Maybe it's because they can sense the condescension on the part of people who are now telling them that these places that have accidents a

    • Distributed power is how our grid should be set up. Also, being self-contained, these would allow us to put them closer to the actual users and cut transmission losses and costs. Why the hell aren't we doing it yet?

      Exactly!

      The fragility of our so-called "smart grid" terrifies me. Between solar events, terrorism, carelessness and stupidity it is bound to do some really bad things that impact our entire nation.

      Distributed power like this (really a mix of this and NG CHP ) makes so much sense that there is almost no chance of our leadership in the U.S. ever allowing it to happen.

  • There are no economically viable nuclear plants without heavy taxpayer subsidies.

    The original post implies that nuclear plants have been turned down for decades and now suddenly they aren't. This is bullshit.

    Corporations are lining up for the gravy train of taxpayer dollars provided by the Cheney energy policy of 2005. Per-kilowatt subsidies, construction subsidies, reauthorization and extension of the Price-Anderson Act (which makes taxpayers liable for disasters), all negotiated in secret because taxpay

    • by nomadic (141991)
      "The original post implies that nuclear plants have been turned down for decades and now suddenly they aren't. This is bullshit."

      This is slashdot ideology. Ideology doesn't have to have any basis in reality, you just need enough "libertarians" shouting about something angrily enough and long enough to establish it as a fact.
    • by tp1024 (2409684)
      Lets compare: Greenpeace - not known for being either honest or supporters of nuclear power - claims that German nuclear power received some 350bn Euro of subsidies. But this includes research for nuclear fusion, particle accelerators, "research" reactors that provide hospitals with all the isotopes needed for medical diagnosis and treatment of cancer and other illnesses. Basically anything with "atoms in it". Nuclear power provided over 20% of electricity for over 30 years - about as much as hard coal used
    • Shoreham Syndrome (Score:5, Interesting)

      by JSBiff (87824) on Friday February 17, 2012 @03:09PM (#39077669) Journal

      Something which doesn't often get discussed, but which I learned about a couple years ago - a number of knowledgeable people have said that what really killed nuclear power in the United States was the Shoreham Power Plant.

      This was a nuclear power plant built in Long Island, New York, for about $6 Bn. The plant passed certifications and inspections and was all ready to go into commercial operation. However, because of politics, the plant was never able to get the go ahead from the State of New York to operate. The governor, Mario Kuomo, basically vetoed an *already built* power plant.

      As long as the laws are such that investors can't get reasonable assurance *before* they spend all the money to build the plant, that they will be definitely allowed to operate as long as the plant meets relevant technical standards, the *politics* of the situation make the plants not viable.

      Without such political uncertainty, nuclear plants are, generally, good investements, economically. A nuclear plant (depending on how much power it produces), should produce more than enough power to pay for itself in the course of 60 years, if it's allowed to operate.

  • What about Thorium (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dpilot (134227) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:02PM (#39075105) Homepage Journal

    Out of curiosity, what would be the regulatory hurdles if someone wanted to set up a thorium reactor for power generation? Since thorium can't make bombs, I can see how it would be easier. Since it hasn't been done in the US before I can see how it would be harder. Come to think of it, has anyone actually demonstrated thorium-based electrical power generation?

    • by olsmeister (1488789) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:08PM (#39075203)
      No sure if anyone has, but India is aggressively pursuing it [guardian.co.uk].
      • by nojayuk (567177)

        India is not a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As such it is barred from receiving uranium imports from other countries. It doesn't have any significant native sources of uranium ore but it does have a lot of thorium, hence its interest in developing light-water reactors fuelled by thorium with the addition of a "sparkplug" of Medium Enriched Uranium (MEU) and plutonium since thorium by itself is not spontaneously fissile enough to sustain a chain reaction.

        They'd like to export this techn

    • by gewalker (57809) <Gary.Walker@As[ ... m ['tra' in gap]> on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:24PM (#39075399)

      The best demonstration of Liquid Fuel Thorium Reactor (LFTR) was by ORNL in the 60's. They had a prototype molten salt reactor using U-233. This is the fissile component of the Th-232/U-233 fuel cycle. The breeding of TH-232 into U-233 was simply omitted as unneeded complication for this prototype. This was intended to prove / debug the molten salt reactor, it was very successful in key ways.

      India has been working on solid fuel thorium reactors, this is an attempt to re-use our experience with U-235 reactors technologies. It is doubtful that this would ever be competitive with a clean LFTR design.

      In the US, the regulatory hurdles for LFTR are very high, unless you bypass them by selling your design to the military, which has the option to bypass these regs. This is why Flibe Energy [flibe-energy.com] is planning to sell their LFTR to the military first. It is a lot easier to change the regulatory environment if there is clearly functional and safe product being used by the military.

      • Too bad research, development, licensing and implementation aren't states-rights issues, at least for non-weaponizable processes. For example, rebuilding the ORNL reactor from 1960s plans in, say, Texas, should be doable as long as there's no crossing of state lines.. The beauty of statism in effect!!

      • by FirstOne (193462)

        Their was NO THORIUM in that tiny prototype Pu/U fueled, air cooled 7.4 MWth, molten salt reactor [wikipedia.org].

        To date, any experiments with thorium breeding has been in conventional thermal reactors were a small portion(less than 5%) of the U-238 was replaced with Th-232. Thus the entire concept of the LFTR is an untested/unworkable pipe dream.

        • How do you know its unworkable?

          • by FirstOne (193462)

            Thorium by itself is not fissile. You need a large amounts, (5-10 years worth), of U-235, preferably Pu-239, whose fission supplies the necessary neutron flux needed to breed additional fuel.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:53PM (#39075809)

      Th-232/U-233 was investigated as a nuclear fuel back in the 60s because there was widespread fear that uranium would prove to be scarce and prohibitively costly. That didn't turn out to be the case -- uranium is cheap (relative to the costs of the plant) and abundant. Light-water reactors fueled by low-enriched uranium oxide fuel pellets are well understood by utilities and regulators. Utilities are notoriously conservative and risk averse, so "amazing new technology" makes them nervous.

      Molten salt reactors are essentially unproven in large scale testing. Yes, I am very much aware of the Air Force's experiments at Oak Ridge. But the fact remains that nobody has built a large one, and nobody has run one for long periods of time. On-line reprocessing is a clever idea that has never been demonstrated in a reactor. And U-233 most certainly can be used to make a weapon... so the proliferation resistance argument is a bit overblown.

      Solid thorium oxide fuels were used at the Ft. Saint Vrain reactor in Colorado in a gas-cooled reactor. That's another promising technology that isn't going anywhere because the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has basically said "we know how to license and regulate LWRs. We don't have the manpower or resources necessary to do the same for a host of advanced concepts." And the utilities have basically said "we know how to run LWRs with better than 90% capacity factors. We're skeptical that you can do the same with an advanced non-LWR."

      So yeah, we're gonna build Voglte-3 and 4 (AP1000 PWRs). We're gonna build Summer-3 and 4 (AP1000s again). Beyond that, the financing is the bottleneck. Until the economy picks back up, no utility is going to try to finance the overnight cost of a large-scale reactor. The SMRs that will be licensed in the next decade are all small PWRs: NuScale, mPower, Westinghouse SMR. GE isn't pushing PRISM (a sodium cooled fast reactor) in the US. Hyperion Power Generation is a joke with no realistic licensing strategy. The Traveling Wave Reactor is a pipe dream due to fuel cladding limits. It'll be advanced LWRs for the next two to three decades.

    • Or even better, what about cobalt-thorium-G?
  • Give me one of these and a desert island... run a desalination plant and turn it into a little paradise.

    • Until the first hurricane blows through and puts your island paradise under 20 feet of water...
      • Until the first hurricane blows through and puts your island paradise under 20 feet of water...

        As long as the desert island isn't just a sand-pile, anchor the nuke securely and pour enough concrete so it doesn't care if it gets pounded by waves for a few hours.

        Cleanup and rebuilding after the hurricane will be considerably easier with abundant electrical energy available.

    • by PPH (736903)

      I'll open a bank on one and beat you to it.

  • Don't think so (Score:2, Interesting)

    by BlackPignouf (1017012)

    The future of energy is using less energy :
    Few or no planes, smaller cars, local food, small houses, better insulation, less AC, less imported gadgets...
    Mod me down all you want, but the future of energy surely isn't "business as usual"+some nukes in the basement.

    • Re:Don't think so (Score:4, Insightful)

      by dietdew7 (1171613) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:18PM (#39075317)
      The good old days when we used to plow our fields with pointy sticks.
      • you lucky buggers!
        you had pointy sticks?
        we had to drag a large rock behind us.
        uphill.
        both ways.

      • Re:Don't think so (Score:4, Insightful)

        by dkleinsc (563838) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:45PM (#39076531) Homepage

        So you know, the plow of the 18th century was not just a pointy stick, it was actually pretty good at its job, which was why it was used so widely. The biggest difference between that plow and the ones used today is that we now have a tractor in front pulling it instead of oxen or horses.

        The farmers of yore might not have had the same understanding of agriculture as us modern folk, but they weren't stupid, and they would have abandoned tools that didn't help them grow more crop.

    • by gadget junkie (618542) <gbponz@libero.it> on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:39PM (#39075607) Journal

      The future of energy is using less energy :

      we already do this, witness the size and capacity of the batteries in mobile phones, etc.

    • Historically speaking end users will do whatever is most convenient, even in the face of added cost or lower quality. I can certainly see us finding more efficient methods of using less energy to do what we do today, such as better insulation, or more energy efficient products. But I think the only way you'd going to get people support things like "few or no planes, smaller cars, less ac, etc." would be for planes, big cars and AC to be priced so totally out of reach of end users that they can't afford them
    • by squizzar (1031726)

      Ok, so let's drop our energy levels to what, a half? A quarter? A tenth? Now multiply that back up by the number of people in the world who currently use a tiny fraction of the power we do in the West, but make up a huge proportion of the world's population. Unless you are going to argue that the majority of people should be denied the quality of life granted by even a fraction of the energy used by the average westerner you still have a huge problem with massively increasing demand.

      If we can develop sa

    • Nah. Energy efficiency is important but really there's no shortage of energy all around us. The sunlight falling on a fiftieth of the Sahara could supply all the world's energy needs. We're in a transitional period now, moving from less efficient fossil fuels to just pulling energy out of the air, but our great grandchildren will look back at the oil, gas and coal age in the same way we look back on the steam age.

    • There's no amount of conservation that will offset 3+ billion people living an adequately-powered lifestyle. And it is immoral to ask them to do so. LFTRs have the potential of generating all the power everyone on Earth will ever need for hundreds of years using stuff that's currently considered toxic waste, along with medically and industrially useful fission products, and generate far less waste of far shorter half-lives. Plus, LFTRs are inherently fail-safe and self-regulatory. The only haters are fo

  • The next reactors to be built widely will probably those that burn nuclear waste. That is, "partitioning and transmutation" [ornl.gov]. It seems (although it doesn't say in that article) that you can burn nuclear waste in a way that produces excess energy. Since you need an accelerator to keep the reaction going, you have automatic shutdown in case of loss of mains power.

  • by Muad'Dave (255648) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:05PM (#39075153) Homepage

    Both large and small reactors have their uses, but AFAIK the small ones are likely to be less efficient and produce more waste* per kWh. I applaud the renaissance of 'modern' reactor construction to help wean us off the petro-teat, but am sorely disappointed that we're still burning less than 1% of the available energy in our current nuclear fuel and calling the other 99% 'waste'. Integral [nationalcenter.org] fast reactors [wikipedia.org] should be a part of (if not the future of) the world's energy production.

    *Not necessarily waste from the fuel itself, but more incidental waste like cladding storage containers, contaminated clothing, etc.

  • The worst possible pollutant imaginable with no way to dispose of it. *That's* very "green".
  • oh dear (Score:5, Funny)

    by lampsie (830980) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:09PM (#39075207)
    From the summary: "...It may be that when a new boom in nuclear power comes..."

    ...that's unfortunate phrasing.
  • by SJHillman (1966756) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:09PM (#39075215)

    "It may be that when a new boom in nuclear power comes"

    Given Joe Public's irrational fear of a nuclear explosion, "boom" may not be the best word to use...

  • by aglider (2435074) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:09PM (#39075221) Homepage

    Use less energy and use it more efficiently.
    Which unluckily is not what energy producers want.

    • by squizzar (1031726)

      That's your future of energy. How about the many billions in this world who still use a tiny percentage of the energy you do, even after your proposed savings. Would you deny them the better life that using a fraction of the energy you use would give them? I certainly wouldn't, and therein lies the problem: despite all the savings we energy-gluttonous westerners could make, the rest of the world wants, needs, and has as much right as us to have enough energy to allow them a decent life. To think that w

    • Actually, they do want you to use less energy. The energy producer's short-term outlook is difficult, as they shut down old plants where mandated by new EPA rules and look to build very expensive, highly efficient and clean(-er) burning plants to replace those. In he near-term there is an assumption that short falls in capacity will be made up for through increasing energy efficiency at the energy consumer.
  • So, the NIMBY guys get to pay exorbitant power charges by buying excess power from neighbours, or get no electricity?
    Could be a good idea
  • Bad idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PPH (736903) on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:34PM (#39075541)

    Too many little nukes around to regulate.

    One of the selling point of electric cars is that they concentrate their pollution at a few large point sources. Sure, today they belch out coal byproducts. But as technology advances, we can monitor and retrofit a few large plants more quickly than having to hunt down the owner of every old beater car. These modular nukes are the logical equivalent of a fleet of cars. Eventually, they'll descend into beaterhood.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Bzzt. Wrong. Do some math.

      They are talking about 'mini nukes" that power approximately 50,000 homes each. So somewhere around 3000 of these would power 150 million homes, and thus most or all of our foreseeable electric demand. You're telling me its impossible to keep tabs on 3000 mini nukes??? FTA they would likely be installed in "batteries" of a few, meaning there'd probably be more like 1000 or so nuke sites. So hire 100 inspectors and you'd have each one responsible for 10 sites. They'd be able

  • The article mentions the word 'thorium', but it doesn't specifically mention thorium or breeder reactors.

    Isn't thorium reactors considered for the future? are the development issues with it so great that it has been abandoned?

  • by gadget junkie (618542) <gbponz@libero.it> on Friday February 17, 2012 @12:50PM (#39075757) Journal
    one of the things that irks me about the nuke debate is how much it hinges on how much it costs to build a nuclear plant, while for example germany spends 8 billion euros a year [spiegel.de] in direct moneys to solar producers, and god knows how much it spent on subsidizing the panel build, added infrastructure, elastic supply to get in when solar output falls, etc.
    All of this money, and I quote, "Solar energy has gone from being the great white hope, to an impediment, to a reliable energy supply. Solar farm operators and homeowners with solar panels on their roofs collected more than €8 billion ($10.2 billion) in subsidies in 2011, but the electricity they generated made up only about 3 percent of the total power supply, and that at unpredictable times." To summarize: only in transfers, NOT in total subsidy costs, Germans each years are paying themselves, meaning some taxpayers are paying other taxpayers through electricity bills, the amount of money needed to build one of finland's new reactor from scratch, after cost overruns, and a simple neat multiplication by 2 [nytimes.com]. Ain't life splendid?
  • If the federal government now considers personal sailboats parked a mile offshore an untenable threat to national security (
    e.g., http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-g8-nato-boats-harbor-20120217,0,3473423.story [chicagotribune.com] ) ...what do you think the chances are that they would permit people to have their own nuclear reactor?

  • by WindBourne (631190) on Friday February 17, 2012 @01:26PM (#39076275) Journal
    In a way, America currently has a distributed grid. We have LOADS of small 200 MW coal systems and a number of 400-600 MW nuke system all over the USA. In fact, most cities have at least one small coal type system somewhere close to its core (originally on the edge, but then built up around it).
    A number of these will closed over the next 10-20 years and larger centralized coal, natural gas, and occasionally nuke power plants will replace these. The reason is because these old powerplants are from the 40s(coal) or from the 60s (nukes). Now, note that each and every single one of these locations are IDEAL. All of them have massive connections to the LOCAL grid. Likewise, they have cooling in place. Some have decent generators (though most do not). ALL of them have a lot of land around them esp. the nukes. So, what are these ideal for?

    The nukes sites have stored 'waste' fuel. Instead of shutting these down, tearing down everything and then moving the waste to WIPP, it would actually be better to build a number of GE PRISM reactors on-site while JUST the old reactors are dismantled and shipped out. GE PRISM are the IFR reactors that use 'waste fuel'. Basically, other than part of their initial load of fuel, there would be no more shipping of fuel to the site for the next 100 years. Instead, you would add to these reactors with the local 'waste' fuel. Once done, that 'waste fuel' would be a fraction of the size and it would be dangerous for less than 200 years.

    As to the coal facilities, these would also be useful. Either put in a thorium reactor, similar to Ft. St. Vrain's old generator, OR, consider putting in thermal storage. Now I have seen a number of comments against thermal storage backed up by natural gas boiler. It is correctly pointed out that you lose 50% of the efficiency. HOWEVER, this is a cheap cheap way to take older equipment, keep it running for another 30 years, while using it to provide a buffer for AE AND regular power. In addition, the energy that would be stored would be from AE that would normally be discard. For wind generators, they simply feather the blades rather than run them 100%. For Solar, they lose a large part just in resistance in the lines as it takes a bit of time for electric loads to come and go. IOW, such a thermal system would allow a company to build larger base-load plants while dumping all of the on-demand systems (read expensive to run). How to do the thermal system? Simple approach is just use silos of salts and heat it up via direct heating or even microwave. There are other more efficient systems being developed, but this would be inexpensive to install. In addition, other than waste heat, most of the pollution would be gone (save when you need to run natural gas to add electricity due to high loads for say AC or other site outages). As electric cars or other energy storage systems become available, these can be phased out.

    Regardless, it would be criminal to lose this cheap opportunity to re-develop our energy matrix.
  • It may be that when a new boom in nuclear power comes,

    Hope I'm far away when that happens.

  • The BP oil spill and Fukashima again prove that you can't repeal Murphy's Law. Nothing about these small reactors changes this.

  • I think any progress in nuclear power is probably a good thing for the environment and economy.
  • One of the diagrams in the article at gizmag shows a 30 mVA transformer to handle the output of the module. I guess you could light a few LEDs with that one!
  • by EmperorOfCanada (1332175) on Friday February 17, 2012 @02:17PM (#39076963)
    The effort to fight NIMBY types and tree huggers is the same if your reactor generates 100W or 100GW. Thus even if you could get a small reactor for free the cost is still extreme.

    Plus the type of customer who will buy one of these are the core customers of the power company. The power company can't afford to lose these customers. Thus they will block their use through regulations where only they can pass muster.

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