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Power Science

In Nuclear Power, Size Matters 230

PerlJedi writes "Most nations with nuclear power capabilities have been re-assessing the risk/benefit of nuclear power reactors following the Fukushima plant melt down, a newly released study suggests the U.S. should expand its nuclear power production using 'Small Modular Reactors'. 'The reports assessed the economic feasibility [PDF] of classical, gigawatt-scale reactors and the possible new generation of modular reactors. The latter would have a generating capacity of 600 megawatts or less, would be factory-built as modular components, and then shipped to their desired location for assembly.'"
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In Nuclear Power, Size Matters

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  • by denis-The-menace ( 471988 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:14PM (#38372728)

    Should be using Thorium instead.

    • by denis-The-menace ( 471988 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:16PM (#38372760)

      /. ate my link []

      • There's an interesting google talk on Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors []
      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        Thorium does little to help with clean-up after the reactor is decommissioned. In the US the standard method is to entomb parts of the site instead of full decontamination, meaning it can't be used for anything else. Having lots of smaller sites get contaminated doesn't seem like a good idea.

        Full decontamination so that the site can be reused takes about 80 to 90 years in the UK.

    • I'm not disagreeing with you, but if you could give a reason, and (hopefully) some supporting data/references?
      • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:47PM (#38373302)

        Theres a whopping big wiki article that tries a little too hard to be "balanced" when in all fairness Th is a PITA fuel, that kinda sucks.

        Its only good for non-proliferation from a distance. Up close its worse. You need to boot up with a slug of Pu because there are no fissile Th isotopes. So no one ever builds "a Th reactor" they build a "bomb grade Pu reactor" surrounded with a Th shell that eventually can breed itself into reacting, hopefully your breeding plan curve matches your electrical demand curve.

        Its only good for non-proliferation if you define proliferation as current designs. Historically plenty of U233 bombs were blown and research done. No you cannot make a current model US B61 out of stuff from a Th reactor. Yes, you can make something almost as good as a B61 that is U233 based using what comes out of a Th reactor. It in no way prevents proliferation merely makes it a slightly more involved research project (slightly!)

        In a way, not being useful for proliferation dooms Th. The US and Russia and China and god only knows who else (Iran?) are still going to need U based reactors so now you've gotta run both technologies... Why not just run one? And that one's gotta be U, at this time. So trying to push Th means your sales will be pitiful because you can only sell to 3rd world and not much else.

        Plus it gives the non-proliferating Th owners experience in plant operation which they can transition to new/secret U plants of their own anyway, its like bootstrapping proliferation not preventing it.

        Anyone who says Th = nonproliferation is either misinformed or being paid or trolling.

        Its an unholy PITA to recycle due to hard gammas, or you can have agony when disposing. Its waste stream is just "worse" than a traditional reactor.

        Its harder to run, more neutron poisons like Pa build up.

        To be economical, you just have to burnup into the ground, which is kind of like saying a F-350 has a lower lifetime environmental cost IF you can get it to survive 600K miles. Its... ambitious. You don't achieve high burnup by just wishing, its difficult, dangerous if you have cladding failures, and expensive. Otherwise the prius wins again for overall lifetime costs.

        Its interesting to learn about, good to learn about, but it shows good engineering judgment to avoid a Th design.

        • by Nimey ( 114278 )


          • by vlm ( 69642 )


            Come on man, its called "google for fuel cycle of thorium reactors" and the first thing is the wikipedia article. Its not a perfect article, tries too hard to be "equal" rather than be "correct"... but I saw no obvious factual errors when I read it.

        • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:54PM (#38373418)

          Whoops also forgot another reason why Th sucks, its harder to make fuel rods. Hotter manufacturing temps. So they end up being more expensive and/or less reliable than U, which is supposedly the opposite of what the system is supposed to produce. So the theoretical 3rd world operator finds it easier and safer and cheaper to use U rods.

          Th is a second class fuel. The best thing to burn in your steam locomotive is anthracite, if you can still get it. Next worse is bituminous. If you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel and gotta do what ya gotta do, you harvest irish peat and burn that in your steamie. But trying to convince people peat is just as good as anthracite, or peat is cheaper, or peat should really be your first choice, or I read an article about peat and figure it might be fun to try, thats just not gonna work. Stick to the U and Pu designs until the world runs out of U in 20000 years or so. After that, you gotta do what you gotta do, and whip out the Th designs.

          • by andersen ( 10283 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @03:06PM (#38373618) Homepage

            They are NOT at suggesting using solid thorium and making fuel rods. That would indeed be truly stupid.

            The LFTR uses thorium dissolved in molten floride salt. It is proven tech, since the US government
            built one back in the late 60s and ran it for 5 years -- with 1.5 years at full power...

            Watch the video
            then and only then can you properly comment on thorium....

            • by msobkow ( 48369 )

              I've always been surprised that this much safer molten-salt thorium technology has never been widely deployed, given how long it's been since it was successfully tested and proven to work.

              Why do we continue to deploy uranium based systems when we already know there's a serious shortage of easily mined uranium in the world, with some projections of reactors becoming cost prohibitive in under 20 years due to shortages of uranium fuel?

              We won't run out of uranium any time soon, but it's not going to be a p

            • by BlueParrot ( 965239 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @07:03PM (#38377188)

              The LFTR uses thorium dissolved in molten floride salt. It is proven tech, since the US government
              built one back in the late 60s and ran it for 5 years -- with 1.5 years at full power...

              The devil is in the details.

              While it is indeed possible to build an LFTR, that old bugger called economics tends to come and mess things up.

              First of all you need a larger amount of fissile materials since the molten salt transports it out of the core. and around the entire primary loop. Secondly, as with sodium, you need to have a secondary loop to make things safe. Then there's the hydrolysis that can occur at low temperatures, which means you have to keep the salt molten. If the reactor has problems, that may involve drawing power from the grid. The reprocessing technologies kinda work, but are unproven at large scale, and nobody has an idea what the cost will be for a large reactor. They also imply building reprocessing tech for every single plant, which increases capital costs.

              Then there is the startup material. Natural uranium is not good enough, so you either need to breed U-233 in a different reactor ( proliferation concern ) , use highly enriched U-235 ( proliferation concern, expensive ) , or startup on plutonium. Now plutonium in a thermal spectrum leads to accumulation of Curium, which is a troublesome waste product that cannot be efficiently destroyed in a thermal reactor.

              Add in that while Thorium and Uranium dissolves easily in fluoride salts, plutonium and the other actinides do not. In fact, even at high temperatures with a completely pure salt, the solubility of Pu fluorides is just a few percent. The molten salt reactor experiments got around these issues by using a very exotic salt. Beryllium and Lithium fluorides, with the lithium enriched in Li-7. Now, beryllium is highly toxic, expensive and difficult to work with. It's such a pain that the US and UK considered developing new nuclear warheads that did not use it, even though it is the best lightweight neutron reflector there is. Enriched lithium-7 is a different problem in itself, and even if 99% pure, you will get quite a bit of tritium when it is exposed to neutrons. Perhaps not more than in a CANDU reactor, but all tritium control systems ever designed are made for water coolant.

              Then is the issue of in-core materials. The molten salt reactor developed by the US dealt with damage to in-core materials by replacing the graphite core materials frequently. Not only is this expensive, but it's not very fun to handle radioactively contaminated graphite. It is hard to reprocess since it forms organic compounds and is difficult to dissolve in nitric acid. Pyro-processing by electro-refining and similar is also poorly suited for graphite. This is one of the reasons why the pebble bed reactors are usually seen as "once through". Nobody has come up with a practical way to deal with the graphite. Since the material will be in direct contact with the fuel salt, it will likely adsorb quite a bit of contaminants.

              Plateout on heat exchangers is another issue. The noble metals have poor solubility in fluoride salts, so unless a very potent ( i.e expensive ) reprocessing system is able to get rid of them quickly, they will plate out on the cold parts of the reactor, which is usually the heat exchangers. A suggested solution is to use graphite-based heat exchangers, which has its own spectrum of development issues and research needs.

              I'm not saying molten salt reactors can never become a good idea. I'm just saying that in comparison to the number of issues that need to be resolved to make them practical for a power plant, they are extremely hyped.

        • What a gigantic pile of steaming FUD. You win the FUD award of the decade.

          I tried hard, but I could not find a single factual statement in anything you wrote. Every single statement is a lie. Wow.

        • False []. They don't need Pu to start up, they need a small amount of fissile material (e.g. 235U) to get them through the first 45 days. Once in operation, they breed their own fissile fuel.

        • by washort ( 6555 )
          Making bombs with U233 from a LFTR reactor isn't as feasible as you'd think since it's contaminated with U232, a hard gamma emitter that fries electronics (and humans) and is easily detectable from a distance. Plus, LFTR reactors can be run with a just-barely-critical fuel supply --- stealing bomb materials couldn't be done without turning out the lights.
        • I believe that the risk of nuclear proliferation is overblown. It is also going to be irrelevant eventually.

          There is going to be a time when fossil fuels run out. Might be decades, might be centuries. When it does run out people will not willingly revert to a preindustrial society. They will crave things like artificial lighting and refrigeration. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric are too sparse to power a modern economy. Once the fossil fuels run out people will have to choose between nuclear power or a

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Why? And yes, the link is useless.

      1. There are molten nuclear reactor designs using uranium. Nice in theory, ugly in practice. Solid fuel is less "icky" (less crap to cleanup afterward). Decommissioning costs are important in practice.

      2. Uranium has an established fuel chain! Read this and re-read this. The costs of using thorium are the same as having a car run on 100% alcohol vs. gasoline - gasoline is established!

      3. There is little advantage to thorium, except if you are in a nation that has lots of thor

      • by denis-The-menace ( 471988 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @03:27PM (#38373936)

        Watch the video first. (at least first 10 seconds of it)

        1. With LFTR you have next to no waste.
        From what I remember, there are 2 radioactive leftovers and both are valuable.
        -molybdenum-99 (Medical usage)
        -Plutonium-238 (Space probes)(VERY valuable)

        2. Uranium has an [Expensive] established fuel chain. You can only get fuel pellets from ONE supplier: the one who built the reactor. And no, they don't have sales.

        3. Advantage of thorium vs uranium:
        -No enrichment
        -No 10000 year radio-active waste
        -No high-pressure water cooling schemes that need power to work and backups up the wazoo.
        -Others mentioned in the video

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          1. Mo-99 has a very very short halfife. You cannot extract it from reactor waste. Pu-238 cannot be in waste because it gets transmuted to Pu-239 and then Pu-240, and both are burned That's why there is very little Pu-238 of it in reactors waste.

          2. Uranium fuel chain has multiple supplier of fuel. Cameco (Canada), the Russians (Atomsomethingsoemthing), AREVA (French). The new enrichment plant in US that just got approved. You can buy lots of uranium if you want. You cannot buy thorium readily.

          3.You need *hig

        • Can't the "waste" from conventional nuclear reactors be, uh, "recycled", for lack of a better word? I thought I read about pilot projects here, where the spent nuclear fuel would be put into a different kind of reactor and continued to emit heat until they finally decayed to something stable (or something with such a small amount of damage that it wouldn't matter).

        • by BlueParrot ( 965239 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @07:16PM (#38377368)

          1. With LFTR you have next to no waste.

          Other than all the fission products, including radioactive iodine, strontium and caesium (and others). Heck, just avoiding excessive tritium production involves isotope separation of lithium to enrich it in Li-7.

          Essentially somebody has not told you teh full truth, or outright lied.

          2. Uranium has an [Expensive] established fuel chain. You can only get fuel pellets from ONE supplier: the one who built the reactor. And no, they don't have sales.

          Fuel costs are less than 10% of the cost of nuclear power. Construction and operation is the majority of it. Most estimates conclude that reprocessing ( even in the LFTR ) would be more expensive than uranium enrichment. You may save some money by not needing fuel manufacture , but in return you have a larger inventory of fissile material since it is not all in the core.

          3. Advantage of thorium vs uranium:
          -No enrichment
          -No 10000 year radio-active waste

          Nonsense. Thorium is not fissile, so it needs to be started on a large seed of fissile material. This could be either reprocessed plutonium or enriched uranium, just as with other reactors. Also, since plutonium cannot be effectively destroyed in a thermal spectrum, there will be a buildup of plutonium and curium, both of which have half-lives in the range of thousands of years, while still be very toxic.

          -No high-pressure water cooling schemes that need power to work and backups up the wazoo.

          Most modern designs, whether they use water or some other coolant, are built to not need power for emergency cooling.
          The ESBWR doesn't even use pumps during normal operation. This is not a feature of thorium, but a general property of
          decent engineering. Hot liquid flows up, cold comes down. This has been demonstrated successfully in virtually all types
          of coolant, including water, lead, sodium, salt and carbon dioxide and even nitrogen.

          You may have a point about pressure, but there are other issues with salt systems. The need to keep the salt above it's several
          hundred centigrade melting point is one of them.

          -Others mentioned in the video

          There's loads of videos. Most of them are half-truths at best, and I'm not just talking about reactors. Seriously, you seem to never have come across a marketing campaign before.

    • Wrong idea.

      If lots of little complex mechanical gadgets all worked more reliably than a few big complex mechanical gadgets, then the Soviets would have won the race to the moon with their N-1 rockets that sported 43 engines each. As it happened, their four N-1 launches achieved four explosions.

      Lots of little things work OK when you need at least some of them to work (that's redundancy). But large numbers of things is not the solution when you can't afford to have *any* of them fail.

      • My initial thought was to agree with you, but I'm not so sure. The problem with the analogy is that the Soviets used 43 engines, not 43 rockets. They had one single rocket which was 43 times as complicated: It proves the point the other way. If they built smaller rockets with fewer engines, there would be a lower probability that each of them would explode.

        Of course, then they would need more of them, but you'll get more payloads to the moon if you build rockets with one engine and one payload that have a 9

        • Or in the nuclear context, the total harm from all failures will be the same because each failure would cause proportionally less damage (since there is proportionally less material to escape from the reactor in the event of a failure), but it will be exactly offset by the increase in the absolute number of failures.

          But that's not how public perception works. *Any* nuclear accident, no matter what the size, will cause a major nationwide reaction that will disrupt the economy, overshadow other important activities, etc. (See 9/11 for an example of huge fallout from a relatively small and localized event.) Whether technically justified or not, that's how the human mind works, and anyone pushing nuclear technology needs to account for it.

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <> on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:15PM (#38372750) Journal
    So you're going to increase the number of sites? I thought Not-In-My-Backyard was the reason we didn't just build more big nuclear reactors. You can make the designs as safe as you want -- hell, look at molten salt thorium reactors and the CANDU design. The problem is that the people living anywhere near it are going to be dead set against it. And Fukushima didn't help that image.

    Also I didn't see anything about this increasing the number of attack sites for anyone who wants to hit one of these things or steal it. That would be an increased risk factor, as well, right?

    From an engineering and economic perspective these things are probably great ideas. But what state or township is going to approve a nuclear power plant -- even a small modular one -- given unfortunate recent events?
    • One led by people who have a clue? ... if you find such a place, please let me know.

    • You have the option of increasing the number of sites or not. If not, then put a bunch of small standalone reactors together. It probably makes sense from an efficiency and reliability standpoint to have many sites rather than one big one. Although security for many smaller sites seems more problematic.
    • by Eternauta3k ( 680157 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:32PM (#38373040) Homepage Journal
      NIMBY might be less of a problem outside the US. For example, I suspect China doesn't give a shit about who wants what on his backyard.
    • if the plant is small enough for a platoon of Former Military folks (which i think we have a bunch of right now) to guard properly the security should not be a problem as such (hint if everything is within "shooting distance" of like 4-6 guys then its the right size)

    • They've been waiting on their Toshiba 4S reactor for seven years now.

      Of course their heating and electricity comes from fuel oil, which gets very expensive up there since it only comes by boat in the short summer, and by airplane any other time.

      Harsh realities such as that tend to temper NIMBY. I'm also guessing there aren't too many Greenpeace activists in that town to protest, mainly working people. Greenpeace will probably fly in some protesters when construction starts, but the locals won't be too frien

      • Greenpeace will probably fly in some protesters when construction starts, but the locals won't be too friendly to these strangers threatening their livelihood.

        Here in Alaska, all you need is a small game license and you're good to go and collect some Greenpeaces. No seasons, no limit. The big problem is that it's hard to figure out what to do with them. You wouldn't want to cook them - tough and stringy, by and large. They look pretty bad mounted on the wall. The pelts aren't much use either.

        So mostly we throw rocks at them and hope they go away. Kinda like crows.

    • Tax distribution lines at a high rate (scaled by capacity), and pass it on to consumers. Internalize the cost of putting generation in BFE.

    • If it fit in my backyard, I might want a small one to power my neighborhood. I'll get some extra income from selling power to the NIMBY folks and they have nothing to complain about since the reactor is in my backyard, not theirs.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        I guess you won't mind if your neighbour sets up a sewage processing plant in his back yard then. And maybe the guy on the other side could set up a fireworks factory. It's in their backyards so you have nothing to complain about, right?

  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:15PM (#38372756)

    One thing favoring the big plants is that neighbors' opinion about nuclear power, at least in the U.S., often follows a pattern where initially putting one in is very unpopular, but once one is put in, as it brings jobs, seems to be safe, and unlike traditional industry doesn't pollute or produce bad odors, local popularity goes up. In fact when you poll people living near a major nuclear plant about the possibility of putting in a new unit, results are usually quite positive. So from a political perspective at least, that favors putting in a bunch of power generation in the same place: it's not worth going through the trouble of convincing the local population in each place only to generate 600 megawatts there.

    For these to work, I think we'd need a more widespread change where the default attitude towards being near a nuclear generating facility is positive or at least neutral. Then you could just scatter then around without much worry.

    • Citation? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:31PM (#38373006)

      I work as a consultant for electricity planning, and I have *never* seen a single survey which shows that folks who live near a nuclear plant are in favor of new units being built at the site. Not a single survey. Not even for Vogtle units 3 and 4, being built right now next to units 1 and 2, located on the Georgia-South Carolina line... a place where I'd expect a more favorable response than most.

      If you've got one, I'd love to see it.

      • by robkill ( 259732 )

        Given all the environmental problems with the Savannah River Site, and the fight to prevent it being used as a storage facility for nuclear waste, how can you possibly expect the area to have a favorable response to a new nuclear power plant?

      • by TopSpin ( 753 )

        The first graph of the first first result [] of my first attempt to find 'a survey which shows that folks who live near a nuclear plant are in favor of new units being built at the site.'

        JULY 2009 for SOUTHERN NUCLEAR
        Acceptability of Adding a New Nuclear Reactor at the Site of the Nearest Nuclear Power Plant:
        -- Acceptable 92%
        -- Not acceptable 8%
        General Impression of the Plant
        -- Favorable 94%
        -- Unfavorable 5%

        Take issue with the survey if

    • by Andy Dodd ( 701 )

      As another replier has said, once you place one 600MW plant there, it becomes easier to put another one nearby.

      Just make sure to have a decent amount of separation - Fukushima would not have been such a problem if it didn't have 4 reactors built as close to each other as possible, with 2 more in extremely close proximity.

      Probably rule of thumb should be twice the distance between the furthest Fukushima units from each other - that way if one unit has a problem, it doesn't cause the problems managing nearby

      • The problem managing the Fukushima reactors wasn't caused by them being near to each other, it was caused by the earthquake knocking out power and damaging the roads so that emergency services couldn't get there for days, and the tsunami flooding the emergency generators & emergency switchboard (which were both in the basements).

        How would the spacing between RBs have changed anything?
    • Americans are technophobes. They USE the magic but don't understand it.

      We should, instead of nukes, build more coal and natural gas power generating facilities. We have plenty of both fuels, and they are a practical solution to our energy problems for a very long time.

      Foreign companies can develop mature nuke tech, then we can buy it. The idea that being innovators is always the best way to go is silly. Let others do the work then we can buy the product.

      • by jheath314 ( 916607 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @03:56PM (#38374442)

        That's a horrible idea. America is already in trouble because we've become a nation of consumers instead of manufacturers... just about the only advantage we have left is a slight lead in innovation.

        Becoming a leader in alternative energy technologies could have enormous benefits for America, such as reversing the dynamic of wealth flowing out of the country in exchange for foreign energy. I'd much rather put American scientists and engineers to work on the problem rather than getting foreign experts to build it for us (and racking up debt by paying them with money we don't have).

    • by DaveGod ( 703167 )

      Putting a new plant in leads to fears about homes being devalued. The devaluation has already happened (or it's realised a devaluation does not happen) by the time the second plant comes along.

      Maybe it's different in other countries, but here in UK where there is high ownership and properties are a relatively high investment, fears about home devaluation play a significant role. Even if a local was fully aware a plan is ultra safe, he'll be worried about ignorance among potential home buyers.

      While nuclear m

  • by AdrianKemp ( 1988748 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:16PM (#38372768)

    But this makes it sound like modular is being used a bit like a car is "modular" before it gets to the assembly line.

    What we really need is small plants in more places using gen-4 technology to keep them running safe. The fact that we still ship power across the damn country is shameful. I'm frankly less concerned about how the power is generated than where.

  • Toshiba 4S (Score:5, Interesting)

    by scorp1us ( 235526 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:19PM (#38372824) Journal

    The Toshiba 4S [] seems like it would make an ideal neighborhood reactor. Plus, I love the design. Rather than using control rods to stop the reaction, the reflector enables the reaction. By controlling the radioactivity of the core you ensure it can never get too critical. And the reflecting band even if it gets jammed only enables a small part of the core to overheat.

    And it's small enough to be self-contained.

    • Re:Toshiba 4S (Score:5, Informative)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @03:00PM (#38373500) Homepage

      You forgot "and it's pretty much vaporware", never having been tested or proven in hardware.

      • You forgot "and it's pretty much vaporware", never having been tested or proven in hardware.

        Exactly this []:

        Currently Toshiba, together with its Westinghouse subsidiary, is in the preliminary design review stage of the Design Certification process before the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC).[6] Application for certification of the design is currently planned for 2012 when the standardized Design Certification application will be filed for the 4S. The most recent meeting with the NRC took place on August 8, 2008, at which time the NRC's staff met with representatives of Toshiba and Westinghouse for a pre-application presentation of a Phenomena Identification and Ranking Table (PIRT) for the Toshiba 4S (Super-Safe, Small and Simple) reactor. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently released an interesting study on the Toshiba 4S design, which provides an overview of the 4S design and suggests that certain goals may be easier to meet if lead is used as the coolant rather than sodium, due to lead's high transparency to neutrons and low transparency to gamma radiation, though lead has a higher melting point than sodium does.[7]

        If nobody has yet got the money or balls to actually build one before siting it in the Middle of Fucking Nowhere, maybe we need to rethink things. Yeah, the design is safe and all that but things don't always go exactly as planned. The advantage of a major screwup in Galena, AK is that nobody would ever know about it. The disadvantage is going to be if you have to get some engineering expertise and equipment there in the winter you'd best hope it fits on a dog sled or a twin Otter.

        I would th

    • Maybe when it hits 50MWe it will be viable, but at 10MWe it is pretty hard to justify over a small turbine.

  • Still would not solve the nuclear waste problem.
    • its a scale thing when the fuel is spent you basically get a BAC with a hook to stick the whole core on a truck and then ship it to a long term storage facility or you do the really smart thing and cook the core long enough that any long term "gunk" has been spent.

    • There isn't enough VOLUME of waste to matter.

      Contain it above ground for convenient inspection and container repair for the time required, don't bury it then rely on wishful thinking.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:25PM (#38372916)

    It took one of the worst Earth Quakes immediately followed by one of the worst Tsunamis in modern history to take down a 40 year old nuclear plant via a flaw found and reported 35 years ago (but never corrected). Like it or not, nuclear energy has come a long way and is pretty damn safe.

    Don't like that the flaw wasn't fixed or how the accident unfolded ... but I admire how tough that facility was engineered.

    • by Jappus ( 1177563 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @03:07PM (#38373646)

      As far as I understand it, the main problem most people have with Nuclear Reactors -- at least over here in Europe -- is not that they can go kablooie when something deemed "unlikely" hits them. This is just a problem as long as they are actually running, and a few years after for cooling down.

      The problem is rather: Where do you put all that irradiated waste, ranging from water over metals, concrete, oils, various sealants and so on? After all, most of this stuff happily glows for a few decades at minimum and hundreds of thousands of years at the upper echelon. I mean, if I look at the Egyptian tombs for example, I find it hard to believe that anybody could guarantee that a sign of "Keep out or else you'll die horribly" would actually stop future people from digging up that stuff.

      And that already excludes the observation that nothing humankind has ever built or excavated managed to stay permanently, physically sealed for more than a few hundred in most cases and a few thousand years in all cases. That's at least two orders of decimal magnitudes too few time to guarantee anything.

      Of course things like coal, gas, etc. are not better -- especially regarding the climate. But at least they don't cause such extremely permanent issues that we can't even imagine a kind of physical or chemical process to get rid of it. They are still bad, but in a less ... distant way.

      And if you finally arrive at hydroelectric, geothermal, solar and wind generation, the scope of the problems you cause by running them can be measured in "less than a decade" for cleaning up a broken dam and "what problems?" for solar and wind. That fundamental difference between nuclear, coal/gas and finally regenerative power is what is important to most environmentalists and general critics of the first and to a lesser extend next two kinds of power generation. The fact that they can go kablooie is just icing on the cake compared to that.

      I always wonder if people who fully and blindly support nuclear power have ever heard what the term "neglectful precursors" means. After all, economy is mostly a private affair and expires with the generation who had to live in it, but ecology gets inherited fully and permanently.

      • we can't even imagine a kind of physical or chemical process to get rid of it

        There are physical processes to get rid of it. Recycling spent fuel and breeder reactors solve the fuel problem (you'll still have to protect the residue for 100-200 years). Reusuing the materials and water solve that problem too, but it was never such a big deal to star with (they were initialy at the <200 years bucket).

        Those things are just expensive, not impossible.

      • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @05:09PM (#38375624)

        The problem is rather: Where do you put all that irradiated waste, ranging from water over metals, concrete, oils, various sealants and so on? After all, most of this stuff happily glows for a few decades at minimum and hundreds of thousands of years at the upper echelon.

        The problem is, we ask these questions only of nuclear.

        Of course things like coal, gas, etc. are not better -- especially regarding the climate. But at least they don't cause such extremely permanent issues that we can't even imagine a kind of physical or chemical process to get rid of it.

        The elemental mercury released by burning coal sticks around not for years, or decades, or hundreds of thousands of years. It sticks around practically forever. At least as long as it'll take for current organisms to absorb it, die, and turn into coal themselves. Yet we're happily pumping it into the atmosphere because we're too afraid of nuclear.

        Each year, the U.S. generates about 2000 tons of spent nuclear fuel (high level radioactive waste) in exchange for ~20% of its electricity. By volume that's about two tractor trailers. This is the stuff which can potentially be dangerous for thousands of years. (The 10,000 to 100,000 year stuff lasts so long precisely because it has low radioactivity. By the time it got that old, it would no longer be high-level waste, contrary to what anti-nuclear activists like to imagine.) This "waste" could actually be used as fuel in breeder reactors, reducing the total amount of "high level radioactive waste" to just 1/10th or 1/20th what we currently generate.

        But because we're scared to death of what to do with such a small quantity of nuclear waste, we continue to pump into the environment billions of tons of coal ash, including mercury, CO2, radioactive uranium and thorium, and a host of other nasty materials which together kill an estimated 250x as many people as Chernobyl every year. That is what saddens me so much about the energy situation. Yes long-term we should be working towards renewables like wind, geothermal, solar. But while we are working towards scaling those up and making them cost effective, it is absolutely criminal not to be switching out our fossil fuel plants for nuclear. Environmentalists have fabricated a false dichotomy between nuclear and renewables, where we must choose either nuclear or rewnewables. There is no such choice. We can switch to nuclear while we continue to work on renewables.

        And if you finally arrive at hydroelectric, geothermal, solar and wind generation, the scope of the problems you cause by running them can be measured in "less than a decade" for cleaning up a broken dam and "what problems?" for solar and wind

        Just how do you define "problem"? People see the evacuation zone around Fukushima as a problem. A hydroelectric dam creates a permanent evacuation zone behind it larger than Fukushima's. It's called a reservoir. Why is vacating people for one bad, while the other acceptable? Because one has the N word and the other is just water? Water kills nearly 100x more people each year than nuclear power has in its entire history. So which is truly more dangerous?

        Measured in lives lost per unit of energy generated, nuclear is by far the safest power source. So your "less than a decade" and "what problem" assessments are only accurate if you assign zero value to people's lives.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          The elemental mercury released by burning coal sticks around not for years

          Why is the excuse always "it's not as bad as coal"? There are other options:

          Solar thermal

          All of those are reliable, safer than nuclear and cleaner to boot. They work 24/7 and are here TODAY. Not in the future, we can build them on the same scale as nuclear right now, and certainly quicker than we can develop commercial scale systems to reprocess nuclear waste, or even just the storage facilities that will be needed.

          And before you trot out that site which claims hydro has killed hundreds of

      • 20,000 tons of heavy glassified nuclear waste buried underground and hard to move around vs widespread pollution.

        What is Yucca Mtn, Alec?!
    • It took one of the worst Earth Quakes immediately followed by one of the worst Tsunamis in modern history to take down a 40 year old nuclear plant via a flaw found and reported 35 years ago (but never corrected). Like it or not, nuclear energy has come a long way and is pretty damn safe.

      Don't like that the flaw wasn't fixed or how the accident unfolded ... but I admire how tough that facility was engineered.

      No, the point is that a first world country that presumably was on the cutting edge of nuclear power engineering couldn't arse itself to fix critical flaws found over the course of four decades (and there was more than one of them) because of economics, graft, sloth or whatever. That makes nuclear power realistically unsafe. Further, it
      s not like TEPCO or the Japanese government have had major changes in how they do things. It's not like the NRC in the US has done more than reshuffle some pages in their

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:25PM (#38372918)

    It's not the size of your fuel rod, it's what you do with it.

    Now baby, give me a tour of your breeder reactor.

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:32PM (#38373022)

    Cause and effect all backwards. Its not that small reactors are inherently more economical than large reactors, they most certainly are not. Its that new designs including some pretty radical fuels and coolants are being proposed, and you don't scale those bad boys in one jump from lab simulations to GW+. So these new designs are going to start small, then you build midrange 100s of MW, then you build the big ole GW+ roasters, thats just how its always been and going to be.

    The next issue is there is a magic shopping list of rewards, but they're all interrelated to people that know about nukes. Can use natural convection cooling. Well, OK. Look at cube-square law and tell me how a smaller reactor at a given specific thermal output could not possibly be harder to cool? Or given an infinite budget to make a really low specific volume thermal output giant, you can convection cool them too, assuming you can manufacture something that huge. Also you get safety tradeoffs, the dough you spent on a 5 times larger vessel could have gone to quintuple redundant diesel drive coolant pumps on top of 100 meter tsunami wave proof seawalls... Big pieces of reactor grade steel are staggeringly expensive. So you are getting better burnup and better Pu non-proliferation? OK well tell me how to get better burn up without eating its own bomb isotope Pu? Answer, you can't, has nothing directly to do with size, the longer a rod sits in a core the less bomb grade Pu you can refine out of it.

    Don't get me wrong, these are cool, very cool. But don't confuse having to release version 1.0 at a small scale as a permanent long term trend. "In the long run" the only thing better than an itty bitty cute little modernized PBMR or a cute little RS-MHR is a cool freaking huge PBMR or RS-MHR, but the big momma version is most certainly not going to be release 1.0. Maybe 10, 20 years after the new high tech ones are rolled out, then, out comes the plans for big ones.

    I think this is the mistake the fine article makes, confusing this small beta release, with a long term roadmap. Its very much like thinking that internet sites that roll out slowly via invitations means they intent to stay small forever... not so, its just the scale up process.

    • The argument for smaller units is based on de-centralizing generation. This limits the proliferation of transmission lines, and brings the effects of generation closer to people's homes. The peak demand in the US is around 75GW. 75GW-scale nuclear reactors isn't going to spark innovation. Limiting them to around half that capacity (or 20%) gives you some opportunities to "mass produce" them.

    • by pavon ( 30274 )

      I agree. I think another big issue that is pushing the economics in favor of the smaller reactors is certification. It is more cost effective (and just smarter) to certify a design and then make a ton of exact copies of it, than it is to take a general design and modify it enough at each site to require a recertification, which is what historically happened with our "big" LWRs.

    • From reading the article it seems the biggest benefit was in construction time. The big reactors may create tons of profit once they get going, but they take 7+ years to build, with no guarantee that the economics will remain the same once it's built. Smaller reactors may not be as profitable as the big ones, but the ability to get money coming in far sooner may outweigh overall profit.

  • I looked all through out the article and I couldn't find any arguments for "small modular" vs "massive". With all the permitting problems and the like, small and modular seems much harder to pull off. I'd rather have more eyes on a single large facility making sure nothing goes wrong and that security is foolproof than 100 sites scattered around hoping none of them have a Homer Simpson running them.


    • Beyond distributed generation, you have the goal of standardizing across a large number of sites. That makes operation and maintenance easier to pull off effectively. In software, it is the difference between rolling your own and buying from an established vendor.

      • I don't get why you think building 100 smaller plants is standardizing but building 10 large ones isn't. None of these are going to be done on a mass manufacturing scale where parts are "tooled up for high volume manufacturing". In both cases a large engineering company like Parsons or GE will come in do a design that must be approved. Scale won't change things too much in that whole process. You won't save much money either way from an engineering or building perspective, but if you look at it from a si

  • Nothing Doing (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hercubus ( 755805 ) <.hercubus. .at.> on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:47PM (#38373300) Homepage

    As other posters have said, the not-in-my-backyard effect means any proposal along these lines is dead-on-arrival in the United States for the near-term.

    However, in the long-term there is likely going to be a "come to Jesus" moment when Texas turns to desert or California burns to the ground, when even hard-core skeptics will realize something has to give. Then maybe a plan like this would be dusted off and put into practice.

    Wasn't it W. Churchill who said "You can trust the Americans to do the right thing after they've exhausted all other possibilities." Maybe we'll pull our heads out but it'll be a long time coming.

    Things will have to get desperate, such as the situation in Galena Alaska where remoteness means energy costs are crazy high. As long as the dollar costs of coal extraction are low and there's not an undeniable disaster in progress due to climate change then coal-fired will burn on.

  • by wealthychef ( 584778 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @02:49PM (#38373350)
    I recently became convinced by an argument made by Lawrence Berkeley Lab scientists that solar is the only power source that we have that really makes sense for powering human needs in the future. Check it out here []
    • Let me preface this by saying: "I am not a physicist." (If I am completely off base, or even just mis-informed or misunderstand, please explain, I like to learn).

      It seems obvious to me that given the laws of thermodynamics as I understand them, that solar power is ultimately the only source of power that we know we will not exhaust. The amount of energy on earth is finite. We are constantly losing energy to space (mostly via heat and light), while simultaneously taking in energy in the form of radiation fro

      • Solar is diffuse and inconsistent. Collecting it requires vast amounts of surface area. This is why it remains, by far, the most expensive energy source. Realistically, the only way I see enough solar collection happening to power the country is using plants to collect solar energy and converting them into biofuels.

        Geothermal is (relatively) concentrated, consistent, and for all practical purposes as inexhaustible as solar (how long until the Earth's core cools down?).
      • As far as I can tell, we have 5 significant potential sources of power:
        1. Solar is the big one, as you identified. It includes wind, hydro, and [biogenic] hydrocarbons.
        2. Geothermal, which is fueled by the heat of planetary formation and essentially gravitational.
        3. Tidal, which exploits a multi-body gravitational effect
        4. Fission, which we're discussing here and is not limited in the short term
        5. Fusion, which of course we can't control, yet. If we could do it effectively, we wouldn't need anything else,

  • Increase in power plants = increase in backyards. What killed nuclear power in the USA was kicking the can down the road on the nuclear waste. The USA population, and the world's, keeps increasing, meaning more and more "backyards". If they would have dealt with Yucca Mountain 40 years ago, the community would be dependent on disposal tax base by now and there would have been an answer. Some things don't get better with time. Well, ok... there is half-life.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @03:00PM (#38373516) Homepage

    The point of the actual paper has nothing to do with reactor design. It's that the financing of a 1GW plant creates too much economic risk for utilities. They point out that 70% of utilities with large nuclear plants at some point faced a bond rating downgrade.

    A production line with steady production improves costs more than "modularity". That's how France did nuclear power - a lot of plants, built in the 1980s, all the same, with common components. There's a scale issue with how big an object you can move to the site - if the thing will fit on a road or rail car, it can be built and tested in a factory. There's a big discontinuity in delivered price when something gets too big to move and essentially gets built on site. The paper doesn't address that issue when talking about "modularity".

    (This is even an issue with wind turbines. The upper limit on size comes from how big an object you can truck to the site. Ocean units can be bigger because they're brought in on barges.)

  • by drwho ( 4190 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @03:21PM (#38373844) Homepage Journal

    The problem with this idea is that some of the most important parts of the reactor, that which contain neutrons, have a fixed wall thickness. This leads to an inescapable problem, and why we could never have a nuclear powered wristwatch (however, it is possible to have a low-power, long-lived radioisotopic heater (RTG) such as those used in deep-space probes. These can generate small amounts of electricity as well). This is not to say that the idea of a nuclear reactor on a railroad boxcar in infeasible (though it may be infeasible for other reasons).

    I see the economic rationale for this, and would like to think that nuclear power plants can be built on a production line. Perhaps less of a production of an automobile and more like the production center of a large aircraft, but still, there would be great benefit. I only hope that whoever does this has the sense to use liquid fuel.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @03:47PM (#38374262)

    The idea is right insofar as the resulting catastrophes will be smaller (and more numerous) so for each individual catastrophe, less people will be affected and protest and hence protests will get less effective.

    As long as nuclear power cannot be insured for the full damage caused (i.e. "unlimited"), this technology is not safe. As soon as it can be insured, realistic cost estimates become possible (namely risk-cost = insurance fee) and I predict that it is the most expensive form of energy generation. And BTW, same for the spent fuel: Unlimited and infinite time insurance for all damage caused.

    As it is, nuclear power is a great amoral scheme to make lots of money for a few people as they do not have to pay for the damage they cause. That is also contaminates the biosphere irreversibly is just a side effect.

    • by spectro ( 80839 )

      There is a BBC documentary somewhere in youtube where a submarine nuclear reactor engineer said GE took their reactor design (30 to 50 MW), made it 10+ times bigger and named it the Mark 1.

      Power plant reactors are so huge and contain so much fuel it is physically impossible to contain a meltdown with current technology. Engineers solved this by declaring that "meltdowns can't happen" and added safety systems that made building nuclear power plants way more expensive than initially thought. Guess what?... me

      • by gweihir ( 88907 )

        Well, if the reactors are small enough, it could be possible. Full insurance for the running reactors and long-term storage of spent fuel is still my must-have item.

  • Wouldn't it be more technologically advanced to focus research more on power-saving, or generally speaking, efficiency, instead of building more and more reactors, even if they are smaller?
      1. There's a great deal of work being done on energy efficiency already
      2. We've already deployed a lot of energy efficiency technology.
      3. Even so, making large absolute cuts in energy usage is unlikely (it hasn't happened anywhere).
      4. America's population is still growing rapidly. So even if per-capita energy usage goes down, absolute usage will go up.
      5. Even if developed countries do make substantial absolute cuts in energy usage, it's unrealistic for the developing world to do so.

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun