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Breakthrough Institute on Cheap Nuclear Energy

Charles Barton's picture
Nuclear Green

I am a retired counselor. My father was a nuclear scientist and I have had a life long interest in and fascination with his work.

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  • Oct 8, 2013

Nuclear Energy and Breakthrough Institute

Low cost, abundant, carbon free energy that can be quickly available is the key to averting a climate disaster.  Wind and solar energy are unreliable and lack the capacity to be produced on demand.  Energy storage technology is expensive and may not be ready in the large amounts required to overcome the flaws of wind and solar power.  Clearly then, massive amounts of carbon free energy may not be available within the next 40 years, yet the power companies worry about nuclear costs.

The Breakthrough Institution has firmly joined the nuclear side of the energy debate and is paying attention to Generation IV reactor technology.  In 2008 Nuclear Green did a case study of the cost lowering potential of Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) technology.  I noted strategies for lowering nuclear cost.  Breakthrough Institute has now performed a much more comprehensive study of nuclear energy cost lowering strategies.

By nuclear costs, I am referring to two different sorts of costs, the up front capitol costs owed by the owner of a new nuclear power plant, and the cost payed by the consumer for electricity produced by Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs).   In Nuclear Green, I offered a case study of what I could call the full court press approach to lowering MSR investment costs.  I do not claim originality for all my ideas.  The purpose of my case study was to demonstrate that nuclear costs could be substantially lowered.

Fast forward to Summer of 2013, when Breakthrough Institute produced a report, How to Make Nuclear Power Cheap.  At first, I expected extensive borrowing from my ideas, but this was not the case.  The Breakthrough report is quite original and stands on its own as a major contribution to our understanding of the future of nuclear power.  At the same time, the Breakthrough report contains a number of errors and fails to realize the full potential of nuclear power in the Second Nuclear Era.

Breakthrough Institute suggests that four factors effect nuclear costs.   The Factors are Inherent Safety, Modular Design, Thermal Efficiency, and Readiness.  Since I have been writing about cheap nuclear power for over 6 years, I do have a number of comments to make about the potential for cost saving of these standards.

Let us begin with Inherent Safety.  While Inherent Safety is often good, it is not inevitably the best form of nuclear safety.  The oldest form of nuclear safety involved the concept of barriers.  Barriers can be improved and their cost lowered significantly.  It may be desirable to retain one or more barriers, while lowering its cost.  For example locating a reactor in an old salt mine might provide a substitute for the concrete and steel reactor dome at a fraction of the cost.

Removing radioactive fission products and undesirable Trans Uranium Elements (TRU) would improve reactor safety and is quite possible at a low price with MSR technology.  By removing at least radioactive gases and volatile fission products, together with TRUs, we could improve safety in the event of a nuclear accident. The salt cleaning would offer a large safety advantage over traditional solid fuel reactors, even in a mine located MSR, with significant cost advantages.

At the same time, Inherent Safety features may sometimes create disadvantages for Generation IV Nuclear technology.  Sodium is a fire hazard in air, as is plutonium.  One would expect sodium fires to be rare in Liquid Sodium Fast Breeder Reactors such as the the Integral Fast Reactor.  A large tank of liquid sodium acts as a heat sink in the case of an accident without coolant circulation.  However in the rare event of a core breech and sodium fire, the tank would potentially contribute to a safety problem.  The Pebble Bed Reactor is often pointed to as an example of Generation IV Inherent Safety, but part of that safety requires a very large core.  In fact a core that is larger than the core of commercial Light Water Reactors.  The Pebble Bed core costs as much to build as a LWR and thus no one seems to be moving forward with conventional Pebble Bed Reactor projects. 

 Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) made considerable progress on developing technology suitable for low cost removal of the most dangerous fission products and TRU elements from MSR core salts.  I am not trying to criticize the Breakthrough Institute here.  I have just been in the cheap nuclear power game longer than they have and have learned a few tricks they do not know yet.

The second factor which Breakthrough Institute suggests is Modularity.  But there is more to the story than manufacturing modules for factory or field assembly. There are several other factors that may contribute to lowering the cost of production.  Factory labor is a lot cheaper and more efficient than labor in the field.  Some Multi-module reactors still require a great deal of field labor.  This would even be the case for small mPower reactors.  Some expensive materials can be replaced with cheaper materials.  Finally some reactor designs are far simpler than others.  Also, it is cheaper per unit to produce large numbers of identical modules, than to produce small numbers.  One-off modules will be even more expensive.

The advantages of mass production may outweigh the advantages of thermal efficiency.   For example, David LeBlanc notes that the cost of Molten Salt Reactors can be reduced by replacing expensive Nickel alloy with a inexpensive steel.  The steel MSR will carry significantly less material costs, 100 C in cost of thermal efficiency.  Since fuel costs are a minor factor in the capitol cost of nuclear power, material savings at the cost of 100 C of reactor heat (600 C of heat rather than 700C) might offer advantages.   Coolants serve as heat carriers.  The least efficient is helium used in gas cooled reactors. The most efficient coolants are found among the molten salts proposed for use in MSRs.

Mass production requires more than building a large number of reactor cores, heat exchanges and generation units.  Land must be acquired and appropriate housing constructed.  In addition, there must be hookup to the grid and appropriate means of transportation between the factory and the reactor’s home.  Transportation issues may contribute to decisions about the reactor module’s size and weight. 

Breakthrough Institute’s third factor is Thermal Efficiency.  There are, in fact, two different Thermal Efficiencies that can lower nuclear costs.  The first is a measure of the reactor system in transforming core heat into electricity.  A second Thermal Efficiency would be a measure of the reactor coolant’s ability to transfer heat from the core to a heat exchange, or to provide emergency cooling.  Heat transfer efficiency will lead to smaller cores, which in turn require fewer materials and less labor to construct.  Helium is the least efficient coolant, while molten salts, for example FLiBe
(lithium fluoride (LiF) and beryllium fluoride.  FLiBe is expensive, but it offers many advantages over lower cost salts, especially if your goal is to build LFTRs.  However for other MSRs, David LeBlanc tells us that lower cost salts will do nearly as well.  Low cost salts with good heat transfer characteristics would seem to be the way to go if you want to build low cost reactors.

The fourth Breakthrough Institute cost factor that could lower nuclear costs is labeled “Readiness.”  Exactly what Readiness is, may be open to question.  For example, technology that has been already tested is ready.   Material and parts that have been tested and certified are ready.  But what about parts and technology that require more research and development, but which will be ready in five years given a “business as usual” approach and much sooner given a Manhattan Project approach.  Given a Manhattan Project style approach, the most advanced technologies, the LFTR and The IFR breeder could be ready for production in five years.   Manhattan Projects are the products of societies operating in a crisis mode.  We are not there yet.  The public is not yet alarmed about greenhouse gases, but we are beginning to get there.  Thus the standard for readiness may be about to shift.

There are several other factors which I have identified on Nuclear Green as offering potentials for lowering nuclear cost.  These include the cost of land and reactor housing, the cost of grid connection,  and the cost of interest paid for the financial costs of reactor construction.  Finally, Breakthrough Institute failed to note the effect of economies of scale on reactor cost.

I have discussed an idea that is not original with me, that the sites of coal fired electrical generating facilities be recycled to house nuclear power plants.  Rather than be built on the surface, reactors could be placed in underground silos.  The silo would protect the reactor from attacks by aircraft and truck bombs and would cost significantly less to build than above ground concrete and steel protection domes.

Even better than digging a hole in the ground to house reactors, is to find a hole some one else dug and use it for reactor housing.  There are a lot of old, abandoned salt mines scattered around the countryside.  Many old salt mines might be inappropriate for reactor housing, but some might work.

Simplicity of reactor design, easy to work with and familiar materials, limited material demands all lead to rapid manufacture and final construction.  The goal of such a manufacturing process would be to bring the power produced by the reactor system online as quickly as possible.  This is highly desirable because interest on money borrowed during the construction period becomes part of the capitol cost of the project.  Building cheap reactors means lowering capitol costs any way possible.  Quick construction lowers capitol costs.    

One final factor that is almost completely ignored in the discussion of lowering nuclear cost is the fuel factor in technology scalability.  The Scalability Factor would include the capacity to fuel a large number of reactors quickly.  Plutonium fuel for plutonium fueled Fast Reactors represents a bottle neck.  There is a limited amount of plutonium available, far less than would be needed to fuel a massive deployment of Fast Reactors.  Fast Reactors are excellent plutonium burners and that could serve as a useful role for a limited number of them. Thermal reactors require far less fuel for rated power production. Thus, a Fast Reactor might require 18 tons of reactor grade plutonium if it is rated at 1GW of electrical output while a graphite moderated Molten Salt Reactor might require 1 ton of U-235 or U-233 or even less per GW of output. Plutonium is expensive. Eighteen tons of reactor grade plutonium would cost one billion dollars while one ton of U-235 would cost far less.

All in all, Breakthrough Institute seems to be moving in the right direction towards understanding the control of  nuclear costs.  My comments suggest that they still have a ways to go.  We are learning and I would include myself in the “we”.  We still have a way to go, but with the dawning of the second nuclear era, comes the realization that nuclear costs can be made cheaper; perhaps much cheaper.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 7, 2013

Charles, I believe locating reactors underground is a mistake.

Whether rational or not, the largest hurdle nuclear has to clear is one of public perception. The general impression will be, “What are they trying to hide?”, or “What are they dumping down there?” (the first move should be to eliminate the word “silos” from the vocabulary – there are enough misplaced associations with nuclear weapons already).

I don’t see any significant increase in security or safety, and assuming there won’t be sufficient abandoned mines to go around, digging the hole and maintaining equipment down there would be even more expensive.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Oct 7, 2013

Utilities are starting to pass engineering and construction costs onto rate payers, whether a plant gets built or not. Modern day investors don’t really want to carry risk. The federal government, a partner traditionally left holding the bag, is shutdown and who knows what will remain. I’m sure DOD will be around and could take up the slack left by DOE on fuel management. But that may raise security concerns for handling fuels. 

Breakthrough could find a private island. Bill Gates and a whole slew of libertarian tech billionairs could fund it directly out of pocket with bitcoin. Use it to power Facebook’s or similar offices and servers. Isn’t Facebook planning a company town? It could power that too if built on the island.

Most of the recent tech billionairs are still too young to appreciate legacy costs and liability, given aspergers and helicoper mothering. So the risks won’t be too apparent. And its all on an island. 



Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Oct 7, 2013

I’m not against nuclear power persay, but in it’s current form it cannot compete on price.  The large centralized reactors just take too long to build and get safety permits for.

Nuclear has to take the renewable energy route and go decentralized, small, modular.  Think Hyperion Energy, they make a 80MW reactor that is the size of a small car.  It is completely sealed from the factory and can be put on a semi-truck or a rail car and can be mass produced with high security and high safetey oversight.  Plus you can bury it underground in a concrete pit, out of sight, out of mind.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Oct 7, 2013

Those are just incidentals to nuclear scientists and engineers. And offspring. Like plate tectonic subduction zones were to nuclear engineers back in the 1960s. Geotechnical engineers should be able to pick up on subsurface construction issues in the Hazards and Operability Study (HazOps), shouldn’t they? Hopefully? One could site an awesome mini modular nuke plant right above a played out shale oil and gas field, if groundwater were to become irreversibly impacted with radionuclides. “Hotfields” will become the new Brownfields for environmentally impacted lands repurposing. 

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Oct 8, 2013

Nuclear is not a short term nor historically a “safe” technology. The promises of cheap energy and safety have been proven wrong time and again. Can we do it, yes but building numbers of an unproven technology will result in another Fukushima because of something unforeseen. Build 1 or 2, run for 50 years at least and learn from the problems encountered.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 8, 2013

The report from The Breakthrough Institution is a good read. Kudos to them for drawing attention to an up and coming new reactor concept: the salt cooled TRISO fuel reactor.  This reactor promises many of the advantages of LFTR (e.g. passive safety, high temperature and high thermal efficiency, high power density, promising economics), but with faster time to market and easier licensing and operation.

If anything, I think they may have underestimated the importance of high volume commercial deployments.  For years, the advocates of renewable power have reminded us that producing plants in high volume will result in cost reduction.  To demonstrate the volume price of any energy technology, nuclear included, requires the deployment of many gigaWatts of units.  Our society must be ready to make the investment to accurately measure these cost for our most promising options (and nuclear is not only promising, but has proven track record).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 8, 2013

Yes Max, there will be many nuclear accidents in the future.  But opponents of nuclear power have been wrong to classify these accidents (other than Chernobyl) as catastrophes.  The combined deathtoll is always less than that produced by fossil fuel use (even including Chernobyl).  

Fukushima is the perfect example, it was a catastrophe alright, because 20,000 people were killed.  Of course they were all killed by the ocean, not by explosions or radioactive releases from the nuclear reactors.

If the background radiation in towns near the plant is 10%, 50%, or 200% higher than normal for a century or so, why should we care?  Background radiation is harmless to people, animals, and plants (it does kill individual cells, but our bodies have evolved repair mechanisms).  

Unnecessary evacuations do kill people; that was the self-inflicted trajedy that happened at Fukushima.

Steve K9's picture
Steve K9 on Oct 8, 2013

China recently announced the cost of two EPR (1700 MWe) reactors at Taishan will be $7.5B.  Although these reactors started years after those in Europe they will be completed first, a little over 4 years after the start of construction.  The European reactors at Olkilouto and Flamanville will cost ~ $21B.  Three times as expensive. 

That is something you might want to investigate.  Also, France in the 70’s and 80 built out a nuclear fleet that completely eliminated fossil fuel use for electricity generation in a very cost effective way (France has the cheapest electricity in Europe and the cleanest air).  There is no other technology that has accomplished that.

You can make something literally infinitely expensive if you want to be idiotic.  How about 10 people watching each bolt being screwed into place?  That would make anti-nukes very happy, but would not be good for the climate or the rest of us.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 10, 2013

There is no reason to build just one or two because they (molten salt reactors) do not operate the same as conventional. If you believe that excess CO2 is posing serious consequences for the biosphere, then you will understand why many believe they should be redeveloped, proven to commercial and modular scale, and seriously scaled up. Confinement of radioactive matter is similar to confinements of other (but very common place) toxic matters. Just that fission products would become a distruptive technology, whereas, the wastes from coal mining and others is, and must be, accepted.

If we are to phase out fossil fuels, we will need to deal with the toxicity issues from the large scale replacements. Even solar panels have such issues! I like solar and understand that we can (and must) isolate resulting manufacturing toxic chemicals. Why would I refuse to do so with fission products?

Furthermore, fission wastes actually become non radioactive in time (about 300 years) whereas chemical toxicity can last forever. The spent wastes from conventional reactors (that lasts for like 300 thousand years) should be properly consumed in the molten salt reactor, thus another very important reason to build them.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Oct 10, 2013

Yes, of course.  Cancer isn’t due to nuclear power! Hmmm

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 10, 2013

I’m not a nuclear physicist, however, I do study the science enough to know the basics…

No, nuclear energy does NOT cause cancer (unless it or its wastes are not confined and comes in close proximity).

We confine poison and toxics all the time for the sake of relatively trivial matters, that is, for money (and we also kill people all the time by allowing the coal industries to lobby for laws which prevent proper nuclear energy because coal “waste” is exempt from being regulated and thus, pumped into the air).

Realize that solar and wind can NOT replace fossil fuels at this time because more mass is needed to build intermittant and diffuse (and storage) capacity build up required to power our growing planetary civilization. And that the proper reactors could. Simply think in terms of physics, not politics, media hype (also written by people who conveniently do not bother to learn the science!) and fear…

Concerning the link, NONE of that would have happened had they been MOLTEN SALT REACTORS! Search LFTR… If you care at all about the excess CO2 problem, you will compare the immense benefits of the MSR with its slight tech challenges. The MSR is also one of the favorite energy schemes considered by space propulsion experts!

Corporate profits is the ONLY real reason why the MSR has failed and why we are still on the path of fossil fueled depletion. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 10, 2013

That’s correct, cancer isn’t due to nuclear power (are you confusing nuclear power with cigarette smoking?).

From the linked article: “On average, fish in the 33,000 tests since March 2011 had 18 becquerels per kilo of cesium. … The average radiation levels are below Japan’s ceiling and Health Canada’s much higher ceiling of 1,000 becquerels per kilo for cesium and iodine 131.

Keep in mind that cesium will accumulate primarily in the bones, so the large fish (with large and easily removed bones) that people normally eat will result in only a very small cesium absorption for humans.

To provide some context for the article’s scare-mongering, note that one banana has about 15 becquerels, roughly the same radioactivity as the “scary” fish cited in the article.

On the other hand, 20,000 Americans die every year from air pollution from burning fossil fuels.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Oct 10, 2013

And as was posted above there WILL be accidents and there WILL be exposure.  As for the MSR, it’s an unproven technology with unknown hazards.  Applying the precautionary principal means testing them THOROUGHLY BEFORE large scale deployment.  And we disagree entirely on the ability of renewables to replace fossil fuels.  Rather develop them than exchange one centralised master, fossil fuels, for another centralised master, niclear.  Develop the storage capacity and a DECENTRALISED smart grid and there is no need for nuclear!

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 10, 2013

And will a precautionary priciple delay progress long enough for the biosphere to fry?

I guess you are not aware that renewables would take on the order of 1,000,000 times the material incuding storage facilities, in order to sufficiently replace fossil fuels.

Nuclear replaces fossil fuels, then we can work on replacing nuclear with (space based) solar.

Michael Hogan's picture
Michael Hogan on Oct 11, 2013

I applaud all of this good thinking going into bringing down the cost of safely building new nuclear generation. My concern is that it includes the usual blind spots that plague all advocates of a particular technology solution.

1) You start with a flawed premise, actually a couple of flawed premises: “Wind and solar energy are unreliable and lack the capacity to be produced on demand.  Energy storage technology is expensive and may not be ready in the large amounts required to overcome the flaws of wind and solar power.  Clearly then, massive amounts of carbon free energy may not be available within the next 40 years, yet the power companies worry about nuclear costs.” While it is true that “wind and solar” are to varying degrees non-dispatchable sources (solar CSP with integrated thermal storage is an exception to that depending on the capacity of the thermal storage system), but to simply dismiss them as “unreliable” ignores the stack of recent system level analyses from highly reputable, mainstream experts of the question of ensuring reliability with large shares of variable renewable production. The fact is – and it is at least as much of a “fact” as any speculation about what may or may not be possible in bringing down the cost of new nuclear – it is entirely possible to preserve the present standard of service reliability at reasonable cost with 80% or more of final production coming from renewable sources (about 50% of that from variable sources) by implementing a number of eminently feasible (based on current technologies) and cost effective system solutions, without the need for any significant new technological advances in or commercial investment in grid-scale storage. Which brings me to the second flawed premise. Energy storage options exist today at remarkably affordable cost, widely distributed geographically, close to load and in quantities that are more than sufficient to mitigate, along with other readily available measures, the reliability challenges of a system with very high shares of variable production. I’m talking about end-use energy storage, including things like thermal energy to provide heating and cooling services and build-up of product inventory at operations like municipal water utilities. To give one example, simply using the existing installed base of electric water heaters in the US Southeast would provide the potential to provide 100 GW of dispatchable “supply” (in the form of deferred consumption) and 45 GW of dispatchable turn-down (by ramping up electricity consumption to heat water for later use). The cost of converting conventional installations to an efficient, remotely controlled and fully dispatchable energy storage device is between $50 and $100 per household. A “Manhattan Project” as you describe it for new nuclear, could quickly and cheaply exploit a vast pool of energy storage potential that is, in many system engineering respects, superior to traditional grid-scale storage options. So before we even arrive at your very interesting discussion of the options for cost-reduction in nuclear we have to get past a very tired and definitively debunked canard about the “problem” with wind and solar.

2) While system transformation is unquestionably required for a traditional system that will transition to one with very high shares of variable production, you ignore the system transformation that is required to transition to a system with very high shares of nuclear production. Nuclear plants, in a very important sense, suffer from the photo negative problem that is presented by variable renewables: because demand is highly variable and nuclear plants are enormously expensive to cycle up and down, such a system also requires massive investment in energy storage and high-voltage transmission. That is exactly what happened in France in the 70s and 80s, as it did in areas of the US that made large nuclear investments such as TVA. That is not a criticism of nuclear, it is a recognition that nuclear at the scale you’re suggesting brings with it its own system integration challenges that are nearly always completely ignored by proponents.

3) As always, this starts with a dismissal of the feasibility of solving the technical challenges associated with growing shares of variable renewable production on the system (leaving aside the fact that you’ve grossly overstated the nature of those challenges), and then it proceeds to the blithe assumption that all we need to do to solve the challenges facing nuclear is to mount a “Manhattan Project” and that if we’re really serious about it we can have some pilot projects online sometime in the next decade. Doesn’t anyone see the logical inconsistency in that line of argument? What would happen if we mounted a “Manhattan Project” to attack the transformation issues needed to accommodate a largely renewable decarbonization of the electricity system? How much further could we bring down the installed costs in the next ten years? How easily could we integrate the disparate balancing areas and reinforce existing regional transmission corridors? How quickly could we deploy cheap, dispatchable end-use energy storage capabilities at a scale of literally hundreds of gigawatts across the US? You’re no different, in this respect, to those advocates of renewable technology X (take your pick) or advocates of low-carbon options for fossil fuel Y (carbon capture and sequestration, most prominently) who customarily dismiss the alternatives they don’t like and then blithely assume exactly the kind of effort in support of their favored option that could very well make the alternatives as feasible – or more feasible – than the one for which they’re advocating.

I don’t want to diverge too much from my main points above, but I would also suggest that promoting the cost-effectiveness of new nuclear at the scale you’re suggesting to any significant degree in reliance on things like “siting new reactors in depleted salt domes” only makes you sound like advocates of things like tidal power, who extrapolate from the potential in a few remote locations to saving the world with their technology, when in fact it is an option that is feasible at only a tiny fraction of the scale required to solve the problem.

None of this is meant to denigrate the importance of pursuing the ideas you suggest. We absolutely should be doing that, and with all possible speed. But we should also cease the pointless exercise of demonizing what we don’t favor based on outdated and soundly debunked platitudes promoted by the coal industry and climate science deniers. Let’s agree right now that unabated coal plants must be off the system by no later than 2030 and unabated gas plants (with the possible exception of gas-fired peaking plants) must be off the system by 2035 or 2040. With that as a starting point we will have the commercial rationale to ramp up all of the low-carbon options – continued (accelerated) deployment of the renewable options that will necessarily constitute at least a major share of the long-term solutions and a massive R&D push on viable options for bringing down the cost and improving the operating flexibility of safe nuclear power, all accompanied by the kind of cost-effective, readily feasible system transformations that will be required regardless of whether it’s mostly nuclear or mostly renewables. (And as an aside, one should very quickly dismiss the claims coming out of China – if the recent revelations about the truth behind the Korean “nuclear miracle” are any indication, no one should be asked to live within a thousand miles of any nuclear plant built in China in 4 years at a third the cost of what it costs in well-regulated developed economies – as my sainted grandmother used to say, if it seems too good to be true it nearly always is.)

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Oct 12, 2013

@Charles Barton

I have not yet finished your piece, but I needed to take a break and respond to the following statement:

The Pebble Bed Reactor is often pointed to as an example of Generation IV Inherent Safety, but part of that safety requires a very large core.  In fact a core that is larger than the core of commercial Light Water Reactors.  The Pebble Bed core costs as much to build as a LWR and thus no one seems to be moving forward with conventional Pebble Bed Reactor projects.  

You and I have had this discussion before; claiming that pebble bed reactors cost as much to build as an LWR because they have large cores exposes the simplistic nature of your understanding of cost drivers. Big structures are not necessarily more costly than smaller structures; there are many factors included in cost computations in addition to physical size. For example, an NFL football stadium is a much larger structure than the “nuclear island” of a large, 1000+ MWe class nuclear reactor, but even with all of the bells and whistles of modern stadiums, stadiums are considerably less expensive.

Your statement that “no one seems to be moving forward with conventional Pebble Bed Reactor projects” is a little exaggerated; there are two commercial pebble bed reactors under construction in China as part of their continuing methodical development of the technology. Those two reactors build on the lessons learned by ten years of operating the 10 MW experimental HTR-10.

Designated as HTR-PM, those two reactor cores are going to both provide the heat and steam for a single 210 MWe turbine. The choice to use two reactors to heat a single turbine helps to expose the complex nature of cost computations when you make a complete paradigm shift from a pressurized water cooled reactor to one that uses pressurized helium as the heat transfer mechanism.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Oct 12, 2013

I don’t see why a global scale up of the MSR needs to take any longer than one or two decades.

We are regulated to the planet’s death.

Had this been an actual emergency, we would have already applied the Apollo style to the least expensive, most abundant source. Oh, this IS an emergency, guess the policy makers are off their rockers!

You do realize that solar and wind, although not impossible, would need vastly more materials in order to power a planetary civilization requiring improvements in machine automation (which we also must promote, if we are to realize the necessity of mainstream electric transportation). And you do realize that there is also a growing movement against large scale renewables as well as a plan to actually tax energy, and not just fossil fuels? ***

This, then is clearly not about providing clean energy, otherwise the path to such would NOT be frought with smothering regulations! WE need to rise above these LIMITED policy actions by EXPOSING their road blocks (to ANY source of clean energy). “Energy taxes are levied on a wide range of energy forms, not just on fossil fuels” (to influence energy use patterns)… page 23.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 12, 2013


Can you provide any links/references to support your claims that renewables are reliable based on

recent system level analyses from highly reputable, mainstream experts of the question of ensuring reliability with large shares of variable renewable production


it is entirely possible to preserve the present standard of service reliability at reasonable cost with 80% or more of final production coming from renewable sources (about 50% of that from variable sources) by implementing a number of eminently feasible (based on current technologies) and cost effective system solutions, without the need for any significant new technological advances in or commercial investment in grid-scale storage.

The only academic source from which I hear conclusions like this are the two Marks at Stanford, Jacobson/Delucchi, whose work is discredited by a number of wild and biased assumptions.

Michael Hogan's picture
Michael Hogan on Oct 12, 2013

Mark Jacobson’s work at Stanford is not particularly credible and I would not recommend it. The two most robust system analyses I would point to are:

Roadmap 2050: A practical guide to a prosperous, low-carbon Europe (first phase published 2010, phase 2 published 2011 and phase 3 due to be published later this year), carried out by KEMA, Imperial College London, McKinsey & Co. and Oxford Economics under the sponsorship of the European Climate Foundation and in close coordination with the European Commission, with active involvement from a broad group of industry, academic and NGO stakeholders. This study analysed objectively a full range of decarbonization scenarios, from one that relied on a relatively limited role for renewables to one in which renewable provided 80% of Europe’s annual electricity production.

Renewable Energy Futures (October 2012), carried out under the auspices of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory by an extended team of stellar national laboratories, respected expert consultancies and in consultation with a broad swath of industry, academia and NGOs.

These are serious and robust studies. They do not claim that any of this is easy – to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from “The Princess Bride”, anyone who tells you any part of this is easy is selling something – but they do demonstrate that various pathways, including pathways involving high shares of variable renewable production, are entirely feasible and affordable without the need for dramatic technological advances, as desireable as such advances might prove to be. Each of them has self-acknowledged gaps and further work that should be done, but that is simply to be expected. It does not negate the fundamental insights they provide.

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