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Keeping up with China: The Economic Advantage of Molten Salt Nuclear Technology

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.

  • Member since 2018
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  • Dec 1, 2010
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Last Friday, Brian Wang called attention to a Boomberg’s article on Chinese nuclear cost. The Bloomberg’s story reported that the French designed EPR would cost 40% less to build in China that in Europe:

Areva SA said the EPR nuclear reactor costs 3 billion euros ($4 billion) to build in China, 40 percent less than the price tag Electricite de France SA has put on building one in Normandy.

Nuclear Townhall, on the 26th, called attention to the competitiveness of both the Chinese and the Russian Nuclear Industries. In addition to Russia and China, Nuclear Green has repeatedly called attention to the cost competitiveness of South Korea, and Indian nuclear technologies. The Indians especially are following a will charted path to an innovative low cost nuclear future.

American and European nuclear development can either proceed by following the cost lowering paths being pioneered in Asia, or begin to develop low cost innovative nuclear plans. Since low labor costs, represent the most significant Chinese and Indian cost advantage, it is unlikely that European and American reactor manufacturers will be able to compete with the Asians on labor costs. Labor costs for conventional reactors can be lowered by factory construction of reactor componant moduels, but the Chinese are clearly ahead of the West in that game. Yet the weakness of the Chinese system is the relatively large amount of field labor that the manufacture of large reactors requires.

The Chines system is to introduce labor saving devices where ever and when ever possible, but clearly shifting labor from the field to a factory still offers cost advantages. The more labor which can be performed in the factory, the more labor cost savings are possible. Other savings advantages are possible by simplifying reactor design, and lowering materials input. Building a reactor with less materials and fewer parts lowers nuclear costs directly and indirectly. Decreasing core size per unit of power output also can contribute a cost advantage. Direct saving relate to the cost of parts and matetials, but fewer parts and less material also means less labor is required to put things together, since there is less to put together. In addition a small reactor core structure, would, all other things being equal, require a smaller housing. Larger cores mean more structural housing expenses.

While the Pebel Bed Modular Reactor has a relatively simple core design, the actual core is quite large, because of the cooling inefficiency of helium. Thus, the simplisity of the PBMR core is ballanced by its size, its total materials input, and the size of its housing. The large core and housing requirements of the PBMR also adds to its labor costs, especially its field labor cost. Thus while the simplisity of the PBMR core design would seem to suggest a low cost, this expectation is unlikely to br born out in practice.

Transportation limits ability to shift production from the field to the factory. An analysis preformed by the University of Tennessee’s, and the Massachusettes Institute of Technology’s Departments of Nuclear Engineering looked at the 335 MW Westinghouse IRIS reactor. The analysis found,

A rough estimate of the weight for a 1000 MWt modular reactor and its secondary system, similar to the Westinghouse IRIS plant, is taken as the summation of all of the major components in the analysis. Many of the smaller subcomponents have been neglected. The containment structure contributes ~2.81E6 kg (3100 tons). The primary reactor vessel and the turbo-generator contribute ~1.45E6 kg (1600 tons) each. The heat exchange equipment and piping contribute ~6.78E5 kg (747 tons). Therefore, the total weight of the major plant components is~ 6.39E6 kg (7047 tons).

The weight and width of the IRIS would place constraints of barge transportation of the IRIS on the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. The report stated,

The Westinghouse barge mounted IRIS reactor modules were limited in size based on input from the University of Tennessee. The barge dimension limitations were established to be 30 meters (98’-5”) wide, 100 meters (328’-1”) long, with a 2.74 meter (9’) draft. These dimensions establish the barge maximum displacement at 8,220 metric tons. In addition, the barge(s) are limited to ~20 meters (65’-7”) in height above the water surface, so that they fit under crossing bridges and can be floated up the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers as far as the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Further movement above Chattanooga is currently limited by the locks at the Chickamauga Reservoir dam.

The above barge displacement limitation will impose severe limits on how much structural support and shield concrete can be placed in the barge modules at the shipyard. For example, the estimated weight of concrete in the IRIS containment and the surrounding cylindrical shield structure alone greatly exceeds the total allowable barge displacement. This however does not mean that barge- mounted pressurized water reactors (PWRs) are not feasible. It does mean that barge-mounted PWRs need to employ steel structures that are then used as the forms for the addition of needed concrete after the barge has been floated into its final location and founded.

Thus for the IRIS, barge transportation presented problems, and rail transportation was unthinkable. The core of the 125 MW B&W mPower reactor is rail transportable, but final onsite mPower assembly/construction became a significant undertaking, with a consequent increase in overall cost. The core unit does include a pressure vessel and heat exchange mounted above the actual reactor, but many other mPower component modules must be transported seperately and assembled on site.

The IIRIS project demonstrates the unlikelihood of whole small reactors being transported to the field ready for energy production without some field construction. This might be possible, however, for mini reactors that are two small to be viewed as a plausible substitute for the fossil fuel powered electrical plants currently supplying electricity for the grid. This then leaves us with
with a gap between the cost savings potential of factory manufacture, and the costly process of onsite assembly. B&W the manufacturers of the small 125 MW MPower reactor still has not clarified what percentage of the manufacturing process would be factory based. It is clear, however that B&W knows where it is comming from and what its problems are, as Rod Adams tells us:

I spoke in more detail to Chris Mowry and listened as he explained how his company’s research on the history of the nuclear enterprise in the US had revealed that 30% of the material and labor cost of the existing units came from the supplied components while 70% was related to the site construction effort. He described how the preponderance of site work had influenced the cost uncertainty that has helped to discourage new nuclear plant construction for so many years.

What Mowey did not tell Adams is what percentage of the materials and labor costs will be shifted to the factory as mPower reactors are produced. There have been hints that a significant percentage of the mPower manufacturing process, perhaps as much as 50% will still take place on site. B&W still is working on the design of their manufacturing process, and thus do not yet know all of the details. Clearly then more work needs to be done on controlling onsite costs.

Finally, a shift to advanced technology will can lower manufacturing costs. Compared to Light Water reactors, Liquid metal cooled reactors use less material and perhaps less labor, but pool type liqiod metal reactors are not compact. Compared to Liquid Metal cooled reactors, Molten Salt cooled reactor will have more compact cores. Shifting to closed cycle gas turbines will decrease construction costs. The added safety of Molten Salt cooled reactors will increase reactor simplification, and thus further lower labor and materials related construction costs.

The recycling of old power plant locations will also offer some savings. Decreasing manufacturing time will lower interest costs.

All in all there are a lot of reasons to expect lower nuclear manufacturing costs with Generation IV nuclear power plants, and at present no one has come up with a good reason for expecting Molten Salt cooled reactors to cost more than traditional NPPs. The argument, however, is not iron clad. Even if no one has pointed out plasuible errors in it, we need to introduce the caviot that expectations frenquently are not meet. It is possible, for example that the NRC might impose unreasonable expectations on molten salt cooled reactors. Demanding, for example, that they include the same safety features as LWRs, even though they do not have many LWR safety problems. But the potential savings on the cost of energy by adopting molten salt nuclear technology is substantial, and should not be ignored.

To return to the problem posed by Brian Wang, the problem of lower Asian nuclear construction costs. If Europe and the United States cannot meet the Asican energy cost challenge, their economies will encounter a significant decline. Because of Labor cost advantages, it is unlikely that Generation III nuclear plants will ever cost less to build in the United States or Europe than in Asia. in order to keep the American and European economies competitive, the United States and Europe must adopt a low cost, factory manufactured nuclear technology. Molten Salt nuclear technology represents the lowest cost approach, and is highly consistent with factory manufacture and other cost lowering approaches. Couple to that the outstanding safety of molten salt nuclear technology, the potential for dramatically lowering the creation of nuclear waste, and the obsticles to nuclear proliferation posed by molten salt nuclear rechnology, and we see a real potential for keeping the American and European economies competitive, at least as far as energy costs are concerned.

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