What is the point of nuclear innovation?
- Dec 28, 2020 11:20 pm GMT
We all know that the goal of renewable supporters is clean energy, but what drives nuclear entrepreneurs?
A new book by nuclear entrepreneur Jack Devanney provides some insight: "Why Nuclear Power Has Been a Flop (the Gordian Knot of the 21st Century)". It's available in print for those who love the smell of paper, and is actually free on-line: https://gordianknotbook.com.
The book opens with a section about global energy use and a picture of a group of kids around a small table doing homework by candle light. It turns out that per capita energy usage is extremely uneven, with the average American using an average of 1400 Watts while under 70 Watts is used by the average resident of India and the Philippines, while the average in Nigeria is a paltry 13 Watts per person. And electricity usage is strongly connected to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and GDP is strongly connected to health and life expectancy.
So the book's driving principle then becomes that "If mankind is to prosper, then clean, affordable, dependable electricity must be available to all." Cheap energy is needed for global poverty elimination. To achieve that, the required new-build capacity is about 100 new plants of 1 GWatt each, for each of the next 20 years. With the current path of the global electric power industry, most of that new capacity will be coal-fired, and the resulting emissions will "kill or shorten the lives of at least 400,000 people per year, and produce about 8 billion tons per year of CO2." When Devanney considers addressing global warming (i.e. going beyond just the electricity market), he then suggests that future human power needs could reach 25,000 GWatts; this includes not just electrification of heating, industrial processes and transportation, but also some amount of population growth.
The bulk of the book then turns to addressing why the author believes that nuclear power can make the cost reductions needed for it to become the solution to our cheap clean energy needs. Devanney talks about the misinformation (blatant lies, actually) that are imposed on nuclear power, both from outside the industry, and most surprisingly, from within. He attacks LNT (Linear No-Threshold), the hypothesis that the negative health impacts of ionizing radiation are linear with dosage (i.e. double dosage produces double the damage), because even though it is intuitively satisfying, it simply does not fit the clinical data; it wildly overstates the dangers of low dosage radiation. Of course, the damage does drop with dosage, for high radiation dosage acute radiation sickness results, but those symptoms fall to zero long before the dosage reaches zero. For the low dosage range the main concern is for long term cancer incidence; and that is the primary concern for the regulation of the nuclear power industry. But here again, as the dosage drops, the observable cancer increase falls to zero long before the dosage reaches zero. We have excellent data (studies involving many millions of people) for low radiation doses, because the natural background radiation varies from city to city, and we see no correlation in cancer incidence with the background radiation of the city.
The incorrect and harmful LNT hypothesis leads to an even larger problem: ALARA. That‘s the notion that human radiation exposure should be As Low As Reasonably Achievable. It’s innocuous on the surface, but hopelessly impractical as a regulatory policy, because it means that “good” is never “good enough”, and costs can be ratcheted up incrementally higher, indefinitely.
The author, Devanney, "is the principal engineer and architect of the Thorcon molten salt reactor power plant" (see here http://thorconpower.com/team-2 ). That technology dates back to work done at Oak Ridge National Laboratory starting in the 1950s, but never reached a commercial market. Devanney brings experience in large ocean ship design from both civil (crude oil carriers) and government Naval application. He shared the shocking disparity in cost between those two seemingly similar industries, concluding that the US Navy’s system of quality assurance and vendor management (which is similar to that prescribed by the government for the nuclear industry) is wildly inefficient. This experience gives Devanney a clear-headed perspective on government’s role in the dramatic cost escalation in nuclear plant costs over the years, and allows him to diagnose our regulatory system (i.e. the "Gold Standard") as both the cause of the high cost and the resistance to natural technology evolution over time. In other words, the system is designed to be expensive.
Devanney is rather pessimistic that the US will take a lead in updating our world-leading yet dysfunctional nuclear regulatory system. The book pins its hope on developing nations that have low cost energy deployment as an imperative, as global poverty elimination is a more compelling goal than simply offering yet another competing energy source for a rich nation with many sources. He lays out a framework to allow such a country to build a new regulatory system, a system which is better aligned with the regulation of other more cost effective industries, such as aviation or fossil fuel.
But don't think Devanney is unconcerned with safety. He spends several chapters approaching the safety question from different perspectives. His arguments are supported by credible sources, and are based on real-world radiation exposure events, such as the nuclear attacks from World War II, the accident at Chernobyl, nuclear/radiology medicine, and expert testimony from people in the nuclear weapons industry, nuclear power industry, and even the radiation protection industry.
In the final chapter, a postscript, he addresses the elephant in most environmentalists' room: Renewables. He argues that the variability of solar and wind is a fatal flaw. Most convincing to me is the chart which shows that, according to the DOE, windpower requires 11 times the material resource as nuclear, for a given energy output; Solar uses 11 times that of nuclear (averaged over the life of the plant). That high material usage is a result of the dilute nature of solar and wind energy, and means that as technology and manufacturing techniques mature, these energy sources should be expected to have a higher cost than nuclear. He recounts Google's failed attempts to layout a viable implementation of a renewable energy transition in the 2007 program, “RE<C”; the conclusion was that poor energy density and intermittency was problematic. He also addresses the 2015 paper describing Mark Jacobson's renewable energy vision, and the required wildly optimistic growth in US hydro capacity that Jacobson needed to make his Wind-Water-and-Sun system work.
Overall, the book is a fast and interesting read, and it makes a compelling case. He reinforces what we already suspected about the dim near-term future for the prospect of US nuclear industry growth. But he does offer reasons for hope that developing countries will find a viable path to clean energy growth in nuclear. His company ThorCon Power shares the common industry vision of factory construction of small, modular, reactors as a path to cost reductions; theirs is a 250 MWatt reactor, but they go one step further. They’ll build the entire two reactor, 500 MWatt plant at a ship yard, in a sea-worthy form, and tow it in one piece to the deployment site. Thorcon is targeting countries with domestic ship yards (apparently there are many, such as Indonesia), as shipyards deliver factory proficiency and efficiency for repetitive construction of large steel structures; thus most of the job creation would be domestic, with only a limited number of imported components (e.g. steam turbine, reactor pumps, etc).
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