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What is the point of nuclear innovation?

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Nathan Wilson's picture
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Nathan Wilson has a bachelor's and a master's degree in electrical engineering, and currently works as a software engineer in the aerospace industry. He is excited about clean energy, and hopes...

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  • Dec 29, 2020
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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.

Homework_by_candlelight

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.

MaterialPerTWH_BySource_Chart

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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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 29, 2020

So the book's driving principle then becomes that "If mankind is to prosper, then clean, affordable, dependable electricity must be available to all."

I think it'd be hard for anyone to argue against this principle, but it does bring about the uncomfortable truth that this is the goal of society, but the goal of the power sector is also to make money and when you insert that factor into the equation it leads to some different decisions than would be made without that natural driving force. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 29, 2020

Yes, different decisions indeed.  The obvious example is how the fossil fuel industry has worked to convince us that we should avoid nuclear power.

An example from the book:

  • The "N-stamp" nuclear supplier certification that (in the name of quality assurance) serves to limit new companies from becoming component supplier, thus restricting competition and driving up costs.

But on the other hand, we can also use the desire to make money to benefit clean energy; economists have been saying for a long time that the most economically efficient solution is to put a tax on emission of CO2 and other pollutants.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Dec 30, 2020

I´ll read the book. But, based on your review, it appears that the nuclear industry is looking everywhere but within for solutions to its problems.

The comments on ALARA belie a lack of understanding of the concept:

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.

ALARA refers to risk assessment.  So, it is incorrect to claim that "good" is never "good enough".  It is true, however, that ALARA, when managing risk of radiation doses for medical purposes, e.g. cancer treatment, does require minimizing the dose for achieving the desired effect.

This principle means that even if it is a small dose, if receiving that dose has no direct benefit, you should try to avoid it. To do this, you can use three basic protective measures in radiation safety: time, distance, and shielding.

"Good enough" indicates sufficient reduction of risk.  The data which establish what is "good enough" are based on "acceptable" levels of mortality.   The LNT  (Linear No-Threshold) interpretation of the available data for mortality is, without doubt, flawed. However, does the author supply a good alternative to this model? I see none in this article.  Is the alternative to increase the acceptable levels of human radiation exposure until catastrophic results can be proven?  I think not. 

No, getting rid of LNT and ALARA is no solution to the nuclear industry´s problems.

But, there is time. Clearly, renewables are far from perfect.  But nuclear´s woes do not inspire confidence in the future.

More than a quarter of U.S. nuclear power plants don’t make enough money to cover their operating costs, raising the threat of more early retirements.

The nuclear industry dug the ditch in which they find themselves. They will have to find a way out in order to gain credibility with the public.

 

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 31, 2020

"But, based on your review, it appears that the nuclear industry is looking everywhere but within for solutions to its problems."

Then I'd say that's more of a shortcoming with my review than the book itself.  Devanney writes as a newcomer to the industry and is quite critical of it.

 

""Good enough" indicates sufficient reduction of risk.   The data which establish what is "good enough" are based on "acceptable" levels of mortality."

Yes, that makes sense and aligns with Devanney's suggestions.  But according to Devanney, regulators routinely force nuclear operators to spend a "reasonable" amount of effort to achieve further reductions in radiation releases even for negligible benefit.

 

"However, does the author supply a good alternative to this [LNT] model?"

Yes, as all curve-fitting nowadays is done by computer, there is no good reason to artificially force the computer to use a line when fitting a curve to the available data.  For purposes of example, he uses a sigmoid (S-shaped) curve, which smoothly goes to 1.0 at the high dosage end (rather than killing people many times over), and zero at the low end (rather than forcing an evacuation of Denver, which has elevated background radiation and lower than average cancer rates).  He also takes into account hugely important dose-rate, which is ignored by LNT.  But any curve which honestly tries to fit the data at high, medium, and low dose rates will have a similarly large improvement over the poorly fitting LNT.

In section 5.5 of the book, he compares estimates of Chernobyl delayed radiation deaths (not including the 15 non-controversial thyroid cancer deaths) using his sigmoid curve with LNT data from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).  Both methods find a similar number of cancer deaths among the clean-up workers ("liquidators") who received large dosages (20 mSv/month and up).  At the low end of the scale however (i.e. dosage well under natural background), UCS estimates 13,000 deaths outside of the USSR (for 26,400 total), and he estimates less than one outside the USSR (and 1560 total).

One might be tempted to put aside the science, and use LNT to be conservative.  However, 1600 people were killed by the evacuations around the damaged Fukushima reactors, mostly in areas that had radiation levels only somewhat above background.  According to the data, most of these people were killed by bad policy. Similarly, LNT contributes to making nuclear power less competitive with burning coal and biomass (which kills hundreds of thousands of people per year, globally).  Either we believe in science or we don't.

Laura Scheele's picture
Laura Scheele on Jan 8, 2021

Thanks for this review, though I am coming to it late. I'll be checking out the link to read.

In terms of the following quote from the article, I'll creep out on a limb, since I haven't read the book yet:

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.

There is recognition across the commercial nuclear community that costs need to be reduced. A tremendous amount of work is being done among government agencies (DOE, NRC), the nuclear community (NEI, utility owner/operators, and reactor developers) and the national laboratory complex (including academic institutions) to match regulatory compliance with improved risk assessment techniques.

For the current fleet, the Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program spearheads the DOE and national laboratory efforts in this area and has been doing a lot of innovative research in cooperation with owners and operators.

Again, thanks for the review and I look forward to adding this to my reading queue!

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 9, 2021

Thanks Laura for the link about the DOE's Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program

The commenter profile feature doesn't seem to be working, but Laura is a frequent contributor at Energy Central.  Here is a recent article of hers, which has news from her program at Idaho National Labs.

 

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