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Does Nuclear Power Need TRICO?

image credit: ID 752148 © Sgame | Dreamstime.com

Although the stuff has been around since the 1960’s, TRISO fuel, or nuclear power balls as its sometimes called, has been all the rage in generation news this week. Daniel Oberhaus succinctly summarized the technology in a recent WIRED article: "Triso— short for “tristructural isotropic”—fuel is made from a mixture of low enriched uranium and oxygen, and it is surrounded by three alternating layers of graphite and a ceramic called silicon carbide. Each particle is smaller than a poppy seed, but its layered shell can protect the uranium inside from melting under even the most extreme conditions that could occur in a reactor."

I’m not really sure why TRISO became a buzzword this week specifically—no major announcements related to the fuel were made—but the nuclear technology has seemed to gain steam in recent years, no pun intended. Propelled by hundreds of millions of dollars granted by the Department of Energy last decade, a new wave of nuclear startups are keen on using TRICO. What’s more, BWXT and X-energy have recently started producing the fuel, ending what was a long TRISO draught. 

TRICO advocates posit that the fuel could make nuclear generation much safer. The sentiment is described in that same WIRED article: “Within a nuclear power plant context, the grains of protected uranium simply can’t melt down, proponents say. In a traditional fission reactor like the ones used today, fuel allowed to heat out of control will eventually cook itself into a meltdown. If that meltdown escalates, the heat can destroy the protective measures in place around the reactor. Instead, the tiny power granules have their own deescalation process built in.”

If TRICO’s supposed safety advantage is really all some crack it up to be, and companies’ can make use of the fuel in the next couple years, nuclear power could experience something of a revival. For decades now, nuclear has been dogged by a reputation as an environmental menace. Meltdowns will happen, and when they do, everything in the surrounding area—from fish to humans—will be done for. And even if a meltdown is somehow avoided, the nuclear waste will eventually seep out of its enclosure and poison us. That’s only a slightly exaggerated version of the popular narrative. TRICO could at least put the first misgiving to bed. 

However, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on TRICO’s safety benefit. Prolific Energy Central commentator Bob Meinetz pointed this out in a recent comment: 

“...TRISO has its own problems, not the least of which is that it doesn't yet exist. From "Review of Progress in Coated Fuel Particle Performance Analysis", a 2019 paper published in Nuclear Science and Engineering:

"Although development and qualification programs of TRISO fuel have shown positive results for their future utilization, uncertain issues related to the modeling of fuel performance still remain. In this paper, we review coated fuel particle performance analysis to demonstrate the current achievements and remaining obstacles in the field."’

As much as I’d like TRICO to prove as revolutionary as its biggest proponents claim it to be, I’m not ready to believe that will really happen. And if TRICO fails to deliver, would that make it correct for mankind to continue down the path of denuclearization (not talking about bombs)? I don’t think so. Out of what seems like a hardwired fear of nuance and moral complexity, too many of us have written nuclear off as an unequivocal evil. We’ve exaggerated the energy’s downsides, and turned a blind eye to its obvious benefits. 

So what does a fair conversation of nuclear energy look like? Well, humans need energy to continue growing their economies, which improves quality of life. The problem is that fossil fuels, long the most convenient energy source, cause climate change, which hurts net human flourishing. There are three big energy sources that don’t warm the planet: nuclear, wind and solar. Nuclear is capable of powering current and future economies. Wind and solar are not ready to do that on their own. I think that until they are ready, we’d be better off going with nuclear over fossil fuels, because it’s the lesser of two evils. The lesser of two evils is really as straight forward of a philosophical conundrum as they come, in fact it’s not a conundrum at all.


 

Henry Craver's picture

Thank Henry for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 9, 2020 4:17 am GMT

I haven't heard any announcements about TRISO either, Henry. At the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in 2012 Stephen Boyd, a solid-state materials chemist, gave a talk about silicon carbide TRISO balls. He claimed when the balls are exposed to the high neutron flux of a reactor core, they aren't as durable as advocates contend. In other words, they fall apart. If that happens a meltdown isn't only possible, it's likely.

That this excitement is being generated by two oil industry attorneys from Texas, to me, suggests their job might be "just-around-the-cornerism" - i.e., keeping real progress in nuclear energy 10 years away indefinitely.

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on Jul 10, 2020 6:02 pm GMT

Thanks for the insight, Bob. Honestly, I find it suprizing they'd even think it neccesary to launch such a propaganda blitz, given legislators and the public's lack on enthusiasm for nuclear. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 13, 2020 8:03 pm GMT

Henry, the American Petroleum Institute has spent hundreds of $millions since the 1950s discrediting nuclear, and it's never been in the form of a direct attack. In marketing, a general rule of thumb is if your product faces an existential threat from a competitor, you avoid acknowledging it entirely. Though there was a brief attempt in the 1960s by Phillips and Texaco to invest in it, the oil industry thrives on consumption, and it didn't take long to understand why nuclear would never be as profitable: it doesn't burn enough fuel.

Since Chernobyl (1986), this is the most optimistic I've felt about its future. Smart, well-meaning people who have fought it for as long as I've supported it are taking a second look at nuclear energy. When they compare its perceived dangers to the real threat of climate change, they realize it's pointless to worry about what dangers spent fuel might present 20,000 years from now, if humans will only be around for the next 500.

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

 

 

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