Skip to comments.Why the U.S. should invest a lot more in nuclear research
Posted on 06/18/2015 12:51:40 PM PDT by ckilmer
Why the U.S. should invest a lot more in nuclear research
For the past several years, nuclear power has been a focus of sharp disagreement in the debate over climate change. Traditional environmentalists tend to oppose it, while climate trolls argue it is the savior of mankind, only stopped by green ignorance. For all the hyperbole, both sides make some good points. Nuclear power is not as dangerous as it is often portrayed, at least compared to coal, while the trolls fail to acknowledge the major problem with traditional nuclear power: its stupendous cost.
However, there are reasons to hope there could be a way to end this impasse. The answer lies in moving away from existing nuclear technology, and towards general research. The theoretical benefits of non-standard nuclear technologies are very great, but these technologies are not currently in a workable form. Thus, more research could pay off handsomely.
The Department of Energy is moving in just this direction, with $60 million recently awarded towards new nuclear research. That's a good step, but an insufficient one. We ought to be doing much more.
The main problem with traditional nuclear power plants is that they're too big. Existing nuclear technology is based on uranium fission, which requires enormous generators to work properly. The plants are huge, complicated, dangerous, and therefore extremely expensive to build and insure. Typically, that means large government subsidies are required to get one actually built, and cost overruns and other headaches are very common. As a result, many nuclear projects have been abandoned outright.
What's worse, nuclear has stagnated or even increased in price over the years. Like any big piece of infrastructure these days, American institutions struggle to get them done on time and within budget. That stands in stark contrast to wind and especially solar, which have been plummeting in price. Faced with a likely price assault from renewables, many utilities are attempting to capture regulated ratepayers who can be forced to pay for their unprofitable nuclear plants.
Then, of course, there is the small but real danger of nuclear meltdown, which could turn huge swaths of country into a radioactive wasteland for centuries.
Newer reactor designs have the potential to alleviate most or all of these problems. Some research funded by the Department of Energy concentrates on smaller, modular reactors, which could standardize the manufacturing process and bring down prices, since one of the expensive aspects of traditional design is having to build custom parts and equipment for huge generation facilities.
Another, even more promising research area is in thorium reactors. This is another fission reactor, but with several major advantages. Thorium is vastly commoner than uranium, making the fuel cheaper. The reaction pathway generates far less waste. Such a reactor also must be constantly bombarded with neutrons to keep the reaction going, instead of being modulated with control rods — meaning that it will tend to naturally cool down on its own during an emergency loss of power, rather than spiral out of control.
In perhaps the most promising design, thorium is dissolved in a molten fluoride salt, which means the reactor can be operated at atmospheric pressure, instead of the very high pressure of traditional reactors. It can even include an electric-cooled reactor plug, so if power fails, the plug will melt and the reactor will automatically drain and shut itself off.
Aside from cold fusion, this has long been the holy grail of nuclear energy. So why hasn't it been figured out? Nuclear weapons, for one. It's nearly impossible to get weapons-grade plutonium or uranium out of a thorium reactor — a potential benefit today, but a major strike against thorium during the Cold War. The U.S. actually had a prototype thorium reactor back in the 1960s, but President Nixon fired the major thorium proponent because Nixon was more interested in the nukes.
To be clear, thorium research isn't included among the current grants, since it would cost a lot more than $60 million — though the Department of Energy is reportedly helping China develop a prototype, while Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which housed the '60s prototype, is helping Canada build one.
All that said, we shouldn't be counting our nuclear chickens. By all accounts, the theory here checks out, but it would have been done by now if the implementation weren't very, very hard. Nuclear reactors — even small ones — are some of the most difficult engineering humankind has ever attempted. Even if these theories can be made to work, it will likely take years and a great deal of money to move from the prototype to the mass-implementation phase.
Still, at the very least it's worth a shot. Just last year the government gave billions in loan guarantees to two additional units at the Vogtle nuclear plant — potentially groundbreaking research ought to get at least equal support.
Current republican energy policy is outdated.
Cheap nuclear power should be on the republican plank this election.
Ill take the climate change rather than the nuclear waste.
Gas pebble bed reactors would be nice.
Burner reactors and/or fast breeder reactors.
No waste of any type.
That's for sure..
[Ill take the climate change rather than the nuclear waste.]
A major obstacle to nuclear fuel recycling in the United States has been the perception that its not cost-effective and that it could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Those were the reasons President Jimmy Carter gave in 1977 when he prohibited it, preferring instead to bury spent nuclear fuel deep underground. Thirty-seven years later were no closer to doing that than we were in 1977.
France, Great Britain and Japan, among other nations, rejected Carters solution. Those countries realized that spent nuclear fuel is a valuable asset, not simply waste requiring disposal.
As a result, France today generates 80 percent of its electricity needs with nuclear power, much of it generated through recycling.
As for concerns about proliferation, the reality is that no nuclear materials ever have been obtained from the spent fuel of a nuclear power plant, owing both to the substantial cost and technical difficulty of doing so and because of effective oversight by the national governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The nuclear fuel recycling process is straightforward. It involves converting spent plutonium and uranium into a mixed oxide that can be reused in nuclear power plants to produce more electricity. In France, spent fuel from that countrys 58 nuclear power plants is shipped to a recycling facility at Cap La Hague overlooking the English Channel, where it sits and cools down in demineralized water for three years. Only then is it separated for recycling into mixed-oxide fuel.
The nuclear material that cannot be recycled is imbedded in glass logs, where it will remain until France builds a deep-underground repository for unusable waste.
The United States now stores more than 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel at nuclear plants around the country. Disposing of used fuel in a deep-geologic repository as if it were worthless waste and not a valuable resource for clean-energy production is folly. . .
In that case, go live in a cave. The production of all energy produces waste that has to be sequestered in one form or another.
A friend of mine is ex-Navy...did a tour on a nuke sub many years ago.
He had a bumper sticker on his car for years that cracked me up;
Navy Nukes Are Built Better Than Jane Fonda
No waste of any type.
The fourth generation molten salt reactors are designed to burn up the decades of nuclear waste that the US currently has in storage.
We are! Except we seem to be doing it by proxy sending all the money needed to places like Iran and N. Korea via secret treaty and trade deals. Bigger and better bombs will result only we won't own or control them. We will only have paid for them. Duck and Cover kiddies. Duck and Cover.!
Imagine enough electricity generated to do seawater desalinization on a HUGE scale, turning large swaths of desert into arid land (think Imperial Valley but on a much larger scale). Or electrifying all long distance railroads so there is no air pollution along rail lines for freight trains and we could see much faster long-distance passenger trains. Or making it much more viable--once battery technology improves in the next 10-15 years--to instead of pumping gasoline or diesel fuel every 250-400 miles recharge your car's battery pack to full power in 15 minutes for driving another 250-400 miles travel per charge.
And unlike solar or wind power, LFTR plants won't take up huge swaths of land or become a major hazard to birds. And we all know the tremendous safety advantages of LFTR's over today's uranium-fueled pressurized water reactors.
Not really. The latest research shows that the supposedly stable "pebbles" aren't so stable and do NOT contain the "waste" materials anywhere nearly effectively as originally believed.. There was a long thread here with excellent references to the problems a few years back.
Thanks for sharing.
Lockheed Martin makes fusion breakthrough ... working prototype online by 2017.
The ability to have enough power to economically produce desalinated water is a major selling point.
agree. the path to deserts of Mars leads through the deserts of the earth.
Collapse energy costs byo 4th generation nuclear reactors and the cost of desalinized water collapses too — making it possible to turn the earths deserts green and double the size of the habitable earth.
Look at a map of where all the deserts of the world are—the results are stunning.
But as well mastering this technology also makes it easier to live on Mars—and provides the capital base for getting there.
And how much is currently in storage?.
The production of all energy produces waste.
Like natural gas?
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.