Category Archives: Nuclear Power

Per Peterson: various answers to reddit AMA questions to UCBNE faculty

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More from the reddit.com Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.

In this AMA the UCBNE faculty offers a volume of valuable information. Following are some fragments that I want to archive for reference.

Regarding waste: Prof. Per Peterson was a member of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. I consider him one of the best-informed sources regarding Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) which the anti-nuclear lobby calls Nuclear Waste. It is not “waste” it is an extremely valuable source of carbon-free energy. 

Q: One of the elephants in the room for nuclear power is the waste….

A: …Finland and Sweden have successfully sited and are building deep geologic repositories in granite, and France is very far along in developing its geologic repository in clay. The U.S. nuclear waste program is currently stopped and is in a state of disarray…

There are a wide range of opinions as water reactors (LWRs) is substantially more expensive than making new fuel from uranium, even if the plutonium is free. This is primarily because the plutonium must be handled as an oxide powder to make LWR fuel, and oxide powder is the most hazardous and difficult form to handle plutonium in. All of the Generation IV reactor technologies can use fuel forms that do not involve handling plutonium and minor actinides in the form of powders and that are much easier to fabricate using recycled material (e.g., metal, molten salt, sol-gel particles in either coated particle or vibropacked fuel forms).

In my personal opinion, the most sensible thing to do in the near term is to prioritize U.S. defense wastes for geologic disposal, and to use a combination of consolidated and on-site interim storage for most or all commercial spent fuel. Implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s major recommendations, which include development of consolidated interim storage that would initially be prioritized to store fuel from shut down reactors, would put the U.S. on this path.

By using geologic disposal primarily for defense wastes first, and using primarily dry cask interim storage for commercial spent fuel, this will give a couple of decades for nuclear reactor technology to evolve further, and by then we will be in a better position to determine whether commercial spent fuel is a waste or a resource.

Nuclear innovation: Prof. Peterson replies

There are a number of factors which make innovation difficult in improving nuclear reactor technology, in particular the long operating life of nuclear power plants and their very large capital costs, which dissuade innovation. The trend toward designing larger and larger water-cooled reactors has increased these disincentives.

Given their lower capital cost and shorter construction times, innovation is much easier in small reactors. There will remain a role for large reactors, just as dinosaurs existed for millions of years alongside the new mammal species, but currently some of the most important policy issues for nuclear power involve creating an ecosystem where small reactors find customers. Smaller reactors, produced in larger numbers with most of the fabrication occurring in factories, would also use specialized manufacturing and skilled labor more efficiently. Imagine factories as being similar to airplanes, and the ability to keep more seats filled being really important to having low per-seat prices…

FHR (Fluoride Salt Cooled High Temperature Reactor), Where to take technical risk?

I will answer this question first indirectly, and then more directly.

A key question for innovation in developing new nuclear energy technology is where to take technical risk. SpaceX provides a good example of a highly successful risk management strategy. They focused on developing a highly reliable, relatively small rocket engine, that they tested in the Falcon 1, which uses an ancient rather than innovative fuel combination, kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other hand, they chose to use aluminum-lithium alloy with friction stir welding for their fuel tanks, which is at the cutting edge of current technology. They have then used the approach of ganging together large numbers of these engines to create the Falcon 9, which is now successfully delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

Currently the most important barrier to deploying nuclear power is not the cost of the fuel, but instead is the capital cost of the plants, the need to assure that they can run with high reliability (which for current large reactor designs creates strong disincentives to innovate), and the relatively low electricity revenues one receives for producing base load power, particularly today in the U.S.

The primary reason that UCB, MIT, and UW, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are working on solid fuel, salt cooled reactor technology is because we have the ability to fabricate these fuels, and the technical difficulty of using molten salts is significantly lower when they do not have the very high activity levels associated with fluid fuels. The experience gained with component design, operation, and maintenance with clean salts makes it much easier to consider the subsequent use of liquid fuels, while gaining several key advantages from the ability to operate reactors at low pressure and deliver heat at higher temperature.

Q: Can I also ask what you think the safest way to transport the waste is?**

A: Per Peterson: There is a long record of safe transportation of nuclear waste, including spent fuel, world wide. The containers used to transport nuclear wastes are substantially more robust than those used to transport hazardous chemicals and fuels, which is why transportation accidents with chemicals generate significantly more risk.

This said, the transportation of nuclear wastes requires effective regulation, controls, and emergency response capabilities to be in place. The transportation system for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has logged over 12 million miles of safe transport, with none of the accidents involving the transportation trucks causing any release of radioactive materials.

One reason it is important to restore WIPP to service (it had an accident involving the release of radioactive material underground in late February, which had minimal surface consequence because the engineered safety systems to filter exhaust air were activated) is because the WIPP transportation system has developed a large base of practical experience and skilled personnel at the state and local levels who are familiar with how to manage nuclear waste transport. This provides a strong foundation for establishing a broader transportation system for commercial spent fuel and defense high level wastes in the future.

A commenter replied to Per’s hecklers, referring to WIPP:

Actually I work for this program and this is an understatement. Not only have there never been any accidents that caused a release of nuclear material, there have never been any accidents with a truck loaded with waste containers, ever. They’ve happened while empty, but never otherwise.

Per Peterson: key requirements for new reactor designs, what about thorium?

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More from the reddit.com Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering. Aside from “Can I still eat fish from the contaminated Pacific” the dominant questions seemed to be variations of “is thorium the answer?”. I was surprised – I thought obsessing on the LFTR concept was a niche nerdy issue. The slant no doubt illustrates that the reddit crowd doesn’t represent an Anglo cross section.

 I guess I’ll start things off. What type of reactors should we be building? I know a big deal a few years ago was made about liquid flouride thorium reactors. Is that the way of the future, or are there superior alternatives?

Prof. Per Peterson replies (emphasis mine):

I do not think that we have the basis to determine or select the best coolant or fuel type to use in future reactors. But there are some attributes which we do need to make sure are used in future reactors.

The first is to use passive safety systems, which do not require electrical power or external cooling sources to function to remove decay heat after reactors shut down, as is the case with the AP-1000 and ESBWR designs, and with all of the light water reactor SMRs now being developed in the U.S.

The benefits of passive safety go well beyond the significant reduction in the number of systems and components needed in reactors and the reduced maintenance requirements. Passive safety systems also greatly simplify the physical protection of reactors, because passive equipment does not require routine inspections the way pumps and motors do, and thus can be placed in locations that are difficult to gain access to rapidly.

The second is to further increase the use of modular fabrication and construction methods in nuclear plants, in particular to use steel-plate/concrete composite construction methods that are quite similar to those developed for modern ship construction. The AP-1000 is the most advanced design in the use of this type of modularization, and the ability to use computer aided manufacturing in the fabrication of these modules makes the manufacturing infrastructure much more flexible. In the longer term, one should be able to design a new reactor building, transfer the design to a module factory over the internet, and have the modules show up at a construction site, so the buildings are, in essence, 3-D printed.

The final attribute that will be important for new reactors will be to make them smaller, and to develop a regulatory framework and business models that work for multi-module power plants. While there will likely always be a market for large reactors, creating an ecosystem that includes customers for smaller reactors (inland locations served only by rail, installations needing reliable power even if fuel supplies are interrupted, mature electricity markets that need to add new capacity in small increments).

On thorium, a question:

Hello! What do you think is the most important advantage that thorium has over uranium as a “fuel?”

Prof. Per Peterson’s reply

The thorium fuel cycle has clearly attractive features, if it can be developed successfully. I think that most of the skepticism about thorium emerges from questions about the path to develop the necessary reactor and fuel cycle technology, versus open fuel cycles (uranium from seawater) and closed, fast-spectrum uranium cycles.

The most attractive element of the thorium fuel cycle is the ability to operate sustainably using thermal-spectrum neutrons. This allows the design of reactor core structures that use high-temperature ceramic materials like graphite, which have substantial thermal inertia and cannot melt. Because these ceramic materials also provide significant moderation, it is difficult to use them in fast-spectrum reactors and thus the most plausible fast-spectrum reactor designs need to use metallic structural materials in their cores.

So thorium reactors are compatible with higher intrinsic safety (cores which do not suffer structural damage even if greatly overheated) and that can deliver heat at higher temperature, which enables more efficient and flexible power conversion.

Molten fluoride salts are compatible with these high-temperature structural materials, and given their very high boiling temperatures make excellent, low pressure heat transfer fluids. In the near term, the largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel, which is simpler to work with and to obtain regulatory approvals.

But molten salt technologies also have significant challenges. One of the most important is managing the much larger amounts of tritium that these reactors produce, compared to light water cooled reactors (the quantities are closer to what heavy-water reactors, such as the CANDU, produce, but methods to control and recovery of tritium are much different for molten salts than for heavy water, and key elements remain to be demonstrated).

To repeat a critical point “…largest benefits in using fluoride salts come from the low pressure and high temperature heat they can produce. This can be achieved with solid fuel…”. This summarizes why Prof. Peterson’s lab is focused upon developing the PB-AHTR design, which will also prove out many materials and technologies required subsequently to implement the more challenging Liquid Fuel molten salt reactor concept (such as LFTR).

New nuclear designs have a severe first-mover DIS-advantage

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More from the reddit.com Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Prof. Per Peterson first discussed the unpriced carbon emissions externality. Which I would say is effectively a tax on nuclear because it competes directly with coal and gas.

Next Per raised a very important issue: how the NRC gatekeeping sets up a strong incentive to free-ride on NRC rulings.

But there is another important market failure that affects nuclear energy and is not widely recognized, which is the fact that industry cannot get patents for decisions that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes. For example, there are major regulatory questions that will affect the cost and commercial competitiveness of multi-module SMR plants, such as how many staff will be required in their control rooms. Once the first SMR vendor invests and takes the risk to perform licensing, all other vendors can free-ride on the resulting USNRC decision. This is the principal reason that government subsidies to encourage first movers, such as cost sharing or agreements to purchase power or other services (e.g., irradiation) make societal sense.

Is this being discussed in the USgov? I’ve never seen a word about it. This is another example of the sub-optimal result we get from wasting billions on energy farming production subsidies, while rationing a few millions for nuclear R&D. Even America has very limited funds – and needs to spend them very carefully.

What do you think of Bill Gates’s TerraPower’s TWR design?

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More from reddit.com Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering. Here’s the question What do you think of Bill Gates’s TerraPower’s TWR design? Do you think it could be a viable element in a carbon-neutral energy future?

And Prof. Rachel Slaybaugh’s reply:

The TWR is a large sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor. Things about it that make it attractive are that it:

  • gets much more energy out of the mined resources than typical reactors (enhancing sustainability)
  • can establish a fleet of reactors that don’t require fuel enrichment or fuel reprocessing (reducing fuel costs and proliferation concerns). The initial plant requires enriched uranium, but its follow-ons do not.
  • has strong safety characterisitics. The low-pressure liquid metal coolant can naturally circulate and dump heat to atmosphere indefinitely without any power whatsoever.

It also has some drawbacks. Most notably designing materials that will be able to withstand the amount of radiation required. Another challenge is that the plant is large and low-leakage. To get the Traveling Wave going, the plant has to conserve as many neutrons as possible. Large fast reactors have some inherent issues with stability, so TerraPower probably has to do some tricky stuff to keep the plant safe. It’s not impossible, but it’s probably difficult.

For the future? If they can overcome the challenges I think it could certainly be part of a low carbon future.

Why is there strong political support for coal & gas, but not for nuclear power?

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Good question – what do you think? I thought it was probably the strong anti-nuclear lobby feeding a media who know that fear makes for high ratings. I’m sure that’s a contributor – but the dominant causes could be just routine democratic politics. Today reddit.com is hosting a Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering. Here’s the question “I recently watched Pandora’s Promise and was surprised how many misconceptions that I had regarding nuclear energy and renewable alternatives.”

And Prof. Rachel Slaybaugh’s reply:

The documentary seemed accurate to me (a good rundown can be found here, though I didn’t go through and fact-check everything. I did feel like the end of the film was a bit overly rosy, but not necessary non-factual.

In terms of public sentiment driving politics, the public sentiment about nuclear is frequently viewed as being negative, but polls often show that this is not actually the case. There is a large and active anti-nuclear crowd, however, and they can dominate the air waves (like all loud-but-not-representative groups). I think the reasons behind lack of political support are deeper and more complex than public opinion. In large part the lobbying behind fossil fuel is much larger than other electricity sources. Wind, solar, and geothermal are still small contributors, so don’t have the lobbying support on the same scale. Nuclear produces similar amounts of electricity as coal or natural gas, but because the energy density of nuclear is so much higher than there are far fewer people and sites producing that electricity – meaning they also have a smaller lobby. Further, when politicians are making decisions, they’re thinking about who is in their district or their state. Every single state has coal and gas – that just isn’t true of the other electricity sources.

This reminds me of the “Aha!” that I had when I learned about the power of the American teachers’ unions. Think about – every political district has a population of union members in about the same proportion to the population. If you were a politician would you want to make the unions hate you?

I’m fairly sure that coal & gas interests love wind & solar – because they know that renewables will never threaten their market dominance. Nuclear is different – it can eliminate coal & gas in the electric utility markets, and eventually even in the industrial sectors such as nitrogen fertilizer production.

Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.

Is it possible to make a negative $ contribution to PBS? The February 28th PBS Newshour on Fukushima is shocking. Imagine a script written by Arnie Gunderson and Helen Caldicot, designed to create maximum fear and anxiety. 

Hiroshima Syndrome has posted a March 4th critique titled PBS Fukushima Report is Fear-mongering at its Worst which begins:

The February 28 PBS report, Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, is fear-mongering at its most disturbing extreme. The obvious intent is to scare and upset the viewer with exaggeration, innuendo, and thinly-veiled conspiracy theory, all predicated on proliferating fear, uncertainty and doubt. (FUD) There seems to have been little or no effort towards rational informing of the viewers.

Even the lead-in by anchor Judy Woodruff drips with fear and doubt, “Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.” Hardly seen since? Who is she trying to kid? Fukushima has been in the Japanese Press every day for three years, and the internet has been inundated with apocalyptic scenarios made by leading international antinukes on a regular basis. Plus, what about the Fukushima radioactivity reporting coming out of the Pacific coastline of North America the past two months? “Hardly seen”? Give me a break. In addition, the implication that the Press in Japan isn’t covering Fukushima “because it’s so dangerous” is a complete fabrication! They are all over it… like white on rice.

The report itself begins with end-of-the-world insinuations by PBS’ Miles O’Brien, when he says the evacuation zone around F. Daiichi “remains a post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned towns, frozen in time. We were on our way to one of the most hazardous places on Earth, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.” Who wrote the script? Harvey Wasserman? Arnie Gundersen? Helen Caldicott? This is straight out of the antinuclear persuasion’s “Fukushima 101” rhetorical guidelines. The apocalyptic beginning follows with a quote from the plant manager posed in a fashion that makes it seem as if he is not taking his job seriously enough, “After all, if you are just cleaning up after an accident, there is a lack of quality, meaning speed is the only concern. I feel that isn’t enough. We need to look ahead, 30 to 40 years.”

Next comes two misleading statements – “Engineers believe some of the nuclear fuel has melted right through the steel containment vessels on to a concrete basement floor, where it is exposed to groundwater.” (Which it isn’t) – “As the ground water passes through the pump, it gets mixed in with the contaminated water that is used to cool the melted-down cores.” (What is O’Brien talking about? What pump? How is the pump mixing the waters? Is he making this up, or does he simply not have a clue?)

Read the whole thing…

Nuclear City: it’s happening in Shanghai and Berkeley

As we try to understand what is really going on in China’s advanced reactor developments, one of the sources has been Mark Halper @markhalper. Mark covered the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 (ThEC13), held at CERN in Geneva last November China eyes thorium MSRs for industrial heat, hydrogen; revises timeline

From Mark’s reports I learned that one of the presentations was by a key figure, Xu Hongjie of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai. Hongjie is the director of what China dubs the “Thorium Molten Salt Reactor” (TMSR) project. One of his slides is shown above, presenting an overview of the TMSR priorities (left side) and the timelines. Happily the Chinese are also focused on the process heat applications of the PH-AHTR (hydrogen to methanol etc.) and the huge benefits to a water impoverished region like China. The Chinese are demonstrating systems-thinking at scale.

There are two Chinese MSR programs:

  • TMSR-SF or solid fuel, which looks to me to be very similar to Per Peterson’s PB-AHTR program at UC Berkeley
  • TMSR-LF or liquid fuel, which I gather is similar to popular LFTR concept.

Both designs are derivative of the Weinberg-driven Oak Ridge (ORNL) molten salt reactor program (that was cancelled by politicians in the 1960s). I understand the PB-AHTR to be most ready for early deployment, which will lay critical foundations for the liquid fuel TMSR-LF (LFTR) implementation a decade or so later. UC Berkeley’s Catalyst magazine has a very accessible summary of the PB-AHTR program.

Mark Halper reported from the Geneva Thorium Energy Conference. The 

I proposed a few days ago a China – OECD cooperation to fast-track deployment of nuclear instead of coal. Fortunately, the Chinese and several of the US labs and universities seem to have figured this out without my help. This is probably all detailed somewhere online, but I’ve not been able to find it so far. These are the parties to the China – US cooperation:

  • Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of Washington

I apologize to anyone I’ve left out.

 

Nuclear City: updates

Haiyan.png

Update: Will F @NeedsMorePower in Melbourne (Will’s blog) sent me the announcement Construction of Chinese ‘Nuclear City’ to start at Haiyan in Zhejiang province. And Martin Burkle sent the same press release with the comment 

Since we spent twice the money to build the same thing as China spends, we need about 350 million to get the city started. That seems unlikely.

Indeed – China can make progress faster in the “politically sensitive zones” that aren’t favored by the establishment. So where is China on the road to fast deployment of zero-carbon nuclear energy? So far I’ve not been successful to find out what progress has been completed with the “China Nuclear Power City” since the initial press release (I am finding mostly 404 bad links). Here’s an excerpt from the original press release that Will and Martin sent me:

Plans are advancing for the construction of the first industrial park in China to help with the rapid development of the country’s nuclear power industry, with detailed engineering and construction preparation work at the site in Haiyan, Zhejiang province, expected to start soon.

The coastal city of Haiyan, on the Yangtze Delta, has been selected to house the ‘Nuclear City’. It is some 118 kilometres (70 miles) southwest of Shanghai and close to the cities of Hangzhou, Suzhou and Ningbo. It also lies midway along China’s coast, where several nuclear power plants have been constructed or are planned.

…CNNC and the Zhejiang government plan to accelerate the construction of the nuclear components centre and training centre in Haiyan. The central area of the industrial park and the exhibition centre was to be launched first in July 2010. Enterprises in the industrial park will enjoy priority for bidding quota, bidding training, qualification guidance and specific purchasing with CNNC.

China will reportedly spend some $175 billion over the next ten years on developing the 130 square-kilometre Haiyan Nuclear City.

The Haiyan nuclear industrial park is entitled to all the preferential benefits granted to national economic and technological zones and national hi-tech industrial zones.

The Nuclear City is expected to have four main areas of work: development of the nuclear power equipment manufacturing industry; nuclear training and education; applied nuclear science industries (medical, agricultural, radiation detection and tracing); and promotion of the nuclear industry.

On its website, the Haiyan Nuclear City said that it will be based on the Burgundy region of France, which successfully became an industrial centre for the French nuclear industry. Several small and medium sized French nuclear-related companies moved to Burgundy to actively participate in the global market.

Whatever has happened since the announcement, I take this as a positive indication that the Chinese leadership is thinking seriously about how to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon nuclear. 

Working out what is really happening in China is challenging. For example, reading the WNA China Nuclear Fuel Cycle, I find the identical quote (as above) on “China Nuclear Power City” in Haiyan. Then at the bottom of the section on Industrial Parks I find this:

In May 2013 CGN and CNNC announced that their new China Nuclear Fuel Element Co (CN- FEC) joint venture would build a CNY 45 billion ($7.33 billion) complex in Daying Industrial Park at Zishan town in Heshan and Jiangmen city, Guangdong province. It was to be established during the 12th Five-Year Plan and be fully operational by 2020. However, in July 2013 the plan was abruptly cancelled. The 200 ha park was to involve 1000 tU/yr fuel fabrication as well as a conversion plant (14,000 t/yr) and an enrichment plant, close to CGN’s Taishan power plant.

Dear readers – I would appreciate links to current information. Comments?

Nuclear City: how to help China choose to build new nuclear instead of coal power

Carbon emissions increase 3% per year

Fig. 4. (a) Energy intensity, defined as energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent) divided by real gross domestic product (trillions of 2005 U.S. $), and (b) carbon intensity, defined as fossil fuel carbon emissions (GtC) divided by energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent). Energy intensity of China is normalized to 1.56 that of the United States in 2005. — James Hansen 2014

How are we doing on transitioning off fossil fuels? Renewables activists would have us think we are making more progress every year. In truth, we are making less, not more, progress towards zero-carbon emissions. The global production from non-hydro renewables is about equal to one years growth in energy consumption. At the end I’ll offer further evidence on just how serious our situation is.

As a thought experiment, imagine that less developed regions (LDRs) such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia were building 100% new nuclear plants instead of coal plants. In this imaginary future, we would be close to stabilizing the GHG concentration of our atmosphere. I say “close to”, because if the LDRs are willing to choose nuclear over coal, there is no-problem-whatever with USA, UK, EU accomplishing the same.

Can you imagine China and other fast-growing LDRs giving up coal? I absolutely can imagine it.

Rich country politicians and media spend most of their time talking about what rich countries should do. Not about what China will decide to do based on self-interest. For now, let’s stop talking about rich countries. Instead, let’s talk about what we can do that makes China decide to grow their energy supply using only low-carbon options.

To keep it simple, let’s just talk about China – as a proxy for all the less developed nations (LDRs). China has already demonstrated that:

  • The leadership wants to decarbonize their economy.
  • They will not sacrifice significant economic growth to build zero-carbon power.
  • China will do whatever it takes to avoid a shortfall of energy supply relative to demand.

If we could deliver to Beijing the whole technology package for low-cost, fast-build nuclear the leaders would be very interested. I do not think that political motivation to decarbonize is the main problem in China.

Alternatively, we can keep doing what we are doing. In the absence of any serious political leadership, dedicated scientists and engineers in the national labs, universities and a few startups are working hard to innovate. They are developing new nuclear designs that are walk-away safe, fast to mass-manufacture, mass/volume efficient and fast to deploy. None have enough funding to innovate at any reasonable speed.

Worse is that to actually bring their new design to the market is effectively impossible – both in cost and elapsed time. The innovators must pay the entire cost of teaching the NRC staff about their new technology, then pay to the NRC the entire cost of certification, then pay the cost of building first of a kind commercial scale plant, while creating a complex supply chain that suits the new technology. And so forth. Such institutional barriers also mean that nuclear innovation does not suit venture capital funding, where most funds would expire long before the product began to earn a return.

To make this innovation remotely feasible requires a complete reform of the regulatory framework, and a top level commitment by the national leadership to actually decarbonize. What do you think is the chance that this is going to happen in America? At least before such time as Norwegian beachfront becomes a hot vacation property market.

OK, so it isn’t going to happen in America. Not in Germany. Not even in France. Keep in mind that among the western nations there are powerful, entrenched political and economic interests who are quite happy with the status quo. And extremely unhappy with the prospect that the old hydrocarbon economy would be uncompetitive against carbon free nuclear energy.

These institutional impediments are similar to that faced by low-performance political systems. You can easily name many such nations just in South America and Africa. China had a similar problem coming out from under the curse of Mao. Deng Xiaoping knew he had to liberate the Chinese economy, including attracting foreign direct investment from the “running dog capitalists.” If Deng had tried to reform the entire Chinese nation at once, well he would have had his legs cut off in a heartbeat. The Army and the wealthy who controlled the SOEs would make sure that the status quo was not destabilized.

Deng wondered whether the Hong Kong model could be replicated in new locations that would not threaten the entrenched interests? Maybe in a place like Shenzhen (one of the first four Special Economic Zones). If that worked, then politically it would be much easier to progressively extend the new successful rules to the rest of China. That is roughly the path that Deng Xiaoping set for China.

Oversimplifying, Deng’s SEZ initiative is similar to the concept that prof. Paul Romer has been evolving around the term “Charter Cities“. These are new development zones “chartered” with proven-successful rules. These charters allow families to opt-in to live and work there; allow investors to opt-in to build infrastructure and factories. Therefore creating a competition of cities: competing for residents, investors and markets.

Why can’t we adapt the Charter City concept to create a Nuclear City SEZ? A place where:

  • Taxes and rule-of-law are attractive to investors.
  • Efficient, suitable regulations can be developed.
  • Ample sites are available for constructing new reactors, from demonstration to commercial scale.
  • The new nuclear supply chain can be grown.
  • Factories and skilled labor can be developed to produce as many designs as can compete.

Where would be the ideal place to locate your Nuclear City? China is the obvious place because they have:

  • An almost insatiable need for enormous amounts of carbon-free energy.
  • The political commitment to economic decarbonization.
  • Ample low-cost capital to invest in new plants whose costs are front-loaded.

To progress from imagining to reality we need two things:

  1. Nuclear life-cycle cost to be comparable to coal.
  2. Nuclear deployment rate at least as fast as coal.

How can we accomplish this? Particularly in a climate where America is having to shut down paid-for, nearly zero-carbon nuclear plants? Where Germany is closing ALL of their paid-for, nearly zero-carbon nuclear plants? And Japan? The MDRs (more developed regions) are setting a shockingly awful decarbonization example for the LDRs.

I believe that nuclear fission can be built out at the cost, scale, and rate required to substitute nuclear for coal. This is a decision for China, not a decision for Western politicians. That means developing and deploying low-carbon energy that is dispatchable, scalable, and “cheaper than coal” in terms of System LCOE (including intermittency costs, not just LCOE).

Serious people talk about the expense of new nuclear. In fact the challenge is even bigger than achieving cost parity – a necessary but not sufficient condition. Aside from low cost, we need to make rapid progress on many human fronts. We can thoroughly simulate new reactors on our super-computers, yet this kind of fast-paced effort depends on real people:

  • Growing the nuclear people skills.
  • Growing the safety culture.
  • Growing a sensible regulatory capability.
  • Creating a new high volume supply chain.

Now, imagine that China has committed to creating such a Nuclear City. How can the old nuclear powers marshal their resources to dramatically accelerate the day when nuclear deployment is so attractive to China that they substitute nuclear for coal. Here’s a sketch:

  • The nuclear-technology nations (US, UK, France, et al) offer a nuclear cooperation and technology sharing agreement with China. The idea is to put your best ideas, your best people and your capital into this project — for the long term (decades).
  • Reform the legal framework that prohibits exporting peaceful nuclear power technology.
  • Lose the popular political idea that “We are competing with China”. Substitute the idea that “We are working together to save the planet while we get rich together”.
  • Lose the idea that dirty energy must be expensive. Substitute the idea that clean energy must be cheaper.
  • Invest national R&D funding into the Nuclear City cooperation.

So, why would the various players be motivated to cooperate? Let’s summarize some perspectives:

Update — James Hansen proposes nuclear cooperation  2/24/14 I’m reading Jim’s latest letter this morning Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions? I just came to the part of his letter where he addresses the topic of this post. Here’s a fragment:

Second, the United States and China should agree to cooperate in rapid deployment to scale in China of advanced, safe nuclear power for peaceful purposes, specifically to provide clean electricity replacing aging and planned coal-fired power plants, as well as averting the need for extensive planned coal gasification in China, the most carbon-intensive source of electricity. China has an urgent need to reduce air pollution and recognizes that renewable energies cannot rapidly provide needed base-load electricity at large scale. The sheer size of China’s electricity needs demands massive mobilization to construct modern, safe nuclear power plants, educate more nuclear scientists and engineers, and train operators of the power plants.

The United States nuclear industry and universities have much to offer, and in turn they have much to gain by cooperating in development of modern safe nuclear power in China. Opposition to nuclear power in the U.S. has slowed but not stopped progress in nuclear technology. However, the realistic size of the market in the U.S. for improved nuclear designs, as well as for evolving still more advanced designs, is limited, at least in the near-term. Furthermore, for reasons that do not need to be debated here, construction time for a nuclear power plant in the U.S. is of the order of a decade, while it is as short as 3-4 years in China. Thus deep nuclear cooperation between the China and the U.S. over the next 1-2 decades could produce both (1) base-load electricity in China that allows China’s carbon emissions to peak within a decade and then decline, as is essential if climate is to be stabilized, (2) an opportunity for both countries to achieve progress in nuclear technology and thus a basis for comparing the merits of the most advanced renewable and nuclear technologies.

Jim has a lot more to say, a whole page on this general topic — I highly recommend that you read his new letter.

What is in it for “China”?

  • Manufacturing, deployment and operations capabilities will be developed locally (as with AP1000 deal).
  • Chinese human resources can be developed faster when working alongside western scientists, and when taught by the western experts (many of whom are retiring, their deep knowledge soon to be lost to society).
  • Chinese leaders do have to live in their high-pollution cities, a daily reminder of the priority to transition away from coal.
  • Fundamentally this is a very large scale engineering and project-management undertaking — China’s politicians are comfortable with that kind of approach.

What is in it for the existing IP stakeholders?

  • Long term profits. Instead of going out of the nuclear business (like Siemens), they have a chance to be part of the biggest revolution since the beginning of the industrial age.
  • A chance to be shareholders in the new energy infrastructure – to be part-owners in the new utilities and infrastructure.
  • The IP to be contributed is now owned by governments and shareholder companies. A necessary condition is that the existing IP owners must be satisfied that this cooperation will allow them to protect their share of the return on existing IP, as well as the return on the future IP. That’s a negotiation – Silicon Valley law firms can help with options.
  • In this planet-scale effort, it is better to be cooperating than competing.
  • Scientists at the national labs, at experienced suppliers like B&W, these people know that China et al can contribute many very capable engineers and scientists. The scale of the Chinese contribution is being demonstrated already by such as the well-funded MSR development program at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (CAS/SINAP). In 2012 the project had a $350 million budget and a staff off 334 that was supposed to grow to 750 by 2015.

What is in it for the investors?

  • The scale of this planet-wide market opportunity is easily big enough to attract private investors if the political risk is covered.
  • Building the first large scale deployments in China, by itself, eliminates much of the political risk.
  • The nation-partners will have to put up enough risk insurance to lubricate a public-private partnership. I think that means largely insurance against political risk. Against the risks of the familiar Greenpeace lawyering and demonstrating, but also the Rule of Law risk in the non-western jurisdictions. It’s an interesting question: how far will Greenpeace get demonstrating in front of new Chinese nuclear plants?
  • China has demonstrated the political capability to generate MUCH larger amounts of capital than needed to get this going. So DFI (Direct Foreign Investment) may be a case of the outsiders knocking on the door, asking to be let in.

What is in it for Western politicians?

  • I don’t know, because there isn’t much reward here within their motivational framework of about two years. Suggestions?

This challenge is not really technical — it is almost entirely political. The Western institutional structure makes it effectively impossible to achieve rapid progress. France could not rapidly convert from zero to 80% zero-carbon nuclear today. Politically France-could-not-do-it-today. It’s difficult to put into words how large this challenge is. Two charts help me to visualize what is happening on the ground, first Robert Wilson’s recent essay Renewables Growth: Ignoring The Whole Equation shows how insignificant are the 2011 contributions from all hydrocarbon sources + nuclear. In other woods, renewables are detectable but insignificant . Jeff Terry summarized Robert’s essay as “…fossil fuels dominate for decades”.

2011 Everything Else swamps Renewables

Second, this chart is completely self explanatory. Nevertheless I highly recommend that you read the source: Roger Pielke Jr.’s Clean Energy Stagnation.