What Will it Take to Revive Nuclear Energy?

MIT’s interdisciplinary study The Future of Nuclear Power is an excellent resource for those open-minded folk who are wondering if it’s time to reconsider how big a role nuclear should have in our energy policy.

While the State of the Union 2006 address was brave enough to speak the four words “clean and safe nuclear energy”, it still appears that president Bush is reluctant to take the political risk of a bold push for nuclear power. That’s unfortunate as effective leadership could make the difference now that nuclear generation technology appears to be nearing readiness for safe and economically sound deployment.

As Glenn Reynolds highlighted in “No Nukes Is Good Nukes?“, the modular pebble-bed reactor technology looks very promising. Key advantages are safety by design (even chimps as operators can’t cause a nuclear accident), no proliferation worries, and perhaps most important, but ignored by the MSNBC article is MODULAR. That means industrial-scale mass production, with all attendant benefits – one of the most important is the slashing of financial risk of regulatory delays before a new plant is allowed to start up.

For more background on the Modular Pebble-bed design, see MIT prof. Andrew C. Kadak’s presentation What Will it Take to Revive Nuclear Energy? [PDF], and his Pebble-bed presentation [PDF].

China is placing big bets on the pebble-bed design – e.g., see Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom:

. . .Late last year, China announced plans to build 30 new reactors – enough to generate twice the capacity of the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam – by 2020. And even that won’t be enough. The Future of Nuclear Power, a 2003 study by a blue-ribbon commission headed by former CIA director John Deutch, concludes that by 2050 the PRC could require the equivalent of 200 full-scale nuke plants. A team of Chinese scientists advising the Beijing leadership puts the figure even higher: 300 gigawatts of nuclear output, not much less than the 350 gigawatts produced worldwide today.

Another exciting, though less developed technology, is a nuclear fuel cycle combining pyrometallurgical processing and advanced fast-neutron reactors. E.g., see Scientific American Dec 2005 ($) “Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste: Fast-neutron reactors could extract much more energy from recycled nuclear fuel, minimize the risks of weapons proliferation and markedly reduce the time nuclear waste must be isolated” by Argone Labs researchers William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford.

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3 thoughts on “What Will it Take to Revive Nuclear Energy?

  1. Hi Steve,

    I worked in Babcock & Wilcox’s Nuclear Power Division for 3.5 years in the early 1980s. Based on that experience, and subsequent experience designing waste-to-energy plants (aka “incinerators”) I’m pretty confident in saying that nuclear fission power will never “sell” in the United States.

    I was very impressed by the Scientific American article you referenced, but subsequent talking with members of the general public led me to conclude that even the situation described won’t come about in the United States.

    One technology I ***am*** very gung-ho about is the possibility of non-tokamak nuclear fusion. See my blog link.

    I think with a few multi-billion-dollar technology prizes, we could have comercial non-tokamak fusion in less than 2 decades. And if so, inside of 5 decades, the whole world would be predominantly powered by fusion.

  2. Oops. Try clicking on my name again. This time I think it will really link to the post on non-tokamak alternatives fusion alternatives.

  3. Hi Mark,

    My slow reply is due to a time-availability-crisis, which I hope will get resolved in the next couple of weeks.

    Many thanks for the comments and lead to your non-tokamak fusion research. I certainly agree that non-tokamak fusion is very exciting [a bit like jumping to the post-singularity period].

    But if we can’t sell the political class and the voters on fission it isn’t clear to me that offering fusion solves the problem. I don’t think the opposition to nuclear is technical-rational. I think it is emotional – fear of NUCLEAR = Chernobyl in your neighborhood soon.

    I’m more optimistic that converting the public is possible if the elites get behind the concept, AND competent political leadership takes it on. Lining up leadership is an obvious challenge, as the payoff is a generation after the politico is retired. Getting a poli to care about results 5 years ahead is hard enough…

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