We Need a Miracle. New Nuclear Might Provide it.

 
 
New nuclear power technology could be the miracle we need to combat dangerous carbon emissions, says Joe Lassiter.
 
 
by Joseph Lassiter

On September 4, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) published its 2014 International Energy Outlook. Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its latest World Energy Investment Outlook. Both watchdogs tell us the same story. Energy efficiency programs, intermittent renewables, biomass, carbon capture and sequestration, hydroelectric, and nuclear are all losing the race with fossil fuels and are expected to keep losing.

Fossil fuel use is surging around the globe. With that surge, economic well-being, education, and life expectancy are improving at record rates, at least in the short run. But with that increase of fossil fuel burning comes an ever-escalating cloud of CO2 emissions destined to linger in our atmosphere and oceans for hundreds, even thousands of years.

 

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Unless those CO2 emissions are stopped, that growing cloud will all too soon increase global temperatures, raise sea levels, acidify ocean waters, and disrupt weather patterns, impacting our biological, social and economic systems in ways that could well present unknowable threats to many of us. The threats are not certain. The victims are not known. But a fire is burning, and the smoke is swirling.

The EIA/IEA reports also tell us-by country and by source- exactly what to expect in terms of fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions stretching to 2040. The story is scary.

“The only thing that will change China's plans quickly is an energy miracle”

The world's governments—the United States, the European Union, Japan, China, India and the rest—are telling us that they fully expect their citizens to continue burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 emissions at rates that by 2100 will far outstrip the cumulative amount of atmospheric CO2 needed to increase the average world temperature by 2 degrees Celsius—if not 6 degrees. And after 2100, the world will have to live with elevated temperatures and acidified oceans for hundreds of years, according to the latest scientific understanding.

The US, EU, and Japan are watching while the smoke swirls. They are rich enough to keep their CO2 emissions relatively flat, but China's CO2 emissions are soaring to drive economic growth and the well-being of its citizens. Even as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang welcomed a "war on air pollution" in China's eastern cities, which involves utilizing synthetic natural gas, this comes at the price of huge amounts of coal-fired energy and huge increases in China's contribution to global CO2 emissions.

The real costs of all the renewables, nuclear, demand management and other low-carbon technologies are better understood by the Chinese than any other nation. The Chinese know more because they are building far greater numbers of solar, wind, carbon capture and nuclear plants than anyone else in the world. They are not hampered by democratic institutions as they implement their demand management programs or dictate the design of whole new cities to meet energy targets.

Yet, even with all of China's "advantages," the EIA/IEA reports tell us the same story. In China, fossil fuels are winning, are expected to keep winning and, by the time any relief arrives, the CO2 from those fossil fuels will be in our air and in our oceans for hundreds of years. The Chinese choice tells that they believe that the certain better life today offered by low-cost energy is more valuable to their citizens than a possibly better life tomorrow offered by low-carbon energy. As soon as India can execute a plan as bold as China's, I bet they will do exactly what China is doing.

The only thing that will change China's plans quickly is an energy miracle, a new energy source that can beat coal-fired power on price in China and can be installed in volume there in five to ten years. The EIA/IEA forecasts tell us, however, that the Chinese do not see miracles that can beat coal or capture coal's CO2 emissions in their energy future.

We need an energy miracle before the Chinese, Indian and developing world coal-fired power plants and synthetic natural gas plants are built, not after. Instead of sitting by watching, we should be asking different questions. What can we do soon enough so that it matters? What can we do that is cheap enough to beat coal in Asia and even natural gas in the US? What would our world look like if we could have US levels of electricity available at affordable prices for every person on the planet for a thousand years?

I expect that miracle comes in the form of "New Nuclear" power plants—not the traditional nuclear plants that are clearly losing to coal-fired plants in China today. The US, EU and Japan have the technology infrastructure and the dynamic, startup companies to bring New Nuclear to the table quickly. Three such startups are Martingale, Inc., of Tavernier, Florida; Transatomic Power, of Cambridge, Massachusetts; and TerraPower, of Bellevue, Washington. Each is working on New Nuclear reactor designs that can be much safer even than today's newest reactors; potentially competitive with coal in Asia; and run on today's uranium as well as radioactive waste fuels, such as thorium (a waste product of rare earth mining) and depleted uranium (the waste product left in spent nuclear fuel rods). I am sure that there are other good candidates in the US as well as in the EU and in Japan.

The barriers to rapid progress in New Nuclear are not technical, not even economic. The barriers are in the outdated nuclear regulations that scare off private investors and in the nuclear industry-regulatory culture that accepts timelines measured in decades as normal. The world needs a New Nuclear miracle today.

Entrepreneurs in the US, EU and Japan have the ideas. China and India and every other developing economy have the clear and compelling need. But to convert these new ideas into real alternatives, the world's governments need to act. They must redesign their nuclear regulatory practices and provide physical facilities for prototype evaluation that will let private capital take on the tasks of technical innovation, experimentation, and rigorous stress testing, even as the eventual permitting authority remains with public regulators. Innovation and regulation must proceed hand-in-hand, but regulators must allow entrepreneurs to pursue their innovations with a relentless urgency that matches the severity of the unknowable threats that the world faces from global warming and ocean acidification.

The EIA/IEA forecasts are not preordained. I hope the world's leaders come to agreement on ways to price carbon emissions and to calm the energy security fears of nations. I fully expect we will have some miracles, but we need a miracle today…not tomorrow. We need to let New Nuclear' s driven entrepreneurs and private investors have a solid shot at delivering that energy miracle, verified by rigorous and transparent testing. We can't afford to sit by and watch all that fossil fuel just go up in smoke.

Other Articles In This Series

    • Ranjan
    • AVP
    It is just a question of intent. If intent is right then miracles happen even with normal interaction aiming at corrective actions. When I see the attitude of people in my country, I lose all hope.
    • John Miller, Ph.D.
    • Former Navy Nuclear Engineering Officer, John Dudley Miller, Ph.D.
    Joe Lassiter makes himself look foolish claiming that nuclear power may be the miracle we need. He appears to have no training or credentials in nuclear engineering, but he recommends it nonetheless. This is not "thinking that leads." It's merely speculation. Nuclear power has had 65 years to perform miracles; it never has, and it never will.

    The "new" nuclear plants are dreams, nothing more. The technology to create them does not exist, although their designers won't tell you that.

    Thus their claims reduce to, "If pigs could fly, we could build a miracle nuclear power plant." Unless you're willing to put your faith into pigs flying someday, withhold any faith in nuclear power.

    Dr. John Miller
    @NuclearReporter
    • Russ Wilcox
    • Co-Founder, Transatomic Power
    Thank you for a great article Prof. Lassiter, which highlights Transatomic Power and several other start-ups advancing molten salt reactors. As my co-founder Dr. Leslie Dewan has said "Two of the key benefits of molten salt reactors -- both uranium and thorium designs -- are their extremely strong safety case and low cost. These reactors are "walk-away safe," which means that they don't require any operator action or electric power to shut themselves down safely in case of an accident. The reactor's fuel simply drains from the reactor vessel and into an auxiliary tank via gravity, and then freezes solid over the course of a few hours. The strong safety case, coupled with the fact that these reactors operate at atmospheric pressure, greatly reduces the overall cost of the plant. Transatomic in particular is working on a design that's cheaper than coal, in terms of both construction and operation cost."

    I came to support Transatomic Power based on my strong feeling that humanity needs a large supply of low pollution energy if it is to address its challenges, combined with a personal experience of being in Tokyo during the Fukushima earthquake and feeling firsthand the terror of the words "nuclear core meltdown" and "cooling failure of used fuel storage" spoken about a facility less than one day away from my family at wind speeds. The Transatomic design solves this problem by eliminating the need for cooling power through automatic self-shutdown, by eliminating the risks of high pressure, and by eliminating the nuclear waste and hence the storage problem. Over the past two years I have visited multiple national nuclear labs and spoken to enough of the country's top nuclear scientists to know that molten salt cooling is conceptually sound, that the main principle has already been demonstrated working in US national labs and has recently gained major backing in Ch
    ina's government labs, and that the main barrier to implementation in the USA is probably just money and diligent engineering. Within this field, Transatomic has a particularly smart twist that will enable a clean and complete burn even of spent nuclear fuel. See the white paper and references here: http://transatomicpower.com/white_papers/TAP_White_Paper.pdf

    The laws of physics are profoundly biased toward nuclear as a fuel source because the nucleus of an atom contains so much energy that a little goes a very long way. Nuclear power despite is current flaws is still the cleanest and most efficient source of electricity, with the lowest number of occupational deaths, that has ever been commercialized on a major scale (e.g. majority of energy in France). People fear nuclear power due to the invisibility of radiation and the tie-in to nuclear weapons, and that is prudent (although most people do not realize that an atomic explosion is absolutely impossible in civilian nuclear power because the fuel is only 3-5% enriched). However if mankind can master the science and the engineering and perfect this technology, then we can supply enough power for the whole global population to use as much elecricity as we do in the USA and for hundreds of years without massive air pollution or possibly irrevocable climate change.
    • Tyler Ellis, Ph.D.
    • Owner, Ellis Nuclear Services, LLC
    I agree with Prof. Lassiter that drastic action needs to be taken in the near term and that advanced nuclear energy is the best readily deployable way of constructing new non-polluting baseload electricity generation that we currently have available. This is indeed "thinking that leads" since he points out issues that have hampered the industry for many decades which are solvable if there is the political will to change. Establishing this political will requires an educated society that evaluates energy source options based on technical merit and not hyperbole or sensationalism.

    I was at TerraPower from its founding in 2009 through 2012 where I led the conceptual design team for the first-of-a-kind Traveling Wave Reactor (TWR) as TP-1 Plant Project Manager. I also earned my SB, SM and PhD from MIT in nuclear science and engineering before that and subsequently my MBA from Harvard.

    TerraPower's technology offers a nuclear energy resource which is truly sustainable at full global scale for the indefinite future and is deployable in the near-term. TWRs are capable of offering a ~40-fold gain in fuel utilization efficiency compared to conventional light-water reactors burning enriched fuel. Such high fuel efficiency, combined with an ability to use uranium recovered from river water or sea-water suggests that enough fuel is readily available for TWRs to generate electricity for 10 billion people at United States per capita levels for million-year time- scales. Moreover, TWRs can naturally retain their efficiently-expended fuel for century length time-scales, so that they intrinsically pose minimal safety and security transportation hazards in addition to being full- scale carbon-free energy sources. The first prototype reactor will be operational in the early 2020s so the technology to create construct these new plants certainly does exist.

    The link below leads to a conference paper that I presented which describes the design and mission of what TerraPower is seeking to accomplish:

    http://terrapower.com/uploads/docs/ICAPP_2010_Paper_10189.pdf

    This link goes to the TED talk that Bill Gates gave on TerraPower and the need to develop new nuclear energy technologies in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates?language=en
    • John A. Bewick
    • Contributing Editor, Public Utilities Fortnightly
    Joe Lassiter is absolutely right. We need a miracle if coal is to be replaced. New nuclear power plants have that potential. I bring a background in engineering physics (Cornell) and nuclear engineering (UMichigan) to the discussion, as well as a DBA in decision theory from HBS, where I analyzed the optimum number of backup concepts for nuclear power in 1972.

    When I worked for James Schlesinger at the AEC in the early 1970s, Alvin Weinberg at Oak Ridge was promoting molten salt reactors that he had tested and proven safe in the 1960s. Sadly, Weinberg was fired for his advocacy for molten salt reactors. But he was right. Here's why. When the fuel is dissolved in a salt, the reactor operates at near atmospheric pressure, eliminating the need for a $2 billion pressure vessel. Further, you eliminate the need for thousands of steel-clad fuel rods, saving an additional $1 billion or more.

    Molten salt reactors can cheaply remove fission products during the life of the reactor, enabling the use of up to 96% of the uranium in uranium ore, as opposed to 3% in today's reactor designs. Molten salt reactors also have the potential of utilizing a wide variety of fuels, which will supply the world's energy needs for many centuries, such as uranium tailings, spent nuclear fuel and thorium.

    These reactors have the potential for being economically competitive with coal, which could wean China away from its reliance on coal. The challenge is to demonstrate the economic potential with prototypes, in an expedited licensing review process. It is time to seize the moment.