Nuclear Technology That Even the Nuclear Skeptics Should Like – Or At Least Seriously Consider

In the Wall Street Journal’s October 8th article entitled “Should the World Increase Its Reliance on Nuclear Energy?”, climate science author and nuclear energy proponent Mark Lynas and former NRC Commissioner and long-standing critic of nuclear energy, Peter Bradford, provide a point – counter-point exchange that touches on many of the pro and anti-nuclear arguments made over the years revolving around the need to reduce carbon emissions, safety and the high up-front cost of nuclear facilities.  The exchange missed an opportunity to discuss uses of nuclear power extend well beyond electric power production, and what technologies already exist to make it safer and better.

Mr. Lynas is correct that more nuclear power should be used to reduce carbon emissions in the electric power sector.  However, electric power is only about 38% of U.S. energy usage.  Of the three main energy consuming sectors in our economy, electric power production is the least carbon intensive – just about 70% dependent on fossil fuels.  But transportation at 40% and industry at about 20% of our energy usage both exceed 90% dependence on fossil fuels.  Producing a higher percentage of electric power with nuclear energy will reduce carbon emissions; we must address the remaining 62% of energy usage to achieve total greenhouse gas reduction.

Mr. Bradford is also correct when he points out that there have been a handful of very serious accidents at nuclear facilities in the last 60 years.  Nonetheless, today’s water based reactors – 100% of the US fleet and well over 90% of the world’s fleet of reactors – are extremely safe (and safer still post Fukushima).  However, their safety is not inherent to the reactor’s core design – safety has been engineered as robust layers of active and passive additional systems.

As for cost, nuclear facilities do indeed have a high up front cost.  A large 1500 Megawatt light water reactor costs on the order of $7 Billion and takes several years to license and build.  While the up-front cost of nuclear is high, its operating costs are  low.  This is mostly because only small amounts of nuclear fuel are consumed to produce large amounts of energy.  So once the upfront capital investment is made, the cost of energy is low and stable.

But there’s another way -

A group of far-sighted companies, including AREVA, ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical, Entergy, Graftech International Ltd., Mersen, Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada, SGL Group, Technology Insights, Toyo Tanso Co. Ltd., and Westinghouse are pursuing the development of a true next-generation nuclear technology referred to as the High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor (HTGR) for the past few years.  Without too much technical detail, HTGRs are helium-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors with robust ceramic-coated fuel that operate at temperatures at or above 750 Degrees Celsius (1400 Fahrenheit) where conventional light water reactors operate at temperatures less than half that.  In short:

  1. The design is intrinsically safe.  It requires neither active or passive systems nor operator interventions to remain safe, thereby allowing co-location near major industrial facilities.
  2. High temperature output that allow direct substitution for fossil fuel use in industrial process heat applications.
  3. Much higher efficiency leading to lower energy cost, making it competitive with natural gas in many places of the world today without any price for carbon.

Because HTGRs have been built and safely operated in the past and because there are current operational demonstrations in Japan and China, we can say with certainty that the HTGR is the only technology on the relatively near-term horizon capable of displacing the use of fossil fuel for electricity AND high temperature process heat while emitting zero carbon.  They are not a long term science project.

The market for HTGRs?  Capturing merely 25% of the key markets would require over 700 reactor modules in North America alone.  Potential uses include:

  • Petrochemical, refinery, fertilizer/ammonia plants and others (125 HTGRs);
  • Oil Sands/Oil Shale (30 HTGRs);
  • Hydrogen merchant market (60 HTGRs);
  • Synthetic fuels and feedstocks (415 HTGRs); and
  • Electric power (180 HTGRs).

Because much of the heavy industrial usage is concentrated, hundreds of separate reactor sites are not required; a few dozen will be enough.

Mr. Bradford argues that relying on nuclear energy for electric power is like relying on caviar to fight world hunger.  Heavy industry and other energy intensive energy users need an “energy caviar.” Energy that is high temperature, concentrated, highly reliable and price stable.  Today natural gas, coal, and oil have been the source of that caviar.  Wind and solar energy cannot supply such energy – they are diffuse, intermittent, unpredictable, and simply can’t effectively provide the high temperature process heat that is key to many industrial processes, including the production of synthetic liquid transportation fuels out of coal.

At what price? Detailed studies by industry and the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory show that energy from HTGRs will be equivalent to $6 – $8 per thousand cubic feet – equal or less than the price of natural gas in parts of the US and in much of the rest of the world.  And, unlike the future price of natural gas, the price of energy from HTGRs will be stable and predictable.

Our companies have begun seeking the investors (private or governmental) necessary to bring HTGR technology to the North American market.  We are convinced that for many industrial power users, there is no other way to substantially reduce carbon emissions and to lock in energy price stability for the long term.  Although the 10-year time frame to license and complete construction of a first of a kind modern HTGR in the U.S. is beyond typical investment horizons, we believe that the size of the payoff added to the social purpose of reducing carbon emissions should attract healthy worldwide attention.

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