An atomic solution to the energy crisis

Great progress has been made over the decades since America built its last atomic power plant.  These solutions arrive just in time to provide clean and relatively inexpensive energy as we convert from liquid fuels (oil, natural gas) after Peak Oil — sometime in the next ten years or so.

This is a brief update about the prospects for atomic power.  For more information about new energy sources, see the FM reference page about Energy.

Small Nuclear Power Reactors

The World Nuclear Association has some excellent materials about small nukes, the cutting edge of the next atomic revolution.  The following are excerpts from a July 2008 report.

  • There is revival of interest in small and simpler units for generating electricity from nuclear power, and for process heat.
  • The interest is driven both by a desire to reduce capital costs and to provide power away from main grid systems.
  • The technologies involved are very diverse.

As nuclear power generation has become established since the 1950s, the size of reactor units has grown from 60 MWe to more than 1300 MWe, with corresponding economies of scale in operation. At the same time there have been many hundreds of smaller reactors built both for naval use (up to 190 MW thermal) and as neutron sources, yielding enormous expertise in the engineering of deliberately small units.

Today, due partly to the high capital cost of large power reactors generating electricity via the steam cycle and partly to consideration of public perception, there is a move to develop smaller units. These may be built independently or as modules in a larger complex, with capacity added incrementally as required – see final section of this paper. Economies of scale are provided by the numbers produced. There are also moves to develop small units for remote sites. The IAEA defines “small” as under 300 MWe.

The most prominent modular project is the South African-led consortium developing the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor of of 170 MWe. Chinergy is preparing to build a similar unit, the 195 MWe HTR-PM in China. A US-led group is developing another design with 285 MWe modules. Both drive gas turbines directly, using helium as a coolant and operating at very high temperatures. They build on the experience of several innovative reactors in the 1960s and 1970s.

Generally, modern small reactors for power generation are expected to have greater simplicity of design, economy of mass production, and reduced siting costs. Many are also designed for a high level of passive or inherent safety in the event of malfunction.

The aricle then provides an exhaustive list of small nuke development programs around the world.  While Americans cower in fear at the thought of evil nukes, progress is rapid in other nations.

For a brief review of this, see “Neighborhood Nukes“, Forbes, 24 November 2008 — “Nuclear plants are shrinking to the point where they could power remote towns or a factory at a time.”

Nuclear Batteries:  the Hyperion

Small, self-contained atomic power sources.  Like the Hyperion power generation system (website).  (This is different from the traditional use of the term for devices which direct convert radiation into electricity (Wikipedia).)

Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes“, The Guardian, 9 November 2008 — “£13m shed-size reactors will be delivered by lorry” Excerpt:

Nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes will be on sale within five years, say scientists at Los Alamos, the US government laboratory which developed the first atomic bomb.  The miniature reactors will be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts and will be nearly impossible to steal because they will be encased in concrete and buried underground.

The US government has licensed the technology to Hyperion, a New Mexico-based company which said last week that it has taken its first firm orders and plans to start mass production within five years. ‘Our goal is to generate electricity for 10 cents a watt anywhere in the world,’ said John Deal, chief executive of Hyperion. ‘They will cost approximately $25m [£13m] each. For a community with 10,000 households, that is a very affordable $2,500 per home.’

Deal claims to have more than 100 firm orders, largely from the oil and electricity industries, but says the company is also targeting developing countries and isolated communities. ‘It’s leapfrog technology,’ he said.

The company plans to set up three factories to produce 4,000 plants between 2013 and 2023. ‘We already have a pipeline for 100 reactors, and we are taking our time to tool up to mass-produce this reactor.”

The Hyperion reactor is a variant of the TRIGA.  From Wikipedia:

TRIGA is a class of small nuclear reactor designed and manufactured by General Atomics of the USA. TRIGA is an acronym of “Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics”. The design team for TRIGA was led by the physicist Freeman Dyson.

The TRIGA and Hyperion are broadly similar but the reactor cores are different.  The TRIGA has fuel rods in a water pool type reactor; the Hyperion uses a liquid metal reactor (Uranium Hydride).

Update on Hyperion Power Generation mini-nuclear reactor“, The Next Big Future, 8 November 2008 — This site is one of the best to keep posted on cutting-edge technology.  This article provides an excellent background on the Hyperion product, plus valuable links to additional information.  Perhaps most important is this discussion about risks:

If you were going to blow it up, it would take a lot of explosives -like blowing up a 15-20 ton buried bank vault. A lot of explosives to penetrate the concrete cask and then more to blow through however many feet of dirt it is buried under.  It would not add much to the cost to have sensors and digital video camera security to these things. So extreme tunneling, attempts to move it or blow it up should be easily detectable and action taken.

For the amount of effort and explosives it would take then just take those explosives and add radioactive material (available in mines and in less secure facilities and sources) and then put your dirty bomb anywhere. Thus there is no incremental risk.

The nuclear material is tougher to turn into nuclear bombs than using raw uranium, which a terrorist could get from natural sources (mines etc…). Again no incremental risk (we are adding no new risk as there is an easier existing path).


Let’s not get too excited about this.  While the technology is both promising and largely proven, the Hyperion is just “vaporware” at this point (borrowing a term from software engineering). 

It is innovative.  That means its cost and operating parameters at this point are only guesses.  Educated guesses, but still guesses.  Hundreds of TRIGA reactors have been built, many with long operating histories.  But the Hyperion is, in the words of CEO John Deal, is “employing proven science and engineering, but in a whole new way to achieve a power source that’s safe, secure, and transportable.” 

Esp since there are no lab prototypes.  No pilot plant.   No demonstration plant.  No first commercial facility.  The company’s press releases are vague about its actual state of development.  Is it an idea?  A set of plans?  Are there table-top lab testbeds?

It has a long way to go before cost and performance are known.   New technology can “work” without being commercially feasible.  As usual with developers, they say it will be so wonderful that it can skip most of these steps.  Hence, mass production will start in a few years. 

Other similar nukes

While the Hyperion has received the most publicity lately, there are other small nukes under development — many by large global firms.  Such as (from Wikipedia)

The Toshiba 4S (Super Safe, Small and Simple) is a “nuclear battery” reactor design. It requires only minimal staffing.

The plant design is offered by a partnership that includes Toshiba and the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry (CRIEPI) of Japan. The reactor is located in a sealed, cylindrical vault 30 m (98 ft) underground, while the building above ground would be 22 x 16 x 11 m in size. This power plant is designed to provide 10 Megawatts of power.

The 4S uses neutron reflector panels around the perimeter to maintain neutron density. These reflector panels replace complicated control rods, yet keep the ability to shut down the nuclear reaction in case of an emergency. Additionally, the Toshiba 4S utilizes liquid sodium as a coolant, allowing the reactor to operate 200 degrees hotter than if it used water. This means that the reactor is depressurized, as water at this temperature would run at thousands of pounds per square inch.

The reactor is expected to provide electric energy for between 5 and 13 cents/kWh, factoring in only operating costs. On paper, it has been determined that the reactor could run for 30 years without being refueled. The Toshiba 4S Nuclear Battery is being proposed as the power source for the Galena Nuclear Power Plant in Galena, Alaska.


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Selected FM posts about energy issues

  1. Links to articles and presentations of some A-team energy experts , 11 November 2007
  2. Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead , 10 February 2008
  3. Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war) , 4 May 2008
  4. An urban legend to comfort America: crash programs will solve Peak Oil, 5 September 2008
  5. An urban legend to comfort America: alternative energy will save us, 16 September 2008
  6. A long-shot project for fusion power: the Polywell, 30 September 2008

For more information about atomic power from other sources

  1. The Future of Nuclear Power“, MIT, 29 June 2003 — An interdisciplinary MIT study.
  2. The Economics of Investment in New Nuclear Power Plants in the US“, Paul L. Joskow (MIT), EIA, 12 April 2005 — PDF, 19 slides.
  3. Nuclear power will be added faster than wind power“, posted at Next Big Future, 25 August 2008 — List of nukes under construction.
  4. Breeder Reactors, Uranium from Phosphate and Near Term Thorium usage“, posted at Next Big Future, 22 September 2008

32 thoughts on “An atomic solution to the energy crisis”

  1. I’m not a typical American, afraid of scary reactors – I operated reactors for many years in the Navy. Regardless of progress in plant architecture, we’re still stuck with the reality of what to do with spent cores? Spent fuel is both a environmental hazard and a source of fuel for fission weapons. Do we want to proliferate tiny cores around the world?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Disposal of atomic waste is my favorite candidate for “most overblown fear”, despite the stiff competition in America (a once-bold nation reduced to childlike terrors). As noted in this post, most advanced atomic technologies use fuel which is not convertible to fission weapons (at least not with resources available to terrorists). The “tiny cores” can be gathered up and safely entombed at moderate cost. We’re talking about radioactive waste — not antimatter or a universal solvent.

    This is another example, like Senator Kennedy’s opposition to offshore wind turbines near his family estate, of the “build nothing — anywhere” attitude prevalent in the “environmental” movement since the early 1960’s attempt to build a pumped-storage hydroelectric facility (very green!) at Storm King Mountain on the lower Hudson river. Rich folks living neary defeated it a combination of expensive legal work, a well-funded publicity campaign, and a mountain of lies.

    If not stopped this attitude probably will seriously damage America’s economy during the next few decades.

  2. One of the big issues with the resilient community stuff that I have yet to see addressed is the following:

    What level of organization-dependent infrastructure is required to build it? Where will that infrastructure be found?

    If it is possible to build a machine which (for example) eats garbage and poops warm houses with electricity and broadband for a low enough cost that every small town can have one, but building the item en masse requires construction of a huge factory, tons of obscure natural resources, and mass mobilization of manpower to run it (think about everything that goes into the space shuttle) to produce, is it realistic to believe that the item will be produced and distributed in any meaningful way?

  3. I’m not so sure that having lots of little reactors scattered throughout suburbia is a particularly good idea.

    People have tunnelled into supposedly secure bank vaults previously. I’m sure someone could if they wanted to, build some sort of home brew shaped charge explosive that would do a decent amount of damage to the exterior of one of those “shed sized” reactors. I’m sure there are people who would spend time thinking about such things.

    If there is a need to go nuclear, maybe some effort should go into producing a workable thorium fuelled reactor. There are plenty of designs, and they cannot melt down. They require a particle accelerator to drive them, which if switched off, the reactor just fizzles out. There is also a lot more thorium in the world than uranium. People needn’t think of a particle accelerator as a necessary huge and complex piece of equipment. A cathode ray tube is a form of particle accelerator – Not saying of course that you’d use a cathode tube to run your reactor, merely emphasizing that it probably needn’t be a Large Hadron Collider.

    Also need to look at other technologies. Geothermal energy from hot granite is one being pushed hard in Australia right now.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Are you dams that well guarded against these terrorists? Your reservoirs and water distribution systems (e.g., against toxins)? I suspect these super-determined bad guy terrorists you fear could RIGHT NOW do massive damage to Australia. It’s not too soon to start preparing, there may be people thinking about these things.

    (1) “I’m not so sure that having lots of little reactors scattered throughout suburbia is a particularly good idea.”

    These could be configured in many ways. They could be concentrated, one site per city. Or buried beneath existing power-generator facilities, like those inside NYC.

    (2) “‘shed sized’ reactors”

    These are concrete-encased objects buried deep underground, with a concrete “cask” on the surface (I think this acts as a contrainment facility). For comparison, Minutemen launch control centers are buried 30 feet down; SAC headquarters is 45 feet down.

    (3) “maybe some effort should go into producing a workable thorium fuelled reactor.”

    The point of this article is that interesting things are happening in nuclear power. If thorium nukes are feasible, I suspect it is being worked on (if you can see it, the world’s nuclear engineers probably can, too).

    (4) “Also need to look at other technologies.”

    The point of this series is that there are many power-generating technologies being developed around the world. The FM reference page about Energy lists two articles on geothermal, including the 372 page MIT study (2006).

  4. Great news on nukes. I can even now imagine nukes powering the tar sands and oil shale extraction of oil for cars, competing with hybrids and pure-electric vehicles.

    We’ll probably stop using much oil before it gets to $200/bbl (2007 dollars). (With the huge inflationary monetary expansion to avoid a deflation, after growth starts there could well be too much inflation.)
    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s a confident guess. Widespread development and rollout of this technology will take decades, including the necessary infrastructure to allow electric vehicals.

    Energy R&D and capital expenditures might collapse in 2009 and 2010, setting the “mitigation” process back several years (at least) — almost halting the development of new sources of oil and alternative energy. If the economy recovers strongly in the next few years, oil demand could resume its rapid climb. And the price could rise to $200 very fast.

  5. I am really happy to read this update. The primary issue facing America today is (to my eyes) not the financial crisis but the longer-range question of where the energy is going to come from to keep the economy going. Fossil fuels will be exhausted, sooner than most people believe, and other sources are needed. Nuclear power is the only mid-range solution that I can see for the next fifty years, while we learn how to make fusion power work.
    The TRIGA reactors were designed to be safe under all conditions. Reading that they have been scaled up to power reactors is good news!

  6. Can somebody update me on France’s recycling program? Last I heard, circa mid 1970’s, was that France was dumping the radioactive trash in an undersea trench near Tahiti.

  7. I think 3 is referring to Carlo Rubia’s “Energy Amplifier” concept, which is a beam driven reactor capable of running on a wide variety of fuels, including spent fuels from conventional fission reactors. It’s a very interesting concept but requires significant R&D to build particle accelerators with sufficiently high beam intensities. The basic idea is to accelerate protons to energies where they can spall neutrons from heavy elements, which then produce secondary fission reactions. Getting a few protons to high enough energy is a thoroughly solved problem. Getting huge numbers to high enough energy is a major effort. I’ve no doubt it can be done, but it won’t be trivial, or cheap.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It probably will not be trivial to perfect, cheap to build or operate — and perhaps not commercially feasible.

  8. Two cautions: 1) do we need to continue to power the kind of life we currently have — large cities, over-consumption, unequal distribution of wealth, prosperity dependent on annual growth of GDP? Can we solve part of the energy problem with scaled down forms of consumption, local production of goods and services, less dependence on long-distance transport? I realize the concept of small reactors sounds consistent with this approach, but by itself may not lead to it.

    2) Any company marketing any new energy product is well aware of the 40 year environmental campaign against it, and will naturally shape its marketing literature to seem to answer those environmental objections. And the larger companies will already have lobbying, publicity and campaign funding programs in place to make sure that their ideas are favorably received (uncritically accepted) by legislators when the time comes for public funding.

  9. Here Hyperion’s website. For those who are interested.

    We have become timid as a nation since the 70’s. We will have to rediscover ourselves if we are to have a remote chance of digging ourselves out of the mess we find ourselves. We can’t make decisions based on fear. It must be based on the realization that all things have risk’s and how do mitigate those risk’s is what is important.

    Climbing into cave is really not an option.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The website does not inspire much optimism, IMO. Long on promises, high on confidence, low on details. Have they built one? Do they have blueprints, even. Or is this just a concept at this point?

    It reminds me of the concepts NASA builds so well. They make it look and sound so easy, the plastic models are so lifelike, I am ready to sign on to the crew. If we could sail through space on fantasy, NASA would be the greatest travel agency in human history.

  10. Seneca,

    “unequal distribution of wealth’ is not a problem, per se, but an inevitability. Communism had its rich people; no amount of government can overcome the fact that people are different, have different capabilities, different strengths and weaknesses. Attempting to ‘solve that problem’ is destructive to any economy, driving the productive to simply give up, an lowering government revenues and lifestyles for EVERYONE. Better to concentrate on opportunity than ‘equal wealth’. Opportunity is all you can give. YOu cannot “give wealth”, or else not for long. It is simply pouring it down the ignorance hole.

    As to ‘overconsumption’, who the hell are you to tell others how to live?

    And if you think ‘prosperity dependent on annual growth of GDP’ is a problem, I would sure like to know what prosperity looks like in ANY OTHER FORM. Unless people are producing, growing businesses, hiring people, making things happen, there IS NO PROSPERITY.

    Have you EVER lived in the Real World? I don’t think so.

  11. Here’s a silly question… what happens if you take a reactor that requires no nuclear engineers to operate on a daily basis, and couple it with an electrical generator that requires no technicians to inspect or maintain on a daily basis?

    What I’m thinking of here is something along the lines of the Hyperion reactor together in a shipping-container-sized unit with a heat engine–ideally, something completely passive with no moving parts, like a polymer thermoelectric engine or the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (from the nuclear scientist who brought you Super Soakers)–and a radiator (to maintain the heat differential for the heat engine).

    The result, on paper, would be a complete system that provided electricity (and waste heat, which would still have to be sinked into the environment or used by other processes) with few moving parts, and no really dangerous systems (such as steam systems; also, I’m a tad nervous of the 4S’s sodium coolant in any environment other than buried underground), which could be mass-produced in a factory for relatively low total unit costs, thus reducing two of the largest cost drivers in the nuclear industry today–construction costs and personnel costs.

    In addition, if it could be kept to something near the size of a shipping container, then it would also be about the size (and based on Hyperion’s numbers, provide as much or more power) of GE’s LM-2500 gas turbine, which powers most of the Navy’s surface ships. That kind of product could yield a demand for hundreds of units early on, if handled right, especially considering the new congressional requirement for the surface fleet to go nuclear.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The answer is simple. You have fun, then turn off the holodeck and return to here and now. The Hyperion Power Generator System will require technicans to operate and maintain it, even if the reactor unit is sealed (which is just a concept at this point).

  12. Three letters folks: N. R. C. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission There is nothing too safe or too simple for them to not regulate. Any thought of no, or even a small, operating staff are probably unrealistic.

    Considering the general concept that has been discussed here, I envision the NRC requiring a similar level of rigor that they currently impose on spent nuclear fuel canisters: Wikipedia entry for Dry Cask Storage.

    I think we can count on a substantial operating staff and large para-military security force for each site. Not to mention an army of pencil pushers to deal with the regulatory reporting requirements.

    The NRC may surprise me this time. But to this point in my career, any surprise I have received from my beloved regulator has been in the direction of more, not less, oversight and scrutiny.

  13. This is all sounding very interesting, a solution with a lot of potential. I’m very interested in France’s solution to the waste problem. Even if its not an acceptable one for us, I’m sure there is another answer for our need to handle radioactive waste, and it mustn’t be ruled out completely. Just saying, “it can’t be done” but we can find a way to use WIND to power the entire nation…hypocritical.

    I’m also weary of reading about Americans freezing without power in winter storms or dying in cities during heat waves.
    Fabius Maximus replies: As for Americans dying from weather, that happens during extreme weather in Europe, but relatively rarely in America (e.g., the heat wave in Paris a few years ago killed more than die from such in America in many years). And not from power shortages. Homeless on the Street. Elderly, from lack of care.

  14. The french reprocessing facility: “The AREVA NC La Hague site, located on the western tip of the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy, reprocesses spent power reactor fuel to recycle reusable energy materials -uranium and plutonium- and to condition the waste into suitable final form.”

    They turn spent uranium fuel into new uranium fuel and plutonium fuel (MOX). The portion they can’t recycle is separated out, and is 4% of the incoming fuel mass, which is easily small enough to deal with. EG, with 1,100 tons of spent fuel in, you get 40 tons of nuclear waste out, which really is a pretty tiny amount of mass.

  15. Some additional perspective about the Hyperion power generation system

    Let’s not get too excited about this. While the technology is both promising and largely proven, the Hyperion is just “vaporware” at this point (borrowing a term from software engineering).

    It is innovative. That means its cost and operating parameters at this point are only guesses. Educated guesses, but still guesses. Hundreds of TRIGA reactors have been built, many with long operating histories. But the Hyperion is, in the words of CEO John Deal, is “employing proven science and engineering, but in a whole new way to achieve a power source that’s safe, secure, and transportable.”

    Esp since there are no lab prototypes. No pilot plant. No demonstration plant. No first commercial facility. The company’s press releases are vague about its actual state of development. Is it an idea? A set of plans? Are there table-top lab testbeds?

    It has a long way to go before cost and performance are known. New technology can “work” without being commercially feasible. As usual with developers, they say it will be so wonderful that it can skip most of these steps. Hence, mass production will start in a few years.

  16. Plutonium is forever.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This enigmatic comment is not relevant to the discussion (we can bury atomic waste and forget it, and anyway plutonium is not produced in significant quantities by the Hyperion).

    But it does sound like a Zen koan from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Let us meditate on it. Ommmm…

  17. Michael: “Plutonium is forever.”

    No, it’s not. It has a half-life of 24,000 years. And in a plutonium based reactor, it is used up destroyed by fission).

  18. Hyperion is not QUITE vaporware in the technical sense. It is innovative but, as I understand it, it is a fundamentally conservative design. The Company is currently gearing up for mass production and is taking orders. This design IS vaporware in a political sense, because, in order to make maximum use of it one needs to reprocess the waste.

    This applies to other small reactors as well.

    I have a post from a few months ago that goes into a bit of laymans detail on these little reactors. (Full disclosure, I’m not a nuclear engineer, but a Oceanography undergraduate)

    Next Big Future is a site dedicated to this sort of thing … including getting uranium from seawater.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This comment is an exercise in “missing the point.” The Hyperion is vaporware in the sense of being aggressive promises without any sign of so much as a lab bench model (so far as we can tell from their website and press releases). Without any physical evidence, how can you say anything about it — other than congratulate their marketing department?

    (Nice of you to note The Next Big Future, a bit redundently since this was prominently mentioned in the post.)

  19. I apologize for the redundancy, I posted in a hurry.
    Fabius Maximus replies: No apology needed. Blogging is just a series of mistakes, with a bit of humor in between.

  20. Excellent post as usual. Wish you’d mentioned the full range of new reactor technologies, including the various HTGC designs, one of which has been working for some time as a pilot project in South Africa, as well as thorium breeder reactor designs.

    Thorium breeder reactors are not as well tested as the HTGC designs. However, since thorium is approximately as common as lead, thorium breeder reactors promise to provide all the power the human race could possibly need for the next thousand years at least.

    See Am. J. Phys. 51(1), Jan. 1983, “Breeder Reactors: A Renewable Energy Source,” Bernard Cohen.

    … if used in breeder reactors, the cost/kW h is reduced by more than a factor of 100, so one can afford to use much more expensive uranium. For example, uranium costing $1000/lb would contribute only 0.03 cents/kW-h to the cost of electricity and would thus represent less than 1 % of the total cost. At that price, the fuel cost would be equivalent to that of gasoline priced at a half cent per gallon. (..)
    We thus conclude that all the world’s energy requirements for the remaining 5×10 exp 9 yr of existence of life on Earth could be provided by breeder reactors without the cost of electricity rising by as much as 1% due to fuel costs.PDF link

    As mentioned by others, the Japanese have already shown that the low-energy methods for extracting uranium from seawater proposed by Cohen are economically and technically practical.

    Two minor issues with your article as posted: first, you mention a ten-year time frame. As a practical matter, there is likely to be a much longer delay. For example, only one company in the world manufactures the steel pressure vessels used for nuclear reactors, and it’s stacked up with order for the next 10 years. Similar bottlenecks prevent rapid expansion of nuclear reactor capacity in the near future, primarily because America foolishly and ignorantly pissed away all the expertise it had built up in manfuacturing nuclear facilities in the hysterical aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident (which released less cumulative radiation than the smoke from a typical coal-fired power plant over its lifetime) and the absurd but wildly influential movie The China Syndrome.

    If America began a crash program right now, today, we’d be lucky to get our first new reactors online 30 years from now. In part this results from America’s insane legal system, in which any fringe interest group with a few hundred thousand dollars can stall almost any public works project for decades, in part it’s due to the absurdly overcomplex bureaucracy and permit process involving many hundreds of different safety checks and regulatory committees for each new proposed nuclear plants (NIMBY!), and in part it results from the fact that most of the people with hands-on experience building nuclear power plants are now retired or in other lines of work, so those who are still working are a valuable and scarce commodity. It will take a decade or more to build up the corps of experienced engineers required to build hundreds of new U.S. nuclear reactors.

    The claims about cost should be taken with a grain of salt. Experience shows that nuclear power plants always suffer from cost overruns and deadline creep, and probably always will. In the long run, however, cost remaisn immaterial. At some point in the foreseeable future, the world’s oil will grow scarce enough that regardless how expensive power from breeder reactors might be, it will still compete economically with oil at some future point. Moreover, as we’ve seen from the hysterical financial speculation that drove oil to $150 a barrel recently, that day in the future may be as far off as we think.

    With abundant safe nuclear power, we can begin to redesign our cities. Light electric rail powered by renewable breeder reactors and rigid-body buckypaper vacuum dirigibles propelled by electric motors offer one alternative to America’s current unsustainable one-car-per-person superhighway transportation system. Obviously our suburbs will have to be revamped at some point. In any case, total Mad-Max-style collapse of industrial civilization as predicted by doomsters like James Howard Kunstler or the Olduvai Cliff crackpots. I use the term “crackpots” to describe these people, because they don’t seem to have a ghost of a clue that cheap safe nuclear power is either technologically or economically possible.

    In any case, we shouldn’t underestimate the colossal societal change and gargantuan economic and technological effort that would be required to substitute our current oil-based transpo & energy generation system (most natural gas with some coal in the case of U.S. power plants) with a sustainable nuclear breeder reactor delivery system. The sheer magnitude of the societal transformation dwarfs the changeover from, say, steam engines to the internal combustion engine, or the move from gas lights to electricity in the early part of the 20th century.

    Still, it’s doable. Economically and technologically, it can be done. At some point in the foreseeable future, we’re going to have to do it. Best to begin planning the transition now.

    As you mention, the issue of nuclear waste is absurdly overblown. First, the plain fact of the matter is that the really dangerous radionuclides like cesium (dangerous because it’s a bone-seeker) and iodine and strontium (likewise absorbed preferentially by the human body) are among the shortest-lived isotopes. They decay quickly, and when sealed inside vitrified containers inside a geologicaly stable salt deposit free from ground water, the primary danger is gone within 60 or 70 years. While there remain some radioisotopes with much longer half-lives in the tens of thousands of years, they’re not preferentially absordbed by the human body and in any case radiate at a much lower level and so generate much less heat and present far less danger. The entire issue has been studied exhaustively. The current plans for the Yucca Flat disposal site are perfectly adequate, and to be honest the main element of public hysteria here probably results from too many silly 1950s science fiction movies involving giant tarantulas and monster grasshoppers (all biologically impossible, of course, beacuse of the square-cube law). As a matter of practical reality, nuclear waste disposed of as currently prescribed at Yucca Flats presents a far smaller health hazard than the tailings from the typical iron mine, which abound with various cyanide compounds.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for this valuable comment. Note that I try to keep posts at aprox a thousand words, which is really too high for the general Internet audience. So posts must be focused.

    A note about time frames. I meant that *Peak Oil* is likely in the next 10 years or so, not that we can convert to nukes (or anything) inside that period. In the comments I said “Widespread development and rollout of this technology will take decades”.

    “If America began a crash program right now,we’d be lucky to get our first new reactors online 30 years from now”

    That seems extraordinarily pessimistic to me. I see nothing in Paul Joskow’s presentation to support this. I agree that a massive construction program would take years to develop, as first we would have to build the infrastructure (human and physical) to build nukes. But WWII shows that industrial facilities can be built rapidly, where there is both will and money.

  21. Atomic power is ok, it might be necessary. But the future for an intelligent power supply system should focus on wind energy which in cost cannot be compared to atomic power plants, even if they are as small as a garden shed. Also the scientific and technological knowledge required to build a eolian or wind power generator is easy to find, as well as the materials necessary for the power generation. Most important advantage, I think, is that wind power plants work very well at a local level and thus mean a relative independence from the power grids. And it is definitely the most ecological solution.
    There might be situations where the power requirements exceed the capabilities of wind power generators and in this case, atomic power can be a good alternative, depending on the seriousness and integrity of the planers, builders and users of these atomic plants.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Intermittent power sources, such as wind and solar, are inherently expensive due to the cost of maintaining back-up power facilties. Also, it is difficult to maintain grid integrity when intermittents become too great a fraction of the supply (the limit is perhaps 10% with current technology).

    For more about this see Electric Power from Renewable Energy: Practical Realities for Policy-Makers, a slide presentation based on Robert Hirsch’s December 2002 article in the Journal of Fusion Energy.

  22. returnoftheheroes

    I too am a little skeptical when i saw it announced in the press, as it was a Sunday Paper that carried it. When soemthing sounds too good and its being touted in a Sunday newspaper it raises my suspisons as they usually like to have nice big itnerestign stories etc etc in them but they seem to be stories that aren’t heard of again. They just seem to fade away.

  23. EgregiousCharles

    “While Americans cower in fear at the thought of evil nukes”

    I don’t actually believe this. I’ve never met an American who told me he was against building more nuclear plants. I know they exist, but I think that the total of them excepting mainstream media offices and Greenpeace could hold their conventions in a phone booth.

    I read an interesting poll once that said most people were in favor of building more nuclear plants, but most of them thought their neighbors were against it.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It might be that opposition to nukes is strong in influential circles of America, while relatively weak in the masses. For example, most journalists and academics might oppose nukes while most blue collar workers love them. Or geographical, heartland tends to like nukes while coastals tend to oppose them. Whatevere, the public policy results are clear: no new nukes for over a generation. I suspect the Obama Administration is unlikely to change this trend.

  24. Pingback: Daily Blogger - Wednesday, November 12th, 2008 | Jack’s Newswatch

  25. While I think Nukes are a good thing, I think solar will beat them to the market (especially with subsidies). If you check out this page: “Guide to Tribal Energy Development“, US Dept of Energy.

    You’ll see that the DOE thinks that photovoltaics will become relatively cost competitive by 2020 (at least for urban areas). While that will not solve energy issues it will generally take a big chunk out of the summer peaks (possibly winter also), and smooth out the daily load shapes. Additionally it is much more consistent then wind (which tends to be dispatched at 20% of the nameplate in the midwest), so with improved communication technologies (smart grids at the distribution level) we can probably manage increases in loads with a lot less grid upgrades and less additional power production facilities. However, I still think that because of the politics involved fission will eventually become cheaper then coal, and therefore replace it, but I don’t see it happening in the short term.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree that solar and other alternative energy souces have a great future, over the long-term. But the recession might set back progress on alternative energy souces by many years. Already revenue is falling, the flow of new investment capital is drying up, and in 2009 R&D funding might be substantially cut.

    Has the sun set on clean tech?“, Globe and Mail, 13 November 2008 — “Once a booming industry thanks to sky-high oil prices, the feel-good trend, carbon reduction and subsidies, the financial crisis has pushed investors to give up on green energies, and like the dot-com bubble of 2000, some analysts say it’s about to burst.”

  26. Great progress has been made in the U.S. since the last atomic reactor: Not a single atomic reactor was build. This is a great progress. Three Mile Island still does not controll it’s regularly emission into water.

    It would be a great regress to build small ones:
    Efficiency factor of atomic reactors -> 34 %.
    They produce radioactive waste.
    Not a single disposal for radioactive waste in the U.S. / Planet.
    Costs will go up into endless billions – paid by us tax payers.
    Small atomic reactors would be become an attractive solution for unstable / 3rd world countries -> danger of big accidents.

    The U.S. should continue with it’s no-new-reactor-leading-role. Mc Cain is not the new president who wanted 45 new atomic reactors. Bush wanted to build new atomic reactors – not a single reactor was build during his Presidency. And: The range of Uranium is 60 years.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The rebuttal to all this is that Japan and France rely on atomic power to a far greater degree than the US, and have had few problems over the past 4 decades. That’s quite an operating history, and powerful evidence that the predictions of doom from the anti-nuclear community are false.

    The world will continue to build nukes, no matter what the US does. This kind of irrational public policy can reduce even first-rate nations to backwaters over a few generations. Let’s hope America can examine the facts with open eyes and clear minds.

  27. Some people from the U.S. missed the latest events in France and atomic power:

    * For the 4th time in only two months, an accident happened again at Tricastin.
    * 100 workers were contaminated with cobalt-58.
    * Worker contaminated with radiation – Again.
    * For the second time in only one month, Uranium leaked out of a French atomic power plant..
    * AGAIN! Uranium leaked out from French Atomic Power Plant.
    * New scandal! Sloppy work by officials.
    * Électricité de France and the rising suicide rate in Chinon atomic power plant.
    * 15 people contaminated! 3rd Scandal in two weeks.
    * Cooperation between Lybia and France on the atomic sector.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is either propaganda or horror stories for children.

    We have been reading these stories for over 3 decades. Is France a wasteland? What have these added up to? How do you compare these to the effects from coal mining — and the pollution released by burning of coal (I believe the world’s burning of coal releases far more radioactive material into the biosphere than all the world’s nukes).

  28. I don’t know if I like the idea of more nuclear power, by-product production can be minimized but not eliminated. I am a supporter of generating residential electricity from Windpower
    Fabius Maximus replies: To repeat my reply to comment #22… Intermittent power sources, such as wind and solar, can make important contributions. But they are inherently expensive due to the cost of maintaining back-up power facilties. Also, it is difficult to maintain grid integrity when intermittents become too great a fraction of the supply (the limit is perhaps 10% with current technology).

    For more about this see Electric Power from Renewable Energy: Practical Realities for Policy-Makers, a slide presentation based on Robert Hirsch’s December 2002 article in the Journal of Fusion Energy.

  29. The most interesting thing about Hyperion is that it is yet another totally corrupt deal privatizing billions in government-funded research for private benefit. The Los Alamos lab community has often engaged in “spinning out” billions of dollars of public intellectual capital via opaque transactions into private hands. LizardTech, Grizz’s prior company is a classic example, where public research ended up enriching private individuals until they ran it into the ground. If TRIGA reactors like Hyperion really are a good idea, keep the public intellectual property available to the public that paid for it. Plenty of firms would then use it. Crooked Grizz at work once more…
    Fabius Maximus replies: I too have wondered about that. I have heard that University’s have spin-offs in which the University has some equity in the deal and helps find outside financing, which seems like a better deal.

  30. Count me among the scared children:
    * “River use banned after French uranium leak“, The Guardian, 10 July 2008
    * “France Rethinks Nuclear Safety“, Celsias, 5 August 2008.

    Nuclear power is never going to go anywhere in the U.S. until nuke-heads realize that ridiculing the real concerns about waste just isn’t going to work. Nuclear waste is the nastiest stuff humans know how to make. And it will remain nasty for a period longer than the entire history of human civilization.

    You can’t just say we’ll bury it, and everything will take care of itself. It’s not 1950. People don’t buy that anymore, and for good reason.

    BTW, it looks like as of 2006 the French had done exactly nothing about permanent storage of radioactive waste: “Why the French Like Nuclear Energy” — part of the PBS series “Why do Americans Fear Nuclear Energy“, April 1997.

    Also, Yucca mountain was chosen for political, not scientific reasons: “What’s Wrong With Putting
    Nuclear Waste in Yucca Mountain?
    “, State of Nevada, 2003.

    Why wouldn’t we just burn coal? The U.S. has huge reserves of it, and we know how to make plants that burn it cleanly.
    Fabius Maximus replies: We cannot “just burn coal” because there are people who have an irrational fear of coal — as you do of nukes. And some fear wind power. Others fear dams. And just about everything else.

    Coal plants are being cancelled at a brisk pace, and nothing — nothing — is planned to replace them. Energy experts are becoming alarmed, but to no avail because fear-mongers have developed a veto over most large-scale infrastructure projects in America.

    Although folks like you might paralyze and destroy this nation, other nations will continue to move on. If nothing else, America might provide an object lesson of what can happen to even the greatest nation when its fears overcome its mind.

    “You can’t just say we’ll bury it, and everything will take care of itself.”

    In fact we can just bury it, with appropriate safeguards. Just as for almost 30 years we have heard warnings of doom — DOOM — from use of atomic power. And still the reactors hum along. No reports of massive mutations or cancers near the sites, no explosions or meltdowns (other than from the fools in the old USSR).

    At some point — after 50 years, in 2030? — folks will wonder why we listened to crazy fears to such ill effects — added pollution (mining and burning coal releases more radiation than atomic power), increased cost, and vulnerability to interruption of foreign supplies. They will not understand our folly.

    Some recent articles about coal-fired electric-generation:

    * “Coal plants cancelled in 2007“, Sourcewatch — Excerpt:

    Between 2000 and 2006, over 150 coal plant proposals were fielded by utilities in the United States. By the end of 2007, 10 of those proposed plants had been constructed, and an additional 25 plants were under construction. But during 2007 a large number of proposed plants were cancelled, abandoned, or put on hold: 59 according to the list below.

    * “Coal plants cancelled in 2008“, Soucewatch — Excerpt:

    Since the beginning of 2008, the following 19 proposed coal plants have been cancelled, abandoned, or put on hold, including 18 projects the United States and 1 project in the Netherlands:…

    And the bad news continues for coal, almost weekly:
    * “Obama Tells SF Chronicle He Will Bankrupt Coal Industry” — 17 January 2008 interview of Obama by the San Francisco Chronicle.
    * “Dynegy to rethink new coal-fired power projects“, Reuters, 11 December 2008
    * “Steven Chu: ‘Coal is My Worst Nightmare’“, Wall Street Journal, 11 December 2008 — Chu is our new Secretary of Energy.

  31. Fabius Maximus wrote: “This is either propaganda or horror stories for children.”

    It’s European news. Read it everywhere on the net. If you’re not able to accept it you’re doomed to stay on your pro-atomic-power course.

    The former Hanford area is a radioactive wasteland. As your 800 craters from U.S. atomic weapon tests – used as radioactie waste disposal.

    Atomic Power Plants were originally build to produce Plutonium for Atomic bombs, NOT electricity. Learn history.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The news stories are correct but just background noise of little significance. Thirty years ago these things could be packaged to scare people. There is now a 50 year record for civilian atomic power in western nations. Steady improvements in all metrics, with less pollution (even in terms of radiation released) than coal. This is in itself a refutation of the anti-atomic hysteria.

    The industry can be regulated better. Safety and environmental impacts have been reduced, and can be further improved.

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