If you design it small, they will come
Rod Adams has had the right idea for a long time. Make reactors small, Rod keeps saying. Of course Rod’s small is my mini. Rod has focused on reactors under 100 MWe. My interest is in Reactors in the 100 to 300 MWe size range. In addition to our reactors being small in output, I see a big advantage in small physical size. My focus on smallness started out with the idea that reactors could be built more quickly and more cheaply in factories than on site. Factory construction favors small, compact and easily transportable reactors. The transportable part limited upward size. Size does not have to be fixed. Dr. David LeBlanc has some interesting ideas on LFTR design. david’s basic idea is both simple and ingenious. Build a reactor with a simple cylindrical core. The core is surrounded by a thorium salt blanket. The cylindrical core design would allow factory built reactors to varie in power output simply by elongating the core cylinder.
Dr. LeBlanc’s design can easily be built as medium size reactors. LeBlanc has calculated that a core that is one meter (a littleover a yard) in diameter, and six meters (20 feet) long could produce 400 MWs of electrical output. Such a core would be easily transportable and would cost next to nothing to build. David’s core is so cheap to build that he contemplates replacing it every 20 years or so, because radiation will inevitably damage its metalic structure.
David is talking about other cost containment measures, including the use of lower cost materials, this would bring the LFTR out of the breeding range, but there is plenty of plutonium in LWR fuel that can be burned to make up the difference. I wrote David that if costs could be lowered enough, the low cost low burn molten salt reactor – could potentially make an excellent peak load producer, that could also provide backup for renewable generators. Periodic power production would actually prolong the life of core materials, and of course with the ability of MSRs to be at peak heat while at standby mode, and build nuclear reaction as heat is transfered from reactor salys to the electrical generating system, David’s low cost MSR could come on line from renewables back up mode as quickly as the closed cycle gas turbine can ramp up speed.
David LeBlanc’s simple design concept could be built in varying sizes. The cylinder could simply be longer or shorter. The whole reactor package could be quickly built in factories as modules, trucked or shipped by rail to the set up site, and then the modules could be assembled in a few weeks. Since the MSR/LFTR is very compact, the containment structure would be small. The inherent safety and self controlling features of the MSR/LFTR are such that it does not require an onsite operations staff, further limiting the need for large structures to house a large staff. Reactors can be clustered, thus allowing for the production of the power equivalent of a vary large LWR, without the drawback of a huge loss of power to the grid system when a single reactor shuts down.
There is little doubt that David LeBlanc’s radical reactor design would have a competitive edge on natural gas fired electrical backup generators, currently used for back up power generation, on fuel costs. The natural gas generators would probably have the edge on capital costs. But would capital costs disadvantage knock David LeBlanc’s reactor out of competition? As it is, natural gas cost make the gas fired turbine back up and peak load power plants very expensive t0o operate. Add to the cost of natural gas a carbon tax, and you have real insentives for power companies to look for back up and peak load alternatives. So yes, Dr. LeBlanc is able to design a reactor generating system that can be factory built at a low cost, he might very well have invented the electrical peak load, and backup system of the future. Dr. LeBlanc could very well afford to let the base load generator market go, because the demand for peak load generating capacity far exceeds the demand for base load generators. But David’s basic design is so flexible, that by altering the core component of his reactor, it could be a baee load power source. The base load core would be more expensive, because it would be expected to pump out power 24 hours a day. But the advantages of serial production of other reactor modules, would lower overall costs.
Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, former General Partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, current honcho of his own venture capital firm, Khosla Ventures, agrees with much of what I have been saying about renewables.
Khosla is on record as favoring nuclear power and criticizing environmentalists for their opposition to it:
For every nuclear plant that environmentalists avoided, they ended up causing two coal plants to be built. That’s the history of the last 20 years. Most new power plants in this country are coal, because the environmentalists opposed nuclear. When you ask someone like the NRDC, ‘Do you prefer nuclear or coal?’ They’ll say ‘We prefer nuclear to coal, but we don’t want either.’ It doesn’t work that way; we need power.
They’d like to see wind and solar photovoltaics. Well, it doesn’t work if it’s 40 cents a kilowatt hour, and it doesn’t work if you have to tell PG&E’s customers: ‘We’ll ship you power when the wind’s blowing and the sun’s shining, but otherwise, you gotta miss your favorite soap opera or NFL game.’ That’s just the reality, so you have to be pragmatic about this. What is the most cost-effective way to do it?
When Mother Jones ask Khosla
Would you rather live next to a nuclear power plant or a coal burning plant?
Nuclear, and it’s not even close. Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good is one of the reasons we have a coal-dependent infrastructure, with the resulting environmental impact that all of us can see. I suspect environmentalists, through their opposition of nuclear power, have caused more coal plants to be built than anybody. And those coal plants have emitted more radioactive material from the coal than any nuclear accident would have.
(Hint to David and Kirk: Khosla is looking for what he calls black swans, revolutionary and unforeseen ideas that change the world as we know it. And Vinod Khosla is not shy about advertising his email address on the Internet. It is vk [at] khoslaventures [dot] com. I’ll bet he would be excited to talk with you.)