A Tale of Two Articles

Here are two articles. Both are in the New York Times. Both are written by Matthew Wald. Both are about “nuclear power” (meaning light-water reactors in this case). But they are separated in time by twenty years:

The Nuclear Industry Tries Again, Nov. 29, 1989

Every plant of the more than 100 ordered since 1973 has been canceled, and many others are approaching retirement. But reactor manufacturers say that fears of global warming – the greenhouse effect – are giving them a second chance. Nuclear power advocates have, of course, been predicting the industry’s rebirth for years. But the plans are becoming more specific, and political calculations are coming into play. Reactor builders are readying designs for a new generation of plants that, they say, will be far safer, less expensive and simpler to operate.

Loan Program May Stir Nuclear Industry, Dec. 23, 2009

Thirty years after the American nuclear industry abandoned scores of half-built plants because of soaring costs and operating problems like the Three Mile Island accident, skepticism persists over whether the technology is worth investing in.

Yet the pendulum may be swinging back. The 104 plants now running have sharply raised their output, emboldening utilities across the country to make a case for building new ones.

And the industry is about to get a big boost. In the next few days, the Energy Department plans to announce the first of $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for building new reactors.

During the twenty years that separates these two articles, a lot of things happened. The Soviet Union collapsed. We fought two wars in some of the most oil-rich country on Earth. Islamic terrorism became a global scourge and thousands were killed by suicidal airborne terrorists. The internet grew exponentially and our ability to communicate has been vastly improved. We’ve had speculative bubbles in tech and housing come and pop.

But “nuclear power technology” hasn’t changed much at all. It is not difficult to recognize most of the same players and the same reactors from the 1989 article to the 2009 article. Sure, some of the companies have been sold or switched hands, but the products that they’re marketing are easily recognizable.

The reason I bring this up is–if we want to have a “nuclear renaissance” we need to change the things that are keeping the growth in nuclear energy down and slow right now. The number one of those is the capital costs of building a reactor. The technology of a light-water reactor doesn’t scale down cost-effectively (as I think B&W will discover) and so you want to build them big. That leads to a lot of capital being tied up while you build the plant, and for most utilities it either exceeds or strains what they want to risk. Buying a new set of gas-turbines and plugging into the nearby gas line, on the other hand, risks FAR less capital. You just have to worry about the severe fluctuations in fuel costs that are inherent in natural gas. But utilities have learned that they can push those off on rate-payers anyway. With nuclear power, fuel costs are VERY low but ratepayers generally don’t make that connection.

The LFTR technology we advocate on here has the potential to really do something about the capital costs of the reactor, and the main reason is the superior heat-transfer capabilities of fluoride salt. Dr. Per Peterson at UC Berkeley is doing some of the best work right now describing this cost advantage, but because fluoride salt can move a lot of heat, at atmospheric pressure, everything in the plant gets smaller and cheaper. Less steel, less alloy, less concrete, less nuclear-grade material. A nuclear power plant that could have the physical footprint of a gas-fired power plant. Maybe even less.

I hope that by advancing fluoride reactor technology that twenty years from now when Mr. Wald writes another article about nuclear energy that he’s reporting on the successful operation of several dozen liquid-fluoride thorium reactors.

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