Upwards of $350m for thorium reactor research in China; space-based nuclear power; and a sliver of hope that a comprehensive US nuclear waste legislation bill will be up for discussion by the year’s end. 2013 looks like a year of technological change and eventful government decision making.
The United States is home to more commercial nuclear energy reactors than anywhere in the world—104 to be the exact (35 boiling water reactors, 69 pressurized water reactors. Source: Nuclear Energy Institute). But that number is unlikely to leap past 109 in this decade according to Marv Fertel, Nuclear Energy Institute’s president and chief executive officer, despite four to five new-build projects currently being constructed.
Fertel in recent weeks reviewed key US regulatory issues impacting the nuclear sector as well as the business climate in the US electricity sector during a press conference. The precursor, says Fertel, to increased demand for nuclear energy in the US is an equally increased demand for electricity in general. Low natural gas prices paired with a nation hanging in the balance over a fiscal cliff is putting things in perspective for those serving the nuclear construction industry. Four new reactors will be added to the grid, but a fifth could be pushing it.
While each construction project on the home front is currently massive in scale, the US nuclear sector is going to focus largely on its progress as a nuclear technology exporter, both for products and personnel. And with each export market brings a unique set of challenges, as Fertel explains: “The current liability law in India still poses a problem for the US nuclear sector.”
He says that following the Institute’s recent trade visit to India they understand better why it will take some time for the Indian government to reconsider its position on liability laws because the issue will not be addressed until after the upcoming election.
According to local news reports India’s general elections are not expected to take place until 2014. This adds greater uncertainty for immediate business dealings between the US and Indian nuclear sectors and only highlights to the US that other markets must be explored in earnest.
But according to Fertel, other factors will also play a part in the new-build sector, both at home and overseas: “Electricity is the lifeblood of our economy and our quality of life so we will always need more electricity.”
Fertel sees greater attention being placed on developing ways to cut down on construction schedules as a way to make nuclear energy projects more attractive to politicians, law makers, state and local communities and utilities.
“The nuclear energy industry must look at better ways of standardising projects, through solutions, such as modular plant construction. We need to attempt to cut build time to 7 years versus the traditional 10 years,” he says.
By creating new standardised construction methods, the US can export this technology to burgeoning nuclear markets and at the same time make new projects at home more attractive.
One reporter in the news briefing asked Fertel whether he thought that the US Environmental Protection Agency would include nuclear as a part of its state clean energy standards. Fertel replied that while nuclear could benefit from being part of a clean energy standards initiative, the subject of Greenhouse legislation is currently low on the Congress’ agenda. He also noted that the EPA is focusing its agenda on addressing clean energy standards predominately with the coal plant industry.
While the US electricity supply and demand ratios are not currently in the nuclear sector’s favour for increased power production, on the other side of the world the situation could not be more different.
$350m Thorium Research Project
According to a news report out this week by The Daily Telegraph, Jiang Mianheng, son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, is spearheading a thorium power project for the Chinese National Academy of Sciences with a start-up budget of US$350m.
“He has already recruited 140 PhD scientists, working full-time on thorium power at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics. He will have 750 staff by 2015,” said the report.
People such as Bryony Worthington, head of the UK’s All-Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy, who have recently visited the Shanghai research facility, say that China is determined to make a breakthrough and they have the talent to make a more than decent attempt to achieve it.
In some ways China’s dogged determination of achieving a scientific breakthrough can be likened to the summer days of 1969 when US President Johnson (and the initial vision of the late President John F. Kennedy) and NASA engineers got Neil Armstrong to safely walk the moon’s surface.
China is looking for a new energy solution since it is in desperate need of clean, reliable home grown electricity. Home grown due to political tensions from neighbours, such as Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines, which leaves the growing residential and commercial population vulnerable to energy imports and looming black outs. If China has the talent and the deep pockets to pay the thorium research bill, then perhaps this could be their moment to find the answers to the uncertainties still hovering over thorium for use in commercial reactors.
It is also this level of determination to find a solution that could help the US Department of Energy reconsider its position on thorium-based reactors so that it too has a piece of a potentially lucrative market that itself first researched and developed into a reactor at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the form of a molten salt-based reactor. News reports have surfaced that the US is already interested in collaborating with the Chinese thorium project.
So it looks like the thorium rector race has at least started and not just for the Chinese and the Americans, but the Norwegians, the Japanese, the British and the Russians. Each nation has a vetted interest, but for very different reasons ranging from power security, boosted commercial export revenues, environmental safety, or just plain old political prowess.
Technological cooperation for the greater good
Global cooperation is crucial in the nuclear energy sector as witnessed by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and the Governor of Fukushima Prefecture, Yuhei Sato, when they recently signed a Memorandum of Cooperation confirming their willingness to implement concrete projects to help alleviate the consequences of the accident at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
The Memorandum, signed on the sidelines of the three-day Fukushima Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety, included arrangements to promote cooperation in two key areas: one on radiation monitoring and remediation between the IAEA and Fukushima Prefecture, and the other on human health between the IAEA and Fukushima Medical University.
A training centre will be built in Fukushima Prefecture to help reinforce emergency preparedness and response activities, supported by the Government of Japan and Fukushima Prefecture. An IAEA Response and Assistance Network (RANET) Capacity Building Centre will be designated, with IAEA radiation monitoring equipment to be deployed in case of need, and to provide training in emergency preparedness and response in Japan and the wider Asia Pacific region.
"With this framework, the wisdom of the international community as well as the IAEA will be utilised in the process of reconstruction in Fukushima," said Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Koichiro Gemba, who attended the signing ceremony.
"I'm very much encouraged by the conclusion of this Memorandum and I believe this will serve to promote reconstruction in Fukushima," said Governor Sato. "We will also be able to disseminate to the rest of the world the knowledge and experience to be gained from the activities that we are conducting, and we hope this will be a symbol of Fukushima."
"The IAEA has expertise in the areas of remediation and decontamination, as well as environmental monitoring and human health," said Director General Amano. "It is our hope that we will support Fukushima and at the same time serve as a bridge connecting the Prefecture and the world."
I recently made a trip to the Kennedy Space Centre, not as a journalist, but as a wide eyed tourist in awe of what is humanly possible when determined engineers work together from around the globe even in times of political and economic uncertainty. While developing nuclear power for use in space may seem ‘way out there’ stuff, I could not help but to bring up the subject following news of developments coming out of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Back in November of last year, Los Alamos reported that a team of its researchers and engineers had demonstrated a new concept for a reliable nuclear reactor that could be used on space flights. Of course, this is not going to be a booming industry given the small number of such reactors being built, but its findings could help out perhaps in ways that have yet to be visualised or consider developing for commercial purposes.
The research team demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine at the Nevada National Security Site’s Device Assembly Facility near Las Vegas. The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) experiment produced 24 watts of electricity. A team of engineers from Los Alamos, the NASA Glenn Research Center and National Security Technologies LLC (NSTec) conducted the experiment.
Researchers configured DUFF on an existing experiment, known as Flattop, to allow for a water-based heat pipe to extract heat from uranium. Heat from the fission reaction was transferred to a pair of free-piston Stirling engines manufactured by Sunpower Inc.
According to a Los Alamos, engineers from NASA Glenn designed and built the heat pipe and Stirling assembly and operated the engines during the experiment. Los Alamos nuclear engineers operated the Flattop assembly under authorization from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
“The nuclear characteristics and thermal power level of the experiment are remarkably similar to our space reactor flight concept,” said Los Alamos engineer David Poston. “The biggest difference between DUFF and a possible flight system is that the Stirling input temperature would need to be hotter to attain the required efficiency and power output needed for space missions.”
No finalised solution as yet, but it illustrates that nuclear energy has some new and exciting possibilities that determined scientists and engineers will keep working on until they get it right.
Nuclear coming full circle
My concluding point is that nuclear power seems to be on several new paths to ‘technological enlightenment’, with the onset of new research programmes, such as those mentioned above. But the existing nuclear power waste that we have today has a lifeline that far exceeds any gas plant, wind turbine or solar panel, which should incentivise us to devise solutions to recycle it. If we can put a man on the moon in 1969, then surely it is humanly possible for the US to devise a plan to achieve a national spent nuclear fuel storage and recycling programme in 2013.
A new contract is likely to provide major business opportunities for companies who want to become subcontracted Sellafield suppliers.
Dr. Christoph Frei, Fifth Secretary General of the World Energy Council, says the need for effective global governance of the nuclear power industry has never been greater and that only when stronger governance is put in place will public trust be restored in this vital sector.
With European new-build programmes stalling, long-term operation of existing plants offers a simple and relatively cheap way to keep nuclear going for the greater good.