How to Make Nuclear Cheap

Safety, Readiness, Modularity, and Efficiency

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July 7, 2013 | Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Jessica Lovering,

Nuclear energy is at a crossroads. It supplies a substantial share of electricity in many developed economies — 19 percent in the United States, 35 percent in South Korea, 40 percent in Sweden, 78 percent in France — but these figures may decline as reactors built in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s retire. Meanwhile, developing countries are increasingly turning to nuclear to meet rapidly growing energy demand and to reduce pollution. China is currently building 28 reactors and has plans for dozens more; 11 are under construction in Russia, seven in India. Nevertheless, fossil fuels remain dominant worldwide, with coal the reigning king and natural gas production booming. The central challenge for nuclear energy, if it is to become a greater portion of the global electricity mix, is to become much cheaper.

A new Breakthrough Institute report, How to Make Nuclear Cheap: Safety, Readiness, Modularity, and Efficiency, details a number of new advanced reactor designs that bring substantial benefits over the existing light-water fleet, such as inherent safety mechanisms and the ability to reuse spent fuel. Yet not all features will result in lower costs. So what are the key characteristics that will make advanced nuclear energy cheaper?

Click here to download the full report.

The answer lies in part in discerning what has contributed to rising costs. While existing nuclear plants produce affordable energy — they have the second lowest production costs in the United States — new builds have become expensive largely because of strict building standards, environmental and safety regulations, and labor costs. Safety features necessary for current generation reactors — especially massive containment domes and multiply redundant cooling and backup systems — make up a significant portion of such costs.

It is just as important to identify which factors will not decisively influence cost. Fuel availability, waste disposal, and proliferation risk are largely political and institutional concerns, rather than technological challenges, and will continue to require attention regardless of what new designs are pursued. Innovations in fuel cycle and waste reprocessing are unlikely to reduce costs until nuclear energy is much more widely deployed.

Our assessment of nine advanced designs, from high-temperature gas reactors to fusion, finds four factors that will most likely prove determinative in achieving any significant cost declines. We conclude that policymakers, investors, and entrepreneurs should pursue reactors models that are:

1. Safe: Inherent safety characteristics eliminate the need for expensive and redundant safety systems.

2. Ready: Ready designs will utilize existing supply chains and will not require the development or commercialization of new or unproven materials and fuels.

3. Modular: Modularity allows whole reactors or their components to be mass-produced and assembled uniformly.

4. Efficient: High thermal efficiency enables reactors to generate more electricity from a smaller physical plant.

Reactors with advantages in these areas show an emerging technological path to safer and cheaper nuclear energy. A good place to begin is with the Generation III+ reactors currently being deployed, which exploit existing supply chains and incorporate new materials and techniques that will prove important to Generation IV designs. Gas-cooled and salt-cooled thermal reactors, which can also rely on much of the light-water supply chain and fuel cycle, are the most ready candidates for commercialization among Generation IV designs. Over time, fast reactors may become attractive for disposing of nuclear warheads and reusing spent fuel, though their widespread commercialization and deployment will most likely depend on the successful commercialization of advanced thermal reactors.

While it is crucial for policymakers to identify the technologies most amenable to commercialization and deployment, it is also important to not lock in energy systems to a single design, as in the case of light-water reactors. The choice is not, for example, between fast reactors and thermal reactors. Policymakers should instead support a broad commitment to nuclear innovation aimed at expanding, rather than restricting, technological options. To advance these priorities, policymakers should support three key areas of reform:

Invest in nuclear innovation. Expand support for public research, development, and demonstration; certification of new materials; supply-chain development; and test facilities.

Innovate across advanced designs. Prioritize technological challenges that have the greatest cross-platform relevance to multiple reactor designs.

Licensing reform. Increase government cost-sharing; integrate licensing with the innovation process, so developers can demonstrate and license reactor components; and lower the costs, regulatory barriers, and time to market for new designs.


Comments

  • Hello Breakthrough Institute,

    I typically do not comment on websites, but I wanted to get some more info about a line in your report that I believe to be a typo.
    The line in question is in the section concerning Molten Salt Reactors. In that section there is this comment concerning safety, “The plug is kept frozen via electricity; if there is a loss of power, or the reactor gets too hot, the plug melts, allowing all the fuel and coolant to fall into an underground chamber full of neutron moderators, quickly killing all fission reactions.”
    I cannot claim to be an expert in the operation and safety of Molten Salt Reactors, but I think you meant to say “...underground chamber full of neutron poisons/absorbers, quickly killing all fission reactions.” I imagine such a chamber would be of a size and shape to limit the reactivity within them, but I cannot see how having neutron moderators in these chambers would do anything but increase the reactivity. Which is obviously not a good thing during an accident. 
    Like I said, I cannot claim to be an expert in MSRs (very few people can even claim to have a novices understanding of this reactor design). So, if I am wrong please help me to understand this line a little better.

    Best Regards,
    P Jensen
    Nuclear Engineer

    P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, please keep up the good work

    By P Jensen on 2013 08 15

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    • Yes, you are correct. Thank you for the correction; we always appreciate help finding typos and errors.

      Regards,
      Jessica Lovering

      Policy Analyst | The Breakthrough Institute
      Energy & Climate Program
      Office: (510) 550-8800 ext 300
      Twitter: @J_Lovering

      By Jessica Lovering on 2013 08 21

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  • You may want to take a look at the work we are doing at NuScale (http://www.nuscalepower.com).  You will see that we have a Small Modular Reactor design which has been in prototype testing since 2003.  Our plant safely shuts down and self-cools indefinitely in a station blackout event (ala Fukushima) and meets your criteria described in your report.  Would be happy to discuss further should you so desire.  Thanks for the good work.

    Mike McGough

    By Mike McGough on 2013 09 05

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  • Your report is well-done from the standpoint of trying to promote rational, fact-based assessments of the true pros and cons of an array of different technologies for nuclear power generation. Its shortcoming is that it seems to focus mostly on fission-based processes as society’s ‘salvation’ in finding affordable, lowest-possible-cost dense sources of CO2-free energy besides less energy-dense renewables such as solar PV and wind power generation. No mention is made of other, much newer and perhaps more paradigm-changing types of nuclear technologies that could also have excellent future potential. One of those nascent possibilities is called low energy nuclear reactions (LENRs) which happens to be radiation-free and does not produce any appreciable amounts of long-lived radioactive wastes. In Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Toyota have active R&D programs in LENRs and are publishing some of their non-sensitive experimental results in mainstream peer-reviewed scientific journals. A month ago (October), Toyota researchers published a paper in the “Japanese Journal of Applied Physics” in which they confirmed important transmutation results previously published by Mitsubishi; the arcane-sounding title of Toyota’s new paper by T. Aoki et al. is, “Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry study on the increase in the amount of Pr atoms for Cs-ion-implanted Pd/CaO multilayer complex with Deuterium permeation.” Albeit much smaller, our company, Lattice Energy LLC of Chicago, is a competitor of the Japanese in commercializing LENR technology for stationary, mobile, and portable power generation applications.

    By Lewis Larsen on 2013 11 08

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  • Puzzled that you do not discuss thorium reactors.  I’m sure you are aware of their advantages in terms of waste production.  Only “disadvantage” is that they do not produce material suitable for nuclear bombs, which was a factor in the historical development of nuclear reactors.

    By Mark Troll on 2014 10 09

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    • Hello Mark,
          I encourage you to read the report, as we do *do* cover thorium reactors. They have some challenges, which we explain in the report. They have lots of benefits too!

      Jessica Lovering
      Senior Energy Analyst | The Breakthrough Institute
      Twitter: @J_Lovering

      By Jessica Lovering on 2014 10 09

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