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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    • I think you meant to say “...underground chamber full of neutron poisons/absorbers, quickly killing all fission reactions.”

      In the designs of the past, and probably the future, the dump tank for the fuel salt has no moderator.  At the fissile concentrations of the fuel, no geometry whatsoever could make such a small quantity of fuel go critical.

      By Engineer-Poet on 2014 11 11

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      • To add to Engineer-Poet’s comment, the retention (“dump”) tank has two key features: (1) no moderator (e.g.: lack of graphite), (2) heat dissipation design (typically passive). Both key design features are essentially opposite for the fuel salt containment vessel where fission occurs.

        By jb6789 on 2015 03 03

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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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    • 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.  Well, it should be! under no circumstances!! the health advisor

      By Dam Smith on 2015 11 21

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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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  • 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.
    (saravanaabhavan.ca)

    By Gan Getsy on 2015 02 04

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    • We should Prioritize technological challenges that have the greatest cross-platform relevance to multiple reactor designs. We should not only think about short term benefits, but also on the long term and on environmental changes.
      men

      By Dan Salmonit on 2015 11 21

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  • 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. 
    DeBlog

    By Erin Zams on 2015 02 04

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  • In the designs of the past, and probably the future, the dump tank for the fuel salt has no moderator.  At the fissile concentrations of the fuel, no geometry whatsoever could make such a small quantity of fuel go critical.

    By Gan Getsy on 2015 02 05

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  • 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.”
    (newworldman.us)

    By Danny Benders on 2015 08 02

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  • The truth of it is we are at the edge of and exceeding the planetary boundaries and nuclear power is not going to save us. Even if it was clean and safe, which it isn’t, it would not be sustainable for more than a few decades. It is one of the great myths that nuclear power will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The uranium needs to be mined, it is being mined now from deeper and deeper in the ground…fossil fuels. Building the power stations requires masses of concrete…greenhouse emissions. The nuclear waste needs to be transported and disposed of…fossil fuels. The list goes on. But the most damning fact against any dreamlike future for nuclear power is this; if the world went 100% nuclear for its electricity, there wouldn’t be enough uranium for more than 50 years.

    By Paul Judge on 2015 09 13

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    • Paul, unfortunately, your comment contains numerous misconceptions and inaccuracies—all of which can be easily verified. In terms of deaths and personal injuries, the nuclear power safety record is far superior to that of any other electricity source - particularly its chief competitor, coal. Unlike coal, natural gas, and other sources, nuclear energy is also a relatively emission-free source of power and it does far less direct damage to the environment than even hydroelectric. Nuclear power plants have a very small footprint. As for wind and solar, they constitute only about 20-25% of a real power station. Its a joke to talk about them in isolation. That’s because they are intermittent power sources. They don’t work when the wind doesn’t blow or at night when the sun doesn’t shine. All of which means that for every solar plant or wind tower, you also need a backup coal, gas, or nuclear plant in order to have reliable power 24/7. So why buy two plants when you only need the nuclear plant? Solar and wind plant exist only because they are government subsidized. The largest errors in your comment though arise from mistaken notions about uranium. First, the majority of uranium is now mined from surface and near-surface deposit not from deeper and deeper underground mines. Secondly, there is enough known uranium on the Earth’s surface and ocean to power society for millennia. Thousands of years. Right now, it’s just cheaper to send uranium thru a reactor once, burn 1% of it, then call it spent fuel, and throw it away, versus recycling it. Moreover, uranium is working its way from the Earth’s interior to the surface at a much faster rate than it is being consumed. In other words, uranium is pretty similar to a “renewable” energy source. Finally, what’s missing from your “anti-nuclear” argument is a failure to recognize that so-called renewable energy sources like solar energy and geothermal energy aren’t really renewable. There is no such thing as renewable energy because it would violate the laws of physics. Rather, solar and geothermal are really just different manifestations of nuclear energy.  Solar arising from nuclear fusion reactions, and geothermal arising from radioactive decay in the earth’s core. And if you were truly concerned about the safety of nuclear waste (which is carefully collected, packaged, and stored under close supervision), then you ought to be even more concerned about the radioactivity and carcinogens in coal ash, explosions and fires in natural gas fields, carcinogens arising from solar panel manufacturing, and the health effects arising from fossil plant particulate emissions. Nuclear waste is only a “waste” because we have chosen not to use it or to extract the massive amounts of energy from it.

      By J Joosten on 2016 01 28

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  • Nuclear fusion is a process which uses the sun as a source of infinite energy Sun, and was implemented in the development of the hydrogen bomb. In Today’s nuclear reactors a different process takes place -  nuclear fission -crushing a large atom to smaller ones. The fusion process takes place is the opposite: The merger of two hydrogen atoms into a larger atom of helium. The unsolved problem of the melting process is how to make it in a slow, controlled, in order to be able to utilize the energy released. Many organizations and research groups are engaged for decades in field trials, but we are still far from even an experimental facility that works.

    The main effort is done by a multinational entity named ITER project - Tens of billions of dollars in investor gigantic proportions facility under construction in France. It is not clear whether, and when, this facility make results, but it is not expected to be before
    barenakedlife.com

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  • Should governments working on improving nuke energy intensify cooperation with those political jurisdictions that seem most likely to put them into practice?

    A series of iterations would b useful, especially if we get to the point of modularity and centralized manufacture, where learning can b fast, important, and actionable. This seems to call for a rally of means to India/China/Russia. Building stuff in the West is a pain

    By Dots on 2015 11 03

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  • I haven’t read the full report, but thought I’d give you my thoughts from what appears above. I’m a retired reactor inspector and public affairs officer at NRC.  I believe the uncertainty introduced by the regulatory environment is a major cost driver.  Not only does it cost a lot for NRC licenses, but state and local authorities can cause long delays even though NRC has the final say.  Then there is the danger from law suites filed by environmental groups or any organization of concerned citizens.  It isn’t difficult to find a federal judge who will halt work for a further round of environmental impact studies, or more geological reports, or evaluation of environmental justice issues, to name but a few.  These delays, which can add up to years or decades, cause huge cost increases.  We need to impose a legal regime that forbids any further law suites once the NRC has issued its licenses.  Removing the uncertainty will go far to containing costs.  One more thing:  the nuclear construction industry in the U.S. hasn’t had much work since the 1970s. Most of the experienced people have retired.  If the U.S. committed to building a large number of nuclear plants modern construction technology could quickly bring down the cost after the first few plants were built just from the natural learning curve.  These plants require a large number of big components and the cost of those comes down as more are ordered.  Manufacturing of these components could also migrate back the U.S., which would further reduce costs.  I disagree with you a bit over the issue of pursuing many different technologies at the same time.  U.S. experience from the 1960-1980s was that every utility made their own decisions on type of reactor to build.  Boiling water, pressurized water, GE, Combustion Engineering, Babcock & Wilcox—they are all different enough that licensing and construction details made them more expensive than necessary.  The French built a single design with great economy.  That should be kept in mind, at least for the first round of any major nuclear program in the U.S.

    By Breck Henderson on 2015 11 05

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