Saturday, July 26, 2008

U.K. & U.S. grapple with investments in national nuclear labs

The reality is new nuclear R&D is not cheap or easy

The U.K. announced this week that it will charter and fund a new national nuclear laboratory (NNL) at a cost of L$2 billion ($4 billion US). In the U.S. the Department of Energy worried out loud how it will "re-establish a nuclear R&D complex without the budget to support it." The stark contrast between the plans by the two countries could lead to competitive differences over the next decade including export revenues from new nuclear technologies.

New National Nuclear Lab for the U.K.

JohnHutton UKIn the U.K. John Hutton, (left) the government's lead secretary on the U.K.'s aggressive and massive new nuclear build told the Financial Times the facility would follow the U.S. model of being government owned but run by a contractor. The location for the new nuclear lab has been picked and it will be at West Cumbria, 110 miles north of Liverpool, also known as Britain's "energy coast." Hutton said that the lab would focus on nuclear fuel development and "methods of waste disposal." (BBC file photo)

The BBC reports that the new facility would generate 16,000 jobs. Hutton told the BBC, "The UK, like other countries around the world, is getting into a nuclear renaissance and West Cumbria is the home of the UK nuclear industry." (BBC video link)

Hutton also said in a statement that the government aims to ensure that the UK's ambitions for a new generation of nuclear power stations are matched by the required skills and expertise.

"It is now clear nuclear power will need to continue to play a crucial role in our low carbon future. The creation of the NNL will safeguard the UK's high-tech nuclear expertise, facilities and skills."

And here is some rhetoric which might sound familiar to folks in Idaho. Hutton said the NNL will bring together "world-class nuclear research capability" (full text) comprising the staff in Nexia Solutions and facilities owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), including the Sellafield Technology Center. The tender for a new commercial operator is expected to be announced by Spring 2009.

Dr. Peter Bleasdate, Director of Nexia, said,

The operation of the NNL will be based on collaborative working. By design, the NNL will not contain all of the capabilities needed to deliver a full suite of nuclear R&D programs. Key collaborators will include industry, the academic sector, research councils and international laboratories. The NNL will look to open up the nuclear technology market to competition by providing access to key facilities and skills. Commercial operations will be spun out to assist in the development of the nuclear research market.

It will be expected to make the most of an emerging domestic and international markets for nuclear technology and research services. Bottom line the U.K. National Nuclear Lab will be driven by a goal of commercial development of new nuclear technologies developed there.

Still thinking about national nuclear labs in the U.S.

Spurgeon in IdahoSpeaking at a nuclear energy conference held in Washington, DC, this week, DOE Assistant Secretary Dennis Spurgeon (right) told an audience of industry leaders the key question his agency faces is, "how to reestablish the nuclear R&D infrastructure to support nuclear power growth?" * INL file photo: Dennis Spurgeon with Idaho Falls Mayor Jared Furhiman (left) and DOE ID Manager Elizabeth Sellers (middle). *

This is a key question because Congress has rejected funding requests for DOE's planned GNEP program for spent fuel reprocessing plants, fast burner reactors, and advanced nuclear fuel R&D facilities. This week the Chicago Tribune reported DOE has finally scrapped consideration of any of the 13 sites in 11 states for new GNEP plants. With no money to pay for them, the agency threw in to the towel.

Spurgeon offered his audience a vision of how to reorganize the agency's nuclear R&D efforts. He said in his keynote speech to the conference,

"Assuming the [nuclear] resurgence does take hold and our efforts result in new reactor orders the need for continued R&D efforts will be even greater. It will be the continued advancements in nuclear technology that can provide assurance that the nuclear renaissance can be sustained into the future."

One of the things government R&D does best is to wring the risk out of new nuclear technologies so that industry can commercialize the most promising ideas. This takes time with the parallel assumption that some ideas won't pan out. To get there you need laboratory facilities, and that doesn't mean just test tube benches. It means really "big science."

Spurgeon said DOE is developing a 20 year investment strategy and will publish it later in 2008. It won't be smooth sailing. There are rocks and shoals in the channel. So far an inventory of current infrastructure, including that at the Idaho National Laboratory, is not a pretty sight. Like unmarked hazards to navigation, the DOE complex has aging and in some cases decripit facilities which still house active programs. Spurgeon said,

"Many of our existing facilities fall short of providing the necessary capabilities required to meet our long-term goals. Due to the age, condition, and original mission of the existing nuclear R&D facilities, many require modifications to support critical R&D needs."

He didn't stop there. Overall, Spurgeon said, the U.S nuclear labs "simply do not have required capabilities." He said DOE will look outside the fence of current national lab and "assess our options to include the use of public or privately owned domestic or foreign capabilities." Although he didn't specifically say so, that collaboration could include the new lab in the U.K.

ATR coreFundamentally, DOE is going to have to invest in new R&D reactors, like the NGNP, new fast test reactors, and advanced light water reactors if it wants to rebuild its nuclear R&D infrastructure. It is a realignment of the agency's vision and it is driven by necessity. Spurgeon said,

"Most would agree the last resort option would be construction of new facilities from the ground up. In many cases this results in the highest cost and longest lead time alternative, but in some instances, there simply will be no choice but new construction."

Spurgeon also gave his audience a list of key R&D priorities for DOE which should spark interest throughout the system of national labs. His priorities include;

  • Nuclear engineering education
  • Support for test reactors like the ATR and "fast reactors" for testing new fuels
  • Lab facilities for separations process development to support nuclear fuel recycling
  • Design work leading to construction of high-temperature gas reactors
  • Development of advanced computational methods to model and simulate nuclear facilities

Money futrue Spurgeon emphasized, that with this short list of action items, he is looking for new ways to combine government and industry R&D efforts. He is nothing if not a realist on this count. He said,

"Industry should be increasingly informing the government’s R&D plans. Design data needs should originate with industry, as we have begun to do, so we can have greater assurance that our government R&D dollars are spent on work that will yield results relevant to marketplace needs."

In the twilight of the Bush Administration, Dennis Spurgeon has laid out an ambitious agenda which needs to be examined by Congress and the next administration. It can't sit on a shelf. The U.K. is taking action while the U.S. is realizing that it must follow a model that puts a commercial focus on nuclear R&D. It's a good vision. It will need a lot of money and hard work to become a reality.

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Charles Barton said...

Dan, Thank you for the post. The money will come. Nuclear solutions need not be monstrously expensive, and indeed money should not be feed in faster than it can be spent wisely. Ralph Moir has a list of research suggestions which he believes will lay the foundation for LFTR power reactor development. He estimates the price tag to be $1 Billion. Spending needs to commence soon.

Rod Adams said...


For a government that has spent only a few hundred million for nuclear fission power research each year for the past couple of decades, a billion dollars sounds like a heck of a lot of money.

Dan: One issue that I have with industry directing the research is that the US government has a long history of only listening to major corporations and calling that industry input. There is little recognition that people who are making money with today's technology have little incentive for spending a lot of time and money on the technology that will make their investments obsolete.

That is especially true in government programs that are truly open - where the intellectual property that is developed at taxpayer expense is available to all taxpayers. What big companies love to do is to get the government to pay the R&D costs while they retain the IP rights. That is not such a good deal for the real investors in that model - the taxpayers.

I think there are some ways to overcome the challenges, but the main objective for governments and for businesses are often not aligned.