However, commercial success is still a shot in the dark
Developing new nuclear reactor designs requires really long-term perspectives which only governments or foundations, like the one supported by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, can sustain over a period of a dozen or more years.
Some reactor design ideas, like those for Thorium fueled reactors, move ahead slowly but lack mainstream funding from government agencies. Plus, they require the expertise of newly minted scientists and engineers to devote years of their careers to a project which might not payoff as well as other more robustly funded opportunities.
And some independent ideas about new reactor designs are as plausible as the flying car in a Jetsons cartoon. People wonder why it is so hard to come up with financial support for a new nuclear reactor. The answer is that it isn’t software. The cash out period is measured in decades. Even the most patient silicon valley venture capital firm wants a 30% ROI in less than five years.
In the high tech world of computer software, start-ups plunk down a few million of VC money burning through it using rapid prototyping and releases of successive ‘beta’ versions to early adopters. If they are on target with market needs, pricing, and other strategic factors, they cash out and everyone goes home happy. For every success story, there are also multiple cases of missed opportunities and wrong turns.
Mozilla’s Firefox web browser took a different approach using a crowd sourcing approach engaging hundreds of thousands of programmers in an ‘open source’ model. Nightly builds were posted for comment continuous feedback a competitive factor in achieving time to market objectives. Could a new reactor be built using a globally distributed virtual team? It is plausible, but someone also has to pay for it. Nuclear engineers do not come cheap.
Even so commercial success for the high technology entrepreneur is still a shot in the dark. Designing new nuclear reactors is not like developing software. There is no rapid prototyping method though new computer codes are becoming available every year.
The pace of technological advancement in the nuclear industry is glacial by comparison to other high technology endeavors. It is one thing to develop a reactor design in a virtual computer environment. It is quite another to actually build one that works.
There is no “sure thing.” What’s amazing about new reactor designs is that there are so many of them despite the daunting barriers getting one to market. Here are a few updates.
Bill Gates’ TerraPower and the ‘Travelling Wave Reactor’
(NucNet): A US business venture funded partly by Bill Gates (right) is reportedly looking for partners to help it develop a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power reactor concept called the Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR), which can operate for up to 100 years without refueling or removing any used fuel from the unit.
The company says it has had some communications with Toshiba, but denied in a press statement published in the Wall Street Journal that a partnership between the two firms was under development.
Instead, the firm said it continues to meet with a variety of US and international organizations and governments to “listen, learn and discuss” future options for the TWR design. TerraPower has not yet entered into agreements with any companies to build or operate the TWR, a March 24 statement said.
TerraPower says that the design objectives for the reactor are to simplify the nuclear fuel cycle. TWRs could improve the cost, safety, social acceptability, and long-term sustainability of nuclear energy as a source of carbon emissions-free electricity.
The TWR concept uses ideas that date back to the 1950s for using non-enriched or even depleted uranium-238 as a nuclear fuel, breed-burn core designs.
Today’s nuclear power plants need a full core of fuel made from enriched uranium. The TWR, in contrast, initially contains only a small amount of enriched uranium with U235, which is used to kick off the chain reaction through a core of depleted uranium.
The wave of fission would move slowly through this depleted uranium core, splitting many more of the uranium atoms than a conventional reactor would.
John Gilleland, head of TerraPower’s Nuclear Initiative, based in Washington state, recently revealed details of the TWR concept for the first time at a seminar at the Department of Nuclear Engineering of the University of California in Berkeley.
He said advantages over a more conventional uranium-plutonium breeder reactor system would include a simplified fuel cycle, no need for highly enriched uranium except for ignition, no reprocessing, less transport, less nuclear waste, no separation of fissile material, hence a lower proliferation risk and lower overall costs.
He said TerraPower was planning to develop a 1,000-MW TWR, which could be installed in an AP1000-like containment.
Mr Gilleland also said there were technical challenges to be met before a TWR demonstration unit can be built, in particular material damage questions, design of the intermediate heat exchangers, and the realities of thorough testing and regulatory requirements.
NGNP conceptual design due September 2010
(NucNet) Conceptual design reports that are “the last major deliverables” for phase 1 of the US Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project are expected to be completed by the end of September 2010, the Department of Energy (DOE) has said in a report (full text) to Congress. DOE said it will carry out a review of the project in September after which it hopes to give the go-ahead to proceed to phase 2.
Phase 2 includes the competitive selection of a single reactor design for demonstration as the next generation plant. It also includes finalizing the design of all safety systems so a combined construction and operating license (COL) application can be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
DOE said in the report the time line for building the first-of-a-kind reactor could be as long as a decade following completion of the conceptual designs. The September 2010 date for these reports seems to be optimistic. DOE added an estimate that total R&D costs including building the first 300-600 MW unit would be in the range of $4 billion.
Japan Restarts Monju FBR For First Time Since 1995
The 246 MW FBR was restarted to low power levels the state-run Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) said. The JAEA said the reactor should reach operational levels by May 8th when it should be supplying part of its capacity to the grid. It will undergo more tests over the next two years after which it is scheduled to enter full commercial operation.
Start-up tests on the unit were originally scheduled to start in February 2009, but were postponed after corrosion was discovered in the outdoor exhaust duct of the reactor auxiliary building.
After reviewing a report on the series of safety inspections conducted by JAEA at Monju since 1995, the country's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency concluded in February 2010 that conditions were safe and ready for resumption of functional tests.
The facility was shut down in 1995 following a fire. The accident and cover-up created widespread public concern over the safety of nuclear power.
No one was hurt and there was no radiation leak in the accident, which occurred less than two years after it had begun generating power. The plant's operators were criticized for concealing extensive damage to the reactor.
Japan’s concept of a safety culture does not always, on execution, include with vigor and success what Americans view as a a required element, which is transparency and accountability to the public. The 15-year delay in re-start was one of the consequences of this failure to be transparent.
Fusion is still just around the corner for the next 50 years
The international community is confident of accumulating the knowledge necessary to build a nuclear fusion demonstration reactor within 10 years, the director-general of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project has said.
This is the latest is a series of statements by various international developers of fusion energy that have been published since the 1950s. The major scientific and engineering challenges remain as significant as ever. It is one of the grand challenges of science on a global scale. It might be easier to reverse engineer human consciousness or secure cyberspace.
Kaname Ikeda, addressing participants at the ‘Financial Times’ Energy Challenges conference in Brussels, Belgium, said: “ITER is not an electricity producing machine, it is experimental, but we are confident we can build this machine, and show that [fusion] is technologically feasible.”
He said “the design and structure of this machine must be safe and durable”, but he also acknowledged that in taking the “next step to demonstration” a number of challenges remained. “In parallel,” he added “there is the additional aspect of investigating the availability of materials.”
When questioned on the extent of international collaboration for the project, which is located in Cadarache in southern France, Mr Ikeda added that “defense-related technology” was also likely to be of interest to project participants: “I believe this is not only for peaceful purposes.”
ITER, which will be the world’s largest experimental facility to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power, is a collaborative project comprising six member countries (China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States) and the European Union.
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