Sunday, October 01, 2006

Recent Advances Demonstrate Why Nuclear Will Win

In the past few months, engineers have announced some reletively simple changes that will increase the safety and efficiency of nuclear plants.

For example, a group at MIT have found that by making Uranium fuel pellets hollow, like tubes (Right now they are basically solid slugs) it's possible to increase the fuel efficiency by 50%.

Yes that's right folks. One minor change, and we get a 50% pop. That's an incredible increase. Compare that to oil or coal plants, or wind or solar systems, where it takes decades to squeeze out a 2 or 3 percent increase.

This is a perfect example of why nuclear power is the long-term winner of the energy race on this planet. It's already the safest, cleanest, and most efficient energy source on the planet...AND we've only barely begun to see the kind of improvements that will come over time.

In another 20 years or 50 years, nuclear plants will become so powerful and efficient, fossil fuels, and probably most renewables, will simply be unable to compete.


At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Shane Brown said...


There's more good news where the annular fuel research came from:

Nano-particle spiked water has a thermal carrying capacity 50% higher than normal water. Rod Adams is right; we're just starting out on climbing the S-curve for fission power technology. The best is yet to come.


At 10:21 PM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

Yes indeed Shane, and thanks for pointing that out. Rod is a wicked smart fellow and right on the money in his analysis or the social and historic trends. But the problem is, how do you explain an S-curve to the average superstitious member of the public? It's a dilemma.

By the way, I seem to recall that 6 months back, another group announced that solid metallic Uranium fuel elements, instead of oxides, had similar heat transfer advantages and added 50% or something to efficiency. I can't dig up the article. Was it the same folks or somebody else?

At 6:39 PM, Anonymous shane brown said...

Explaining S-curves, I think, is one of the less challenging problems we as a pro-nuclear community face. Other more serious issues are being covered better and better every day on blogs. That said, I'll take a crack at answering that one:

Counter question: Why have iPods gotten cheaper over the last 5 years since they were introduced? Because you get really good if you build a lot. Let us build a lot, and we'll show you what nuclear can _really_ do.

As regards metallic fuel elements, I haven't heard anything recent on the topic. The last I heard, metallic fuel was under consideration for the IFR ten years ago, before it got chopped. On-site pyro-processing would have been nice, but it remains to be seen whether it would have really paid to have some utilities chunk in some dough to develop it.

The thermal conductivity of metallic fuel are superior to oxides by a certain margin, but they more than make up for it with _huge_ dimensional changes with even small burnup. If you do any reading on the topic of metallic fuel, you'll eventually come across pictures of exposed experimental fuel elements with before and after pics. The metallic elements stretch from pellets into something that looks like a burnt cheese product.

Massive dimensional changes aren't something nukes like to deal with when the geometric constraints on the fuel are as severe as they are in a nuclear reactor (particularly one designed for high-burnup).

That said, probably the simplest and most sane thing we can do would be to wait on worrying about breeding until the price of virgin uranium goes up to the point where we need to. Let the market do the work. While we wait...

Why not store the minute amount of slightly used nuclear fuel we've got above ground for a few centuries. Power some neon signs on the outside of the dry casks with integrated RTG's to use the heat. Make the signs say: "Chill. We are."

At 7:00 PM, Blogger Stewart Peterson said...

IIRC, the IFR was able to run from 1986-1994 on metallic fuel and had higher tolerances for deformed fuel (which was also a reason why fabrication could be done on-site). The metallic fuel helped with passive safety as well, but obviously wasn't the only factor, since PRISM would've been able to run on oxide fuel.

DUPIC could be done almost immediately, and wouldn't cost very much, especially considering the huge political liability of waste as it currently exists. I also wouldn't count the IFR out of today's economic picture, especially given what appear to be dramatically lower capital costs. If the government got out of the way, somebody could probably build a 1200 MWe IFR for $400-$600 million or so in no more than three years. I don't think higher operating costs from on-site reprocessing would cancel this out.

At 7:27 PM, Anonymous Shane Brown said...

Concur on all fronts, Stewart. I realize now on re-reading my comments that it might have sounded like I thought the technology wasn't doable. It was, and the good folks in Idaho proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the IFR was for all practical purposes a nuclear goat, capable of eating a variety of actinides.

I think what I was trying to get across was that we have so much room to maneuver on the S-curve, premature declarations of "neato technology y solves the x problem" should be suspected of being exactly that. Premature. Economic considerations should be our first guide, aided by reasoned technical input.

One of the strongest cases we can make to those still on the fence is that nuclear is cheaper, cradle-to-grave, than any other energy technology. Including the costs of a permanent repository. Including the security. Including sticking with 50's heat-water technology.

We kill the seed corn that the first generation of nuclear has granted us with 90% capacity factors and insanely short shutdowns if we don't build on that technology in an evolutionary way. Which brings me full circle to the point I think Tom was making; there's a _lot_ of room for us to play, and while there's room for everybody's favorite pet reactor to get a hearing, we should not write off the evolutionary path without _really_ good reasons.

Reasons that you can take to investors and get money from them for. Today's investors, who by and large don't care if the power comes from fission, fusion or the Emerald City of Oz. As long as it comes in cheaper than anything else, you're golden.

I really like DUPIC, as it fits in with the evolutionary path nicely, lets light and heavy water reactors work together, and avoids a lot of the mess of the more traditional reprocessing techniques.

At 9:05 AM, Blogger MCrab said...

Hi Tom,

This wasn't what you were thinking of, was it?

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

Stewart and Shane, thanks for the reminder on DUPIC. I had completely forgot about that. What a sweet concept.

I really think that before we know it, we're going to see a CANDU or IFR reactor build next to most existing reactors in the US. That, plus new BWR or PWR reactors that will be built, will double or triple electric capacity of the nucler sector. The funny thing is, that will probably only match the generalized growth of electrical demand.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

Thanks Mcrab, that's the one. Who knows which new pellet design will eventually be the one used. The point is, it's a reletively simple thing to make simple little changes in existing reactors and get 50% pops in fuel efficiency. That's amazing.

At 3:48 AM, Anonymous Chetan Nadargi said...

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