Week 2 - Electricity Generation

What nuclear reactor technologies which are currently operating, or in the final stages of development, could be considered for connection to the National Electricity Market?

YOUR OPINION

  1. As reported here http://www.afr.com/business/nuclear-needs-a-40year-vision-says-kevin-scarce-20150629-gi0839 the Royal Commission will factor in hard-core economics as part of its report, and there was an element of predicting the future. His more detailed evidence and questions are also published in Issues Paper 3. My answer is intended to factor in hard-core economics sooner rather than later.

    During my adult life and career I’ve learnt that options to reduce economic uncertainties often arise suddenly, as they have with Alinta’s and SA government announcements on the risks and costs of continuing to operate Leigh Creek coal mine and Playford B power stations. Among those options are decisions on land uses for these power station sites.

    No doubt Alinta has statutory and contractual obligations but I doubt if they included future uses that could most safely and economically expedite answers to this question. Perhaps Port Augusta people with more intimate knowledge than me are already delving into relevant data and I hope this comment will encourage more to explore ways to expedite the planning and construction of one currently operating nuclear reactor technology to validate what must otherwise remain assumptions for several more years..

    The point I am trying to make is that competitive tendering, by investors hoping to win connection to the National Electricity Market, could lead to a demonstration [but possibly commercial scale within the SA electricity market] power station, to remove and/or reduce risks as perceived by South Australians, rather that as presented by others with conflicting interests.

    Finally, it was news to me that Northern Power Station, which has a capacity of 546 megawatts, has been operating at only 50 per cent for the past year, while Playford B plant has been offline. To me this implies that a similar size demonstration nuclear power station would have a reasonable chance of sustainable commercial success, just within the SA electricity market. More information was published here and it would be great if the ABC will help spread this answer to a hard-core question, particularly in South Australia:
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-11/power-stations-port-augusta-alinta-energy/6537814

    1. sanative, just what is hard-core economics? Planning for any proposed investment be it in a research project, or a productive facility to provide goods or services should include an assessment that the money to be invested is well spent. The assessment should include modeling of future economic conditions which cannot be fully known, but which can be estimated with some precision. An important factor will be the make up of sources of energy in South Australia for both electrical power and vehicle power. For example, in Los Angeles County, Carbon fueled natural gas generating plants are being shuttered, Diesel powered delivery trucks are being replaced by electric battery powered trucks, and electric cars while still rare, are fast gaining popularity – so what is needed is an accurate modeling of the future probable electricity demand in South Australia, and a prudent estimate of how this demand will be met.

    1. The question asked was what kind of nuclear reactor technologies, not what kind of land. That is a separate question, but implicit in the Royal Commission’s terms of reference is a South Australian Government obligation to negotiate with all interested parties to get agreement on at least one South Australian site.

      Similar agreements would be needed to import enriched uranium fuel rods to such a site, plus any other manufactured items that could not be legally imported to, or manufactured in, Australia.

      1. Time has moved on since Australia enacted laws prohibiting construction of nuclear power plants, and the importation of uranium fuel rods; but even then, certain nuclear research facilities operating in Australia were allowed to continue.

        Since then, research has shown that diesel trucks and buses operating in the County of Los Angeles were unsafe due to their emissions in their exhausts of gases which contributed to severe atmospheric smog, especially in summer, and of Carbon particles which were detrimental to the health of the lungs of young children. As a result, these trucks and buses have been replaced by electric and LNG powered vehicles in LA County to remove these hazards.

        Meanwhile, two conventional Uranium powered nuclear plants have been operating for decades on the nearby California coast next to Camp Pendleton Marine Base for decades, with no serious incidents. The technology of these Uranium plants includes water in the reactor core, and a reactor runaway could cause a high pressure steam pressure build-up (as happened at Fukishima), so these plants have a 2 m thick concrete containment dome to contain any high pressure steam, and reactor components, should a runaway occur.

        A Thorium powered nuclear plant does not involve the use of water, so such a massive concrete containment structure is not required; which is one reason why a Thorium plant is inherently safer than a Uranium plant. However prudence would require that a Thorium plant does have a containment structure sufficiently strong to contain possible, but unlikely, hazards such as an aircraft crash, or an Earthquake at the facility; and would also dictate siting a Thorium reactor in a remote location to provide a safe area around it in the event that any hazardous malfunction should occur. A Thorium reactor safes itself, by discharging the reactor fluid into a safe container if the reactor fluid temperature increases above a safe limit. This avoids damage to the reactor structure and the facility itself.

  2. Assuming that legal authority is received, an attractive nuclear power plant technology for South Australia is the Thorium based (LFTR) reactor because it uses a relatively safe technology that cannot “run away” as Uranium reactors (eg the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant) have, and they cannot be used to manufacture nuclear weapons warhead components.

    In 1973, however, the U.S. government shut down all thorium-related nuclear research—which had by then been ongoing for approximately twenty years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. A reason was that that the US Navy wanted instead to ensure that Uranium reactors were built to supply Plutonium for its SLBM warheads. In Moir and Teller’s opinion, the decision to stop development of thorium reactors, at least as a backup option, “was an excusable mistake.” [ref: Moir, Ralph W. and Teller, Edward. “Thorium-fueled Reactor Using Molten Salt Technology”, Journal of Nuclear Technology, Sept. 2005 Vol 151 ]

    A Thorium based reactor would be favorably based on the coast to power a steam turbine powered generator to supply electricity, and as it also requires dissipation of considerable thermal energy, it could power a sea-water distiller to provide fresh water suitable for city and agricultural uses. [ref: “Chinese scientists urged to develop new thorium nuclear reactors by 2024”, South China Morning Post, March 19, 2014]

    While Thorium [LFTR)] reactor technology is safer than Uranium reactors; it still a requires safe operating environment, the safe long-term storage of radio-active materials removed from the reactor, and also the safe production and handling of Thorium Fluoride used as reactor fuel.

  3. phil, the briefest answer that I can give you is to provide a copy a section of a Wikipedia entry for Thorium-based nuclear power. Quote:+

    In 1968, Nobel laureate and discoverer of Plutonium, Glenn Seaborg, publicly announced to the Atomic Energy Commission, of which he was chairman, that the thorium-based reactor had been successfully developed and tested:

    So far the molten-salt reactor experiment has operated successfully and has earned a reputation for reliability. I think that some day the world will have commercial power reactors of both the uranium-plutonium and the thorium-uranium fuel cycle type.[7]

    In 1973, however, the U.S. government shut down all thorium-related nuclear research—which had by then been ongoing for approximately twenty years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The reasons include: … that uranium breeder reactor byproducts could be used to make nuclear weapons. In Moir and Teller’s opinion, the decision to stop development of thorium reactors, at least as a backup option, “was an excusable mistake.”[4]

    Science writer Richard Martin states that nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, who was director at Oak Ridge and primarily responsible for the new reactor, lost his job as director because he championed development of the safer thorium reactors.[8][9] Weinberg himself recalls this period:

    [Congressman] Chet Holifield was clearly exasperated with me, and he finally blurted out, “Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it may be time for you to leave nuclear energy.” I was speechless. But it was apparent to me that my style, my attitude, and my perception of the future were no longer in tune with the powers within the AEC.[10]

    Martin explains that Weinberg’s unwillingness to sacrifice potentially safe nuclear power for the benefit of military uses forced him to retire:

    Weinberg realized that you could use thorium in an entirely new kind of reactor, one that would have zero risk of meltdown. . . . his team built a working reactor . . . . and he spent the rest of his 18-year tenure trying to make thorium the heart of the nation’s atomic power effort. He failed. Uranium reactors had already been established, and Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs. Increasingly shunted aside, Weinberg was finally forced out in 1973.[11]

    The references in this extract are listed below:

    4. Moir, Ralph W. and Teller, Edward. “Thorium-fueled Reactor Using Molten Salt Technology”, Journal of Nuclear Technology, Sept. 2005 Vol 151 (PDF file available). This article was Teller’s last, published after his death in 2003.

    7. “The Thorium Dream”, Motherboard TV video documentary, 28 min.

    8. Weinberg Foundation, Main website, London, U.K.

    9. Pentland, William. “Is Thorium the Biggest Energy Breakthrough Since Fire? Possibly” Forbes, Sept. 11, 2011.

    10. “LFTR in 10 Minutes, video presentation.

    11. Martin, Richard. “Uranium Is So Last Century — Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke”, Wired magazine, Dec. 21, 2009.

  4. A video discussion on the application of Thorium (LFTR) nuclear technology led by passionate advocate Kirk Sorensen is presented for consideration by followers of the work of this Royal Commission: . (Please skip the initial ad ASAP).

    Kirk makes about the best case available for Thorium reactor power, posted for your critical evaluation.

  5. Well pb01, the Thorium fuel cycle has been extensively studied since the 1950s, at Oak Ridge National Lab, and was only discontinued when the USN feared that the adoption of Thorium-powered electrical generation would deprive the navy of a source of Plutonium for the warheads of its Polaris SLBM.

    To quote the Report for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy “Thorium-Fueled Molten Salt Reactors” by the Weinberg Foundation, June 2013:
    1. Thorium-fuelled Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) offer a potentially safer, more efficient and sustainable form of nuclear power. Pioneered in the US at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the 1960s and 1970s, MSRs benefit from novel safety and operational features such as passive temperature regulation, low operating pressure and high thermal to electrical conversion efficiency. Some MSR designs, such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR), provide continuous online fuel reprocessing, enabling very high levels of fuel burn-up.
    2. Current international research and development efforts are led by China, where a $350 million MSR program has recently been launched, with a 2MW test MSR scheduled for completion by around 2020.
    3. The Thorium fuel cycle has been successfully demonstrated in over 20 reactors worldwide, including the UK’s “Dragon” High Temperature Gas Reactor which operated from 1966 to 1973.
    4. The intergovernmental research and development organization Generation IV International Forum (GIF) helped to revive interest in MSRs in 2002 when it chose the MSR as one of the six most promising nuclear reactor designs for future development. MSR work within GIF is led by the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) and France, with Russia and the US participating as observers. China and Japan have also taken part as temporary observers.

  6. Well pb01, the Thorium fuel cycle has been extensively studied since the 1950s, at Oak Ridge National Lab, and was only discontinued when the USN feared that the adoption of Thorium-powered electrical generation would deprive the navy of a source of Plutonium for the warheads of its Polaris SLBM.

    1. Thorium-fuelled Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) offer a potentially safer, more efficient and sustainable form of nuclear power. Pioneered in the US at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the 1960s and 1970s, MSRs benefit from novel safety and operational features such as passive temperature regulation, low operating pressure and high thermal to electrical conversion efficiency. Some MSR designs, such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR), provide continuous online fuel reprocessing, enabling very high levels of fuel burn-up.
    2. Current international research and development efforts are led by China, where a $350 million MSR program has recently been launched, with a 2MW test MSR scheduled for completion by around 2020.
    3. The Thorium fuel cycle has been successfully demonstrated in over 20 reactors worldwide, including the UK’s “Dragon” High Temperature Gas Reactor which operated from 1966 to 1973.
    4. The intergovernmental research and development organization Generation IV International Forum (GIF) helped to revive interest in MSRs in 2002 when it chose the MSR as one of the six most promising nuclear reactor designs for future development. MSR work within GIF is led by the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) and France, with Russia and the US participating as observers. China and Japan have also taken part as temporary observers.

  7. Economically the cost/benefit of on-planet nuclear has a bad trajectory and generates long increasing unavoidable systemic damage. Solar is the safe nuclear solution we have. The Sun is about 4.5 billion years of uptime. If we can sustain our atmosphere and temperature, and liquid magnetic core then we can expect to be without serious incident for some years to come. Other species use the Sun as an energy source. We can too.

    Thorium has been used to generate weapons and is not a peaceful technology.
    Thorium halflife is millions of years? It is a hot thirsty technology. Not suited for SA.
    SA currently has safe food exports from aquaculture and fisheries and does not need a coastal nuclear facility to add to the flavour.

    All nuclear technologies currently used and in development are hot thirsty and generate toxic waste. Having a plant which has run without ‘serious incident’ for a couple of years or a decade is not interesting in the context of the long term liability that the plant represents and the aging of the materials used to contain the threat. We have an array of cold, safe, cheap, better energy options.

    If we could divest from uranium/nuclear and shift to solar wind tidal technologies locally that would be a regional win. If we could participate in sharing that approach around the world to prevent more nuclear waste and radiation poisoning that would be a systemic win.

    We need to offer alternatives to nuclear energy and be a part of shifting the world over to a safe future. In the same way that fossil fules are a current risk, we know that nuclear is an ongoing threat. We can do better. We need to do better.

    If we really cannot let go of nuclear then the growth market will be in bioremediation. The world will be saturated with nuclear radiation issues at current build rates and only companies which have techniques for absorbing and denaturing environmental effects on site will have something interesting to offer. If you can develop technologies which absorb and denature existing environmental radiation that would be less destructive than generating more problems. But If we can swap to safe technologies globally that would give us a better chance into the future.

    Perhaps you could learn about solar wind tidal and other cold watersafe energies and combine that with your background knowledge of the nuclear industry to be a valuable part of that conversation to shift us all to a safer technologies?

    1. Solar power kills more people than nuclear.

      If SA was to build fast reactors, they could consume all of the transuranic waste, leaving only a small amount of short-lived daughter products. And SA gets base-load power to enhance the deployment of intermittent wind power. With that approach we get more power, more renewables and prevent more nuclear waste – and that would be a systemic win.

  8. I’m impressed by the possibilities of compact fusion reactors by Lockheed Martin. The prospect of smaller scale reactors pose less terrorist threat, they could be placed underground in coal measures, which would protect them from leakage and terrorist attack. See http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/compact-fusion.html.
    The lower capital cost of these plants seem to make more sense for a small Australian market with a dispersed population. The natural benefit is low transmission costs.

  9. Don’t even think about putting in technology that has already been operating for 5 years. There is no need to be on the bleeding edge of technology like the Finns.

    France has a fleet of reactors that are technologically boring, but safe and cost effective.

  10. Rational discussion of what should be done needs to take into account physical realities. The fossil fuels and uranium provide concentrated energy capital. Solar panels and wind farms use weak energy income. They are made of irreplaceable material and have limited lifetimes. Consequently, they have a very limited capability to be an alternative source of electricity and cannot supply the liquid fuels needs for land. sea and air transportation.

ADD YOUR OPINION