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Atomic energy technology, politics, and perceptions from a nuclear energy insider who served as a US nuclear submarine engineer officer

Atomic Show #278 – Micro-Modular Reactor (MMR) project partners USNC, GFP and OPG

Sun, 06/21/2020 - 08:55

Global First Power (GFP), Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) recently announced that they had formed a joint venture called Global First Power Limited Partnership. That venture will build, own and operate an installation called the Micro Modular Reactor (MMR™) at the Chalk River Laboratories site.

MMR™ nuclear plant

Mark Mitchell and Eric MGoey joined as guests on Atomic Show #278 to provide depth and background information about the technology and the project that was not included in the press release.

Mark is USNC’s director for the MMR project. Eric wears two hats, one at GFP and one at OPG. For GFP, he is the director of outreach and communications. For OPG, he is the director of remote power generation.

We talked about the project’s genesis and the joint venture’s mission of proving through doing that the system design can be licensed, manufactured, assembled and operated in a cost-competitive way.

Eric provided a brief overview about OPG. He explained that it that it is committed to providing clean, reliable power both to grid-connected customers and to customers in areas that are not connected to the grid. He described how OPG has a current charter to serve markets throughout Canada and into the United States, and how it hopes that the MMR project will open new markets to the company.

For this first of a kind project, the MMR is a 15 MWth, 5 MWe power system with essentially two main plants. The nuclear plant is a helium-cooled, fission reactor-heated system that circulates helium through a heat exchanger. The adjacent plant is a conventional steam plant that circulates water through a heat exchanger/boiler and a steam turbine/condenser.

Between the two plants is a molten salt heat storage system that acts to buffer heat supply and steam demand. It gets heated by helium that has passed through the reactor. Hot molten salt transfers heat to boil water, creating high pressure steam to turn the turbine.

This arrangement allows the supplied grid to rapidly respond to load changes while enabling operators and control systems to vary reactor power output in a more gradual and efficient manner.

The reactor heat source differs from other high temperature gas reactors. It uses the same Triso coated particle fuel often chosen for gas cooled reactors and some molten salt cooled systems. Instead of using a random graphite matrix material to produce fuel elements from Triso particles the MMR uses USNC’s patented Fully Ceramic Microencapsulated (FCM) fuel.

That innovation replaces random graphite with densely packed silicon carbide (SiC) as the matrix used to produce fuel elements. According to corporate literature on this feature, FCM fuels can retain fission products without failures at temperatures approaching 2000 C.

MMRs are designed to operate for 20 years between fuel system replacements.

While we talked a bit about the technological specifics, most of my conversation with Mark and Eric revolved around business considerations, importance of developing manufacturing competence, the importance of effective cost controls and the importance of transparent engagement with regulators and potential customers.

Your participation in the comment thread is always welcome. If questions arise that need more details, I will seek assistance from the show guests.

I hope you enjoy listening.

One vignette in radiation fear campaign

Fri, 06/05/2020 - 12:10

Abject fear of radiation, even at low doses, is a root cause of the cost and schedule difficulties associated with atomic energy development and deployment.

At Atomic Insights, we believe that most of the fear of low dose radiation is not only unwarranted, but it is also purposely created, taught and carefully reinforced by people.

Every person that participates in the campaign has their own unique combination of motives and techniques, but some of the major factors are a desire to prevent use of nuclear weapons, a desire to eliminate nuclear weapons completely, a desire to discourage nuclear energy development for competitive reasons, and a desire to discourage use of moderate doses of radiation as a treatment or a cure for various health conditions.

The radiation fear campaign has been going on in earnest since June 13, 1969. That was the date when the New York Times ran a front page headline stating that “SCIENTISTS TERM RADIATION A PERIL TO THE FUTURE OF MAN.”

Throughout the decades since that first proclamation was issued, there have been additional claims and stories with fear creation and maintenance as either a sole or ancillary purpose.

Here’s a sample from the campaign.

On October 12, 1969, the New York Times published an article written by Kathleen Teltsch under the following headline: “RADIATION LINKED TO RETARDATION: U.N. Report Warns of Even Low Doses in Pregnancy.”

That is a headline that can capture attention and a subtitle that stokes fear, especially among young women who are planning to have children. It will cause fear, anxiety and guilt among young mothers that have, for one reason or another, been exposed to radiation while pregnant with children that are still growing.

It is an unfortunately truth about newspaper readers that some finite portion of the audience only reads or remembers headlines and subtitles.

But there is more to the story.

Though this article did not make it to the influential front page, the editors carefully chose a placement that was almost as impactful.

Page 52 of the Sunday, Oct 12, 1969 edition of the New York Times

It was a full, single column article running from top to bottom of the left-most column on a page that was otherwise filled with an attractive ad for the Gimble’s 127th Annual Columbus Day Sale. October 12, 1969 was a Sunday, so the sale was happening the next day.

It seems likely that the article and its placement would draw people in the exact demographic that might be most interested in – and frightened by – finding out that radiation harms children in the womb.

I’m not a newspaper skimmer lazily flipping through sale ads on a Sunday morning of a three day weekend in the late 1960s, so I carefully read the rest of the article. I wanted to learn more about what the New York Times and the United Nations wanted to tell people about radiation health effects in the fall of 1969.

The scientists that wrote the report issued in October 1969 were members of the standing committee that the United Nations had created in 1955 to study effects of atomic radiation. The primary source for their reports was data gathered by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which studied effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Though the article subtitle gives the impression that even low doses were found to be harmful, the article states that the specialists who wrote the report found that evidence of harm at low doses was “extremely tenuous” but harm could not be “excluded.”

By their definition, any dose less than 50 roentgens was considered to be low. The article reminds readers that a typical diagnostic X-ray would give a dose of 1 R or less, but also tells them that doses have been gradually lowered through technological improvements. Some readers who might have had X-rays while pregnant in the past are left wondering if they might have received higher doses.

The article did not mention that 50 R was 10 times the maximum allowed annual dose for trained radiation workers at a nuclear power plant. It substantially exceeded the amount of radiation that any member of the public might expect to receive, even if accumulated over a lifetime living at the fence line of a power plant.

The report was based on studying development of 1,613 children whose mothers were pregnant at the time of the atomic bombings.

Researchers binned the victims based on the calculated doses the mothers received from the explosion and its aftermath. It’s worth noting that virtually all of the radiation received was instantaneous. Those who received higher doses were highly likely to have been subjected to additional bomb effects including blast and heat.

Though there was a strong correlation between mental retardation and radiation doses above 200 R, the correlation was much lower at doses between 50 and 99 R. Below 50 R, the incidence of retardation was less than 1%.

There is no evidence presented indicating that the incidence of retardation among children exposed to less than 50 R is any different from the level that might be found any any randomly selected population.

Though the article provides accurate information that should be reassuring to anyone with critical reading skills, it was headlined, placed and structured in a way that creates fear and uncertainty.

In the emotionally charged topic of child development and the responsibility of mothers to provide protection, it provides reason to fear radiation – even at low doses – when there is no evidence indicating that fear is the correct response.

Of course, the editors at the New York Times didn’t create the report, and Ms. Teltsch probably didn’t write the headline, but both helped make this an effective component of the long-running campaign.

The article concludes with some hints about why the report was issued and why the Times chose to cover it in a way that would capture attention and perhaps stimulate action.

Even though the US, the UK and the Soviet Union had agreed to stop testing nuclear weapons in the open atmosphere by 1963, both France and Communist China were still engaged in atmospheric testing programs that still released uncontrolled fallout.

Underground testing was still seen to be somewhat risky because test sites still leaked.

Not stated in this article – but known to contemporary readers – if the fact that there were dozens of nuclear power plants under construction in the United States.

Though begun during a period of optimism about atomic energy and its potential for benefiting electricity customers, there was a growing level of concern about health effects of radiation from routine operation of those plants. People concerned about those effects were making their concerns known through active efforts to slow nuclear plant construction and add increasing layers of protection.

History students can also find numerous indications that the coal, oil, gas, freight and banking industries had always been worried about losing sales to nuclear power.

It’s not difficult to understand that they would be happy to buy ads in newspapers that published stories that might slow their atomic competitor.

Atomic Show #277 – Simon Wakter, pro-nuclear engineer in an ambivalent country

Sat, 05/30/2020 - 20:29

Simon Wakter is a strongly pro-nuclear engineer in a country that passed a referendum officially phasing out nuclear energy since several years before he was born. He has to round up to be called a thirty-something.

Simon works in the nuclear energy branch of AFRY, a well-established 17,000 employee, all-of-the-above. engineering company that recently adopted a new brand name.

During this show we talked about his research and professional work investigating new markets for smaller nuclear power systems, his interest in risk management and analysis, his participation as an active member of the young generations group of the European Nuclear Society, and his work as the editor of a newsletter that covers nuclear energy from a Nordic perspective.

We talked about the complicated political history of nuclear energy developments in Sweden, delved into the sources of antinuclear activities, and chatted about recent improvements in nuclear energy acceptability as a powerful tool to address climate change and energy poverty.

Simon is young man who appreciates the importance of abundant clean energy in helping humans to develop their full potential. He is enthusiastic about technological advances that are revisiting some aging and possibly obsolete assumptions about the limitations of nuclear energy’s contributions.

I enjoyed this conversation and hope you do as well.

Please provide your comments and suggestions.

Review: Juice: How Electricity Explains the World

Mon, 05/25/2020 - 08:25

It’s clear that Robert Bryce and Tyson Culver like living on a planet populated by humans.

They have produced a movie that celebrates electricity as the key enabler of the modern world that we have created. Their film challenges us to keep on building and improving our technology until everyone has abundant, reliable access to life-giving, life-enriching electrical power.

Juice: How Electricity Explains the World (Juice) serves as an almost perfect foil for Planet of the Humans (POTH), the far less optimistic, almost misanthropic film by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore.

Everyone deserves power

Not only does Juice take a positive view of humanity and its progress, but it does so in a way that addresses almost every objection raised by POTH’s sharpest critics. (See, for example this piece by Nader Sobhani from the Niskanen Center, this one on Vox by Leah Stokes, or this one by Eric Meyer from Generation Atomic.)

The subject matter is fresh, with almost every scene filmed within the past three years. In contrast, most scenes in POTH were in the can before 2013.

Juice’s faces and voices are diverse and geographically spread over the world. The crew traveled over 60,000 miles and filmed on locations in Lebanon, India, Puerto Rico, California, New York, Iceland, and Colorado. They spoke with women and men, academics and community leaders, engineers and activists.

Though they did not make it to Africa, they used illustrative archival footage and interviewed Priscilla Agyapong, a researcher from Ghana working for a the Center for Global Development. She makes it very clear that Africans, Indians and everyone else has a legitimate desire to have as much power as the typical American or European.

No one can legitimately accuse Robert Bryce of being a monotone narrator.

Here is how the filmmaker described his narrator.

Then there’s Robert. He wrote for the Austin Chronicle for a dozen years, one of the most liberal newspapers in the state of Texas. Later, he became a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York. He’s a bird watcher with solar panels on his roof – oh, and he lived with the Navajo for two years.

Bryce doesn’t fit in a box – he’s like a hippy pragmatist, always in search of the truth, who gets along with everyone. So we made him our tour guide, and the citizens of the world became the stars of the film. 

Juice Director’s Statement Sources of power

Juice portrays most current sources of electricity accurately, with both strengths and weaknesses revealed.

Gullfoss Falls Iceland

It credits Iceland’s abundant hydroelectricity and geothermal power for its cleanliness and contributions to moving the island economy from a fishing focus to one that attracts both aluminum smelting and cryptocurrency miners.

It highlights a resort in Lebanon that uses modern solar arrays and low cost, reliable batteries to operate independently from the country’s unreliable power grid and the “generator mafia” that deploys diesel generators to fill in the gaps when the grid goes down.

Robert visits a black market marijuana grower in Colorado who uses large quantities of electricity to grow his plants indoors and out of sight. Even though Colorado now has a legal marijuana market, the grower apparently started his indoor agriculture career a little too early. His criminal record keeps him out of the legal side of the market.

There is a great deal of attention paid to Puerto Rico’s post hurricane Maria blackout and the stresses caused by seven months without power.

Ecomodernist approach to technology

Juice’s creators and executive producers clearly embrace the ecomodernist approach to enabling people to thrive by spreading technological innovations and improvements. Jessica Lovering, Ben Heard, and Michael Shellenberger all have major speaking roles. The film crew took advantage of attendance at a Breakthrough Dialog event to capture several interviews.

The crew visits the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Bryce is clearly impressed with the spotless, compact installation and describes how it cleanly produces 25% of the electricity used by New York City.

Bryce and Culver were well aware that the plant was scheduled to close and that one of the units would be closed before they released their film. They used that knowledge and showed viewers scenes of the power plants that will provide the replacement power.

The film concludes with an “all of the above” message. But it’s clear that the film creators want the real path forward to be an effort to use the “best of the above” to make clean power cheaper and more readily available. Juice’s creators want everyone to be able to flip a switch and trust that power will be there to lighten their load.

Juice can be preordered on iTunes. After it is released there on June 2, it will be made available to order from a variety of other platforms. International releases are in the works. If you have any questions about obtaining the film, the creators are actively addressing them on Twitter @juiceforall.

How did leaders of the Hydrocarbon Establishment build the foundation for radiation fears?

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 13:35

On December 8, 1953 President Eisenhower announced to the UN that the US knew how to harness atomic energy to produce useful power. He stated that the US was willing to widely share that knowledge. He described an especially intriguing possibility of using atomic energy to bring power to the “power-starved areas of the world.”

The more important responsibility of this atomic energy agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.

From President Eisenhower’s speech to the United Nations on December 8, 1953

While that was an inspiring thought for most listeners, there’s no doubt that the world’s fuel supply industry recognized a dire threat to their dominance.

Within months after the Atoms for Peace speech, influential people worried about competition from atomic energy began mobilizing an effort to shape the way the world would receive President Eisenhower’s offer.

World’s largest and most influential science funder takes aim at the atom

During a 1954 Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees meeting, several of the trustees asked the President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) if his esteemed organization would be willing to review what was known about the biological effects of atomic radiation.

The board did not have to pick up the phone or send a letter to make that request. Detlev Bronk, who was the serving president of the NAS, was already at the table as a full member of the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees. The board agreed that, based on their interpretations of recent media coverage, the public was confused and not properly informed about the risks of radiation exposure and the potential benefits of the Atomic Age.

The tasking given to the NAS was to form a credible committee that would study the science and issue a report “in a form accessible to seriously concerned citizens.”1

At the time the request to the NAS was made, the Rockefeller Foundation had been funding radiation biology-related research for at least 30 years, including the Drosophila mutation experiments that Hermann Muller conducted during the 1920s at the University of Texas. Foundation board members and supported scientists had been following developments in atomic science since the earliest discoveries of radiation and the dense energy stored inside atomic nuclei.

The prevalent understanding of radiation effects in 1954 was that it was known to be dangerous at high rates of exposure, but that lower rates had no immediate or measurable long term effects.

Just a few years before the Rockefeller Foundation board decided to revise the world’s understanding of radiation health effects, the Tripartite Conferences on radiation protection had revised the permissible limits to 0.5 mGy/day or 3 mGy/week. Though some had raised concerns, there was no evidence of any harm to people who had been exposed at levels slightly above the new permissible doses.

The new level was a 50% reduction from the previous limits, but it was based on adding a safety factor, not on avoiding levels with known harm.

In between these two extremes there is a level of exposure, — in the neighborhood of 0.1 r/day — which all experience to date show to be safe, but the time of observation of large numbers of people exposed at this rate under controlled conditions, is too short to permit a categorical assertion to this effect.2

Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation

The first NAS Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation committee began its work in April 1955. There were six subcommittees, each of which spent about a year researching and writing their section of the committee’s report.

Unlike the 1948 Tripartite Commission documents establishing permissible dose limits, the NAS BEAR 1 committee report, especially the section from the Genetics Committee, benefitted from skillful promotion. It received extensive media coverage and public attention. Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, served on the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees and freely provided his media expertise.

The NAS held a press conference announcing the release of the report and answering questions in Washington, DC on June 12. Among other media attention, that press conference resulted in no less than six related articles in the June 13, 1956 edition of the New York Times. Several additional articles were published during the following weeks. The selection of pieces included a lengthy article that started at the top of the right hand column of the paper and continued with another 20-25 column inches on page 17.

The June 13 edition also included a full text copy of the text of the Genetics Committee report that was specifically written for public consumption. That article filled nearly three pages of the paper, with the opportunity for three separate full span headlines.

The report from the Genetics Committee of the National Academy of Sciences’s first biological effects of radiation committee was pure gold from the point of view of those who wanted to scare people and temper the growing optimism about the virtually unlimited power promised by Atomic Age visionaries like President Eisenhower. Here are the first two paragraphs from the front page article.

A committee of outstanding scientists reported today that atomic radiation, no matter how small the dose, harms not only the person receiving it but also all his descendents (sic).

The report was part of a survey produced by six committees of the National Academy of Sciences, a private nonprofit organization. It was the most comprehensive United States effort to determine how the future of the human race might be affected by the unleashing of nuclear power.

There is no doubt that the Genetics Committee wanted concerned members of the public to get the message that there were no safe doses of radiation. Report authors cleverly reminded readers that they may never see evidence of harm; the genetic damage could be a hidden risk passed on to children and grandchildren that might not show up for several generations into the future. That facet of the “no safe dose” model has made it a difficult myth to refute via experimentation.

This quote is from the last page of the three page reprint of the report in the New York Times.

The basic fact is–and no competent persons doubt this— that radiations produce mutations and that mutations are in general harmful. It is difficult, at the present state of knowledge of genetics to estimate just how much of what kind of harm will appear in each future generation after mutant genes are introduced by radiations. Different geneticists prefer differing ways of describing this situation: But they all come out with the unanimous conclusion that the potential danger is great.

We ought to keep all of our expenditures of radiation as low as possible. Of the upper limit of ten roentgens suggested in recommendation C, we are at present spending about one-third for medical x-rays. We are at present spending less–probably under one roentgen–for weapons testing. We may find it desirable or even almost obligatory that we spend a certain amount on atomic power plants. But we must watch and guard all our expenditures. From the point of view of genetics, they are all bad.

Emphasis added.

With such categorical statements of the unavoidable harm, one might think that the committee members held clear and convincing experimental or epidemiological evidence supporting their conclusions. That is not the case here; the primary evidence for the assertion that all doses of radiation, no matter how small, can cause mutations came from experiments on short-lived insects and annual plants.

Even that evidence was either inconclusive or contradictory in the low dose regions3 of interest to people in nuclear medicine or nuclear energy production.

Irradiation experiments had been performed on mice and rats, but they did not provide any evidence of inheritable mutations. They also did not provide evidence of life shortening effects of with doses below 1 mGy per day.

The genetics committee members acknowledged the scant data upon which they based their recommendations deep in the body of their report, but in the introduction and conclusion–parts that many busy people read first–they expressed great confidence and used assertive language like the “no competent persons doubt this” statement highlighted in the above quote.

Aware of Exaggerations

Dr. Ed Calabrese has even uncovered evidence that the geneticists were aware of the fact that they were exaggerating the risk. Here are quotes from copies of correspondence among committee members that he shared with me.

From Failla to Weaver March 5, 1956 “Every effort should be made to avoid creating the impression that the problem is being presented in an exaggerated way. This is a case in which judicious understatements may be most effective. (For one thing, they cannot be attacked.) Such an impression could be created not only by what is said and how it is said, but also by what is omitted.”

From Demerec to Dobchansky Aug 9, 1957 (after the initial report, but during preparation of the more detailed document) “I, myself, have a hard time keeping a straight face when there is talk about genetic deaths and the tremendous dangers of irradiation. I know that a number of very prominent geneticists, and people whose opinion you value highly, agree with me.”

From Dobchansky to Demerec Aug 13, 1957 “Let us be honest with ourselves — we are both interested in genetics research, and for the sake of it are willing to stretch a point when necessary. But let us not stretch it to the breaking point! Overstatements are sometimes dangerous, since they result in their opposites when they approach the levels of absurdity.

Now, the business of genetic effects of atomic energy has produced a public scare, and a consequent interest in and recognition of the importance of genetics. This is to the good, since it will make some people read up on genetics who would not have done so otherwise, and it may lead to the powers-that-be giving money for genetic research which they would not give otherwise.”

Rockefeller Foundation Influences

Though several of the sixteen committee members accepted the “target theory” that assumed a linear proportionality between radiation dose, DNA damage and inheritable genetic effects, there were some quarrels among the committee members. However, the assigned chairman of the committee, Dr. Warren Weaver, was a skilled facilitator in a strong position to encourage agreement. He was the director of the Division of Natural Sciences for the Rockefeller Foundation from 1932-1959. In that position he was responsible for approving all foundation grants in the areas of molecular biology and genetics.

Weaver was the “powers-that-be” who could provide–or not provide–the research resources the geneticists were interested in obtaining. Several of his committee members were also his grantees, including the influential, Nobel Prize-winning Hermann Muller.

For several years following the issuance of the BEAR 1 report, committee members and various Rockefeller Foundation-supported researchers worked hard to spread the idea that there are no safe doses of radiation. Their effort helped to fertilize the seeds of doubt about nuclear energy that the committee carefully planted. Here’s an example from Nov 15, 1956.

The growing apprehensions contributed to a number of expensive regulatory requirements and set the stage for a focused movement to oppose all efforts to develop nuclear energy. It established a precedent among opponents of radiation-related technologies for listing various effects of intense radiation and implying that those effects occur at even the lowest possible dose.

It was no real surprise to learn that this effort to erect costly, fear-based barriers to the development of atomic electrical power and ship propulsion was entirely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Though some observers claim that the Foundation severed ties with the Rockefeller Family in the 1920s, there is historical evidence of sustained family involvement (page 9 of previous link) and interest in the projects that the Foundation chose to fund.

Just imagine the difference in our current lives if the Thomas Watson Foundation had been praised for funding a study that asserted the risk of an end to the human race if personal computers were developed without strict exposure limits and multiple layers of safety features preventing the dire risks of carpal tunnel syndrome and eye strain.

The Rockefeller Foundation reduced its funding for radiobiology beginning in the early 1960s and eliminated it completely by 1970. I suspect they were quite pleased with the status quo at that time and were not interested in helping to fund new research that might have provided an earlier, better understanding of the actual health effects of low dose radiation to humans.

Notes:
1. Rees, Mina, Warren Weaver: A Biographical Memoir 1894-1978, The National Academy of Sciences, p. 506
2. Taylor, Lauriston, The Tripartite Conferences on Radiation Protection, published by the Department of Energy, 1984 (available at http://www.orau.org/ptp/Library/Taylor1984_Tri-Partite_Conferences_NVO-271.pdf downloaded on Nov 20, 2014) pp. 2-2 – 2-3

Additional key excerpts from pages 2-2 – 2-7 are quoted below

When the daily tolerance dose of 0.1 r was adopted, it was thought that this was a conservative value, involving a large factor of safety. Observation of persons occupationally exposed to radiation within this limit has revealed no deleterious effects of any kind attributable to radiation. However, the period of observation is not yet sufficiently long to be sure that exposure at this rate can be continued safely throughout life. The results of large scale experiments with mice and rats (and more limited experiments with other animals) lead to the conclusion that probably the factor of safety involved in the daily tolerance dose of 0.1 r, is not as large as it was though at first. From the genetic point of view a revision downward is indicated because of the larger percentage of the total population now being exposed to radiation.

There are also potent psychological factors that increase the fear of radiation injury beyond justifiable boundaries. These are based mainly on the tragic experience of the early workers with radiation and the effects of the atomic bomb on the Japanese — both of which have been dramatically publicized. All of these factors help to create an atmosphere of mystery around the radiation protection problem and promote skepticism on the part of those not familiar with radiation effects. It may be well, therefore, to point out some pertinent facts.

The detailed mechanism of the action of ionizing radiation on the living cell is not known. This statement, which is often made, leads the uninitiated to think that if “nothing” is known about the “mechanism” very little indeed must be known about the effects of radiation on man. One should bear in mind the sharp distinction between knowing what happens and explaining how it happens. Nobody knows what life is or how it originated, but a great deal is known about the human body and its behavior in health and disease.

To give a homely example, many people can be good drivers without knowing anything about the mechanism of the automobile engine.

There is at present a large body of information about the effects of radiation on living organisms and on man. Every living cell can be damaged and killed by radiation if the dose delivered to it is large enough. Many different kinds of effect have been observed and studied. All such effects can be produced by any type of ionizing radiation provided it reaches the cell or organ in sufficient amount. Thus there is no uniqueness about any one type of ionizing radiation as to the kind of effect it will produce, although there is in some cases a difference in the dose required to produce a certain degree of effect by two different types of radiation. This is important because most of our information has been obtained from work with x-rays and can, therefore, be applied to other types of ionizing radiation by making suitable modifications of dosage. Even when the relative biological effectiveness is not known, one can make a conservative estimate of it to be on the safe side in the protection of personnel.

The advantage of being able to make use of the large body of information obtained with x-rays is very great. This type of radiation has been used extensively for the diagnosis and treatment of disease in man for about 50 years. Many doctors and technicians have been continually exposed to it for years. Some have suffered injuries of various types and degrees, leading to premature death in some instances, and some have shown no ill effects. There is, therefore, a very large background of practical experience based on observations made on human beings. In addition, there is, of course, a vast amount of information derived from experiments on laboratory animals and other living organisms.

As a matter of principle it is sound to avoid all unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation, because it is desirable not to depart from the natural conditions under which man has developed by evolutionary processes. However, man has always lived in a field of ionizing radiation due to the presence of radioactive material in the earth and to cosmic rays. Whether exposure to this level of radiation is beneficial or deleterious to man (and the race) is a matter of speculation. The obvious fact is that it cannot be avoided and it is, therefor, normal for man to live in this environment. We have then a lower limit of continuous exposure to radiation that is (unavoidably) tolerated by man. There is, on the other hand, a much higher level of exposure that is definitely known to be harmful. In between these two extremes there is a level of exposure, — in the neighborhood of 0.1 r/day — which all experience to date show to be safe, but the time of observation of large numbers of people exposed at this rate under controlled conditions, is too short to permit a categorical assertion to this effect. It should be noted in this connection that lowering the level of exposure by a factor of two (as recommended later in this report) or even ten, does not alter the situation materially, insofar as making a positive statement of absolute safety is concerned. In strict scientific language, the only statement that can be made at the present time about the lifetime exposure of persons to penetrating radiation at a level considerably higher than the background radiation level is that appreciable injury manifestable in the lifetime of the individual is extremely unlikely. Furthermore, on the basis of present knowledge it may be expected that if there should be any injury, it would manifest itself only in the most susceptible individuals. Obviously, the closer the level of exposure approaches background level, the greater the probability that no injury at all will occur.

No matter what effect (e.g. body weight, blood count changes) — observable in the individual — has been studied by animal experiments, statistically significant differences have been obtained only when the daily dose has been considerably greater than 0.1 r. In the range of 0.1 r/day the differences may be plus or minus, which means that, if there is a difference at all, it must be small. Even if a small unfavorable difference were to be established by careful experiments using very large numbers of animals, the question would still remain as to whether the result is applicable to man. There is for one thing a big difference in the normal life span of man and laboratory animals and the problem of chief concern is one in which periodic exposure throughout adult life is involved. A daily dose that produces a given effect in measurable degree in rats may or may not produce the same degree of effect in man. The effect may be more marked ot it may be less marked. Before the results of animal experiments can be extrapolated to man, it is necessary to derive certain generalizations that apply at least to different species of mammals, including animals with a long life span.

Permissible dose

The concept of a tolerance dose involved the assumption that if the dose is lower than a certain value — the threshold dose — no injury results. Since it seems well established that there is no threshold dose for the production of gene mutations by radiation, it follows that strictly speaking there is no such thing as a tolerance dose when all possible effects of radiation on the individual and future generations are included. In connection with the protection problem the expression has been used in a more liberal sense, namely to represent a dose that may be expected to produce only “tolerable” deleterious effects, if they are produced at all. Since it is desirable to avoid this ambiguity the expression “permissible dose” is much to be preferred.

It is now necessary to give this expression a more precise meaning, irrespective of what values of the permissible dose will be recommended in this report. In the first place it is well to state explicitly that the concept of a permissible dose envisages the possibility of radiation injury manifestable during the lifetime of the exposed individual or in subsequent generations. However, the probability of the occurrence of such injuries must be so low that the risk would be readily acceptable to the average normal individual. Permissible dose may then be defined as the dose of ionizing radiation that causes no appreciable bodily injury to the average normal individual at any time during his lifetime. As used here, “appreciable bodily injury” means any bodily injury or effect that the average normal person would regard as being objectionable and/or competent medical authorities would regard as being deleterious to the health and well being of the individual.

Permissible Weekly Dose

Permissible weekly dose is the weekly dose of ionizing radiation that the average normal person may receive for the rest of his life without suffering appreciable bodily injury at any time during his lifetime.

3. Calabrese EJ (2011) Muller’s Nobel lecture on dose-response for ionizing radiation: ideology or science? Arch Toxicol 85(12):1495–1498

Dr. Ed Calabrese has produced a series of peer-reviewed papers detailing how the linear, no threshold dose model, which I like to call the “no safe dose” model, was developed over a thirty period of inconclusive and conflicting experiments by geneticists led by Hermann Muller and Curt Stern.

In addition to the one cited above, see

Calabrese EJ (2009) The road to linearity: why linearity at low doses became the basis for carcinogen risk assessment. Arch Toxicol 83:203–225

Calabrese EJ (2012) Muller’s Nobel Prize lecture: when ideology prevailed over science. Toxicol Sci 126(1):1–4

Calabrese EJ (2013) How the US National Academy of Sciences misled the world community on cancer risk assessment: new findings challenge historical foundations of the linear dose response Arch Toxicol 87:20163-2081

Atomic Show #276 – HolosGen Claudio Filippone and Chip Martin

Tue, 05/19/2020 - 13:03

HolosGen has attacked the nuclear power plant cost and schedule challenge from the opposite direction chosen by many nuclear reactor developers. Claiming to be agnostic about the reactor specifics – as long as it produces reliable heat in a small-enough configuration – HolosGen founder Claudio Filippone decided to focus on radical improvements to the “balance of plant.”

Filippone worked for a decade as a consultant specializing in power production systems. He is both a nuclear engineer and an electrical engineer with the skills required to address a wide variety of systems and challenges. His advice was valued and sought after, allowing him to accumulate both ideas and resources.

He began the groundwork for HolosGen in 2008 and incorporated the company in 2017.

During his time as a consultant, he recognized that “the balance of plant” outside of the nuclear portions of a power plant represented 70-80% of the initial capital cost and a similar portion of the ongoing operations and maintenance costs. That was his inspiration for choosing to focus on radically improving that section of the system.

As the submarine sound silencing saying goes, “attack the big noise first.”

The fundamental choice enabling dramatic improvement was to abandon the Rankine (steam) cycle and switch to the Brayton (gas turbine) cycle.

He worked with visionaries inside the US Army’s technical branches to gather requirements for mobile generators that could safely and reliably operate under extreme conditions. The challenging requirements included resistance to focused kinetic attacks.

By choosing to meet performance requirements provided by one of the toughest customers available, Filippone and his HolosGen team have produced a design concept that can be manufactured and delivered to almost any customer in any location.

HolosGen quad in a box.
Copyright HolosGen. Used with permission

The integrated power production system can fit inside of an ISO standard 40 foot long container. It will come in a number of different sizes depending on customer needs. One version will have a designed power capacity of 10 MWe.

Filippone credits the ARPA-E Meinter program for helping HoloGen to achieve rapid progress in a radically new direction.

He has hired a team of creative, aggressive, dedicated engineers, machinists and technicians – mostly fresh out of school or the military – and carefully trained them with a program that includes a healthy dose of hands-on work with functional components.

He has inspired them with a vision and a mission to fundamentally change the way that nuclear energy can be put to useful work for society.

The machines that he and his team have produced – and they have produced several functional prototypes – are modern, closed Brayton Cycle heat engines that use high-speed compressors and expanders that are coupled electrically, not mechanically.

That configuration enables modern control systems to finely balance the compressor output with the turbine input, maximizing thermal efficiency over a wide range of power outputs.

They will work with a variety of gases, including helium, nitrogen and supercritical CO2.

Filippone has engaged the advisory services of Charles (Chip) Martin, a deeply experienced and well-connected nuclear professional. Immediately prior to joining HoloGen, Chip was the Glenn T. Seaborg Science and Engineering Policy Fellow for the American Nuclear Society.

Dr. Filippone and Chip Martin joined me for a fascinating and detailed conversation about their integrated nuclear power system in a box.

The show is a bit longer than normal, but I think you will find listening to it will be a valuable investment of your time.

As always, comments are welcome.

Atomic Show #275 – Managing advanced nuclear development during pandemic

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 09:32

Managing any business is hard work, especially during a global pandemic with stay-at-home orders in place. It requires creativity and flexibility along with some amount of prior preparation.

On May 11, 2020, I gathered a group of representatives from several start-up companies that are developing advanced nuclear technologies to talk about how they are making progress under challenging conditions.

All of the companies that participated in the call are relatively new and have been founded with the idea of finding talented, excited employees in a variety of locations. As a result, they have infrastructure and procedures in place to handle a geographically distributed work force.

Many of their employees have always worked from their home offices. Companies have discovered, however, that there are some advantages in holding video conferences where all participants are distributed instead of having a core group physically located in the same conference room.

That arrangement seems to enable better collaboration and a more comprehensive ability to take advantage of contributions from people that are not located at the home office.

Companies are gaining experience in pushing the boundaries of remote monitoring in some of their experimental facilities. They believe that some of the techniques that they are implementing will pay dividends as they develop and deploy their technology products.

Government agencies and national laboratories have made substantial progress in their ability to work under conditions that restrict travel and in-person meetings. The infrastructure that enables this different approach was being developed and enhanced even before stay at home orders associated with the global pandemic took effect.

Of course, not all of the challenges facing these start-up energy companies are as readily addressed as remote working. There is turmoil in the global energy markets and there are regulatory and supplier issues that need to be addressed.

We had a wide ranging discussion that should make for interesting listening for anyone who wonders how the advanced nuclear industry is doing under difficult business conditions.

Here is a list of the discussion participants and the companies they represent.

Caroline Cochran, co-founder and COO of Oklo Inc.

Per Peterson, co-founder and Chief Nuclear Officer at Kairos Power

Carl Perez, CEO at Elysium Industries

Canon Bryan, Chief Financial Officer, Terrestrial Energy

Lars Jorgenson, CEO, ThorCon

Mark Mitchell, President, USNC-Power

Your feedback is important. Please participate in the discussion and make suggestions for future topics.

Atomic Show #274 – Thomas Jam Pedersen, Copenhagen Atomics

Thu, 04/30/2020 - 17:42

Copenhagen isn’t the first city name that comes to mind as the place to start a nuclear company. Denmark has decommissioned its last research reactor and has never had a nuclear power plant.

That hasn’t deterred Thomas Jam Pedersen and his colleagues at Copenhagen Atomics. Starting a decade or more ago, they began learning about the untapped potential for using thorium in thermal spectrum reactors, especially with fuel dissolved in molten salts.

Their most fascinating discovery was that their lifetime energy needs could be met by completely fissioning a ball of thorium that is slightly smaller than a golf ball.

They’ve since learned that there is a lot of hard work needed to unlock that amazing potential, but they have also found that it is work that suits their desire to build successful careers while also making the world a better place.

After conducting enough initial research to recognize the potential and to discover their own aptitude for the task, Thomas and his colleagues formed Copenhagen Atomics.

According to Pedersen, the company’s lack of nuclear industry experience is both an advantage and a disadvantage. They have, at the very least, not been slowed by focusing on all of the reasons they cannot do what they plan to do.

Copenhagen Atomics plans to eventually market a 100 MWth heat source that can fit into the space of a standard sized 40 foot shipping container. That heat source will be a sealed nuclear fission reactor that produces hot, non radioactive molten salt at an outlet temp of 650 C. These thermal sources will be replaced at approximately 5 year intervals.

Lengthening runway by selling components

The company isn’t waiting until it can produce a complete nuclear power plant before it begins selling products. Instead, Thomas and his team have focused on building hardware components that they know they will need. They have recognized that there are many common elements that will be useful for all companies with an interest in using molten salt for nuclear reactors and heat transfer systems.

By developing robust components that their design will use and will serve needs for others in the same technological space, they have determined that they can create revenue by selling components. They plan to take advantage of series production economies and spread the design and testing costs over a larger number of finished products.

Copenhagen Atomics also recognizes that they have a better chance of success if they are part of an industry with multiple players all working to educate customers, politicians and the public about the benefits of their chosen technology. Thomas told that he believes the market is large enough that it makes little sense to get involved in cutthroat competition, especially in formative years.

Phased development plan

Though development has been slowed somewhat due to supply chain issues during the global pandemic, Copenhagen Atomics is actively pushing towards a goal of starting up a 1 MWth molten salt heat system that will use non-radioactive materials for testing.

The next step will be obtaining regulatory permission to introduce uranium and thorium into the salt for a testing phase that will not involve any fissile materials.

The company expects it will be ready sometime in the second half of the 2020s to begin testing with fission heat and fission product chemistry.

By the end of the 2020s, they hope to be producing their 100 MWth heat sources for commercial applications.

I think you will enjoy this interview. As always, your comments add significantly to the value of this effort.

Nuclear energy makes a cameo appearance in Jeff Gibbs’s Planet of the Humans

Fri, 04/24/2020 - 16:36

Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs teamed up to produce a piercing, controversial, gut punching documentary titled Planet of the Humans. Partly as a result of the global closure of theaters, and partly as a result of wanting to make an impact on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, they released their film for free on Youtube.

It’s worth watching. I watched it once straight through and have enjoyed spending additional hours reviewing and clipping key highlights.

Like many Moore films, this one has a cast of white-hatted scientists and activists opposing black-hatted billionaires, bankers, corporate leaders and politicians. In what may be upsetting to some, this film’s black-hatted group includes the leaders of numerous major environmental groups including the Sierra Club, 350.org, and Riverkeepers.

Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, Al Gore, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from Riverkeepers are all shown as being willing recipients of contributions, donations and outright payments from billionaires including Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Jeremy Grantham, and the Koch Brothers, corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, and investment banks like Blackrock and Goldman Sachs.

Planet of the Humans includes flashy footage with dramatic music that illustrates the inescapably negative environmental impact of moving massive quantities of material.

By implication, it also highlights the huge sums of money involved in the process of moving more material faster and farther. One component of the money churning process includes the inevitable need to replace machinery and infrastructure after its useful life is over.

What we know that ain’t so

The narrator seems genuinely shocked to learn that much of what he has been taught about alternative energy isn’t true. Wind, solar and biomass aren’t successfully replacing fossil fuels or reducing human environmental footprints.

Instead, they are dependent on fossil fuel-derived materials and fossil fuel powered machinery. Wind turbines and their towers are massive and have lifetimes measured in small numbers of decades. Solar panels covering vast quantities of land produce an inadequate amount of power, especially on cloudy days and during winter months.

Even solar thermal energy plants like Ivanpah promise much more than they deliver. The mirrors are failing, and the power conversion system needs to routinely burn a large quantity of natural gas in order to keep systems warm and ready to run once the sun comes up.

Physically large collecting systems for diffuse power sources require massive material inputs, and they don’t least very long. When they no longer function, the areas that were scraped clean to house the equipment are virtually unusable wasteland that no longer supports much life.

Biomass and biofuels receive special animosity

A substantial portion of the film is spent documenting the ways that burning biomass for electricity isn’t sustainable or carbon-neutral despite all of the messaging to the contrary.

These scenes also document the forest industry’s generally successful efforts to influence perceptions of their industry. Often, those efforts have included creative carbon accounting as well as targeted contributions to non-profit groups willing to accept money in return for greenwashing.

Those influence efforts include lobbying for subsidy programs or for redefining terms to qualify for already existing subsidy programs.

The film credits Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, for helping to encourage a wave of interest among college students and administrators for converting on-campus coal furnaces to biomass burning furnaces.

The evidence supporting this thesis is straight from the horse’s mouth in the form of video clips of McKibben speaking at Vermont’s Middlebury College in 2009. He lauds the opening of the the college’s new wood chip-burning boiler.

McKibben: What powers a learning community? As of this afternoon, the easy answer to that is wood chips. It’s incredibly beautiful. To stand over there and see that big bunker full of wood chips. You can put any kind of wood in, you know oak, willow, whatever you want. Almost anything that burns we can toss it in there if we can chip it down to the right size.

McKibben has taken offense at the way Planet of the Humans portrays him and his organization. He claims that his position on biomass burning has changed dramatically in the decade since he lauded his college’s wood chip-burning furnace. That change happened as soon “as more scientists studied the consequences of large-scale biomass burning”.

He even claims that he and his organization have been attacked by the biomass industry as a result of negative pieces written in 2016, 2019 and 2020.

But that defense is weak, especially considering a different scene in the movie where Gibbs gives McKibben ample opportunity to state his current position on biomass.

Gibbs: I’d like to see us come out against any burning of trees for clean energy.

McKibben: Alright, go ahead and do it. Although I confess I stoke my wood stove almost every night of the winter, so I’m not really the right person to ask.

Gibbs: But that doesn’t mean it’s green energy for power plants.

McKibben: I don’t know. That’s not what today is about.

Dialog from “Planet of the Humans” time stamp 1:08:20 Emphasis on human prosperity and population as part of problem

Between scenes depicting both environmental devastation and the financial flows that enable established infrastructure and materials interests to continue doing what they do best, Gibbs talks with scientists and activists to find out if there are any solutions.

Almost unanimously, those interviewed experts suggest that humans are the root of the problem. They emphasize how our numbers have expanded almost geometrically since we began exploiting fossil fuels. They also decry our collective and individual desires for mobility and material goods.

It’s easy to get the impression that since renewables have issues that are similar to those that handicap fossil fuels, the only path available is reducing both populations and standards of living.

Though I may be guilty of seeing what I want to see, I caught a brief flash indicating that the filmmakers might be hoping for a more optimistic sequel.

An alternative with a uniquely useful set of attributes

As a nuclear fission expert and enthusiast, I could not help wondering when Gibbs and Moore were going to address my favorite fossil fuel alternative.

Finally, an hour and 22 minutes into the hour and 40 minute movie, nuclear energy made a 6 sec cameo appearance.

But immediately after noting that GE produces both nuclear energy and wind turbines, the documentary moves on to show a GE spokesperson extolling the virtues of converting biomass – especially seaweed – into liquid fuel.

A critical viewer might wonder why a corporation with a seven decade-long history of selling nuclear energy systems is more interested in talking about its interest in biofuels than in marketing advanced developments in nuclear energy.

As shown in the film, corporations, billionaires and banks that have successfully educated customers about the virtues of wind, solar or biomass have ignored nuclear energy. None of the interviewed activists or scientists mentioned a desire to consider using nuclear as an alternative to both fossil fuels and the more heavily popularized renewables.

Perhaps it is because nuclear fission, using elemental fuels that contain several million times as much energy as a similar mass of fossil fuels or biomass, changes everything.

What’s so different about fission?

Fission doesn’t depend on a massive infrastructure of ships, pipelines or railcars. Its conversion equipment is rarely exposed to the weather and its shielding and external hazards protection enables structures, systems and components that last many decades.

Fission provides a virtually unlimited source of power to enable humanity to flourish while gradually shrinking our environmental footprint.

Aside: Commodity businesses like energy don’t like anyone to know that accessible supplies are virtually unlimited. That knowledge doesn’t support high prices. End aside.

Fission isn’t wildly popular, especially among people and corporations that have prospered by moving vast quantities of extracted or harvested material rapidly through supply lines that span the globe.

Nuclear fission power also isn’t popular among nihilistic scholars who consider Albert Camus to be an inspiring visionary.

People in the “peak oil” wing of Malthusian thinking almost purposely ignore fission. They forget that M. King Hubbert’s 1956 paper titled “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels” was the seminal paper that inspired their worried projections.

That paper included a virtually ignored pair of graphs that should have been the source of incredible optimism among thinking people. But some studiously avoid any and all causes for optimism, especially when it comes to respect, growth and development of their fellow human beings.

This optimistic – scary to multinational petroleum interests – pair of graphs were on the last slide in a March 1956 presentation by M. King Hubbert to the American Petroleum Institute

At least one other reviewer for Planet of the Humans thought about nuclear energy while watching a film that barely mentions it. Here is a quote from Peter Bradshaw’s piece in The Guardian about the film.

I found myself thinking of Robert Stone’s controversial 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise, which made a revisionist case for nuclear power: a clean energy source that (allegedly) has cleaned up its act on safety and really can provide for our wholesale energy needs without contributing to climate change, in a way that “renewables” can’t.

Gibbs doesn’t mention nuclear and – a little lamely, perhaps – has no clear lesson or moral, other than the need to take a fiercely critical look at the environmental establishment. Well, it’s always valuable to re-examine a sacred cow.

“Planet of the Humans review – contrarian eco-doc from the Michael Moore stable” by Peter Bradshaw, published April 22, 2020 by The Guardian

Gibbs’s single mention of nuclear was apparently so brief that Bradshaw missed it.

I believe the film offers two clear choices, one overt and one that is barely visible.

1. We can continue on our present path of depending on massive extractive industries. That path will end – whether we like it or not – with either reduced prosperity, reduced human population, or both.

2. We can reject the lessons we have been carefully taught by people with vested interests and develop a truly different kind of power source. Nuclear fission is here and available, but rich and powerful interests see it as a serious threat that must be fought, ignored or both.

But fission opposition backers are billionaires and we aren’t.

As far as I know, there isn’t a single Atomic Insights reader that has to worry about having millions or billions of dollars worth of existing capital that will lose most of its value in a fission-powered world.

We can see a much brighter future ahead.

Atomic Show #273 – Liz Muller, Deep Isolation

Thu, 04/23/2020 - 22:53
Liz Muller, co-founder and CEO, Deep Isolation

Liz Muller is a co-founder and the CEO of Deep Isolation, a company that makes the modest claim of having invented a solution to nuclear waste.

The politically unsolved waste issue has plagued nuclear energy development since the mid 1970s. That was when it became abundantly clear that the original plan to recycle used fuel wasn’t going to be easily achieved.

During the intervening half century, it’s accurate to declare that there has been essentially no measurable progress made. Steps have been taken to move forward, but just as many steps have been taken in the opposite direction.

Until recently.

Inspired to think differently

The bright idea that forms the basis for Deep Isolation came to Richard Muller when he heard that there was interest in using boreholes as a way to achieve geologic storage. That is the solution path that most responsible scientific organizations have recommended.

In lingo common among my former shipmates, Muller experienced a BFO – blinding flash of the obvious.

But soon Muller realized that the people who had restarted the discussion about boreholes, a rather old idea for nuclear waste disposal, weren’t planning to use horizontal drilling. Instead they were thinking of very deep vertical holes.

He had initially thought they were taking the obvious – to him – step of capitalizing on the refined technology used in almost all state-of-the- art oil and gas wells in the United States.

Though he had not previously considered how boreholes might help solve the nuclear waste issue, he recognized that horizontal laterals mitigated most of the challenges that plagued vertical holes.

Partnering with a specialist in community engagement

Once Richard Muller had been inspired to think of using horizontal drilling to address nuclear waste disposal, he turned to Liz Muller, who was a specialist in environmental issues and related community engagement.

After several months of focused technical evaluation efforts, the pair realized that their concept had sufficient merit and patentable intellectual property to turn it into a company.

Deep Isolation believes that its solution is not only technically sound, but it is uniquely well-suited to deployment. It’s a modular, local or regional solution to an often contentious problem that is gains political complexity when handled on a national level.

From a project management point of view, boreholes can reduce costs, risks, and schedules compared to a centrally sited repository. From a community point of view, they can address issues of equity, proof of safety, and community benefits.

Acceptance building rapidly

Like all newly formed companies with a great idea, Deep Isolation realized there was no direct linkage between having a uniquely valuable idea and achieving success in implementing that idea.

During the past year, however, the company has been successfully attracting a talented team, building an impressive roster of advisors, obtaining $14 million in seed capital and attracting solid partners in the form of Bechtel and NAC International.

Liz Muller joined me on the day after the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day to describe the company that she and Richard have co-founded. She explained the technology, spoke about the continuing efforts to engage with communities and Deep Isolation’s approach to meeting customer needs.

She told me a bit about the company’s finances and provided a direct point of contact to her for people who listened to the Atomic Show. To protect her from spammers, I won’t include that information here, but it’s in the audio.

I hope you enjoy the show. As always, feedback is welcome.

I’d also like to encourage Atomic Insights listeners, especially those who love to get into technical details, to take Ms. Muller up on her request for comments and feedback about their recently released safety calculations.

Here’s a link to a video that illustrates Deep Isolation’s technology.

Atomic Show #272 – Karnfull Energi

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 12:37
One of several stickers available at Karnfull’s online store

Karnfull Energi is a young company that is successfully proving that nuclear energy is more popular than politicians believe. They have created the world’s first 100% nuclear energy offering.

Customers have responded with their wallets, showing they are willing to pay a modest premium for higher quality electricity.

People are shopping at Karfull’s online store. Hats, tee shirts and stickers displaying the Karnfull logo and proudly proclaiming the wearer is running on 100% nuclear are showing up in some surprising places.

How is it possible to market 100% nuclear electricity?

In Sweden, Karnfull’s home market, electricity generators produce power with a certificate of origin that allows marketers to identify the sources of the power they sell to customers.

This is a well established system for wind and solar energy. While having a free-ranging conversation during a ski weekend, Karnfull co-founders decided that people who like nuclear energy should have the same opportunity express their preference.

Research, legal frameworks and a web site required a few months of intensive effort.

Karnfull’s offering was packaged and made available for customer purchase in August 2019. It was announced with a press release on a weekend when most Swedes are on an end-of-summer holiday. It was a time when there was little news, that might have helped Karnfull gain the attention of writers and editors.

How is it going so far?

Within 24 hours, they had reached the sales goal they set for their first month in operation.

Karnfull’s success has had a major impact on the conversation about nuclear energy in Sweden. It may have already played an important political role in moving several parties away from a previous agreement to move towards 100% renewable energy by 2045.

Karnfull’s co-founders, John Alhberg and Christian Sjölander, are long-time friends who have each had successful careers in international businesses. Between them, they are fluent in Swedish, German, French, Japanese, Italian and, as you will hear, English.

They have a fascinating tale and ambitious plans to expand their concept into additional markets.

Karnfull Energi is on Twitter @karnfull_en

Aside: John and Christian happily admit that the certificate of origin system is an artificial construct that does not reflect the true nature of electricity movement. But it is the tool that is available. End Aside.

I first heard John describe Karnfull on Titans of Nuclear episode 255 (March 31) and immediately began making arrangements for his appearance here. I would rank this as one of the most fun Atomic Shows produced so far.

Please have a listen. Comments and constructive feedback are always welcome. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised by the audio quality and lack of lag on a call between Florida and Sweden.

Atomic Show #271 – Improving Nuclear Cost and Schedule Performance

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 09:17
Great Blue Heron
Patiently watching. Perhaps waiting for promised performance improvements.

One of the most persistent arguments against the rapid deployment of nuclear energy is that projects are too expensive and take too long to complete.

Based on the performance of the few nuclear plants that have begun construction in the West during this century, it’s hard to disagree.

But there is solid evidence from projects completed in other countries that shows that poor cost and schedule performance is not an inherent feature of nuclear power plant construction projects.

For this episode of the Atomic Show, I gathered three of the world’s leading experts on the topic of nuclear power plant cost and schedule performance and paths to improvement.

Jessica Lovering is the lead author of a frequently cited Energy Policy paper titled Historical construction costs of global nuclear power reactors. She is completing a PhD thesis at Carnegie Mellon focusing on economics of micro reactors, which she defines as less than 10 MWe.

Kirsty Gogan and Eric Ingersoll are Managing Directors at a UK consulting firm called Lucid Catalyst. In late 2018, they authored a report for the Energy Technologies Institute titled Nuclear Cost Drivers. As part of the research conducted for that report, their team interviewed the project managers for 33 recently completed nuclear projects.

They’ve since participated in international industry working groups focused on identifying and implementing improvements using lessons learned from several industries that produce products with size, complexity and oversight that is similar to those associated with nuclear projects.

These experts share valuable accumulated information and have numerous suggestions for improvement that have a sound basis for leading to better results in the future.

Please have a listen. As always, your comments and suggestions are welcome.

X-300 Blazing a Different Kind of Trail in Smaller Nuclear Reactor Development

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 13:13
BWRX-300 courtesy of GEH

GEH spent about half a billion dollars designing, testing and certifying the ESBWR. Despite that investment, the 1,520 MWe Enhanced, Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) design documents are just gathering dust with no active projects in sight.

GEH is a joint venture between US-based GE, a $95 billion annual revenue conglomerate and Hitachi, a Japanese technology leader that is in the same corporate weight class as GE.

Inside both companies, nuclear power is a relatively minor and often-neglected business unit.

A small, but growing group of people working at GEH believe they have found a way to extract value from the trove of already reviewed and approved ESBWR licensing documents. They know that the ESBWR design has many positive attributes, but the product packaging, size and marketing are not well suited to the current power and heat market.

GEH’s new X-300 power station design is a rethought and repackaged ESBWR. The company believes they have successfully addressed the factors that convinced customers the ESBWR wasn’t worth building.

On Monday, March 30, I spoke with David Sledzik, SVP Sales and Product Management at GE, to learn more about GEH’s X-300 development and deployment plans.

Utilities don’t want to be first in line

One hard lesson from the slow start of the Nuclear Renaissance is that utility companies – and competitive power generators that used to be utilities – do not want to be first. They are interested in building proven machines that can be delivered at a predictable price on a predictable schedule. They won’t buy incomplete designs anymore.

Neither corporate boards nor public utility commissions will approve the almost open ended investments that are an inevitable feature of FOAK projects.

The federal government created the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program as a partial solution to the first mover avoidance problem. That program will help to fund construction of two demonstration projects that can be completed within five to seven years of the government’s final contract award.

The ARD program will require a significant matching investment from private company participants, but many believe the direct federal investment reduces the risk into the acceptable range.

Note: It is important to keep in mind that no one is promising that they will be able to complete a project by a certain date. The clock cannot start running until primary contracts are in place. No doubt there will be people who forget that fact when they begin criticizing and claiming missed deadlines

The financial boundaries of the ARD program encourage smaller projects.

GEH is part of a coalition of companies that will be responding to the DOE’s promised solicitation with a proposal that will include the first X-300 as the target demonstration technology.

5 times smaller version of already licensed design

The X-300 is fundamentally a smaller version of the ESBWR. That fact turns GEH’s investment in licensing the 5 times larger machine from a write off stored on a dusty shelf to something with real value.

Instead of starting a licensing review from scratch, GEH will submit licensing topical reports (LTR) that cover the differences between the X-300 and the ESBWR. These reports will allow the company to incorporate the previously approved features and analysis by reference, eliminating the need to do a full review.

That process started several months ago. On Jan 30, GEH announced that it had submitted the first LTR for the X-300 at the end of 2019.

Sledzik told me that the NRC expects a 12 month review cycle on each of the LTRs. Numerous reviews can be conducted in parallel.

The company has determined that the two step, Part 50 licensing process is better suited than the one step, Part 52 process to a first of a kind development project. Part 50 will enable earliest possible completion and operation. Part 50 licensing means that construction can be started after a preliminary safety analysis and a issuance of a construction permit.

Even though using Part 50 licensing, the company and its partners will carefully approach construction sequencing. They need to be confident that they will not be slowed by significant redesign or need to rebuild already completed portions of the plant.

Smaller plants are easier to cool

It’s almost trite to point out that smaller nuclear plants produce proportionally less decay heat. It’s also obvious that it’s easier to cool cores with a smaller number of traditional fuel assemblies.

Based on design calculations and model simulations, GEH believes that the X-300 design can passively cool itself for at least 7 days without any external power or need for operator intervention.

Smaller plants are easier to build

Conventional engineering scaling laws say that cost per unit of output power should increase for a smaller unit. But those scaling laws do not recognize the importance of packaging costs.

As part of its design-to cost effort for the X-300, GEH has found a way to shrink the total size of the power plant – including buildings and supporting systems – by 90% when compared to the ESBWR. Even with a power output reduction of 80%, the result is that X-300 uses half as much material per unit power.

Using safety grade concrete as a useful comparison metric, the 1520 MWe ESBWR needs ~100 m^3/MWe; the 300 MWe needs ~50 m^3/MWe.

Another construction advantage of a smaller reactor core and the associated narrower containment structure is that the resulting system dimensionally fits within the capability of tunnel boring equipment.

Compared to traditional excavation techniques, tunnel boring machines can substantially reduce the time required to create the 40 meter deep hole that will house the reactor and containment portion of the X-300.

Advanced construction techniques will enable the containment structure to be assembled above ground and then sunk into the hole created by the boring machines. A significant design and testing effort is required to convince regulators that the containment system can be properly inspected both before installation and throughout the life of the reactor plant.

One advantage that GEH has over many of its competitors in the business of building smaller nuclear plants is that it is part of a conglomerate with a large steam turbine and generator division. GE’s steam power plant unit has deployed approximately 200 turbine generator sets that are virtually identical to the 300 MWe sets that will be paired with the X-300 reactor steam supply system.

Utilities are interested and investing

Though no utility has made a commitment to build an X-300, at least one utility, Dominion, has publicly announced that it is investing and participating in the X-300 development.

I spoke to Dan Stoddard, Dominion’s Chief Nuclear Officer, on Tuesday, March 31. Though he was careful to remind me that Dominion does not have any plans to build an X-300, he explained why his company was interested enough to make some “modest” investments in the technology development.

Dominion is committed to steadily reducing CO2 emissions. The company has recognized and is taking advantage of the steep cost reductions in solar power systems, but it believes there are limits to the total amount of solar power their system can accommodate while maintaining system reliability.

He acknowledged the fact that there is great enthusiasm about energy storage, but reminded me that 4 hours of storage is far from the amount needed to cover routine nighttime demands. When it comes to seasonal variations in solar power, existing forms of storage cannot begin to cope with addressing the challenge within any kind of reasonable cost.

So Dominion believes that nuclear energy is necessary to achieve CO2 emission goals, but the company isn’t interested in taking a “bet the company” risk. If expectations can be achieved, the X-300 appears to be a good fit for needs that will begin to rapidly grow in the late 2020s through the 2050s.

The projected cost of the plant – perhaps $700 M for a 300 MWe Nth of a kind unit – fits within the normal financial capability of the company. (That number is computed from company’s announced target of $2,250/kWe with a margin for error and using a more appropriate, single-significant-digit precision.)

The moderate power output means that it would be possible for the company to build several follow-on units on the same site without overwhelming transmission systems or causing major system bottlenecks.

Despite its history of increasing costs, the nuclear industry has successfully lowered costs for succeeding units on the same site. Project managers learn to improve scheduling efficiency, workers learn their jobs, permitting challenges smooth out, and supply chains strengthen. Even Plant Vogtle, no one’s shining example of excellent cost and schedule performance, has demonstrated significant improvement between unit 3 and unit 4.

Stoddard indicated that Dominion wasn’t the only utility interested and involved in the X-300. He wasn’t willing or able to name others or to give me any hints on which sites are under consideration to be the place where the DOE-sponsored demonstration will be built.

Bottom line is that GEH’s X-300 is a formidable competitive entrant into the smaller reactor field. If the company fully supports the project with its considerable financial and political heft, the product could be a resounding success.

Atomic Show #270 – Fastest Path to Zero

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 09:25

Suzanne (Suzy) Hobbs Baker serves as the Creative Director for Fastest Path to Zero. I recently spoke with Suzy and Steve Aplin, a consultant to the Canadian nuclear industry and frequent Atomic Show guest, about the work that Fastest Path to Zero has done and plans to do in the near future.

Fastest Path to Zero is an important initiative in the effort to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Here is their concise self-description from the About page of their website.

We are an interdisciplinary team of experts, including University of Michigan staff and students, working to support communities as they plan and pursue ambitious climate goals. We offer a variety of  tools to help communities transform their energy systems while adapting to a changing climate. Our tool belt includes big data analytics combined with a passion for human-centered design and engagement.

https://fastestpathtozero.umich.edu (accessed March 27, 2020) Diversifying nuclear industry by adding sizes

Suzy had an another commitment, so she had to depart early. For the second part of the show, Steve and I talked about micro modular reactors that might find their initial customers in the northern, often First Nation, communities in Canada.

He provided an important perspective on some of the unique opportunities and challenges that developers might face when seeking to deploy their systems to serve that diverse, and quite small market.

We also discussed how nuclear system development in multiple sizes and configurations increases the usefulness of nuclear fission and diversifies the nuclear industry.

Nuclear industry organizations that specialize in large projects should not feel threatened by the influx of people whose talents and philosophical focus make them more suited to rapid deployment of much smaller systems involving smaller teams and serving customers with smaller power or heat needs.

I hope you enjoy the wide ranging discussion. Your comments and feedback are always appreciated.

Note: I apologize the occasional audio interruption. Systems like Skype are getting more use than usual a means of maintaining personal connections across social distance. Even in the virtual world, traffic can cause unexpected and uncomfortable slowdowns.

Atomic Show #269 – Robert Bryce, A Question of Power

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 10:21

In the modern world, countries need a reliable electricity grid to prosper. Globally, demand for electricity is growing as a result of population growth, new ways to use electricity, and the effort to spread access to electrical power to a greater portion of the world’s population.

For the past four years, Robert Bryce has been intensively studying the electricity business, which he describes as the world’s second largest industry by revenue, trailing only the fossil fuel industry. He calculates that global annual electricity sales total approximately $2 trillion. He traveled to a number of different locations to learn how countries, states, cities and even individual businesses are creating, transmitting and using electricity.

His resulting book, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, was released on March 10, 2020. By the time it had been released, the world was in the throes of responding to the coronavirus and his well-planned book tour had been essentially cancelled.

I had the opportunity to talk to Robert to find out what he had learned about the electricity business and to to discuss some of the key findings in his book.

We discussed the big five in data processing – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft – and how their electricity needs have affected each one’s business decisions and location preferences. Together, they are already using 20 terawatt hours per year.

We talked how legal and black market marijuana farmers often produce their products in intensive, year round, indoor grow operations that consume approximately 800 W per square meter of building space.

We talked about a resort in the Lebanese mountains that obtains all of its electricity from a microgrid with solar panels and lead-acid storage batteries.

And we discussed the paradigm-shifting development of Oklo’s Aurora powerhouse and the company’s recently announced application for a combined license to build and operate the showroom floor model of the facility sometime before the end of 2024.

We also discussed the continuing importance of coal as an electricity generating fuel, the growing importance of natural gas, the impressive and successful effort to reduce the cost of wind and solar as generating sources, and the importance of nuclear energy today and in the future as all countries seek to improve the cleanliness of their electrical grids.

I think you’ll enjoy this conversation. As always, your feedback and commentary are welcome.

Atomic Show #268 – Jigar and Jake

Sun, 03/22/2020 - 12:11

Oklo Power recently announced that it had filed the first non-light water reactor combined license application ever submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Their 1.5 MWe fast spectrum, passively safe reactor represents a complete paradigm shift for nuclear energy.

It’s not a big, slow to build, hugely expensive project requiring complex financing structures. It’s a generator that will be built inside a power house occupying less than 5,000 square feet of space. No credible accident has been found that will cause a release of radioactive material or that will cause an increase in radiation levels outside of the confines of the power house.

In recognition of the importance of Oklo’s announced progress, Jigar Shah, the founder and president of Generate Capital and Jake DeWitt, a co-founder and the CEO of Oklo contacted me and asked to have a chat that would be an update to Atomic Show #247, published in Oct 2015.

I’ve been thinking about restarting the Atomic Show for several months; this request was just the motivation I needed to get moving.

As longtime Atomic Show listeners might remember, Jigar offered some tough love advice for the nuclear industry in terms of its need to rethink its political engagement strategy. As a leader in the renewable energy industry, Jigar has long been in favor of clean energy that includes nuclear, but he has often wondered why the nuclear industry isn’t easily identifiable and accessible when votes need to be counted to arrange supportive deals.

Jake and Caroline Cochran, Oklo’s co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, are often lonely voices inside of the nuclear industry when they work to explain the importance of establishing a framework that can support rapid deployment of advanced reactor projects. They are not terribly interested in science projects that produce a certified design to add to the growing inventory of options that no one is buying.

They are focused on designing, building, owning and operating a fleet of generators that can supply electricity, heat and perhaps additional products for customers that are not interested in owning or operating power plants. They know there are some enabling changes to be made and have been seeking to build alliances that can work together to enact the changes into law.

But their real focus is driving forward at the rate that private capital can sustain without waiting for the slowly moving legislative processes to catch up.

I think you will all enjoy the conversation between two aggressive clean energy business leaders.

Oklo has filed first combined license application (COLA) with the NRC since 2009

Wed, 03/18/2020 - 11:53
Aurora artist rendering (Image credit: Oklo)

Oklo, Inc. announced yesterday that its combined license application (COLA) to build and operate an Aurora at INL was undergoing acceptance review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Key project specifics

Oklo’s Aurora is a 1.5 MWe liquid metal fast reactor with heat pipes to move fission heat out of the reactor core and into the secondary power generation system.

The complete system will be housed in the basement of the Aurora powerhouse. Oklo expects to spend approximately $10 million to build the complete power plant and structure. That cost doesn’t include fuel or land; both of those will be leased from the Department of Energy under separately announced programs. The requested license and the initial fuel load both have a life of 20 years.

The expected operating cost for the first of a kind generator is $3 million/year. No licensed operator will be required during normal operation; two trained site monitors will maintain the powerhouse and the secondary power generation system.

After the plant has completed its scheduled operational period, used fuel will be returned to the DOE, the power station will be decommissioned and the permitted site will be vacated.

As part of the application process, the company has made a commitment to purchase appropriate financial assurance instruments to cover expected decommissioning costs.

The application covers five potential sites at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Four of the five are just outside of the fence for the Material Test Facility (MTF) and one is separated by less than a mile from the MTF. Aurora sits on approximately 1/4 of an acre of land, but a laydown area and parking facilities increase the size of each site to approximately one acre.

According to the submitted Final Safety Analysis Report (FSAR), the exclusion zone, the low population zone and the emergency planning zone for the reactor are all defined by the powerhouse walls. Extensive safety analysis did not identify any credible event that would release fission products or increase radiation levels outside of the building.

Splash opportunity lost

Embedded in yesterday’s announcement was the fact that Oklo submitted its COLA during the week of March 9-13..

It’s likely that the company had timed its submission to make a splash at the NRC’s annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), which was scheduled for March 10-13. That event, with approximately 3,000 registered attendants, would have been the best attended U.S. nuclear industry gathering of the year. Unfortunately, it, like so many other interesting and important events was cancelled to reduce the potential exposure of attendants to the COVID-19 virus.

There is little doubt that announcing the COLA during the RIC would have created a flurry of reactions from both nuclear industry insiders and from the energy press that normally covers the RIC. I regret not having had the opportunity to witness and participate in the buzz around the bar at the Bethesda North Marriott.

Important markers laid down

Even though the well timed splash never occurred, no one should overlook the importance of Oklo’s ground-breaking announcement. For the first time since 2009, a company has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review an application to build and operate a nuclear electricity production facility.

There are several additional progress markers associated with this submission. It is the first non-LWR (light water reactor) COL application ever. The company submitting the application is not a standard utility company, but a newly formed, wholly owned subsidiary of a venture-funded start up company founded in 2013.

The application filed is a prototype for a new license review process that has yet to be formalized but has been under development for several years at the NRC. Internally, it is referred to as a Part 53 process.

Aside: That nickname is derived from the current Part 50 and Part 52 processes. It’s unclear what happened to Part 51, if there ever was such a designation. End Aside.

Though there is still a lengthy journey ahead, Oklo has already broken some barriers and created a new paradigm. It should be abundantly clear that fission has the potential to serve energy markets that are not either huge central station electric power plants or military ships.

It is also becoming clear that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has internalized the guidance given by Congress and the Administration in recently enacted legislation. It is striving to regain its position as the world’s best nuclear regulatory body, with “best” having a expansive meaning along several different vectors.

Fission can improve mental health by alleviating climate doomsday thinking

Thu, 03/12/2020 - 10:51

There are countless stressed people who have been convinced that we are facing an existential crisis as a result of global heating driven by increased concentrations of carbon dioxide.

In contrast, I get more excited and enthusiastic with every passing day. And, no, I do not take drugs or live a cloistered life. I’m deeply involved with my community both online and in real life. I’m also an actively engaged grandparent who is excited about the future for my grandchildren and their grandchildren.

While I accept climate science, believe the models that show the potential effects of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and fully comprehend the nearly impossible task of altering the routine behavior of billions of residents of Planet Earth, I’m aware that effective tools are nearly ready for market introduction and rapid deployment.

These tools enable the production of abundant clean energy that can eventually be accessible to everyone. The available resource base of fuels needed to supply these tools is large enough provide both the energy needed to power society for thousands of years of increasing prosperity and the power required gradually correct the damage done by centuries of treating the atmosphere as a zero cost waste dump.

Nuclear fission is the enabling technology. The tools for using it are not limited to the same machines your grandfather learned about and that we are still operating today.

Though many may disagree with my thesis, I am convinced that a path requiring modification or replacement of thousands of power sources has a better chance of success than one depending on alterIng the behavior of billions of people.

Generally applicable truths about existing nuclear plants

In almost every available source of information about energy, nuclear plants are described as almost overwhelmingly expensive and difficult to construct. In works produced by authors that favor nuclear energy, those assumed characteristics are justified by the durable facilities, reliable output and emission free nature of the power.

Nuclear energy proponents routinely cite the vast number of labor hours required for each enormous project, but they often describe that characteristic as an advantage by talking about the numerous well-paying jobs that are created during the project design, approval and construction phases.

Nuclear energy opponents focus on high costs and delayed schedules, but they rarely acknowledge that the majority of the costs associated with nuclear power are in the form of solid wages and family-sustaining salaries paid to their fellow citizens and taxpayers. That money does not disappear and does not get concentrated into the coffers of multinational fossil fuel corporations.

Aside: This characteristic might be one of the reasons why nuclear energy opponents can accurately point to the lack of interest on the part of “Wall St.” to invest in nuclear energy development. Vendors haven’t produced outsized profits and investors have not realized generous capital gains. End Aside.

Older nuclear plants that are complete and operating are having difficulty justifying their continued existence to their corporate owners. The product those plants manufacture and sell is wholesale electricity. For the past dozen years, dating to a dramatic fall during the Great Recession, there has been a continued growth in supply capacity in a market with a flat or slowly growing demand.

As can be learned in any entry-level economics course, abundance in supply in absence of demand leads to low prices. That is even more true when the product in question is difficult to stockpile and must be used at the instant it is produced. Sustained low prices lead to lower total revenues, particularly for facilities that have minimal ability to increase their rate of production.

Basic economic theory holds that low prices driven by a market imbalance will eventually correct themselves. That happens with a combination of increases in demand caused by customers finding new uses for products that are more affordable to use and higher cost suppliers choosing to exit the market.

Low market prices are driving nuclear plant owners to closure decisions. Closing nuclear plants helps to correct the market imbalance and may restore wholesale market prices to a more profitable level for all production facilities that continue operating.

That natural market behavior gets confusing to outside observers when the suppliers that choose to exit seem to be some of the cleanest, highest quality, lowest cost sources in the market.

The overall message many informed people receive is that nuclear isn’t going to provide much help in addressing future energy needs or in addressing global atmospheric carbon dioxide budgets.

The conventional wisdom is a reasonably accurate picture of what nuclear energy is, but there are numerous reasons I believe that conception isn’t an accurate portrayal of what fission can be.

Fundamental truths about nuclear energy

Actinide fuels – a term that includes uranium, plutonium and thorium – contain about 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as petroleum. That is the next most concentrated fuel per unit mass. To visualize that advantage consider the fact that a pound of uranium contains as much potential energy as 30 standard tanker trucks full of oil.

Because actinides are dense metals, a pound of uranium occupies 53 cubic centimeters. That’s a sphere slightly larger than a standard golf ball (40 cm^3)

That energy dense fuel contributes to the fact that nuclear power systems need substantially smaller amounts of input material – including consumed fuel – per unit of energy output than other power sources.

Nuclear fission has the potential for impressive cost reductions and improvements in the amount of time needed to deliver additional power once the decision is made to make a new investment.

Making fission less costly

With some exceptions, several generations of nuclear designers and operators did not place a high priority on cost control.

That changed in 2008, when the combined effects of the shale revolution and the global financial crisis lowered the market price of natural gas by a factor of 3-4 over the levels that were common during 2003-2008.

A whole generation of mid-level nuclear engineers and nuclear business innovators has been inculcated with a different awareness of cost than the one that influenced previous generations.

Though still understanding the importance of creating, operating and maintaining safe systems, they are aware that they must address cost effectiveness. If they don’t, the technology that attracted their interest will fade away as customers opt for cheaper competitors.

Two primary avenues exist for substantial cost reductions.

One path focuses on radical simplification that can eliminate the potential for system damage from postulated situations. If engineers, operators and regulators can be convinced that there is no potential for any damage, they can be convinced that it’s safe to eliminate the multiple layers of active safety systems designed to mitigate the postulated damage.

Another path focuses on improvements to fission reactors that can enable higher operating temperatures and more efficient heat conversion cycles. Many of the reactor technology improvements are also aimed towards more efficiently using actinide resources. Light water reactors use just 0.5%-0.7% of mined uranium.

Improved resource efficiency can reduce the amount of material mined, enriched and fabricated per unit of electricity or heat produced. It results in smaller quantities of highly radioactive waste needing careful storage and eventual permanent isolation. Improved cycles can reduce the duration of required isolation from several thousand years to roughly 300 years.

These improved cycles can reuse or recycle some of the fuel materials that have previously been categorized and stored as “waste.” That’s why it’s more common to hear nuclear professionals referring to nuclear waste as future fuel.

Nuclear energy system designers are incorporating technological advances from fields outside of nuclear energy to make their systems more attractive. They are working to reduce initial capital costs, to capture and analyze more operating data, and to improve their ability to effectively address public and regulatory concerns.

All are keenly aware of the fact that replication is a key path towards lowering costs. They know that scale economies do not result from driving towards ever larger unit sizes. Instead, they come from scaling the entire enterprise of supply, training, and project management.

It’s often said that countries should seek to “standardize” their nuclear programs by focusing on just one or two specific designs. In a country with an energy supply system as vast as the United States, that advice is likely to be counter-productive.

Vendors should seek to stabilize and standardize their own designs to take advantage of series production economies, common training, standard licensing processes, and interchangeable parts. But there is sufficient market need for clean electricity, heat and motive power to allow a variety of solutions to compete.

Examples of exciting advanced nuclear developments

It wouldn’t help improve anyone’s mental state if I failed to point to specific examples of the improved fission power systems under serious development.

Here are two brief overviews of projects that have captured my attention and revived my own thinking during the past several months.

NuScale and UAMPS

NuScale is a fifteen year old start-up company that grew out of several research projects at the University of Oregon. It has designed a standard module that produces 60 MWe. NuScale filed a design certification application with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December 2016.

All indications are that the review has been progressing on schedule with a final approval expected by the end of 2020.

Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) is lined up to be NuScale’s first customer for a 12-unit (720 MWe) power station that should be complete and operating on a site within the boundaries of the Idaho National Laboratory sometime in the 2026-2028 time frame.

NuScale’s application required 12,000 pages. It represents an investment of more than 2 million engineering hours and cost more than $500 million.

While the NRC has been reviewing NuScale’s application the company has been working diligently to create an effective supply chain of component and material vendors. As the probability of successful review has increased through the various stage of the process, that effort has intensified.

Oklo and INL

Any day now, Oklo will be formally submitting a combined license application (COLA) for its 1.5 MWe sodium cooled fast reactor. The company has an site use agreement with the Idaho National Laboratory. If the review proceeds as planned, the license might be issued within 2 years and construction might be completed within a year or two after that.

That news might be shocking to people who have not been paying close attention.

Oklo isn’t a well-known name, but the company has earned its credibility through quiet, but effective engagements with national laboratories, the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

At a recently conducted Advanced Reactor Summit, Jake DeWitt, the company CEO and co-founder, gave a detailed presentation on his company’s license application status. It might have sounded incredible to some in the audience, but it was closely followed by a presentation from the NRC’s Daniel Dorman that supported Jake’s statements.

Unlike several advanced reactor developers that chose to take their designs outside of the US, Oklo chose to work with with the NRC to develop a process for reviewing and approving applications that describe advanced technology with a different safety case from the standard large light water reactor.

The payoff of their engagement investment can be illustrated by comparing their application to the advanced light water-cooled SMR designed certification application (DCA) that NuScale submitted a little more than 3 years ago.

NuScale submitted their application under a “design specific review plan” that was a lightly modified version of the Standard Review Plan (SRP) applied to conventional light water reactors. That SRP is more than 4,000 pages long and has countless references to accumulated guidance. As mentioned above, NuScale’s DCA required 12,000 pages.

The NRC-Oklo agreed process for their very small sodium cooled fast reactor system was based on fundamental design criteria, written regulations, and a vendor described safety case.

Oklo’s DCA will be approximately 500 pages long. If application weight is an indicator, the level of effort required has been reduced by a factor of 24.

History isn’t destiny

There are many skeptics who claim that they cannot trust the nuclear industry to deliver on promises to reduce cost and accelerate schedules. They claim that the industry has made and broken promises for those identical improvements in the past.

But the improvements being undertaken today seem quite real and productive. Perhaps the nearly complete demise of the industry has made it possible for new thinking to be more acceptable and has silenced the voices of those who used to be able to say “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Though nuclear technology is as hot and as exciting as its always been, it would be difficult to find anyone inside or just slightly outside of the industry who claims that it is healthy, vibrant and growing.

There are real signs of vibrancy, and they have a chance of flourishing in today’s environment.

That is a very good thing. Our common perception of the future of humanity will be far brighter when nuclear fission begins fulfilling its natural potential.