Atomic Insights

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

Will heavy nitrogen become a widely used fission reactor coolant?

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 10:52

Heavy nitrogen has the potential to become as important to the future of atomic fission power system development as heavy water has been up until now. That’s a bold statement, so let me explain why I believe it’s true.

Are any nitrogen cooled reactors being used today?

One nuclear fission power system – the US Army’s “reactor in a box” the ML-1 – is known to have used nitrogen as its primary coolant and working fluid.

Nitrogen has features that make it an intriguing coolant option in a closed, Brayton cycle fission system; its thermodynamic qualities are virtually identical to atmospheric air. The overwhelming majority of Brayton cycle machines in operation and production today have been designed to use air.

With few, if any, modifications, a conventional Brayton cycle compressor can push nitrogen through a high temperature nuclear reactor. The resulting hot, high pressure nitrogen can then turn a conventional gas turbine machine. The turbine can discharge its gas into a large, low pressure cooler to return the gas to the initial compressor inlet conditions.

Like helium and CO2, nitrogen is compatible with the graphite that is used as a moderator and structural material in gas cooled reactors. Unlike oxygen, it does not react with carbon (graphite).

All this has been well understood for decades and is the basis for choosing nitrogen for the Adams Engine.

Why have almost all other nuclear system designers dismissed the nitrogen alternative?

The main objection to using nitrogen as a reactor coolant is that nitrogen has a feature that makes it seem less useful than helium. That is the coolant gas selected by the overwhelming majority of those who believe gases have utility as reactor coolants in reactors capable of achieving gas temperatures higher than 700 ℃. (There are many nuclear reactor designers who dismiss all gas coolant options. Reasons for their dismissal are beyond the scope of this article.)

Unlike helium, nitrogen absorbs neutrons. In fact, its broad spectrum neutron absorption coefficient – a measure of probability for the reaction to occur – is fairly high at 1.83 ± 0.03 barns. That number is high enough that nitrogen is used as a secondary means of shutting down the British CO2-cooled Advanced Gas Reactors (AGR). (See pg. 21)

Nuclear reactor engineers work diligently to eliminate materials that absorb neutrons from their designs; neutrons absorbed by any material that is not fuel are wasted and reduce fuel efficiency. All else being equal, a reactor that contains more neutron absorbing materials will need more fissile material to be loaded to achieve the same operating cycle length.

Effects on fissile material efficiency are not the only reason to worry about putting neutron absorbers into fission reactors. When an atom absorbs a neutron it becomes a different isotope; that new isotope can create its own problems.

When atmospheric nitrogen is exposed to a neutron flux, it undergoes an N-P reaction. (That the shorthand for a reaction where an atomic nucleus absorbs a neutron and promptly emits a proton.) In the case of N-14, the most common nitrogen isotope, the N-P reaction creates carbon-14 (C-14).

C-14 decays with a low energy beta (nuclear electron) emission to become N-14. Essentially, one of the neutrons in radioactive carbon becomes a proton, producing stable nitrogen. That decay event is a lot slower than the N-P reaction that created the C-14 – after 5,730 years, only half of a mass of C-14 will have turned back into N-14.

C-14 is part of our earthly environment because it is constantly being created in the upper atmosphere where nitrogen is exposed to cosmic radiation. However, elevated quantities of C-14 are perceived to pose a risk to living organisms. Other nuclear reactors produce C-14, but releases of C-14 are tightly controlled. Production is avoided if at all possible.

Aside: There are valuable uses for C-14 today and more that are being developed. It is possible to turn the disadvantage of constantly producing C-14 into a revenue source that might even become a profit center, but that path isn’t within the scope of this article. End Aside.

One other difference between helium and nitrogen that sometimes enters the discussion about coolant alternatives for gas cooled reactors is the fact that helium has an attractively high specific heat transfer coefficient.

Per unit of mass, helium will transfer 5 times as much heat as nitrogen. But, helium is a light, monatomic gas. Its molecular weight is 4 atomic units. In comparison, nitrogen is a stable diatomic gas with a molecular weight of 28. Since all gases have the same molar volume, at the same temperature and pressure, nitrogen is 7 times as heavy as helium.

A volume of nitrogen has about 40% more capacity for moving heat as the same volume of helium. Compressors and turbines move volumes, not masses.

Partly out of habit and partly because of the challenges associated with managing C-14, virtually all high temperature gas cooled reactor designers have stuck with helium as their choice of coolant. Even though many reactor-decades worth of operational experience has been accumulated with CO2 as a coolant, that gas breaks down at the temperatures envisioned for HTGRs.

Choosing helium has forced gas cooled nuclear power system designers to deal with the considerable challenge of designing and fabricating special purpose helium machinery. Reactors heat sources tend to work well with helium as their cooling medium. It’s a much more difficult gas to move with compressors or circulators and to use to spin turbines.

But the engineers who design reactors are usually not well versed in heat engine design and manufacturing processes. They choose the gas that seems best for their part of the power system. They are often in charge in nuclear power plant design organizations.

Enter heavy nitrogen

Atmospheric nitrogen consists of a predictable ratio of two stable isotopes. 99.67% of them are N-14, an atom that contains 7 neutrons and 7 protons. But 0.36% (36 atoms out of 10000) are N-15, an atom that contains 7 protons and 8 neutrons.

That extra neutron makes the atom extremely reluctant to allow another neutron into the nucleus. The broad spectrum cross-section for neutron absorption for N-15 is roughly 8,000 times lower than it is for N-14. N-15’s absorption cross section is even lower than helium.

Aside: I need to credit Atomic Insights participants for teaching me that heavy nitrogen might be a good solution to a difficult problem. Cyril R. first introduced N15 into a discussion about the NGNP project in March 2013. As you might notice if you review the comment thread, I resisted the idea at the time. John ONeill reintroduced the idea in an Atomic Insights comment posted on Nov. 6, 2018. Those discussions have been running around inside my mind for years, with periodic efforts to learn more. I admit it. I’m slow. End Aside.

Closed Brayton cycle machines using a reasonably pure form of N-15 as the fluid for both turning turbines and transferring heat from a high temperature gas reactor should overcome two obstacles that have stopped nuclear gas turbines from being developed.

They would be using a gas whose thermodynamic properties are virtually identical to atmospheric air. That allows the use of a broad spectrum of refined compressors and turbines that are in production today. Those machines have fully established supply chains for various components. The machines are accompanied by blueprints, maintenance manuals, operating manual and experienced technicians.

There will be some refinements required in bearings and ductwork, but those are largely external to the main parts of a turbo machine.

A small portion of N-14 will remain in an inventory of gas that is vastly enriched in N-15. It will still require some management. But reactor designers and operators inevitably must deal with impurities.

An interesting aspect of making this design choice is the fact that the reactor will be most reactive when its coolant is pure. Any event that results in a reduction in coolant purity will tend to make the reactor less reactive and may even result in halting the fission reaction.

If there is a major loss of coolant event, there will be provisions for refilling the system with available gases, likely either conventional nitrogen or atmospheric air. A major loss of coolant would likely be accompanied by shutting down the reactor for repairs, so there will not be a significant neutron flux and the replacement gas will not accumulate a substantial quantity of C-14 during the repair period before the system is again filled with an inventory of N-15.

There are current uses for N-15 on a laboratory scale. It’s a useful isotope for tracing biological processes like fertilizer uptake. According to current suppliers, the world market for high purity N-15 is less than $1 M annually. And that is for a gas where one supplier’s catalog lists a 5 L bottle as being available for $2,190.00.

There are existing production facilities and several different available processes that can separate N-15 from atmospheric nitrogen. A patent for one of the processes was granted to Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation in 2010 (US Patent Number 7,828,939 B2).

Aside: Soon after the original version of this post was published and shared, @Syndroma pointed out that there is serious interest in using N15 for nitride fuels for fast reactors. Nuclear Engineering International published an article titled Russia looking at isotope-modified nitride nuclear fuel about that application for heavy nitrogen. End Aside.

It seems reasonable to believe that production processes could be scaled to meet any substantial demand for the product. It’s also worth noting that this is not a material that will be consumed. It will be continuously cycled through closed loop systems. Any leaks from those systems will return the gas back into the atmosphere.

Opportunities, not predictions or guarantees

Closed Brayton turbo machinery using a fission heat source has been an elusive goal for a small number of people since the earliest days of atomic energy development. Nothing in this post is new information, so it’s entirely possible that its publication will not make any difference.

But the potential for addressing some of the world’s energy needs with a power system that combines an emission-free, abundant, affordable and reliable heat source with refined Brayton cycle heat engines is too attractive to ignore completely.

It is the Brayton cycle that makes natural gas power plants so quick and easy to erect. It is the Brayton cycle that makes them responsive and thermally efficient.

I’ll close with one final thought. When natural gas fired gas turbines are shut down because there isn’t enough demand for electricity or other power, they cool down quickly. Operators don’t purposely keep them warm because that consumes fuel.

A fission-heated Brayton cycle machine will stay warm for many hours as a result of radioactive decay heat generation. That might be a feature that makes the system even more attractive in applications where flexibility has a market value.

Is there a conspiracy against nuclear energy?

Sat, 11/14/2020 - 10:15

I have been accused of being a conspiracy theorist for pointing out the blindlingly obvious fact that nuclear energy competes for markets against fossil fuels.

There is abundant evidence showing how hydrocarbon interests have worked to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about nuclear power. Since the stories are spread over the 80 year period since atomic fission was discovered to be an incredibly dense source of heat, they can be overlooked or forgotten. For obvious reasons, there has been some effort to obscure the truth so researchers have to dig and keep working to get attention for their findings.

It’s completely logical to believe that at least some of the people whose jobs, wealth and power stem from one of the world’s largest enterprises recognize and respond to the competitive threat from nuclear energy.

It doesn’t take much of an exercise in deductive thinking to recognize that some of the people who have financial reasons to discourage nuclear energy will build support for their cause by making financial contributions to respected charities. Buying friends among groups that campaign for wildlife or for environmental protection is an investment that can provide major returns when it protects hydrocarbon markets from nuclear energy competition.

It’s not difficult to obscure sources of cash, especially when recipients have policies of confidentiality designed to protect donors from constant appeals from others.

Some ask why hydrocarbon interests haven’t just extended their businesses to include nuclear energy rather than engaging in the kind of discouragement I have discovered.

The answer is that commodity businesses usually suffer when there is too much supply of their primary products.

Even though industrial civilization depends on energy and fuel supply enterprises are enormous, PROFITS from the business are elusive. It is well known to be a “boom and bust” business. Busts nearly always occur as a result of an overabundance (glut). When supplies exceed demand by just a few percentage points, it doesn’t take long for storage systems to fill up. 

When that happens, prices fall precipitously.

Anticipation of a glut from new sources of supply can be enough to cause a substantial market price reduction. Conversely, anticipation of future shortages can produce almost unbelievable cash flows as prices rise when customers build inventories in fear of insufficient supplies.

Nuclear energy continues to pose the threat of making enormous capital investments worth less. When a entire countries like France or Sweden can shift almost all electricity production from coal and oil to nuclear over a 15 year period, it makes bankers, fossil fuel CEOs, sheiks, oligarchs, prime ministers, and others take action to prevent the possibility that others will “get it.”

I’m not sure how to overcome this obstacle to developing clean, abundant, reliable and affordable power, but I am hoping that increased recognition will help.

Note: I composed this as a comment in response to Zion Light’s excellent, heartfelt Medium post titled “Nuclear and nature: the love story no one wants to tell“. I published it as a comment there, but decided to share it here as well.

Atomic Show #287 – Darren Gale, VP Commercial Operations, X-Energy talks about Xe-100

Thu, 11/12/2020 - 13:23

X-Energy is the lead recipient for one of two industry groups selected to receive $80 M in Department of Energy (DOE) funding as part of a public-private partnership program to demonstrate advanced nuclear power plants on an aggressive time table.

Its primary partner in the endeavor is Energy Northwest, which currently owns and operates the Columbia Generating Station in eastern Washington. Energy Northwest will be the owner and operator of the demonstration power station, which will consist of a four-unit installation of X-Energy’s Xe-100 high temperature gas cooled reactor.

Each unit is designed to produce 80 MWe, resulting in a power station output of 320 MWe.

Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program

The award is part of the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which also includes two additional development pathways with longer horizons. The $80 M in FY 2021 funds is a down payment that will provide funds for completing detailed design work and beginning the licensing process.

Future appropriations will be required to complete the projects; the funding opportunity announcement for the program included an award ceiling of $4 B to be shared among three different development pathways.

For Atomic Show #287, I spoke with Darren Gale, X-Energy’s Vice President for Commercial Operations. Darren is the company executive with direct responsibility for executing the company’s contract with the Department of Energy and delivering on the promise to design, license and construct an advanced nuclear reactor power plant.

The ADRP has an aggressive target date for beginning to deliver electricity to the grid is the end of 2027. During our conversation, Darren explained how his company is positioned to deliver on its promise.

Xe-100 Design history

We spoke about how X-Energy has been working on its high temperature pebble bed reactor design for more than a decade. X-Energy was founded in 2009 by Kam Ghaffarian, a successful entrepreneur who founded Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT) in 1984. Dr. Ghaffarian remains the owner of X-Energy, but is being joined by additional investors.

The design is mature and the company has been engaging with the NRC for several years. It expects to be able to submit a license application within the next year or two; part of the uncertainty includes determining the most appropriate and streamlined licensing pathway.

The Xe-100 is a helium-cooled, high temperature pebble bed reactor that has a number of similarities to the Chinese HTR-PM. They share a common heritage tracing back through the South African HTGR program and to the German AVR demonstration reactor.

As Darren explains, the Xe-100 includes a number of refinements in its fuel design and in its fuel handling system that enable more efficient fuel use.

Another design difference is that each Xe-100 reactor/steam generator modules are connected to its own Rankine cycle steam turbine. In the HTR-PM design, two reactor/steam generator modules feed a single larger turbine.

The 80 MWe power output selection was influenced, in part, by the availability of off-the-shelf steam turbine power plants. Unlike light water reactors, the Xe-100 will produce steam at temperatures (565 ℃) and pressures (16.5 MPa) used in modern supercritical steam systems.

Like the HTR-PM, Xe-100 reactors are continuously fueled while operating, eliminating the need to schedule refueling outages. There will still be a need to periodically shut down the reactor for inspections and steam turbine maintenance. X-Energy expects that there will be more requirements during the early years of operation while the company and the regulator gain experience and understanding of operational effects.

Eventually, though, the company expects to achieve somewhat higher than average availability than conventional reactors that require unavoidable outages for refueling.

Project location

The project will be built in eastern Washington at WNP-1, a site that was licensed for construction of a nuclear power plant in 1975. Using a site that has already been reviewed and approved for use as a nuclear plant greatly reduces the amount of time and effort required for long lead time environmental impact reviews, seismic surveys, and site pre construction surveys.

Though the original plant was never completed, certain civil structures, including a water intake system and pump house were completed before the project was cancelled. Darren explained that the existing infrastructure at the site would require refurbishment, but it enables a more rapid timeline than a greenfield.

Employment opportunities

X-Energy is in the hiring mode. The Xe-100 team head count is approximately 50. Some of the necessary tasks will be completed by contractors. But Darren expects that the permanent team will expand to include 200 or more people within the next year or two.

Most of the project design work is taking place at X-Energy’s Rockville headquarters, but current restrictions related to COVID-19 have required some creative uses of remote work, multiple buildings, and video conferencing. As a result of the learning that has come with that experience, X-Energy will be somewhat flexible in allowing some employees with key skills to work from remote locations.

The Xe-100 demonstration project is an exciting opportunity for advanced reactor designers and supporters to turn ideas and concepts into functioning equipment that generates real power and heat.

I hope you enjoy this episode and participate in the comment threads, especially if you have questions that are not addressed. As you will hear towards the end of the show, Darren expects to be able to return several times during the course of the construction project.

Open Letter to Interim Storage Partners and Holtec – please find better locations for your CISF projects ASAP

Sat, 11/07/2020 - 11:56
Image from Holtec submission to US NRC ADAMS ML16133A100) (Credit to Neutron Bytes)

Dear Holtec and Interim Storage Partners:

Both of you are actively pursuing permission from the US Nuclear Regulatory to build consolidated interim storage facilities in an area of southwest Texas and southeast New Mexico that seemed well suited for the purpose at the time that you began the process.

Times have changed since then. One of the primary changes is that a technological revolution has converted the Permian Basin from a region with steadily depleting oil and gas production into one of the world’s most productive sources of oil and gas.

A hard, questioning look at the current situation would reveal that it is time to abandon the current applications in favor of finding better locations.

Stubbornly continuing your current projects will impose significant damage to the future of nuclear energy in the United States. Since both of you have major business interests in this industry, you will be damaging existing and future profit centers within your enterprises for the sake of individual projects with uncertain profit potential.

Neither proposed poses an actual physical risk, but they are both creating new political and public perception risks for an industry that needs to be repairing its image and building constructive alliances.

The material that some call spent nuclear fuel, some call “nuclear waste” and some prefer to call future nuclear fuel is safely and affordably stored already. Cancellation of your current projects will not impose any significant additional delay in addressing the “nuclear waste problem.”

Sincerely, Rod Adams

Why would I write such a letter?

On November 3, Texas Governor Greg Abbot sent a letter to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission that urged the agency to deny a license to Interim Storage Partners for the facility that would be located in his state.

On July 28, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham sent a much shorter letter to President Trump expressing her opposition to the Holtec project that would be sited in her state.

Both letters claim that consolidated interim storage facilities for used nuclear fuel would pose unacceptable risks to the Permian Basin, which has recently become the most productive oil and gas extraction region in the United States. That region is near the top of the worldwide list of oil and gas production.

Both governors (one Republican and one Democrat) raise the specter of terrorist attacks and describe the financial harm that would be imposed if radioactive materials were to be forcefully distributed across areas that annually provide their states with billions of dollars in tax revenues from resource extraction.

In my opinion, it is counterproductive to stubbornly pursue speculative projects in the face of such strong opposition.

Opposition has deep pockets

Protect the Basin isn’t a typical antinuclear organization. It is an initiative of the Permian Basin Coalition of Land & Royalty Owners and Operators. Their financial resources are, for all practical purposes, infinitely large.

They are legitimately worried about becoming the resting spot for material that experts in the field have called “ultra-hazardous” and whose current caretakers believe needs to be moved to allow more productive uses of existing sites.

Because they have legitimate concerns, they have decided to go “all out” in an effort to make sure the facilities never get built. Even if licenses are awarded they will make every effort to ensure that no material is ever moved and placed on the proposed sites.

Their actions include frequent appearances by spokespersons on local radio and television talk shows. But they aren’t limiting their communications efforts to invited appearances or public meetings; they are buying air time and running scary commercials.

Arguments touting the safety of the cask storage systems or the unblemished history of moving nuclear waste are unconvincing because opponents have a extensive bibliography available that documents concerns and scary analysis from experts in government and from within the industry.

Permian Basin residents are justifiably offended by any implication that their area is desolate, needs jobs, or is better suited for storing used nuclear fuel than current sites. They adamantly disagree with any assertions that it would be logical to move fuel from a place like the coast of Maine to west Texas or New Mexico to free up “valuable” land for development.

The campaign to inform the public about their views about risks will continue as long as the controversial projects remain active.

Spokespeople for the opposition have told me personally that they are not opposed to nuclear energy. They assert that it is an important energy source that needs to be maintained, improved and developed further.

Member of Protect the Basin might someday become valued allies that will actively support long term waste disposal or interim storage projects located in better spots. But until the current projects are cancelled and there is no longer a perceived threat to their livelihoods, they will be firm and loud about their opposition to being the site for hosting used nuclear fuel.

Their professionally-designed and well-supported communications efforts will persuade even more people that the nuclear industry has no viable plan for its waste products. More people will be taught to believe that waste is a big enough reason to avoid nuclear energy and forgo its numerous advantages.

There are better locations and better paths to a future that diminishes the false perception that nuclear waste is an unmovable obstacle to further nuclear energy development. We need to abandon our current path and move towards a more productive one.

Atomic Show #286 – Chris Wright, CEO Liberty Oilfield Services

Fri, 11/06/2020 - 09:40

Chris Wright is the CEO of Liberty Oilfield Services, which recently became the second largest US company performing the work of drilling and completing oil and gas wells in shale formations.

He is a leader in the field of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal well drilling, having been involved in the revolutionary technology development since the days when George Mitchell was stubbornly experimenting in the Barnett Shale.

Among those who focus on the energy industry and attempt to understand its current situation in order to gain some insights into the future, the growing natural gas supply in the US gets a lot of attention. Cheap natural gas gets credit for a steady drop in annual US CO2 emissions as it has pushed a growing amount of coal out of the market.

That same product – cheap natural gas – has also been blamed for reducing revenues enough at a number of existing nuclear plants to push their owners into closing the plants for economic reasons. Despite successful efforts to reduce operating costs at those plants, shrinking top-line revenue from selling electricity into low-priced wholesale markets means they do not make enough money to meet corporate goals.

After hearing Chris Wright on Robert Bryce’s excellent Power Hungry podcast, I realized it would be worthwhile to invite him onto the Atomic Show to provide a deeper explanation of the revolution in natural gas production.

Chris gets into some deep technical details about how technology has dramatically improved in his field. He explains how competition and a relentless focus on providing a better product has driven that improvement.

He is justifiably proud of the benefits that his industry has provided to the world, but he also provides some important support and advice to people who are working to improve nuclear fission energy.

It might surprise many, including some of Chris’s colleagues, to learn that Chris describes himself as a huge supporter of nuclear fission energy. He provides some compliments and some tough love for those of us who are working to improve the technology’s chances of competing and serving customer needs.

I think you will thoroughly enjoy listening to Chris’s thoughts about energy and its importance for human development and prosperity.

As always, I’m interested in hearing what you think. I’m pretty sure this show will provoke some deep thinking in what might be completely new directions, so I’d like you to share some of those thoughts.

Atomic Show #285 – MMR at Illinois

Tue, 11/03/2020 - 10:56

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne has a stretch goal of completing its next research and test reactor by the end of 2025. It has assembled a team that includes several other major universities, national labs, and industrial partners.

It has selected the MMRTM, a product that is being developed by USNC (Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation), for its ability to meet most of a long list of important attributes that will support a wide range of university research and development goals.

For this Atomic Show, I spoke with Dr. Katy Huff, Dr. Caleb Brooks – both of whom are on the UIUC engineering faculty – and Mark Mitchell, the USNC executive leading the MMR development program.

They explained the history of their visionary project and provided the basis for their firm belief that they can license and build a new research and test reactor within the next five years.

Why does UIUC need a new reactor?

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne (UIUC) has a long tradition of leadership and innovation in nuclear science, technology and engineering. For 38 years (1960-1998) it proudly operated the Triga-Mark II research reactor to support student development and to contribute to the advancement of nuclear science and technology.

But that valuable asset was, like so many US research reactors, decommissioned during the Dark Ages of US nuclear power development in the 1990s.

By the end of that decade, student enrollment in nuclear engineering and science majors had dropped to near the fiducial level, there were few, if any prospects for new nuclear power projects, and federal support for nuclear research had been completely eliminated in during several budget cycles.

Universities didn’t see any reason to keep supporting research reactors, so they shut them down.

But concerns about fossil fuel sustainability and climate change have helped to renew global interest in nuclear energy development and deployment. Students are again selecting nuclear focused majors and are developing new ideas about ways to use nuclear technologies to improve the human condition.

Even though student interest in nuclear has been growing in the US for at least 15 years, university research reactor shutdowns have continued and no new ones have been built.

Leaders in nuclear at UIUC decided several years ago that they need to take aggressive action to address the growing challenge of increasing student population and fewer physical reactors for them to use in their education, research and professional development programs.

Why the MMR? Why now?

University research reactors have always been modest in their thermal power capability, and they have generally been designed with passive safety features that make them appropriate for student learning and management.

Even though the 15 MWth MMR is designed to provide useful power and electricity, it is also designed to be extremely safe without operator action. With its molten salt heat storage separating the nuclear reactor heat source from the adjacent plant heat conversion system, it is also designed for flexibly shifting its production from electricity to heat or to other useful products.

That flexibility is attractive to a large university that has a variety of student research endeavors along with a large physical plant that includes on-campus power and heat generation. Like many US universities, UIUC has a district heating system that supplies more than 200 buildings with steam heat. The total load during winter months is more than 50 MWth.

In addition, the university power plant supplies 50-75 MWe from a growing assortment of renewable energy systems as well as the coal and natural gas that provide the majority of the power.

UIUC students have expressed a great deal of interest in moving their university away from fossil fuels and have targeted their campus steam and power supply as something that needs an emission-free replacement.

Since Illinois is home to more nuclear power plants than any other state in the US, many of the students and town residents already have a favorable view about nuclear energy as a tool for addressing CO2 emissions.

In the FY2020 budget, Congress and the Administration included funds for the Department of Energy to create an Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program that included pathways amenable to university research, demonstration and test reactors.

That funding potential stimulated the already developing team to move forward faster. They put together what they hope will be a winning proposal for one of the Risk Reduction awards that will be announced in December.

How can UIUC expect to complete a project by 2025?

UIUC has several advantages that enables a reasonable opportunity for successfully completing a new research and test reactor by the end of 2025.

The system fits well within the established parameters of a research and test reactor that can be operated with an NRC class 104 license. The process for these license applications is well established and can be completed in significantly less time than a commercial class 103 license process.

As a university research reactor, UIUC has access to a DOE fuel leasing program that already has an allotment of the high assay, low enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel used in the MMR design. Fabrication services for the Triso and FCM fuel elements is already available on the research reactor scale.

With its large campus heat and power system, the university can be its own customer and has no need to engage in the lengthy process of arranging for off-take agreements for the heat and power that will be produced.

Project leaders have already begun the process of building community interest and support for hosting a new nuclear research reactor that can also help in efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.

The site of the existing power and heat plant has adjacent space that will enable the new thermal heat source to help reduce fuel consumption.

Other programs in the Grainger College of Engineering can also lend support and obtain value for their students.

How can I learn more about the project?

If our discussion piques your interest, you can find out more about the MMR at Illinois by visiting https://npre.illinois.edu/about/nuclear-powered-uiuc. You and also contact the project team at micro-reactor@illinois.edu.

As always, you can also engage in the discussion here. There is a good chance that one or more of the project team members will participate and address your questions or comments.

Atomic Show #284 – Meredith Angwin, Author of Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid

Fri, 10/16/2020 - 10:44

Meredith Angwin has become an authority on the arcane topic of governing electric grids in the United States. She’s concerned and thinks others will may share her concern when they recognize there is a key missing element in grid governance.

There is no organization or individual that is responsible for making sure that electricity is generated, transmitted and delivered to customers.

Various organizations, often with competing or conflicting interests, have shared responsibility for different parts of the system that includes generators, transformers, switchyards, transmission lines, distribution lines and billing systems, but “the market” has been assigned the responsibility of supplying wholesale electricity.

And that market is not the free market, but instead is a hybrid that is governed by an ever changing stack of layered rules where many of the important decisions are made by participant groups that do not include customers or even enabled representatives of customers.

A growing portion of the grid’s electricity is dependent on free, but uncontrolled natural flows. Another portion comes from generators whose fuel is delivered by capacity-limited pipes in a “just in time fashion.” When the natural flows are interrupted or something interferes in the pipelines’s capability to deliver fuel, generators stop producing power.

There are processes that can be called into action, but costs can skyrocket in times of scarcity. Some market players thrive in times of crisis and have few incentives to ensure those crises never arise.

Meredith has produced an accessible, clearly written book that reveals important aspects of a complex topic. It deserves to be on the reading list for people who are interested in electricity.

It belongs in the library of every congressional and senatorial office. At least one person in each staff should be assigned the task of reading it and preparing a report for their member.

Governors and state level legislators might want incorporate lessons revealed in the book and reconsider their decisions to rely more heavily on markets than on well-regulated monopolies with an obligation to serve.

Meredith is a delightful guest who brings the wisdom of a long and productive professional career to her writing and speaking engagements. I’m pretty sure you are going to like this show.

As always, I invite you to participate in the discussion thread.

Atomic Show #283 – The Good Energy Collective

Sat, 10/10/2020 - 18:05

Jessica Lovering, Rachel Slaybaugh, and Suzy Baker founded and lead Good Energy Collective, a policy research organization that is actively “building the progressive case for nuclear energy as an essential part of the broader climate change agenda.”

Inspired by the dynamic leaders and new organizations that are successfully making the case that addressing climate change is an imperative that demands immediate action, they determined that now is the time to build coalitions and join forces with others who share similar concerns.

They recognized that nuclear energy is often left out of discussions, and they believed that needed to change. They have each been studying and working in nuclear energy fields for a decade or two and understand that it is fundamentally capable of supplying the clean, abundant, reliable and affordable energy that should be more equitably available to everyone.

But they also recognized that “nuclear” needed to look very different from the image that it currently creates when the word is spoken or written.

Not only is there a need for additional new technologies and designs that make nuclear energy accessible to broader applications and a greater diversity of customers, but methods used to talk about nuclear energy need to be improved and modified to suit current times. Old ways of doing things need to be altered in recognition of past failures, real and perceived.

Though they believe there is a continuing role for large nuclear power plants that can serve the needs of densely populated cities, they also know that the spectrum of communities and customers is so large that it demands a wide variety of solutions.

They are devising and promoting new ways of engaging with people who might eventually choose to use nuclear technology to address their energy needs. But before that happens, they have to learn, trust and accept. They want to help create situations that have better chances of success because entire communities are supportive and encouraging.

Good Energy Collective was officially launched in August 2020, but it has been busily publishing reports, stimulating discussions and developing coalitions. Its leaders do not believe there is any time to waste. They are highly motivated to make rapid changes that will enable a better story to be told about the future of nuclear energy.

Please listen carefully to these amazing women tell their story and share their plans to modernize nuclear energy products, projects and perceptions.

Atomic Show #282 – Chris Keefer, Decouple Podcast

Sun, 10/04/2020 - 11:30
Chris Keefer – Decouple Podcast

Chris Keefer is the creator and host of the Decouple Podcast. He is an emergency room doctor whose activist bent and desire to make the world a better place has led him to become a nuclear energy proponent.

Chris is the founder and a director of an organization called Doctors for Nuclear Energy.

One of his biggest current efforts is serving as the co-director of #SavePickering, an initiative open to all who want to save and refurbish the Pickering nuclear power plant in his native Ontario.

That plant is a 6 unit facility currently rated at just under 3 GWe. It is one of the primary tools enabling Ontario to have one of the cleanest electricity grids in the world, with almost no contributions from any fossil fuels.

But it is currently scheduled to be closed. As is often the case in North America, most of Pickering’s electricity production will be replaced by generators that burn natural gas.

Chris and I chatted about our shared interests in nuclear energy, protecting nature and empowering humans to achieve greater prosperity. We agreed that increasing access to clean, reliable, abundant electricity is a key to achieving our goals.

I think you will enjoy the show. Please let us know what you think by participating in the comment thread.

Atomic Show #281 – Paris Ortiz Wines – Global Coordinator for Stand Up For Nuclear

Tue, 09/15/2020 - 22:38
Paris Ortiz-Wines
Global Coordinator, Stand Up for Nuclear

Paris Ortiz-Wines wants you to Stand Up for Nuclear Energy. She is the global coordinator for the annual, month-long event that includes actions in several dozen locations around the world.

On this episode of the Atomic Show, Paris explains how she came to be a pro-nuclear activist, why she believes nuclear energy is an important enabler of human prosperity, and why she believes that technology and prosperity are good for both people and the environment.

I think you will enjoy our conversation. I trust it will inspire you to learn more about the actions that are happening all around the globe. Even if you must do it from your home, please Stand Up For Nuclear and show your support of this important technology.

Atomic Show listener feedback request:

Sun, 08/16/2020 - 17:03

I’ve been experimenting with a service that uses speech to text technology to convert audio files into text documents. As a podcast listener, I’ve found transcripts to be valuable. It seems logical to assume they might be valued by Atomic Show listeners.

The speech to text service isn’t perfect, so there is a certain amount of overhead associated with producing the transcripts.

Therefore, I decided to ask you for your opinion. To make it a little easier to ensure that the opinion is an informed one, I used my selected service on a recent Atomic Show. I then invested some time in cleaning up the result.

Here is the link to a transcript of Atomic Show #278, my discussion with Mark Mitchell of USNC and Eric McGoey of OPG.

Please review it and let me know what you think.

Anyone who feels strongly about the value of this endeavor might want to make a contribution to help with the additional costs involved.

Economy of Scale?: Is Bigger Better?

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 06:07

It is possible for engineers to make incredibly complex calculations without a single math error that still come up with a wrong answer if they use a model based on incorrect assumptions.

Pick up almost any book about nuclear energy and you will find that the prevailing wisdom is that nuclear plants must be very large in order to be competitive. This notion is widely accepted, but, if its roots are understood, it can be effectively challenged.

When Westinghouse, General Electric and their international competitors first learned that uranium was a incredible source of heat energy, they were huge, well established firms in the business of generating electrical power. Each had made a significant investment in the infrastructure necessary for producing central station electrical power on a massive scale.

Experience had taught them that larger power stations could produce cheaper electricity and that electricity from central power stations could be effectively distributed to a large number of customers whose varying needs allowed the capital investment in the power station to be most effectively shared between all customers.

Their experience was even codified by textbook authors with a rule of thumb that said that the cost of a piece of production machinery would vary by the throughput raised to the 0.6 power. (According to this thumb rule, a pump that could pump 10 times as much fluid as another pump of similar design and function should cost only four times as much as the smaller pump.) They, and their utility customers, understood that it was much cheaper to deliver bulk fuel by pipeline, ships, barges, or rail than to distribute smaller quantities of fuel in trucks to a network of small plants.

Just as individuals make judgements based on their experience of what has worked in the past, so do corporations. It was the collective judgement of the nuclear pioneers that the same rules of thumb that worked for fossil plants would apply to nuclear plants.

Failed Paradigm

There have now been 110 nuclear power plants completed in the United States over a period of almost forty years. Though accurate cost data is difficult to obtain, it is safe to say that there has been no predictable relationship between the size of a nuclear power plant and its cost. Despite the graphs drawn in early nuclear engineering texts-which were based on scanty data from less than ten completed plants-there is not a steadily decreasing cost per kilowatt for larger plants.

It is possible for engineers to make incredibly complex calculations without a single math error that still come up with a wrong answer if they use a model based on incorrect assumptions. That appears to be the case with the bigger is better model used by nuclear plant planners.

For example, one assumption explicitly stated in the economy of scale model is that the cost of auxiliary systems does not increase as rapidly as plant capacity. In at least one key area, that assumption is not true for nuclear plants.

Since the reactor core continues to produce heat after the plant is shutdown, and since a larger, more powerful core releases less of its heat to its immediate surroundings because of a smaller surface to volume ratio, it is more difficult to provide decay heat removal for higher capacity cores. It is also manifestly more difficult, time consuming and expensive to prove that the requirements for heat removal will be met under all postulated conditions without damaging the core. For emergency core cooling systems, overall costs, including regulatory burdens, seem to have increased more rapidly than plant capacity.

Curve of Growth

Though the “economy of scale” did not work for the first nuclear age, there is some evidence that a different economic rule did apply. That rule is what is often referred to as the experience curve. According to several detailed studies, it appears that when similar plants were built by the same organization, the follow-on plants cost less to build. According to a RAND Corporation study, “a doubling in the number of reactors [built by an architect-engineer] results in a 5 percent reduction in both construction time and capital cost.”

This idea is extremely significant. It tells us that nuclear power is no different conceptually than hundreds of other new technologies.

The principle that Ford discovered is now known as the experience curve. . . It ordains that in any business, in any era, in any capitalist competition, unit costs tend to decline in predictable proportion to accumulated experience: the total number of units sold. Whatever the product (cars or computers, pounds of limestone, thousands of transistors, millions of pounds of nylon, or billions of phone calls) and whatever the performance of companies jumping on and off the curve, unit costs in the industry as a whole, adjusted for inflation, will tend to drop between 20 and 30 percent with every doubling in accumulated output.

George Guilder Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise Updated for the 1990s, ICS Press, San Francisco, CA. p. 195

In applying this idea, however, one must realize that the curve is reset to a new value when a new product is introduced and that there must be competition in order to keep firms focused on lowering unit costs and unit prices. In the nuclear industry, new products in the form of bigger and bigger plants continuously were introduced, and, after the dramatic rise in the cost of fossil fuel during the 1970s, there was little competitive benefit in striving for cost reduction during plant construction.

When picking the proper size of a particular product, the experience curve should lead one to understand that high volume products will eventually cost less per unit output than low volume products and that large products inherently will have a lower volume than significantly smaller products.

In the case of the power industry, it is very difficult to double unit volume if the size of a single unit is so large that it takes a minimum of 5 years to build and if the total market demand is measured in tens or hundreds of units.

Engines vs Power Plants

The Adams Engine philosophy of small unit sizes is based on aggressively climbing onto the experience curve. If a market demand exists for 300 MW of electricity, distributed over a wide geographic area, traditional nuclear plant designers would say that the market is not yet ready for nuclear power, thus they would decide to learn nothing while waiting for the market to expand.

In contrast, atomic engine makers may see an opportunity to manufacture and sell 15 units, each with 20 MW of capacity.

Depending on the distribution of the power customers, there might an opportunity to produce 150 machines, each with 2 MW of capacity. Though 2 MW sounds small to power plant people, 2,000 kilowatts is enough electricity for several hundred average American homes.

Though it sounds incredibly far fetched to people intimately involved with present day constraints regarding fissionable material, that same market might even be supplied with 1500 machines producing 200 kilowatts each. That is enough power to supply a reasonably sized machine shop, farm or apartment building with electricity. It might even be supplied by 15,000 machines producing 20 kilowatts each, or enough for a small group of cooperative neighbors to share. Current gas turbine technology begins at the 20 kilowatt level.

With the completion of each engine, the accumulated experience of design, production and engine operation will increase and provide opportunities for cost reductions.

There is plenty of competition and incentive for this cost reduction since there are dozens of fossil fuel engine makers who currently serve the need for power in smaller markets.

If the producers of Adams Engines are successful at providing the existing market need, the traditional nuclear suppliers may never see a demand build up for 1000 MW, and they may never even start on their own learning curve.

Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Atomic Energy Insights, when it was still a paper newsletter. It addresses numerous questions about small and micro reactors that are still being frequently asked today. For those questions, it is worth republishing. For historical reasons, I’ve decided not to change anything.