There are lots of great ideas out there for improving the way we do nuclear power. For instance, Transatomic Power recently proposed a novel type of molten salt reactor (MSR). The Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) Industry Alliance, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, has chosen a high temperature gas reactor (HTGR) as its reactor of the future candidate. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are all the rage, and a plethora of designs have been proposed. Unlike the others, Terrapower’s traveling wave reactor (TWR), which is backed by Bill Gates, actually has a fighting chance to be built in the foreseeable future – in China. With the possible exception of SMR’s, which have strong military support, the chances of any of them being built in the United States in the foreseeable future are slim. Government, the courts, and a nightmarish regulatory process stand in the way as an almost insuperable barrier.
It wasn’t always this way. A lot of today’s “novel” concepts are based on ideas that were proposed many decades ago. We know they work, because demonstration reactors were built to try them out. More than a dozen were built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. No less than 53 were built at Idaho National Laboratory! Virtually all of them were completed more than half a century ago. There are few historical precedents that can match the sudden collapse from the vitality of those early years to the lethargy and malaise prevailing in the nuclear industry today. It’s sad, really, because the nuclear plants that actually are on line and/or under construction are artifacts of a grossly wasteful, potentially dangerous, and obsolete technology.
The light water reactors (LWRs) currently producing energy in this country use only a tiny fraction of the energy available in their uranium fuel, producing dangerous transuranic actinides that can remain highly radioactive for millennia in the process. Many of the new designs are capable of extracting dozens of times more energy from a given quantity of fuel than LWRs. Molten salt reactors would operate far more efficiently, could not melt down, and would consume dangerous actinides in the process, leaving such a small quantity of waste after several decades of operation that it would be less radioactive than the original ore used to fuel the reactor after a few hundred years rather than many millennia. Besides also being immune to meltdown, HTGRs, because of their much higher operating temperatures, could enable such things as highly efficient electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen fuel and greatly improved extraction techniques for oil and natural gas from shale and sand. Why, then, aren’t we building these improved designs?
It’s highly unlikely that the necessary initiative will come from industry. Why would they care? They’re in the business to make a profit, and LWRs can be built and operated more cheaply than the alternatives. Why should they worry about efficiency? There’s plenty of cheap uranium around, and it’s unlikely there will be major shortages for decades to come. Ask any industry spokesman, and he’ll assure you that transuranic radioactive waste and the potential proliferation issues due to the plutonium content of spent LWR fuel are mere red herrings. I’m not so sure.
In other words, strong government leadership would be needed to turn things around. Unfortunately, that commodity is in short supply. The current reality is that government is a highly effective deterrent to new reactor technology. Take the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for example. Read Kafka’s The Trial and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how it operates. So you want to license a new reactor design, do you? Well, most of the current regulations apply specifically to LWRs, so you’ll have to give them time to come up with new ones. Then you’ll need to spend at least a decade and millions of dollars explaining your new technology to the NRC bureaucrats. Then you can expect an endless stream of requests for additional information, analysis of all the threat and failure scenarios they can dream up, etc., which will likely take a good number of additional years. After all, they have to justify their existence, don’t they? If you ever manage to get past the NRC, the court system will take things up where they left off.
What to do? I don’t know. It really doesn’t upset me when reactors built with legacy technology are pulled off line, and replaced with fossil fueled plants. They just waste most of their fuel, throwing away energy that future generations might sorely miss once they’ve finally burned through all the coal and oil on the planet. Maybe the best thing to do would be to just buy up all the available uranium around and wait. We might also stop the incredibly block-headed practice of converting all of our “depleted” uranium into ammunition. The Lone Ranger’s silver bullets were cheap by comparison. Future generations are likely to wonder what on earth we were thinking.
Things were a lot better in the “apathetic” 50’s, but the novelist Thomas Wolfe had it right. You can’t go home again.