Thursday, April 8, 2010

Smaller Nuclear Power Plants may help US Achieve a More Resilient Energy Future

We touched on small nukes for DOD applications in late 2009 (see: here and here). Well, if anything, the pace has quickened. There's lots of talk inside and outside the Pentagon, the Department of Energy, and of course the NRC, on the development of new generations of advanced design reactors as well as the Bill Gates-fueled buzz surrounding their tiny cousins known as mini or "pocket nukes". IMHO, large, capital intensive nuclear power generation isn't going to get us where we need to go. But I like distributed energy gen, and the new, smaller, less expensive reactors could certainly be sited where needed, placing fewer demands on T&D infrastructure. Recently invigorated by a refresher talk last week via the MIT Energy Club on the current and future state of nuclear power in the US, I have the good fortune of introducing this new and comprehensive overview by the US Army’s Paul Roege on the nuclear power topic de jour: mini nukes.

Americans are just beginning to understand our energy vulnerabilities and their potential impacts to the military, especially with the help of people like Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (MD). Could this popular awareness create opportunities – not only to mitigate security concerns, but to rebuild US industrial capabilities and resilience?

The Department of Defense has been working on critical infrastructure protection (CIP) for several years, with a clear need to balance those efforts with the resource demands and necessary focus on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress is encouraging DOD to step up the pace on domestic CIP; for example Section 335 of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act calls for a comprehensive assessment of DOD critical infrastructure vulnerability to disrupted power supply, and a mitigation plan.

The best way to ensure resilience of critical functions is through diversity of energy systems and supply sources and resilient designs. DOD has been pursuing diversity through various non-nuclear alternative energy technologies. Although the Army, especially, had experience in nuclear energy during the 1960s and 70s, it abandoned those efforts due to the relative convenience and low cost of fossil fuels. Since then, nuclear energy has been essentially off the table in terms of military energy options. Alternative energy goals explicitly excluded the nuclear option, and any mention of nuclear energy has met with immediate skepticism due to perceived negative public attitudes.

However, with broadening public awareness of grid vulnerability, climate change and now military operational energy challenges, many have proposed a re-look at military nuclear energy. It’s not a simple question; such an effort would require resources and leadership support to proceed. Recognizing this problem, Congressman Jim Marshall (GA) introduced legislation last summer to address this question. His efforts are visible in Section 2845 of NDAA 2010 which requires DOD to conduct a feasibility study of this option, reporting to Congress by 1 June 2010.

The timing could be fortuitous for the country if DOD can catalyze advancements in energy concepts and technologies, given the Department’s (as well as the nation’s) recognized need for secure energy. In the case of nuclear technology, engineers have been working on a new generation of reactors over the past three decades that would provide more affordable, safe and scalable alternatives to the large light water reactor designs that, today, provide the lowest cost source of power to the US grid, but which were built on obsolete assumptions about economies of scale, demand growth and power grid taxonomy.

These “next generation reactors” languished over the three decades lull in nuclear power construction. Now, these advanced concepts could be left behind in the “nuclear renaissance”, as the US energy industry, regulated by the extremely risk adverse Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), scrambles to build dozens of reactors – choosing instead from incremental designs that can be licensed and built quickly to meet new demand and replace aging capacity.

Experts recognize the advantages that small reactors – sometimes called “grid appropriate reactors” - could bring to more resilient energy grid. The Department of Energy has established a small reactor program, and industry groups have held workshops on the topic. Foreign entities have embraced the idea; Toshiba has been marketing their “4S” reactor for a number of years.

While US utilities have mainly pursued fossil fuel generation options, which require less capital investment, the balance of nuclear expertise has shifted overseas. European nuclear generating capacity has been growing quietly and advances in Asia have been dramatic. Korea and China, in particular, have been building new plants, not only at home, but for exports throughout the developing world. US capabilities in nuclear power design, fabrication and construction have dwindled over recent decades, with the remnants of once-powerful US nuclear engineering companies, such as Westinghouse (Toshiba) and GE (Hitachi) being sold to foreign companies.

Venture capitalists are the latest entrant in the energy market. Bill Gates has announced his support for a “traveling wave” reactor concept, which would require much smaller quantities of enriched uranium and could potentially burn natural uranium or even more plentiful thorium. Gates recently spoke on TED video, making a compelling case that we need nuclear energy to address climate change. Google has also hosted discussions on advanced nuclear technologies including thorium and breeder reactors – discussion forums are abuzz with such possibilities.

This is an exciting time for those who recognize the fundamental role of reliable, resilient, affordable energy in social stability and national security. No longer is energy the sole realm of utilities – everyone is getting into the game. Americans have the opportunity to resume their historical leadership role in the energy industry, which was fundamental to helping us achieve our unprecedented level of stability and economic strength.

Scale Image Credit: Hyperion Power

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