There's an Alice in Wonderland flavour to the nuclear power debate with lobbyists promoting all sorts of non-existent reactor types − an implicit acknowledgement that conventional uranium-fuelled reactors aren't all they're cracked up to be. Some favour non-existent Integral Fast Reactors, others favour non-existent Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, others favour non-existent Pebble Bed Modular Reactors, others favour non-existent fusion reactors, and on it goes.
Two to three decades ago, the nuclear industry promised a new generation of gee-whiz 'Generation IV' reactors in two to three decades. That's what they're still saying now, and that's what they'll be saying two to three decades from now. The Generation IV International Forum website states: "It will take at least two or three decades before the deployment of commercial Gen IV systems. In the meantime, a number of prototypes will need to be built and operated. The Gen IV concepts currently under investigation are not all on the same timeline and some might not even reach the stage of commercial exploitation."1
Likewise, the World Nuclear Association notes that "progress is seen as slow, and several potential designs have been undergoing evaluation on paper for many years."2
Integral Fast Reactors ... it gets ugly moving from blueprint to backyard
Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs) are a case in point. According to the lobbyists they are ready to roll, will be cheap to build and operate, couldn't be used to feed WMD proliferation, etc. The US and UK governments have been analysing the potential of IFRs. The UK government found that the facilities have not been industrially demonstrated; waste disposal issues remain unresolved and could be further complicated if it is deemed necessary to remove sodium from spent fuel to facilitate disposal; and little could be ascertained about cost since General Electric Hitachi refuses to release estimates of capital and operating costs, saying they are "commercially sensitive".3
The US government has considered the use of IFRs (which it calls Advanced Disposition Reactors − ADR) to manage US plutonium stockpiles and concluded that the ADR approach would be more than twice as expensive as all the other options under consideration; that it would take 18 years to construct an ADR and associated facilities; and that the ADR option is associated with "significant technical risk".4
Unsurprisingly, the IFR rhetoric doesn't match the sober assessments of the UK and US governments. As nuclear engineer Dave Lochbaum from the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it: "The IFR looks good on paper. So good, in fact, that we should leave it on paper. For it only gets ugly in moving from blueprint to backyard."
No-one has cracked fusion yet
Lockheed Martin recently claimed that it "is working on a new compact fusion reactor (CFR) that can be developed and deployed in as little as ten years." Lockheed "anticipates being able to produce a prototype in five years" − which is very different from saying that it will actually build a prototype in five years. According to Lockheed's Tom McGuire, "The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year."5
Matthew Hole, an academic and Australia's representative on the IAEA International Fusion Research Council, wrote in an October 7 article6:
"Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin's announcement this week that it could make small-scale nuclear fusion power a reality in the next decade has understandably generated excitement in the media. Physicists, however, aren't getting their hopes up just yet. ...
"Lockheed Martin claims that its technology development offshoot, Skunk Works, is working on a new compact fusion reactor that can be developed and deployed in as little as ten years. The only technical details it provided are that it is a "high beta" device (meaning that it produces a high plasma pressure for a relatively weak magnetic field pressure), and that it is sufficiently small to be able to power flight and vehicles.
"This isn't enough information to substantiate a credible program of research into the development of fusion power, or a credible claim for the delivery of a revolutionary power source in the next decade. ... Lockheed Martin will need to show a lot more research evidence that it can do better than multinational collaborative projects like ITER. So far, its lack of willingness to engage with the scientific community suggests that it may be more interested in media attention than scientific development."
The World Nuclear Association (WNA) has also thrown cold water on Lockheed's claims."7 The 'compact fusion reactor' concept remains "undemonstrated", the WNA notes. Moreover, Lockheed has itself acknowledged that it is "searching for partners" to help advance the technology.
Small Modular Reactors ... a new occupant in the graveyard of the 'nuclear renaissance'
The Energy Green Paper recently released by the Australian government is typical of the small-is-beautiful rhetoric: "The main development in technology since 2006 has been further work on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). SMRs have the potential to be flexibly deployed, as they are a simpler 'plug-in' technology that does not require the same level of operating skills and access to water as traditional, large reactors."8
The rhetoric doesn't match reality. Interest in SMRs is on the wane. Thus Thomas W. Overton, associate editor of POWER magazine, wrote in a recent article: "At the graveyard wherein resides the "nuclear renaissance" of the 2000s, a new occupant appears to be moving in: the small modular reactor (SMR). ... Over the past year, the SMR industry has been bumping up against an uncomfortable and not-entirely-unpredictable problem: It appears that no one actually wants to buy one."9
Dr Mark Cooper, Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School, notes that two US corporations are pulling out of SMR development because they cannot find customers (Westinghouse) or major investors (Babcock and Wilcox). Cooper points to some economic constraints: "SMR technology will suffer disproportionately from material cost increases because they use more material per MW of capacity. Higher costs will result from: lost economies of scale; higher operating costs; and higher decommissioning costs. Cost estimates that assume quick design approval and deployment are certain to prove to be wildly optimistic."10
Westinghouse CEO Danny Roderick said in January: "The problem I have with SMRs is not the technology, it's not the deployment − it's that there's no customers."11 Westinghouse is looking to triple its decommissioning business. "We see this as a $1 billion-per-year business for us," Roderick said. With the world's fleet of mostly middle-aged reactors inexorably becoming a fleet of mostly ageing, decrepit reactors, Westinghouse is getting ahead of the game.
Academics M.V. Ramana and Zia Mian state in their detailed analysis of SMRs: "Proponents of the development and large scale deployment of small modular reactors suggest that this approach to nuclear power technology and fuel cycles can resolve the four key problems facing nuclear power today: costs, safety, waste, and proliferation. Nuclear developers and vendors seek to encode as many if not all of these priorities into the designs of their specific nuclear reactor. The technical reality, however, is that each of these priorities can drive the requirements on the reactor design in different, sometimes opposing, directions. Of the different major SMR designs under development, it seems none meets all four of these challenges simultaneously. In most, if not all designs, it is likely that addressing one of the four problems will involve choices that make one or more of the other problems worse."12
Likewise, Kennette Benedict, Executive Director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, states: "Small modular nuclear reactors may be attractive, but they will not, in themselves, offer satisfactory solutions to the most pressing problems of nuclear energy: high cost, safety, and weapons proliferation."13
Some SMR R&D work continues but it all seems to be leading to the conclusions mentioned above. Argentina is ahead of the rest, with construction underway on a 27 MWe reactor − but the cost equates to an astronomical US$15.2 billion (€12b) per 1000 MWe.14 And that cost would be greater still if not for Argentina's expertise and experience with reactor construction − a legacy of its covert weapons program from the 1960s to the early 1980s.
So work continues on SMRs but the writing's on the wall and it's time for the nuclear lobby to come up with another gee-whiz next-gen fail-safe reactor type to promote − perhaps a giant fusion reactor located out of harm's way, 150 million kilometres from Earth.
6. Matthew Hole, 7 Oct 2014, 'Don't get too excited, no one has cracked nuclear fusion yet', http://theconversation.com/dont-get-too-excited-no-one-has-cracked-nucle...
7. WNA, 16 Oct 2014, 'Big dreams for compact fusion reactor', www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Big-dreams-for-compact-fusion-reactor-1610...