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Honey, I Shrunk the Nuclear Reactor


America’s nuclear industry isn’t healthy. Thanks to the rise of cheap shale energy, four nuclear plants have closed so far this year. Older reactors can’t compete with today’s energy market conditions, but a new generation of nuclear technology promises to breathe new life into the industry. NuScale Power has plans to shrink containment vessels down to just two-fifths the height and an eighth of the diameter of industry standards. It’s a move that reflects a potential sea change in nuclear power: smaller, cheaper, less powerful reactors that would compose a more distributed (and therefore more robust) energy network. And, as the New York Times reports, these new reactors would be safer:

Afraid of big pipe leaks? The NuScale reactor has no pipes bigger than three inches. Worried about pump failures? Eliminate the pumps and rely on thermodynamics, because the NuScale reactor is small enough to rely on the natural, cooling circulation that occurs because hot water rises and cold water sinks. Afraid the emergency diesel generators won’t work? This design doesn’t require them.

But the industry’s regulatory environment (not the technology) might be the limiting factor in this equation. For obvious reasons, there are plenty of hoops to jump through before receiving permission to build a nuclear power plant. And the permitting process isn’t just stringent, it’s expensive—one preliminary step could cost as much as $1 billion. That’s prohibitively expensive for these kinds of smaller reactors.

There’s a lot to be excited about in the world of nuclear energy. Researchers are making progess in nuclear fusion, thorium reactors are getting the backing of Silicon Valley giants and Chinese princes, fast reactors and molten salt reactors are getting funding, and now we’re seeing private firms competing with one another to shrink reactors down. Nuclear power is ultimately green, and if we can figure out how to make it cheaper and more distributed, we’ll be living in a much brighter energy future.

[Nuclear reactor image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • S.C. Schwarz

    There are about 60 new reactors under construction worldwide. Two are in the US and 28 are in China. The two in the US are old-style PWR.

    Yes, great advances are happening in nuclear power but they won’t happen here.

  • Corlyss

    “But the industry’s regulatory environment (not the technology) might be the limiting factor in this equation.”

    Stunningly obvious. Of course it is. The nuclear regulatory environment is very much like the FDA’s regarding new drugs.

    Once upon a time in the distant past, a munchkin scientist in FDA stopped thalidomide from wreaking havoc in a few children’s lives. Ever since then, the FDA’s role hasn’t been to expedite the marketing of effective drugs. It’s been to stop the one-off bad drugs that could kill or maim people (and if the trial attorneys are any guide, they ain’t been very good at that).

    Similarly, once upon a time, there was a faulty nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania that went slightly bad on the eve of the release of a sensational movie that struck the fear of God into people who had been happily living with nuclear energy for 30 years. Now the regulatory environment has shifted to controlling the remaining reactors out of existence and preventing new ones from ever being built and scaring the public like the movie did. I’m confident the regulators firmly believe we’re only a day away from a Chernobyl or Fukushima type accident and they will see that the US never has one.

    • f1b0nacc1

      The irony is that the NRC’s overregulation of the nuclear industry makes developing/deploying SAFER reactors essentially impossible, by driving up the cost of new designs vis a vis existing ones.

      • Joseph Blieu

        As someone who was there at the Callaway County Mo plant construction the true death of nuclear power was caused by the boundless greed and willingness to destroy for spite exhibited by construction trade unions. Even though the goose tried to lay eggs fast enough it was still split open. Only a fool would try to build such a unit in America today.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Spot on!
          This is the essence of what WRM might call the government special case of the blue model. Massive government bureaucracies guide everything toward gigantism, which benefits their clients and allies (unions and well-connected corps), which in turn creates a centralized power structure for the political elites. We see this here with power-plants, but for an interesting parallel, and possible way out, look at NASA’s woes, and the rise of alt-Space.

  • Andrew Allison

    Might I suggest that the interns be put to work doing some research before publishing nonsense like “Thanks to the rise of cheap shale energy, four nuclear plants have closed so far this year.” The facts are readily available from, e.g.,

  • BobSykes

    There is in engineering something called “economies of scale.” That is the cost (and price) of a unit of output goes down as the size of the system goes up. Generally, total costs increase as some fractional power of the system size, typically 0.6 to 0.8. Say it is 0.7. Then if system size is doubled, total costs go up by only 60%, and unit prices go down to about 80% of the smaller plant.

    This suggests that the energy these newer small power plants might prove to more expensive that the older larger ones.

    • f1b0nacc1

      The problem with things like the economies of scale is that they don’t scale infinitely. Eventually factors like corruption, engineering problems, the limits in precision that can be achieved, regulatory interference, etc. erode the efficiency gains. Even if we assume perfect efficiency though, there are other limits like the nature of the power grid (transmission losses, complexity and reliability of the grid, etc.) that make overly centralized gigantism counter productive.
      If you are interested in simply seeing how you can get the most gigawatts out of a power plant design most cheaply in total isolation assuming perfect efficiency and no corruption, perhaps a large plant might be the best approach, though I have questions about the engineering challenges in scaling up indefinitely. But in a real world enviornment, power-plants are deisgn to provide electricity reliably to users, and multiple small ones are clearly a better choice in those circumstances.
      As I mentioned upthread, a good example of this process at work is NASAs current launch system problems vs the relative success of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.

      • BobSykes

        The economies of scale are known to apply to nuclear reactors at least to the capacity of 1000 to 1500 Mw, and all the none engineering problems you mention will also apply to small reactors, including regulatory hubris. As to transmission losses, they are less than you think, and we know what they are. The reason large nuclear and fossil fuel plants connected to long distant grids are built is because of engineering and economic analysis and real world experience.

        New Age and environmentalist superstition and delusion won’t get power to the people. In fact, such delusions are driving Obama’s energy policies (and those in Europe) and they will result in unreliable, expensive and deeply rationed electricity. But that is the point. Many environmentalists want to go back in history, most to classical preindustrial times (they forget Roman industry), some to the early neolithic era and a few (eg James Hansen) to era of paleolithic hunter-gatherers.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Large reactor designs are by their very nature far MORE vulnerable to the non-engineering problems that I have outlined. The sheer size of the projects (and their centralization under single authorities) means that it is easier to create a calcified bureaucracy for the project, with all of its attendant ills. Put simply, you have one target, so you only have to pay off one set of officials to get influence. Multi-reactor projects would still be vulnerable (remember we are not talking about a “corruption/no corruption model” here), but the diversity of projects means that a potential bad actor (union/regulator/contractor/etc.) would have more individual targets to attend to. Since no small reactor projects are going to happen without regulatory reform, we can assume that at least some improvement would be expected there just by the nature of things….
          As for engineering problems, I am not sure that I agree with you. Reactors operating at the high end of the output spectrum require higher levels of precision and offer lower tolerances than smaller ones. We have seen this in the development of shipboard reactors for the navy, and there is little reason to believe that the problem would be different in the civilian world. Smaller designs also offer the opportunity to experiment a bit more (the stakes are lower), or to standardize and use the larger number of reactors built to amortize the development costs across a larger number of projects. In either case, the development risk is reduced and costs are more easily controlled.
          As for transmission lines, I think that you miss my point. This isn’t an abstract exercise (if it were, you are correct that transmission losses would be sufficiently low to render centralized systems suitable), but an exercise in efficiency and reliability. A larger number of smaller reactors means that the systems are dispersed and less vulnerable to individual failures.
          We have built the way that we do now because regulatory environments and construction costs (often driven by those regulators) make ‘big-bang’ projects more suitable. Absent any analysis of non-dollar externalities, you may have a point regarding economies of scale, but only because you do ignore those externalities….
          Finally, we agree on the stupidity of modern environmentalists, who seem to bounce between romantic notalgia (driven by unbelievable ignorance) and malevolent will to power…

          • BobSykes

            The externalities are the same for both large and small reactors. Dispersal only increases transmission cost and makes the units more vulnerable sabotage and more difficult to operate because you need more staff.. These systems are a no go.

          • f1b0nacc1

            With respect, you are entirely mistaken.
            Smaller reactors generate heat differently (not in concept, but in effect), and thus end up requiring less demanding engineering than larger ones. Larger reactors may in fact deliver ‘more bang for the buck’ (a phrase I hesitate to use with nukes), but given the costs involved with secondary expenses, these savings are negated.
            Dispersal does increase transmission costs marginally, but permits more redundancy (more expensive to be sure, but less prone to single point failures), and greater flexibility in siting. The oeprational costs associate with staffs are vanishingly small, and while there is a greater risk of sabotage, the absence of even a single example of sabotage in the history of plant operation (as opposed to numerous cases of failures due to incompetent operation) are minimal.
            Finall, you make a comemnt that mass production can only exist in the case of hundreds of thousands or millions of units. This is simply in error. If the development costs for a given system are say $10 billion (to use an example), clearly building 100 (or 1000) of the same design amortizes those costs more efficiently than say 10. The relationship is not linear to be sure, but it is absolutely real.
            Once again, I urge you to look at the use of nukes by the USN, or alt-Space…high tech often benefits from this sort of approach. I am not advocating a Schumarkian ignorance, but mindless gigantism is just as bad.

        • dwpittelli

          “The economies of scale are known to apply to nuclear reactors at least to the capacity of 1000 to 1500 Mw.”

          But there also economies of mass production, and these new, smaller reactor designs may be able to take advantage of them as no nuclear reactors have until now, as no designs have been built in significant numbers in factories, with the limited exception of reactors on Navy subs and some ships. Since no one’s experience includes mass production of nuclear reactors, no one’s observations can show that such reactors will be more expensive to build.

          • BobSykes

            There is no mass production here. Mass production is hundreds of thousands to millions of units per year and is done on assembly lines. If successful, there will only be several thousand of these unit built over a decade. Each will be a special order, and each will be hand assembled. The unit electric cost from them will be very high, on the order of solar or wind, but it will be reliable and suitable as base load generators (not spot load). Once the utilities see the cost per kWh, they won’t buy any of them.

          • dwpittelli

            I have to think that building 5,000 identical units in a factory would be a lot cheaper than building 5,000 on site with construction workers. (Why would they have to be substantially customized orders?) Certainly Boeing gets economies of scale with similar-sized production.

  • Super Genius

    Also, thorium, thorium, thorium!

    • Fifty Ville

      Yes! I keep checking Amazon daily for their first home thorium-fueled backyard reactor. Run that airconditioning all summer long and screw the power company’s brownouts!

  • Steve Kellmeyer

    While I don’t disagree that smaller reactors are safer, there is always the “lightbulb” problem, well-known in computer server architecture.

    To wit, the more redundant servers (lightbulbs) you have, the more points of failure you have. Having a couple of redundant servers is good and probably none will fail in any given year, but if you have a hundred, you’ve guaranteed that there will be a server failure during the year.

    Now, if all you’re spewing is information or light, that’s not necessarily a huge drawback. But if you’re spewing radiation, yeah, well, that might be a problem.

    I’m all for nuclear energy, I’m sure today’s designs are a lot safer than 50-year old designs, and we should have more nuclear power plants. But one per neighborhood? Hmmm…. well…. that’s probably too many light bulbs to avoid a catastrophic blowout at some point.

    • Fifty Ville

      Having a couple of redundant servers is good and probably none will
      fail in any given year, but if you have a hundred, you’ve guaranteed
      that there will be a server failure during the year.

      So what? The rate of failure hasn’t changed; the risk is still the same. In the meantime, you’ve multiplied fiftyfold the amount of electricity generated and received a fiftyfold economic benefit.

      Fair trade, dude.

  • WilliamK

    We have hundreds of years worth of fossil fuels for transportation, electric generation and other uses, why not use them?

    Who needs nukes?

  • Galt2100

    Please stop encouraging the low information anti-nuclear discussion by showing photos of cooling towers. They aren’t reactors.

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