mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
A Closer Look at New Nuclear


Nuclear power is a forbidding energy source, both for its spectacular failures in places like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, and for its general incomprehensibility. It’s (relatively) easy to understand how burning oil, gas, or coal produce energy, but most of us can’t fathom what goes on inside those monolithic concrete cooling towers and the facilities they lie within.

That’s especially problematic when we start talking about one nuclear technology being better than another, as is currently the case. There’s a swelling of momentum for a next generation of nuclear power, and with it come new buzzwords, like thorium, molten salt, and fast reactors. It would be nice to know more about this phenomenon without enrolling in a physics course. Which brings us to the Economist‘s Babbage blog, which earlier this week delved deeper into the current state of nuclear energy, while putting it into historical perspective:

Most of today’s reactors, whether they use boiling water or pressurised water, trace their ancestry back to the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, launched in 1954. At the time, the [light water reactor (LWR)] was just one of many reactor designs that existed either on paper or in the laboratory—using  different fuels (uranium-233, uranium-235 or plutonium-239), different coolants (water, heavy water, carbon dioxide or liquid sodium) and different moderators (water, heavy water, beryllium or graphite)….

In hindsight, that was a terrible mistake. Producing copious quantities of plutonium is just about the last thing a commercial reactor needs to do. It creates huge handling and storage problems as well as all manner of security and proliferation headaches. On top of that, the LWR’s other drawbacks ensured that commercial reactors would henceforth be more expensive to build and costlier to operate than might otherwise have been the case.

Which is where molten salt and thorium reactors come in:

One advantage of liquid fuels is that they are not subjected to the radiation damage or structural stresses that cause the fuel rods in conventional reactors to swell and distort. Also, because they use a liquid fluoride salt for a coolant, there is no high-pressure water to deal with. Operating at atmospheric pressure, no containment vessel is therefore needed. The xenon gas that poisons the fuel rods in a conventional reactor simply bubbles out of a liquid fuel, while other fission products precipitate out and cease absorbing neutrons from the chain-reaction underway….

Today, the thorium reactor is a non-starter, at least in America and other countries that have invested heavily in light-water technology. But things are different in India, a country with no uranium but an abundance of thorium. India plans to produce 30% of its electricity from thorium reactors by 2050. Being plentiful and cheap, thorium is the only fuel that stands a chance of generating electricity as cheaply as burning coal. As such, it is the only fuel capable of weaning the world off the biggest single polluter of all.

If you’re like us, much of this will still make you go cross-eyed, but it’s worth reading the whole thing to get a better idea of the options ahead for nuclear energy. The West has already invested in the LWR reactors to help supply its baseload power, and won’t be making the massive investments necessary for a new kind of nuclear power mix any time soon. But as we’ve said before, the developing world doesn’t need to make the same mistakes as the the developed has. As Babbage notes, India is already planning on going the thorium route, and China is leading the way in the research and development of thorium reactor technology. The proliferation of these new reactors could supply hundreds of millions with power, without emitting greenhouse gases. That’s good for everyone.

[Nuclear reactor image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    “Nuclear power is a forbidding energy source, both for its spectacular failures in places like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, and for its general incomprehensibility.” is arrant nonsense. Nuclear power is the only viable alternative to burning fossil fuel for our electrical power needs, and has killed or injured far, far, fewer people that the latter. Could we please dispense with the emotive overtones and stick to the facts.

    • crocodilechuck

      The only way that nuclear power can exist is through massive subsidies from governments to the construction contractors, and then to the utility operators.

      Lacking this, neither of the two players above would touch a reactor with a bargepole.

      The risks, and magnitude of the downsides, is simply too enormous.

      btw, Walt, the reason the Light Water Design became the default option was that it was the only one which would fit in a submarine (thank Adm. Hyman Rickover: father of the nuclear navy)

      This pressurised water reactor design was then ‘ported over’ to the civilian side (marketed as ‘atoms for peace’ by Eisenhower).

      Why? The US in the early ’50’s needed Pu239 for warheads.

      Last, don’t be afraid of science and engineering, Walt. The Economist article is easily comprehensible by a cluey high schooler.

      • Andrew Allison

        “That’s not a knife.” [grin] Not sure whether you were replying to me or WRM, but the fact that if you throw money into a trough the pigs will appear (witness the $650 million and counting for the $10 million ACA job) has nothing to do with the cost/benefit analysis. France is over 75% nuclear, and cost- effective; Japan and Germany were around 20% and cost- effective before PC took over. It’s not rocket science: if burning fossil fuel is bad (debatable), there’s only one alternative.

      • TheRadicalModerate

        I found this on nuclear subsidies. If I’m reading this right, the only direct, non-R&D subsidy to the nuke industry is the green energy production tax credit of up to $0.021 per KWh for the first 6 GW of new nuclear power. (This same credit is available and uncapped for renewables.)

        Beyond that, there’s a federal insurance program for nuclear construction, and a loan guarantee program. Both of these are obviously targeted at defraying risk. But that risk is regulatory and political, not technical. The problem with nuke plants is that you have to service the loans for years before your investment pays off, due to licensing, public comment delays, and lawsuits.

        Those are political problems, solvable with policy remedies. Now, in a democracy filled with voters that are ignorant of the issues and scared of nukes, maybe those policy remedies can’t be enacted. But the technology itself is pretty cheap and plant construction is technically straightforward.

        Wind and solar may get to be as cheap, or they may not. I frankly can’t see how they can scale, and they’re still not viable for base load. So you get to balance risks, between political problems for nukes, technological problems with renewables, and greenhouse gas problems with fossil fuels. Pick your poison.

        • crocodilechuck

          Let’s not miss the forest for the trees, shall we?

          Nuclear reactors are uninsurable. They were at the outset and nothing has changed.

          Ever hear of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act?

          When the next catastrophic nuclear event occurs, who do you think will carry the can?

          A: you, pal, the long suffering taxpayer.

          Lifted from der Wiki:

          “Price-Anderson has been criticized by many of these groups due to a portion of the Act that indemnifies Department of Energy and private contractors from nuclear incidents even in cases of gross negligence and willful misconduct (although criminal penalties would still apply). “No other government agency provides this level of taxpayer indemnification to non-government personnel” (snip)

          Read it & weep:


          • TheRadicalModerate

            Sure they are. They just require a big risk pool–like flood insurance, which might be even less insurable in the face of climate change. There’s a reason why the government took over the flood insurance market, and there are perfectly good reasons for it to run the nuke insurance market, too.

          • crocodilechuck

            Think much?

            There isn’t a ‘nuke insurance’ market.

            Its a guarantee-uncapped, for all damages > $12.6B.

            You’re on the hook.

          • Bill_Woods

            Go up one paragraph — the insurance subsidy is about $1 million per reactor-year. Meanwhile the owners of that reactor are paying almost $5M in annual licensing fees. The government is getting a very good deal as the industry’s insurer.

    • Bill_Woods

      “Speaking of which, the image is not of a nuclear reactor!”
      There is a reactor there, in the low building at the far left, behind the striped chimney.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    I think Babbage is probably right that thorium is a non-starter in the US, at least for another 30-50 years. But the reason for that is simply that the NRC is very, very, very conservative–quite rightly, given the public heebie-jeebies.

    We’ve got tons of experience with pressurized and boiling water reactors. We’ve studied their materials and the materials’ tolerances for sixty years. They’re far from perfect, as Babbage points out, but they’re a known quantity. To expect thorium reactors not to have their own odd little materials issues is… optimistic.

    The NRC has had a reactor design certification program in place for more than ten years, and it has yielded four certified designs for very large nuclear reactors. The goal is to streamline the licensing of plants by allowing them to reference the certified designs.

    There are several “advanced” and “small modular” designs that are in the certification process now. Certification of these small nukes would completely change the economics of the business, requiring much lower capital investment by opening up the possibility that the reactor can be manufactured and shipped to the site, rather than constructed on-site, as the current designs require.

    With a little political focus, we could license evolutionary, not revolutionary, designs that would enable a true nuclear renaissance, with safety features that might even win over the general public. If you’re worried about greenhouse gases, this is the short-term solution with the lowest risk.

    Of course, I’m still holding out hope that one of the ten or so fusion fly-by-nights is gonna hit it big. After that, we can stop worrying about fission.

    • AriTai

      The NRC isn’t conservative, it’s been captured by its existing industry. The current industry has to oppose introduction of another fuel (thorium) because it is effectively free – where in the current business model’s profits pivot around costly to process and use uranium.

      When the competition was for tons of stockpiled plutonium (between the West and Russia) it didn’t make much sense to put the uranium-based reactors out of business. Now we can at least consider it.

      Imagine if the U.S. took the opposite position – how quickly could it bury 100 megawatt (thorium) neutron-burners under, say, the parks and playgrounds of every neighborhood of 10,000 homes? (small enough that no cooling towers are needed – and even in sub-zero weather the parks will be warm and green).

      No more dependency on power grids. Power to cheap to meter. Monthly bill based on the size of the pipe and the local distribution system. No more natural, man-made, or even EMP disaster worries – assured resilience – Taleb’s anti-fragility squared.

      What’s not to like? Especially considering ordinary gasoline (which has twice the energy potential as our best high-explosive, kg-for-kg) is so dangerous that a single tank in any car, if properly prepared, can flatten any ten story building. Yet we permit even the convicted felons to have access to same. No such worries with a molten salt.
      Especially in an era when any 3rd world country can and will have their own nuclear weapons.

      • TheRadicalModerate

        If the NRC is suffering from regulatory capture, the nuclear industry needs to hire better lobbyists.

        Fuel costs for nuclear are 14% of operating costs, as compared to 89% for gas-fired electricity. Yes, uranium prices are increasing sharply, but they’re nowhere near the gating factor on plant viability.

        I’m a big fan of thorium, but you’re making the mistake of confusing concepts and engineering. It’s easy to do a prototype plant or two; it’s hard to build a whole industry around a new technology. There are materials issues. There are operational issues. It takes time to figure out the economics in enough detail for somebody to attract investors. That time will be measured in decades, not years.

        Like it or not (I don’t), people are scared of nuclear power. Their fears are not completely baseless; big accidents happen occasionally, and they’re very expensive, although hardly life-threatening, when they do. I doubt you can convince them that thorium is safe simply by telling them so. I think WRM has it just about right on this score: it’s good news that India and China are investing in this. But it’s a non-starter in the US.

        If it weren’t for climate change, I doubt very much that the American nuclear industry could survive. I’m not sure that even that will save it. But if it has a future, it’s going to be because the public accepts that current best practices, incrementally improved with advanced and small modular reactor technologies, make accidents very, very rare. Switching fuel cycles is unlikely to gain that necessary acceptance.

  • jhp151

    Norway is testing a Thorium-MOX fuel in a conventional reactor. The LWR sites in the US would very likely jump on this as it reduces the need for a nuclear wast dump and could extend the life of existing nuclear plants.

  • Bill Befort

    The U.S. has done practically nothing to add nuclear generating capacity for more than three decades. How does this leave us locked into LWR technology? Our hands are as free as China’s or India’s in this respect.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service