Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Let’s rethink nuclear power

Nuclear power will play an essential role in the energy future of the United States and the world.  There is an increasing recognition by scientists, entrepreneurs, and policy makers that it offers unique characteristics that can provide an abundant, safe, and clean energy source indefinitely.  Despite a decline in the existing nuclear power industry, a renaissance is underway in new safe nuclear reactor designs and technologies to fuel the next century, while rapid advances in fusion power research portend a revolution to begin within the next two or three decades in the nuclear industry.  Now is a pivotal time for leadership, a national focus, the allocation of resources, and a revamping of federal and state regulatory models to accelerate development that will transform the energy portfolio of the U.S. and the world.

Many people in the United States reject nuclear power based on fear.  It is time to face that fear and reconsider nuclear power as a primary contributor to the nation’s energy portfolio.  Now is the time to reassess because there is both vulnerability and opportunity looming.   The vulnerability - existing nuclear power infrastructure is old and presently unprofitable – causing decline in a major component of our nation’s energy portfolio.  The opportunity - there is a tremendous amount of innovation taking place around modern, safe, and small fission nuclear power design that is very promising.  In addition, progress in fusion research is real and substantial, and accelerating.

Energy is a critical component of our economic prosperity, national security, and environmental quality.  It is the essential element to the long-term survival and success of humans and the proliferation of intelligent life throughout the galaxy and universe.

Energy demand is increasing every year.   Think of the electric demand of one sector alone – transportation.  The auto and truck industry are moving to electric vehicles.  Only a few percent of vehicles currently in production are all electric.  However, the auto industry is projecting a majority of vehicles will be electric by 2050.  What would the impact be on the power grid if half of the 250 million vehicles currently on the road were electric?   This one element of energy consumption demands coherent policy in power generation.  See a recent related blog post on this topic.

Many believe Climate Change to be an existential threat to the world that requires the elimination of carbon-based energy consumption.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scientists say that to keep temperature from increasing above 1.5C/2.7F will require a carbon neutral world by 2050.   This is an immense goal that is not achievable without nuclear power.  To achieve the IPCC’s goal will require more nuclear power at a time when the industry is in decline. 
The purpose of this post is not to engage in a debate about Climate Change.  (I wrote a blog post on Climate Change in 2014 if you are interested in that topic.)

But we cannot achieve anything if we are at each other’s throats.  We have focused too much on debating whether there is or is not Climate Change, or whether or not man is contributing to it, or whether or not we can do anything about it.  A solid energy policy that looks to revolutionize global energy supply through nuclear power will secure energy and economic abundance for the future.  That is good for everyone and worthy of pursuit.  A byproduct of such an effort would accomplish the goals of those concerned about Climate Change.  It is a win-win for all regardless of who is right or wrong about Climate Change.

Fossil fuels remain the largest component of U.S. energy consumption, by far, at 80%.   Fossil fuels are finite and harmful to the environment.  They are not the future.  Renewables (e.g. Hyrdo, Wind, Solar, Geothermal, BioMass, Wood, etc.) compose 11% of U.S. energy consumption.  Many advocate investment in renewables to replace our reliance on carbon fossil fuels.  H.Res.109 - Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal is a proposal of the Democratic Party that does not even mention nuclear power.  The Green Party Green New Deal is hostile to it calling for its total elimination.  These positions are misguided.

Renewables alone cannot supplant fossil fuels.  They have high cost and some can be unreliable (e.g. wind and solar).  Mining of minerals for manufacturing and storage (e.g. solar panels and batteries), and controversial transmission issues from remote areas, diminish their efficacy.   They will play a part, but they are inadequate to the task.  Our future is more promising if we refocus on the atom to provide safe, clean, and abundant energy at reasonable cost in place of finite carbon intensive fossil fuels.  Renewables will increase as a share of the energy portfolio, but nuclear must dominate in the future.

Bill Gates is an amazing individual powerfully combining human genius, good will, scientific rigor, business acumen, and amassed capital to improve the world.  He and his wife Melinda have institutionalized this outlook in their Gates Foundation, and recruited over 200 billionaires through the Giving Pledge, to commit their wealth to a common purpose of philanthropy.

Regarding energy, Gates is motivated by concerns about Climate Change.  The Netflix documentary, “Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates,” contains a segment on Gates’ efforts to address Climate Change.  Gates states quite clearly that those who desire a carbon-free environment are mistaken if they believe that it can be achieved without nuclear power.   He is joined by a growing chorus of scientists and policy-makers agreeing that goals to reduce carbon output to levels declared acceptable will require at least a doubling of nuclear power output before 2050.

Our existing nuclear industry is in decline - not expanding – and cannot meet such a goal with its 50 year old designs and technology.

There are currently 58 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 96 nuclear reactors in 29 U.S. states producing 20 percent of U.S. electric power. The average age of nuclear power plants in operation is about 40 years.  Thirty-eight reactors were shut down in past decades.  Another ten may be shut down in the coming decade.  Only two are under construction and two more planned to begin construction in 2023.

The original concerns about nuclear safety and health in the 1960's were justified.  Limited experience with nuclear chemistry and technology led, in the industry’s early days, to mistakes and accidents.  A rush to expand nuclear power was short sighted and denied its complexity and risks. 

Anti-nuclear advocates protested placement of nuclear reactors in places like San Francisco’s Bodega Bay and Malibu – rightfully so.  The anti-nuclear movement ultimately resisted all nuclear power and used fear as a tool to basically shut down the industry’s development in the 1970's.   Solidifying their efforts was the largest nuclear accident in the U.S. - a partial meltdown and limited radioactive release at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979.

Three Mile Island was a media extravaganza that cemented the fear of nuclear power in the U.S.  After Three Mile Island not a single new nuclear plant permit was approved between 1979-2012.   Not a single person died from the partial meltdown.  The containment vessel worked as designed to prevent release of large amounts of radioactivity.  In fact, the only nuclear incident in the world that resulted in human deaths from radiation was at Chernobyl, USSR.  In the U.S. there has never been a death attributable to a radiation incident at a nuclear power plant – never.

Fear can be a powerful force and often overrules reason.  It is not unlike a fear of flying when in fact flying in an airplane is safer than driving in a car.  Fourteen states have adopted significant restrictions on the construction of new nuclear plants.  Massachusetts recently shut down its only remaining nuclear power plant despite consuming over 12 times the amount of energy it produces.  California will shut down its last nuclear power plant in 2024.

In addition to the regulatory pressures on the nuclear power industry the past decade’s hydraulic fracking revolution has completely transformed U.S. energy supply and production. An abundance of cheap natural gas for power plants has dramatically impacted the profitability of the nuclear energy industry.

Given all of this bad news for the traditional nuclear power industry over the past 40 years why would we want to make a major trans-formative investment in nuclear power now?  Because there is an awakening occurring – largely driven by private investment – that tells us a renaissance of fission nuclear power is at hand and a revolution in fusion nuclear power will likely follow.

Once again, Bill Gates provides good insight.  He points out that the nuclear power plants we have relied on are all based on antiquated design models from the 1950's and 1960's.  Gates contends that our knowledge base and technological capacity have grown exponentially over that time and the time has come to develop more modern plant designs that are clean and safe.  He is putting his money where his mouth is and making progress.

In 2006, Gates and like-minded innovators created a new company, Terra Power, for the purpose of advancing nuclear technologies.   Since then they have launched research and development into several promising technologies to include Traveling Wave Reactors (TWR) and Molten Chloride Fast Reactors (MCFR).  Both technologies show promise. Terra Power has a cooperation agreement with China National Nuclear Corporation to develop the TWR, but plans to build prototype reactors in China were upended by the U.S. and China trade dispute.

Gates chose to partner with China for several likely reasons.  First, Gates does not look at his work in a nationalistic way. He views his mission as global and hopes to create systems that are open and can be used across the globe to better the human condition and battle Climate Change.   More practically, he likely views the hostile permitting and regulatory environment in the United States as a hindrance to his timeline.   China also has a rapidly growing demand for electricity and a long-term strategic plan for energy that is very supportive of development. 

Gates is not alone.  There is a tremendous amount of research, development and investment in an array of nuclear technologies from reactors to waste reprocessing.  Terrestrial Energy expects to have a modular molten salt reactor online in the 2020s.
 
Modularity and smaller size are a consistent theme for a number of reasons.  NuScale Power is a modular project of Idaho Falls Power that will build small scale reactors that are self-contained in modules that do not have the risks of large plants such as Fukushima.   Smaller plants can also be deployed closer to dense population areas that consume the energy.  Modularity allows for construction in a contained environment rather than on site – improving quality and safety.  Both of these concepts reduce the need for transmission lines that blot sensitive natural areas and reduce the tremendous loss of energy from transmission over long distances.

The renaissance described here is about using fission more safely and effectively through improved modern designs.  This renaissance in fission is essential to our short and mid term energy needs.  For the longer view there is also a revolution underway in fusion.

First, for the non-scientific, some very basic definitions.   The nuclear power developed in the past seven decades is based on FISSION.  Fission is the breaking down of a heavy atom into smaller atoms.  The process creates heat that is transformed through steam into electricity.   FUSION is the joining of two smaller atoms into a larger atom.  Our sun is a continuous fusion process.  Fusion has advantages to include lower nuclear radiation in operation, abundant fuel supplies, very little long-term nuclear waste, no materials that can be used to make weapons, and fusion plants could not experience a meltdown such as experienced at Fukushima.

There is a tremendous amount of research and development underway to underpin the building of a nuclear fusion reactor.   A large number of players are stepping into fusion power research and development because more so than ever before the challenges of containing a fusion reaction appear achievable.  Lockheed Martin,  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Plasma Fusion Center, Canada’s General Fusion Inc., Jeff Bezos, and many others see the potential of this technology and assess it achievable.

A panel of noted scientists of the National Academy of Sciences in late 2018 indicated a commercially viable fusion power reactor was achievable by 2050 with continued Department of Energy funded research.  Success in the past year into one of the biggest challenges of fusion power – containment fields – may indicate that goal can be achieved earlier, particularly with a major commitment and investment.

The U.S. Navy has led the nation and the world in the use of nuclear power.  Admiral Hyman Rickover was the father of the nuclear Navy who created an immense military capability through his genius and dogged demand for excellence in all who joined his team of nuclear engineers.  Thanks to Rickover the Navy operated 500 reactors on 210 nuclear-powered ships in the past 70 years steaming over 128 million miles safely under nuclear power.  All submarines and aircraft carriers built since 1975 are nuclear powered.

The Navy’s nuclear propulsion systems are not following the decline of the commercial nuclear industry.  In fact, the Navy is looking further into the future.  The US Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division is reported to have filed a patent for a compact FUSION reactor (CFR) indicating the Navy is working on a shift in the future from fission to fusion reactors.

NASA is developing a Fusion Driven Rocket that converts fusion energy into propulsion.  NASA contends the “future of manned space exploration and development of space depends critically on the creation of a dramatically more proficient propulsion architecture for in-space transportation.”  It is focusing on fusion to achieve that goal.

We sit at a very important moment in time when opportunities to fundamentally shift the way we produce energy throughout the world are at hand.   The federal government is recognizing the potential and is engaging to direct resources and focus.  But is it enough?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy is eager to develop and support advanced nuclear technologies.  Since 2018 nearly $200 million in awards have been made to “provide a direct vehicle to support innovative, domestic nuclear industry-driven designs and technologies that have high potential to improve the overall economic outlook for nuclear power in the U.S.”  The program is hoped to accelerate development of improvements to existing technology and mature new and advanced U.S. designs in the 2020's.   Bill Gates’ Terra Power was awarded $40 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop the MCFR reactor in 2016. 

In August, 2019 the DoE awarded an additional $50 million in grants to “U.S. universities, private industry and national laboratories for a range of research projects in fusion energy and plasma science.”

Congress passed and President Trump signed into law two bills since September of 2018, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) and the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) to address government-imposed barriers to nuclear technologies.

A third bill, the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), was introduced in the summer of 2019 to begin to apply government resources in a big way.  Bill Gates said that if it were passed he would put in $1 billion of his personal wealth and raise another $1 billion from others to help fund the bill’s goals.  The bill is presently in committees in the House and Senate.  It is more controversial than the previous two bills.   Some contend the bill puts the government into a role that belongs in the private sector while others contend it is an “aggressive government strategy that puts America in a position of global leadership for advanced nuclear technologies.”

Given the potential of modernized fission nuclear power plants and fusion reactors a much more aggressive approach should be pursued.  A national effort should begin on the scale of the space program to transform the U.S. energy portfolio for electricity generation to 50% nuclear by the year 2050.

Senator Robert Kennedy, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, delivered a speech at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968, in which he said, “Some people see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’"   We need to be positive and think nothing impossible if we are to achieve great things.

Over fifty years ago President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”  Common purpose and a challenge to greatness can bind a nation with great reward.

I would like to see President Donald Trump and the leadership of both parties in the House and Senate stand together for a speech like John F. Kennedy’s that will move us toward a better future for all human beings and simultaneously bind us all in a common purpose and goal that will “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”