The New Nuclear Future

The nation’s energy diet is prompting a flurry of novel reactor designs – all bidding to jumpstart a moribund industry.

April 23 2010 by Ronald Bailey


The world is likely to go on a strict carbon diet over the next few years. By 2020, President Barack Obama wants the U.S. to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent from the level emitted in 2005. The goal is to cut emissions by 83 percent by 2050.Coal and gas-fired electric power generation accounts for 40 percent of carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S. To achieve the steep reductions called for by President Obama, a lot of fossil fuel power generation will have to be replaced with low-carbon and no-carbon sources. Solar and wind power can provide some energy, but, since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, they aren’t good sources of base load power, the amount of electricity a utility must supply constantly to meet its customers’ demand.

So if the sun and the wind can’t replace carbon dioxide-producing sources of electricity, what’s left? Nuclear power. Currently 104 nuclear power plants supply about 20 percent of America’s electricity, which represents 70 percent of our emissions-free power.   

Back in the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to today’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission, predicted that the U.S. would have 1,000 nuclear power plants operating by the year 2000. As it turned out, no new plants have been ordered since the late 1970s. But that may be about to change. In June 2009, the Republicans in both the Senate and House introduced legislation calling for federal support to build 100 new nuclear plants by 2030.What’smore, in his 2010 State of the Union address,    

President Obama set the goal of “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.” 

Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the federal government is now offering a host of new subsidies and guarantees to utilities to build nuclear plants. For example, the act authorizes a production tax credit of 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear generation capacity; $2 billion to cover the costs of any regulatory delays; federal loan guarantees for advanced reactors of up to 80 percent of the project cost; and a 20-year extension of law that limits the nuclear industry liability to $10 billion. In 2008, the Department of Energy invited applications for up to $18.5 billion in nuclear construction loan guarantees. The department was flooded with applications that sought a total of $122 billion in guarantees. In his new 2010 budget, President Obama is now seeking to triple nuclear construction loan guarantees to $54 billion, which could help launch seven to ten new nuclear facilities. If the new plants are commercial successes, then the guarantees cost taxpayers nothing; if they fail, then taxpayers are obligated to cover their costs.

So far applications for 31 new nuclear power plants have been filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. All are advanced versions of the large light water reactors that are already running in the U.S. They take nearly a decade to build, cost billions, need to be refueled every 18months to two years and produce radioactive wastes that remain dangerous for thousands of years. And depressingly, the regulations governing the design, licensing and construction of a conventional nuclear plant involves producing and managing over a million documents that must be submitted to gain the commission’s approval.   

While such big plants will probably get built, a swarm of entrepreneurs and inventors is busy developing new types of nuclear reactors that are smaller, cheaper and don’t need constant refueling – many of which produce much lower levels of dangerous radioactive waste. To get a sense of the ferment in the industry, let’s take a look at how three companies are hoping to spark a nuclear renaissance and make tons of money: Babcock & Wilcox Modular Nuclear Reactors, Hyperion Power Generation and Terra power.

Babcock & Wilcox Modular Nuclear Reactors is a division of longtime nuclear power company Babcock & Wilcox headquartered in Lynchburg, Va. B&W has been in the nuclear business for 50 years, building large scale nuclear power plants both ashore and for the Navy. B&W Modular was established in the past two years to develop and manufacture a 125- megawatt passively safe advanced light water reactor, dubbed the mPower reactor. mPower reactors are about one eighth the size of a standard reactor producing the same output.    

Why go small? Cost, time and risk.

“The B&W mPower reactor will be a practical, affordable, near-term answer to the world’s growing demand for clean, zero-emission-operations power generation,” declared Christofer Mowry, CEO of Babcock & Wilcox Modular Nuclear Energy at a Washington, D.C., press conference last year. “It offers a prudent solution for those utilities seeking to diversify and reduce the carbon footprint of their power generation portfolio.”   

Instead of being built on-site as conventional large nuclear plants have been, mPower reactors, which measure 75 by 15 feet, would be completely manufactured at B&W’s facilities and shipped by rail to the site. This means that site preparation could take place simultaneously, cutting total construction and installation time to just three years. The reactors would be installed in underground containment and fueled every five years with conventional nuclear fuel rods. The entire reactor core would be removed and replaced. The used cores would be stored onsite in a cooling pool that would contain cores safely underground for 60 years.

CEO Mowry believes that one huge advantage of mPower reactors is that utilities and generators won’t have to bet their companies on building nuclear generation capacity. It could cost $5 billion to $10 billion to build one large facility, which is nearly the capitalization of many companies. Although final pricing has not yet been set, 125megawattmPower reactors would cost somewhere around $375 million to $500 million each and provide enough power for 100,000 homes. If more capacity is needed, users could buy more reactors, up to 10, equaling one 1,300 megawatt plant. The beauty is that this could be done incrementally. In addition, mPower reactors could be slotted into the transmission and generation infrastructure of coal-fired plants that are being retired.   

B&W executives also think that they have an ace in the hole with their small reactors: They aren’t too innovative. “We’ve decided to use the best in class of proven technologies and not try to introduce anything revolutionary to this,” said Mowry in a recent interview with The Tennessean. In fact, the company is designing the reactors using only technologies and systems that have already been approved by the hyper-cautious Nuclear Regulatory Commission. B&W plans to submit reactor design certification applications to the NRC by 2011 and to obtain combined construction and operating licenses by 2016. It already has secured a memorandum of understanding from the Tennessee Valley Authority about building its first reactor at TVA’s Clinch River site. Company officials hope that this design conservatism will give their reactors a regulatory head start on competitors.  

On the other side of the tech coin, among the more novel designs is the Hyperion Power Module, based on technology developed at the federal government’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Initially, Hyperion Power Generation, also headquartered in Los Alamos, was going to build hot-tub size reactors that could deliver 27 megawatts of power using uranium hydride as a fuel. Basically, as the reactor heats up, it drives off hydrogen from the uranium powder, which moderates the nuclear reaction. The more free hydrogen, the slower the reaction. Hyperion believes that the self-regulating design is so safe that it doesn’t even need monitoring.   

In November 2009, Hyperion announced a shift to another of the Los Alamos Lab’s designs, a small lead bismuth cooled reactor that it believes will more readily receive regulatory commission approval, which it plans to seek this year. Unlike most conventional reactors with nuclear cores cooled by circulating water, the HPM’s core will be cooled by a lead bismuth combination that reaches a temperature of 500 degrees Celsius. Like Babcock &Wilcox’s mPower reactor, the 50-ton Power Module can be mass produced and transported via ship, truck or rail. Operating like a battery, the module would be installed into power stations to produce 70 megawatts of thermal energy, or approximately 25 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 20,000 average homes. After 10 years, the units would be cooled for two years and then returned to the factory for dismantling.  

Hyperion says that it has signed more than 100memoranda of understanding with potential customers and identified a market for 4,000 transportable, sealed, self-contained fission generated power units. The manufacturer believes that they could serve as dedicated power sources for factories, hospitals, military bases, water treatment plants, oil fields, mines, irrigation systems and isolated communities off the grid. It estimates capital costs at $2,000 to $3,000 per kilowatt capacity (about $75 million per unit), with the goal of generating electricity for less than 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. For comparison, the wholesale price for electricity is around 6 cents per kilowatt-hour in the New York region. Hyperion is funded by private venture investors, including the Denver-based Altira Group.  

The third aspirant in the nuclear power renaissance is Terra Power. In 2000, former Microsoft chief technology officer and current billionaire Nathan Myhrvold launched Intellectual Ventures as a private “invention company” based on the goal of combining capitalism and invention to benefit the world – and reaping financial rewards for investors who have committed $5 billion in capital.  

Last year, Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures created a new company, TerraPower, to develop a novel nuclear reactor design, the traveling wave reactor. As John Gilleland, head of TerraPower, explains, “Many of the designs being proposed today are essentially updates on the models operating today. Unlike those companies, we are proposing a unique fuel cycle with the traveling wave reactor.”   

Conventional reactors, and the new ones by Hyperion and B&W, burn uranium-235, which fissions easily to sustain the chain reaction that produces heat to drive generators. Natural uranium is a combination of about 99.2 percentU-238, which does not sustain a chain reaction by itself, and 0.8 percent U-235, which does. Separating and enriching U-235 to produce fuel is costly and dangerous.  

TerraPower’s reactors are designed to run on what is now essentially nuclear waste. The unique fuel cycle of traveling wave reactors usesU-238, often called depleted uranium. The U.S. has more 700,000metric tons of it in storage. Burning those stores of depleted uranium in traveling wave reactors could supply the U.S. with electricity for thousands of years, TerraPower researchers estimate, adding that burning global stores of depleted uranium (about 1.5 million metric tons) could supply 80 percent of the world’s population with the amount of electricity Americans now use for the next 1,000 years.   

How do these reactors work? A traveling wave needs to be ignited only once using just a bit of U-235 or plutoniumto jumpstart a chain reaction wave of neutrons that continuously converts U-238 into plutonium-239. Successful traveling wave reactors could also reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, since their fuel cycle would eliminate the need for numerous uranium processing plants.

As Charles W. Forsberg, executive director of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has quipped, the traveling wave fuel cycle “requires only one uranium enrichment plant per planet.”  

The plutonium burns itself up as it sustains a further chain reaction by transforming depleted uranium into more plutonium. In other words, a traveling wave reactor produces plutonium and uses it up at once, which means that, unlike fuel in conventional reactors, there is little left over that could be diverted into weapons. The wave moves through the reactor core at a rate of about a centimeter per year, somewhat like a cigarette burns from tip to filter. Or think of it as two waves, a breeding wave that produces plutonium that is followed close behind by a burning wave that consumes the plutonium just produced. The core is cooled with liquid sodium and the heat is drawn off to produce steam to drive electric generators.

In addition, Gilleland says that traveling wave reactors will be sealed and will operate for 50 to 100 years without refueling or removing any fuel from the reactor. “The traveling wave is scalable; we have completed the conceptual engineering design of a 1,200 megawatt reactor,” says Gilleland. “We are now starting the design of a 330 megawatt to 500 megawatt reactor,” equivalent to that of current large-scale power plants. In addition, he adds, “TerraPower is also designing smaller, more modular reactors that can capitalize on factory production techniques to reduce costs and accommodate diverse markets.”  

These novel reactors would also cut costs by eliminating the expensive fuel enrichment and frequent refueling processes that conventional reactors require. “Preliminary estimates indicate the cost of electricity will be less than a once-through light water reactor and much less than any form of reprocessing-based nuclear energy,” says Gilleland, who notes that global energy needs are projected to double by 2030, so more than 30 countries without nuclear energy programs are considering them. TerraPower expects to have its first traveling wave reactor operating by 2020.  

“Today, there is a huge energy gap between the renewable electricity we would like to have and the reliable low-cost electricity we must have,” said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) at a press conference last year. “Nuclear is the best power source we have available to meet our energy needs while also trimming emissions of greenhouse gases.” The good news is that companies like B&W Modular, Hyperion and TerraPower are rushing now to create a new, safer and cheaper nuclear energy industry to replace the one based on creaky and expensive technologies designed and deployed 50 years ago.


Ronald Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason Magazine.