Just Where are we on Next-Gen Nukes?

July 18, 2018

Last night’s post got me thinking I should review just where we are with “Next generation Nuclear power”.

About where I thought.

Lots of ideas. 2030 time frame for working prototypes, which will need a decade or so to prove themselves.
I get it that small,  modular, safe reactors, if economic, would be a big help.
Still – two things.
Investors won’t believe you till you show them.

And tell me again how we can trust every tin-pot dictator with these? Just asking.


There are reactors that burn nuclear waste. There are reactors designed to destroy isotopes that could be made into weapons. There are small reactors that could be built inexpensively in factories. So many ideas!

To former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, an advisor to Terrestrial, it feels as if something new is underway. “I have never seen this kind of innovation in the sector,” he said. “It’s really exciting.”

Other reactors, like Terrestrial’s molten-salt-cooled design, automatically cool down if they get too hot. Water flows through conventional reactors to keep them from overheating, but if something halts this flow — like the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima — the water boils off, leaving nothing to stop a meltdown.

Unlike water, salt wouldn’t boil off, so even if operators switched off safety systems and walked away, the salts would keep cooling the system, Irish said. Salts heat up and expand, pushing uranium atoms apart and slowing down the reaction (the farther apart the uranium atoms, the less likely a flying neutron will split them apart, triggering the next link in the chain reaction).

“It’s like your pot on the stove when you are boiling pasta,” Irish said. No matter how hot your stove, your pasta will never get hotter than 212 degrees Fahrenheit unless the water boils off. Until it’s gone, the water is just circulating and dissipating heat. When you replace water with liquid salt, however, you have to get to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit before your coolant starts to evaporate.

This stuff can sound like science fiction — but it’s real. Russia has been producing electricity from an advanced reactor that burns up radioactive waste since 2016. China has built a “pebble bed” reactor that keeps radioactive elements locked inside softball-sized graphite spheres.

In 2015, to keep track of the startups and public-sector projects working on trying to provide low-carbon energy with safer, cheaper, and cleaner nuclear power, the centrist think tank, Third Way, started mapping all of the advanced nuke projects across the country. There were 48 dots on the first map, and now there are 75, spreading like a candy-colored case of measles.

“In terms of the number of projects, the number of people working on it, and the amount of private financing, there isn’t anything to compare it to unless you go back to the 1960s,” said Ryan Fitzpatrick who works on clean energy for Third Way.

Back then, just after Walt Disney released the film “Our Friend the Atom” promoting nuclear energy, when the futuristic notion of electricity “too cheap to meter” seemed plausible, electric utilities had plans to build hundreds of reactors across the United States.

Recently, the United States’ bet on conventional water-cooled reactors has been going bad in very expensive ways. In 2012, South Carolina Electric & Gas got permission to build two huge conventional reactors to generate 2,200 megawatts, enough to power 1.8 million homes, promising to have them up and running sometime in 2018. Electricity users saw their bills jump 18 percent to pay for the construction, which soon ran into delays. Last year, after sinking $9 billion into the project, the utility gave up.

“The most recent builds in the United States have been a disaster, largely due to poor on-sight construction practices,” said John Parsons, codirector of MIT’s Low-Carbon Energy Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems.

Similar stories have played out abroad. In Finland, construction of a new reactor at the Olkiluoto power plant is eight years behind schedule and $6.5 billion over budget.

In response, these nuclear startups are designing their businesses to avoid horrible cost overruns. Many have plans to build standardized reactor parts in a factory, then put them together like Legos at the construction site. “If you can move construction to the factory you can drive costs down significantly,” Parsons said.

New reactors could also reduce costs by being safer. Conventional reactors have a fundamental risk of meltdown, largely because they were designed to power submarines. It’s easy to cool a reactor with water when it’s in a submarine, underwater, but when we lifted these reactors onto land, we had to start pumping water up to cool them, Irish explained. “That pumping system can never, ever break, or you get a Fukushima. You need safety system on top of safety system, redundancy on top of redundancy.”

A recent study from the nonprofit Energy Innovation Reform Project estimated that the latest batch of nuclear startups could deliver electricity somewhere between $36 and $90 a megawatt hour. That’s competitive with any power plant that runs on natural gas (which runs between $42 to $78), and would provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

In a best-case scenario, nuclear power could be even cheaper. There are projections a study like this can make based on, say, an improved design that cuts construction costs, but it can’t anticipate revolutionary advances.

“Hopefully these designers will come up with much more radical reductions in cost — you would like energy to be more accessible to a billion more people — so that nuclear becomes a cheap alternative that can beat natural gas even if there’s no carbon price,” Parsons said. “That’s just a hope, but that’s what entrepreneurs are supposed to do.”

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard, said that if nuclear power is going to play a role in fighting climate change, these advanced nuclear companies will have to scale up insanely fast. “To supply a tenth of the clean energy we need by 2050, we have to add 30 gigawatts to the grid every year,” he said.

That means the world would have to build 10 times as much nuclear power as it was before the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Is that even realistic?

“I think we ought to be trying — I’m not optimistic,” Bunn said, noting that the pace at which we’d need to build solar and wind to quit fossil fuels is just as daunting.

Big barriers remain in the way of a nuclear renaissance. It takes years to test prototypes and get approval from federal regulators before a company can even start construction. “In order for advanced nuclear technologies to play a role in deep decarbonization over the next several decades,” the United States would need to overhaul the way it’s rolling out the technology, according to a study published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


19 Responses to “Just Where are we on Next-Gen Nukes?”

  1. This just confirms my views on “new technology” nuclear power is that it’s always a day late and a dollar short – and that’s just for new iterations of fission reactors

    The situation is even worse with fusion power where every so often supporters will claim that it’s “just round the corner” and they have been making that same claim for at least 60 years. They ignore that there is not one fusion reactor in the world that have run “over positive” for more than a few seconds, indeed even confinement of the plasma required for most reactors is held at about 3 minutes. Not one usable Watt of energy has ever been produced by these machines.

    For new technology fusion reactors the full production will not be before 2030 and more likely 2040. For fission reactors add another 30 years. On those sort of timescales battery storage and renewables will obviate any need for hub and spoke style generation.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      You reversed “fission” and “fusion” in the last paragraph. (??)

    • Sir Charles Says:

      I’ve bee listening to that “it will take another 20 years until we will generate electricity by nuclear fusion” for 50 years. I’m just fed up with that science fiction bollox. We have vast resources of renewable energy that already work and which is getting cheaper every year. That’s where the money should be directed to, and not to a never-ending pipe dream. Time is running out for experiments.

      Re that video above: Quaint bollox indeed. Some 90 years ago people thought it would be very healthy to drink radium dissolved in water…

    • grindupbaker Says:

      “fusion power where every so often supporters will claim that it’s “just round the corner””. Scientific American promised me fusion power is just round the corner in 1963. I recall “too cheap to bother metering” was a catch phrase in 1963.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    “Scientists assessed the options for growing nuclear power. They are grim.” Dave Roberts article at Vox:


  3. There is fantasy and then there is reality.

    The Paper Fantasy, Financial Disaster And Real Dangers Of Next Generation Nuclear Reactors, Liquid Sodium, EPR, Fast Breeder, Fast Neutron, Gas Cooled, Pebble Bed, Thorium, Etc

    SMR – Small Modular Nuclear Reactor Meltdown And Explosion SL-1 – Idaho, United States, Another SMR Melts Down In Lucens Switzerland; MOX Or Thorium Fueled Small Modular Nuclear Reactors Too Dangerous And Emit Toxic Radiation

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    Considering how far all types of technology have advanced over the past half century, it borders on silly to bring up SL-1 and the reactor in Lucens–both of which had their “disasters” some 50 years ago.

    What will be next—“man discovers fire, burns down hut”? Or “stone club invented, man beats neighbor to death with one in dispute over dead mammoth”?

    I was anti-nuke myself back in the 60’s and 70’s. but came full circle to believing that nukes could be part of the solution to AGW. It’s too late now to make that happen in any big way, unfortunately. Get ready for geoengineering—-first thing tried will be artificial Mt. Punatubos.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      Very valid but I think the general concern is from that famous saying “those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them, whereas those who learn get to make exciting new mistakes that they didn’t even think of before”.

  5. redskylite Says:

    Despite it’s bad experiences, Japan seem to be keen to restart it’s nuclear power capabilities, while seeing to be less dependent on plutonium, by use of mixed oxide fuel technologies.


  6. redskylite Says:

    And Jordan cancelling a $10 billion contract for two 1000 MW Rosatom VVERs for cheaper, smaller modular reactors from South Korea.


  7. Sir Charles Says:

    Losses of civilian nuclear material are usually disclosed but when the government loses nuclear bomb ingredients it stays mum.

    Two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory drove to San Antonio, Texas, in March 2017 with a sensitive mission: to retrieve dangerous nuclear materials from a nonprofit research lab there.

    Their task, according to documents and interviews, was to ensure that the radioactive materials did not fall into the wrong hands on the way back to Idaho, where the government maintains a stockpile of nuclear explosive materials for the military and others.

    To ensure they got the right items, the specialists from Idaho brought radiation detectors and small samples of dangerous materials to calibrate them: specifically, a plastic-covered disk of plutonium, a material that can be used to fuel nuclear weapons, and another of cesium, a highly radioactive isotope that could potentially be used in a so-called “dirty” radioactive bomb.

    But when they stopped at a Marriott hotel just off Highway 410, in a high-crime neighborhood filled with temp agencies and ranch homes, they left those sensors on the back seat of their rented Ford Expedition. When they awoke the next morning, the window had been smashed and the special valises holding these sensors and nuclear materials had vanished.

    More => Plutonium is missing, but the government says nothing

  8. dumboldguy Says:

    The argument is not over—-too bad some folks rely on emotions rather than scientific FACTS. That is true about nukes, GMO’s and vaccines. Of course, some people are all wrapped up in religion and the inerrancy of the bible…..I guess it’s permissible for some otherwise sensible “greenies” to show stupidity.


    • Sir Charles Says:

      What you call “FACTS” is nothing short of propaganda, dumbo. “Nuclear power releases less radiation into the environment than any other major energy source.” That’s just blatant nonsense. Not even coal power plants leave a legacy that keeps on radiating for hundreds of thousands of years. And here a reminder => Chernobyl Death Toll: 985,000, Mostly from Cancer

      • Actually the facts are that coal contains a LOT of radioactive elements which are dug up with it and burnt in the surface environment. Am interested in finding out what percentage goes up the stack and what stays in the ash pile, on the surface. Radio active elements radiate for much longer than the odd thousand years, up to the odd trillion in fact. Specifically U238, a natural and somewhat common element, which is so dangerous that it is stored in 44 gal (55 gal US) drums and transported on flatbed trucks. Rule of thumb, the shorter the half life, the more radiation, therefor the more dangerous. So the more dangerous the material, the less time it takes to decay to insignificance. Depending on volume this means decades to the odd century. Should anyone be worried about that, just don’t go near the storage site for the next hundred years.
        Any scientific exceptions to the above am also interested in hearing.
        Will not be buying the book and doubt the Babushkas of Chernobyl will either.
        From the Lancet, 9 Million deaths from air pollution, EVERY YEAR! This is not a personal attack.

      • Abel Adamski Says:

        Far far more than that, a friend was on skiing holiday in the Swiss alps at the time.
        Within 3 years dead from leukemia with no family history of any form of cancer.
        Of course nowhere in the medical records is any mention of Chernobyl.

        The key would be look up the cancer death rate from 5 years before through to 10 years after, even then some would take more than 10 Years.

        So guess what, I disregard the so called high “safety record” of nuclear power due to lack of reporting and attribution

      • dumboldguy Says:


        Sir Chucky, the clueless googler, calls my citation propaganda? Then he gives a link (just because he likes the content of the title) to one of the most discredited anti-west whackjob propaganda sites on the web—-the Center for Research on Globalization? To an article that is “fake news”?

        And here’s some beyond blatant nonsense from someone with a weak science background: “Not even coal power plants leave a legacy that keeps on radiating for hundreds of thousands of years”. Really, Chucky? The radioactive materials in coal ash DO INDEED keep radiating for as long as their counterparts from Chernobyl. LOL again!

        As Brent says, “Nine million premature deaths per year from air pollution”. Keep your eye on the ball and all that, Chucky—-you’re getting very sloppy.

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