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A Disruptive Technology Sets Its Sights on Nuclear Power

By Llewellyn King | Tue, 18 September 2012 22:41 | 4

Is nuclear power ready for a truly disruptive technology? One company, with a track record of technology revolution, thinks so.

The company has convincing cred: It has revolutionized warfare with its Predator drones and aircraft launching from carriers with electromagnetic catapults.

Now it wants to soar away from today's reactor designs, rooted in the 1950s and the beliefs of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy and by extension the nuclear power industry.

Rickover's legacy is the light water reactor, the technology in more than 400 reactors making electricity around the world. But to the scientists at General Atomics (GA) in San Diego, Calif., the light water reactor is yesterday's machine, like the land-line telephone, the radial aircraft engine, mechanical calculators and the silent movie.

GA, where the Predator was born along with a number of other "disruptive" technologies, believes it is time to shed the past and build new reactors that answer the concerns that have swirled around light water for decades. Call it the new, improved, front-wheel-drive reactor.

GA's entry into the nuclear stakes -- which are hot again because of Department of Energy interest in small modular reactors (SMRs) -- is the Energy Multiplier Module (EM2) as in "e-m-squared."

It is derived from more than 50 years of the company's R&D on modular high-temperature reactors. If EM2 works as its enthusiastic designers believe it will, then nuclear power generation will be changed in the way that the Predator has changed warfare.

To the EM2 team, the old days of boiling water at relatively low temperatures to create steam to turn a turbine is first-generation technology: It is the technology of the 19th century with nuclear replacing coal in steam generation starting in the 1950s.

The EM2 uses helium to cool the reactor and directly drive the turbine with gas heated to 856 degrees Centigrade -- more than twice the light water temperature. The helium will turn an enclosed turbine at an incredible 6,000 to 12,000 revolutions per minute for 30 years before the reactor has to be shut down. By contrast, conventional reactors have to be shut down and refueled every 18 months.

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The company believes that the time is at hand for a new reactor with better physics leading to competitive economics, waste remediation and long life cycle.

GA believes that it has the scientific insight to manufacture the unique fuel for the EM2, a so-called fast reactor, and to clad it in silicon carbide.

The EM2 is designed to produce 240 megawatts of electricity, but a smaller 71-MWe version will come first. The cost of EM2 electricity is expected to be about half that from today's water reactors. Most light water reactors are in the 1200-MWe range.

The GA plan is that the EM2 will be as revolutionary as some of its other high-tech products including the rail gun, an electromagnetic weapon; magnetic-levitating cargo pallets at docks; an electromagnetic launch system for aircraft on the USS Gerald R. Ford; and, of course, the Predator.

Because of the high operating temperatures of the EM2, it will be able to discharge waste heat easily and will not have to be located near abundant water, like rivers, bays and oceans.

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It will use uranium as a starter fuel, enriched to 12 percent of fissile uranium 235 to get a neutron flux going, but after that it will burn nuclear waste or depleted uranium. It will effectively eliminate the nuclear waste issue and multiply the power gained from uranium fuel by a factor of 262 times over today's water-cooled reactors.

The essence of a fast reactor is the high energy of the neutrons, ergo their ability to react with the fissile material left in nuclear waste and depleted uranium. Being a fast reactor, EM2 will both burn up nuclear waste and generate enough radioactive "seed" during its operational cycle to refuel another reactor.

The largest problem facing EM2, and other new reactors, is the lack of enthusiasm in the utility customer base. Natural gas is cheap and utilities would rather use that than go to a new nuclear regime of any kind, let alone a machine that is revolutionary through and through.

So to raise the money -- in this case about $4 billion -- to build a demonstration reactor, GA is looking outside the utility customer base and the United States. It is talking to sovereign wealth funds, and sometimes directly to foreign governments, that want to secure the disruptive technologies of the future.

By. Llewellyn King

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is lking@kingpublishing.com.

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  • Bob Berke on September 19 2012 said:
    Fascinating article! Please let your readers know how we may be follow these developments.
  • James Stafford on September 19 2012 said:
    Just keep on coming back to OIlprice.com Bob. We cover all energy technology breakthroughs and will be following this story closely.
  • Mel Tisdale on September 20 2012 said:
    Perhaps the Greens might like to try and undo all the harm they have done by automatically screaming "It's nuclear, therefore it must be bad!" The only CO2 these reactors will be responsible for will that produced in constructing them. Surely, even the Greens can see that that is a good thing, well some of them anyway.

    SMRs spread around the country servicing population centres would also remove the need for most, though obviously not all, of the power grid whose pylons so despoil the environment today.

    The only fly in the ointment is that helium is very scarce and essential for other functions. So, perhaps a better developmental route would be to have some generators using this design so that they can consume the stockpiles of nuclear waste and to supplement them with LFTR SMRs, a design whose fuel, thorium, will, to all intents and purposes, never run out. There would then come a time when decisions regarding which design to settle on could be based on actual experience.

    As for natural gas, it is still a CO2 emmitter and the rearguard action by the fossil fuel industry to maintain business as usual will soon run its course. With a building El Niño it looks like 2013 will be another record-breaking year for global temperatures. There has to come a time when the public realises just how bad things are regarding climate change and perhaps next year will be it. It will then be fashionable to reject all power generation that exacerbates the situation, and about time too.

    One final point. The use of SMRs would remove any reason to build any of those ugly wind turbines that are appearing all over the place - incongruously most of the time. (Another reason for the Greens to apologise.) The money could then be diverted to fund this initiative.
  • Matt Richards on December 16 2013 said:
    The EM2 is just another re-incarnation of the helium-cooled fast neutron spectrum reactor, referred to as the Gas-Cooled Fast Reactor (GCFR). This type of reactor has some attractive characteristics, but safety is not one of them. To achieve its objectives of high nuclear fuel utilization with relatively compact size, the reactor must operate with very high power density and with very little material in the reactor core that can absorb heat during a severe accident. As a result, this type of reactor will undergo a very rapid meltdown during severe accidents with loss of coolant and system depressurization, and represents a substantially less safe alternative to modern commercial reactors that use water cooling. Every major nuclear country has rejected this type of reactor concept, in part because of its relatively poor safety characteristics.

    The EM2 introduces additional safety and practical engineering challenges beyond the conventional GCFR. The EM2 fuel is an unproven concept and is expected to vent (release) its radioactive fission products while the reactor is operating, which essentially eliminates the fuel as a barrier to radioactivity release and defeats the concept of defense-in-depth to radioactivity release required by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The EM2 proponents also claim the reactor core can last up to 30 years without requiring refueling. Proving a new nuclear fuel can last this long without significant levels of failure is practically impossible, especially from a nuclear regulatory licensing perspective. Furthermore, this type of fuel cycle can represent a significant risk for proliferation of nuclear fissile material. The EM2 core is fueled with large quantities of depleted uranium which converts to weapons-grade plutonium long before the end of its claimed 30 year fuel cycle. In fact, according to a study performed by Princeton University (Glaser et al., Nuclear Technology, Vol. 184, October 2012, pp 121-129), an EM2-type reactor sized to produce 200 MWe will produce about 750 kg of super-grade plutonium (> 95% of the fissile isotope Pu-239) within about 5 years, which is enough plutonium for about 70 nuclear weapons. Conventional light water reactors (LWRs) are much more resistant to proliferation, with the plutonium in spent fuel containing about 60% Pu-239 after about the normal 3 to 4 years of irradiation. In terms of safety and proliferation risks, the EM2 is an unacceptable nuclear reactor concept, especially for commercial deployment in a post-Fukushima world.

    General Atomics was once the industry champion of the world's safest reactor concept, a modular, helium-cooled thermal neutron spectrum reactor, sometimes referred to as a Modular Helium Reactor (MHR). In contrast to the EM2, this reactor concept has a large quantity of material in the core that absorbs heat and prevents the reactor fuel from reaching meltdown temperatures, even if all of the coolant is permanently lost. Unfortunately, the senior management at General Atomics abandoned the MHR in favor of EM2, and has stuck with this strategy even in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident. Some proponents of the EM2 have falsely claimed the EM2 has the same inherent safety characteristics as the MHR.

    Japan has the high temperature engineering test reactor (HTTR), which is an operational, engineering-scale prototype of the MHR. It has been used to demonstrate the inherent safety characteristics of the MHR, including a series of safety demonstration tests just a few months prior to the Fukushima accident. Perhaps the events that occurred in Japan can lay the foundation for developing, demonstrating, and commercializing a next generation of nuclear power with inherent safety. International collaboration among the U.S., Japan, and other nations on the MHR would provide a relatively quick path for achieving this goal. More information on the HTTR is available at:

    http://www.jaea.go.jp/04/o-arai/nhc/index.html

    Other countries, including S. Korea and China are actively pursuing MHR technology. China has initiated construction on a commercial-scale MHR plant and will host the next international conference on MHR technology in 2014:

    http://www.inet.tsinghua.edu.cn/htr2014/

    In full disclosure, I worked at General Atomics for 28 years, mostly on advanced reactor technologies. I took early retirement in March 2012, in large measure because I could not support the EM2 concept in good conscience.

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