Small Misunderstood Reactors

Small Misunderstood Reactors

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Welcome back to Decouple. Today I'm joined by returning guest James Krellenstein, whose previous two appearances and episodes on the past, present and future of American nuclear energy have stunned myself and listeners with James near encyclopedic knowledge and sharp analysis. Dylan, producer and coconspirator. Here at the couple, he's often reminding me to stop calling people savants. But perhaps I can just use it as an adjective savant like skills.

I think got a lot of feedback from people saying, Who the hell is this guy? And how does he know so much of some really respected people in the field at MIT and other places? So that's a source of your feathers too much. James But made a big impact on those last two episodes and looking forward to having you back today. Great. I'm glad to be here and thanks for fluffing my feathers. I suppose.

All right, so the topic of the day. I'm labeling it small misunderstood reactors. How does that sound to you? Maybe. Yeah, sure. All right.

Small, misunderstood. I don't know how misunderstood they are, but we'll go into that maybe, and see for sure. For sure. I mean, I have this. This is the need to to categorize things, to create taxonomies for things in order to be able to discuss them. And, you know, we're pretty wonkish, so we like to go into details and I think get frustrated by terms which are overly broad, insufficiently specific, and potentially misleading, particularly to people, you know, with a cursory knowledge outside of the field. And I would say that, you know, includes almost every single policymaker and government official I've ever run into. So it's a pet peeve for me because of some of the misconceptions.

You know, such as the idea that everything labeled as an s some are can be produced like a model T in a factory driven to say no need for any civil works, etc. and also some of the ways in which I think it's been a little bit self-defeating in terms of, you know, the the form of nuclear that has social license and therefore it gets sort of a singular focus in policy circles where nuclear needs to be floated more as a trial balloon. And that often ends up, I think, creating some severe limitations. Got back from Australia about a month ago where a similar has been sort of the focus and the unfortunate consequences.

There are no currently deployed as the Mars in the Western world and that creates a pretty shaky foundation for for that advocacy. So yeah, I mean that's, that's where I'm coming from, where my frustrations are at. But we have a lot to talk about today, and maybe I'll just try and lay out a couple of things and I'm sure we'll deviate here and there, which I'm looking forward to, but I thought it was of interest. Great British nuclear has sort of revealed a short list of reactors that they're interested in pursuing.

All of them are small at least, and they're all existing late water boiling water technologies, which I think is very interesting because another sort of face of ExoMars amongst policymakers are, you know, the use of advanced nuclear often infers, you know, different coolants and moderators and so-called Gen four technologies. So again, I thought, great time to touch on this and really looking forward to hearing some of your your takes. Sure.

So, you know, I think it's a really, you know, Mars, I think are at this point sort of more of almost a marketing term than they are a technical reality in a lot of ways. You know, if you look at, you know, what we classically, I think, want to think about in the summer is literally like a something like, as you said, a model T r Toyota Camry, that it comes off of a factory line and we just sort of plop it somewhere and turn it on. But except for the micro reactors, which are, you know, below 50 or 30 megawatts, either thermal or electrical, once again, this is where it gets very iffy, but generally below definitely below 50 megawatts electrical. None of the micro reactor.

Then whether it's ESA Mars, for example, that were in the sort of great British nuclear, which is a I have a joke about that name. But regardless, you know, those are not reactors that don't require any civil works. In many ways I would like to think of them as really small modular eyes, you know, regular nuclear power plants. And I think that has advantages and disadvantages. But I want to pull back for one second and ask this very basic question right in.

I think, you know, a lot of areas in the world, right, especially emerging economies and lower income economies that really do need a lot more energy access. Right. Do need for prosperity for just and, you know, increasing human health and well-being. You know, in those places, we really do secret constraints. Right.

You know, the grids are not going to be able to take you know, if you go to a country like Rwanda, which has only a couple hundred megawatts of installed capacity in total on the entire grid, you can't pop a thousand megawatt plant down there. And I think it will work or will be anything easy. But in higher income countries and in particularly what we think of as the West, you know, that's where the South Korea, the US or Canada or Western or Eastern Europe, we have very, very large, you know, generating assets of many of them fossil, many of whom already have all the transmission interconnections already there, all the siting. And so it begs the question, what are we thinking about when we're trying to do a smart.

Because the whole reason why the nuclear power industry through the sixties seventies, eighties, nineties scaled bigger is because there really are cost capacity scaling advantages that you get out of going big and you see this in power plants just generally it's why despite the fact that we all are surrounded by small modular internal combustion engines called cars, we don't power the world within fossil fuels by just running, you know, thousands and thousands of 100, 200 horsepower engines. Right. We generally go to, you know, big 100, 203 hundred, 400 megawatt, you know, combustion turbines or whatever the fossil acid or big round coal.

And so I'm very worried, I'll just be honest with you, that the the obsession around small cars is making us make some pretty questionable decisions about what the next reactor design should be. And I don't think that they are solving you know, I don't think some are. I think some RS, to be honest with you, are primarily, as we talked about in the last two episodes, they're a nuclear engineering solution to a financial engineering problem, right? That and I don't really see that many other real benefits for small cars for for deploying for baseload power for what we I think really need to decarbonize in the United States. Now, I realize it's a very provocative position, but I think I can walk through a little bit why I think that. And I think that the you know, there's a pretty good case to be made. And just to finish up here, you know, I'm concerned about what we've now seen in that both the state of Illinois and in the state of California, where, you know, we had some heroic pro-nuclear advocacy done in the state of Illinois that got the legislature to overturn their moratorium on, you know, new nuclear power plants.

And the governor vetoed it with the ostensible reason. This is what he claimed at least that it allowed non smokers that is non, you know, regular large modular reactors, if you want to call them that. These are Mark Nelson term because it allowed those large plants and didn't prohibit didn't only allow for small modular reactors. Right. Literally, you know Jay Pritzker literally said this bill did not allow non small reactors and therefore I'm vetoing it.

And then we saw a similar bill introduced in the California legislature that would only legalize nuclear power plants for smokers. So I think we really do need to start diving in pretty into the rationale between smokers. And I'll just I'll just end with saying I'm not A.S. Mars. I'm certainly not anti, you know, non light water reactor technology at all.

I think they have a really important, incredibly important role to play. I just think that we have maybe undersold the advantage of the existing fleet reactors and the existing new larger reactor designs. And maybe oversold some of the advantages of ExoMars.

Yeah, I mean, definitely that's been a big part of our struggle up here in Canada. Again, as smart as being a nuclear technology that, you know, are perceived to have social license and a lot of our our legislation, be it the investment tax credits and others here, our fight against nuclear energy was to make it nuclear inclusive across the board, existing nuclear candu, nuclear refurbishments, etc.. And we've been successful in that. But but I definitely I think the instinct of the industry was to sort of roll with roll with that and say, well, we have a license for this. And it's, you know, really a brand new phenomenon, probably only the year old in Canada that we're we're talking large again.

So so that is interesting. I mean, a couple of the rationales and I thought this was a really interesting distinction. I think it probably came we touched on it in an earlier conversation, but obviously this this engineering nuke engineering solution to a financing problem, the difference between something being financeable and something being economic, I think are really interesting. So I wondering if you can expand on that a little bit.

Yeah, just right before I go, you know, I say it's a financial engineering solution, a nuclear engineering solution to a financial engineering problem. But I think you had also, as I also was talking about, it's also a PR solution, you know, a a nuclear engineering solution to a PR problem. It's a nuclear engineering solution to a political problem.

And I think that this is sometimes, you know, as I think I mentioned, my father's a nuclear engineer. I've literally known a nuclear engineer very closely since the day I was born. Sometimes nuclear engineers view every problem as nuclear engineering problems, and not every problem is a nuclear engineering problem in the world.

And and so when we have financial engineering problems, maybe we should try to do some financial engineering. When we have PR problems, maybe we should do PR issues and advocacy, not have a nuclear engineering solution to that problem. So going back to your exact thing, let's let's expand on this difference between finance ability and economical, right? So one of the problems that I've talked about, especially in the United States, is the way that we finance new nuclear power plants. Right.

And for these large light water reactors that we've classically built in the US, actually the only reactors we've actually built in the U.S. for at least a very long time, you know, they are financed, as I said, as a system financing approach where you basically have an entire utility pledge, all of its assets and all of its revenue to be able to service the debt that is used, the bonds, for example, that are issued to build that large light water reactor and just a summit. To sum it up, the basic problem is you're building a $15 billion plant or a $30 billion plant, hopefully a little bit cheaper. But in the double digit billions, let's say, for a two unit plant, I don't think we're going to get no matter what we do.

I think it would be double digit billions for a22 unit gigawatt scale plant. The problem is, is that it's such a large amount of money that if the project fails, you really can threaten the entire utility or the careers of the people who are ordering that at the utility management and within SMR, as their name implies, they are just smaller, which means that the overall price tag is going to be much tinier than that, even if the price per megawatt is going to be more expensive. But because they make less megawatts, even though it might be a little bit more expensive per megawatt, the overall price is going to be a lot lower. So the if you think about it from a corporate or a finance ability perspective, they said, well, if this project fails, it'll be bad. No one wants the project to fail.

But you know, surviving $1,000,000,000 or $2 billion project failure is much, much easier for a company then than surviving a 15 or $20 billion project failure. And the problem is, as you just put out, pointed out, that doesn't mean, however, that ultimately the power per megawatt hour or even just a nameplate adjusted basis is going to be cheaper. In fact, we have a lot of reasons and most of the rigorous peer reviewed analysis that have looked at this have indicated that estimates are likely going to be more expensive per megawatt hour or per megawatt electrical just on a nameplate basis, then a larger than a comparable large reactor would be. I think this is a real problem because ultimately nuclear power plants are creating a, you know, people are going to object.

But it is a it is a weird commodity, but it is a commodity that is sold. And we're going to have a real hard time with the first couple of units that we are building of are going to be producing power that is more expensive than we would classically think. So. So, you know, I can see the rationale amongst the Western nuclear industry

that it's better to build something than nothing. And if this is all we can build in this pretense potentially kickstarts a return to large nuclear. And that's I think some of the rationale up here in Canada is let's prove we can do it.

I'm on board or that I can't I can't, you know, disagree with that. You know, it is interesting, you know, hearing getting a sense of, you know, the loan programs, office mandate and what the limitations are. But seeing that there is hundreds of billions of dollars to throw around, that it couldn't happen in a more coordinated fashion or there couldn't be, you know, more aggressive financing of some large nuclear to keep the if you want, thousand supply chain tack domestically, etc.. But given those confines, like I can see the rationale and I'm not I'm not unsympathetic to it, maybe we'll just maybe reaction to that very quickly.

But like there are a lot of stuff I want to move on to. But just to that question of, you know, as as a means to kickstart a large program, again, maybe the West just can't jump there. Yeah, I think that once again, I am I am very happy that smart projects are going to get off the ground in particular. You know, I think the ones that are going to really get off the ground like the BW 300, I think it like all of the you know, because it's 300 megawatts electrical.

So it's going to be an interesting thing to see if that plan in particular is economical compared to the large light water reactors. But here's where I'm coming from. If you look at the LPO, right, and the deal with the US Department of Energy more broadly, right, they have basically said that the United States, in order to achieve what is U.S.

government policy by 2050, they're going to need 200 gigawatts, at least, of new nuclear power in California. It's dozens and dozens of gigawatts. In New York State, it's dozens and dozens of gigawatts of new firm generation that is low carbon and the only real firm, low carbon scalable technology that actually has been deployed that we have right now, at least is is nuclear. You know, there's carbon capture, sequestration, hypothetically, for natural gas.

But we've never really brought it to scale and certainly not brought it to, you know, providing 20% of the U.S. electrical power or 70% of France's. So I'm looking at that and I am sympathetic. I'm also sympathetic that there are a lot of places that we're going to need, ExoMars, by the way, in the United States.

But when we're talking about the bulk amount of low carbon power firm, low carbon generation that we need, the question that I have for everyone is, does it really make sense to be going 50 megawatts or 300 megawatts at a time and possibly getting a lot of economic disadvantage versus us really looking hard about, okay, we need to build the ExoMars, but what are the policy decisions that we need to make to build the largely light water reactors as well? And I don't think we've spent a lot of time on that. And one of the things I've just worried about, just to be honest with you, is we're already seeing some of these issues with ExoMars happen. You know, I think the smaller project that is furthest along in the United States right now is the carbon free power project by you APS out in Utah.

This can be built in Idaho National Lab. And we just saw I think is sort of giving credence to my warning a little bit that, you know, from 2022 to, you know, January of 2023, the power price of that project more than doubled per megawatt hour. The estimated it hasn't been built yet. This is just the paper estimate of what is going to go on going from $60 a megawatt hour to over $119 a megawatt hour.

And that's before any building has been done right before we really actually have you in the most detailed cost estimates completed. And I think this is, you know, that project may not actually survive. That project may never actually get off the ground.

And, you know, I think we do need to be thinking, are we going to be ever able to get the economics of the ExoMars competitive enough with what the large plants can provide that we're able to launch this in a really sustained way that would get us to that point where we're delivering thousands and thousands of megawatts of of new nuclear capacity. And I just, you know, once again, the modeling is just not supportive of this idea that, you know, these plants are going to be necessarily as competitive as the large plants are. And we're seeing that happen begin to happen now in real life as well. I think there's a key difference between nice to have and need to have nuclear. And, you know, when there's pragmatic reasons like energy security, again, driving decisions in Eastern Europe that leads to the pragmatic decisions to solve the financing problem and do the most economic nuclear. So in my mind, that just doesn't exist in the U.S.

It is interesting sort of seeing from the more, I guess, into renewables side of the nuclear advocacy movement, some sort of cheerleading on the spiraling costs of offshore wind and I think some of those cost drivers are very much going to apply to new nuclear as a capital intensive resource dependent on a bunch of different commodities. So just just a little side note there. I am very interested in following along here because, you know, over the last ten years there's been a lot of excitement about, again, a so-called advanced nuclear Gen4 nuclear.

I thought it was very interesting that the, you know, six frontrunners and great British nuclear, you know, reality TV show, the great run off, whatever you want to call it, are all traditional light water technologies. So I think that that sort of leads me to want to dive this issue a little bit more, talk about some of the drive behind the excitement for Gen four in the last ten years. I think we're going to touch a little bit on sort of venture capital and how that's shaped a lot of, you know, planning and imagination in the nuclear space. But first off, I guess, are you surprised by the short list for for No, no, no, not for great British nuclear? I think, you know, here's the you know, I call sort of the Gen four.

It's kind of ironic. I call them the sort of back to the future reactors. Yeah. Because if you go back to 1950, right.

Remember the first, you know, nuclear power generation was not by a light water reactor. You know, EPR was an experimental breeder. Reactor number one was, of course, a liquid metal, sodium, potassium, you tactic fast breeder reactor.

And actually that was the first reactor that produced any sort of meaningful amounts of electric power. This was way before we ever got shipping port or, you know, a light water reactor, nuclear power plant. You know, these reactors have been around for basically from the birth of the nuclear industry to begin with, including molten salt reactors. Right. You could go down the list, a high temperature gas reactors. Here's the here's the truth.

We need advanced nuclear in a decarbonized world because light water reactors, by their very nature of using light water as a coolant or heavy water, you know, water as a coolant, you know, it gets very, very challenging to get to very high temperatures. It's not impossible, of course, but you really start you know, the pressure really, really begins getting very difficult to deal with with water at at much higher temperatures. And, you know, a light water reactor is generally providing steam at, you know, 300 degrees Celsius, maybe a little bit higher than that. And for a lot of process heat applications, we're going to need to go to much higher temperatures.

And and if we actually get to a world in which we really do need have a lot more nuclear than we do have now, we have fuel cycle needs as well to breed thorium or to really have a plutonium based sort of, you know, fuel cycle. We're not anywhere close to that. So there's real important applications about for advanced reactors. But my note of caution here is, you know, we think of nuclear power as a firm, reliable source of generation because it is right now. But if you go back historically into the sixties and seventies, nuclear power, including in the light water reactor, were not particularly reliable. And the real technology that we got is we learned how to master that tech, right? We learned how to master that fuel, that coolant chemistry, that, you know, the fuel, you know, the cladding and the and the fuel rod interactions.

What is going on in the nuclear power plant in a nuclear reactor is magic. It is alchemy in many ways. You're literally taking atoms and you're splitting them into two or more daughter nuclei that may be unstable and decay into a bunch of other elements. The chemistry, for example, just to give one example here of this, is really, really challenging and something that is not actually dealt with in almost any other place in chemical engineering or in chemistry in general.

You know, when a nuclear fuel rod chemically is one of the most interesting things that exist because you literally have dozens and dozens of chemical elements simultaneously being produced and popping in and out of, you know, sort of going to last and to the right on the periodic table as they go through beta decay or alpha decay. So it is an incredibly interesting, complex chemical environment that is not easy to master and it requires a lot of, just to be honest, real world experience. And the issue that we have with a lot of these non light water reactor technologies is not that they aren't great, not that they aren't extremely important to develop is is that they're not technologically mature in the same way that we see light water reactor technology. And this is not just hypothetical, right? If we look at the history of non light water reactors, even among pioneering nuclear countries where the United States, Russia, France, England, we don't see the same reliability coming, you know, manifesting.

If we take, for example, the the the biggest non light water reactor power plant the United States is ever built, which is Fort St Vrain, which is a high temperature gas cooled reactor in Colorado. Right over the ten years that that plant operated, the capacity factor didn't hit 16% or cumulatively it was 15.9% over the plant's entire life. Now, this doesn't mean that high temperature gas reactors are bad, just as if the operational challenges we had associated with light water reactors in the sixties and seventies doesn't mean light water reactor technology is bad. It means, though, that we do not have the real world operating experience and understand all of those challenges that, to be honest, are almost impossible to fully, exhaustively get through until you build one of these plants and turn it online. And what I would just ask us to realize is that I don't think we have prepared ourselves in the proper way to actually deploy Generation four technologies. I'll give you one very easy example.

The West right now does not have a fast neutron source. We do not a fast neutron source said it's actually a nuclear reactor, you know, ignoring accelerator driven sort of sort of magic or user generated magic. Right. You know, when we're qualifying a new, you know, nuclear fuel. Well, one of the things that you do is a test of radiation, right? You put it into a a reactor and, you know, you experience it.

You know, you expose it to a neutron flux that is going to be representative, at least we hope, of what it's going to experience in the commercial reactor. We don't have an operating fast reactor in the you in the west outside of Russia and China. There isn't any operating faster. There's hypothetically maybe one in Japan that hasn't been turned on in years.

And just that sort of basic system, you know, sort of testing ability we don't have. So I'm asking us we should be developing a very, very robust fast reactor development program or non light water reactor because they are so important and because they have such they have a lot of advantages over light water reactors. But I think we should be clear about what these are going to be. These are likely not going to we're not going to turn one of these things on and it's just going to be, you know, 90% rock solid generation like we expect out of the LWR fleet.

It's going to require some learning by doing in order to get to that expected reliability. And we're just not we're not taking the steps necessary to ensure that that we actually get there. Yeah, I mean, it's interesting going back well beyond nuclear to the beginning of the industrial evolution. I mean, our expertise at managing water under high pressure and using steam.

I mean, this is hundreds of years old versus versus these more modern technologies. It's not that the learning curve just began in the fifties and sixties at some, you know, far, far longer track record. So I do want to talk about, you know, getting from the lab bench to commercial operations.

And I think you've talked a little bit about that from the operational side and you're hinting at it in terms of, you know, what's required to qualify fuel, etc.. But before we get there, you know, I guess so much of the energy debate, the nuclear debate, is when we when we step back from it, especially non-experts like myself, it's bound in a lot of sort of esthetic and psychological considerations and framings. And so I'm particularly interested in, again, the role of venture capital finance in some of the sort of paper reactor, advanced reactor type concepts and sort of what's driving some of the thoughts here.

And when I look at it, you know, I see folks that have made a lot of money in tech in a highly disruptive industry, and you know, maybe they've made their millions and maybe interested in making their millions or billions more, but they start to turn to these kind of broader existential problems facing humanity. Maybe it's climate and they discover nuclear and they see how incredibly awesome it is. And I really mean that in the word of inspiring the alchemy, the strong atomic force, the incredible energy density, etc.. And they're incredibly frustrated, frustrated with the glacial pace of innovation and think, hey, if I can disrupt this, A, I could solve this problem. Maybe they could make a pile of cash on the side.

But, you know, I think there's this, you know, incredible sort of frustration. And all of these dumb nuclear engineers, they're they're they're messing around with the wrong technology. You know, we we proved that molten salts work in, you know, in Tennessee or, you know, EPR proves that, you know, just let's get on with it.

So nothing happened at EPR. One that was a problem anyway. Sorry. Yeah. Yeah. Anyway, so maybe maybe riff off of riff off of that and what you've observed in that space. Let me start with the story. Right. You know, I have been a lover of nuclear power since I was like, you know, seven or six years old. And I still have the boy like wonder with with this technology.

It is seemingly like anything else in the world that you put a pile, a bunch of metal rods in a tank of water, and that tank of water will just boil endlessly for years. That is something like it's like out of Harry Potter or something. It is it is magic in the sense that the technology that we are doing, utilizing this entire field is the first time that man has captured the strong nuclear force and has been able to put it to, you know, sort of tame it and put it towards productive of use, the strongest force in the universe.

And that's why, you know, the the biography of people like Oppenheimer was called American Prometheus. It's literally took the strong nuclear force and the nuclear engineer sort of stole it from the gods. And sometimes it is easy in that magic to forget that a lot of this technology is to actually tame that Magic is one something that's really, really challenging. And it's still really, really new in the history of humanity, right? It's only, you know, December 2nd, 1942, was the time that we had the first self-sustained chain reaction probably on planet Earth since billions of years since you know, Okello since the natural nuclear reactors.

So it is now if you now take that from where we are with tech, right? You have a bunch of people in Silicon Valley, as you said, who are in a field that is innovating really, really quickly, that has dramatic, disruptive change on a couple of year long basis. And they look at nuclear power. And I actually went I was at a cocktail party in in Silicon Valley.

I think I've told you the story before where, you know, you would talk to these Silicon Valley guys and they would just be like, you guys are literally using technology from 1953, basically, which is the light water reactor technology. I didn't want to hint to them that, you know, molten salt reactors and and sodium reactors are also that old. But their their idea is, hey, this technology is so old, it has not been disrupted, you know, really in any you know, in their mind, at least in any meaningful way for so long, that's there's got to be a better solution than this. And therefore, they want to take that sort of Silicon Valley ethos, which so much of it is predicated on software development, where development it can really happen iteratively very, very quickly, very disruptively.

They want to apply it to nuclear engineering. The problem is, is that they're taking a software mentality to the hardest of hard tech, which is nuclear power. Right.

And the problem is, is, as I was explaining, just the chemistry alone of these issues is very, very complicated. And something that is very hard to understand without actually building and operating the reactor in the real world. It is not like running, you know, a new, you know, Python compiler or writing a new set of code or jumping from, you know, from Fortran to Julia or something. This is something that really requires actual real world build experience and understanding the challenges that happen. And what Rickover talked about in the early fifties, that's why it's been since the early fifties in this paper reactor memo that always a reactor on paper is going to be much better than a real world reactor. And the simple reason is, is that the engineers cannot cannot foresee all of the challenges that are going to be associated with building a nuclear power plant in real life, because these challenges are so difficult to actually model completely on paper versus in real world.

And that's why it's not like the engineers at General Atomics who put that 14 brain reactor together. They weren't aiming for 15%, you know, capacity factor. They experienced challenges and they just did not know how to anticipate. And we've seen this throughout the nuclear development space in every reactor technology, whether it's light water reactors with its sodium reactors, whether that's, you know, look at even the company, the countries that are developing these non light water reactor technologies, even the Soviet Union, Russia, which has been developing commercially sodium fast breeder reactors since the late sixties and deploying them, by the way, for six Shevchenko and then at Bel-Air.

Right. They are not deploying right now as their main technology, the liquid sodium fast breeder reactors, their main bread and butter reactor that they're building The most of are these light water reactors. Is that because light water reactors on paper are superior to liquid sodium fast? We know they aren't, but they have the real world experience in both engineering, design and construct ability that gives it an edge. And what I see is a very different picture than maybe a Silicon Valley person does about the 50 years of using the same technology. What I see here is that we have 50 years of tech that has been built up by operating these plants. That allows us sort of the key to unlock that strong force and be able to turn it into useful work in an economical, reliable way.

What I see is, is that it is amazing that we take the same plants that 40 years ago in the United States weren't breaking 50% capacity factor records, and now we're operating at 93%. That is technology and that is innovation that has happened is just simply not maybe innovation in the nuclear steam supply system, but it rather is innovation in operations in sort of fuel design and fabrication and in the basic sort of real world experience of how do I actually operate this plant on a day to day basis. That's a huge technological asset. And when we sort of change the fuel, change the coolant, change everything else, we start breaking down and losing the tech that we have developed by operating these plants and are starting from more of a sort of blank slate. And that will maybe have advantages, but we have to be very careful to understand that we're going to build that other real world operational tech up.

And if we are going to expect these plants to operate a comparable capacity factor in economics. I mean, this is reminding me a little bit in terms of, you know, the categories we're talking about, which are just, you know, we're so prone to making as human beings, you know, and talking about maybe the inertia of traditional technologies. I'm thinking about Voxel Smith here and describing the parameters that we rely upon and how old they are, how old the diesel engine is, how old even the jet turbine is. And these are technologies which are miraculous and have had iterative improvements and, you know, increased efficiencies and things like that. But they're not fundamentally different. And indeed, we haven't really discovered a new prime mover. I mean, I'm not an expert on this, but I think in the last 70 years or so, there is, you know, to someone who's looking to disrupt and for for, you know, miraculously novel technology that's going to reduce costs or schedule by orders of magnitude nuclear, I think like those other prime movers is going to end up being pretty frustrating.

Yeah. You know, I think a really good example of this, to give you your industrial revolution example is, you know, we always like to think of nuclear power as the new fire. And it is right, as I said, it's like this it's not doing the chemical interactions that underlie combustion. It's rather using strong interactions and the strong force to generate power.

And so if you just take that metaphor out a little bit so, you know, we have, as you said, in the Industrial Revolution, we had a lot of fire, right, these combustion based processes. So first with a steam engine and then and then so on. But you would never think if you built a steam engine, right. And you had a lot of experience building steam engines and you're just going to trivially be able to build an internal combustion engine, but you're like, Hey, these two both use fire, right? They're both using combustion to basically run the plant.

That's sort of like I like to make the analogy between a a light water reactor and say, a molten salt reactor. They're both using the same fire that is nuclear fission. But the way they actually convert that into useful work that is used for an end use is very, very different. All the underlying engineering challenges are very different. And just as you would not expect to be able to just master building steam engines, that you're going to be able to simply switch over to build combustion, you know, gas turbines or an internal combustion engine.

We should sort of take it out the same way that these are going to be challenges. It doesn't mean, by the way, that that just because we had really good steam engines in the 1880s, we shouldn't have tried to build internal combustion engines. We should we should still try to build gas turbines, of course, just like we should still be trying to build these generation for tech. It's just that we need to be careful, I think, in understanding the relative levels of technological maturity these different technologies have.

I mean, I think it's interesting and I make this argument in relation to commercial fusion. It's it's insane that we went from the Fermi pile in 42 to shipping port 14 years later in 56. Like, is that just a testament to the times we were in when the brightest minds You know, I think there's generationally there's sort of the age of chemistry, the age of physics, the age of biotechnology that we've been pursuing through these sort of scientific peaks of interest.

And it's brought the brightest minds in like, how can this be so sluggish when again, we moved from the Fermi pile to commercial nuclear power and just 14 years, There's a couple of things going on. One, as you said, you know, if you think about think about these reactors, right? So we have the Fermi pile, CP one, Chicago Pile one. We have, you know, EPR one in Idaho.

We have submarines. You know, the the sort of predecessor of the Nautilus pressurized water reactor being built in Idaho. We have Borax one being built in Idaho.

Right. And what are these all actually have in common? Well, in many cases, all of these reactors, which were experimental reactors, were built by the same teams, and people are involved, the same type of thing. So a guy like Walter Zinn. Right. So Walter Zinn, of course. Right. Was at City College of New York in the 1930s as a physics professor. You know, Fermi comes up to Columbia, which, you know, down the block, and he starts working with Fermi, and he's Fermi's right hand man in engineering.

CP one Chicago Pile one. And then Walter Zinn right then goes out of the Manhattan Project, leaves the Manhattan Project, becomes head of Argonne National Lab at Argonne National Lab. Then is is responsible for literally heading up EB one. You know, it was called Zinn's Infernal Pile, right? The zip. Right.

Then he was also responsible for helping build out at Idaho and got into massive fights with Rickover, but was literally on the team that was building the first pressurized water reactor and supervised the first building of the of the first Borax experiments, the first boiling water reactor. So not only did you have in some cases like a totally different governmental sort of idea, you know, support for building these experimental reactors, you had literally the same groups of people and the same teams and the same real world experience on how we're going to organize. They organize laboratory teams to be building these new reactor types. And you would just had the same people like, you know, these grandfathers like Walter Zinn, who just birthing new reactor types over and over again. And and I want to go the one one more step where we're forgetting that every single one of these reactors came out of government research and development labs, and they weren't immediately tried.

You know, no one tried to make the first boiling water reactor a commercial product immediately, but we built borax one through five, right? We built those test reactors, er1, then we built our two. We even tried to go right from B.R. wanting EPR to write to a commercial plant that was Fermi unit number one outside of Detroit. And that's a pretty disastrous operational experience. We almost lost the trophy. Well, not really, but yeah, we had we had a core damage event at Fermi one and Fermi one was incredibly unreliable as as a plant.

What I'm not trying to say is that means that sodium, sodium reactors will never be commercialized. No, what I'm trying to say is if we have to distinguish between a science experiment and technology that we need to learn and master versus a commercially deployable tech that has to compete against other power sources on an open market. And this is this is not really, by the way. So if you want to go back to where you started this question, why did great British nuclear choose the light water reactor a smart tech? I think a lot of this has to do with exactly what we're talking about, the maturity of the smart tech, whether it's the fuel, whether it's the operational experience of how you operate a boiling water reactor, a pressurized water reactor.

That's not that far removed from the existing fleet's knowledge. And one of the things that I will say about this, fascinating to me for the United Kingdom, for the great British people, Right. Is they rather uniquely right now have a nuclear fleet that almost all but one operating plant is not a light water reactor.

Right. They have one light water reactor, SIZEWELL B, but every single other reactor that they are operating is advanced gas reactor A high temperature, graphite moderated gas cooled reactor, and they are not going to the next generation of gas cooled reactors. They are jumping back to light water reactors because the experience of the yars, while it's been not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, the capacity factor of the current air fleet is still not matching the capacity factors that we expect to have the light water reactor fleet. And even though we have all those advantages, you know, including higher temperatures, the Brits are saying basically, hey, man, we're going to go back to light water reactor because we expect that to give us better operational excellence than we've gotten out of two generations.

Firstly, you know, the ETR, but before that, the Magnox reactors of the high temperature gas cooled reactors. So I think that's kind of demonstrate the real value of the tech that exist in light water reactors, which is this half a century at this point of operational experience at commercial scale. I think, you know, part of the reason I care so much about this, particularly in a debate which tends towards conflict avoidance and all of the above ism and listen, there's so many gigawatts we need to build. Let's just do a smattering of everything, whether it's renewables plus nuclear, even within the nuclear space, is this idea that, like we desperately need a win and another loss is is potentially hugely damaging at this coordinate approach is damaging, you know, a non standardized approach in not learning from the lessons, the successful lessons of of contemporary and past nuclear build outs. You know, something that drives me crazy in Canada is, you know, in a province of I think 800,000 people out of New Brunswick, not one, but two.

Again, back to the future reactors or Gen4 reactors are in some stage of planning. And again, this is a province that runs a single candu six unit. They run it terribly, unfortunately.

Sorry to my liberal listeners, you know, I really hope that things can improve there, but that this is going to be some center of miraculous innovation. When the French program at at its height with Super Phenix fizzled, the Japanese program with Monju fizzled. You know, massive state backed enterprises. That too, you know, tech startup companies are going to be able to get it right, get it operating, get it economical.

Just seems so fanciful that I wonder why it's still being taken seriously. So I want to it's a really interesting question. Right. And I agree with you in my mind what the US and what the world's nuclear industry and maybe outside of Russia and China, Let's put it this way.

What we really need right now, as you said, is a win and the question is, is what path do we take to get that win? And I think all of us are sort of realizing if we can get a couple of wins under our belt, then this this world of the hundreds of gigawatts that we need to meet suddenly becomes realistic that we're actually going to able to start building that. And I think there's a lot of people who think that throwing away the old tech and starting on something newer, quote unquote simpler a smaller is the way to do it. And I and I realize that this is a a controversial perspective. I believe that actually the most likely chance we have for a win is using the stuff that we've already done, that we have all of the build experience in that it wasn't a great build experience, but we've done it, we've gone through it and we've got the plant operating now.

And most importantly, in some ways, when we turn that plant on, forget about the build experience, which is it's going to actually reliably generate power and be able to service the debt that accrued to basically build that plant. And that's really, really important. And you brought up Super Phenix, right, which for listeners who don't know, was a French breeder reactor, a big 1300 megawatts electrical breeder reactor, huge in France that was built, started in the seventies and was finished in the eighties. And, you know, the French at this time were really, you know, building a lot of nuclear. They had a very, very establish, you know, nuclear supply suppliers and industrial capacity. They had a great educational that was minting new nuclear engineers. And what happened in Super Phenix is in some ways exactly what we would expect.

But it turned out to be a disaster for what happened is when they first turned on Super Phenix. Right. It had months and months of outages. Right.

In 1986 when when we first connected Super Phenix to the grid. Right. It really had a capacity factor that was extremely, extremely low.

Right. I believe below 30%. And we had major, major operational outages that were caused by, you know, leaks in the intermediate heat exchangers. Right. We had oxidation of the primary sodium.

We had cracks on the external fuel storage drum. That basically was what you, you know, took the fuel assembly after you you d fuel it into. And this caused huge amounts of outages.

Right. The plant wasn't operational for literally a decade. Right. In any true sense. It was going on and off. But and also in a famous incident, the turbine building literally collapsed due to heavy snowfall, which I'm not so sure you could blame that I'd out if you got a reactor new, you know, sodium reactor. But anyway, what this gave was huge amounts of opportunities for opponents of the breeder reactor program, even in a relatively pro-nuclear country like France, to basically say this is in, you know, just a money sink, an absolute abject debacle over and over and over again.

And so even by the time that they had really likely, you know, hammered out a lot of those kinks by the mid 1990s and we actually had a run that was relatively at a relatively high availability, maybe even above 90%. The political opposition to this. So great that they killed the entire program. And Super Phenix was retired in 96 and never really generated very much power at all.

And what I worry about what the lesson of Super Phenix to me is not that once again, we shouldn't try to build sturdy and fast breeder reactors, but we should manage expectations and we should be clear that these we should not expect when we first turn on these new technologies, that they're going to really, really perform like the light water reactor fleet does. And what I worry about is that we are not developing that infrastructure right now. Right.

If you look at the budget of what just in the 1960s the Atomic Energy Commission was just spending on new reactor development, we were spending in inflation adjusted terms by 63, 64, It even passed the peak of new reactor developed for US billion dollars a year on just developing new reactor technologies at the AEC. Right. And pioneering them and building them out in Idaho.

Right Right now the in that is larger than the entire budget of the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission combined. Forget about what we're spending on new nuclear reactors. So when we're talking about building a new technology like this that does not have that operational experience, I would question to my venture capital friends, it's great that you're putting that money in. It really is. But how are you going to get through? Let's imagine you even get to the point where you're building the reactor. How are we going to get through commercially as a private investor? How are you going to justify to the investors that maybe you put the money in to build that plant, you know, that couple year period where we're not going to expect the plant to work so great? And that is my concern right now.

It is not once again that we do not need these reactors. We do need these reactors. We do need disruptive startups going through. But how are we going to actually do this on a full private model without government support when it's going to be very hard to get these reactors, you know, to be generating a lot of power likely? We don't know.

Maybe I'm wrong and where to turn them on. It's going to be perfect out of the box, but I don't think that has ever happened before. I think just because there's there's so much about, you know, liquid thorium, molten salt reactors that we kind of have to go there a little bit. We've been talking a bit about the sodium moderated reactors and in France and they're not modern sorry. Cooled, right? Yeah. Oh, my God. I knew. I knew. And my folks there are saying there are sodium thermal, there are moderate like column like that are graphite moderate sodium.

Cool. So yeah, Anyway, my bad, my bad. But I do appreciate the correction. Yes. In terms of the molten salts program, again, I think one of the smartest anti nukes that I've come across and B Ramana he he does a lot of push back on on Mars and on on molten salts in particular. But one of the points that he mentioned and I think it's a fair point is is similar to the theme we're discussing.

You know this is referenced does hey, we've done it before. Why don't we just doing it now, you know, 225 outages, only 58 were planned. You know, this is not mature technology and I think, you know, belongs in national lab to keep working out the kinks and up and scaling up slowly before jumping to, you know, 300 megawatts gigawatts scale. Don't think anyone's talking about a gigawatt scale onsite reactor but can you talk a little bit more about that experiment and maybe temper some of the expectations while preserving some of the excitement about, you know, the end place of where this technology could belong? So for molten salt reactor, so just so for people who don't know what the idea of a molten salt reactor and I'm going to be talking here not about, you know, like a kairos like design, where like you have solid fuel, but a molten salt coolant. But I mean, talk about, you know, a molten salt with a liquid fuel, right? So what that basically means is that unlike a a nuclear or like a classical light water reactor, even, you know, a fast reactor where the fuel is solid.

Right. It's either uranium dioxide or metallic uranium or trizol. So, you know, sort of pellets in in a in a in a molten salt reactor. What we do is we put the fuel in solution as a salt with the coolant. And there's been two examples really of this. Right. Which as you mentioned, one was the molten salt reactor experiment at Oak Ridge and another one before that actually was also at Oak Ridge National Laboratory called the Aircraft Reactor Experiment or the air.

And the aircraft reactor experiment was a 2.5 megawatts full power reactor built in 1954 when critical in 1954 and it was moderated. And here's the problem with that. You remember how I was talking about another problem, right? Once again, I am not anti molten salt reactors, but let's just go back and actually look at the operational experience of these reactors. Remember when I was talking about before that, what's you know, it's sort of like, you know, Dmitri Mendeleev, you know, eat your heart out.

A nuclear fuel rod is like we're like generating all these different chemical compounds constantly as fission products or as, you know, decay chain intermediates from those fission products as we go down the decay chains. So you literally have dozens and dozens of chemical elements going on now in a uranium dioxide fuel pellet. Generally, those are in a solid, you know, crystal lattice of some sort that's basically keeping the the sort of different compounds kind of all kind of fixed together in a solid. They're not sort of messing around, interacting with each other with a molten salt reactor as just an example. What we're doing here is we're taking that that all those fission products, all those decay chain intermediaries, and we're putting them into liquid. So in the liquid fuel and they're all interacting with each other, which means that the chemistry becomes non nontrivial, very, very rapidly.

And as one friend one time said, this is the most exotic chemistry that has ever existed on planet Earth in some ways. So if we look at the the upper, you know, and we've only built, to my knowledge, only two molten salt reactors that I just named actually ever went critical and actually turned on. And one of the more interesting things, in addition to, you know, the molten the aircraft reactor experiment was 2.5 megawatts thermal. Right. And it only the total run generation was 96 megawatt hours of energy complete.

So if you just do that now, that means that a full time adjusted basis, right? The plant was literally running for an equivalent of 38.4 hours at full power. Now, it was actually running for a lot longer at lower power, but that gives you how little of a experience that we actually have operating these plants and. Then the molten salt reactor experiment as as you mentioned. Right. The full power outlet output equivalent was still was much longer. Right.

We had about 9006 hours of full power output of cooling on the first run and about 2549 hours on the second run. But still in total, we are looking at less than two reactor years of total. You know, full, full power equivalence and just these two small test reactors.

And what I would I would give you just to give you an inexact example of what I'm talking about, these unforeseen challenges. When we looked at the what happened here with the molten salt reactor experiment, we turned off and it turned out the decommissioning of that plant was not easy. But it was it is done to my my understanding, one of the things that we found was some form of corrosion called inter granular cracking.

And it turned out that it which causes in brittleness in the metal services that were exposed to this fuel salt. And it turned out that the culprit of this in a brittle mint was an element called delirium. Now, delirium for those who don't know, it's atomic number 52, right? It's a really rare elements that is rare on earth as. Platinum is and it's something that we don't really know that much of the chemistry of because doesn't really have that much interactions. We don't, you know, use it very much in some niche applications. Well, we make delirium in this sort of nuclear fission alchemy, you know, alchemy soup that is the product of delirium, you know, driving fission products.

And that this delirium interacted with components of the piping in them, the molten salt reactor, and caused severe, you know, and brilliance over the entire entire reactor explosions. Now, what is the lesson that I'm trying to get out of it? It's not that we can't solve delirium induced into granular cracking. It's that this was a completely unexpected, you know, complication of the reactor design that no one at the drawing stage or at the planning stage ever anticipated.

And it could have been a very, very severe operational challenge if we tried to bring that reactor commercial. This is and this is, of course, why we have national laboratories, this is why we run science experiments, is to figure out what these real world challenges are. No one would have ever anticipated that delirium was going to cause intracranial cracking in the particular alloy that was using this piping. But it did.

And that's the exact example that I like to give of real world challenges that you don't necessarily stumble upon until you operate the plant. And it's just not true that we've had that much operating experiences with molten salt reactor. So there's two examples of this, right? Two reactors that have gone critical. I think the Chinese are building one more.

It's not clear if it's ever gotten critical. And why are we saying that this is just going to turn on and just be a complete, you know, walk in the park And I'm sure I'm about to get a huge amount of hate about this episode. I have to say I am just bracing myself for the hatred that's about to happen.

But what I'm trying to say is I'm not trying to be a party pooper. I'm just trying to say let's set ourselves up for success. And that means being reasonable and realist stick about what the challenges we are going to face with with really new advance

2023-10-24 01:33

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