Making a Difference

My Personal and Professional views

Making an Argument For Regulations

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Another Perspective

Mr. Alan Levin wrote me a thoughful and well informed response to my Blog post touting support for Bob Metcalfes artice on the future of Nuclear energy. I have posted it here in its entirety. the point i would like to emphasize is that I believe that I, Mr, Lavin and Mr. Metcalfe all believe that Nuclear energy is a logical solution for clean sustainable production of electricity. There are obviously differences on the margins. Allow me to be clear about my views:

1. I believe it is possible to use non neutronic fuels, i.e. plutonium, uranium, for fission energy. This means we can have all the benefits of nuclear energy without the nasty radioactive ewaste. Most of the industry DOES NOT see it this way.

2. 100m is a lot of money to prove the safety of a reactor. Yes it is absolutley necessary to prove safety but perhaps we could go about it in a more supportive way. Oil companies get cheap federal land leases, timber companies get access to national forests, we are trying to save the planet an we get a 100m dollar barrier to entry.

3.  If we can build a reactor that runs on say, boron, instead of uranium, then we will have an infinite amount of cheap fuel which would result in global abundance of non polluting electricity and a complete shift in the balance of power.

I welcome Mr. Lavins comments and hope that he submitted his letter to the NY Times and Mr. Metcalfr.


Dear Mr. McNiel:

I am writing to comment on your blog site “Making a Difference,” and specifically on the Wall Street Journal op-ed by Bob Metcalfe, on the subject of nuclear power, which you’ve reproduced on that site.  Mr. Metcalfe is, of course, entitled to his opinion, and he makes some valid points.  However, in my view, the article is not “brilliant” by any means, especially in that it contains a number of errors, along with assumptions that are at least questionable.  I should add that I am a nuclear engineer (with a doctorate from MIT)–and I work for one of the big vendors whom Mr. Metcalfe does not seem to like very much.  However, let me make it clear that the statements that I make in this note represent my own views, and should not be construed as those of my employer.

First, the errors, briefly, taken in the order in which they appear in the article:

– Implication that existing reactors run on “weapons-grade enriched fuels” (6th paragraph), while the new “advanced” designs he touts do not

All existing power reactors in the U.S. run on low-enriched uranium–less than 5% U-235.  This is not a weapons-grade material.  (Weapons-grade uranium is >90% enriched in U-235.)  While he does not cite all of the five fission start-ups that he claims to exist (4th paragraph), I can tell you that both the NuScale and Hyperion reactor concepts also used low-enriched uranium.  NuScale’s website indicates that the fuel is similar to that used in currently-operating plants, including an enrichment of just under 5%, but is about half the length of that in large plants.  Hyperion also uses enriched U.  Detailed information is harder to come by, but it appears that it’s somewhat more enriched than conventional reactors–around 10% U-235.  However, as noted, this is still far below “weapons-grade.”

– “…small enough to fit on a large kitchen table” (7th paragraph)

The basic reactor for the Hyperion concept may be small enough to fit on a large kitchen table (about 1.5 meters), but the complete plant almost certainly would not meet that description.  However, about the only kitchen table the NuScale reactor would fit on is the one at Buckingham Palace.  It does have a relatively small diameter, but is quite tall, a requirement to create the necessary coolant flow by natural circulation.  Again, since Mr. Metcalfe does not identify the other 3 “start-ups” producing fission reactor concepts, I can’t judge whether their designs meet his “kitchen table” criterion.

– “…not one new commercial nuclear reactor design has been approved and built in the United States for 30 years” (9th paragraph)

At best, this is a half-truth.  It is true that–at least until recentlly–there had been no new reactor ORDERS in the U.S. since before the Three Mile Island accident, a period of more than 30 years.  However, roughly half of the 104 reactors currently operating in the U.S. were licensed and started up after the TMI accident–the most recent was Watts Bar, Unit 1, which began operation in 1996.  (TVA is currently completing the long-deferred Unit 2 at Watts Bar, which is scheduled to start up in 2013.)  Moreover, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved four new designs via its design certification process–the System 80+, the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), the AP600, and the AP1000–and three other designs are under review (the ESBWR, US-APWR, and the EPR), along with a modified version of the AP1000 design.  There are currently about 13 applications for new plant licenses under active review at the NRC, and construction of the first of these new plants may begin as early as later this calendar year.  (Actually, 17 applications have been submitted, but reviews of several of them have been suspended, for various reasons, at the applicant’s request.)  It is not clear how a reactor “order” is defined these days, but contracts for engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) have been signed for several of these projects, which strongly suggests that they will go forward.

– “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy were both formed in the 1970s to develop nuclear energy and thereby reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  But neither has reduced our dependence on foreign oil, especially not with nuclear energy.”  (10th paragraph)

First, the NRC was not formed “to develop nuclear energy.”  It was established (from the regulatory arm of the Atomic Energy Commission) to oversee and regulate the use of nuclear energy, and it has no direct role in either its development or the promotion of its use.  The DOE was established as a means to consolidate most (though not all) of the energy R&D sponsored by the Federal government.  It incorporated what had been the “development” side of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was first split off from the NRC to become the Energy Research and Development Administration, with ERDA forming the basis for DOE a few years later.  Part of DOE’s mission was to help fund the development of nuclear energy; however, it is at least open to argument as to whether the reason for doing so was to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  In any case, in the early 1970s, before the embargoes and the two significant increases in the price of oil later in that decade, about 20%–as I recall–of our electric generating capacity was provided by burning oil.  (In 1972, after my freshman year at MIT, I worked at a Baltimore Gas & Electric Company power plant outside of Baltimore.  It had 4 boilers, with combined capacity of around 1000 MWe.  Three of them, representing over 600 MWe, were oil-fired.  One was coal fired.)  Today, oil provides an almost-negligible fraction of our electric generation capacity and nuclear energy supplies about 20%.  So if an objective of DOE was to supplant oil with nuclear power, one could argue that it’s been quite effective.  (One could also argue that DOE had relatively little to do with it, and that the use of nuclear power was driven by economics.)  Our current dependence on foreign oil is driven not by electricity demand, but by the increasing demand for transportation fuels and for petroleum as an industrial feedstock.

– “…we should drop the requirement that the [NRC] be reimbursed for reconsidering new fission reactor designs” (final paragraph)

By law, the NRC must recover about 90% of its budget through fees that it charges its licensees and applicants.  The only way to “drop the requirement” would be for Congress to amend that law.  (Mr. Metcalfe’s numbers for the costs of certifying a new reactor design are probably reasonably accurate.  However, it should be noted that the NRC’s regulations require that new reactor designs that rely on innovative technology must provide evidence–in most cases, experimental in nature–to demonstrate that they can operate safely.  Frankly, this does not strike me as an unreasonable requirement, especially for a design like the Hyperion reactor that differs so radically from almost every other reactor that’s ever been built.  But experiments are generally expensive, too.  If Mr. Metcalfe believes this is an onerous burden, I’d ask him to consider if he’d want the FAA to certify a new airplane design without clear evidence that it can operate safely and reliably–not just on paper, but in reality.  I see little difference between the two cases.)

As far as questionable assumptions are concerned, those are connected primarily with the assertions that Mr. Metcalfe makes about the new, small reactor designs–specifically, that they are safer and more economical than large plants (such as the ones now being reviewed by the NRC).  I fail to see how either of those claims can be supported.  (Again, I can only address the two that he explicitly names, since I don’t know the other three that he implies exist.)  Since neither the NuScale nor the Hyperion design has ever been built and operated, I do not see how a claim of greater safety (compared to current plants) can be made.  (In fact, I have no idea if the Hyperion design will operate as claimed; it is so different in concept from any design currently operating that I believe it will be necessary for Hyperion to produce a prototype and demonstrate its basic operational characteristics–especially that it can operate stably and reliably.)  If and when they are built, it may well turn out that way, but in the absence of empircal evidence, the statement is at best premature.  The same is true–in spades–for economics.  It is possible that modular manufacturing and construction may ultimately trump economies of scale, and that smaller plants may produce electricity more cheaply than big plants, but that has not yet been proven.  And I should point out that I have seen several presentations on the Hyperion design (most recently at the Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference last year in Japan), and I have not yet seen a good explanation of how heat will be removed from the reactor core and used to make electricity.  (Vague references to “heat pipes” are made, but no basic design information has been presented in the public domain, as far as I am aware.)

No one doubts that Mr. Metcalfe is a very smart guy, but with all due respect to his accomplishments, it’s not clear to me that the “Internet development” model that he promotes is applicable to the development of nuclear reactor technology (fission or fusion, for that matter).  Even a small reactor design will take substantial amounts of money to develop, apart from the issue of licensing costs.  Innovation can come from small companies or large ones, but while it’s relatively easy to put a conceptual design on paper, turning that concept into a physical machine is a non-trivial exercise that takes a lot of specialized engineering talent and non-trivial sums of money, which is why the development usually ends up in the hands of large industrial companies, rather than venture-capitalized entrepreneurs.  (In fact, while the NuScale design does contain some innovative elements, it draws on technology that is more than 40 years old.  GE built natural circulation reactors–boiling water reactors, in this case–in both the U.S. and the Netherlands, in the 1960s, and the idea of an “integral” reactor was developed by Babcock and Wilcox, also in the 1960s, and one such reactor was deployed on a nuclear-powered ship.)

Those of us in the nuclear business are almost always happy to see supportive articles in the media (and on-line, for that matter), but we also cringe, sometimes, when those articles make statements or claims that are erroneous or difficult to support.


Alan Levin


Written by Jim McNiel

July 11, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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