Skip to main content

I have followed Ben Sovacool's escapades as an anti-nuclear scholar and/or pseudo-scholar for sometime, and recently noted an improvement in his scholarly discipline in a review on one of his recent papers. But alas the improvement may turn out to be a fluke. David Sella-Villa, the Editor-in-Chief of the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, has kindly provided me with a copy of Sovacool's most recent paper, "Nuclear Nonsense: Why Nuclear Power Is No Answer to Climate Change and the World’s Post-Kyoto Energy Challenges," which Sovacool coauthored with Chris Cooper. The paper is long, but unfortunately contains numerous flaws that mare its conclusions. My usual approach in reviewing long books or long papers is to focus on a section or sections that contain material that I am most familiar with and examine how well the author or authors treated their subject. I also attend to rhetorical strategies including the selection and use of authority, and the selection of information.

The big message of anti-nuclear fanatics at the moment is the costs of new nuclear facilities.  Sovacool & Cooper jump right in:

Nuclear plants are grotesquely capital intensive and expensive at almost all stages of the fuel cycle, especially construction, fuel reprocessing, waste storage, decommissioning, and R&D on new nuclear technology. These exceptionally high costs are connected, in part, to the history of nuclear power itself, as neither the United States nor France—two countries largely responsible for developing nuclear power—pursued nuclear power generators for their cost effectiveness.

Now current reactors produce electricity is at a very low cost.  These arguments are usually quite superficial and do not engage in good faith efforts to compare nuclear costs with other with the cost of producing electricity from other post-carbon electrical sources.  Indeed advocates of all renewable generation systems almost never discuss the current or future costs of those systems. Indeed they often ignore the current price of renewable facilities, and usually ignore the cost of redundancy and energy storage, as well the cost of building new grid extensions.  For example California plans a

$3.3 billion initiative aiming to install 3,000 MW of new grid connected solar capacity over the following decaide

That means that for every 1000 MWs of solar generating capacity added to the California electrical system the state will be spending $1100 million.  Renewables advocates often speak of a smart grid, without saying what a smart grid system will cost.   While a smart grid will undoubtedly enhance the current grid system, it will not compensate for the limitations of renewables geneerating systems, and impliminting a smart grid system will carry substantial costs.

I have attempted at Nuclear Green to report on current renewables cost, with some systamatic attemptes to estimate the cost of building a reliable base power or a reliable peak power source given the cost of current renewable technology.  I have also indicated that future costs arevery uncertain because of the sudden and drastic economic crash of 2008, a crash whose magnitued we are just now beginning to appreciate.

Sovaciool and Cooper offer us the following statement on nuclear costs:

New evidence suggests that the estimate of $2000 per installed kW reported by the industry is extremely conservative and woefully out of date. Researchers from the Keystone Center, a nonpartisan think tank, consulted with representatives from twenty-seven nuclear power companies and contractors, and concluded in June 2007 that the cost for building new reactors would be between $3600 and $4000 per installed kW, with interest.167 Projected operating costs for these plants would be remarkably expensive: 30¢/kWh for the first thirteen years until construction costs are paid followed by 18¢/kWh over the remaining life-time of the plant.168 Just a few months later, in October 2007, Moody’s Investor Service projected even higher operating costs, an assessment easily explained by the quickly escalating price of metals, forgings, other materials, and labor needed to construct reactors.169 They estimated total costs for new plants, including interest, at between $5000 and $6000 per installed kW.170 Florida Power & Light informed the Florida Public Service Commission in December 2007 that they estimated the cost for building two new nuclear units at Turkey Point in South Florida to be $8000 per installed kW, or a shocking $24 billion.171 Most recently, in early 2008, Progress Energy pegged its cost estimates for two new units in Florida to be about $14 billion plus an additional $3 billion for transmission and
distribution ("T&D").172

Note that this discussion notes that overnigh costs in 2007 were estimated to run perhaps $4000 per kw of generating capacity.   The assumption is that it would be outrageous to pay so muchy money for electrical generating capacity.  But is it?  Consider the cost of solar thermal power.  In a small solar thermal facility under construction in Spain 2008 was reported by the Guardian to cost 80 Millions Euros, ($108 Million) and to produce a maximim of 20 MWs  of power.    Now it would take a facility that was 50 times larger to produce the same power output as a typical reactor.  How much would it cost to produce reactror size outputs?   If we uped the output of our solar facility to 1000 Million watts the resulting building cost would be $5.4 billion.  If we tacked on the grid connection cost of $1.1 Billion,  our costs now run runs to$6.5 billion.  But such a facility would have a capacity factor of around .20 verses a capacity factor of.92 for the reactor.  That means that the  solar facility produces only 22% of the electricity the reactor does on an annual basis.  In order to produce the same amount of electricity we will have to enlarge our solar field to 4 1/2 times times the size of the original facilityfacility and add some form of over night storage for the extra heat.   This would cost somewhere between 20 and 25 billion dollars, and does not include the S1.1 billion extra for the grid hookup.  Now that is grotesquely capital intensive.

We see that even without inflation that duplicating the power output with some solar thermal technologies will be far more expensive than nuclear.  I as of yet have not written off all solar thermal technologies, but some are clearly extremely expensive, and likely to become for so if the 2002 to 2007 inflation in power generating facilities construction costs emerges again in a few years.  It should be noted that no solar thermal technology has yet been proven to be cost competitive with nuclear on the basis of actual construction costs for actual rather than theoretical capacity.  Nuclear facilities produce  over 90% of their rated power over a year  while solar facilities produce power, 18% to 22% of their rated power annually.   Thus in order to produce as much power as a nuclear facility, the power gathering field has to be enlarged by at least a factor of 4, and expensive heat storage technology has to be added to the solar facility.  Thus while solar technology is cheaper by rated capacity, but rated capacity is highly deceptive.  Solar facilities only produce at rated capackty for a short period a day, and generate no electricity at all for most of the day.  It is not cheaper if measured by actual power output to build solar facilities rather than reactors.

Sovacool & Cooper devote most of their discussion of cost to a discussion of cost over runs in reactor discussion, that is remarkably devoid of insight into the cause of those over runs.  Reactor construction costs drop with serial production of reactors.  Also the purchaser's familiarity with reactor construction is important.  Finally, a large construction project like building a reactor, requires great managerial skills.  In order to control shus a large and complex process, managers themselves need specialized training.

In fact, during the first nuclear era, relatively unskilled managers, were overwealmed with their assignments.  No less that four reactor manufacturers vied for sales of evolving reactor designs.  In many cases the detailed construction design was incomplete when the reactor construction began, and the design was revised during construction, requiring that completed parts of the facility already completed be torn down and rebuilt.   After Three Mile Island, changing safety regulations required major design changes to facilities already under construction.  Often this ment that much of the reactor and its facilities had to be torn down and rebuilt for a second time.  Prolonging the construction project meant that interest was accruing without any revenue, thus money had to be borrowed to pay interest.

There are of course lessons from the experience that could be learned.  Sovacool & Cooper who only take the most superficial of looks learn none.  But the French, the Japanese, and the South Koreans did.  They used mature reactor designs, which already contained advanced safety features.  Construction managers were well trained, and reactor construction projects were completed on time or sooner and at or under budget.  thus contrary to Sovacool & Cooper the pattern of cost over runs appears to be be a localized problem in North America.

Is itv possible then for American reactors be built on time and within their budgets?  Certainly, but the reactor builders need to larn the lessons.  One of the roles of scholars in studying the history of technology is to point out useful lessons to be learned.  However, anti-nuclear fanatics like Sovacool & Cooper refuse to even consider the possibility that cost management lessons are available from the history they recite.  Hidden in their argument is a profound contempt for history and the possibility that human practices can evolve and change as people face problems and overcome them.

Sovacool & Cooper commit a second intellectual failure, they ignore the construction cost inflation that occurred between 2002 and 2007.  During that time, enoumous construction projects in Asia, draind huge amounts of resources from the construction industry, doubling the cost of energy related construction during those years.  This effected not only the price of nuclear power plans, but also the price of coal fired power plants, and wind generators as well.  Reactor construction cost estimates from 2008  usually assumed a continuation of  the similar inflation patterns out to 2012, the earliest date which new reactor construction could begin in the United States.  The same inflation pattern that was projected to effect the cost of nuclear construction would have undoubtedly effected the cost of solar and wind projects as well, and at least to the same degree.  Thus the cost differential for unit of power produced between nuclear renewables would still hold.

However, the great economic crash of 2008 has already greatly impacted the pace of new construction world wide. It would appear that the crash of 2008 will require sometime before complete recovery commences.  It is not clear how long the period of negative or depressed economic growth will last, but one impact of any economic downturn as drastic as the one we just experienced, will be a lowering of the cost of all new electrical generating facilities, including the cost of reactors.  I will not fault Sovacool & Cooper for their failure to notice this, since I made assumptions of continued cost inflation until recently.

Sovacool & Cooper point to factors such as "operational learning" which they describe as

a feature not well suited to rapidly changing technology . . .

 But it is far from clear how much a factor "operational learning" will be in new reactor costs.  Recent changes inb reactor technology are evolutionary rather revolutionary in nature.  The Light water Reactor is a mature technnology, that is not rapidly changing.  Furthermore, new American reactors will be based on designs that will be built elsewhere first.  Thus much of the cost of "operational learning" will be born by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Fins, and the French.  Sovacool & Cooper also note

difficulty in standardizing new nuclear units

A problem which I already touched on, but that problem may well be a thing of the past.  First Many power producers appear to be focusing on a relatively few designs.  The Westinghouse AP-1000 is particularly attractive, and China has already standardized the Ap-1000 as its standard reactor design.  Numerous American power producers are considering the AP-1000 and it is also under consideration in England.

Sovacool & Cooper also focus on the cost of fuel reprocessing.  The principle economic argument against reprocessing nuclear fuel is that it is cheaper to mine new uranium, enrich it, and run it through a once through cycle, and then designate it nuclear waste.  But in terms of power production cost, recycling nuclear fuel would add very little to final electrical costs.  Sovacool & Cooper do not understand this.  They assert,

Researchers have recently proposed a newer method of reprocessing called uranium extraction plus ("UREX+"), which keeps uranium and plutonium together in the fuel cycle to avoid separating out pure plutonium.  This method, however, is both unproven and absurdly expensive. The DOE estimated in 1999 that it would cost $279 billion over a 118-year period to fully implement a reprocessing and recycling program for the existing inventory of U.S. spent fuel relying on UREX+.

Is $279 billion spread over 118 years absurdly expensive?  We have an annual expense of 2,364,000,ooo a year which seems like a lot of money, but the total sum is less than what the United States paid for imported oil in 2007.  But the energy return on the investment in nuclear fuel recycling would be many times higher than the energy return on dollars spent for imported oil.  Further more dollars spent on recycling American nuclear fuel are not spent on imported fuel.  Money spent on energy producing industrial process in the United States is money that is not lost to the American economy.  Economic multipliers would come into play, further lowering the real economic cost of fuel reprocessing.

Reprocessing is also economically rational because it is cheaper and safer to recycle used nuclear fuel than to treat it as nuclear waste than to  place it into long term storage.  U-235 and plutonium found in nuclear fuel can used to fuel two types of Generation IV reactors, The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, and the Intrigel Fast Reactor.  Contrary to Sovacool and Cooper's claim  that

Generation IV reactors entailed much higher reprocessing and disposal  costs compared to conventional recycling and fuel disposal . . .

the LFTR reprocesses fuel internally, and can be used as a means of disposing of nuclear waste from other reactors.  In fact, as I note elsewhere on this blog, uranium and plutonium from nuclear waste can be used as a starter charge, for new LFTRs.  Used this way, the cost of reprocessing "spent nuclear fuel", which Sovacool & Cooper also state to be $5 billion a year, would far more than pay for itself in terms of the energy reprocessing would return to the economy.  This is one of the many instances in which the Sovacool & Cooper analysis goes completely astray by its failure to put the facts into context.

Sovacool & Cooper and make the cost of long term storage of "nuclear waste" an issue.  i personally would regard the disposal of spent reactor fuel a tragedy, since 99% of the potential energy in uranium goes unused in reactors.   Sovacool & Cooper, obcessed as they are in demonstrating their case against nuclear power at every turn fail to compare the cost and benefits of reprocessing with the cost and benefits of long term storage.

Sovacool & Cooper raise and misrepresent the question of nuclear decommissioning.  First  Sovacool & Cooper misinform us on the lifetime of nuclear plants:

Nuclear plants often have an operating
lifetime of forty years.Iin fact it is at least 60 years with another 20 opening up as a possibility.  Thus the statement that

In most cases, the decommissioning process takes twice as long as the time the reactor is actually in use

is inaccurate no matter what its source.  Their statement that reactor decommissioning

costs anywhere from $300 million to $5.6 billion.

reports fact but ignores that nuclear decommissioning costs are set asside during the 60 to 80 years that a reactor is operated, and thus does is already paid for when decommissioning begins.  Paying decommission cost does not pose a serious burden on rate payers, because decommissioning costs are only a very tiny fraction of each cent paid for electricity.  Sovacool & Cooper appear to feel uncomfortaboe withtheir cost od decommissioning in the united States, because they includ a discussion of the cost of decommissioning, for British zreactors, and a second discussion of the cost of decommissioning K-25 a World War II era, weapons related industrial facility in Oak Ridge.

Sovacool & Cooper also provide a wholly wrong headed analysis of nuclear research and development.    Thus their assessment of Generation IV nuclear technology simply groups all generatiohn IV together as a group and characterized them.  This is most unfortunate in the case of the LFTR because of its radical difference from other reactor technologies.  Thus many things that Sovacool & Cooper say about GenerationIV Nuclear technology are not true of LFTR technology.  This is especially hard to explain becaus Ben Sovacool is familiar with my blog, Nuclear Green afnd has commented on it on a number of occasions.  Ben is also aware of Energy from Thorium, a blog that has what can only be described as a tremendous factual basis.  Asside form category errors, Sovacool & Cooper offer the argument that sinceGenerationIV Reactors need to be researched before they aree built, they shouldnot be researched.  Is there an explanation for this circular conclusion?  yes, It is clear that Socacool & Cooper regard any reactor belonging to the generation IV reactor class as bab, bab, bad.

Finally we have the matter of subsidies.  First I should note a distinction between the civilian nuclear industry and the civilian nuclear power industry.  The Civilian nuclear Industry is a refers to all research conducted to on topics deemed to be of use to civilians.  This might include everything form the peaceful uses of nuclear explosions, to the use of radioisotopes in medicine, the use of radiation to trigger genetic mutations in plants, the study of Carbon-14 in the atmosphere, and many other research issues not directly baring on nuclear power.  Secondly, it should be observed that many of the so called civilian research projects had secret military purposes.  The distinction between civilian and military research was nearly as hard and fast as it would appear.  For example the first civilian nuclear power plant, the Shippingport Reactor, was actually a Naval Reactor.  During its history the Navy used the Shippingport reactor for experiments. The Navy exercised a great deal of control over the USAEC during the 1950's, 60's and 70's.  and many of what might appear to be civilian research decisions were actually made for military purposes.  Thus for example the decision to research the liquid Metal Fast Breeder reactor rather than the safer and largely waste free molten salt reactor, appears to have been made with an eye to the production of plutonium for military purposes.  Plutonium is a relatively unsatisfactory thermal reactor fuel, but PU-239 is a preferred weapons material.

Direct research in support of the civilian power industry has been quite small.  The Federal government spent about 5.8 billion dollars developing the civilian version of the light water reactor.  This was the largest single subsidy which it provided the civilian nuclear power industry.  A second significant subsidy will come into force during the next decade when the Federal government is committed to cosign loans worth 18 Billion Dollars for the Nuclear power industry.  It is frequently argued that the Anderson-Price Act is a subsidy to the nuclear power industry.  But in fact the the Anderson-Price Act limits the nuclear Industry liability to at least $10 Billion in the event of a nuclear accident, but leaves open the possibility of an even higher bill to reactor owners, if the total recovery costs exceeds $10 Billion.
Unlike the renewables, the nuclear power industry does not get any tax breaks on its power production.  Nor does federal government pay part of the capital costs of nuclear projects.  Where then is the huge subsidy to the nuclear power industry that Sovacool & Cooper go on and on about.  The huge nuclear subsidy is an urban myth perpetuated by anti nuclear fanatics.  the truth is that high priced, low performance renewables can't cut it in the open market where nuclear is doing  just fine.   With out their subsidies renewable owners would simply fold their tents and slip into the night.

Originally posted to Charles Barton on Wed Jan 07, 2009 at 01:10 PM PST.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Good, now repeal the Price Anderson Act. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    means are the ends

    I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires. - Susan B. Anthony

    by the fan man on Wed Jan 07, 2009 at 01:23:17 PM PST

  •  Good Diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Plan9, Mcrab, rickrocket

    There really is no other solution for baseline power generation which has the promise of nuclear power, if the goal is to eliminate CO2 emissions.  

    We could stand to take a page out of France's book.  Of course, the French have excellent science education in their schools, and tend to value expertise about hysteria.  

    Solar (rooftop) and wind are fine, but vast solar arrays are - and for the long-term future will be - too expensive to contemplate.  To say nothing of the fact that the manufacture of the solar panels involves quite a bit of dicey toxic technology - and that wind turbines require quite a bit of maintenance.

    Nuclear energy is a proven technology, ready-to-go.

  •  Sad Diary - (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    means are the ends

    Totally undeserving of any conversation.

    The big message of anti-nuclear fanatics ....

    With assertions like the above - why bother?

  •  A comprehensive energy plan will need... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Plan9

    to include some nuclear if we want to be energy independent in our lifetime...

    Obama/Biden'08 Delivering Change he Promised

    by dvogel001 on Wed Jan 07, 2009 at 03:01:45 PM PST

  •  Yeah, right! (0+ / 0-)

    the pattern of cost over runs appears to be be a localized problem in North America.

    I don't think so:

    Franco-German consortium Areva-Siemens (CEPFi.PA)(SIEGn.DE) is to take TVO to arbitration in a dispute over delays and cost overruns at the Olkiluoto 3 reactor, the Finnish nuclear plant operator said on Wednesday.

    In October, TVO was told by the consortium that the 1,600 MW reactor -- the first to be constructed in Western Europe for more than a decade -- would be further delayed to 2012 from its initial start-up target of 2009.

    •  The Finns do not want to be dependent on Gazprom (0+ / 0-)

      They have no energy resources like coal or gas.  Nuclear makes a lot of sense to the Finns, so the delay is no big deal.  Meanwhile Bulgarians are freezing because the Russkies turned off the gas.

      The IPCC predicts average global temperatures to rise enough by 2050 to put 20-30% of all species at risk for extinction.

      by Plan9 on Wed Jan 07, 2009 at 05:59:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  And the Bulgarians are being forced (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Plan9

        to reopen a closed nuclear plant as well.

        David

        Dr. Issac Assimov: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny ...'"

        by davidwalters on Wed Jan 07, 2009 at 06:12:16 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  I understand that but... (0+ / 0-)

        the diarist seems to think that the problems of delays and cost overruns in constructing modern nuclear plants has been solved. It has not. Some countries may have no other choices for energy; the U.S. does.

        •  For baseload our choices: fossil or nuclear (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          GCarty

          In the long run, a three-year delay for the new plant, a first of its kind, in Finland is not significant.  It will putting out a hell of a lot of electricity once its up and running, and will do so without the external costs named in the ExternE report of the EU.  External costs like health problems and premature deaths from burning fossil fuels.  External costs like carbon tax.

          If carbon is ever taxed in the US nuclear power will become the cheapest large-scale producer of power.  It's already competitive with coal.

          Of course we have more choices than Finland.  The US is the Saudi Arabia of coal!  And of coal-bed methane extraction!  Really nasty, environment-wrecking resources.

          In the US we don't have the hydro power of Canada or Norway.  We've dammed every worthwhile river and also taken down some dams.  So hydro is going to stay at 5%. Coal and natural gas and a little diesel account for almost 75% of our baseload, with coal the lion's share.  Nuclear: 19%.  For large-scale baseload, our choices in the US get down to fossil fuels, mainly coal (50% of our electricity comes from coal combustion, which produces 120 million tons/yr of toxic, mildly radioactive solid waste stored in the environment and in our tissues, plus 3 gigatons/yr of CO2) and nuclear power.  

          Wind farms and solar arrays do not provide baseload electricity and are not likely to be able to do so in the coming decades.  Furthermore they have huge environmental footprints because the energy they harvest is weak and intermittent.

          The IPCC predicts average global temperatures to rise enough by 2050 to put 20-30% of all species at risk for extinction.

          by Plan9 on Wed Jan 07, 2009 at 09:22:17 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Not true. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Plan9

          Both the French, Japanese and Chinese bring there plants in now under budget and even ahead of schedule.

          Expertise in building brand new types of reactors take several starts and completions. It always gets better which is why the French did so well, and the Chinese even better.

          Dr. Issac Assimov: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny ...'"

          by davidwalters on Thu Jan 08, 2009 at 07:55:00 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Has anyone compiled a list of (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Plan9

        European politicians owned by Gazprom?

  •  Good long diary. I quibble with this comment (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Plan9

    though:

    Plutonium is a relatively unsatisfactory thermal reactor fuel, but PU-239 is a preferred weapons material.

    I think that knee jerk fear of plutonium is a mistake, particularly since it is one of the most readily available energy resources on a grand scale.

    US inventories for U-233 are only a few tons, and it follows that Pu is the key to unlocking our thorium reserves.

    There's been some very nice work published in India and Korea recently on doing precisely this, and I note that the Radowsky scheme is still around, and is still quite a an excellent approach.

    The reactor physics considerations for MOX light water reactors have been solved and these reactors are operating in many countries with this fuel already and the Gen-III+ reactors are almost all designed to use Pu.

    The problem on the horizon is "mature" plutonium, but it is easily solved with a little effort and investment.

    I think people are not paying enough attention to the remarkable nuclear properties of Pu-241.

    I have a very cool reactor design floating around that maximizes the benefit of this wonderful isotope.

    I think it's a disgrace that so much Pu-241 is being allowed to decay to Am-241 before its best use is taken.

    I want to see lots more U-233, U-234, and U-236 in the world, but I also want to see more not less plutonium-239, plutonium-240, plutonium-238, and plutonium-241 and even plutonium-242 in the world.

    Hell, I even like plutonium-244 for its very cool research possibilities, but we're never likely to get much of that because of the "s-process" actinide pathways, although if we start burning Am isotopes, we may get useful gram quantities.

    •  My comment about Plutonium (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Plan9, GCarty

      has nothing to do with fear of plutonium.  It has to do with the fissionability of Pu-239 when it absorbes a thermal neutron.  Pliutonium only fissions 2/3 of the time, in contrast U-233 fissions 90% of the time.  Hence the thorium uranium breeding cycle is superior to the uranium plutonium breeding cycle in thermal reactors.  

      Human freedom through nuclear power

      by Charles Barton on Wed Jan 07, 2009 at 09:00:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Indeed (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Plan9

        Each nuclear fission (whether that be U235, U233 or plutonium) produces slightly more that 3 neutrons on average.

        A reactor running on U235 needs to retain one neutron per fission (to fission the next atom), whereas a breeder reactor (either U238-Pu239 or Th232-U233) needs to retain two neutrons per fission (one to transmute a fertile atom to a fissile atom, and another to fission it).

        Since Pu239 only fissions two-thirds of the time with thermal neutrons, it is almost impossible for a thermal reactor to transmute enough U238 to replace the consumed fissile material.  For effective breeding on this fuel cycle, fast reactors must be used.

        •  Thorium breeding with thermal Reactors (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Plan9

          U-232 is more fissionable than Pu-239, or U-235 in thermal reactors, and produces virtually the same number of neutrons per fission event,  It is possible to accomplish a positive breeding ratio in the thermal range with LF TRs.

          Human freedom through nuclear power

          by Charles Barton on Thu Jan 08, 2009 at 06:20:42 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  A better value is the value of eta. (0+ / 0-)

          This is the neutron yield per fission divided by the quantity (1 + a) where a is the fission to capture ratio.   This is, of course, what counts.

          Stacey's Nuclear Reactor Physics has some nice graphs of this value which is always less than 3 for all major fissionable nuclei.  (Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics Wiley, 2000, pg 37. (Fig 2.)

          At neutron energies of about 5 eV, (not 5 MeV) this value is close to 3 for Pu-241, higher than anything approached by even U-233 at any value in the spectrum.

          The thing that always strikes me when I look at these graph is that Pu-241 is superior to U-233 almost entirely through the region between 100 ev and 1 MeV.  

          It is superior to Pu-239 through much of the region and roughly comparable to it from 100,000 eV to 1 MeV.

          Of course, Pu-241 has a relatively short half-life, just 13.2 years.

          This speaks to the superiority of homogenous or quasi homogenous reactors allowing for fast reprocessing and reloading for breeding purposes.

          The ideal case it to generate and burn the Pu-241 in situ with a healthy load of Pu-240 in the initial loading, but it is also nice to get it out and back into to loads quickly.

          It is interesting to note that Am-242 and Am-242m burn quite nicely too, with very high eta values but no one pays much attention to them.

          Appreciation of these isotopes has been limited because of their low availability, but a massive production of energy via nuclear systems would make them available in economically exploitable quantities, thus helping to maximize the energy recovery from U-238, including the vast quantities that have already been mined and isolated.

          •  Pu-241 problems (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            NNadir

            NNadir You are correct about the value eta of Pu-241 but the neutron economy would be bad because it costs 2 neutrons to convert Pu-239 into Pu-242, and another neuron must is losts when it fissions.  If you start with Pu-240, you still use two neutrons to produce 3.  The third neutron must produce the chain reaction.  Thus at very best you will never do more than break even with Pu-241, despite its high eta, and you are never going to break even.  Some Pu-241 will not fission, it will become Pu-242, and some neutrons will be lost to Xenon while others will leak from the core.  

            Human freedom through nuclear power

            by Charles Barton on Fri Jan 09, 2009 at 06:22:05 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Ah, but my point is that one always gets 241 (0+ / 0-)

              anyway, representing lost neutrons.

              Most fuels come out with up to 5% Pu-241 (as a percentage of total plutonium) no matter what you do, MOX fuels come out with even more.

              If one fissions the Pu-241 before it decays to Am-241, one can get the lost neutrons back.

              If on the other hand, the Pu-241 is allowed to decay to Am-241, then - in the thermal case at least - you need another neutron to get Am-242, a decay to Cm-242, possibly another neutron lost to give Cm-243 or a decay to Pu-238, and the loss to get Pu-239.

              One can play with neutron spectrums to mess with how much of any of these isotopes survive before fissioning.

              But the easiest approach is to stop the whole deal by fissioning the high eta Pu-241, essentially getting back a significant portion of the previously lost neutrons.

              As you know, there are other approaches to handing these nuclei with fast neutrons, but I'm just giving the general idea.

              I am arguing to reduce the probability that the 241 mass number will become a neutron sink.

              •  Another advantage for thorium reactors then! (0+ / 0-)

                If U-233 absorbs a neutron to become non-fissile U-234, the next neutron will make it U-235, which is fissile as we all know, and unlike Pu-241 has such a long half-life that we don't have to worry at all about it decaying into a non-fissile isotope.

                I supose 236 could be a neutron sink (as it takes three neutrons to get to the next fissile isotope - Pu-239), but it would be much less of a problem...

                •  The reality is, however, that no one is going to (0+ / 0-)

                  do anything whatsoever with thorium without a trigger.

                  For the foreseeable future this is either plutonium or U-235, with the former being, in my view, a better choice.

                  The US inventory of U-233 as isolated material is less than one ton, and is two or three tons in used nuclear fuel in various types of matricies.

                  By contrast the US is thought to have 200 MT of weapons grade plutonium, and probably close to 1000 tons of reactor grade plutonium.

                  Even in the best case, the breeding ratios with U-233 thermal reactors are not incredibly high.

                  Suppose that one achieves as a practical matter a breeding ratio of 1.02.   The ratio ln(2)/ln(1.02) is 35 roughly, giving some idea of the time scale of the doubling time for U-233.

                  The issue is time in getting to a U-233 world, as desirable as it may be.   This is not merely an infrastructure concern, but a time concern.

                  We can improve on the situation by conceding the temporary expedient of accepting a breeding ratio that is less than one, which necessarily involves the temporary reduction of plutonium inventories by converting them through MOX/Th type fuels, irrespective of the state of matter (solid or liquid) that is employed as fuel.

                  For the long term, humanity should consider having a continuously available reserve of plutonium that is several thousands of tons, but it will take maybe a century or two to get there.

                  Indian nuclear scientists conducted an excellent discussion of this topic in Journal of Nuclear Materials 383 (2008) 54–62, Turkish nuclear scientists in Energy Conversion and Management 47 (2006) 1661–1675.

                  The IAEA has a pretty good overview of the whole issue of how to approach this matter is given in a paper presented at the PHYSOR-2006, ANS Topical Meeting on Reactor Physics, Vancouver BC, by A. Nuttin et al, "Study of CANDU Thorium-based Fuel Cycles by Deterministic and Monte Carlo Methods" where they go into considerable detail on the use of plutonium to access U-233.

                  Here's a typical sentence from that report:

                  In all the following studies, the same model as that described in part 2 is used. The only WLUP library selected with DRAGON is ENDFB6. As a ssile starter mixed with Th-232 in a Th/Pu oxide fuel, we choose plutonium extracted after 5 years of cooling from the used UOX fuel of a N4 type PWR (Pu UOX from now on). Its isotopic vector is: 3.1, 52.5, 24.5, 12.2 and 7.7 mol% for Pu-238, Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-241 and Pu-242 respectively [16]. We obtain an initial k1 of about 1.14 with a plutonium proportion in heavy nuclei of 2.0 mol%. We choose here a compromise between a classical reactivity management before rst refueling (not too much extra reactivity reserve compared to the Unat case) and a long enough cycle.

                  And this from the conclusion,

                  We have especially studied a homogeneous Th/Pu CANDU bundle, and compared it to a Th/Pu PWR assembly. Partly thanks to a softer spectrum and a reactivity management based on online refueling, CANDU can deal with short cycles, avoids the use of boron and has a higher fissile conversion ratio. We have observed that symbiotic scenarios between U/Pu fast breeders and Th/Pu classical CANDUs (but no Th/Pu classical PWRs) should be possible. There is still a lot to do at the bundle level. The Th+SEU bundle is less U-233 productive than with Th/Pu, but seems more convenient to manage. Alternative options have to be investigated. The infuence of the power level, related to the location in core, will be studied as well.

                  Note that a 5 year cooling period wastes 23% of the Pu-241, speaking for the need for faster hotter recycles.

                  I have a bunch of other papers lying around on this topic, but don't have time to sort through them right now.

                  The bottom line is clear, nonetheless:

                  We will rely on plutonium if humanity chooses to survive in an industrial culture or, arguably, to survive in any way at all.   And that will mean accumulating vastly larger stocks of Pu-241, even if only as a side product.

                  The implication is that we should use this Pu-241 wisely - and quickly - accepting the implications of its short longevity.

                  Thorium is a long term option certainly, but it will take many years to get there as a practical matter.  

      •  I know that... (0+ / 0-)

        your comment has nothing to do with fear of plutonium, but that said, there is a lot of fear of plutonium on this planet.

        I am less and less willing to concede anytthing to the anti-nuke faith but to be frank, I have personally given them too much of a bye on plutonium.

        I think we sometimes make too much of the "thorium is great and uranium isn't" which concedes way too much to the anti-nuke religion.

        Plutonium can be diverted for war-like purposes, but come to think of it, considering events like Trafalgar, wind can be diverted for war like purposes.   I don't see anyone demonizing wind as a result.   In fact almost anything can be diverted for warlike purposes.  

        In the nuclear debate, we have been far too willing to accept uncritically - I'm speaking in general terms and not about you personally - that possibility is the same as inevitability.    Placing plutonium stocks now on earth into reactors is a sure bet for increasing the probability of nuclear peace, and in fact, world peace, since broad well distributed wealth does more to promote peace than any other approach.    It's not like Finland and Sweden are likely to go to war.

        The last time plutonium was diverted for use in war war was 1945.   The last time dangerous fossil fuels were diverted for war was, um, about 3 seconds ago.

        Again, you know this, but we need to emphasize it.

        •  If the fear is of terrorist nukes (0+ / 0-)

          then plutonium isn't even much of a problem even if the bad guys do get hold of some. Do you really think that a terrorist group is going to have the scientific and engineering expertise to build a working implosion device?

          Gun-type nuclear bombs are the thing to worry about, and they need highly-enriched uranium, not plutonium.

        •  As for nuclear power (0+ / 0-)

          I think we should use both fuel cycles - my desired end-state would be two-thirds LFTRs and one-third fast breeder reactors (LMFBR is further ahead due to past research, but liquid chloride reactors may be safer).

        •  Plutonium war like or not (0+ / 0-)

          is a more difficult reactor fuel.  I am not particularly worried about proliferation issues.  Reactor Grade Plutonium is a very bad weapons choice.  

          Human freedom through nuclear power

          by Charles Barton on Fri Jan 09, 2009 at 06:24:44 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  On the other hand, reactors in many places (0+ / 0-)

            already burn it, so it's not that difficult.

            MOX fuel is commercial now.

            There's a lot of bitching and moaning about whether it is economic compared to the once through cycle, but if we are at all realistic, a rapid scale up equivalent to or exceeding the historical nuclear build out of that took place in the period between 1955 and 1980 is going to make MOX and its sisters, MOX/Th/U type systems inevitable.

            Inevitably as well, every neutron is going to become increasingly precious in an energy impoverished world at the very same time as significant quantities of Pu-241 accumulate.

            My view is that we will need hot, fast recycles to get at this resource, with significantly shorter cooling periods than people envision.    There is simply no good reason to accumulate huge stocks of Americium.   Americium is a pain in the ass, I think, manageable, maybe even moderately useful, but still a pain in the ass.   There aren't that many smoke detectors on earth.

            Happily we live in the golden age of chemistry and we can do it.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site