News in Depth: Nuclear, the Next Generation

In our continuing effort to explore what’s next for nuclear, we turn this week to the recent announcement that China will begin construction on a 600 MWe fourth generation fast neutron reactor. While details of the project are few, there is speculation that this project may be the first successful partnership between China and TerraPower, the Washington state based energy firm founded and chaired by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

In this week’s News in Depth, we will take a look at the technology behind fourth generation fast neutron reactors, the story of TerraPower, and China’s efforts to be at the forefront of nuclear energy development and deployment.

Next Generation Technology

As the World Nuclear Association (WNA) notes, fourth generation fast neutron reactors (FNRs) have been in development for decades. As of 2010, over 400 reactor-years of operation have been logged with approximately 20 reactors in different periods. The WNA also provides a useful summary of the initial motivation behind FNR tech:

The FNR was originally conceived to burn uranium more efficiently and thus extend the world’s uranium resources – it could do this by a factor of about 60. From the outset, nuclear scientists understood that today’s reactors fuelled essentially with U-235 exploited less than one percent of the energy potentially available from uranium. Early perceptions that those uranium resources were scarce caused several countries to embark upon extensive FBR [Fast Breeder Reactor] development programs.

The technology is incredibly complex, but for reference note that

Natural uranium contains about 0.7% U-235 and 99.3% U-238. In any reactor some of the U-238 component is turned into several isotopes of plutonium during its operation. Two of these, Pu-239 and Pu-241, then undergo fission in the same way as U-235 to produce heat. In a FNR this process is optimized so that it ‘breeds’ fuel. Some U-238 is burned directly with neutron energies above 1 MeV.

TerraPower‘s Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) leverages the knowledge gained from decades of FNR research to produce what they describe as “Generation IV, liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor.”

TWR

Image Source: TerraPower

China’s New Project

According to the WNA, China first began research FNR reactors in 1964 and, in 2003, built “a 65 MWt fast neutron reactor – the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) – … near Beijing [in partnership with] Russia’s OKBM Afrikantov [and] OKB Gidropress, NIKIET and Kurchatov Institute.”

This new project is part of China’s efforts to have, according to CIAE projections, fast reactor capacity progressively increasing from 2020 to at least 200 GWe by 2050, and 1400 GWe by 2100. As noted in the opening, TerraPower’s involvement in the project is still unconfirmed, but industry and media sources seem to be coalescing around such a partnership as Gates himself recently travelled in February of this year to China to meet with “with Nur Bekri, a vice chair of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, and with China National Nuclear Corp chairman Sun Qin.”

In any event, what we are seeing here are the early stages of what looks like a new phase in nuclear technology. 4th Generation reactors – in this case, sodium FNRs – have been in development for over a decade and now we are seeing an example of one of the these new designs taking shape. Development is slow, yes, but it is happening and happening at in increasing pace in China. We can only now wait to see what comes next and, hopefully, to see confirmation that this project marks the first partnership between China and Gate’s TerraPower.

 

News in Depth: Nuclear Energy and Mexico’s Radical Quest to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emmisions

Mexico’s Bold Emissions Goals

On Friday, March 27, 2015, the Government of Mexico announced new targets that aim to cut output of greenhouse gases by 22 percent and its emissions of black carbon and soot by 51 percent by the year 2030. Such a move would make 2026 its peak emissions year.

While Mexico is only responsible for an estimated 1.5% of global emissions, the country felt strongly that is was important to set the goals high and to set them early in the lead up the global climate conference in Paris in December. Roberto Dondisch Glowinski, Mexico’s lead negotiator to the United Nations (U.N.) climate talks, is quoted in Scientific American saying: “we are trying to show that what we say in the negotiations, we stand by our words. Second, we want to show that it is feasible.”

How does Mexico plan to meet these targets? Steven Mufson, writer for the Washington Post, notes that meeting these goals will require higher fuel efficiency standard for cars and an increasing of investment in renewable and nuclear energy for the power sector.

The Future of Nuclear in Mexico

As the World Nuclear Association (WNA) highlights, Mexico currently operates two nuclear reactors that generate approximately 4 percent of its electricity. The country is also a net energy exporter, as it is rich in fossil fuel resources such as oil and natural gas. As the WNA notes, there is political will to further develop nuclear capacity, but the recent drop in oil prices has stymied any significant progress.

Given these new targets, Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) may pursue an earlier strategy which included building six to eight 1400 MWe units and, potentially, more flexible and less cost-intensive Small Modular Reactors (SMR) that could service the agricultural sector. However, putting these plans into action will require new investments in education and training.

In January 2015, ScienceDaily featured the research of Dr. Lorenzo Martínez Gómez, a researcher at the Institute of Physics of the Autonomous Nacional University of Mexico (UNAM). Dr. Gómez’s argues that nuclear energy is key to mitigating climate change and to reducing fossil fuel use in Mexico. The article summarizes Dr. Gómez’s main points, including: 1) that the public in Mexico fears nuclear, despite fossil fuels inflicting more actual damage to the environment and to public safety, and 2) that the key to the success of nuclear in Mexico will be training and education of scientists and technicians.

The federal government manages employment opportunities that will be generated by energy reform efforts (about 135,000 in total) not only in areas of hydrocarbons, but new technologies to develop alternative energy. Given the government’s investment in training, Mr. Gómez argues that now is the time to spark a revival in nuclear engineering in Mexico.

In short, it’s likely that the nuclear sector can play a big role in helping Mexico achieve its new emissions goals by leveraging investments in training and education and by capitalizing on new found political will both at home and abroad. Significant progress is hard to predict in the short term, but we’re optimistic that the global climate change conference in December may provide the necessary spark to push the government of Mexico and its partners into action.

Nuclear Innovation announced as theme for Future of Nuclear 2014 Conference

In recent weeks, sources as diverse as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Dalai Lama have all commented on the relentless growth of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the earth’s atmosphere and the need to mitigate resultant climate change effects.  In all instances the sources have talked about the need for nuclear energy to play an increased role in the global energy mix.  Along with renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar, together with innovations in smart grid and energy storage, leading thinkers believe there still may be a chance to rein in overall global warming before certain irreversible tipping points are reached.

In our post-Fukushima world many leading policy makers, politicians, and stakeholders are revisiting and reassessing the role that nuclear power can play in the global energy mix. What innovations have taken place since the Fukushima generation reactors were designed and deployed?  What innovations have there been in safety, regulation, and decommissioning?  Have there been advances in quantifying the risks and liabilities of nuclear projects?  What are the innovations and considerations in public policy, education and awareness that have prompted several jurisdictions to ramp up their nuclear programs?

On November 4, 2014, Mindfirst will host the second Future of Nuclear Conference that will address many of these questions. We are currently in the process of developing the agenda, content and speaker list.  Interested participants and potential speakers may contact admin@futureofnuclear.com.  Click here to view the agenda from last year’s Future of Nuclear conference.

Early bird registration is available at:
http://futureofnuclear2014.eventbrite.com

 

 

 

Westinghouse and OPG agreement a watershed moment for Canadian nuclear industry

With little fanfare, an unassuming tweet came across my screen yesterday afternoon while attending the global carbon leakage seminar at Bennett Jones. Apparently, Westinghouse and OPG had signed an agreement to collaborate and work on selling their nuclear expertise, products, and services in global markets. Under the agreement, the companies will consider a diversity of nuclear projects including refurbishment, maintenance and outage services, decommissioning and remediation of existing nuclear facilities, and new nuclear power plants.

This agreement could represent a watershed moment for Ontario’s economy, certainly for the nuclear industry. Like a sportscaster that tries to call the definitive momentum shifting play in a game, we won’t know for a while yet. But this agreement could be a gamechanger. Let me tell you why. Ontario has been built on the back of cheap energy, first from Niagara Falls and then nuclear. It is cheap energy that allows us to mine economically and manufacture cars with the best the world has to offer. Similarly, in Quebec, the vast hydro projects underpin their economy. In Alberta, oil and gas are key drivers. Any robust economy in the world has an abundant, secure source of energy.

Ontario’s CANDU technology has been a global leader and a gamechanger for many countries in the world. However, as in all technology driven industries, there is great innovation happening, it happens relentlessly,  and CANDU is not the only nuclear technology that growing nations are considering. The thriving economies of the world, China, India and others, are craving cheap, abundant, clean, safe energy. While Ontario does not have the demand to build new reactors now, other countries do. The challenge for our nuclear industry has been to somehow get our tens of thousands of nuclear related jobs serving the global market, not just maintaining our stable domestic market. This means being able to support the multiple and diverse nuclear technologies that are evolving in the global marketplace today.

The significance of the Westinghouse deal is that it ties OPG to a global leader in a non-CANDU technology. OPG is a globally recognized leader in operating nuclear power generating stations. It has an unblemished safety record that is the envy of the world. What a glorious opportunity this represents to market that operating expertise and enter other markets being served by emerging nuclear technologies. There is certainly a place for CANDU in the future. However, Westinghouse has their APS-1000 line of reactors that are making inroads in several countries. Kudos to OPG for seizing this opportunity and diversifying how they deploy their expertise.

Kudos also to Westinghouse. Westinghouse recognizes that in the 21st century the world will need more nuclear energy if it is to stem the effects of GHG driven climate change. In a post Chernobyl world there has been a relative shortage of young engineers and trades trained in the nuclear sciences. Ontario has almost 300 companies in the nuclear supply chain. There are more than 25,000 jobs related to the nuclear industry. There are nine universities that have courses in some sort of nuclear science. We have Chalk River and AECL, world leading nuclear research in medical isotopes and other applications beyond energy. And we have the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) which is increasingly being viewed as an innovator and leading exemplar in nuclear regulation by emerging economies and jurisdictions that need to model their own regulatory regimes.

Ontario’s Green Energy Act has spurred wind and solar energy. Cumulatively, renewables represent a single digit percentage of our energy mix. There are thousands of jobs related to renewables, depending on how you count them. This is wonderful news as renewable energy represents an important part of the energy mix. The Westinghouse OPG agreement reminds us that Ontario’s existing nuclear industry, expertise and workforce are an order of magnitude larger than the current renewable industry.

The full press release may be viewed at http://bit.ly/1m7nPmg .

Henry Vehovec
Chair, Future of Nuclear Advisory Board
President, Mindfirst Inc.

Update re. AECL and The Future of Chalk River

 

The Pembroke Observer
Thu Nov 21 2013
Page: A1
Section: News
Byline: SEAN CHASE, SEAN.CHASE@SUNMEDIA.CA
PETAWAWA -The company hoping to operate Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Chalk River Laboratories strengthened its bid Tuesday as it entered into a partnership with two world-leading nuclear and research and development firms.
The Babcock and Wilcox Company, which is seeking to take over management of Chalk River under a government-owned, contractor operated model (Go-Co), announced they will be forming a consortium with Cavendish Nuclear, a major player in Britain’s nuclear industry, and Battelle Memorial Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit research and development organization.
Delivering the announcement during a reception at the Petawawa Golf Club, Ken Camplin, Babcock and Wilcox vice-president of corporate development, lauded both firms for bringing to the table a vast array of experience and an incredible track record of innovation.
Since Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver announced in February that the federal government would engage in a competitive procurement process to contract out the management of AECL assets to the private sector, Camplin said his company has been developing a venture that had a shared vision and commitment for Chalk River Laboratories.
To that end, the firm has been proactive, opening offices in Deep River as it pursues the Go-Co model for Chalk River. Camplin added he feels AECL president Dr. Bob Walker has been on the right track with a transformation that should see a cost-effective, world-class research and technology organization focused on serving the nuclear industry.
“We really believe the keys to the kingdom rest in executing science and technology with excellence and equally important growing the science and technology and the research and development portfolio in a deliberate and sustained fashion,” said Camplin. “We want to be the best possible agents and facilitators for Chalk River to really obtain all those things.”
Based in Lynchburg, Virginia, Babcock and Wilcox Company provides design, engineering, construction and facilities management services to nuclear, fossil power, industrial and government customers worldwide. Its Canadian offices are located in Cambridge, Ontario and currently provides operations to four national laboratories.
Cavendish Nuclear operates three nuclear sites in the U.K. that the company states are similar to Chalk River. Its expertise rests in the design and building of waste treatment facilities. The firm also looks after the British-made Victoria class submarines that had been sold to Canada.
“We’re quite pleased to team up with world-class lab operators and a world-class consortium to address Chalk River,” said Andrew Wettern, business development director for Cavendish.
Based in Columbus, Ohio, the Battelle Memorial Institute is an international science and technology enterprise that explores emerging areas of science, develops and commercializes technology, and manages laboratories for its clients. It currently manages seven national laboratories in the U.S. Ron Townsend, executive vice-president of global laboratory operations, said Chalk River has a rich history in the development of the nuclear industry.
“Chalk River is held in high regard by the scientific collaborators that work for it but the future is not certain,” said Townsend.
He added Chalk River and the surrounding community has all the elements for a successful way forward.
“We have an aspiration that Chalk River will become Chalk River National Laboratory,” said Townsend. “The most important thing that we can do is to stabilize Chalk River National Laboratory and provide a confident, secure future for that laboratory because it is so important to this community and the nation of Canada.”
Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia
© 2013 Osprey Media Group Inc. All rights reserved.

The Future of Nuclear Power and The Long View

Below is a comment from Future of NuclearChair Henry Vehovec on his opening remarks and in response to post-event press coverage:

“The day after Wednesday’s Future of Nuclear 2013 Conference in Toronto the Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Province of Ontario announced that new build nuclear reactors would not be pursued at this time. Articles in the press cited pricing pressure from cheap shale gas, a decline in energy demand, and increased resistance to nuclear power in the post-Fukushima world as reasons for the decision. Although there has been a recent decline in nuclear power in the global energy mix it would be premature to dismiss nuclear in the longer term.

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

The global mix of major energy sources evolves over decades and plays out in time frames of a century or more. The first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, however, it wasn’t until the development of the Model-T Ford fifty years later that oil truly took off as a major global energy source. Similarly, civilian nuclear energy started about fifty years ago and the industry now needs game changing innovation if it is to compete with shale gas and address concerns of radioactive waste, safety and proliferation.

Are there any such game changing innovations on the horizon? At the Future of Nuclear Conference we heard about several nuclear technologies that hold the paradigm shifting potential to compete with shale gas.  New nuclear technologies that are on the drawing board can burn spent fuel, are incapable of meltdown, and do not produce fissile material. We heard about fusion from General Fusion, thorium and molten salt reactors (MSR) from Terrestrial Energy, small modular reactors (SMR) from Babcock and Wilcox, portable reactors, travelling reactors, floating reactors and more. These technologies have attracted investors such as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates as well as some of the wealthiest sovereign funds. The only problem with most of these technologies is that they require at least a decade to develop and would cost several billion dollars to produce their first prototype let alone a commercially available product. In this era of short term pressures for quarterly results in business and governments that rarely think beyond the horizon of a 4-year election term it is difficult to find jurisdictions that plan decades into the future as is required when considering energy infrastructure.

China, India, Russia and UAE are examples of countries that are taking an appropriate long view to energy planning. Not coincidentally, these are also among the countries that are proceeding aggressively with their plans to build nuclear power capabilities. China alone has 29 reactors currently under construction. Although some jurisdictions in the west do not have local demand to support new reactors it would certainly make sense to stay engaged with the industry and act as a supplier to international markets where possible. As a commodity, shale gas will not be cheap and plentiful forever.”