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.

 

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.”