Nuclear Progress All At Sea
As public concern rises over the safety and ecological soundness of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, the nuclear power industry is quietly ramping up to build new, smaller types of reactors that can be deployed as sealed power units. Russia is moving ahead with plans to locate floating nuclear power plants along its northern coast and a French company has designed a small offshore nuclear power plant called Flexblue. At the same time, efforts by the US Department of Energy's Savannah River Site to host a range of proof-of-concept units from several vendors has run afoul of bureaucratic infighting. Around the world, nuclear power is progressing, while former nuclear technology leader America founders.
At a shipyard in Saint Petersburg, Russia, an offshore nuclear power plant destined to power Vilyuchinsk, a city in the country's far east, is under construction. It takes the form of a surface vessel, named the Akademik Lomonosov, that will contain two small reactors. The reactors are derived from those used in Russian submarines and icebreakers, which have many years of solid operating history. When it goes operational, the floating power station will provide 64 MW of electricity to industry and residences on shore. It will be the first of four floating nuclear power plants for use along the Republic’s coastal areas on the Arctic Ocean. Reportedly, Russia plans to ring the Arctic Circle with floating nuclear power plants.
While government plans in Russia face few of the public roadblocks found in Europe and North America, plans for offshore power plants have recently surfaced in France. State-controlled naval defense group DCNS plans to develop an underwater civilian nuclear reactor to supply electricity to coastal cities or small islands. Similar in form to the nuclear submarines DCNS has been making for the French navy for 40 years, Flexblue is a cylindrical unit 100 meters (328 ft) in length and 12 to 15 meters (39 to 49 ft) in diameter. Inside would be a small nuclear power reactor and well as steam generators, turbines and a generator capable of producing 50 to 250 MW.
Flexblue is a submarine-like nuclear power plant.
The vision is for each unit to be installed on the seabed under 60 to 100 meters of water, several kilometers from a city, industrial base or remote community. The generated power would be delivered to shore by underwater cables. A Flexblue plant should be able to meet the electricity requirements of regions with a population of 100,000 to 1,000,000, depending on the plant’s power rating, local living standards and industrial requirements. According to a company spokesman, if an evaluation of current market conditions and economic viability is positive, DCNS would start building a prototype in 2013 with a completion date in 2016.
A video from DCNS portrays the unit's deployment under naval guard. Transported to sea on a heavy lift ship, Flexblue lowers itself and maneuvers into position under its own power. Descent occurs under the watch of divers before a cutaway view reveals the power plant within the hull. The structure is then covered by a net and power is transmitted by cable to shore.
Back on land, start-up vendor Hyperion Power Generation has agreed to build a prototype mini-nuclear reactor at a DOE site. The company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to build the first demonstration reactor at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. This represents a huge leap forward for Hyperion. Prior to this announcement, Hyperion had faced innumerable road blocks from the DOE and NRC, leading some to question the companies viability.
Initially, Hyperion was developing a self-contained uranium hydride based reactor based on a Los Alamos National Laboratory design. Even though initially developed by the DOE as an ultra-safe small reactor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to consider the non-conventional design (see “America's Atomic Folly”). This forced Hyperion to change designs in mid-stream, though it is still committed to producing small, self-contained reactors.
Now Hyperion is developing a 25-MW fast reactor that uses uranium nitride fuel and lead bismuth (liquid metal) coolant. SRS officials hope to use the reactor to produce hydrogen which in turn will be used to make biofuels. Other applications include reliable power for military bases. Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc. (AEHI) had previously announced a memorandum of understanding with New Mexico-based Hyperion, forming a joint venture to license, build and market Hyperion's refrigerator-sized modular nuclear reactors on a world-wide basis.
Giving the small modular reactor initiative a nautical twist, Hyperion Power Generation,the Strategic Research Group at Lloyd's Register, British designer BMT Nigel Gee and Greek ship operator Enterprises Shipping and Trading SA are to lead research into nuclear propulsion for commercial oceangoing vessels. In their announcement, the partners expressed the belief that nautical nuclear power is technically feasible and has the potential to drastically reduce the CO2 emissions caused by commercial shipping.
“This a very exciting project,” said Lloyd’s Register CEO, Richard Sadler. “We believe that as society recognises the limited choices available in the low carbon, oil scarce economy and land based nuclear plants become common place we will see nuclear ships on specific trade routes sooner than many currently anticipate.”
The N.S. Savannah, the world's first nuclear powered cargo ship.
Of course, this will not be the first attempt at commercial nuclear shipbuilding. The world's first nuclear powered cargo ship, the N.S. Savannah, was more of a publicity tool than a serious working vessel. As can be seen from the photograph above, she was built as an exhibition ship, with sweeping lines, and luxurious passenger amenities not normally found on a cargo ship. Launched in 1959 and laid up in 1971, Savannah did not prove commercially viable. Other than the aforementioned Russian icebreakers, nuclear power has found no civilian use at sea. The new SMR consortium hopes to change that.
COSCO, a large Chinese shipping company, has expressed serious interest in nuclear powered commercial shipping. There have been detailed financial studies done, which show that a nuclear ship would be $40 million per year cheaper to operate when bunker oil is at $500 per ton (bunker oil is heavy fuel oil used to power ships). Those studies also indicate improved economics when bunker fuel is over $300 per ton. Moreover, changing to nuclear powered container ships would reduce air pollution by the equivalent of about 20,000 cars per ship, proving once again that you can't rationally be pro-environment and anti-nuclear.
In July 2008 marine fuel prices in the transpacific freight market reached a record level of $767 per ton—up nearly 260% from $296 per ton at the beginning of 2007. That 18-month increase alone raised the fuel-related cost of an average Asia-US sailing from $704,000 to $1.83 million via the West Coast, and from $972,000 to $2.52 million via the East Coast/Gulf. Since then prices have fallen just as sharply and Bunker oil is currently about $375 per ton—the equivalent of $80 per barrel crude oil. With prices certain to rise again in the future and governments irrationally regulating CO2, it is no mystery why shipping companies are interested in nuclear power.
In contrast to all the international activity in nuclear power development, both above and below the waves, it appears that US nuclear policy is all at sea in a different way. Despite the proven ineffectiveness of “green power” solutions and the mythical boom in green jobs, politicians remain unresponsive. Perplexed and bewildered, the Obama administration talks up nuclear power while the government bureaucracy—supposedly under Obama's control—continues to stymie progress on all fronts.
On the advanced reactor front, the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is developed a 300 MW high temperature gas cooled fast SMR called the Next Generation Nuclear Plant. It is expected to start construction by the end of this decade—if funding can be found.
In the nearer term, two prototype “small modular reactors” are being pursued by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the private contractor that manages the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina: one from Hyperion, as mentioned above, and one from GE-Hitachi. Unfortunately, this has led to a regulatory turf battle between the DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The Department of Energy, which is generally not regulated by the NRC, announced that it would “assume responsibility for regulating the design, construction, and operation” of the prototypes under DOE’s existing authority, in advance of any design certification and licensing by the NRC. This move prompted the anti-nuclear group Friends of the Earth to charge that the DOE is not complying with US regulations. According to the NRC, unless the projects are pursued exclusively by the Department of Energy, with no private involvement, NRC licensing is mandated. It is little wonder that the American nuclear revival is in disarray.
Despite promises of greater government loan guaranties and streamlined regulatory procedures, the US nuclear industry is still being hamstrung by the government and frivolous lawsuits. While other nations are building new nuclear plants apace, the US will not start to build a next generation prototype for 10 years. Though the future still hold promise for US nuclear power, the giddy excitement of a few years back has been replaced by more sober thinking.
If further evidence of this sad state of affairs is need, consider that American companies are having to find foreign partners to bring their plans to fruition. New reactor designs and applications continue to flow from inventive American engineers, but they will only be available to those outside the US.
If the fractious and profligate US Congress wanted to do something positive about America's future energy security it would take the billions of dollars that currently prop up the wind, solar and biofuels industries and put that money into loan guaranties for nuclear power. But vested interests from the oil companies, agribusiness, and green energy groups have the Congress tied up in knots. Even after the electoral shakeup this past November, there appears to be little hope for meaningful energy legislation. The pendulum has swung from fatuous treehugger greenness to status quo fossil fuel blindness without touching on any realistic remedies.
If you are an American, three of these chaps represent you.
“Japan and France have long invested heavily in this industry. Meanwhile, there are 56 nuclear reactors under construction around the world; 21 in China alone; six in South Korea; five in India,” said President Obama in a 2010 speech on energy, “Whether it's nuclear energy or solar or wind energy, if we fail to invest in the technologies of tomorrow, then we're going to be importing those technologies instead of exporting them. We will fall behind. Jobs will be produced overseas instead of here in the United States of America. And that's not a future that I accept.”
“Investing in nuclear energy remains a necessary step,” stated the president. “The fact is, even though we've not broken ground on a new power plant, new nuclear power plant in 30 years, nuclear energy remains our largest source of fuel that produces no carbon emissions. To meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we'll need to increase our supply the nuclear power. It's that simple.”
Strong words, unfortunately not matched by strong actions. Even though Obama promised to triple loan guarantees to finance nuclear facilities the actual amount would fund only three new plants. At the same time the EPA, DOE and other government agencies are spinning more new regulatory red tape than seen in decades. Obama remains long on promises and high mindedness, and short on delivering any progress—hollow words from an attractive figure in an empty suit.
The US today is a nation with great oil reserves that the government will not allow to be tapped. A nation with gas reserves good for 100 years that regulators are trying to keep in the ground. A nation that turns 40% of its corn (maze) crop into inefficient and ecologically harmful ethanol only by using a regulatory triple play: farmers are paid to grow corn, the biofuel industry is subsidized to convert it to alcohol, and consumers are forced to buy the end product by government mandate.
Meanwhile, the the world's largest producer of nuclear power—accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity—gets 20% of its electricity from nuclear power plants but is prevented from building more. The reason for these insane policies is government—the executive branch is filled with ideological idiots, the legislative branch with mendacious fools and the judicial branch spends years adjudicating lawsuits based on byzantine laws and regulations.
Joseph de Maistre wrote in 1811: “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle merite.” Alexis de Tocquevill, author of Democracy in America, is credited with the popular English version: “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” If this is true, then the American people must have sinned greatly, for the most powerful nation on Earth is governed by a confederacy of dunces.
Solving the world's looming energy gap is not a mater of technology, the answers are already available. It is a matter of will. The United States—the world's largest consumer of energy and second largest polluter—needs to decide if it wants to have a future. Or, if it will let greed, avarice and green ideological blindness turn what was once the hope of the world into a third world cesspool. Pundits said that the American voters were angry last November—they have every reason to be angry still.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.
The American people get it, why doesn't Washington?