Nuclear Power: Has the Time Finally Come?

Commercial nuclear power emerged in the mid-1950s, to great enthusiasm. The Eisenhower administration promoted it as a major part of its Atoms for Peace program.  There was talk about ‘electricity too cheap to meter,’ and about making the world’s deserts bloom via nuclear-powered desalination.

And quite a few commercial nuclear plants were indeed built and put into operation.  In the US, there are presently 93 commercial reactors with aggregate capacity of 95 gigawatts, accounting for about 20% of America’s electricity generation.  But overall, adoption of commercial nuclear power has not met early expectations.  Costs have been much higher than were  expected.  There have been great public concerns about safety, stemming originally from the association of nuclear power and nuclear weapons as well as by practical concerns and then supercharged by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and then by Chernobyl (1986) and the Fukushima disaster in 2011.  Permitting and construction times have been long and  unpredictable, driven by the public concerns as well as by the general growth of regulation and litigation in the US and the custom, one-off manner in which these plants have been constructed.

There are reasons to believe that the stalled state of nuclear power may be about to change.  Some factors are:

Concerns about CO2 emissions, combined with increasing realization of the intermittent nature of wind/solar energy, point to nuclear as a solution that could be both practical and politically acceptable.  Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas, the downside of which has been strongly pointed out by recent events, further builds the case for nuclear on that continent.  Politicians are feeling cornered between their promises of green-ness, the now-obvious dangers of energy dependency, and the need to not do too much economic damage if they want to get reelected.  Some will turn to nuclear.

The Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation are now a long way behind us–surely there are many fewer people who have nightmares about mushroom clouds than there were in, say, 1985.  (Although this point has been partially negated by Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling and by the battles around the Chernobyl area–still, I don’t believe nuclear fears are anywhere near the original-cold-war level)

The French experience with nuclear power, from which it generates about 70% of its electricity, helps build credibility for nuclear as a practical and safe energy source.  Also, the US Navy’s successful operation of nuclear submarines and other ships over several decades.

The downsides of wind and solar in terms of their very considerable land use as well as their fluctuating outputs, are being better understood as a result of experience.  Starry-eyed views of a new technology often become a little less starry-eyed following actual experience with its downsides.

New-generation nuclear plants which can be largely built in factories, substantially reducing the on-site construction time and effort required and potentially reducing the capital costs per kilowatt, are being developed.  The greater standardization, as compared with one-off construction, will hopefully also reduce licensing problems and delays.  Very importantly, most of the reactors are designed to avoid meltdown situations even if left unattended and without backup power.

Most of the new plant designs are of a type called Small Modular Reactors, although the definition of ‘small’ varies from case to case.  Companies in this space include the GE-Hitachi joint venture, a private company called NuScale (soon to go public via a SPAC), Rolls-Royce, the Canadian company ARC Energy, and a consortium of French companies developing a product to be called Nuwber.  I’ll discuss some of those SMR products in more detail later in this post.  There is also interesting work being done at Terra Power (Bill Gates is founder and chairman), which will probably merit a separate post, and on designs using thorium rather than uranium as a fuel.

The products which seem furthest along toward commercial adoption are the modular design from NuScale and the BWRX-300 from GE-Hitachi.

Some deals which are signed or in process:

–In Utah, NuScale plans to deploy their system for an organization called UAMPS (wholesale power services)

–In Romania, NuScale has a deal with SN Nuclearelectrica for a 6-module unit.

–In Canada, Ontario Power has picked the GE-Hitachi system for its first nuclear site–they ultimately plan to install up to 4 reactors there.

–In Poland, GEH has a letter of intent for up to 4 BWRX-300s to be installed by Synthos Green Energy.  Also in Poland, NuScale is working with KGHM, a leader in copper and silver production–sounds like this application is for industrial energy rather than for grid electricity.

–In Estonia,  Fermi Energia OÜ is moving toward deployment of a BWRX-300.

–The US Tennessee Valley Authority has embarked on a program to install several SMRs at its Clinch River site, starting with the BWRX-300.

The CEO of Duke Energy, Lynn Good, says that the company is talking to GE-Hitachi and NuScale as well as TerraPower and Holtec International about SMRs and advanced nuclear with storage capability.

Despite the traction, however, numerous challenges remain for nuclear.

Read more

What Would YOU do with Twitter?

Suppose that instead of Elon Musk being about to take control of Twitter, it was YOU.

Your mission…

–you want to establish Twitter as a true free-speech ‘town square’

–you need to make enough money to repay the substantial debt that you are incurring for the acquisition

–you would LIKE to make a lot more money than that necessary minimum, just for scorekeeping purposes if nothing else

What would be the best path to follow in terms both of information flow (who sees what posts), revenue sources, and other attributes of the platform ?

Where I was Last Weekend…

B-17 In Flight – at the Great American Airshow.

The first big airshow in two years, at Randolph AFB. Part of the air show included a sort-of-recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, with accompanying pyrotechnics. My camera was giving me fits, so I managed to capture some interesting shots with my cellphone. There may have been half a million people coming to the airbase for the show, which included static display aircraft and ground support vehicles from the Army, and the Budweiser Clydesdales and their wagon of beer too. What would the military do without beer! There must have been at least that many people watching the air show from verges, parking lots, open spaces and yards around the edges, too. (More here, from the Express News – their photographer had a much better camera than mine…)
Additional note – <Looks like FaceBook has disappeared that post – I put the pictures on my own website, instead.)

A Stylish Diversion

David Foster’s discussion of the numerous analogies – some helpful, some not – that have been spun from the Titanic disaster reminded me of an essay’s  rather lovely job of spinning out for two pages a simple analogy.  The verbal play within it does bring home a point.   By Pico Iyer, it was one of those two-page essays in Time, when people read it.  (Clint’s uncle still subscribes to it – I didn’t know anyone did – but bed ridden and in his eighties, he uses it mainly to rail against modernity – or what passes for it in Time.)  Anyway, here’s “In Praise of the Humble Comma” – a short read but I’ll tempt you with the opening:

The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said — could it not? — of the humble comma. Add it to the present clause, and, of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it and the mind is deprived of a resting place. Yet still the comma gets no respect. It seems just a slip of a thing, a pedant’s tick, a blip on the edge of our consciousness, a kind of printer’s smudge almost. Small, we claim, is beautiful (especially in the age of the microchip). Yet what is so often used, and so rarely recalled, as the comma — unless it be breath itself?

 

Titanic Metaphors

It’s been 110 years since the RMS Titanic sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.  The event has been a prolific source of books, movies–and metaphors.  Titanic has often been viewed as a metaphor for the complacency and arrogance of Western civilization before 1914, a symbol of technological overreach and hubris.  (The Onion had some fun with the Titanic-as-metaphor theme)

I think that there are a couple of other Titanic-related metaphors which are worth considering in our present era:

‘Working Cape Race’…around noon on April 14, Titanic received wireless messages warning of icebergs. The captain altered course to the south, a path believe to be free of ice, but maintained a speed of 22 knots.  That evening, senior wireless operator Jack Phillips,  was dealing with a flood of messages from passengers to friends ashore, when the SS California attempted to broadcast another ice warning to ships in the area.  The message was broken off by Phillips with “Stop Sending! I am working Cape Race.”  (‘working’ means ‘communicating with’, Cape Race was a Marconi Company shore station)

Not long afterwards, Titanic hit the iceberg.

Apparently the term ‘Working Cape Race’ has been adopted by some people to refer to those who are too preoccupied with the task at hand to perceive very important obstacles and hazards.

The phrase often seems apt these days–for example, when tv networks focus on the Johnny Depp defamation case when there are plenty of truly critical national and world issues to talk about.  I’m sure you can think of many more examples.

Progressive Flooding.  The compartmentalization which made the Titanic supposedly unsinkable obviously did not work.  One reason was that the iceberg was hit at an angle such that multiple compartments were torn open; the other reason was the phenomenon of progressive flooding.  This is a nautical architecture & operations term referring to the phenomenon where one compartment gets flooded…leading not only to the ship settling somewhat in the water, but also to a change in trim, namely, bow down…which can lead to other compartments overtopping their watertight bulkheads and spilling water into previously-safe compartments.

Again, I think the concept is sadly applicable to some of our political and social problems.  Failures in one aspect of society can lead to failures in another aspect…which can feed back to that first aspect, making it still worse…and so one.  Malign positive feedback, that is, a network of interconnected vicious circles.

For example, long-term unemployment can lead to an increase in drug addiction…both of which can lead to dysfunctional families…which drives reduced educational achievement for kids.  That reduced educational achievement drives further unemployment.

Discuss, if so inclined.