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Tiny Nuclear Reactors Can Save American Energy


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While I'm hoping MIT and their commercial partners perfect fusion energy, that has never been done and we'll see if this time they are on the right track.

We've been having great discussions here on our energy demands increasing and how we are going to meet them.

However, most folks think Nuclear power is either a big dangerous production if a meltdown occurs, or no nuclear.

If you've been thinking along those lines, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the new emphasis on tiny reactors. This article from popular mechanics is highly interesting to me because I too wrote off Nuke plants as inherently dangerous. And to be fair, with no maintenance or ignorant politicians running the show, they are dangerous. Not to mention the waste. 

There may be hope for fission yet with these new designs and ideas.

Excerpt:

"Often touted as a more flexible, powerful alternative to renewables, nuclear’s advantages haven’t outrun its dogged volatility. We associate nuclear reactors more often with disaster than innovation, but as the United States takes more coal and gas plants offline, engineers are hoping fresh reactor concepts could redeem nuclear’s stature in American energy. Bigger is no longer better. The future, experts say, looks like “multispeed” nuclear energy—a combination of traditional large plants and smaller, safer megawatt reactors.

“Until now, customers only had one choice for nuclear, and that was a gigawatt-sized power plant,” says Rita Baranwal, the assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy at the Department of Energy. “Now, we’re talking about reactors at the megawatt scale that can flexibly meet a customer’s energy needs as demand grows.”

Baranwal says megawatt reactors (one megawatt powers about 650 homes) will be cheaper to build and operate, and could be sited anywhere in the world. A more context-sensitive, localized nuclear power industry—in which small towns, remote facilities, and big cities find nuclear solutions tailored to their needs—could replace a large swath of fossil fuel power stations, filling in the inert, resource-sucking downtimes left by renewables.

Generally, tiny reactors have a few advantages over power plants. First, they are more space-efficient. A 2019 small modular reactor design from Oregon startup NuScale is about 1 percent the size of a traditional power plant’s containment chamber, though it delivers 10 percent of a plant’s power output. And while traditional nuclear plants need a 10-mile safety buffer in every direction in case of a meltdown, tiny reactors can operate in close quarters with much less risk. That’s the second major edge: safety. Some small reactor designs incorporate fully passive safety and risk-management systems that rely on the steady, immutable laws of physics—like gravity or buoyancy—to perform safety functions rather than the actions of people or mechanical equipment. Finally, there’s scalability. Many small reactors are designed with replicability in mind. If a community, factory, or city needs an extra boost of nuclear power, they can just order another reactor. 

Huff and UIUC are seeking approval to build their own tiny reactor based on designs from the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), a company taking a more extreme approach than NuScale in an effort to push the field toward new standards of safety and more possible use cases. USNC’s proposed design is rooted in low energy density and low decay heat generation after shutdown, which means less risk of a meltdown. The energy startup is mindful that volatility has doomed other nuclear efforts in the past. “Normal reactors are in the 20 to 40 watts per cubic centimeter power density,” USNC's Lorenzo Venneri says. “We’re in the 1 to 3 [watts] per cubic centimeter power density.”

“Fuel for nuclear reactors was developed for nuclear submarines where demands are entirely different from demands of a power plant,” founder Francesco Venneri—this is partly a Venneri family operation—says. “A submarine is like a high-velocity sports car: It needs to go up and down in power very quickly. That’s exactly the opposite of what a nuclear power plant should be for producing power.”

USNC’s reactor concept uses Fully Ceramic Micro-Encapsulated fuel (FCM), in which a ceramic-carbon and silicon-carbide composite coats granules of uranium oxide. The ceramic protects the grains of fuel, but still conducts heat. When this fuel is used in a low power-density environment, it creates a reactor that, according to Venneri, can’t melt down. Inside the reactor, a feedback mechanism stops the reaction when it exceeds operating temperature, so nothing can become hot enough to melt. This contrasts an established pattern in nuclear plant design, Venneri says, to “push the envelope and then build another envelope around it.”

Engineers like Venneri calculate risk as the product of probabilities and consequences. “We found out that trying to lower the probabilities is a losing game,” he explains. “We want to try to keep the probabilities of adverse events low, but at the same time, make sure the consequences are zero.”


Katy Huff and UIUC are seeking approval to build their own tiny reactor based on designs from the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), a company taking a more extreme approach than NuScale in an effort to push the field toward new standards of safety and more possible use cases. USNC’s proposed design is rooted in low energy density and low decay heat generation after shutdown, which means less risk of a meltdown. The energy startup is mindful that volatility has doomed other nuclear efforts in the past. “Normal reactors are in the 20 to 40 watts per cubic centimeter power density,” USNC's Lorenzo Venneri says. “We’re in the 1 to 3 [watts] per cubic centimeter power density.”

“Fuel for nuclear reactors was developed for nuclear submarines where demands are entirely different from demands of a power plant,” founder Francesco Venneri—this is partly a Venneri family operation—says. “A submarine is like a high-velocity sports car: It needs to go up and down in power very quickly. That’s exactly the opposite of what a nuclear power plant should be for producing power.”

USNC’s reactor concept uses Fully Ceramic Micro-Encapsulated fuel (FCM), in which a ceramic-carbon and silicon-carbide composite coats granules of uranium oxide. The ceramic protects the grains of fuel, but still conducts heat. When this fuel is used in a low power-density environment, it creates a reactor that, according to Venneri, can’t melt down. Inside the reactor, a feedback mechanism stops the reaction when it exceeds operating temperature, so nothing can become hot enough to melt. This contrasts an established pattern in nuclear plant design, Venneri says, to “push the envelope and then build another envelope around it.”

Engineers like Venneri calculate risk as the product of probabilities and consequences. “We found out that trying to lower the probabilities is a losing game,” he explains. “We want to try to keep the probabilities of adverse events low, but at the same time, make sure the consequences are zero.”

If the current nuclear energy infrastructure were a circulatory system, only the major veins and arteries would be pumping—those are the giant power plants. But tiny reactors can be like capillaries, extending power to the extremities (small towns, remote industry encampments, tiny islands, and specific city blocks) of the nuclear-power body.

“If you look at current big reactors and where they’re being installed, they’re going into countries that have a need to decarbonize,” Westinghouse Electric Company CTO Ken Canavan says. Countries like China and Poland are “replacing multiple medium or large coal plants with single nuclear,” he says, and these countries have contexts where large nuclear plants are appropriate. “If you look at other countries that have smaller grids, they don’t have the capacity to put on a big nuclear plant.” That’s where reactors like the one at NuScale—just 65 feet tall and 9 feet in diameter—can be of service.

Canavan does hedge, however, to say traditional reactor concepts could make a comeback after tiny nuclear hits retail. He says tiny nuclear might disrupt nuclear energy beyond what we can project today, and in a future where more things will need electrical power (not the least of which will be your car) than ever, a “multispeed” or “multidimension” nuclear energy market is likely to emerge. Here, anyone wishing to replace a remote diesel microgrid can find a solution in nuclear, or a combination of nuclear and renewables.

For now, Oklo, USNC, and NuScale focus on small markets as their entry point because in the United States, large plants are either aging out or are too stigmatized to be replaced. Finding common but untapped use cases for tiny nuclear, like rural towns, will be key to reinvigorating interest in nuclear power technology, and finding ways to integrate nuclear alongside or into renewable-focused grids will be important to acclimating the world to nuclear. A 2020 University of Sussex study found that the development of large nuclear plants stanched wide portions of global renewable-energy development between 1990 and 2014, but another 2020 report on the near future of energy showed four separate scenarios that demonstrated runaway growth in renewables alongside modest growth of nuclear energy. We see these things as competitors; they could coexist.

By 2040, if these small reactor projects are successful, we could see a selection of plant sizes, technologies, and types of locations enter the American energy landscape. “If you look at the way everything is going, it’s about personalization,” Canavan says. “What’s that worth to us? The capacity [small reactors] offer, and the capability they provide, is just irreplaceable.”

That and much more in the article here: Nuclear article

USNC's Tiny Reactor:

usnc's reactor produces 15mw of thermal power and 5mw of electric power

 

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It's a long way from lab to manufacturing, I got that from another MIT prof who was talking about his liquid Calcium Antimony battery. They've been talking about small nuke plants for at least ten years. I'm pro nuke so I hope they work it out.

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If it's safe to use mini reactors to run Navy ships then what's the issue? RV we have a point of agreement. 😃 If just 10-20% of the money spent on developing new batteries was spent on these small reactors then maybe we could all be happy. Or even a percentage of subsidies for wind and solar.

With around 6000 crew you have a small town. Maybe we should all build nuclear ships and permanently dock them!!

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OK I am a Navy Trained nuke operator and I can promise you you will never see a Navy type reactor in your neighborhood. They achieve the small size by using pure Uranium not the 5% stuff used by civilian plants. They also use cost be darned other equipment.

Edited by agesilaus
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1 hour ago, agesilaus said:

OK I am a Navy Trained nuke operator and I can promise you you will never see a Navy type reactor in your neighborhood. They achieve the small size by using pure Uranium not the 5% stuff used by civilian plants. They also use cost be darned other equipment.

Well, I am not a Navy nuke operator but sure have been aboard a whole lot of Navy nuke ships. I think that if the Navy can design and field the number of nukes that we have with the incredible safety record achieved, we certainly have the knowledge and production capabilities to bring many more civilian nuke plants online in relatively short order.

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I find it amazing a nuke sub can go 20 years without refueling.  Pretty darn cool.  Power technology is changing so rapidly I wish I could live another 100 years to see where it goes.  Lithium is amazing but still too darn expensive for most of us.

I wouldn't mind having a small nuclear reactor in my RV!  

Edited by hemsteadc
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1 hour ago, hemsteadc said:

I find it amazing a nuke sub can go 20 years without refueling

The navy would really find that to be amazing. The time period is long but not close to 20 years.

As for the reason civilian plants cannot use the Navy designs--Navy reactors use weapons grade uranium. And I'm sure you would prefer not to have a couple of bombs worth of uranium sitting in your neighborhood.

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45 minutes ago, Barbaraok said:

All about where the waste will go.   Once that problem is solved, then things might look up.

That is just a political problem not an engineering problem. The engineering problem was solved when green politics intervened and prevented it from being built.

However that is one reason I'd rather seen some thorium cycle plants built before these tiny nukes. Thorium is supposed to be able to burn nuke waste.

Edited by agesilaus
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1 hour ago, agesilaus said:

That is just a political problem not an engineering problem

Respectfully disagree.   Have you heard today about the radio active water and other contaminents they are currently worried about in Fla. in some kind of containment resevoir.  The company made their money and left the clean up to the taxpayers and the 'government"   Of course this is all considered fake news by many. Often elected people.

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13 hours ago, Barbaraok said:

All about where the waste will go.   Once that problem is solved, then things might look up.    

Many companies are now designing small nukes that use a mix of waste and new Uranium, thus cutting down the waste.  Plus anyone who was involved with the US nuclear waste search for a repository in the 1980s, knows that politics was the main issue, not finding a site and making it safe.  

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11 hours ago, bigjim said:

Respectfully disagree.   Have you heard today about the radio active water and other contaminents they are currently worried about in Fla. in some kind of containment resevoir.  The company made their money and left the clean up to the taxpayers and the 'government"   Of course this is all considered fake news by many. Often elected people.

That is from a  phosphate mine, the phosphates contain natural radium, has nothing to do with reactors.

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10 hours ago, Zulu said:

What does this statement even mean?

It means exactly what ir says the greens have fear and hatred of nuke power built into their genetic makeup. My theory is that the anti bomb bunch merged with the environmentalists back in the 1960's and they have carried that hatred of nukes ever since. It makes no sense since nuclear power is the only sustainable zero carbon base loaded power source that we have or are likely to have for the near future. Texas found out how reliable green power is.

So they oppose nuke waste storage not because it is hazardous but as a political tool to block nuclear power plants.

Edited by agesilaus
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How many people did three mile island hurt, zero so far as I know. It was a hysterical reaction. The other two are foreign and not built or run to US standards. The Russians are still using a WWII Hanford Washington design that they stole from us. We dropped that unsafe design when the war was over.

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15 hours ago, Barbaraok said:

All about where the waste will go.   Once that problem is solved, then things might look up.    

With all due respect, the problem has NEVER been about where the waste will go.  The problem results from the "Carter Doctrine" that stated that the US will not reprocess fuel rods.  As a result, instead of separating out the relatively small quantity of highly radioactive wastes and then reusing the fuel rods, we treat the entire fuel rod as waste even though it still contains most of the U235 fuel that hasn't been fissioned.

More than 20 years ago I was permitted to visit the facility where France keeps all the vitrified (glassified) high level wastes that are separated from their reactor fuel rods.  The facility was remarkably small even though, at that time, France was generating >75% of its power from nuclear reactors.  The high level wastes were turned into glass cylinders which were then inserted into holes in a concrete and lead storage matrix.

The need for the huge facility that was once planned for Yucca Mountain was due to the fact that we were going to store huge quantities of unprocessed fuel rods.    It makes no economic sense and never has.

Edited by docj
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1 hour ago, docj said:

The problem results from the "Carter Doctrine" that stated that the US will not reprocess fuel rods.  As a result, instead of separating out the relatively small quantity of highly radioactive wastes and then reusing the fuel rods, we treat the entire fuel rod as waste even though it still contains most of the U235 fuel that hasn't been fissioned.

I hadn't thought about that, you have a good point. The Navy Fuel Reprocessing plant was just down the road from where I trained as a nuke. The bus went by it every morning and night.

But even with greatly reduced quantities the greenies would still fight storage. The French sadly are far ahead of us.

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12 minutes ago, agesilaus said:

The Navy Fuel Reprocessing plant was just down the road from where I trained as a nuke.

When & where did you train? I was at Mare Island & Arco, ID back in 62/63.

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57 minutes ago, agesilaus said:

I hadn't thought about that, you have a good point. The Navy Fuel Reprocessing plant was just down the road from where I trained as a nuke. The bus went by it every morning and night.

The US reprocessing I am personally familiar with is what went on at the Department of Energy Hanford site in Washington State.  That's where the fuel rods from the production reactors were reprocessed to extract uranium.  The "hot stuff" from that reprocessing fills >250 huge tanks at Hanford and is a continuing threat to the Columbia River.   The legacy of these Cold War sites added to the fears from TMI,  Chernobyl and Fukushima make it difficult to imagine being able to convince the US citizenry to accept nuclear power again, not at least anytime soon.

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1 hour ago, docj said:

The US reprocessing I am personally familiar with is what went on at the Department of Energy Hanford site in Washington State.

The one I'm talking about was inbetween Arco and Idaho Falls, ID at the Reactor Test site. The had a low waste site there too. I think they only reprocessed Navy cores.

Edited by agesilaus
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Where will the waste go is a 'strange' question. The waste is currently 'somewhere'. Is 'somewhere' safe? Was it purpose designed at 'somewhere'? What the Greens forget is that a purpose designed and built facility is better than the temporary facilities at 'somewhere'.

So the Greens have exposed their hand. They say its all about safety. Yet they are happy to have the waste stored at 'somewhere' rather than building a purpose designed place at 'elsewhere'. Simply because it doesn't suit their narrative.

 

 

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