A Suggested Approach to Revise the Nuclear Power Option
I believe that to consider revising the nuclear power option a number of issues have to be addressed. The following is a list I will attempt to address in this paper. Safety of the plant Plant design Public and Utility acceptance Infrastructure to design and build Financing The past history of programs and projects should provide a source of material as a basis to start thinking about a path forward. I am sure that I am not aware of all of this material but I have used what I can remember to develop this paper. The above issues are interrelated so the text may overlap some issues.
Safety of the Plant
The plant must be able to survive all the natural hazards of earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods. In the past a lot of the primary equipment was designed for earthquake loads. I suggest that the base structure use current technology to mitigate and isolate the transfer of seismological events. The primary plant should be under the surface of the surrounding area. This should eliminate or reduce the tornado issue but also help in the current environment of potential terrorist threats. Protection from flooding is primarily based on site selection. Although the plant should be located near a navigable water source for component delivery it should use dry cooling towers for condensing. The plant design must be able to shut down safely in the event of loss of flow without SCRAM or station black out with no operator or mechanical operation assistance. These safety features must be demonstrated.
There should be only one nuclear plant design for a lot of reasons. The market, infrastructure, government, and public will not support a number of designs like in the 50’s and 60’s. The plant should be modular so that additional units could be added as confidence in the operation and the market grows. The plant should be licensed with the completion and testing of the full size prototype. I have a preference for the plant design that is based on conceptual work performed by a Rockwell team for the Department of Energy in the early 80’s. The concept was titled sodium advanced fast reactor, SAFR (pronounced safer). A DOE paper was presented on this concept and others proposed by General Electric and Westinghouse at the International Conference on Breeder Reactors in France. A review of these past concepts should provide a start for a future design. The main safety features of the SAFR design were the large sodium pool with all the primary components inside this pool including the heat exchanger for the natural draft decay heat removal, and the design support for the reactor core and the control rods so that in the event of loss of flow the relative thermal expansions would move the control rods into the core thus providing a safe shut down. Plant safe shutdown and cooling only required thermal expansion and gravity. Some of these features were later demonstrated by the FFTF. The concept of having all the primary components contained in the sodium pool relives the requirement for the secondary system including the steam generators to be part of the safety systems. A significant cost savings. The reactor fuel element design should be based on the sodium bonded metal fuel demonstrated in the EBR II. The technology for this fuel and the core physics resides in Argonne National Lab. This fuel and reactor concept could be used as either a breeder or burner. In light of all the energy available from excess Plutonium and enriched Uranium available today, I would suggest it be designed as a burner. Future generations may want to use it as a breeder. This form of fuel can be recycled at the site containing the fission products. High level waste would not have to be shipped from the site until the end of plant life. The recycled process section of the plant could be designed and constructed early. The facility would be used to fabricate the first core loading thereby checking out the remote equipment on low radioactive materials prior to recycling the first core of elements. The plant should be designed for factory construction of all components with only a minimum if any field welds on the primary system. The AE constructor roles would be a lot easier and focus primarily on the building structure. This should also reduce the overall schedule and plant costs. Later I will propose how to do this with the current lack of heavy manufacturing infrastructure in the US.
Public and Utility Acceptance
The public and utilities will be very skeptical about any nuclear project managed directly by the government. Therefore the project should be managed by a nonprofit organization established just for this project. When a full size prototype is fabricated and tested with full disclosure to the public and utilities a wider range of support may be obtained. Another issue is “ not in my backyard” by the public. Therefore the location of the prototype is also an issue to consider. The first thoughts are Hanford or Idaho because of past history in nuclear programs. However with the ability to send electric power all over the US, I suggest there may be some alternates such as closed military bases in remote areas. The positive economic impact at the local level may overcome a lot of resistance for a prototype plant.
Infrastructure to Design and Build
I do believe that any single organization in the US has the qualified engineering staff or manufacturing capability to design and build a new prototype nuclear plant. It is also doubtful that any organization could convince their board of directors to take a total financial risk to enter the market for new plants. The public and taxpayers would not look favorably of a total nuclear project funded and managed by the Department of Energy. Therefore I have the following suggestions: Establish a nonprofit organization like a mini Manhattan project. A possible source could be a university. To perform the conceptual design request that organizations willing to participate in the pilot project provide engineers to be located in one central facility. Utilities would be asked to supply personnel with nuclear plant operating and maintenance experience. The Department of Energy would be required to fund this conceptual design. I also suggest that an advisory group of “ old timers” be established as part of this organization. Consideration should be given to ask other countries such as France, Germany, England, and Japan, to provide technical experts to the advisory group. The purpose of the advisory group would be to provide knowledge, sources of information, and experience to the primary design team. As most old timers like me have a bias for a plant concept, they would not be permitted to pick the concept. The ultimate market is the utilities and they should have the largest input on the conceptual design. A major part of the conceptual design would be dividing the plant components to various organizations for future fabrication. It would also be used for the AE selection. This may sound un-American but is similar to that used in Japan. The basis for this approach is each organization would commit having the fabrication infrastructure ready to build the plant component on the basis they would obtain the contract without competitive bidding. For example GE might want the plant pumps and Westinghouse the heat exchangers. If no one in the US is interested then a foreign source might fill the missing component. This would give a corporation a smaller risk and investment to be part of a potential future market. The selected organizations would then provide the engineering staff necessary for their selected component at their cost during the final design and construction. Although home office support could be used they would have to have sufficient engineers on site as part of the team to facilitate interface and change control. The utilities or an organization representing utilities would also be required to provide engineering and operating experience during final design, construction, and pilot plant operation. The final design team should be located near or on the selected site. A number of the team will be required during the plant startup and demonstration of safety systems. Component manufactures will also be gaining experience during this period. The plant should also be used for operator and maintenance training before and after full operation as future plants are constructed. Like that used for the Navy Nuclear program in Idaho.
The ability to provide sufficient capital to construct the first plant will be the most difficult. The following are my thoughts on this issue: The component suppliers and AE contribution to the project was made by providing engineers during the final design. The component suppliers also committed to having the fabrication infrastructure ready to make the component of their choice. Therefore they need to receive a reasonable price for what they supply. This could be though a negotiated fixed price or incentive contracts. The DOE should provide the funding to construct the fuel fabrication and recycle facility with a commitment to provide the initial and three core loadings to the project at no costs. Fuel fabrication costs should be collected during this period for down stream decisions on cost sharing. The capital cost of the plant would be provided by utilities or an organization representing a group of utilities. The nonprofit organization would collect the funds and issue coupons for future free kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity. The kwh coupons would be issued like bonds with different maturity dates as it will take several years to pay back the capital costs. These coupons would also be like bonds so utilities could trade them for kwh from other utilities. The rate of return kwh would be higher for the ones due in later operation. In fact this is not different than a normal utility investment in a plant but spread over a larger source. There has to be one difference in that the government must guarantee the pay back should the plant not operate sufficiently to meet the all coupons issued. I do not know if the nonprofit organization could obtain insurance from a separate source as part or all of the guarantee.
I hope this paper simulates some thinking on the Nuclear Power Option. While I do not expect any one to accept all of the details in this paper, I hope that several are considered on the path forward. Respectfully submitted. Retired Professional Nuclear Engineer