Anyone suggesting nuclear technology provides the best solution to our global energy shortage is almost immediately dismissed or attacked because of supposedly, “how dangerous all that ‘nukular’ stuff is…” Most Environmentalists go into immediate paroxysms of fear, paranoia and loathing for anyone that would suggest such a thing. However, the evidence shows not only is it the safest, cleanest and most reliable in its current 3rd generation incarnations but the next generation will be an order of magnitude better, cheaper, far cleaner and safer.
Fourth generation (4G) reactors have many different designs, almost all them better than 3G designs and light years away from 2G designs. The difference between 2G and 4G nuclear reactor tech is similar to the difference between a Bell Telephone 2500 Deskset from the 60s and a Motorola Dynatac (“The Brick”) cellphone from the 80s. Or, the difference between the Dynatac and the iPhone 6. They’re not really even comparable except in the fundamentals that they both employ electronic circuitry and electrical signalling. That’s about it. Similar things can be said about 2G and 4G nuclear reactor tech; both use a form of fission. That’s about it.
The genesis of the current heightened interest in 4G nuclear power comes from a 2013 movie release at the Sundance film festival of “Pandora’s Promise” Of course the film, its creator and participants have been attacked from virtually every possible standpoint by other environmentalists and climate change interest groups. They do that because the movie breaks just about every myth that exists about the present and future nuclear power industry. Primarily it breaks the myth that “renewable” solar and wind power is going to provide any long term solution to power generation in order to reduce the carbon output of modern civilization. It also breaks the myth of atomic power as a dirty, dangerous technology.
The key to all energy production/consumption is “energy density.” Energy density is the amount of energy stored in a given system or region of space per unit volume or mass, though the latter is more accurately termed specific energy. Solar and wind-based generation has exceptionally low energy density. Thus, the giant wind turbine and solar panel farms. Carbon-based energy generation (primarily coal and natural gas) provides much higher energy density than solar or wind power. Nuclear energy provides orders of magnitude higher energy density than carbon-based sources. In addition, the unreliable nature of wind and solar renewables (no power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine) means that a “watt-for-watt” back-up must be built to provide 7×24 power. Currently that means carbon-based (mostly natural gas) plants.
To provide the electrical energy for the US requires approximately 1,100,000 Mega-watts (Mw) of peak generating capacity to meet summertime consumption. As of 2013, the total of all “renewable sources,” other than hydroelectric, was 6% of total generation. Globally renewables, other than hydroelectric, account for less than 1%. In the US, carbon-based generation is 68%. To significantly impact those proportions would literally require millions more acres for distributed solar and wind power generation. It is not a matter of opinion, it is a simple matter of physics. There will also be no appreciable expansion of hydroelectric power (7%) in the US since most every river source for major dam projects have already been sited. That leaves nuclear, alone, as the alternative.
The great news is that 4G generation has many advantages even over 3G reactors. It is cheaper, safer, requiring far less safety and control systems and has far more inherently stable designs. Of the six classes of designs, the best of class seems to be the Gas- and Sodium-cooled Fast Breeder Reactors. However, the Molten Salt Reactor and Integral Fast Reactor designs also offer very attractive possibilities. All of these various designs offer many different inherent safety and low-waste possibilities.
Beside being inherently stable and safe, one of the key characteristics is elimination of more than 98% of the primary nuclear waste (the most radioactive) over current operating lightwater designs like Fukushima Dai-Ichi. Eliminating 98% of the primary waste over 3G reactors is not the only advantage of 4G waste. It also means a 300 year half-life before it is completely safe instead of the 300,000 year half-life of the 2G and 3G lightwater reactor’s primary waste. That eliminates a huge storage hurdle.
Modularity of design in the best classes will cure several other significant problems with existing US power generation of all types: Long-lines transmission loss, grid vulnerability and reliability. With the reduced cost, simpler control and significantly fewer added safety systems due to inherently safer and stable 4G designs, the plant footprint can be far smaller than current 2G and 3G plants. Smaller plant and output capacity means plant siting can be much closer to the consumers and have more redundancy. Those factors will reduce long lines transmission and the consequent construction, maintenance and vulnerabilities those lines carry along with their electrical transmission.
The next key consideration is the fuel source cycle usable by 4G reactors. The best choice is Thorium-232. Thorium-232 is a naturally occurring element 3-4 times more abundant than uranium . Thorium-232 requires no enrichment and can be used directly in the fuel cycle to “breed” it’s own fuels and consume most of its own waste in the fuel cycle. It is a “fertile” rather than a “fissile” material. Another of the many advantages is that Uranium-233 produced from Thorium -232 tends to be very unattractive for weapons production for a variety of reasons. Finally, there is enough high-grade thorium in the US to likely power all of the electrical generation needs for more than 1000 years. As the World Nuclear Association explains some of the possible benefits
“The thorium fuel cycle offers enormous energy security benefits in the long-term – due to its potential for being a self-sustaining fuel even without the need for fast neutron reactors. It is therefore an important and potentially viable technology that seems able to contribute to building credible, long-term nuclear energy scenarios.”
Some of the largest and highest quality deposits of Thorium-232 in the world are in the Rocky Mountain west. The Lemhi Pass, along the Idaho-Montana border, has one of the world’s largest known high-quality thorium deposits. The US is estimated to be second only to India in overall deposits. Even 2G and 3G generation nuclear power is far and away safer than carbon-based sources when one adds up the worldwide mining, drilling, processing, refining and transportation deaths and injuries each year in those industries. That doesn’t count the estimated 3 million deaths every year from particulate- and pollution-caused respiratory illness from burning carbon fuels. Fourth generation nuclear power industrial deaths and injuries, of any type, will be vanishingly small compared to carbon-based generation.
The largest current problem with 4G reactor development and construction in the US is the ignorance and irrational hysteria the term “nuclear power” strikes in the heart of the average citizen. Years of hysterical anti-nuclear propaganda and a population with a low scientific literacy rate have done their job. While China, India, Russia, France and others are moving to proliferate 4G power plants to supply their electrical energy needs, the US sits on its thumbs. The average age of our nuclear plant infrastructure is 33 years and we haven’t constructed a single new nuclear plant in more than 18 years. While the rest of the world moves to solve the carbon-based generation and energy problems, the US is frozen in time.
China was just reported to have passed the US in purchasing power equivalent GDP at $17.6 trillion. It appears that the future of cheap, reliable and safe non-carbon-based energy belongs to them and the others moving that direction. How long will it take to shake the local , state and federal officials, environmentalists, thought-leaders and verily, the citizens of the US out of their stupor and start moving again? The future is only ours to lose.