Futures Salon: The Future of Nuclear Energy

For tonight’s discussion, we are using the following articles as reference:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02459-w

https://bostonreview.net/science-nature/samuel-miller-mcdonald-nuclear-power-our-best-bet-against-climate-change

We being this conversation with a large group of engineers. So where to start? With nuclear as a whole? Or perhaps with thorium reactors directly? How viable are thorium reactors in general?

Thorium reactors have the potential to solve a strange “fear” – the meltdown, the waste, the “danger” – PR and world events have highlighted/focused on the doom and gloom – 4th generation nuclear reactors are great advancements over previous technology, offering solutions to these problems. However, waste of a thorium reactor is relatively comparable to that of an older nuclear reactor. We must remember that the most volatile reaction for nuclear waste is the most readily spent, so our storage issue is still one that must be addressed.

Thorium reactors have an interesting characteristic – they cool with molten salt, which while very efficient, requires specialized materials to handle and pump it. Thorium itself is rather abundant in India – so what does that alter in geopolitics. Where else is there a large concentration of thorium? The moon. Will this become a new target of economic interest? How will this change current space policy.

So why do we not see these reactors everywhere? Why are nuclear reactors and thorium reactors not commonly adapted? Cost. Running cost. Construction time/cost. Coal fired plants are complicated but simple machines. But while nuclear reactors just “boil water”, it is a very complicated way to get to that power output. There are large capital costs against nuclear plants along with continued extensive operating costs.

How have we not heard of an accident or a meltdown from France (who receives about 70% of its power from nuclear)? All of the plant designs are the same. Training programs are uniform, the plants are designed for effective and safe operation, and the people who run them can easily go to any other plant. The government runs and trains staff for these plants and therefor the operating procedures are optimized.

While the French made an oversight system with one general nuclear plant model, other nations all designed unique specifications and training programs under each different utility company, so it produced a “chaos” in the operation system. Once a company or government entity built and owned multiple units, they learned how to operate effectively and efficiently.

So how about waste? What do the French do? France reprocesses out all of the waste product, reforming it into new fuel products. Are we going to then reach a stage due to global warming/emissions issues/CO2 release that we have no option other than to turn to nuclear power, accepting any negative? Is there a zero carbon solution? Current research suggests that there must be a buffer for renewable sources such as wind/solar/geothermal to provide power all through the day, 365 days a year. That buffer currently looks like nuclear, but a Nobel Prize awaits one who can come up with that solution.

Right now, we need to be searching for a lower cost, zero carbon power solution – but nuclear in the near future seems destined to be a prominent piece in the power puzzle. Batteries, an item with a cost model based on scale, and the grid structure itself will both need to improve, refine, and grow in efficiency to solve this complex problem. But how will we pay for it? The investment already made the energy grid will have to be made again, if not doubled again, in order to build that future. Extensive government investment will be required to bridge into these new pathways.

How will the electric grid need to adapt to these systems? Will the grid need to splinter into many smaller ones? If we make smaller grids, how will we avoid a disaster like was seen in Texas? Redundancy will need to accompany the solar roofs, electric cars, and power source transitions to come. But what does that transition look like? How will we transfer to these new power sources? While it is unlikely that we see another coal plant constructed, but our ease off of oil and natural gas may be slower. As our discussions always seem to revolve around, education will be critical to both inform and develop the solutions of the future.

M.I.T published a book, “Deep Time Reckoning”, about how Finland is approaching their nuclear energy usage. But the truly fascinating idea in their book is the futuresight and forward-thinking that that line of logic approaches. A Futures discussion for another time, perhaps (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/deep-time-reckoning). A final recommendation: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/electrify

Thank you to the group for attending and engaging in lively discussion! We will see you all next month!

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