by Will Davis
A short while back in early November, I decided to conduct a poll on Twitter – that oft-maligned, mostly misunderstood, microblogging site on which instantaneous outreach is seriously tempered by a roughly 19-minute-post-visibility lifetime. Even with the limitations, I thought my first-ever use of the polling tool would produce a pretty predictable result. I was off the mark.
This was the question that I posed: Should the USA spend money to develop and design a quickly constructed but robust large light water reactor nuclear power plant? We’ll get into the vagaries of that highly nuanced question in a moment, but first, the two allowed voting choices: A) Yes, still important and B) No, cede the field. The wording of these was wholly deliberate – the implication being that if we do not take the action delineated in the poll question, we would as a matter of course cede the field to others (which is to say other nations).
If you take a look around the nuclear outreach landscape today, you’ll find it heavily loaded with messaging about advanced (or Gen-IV) reactors. All the buzz today – and indeed the vast majority of funding awards, press announcements, TED talk videos, policy moves, whatever – are about advanced reactors.
The problem is that they’re not ready, and they’re not very close. None of them are ready to answer the bell if it rings today, tomorrow, or probably next year. That leaves the existing, established technologies to carry the water (pun intended).
Furthermore, we do see some hand-wringing that the Russians, the Chinese and the Koreans are getting nuclear plant export contracts we should have had. They’re doing that with light-water reactors (LWR). Let’s face it: Tomorrow is tomorrow, or sometime in the future… but today is today, and today still belongs to LWRs.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. I’m not lamenting the loss of blacksmithing as a trade here, not wishing for the return of the Conestoga and the trail and the stage stop. I’m not advocating dumping work and research for the future, I’m simply saying that keeping our eye on the horizon isn’t taking care of what’s between here and there. We simply have to hope that what we see on the horizon isn’t a mirage. That means, to my way of thinking, keeping U.S. built LWR nuclear power plants viable as new products both for domestic and for export construction.
A Slight Surprise
The poll only got 45 votes, but the result was much more lopsided than I’d figured given that most of my very active followers are heavily interested in advanced reactors. The result was 84 percent to spend money to develop the specified design, and only 16 percent to cede the field. I had expected a close run and hoped for a slight tilt to keep working on big LWR plants. I was both somewhat surprised by, and pleased by, the result.
So now what’ll we do? Well, we have to look at the proposition. I said quickly constructed, but I didn’t say shorter than ever before. What I was driving at was this: My friend and mentor Glenn Williams has pounded into my head the mantra Good, Fast, Cheap; pick two because you can’t have all three. We need to design a plant that is easily constructed, which will lead to it being fairly quickly constructed. We also need to avoid attempts to drive past inexpensive if possible to cheap as we have decided that since any nuclear plant will already be expensive, we will take good and fast. An example will help.
Let’s suppose that in order to save on the base cost of a large LWR design, the containment and in fact the whole nuclear island are made absolutely as compact as possible. This will result in a statistical saving of money compared with plants from the first nuclear build; hopefully, the reduction in nuclear concrete volume will also result in less chance for error and required rework. However we discovered much later that when the project is behind, we cannot catch up on work inside the containment because it’s too tight – trades cannot flood in and work in parallel because everyone will be in everyone else’s way. In the old days, with the labor force on the rolling 4-10 shift schedule and seven days’ work a week on-site, catching up was possible for a period during construction, if there was room to flood in workers and components. That’s not possible with our new ‘compact’ design though, and we continue to fall further behind. What’s happened to us is that the attempt to be cheap in the first place is now seriously negatively affecting PROJECT cost – which is what we should have had an eye on in the first place. It’s project cost that gets the attention of ratepayers, the public service commission, and the media. It’s project cost that kills projects. Designing the plant to be easily built, and not compact, would have been the right move. If that means a much larger containment, then that’s what it should get. There’s no need to be tricky or clever on this kind of engineering approach, either; we don’t need to innovate anything or try to disrupt anything. Keep it simple- then under-promise and over-deliver.
I used the term “robust” in my poll, but frankly that’s only part of today’s picture. While passive safety is a key feature of the plant design being built right now in the USA, it’s also likely that we’ll want to ensure that the plant is, to borrow the new phraseology of Sherrell Greene: “resilient.” This means that the plant doesn’t trip off at the slightest perturbation – it may mean that it stays up and on the grid even with a loss of offsite power. Repeating though – safety is of course a key factor that can’t be sacrificed for our desired goals of easy construction and robustness / resiliency.
“We” is an easy word to use. “We” should do this or that. Who is “we” in this case? Well, I should think that since we as U.S. citizens live in a free-market, we’ll need government policy incentives to set this in motion on the part of that market. Perhaps the importance of holding the gap should be pushed far harder than ever – and then, perhaps, a grant-funded industry effort not unlike that taken in Japan to develop the ABWR and APWR should be started, seeing various industry and utility companies coming together. And when I say “coming together,” I mean to maximize the effort, not kill the idea by committee. (Think more Apollo than EPR.) If and when FERC decides to provide real compensation for plants that run in the base load region of system demand, we might see a connection between industry desire for relatively steady cost nuclear power and this drive to develop a realistically buildable large LWR plant. If that happens, we’ll have filled the gap until Gen-IV can arrive.
(This article is absolutely NOT intended to be the end of this discussion, it’s the beginning only. Please let me know what thoughts you have that would contribute to such a concept – bearing in mind that the poll was 84 percent to 16 percent, in other words heavily in favor of pursuing the concept.)
Will Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar. His popular Twitter account is @atomicnews.