Positive Energy

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Fission: Ontario Has To Look Forward

Ontario needs new nuclear reactors. If the government does not buy CANDU reactors from AECL I think AECL will go out of business. The Ontario Liberals don't want to eliminate hundreds of engineering jobs in Ontario.

However, CANDU reactors are second generation technology. Fourth generation reactors are being deployed in India, Russia, Japan, and China. Canada is having a tough time staying competitive with these growing giants so Ontario cannot afford to load itself down with energy technology that is not competitive. Somehow, the new reactors in Ontario have to move Canada ahead in the energy domain.

There will be some backlash from the enviro-alarmists when the new reactors are actually contracted. The main argument will be about "waste". CANDU reactors utilize less than one percent of the energy in their uranium fuel. The used fuel can be used over and over again to produce hundreds of times as much energy. The enviro-alarmists insist on labeling this reusable material as waste in a desperate attempt to scare the ignorant. So the government has to be able to claim that the waste problem is solved for their new reactors. The fuel cycle has to use up the CANDU used once fuel that we have accumulated so far and produce a minimal amount of final fission products. Liquid metal and molten salt fast reactors can do this.

Terrorism is another factor. Again, it is a phony issue in that the realities are never discussed, only the most extreme possibilities. Even so, it will affect votes. So the new reactors have to be underground. This is desirable from other points of view too, such as aesthetics and land use.

Reactors have to be cooled. This is currently done with water which restricts the placement of new reactors. Air cooling is a mandatory requirement. The hot air exhaust should be used to heat buildings and green houses. It could also be used to purify water. The new reactors should be located in the middle of towns and cities to facilitate these secondary levels of efficient energy use. Another reason for placing the reactors in the cities is to reduce the power lines needed to get the energy to the users. This benefits the environment since fewer trees have to be killed for power line corridors. It also benefits the look of the countryside - power lines are ugly.

The new reactors should be small so we can start getting power from the first ones as soon as possible. We need to use an assembly line process to build them cheaply. They should be built in one place where the workers are, and then moved to their operating locations. This approach reduces financial risks since returns will begin early in the project. The financial people sleep better when money is coming in. This approach is being used in Russia.

We need a significant reason to build these reactors, more than replacing dirty coal. So the new reactors should be associated with a government sponsored initiative for electric cars. Plugin hybrid cars should be encouraged and built in Ontario. We need 15,000 MW of new nuclear energy to power these cars. Again, this will neutralize the enviro-alarmist opposition. The air will be a lot cleaner in Ontario if electric cars are plentiful. And the car construction work could be all Canadian.

Is all this possible? I think so. Ontario should order ten CANDU reactors immediately from AECL. The first five should be built concurrently, and construction should start now. They could be small to minimize the financial management issues, i.e. so they can come into use quickly. The order for the second five should be contingent on AECL proposing a fourth generation design for all subsequent reactors after these initial ten. The subsequent reactors must meet all the requirements above.

An example of the kind of reactor that we need is the Gas Turbine - Modular Helium Reactor from General Atomics. However, it is fueled by TRISO coated particle fuel. This fuel has a number of advantages in terms of safety and handling, but the burn-up is not complete and the spent fuel is hot, radioactive, and impossible to reuse. It represents a huge step forward compared to present day CANDU systems, but we can do better.

Another candidate for our new reactors is the nuclear battery described at:

Encapsulated Nuclear Heat Source (ENHS)

These ENHS devices are self regulating so no operators are needed. They run for twenty years, at which time the old one is taken out and replaced with a new one. And the fuel burn up rate is high. We can claim that the waste problem is solved with a bit of reprocessing work.

So it appears reasonable to ask AECL to come up with something modern - an underground, air cooled, self-regulating nuclear battery that consumes CANDU used once fuel. Perhaps they could come up with their own molten salt design as a uniquely Canadian solution.