If you want to design a car, there are certain constants like four wheels. And for a car, you can draw on millions of design hours that are readily accessible, and trillions of years of operating experience.
If you want to design a nuclear reactor, there are almost no limitations. In fact, there are a mind-boggling number of design possibilities. Hundreds of reactor designs have made it onto paper and the constants are few. You’ll need a fissile fuel, or a fertile fuel element with a fissile trigger, but otherwise there are no limits. Not all that is known about reactor design is accessible because it is either proprietary or classified. The reactor fuel, the moderator, the size, the operating characteristics are all wide-open choices. More: For each reactor type, there are huge variations. Choosing an optimum design going forward is the challenge. The characteristics and to some extent the mission is subject to choice, along with scientific feasibility. There also are what might be called external factors – things that have nothing to do with the primary purpose of electricity generation. Recommended For YouRumored ConocoPhillips Deal For Concho Signals The Shale Consolidation Wave Is Fully UnderwayConocoPhillips Doubles Down On The Permian Basin And Fracking With Concho AcquisitionThe Green Hydrogen Revolution Is Now UnderwayThese include safety in all conditions: earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. Reactors also must be proliferation-proof. If something goes wrong, the safety systems must be fail-safe. Over the years of reactor developments, there have been many ideas for reactors. There is a recurring one in the discussions I’ve been privy to over 50 years: molten salt. There are many well-informed nuclear designers who believe that molten salt is the way to have gone and is still the way to go. Others are critical. Nuclear Open to Debate Nobody argues about the basics of an automobile. Everything about nuclear is open to scientific debate. And that debate is a permanent feature of the nuclear landscape: evaluation and reevaluation. Molten salt reactors are not new. The defining work was done on them at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in the 1950s through the 1970s. It was a time of creativity in reactor design, particularly under Alvin Weinberg, the lab’s gifted and legendary director. I was lucky enough to have known Weinberg. But the Atomic Energy Commission, which preceded the Department of Energy (DOE), was committed to light water reactors, a variant of which was already powering the nuclear navy and another variant was finding success in the electric power industry. Industry money, utility demand, and the politics influenced by Adm. Hyman Rickover were all for light water — only light water. They feared light water — a successful and workable technology — would be undermined by competing technologies, among them molten salt. The nuclear establishment didn’t want a technological free-for-all and Rickover, the domineering father of the nuclear navy, whom I also was lucky to have known, could sway the political support for nuclear, which originated with the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. This committee controlled the fate of nuclear in both the House and the Senate — and was the only committee with the authority to introduce legislation which made it uniquely powerful in congressional history. Despite this, scientists and engineers mumbled about the paths not taken; science sacrificed on the light water altar. Nowadays, there is a feeling that light water reactors are at the end of their run. There is an active community of entrepreneurs promoting reactors of various designs, especially since the DOE made seed funding available for small modular reactors (SMRs). These are supposed to be cheaper and more flexible than their big brothers. Some SMRs are revolutionary, like the traveling wave reactor supported by Bill Gates. Others, like the frontrunning NuScale reactor, are built on light water technology. The cost savings for SMRs is to come from manufacturing these new-generation reactors offsite in factories. But there is skepticism in the industry about these claims: None has proved itself yet. NuScale is building its modular SMR on the DOE’s Idaho Falls site and has a contract to sell the electricity to a consortium of rural electric cooperatives, two of which recently dropped out because of spiraling cost projections. This is dampening SMR enthusiasm and attention is returning to the large reactors of 1,000 MWe and above. Enter Two Entrepreneurs In this fray are two entrepreneurs with an updated design for a molten salt fast reactor (MSFR). They are Carl Perez and Ed Pheil, joint owners of Elysium Technologies USA. Price is one of the big selling points, according to Perez and Pheil. Their 1,200 MWe reactor won’t be pressurized, but it will operate at high temperatures, cutting back dramatically on the balance of plant costs like a containment structure and fuel. Additionally, and possibly the deciding selling factor, because it will be a fast reactor with a molten fuel, it will be able to use nuclear waste as a fuel and burn it up over time. A fast reactor has an unslowed neutron flux and needs no moderator, like the water in light water reactors. Pheil has more than 30 years’ experience in naval reactor design. He handles nuclear science and history as though he were a quantum computer. To ask him a question about nuclear science or the related chemistry is to trigger an avalanche of information. Perez is an entrepreneur and has enthusiasm which matches Pheil’s endless knowledge. Together they make up, to my mind, an awesome pair. They are passionate and undeterrable — essential qualities if you’re selling reactor concepts. According to Pheil and Perez, these are the principal selling points of their molten chloride salt fast reactor (MCSFR): · Fueled with nuclear waste from weapons and other reactors · Air cooling · Process heat · No downtime to fuel · Lower reactor, fuel, and balance of plant costs · Doesn’t have to be near a large water source · A potential source of hydrogen generation at reasonable cost Initial funding of just $7 million came from visionary angel investors. Now, Perez told me, Elysium’s next round of funding will enable the engineering and licensing of a small, 10MWt demonstration plant, the size determined by Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules. Design work on neutronics and fuel production has been carried out at Argonne National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory with GAIN (Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear) funding from the DOE. The world will need nuclear to reduce carbon emissions. To me the two big plusses for the MCSFR are the price and the burnup of nuclear waste. They are big pluses.