The Future of Nuclear Power Plants

With the blast of the French nuclear power plant a few weeks ago, safety of nuclear power plant designs has fallen under more scrutiny. Although according to sources the blast took place in the turbine hall and no nuclear leak was found, this event has brought more attention to improved design and operation standards.

Following the incident earlier this month Toshiba, a Japanese multinational company, announced the resignation of its chairman following a $6.3 billion loss in their nuclear sector –also withdrawing from the nuclear business. The two back to back events have highlighted the main two problems of nuclear power: high cost and environmental/safety concerns. Said to be a green technology, nuclear power raises concerns with potential nuclear meltdown and risk of safety from toxic waste, accompanying the fact that building a new plant cost around $5,000.00 per kilowatt of capacity with around 6 years of lead time. Each dollar invested on a nuclear power plant has about 2-10 less carbon savings and is 20-40 times slower compared to other alternatives. Yes, evidently nuclear power is found to be very reliable, enabling consistent baseload energy production at any time of day and night. Though, it has been questioned whether this reliability is worth the high cost of nuclear production, in fact all nuclear plants are still operating with 100% subsidized.

Transatomic power, a company started by two MIT PhD candidates, came up with a new approach to safer and cheaper nuclear reactors. Utilizing molten salt reactors, which has not really been used commercially and so far is only existed in paper, the technology is promised to cut initial cost and increase safety. Today’s conventional nuclear reactor is cooled by water, due to the high operating temperature, failure to do so will open the risk of radiation leak as well as hydrogen explosion. The high boiling point of salt helps solve some of the problems associated with the technology. The new design also incorporates ways of producing faster neutrons, enabling the reactor to burn most waste materials, thus keep waste to minimum. The ability of this smaller unit to be made in a factory (and not onsite) as well as cost reduction on the safety side makes this attractive economically as well. That being said, this generation 4 nuclear reactor is still in design and development will take years and high capital cost.

References:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/14/business/toshiba-chairman-nuclear-loss.html?_r=0

http://fortune.com/2017/02/16/toshiba-nuclear-power-plants/

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