18. February 2005 · Comments Off on A Whole New Era In Nuclear Power On The Horizon · Categories: Technology, World

PMBR technology promises to do for nuclear power what the Model T did for automobiles. And the Chinese are taking the lead:

The difference between incumbent nuke designs and PBMR is like night and day. Western reactors reflect the “bigger is better” mentality that prevailed when plants were first built. Industry mismanagement in the 1970’s and 1980’s added layers of safety systems to already complex designs. U.S. nuclear plants are run much better today than a decade ago, but next generation designs still feature tons of safety-oriented concrete and mazes of redundant valves, controls, and piping. PBMRs, by contrast, epitomize Internet Age principles of miniaturization and modularity. Each PBMR is about one-fifth the size of a conventional reactor. They are designed without many backup cooling systems in existing plants, relying instead on a reactor core that theoretically cools itself if nuclear fuel gets too hot. PBMR’s smaller footprint and simplified design, it’s hoped, will allow multiple reactors to be built on one site faster and cheaper.

But the challenge to incumbent nuclear companies does not end there. Most of today’s nuclear industry profits come from making and replacing fuel in operating plants not building new ones. Western companies have a large stake in preserving how nuclear fuel is now made, a tightly controlled system run by quasi-government entities and nuclear service companies. The status quo works for everyone, consumers included, so long as existing reactor designs are the only viable options. PBMR commercialization would upset this arrangement. PBMR uses a totally different fuel design to current reactors. PBMRs should refuel while running whereas Western designs require refueling shutdowns every two years. So PBMRs do not need either Western-style fuel or Western companies’ refueling services. Faced with this challenge, nuclear vendors — with future plant sales and lucrative fuel and services businesses at stake — have attacked PBMR as an idea whose time will never come.

Until recently, the incumbents were winning. Then China, facing a monumental power shortage, put its top scientific brains to work to commercialize PBMRs. China needs electricity, a lot of it and fast. Coal and oil-fired power plants can meet some of this gap but the only long-term option that can provide China with the amount of power it needs at stable costs and without worsening air pollution is nuclear. China will buy some Western-style nuclear plants but it will not go “all-Western” for important strategic and practical reasons.

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