The Ergosphere
Monday, May 23, 2011
 

End-running the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

I admit that there's a lot I don't know about things nuclear, and especially about the byzantine regulations which have essentially blocked new ideas for decades (which makes the area ripe for innovation, as Bill Gates has noted). But, aside from being introduced to the concept of MSR/LFTR itself, nothing I've learned has surprised me as much as learning in the post about the third TEAC conference that... well, I'll just quote it.

Also presenting was Col. Paul Roege, U.S. Army, who delivered the event’s other piece of important news. The Pentagon, Roege said, could be able and willing to offer licensing capability for companies building LFTRs or other forms of innovative nuclear power reactors. Most thorium advocates agree that the NRC is unlikely in the near term to license alternative reactor designs – even ones, like LFTRs, that have been thoroughly proven out in operation. Given the military’s need for clean, modular, transportable energy sources for forward operating bases, the swiftest routes to a license could be through the Army, which has the regulatory authority to approve new reactors for military bases without NRC involvement.

In the traditional licensing process, Roege said, “Innovative reactors are at the end of the line. That obstacle could potentially could be overcome if we pursue military applications.”

Note this well: "the Army... has the regulatory authority to approve new reactors for military bases without NRC involvement."

It smells a bit like hope to me. 
Thursday, May 19, 2011
 

The fundamental problem of the nuclear power industry

I don't know how I missed this gem attributed to Freeman Dyson.  I don't have much time for books these days, but quotes like this usually find their way into my stream of reading rather quickly.  Pithy, and oh so timely (and corrected for spelling and grammar).
The fundamental problem of the nuclear power industry is not reactor safety, not waste disposal, not the dangers of nuclear proliferation, real though all these problems are.  The fundamental problem of the industry is that nobody any longer has any fun building reactors.  It is inconceivable under present conditions that a group of enthusiasts could assemble in a schoolhouse and design, build, test, license and sell a reactor within three years.  Sometime between 1960 and 1970, the fun went out of the business.

The adventurers, the experimenters, the inventors, were driven out, and the accountants and managers took control.  Not only in the private industry but also in the government laboratories, at Los Alamos, Livermore, Oak Ridge and Argonne, the groups of bright young people who used to build and invent and experiment with a great variety of reactors were disbanded.  The accountants and managers decided that it was not cost effective to let bright people play with weird reactors. So the weird reactors disappeared and with them the chance of any radical improvement beyond our existing systems.

We are left with a very small number of reactor types in operation, each of them frozen into a huge bureaucratic organization that makes any substantial change impossible, each of them in various ways technically unsatisfactory, each of them less safe than many possible alternative designs which have been discarded.  Nobody builds reactors for fun anymore.  The spirit of the little red schoolhouse is dead.  That, in my opinion, is what went wrong with nuclear power.
 
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