Virginia Energy Policy: 21st Century Electricity Production & Generation IV Nuclear Reactors
The Virginia Energy Plan (VEP) was released in 2007 and while the numbers in the VEP are short term, 5 to15 years, Virginia needs to have a strategic energy plan that projects well into the 21st century. Looking out to 2025 and 2050 we need to plan for a significant increase in electricity (base-load and peaking) that reflects growth (such as electric vehicles) and reducing electricity imports.
Virginia currently ranks as the number one business friendly state thanks in large measure to its ability to consistently supply high quality electric energy. If we want to continue to be number one we need to plan for and implement a strategic energy plan. A daunting task if not for the potential of Generation IV nuclear reactors.
The Generation IV International Forum (GIF), a collective representing 13 countries where nuclear energy use is significant and seen as vital for the future, was initiated in 2000 and formally chartered in mid 2001. After two years deliberation, considering safety, sustainability, cost-effectiveness and proliferation risk reduction, GIF announced the selection of six reactor technologies, giving us a glimpse into the future of nuclear energy.
The sizes range from 150 to 1500 megawatt electrical (MWe). At least four systems have had prototype operating experience in their design, providing a good basis for further R&D and likely to lead to commercial operation before 2030. Three systems are nominally thermal reactors and three fast reactors. The fast reactors offer the possibility of burning actinides to further reduce waste and being able to breed more fuel than they consume. The six are:
Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR) uses a graphite-moderated nuclear reactor with a once-through uranium fuel cycle. This reactor design envisions an outlet temperature of 1000°C and the reactor core can be either “prismatic block” or “pebble-bed.” The high temperatures enable applications such as process heat or hydrogen production via the thermo-chemical sulfur-iodine cycle. Production size varies from 250-600 MWe. The U.S. is one of the lead countries for VHTR development.
The Sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR) is a design of an advanced fast neutron reactor. With the objective of producing a fast-spectrum, sodium-cooled reactor and a closed fuel cycle for efficient management of actinides and conversion of fertile uranium-238, it builds on two closely related existing projects, the liquid metal fast breeder reactor and the integral fast reactor. Production sizes vary from 300-2000 MWe. The U.S. is one of the lead countries for SFR development.
Lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR) is a flexible fast neutron reactor which can use depleted uranium or thorium fuel matrices, and burn actinides from light water reactors (LWR) fuel. The fuel is metal or nitride, with full actinide recycle from regional or central reprocessing plants. A wide range of unit sizes is possible, from a factory-built "battery" with a 15 to 20 year life for small grids or developing countries, to modular 300-400 MWe units and large single plants of 1400 MWe. By 2025 for reactors operating with relatively low temperature and power density, and by 2035 for more advanced higher-temperature designs a two-stage development program leading to industrial deployment is possible. Initial development work is focused on two pool-type reactors: Small Secure Transportable Autonomous Reactor (SSTAR) of 20 MWe in the U.S. and the European Lead-cooled System (ELSY) of 600 MWe. SSTAR is being developed by Toshiba and others in Japan, while the ELSY project is led by Ansaldo Nucleare from Italy and is being financed by Euratom. There is no lead country at present.
Supercritical water-cooled reactor is a high-pressure water-cooled reactor operating above the thermodynamic critical point of water (374ºC) to give a thermal efficiency about one third higher than today's light water reactors, an evolution from the current design. The supercritical water directly drives the turbine without any secondary steam system, simplifying the plant. Two design options are considered: pressure vessel and pressure tube. Passive safety features are similar to those of simplified boiling water reactors. Fuel is uranium oxide, enriched in the case of the open fuel cycle option. Euratom, Canada and Japan are lead.
Gas-cooled fast reactors (GFR) are like other helium-cooled reactors, whether operational or under development. They will be high-temperature units and employ similar reactor technology to the VHTR, suitable for power generation, thermo-chemical hydrogen production or other process heat. The reference GFR unit is 1200 MWe, with thick steel reactor pressure vessel. For electricity, the helium will directly drive a gas turbine. Euratom, France, Japan and Switzerland are lead.
Molten salt reactors (MSR) have the uranium fuel dissolved in the sodium fluoride salt coolant which circulates through graphite core channels to achieve some moderation and an epithermal neutron spectrum. The reference plant is up to 1000 MWe. Fission products are removed continuously and the actinides are fully recycled, while plutonium and other actinides can be added along with U-238. A secondary coolant system is used for electricity generation, and thermo-chemical hydrogen production is also possible. Currently there is no lead country.
While in various stages of development, several of these technologies will be available around the 2025 time frame and four to six will be available for commercial production in the 2050 time frame. In that same time frame Virginia will need expanded electrical capacity to provide new capacity and replace retiring capacity, making it critically important that Virginia work with Dominion Virginia Power and American Electric Power to make sure they are planning to integrate these new technologies into the state’s power grids.
The McDonnell administration needs to develop a strategic electric energy plan for the 21st century that includes the acquisition and use of new nuclear technologies in the 2025 to 2050 time frame to provide both base load and peak electricity and it should be coupled with the development of a smart grid system. While 2025 may seem distant, the multi year planning, funding and regulatory process requires action in 2010.
For additional information on Generation IV reactors, two places to start are: U.S. DOE (http://www.ne.doe.gov/GenIV/neGenIV4.html) and the World Nuclear Association (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf77.html).
Joe Nash has over 45 years’ experience in environmental regulatory and energy policy. Mr. Nash has both technical experience as a manager and policy analyst at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and as an executive of several consulting firms.