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).


About Joe Nash:
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.

7 Responses »

  1. My question is this. Can Nuclear Power succeed as a business without government subsidies?

    second question.

    show me the data for electric power need for Virginia from now until 2050 and beyond. How much more will we need?

  2. Can Nuclear Power succeed as a business without government subsidies?

    Short answer is no just as coal, oil, gas & renewables can't succeed without government subsidies. Another part of the answer involves the power production industry. This industry is regulated by Federal & state governments which is another impediment to letting the market place work. All of these fuel systems will require many $ & long lead times to come to the market place.

    #2 Excellent question. All I could find is the data in the VEP that only goes to 2016. I am sure DVP & AEP have numbers that project farther than 2016. The Feds have data but it is not projected by state. I would like to see the VEP updated with a section on baseload & peaking electricity production & needs data out to 2050.

  3. Even without a single kilowatt-hour increase in demand, Virginia will still need to replace aging coal-fired power stations as well as their existing nuclear power stations within the now-to-2050 time frame. All large infrastructure projects, especially power-station building, take many years to obtain permits, financing, and actual construction and licensing prior to operation. Factor in the fact that Virginia is the second largest electricity importer in the United States.

    With all that in mind, one thing is clear: Virginia had better get a move on in the building of new power stations. Specifically, North Anna Unit 3 cannot be built fast enough!

  4. I am not anywhere near a nuclear expert, and perhaps my question is answered above, but I cannot grasp it. They say the only dumb question is the one not asked. Are any of these reactors thoriam types?

  5. Just follow France's example. They produce most of their electricity from nuclear. Yes the nuclear power industry receives some government help from the French government but, so does Vepco.

  6. Ronald-excellent question

    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.

    Another way to ask is how are these reactors being developed to be safe, have less waste & be more terriorest proof. These three areas are part of the goals for Gen IV reactors

  7. Joe, the 'e-mail this author' address listed to contact you does not work. I would like to speak with you about the possibility of another article. Please e-mail info@virginiaenergy.org.