The Current State of World Reactor Development

by Dan Menely

Over forty-five new reactor designs are at early or late stages of development, according to the IAEA. Overall, today’s program confirms Admiral Rickover’s statements. Stating that they were comments from the early 1950's. Rickover (pictured above inspecting the first nuclear submarine) read some of these statements as part of his testimony before Congress, published in AEC Authorizing Legislation: Hearings Before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (1970), p. 1702:

An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics:

  1. It is simple.

  2. It is small.

  3. It is cheap.

  4. It is light.

  5. It can be built very quickly.

  6. It is very flexible in purpose.

  7. Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components.

  8. The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics:

  1. It is being built now.

  2. It is behind schedule.

  3. It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items.

  4. It is very expensive.

  5. It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems.

  6. It is large.

  7. It is heavy.

  8. It is complicated.

The tools of the academic designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed. If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone sees it.

The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of "mere technical details." The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details. Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow. Their solution requires manpower, time and money.

Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decisions without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of reactor technology, and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For a large part those involved with the academic reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen. Since they are innocently unaware of the real but hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence. Those involved with practical reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.

Yet it is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed. It is consequently incumbent on all of us to state the facts as forthrightly as possible.

Nothing much has changed since those days, except that today’s academic-reactor people have much less practical knowledge than did this old admiral.

Small modular reactors are great, in their place. They are great for powering submarines and surface warships. They could be great for powering the world’s merchant marine — and that nuclear-powered fleet could remove a lot of CO2 in two ways — first by replacing the old smokers, and second, by extracting dissolved CO2 from their condenser cooling water — or even by making synthetic petroleum.

The only problem with land-based SMRs is that they have no paying customers, and that for good reason. Granted, the EPR and similar designs are a bit over the top. Something in the range of 1000 to 1200 MWe is fine (AP1000 for example). Last, and lost forever, is the CANDU 9 design, a simple improvement on Darlington NGS. That machine, couple with an IFR design with high-as-possible breeding ratio, could have given the whole world as much usable energy as they could possibly want, essentially forever. Unit sizes? All the way from 50MWe to 1400MWe.

This won’t happen. If fission power is ever to help save the world, the saving must be done by reactor designs now on the market — AP1000, VVER1000, ESBWR, CANDU 6, BN-800, PRISM, CPR 1000 and perhaps one or two more. In the course of time and as experience accumulates, some of these will evolve into better machines and others will vanish. Perhaps one or two of the academic-reactor types will appear on the power plant scene later on, but it is unlikely that any of these machines will help much to win the war on climate change as Est Actio defines it.

My not-so-humble opinion.