By: Ken Silverstein
Ever hear about the integration of nuclear energy and fossil fuels into one potential production mechanism? Well, it’s not a new idea but it’s one that some of its developers say should fit snugly in today’s energy world. “The hybrid-nuclear technology is completely fail-safe because it is always able to remove the decay heat without any intervention at all,” says Michael Keller, chief executive of Hybrid Power Technologies, in a phone interview. “The other feature is that you can actually break open the reactor vessel and you will be fine.”
He says that the hybrid’s parallel use of nuclear energy and fossil fuels accomplishes a few things: With wide application, this system would extend the life of natural gas deposits while also limiting the level of greenhouse gas emissions. It would furthermore reduce the likelihood of nuclear energy incidences and it would minimize the amount of nuclear waste requiring disposal.
Development of the generators to run such hybrids, meantime, would come from pre-fabricated parts that are shipped to their destination. Why not build two separate plants, with one being nuclear and the other burning fossil fuels? Keller says that relative to two different units, the hybrid increases output by a factor of 15 percent while also cutting the construction costs by 25 percent.
The hybrid’s final construction cost is less because fewer production components are required, such as transformers and generators. It also uses less steel.
Keller adds that spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste are reduced by 75 percent, largely because the reactor is more efficient. He says that the spent nuclear fuel is suited for long-term storage in geological formations, noting that the spent fuel is encapsulated in highly stable graphite and silicone carbide.
What about emissions? Keller says that harmful releases are cut by 40-70 percent compared to a conventional fossil fuel plant. Hybrid facilities, he adds, use 35-85 percent less water than today’s plants.
Can they actually get permits? “It is essentially a gas reactor and there is ample precedence for it,” says Keller. “Obviously licensing a nuclear technology is a formidable hurdle but it has been done before.” Technically, it is not difficult to do. But the helium turbo compressor has to be further developed, he adds.
The technology promises to be highly competitive as well as clean, he says, adding that it could transform the American energy landscape. But can it live up to its promises and can it attract investors?
According to Tom Drolet, who has a 43 year career in nuclear technology and other fossil energy systems including operations, engineering and R&D, the technology does have the potential increase energy efficiencies. But it comes with one very familiar problem: The nuclear issue that some refer to as “the nuclear albatross.”
Drolet explains that nuclear systems first produce heat before turning that into electricity through the steam turbogenerator system. However, the heat could be used in other ways to add value to many other fossil supply systems.
There is no claim in this case of a gas-cooled nuclear reactor with major new improvements, Drolet says. The developers, furthermore, would find the same issues that any nuclear builder or operator now has — the very strenuous path toward getting permits.
“This would still have long potential reviews by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because of the nuclear component,” Drolet explained on the phone.
Still, “The helium gas cooled, graphite moderated reactor technology (both high and lower temperatures) has been around for some time,” Drolet says. “The innovative combination of a specific version of a gas cooled reactor with a combined cycle gas turbine (likely fueled by natural gas) is worthy of a detailed look by the Department of Energy for Small Modular Reactors funding. Efficiency is the attraction of the combination of these two known technologies. It should join the ever increasing list of many other SMR proposals being considered.”
Small Modular Reactors consist of approximately 100 megawatt modules that are pieced together to meet a specific power need, often in a pure nuclear application. Right now, the Obama administration is partnering with Babcock and Wilcox and Bechtel to develop those small reactors for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Together, they say that the project should be up-and-running by 2020.
The small nuclear modules are similar to the hybrids in concept. Both, meanwhile, are trying to attract the venture capital they need to grow and prosper, which Keller admits is a tough task but one that becomes easier once it is explained.
“Technically, the hybrid is a Small Modular Reactor because the reactors’ thermal output is not large,” says Hybrid’s Keller. “However, electrical output is large and economies-of-scale produce a power plant that readily competes with the natural gas combined-cycle power plant.”
Hybrid nuclear and fossil fuel reactors face daunting regulatory and financial hurdles. But if they prove in practice to be efficient and clean generators, they could overcome those challenges and find their place in a niche market.