For the Rest of Us by Rod Adams: A vision for nuclear power

For the Rest of Us by Rod Adams: A vision for nuclear power

In 1984, Apple Computer introduced the Macintosh, starting what became a tsunami in the computing world. No longer were screens limited to displaying cryptic messages that only a geek could love.

Instead, the new Mac displayed a welcoming "Hello" rendered in cursive writing large enough to fill the tiny, high-resolution screen. With the pleasant greeting replacing the rather scary A:\ prompt of the dominating DOS machines, Apple marketed visual computing "For the Rest of Us."

The idea caught on. Even mainframe computers are no longer scary devices run by a priesthood in white lab coats. Many people now wonder how they ever lived without the ubiquitous devices. A whole generation is growing up that has never had to do without computers accessible to average people.

Of course, numerous computer companies have disappeared, being unable to make the transition to the new style of computing. There are whole categories of formerly "good" jobs that also disappeared.

There will come a time in the not too distant future when people will wonder how they ever did without widespread atomic power systems. The plants will be generating vast quantities of electrical power, pushing commercial ships across the ocean, providing direct heat to industrial processes and possibly even heating and cooling individual homes.

If logic prevails, atomic power-plant by-products will be sterilizing our food and water and powering our cell phones and laptop computers.

By most objective standards, this vision is more like a hallucination than an accurate prediction of the future. There are about 400 nuclear electric stations operating in the world, but the construction rate is slow enough to make each new plant headline news. In the United States and most of Western Europe, there have not been new construction orders in decades.

Existing nuclear plants are run by a large, highly trained, but uncommunicative cadre of workers. The utility companies that own them have at least a localized monopoly on power generation and distribution. In the minds of most people, nuclear power is big, somewhat scary, expensive, unprofitable and definitely "old school."

That is all changing. In South Africa, Eskom and her partners are developing the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), a simple power plant that is about one-tenth the size of the "typical" 1,200 MW nuclear plant. Instead of heating high-pressure water that is then used to create high-pressure steam, the plant will heat inert helium gas that will directly drive a turbine generator.

The plants are small enough to generate power in developing countries or to be used as incremental capacity additions in areas where the power grids are fully built out, but where economies and populations are steadily growing.

The PBMR partners predict total power costs of about 1.4 to 1.6 cents per kWh compared to the 5 to 10 cents per kWh generation cost of modern combined-cycle, natural gas fired power plants. Because the fuel is extremely compact, PBMR power cost is essentially independent of geographic location.

Oct. 11, 2000, Corbin McNeil, the president and CEO of PECO, one of Eskom's partners in the PBMR project, announced his company's intention to seek a license for the plants in the United States. He expects to build as many as 10 PBMRs to meet incremental power demand in his company's growing service area.

In Russia, there is a quiet project in progress that uses power plants derived from icebreaker engines mounted on barges to provide electrical power in hard to reach areas of Siberia.

In the United States, an eclectic group of forward thinkers is meeting regularly to discuss how atomic power can enable the development of high-speed ships without producing any polluting gases.

Also in the United States, a bidding war has developed over existing nuclear stations. Just a few years ago, a plant sold for well under US$100 million, less than the value of the fresh fuel already on site. A few months ago, the two-reactor Millstone plant, one with a rather spotty record, sold for US$1,300 million, a rather significant increase in price per kW capacity.

There are also several utility companies that are quietly planning to build new plants using simplified designs that have already been licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The leaders of these projects all recognize that atomic power has a distinct technical advantage; it is capable of generating clean, reliable power at a lower cost than traditional fossil fuel generators. They know that atomic power will be accepted when it shows dramatic benefits in cost and environmental impact.

I personally hope that the project backers realize that they must be ready to do battle with other power producers and their installed base of suppliers. They need to especially watch out for the politically powerful and financially well-endowed fossil fuel suppliers.

The September 2000 issue of Power Plant Technology, page 7 has a quote that is germane. "The launch of Temelin nuclear power plant will reduce the annual production of brown coal from the current 45 million tonnes to 35 million tonnes in the Czech Republic, causing around 5,800 job losses, according to Industry and Trade Minister Miroslav Gregr."

Those 5,800 workers and their employers will not quietly disappear simply because the nuclear plant produces cleaner, safer and cheaper power. Do not be surprised, however, when the battle gets a little dirty or if the existing suppliers fight by supporting groups that try to frighten the public about nuclear energy and radiation risk. The financial stakes in the battle are very high.

There is a fascinating body of knowledge about atomic energy that is not easily accessible. My goal is to shed a little monthly light on the topic with entertaining columns discussing unfamiliar aspects of the technology and the business. You might even recognize an investment opportunity when you read "For the Rest of Us." If all goes well, I might offend a fossil fuel salesman or two. I am looking forward to hearing from you.

Editor's Note: This represents Adams' first contribution to For the Rest of Us and to Power Online as one of our regularly featured columnists. We welcome him aboard and are eager to hear what you think.

Currently, Adams is working on a master's degree in national security affairs through the Naval War College. He served as a nuclear submarine officer for almost 13 years, including a tour as Engineer Officer on a 27-year-old ballistic missile submarine. He now serves as an active duty naval officer at the U.S. Naval Academy where he serves as an associate chair in the Weapons and Systems Engineering Department and also teaches Moral Decision Making for Military Leaders and Environmental Systems Engineering and offshore sailing. He can be reached at