Back in 2009, Simon Irish, the investment manager from New York, discovered the way in which, in his opinion, the world could be changed. Irish saw that countries all over the world need a huge number of clean energy projects to replace their infrastructure with fossil fuels, and also provide enough energy to meet the demand from China, India and other fast-growing countries. He realized that only renewable sources, which rely on the breeze of the wind and the glow of the sun, do not get off. And he also knew that nuclear energy, the only existing form of clean energy that could fill the gaps, was too expensive to compete with oil and gas.
But then, at a conference in 2011, he met an engineer with an innovative nuclear project reactor, cooled by molten salt. If it works, he thought, it would not only solve the problems with the aging of nuclear energy, but also provide a realistic path to the abandonment of fossil fuels.
And then he asked himself the question: “Is it possible to design reactors better than those that were 60 years old back? “. The answer was: “Absolutely.”
Is it possible to build a home nuclear reactor?
Irish was so convinced that this new reactor would be an excellent investment opportunity that he devoted to his entire career. Almost a decade later, Irish became CEO of Terrestrial Energy, based in New York. The company, which expects to build a reactor based on molten salt until 2030.
Terrestrial is not alone in this. Dozens of nuclear start-ups appear here and there, and all of them are dedicated to solving known nuclear power problems – radioactive waste, emissions, weapons proliferation and high costs.
Reactors burning nuclear waste. Reactors designed to destroy isotopes that can be used in weapons. Small reactors, which could be inexpensively built in factories. There are so many ideas.
Former Energy Minister Ernest Moniz, adviser to Terrestrial, believes that something new is happening. “I've never seen such innovations in this segment,” he says. “It's really interesting.”
Other reactors, such as the projected Terrestrial salt-cooled reactor, are automatically cooled if they become too hot. Water flows through conventional reactors, protecting them from overheating, but if something stops this flow – for example, an earthquake and a tsunami in Fukushima – the water will leave, leaving nothing to stop the melting.
Unlike water, salt does not boil , so even if operators disconnect the security systems and leave, the salt will continue to cool the system, says Irish. The salt heats up and expands, pushing away the uranium atoms and slowing down the reaction (the farther the damage atoms, the less likely that the flying neutron will divide them by launching the next chain of reactions).
“It's like a pan on a stove in which macaroni are cooked” , says Irish. Regardless of how hot your cooker is, the paste will never be hotter than 100 degrees Celsius unless the water evaporates. While it is present, the water circulates and dissipates heat. However, if you replace water with liquid salt, you will have to heat it all up to 1000 degrees Celsius before your refrigerant begins to evaporate.
All this may seem fantastic, but it's reality. Russia produces electricity from an advanced reactor that has been burning radioactive waste since 2016. China built a shingle reactor that blocks radioactive elements inside the graphite spheres.
In 2015, in order to track start-ups and public sector projects trying to extract low-carbon energy through a safe, cheap and clean nuclear process, the Third Way Analytical Center map all advanced nuclear projects throughout the US. The map had 48 points then, and now 75, and they spread like locusts.
“In terms of the number of projects, the number of people working on them, and the amount of private funding, there is nothing to compare with without going back to the 1960s,” says Ryan Fitzpatrick , working on clean energy in the Third Way.
In those days when Walt Disney released the film “Our Friend Atom”, which promotes the development of nuclear power, when the futuristic concept of electricity, “too cheap to measure it,” seemed plausible, electrical engineers planned to build hundreds of reactors across the United States.
Why is this all happening just now? After all, scientists are working on alternative types of reactors since the beginning of the Cold War, but they have not fully developed. The history of the advanced reactors is strewn with corpses of unsuccessful attempts. The salt-cooled reactor was first successfully launched in 1954, but the US decided to specialize in water cooled reactors and liquidate other designs.
But something fundamental has changed: there was no reason for the nuclear company to beg billions of dollars for a new design in within the framework of the federal regulatory process, since conventional nuclear reactors were profitable. Now it's not like that.
“For the first time in half a century, acting nuclear players are suffering a financial disaster,” says Irish.
Recently, the United States is betting on conventional water cooled reactors and it does not play well. In 2012, South Carolina Electric & Gas received permission to build two huge conventional reactors for the production of 2,200 MW of energy, which is enough to supply 1.8 million homes, and promised that they will be launched in 2018. Paying bills for electricity, people saw that they grew by 18%, which, of course, led to delays in the construction of reactors. The discharge of $ 9 billion into the project, the utilities have surrendered.
Similar stories occur abroad. In Finland, the construction of a new reactor at the Olkiluoto power plant is eight years behind schedule and $ 6.5 billion from the budget.
In response, these nuclear startups are developing their business in order to avoid the terrible cost overruns. Many of them plan to build a standardized reactor particle at the plant, and then collect them together, like LEGO, on the construction site. “If you can move construction to the plant, you can significantly reduce costs,” says Parsons.
New reactors could also reduce costs if they were safe. Conventional reactors have a huge risk of destruction due to melting, mainly because they are designed for submarines. It is easy enough to cool the reactor when it is on a submarine, but when the reactor is on land, it is necessary to pump water into it to cool it. “And this pumping system should never, never break, otherwise you will get Fukushima. We need a security system for the security system, redundancy over redundancy. “
Oklo, a start-up from Silicon Valley, founded the design of his reactor on a prototype that is not subject to destruction. “When the engineers turned off all the cooling systems, it cooled down itself and then started backing up, after which it worked fine,” says Caroline Cochran, co-founder of Oklo. If these safer reactors do not need all these backup cooling systems and domes of concrete, companies will be able to build power plants much cheaper.
Often, technologies fail for a long time before succeeding: 45 years have passed since the first light bulb appeared Thomas Edison's patent for an incandescent lamp. Engineers can take decades to translate the idea into form. To some, it seems that all ideas of advanced nuclear technology have been tested in the past. “But science has moved forward,” scientists say. “You have much better materials than a few decades ago. There is a chance that everything will work out. “
A recent study of the non-profit project Energy Innovation Reform estimates that the last batch of nuclear startups can supply electricity at a price of 36-90 dollars per megawatt-hour. Any power station operating on natural gas sells electricity at a price of $ 42-78 per megawatt hour.
At best, nuclear power plants can become even cheaper. There are predictions
Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard, says that if nuclear energy plays a role in combating climate change, advanced atomic startups are waiting for inevitable and rapid growth. “To provide the tenth of the clean energy that we need by 2050, we will have to add 30 gigawatts per year to the network,” he says.
This means that the world will need to build 10 times more nuclear energy than it was before the Fukushima disaster in 2011. It's really real?
“I think we should try – although I'm not an optimist,” says Bunn, noting that the pace at which we need to build solar and wind energy production technologies in order to abandon the use of fossil fuels, also are complex. “
There are big barriers to the nuclear renaissance. It will take years to test the prototypes and get government approval in any country.
“Ultimately on a planet with 10 billion people, any amount of affordable and safe energy – whether it's from nuclear fusion or fission – will find use.”