Why the Oligarchy Hates the Atom: Nuclear Energy and Science

 March 26, 2021 ·  

We are again on Mars. As the pandemic has also made clear, science, and in particular, the principles of physical economy, are the critical activity. The so-called debate over “reshoring” of U.S. manufacturing is already over. We must produce! All of America knows we must secure our supply chains, so that we again can become the leading industrial nation, and a leading exporter to the world. So, too, we will innovate, building a modern, optimistic, outward-looking and exciting nation once again.

(Image credit: preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility's laser-based inertial confinement fusion (ICF) research device; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

This requires the full utilization of nuclear energy to propel us forward. Science has continued to advance, and even fusion energy can be said to be in the offing. Here we hope to answer many questions that we have been getting, regarding nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy, as with the development of all other advanced science along with their capital- intensive applications, requires a stable economic context and a firm national commitment, as President Trump understands—for the same reasons as healthy, growing families work hard to acquire a stable work, home, and community environment. Under these conditions, nuclear energy makes the greatest impact in growing a vibrant economy, one where rising energy-flux densities are available to our scientists and engineers, but also used by our ever-more-productive workforce. The reach is across our industries and manufacturing plants as well as our farms and ranches. Thereby, the conditions for a healthy, growing nation and our posterity are properly secured.

To be clear, in approaching this subject we do not limit ourselves to the quantities of energy consumed, either per capita or by a given industry or even nation. Take, for example, the thermal energy in a gallon of gasoline. It can power an internal combustion engine, but it cannot directly power a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, a CNC machine tool, or the marvelous scientific instrumentation of our Mars Perseverance rover. Likewise, coal could not power an airplane, no matter how fast one shoveled.

There are different kinds of energy. Their characteristics are drastically different, and so their associated potential applications. We have discovered how to use chemistry to produce electricity, but more importantly, we have been advancing “up the ladder” to produce electricity in increasingly efficient and powerful ways.

As you are aware, the processes of radiation, fission, and fusion of atomic elements all operate in the domain of nuclear reactions. This is fundamentally distinct from the domain of chemical reactions, as with the burning of fuels. Nuclear reactions are also associated with levels of energy-flux density orders of magnitude beyond what is seen in chemical reactions. One uranium fuel pellet, about the size of a gummy bear, creates as much energy as one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. (See: “Defining ‘National Economic Energy Flux Density,’” by Benjamin Deniston, Part 2 of a 5 part series.) 

Let’s go directly to some of the questions, and hopefully set the reader on his or her way to making some useful discoveries.

See Part 1: The Peaceful Atom—The Awesome Power of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Fuel Is Cheap

Nuclear fuel is cheap, and easily transportable. As a consequence, the discovery of the energy potential of the atom itself (E = mc2) and the realization of that potential to then produce nuclear energy has been a powerful advance in mankind’s dominion over nature. One kilogram of natural uranium will yield about 20,000 times as much energy as the same amount of coal.

For nuclear power plants, once that plant is built, the fuel is only about 9% of the total costs over a lifespan of 50 to 60 years or longer. That is, including all the energy produced over the very long lifetime of the power plant. For recently built nuclear power plants, the typical capital investment costs represent 78% of a nuclear plant’s total “levelized” cost—a term for the lifetime costs, per megawatt-hour produced. Actual fuel costs are 9%, and operating costs are the remaining 14% of costs over the entire life of a nuclear power plant. Even as we include the handling of nuclear waste, the total fuel costs of a nuclear power plant are minimal. (We will come back to so-called “nuclear waste” in a moment—it can be used, not discarded.)

By comparison, it is estimated that just the cost of fuel for a natural gas-fired plant is 87% of the lifetime costs of the plant, and for a coal-fired plant the fuel is 78% of total costs over the lifetime of the plant. Just the cost of the fuel! In other words, the cost of building natural gas- or coal-powered electrical plants is cheap, but what you continue to pay for is the fuel. As with most printers attached to a computer: you are always paying for the fuel.

The Vogtle Units 3 and 4 Nuclear Power Plants, now under construction at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating site in Waynesboro, Georgia. Energy.gov

The Swindle of Deregulating Electricity: ‘Weaponizing’ Solar and Wind Power

With “renewables,” i.e., solar and wind, the problem is the opposite: We are told that the wind or sun is “free,” but it happens to be completely unreliable. This is a big problem, and it is very costly to compensate for. Our hospitals, homes, farms, and real industries all require continuous power, and our power grids must provide that power continuously at an American standard of 60 Hertz. When demand exceeds total grid capacity, as when intermittent power reduces power supplied, the frequency decays, and the entire grid is destabilized and threatened with collapse.

A frequency collapse that is unrecoverable causes costly equipment damage that takes months to replace. Practically speaking, if not compensated by additional power generation, or by the “shedding” of demand (imposed rolling blackouts), all units trip off and you black out the grid—a blackout. In fact, any power with a frequency as little as 1% above or below the standard 60 Hz risks damaging equipment and infrastructure. The range is usually held within ±0.5%, so it is from 59.7 Hz to 60.3 Hz for a 60 Hz grid.

Here it is absolutely critical to understand that the deregulation of electricity—the take-down of our traditional “vertically integrated” utility companies to enable “market efficiencies”—created an open, festering wound. Deregulation of electricity grids occurred in the heyday of the Enron swindle (2001). Deregulation, with its “competition” among various power generators all providing the same electrons, already undermines the ability to ensure significant amounts of continuous power to the power grid, be it from nuclear, gas, or coal. Further, in a deregulated market, where power generators are competing to sell power to the same grid operator—the Independent System Operator (ISO)—they are each and all driven to reduce their costs by cutting maintenance, training, and staff. Here real value is being subtracted, not added, and as a consequence everyone on average is becoming poorer.

Solar and Wind ‘Farms’ Are ‘Weaponized’ to Kill Science

Think about it. In a deregulated electricity market, a merchant generator, owning and operating a power plant generating electricity, depends on the inherently short-term and often volatile market for its revenue. Here is the “magic of the marketplace” in action. It not only puts the operator at risk, but any prospective developer of a new merchant-owned plant faces considerable uncertainty even in building a power plant in the first place—the project faces a “greater completion risk,” i.e., the project risks not getting built or being closed down before it is finished. As a consequence, in deregulated wholesale electricity markets the economic justification for capital investment has been decreasing while the actual need increases due to the aging of our existing plants.

Enter wind and solar, and the consequences are then absolutely disastrous. Wind and solar farms, which are “uncontrollable,” that is, can meet little or no requirement for reliability, can provide very cheap power on a per megawatt-hour basis when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. As a result, this cheap energy takes over short-term and often volatile markets for electricity—as a cancer, just as Walmart stores destroyed small downtowns and local business communities all over the country, and just as Amazon is doing now, aided by Covid-19 and blanket shutdowns. What are the consequences?

In Texas, the “Texas Windmill Massacre” of February 14-21, 2021 was a direct consequence. Existing baseload power plants are not maintained, in an attempt to produce at the lowest cost, and maintain market share; new baseload plants—the plants that operate year-round, 24/7—are not invested in because there is no justification. There is no predictability of a year-round market into which to sell energy at a reasonable rate of return.

As Albert Einstein, the eminently practical man, stated, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

To make that big investment up-front, of several billions of dollars worth of labor and materials, to build a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant, means we must be assured that there will be demand for the energy produced, at the price they can produce it at. In a deregulated market, we are only left with Walmarts, Amazons, and worse—until the lights go out.

Now we return to nuclear energy and the solutions. We come back to “renewables” in a moment at the end of this article.

There Is No ‘Nuclear Waste’

Contrary to decades of media and educational disinformation, we know how to reprocess used nuclear fuel, and can do it safely, as we actually did for years. “Burying” spent fuel was not even in America’s Atoms for Peace plan. We also know that there are new technologies to be developed that can even more efficiently eliminate the long-lived radioisotopes in that small percentage of used nuclear fuel that cannot be recycled. New technologies could retrieve many of these isotopes for use in medicine and industry, using isotope separation techniques.

The spent fuel from nuclear power plants is actually a resource: About 96% of it can already be re- cycled into new nuclear fuel. No other fuel source can make this claim—wood, coal, oil, or gas.

One type of nuclear fission reactor, termed a fast reactor or breeder reactor, actually creates more fuel than is used up. For example, fast neutron reactors (FNRs), which are a technological step beyond conventional power reactors, offer the prospect of vastly more efficient use of uranium resources and the ability to burn actinides which are otherwise the long-lived component of high-level nuclear waste. Many are already operating. Another example is the Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactor (SFR) with a closed fuel cycle. Some 20 SFR prototypes or demonstrations have been built throughout the world, which have provided hundreds of reactor-years of operation. Examples include BN-800 at Beloyarsk 4 in Russia, and India’s FBTR program.

Also, for example, about 17% of France’s electricity is from recycled nuclear fuel. France’s “closed fuel cycle” program allows 30% more energy to be extracted from the original uranium and leads to a great reduction in the amount of waste to be disposed of. France’s La Hague site is a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Normandy. It has treated spent nuclear fuel from France, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands.

The Orano La Hague reprocessing facility. More than 34,000 metric tons of used fuel has been treated here since the site began operation in 1976. (Photo: Orano)

Today, even more can be done with entirely new approaches. For example, Texas A&M University engineering researchers have devised a simple, proliferation-resistant approach for separating out different components of nuclear waste. The one-step chemical reaction, described in the 2020 February issue of the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, results in the formation of crystals containing all of the leftover nuclear fuel elements distributed uniformly. The research is sponsored by funds from the U.S. Department of Energy.

As discussed above, for an existing nuclear power plant, the operation and maintenance expenses are about 13% of the total cost, over the entire 50- to 60-year lifetime of a nuclear power plant. With the costs of fuel, that increases to around 22-25% of total costs, combining fuel and operating costs. Even including the currently wasteful “waste management” costs, the total is less than 35% of the total costs of the plant over 50 to 60 years or more. That is conservatively one-third to one-half of the fuel and operating costs of a coal-fired plant and between one-quarter and one-fifth of those for a gas combined-cycle plant.

Research, development, and demonstration of improved or advanced fuel-cycle technologies can close the U.S. nuclear fuel cycle. As Rick Perry, then Secretary of the Department of Energy, has pointed out, it is a scandal that the Nuclear Waste Fund has not been used for its intended purpose, strangled by the Congressional annual appropriations process.

Cut Construction Time in Half

In countries where continuous development programs have been maintained, capital costs have been contained and construction times greatly reduced.

For example, South Korea’s 24 reactors provide about one-third of South Korea’s electricity, and South Korea is among the world’s most prominent nuclear energy countries, and exports its technology. South Korea has organized sustained construction cost reductions throughout its nuclear power experience. As of 2020, the last three South Korean reactors to become operational averaged a construction time of 51 months. (However, reprocessing, either domestic or overseas, is not possible under constraints imposed by South Korea’s cooperation agreement with the USA, which was extended for 20 years in June 2015. The ban was being appealed in the re-negotiations. More on reprocessing, below.) In the mid-1980s the Korean nuclear industry already embarked upon a plan to standardize the design of nuclear plants and achieve much greater self-sufficiency in building them. They have since worked to complete the development of its own components while also optimizing plant layouts to streamline construction programs to reduce time and capital costs.

Likewise in China, nuclear reactors generally take about five years from groundbreaking to completion, meaning that China could take the lead in active capacity by about 2030. China’s total nuclear power generation capacity, including reactors under construction and in planning, came to 108,700 megawatts as of April 2020, more than America’s 105,120 MW, according to the World Nuclear Association. As of August 2020, China has 11 new reactors under construction and more than 40 in the planning stages. China’s policy is to have a closed nuclear fuel cycle. China has become largely self-sufficient in reactor design and construction, as well as other aspects of the fuel cycle.

For comparison, the median construction time required for nuclear reactors worldwide oscillated from around 84 months to 117 months, from 1981 to 2019, respectively. During the period under consideration, the longest median construction time for nuclear reactors was between 1996 and 2000, at 120 months, while the shortest was from 2001 to 2005, at about 57.5 months.

“Clearly, the political structure and context is different in China compared to Western democracies, but that would be avoiding the issue of strong, consistent, and clear government commitment to delivering a Chinese program. So, the thing that comes over most is the commitment” (emphasis added), said Mike Middleton, as quoted in Power Magazine. Middleton is practice manager for nuclear energy at Energy Systems Catapult and chair of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency ad hoc expert group on REDCOST, a recent major study on nuclear power.

Nuclear Energy: The Scientific and Technological Spin-Offs

All these years, basic research in nuclear science—basic and applied—has spawned benefits that extend far beyond original conceptions, often in completely unexpected ways. Nuclear science continues to have a major impact in other areas of science, technology, medicine, energy production, and national security. In medical applications of nuclear technology, there are diagnostics and radiation treatments, including medical and dental x-ray imagers, and a number of radiopharmaceuticals. In biology and agriculture, radiation is commonly used to induce mutations, including to produce new or improved plant species. Thousands of grain, fruit, and vegetable varieties now in common use were thus produced.

The Linear Hermes Pulsed Power Machine, the most powerful gamma ray producer in the world, is serviced for its next shot by technicians. Hermes and Saturn are kept in “warm standby mode” for immediate testing of components, because of Sandia’s nuclear responsibilities. Creator: US Department of Energy

In materials research there are tools for “non-destructive testing and inspection,” using industrial radiography to make images of the inside of solid products. Similar nuclear diagnostic techniques find many applications in monitoring changes in environments, and dating archaeological objects. Nuclear “well logging” is used to help predict the commercial viability of new or existing oil and gas wells. (Here, the technology involves the use of a neutron or gamma-ray source and a radiation detector which are lowered into boreholes to determine the properties of the surrounding rock, such as porosity and lithography.) Even in road construction, nuclear moisture/density gauges are used to determine the density of soils, asphalt, and concrete. Our rovers on Mars are powered by nuclear isotopes. At the heart of the latest Mars rover, Perseverance, is a small “nuclear battery” the size of a beer keg called a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG.

And we are just beginning. No one really knows what happens inside an atom. No one knows how those protons and neutrons (together known as nucleons) behave inside an atom. We have realized that atoms are incredibly complex structures—entire planetary-like systems—that can undergo amazing changes. In studying atoms and applying our discoveries, we have been able to improve our technologies, harness the energy of nuclear reactions, and better understand the world around us. Johannes Kepler would surely be intrigued.

Creating a Skilled Workforce and an Advanced Scientific Culture

All this means that we will continue to produce beneficial scientific and technological breakthroughs in exploring the microcosm, just as we are simultaneously reaching out to explore the macrocosm. We are challenging the creativity of thousands of scientists, researchers, and engineers. Here we are talking about real value added, not value subtracted.

To the extent we go forward—and we need hundreds of additional nuclear and fusion power plants in the United States to power an industrial and manufacturing renaissance—we will be simultaneously creating the productive and skilled workforce of tomorrow.

Recruiting from universities, community colleges, the military, and the trades, nuclear power plants themselves provide high-quality jobs to the entire community. Each nuclear power plant employs 500 to 1,000 skilled workers. For every 100 nuclear power plant jobs, 66 more jobs are created in the local community, and nearly one in four nuclear workers are veterans. The average pay scale at a U.S. nuclear power plant is about $100,000 per year. Building a nuclear power reactor also employs up to 3,500 workers at peak construction.

More than 50 countries use nuclear energy in about 220 research reactors. In addition to research, these reactors are used for the production of medical and industrial isotopes, as well as for training. Additionally, more than 160 ships, mostly submarines, are propelled by some 200 nuclear reactors, and more than 13,000 reactor years of experience have been gained with marine reactors.

Creating Our Future

There are now some 50 companies, backed by private capital, developing plans for new nuclear plants, all placing bets on a nuclear comeback. Most of these projects are working toward DOE or similar funding for realization. This is a capital-intensive process, in physical terms.

As a result of the groundwork laid by the first Trump Administration, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) will soon be the site of the first American small modular nuclear reactor module, developed by NuScale Power based in Oregon, as the Joint Use Modular Plant (JUMP). This first module will be dedicated to nuclear research. In October 2020, NuScale’s small modular reactor (SMR) was the first to receive design approval from the Nuclear Energy Regulatory Commission.

Together with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), NuScale reactor modules will then scale up to a full commercial nuclear power plant that consists of 12 independent NuScale SMRs in a shared pool. These NuScale SMRs, of 60-70 megawatts electric (MWe) each, will be constructed offsite and shipped to a site near Idaho Falls, Idaho. The power plant is now planned for completion no later than 2030. UAMPS has nearly four dozen members in Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

NASA and the Los Alamos National Laboratory partnered in developing NASA’s remarkable “Kilo Power” program, and Los Alamos is now licensing Kilopower to a commercial spinoff, SpaceNukes. Teaming up with NASA, Kilopower can provide a small, lightweight fission power system that can enable long-duration stays on planetary surfaces, and spur the development of further reactor concepts for use in cislunar space. “Kilopower” is a 20 kW nuclear reactor that can power unmanned spacecraft and power manned bases on the Moon and Mars.

While developers have been working off of technology designs conceived in our national laboratories during the 1950s and 1960s, advanced reactor technologies now being developed are more efficient and need a fraction of the physical footprint compared to the nearly 100 light water reactors (LWRs) that provide almost 20% of the U.S.’s electricity today (and 65% of its “carbon- free” power).

A number of next-generation reactor designs are under development and expected to deploy by the early- to mid-2030s, some even sooner. These revolutionary designs include advanced reactors capable of recovering and reusing elements in used fuel to produce even more energy. They thereby close the fuel cycle. They also include molten salt reactors and high-temperature gas reactors that can supply process heat and produce hydrogen.

Rendering of SPARC, a compact, high-field, deuterium-tritium (DT) burning tokamak, currently under design by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Its mission is to create and confine a plasma that produces net fusion energy. Wikipedia Commons, the author with permission to post T. Henderson, CFS/MIT-PSFC

Fusion Energy – The Next Leap

In an exciting development, plans to build a prototype fusion power plant in the United States have suddenly come to the fore. The United States should start construction of the pilot by 2035 and to have it running by 2040, according to a report released February 17, 2021 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). Their report, titled “Bringing

Fusion to the Grid,” lays out a timeline for building a multibillon-dollar fusion energy plant, as well as a strategy for developing its design. In their description the National Academy states,

“Technology and research results from U.S. investments in the major international fusion burning plasma experiment known as ITER, located in France, coupled with a foundation of research funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), position the United States to begin planning for its first fusion pilot plant.”

To meet their schedule, the report calls for the DOE to help fund two to four teams that, in collaboration with private industry, would develop by 2028 different, parallel conceptual designs.

The pilot fusion energy plant would produce 50 megawatts of electrical power. David Roop, an engineer with DWR Associates LLC and an author of the new report, is quoted in Science Magazine stating, “This value of at least 50 megawatts allows you to test your ability to move power out onto the grid.” The pilot plant should cost an estimated $5-6 billion, in line with estimates of what utilities would be willing to pay for the first commercial plant to follow, which would generate an order of magnitude more power.

Already in January, the DOE Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee had unanimously approved a strategic plan to guide the DOE’s efforts in fusion energy and plasma physics research over the next decade. The plan outlined investment priorities, focusing especially on “facilities and programs” needed to pave the way toward building a U.S.-based pilot fusion power plant by the 2040s. The plan is the product of a two-year effort to forge a consensus within the U.S. fusion and plasma science community.

This new impetus has clearly been driven by the years of the Trump Presidency. The fake news has given all of this zero attention.

Rebuilding U.S. Export Capacity with Nuclear Power

The United States once again can become a capital goods exporter to the world. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the booming international market for nuclear energy has “the potential to generate more than $100 billion in U.S. exports and thousands of new jobs.” According to a recent Forbes article, “the U.S. could easily compete for these billion-dollar contracts using advanced reactors. This would employ tens of thousands of American engineers, manufacturers, and tradesmen, and open up entirely new markets for the United States.” This is especially the case with SMRs. Currently, more than 70% of all new reactors that have come online worldwide since 2010 were built by China or Russia. “If China and Russia build up their technology while new construction by Japan, the U.S., and Europe lags, there’s a higher risk internationally of becoming dependent on those two countries,” said Shinichiro Takiguchi, senior specialist at the Japan Research Institute and an expert on energy policy. “It will give them more sway over developing countries in particular.”

Illustration of the NuScale module being transported by barge. NuScale LLC

SMRs can be used for more than producing electricity, the main use of nuclear power today, including manufacturing and for process heating, so they can also serve an economic development function for poor countries looking to do more than just keep the lights on.

In a first under President Trump, the Federal Development Finance Corporation (DFC) signed a letter of intent to support NuScale Power LLC to develop 2,500 MW of power in South Africa based on NuScale’s 60 MW SMR. A single NuScale SMR coupled to a desalination plant can produce 77 million gallons per day of clean water. A four-module SMR plant could provide all of the water necessary for a city the size of Cape Town, South Africa, a major metropolitan area prone to shortages of fresh water. The NuScale plant design is especially well suited for the cogeneration of electricity and potable water, because modules can be designated to different functions. Likewise, a NuScale SMR can produce 250 MWt of steam for industrial applications, such as chemical processing or enhanced oil recovery, or for use in producing synthetic fuels.

In Conclusion

In 2014, Lyndon LaRouche distilled a U.S. economic recovery program in “The Four New Laws to Save The U.S.A. Now! NOT AN OPTION: AN IMMEDIATE NECESSITY.” It is essential reading. It starts with enactment of Glass- Steagall bank re-regulation; the creation a national bank from which you can issue credit, and then the use of national credit for great projects such as fission power plants, and small modular fission reactors, great water projects, and high-speed rail—building the productivity of the nation.

LaRouche’s fourth law, titled “Adopt a Fusion-Driver ‘Crash Program,’” presents a science-driver policy. As with the Manhattan Project, and John F. Kennedy’s NASA Apollo project, LaRouche called for a crash program revival of the space program and fusion power—controlled thermonuclear power. He writes in part,

… The knowable measure, in principle, of the difference between man and all among the lower forms of life, is found in what has been usefully regarded as the naturally upward evolution of the human species, in contrast to all other known categories of living species. The standard of measurement of these compared relationships, is that mankind is enabled to evolve upward, and that categorically, by those voluntarily noëtic powers of the human individual will.

Except when mankind appears in a morally and physically degenerate state of behavior, such as within the cultures of the tyrants Zeus, the Roman Empire, and the British empire, presently: all actually sane cultures of mankind, have appeared, this far, in a certain fact of evolutionary progress from the quality of an inferior, to a superior species. This, when considered in terms of efficient effects, corresponds, within the domain of a living human practice of chemistry, to a form of systemic advances, even now leaps, in the chemical energy-flux density of society’s increase of the effective energy-flux-density of scientific and comparable expressions of leaps in progress of the species itself: in short, a universal physical principle of human progress....

For all of these reasons combined, nuclear energy—fission and then fusion—will cost us less than nothing. It is because nuclear science and energy, and similar breakthroughs, advance mankind’s mastery in and over the universe, by increasing mankind’s productivity and improving the quality and longevity of lives lived, not because nuclear is “carbon free” or “an essential complement to wind and solar,” as some sophists and weaker minds (Bill Gates) now argue. We are advancing mankind’s creativity and its application. In doing so, we will discover ever newer frontiers, and we will then explore and settle them. Let Zeus and his minions go pound sand.