I was asked about my opinion about the news story
* a proposed (not quite) new type of reactors
* framing this incremental evolution as a part of a widespread ideology
The second component is totally sick but the first one is unspectacular, too.
Fine. Bill Gates founded a nuclear energy company TerraPower LLC fourteen years ago. It's partnered with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy which plans to produce nuclear reactors for $1 billion a piece. In February, I mentioned that ČEZ, the main Czech utility company, signed a treaty with this Hitachi company and these small nuclear reactors are conceivable in Czechia.
ČEZ is also planning an expansion of the Dukovany plant (the older one than Temelín, the newer one) using more conventional reactors. France's Areva was eliminated but the country returned via EDF. The other four candidates are Russian Rosatom; American Westinghouse; South Korean KHNP; and China General Nuclear Power. The expansion of the Temelín power plant is being planned, too.
But back to the small reactors with the picture of Bill Gates. These small reactors are sodium-cooled fast reactors. Let me slow a bit. We have liquid sodium instead of water etc. to cool the stuff. Fine but not spectacular. Sodium (which naturally exists in compounds only, and has to be extracted artificially) melts at 98 °C and evaporates at 883 °C. The sodium coolant has some advantages (mainly the fact that sodium doesn't moderate neutrons as much as water) but also disadvantages (a violent reaction with water, leaking).
The adjective "fast" is more essential. These reactors need fast neutrons to break additional nuclei in the fissile fuel. The usual old-fashioned reactors involve thermal neutrons for that (thermal neutrons are "slow"). Because the cross section of neutrons actually decreases with speed, you may see that the faster neutrons are less likely to break the nucleus, and the reaction is at risk of stopping. That's why the fuel in fast reactors actually needs to be more enriched.
This is an additional disadvantage, a security problem. The enriched fuel used in these fast reactors could be directly stolen by some rogue players and abused for not so peaceful purposes.
But I want to get to the ideology. The main point that attracted the eyes of my contact is that the energy is supposed to be stored in the molten salt. And when there's enough wind and solar energy "on a day", the thermal energy in the molten salt is increasing as if a battery were charging, and this energy will be used later when the wind and solar stop working. This whole picture is painted as a huge advantage. This is the type of nuclear energy that supplements the "green" sources of energy, that's what we need.
This way of talking agrees with the far left Zeitgeist and it is equally detached from reality. The green energy isn't the "heart" of the energy sources that should be "supplemented" by sources such as nuclear energy. Instead, the green energy is a tiny and unreliable cherry on a pie that simply shouldn't become the heart of the energy supply because it leads to huge disadvantages, especially those related to the intermittency.
What I find stunning is that Bill Gates is incorporated into this idiotic propaganda. Why? Because for years, he has claimed that everything he has learned about the energy industry was from Václav Smil, a Czech Canadian energy analyst (born here in Pilsen in 1943). For many years, Smil has been explaining why it is totally idiotic to think about the intermittent sources of energy as the main ones. The "batteries" that would be needed to deal with the intermittency would simply be huge.
Václav Smil has discussed the sodium cooling, too. Among other things, he said:
Anything dependent on circulating hot liquid sodium for decades is neither easy to build nor to operate.Right. Again, the sodium-cooled reactors already exist but molten sodium is a pain in the aß. And you may calculate how much of this stuff you need to store the energy for several weeks of Japan's consumption that may be needed. Of course it is not feasible. It is still thermal energy which is not a concentrated form of energy. Molten salt is already used to store solar energy. One kWh costs 5-14 U.S. cents just to be stored so it's cheaper to just produce the energy again! ;-)
Sodium is supposed to play two roles in the Gates reactors, cooling and storage. All these sodium cooling systems ran into some leaking problems. And whether the same sodium is used for both tasks seems completely irrelevant to me because the amount of sodium needed for cooling is "reasonably small" and it is the storage that may get out of control – so by the amount, these two packages of sodium clearly "aren't the same".
Well, I don't need to talk about Smil. A February 2019 blog post was titled "Bill Gates: advocates of dominant wind & solar energy are imbeciles". Yes, Gates mostly correctly repeated what Smil had taught him. Did Gates' thinking deteriorate so quickly to make this U-turn about the green energy by mid 2020?
But you see what this far left anti-scientific ideology wants to say. "Wind and solar are a great solution" and the "intermittency is a tiny problem that should be solved by something like a nuclear reactor that is turned on and off all the time." Are you serious? Is this is the better and safer world you are imagining? Did you ever mix sodium with water? Do you really want a world where nuclear reactors are started every evening (and stopped in the evening) by Mexican janitors or secretaries just like coffee machines? Don't you see how creepy it is?
The intermittency of the green, ludicrous energy sources isn't a small problem. It is a fatally essential one. The method to circumvent this problem is more important than these ludicrous sources of energy themselves. And this solution is no good because the amount of molten salt used as "batteries" would have to be huge, with all the huge security risks coming from it. In the February 2019 text, Smil pointed out that Tokyo might need 23 GW of energy sources for three days because of the intermittency of the ludicrous sources of energy. Exercise: calculate how much molten salt you need to keep this 3-day dose of Tokyo energy.
A related point is that the frequent change of the state of a nuclear reactor is just a security nightmare. Nuclear reactors got safer than they were in the past (and they were always rather safe) but a largely unpredictable switching of a nuclear reactor from one state to another certainly increases the risks. The idea that someone is playing with the "power button" of a nuclear power plant in order to compensate for the blowing of the wind or the shading of the Sun is just insane. You are basically proposing the weather to directly play with the control buttons in nuclear power plants!
The normal interruption of operation of a Dukovany reactor lasts 20 or 32 days and occurs once a year or so; some other, longer (almost 80 days) checks etc. occur once in 4 years. These 20 or 32 days were originally 49 days so things got sped up. But to "press OFF" on the nuclear reactor is a relatively big event. You surely don't want to turn it into the ritual comparable to the coffee machine, especially when the reactor has a lot of sodium around which is hot, unpleasant to touch, and that reacts aggressively with water even when it's cold. Maybe the sodium-cooled reactors are safer when it comes to the unwanted nuclear reactions but they are clearly less safe when it comes to the (sodium) chemistry.
Because millions of people were absolutely brainwashed by some totally insane green anti-scientific propaganda – and my contact surely seems to be another example of that – we are entering a world that will be more dangerous even when it comes to nuclear accidents. If we allow this idiocy to be legitimized, people will really demand to press on-off on nuclear reactors as if they were coffee machines, just to confirm their absolutely idiotic notion that the most important part of the energy grid is their solar panel or a pinwheel. Do we want Chernobyls all over the world to worship a mentally defective Scandinavian teenager?
Sodium-cooled and/or fast reactors are possible. They already exist. I am not sure whether they are better than water-cooled and/or thermal-neutron reactors. The whole idea that the sodium is "better" because someone called it "a new generation" may be a blunder. The promotion of the sodium may be a pure marketing. Or really better power plants may be built with the sodium. However, when someone starts to push this whole industry in a direction that places the confirmation of idiotic Greenpeace-style anti-scientific delusions at the top, we may see some real trouble.
So please, let us not allow it. Nuclear energy is wonderful but it is still a powerful tool that is dangerous in the wrong hands and the nuclear power plants should be operating as predictably as possible. This is not really a big disadvantage because the energy demand is rather constant, too. It is the less concentrated and safer energy sources that should be turned on and off often. And Bill Gates, please start to listen to Václav Smil again – I am confident that he wouldn't think quite positive things about the "plans for the global energy policy" that your name seems associated with now, a world where the buttons in potentially dangerous facilities become slaves obliged to celebrate the lie about the "wonderful" green sources of energy.
And that's the memo.