Newsletter of the Science Council for Global Initiatives - November 2017


by Tom Blees

Astana, the futuristic capital city of Kazakhstan, is the site of Expo 2017 this summer, the theme of which is Future Energy. Last month, SCGI’s president Tom Blees was asked to participate in a panel discussion there with a group of international energy experts on the future of energy, with a focus on nuclear power. This event presented an opportunity to also present the documentary Pandora’s Promise, followed by a Q&A session with a very engaged audience. Tom’s subsequent interviews with journalists later appeared online, in print, and on television.

Astana is a fitting venue for talking about the future, since its architectural dynamism Expo 2017 Kaz 1rivals that of Dubai. Twenty years ago it was designated the new capital of Kazakhstan, with a city plan that has blossomed into its impressive form in just two decades. Expo 2017 brought yet another burst of inspired building projects to house Expo’s many national pavilions and events.

Since the pavilions were all addressing the theme of future energy, their considerable references to the climate change challenge were ubiquitous, as were paeans to wind and solar power. One would have thought that nuclear power would also be front and center at least in the countries where it is a prominent contributor to clean energy production. The invisibility of nuclear in many such countries’ pavilions was a real surprise. France, which produces 80% of its electricity with nuclear fission, had not a word about it. Likewise the United Arab Emirates, where the first of four large reactors is due to come online this year. Even the United States, with nearly one fourth of all the world’s nuclear power plants, had nothing about nuclear power except one tiny unidentified model in a large diorama showing all the different types of power plants.

Kazakhstan, the host of the Expo, took the opposite tack and had an entire pavilion devoted to nuclear power, with impressive educational displays on the subject. Russia and China also made a point of focusing on the current and future contributions of nuclear power. China has by far the most nuclear plants under construction now, and planned for the near future. And Russia is far and away the most aggressive global marketer of nuclear power plants.

Expo 2017 demonstrated the urgency of public education about nuclear power to dispel its political untouchability. SCGI will continue to work with organizations and individuals who are spreading the word about the need for nuclear power and the tremendous potential of advanced reactor systems that will make it possible to impact both the climate change issue and the elevation of standards of living throughout the world’s developing countries.

During the last couple years, we’ve had a lot of discussions with the Thorcon reactor developers. They are one of several nuclear startups working on molten salt reactors of the type that Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed and ran in the Sixties. While there are significant differences among these various companies’ designs, Thorcon is unique in developing the concept of power ships. Their modular reactors would be ship-borne, along with the rest of a complete power plant. Unlike floating nuclear plant projects underway in Russia and China, these would be considerably larger, with each hull’s system producing a full 500 megawatts of electricity.

This concept was discussed at length by Tom Blees both in Kazakhstan and in mid-June at AtomExpo in Moscow, an annual global nuclear conference sponsored by Russia. The potential for such a ship-borne reactor system to provide power for developing countries is potentially transformative, and representatives from African and southeast Asian nations expressed intense interest.


 A New Twist For Global Energy

By Tom Blees

Recently there was a story in The Economist about the development of floating nuclear reactors. It’s an idea that’s been around for decades, and of course there are plenty of ship-borne nuclear reactors, but only small ones to power ships. They’re used primarily on military vessels, though Russia has been using them for years on icebreakers as well.

In recent years, though, the idea of siting nuclear reactors on ships to power shoreside locations has finally started to be realized, with Russia building relatively modest reactors (2 x 35MW) on barges to power remote Arctic locations that have minimal power needs. The first of these will soon be deployed. Recently, though, China has announced that they intend to build reactor-ships with as much as 200MW capacity (a large power plant is about 1,000MW). The impetus for this development seems to be their continuing plans to assert control over areas of the South China Sea that are disputed territory, where China has dredged shallow areas to create islands, subsequently claiming territorial rights over the surrounding waters. The power ships would provide energy for the military bases that they’re already putting in place there.

MIT’s nuclear engineering department has been mulling over plans for siting reactors offshore for some years now, but these are still in the academic hypothetical stage. Due to the difficulty of doing anything new with nuclear power in the United States, any juicy ideas formulated at MIT might well find their way to realization in other countries first. (See this article for an explication of this unfortunate situation.)

In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to have many discussions with the Thorcon reactor team. This small group of talented individuals has combined superlative ship-building skill with a molten salt reactor concept that was demonstrated in the Sixties at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Kirk Sorenson, founder of Flibe Energy, the molten salt reactor idea was resurrected from the valuable but oft-ignored scrap heap of great national lab projects that were shelved for dubious reasons. Now there are several startups eagerly pursuing this promising technology. Most, however, are hoping for one or more breakthroughs (in materials and/or chemistry) to make them workable.

Thorcon, however, is far more pragmatic. They don’t want to invent anything, just use already-demonstrated technology. Unlike most of the startups, the founders are seasoned industrialists who’ve built big things before. In fact, Jack Devanney—one of the two brothers who founded the company—designed and managed the construction of what was at the time the world’s biggest ship, then built three more just like it. These are people who understand how to design and build, including the ability to make realistic estimates of materials and costs related to big industrial projects.

Thorcon’s plan is to build a complete 500MW power plant on a single hull, and they claim to be able to have one ready to fuel up and run in just four years. I’ve discussed this bold timeline with various prominent nuclear engineers and national lab directors, and while all of them consider it to be fast they all believe it’s entirely possible, so long as regulatory hurdles aren’t slowing them down. The Thorcon team understood this early on, and have pursued its development and deployment outside the US, as have several other advanced nuclear companies (Terrapower and Terrestrial Energy, to name two).

An increasing awareness of the floating reactor concept evident online and in certain other media outlets tends to focus on the technical aspects and the idea of powering remote locations, often citing small Arctic community needs. But the ability to mass-produce large-scale reactor ships safely and rapidly using cutting-edge shipbuilding techniques raises the possibility of an utter transformation of global energy. And the countries that would benefit tremendously from such a development are the ones with the greatest need for energy.

Imagine, if you will, an energy-poor country that has a few hundred million dollars to spend on increasing their electricity generation. If they want clean baseload energy, they wouldn’t be able to even propose building a multi-billion-dollar nuclear power plant on their soil. But what if they could just buy electricity like you and I buy electricity from our local utility? Such an impoverished nation could use their limited funds to extend their electricity grid to as many of their citizens as possible, and forget all about building power plants. A power ship—owned by another country or private company—could be floated in and connected to their grid, immediately coming online and selling electricity like any utility company. The possibilities for a rapid rise in a poor country’s standard of living are unprecedented, for electricity is directly aligned with standard of living, for obvious reasons (refrigeration, lighting, A/C, etc.). This scenario could be implemented in any country that has either a coastal border or a navigable river, which includes the vast majority of nations.

The advent of electric-powered vehicles is happening already. Besides the obvious example of Tesla’s electric cars, a friend of SCGI who has a successful trucking firm has designed and has been operating electric 18-wheelers for a while now, with rapid improvements that portend a near-future switch to electrically-powered semis and other heavy equipment. Battery technology is getting better all the time.

Countries that rely on oil and gas for the basis of their economies (Russia, Kazakhstan, and several Middle Eastern nations among them) have seen the writing on the wall and are trying to figure out how they can remain economically vibrant once the demand for oil and gas diminishes considerably. Climate change issues are only exacerbating their dilemma, with people all over the world clamoring for an end to the fossil fuel era before it’s too late. So Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have committed hundreds of billions of dollars to “post-oil funds” to invest in technologies that can both provide employment and continue to generate export income in the future.

As part of this effort, Saudi Arabia is having the world’s largest and most advanced shipyard built for them by South Korea, home of the world’s most advanced shipyard technology. The implication of marrying this new capability with the Saudis’ considerable financial assets to build fleets of power ships has immense potential. The very country that has powered the world with oil for decades could now power the world with clean energy in the form of power ships that they could deploy all around the world. And even if they sell the electricity for a very reasonable price, the ships would quickly pay for themselves.

This could very well be the core concept that can revolutionize energy throughout the world, and do it very quickly. Given the threat of climate change, it can hardly happen quickly enough. But all the pieces seem to be falling into place. We could well be looking at a world of abundant, inexpensive, reliable, safe, and clean energy for all nations within the space of a few decades. This is what we’ve been hoping for. Now it looks like it’s finally going to happen.