I was privileged enough to meet Eric Loewen. He works for GE’s nuclear energy division. They’ve invented something called a PRISM reactor. It uses nuclear waste for power.
The US uses 3 terawatts of energy every year. The nuclear waste already buried across America can produce 300 terawatts of energy using a GE PRISM reactor, thus powering the US for 100 years with no new mining.
Why am I spending a day with people like Eric Loewen? You’ll find out in December. Good times.
A PRISM reactor is a fourth-generation nuclear power station which runs on the nuclear waste generated by all the previous generations of nuclear power stations.
PRISM is GE’s name for an integral fast reactor, or IFR, and it’s a pretty great technology. The amount of fuel which already exists for such reactors would be enough to power the world for millennia — no new mining needed. Fast reactors also solve at a stroke the problem of what to do with the vast amounts of nuclear waste which are being stockpiled unhappily around the world. They’re super-safe: if they fail they just stop working, they don’t melt down. And they can even literally replace coal power stations:
One nice thing about the S-PRISM is that they’re modular units and of relatively low output (one power block of two will provide 760 MW). They could be emplaced in excavations at existing coal plants and utilize the same turbines, condensers (towers or others), and grid infrastructure as the coal plants currently use, and the proper number of reactor vessels could be used to match the capabilities of those facilities. Essentially all you’d be replacing is the burner (and you’d have to build a new control room, of course, or drastically modify the current one). Thus you avoid most of the stranded costs. If stranded costs can thus be kept to a minimum, both here and, more importantly, in China, we’ll be able to talk realistically not just about stopping to build new coal plants but replacing the existing ones, even the newest ones.
And best of all they’re eminently affordable: Loewen showed that they could be profitable selling energy at just 5 cents per KwH — which means that you don’t need to price carbon emissions at all to make these power stations economically attractive. With pricing on carbon emissions, of course, they become even economically compelling.
But then you have to come up for reality:
“Our political system’s ability to deal with real problems has been degraded to such an extent that I sometimes wonder whether the country is still governable.”