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International schemes hatch to tap nuclear for industrial heat

China, India, Russia others eyeing high temperature reactors for producing metals, hydrogen, fossil fuels, petrochemicals. Desalination too. Beijing targets 2017.

Temperature's rising: The early construction stage of China's high temperature (750-degree C) pebble bed reactor at Shidao Bay, due for grid connection in 2017. China broke ground in late 2012. Over the last month alone it has completed installation of fuel production machinery, and has successfully tested fuel pumps.

One of the most compelling reasons for the nuclear industry to start building novel reactors is that alternative designs could broaden nuclear’s clean energy appeal well beyond electricity generation and into a source of CO2-free heat that powers industrial processes.

Nuclear could usher in tremendous environmental improvements if it were to replace the CO2-spewing fossil fuels that fire up steel and cement furnaces, and that process and refine materials like petroleum, petrochemicals and hydrocarbons, just to name a few.

Industrial processes account for a huge share of the world’s energy consumption, and fossil fuels feed almost all of it. In Europe, for example, they represent a whopping 27 percent of energy use, a recent paper from Germany’s RWTH Aachen University pointed out.

If you could power those furnaces and the like with nuclear, you’d essentially knock a big heel off of the planet’s carbon footprint. Add to that the likelihood that the same reactors could help produce more clean fuels such as hydrogen and methanol, and that they could help make greater use out of coal by liquifying it or gasifying it, and you might even take off the toes as well.

As a bonus, these reactors could also desalinate water, and could assist in the production of ammonia, key for fertilizers. Oh, and they’d still produce electricity of course, only they would do so more efficiently, safely, at less cost and with less waste than conventional reactors.

Not only are you looking at an environmental clean up, but you’re also propping up energy security and human well being.

All it will take will be reactors that operate at much higher temperatures than the entrenched “light water reactors” that have essentially defined commercial nuclear power for its entire half a century run.

Whereas conventional reactors operate at around 300 degrees C, so-called “advanced” or “GenerationIV” reactors target temperatures exceeding 700 degrees, and by design extend to over 900 degrees C. They also lend themselves to small sizes that make them more affordable – manufacturers can produce them in a lower cost assembly line fashion. Users don’t have to purchase huge gigawatt-plus behemoths; rather they can settle for sub-300 megawatt capacities or less, depending on their needs.

HOT COUNTRIES

But don’t just take my word for it.

Look at what they’re doing in China, where government companies are nearly two years into building two “pebble bed reactors” (PBR) totaling 210 megawatt (electric; 500 MW thermal) at Shidao Bay on Shandong Peninsula near Weihai City on China’s northeast coast, set for operation and grid connection by 2017. Listen to what they’re saying in Kazakhstan, where they’re talking about 950-degree C reactors for coal gasification and the production of iron, steel and hydrogen; in Indonesia, where they think 905-degree reactors might serve to produce hydrogen and desalinate water on the side (probably using “waste heat”); in South Korea, where they hope to soon begin a final feasibility study on reactors for hydrogen production and process heat; in Japan, where there’s talk of using small 950-degree C “prismatic”reactors for hydrogen production, for desalination and even for burning plutonium from Fukushima.

This and more all came into focus earlier this year, when nuclear scientists from around the world – Russia and the U.S. included – gathered in Vienna for an International Atomic Energy Agency gathering on high temperature gas cooled reactors (HTGRs) – which is just one of several reactor types vying for the high temperature superhero role.

IAEA has posted many of the country presentations from the conference on its website. By default, China’s is probably the one to read first, if for no other reason it is probably the only country that currently not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk as it constructs its 210-MWe PBR duo designed by Tsinghua University’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Techology (INET), based in Beijing.

“HTGR will be supplementary for electricity generation, and can be used for co-generation and process heat application,” reads the presentation from Tsinghua’s Li Fu, who notes that after 2017, China hopes to produce more of the reactors, called HTR-PM, (high temperature reactor pebble module) with “commercial deployment based on batch construction.”

Indeed, soon after China broke ground on the plant in late 2012, the website NucNet reported that the site might eventually house another 18 units of the HTR-PM, a reactor that INET said at the time “can be widely used in power generation, cogeneration and high-temperature process heat applications (and also) for oil refining, heavy oil recovery and in the chemical industry.” In recent signS of progress, a novel fan that will pump helium coolant through the reactors successfully completed testing last month, World Nuclear News reported. And earlier this month, INET said it had installed fuel production machinery for the reactors, at a remote site in Baotou, Inner Mongolia.

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF CHINA

The HTR-PM is not to be confused with another ambitious high temperature project underway in China, in which the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai is developing small prototypes of a salt-cooled, solid fueled pebble bed reactors (Li Fu’s HTR-PM design uses gas cooling) and of a salt-cooled, liquid fueled molten salt reactor. It is targeting a 2019 completion date.

The two projects reflect a drive in China to develop nuclear power as part of an environmental and energy security push. China even has other advanced reactor projects under way. For example, it hopes to operate a “super critical water-cooled reactor” by 2025, NucNet reported. And its current commitment conventional reactors has become legendary. As I wrote recently, whereas China currently operates only 20 nuclear reactors , it has another 28 under construction, an additional 58 planned, and a staggering 150 or so proposed.

It is also stepping up as an exporter of nuclear reactors and technologies to countries including Saudi Arabia and possibly the UK. Its penchant for selling abroad applies not only to conventional reactors, but to advanced reactors as well. In one of his Vienna slides, Tshinghua’s Li noted that the HTR-PM is “suitable for international market” and that its small size makes it “more flexible for developing countries.”

There should be plenty of opportunities for foreign activity, as evidenced by the IAEA Vienna gathering:

  • A joint German presentation from Germany’s RWTH Aachen University and research group Jülich Forschungszentrum (the same presentation that noted that Europe consumes 27 percent of its energy in industrial processes), noted possibilities for ammonia synthesis in Spain and aluminum production in South Africa.
  • Kazakhstan, which is working with Japan on development of a high temperature gas-cooled reactors, noted in a presentation by Irina Tazhibayeva from the country’s Nuclear Technology Safety Center that it hopes to commission a high temperature reactor generating electricity and producing hydrogen by 2027. It also candidly pointed out some of the technical and financial challenges.
  • Japan itself has a small, 30-MW prismatic gas-cooled high reactor that has hit temperatures of 950 degrees C. The country foresees using it for among other purposes hydrogen production and for burning plutonium from Fukushima. It envisions using thorium at some point, according to its Vienna presentation. The World Nuclear Assocation reports that Japan is proposping a 100-MW demonstartion plant for the United Arab Emirates.
  • Russia also has a high temperature gas cooled project called the GT-MHR, based on a design by General Atomics in the U.S. and dating back to an international project in the 1990s and calling for a gas turbine rather than one driven by steam. Its future is unclear (Russia is committed to liquid sodium cooled fast reactors that are not as high temperature as the GT-MHR) but the developers at Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute have a vision for several applications, one being disposal of plutonium (the reactor would burn it). In his Vienna paper Kurchatov’s Peter Fomichenko emphasized that Russia’s developers “currently see the mission of HTGRs not so much in generation of electricity, but mostly in production of high-temperature heat and hydrogen.” His presentation rattled off potential users, noting the oil recovery industry, petrochemical industry, ammonia synthesis, metallurgy and synthetic fuel.

India, too, has shown high-level interest. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the country’s renowned Babha Atomic Research Center in July, he discussed the possibility of using high temperature reactors for hydrogen production, India’s Business Standard reported.

Many of these ideas and designs go back to the 1940s and have wound their way through the U.S., Germany and other countries through the decades. In South Africa, Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd is trying to get a gas-cooled PBR off the ground. In the U.S., San Diego-based General Atomics’ EM2 gas-cooled reactor with a gas turbine shows great promise, operating at 850 degrees by design with a fuel that in principle could withstand temperatures about 3 times that high, greatly reducing the chance of accidents.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

A lot of the world’s high temperature projects are, however, at a financing impasse. In the U.S., work by the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratories has slowed down to the point where the government’s financial watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, recently warned that DOE looks likely to miss a 2021 deadline for building a prototype high temperature gas-cooled reactor. The DOE blames a lack of industry funding. In a Catch-22, industry also blames a lack of funding.

Meanwhile, development of other high temperature reactor technologies, like molten salt reactors, could rise to the occasion, although they face similar funding challenges.

Potential stakeholders are interested, but only up to a point. The Next Generation Nuclear Power (NGNP) Industry Alliance, a U.S.-based group that works with DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory and is committed to developing high temperature gas reactors, includes potential users like Dow Chemical, ConocoPhilips and the Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada as members. Yet INL, for all its advances – it has proven fuel integrity at 1800 degrees C – is unable to secure the money that would enable them to build a protype by 2021.

All eyes on China’s Shandong Peninsula, where things are really heating up. Deservedly, Weihei will host the next biannual International Topical Meeting on High Temperature Reactor Technology, this Oct 27-31, organized by Tshinghua’s INET.

It should be a sizzling show. That’s the end of the puns, but it’s certainly not the end of this story. Get ready for nuclear heat.

Photo is a screen grab from the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology’s (Tsinghua University) announcement of the upcoming HTR2014 conference, Oct. 27-31.

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