A new paradigm for civil nuclear energy. Perspectives from energy hierarchy and fundamental safety
Transform Insight Partners
This paper is an extended scope review and treatise based on a presentation made in the Uspekhi Forum on Climate Change and Global Energy. Following a brief overview of the history, status, and outlook of civil nuclear energy to reveal the key problems and challenges, it is placed in a primary energy hierarchy on Earth with all classes of energy systems based on fundamental forces to reveal its unique characteristics that set it qualitatively apart. A new paradigm is outlined with a distinct set of safety categories, design principles, and production methods that differ from conventional nuclear power, which leads to a global energy system solution for much broader development and deployment at scale in time to help mitigate climate change.
Based on concepts and methods from studies of emergent properties in complex adaptive systems, we use a scaling method to analyze nuclear reactor safety and economics, and explicitly relate reactor unit scale, safety limit, and production volume to cumulative cost and capacity. Simultaneous improvement and optimization of nuclear safety and economics lead to small modular reactors (SMRs) and micro reactors (MRs) as the exemplar technologies of the new paradigm. We show that select SMR and MR designs with deterministic fundamental safety should be manufactured, which can achieve substantial cost reductions as production volumes increase, following Wright’s law observed from majority of proven technologies. The new paradigm offers distinct and testable predictions, some of which have been partially tested, and some have surrogate tests from successful technologies and industries, which are also endowed with substantial transferrable capabilities and capacities for implementation. The scaling principles and results should be generally applicable to other energy systems and the majority of manufactured goods.
The results clearly show why extant commercial large nuclear power plants constructed on-site are almost the only exception in all energy systems in terms of rising costs with concentrating risks. They also reveal some common misconception and mistaken positioning of SMRs and MRs as niche products for small applications in limited markets. Once competing, often conflicting, objectives and constraints of nuclear reactor designs are revealed, removed, and revised, civil nuclear energy is poised for rapid growth and expansion to realize its great potential, including scaling up deployment in time to fulfill the most ambitious climate goals. The trilemma of energy security, energy equity, and environmental sustainability can be revolved scientifically and practically through emergent low-carbon energy systems that break existing limits, eliminate current impossibilities, and expand future possibilities.