No-Melt Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Might Win A Few Hearts And Minds

A nuclear power plant is large and complex, and one of the biggest reasons is safety. Splitting radioactive atoms is inherently dangerous, but the energy unleashed by the chain reaction that ensues is the entire point. It’s a delicate balance to stay in the sweet spot, and it requires constant attention to the core temperature, or else the reactor could go into meltdown.

Today, nuclear fission is largely produced with fuel rods, which are skinny zirconium tubes packed with uranium pellets. The fission rate is kept in check with control rods, which are made of various elements like boron and cadmium that can absorb a lot of excess neutrons. Control rods calm the furious fission boil down to a sensible simmer, and can be recycled until they either wear out mechanically or become saturated with neutrons.

Nuclear power plants tend to have large footprints because of all the safety measures that are designed to prevent meltdowns. If there was a fuel that could withstand enough heat to make meltdowns physically impossible, then there would be no need for reactors to be buffered by millions of dollars in containment equipment. Stripped of these redundant, space-hogging safety measures, the nuclear process could be shrunk down quite a bit.

Cutaway of a single triso ball, magnified under a scanning electron microscope. Image via US Department of Energy

What if meltdowns weren’t a thing?

The answer seems simple enough, doesn’t it? If we could make a fuel that can naturally withstand more heat than it needs to, then, we could do away with control rods, huge water baths, and concrete cooling towers.

Such a fuel already exists, and its time seems to have come. Triso — short for tristructural isotropic — takes the form of pellets the size of poppy seeds that are made of enriched uranium and oxygen. It was first developed in the UK for the experimental Dragon reactor.

Each triso pellet is coated with a multi-layer candy shell made of graphite and silicon carbide that serves the same purpose as the control rod: safely containing fission. Thanks to this multi-layer shell, triso can withstand extremely high heat — way more heat than it would ever face inside of a standard reactor. Triso has been tested to withstand 3200 °F / 1760 °C, which is three times hotter than a typical reactor runs today. The US Department of Energy describes triso as the most robust nuclear fuel on Earth.

Triso is made by treating uranium ore with chemicals that break it down into tiny beads. The beads are put into a furnace and blasted with gases that break down in the heat and coat the beads with protective deposits.

Nuclear Nuggets and Power Balls

So why haven’t we been using triso instead of fuel rods all these years? There are a few reasons. In its natural state, triso isn’t energy-dense enough for today’s large light-water reactors.

A fuel pebble breakdown via Breaking Defense

Triso is also expensive to make, so there hasn’t been a great deal of research until the last twenty years or so when the Department of Energy started funding companies who were building smaller, high-temperature reactors.

There are two companies in the US that are currently producing both triso and triso-compatible nuclear reactors. BWXT is making triso fuel cylinders that look a lot like bite-sized fuel rods.

A company called X-Energy is manufacturing a secret blend that they refer to as ‘power balls’. It’s tens of thousands of triso particles packed into a sphere the size of a billiard ball, and it’s designed to work with the company’s pebble bed reactor that produces 1/8th the power of a standard reactor. Each power ball is good for six trips through their Xe-100 pebble bed reactor before it wears out, which makes the lifespan about three years.

The Department of Energy aren’t the only ones betting on triso as the future of nuclear fuel. The Department of Defense is pitting BWXT and X-Energy against each other to develop a mobile reactor for military use, and NASA is revisiting the idea of nuclear-powered rockets.

137 thoughts on “No-Melt Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Might Win A Few Hearts And Minds

    1. The problem with radioactive waste is that even if we stopped using all nuclear power today we would still have to deal with the waste we have already made, so it’s a false argument, if we solve the waste problem then we have no waste problem and if we don’t the additional waste from power balls would not make much of a difference.

      1. One of the most promising options for dealing with our existing supply of spent fuel is to consume it in molten salt fast reactors. Processing today’s spent fuel for that application could be as simple as feeding the pellets through a metal shear, and then dissolving out the insides into the fuel salt. It’s a fair question to ask whether processing tiny fuel bits out of hardened silicon carbide balls will have a similarly simple and cheap solution.

        1. We haven’t figured out what to do with coal ash either. And yet we’re still burning the stuff. We haven’t figured out what to do with the Carbon Dioxide it makes either. And yet we’re still using fossil fuels.

          We haven’t even figured out what to do with the wastes that are left behind from manufacturing solar cells.

          Choose your poison.

        2. In a complete nuclear cycle breeders take uranium and turn it in to power, plutonium and fissile waste.
          Then a burner reactor takes the fissile waste and converts it to power and depleted waste. The depleted waste is certainly not healthy for you and using depleted uranium shells is the supposed cause of gulf war syndrome, but it really doesn’t fall into the category of dirty bomb material. It might make a more dangerous bomb but there are lots of way more dangerous easier to obtain materials to poison people with.

          Where the nuclear cycle broke was that the expense of setting up a reactor that won’t melt down was very high so virtually only happened with military funding. Thus it was deemed cheaper to store fissile waste and make more breeder reactors because the military funding was in the interest of plutonium refinement.

          Even still its important to note that nuclear waste is not like toxic gas, it is solid and very heavy. There is nothing you can do to contain pollution from a coal plant with out spending as much power scrubbing as you gain. Nuclear however takes already radioactive rocks, from radioactive mines, concentrates it to a smaller area, pulls out some of its energy, and then stores it back underground in a now smaller more concentrated radioactive mine. see for the effects of nuclear containment.

          In the end solar and wind are the goal, but at the moment they are actually more ecologically impactful than nuclear. Solar farms require clearing of vast swaths of land and have a high concrete cost, meaning solar really only becomes a solution when we start attaching it to buildings. Wind turbines have been devastating not on birds but on bats. Birds die if they get hit, but bats don’t perceive the turbine with their echo location and get close enough that the pressure waves in the air explode their lungs. This would probably be a livable issue except that the population is already being ravaged by white nose syndrome which is a fungus that wakes them up during hibernation and kills them because they do not have the energy to reenter hibernation and survive the remaining months before food is available again.

          There is an argument that our early focus on solar and wind has funded the development to the point that it is nearly viable, ie taking about 10 % of the effective subsidies carbon energy gets to eco would make eco cheaper today.
          However its undeniable that Germany has increased its carbon output as it transitioned from nuclear to solar because they use coal/gas to offset the peak demand hours. California has had the opposite issue that during low hours they have an excess of energy that must be burned off to avoid overcharge. This should be solved with kinetic storage which was popular with nuclear plants because they also had a constant output issue. It helped that the easiest storage method was pumping water uphill and nuclear plants by nature have a lot of water around.
          Comparatively France doubled down on Nuclear and are nearly carbon neutral.
          And if they were really worried about the waste they could contract a private space industry to store it on the moon, no other waste type could just be off planeted. But they won’t space it, because we are gonna use that waste, because there is no such thing as nuclear waste. There is just the stuff we haven’t used yet.

        3. Have you even for a second considered the waste created by the solar and wind industry? Atomic “waste” is a resource bound to be used as knowledge and technology progress. Add to it that storing it only requres the area of a few football fields in a mountain compound in each country. And that will cover all waist created until now and for the next couple of 100 years. Solar, wind and hydro don’t even come close.

      1. That’s a little bit of an ingenious comparison when you leave out the height of the stack at over 9m. By that I could say that all the worlds nuclear waste fits on a postage stamp, it’s just stacked 8,000km high. To me a 9m high stack over a football field still seems an awful lot of waste when I picture it pilled higher than your average 2 story building.

        1. I would say it’s not that unreasonable, container ports are often stacked 5 containers high, some go 6, guess it depends on their cranes, or maybe those are empties. Anyway a container is 2.4m so 9m stack is just under 4 of them.

          Probably, right now, there’s that amount of containers stuffed with covid related used PPE in almost every country, that they’re wondering what the heck to do with.

        2. Ash pile near every coalplant is much higher on much bigger land, is radioactive, is not contained with winds that can spread carciogenic dust on local area, not to mention millions of tons of CO2. I take nuclear waste thats contained and can be repurposed once technology is financially viable (curently we have tech to reuse it but cost is too high give few decades or century and you’ll see this waste reused, repurposed and recycled)

    1. We have a great solution to radioactive waste: fast breeder reactors, that eat the waste and produce power from it, reducing the amount of waste by about 90-95%.
      But it costs more to reprocess fuel than to just go dig up and enrich more uranium. If someone were willing to pay for it, we could improve efficiency and greatly reduce our nuclear waste problem at the same time. But nobody’s willing to pay even more, on top of the already incredible expense of constructing nukes.
      Our waste problem is wholly an economic one.

      1. The expense problem is mostly a political one, brought about by people who not only are ignorant about the science of nuclear power, they refuse to learn. Building nuclear reactors would cost a lot less without the know-nothings constantly clogging up the process.

    2. Waste is the real problem? How so? and what’s the issue with temporarily burying it at Yucca Mountain (or similar perfectly safe site) for a few thousand years? *Cries as our climate deteriorates with false promise renewable energy tech has made*

    3. The problem is not only the technical waste disposal question, it’s the dishonest accounting that also makes waste disposal a financial problem. In the nuclear industry, profits are privatised while costs are nationalised. Waste disposal is a national and intergenerational cost. One definition of tyranny is taxation without representation, how is this not intergenerational tyranny? If the accounting was honest, we would expect an operator to pay for the disposal. To pay, upfront, for the 200 000 years plutonium takes to decay to a safe level. Pay for the land, for security services, for maintenance, for insurance. 200 000 years, and 30 000 years ago Neanderthals still roamed the earth. Its no wonder big business loves Nuclear energy. Costs are nationalised, profits are privatised. The technical expertise required, a minimum scale, regulatory requirements, all there factors act as barriers to entry, limiting competition, ensuring high profit margins. Compare those factors to renewables. By nature decentralised, scales down to the solar cell on your credit card calculator, with your local handyman able to set up an installation.

      1. Renewables also need large batteries, are very energy-intensive to produce in the first place, have bad power density, and require centralised expensive manufacturing still. Also, solar panels only work for ~40 years.

        The waste issue is overblown. There isn’t actually all that much by volume, and there are lots of places you could probably keep it, as well as new reactor technologies to reduce the amount to deal with.

        1. The production of REEs for renewable energy and batteries results in more nuclear waste than the nuclear industry is producing, by several orders of magnitude, because the materials are found in the same mineral deposits as uranium and thorium (they’re old radioactive decay products), and nations have huge troubles dealing with the amount of waste.

          Once dug up and crushed, the uranium and thorium bearing rock, including plutonium as a naturally occurring trace element of their radioactive decay, starts to leach out into the environment. Most of the rare-earth element mines in the west were closed decades ago because they kept spilling radioactive waste. The industry moved east because they have more relaxed laws about waste dumping, and are willing to look the other way for a bit of money.

        2. “there are lots of places you could probably keep it” is where it goes wrong. That’s always been the assumption and despite a whole range of “solutions” they all turn out to be not anywhere near as lasting as they were supposed to and have to.

        3. If the waste is so low in volume and easy to store, why does every operator of nuclear power stations expect the rest of society and the next 10000 generations to foot the bill? The answer is clear, the costs exceed the income. The only way to make it work is if someone else picks up the bill. My answer the nuclear industry, get off welfare and pay your own bills.

      2. >To pay, upfront, for the 200 000 years plutonium takes to decay to a safe level. Pay for the land, for security services, for maintenance, for insurance. 200 000 years

        It’s very possible to drill the plutonium so deep inside the earth that you don’t need any security services, no insurance, and no maintenance. The next time it comes up is over tectonic timescales. See “Deep borehole disposal”.

        But even the “traditional” methods of vitrification and shallow burial can leak so little that you don’t need any of it either way. The argument by the cost of disposal is simple lies and propaganda.

      3. >Waste disposal is a national and intergenerational cost.

        Another blatant lie. Decommissioning and waste disposal costs are taxed out of the electricity generated by nuclear stations in the US. The electricity consumers have already paid 2/3rds of the decommissioning costs of all nuclear power generation in the US, and the amount of power generated by the remaining stations is projected to pay well over the remaining amount. This money is deposited in various trust funds that were and are required by law in order to build nuclear power plants – some are private, others are publicly owned as they correspond to nuclear plants built on public money.

        The only problem is that the US federal government is refusing to spend any of the money collected on opening a nuclear disposal site and start the actual disposal process for commercial nuclear reactor waste. They’re sitting on billions of dollars while the anti-nuclear lobby keeps claiming we don’t have the money…

        1. News to me, I’ll have to look into it, however you fail to address the limited liability in the event of a disaster. The operator only pays to a point, after that society is expected to pay. Go see fukushima. I include a disaster like a failure of a containment vessel contaminating groundwater 100 000 years from now. Or the increaced risk of a terrorist dirty bomb because of the vailability of waste in say 75000 years time? Honest accounting covers all the costs, including insurance payments. What we see in this industry is dishonest accounting.

          1. And yet fossil fuels are still going strong.
            Have you ever seen the radiation that comes of the coal stacks..
            Also all that extra co2 and other nasty stuff in the air and your lungs..
            Wash out from the coke piles.
            I don’t see anyone paying for that.
            And its very well ‘funded..

            Different rules for different fools.
            I’d have nuclear over most other fuels for base line loads but I’d store the used fuel and wait for it to become valuable for use in salt reactors.

          2. > you fail to address the limited liability in the event of a disaster.

            You didn’t ask that question in the first place.

            > I include a disaster like a failure of a containment vessel contaminating groundwater 100 000 years from now. Or the increaced risk of a terrorist dirty bomb because of the vailability of waste in say 75000 years time?

            If the waste is put down deep borehole disposal, it’s well below water tables and digging it back up would take far more resources than any terrorist groups has. Secondly, the fuel oxides aren’t actually water soluble. You can’t keep piling up ridiculous requirements and expecting people to take you seriously.

  1. “and it’s designed to work with the company’s pebble bed reactor that produces 1/8th the power of a standard reactor. Each power ball is good for six trips through their Xe-100 pebble bed reactor before it wears out”

    Given the problems encountered in the German research reactors, I have strong doubts a pebble bed reactor is ever going to work reliably and economically viable.

      1. As I remember, the problem was the balls chafing and eroding from the thermal expansion and contraction, producing radioactive dust that was difficult to deal with and kept getting everywhere in the system.

        1. Also, the Germans concluded that after 20+ years of operation the core temperature instrument never worked properly and all the core temperature data of two decades was useless.

      1. No.

        Interesting trivia: After the Three Mile Island, the Swedish Riksdag (state assembly) held a referendum on a nuclear power phase-out. The public were given three options that were basically: fast phase out, medium phase out, or slow phase-out. There was no option to keep nuclear power.

      1. Unconfined neutrons. The neutrons left in the material are captured by the nuclei, which become unstable, and the material becomes “saturated” to the point that it can no longer hold together.

        1. No, it doesn’t. Neutron capture either fissions the atom or transmutes it. The transmuted atom can be either radioactive, or stable. The materials used around the fissile material in this case must have very low neutron cross section to avoid capture of the neutrons needed to fission the uranium.

  2. Nuclear power is really the only way forward. Beyond that it might be anti-matter… if/when we can find a reasonable way to produce it. Interstellar travel depends on high energy concentration, so unless we find something better or a way to manipulate spacetime then our best bet is anti-matter rocket engines.

    1. “Beyond that it might be anti-matter… if/when we can find a reasonable way to produce it.”

      Afaik, it’s not hard to produce anti-matter. Bananas do it all the time.

      The hard part is to contain the anti-matter. And to release the anti-matter in a controlled fashion to let it react with matter.

      So, anti-matter has about the same problems as nuclear power. Except that it is apparently much easier to produce than enriched uranium.

      1. bananas create positrons which is and antiparticle ( anti electron) and not strictly speaking antimatter. also since electron/positrons are some of the smallest particles size and mass wise they don’t store a lot of energy. as far as i know anti-hydrogen has be artificially created however its too unstable to be useful for anything.

        zero point is a myth/fantasy just because we can deduce that there is energy everywhere doesn’t mean its harness-able.

          1. “Zero-point energy (ZPE) is the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical system may have.”

            Claiming that there’s energy available below ZPE is sawing off the branch of science that you sit on. Claiming that you can pull energy beyond the ZPE is an oxymoron because it would contradict the theory that defines the concept in the first place.

            This fallacy is a bit of a mind-bender and difficult to describe, because it’s hard to notice where you go wrong. After all, we assume that words and ideas have meaning. The fault is in the fact that you accept the abstract notion of “zero-point” but contradict the definition and description that connects the idea to concrete reality and makes it discoverable, so by rejecting the theory that describes it, you no longer know what you’re talking about and instead begin to talk nonsense.

          2. Well a thermodynamic analysis of a game of poker would have you thinking there is no point. The zero point is an average. It’s a deck of cards, figure out how to rig the deal, win every time.

          1. Nah, untill industrial age we only changed enviroment on smaller scale nothing that would threaten human species. Now we do it on planet scale without any control with danger of extinction of human race, nature will cope somehow – there where dinosaurs now there aren’t, there will be new species that can thrive in higher temps and co2 concentration in air, but we ain’t in the equatation anymore. So its not about ending world, its ending human species and taking lot of other species with us, either we do something or a lot of our children won’t survive to give us grandchildren.

  3. waste disposal waste disposal waste disposal

    call me when the nuclear industry shows me anything resembling a plan for that that isn’t fantasy

    I really don’t miss what time I spent mildly connected to the yucca mtn project

    1. coal never even made the beginning of an approach on waste disposal and has produced a much larger volume of much more dangerous waste and simply stored it in ponds that they periodically dump into nearby rivers. i don’t see the big deal.

      1. I don’t understand this argument where you (and other comments here) are basically saying “Lets keep polluting the planet because that’s what our father’s did”. Are we not wiser and more knowledgeable as a civilisation than we were in the past? Are we not going to apply any lessons that we have learned in the past century? Why not at least strive to do better and find a way of generating power without leaving behind a toxic legacy for our children?

        Just to say that I’m not against nuclear power, just think that we should do our best to go about it in a way that removes or limits as much as possible the impact on future generations.

    2. > when the nuclear industry

      The party that is currently sitting on everyone’s hands is the US federal government, for de-funding the last attempt and refusing to permit another.

  4. Just a question, since the auto-ignition temperature of carbon is 700 degrees, I assume that the entire bed is kept under a blanket of inert gas in operation, but what happens if the container is breached and the whole pile catches fire? That can’t be a good thing.

    1. The uranium still has to be mined and processed, then finally disposed of. Seems like the priority should be covering 100% of the daytime power demand with solar, and figure things out from there.

      Panels are already cheap, and we have a lot of empty space on rooftops we could be using if only individual consumers didn’t have to pay for it. Subsidies and zero interest loans could make it cost almost nothing, and the power company could manage the whole install process.

      Future plans are great, but we’re ignoring the low hanging fruit. Make the busses not full of germs so more people take them. Put solar on the roof. Stop building car-only cities. Stop the endless cycle of tearing down usable building and putting new modern high density stuff that winds up costing more when prices go up.

      1. >Make the busses not full of germs so more people take them.
        People don’t avoid buses because of germs. They avoid buses because of other people.

        >Stop the endless cycle of tearing down usable building and putting new modern high density stuff that winds up costing more when prices go up.
        What would people do if we worked sensibly? We would have to give up an economics based on growth and our goals of having as many people buying as much stuff as possible. That’s the endgame right?

        I would also like to add that we should stop the endless cycle of regulating perfectly working solutions (such as gas powered vehicles and energy inefficient appliances) out of existence in just to replace them with something new every few years. All that good working stuff goes to the landfill and more energy and pollution is used to produce the replacement. It is not environmentally friendly at all, it exists to sell more stuff so that the companies can grow year over year without stopping.

        1. [quote]I would also like to add that we should stop the endless cycle of regulating perfectly working solutions (such as gas powered vehicles and energy inefficient appliances) out of existence in just to replace them with something new every few years. All that good working stuff goes to the landfill and more energy and pollution is used to produce the replacement. It is not environmentally friendly at all, it exists to sell more stuff so that the companies can grow year over year without stopping.[/quote]

          The problem is, that stuff doesn’t work perfectly. They’re full of parts that wear out, requiring replacement or maintenance, add on top of that the environmental problems they cause from being woefully inefficient and polluting, and your argument is completely backwards. What car ends up in a landfill? They’re one of the easiest things to recycle. Crush it, melt it. Done. Same with refrigerators, ACs, ovens, etc. Your idea of what happens to these things as a rule is more the exception. Certainly the designed obsolescence designed into all those old things also ensures you continue to buy new junk. Sure, old things are slightly more durable, but only slightly. That’s a problem with corporations though, not energy efficient designs.

        2. Other people are only one of the reasons. Germs are a big one, and the other big one is the fact that you have to walk a long way, with a heavy backpack if your job needs tools.

          A lot of regulations are just phase-outs for newly created things, not mandates to stop using old stuff, or even stop maintaining them.

          I’m not at all a fan of the endless economic growth mindset, but I do think tech is a bit different, because a lot of tech is to replace something else, and the faster things become digital, the less heavy, resource intensive analog/mechanical stuff we need.

          1. Walking to the bus-stop is one thing, waiting for the bus is another. Miss the 30 minute rotation and you’ll be freezing your nuts off out there, or you have to take the next bus that doesn’t go near where you wanted.

            The worse part is when the route system is organized as a star network – as it usually is with cities – so you have to travel twice the distance and 3-4x the time to go anywhere except to the center. Sometimes you can literally walk faster, and you’re guaranteed to miss the changeover at times because the buses arrive out of order and you’re coming in behind the bus that you’re supposed to take next.

          2. Travel time is a lot less relevant now that there’s phones, most people are online at least an hour or two a day anyway.

            I have no idea why they don’t make any attempt to overlap the arrival times by a few minutes so you can always change over no matter which way you’re going.

            A lot of routes could probably use a full redesign now that everyone has phones and they don’t have to make any sense or be at all intuitive.

            I still haven’t memorized most of my routes to work because each location I work at has 2 or 3 different ways to get there (Anywhere from an hour to two hours) depending on what’s delayed at the moment.

          1. Did you forget that the earth goes around in 24 hours?

            Most of the US is only four hours wide, and getting power from coast to coast loses around half of it to grid losses.

          2. Maybe augmenting hydroelectric utilities with additional solar concentrated power stations for mining, reclamation, recycling, re-purposing, processing and manufacturing of raw materials for the distributed nuclear or whatever utility plants.

            Probably can terraform the desertified areas also with more critically designed volume considering support structures. Same goes with the hydroelectric… though instead of focus on development… more-so maintenance of the natural resources via hatcheries or improvements in allowing for co-existence of natural and utility facilities.

            Seems all the toxic metals and materials can be stored more critically and used for the distributed systems localized/regional battery banks or load leveling systems.

            Leave the safer metals and materials for the most distributed portable energy storage.

            Also, wondering why Sodium batteries aren’t on the market yet?

            Again, I have to advocate the change over to modularization of nuclear power plants using submarines and utility carriers/rigs. Seems the boring company can even get involved where underground flooded transit infrastructure can even be designed to transport the energy storage systems from distributed locations to maintenance dock stations and/or production facilities. Keep all that underground or at sea on/in a better dampened environment to counter natural and staged catastrophic events.

            I think there is potential for performance enhancement of boring through a range of subterranean environments also more considerate of long term impacts so to not adversely effect/impact resources.

            Seems external combustion systems can be implemented also and advanced to save on wasting fresh water. With sea water, advancements can be made also.

      2. >Subsidies and zero interest loans could make it cost almost nothing

        Wrong. Subsidies are simply other peoples’ money, and zero-interest loans are basically the same thing because the economy itself has a growth rate and an inflation rate – therefore if you get the same money back ten years later you’ve actually lost.

          1. I do. Any energy infrastructure we have, I’d prefer it to generate the least amount of jobs possible because that means it’s cheap and the labor of all these people could be spent in other productive things. The advances in tech and health promotion are easily true for any other option.

            Subsidies are basically just a market failure, and especially the way we implement them by paying guaranteed prices, because they remove competition in the solar energy market and create the problem where everyone’s pushing power to the grid at the same time and nobody has any reason to invest in batteries or other storage technology – the producers get paid anyhow. It results in a half-baked solution that isn’t actually scalable beyond a small fraction of the total energy.

          2. For example, in order to alleviate the duck curve which results from solar overproduction in the middle of the day, some people should be orienting their panels west, others east. This spreads out the production in time, but ultimately results in less total energy.

            The way the subsidies are paid either by direct rate, or by net metering, means everybody points their panels south to maximize the energy output, which means they reach their peak all on the same hour, which makes the system variation greater and causes extra costs to other people who have to deal with it.

            If instead the rate was not guaranteed, and the electricity not subtracted from the utility bill 1:1, there would be price differences between morning, noon, and afternoon – people would have the incentive to point their panels in a way that maximizes the price x production. This helps, doesn’t solve the problem completely, but it helps a lot and saves a bunch of money for everybody.

            So if you can’t subsidize the selling, can you subsidize the buying? Subsidize away the investment cost? Well, then you will be using public money to give people private profits from selling or using the electricity. Who does that benefit the most? The rich property- and land-owning people who can afford to install large solar systems. It’s a reverse robin-hood system (A Dennis Moore system to the Python fans) that steals from the poor and gives to the rich .

            So on both accounts the subsidies are a stupid idea. Can you come up with a way that isn’t?

          3. Western orientation has been shown to give about the same total output as southern. Eastern is I think handicapped by the prevalence of morning haze, mist or fog.

        1. this has been thoroughly debunked. very cold and very wet places have a lot of bicycle transport already. if there is density combined with public transport (bus, subway, etc) then people can even experience a greater level of basic physical comfort compared to the car. the coldest places, cars are uniquely impractical and the incentives to build your village closely clustered are the strongest. imagine cars at amundsen-scott!

          one of the weird things i’ve noticed anecdotally is that the first really miserable day of winter everyone in the car is *pissed off*. it’s weird to me, they’re in little heated boxes but their facial expression, their driving demeanor, it all indicates they are not having a good time. i’m the one out exposed to it but i’m smiling. the car is actually subjectively poor at protecting people from the elements.

          1. Cars are, simply put, the modern day horse and carriage. Believe me, the people aren’t pissed off at the climate control in their box. They are upset about the cyclists who use the road for training purposes. It’s too dangerous. Drivers can’t use sidewalks or cycle lanes, so what gives cyclists the right to use vehicle roads?

          2. > very cold and very wet places have a lot of bicycle transport already.

            I’m not disputing that – except on the day that is very wet or cold.

            That was the point. People and cities need cars anyways.

          3. > i’m the one out exposed to it but i’m smiling

            That’s because you’re out there full of endorphins (“endogenous morphine”) from the physical exertion and the pain on your skin and limbs from the cold weather.

            That’s the same as saying “Everyone else looks sour while I’m happy here whipping myself with a piece of cord. Therefore NOT whipping yourself is a poor way to spend time.”. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

        2. >very cold and very wet places have a lot of bicycle transport already.

          You statement need debunking. You obviously do not live in a very cold places. Have fun riding a bike or walking in winter time.

          The main form of precipitation during cold season is in the form of snow and ice and that stuff *accumulates* when it is below freezing. After a snow storm, the streets have to be plow and guess what they do? They plow the snow onto the side walks. It’ll take a while before the side walks are plowed. When you get a warmer few days, the side walks get into a thick slug and some time flooding. If you get a few cold nights, those becomes very slippery.

          As for your “always sunny somewhere” there is a limit of transmission. Electricity is used as a heating source in some places. So the demand will go up in winter. You can’t supplement power needed by the North of “tropic of Cancer” with less sun lights and heavy electricity usage from the southern using solar alone.

        3. Raining hard is definitely not enough to make something car only. I’ve never driven a car, and the busses run just fine in the rain.

          Some places you literally can’t accomplish even basic tasks without major hassles if you don’t have a car. Heavy rain just means you get rained on, but you can still get around. It doesn’t get -17f here, but it sometimes snows, and you can usually still get around.

          1. Getting rained on is often the showstopper.

            When it’s raining, I’m not gonna ride my bike to the grocery store because it’s uncomfortable – I’ll get wet. When it’s really cold, it’s literally painful. I don’t want to subject myself to that, and I don’t want to force other people either – that’s just cruel.

          2. @Dude: if it rains I wear rainproof clothing, if it snows I put on an extra pullover. And I can always, always, get within a few meters of where I need to go. Never parking two blocks away next to a meter which doesn’t only take all my money but also my privacy.

          3. > if it rains I wear rainproof clothing

            Me too.

            > if it snows I put on an extra pullover.

            Me too.

            It doesn’t make it any more comfortable – just inconvenient in a different way. You end up drenched in your own sweat from any physical exertion, and dressing up for an expedition through the north sea is just an unnecessary and tedious waste of time.

          4. Reminds me the days I took the 15km ride by bike to high school no matter the weather. -32C was the record low and at that point deraillers didn’t work so well anymore.

      3. There’s a couple of problems with buses, without ever considering the germs.

        1. Population density. You have to have enough people close enough together to make buses worthwhile. European cities (some of them) have enough people per square whatsit that buses are economical and can run often enough to be considered useful.
        2. Destinations. You have to have enough places that people want to go that you can run buses economically to get the people where they need to go.

        A population density high enough to make buses economical and useful is so high that you are basically talking about wall to wall high rise apartment buildings. Human beings need space, but modern cities built for mass transportation are all about squeezing more people into less space.

        Getting where you need to go is an absolute pain using buses. They go where its economical to take people – that is, where most folks need (or want) to go. If you don’t fit the standard usage patterns, you get to zig-zag all over town to reach your destination.

        I used to live in a city that prided itself on how many bus stops and bus routes it had. The claim was that you were never more that 100 meters from a bus stop. If I took the bus to work, it would take me twice as long to get there than if I had walked. Taking the bus was walk several hundred meters to the bus stop – NOT the closest one, but one going in vaguely the right direction because the closer ones all go somewhere else. Wait for the (late) bus. Slow poke through the city at a snail’s pace through traffic lights and narrow streets where buses have no business. Change buses – wait at the bus stop for the next (late) bus. Slow poke through more narrow streets. Arrive at a bus stop several hundred meters from where I work (there was a bus stop less than 100 meters from the office, but it didn’t go anywhere that I needed to go.) Walk the rest of the way to work.

        I usually just skipped the bus wand walked to work.
        There were several times that I left the apartment building I lived in, and waved to someone I knew who was waiting on a bus. I’d walk across town and go to a popular shopping area and be sitting down in a cafe having something to drink when the acquaintance who took the bus would walk by and wonder how I got there so fast.

        Now try the same thing in a lower density area. I’ve done it. Walk a long way in the wrong direction to catch a bus. Wait a couple hours for the bus because they only run a few times a day. Catch the bus, take a long, slow ride through a city to places you have no interest in going. Get off the bus at the stop closest to where you need to be, then walk half an hour to where you were going. Return to starting point by the same route. Spend all day running an errand that took only to a few minutes to carry out, but getting there and back ate the better part of a day. Inside one city, where driving would get you there and back and done in less than half an hour.

        That doesn’t even get you into the inconvenience of the bus ride itself – loud and obnoxious people on the bus, the smell of dead fish in the summer heat, drunk and/or stoned people, jerks who won’t let old folks or pregnant women have a seat, just being squeezed into a sardine can with too many people.

        Then there’s transporting stuff besides yourself and a small bag of groceries. Don’t bother.

        Germs are way down the list of things wrong with buses.


        People go on and on about how domestic animals need an appropriate environment. People do, too.

        An appropriate environment for a person includes enough space, and peace. Modern cities and apartment buildings are like battery cages for chickens. ( Those have been made illegal in many places.

        How about making it illegal to cram too many people into not enough space?

        1. > wall to wall high rise apartment buildings

          European cities are usually low-rise apartment buildings spread out over a large area, whereas US cities are high-rise buildings concentrated over a small area, surrounded by sprawling one-house suburbs.

        2. I’m all for shutting down every last battery cage(And I really wouldn’t mind a switch to mostly bioprinted and plant based food), but if we made high population density illegal, people like me who are extremely clumsy and would be more likely than not to cause an accident within days would have basically no life, or a similar quality of life to the post industrial but pre technology part of history where so much crap comes from.

          Busses have worked in lots of places in Washington for a long time, well before the complete wall to wall apartments started. We never had acres per person, but I’d much rather have less space than a huge amount with no ability to go father than I can walk(Which is not very far comfortably if your job requires a heavy backpack).

          I guess if you’ve never had a car, all the other issues with busses mostly just seem like normal unavoidable parts of life.

          Maybe someday we’ll have counties that ban non-self driving cars on most roads, and we can all have personal ultralight cars light enough to pick up and carry, with none of the heavy steel crash safety stuff if the computer can just prevent 99.999% of accidents in the first place.

      4. Newsflash rare earth minerals that are used in production of PV panels and batteries for storage is not only highly toxic but also redioactive as rareearths occur with natural thorium and uranium deposits. Then we have to cover how much land to produce enough electricity? USA has wide desserts but EU has very small in Spain and tiny one in Poland. That would end up with covering not only all parking lots and buildings with PV but we’d have to sacrifice land we use for food production or forests and nature reserves. Then theres storage with water pump power stations, that means flodding some valeys, flatteing mountain tops to put top basin higher and so on. And another point is rebuilding whole electric grid to survive wind peaks on north sea and send it to alps for storage czechs and Austrians already bless germans for their wind turbines… Stupid idea. I’m all for covering buildings and parking lots with panels but building them outside is waste of space when we could have few nuclear reactors in each EU country providing majority of energy, while peak being supplemented by PV and wind.

        1. Building new pumped hydro storage or regular hydro dams shouldn’t be considered in the same category as real green tech. It’s like biofuel, we really don’t need it.

          Energy storage is holding back basically all of technology, what we really need is a few tens of billions invested in developing a fully renewable battery, with the plans made public domain. Without that, nuclear won’t solve all the cars, planes, and boats anyway.

          PVs don’t use rare earths really, and there’s a lot of potential for rooftop PV alone, if we put it on literally every building aside from the most important historic ones. Now that we can make them in different colors that look like shingles, we could very well just require them on all new construction.

          Maybe we need some nuclear, but they say the US could cover 40% of electricity with rooftop solar alone. Even with no storage at all, we could very significantly reduce the amount of coal needed.

    1. Thanks for the link, I hadn’t heard of the AVR reactor before. It sure demonstrates the difficulty of developing a new nuclear technology, and also some of the difficulties with this specific technology as well. Some of them have famously not been solved, so far as I know — hot spots and fuel management. And also some preposterous unforced errors, like configuring the thing intentionally to “accidentally” spill water on the fuel. Avoiding that kind of imbecility is the whole point of this kind of reactor design, but obviously it’s easier said than done.

      But one interesting thing I found is that the AVR experiment itself was a complete failure. The purpose was to test different fuel types but then they mixed them in the reactor with barely any monitoring. So they did test triso fuel there, but they also tested other less-robust fuel there. And the major problem that is complicating the cleanup is that at least one of the fuel types leaked fission byproducts. So it’s possible, probably likely even, that the triso fuel isn’t the cause of the problem. But again, the reactor was a complete failure as an experimental reactor in that it failed to determine which fuel type failed! Stunning lack of scientific progress, and at such huge expense.

      And another thing is also illustrative…if you read about the AVR reactor, you find out that it completely failed to determine the characteristics of any fuel type because they mixed them willy-nilly. But then if you read about the triso fuel, you find that the AVR reactor proved it’s robust! The tendency for this kind of blatant lie to permeate publications about nuclear technology is deeply troubling. I don’t know all of the probably economic reasons that this sort of thing is so common but everything I’ve ever seen about nuclear power is full of these whoppers. Fukushima’s reactor certification process included a claim on the order of, the highest wave is 17 meters, the reactor will survive a wave of 12 meters, therefore the reactor is safe in the case of the highest wave (numbers from memory, probably wrong). Just a stunningly consistent level of blatant dishonesty.

      I believe in the potential of nuclear power but the fact that these difficulties can be overcome cannot reverse the fact that they have not been.

      1. Fukushima’s problem was the diesel powered generators weren’t mounted high up and protected against getting flooded. With the reactors shut down, the site couldn’t self-power. When the wave took out the backup generators, the cooling systems were gone. A pebble bed reactor would be a good replacement for backup generators, if protected from being put out of action by natural disasters. When not providing backup power, it’s output could be fed into the power grid. Retrofitting them to existing water cooled reactors would be a good way to test and prove them.

        But that would require the know-nothing anti-nuke ignorants to allow the improvements.

        1. Now you just sound like a pro-nuke know nothing. Water and pumps are still needed with a pebble reactor. So auxiliary power is a must.

          Nucleair power plants are a still just steam engine plants with a fancy power source and hence need cooling.

          This is also forgotten by the author of this post:
          “If we could make a fuel that can naturally withstand more heat than it needs to, then, we could do away with control rods, huge water baths, and concrete cooling towers”

          It is these types of misinformation that troubles the waters for readers.

          1. The pebble bed reactor is supposed to be walk-away safe because it’s self-regulating. There’s no control rods – if the coolant is stopped, the rising temperature causes the reaction to die down, reaching an equilibrium where the core simply stays hot.

            With such a hot core, water isn’t used as the coolant in the first place. Water can be used to cool the turbine outlet, but ambient air can do the same job for a smaller reactor at the cost of efficiency. You can indeed build a pebble bed reactor that doesn’t need water.

          2. “When the nuclear fuel increases in temperature, the rapid motion of the atoms in the fuel causes an effect known as Doppler broadening. The fuel then sees a wider range of relative neutron speeds. Uranium-238, which forms the bulk of the uranium in the reactor, is much more likely to absorb fast or epithermal neutrons at higher temperatures. This reduces the number of neutrons available to cause fission, and reduces the power of the reactor. Doppler broadening therefore creates a negative feedback: as fuel temperature increases, reactor power decreases.”

      2. Hi,

        I think we need to split the discussion between the technological side and the people.

        I’m an engineer, so I also have a fascination for complex highly engineered technologies. But I think AVR is a good example to show how the people are making the nuclear power dangerous. (Three Mile Island is another). We can argue a lot about the technical safety. But people always tend to shortcut things, are not always 100% up to speed or putting commercial reasons above safety. Humans are not perfect enough to do nuclear things.

        I don’t think AVR was inherent safe. All the aspects around water ingress feel to me more like we could be very lucky nothing catastrophic happend.

        But also not ignored should be, there is now the reactor ruin so highly contaminated that nobody has a good idea how to deconstruct it. The pepples are creating lot of dust and this dust is now everywhere. AVR was “just” a research facility, but the deconstruction costs are in the range of several billions. And this does not include the long-term storage of the radioactive waste, which is another nightmare.

        A good part of Germans don’t like nuclear power. (It is another very interesting story how many people got active. We had protests with 300000 people in the 80s.) But the even larger of part of Germans now realize, how expensive all this nuclear technology get. It is not just building and operating the power plants. (Greetings to Hinkley Point….) It is also the deconstructing and storing the waste. Which are another many billions. In Germany, likely most of this need to be covered by the public, since all the operations would are simply bankrupt in the moment the have to pay for the deconstruction….

        So if you take it realistic and honest, nuclear power is in the end a super-risky technology and costs a sh*tload of money. And therefore renewables are simply just cheaper.


  5. Civil nuclear power is dead. I know, I worked as a developer of nuclear power plant. The costs are staggering, the technology stagnating and the alternatives booming.

    Whether it’s their inefficiency (60% of its energy is dumped), their climate change damage (that dumped energy usually goes in the sea as heat) or their local environmental damage (all that hot water has to be treated with chlorine to stop biofoul in the cooling system pipes) they are bad from all angles.

    If we (UK) didn’t have subs or nuclear weapons, it would all be over for the civil programme.

  6. The current nuke fuel cycle was selected to reduce proliferation risk.
    It was a political decision. If you used some form of breeder reactor there would be much much less
    waste. The vast Majority of the current “Waste” is used fuel that could be reprocessed and burned again.

    The lifetime of a solar panel is 25 years. The materials used to make solar panels are toxic.
    Given the 25 yr life of a solar panel, per watt of energy produced solar produces 100’s of times more waste than nukes…
    If you included a battery storage systems to be 100% solar 24-7 , then the amount of toxic waste is 1000x nuclear.
    This is true for even the current politically selected inefficient nuclear system.

    1. There’s also CANDU designs that can eat waste along with unprocessed uranium.

      By the way. Something I’ve never gone into. What ages a solar panel, actual wall time since manufacture, or time exposed to UV/Solar bombardment?? I suspect it should be the latter, but I only see pronouncements 25 years, 25 years, 25 years…

      1. There are various effects that cause the diffusion of the semiconductor, from diffusion by heat, electromigration, and finally the leaking of oxygen and water into the panel, plus corrosion from leftover chemicals from manufacture. Of course there’s also the UV damage on all the seals and glues. Finally there’s mechanical damage from temperature variation. Imagine a solar panel baking in the sun, and then a little rainy cloud passes overhead.

        But the thing that really throws the calculation off is the probability that a panel simply breaks from debris blown around by the wind, hail, a thunder strike (even nearby), a kid with a baseball, a bird… the way the panels are connected internally, shading one cell causes a hot spot to develop, so birds soiling the panel can seriously degrade the performance and cause it to fail early.

  7. I’ve worked with reactors and the manufacture of nuclear materials. Not an expert, but the statement that they are less dense as far as material goes makes it so that there will be a greater amount of space needed to achieve a reactive state in a reactor. Control rods will still have to be used. A reactor needs to be able to be shut down. Also, control rods help to level out the reactivity across the reactor by banking the rods at different levels. A water system is important. You can’t carry the heat out of the reactor without a medium to do so. Also, water acts as a reflector of neutrons so that they can be returned to the reactor core. It acts as a regulator. When reactivity is achieved, the temperature of the water, actually the density of the water because of its temperature, regulates the neutron flux in the reactor. Water will become radiated, so it is run through a reactor in a primary loop. It is pressurized to about a ton of pressure to keep it from boiling, which aids in keeping the turbulence down in the flow and without steam bubbles, it can carry heat away more efficiently. It is then passed through a heat exchanger to a secondary system which flows outside of the reactor containment room. It is allowed to turn to steam for running turbines.

    The potential I see with this kind of fuel is the ability to contain the fuel in case of a catastrophic failure. It may not melt at the temperatures it can produce, but the containment vessels are still stainless steel which melts at about 2750F.

  8. “If we could make a fuel that can naturally withstand more heat than it needs to, then, we could do away with control rods, huge water baths, and concrete cooling towers.”

    We would need concrete cooling towers nevertheless. For a power plant to function you need a temperature gradient (simple rule of thermodynamics).

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