10/30/2020

Shipping Nuclear Power Out To Sea

16:58 minutes

two cooling towers of a nuclear plant with steam coming out of them. the sun it setting behind them
Credit: Public Domain

When the Green New Deal was proposed last year, it called for the United States to become fully energy independent, moving to 100% renewable energy sources within the next decade. It specifically mentions solar and wind power as two alternatives the country should invest in. And it conspicuously leaves out nuclear power. 

But the nuclear industry is fighting to be part of the renewable conversation. While it’s been innovating at a slower pace, there is one old idea that engineers say still holds water: floating nuclear power plants. 

Ira talks to Nick Touran, a nuclear engineer and reactor physicist from Seattle, Washington about the advantages of shipping nuclear out to sea, as well as some newer technology keeping nuclear power in the renewable energy conversation.


Research On Nuclear Power And Marine Ecosystems

  • Read a 2018 study in PLoS One about the effect of temperature on marine environments near nuclear power plants in the Daya Bay, China.
  • A 2018 study published in BMC Ecology looks at the growth and development of Pacific oysters in the midst of thermal discharge from a nuclear power plant.
  • In a 2012 case study in PLoS One, researchers explore various approaches to assess the impact of nuclear power plants on surrounding natural environments.
  • This 2020 study in PLoS One investigates tropical fish populations after operations at a nuclear plant were suspended in the Sea of Japan.

Further Reading

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Segment Guests

Nick Touran

Nick Touran is a nuclear engineer and reactor physicist based in Seattle, Washington.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. Hi, I’m Ira Flatow. With Halloween coming up, I’m going to bring up a subject that’s really scary to a lot of people– nuclear power.

You know the arguments for and against it. Nuclear plants are expensive to build, potentially risky to run. And we don’t need them because we can develop enough green energy to do without them. And no one wants one in their backyard, unless of course you live in France where they happily draw most of their non-polluting electric power from nuclear power plants.

But on the other hand, if you want to do away with greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels, fracking, and natural gas, and cut down on carbon altogether, perhaps nuclear deserves to be part of the discussion. One nuclear engineer has been thinking about an old idea to bring new nuclear power online– floating nuclear power plants situated miles offshore.

If it sounds crazy, be reminded that we have lots of floating nuclear power plants offshore already. We call them aircraft carriers and submarines– running smoothly and safely for years, built in shipyards by highly skilled workers. And they live in no one’s backyard.

I wanted to hear more about this intriguing idea. So I invited him to fill us in. Nick Touran– nuclear engineer and reactor physicist working in advanced nuclear in Seattle, Washington– welcome to Science Friday.

NICK TOURAN: Thank you. I’m very excited to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Tell me how you got interested in this idea of floating offshore nuclear power plants.

NICK TOURAN: Well, it really came as a natural result of just trying to understand what the major cost drivers of nuclear are, and then starting to test the natural questions of what could be done a little bit better. And this of course involves reading through the archives and seeing what’s been tried in the past, and then comparing to the modern context.

And as I looked into it and was talking to friends and colleagues about it, it really became quite interesting because of this sort of confluence of various elements of it that would make it both more acceptable for the public as well as, most likely, more cost competitive.

IRA FLATOW: People have been coming up with new ideas to innovate in the field of nuclear energy. But this is an old idea that we might be able to resurrect. Let’s talk about it. The idea has been floated since the 1950s. But we never built one. Tell me about this proposed Atlantic generating station.

NICK TOURAN: Well, we did build several floating nuclear power plants, including something called the STURGIS, which actually powered Panama Canal for a little while. But that was very small-scale. And so when it comes to large-scale things, it’s true that the Atlantic generating station was the first big proposal of this.

And what the issue was was there was a big electric demand off the coast in New Jersey. But there weren’t very many good sites. And so somebody proposed, well, jeez, can’t we just put it on a floating platform of some kind. And a joint venture was formed between Newport News shipyard and Westinghouse.

And a huge amount of environmental work went into it. They studied all the different effects of the heat coming out of it, any different type of scenario that could happen at sea. And eventually, they actually got a construction license to build eight of these things in serial at a production facility in Florida.

Now, what ended up happening, though, was because of various economic factors, like the oil crisis and increased inflation, electricity demand flattened out. And so the customer went away. And so even though these things were pretty much ready to build and construct, nobody was there to buy one.

IRA FLATOW: Well, but you think it’s time to think about them again. So I want to go through the pros and cons of them. For example, how did they float? Are they on a barge?

NICK TOURAN: Yes, there are a couple of different concepts. But that particular design is, basically, just on a barge. And they built a large concrete barrier, or sort of an island, around it. There are other concepts that people are looking into, such as folks at MIT, that involve building it more like an offshore oil platform, something that can sort of float on its own and also not necessarily need a big concrete protection around it.

A couple other concepts– the Russians just put one to work in a village in the Arctic Circle. And it is just in a protected port, so it’s not far offshore. It just kind of came up to shore. And it provides power to the local community there.

IRA FLATOW: What are some of the advantages of being floating on the water?

NICK TOURAN: Well, it does seem crazy at first. But really, one of the biggest challenges in nuclear safety is assuring cooling to the whole system. And when you are out floating in sea, you have a great overabundance of cooling. And so it’s very difficult to challenge your ability to keep all the systems cool, which is necessary for the safety of the system.

So from just a safety perspective, that’s a big advantage. The other major advantage is that the construction environment in a shipyard is very controlled. It can be serialized at very large scale. And so you can get both improvements in quality as well as improvements in throughput.

You can think of it sort of like Henry Ford assembly line for gigantic low-carbon power plants.

IRA FLATOW: Because that’s one of the criticisms of American nuclear power plants is that everyone’s got their own design. There’s really no standardization, is there?

NICK TOURAN: That’s right. And all the economic assessments going back many decades say, well, it looks like the way to achieve economically competitive nuclear is to pick a standard design, serialize it, and build a lot of them.

IRA FLATOW: And you would be building in a shipyard where they know how to build things that go floating out in the ocean, and they have very good quality control.

NICK TOURAN: Precisely. And whereas a normal plant may be built in some sort of remote area where people are coming in and building roads and living quarters and all sorts of things there– and they’re even building the infrastructure needed to construct it that’s temporary. But in a shipyard, it’s much better because you can build these permanent facilities that are designed– make very heavy equipment that can do the whole construction not just of that plant, but all the plants that are coming in your order list.

IRA FLATOW: And as I said before, we already have these floating nuclear plants. We call them submarines and flattops. I guess what I’m saying, there is experience in the shipyard building of how to put a nuclear power plant in something that floats.

NICK TOURAN: Indeed. That was the first thing we put a nuclear power plant in, really. I mean, all the plants that we use today, all the nuclear plants that are making electricity, are descended from Admiral Rickover’s original submarine-based design.

IRA FLATOW: I remember the Nautilus.

NICK TOURAN: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: In a museum in, I think, Groton, Connecticut now. What about storms, high winds, waves? How do you build it so that they’re protected?

NICK TOURAN: Great question. And that is one of the major new hazards that exists at sea, but not onshore. And you have several options. The first option is, when you’re building a very expensive ship, you can actually afford to build it to be very resilient against storms.

So the biggest ship in the world, which is called the Prelude, is a floating natural gas processing facility. It’s designed to withstand Category 5 cyclones off the coast of Australia. So you can make these things that can handle a pretty crazy weather event.

And then if something really nasty is coming in, you do have the option that you could just unhook from your subsea cable and move to some place where you may be safer. And then you have this worst-case scenario where you would actually design in sort of a sink safe type scenario, with a plan to go in and recover the material.

So the engineers would basically design it so that if it did start being inundated by a storm, it would sink in a situation that would maintain coolability, keep all the radio nuke lights in until you could go down there and salvage the core.

IRA FLATOW: You point out that in October 1981, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported that the floating nuclear plant units can be manufactured with reasonable assurance that they can be cited and operated without undue risk to the health and safety of the public. And that seems to sum up what we’re talking about.

NICK TOURAN: Exactly. I had heard of this venture, but until I wrote this little post about it, I hadn’t really understood how far the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had gone in and studied it. And it really was this 1975 New Yorker article, which has a very long-form description of it. It really made it clear how much they’d done.

And then when I went and read some of the environmental assessment reports, it was really impressive. So this has really been vetted in the ’70s and ’80s. So this is certainly an interesting idea.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because that was a very strong time for the environmental movement. And if they vetted it at that time where there were huge critics of how the government was regulating things, that speaks highly of it.

NICK TOURAN: Exactly.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about a timeline. Have you thought about how long it would take to build one of these? Because that’s one of the main criticisms of nuclear power is that they’re very expensive, and they take 8 to 10 years to build. On this scale in a shipyard, would that be smaller and lower?

NICK TOURAN: Certainly the first several, as you’re hashing out the design, would take around that kind of time frame. But the throughput that I think you could achieve in this kind of scenario is significantly improved. And this is maybe one of the most effective ways we can cut that construction timeline.

We could be talking about putting out gigawatt scale reactors on the order of two years instead of eight. And of course, that would take a lot of shaking down and a lot of success in the early units. But those are the kind of numbers we could start looking at.

And so when you’re talking about, hey, we have to replace not just all of our electrical generation in the world but also all the transportation, the industrial heat, this is massive amount of fossil fuel that we need to replace with something low-carbon. And these shipyard serialized large nuclear plants are one of the most exciting ways that I see that we could do that.

IRA FLATOW: So it would be like a production line? As you say, you would just be able to put them all out from this one plant or a few of these plants, like car assembly lines?

NICK TOURAN: Exactly. Yeah, and even the satellite image of the facility that’s still there in Jacksonville, Florida, you can see where they would have four of them under construction at once. And then one would float out, and then a new one would begin, and then they’d float another one out.

IRA FLATOW: As a nuclear engineer, if you look at the old plans, could you just dust them off or are there newer designs you would make?

NICK TOURAN: Well, these plants are quite similar to some of the slightly improved designs that we have today from the big vendors like General Electric or Westinghouse, or even from KEPCO– the Korean nuclear vendor just signed a MOU with their shipyard folks in Korea.

And so perhaps the APR-1400, which is a Korean design, is the most appropriate one to put on a ship for the very near-term since they’re so ramped up. We would probably want to take one of the designs that’s currently being offered by the vendors and adapt it for a ship.

IRA FLATOW: Might we take some of the French designs? They’ve seemed to have adopted the idea that one design and make many plants out of them.

NICK TOURAN: That’s right. They’re one of the best examples of showing that if you do serialize your production you can decarbonize your entire electric grid on the order of 15 years.

IRA FLATOW: There are other countries, right? Aren’t the Russians looking into building these, and other countries?

NICK TOURAN: Absolutely. The Russians actually just completed building one. And it just went into operation, I think, earlier this year– the Akademik Lomonosov, which is a relatively small one. But still it’s probably the best example of one of these things actually working.

The Chinese are working on some floating reactor designs. And as mentioned, the Koreans just signed a memorandum of understanding. So they’re starting to talk between their nuclear people and their shipyard people about getting into this business as well.

IRA FLATOW: When you hear people talking of resurrecting nuclear power, they’re talking of building smaller modular reactors instead of these larger ones. What’s your opinion comparing the two ideas?

NICK TOURAN: Well, the small modular reactors are actually kind of a very similar concept in that they say, well, we see that these large mega projects are just running behind schedule and are very difficult to construct on budget and so on. And so they decide, well, maybe if we can build these reactor components in a factory and then rail-ship them to where the customer wants the power, then you could use the controlled environment of a factory to build these modules and move around.

And so they’re hoping to get economies of mass production. And they’re hoping to do so in a way that will actually do better than economies of scale, which are what has traditionally driven nuclear power plants to be very large. Now, the shipyard idea is to say, hey it’s not one or the other. Why don’t we get both economies of scale and at the same time achieve economies of mass production by using this huge factory of a shipyard? So they’re actually quite related concepts.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. When you talk with nuclear power experts, it always comes down to money– how much cheaper one form of energy is than the other, and right now, wind and solar produce energy very cheaply– so what is your argument about the cost analysis of building these nuclear plants?

NICK TOURAN: Well, certainly, nuclear construction needs to improve in order to stay in the game because it’s true, wind and solar have fallen in price dramatically over the last just 10 years. Natural gas, the fracked fossil fuel, is still at record low prices. And so nuclear needs to do better.

And the argument basically is that while wind and solar generators– the turbines and the panels– have absolutely decimated in costs, there’s still a system cost associated with them because in the winter there’s a lot less sun than in the summer. And at night, of course, you have to have energy storage systems, whether that be pumped hydro or huge lithium batteries or some other kind of technology to deal with the intermittency.

And so there’s all these people out there doing energy systems modeling. And a conclusion that I’m seeing more and more is that as you go to very deeply decarbonized systems, when you’re actually getting rid of your fracked gas, fossil fuel, backup systems and replacing them with something low-carbon, well, it turns out that if you have a low-carbon firm energy source, whether that be nuclear or geothermal or even fossil with carbon capture, if that ever works, that system as a whole is significantly cheaper than the system that’s just 100% intermittent renewables plus huge batteries or energy storage.

IRA FLATOW: When the Green New Deal was proposed last year, it emphasized wind and solar power, but it left out nuclear. If we aim to be using 100% renewables in the next decade, do you think nuclear power has to be part of that discussion?

NICK TOURAN: I believe if we’re serious about decarbonizing at that scale, then there’s no choice but to have nuclear be part of the discussion. We talk about decarbonizing in 10 or 15 years, but as someone who spends a lot of time looking at energy infrastructure and the scale of this problem, I can tell you that it is extraordinarily challenging to decarbonize at the rates that we need to.

And I’m not talking about decarbonizing the next megawatt, but I’m talking about the whole system, which includes, again, the low-carbon energy storage type and energy shifting technology. Nuclear in the United States makes more than half of our zero-carbon electricity. And so it’s already the climate champion in this country.

And because it can run at night and through the winter at full power, it just absolutely has to be part of the overall story, alongside the incredibly good wind and solar facilities.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Nick I want to thank you for being part of this discussion and bringing up this intriguing possibility about nuclear power.

NICK TOURAN: Thank you very much for having me. It was a pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: Nick Touran, nuclear engineer and reactor physicist working in advanced nuclear in Seattle, Washington.

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