Tuesday, May 23, 2006


May 23, 2006
Pebble Bed Technology and the Uranium Super Bullby Sol Palha
"Ability hits the mark where presumption overshoots and diffidence falls short." - John Henry Newman 1801-1890, British Religious Leader, Prelate, Writer
China has come up with a new nuclear technology called "pebble bed technology". Essentially power plants built with this technology could only do one thing if something went wrong and that would be to shut down. It would be impossible for these reactors to explode or melt down. The idea is rather simple. Balls of Uranium power these reactors and each ball of uranium is wrapped in an incredibly strong layer of silicon carbide. These spheres have a much higher melting point then the temperature inside the reactor could ever reach. So essentially it would be impossible for the reactor to meltdown or explode. This technology is in the test phase but if it works out as envisioned China will leap frog ahead of the US in this area and then one wonders if they would not export this technology to countries that could help them meet their energy needs. One such country is Iran; in 2003 Iran alone supplied China with over 14% of its oil needs. This figure is definitely substantially higher today. China is desperate for energy and they openly admit to this; when one is desperate for something one is willing to trade almost anything.
"We need every type of energy," says Zhang Zuoyi, head of the institute that helps run the pebblebed test reactor. "We are hungry." China's leaders won't listen to naysayers. They can't afford to.
Another point of interest is that China is about to embark on the biggest nuclear power building plant spree ever undertaken by any nation. Their goal is to derive roughly 4-5% of their Energy needs from Nuclear Power in the next 15 years. While this might sound small when compared to other nations this simple plan means that China will need to build roughly 45 nuclear plants in 15 years or about 3 plants every year. Imagine what effect this will have on uranium prices. Off course in the next few years they could come out with even better technology, which might mean even more nuclear plants. Right now the limiting factor is that no one has thought of coming up with a nuclear power plant assembly line. We are positive that one nation will adopt this idea and when they do installing a new plant will be something that takes months instead of years.
China's new pebble bed technology might be one of the reasons India is not too worried about the nuclear deal falling through with the United States. Not only is this technology superior but also it will most likely cost a lot less and they will not be pushed into a position of having to forcefully take a stance against Iran. Increasingly it appears that more nations are willing to stand up to the US and as the saying goes there is strength in numbers.
China is positioned to leapfrog the world in nuclear power precisely because it entered the race late. Until now, the country has built a hodgepodge of reactors with different technologies and safety features. But recently top leaders decided to build a newer infrastructure virtually from scratch based on the most advanced, and safest, technologies. Although the pebble-bed reactor is not yet ready for prime time, the government is buying equipment and designs that have never been built before. China plans to choose one design of three submitted by Areva of France, Atomstroy export of Russia and Westinghouse Electric for an $8 billion program to build reactors in the eastern province of Zhejiang. (Some industry experts say Areva will probably win, especially since the Chinese government may bristle at the recent takeover bid by Japan's Toshiba on Westinghouse.) The Chinese plan to work closely with the winner to learn how to design and operate the reactors. The goal is to use this technology as the basis for subsequent Chinese plants.
The most likely technology to export, of course, is the pebble bed reactor. All reactors, including the pebble bed, use uranium fuel to produce heat that is used to turn electrical turbines. In conventional so-called light-water reactors, the heat is generated by thousands of fixed metallic rods, which require elaborate cooling systems to keep them from overheating and backup cooling systems in case the primary ones fail. Furthermore, a conventional reactor must be housed in a concrete containment vessel to mitigate damage in case it overheats. In the pebble bed reactor, thousands of tennis-ball-size spheres coated in layers of silicon carbide, ceramic material and graphite each contain thousands of granules of the fuel, uranium dioxide. Because the pebbles dissipate heat so efficiently, say the designers, the fuel inside them couldn't possibly get hot enough to penetrate the graphite casing. The pebble-bed reactor, in fact, doesn't even have a containment vessel. Another advantage of pebble beds is that it's easier to make small plants and put them up quickly, which lends itself to China's plan of spreading plants around the hinterlands. Extracting fuel from pebble bed reactors to use for weapons would be difficult and expensive. Full Story
Even Ukraine which had renounced nuclear technology has decided that they need to build at least 15 plants over the next decade to prevent a repeat of the recent energy crisis when Russia cut of gas supplies to Ukraine. Almost every nation is slowly but surely embracing nuclear energy something that was once shunned. While we have many nations focussing on developing new technologies for nuclear power plants no one is spending the time and money needed to find new supplies of uranium and open up new mines. Current demand far outstrips the available supply and one can only imagine the uranium crunch that will be created in years to come unless a massive program to open up new mines and find new supplies of uranium is undertaken shortly. As usual a crisis that could have easily been prevented will be allowed to develop into a full blown disaster before something meaningful is done. The reasons are always the same; key big players are going to make fortune and the expense and misery of others. When the choice comes to down to money or doing the right thing 9 out of 10 times money wins. Hence make sure that you own the right companies and buy them at the right time as they are many useless so called uranium companies out there. One can also buy a great company at the wrong time. In order to win one has to buy at the right time and also sell at the right time.
"The principle of all successful effort is to try to do not what is absolutely the best, but what is easily within our power, and suited for our temperament and condition." - John Ruskin 1819-1900, British Critic, Social Theorist

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