I’ve long been a fan of nuclear power. I know that’s unfashionable to say. It implies that I either don’t care about the future of the human race or don’t care about the environment. But that’s wrong. I do care and I’m open to debate on the issues, especially if you can show me the science. I’ve been an environmentalist almost my entire life. I’ve supported various environmental groups over the years and am currently a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I support the National Park system, nature refuges, clean water regulation, clean air regulation, all those things. I don’t think it’s necessary or justified to trash the earth – our home – in order to build a functioning society. Just the opposite. I believe a clean environment and a healthy ecosystem means a higher quality of life for everyone.
Low environmental impact is one of the primary reasons I support nuclear power. Nuclear power impacts the environment in two primary ways. Mining and waste storage. Both are clearly manageable. Even high level waste can be stored almost indefinitely simply by submerging it in a deep pool of cooled water. Water, earth, stone and concrete are all effective radiation barriers. However, we probably can’t afford to store waste indefinitely, since there is an ongoing cost, however small, for cooling the water and keeping it protected in a secure setting. For truly long term disposal then, there’s Yucca Mountain, a remote, geologically stable site in Nevada that is currently being tunneled and prepared as a waste depository. Yucca Mountain was selected after one of the largest enviromental site studies ever conducted. On the positive side of the impact ledger, nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas causing so much concern around the globe, or any of the other noxious chemical byproducts associated with the burning of fossil fuels (hydrocarbons). In addition, they also have a relatively small ‘footprint’, meaning they don’t take up much space. That can’t be said for solar or wind power systems.
What about the safety issues? What about Chernobyl? That was poor design, pure and simple. The Sovs were repeatedly told their reactor designs and their building designs were unsafe, but the warnings were ignored. They paid the price. Had they simply built concrete containment buildings around all their reactors, something all western reactors have, they would’ve still had a reactor failure but not an environmental disaster. Three Mile Island, for all the media hype and panic that ensued, had essentially no environmental impact. The safety systems worked as planned. What caused the problem was when those systems were manually overridden and shut down. Even then, although the reactor was ruined, only a small amount of radioactive gas was allowed to escape. There’ve been far larger impacts from oil spills, fires, dam failures, or any number of accidents in conventional power systems. As far as I know, not a single person was killed or seriously hurt at TMI. To read the mass media though, you’d have thought the western world was coming to an end. In the mind of the public, however, nuclear power was branded as completely unsafe.
But the times, they are a’changing. According to The Telegraph:
Nuclear power, for so long haunted by the ghosts of Chernobyl, has been making a comeback throughout the rest of the world. Its recovery is being led by countries that do not have historical hang-ups about the dangers of harnessing the power of the atom, and which need reliable sources of electricty to drive their power-hungry industries.
In total, there are 30 nuclear power stations currently under construction around the globe to add to the 438 already in existence. Together they will generate 2610TWh (tera-Watt hours or trillion Watt hours) of power without emitting greenhouse gases. Coal-powered stations generating the same amount of power would spew 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every year.
It also appears that a new generation of reactors is just over the horizon. They may be safer than the existing generation of reactors and also capable of using existing nuclear ‘waste’ for fuel. Italian Nobel Prize winner Carl Rubbia – intellectual heir to Italian Enrico Fermi, who built the world’s first fission reactor at the University of Chicago – is assembling his test reactor near Rome. Acording to The Telegraph:
…the reactor has to be fed with particles from an external source. If the supply of particles is cut off – through a mistake or sabotage – the reactor reverts to its natural state, and switches off.
Dr Kadi said that the new reactor, which is known as an “energy amplifier”, would be able to dispose of waste produced by five conventional reactors, as well as its own. “With this reactor you can put in any type of radioactive waste, as long as you can get it into the right form,” he said. The first live test on the reactor will be conducted soon at the Casaccia Research Centre.
According to the DOE, the US is currently producing 20% of its electricity through nuclear reactors. That’s up from 4.5% as recently as 1973. What keeps us from changing that to 40% or even 80%? Imagine a United States where we produce as much electricty as we could want with almost no environmental impact. What would that mean for our economy and standard of living, much less the environment? It’s within our grasp. All we need is the understanding and the will to do it.
28 thoughts on “Nuclear Power Resurgent”
I find more than a little irony in the fact that the radical environmentalists killed the very technology that could have cured their latest “the world is going end” problem. Even more ironic is that when they killed the nuclear power industry in this country and around the world, they also killed 99.9% of the research into how to safely dispose of nuclear waste.
But, we all know that environmentalism is not a branch of science but a political movement, one I suspect is more interested in worldwide socialism than finding the least economically destructive method for having as clean an environment as possible (and reasonable). Balancing trade-offs is not in their agenda.
If you don’t believe me, look at how the environmentalists have turned against Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology as a replacement for the inetrnal combustion engine in vehicles. It was astonishing how quickly the environmentalists turned on this technology almost the exact instant that Bush started funding Fuel Cell research at the DOE. It could be a coincidence, but a very spooky one.
With the costs of nuclear power ‘back-loaded’ there is a risk that taxpayers will be stuck with the bill, one way or another.
Some other ideas:
1. Control immigration to conserve
2. Build dams north of the tree line in Canada
3. Stop eco-nazi opposition to drilling/mining
4. Double solar efficiency and it gets interesting
5. Coal-to-oil for energy independence
6. Don’t grandfather dirty old coal plants
7. X-Prize style prizes might drive innovation
8. Govt regulation may be biggest obstacle
I agree with your sense of irony. I belonged to the Nature Conservency for many years. Around the mid-90’s they morphed into a more radical form, which is when I stopped supporting them.
environmentalism is not a branch of science but a political movement
This has always been true to degree. It took a political movement to pass necessary legislation. Sadly, too many groups have stopped looking at the science and have simply become luddites.
Indeed, many of the fires that have destroyed vast swaths of old growth forest in the west are directly attributable to the opposition of those groups to any sort of timber clearing. They’ve actually become a self parody, causing the very damage they claim to oppose and destroying the environment they’ve sworn to protect. That seems to always be the fate of a political movement when it is overtaken by idealogues.
look at how the environmentalists have turned against Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology
I truly believe many activist groups, including many NGOs, actually oppose any solution to the problems they pledge to address. For one simple reason. It puts them out of business. Many of these people have careers built around these issues, and gained fame and power because these problems exist. Solving the problem is the last thing they want. Look at all the humanitarian organizations opposed to the removal of Saddam Hussein. Someone explain that to me, if they can.
1. There are lots of good reasons to control immigration.
2. Hydroelectric dams, I assume? Can you contain sufficient water into a resevoir at those altitudes? You’re basically into mountain tops there.
3. I agree. Although both should be done in ecologically prudent ways.
4. Last I looked, photovoltaic cells were only 5% efficient. They’re also expensive and need to be kept clean.
5. Energy independence is great. It’s a great reason to support nuclear power. But coal-to-oil is just the same old hydrocarbon fuel cycle.
6. I agree.
7. Good idea.
8. Which ones?
Nuclear power. Heck, try clean, safe, time tested, non poluting wind-power. They oppose that too. They don’t want to solve problems they want to be problems.
Get past the environmentalists and you have to deal with the mind numbing stupidity of our Federal courts.
According to AP a Federal Court has blocked the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depositary because: “the federal plan does not go far enough to protect people from potential radiation beyond 10,000 years in the future.”
Gegen den dumbheit kampfter die Gotter in vain.
10,000 years in the Future? Civilization is not 10,000 years old. One Dollar held at 3% interest for 10,000 years would accumulate about $10^125 in interest. That is ten followed by 125 zeros.
How much is that? A googol–not Google the search engine–is 1 followed by 100 zeroes = 10^100. but we still have 25 zeros to play with. A trillion (the US GDP is about $10 Trillion) is 10^12 or one followed by 12 zeros. Ten trillion trillions or ten times a trillion squared or the sum of the US GDP for the next Trillion years, without interest and ignoring that all of the stars will have gone out long before that, will yield us 10^25 (these are gobsmacking huge numbers). And 10^125 is ten times a trillion squared times a googol, which is such a huge number that it is idiotic.
It is absolutly moronic to worry about what will happen 10,000 years from now. I will put up the dollar that will solve the problem. They will be able to hire the entire population of China to sit there with tweezers and pick up radioacive atoms one at a time should any be left.
We have as much chance of more nuclear power in my life time as we do of world peace. No, less.
Plant a tree and dump your SUV
I will put up the dollar that will solve the problem. They will be able to hire the entire population of China to sit there with tweezers and pick up radioactive atoms one at a time should any be left.
LMAO on that one!! I’m still laughing.
The main problem with nuclear at the moment is that it’s more expensive than some of the major alternatives. However, sitting here on the East Coast breathing in the particulates from coal-fired plants, I think I could live with reasonable subsidies. If the nuclear industry would only agree on a standard design costs would probably come down considerably in any case. You’re right that the environmentalists didn’t exactly do us (or the environment) any favors by scuttling nuclear power. As pointed out in Bjorn Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” coal-fired plants actually release more radioactivity than nuclear in normal operation because coal typically contains about 2 parts per million of radioactive uranium and thorium. These both happen to be alpha ray emitters, and, therefore, extremely hazardous if you breath them in. The radioactive hazard remaining in the waste from running a coal plant for 30 years actually exceeds that from a nuclear plant after a little over 500 years, because the nuclear plant waste decays at a much faster rate. When you consider that, on top of that, the coal plant waste won’t be in Yucca Mountain or some other depository, but simply floating around out there in the environment in the form of ash, the choice seems obvious. I have a degree in nuclear engineering, but never actually worked in the field. The prospects looked too dim. The antics of the environmentalists when I was in school first made me consider the possibility that they were more interested in posing as the saviors of the environment than in actually saving it.
The white elephant in the room, with regards to environmentalists, is that the die hard fanatics are committed to limiting development here and abroad. The real fear behind environmentalism, the driving force, is the triumph of capitalism and the industrialization of the planet.
As to nuclear power, I find the case for the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor convincing:
Some promising research in renewable energy:
Turning chicken shit into fuel, seriously…
A big damn chimney. Coolest looking, expensive as hell but bad ass project to create energy from renewable sources.
Helian: “The antics of the environmentalists when I was in school first made me consider the possibility that they were more interested in posing as the saviors of the environment than in actually saving it.”
You got it.
j. scott: This is not a techincal problem read what Helian wrote read my first 2 paragraphs. Its a mental health problem.
OOOPs. I am sorry. I meant to take reponsibility for the previous post.
Nuclear power — what’s not to like?
Our friend “Arbor Day” captures some of the anti-nuke zeitgeist: Never mind growth, never mind rational analysis, never mind tradeoffs; let’s ban what we don’t like and spend our efforts on feel-good symbolism.
I just finished Lomborg and i’m a bit skeptical about the relative cost of nuclear energy. The big cost is the initial investment. But my memory of the discussion of Indian Point 2 says that the initial investment is over 1/2 legal fees to fight the environmentalists. Have you seen a more recent cost breakdown? Or maybe one for, say, France, which didn’t have the legal hassles?
Matya no baka
I worked in nuclear power for 6 years and constantly find myself having to explain to even very educated and very bright people the most basic concepts behind how it all works….there is an irrational fear that grips most americans whenever the words “nuclear” or “radiation” are used….
Three Mile Island…our countries “worst” nuclear “accident” (although this isn’t the worst one..I can tell you about the worse ones if you want to know) is the poster child for nuclear fear mongering in our country and 99.9% of americans or more can’t even say what the biological/environmental consequences were of that accident….if they DID actually read a report on it, many would be of the mind “that’s it???” or at least much more so than they are today…
If Japan of all countries can get over it and use nuclear power, ANYBODY should be able to….
I’ve been out of the field for more than 20 years, and I really have nothing better to go on than Lomborg’s numbers at the moment. Clearly litigation costs are very substantial. I do recall that the overall costs of some of the plants built in the Midwest before nuclear power became a major issue for the environmentalists compared very favorably to coal and other alternatives. Their cost of electricity was the cheapest around. It would be nice if we could finesse the whole problem with fusion, but, so far, mother nature hasn’t made things very easy for us there. It’s clear we can generate fusion energy using either the magnetic or inertial confinement approach, but, either way, it looks like it will be very expensive. On the other hand, if fusion had been easy we probably would have blown ourselves up with pure fusion weapons by now.
“..It would be nice if we could finesse the whole problem with fusion…”
I agree…Dr. Octopus why have you forsaken us!!!!
Michael Hiteshew wrote:
Try 12-15% for typical silicon cells, and rain does a good enough job of cleaning most of them.Not that the conversion efficiency matters with our present constraints; what matters is $/W. Solar PV is way too expensive at current prices, but there are so many advances coming out of labs (from titanium dioxide nanoparticles to chlorophyll-based systems extracted from spinach) that it is unlikely in the extreme that the cost will fail to tumble soon.
“Not that conversion efficiency matters…”
I’d say it probably does matter. Even with conversion efficiencies of 30% to 40%, you’d have to pave a state the size of Minnesota with solar panels to replace our current electric production capacity. That might conceivably be cost effective, many of the panels could be mounted on buildings, or super-conducting lines might carry the juice from some remote spot, etc., but I can’t see how producing that many chips and the infrastructure needed to mount them and transport the electricity to consumers would be environmentally benign. It’s certainly not out of the question, though.
Current US electric generation capacity is roughly 900 GW. If you assume it all runs at 100% 24/7, you want to replace all the energy with solar PV and you have an effective 6 hours/day of solar generation, you’ll need 3.6 TW of peak capacity.
The solar flux on a clear day is roughly 1000 W/m^2 at the ground. At 30% conversion efficiency, the panels would output 300 W/m^2 or 300 MW/km^2. To get 3.6 TW would require 12,000 km^2 of area (land area of Minnesota is 206,190 km^2).
I’ve read that buildings in the USA already cover an area equivalent to Ohio (106,055 km^2). Cover their roofs with PV material of even 15% efficiency, and they’d supply enough total energy to replace everything else we use. The problem is that the generation costs too much and our storage technology is not up to the task of covering nights and cloudy periods. If technical advances make solar electricity cheaper than fossil, there will be large advantages in making storage cheaper. I expect this to drive technological advances as well as mere changes in practice, e.g. using cheap daytime power to make ice and using the ice to cover A/C needs the balance of the time.
(The censorious HTML screwer-upper deleted all the links in my post because they didn’t meet its picky quoting requirements. Took me ages to figure out what it wanted. How about a hints link?)
An HTML explanation for the comments is a good idea. I’m not sure that I understand all the rules myself, except that things usually work OK if you enclose your links in double quotes.
You make a persuasive case, except it’s all based on “if”. If we triple the efficiency of PV cells. If we develop the storage capacity. If we all install heat exchangers. It seems we would need to completely redesign the electricity grid in the US as well.
Michael, what’s with the non-sequiturs?
Er, why? If all we’re doing is covering surfaces that are already roofed over, what does the efficiency matter? Even at 10% efficiency we would make our 900 GW average before we’d covered 1/3 of our Ohio’s-worth of existing man-made surface. (This only applies to fixed applications, of course. For mobile and portable, area does matter. However, there was a recent discovery of a method of using quantum dots to turn excess photon energy into additional free electrons in Pb-Se semiconductor; the researchers believe that this method has the potential to yield 60% efficiency. At that point it makes sense to cover your car with the stuff.)
Our biggest summer peak load is air conditioning, and I don’t see ice being an expensive storage medium anywhere on Earth. The rest will follow; oversupply leads to low spot prices which leads to arbitrage.
What does that have to do with electric power?
Again, why? I could see this if you were trying to supply Chicago’s immediate loads from collectors in Arizona, but if you’re using solar to make ice for A/C and charge plug-in hybrid cars you can use local resources when and as they are available and not bother with transmission (save perhaps between the city and suburbs).
If we all install heat exchangers.
What does that have to do with electric power?
That was reference to your suggestion that we replace AC with ice. It’s a heat exchange process.
It seems we would need to completely redesign the electricity grid in the US as well.
Well, let’s look at this realistically. We can’t use every roof for solar cells. On some roofs the pitch will be so great that the incident angle of light will be so small that the efficiency will drop to only a couple of percent. Other roofs will be well shaded. On still other roofs, say a skyscraper, the area of the roof will be very small compared to the electricty demands of the building underneath. So now we’re looking at power sharing arrangements. Each ‘supplier’, meaning each building with a solar collector, will need to be able to either draw from or supply to the grid as needed. That will require a major redesign of how the power grid works.
Then there are financial issues. Who owns the common grid? Who is reponsible for upkeep? My guess is that we’d still need our private power utility companies to own and maintain grids. We’d need a whole new set of financial arrangements though.
How, for example, do you decide what power is available to the larger community? How does the factory, which needs to run 24 hrs/day, draw on stored power at night? Is the power stored in my batteries mine or the community’s? Maybe the batteries aren’t mine. Maybe they’d belong to the utility.
You’re not talking about tweaking the existing system. What you describe is a whole new paradigm.
BTW, I’m all for electric cars. It’s one of the reasons I believe we should make electricty as cheap and environmentally friendly as possible. Building more nuclear power plants achieves this quite nicely, and it doesn’t require a whole new paradigm to implement.
Hi all –
Michael Hiteshew emailed me at nuclear.com, asking about figures on what percent of a nuclear power plant’s capitalization costs are litigation driven.
It’s important to remember that the old AEC and NRC licensing process was based on an adjudicatory model. Construction permits were typically granted with design work only 10-20% complete. The licensing board for each plant was an integral part of the process, and would have been associated with bigtime decisions and costs even if no intervenors entered. “Litigation” outside of the administrative law processes was, as best I recall, pretty trivial, cost-wise, since the courts deferred to the regulatory agency on everything except process.
The main costs associated with licensing was said to be the delay between time construction ended and operating license was granted. This was closely tracked by NRC, Congress and industry, especially in the early 1980s. The biggest figure I recall attributed to this delay was an industry-wide $3-billion, based on a projection of 13 plants being delayed a total of 90 plant-months. This was the anticipation in early 1981. But it was an overly pessimistic projection, because it was based on overly optimistic projections by the utilities on when their plants would be completed. I do recall even higher figures for total plant-months, but never saw bigger number than the $3-billion, which was based on the cost of purchasing replacement power.
Best wishes to all, and Mike — it was a pleasure to get your message,
“The solar flux on a clear day is roughly 1000 W/m^2 at the ground…”
You’re overstating your case a bit there, poet. The solar constant (power per unit area normal to the direction of propagation of the radiation) in space is only 1370 W/m^2. Your 1000 W/m^2 figure is the amount of radiation received on the surface on a clear day when the sun is directly overhead. Of course, it’s not always a clear day, and the sun is not always directly overhead. The actual average incoming solar energy per unit area at the earth’s surface is something under 250 W/m^2. The maxima and minima of the radiation won’t correspond exactly with the times of peak electric demand, so it will be necessary to store energy, with consequent loss. The locations of greatest demand won’t necessarily correspond with the areas of optimum irradiation, necessitating transport of the energy, and further loss. When you start adding all these inevitable losses together, I think my Minnesota-sized area is probably more realistic than your 12,000 km^2. It’s true that solar panels could be mounted on buildings, but it would probably be more efficient to use the incoming energy to heat the building directly instead, so it would probably be more effective to mount at least some of the panels elsewhere, necessitation construction of the necessary mounts, etc., as I mentioned earlier. As I said before, it all seems doable, but I doubt it will be entirely environmentally benign.
Here is the link to the U.S. Solar Radiation Resource Maps.
But like I said it is not a technical problem, its an educational problem.
Yes, that’s true IF you are averaging over the entire globe, over seasons and over the day/night cycle. There are some places which get quite a bit less and others which get more. The economic attractiveness of solar schemes will certainly be higher in areas which get more sunlight rather than less.
Areas which get less often tend to be windy, so they are not lost causes for renewable energy.
Not necessarily. If the price differential isn’t enough to pay for the storage, then it won’t be done. Another possibility is that someone with a non-time-sensitive use will shift their time of use to the time of cheapest power (which would be during daylight rather than at night as it is now) to take advantage of the cost savings.
So is the air conditioner itself; even a window unit has two heat exchangers, with air on one side and refrigerant on the other. Lots of commercial and industrial buildings have systems which use a second fluid, typically water-glycol, to chill “fan coils” some distance away from the refrigeration plant.
More to the point, ice storage has been used by some large customers to take advantage of off-peak electric prices for many years now. Nothing prevents this from moving down to the individual consumer except flat-rate electric pricing, which makes it pointless for the consumer by giving all the benefits to the utility.
(You really need to be clearer. I thought you meant air-to-air heat exchangers, of the kind which are used to bring fresh air into tightly-sealed buildings without losing lots of heat.)
Okay, on those roofs the productivity of solar roofing will be lower, perhaps so low as to be uneconomical. People will probably roof those areas with something cheaper, like current materials.
The present system allows buildings to draw from the grid, or not, as needed. The only difference is that the direction of flow may reverse (as it already does in some grid-connected solar and wind systems with net metering). I still don’t see how you get to this conclusion:
I don’t get it. The wires work the same. The transformers work the same (a volt-amp is a volt-amp). You need meters which can measure bidirectional flows (a fait accompli), and perhaps the utility will have to provide real-time spot and futures markets in both real and reactive power where customers are bidding for juice or taking bids on their excess and the utility takes its brokerage fee on the transactions.
The name of this site is Chicago Boyz, isn’t it? I thought that most of the people posting here would have an intuitive attraction to and feel for markets. Perhaps I was wrong.
By offering it on the market instead of using it yourself? How do you decide what stocks are available to the larger community?
Perhaps by locking in long-term contracts on the futures markets, from suppliers whose plants can supply power 24/7 (like your nuclear utility). Perhaps they only do this for the machinery that needs electricity all the time, and bargain-hunt for the power to run their ice-storage cooling and A/C systems. Maybe they have a process which uses low-pressure steam, and co-generate electricity by putting high-pressure steam through a turbine; they either use the juice themselves or sell it on the market. Possibilities abound.
You may be surprised to learn that these folks (who are affiliated with EPRI) are way ahead of you. There is no particular reason why the batteries in an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle need to be owned by the vehicle owner, and the services (storage and grid regulation) which can be supplied by the batteries under utility control can pay for the batteries and even make a profit.
One of the consequences of rapid technological advance is that people don’t fully grasp the enormity of what is possible right now, let alone in the near term. A lot of these objections have already been addressed, the task now is to get the word out and get the politicians, regulators and engineers working. As I said last month, one of the biggest reasons that things don’t improve is that not enough people realize that it can actually be done.
Incidentally, there is a similar discussion on FuturePundit.
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