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Going Nuclear
Posted by: Dale Franks on Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss write in Wired that if we truly want a "Green" source of energy, then nuclear power is the only way currently to have it.
The consequences aren't pretty. Burning coal and other fossil fuels is driving climate change, which is blamed for everything from western forest fires and Florida hurricanes to melting polar ice sheets and flooded Himalayan hamlets. On top of that, coal-burning electric power plants have fouled the air with enough heavy metals and other noxious pollutants to cause 15,000 premature deaths annually in the US alone, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study. Believe it or not, a coal-fired plant releases 100 times more radioactive material than an equivalent nuclear reactor - right into the air, too, not into some carefully guarded storage site. (And, by the way, more than 5,200 Chinese coal miners perished in accidents last year.)

Burning hydrocarbons is a luxury that a planet with 6 billion energy-hungry souls can't afford. There's only one sane, practical alternative: nuclear power.

We now know that the risks of splitting atoms pale beside the dreadful toll exacted by fossil fuels. Radiation containment, waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable problems in a way that global warming is not. Unlike the usual green alternatives - water, wind, solar, and biomass - nuclear energy is here, now, in industrial quantities. Sure, nuke plants are expensive to build - upward of $2 billion apiece - but they start to look cheap when you factor in the true cost to people and the planet of burning fossil fuels. And nuclear is our best hope for cleanly and efficiently generating hydrogen, which would end our other ugly hydrocarbon addiction - dependence on gasoline and diesel for transport.
I have been arguing this for years. Solar power, geothermal energy, and windmills are just pipe dreams. And while we're dreaming of them--as we have been for 25 years, 15,000 people a year in the US are dying from coal usage.

The number of Americans that have died as the result of nuclear power generation? 0.
The granola crowd likes to talk about conservation and efficiency, and surely substantial gains can be made in those areas. But energy is not a luxury people can do without, like a gym membership or hair gel. The developed world built its wealth on cheap power - burning firewood, coal, petroleum, and natural gas, with carbon emissions the inevitable byproduct.

Indeed, material progress can be tracked in what gets pumped out of smokestacks. An hour of coal-generated 100-watt electric light creates 0.05 pounds of atmospheric carbon, a bucket of ice makes 0.3 pounds, an hour's car ride 5. The average American sends nearly half a ton of carbon spewing into the atmosphere every month. Europe and Japan are a little more economical, but even the most remote forest-burning peasants happily do their part.

And the worst - by far - is yet to come. An MIT study forecasts that worldwide energy demand could triple by 2050. China could build a Three Gorges Dam every year forever and still not meet its growing demand for electricity. Even the carbon reductions required by the Kyoto Protocol - which pointedly exempts developing countries like China - will be a drop in the atmospheric sewer.

What is a rapidly carbonizing world to do? The high-minded answer, of course, is renewables. But the notion that wind, water, solar, or biomass will save the day is at least as fanciful as the once-popular idea that nuclear energy would be too cheap to meter. Jesse Ausubel, director of the human environment program at New York's Rockefeller University, calls renewable energy sources "false gods" - attractive but powerless. They're capital- and land-intensive, and solar is not yet remotely cost-competitive.
The other problem with solar, and one the greens rarely want to talk about is that, even if you could create perfectly efficient room-temperature superconductors to gather solar power, it would still be too land-intensive to be profitable. The sun is a huge source of energy, but by the time that energy actually strikes the ground, it's so attenuated as to be fairly useless as an industrial energy source. On a bright, sunny day, we receive about 833 watts of power per square yard. In California, peak power usage is 36,000 megawatts (36,000,000,000 watts). Do the math.

And while you're doing it, don't forget the power it takes to make solar collectors. Oh, and throw in the fact that the manufacturing process requires the use of highly poisonous arsenides of various stripes, that also have to be disposed of. Oh, and the average mass-produced solar panel captures less than 10% of the power it receives. So, now your down to less than 83 watts per square yard.

Then you've got cloudy, overcast days. And don't forget night, when solar power generation is useless.

Sorry, but if you want cheap, clean, earth-friendly power, nuclear energy is the only available source of it.

UPDATE:

Reader RAZ points to another fascinating article in Wired by Spencer Reiss about the new "pebble bed" nuclear reactors the Chinese are building.
In the air-conditioned chill of the visitors' area, a grad student runs through the basics. Instead of the white-hot fuel rods that fire the heart of a conventional reactor, HTR-10 is powered by 27,000 billiards-sized graphite balls packed with tiny flecks of uranium. Instead of superhot water - intensely corrosive and highly radioactive - the core is bathed in inert helium. The gas can reach much higher temperatures without bursting pipes, which means a third more energy pushing the turbine. No water means no nasty steam, and no billion-dollar pressure dome to contain it in the event of a leak. And with the fuel sealed inside layers of graphite and impermeable silicon carbide - designed to last 1 million years - there's no steaming pool for spent fuel rods. Depleted balls can go straight into lead-lined steel bins in the basement.

Zhang Zuoyi, the project's 42-year-old director, explains why. The key trick is a phenomenon known as Doppler broadening - the hotter atoms get, the more they spread apart, making it harder for an incoming neutron to strike a nucleus. In the dense core of a conventional reactor, the effect is marginal. But HTR-10's carefully designed geometry, low fuel density, and small size make for a very different story. In the event of a catastrophic cooling-system failure, instead of skyrocketing into a bad movie plot, the core temperature climbs to only about 1,600 degrees Celsius - comfortably below the balls' 2,000-plus-degree melting point - and then falls. This temperature ceiling makes HTR-10 what engineers privately call walk-away safe. As in, you can walk away from any situation and go have a pizza.
And that last line isn't theoretical. They've actually done it, by the simple expediant of turning off the cooling system and watching what happened.

Nothing, other than slow cooling.

Moreover, this is not a new idea. it's been possible to do this since the 1950s. It just that...well...nobody's been doing it.

The big plus for these plants is that they can be built out of modular parts, and shipped anywhere they are needed. No more $2 billion on-site construction projects. Best of all, because they can be used for high-temperature chemistry, they can be used to produce hydrogen from water with 60% efficiency.

Very impressive.

Why weren't we doing this 40 years ago?
 
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Comments
I was going to point out my ire with the TV show "24", because apparently the current plotline is a terrorist attack that could cause nuclear power plants to melt down (or something) and kill thousands of people.
We're getting to the point where people care enough about reducing emissions to give nuclear another look and they go and write a stupid, unlikely, unuseful plotline like that.

And let's get one thing straight: power demand always grows faster than supply.
With enough cheap/free power, you can do anything: incinerate garbage without pollution! Purify food and pharmaceuticals! Drive huge vehicles that are convenient and powerful! Keep your house at the most comfortable temperature! Pure water for everyone!
Almost everything that we could do is limited by cost feasibility due to limitations on power. If we could build a million nuclear power plants, we would have enough energy to redefine "poverty" to mean "have to wear clothes twice before throwing away" for the entire population. Not to mention colonizing the moon, terraforming Mars, curing most diseases....
We need more power, Scotty!
 
Written By: Nathan
URL: http://brain.mu.nu/
And how far away are we from the day where we can dispose of nuclear waste in cheap space barges launched at the sun? One can imagine that these too would be atomic-powered...

 
Written By: David Andersen
URL: http://
Well, yeah but ... "NO WAR FOR ENRICHED URANIUM" just doesn't have the same ring to it. Not to mention the paltry number of things that rhyme with "uranium": geranium, planetarium, barium, etc. You see the problem.
 
Written By: MichaelW
URL: http://
You're trying to educate a public that thinks a word that's pronounced , "nu-clee-rrrr" is really pronounced "nuke-u-ler" (unfortunately a certain President I voted for sometimes is of the same belief.....).

Try getting these tree huggin Waldos to understand that Nuke-Plant Accident does NOT equal Mushroom Cloud and a vaporized city (or for the NIMBY crowd a Mushroom cloud and vaporized collection of steers and coyotes up in a SomedangwherewayawayfrommyhouseVille Montana).

Then too, count on the average cost of a Nuke plant being considerably higher than that friendly old coal plant because of the endless court battles as the nearby residents (Clamshell alliance as a classic example) drag construction into the next century (which in 2005 really is going to mean a lot....).
And THEN, these same clowns will point out how much MORE a nuke plant costs!

Besides Jane Fonda told me that that thar Nuke plant could melt down and would burn a hole right clear thru to the center of the earth's core even if it didn't explode and fry half of Nuuuu-Joysee.
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
You are aware, of course, that this mode of discussion will keep you on the margins of society?? Oh well!!

It was 25 years or more ago that my father introduced me to Access to Energy and the pointed opinions of Dr. Petr Beckmann. I now am the keeper of 2, large binders of these newsletters and I find much of the discussion as good today as back then. Somehow Dr. Beckmann continued at C.U. somrething that was hard to believe back then and now. The newsletter has been continued, see http://www.accesstoenergy.com/ and a CD of previous newsletters is availible.
 
Written By: Ed Morris
URL: http://
Please specify that we should build nuclear fission plants, which we know how to do and have long experience doing; and not wait for the ability to build nuclear fusion plants, which are still theoretical.

Ths "solution" of launching rad-waste into the sun is -- forgive me -- un-green and ill informed. If you refine the stuff to a concentration allowing it to be launched in some sort of space capsule you might as well drop that capsule in an ocean trench where it will eventually return to the Earth's core -- nearly as hot as the sun and working WITH Mother Gaea's natural gravity instead of AGAINST her.

 
Written By: pouncer
URL: http://
Nice one, pouncer! I never really considered that approach, but it makes sense on the face of it.
 
Written By: Nathan
URL: http://brain.mu.nu/
Try getting these tree huggin Waldos to understand that Nuke-Plant Accident does NOT equal Mushroom Cloud and a vaporized city
It's not the mushroom clouds. It's the 50 Foot Tall Women, the Giant Tarantulas, and the irradiated spiders whose merest bite can force you to wear tights for the rest of your life.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
There are many liberals who share your very views, and I am among them. Also, the EU, which is decidedly more liberal than the US, has been using nuclear power for decades without incident, to a much larger extent than the US. If we really want to free ourselves from foreign oil, nulcear power, powering electric cars is the way to go.
 
Written By: Liberal Nick
URL: http://
There are many liberals who share your very views, and I am among them. Also, the EU, which is decidedly more liberal than the US, has been using nuclear power for decades without incident, to a much larger extent than the US. If we really want to free ourselves from foreign oil, nulcear power, powering electric cars is the way to go.
 
Written By: Liberal Nick
URL: http://
You're trying to educate a public that thinks a word that's pronounced , "nu-clee-rrrr" is really pronounced "nuke-u-ler" (unfortunately a certain President I voted for sometimes is of the same belief.....).

It's a regional dialect. My father -- a brilliant man by any accounts -- says it the wrong way. He's from the bayous of New Orleans. I tease him about it once in a while.


Pouncer's take on the use of rockets to blast spent fuel to the sun is excellent. Launch vehicles fail often enough to make such a plan unacceptably risky. Drop it into the sea, back to the magma from whence it came.
 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://steverino.journalspace.com/
How about "Pebble" nuclear reactors, as described in Spencer Preiss' article for Wired. To quote from that article (see http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.09/china.html):
"Physicists and engineers at Beijing's Tsinghua University have made the first great leap forward in a quarter century, building a new nuclear power facility that promises to be a better way to harness the atom: a pebble-bed reactor. A reactor small enough to be assembled from mass-produced parts and cheap enough for customers without billion-dollar bank accounts. A reactor whose safety is a matter of physics, not operator skill or reinforced concrete. And, for a bona fide fairy-tale ending, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is labeled hydrogen."
According to the author, the China Syndrome scenario is scientifically impossible!
 
Written By: RAZ
URL: http://
Well shit Pouncer, I'm not a rocket scientist, I'm a regular old rube; I thought that up all on my own Why it would be un-green I fail to see. Impractical perhaps.
 
Written By: David Andersen
URL: http://
I think the cost of nuclear is driven up by the oil industry. They don't want the competition.
 
Written By: John Gillnitz
URL: http://www.fractalcrayons.com/USCityZen
David
I think the issue would be a catastrophic failure during launch or while climbing out of the gravity well.

Never makes orbit and debris falls along the flight path, or worst of all, does make orbit and then drops back into the atmosphere for a fiery return to the planet in an unfortunate place (spewing who knows what as it burns it's way across the sky). Doesn't take more than 1 of those fiery return accidents to piss off everybody on a global scale.
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
The Right will lose their reputation as gap-toothed moronic in-breds when the abandon the practice of making every new (to you) idea an opportunity to trash the Left.
 
Written By: jri
URL: http://
And Jon!
I saw a commercial with one of them 50 foot tall women recently (some blue jean commercial?). Sign me up to become a 50 foot tall man please......(and don't say nuthin bout this to Mrs. Looker of course....)

Jri - yep, all this talk of magma, and pebble beds, fusion and fission and such sure does hurt my gap-toothed moronic in-bred brain.

 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
I think the cost of nuclear is driven up by the oil industry. They don't want the competition.

No offense John Gillnitz, but this is a terribly incomplete thought. Why wouldn't the oil companies, instead of using their money to erect barriers to entry in the energy industry, simply put their money into buying nuclear technology? Instead of standing around fearing the competition, they would be the competition. It's a waste of money paying off politicians and lobbyists in order to prevent nuclear capacity from expanding when that same money could be used to corner the nuclear market.

The biggest problem as I understand it is that there isn't enough of an incemtive for anyone to build nuclear reactors -- i.e. too much regulation; too much bad PR; too little profit from the venture.
 
Written By: MichaelW
URL: http://
" I think the issue would be a catastrophic failure during launch or while climbing out of the gravity well."

Well sure, if we leave it to NASA. I don't imagine this is just around the corner, but I gotta believe someday launching whatever into space will be a benign yawner of an event.
 
Written By: David Andersen
URL: http://
Ah, NASA - the guys who, when they barely knew what they were doing took us to the moon, but NOW, when the KNOW what they're doing, give us a semi-usable Space Shuttle.
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
Well sure, if we leave it to NASA.

Hate to nitpick, David, but not all launches are run by NASA. I've seen some DoD launches fail, sometimes in spectacular fashion. And a few satellites whose boosters didn't explode were injected into synchronous orbit somewhere below sea level in the middle of the Pacific.

There are better ways -- less expensive and more reliable ways -- to dispose of the waste matter than trying to launch them into space.
 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://steverino.journalspace.com/
Well let me substitute "government" for NASA then. In other words, an entity with minimal incentive (though not zero incentive) to execute effectively.

Anyway, if it's not painfully clear, I'm not an expert on this stuff. I'm not even a crappy novice. Maybe a decent ignoramus.
 
Written By: David Andersen
URL: http://
I believe the Rocky Mountain Institute has done cost comparison: coal vs oil vs nuclear vs
solar etc. Why are we in Iraq? Suspected weapons of mass destruction. Crucial component of nuclear weapons? Plutonium. Where do you get plutonium? Fission reactors. Check out how much plutonium the U.S. can't account for right now. Where are we going to put all this plutonium? Let's put it in your back yard. The government has subsidized nuclear research (our money) for 50-60 years. Probably over a 100 billion dollars. Let's not follow other technological backward countries like Germany and Japan. They're jumping on the solar bandwagon. What do they know? Look how much better our engineering is than theirs. Ooooops. Remember, back in the 1950's, when made in Japan was inferior quality? I get that same feeling now when the product says made in the U.S.A.
 
Written By: gary demos
URL: http://
I myself design controls for wind turbines, and generally am not crazy about nuclear energy. It does have a nice upside, but the downsides are enormous. It is a very high-risk/high-reward source that requires a lot of foresight and stability, something humans are not particularly good it.

Also, it is a little known fact (unfortunately) that nuclear only survives economically by the grace of the Price-Anderson Act, which puts around 90% of the cost of a meltdown on the government (taxpayers). Private insurance companies won't touch it otherwise. Other energy sources get subsidies too, but this one's a doozy. Becuse of this, nuclear energy cannot even begin to compete in a truly deregulated market. It is in fact the energy source most dependent on massive government support.

As a reasonably informed energy scientist, I would say that solar (with hydrogen or super capacitor storage) is probably where it is at if you could look 500 years from now. Making the solar cells is expensive and messy, but after that everything is gravy: distributed and visually clean. All energy is essentially solar energy anyway, it only makes sense to grab it up front, when it first enters our closed system.
 
Written By: ted brekken
URL: http://
I myself design controls for wind turbines, and generally am not crazy about nuclear energy. It does have a nice upside, but the downsides are enormous. It is a very high-risk/high-reward source that requires a lot of foresight and stability, something humans are not particularly good it.

Also, it is a little known fact (unfortunately) that nuclear only survives economically by the grace of the Price-Anderson Act, which puts around 90% of the cost of a meltdown on the government (taxpayers). Private insurance companies won't touch it otherwise. Other energy sources get subsidies too, but this one's a doozy. Becuse of this, nuclear energy cannot even begin to compete in a truly deregulated market. It is in fact the energy source most dependent on massive government support.

As a reasonably informed energy scientist, I would say that solar (with hydrogen or super capacitor storage) is probably where it is at if you could look 500 years from now. Making the solar cells is expensive and messy, but after that everything is gravy: distributed and visually clean. All energy is essentially solar energy anyway, it only makes sense to grab it up front, when it first enters our closed system.
 
Written By: ted brekken
URL: http://
sorry about the double post.
 
Written By: ted brekken
URL: http://
Ted -
Read the article about 'pebble bed' reactors. It sounds like the costs of meltdown are going to be wiped away for good.

 
Written By: David Andersen
URL: http://
Yes I just read the Wired piece. Interesting. If indeed these reactors are as idiot-proof as the article says, that would go a long way economically for nuclear power. (Note however that the information comes from Bjorn Lomborg, darling of the anti-greens and not really an impartial source.) You still have waste issues though (active for hundreds of thousands of years), and a 'salting of the earth' effect that all nuclear plant campuses have. And the fuel is still a localized source that requires intensive, destructive mining operations and can be hoarded by governments, setting up conflicts (sounds familiar). The hydrogen byproduct is cool though, though you can do that with solar too (lower efficieny, but when it's solar, who cares?)

Not to sound down on the advances of the nuclear tech though. It is clearly going to be here for a while (at least another 50 years) so any advances in safety are welcome. But I still think, if you are talking dominant energy source of the future (in the post fossil fuel age), when you make the pro-con list solar still comes out on top. It just has so many fewer liabilities and question marks.
 
Written By: ted brekken
URL: http://
"Making the solar cells is expensive and messy, but after that everything is gravy: distributed and visually clean."

Except that solar cells don't last forever or anything close, so you can't discount the cost of manufacturing or re-manufacturing like that. Solar power is a great distributed technology for secondary power generation, but its a horrible primary generation mechanism.
 
Written By: Jeff the Baptist
URL: http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com

 
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