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Nuclear Energy: The Future is Now
Posted by: Dale Franks on Sunday, February 05, 2006

I've mentioned the Chinese pebble bed nuclear reactor project before, and the design is essentially fail-safe. So much so that South Africa has jumped into a similar campaign to build them. And I've also written on the Luddism associated with nuclear power generation fears. Still, some things need to be repeated. I'm prompted to do so today by the new article in Newsweek, updating the Chinese pebble bed reactor program.
Nuclear scientist Chang Wei pointed at the model, which looked like a basement furnace split down the middle, and explained how the design—including 27,000 balls of uranium wrapped in layers of super-strong silicon carbide, ceramic material and graphite—makes it physically impossible for the reactor to do anything but shut down if something goes wrong; the dangerous uranium would be trapped inside the spheres, which have a melting point much higher than the temperature inside the reactor could ever reach...

What makes the pebblebed technology so important is its fail-safe design—it would not be possible for the reactor to melt down or explode like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. The uranium in each sphere can't get hot enough to melt the casing and escape. Also, the main coolant for the system is inert helium, not water, as is used in other types of reactors (water, of course, contains oxygen, which is combustible). As global warming and politics render the world's reliance on fossil fuels problematic, China may in a few short years hold the key to a renaissance in nuclear power.
Granted, China, being an authoritarian society, can ignore public fears of nucelar power in a way the western world cannot. But, that doesn't mean the Chinese government is wrong in this case. In fact, quite the opposite.

With the pebble bed reactor, nearly every single argument against nuclear power evaporates. No meltdowns. No "China Syndrome"—a particularly ironic term in this case—no horrific release of radioactive coolant to seep into ground water.

The only objection that remains is how to deal with spent nuclear waste. But, as I wrote previously:
The amount of waste generated by nuclear power generation is, while dangerous, compact and solid. Compared to the hundreds of thousands of tons of pollution generated by oil and gas generators, it is infinitesimal. A 1000-megawatt plant produces 1 cubic yard of radioactive waste per year. Compare that to a coal plant of similar capacity, which would produce 10 tons of waste per minute.

The waste itself is solid, and would be placed in sealed containers under thousands of feet of solid rock. The opposition to Yucca Mountain, like the opposition to nuclear power itself, is pure, unalloyed Luddism.

Now, the waste that we would produce all over the country would be radioactive enough to kill 10 billion people, if they were exposed to it. Yet somehow, every year we produce enough barium to kill 100 billion people, enough ammonia and hydrogen cyanide to kill 20 trillion people, and enough chlorine to kill 400 trillion. Somehow, we manage to do that without killing anyone. With nuclear waste, ground into power, fused with glass, placed in steel containers, and put in a concrete bunker several hundred feet underground, there's not much chance of anyone being exposed to it.
Additionally, the bottom line is that our refusal to use nuclear power is killing people every year in the United States right now.
A single 1,000 Megawatt coal plant releases something like 600lb carbon dioxide and 30lb sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere per second, and as much nitrogen oxides as 200,000 automobiles, all of which is estimated to cause 25 premature fatalities and 60,000 cases of respiratory complaints per year, per plant. In addition, it has to get rid of 30,000 truck-loads of ash annually—enough to cover a square mile sixty feet deep—full of carcinogens, highly acidic or highly alkaline depending on the kind of coal, and, ironically, emitting more radiation from trace uranium than a nuke is permitted to. That's a real waste-disposal nightmare for you.

The hysteria about toxicity is not justified by anything factual. After its initial on-site cooling-off period (i.e. at the point where it would be transported to a deep-burial site as currently proposed) high-level wastes would be about as toxic as barium or arsenic if ingested, and 1/10th that of ammonia or 1/1000th that of chlorine—which we use liberally to clean our bathtubs and swimming pools— if inhaled.
In addition, the government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory itself reports that:
* Coal-fired generating plants worldwide expose the average person to over 100 times the radioactivity experienced from the nuclear operations. Comparable amounts released by nuclear plants would produce a public outcry.

* If the same standards for containing radioactive releases that are demanded from the nuclear industry were required of coal-burning utilities, coal-burning would cease to be an economic alternative. Coal ash qualifies as radioactive waste but isn't regulated as such.

* Far more nuclear fuel is contained in coal waste than the fuel burned by the nuclear industry (!).

* Coal burning wastes more energy in the form of unrecovered nuclear material than it generates.
Not to mention, of course, the huge amounts of greenhouse gases that coal plants—and natural gas plants—put into ther atmoshphere. And then, of course, there's the millions of tons of solid waste, most of it either highly alkaline, or highly acidic, that pile up every year. And that leaches into ground water, too.

And let's not pretend that there's some other "renewable energy source" like solar power that can replace coal, natural gas, or nuclear power. At sea level, the earth receives 833 watts of energy per square meter. That's it. No matter how efficient your solar collectors are, no matter how much solar energy you can conduct or store, the sun only gives us 833 watts per m2. By contrast, the state of California uses 36 trillion watts of energy at peak usage. Wanna make a guess at the size of the solar power plant it would take to provide that much power?

As it stands now, we can create clean, safe, nuclear power plants, that will eliminate a huge environmental burden. If you are truly an environmentalist, then you have no choice but to support a massively increased nuclear power generating program.

UPDATE: A commenter writes:
Great essay, but are you sure on your solar power generation? I knew the power they generated wasn’t worth the real estate (I live near Altamont Pass), but your analysis sounds extreme. What’s your source? (or show your work!)
Yeah. I'm sure. Actually, I overestimated the amount of energy. I can't show you a single source. This is one of those things you have to know. And you have to do math.

Outside the earth's atmoshphere, when measured on a surface at a right angle to the sun, solar energy provides 1370 W/m2. At the earth's surface, 31% of that energy is reflected back into space, which means that, at peak times of sunlight, at the equator, 943.23 W/m2 hits the earth's surface. But, as the curvature of the earth increases, the amount of energy that reaches the surface of the earth decreases. So, in Southern California, you get a peak of over 800 W/m2. In Oregon, at 40° lattitude, that drops to 600 W/m2. And, of course, those are peak measurements. Over the course of a 24-hour day, the amount of sun that actually reaches the earth's surface at the equator comes out to about 380 W/m2, per day, on average (Remember, you've got your night, then you've got your long periods in the morning and evening when energy is less than peak, because thr surface isn't perpendicular to the sun). In more northern lattitudes, it's south of 200 W/m2 per day.

But, in Oregon, over an 8-hour summer day, that 600 W/m2 provides the same amount of energy as 0.13 gallons of gasoline. In Southern California, that would be the equivalent of getting 0.2 gallons of gasoline per m2 per day.

Interestingly, there is actually an online, real-time Solar Insolation report for Annandale, VA online here. At the time of this writing, today's high solar radiation rate was 334 W/m2. So far, the maximum insolation recorded has been 373 W/m2.

So, that's about the energy equivalent of 0.07 gallons of gasoline per meter over an 8 hour day.

Solar energy might, assuming current costs per kilowatt/hour were halved, be a feasible method of generating some power. But the land requirements still make it prohibitive, and, compared to nuclear, it's just a non-starter.
 
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Comments
If you are truly an environmentalist, then you have no choice but to support a massively increased nuclear power generating program.
Yes, but if instead you belong to the Church of Environmentalism, then it is written in your holy tracts that any use of nuclear power is an offense against Gaia. It does not matter how safe it is, or how dangerous other alternatives are. Let us all chant together: "No nukes!! No nukes!!"
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
"No Nukes!!" is part of the reason. Anti-nuclear weapons and enviromentalists combined movements in the late 70’s early 80’s. One leveraging the images of nuclear war and the other leveraging the events of Three mile island.

But the real reason is that the environmentalists aren’t look for us to have alternatives. They really want us to make sacrifices and suffer for the good of the enviroment.
 
Written By: John
URL: http://
"Nuke the whales! Nuke the whales!"

Great essay, but are you sure on your solar power generation? I knew the power they generated wasn’t worth the real estate (I live near Altamont Pass), but your analysis sounds extreme. What’s your source? (or show your work!)
 
Written By: equitus
URL: http://
"But the real reason is that the environmentalists aren’t look for us to have alternatives. They really want us to make sacrifices and suffer for the good of the enviroment."

That’s certainly an explanation. Not a good one, or an accurate one, but one nonetheless.

In my opinion, the reason why environmentalists are still so anti-nuclear falls into two camps that overlap to varying degrees. The first is the genuine concerns of environmentalists over the dangres inherent in nuclear power generation; this can involve a lot of ignorance over modern day practices and safeguards combined with a fear over what we will do with the waste we generate, which continues to be a problem, even with better efficiency of use and reprocessing. The second camp is that it is hard to let go of past victories and it can be argued that the ant-nuclear stance brought the environmentalists a palpable victory in places like the UK where investment in nuclear power dwindled massively. I think it is hard for any individual to look to their own successes and turn right around and throw it away. It may be the most sensible action and the safest for future generations but it will take a massive paradigm shift within the movement for it to be acceptable across a broad base.

Just my view.
Incidentally, Lovelock, who is now an advocate for nuclear energy, has effectively stated that it is all too late and that we might as well do what we like until the end comes. I find this amusing - the guy is 82, what does he care anyway. ;-)
 
Written By: Kav
URL: http://livingrealworld.blogspot.com
Solar power data.
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
Well...

I’m not sure how I feel about this. First, pebble beds aren’t a Chinese design, the design has been bumping around for 20 or 30 years now. The Chinese may be the first to make a production reactor with it, though.

The other thing is that I think cheap power has created a great deal of wastefulness in our society. I truly believe that if power prices spiked sharply and stayed high for 5-10 years we would replace all the constant-on appliances, kilowatt PCs and gas-sucking SUVs with functional equivalents that wouldn’t compromise our "way of life".

In the long term we will certainly become much more dependent on nuclear power - nothing else is viable - but, to use the vocabulary of a software engineer - solving problems by throwing more iron at them is a cheap kludge, not an elegant hack.
 
Written By: Michael Heinz
URL: http://www.chesmontastro.org
The other thing is that I think cheap power has created a great deal of wastefulness in our society.
Yep, we’re overflowing our landfills with waste electrons.
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
Our society produces more GDP for the energy it uses then the majority of nations...

We consume a lot of energy, that does not mean we waste it. Sure we can save some energy through conservation efforts, but that wouldn’t substantially change the amount we consume.
 
Written By: Keith, Indy
URL: http://
Mark, I loved this line from your link:
For instance, enough electric power for the entire country could be generated by covering about 9 percent of Nevada—a plot of land 100 miles on a side—with parabolic trough systems.
Just out of curiousity, how easy do you think the permit process for a 10,000 square-mile solar plant would be? Where will the people who run the plant actually live? Will they just have a 3-hour commute from Vegas or Reno? How many people are we talking about? Is there adequate housing for them in Reno or Vegas?

Just curious.
 
Written By: Dale Franks
URL: http://www.qando.net
I’ve done some quick looking around and wonder if anyone has found whether the PBMR are a fast or thermal nuclear reactor. The question stems from the idea for using the nuclear fuel that exists in the most effecient manner. Fast nuclear reactors can use fuels that are lower in original fissile material then thermal reactors and in fact will have more fissile material after it is "spent."

Another consideration in all of this is that the "spent" fuel in the US isn’t "spent" by any means. The fuel merely contains too high a percentage of poison products that absorb too much thermal neutron radiation to allow the present reactor types to work efficiently. If the US had any reprocessing, much fuel could be recovered. It would also minimize the amount of real waste that exists.

Nice article, but I’m not going to hold my breath on the chances of seeing a new nuclear power plant in this country in the next few decades.
 
Written By: Nylarthotep
URL: http://chaosinmotion.blogspot.com
This is an interesting discussion on nuclear power, bringing in some elements you don’t often here (coal plant pollution, etc.) and other bits comparing nuclear safety to other dangers. Unfortunately the public at large has a strong tendency not think in these terms, as the article and the commenters thus far have noted. They are far more moved by what popular culture has to say (and I’ve tried to address this a bit, see below).

I may have mentioned this here before, but if any readers would like an entertaining inside look at the US nuclear industry, see RadDecision.blogspot.com for an thriller novel on the topic by a longtime industry engineer. It is available at no cost to readers (who seem to like it, judging from their comments on the homepage.)
 
Written By: James Aach
URL: http://RadDecison.blogspot.com
The large amount of carbon in pebble-bed reactors thermalizes — "moderates" — the neutrons, so PBRs are thermal reactors. The helium coolant also reduces the energy of neutrons that scatter off it, but there are so relatively few nuclei per mL of it, at 71 bar and 1123 K ~4.6e20 by ideal-gas approximation versus, in the solid carbon, 1.0e23, that virtually all the moderating is done by carbon.


—- Graham Cowan, former hydrogen fan
Boron: fire without monoxide http://tinyurl.com/4xt8g
 
Written By: G. R. L. Cowan
URL: http://www.eagle.ca/~gcowan
In my dreams, 70% of our electricity comes from nuclear fission, 25% from coal, and the rest from natgas plants. Fission plants are tricky to start/stop so make them the backbone of our baseline consumption, coal for the seasonal changes, and natgas for peaking plants. Leave natgas for other uses such as home heating, cooking, and chemical industry; it’s a crime to burn so much just to make electricity. Ok it was just a dream...
 
Written By: Paul
URL: http://
Dale, it gets better...
In fact, the Solar Electric Generating System plants operate for nearly 100% of the on-peak hours of Southern California Edison.
When you need us most, we will almost always be there, probably. Any other time, forget it.
The 10-MW Solar One plant near Barstow, CA, demonstrated the viability of power towers, producing over 38 million kilowatt-hours of electricity during its operation from 1982 to 1988.
With some 52,596 hours in that time span, the average output was 722 kilowatts, or 7.2% of its capacity.
Solar Two successfully demonstrated efficient collection of solar energy and dispatch of electricity, including the ability to routinely produce electricity during cloudy weather and at night. In one demonstration, it delivered power to the grid 24 hours per day for nearly 7 straight days before cloudy weather interrupted operation.
Come on, your loved one was on life support for almost a week! He had to go SOME time....


Besides....

Looking at this topo, I don’t think you can find a suitable plot of land 100 miles on a side in Nevada. Many people seem to think Nevada is flat, but it’s a series of valleys. Oh, and let’s not forget that Area 51 takes up a lot of land, as does Top Gun in Fallon, etc.


 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://steverino.journalspace.com
Dale, really. The article wasn’t saying it had to be one big solar plant field. Only that the total surface area was equivalent to that... so say 4 that are 50 miles on a side or 16 that are 25 miles on a side.

I agree that some healthly skepticism is in order, and I’d need to see working installations before I can even begin to accept the article’s argument, but please at least offer real criticism rather than straw man arguments. The article was linked to to show that solar is a real option as well.
 
Written By: Tito
URL: http://
For Nylarthotep and others, I would like to suggest an article at PhysOrg.Com that gets into the physics and engineering a little.

As a side note for environmentalists,
The high-temperature gas design also has a silver lining – it can produce hydrogen. Think about that – fuel cell vehicles need expensive-to-produce hydrogen to run on – this reactor could make hydrogen as a byproduct.


The only drawbacks I have ever heard about these are, Where do you put the waste? and, Who would like one built near their house? Thankfully for the Chinese, neither of these are an issue over there.
 
Written By: Wulf
URL: http://www.atlasblogged.com
I agree that some healthly skepticism is in order, and I’d need to see working installations before I can even begin to accept the article’s argument, but please at least offer real criticism rather than straw man arguments.
Jebus. Stop by 7-11 and pick up a sense of humor.
 
Written By: Dale Franks
URL: http://www.qando.net
Question:
Where are the best places to site a concentrating solar plant?

Answer:
In the United States, the Southwest is ideal for concentrating solar power plants. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has developed highly accurate maps of solar resources for the United States and many other regions, allowing precise assessment of potential sites.



Hmmmm, if areas on the planet have better "solar" potential than others, would it be smart for someone to buy huge tracts of this type of land now when it is cheap?
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
would it be smart for someone to buy huge tracts of this type of land now when it is cheap?

Only if you are ready to give them up on the cheap and against your will, a la Kelo.
 
Written By: Wulf
URL: http://www.atlasblogged.com
Just out of curiousity, how easy do you think the permit process for a 10,000 square-mile solar plant would be?
Actually, I don’t care. That was the first solar power data link which Google barfed up that actually seemed to have any data in it. Since that link is associated with DOE, I have no doubt that they’d be happy to snatch the land and federalize it.

I’m for nuke power plants, myself.
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
Actually the South Africans have been working on pebble bed reactors longer than the Chinese, so the starting premise of your article is incorrect. You can read more about new nuclear reactors at Physics Today magazine.
 
Written By: Paul Guinnessy
URL: http://physicstoday.org

 
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