Combine domestic coal with nuclear energy to make oil

As a South Central Virginia resident, I have something in common with the people in the Pacific Northwest who are concerned about the impact of coal exports from the US. Numerous coal laden trains pass through Lynchburg every day, many of them headed to the large coal terminal in Newport News. I can hear the rumbling of those trains at about 4:00 every morning. I once watched three trains, each with more than 100 cars full of coal, pass one of my favorite sections of the Appalachian trail in less than an hour.

Across James River from coal train

Across James River from coal train

In a January 2012 blog post on the topic of coal exports and the reason why railroads are such strong supporters of efforts to expand coal terminals, Eric de Place provided some well designed graphs showing the importance of coal shipments to the freight railroad industry. According to his figures, in 2010, coal represented 45% of the total commodity ton-miles carried by US railroads.

The graphs are dramatic illustrations of the reasons why the railroad industry and its unions have been supportive of antinuclear activity in the US, Australia, and Germany for so many years. Coal and railroads are tightly connected and have been for more than 100 years.

Eric’s post also reminded me about the important idea of converting coal into a more valuable fuel product that does not necessarily need to be shipped by rail. I have been intrigued by the idea for quite some time, since before I first met Bonne Posma, the founder of Liquid Coal. My friend Jim Holm at Coal2Nuclear has also written extensively about the topic of turning solid coal into liquid petroleum. People who listen to The Atomic Show might have heard me talk with Cal Abel about the economic and national security implications of refining coal using nuclear heat and water.

Here is an edited version of a comment that I left on the Sightline Daily post titled Why Railroads Care About Coal Exports.

Eric – thank you for illustrating why freight railroad interests have been so supportive of antinuclear activities for so long.

Aside: Warren Buffett has been damning nuclear technology with faint praise for several years; perhaps his recent purchase of Burlington Northern, one of the largest coal carrying railroads in the US, has something to do with his public questioning of the ability of nuclear energy to compete in the power market. End Aside.

If the US had kept building nuclear plants at the rate we achieved and maintained throughout the period from 1963-1973, the traditional coal industry would have been out of business by 2000. Railroads would have lost one of their most profitable and most captive customers (there are few options for most coal mines; the local railroad is generally a monopoly).

I do not believe in decimating the coal industry or in demonizing the material itself. Coal is a valuable resource that can be safely mined for centuries by well-trained and compensated miners. Instead of eliminating the use of coal, I would prefer to help coal miners and coal mine owners to recognize that they could make more money and sell a cleaner product if they upgraded their fuel at the mine rather than shipping a dirt-filled, unrefined product that sells for a huge discount in the energy market.

Here are some fuel price numbers normalized to a consistent unit of measure:

FUEL Market Price Price per MMBTU
coal $40 per ton $1.80
natural gas $2.50 per 1000 cubic feet $2.50
oil $120 per barrel $21.00
diesel fuel $4.00 per gallon $30.00
commercial nuclear fuel 0.5 cents per kw-hr $0.65

NOTE: MMBTU = million BTU (M – Thousand, MM is thousand x thousand)

My pitch to the coal industry would be to use cheap, clean nuclear heat to convert H2O and their carbon rich fuel into a refined hydrocarbon that could compete with petroleum products.

The Germans, Japanese and South Africans have proven that the technology exists to convert heat, water and coal into excellent diesel fuel, gasoline and aviation gasoline on an industrial scale.

So far, that process has been expensive and dirty because all of the conversion plants that have been built so far have burned up half of the input coal to make the heat required for the reaction to take place. It would be much cleaner and cheaper if the input heat was from emission-free nuclear reactors.

My solution would not necessarily do much for the freight railroad business. The coal mines might decide to ship their new, higher-value, liquid product via pipelines instead. However, the competition between pipelines and railroad tanker cars would be beneficial for all of the rest of us in terms of improving service and pricing.

Shipping oil instead of coal from our domestic mines would also be very beneficial to the US national security and to the prosperity of the world. Just think about the positive impact that substantially lower US demand would have on the price of diesel fuel delivered to a developing country.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights (atomicinsights.com)

Maybe there really is such a thing as cleaner coal that we can use to power our cars, planes and boats instead of buying fuel that is imported by multinational petroleum companies that do not employ many Americans and do not have our best interests at heart.

Cool Clean Coal

Cool Clean Coal

About Rod Adams

82 Responses to “Combine domestic coal with nuclear energy to make oil”

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  1. Rod Adams says:

    I remain committed to improving the performance of the commenting system on Atomic Insights. We are still working with the service provider to figure out why there is such a long lag between making a comment and having it show up on the post thread. This comment is being made at 05:28 on March 2.

    Note – showed up in the comment thread at 7:00 am.

    • Jagdish says:

      I guess I am more sympathetic to health of miners and general public than the continued prosperity of railways. The whole change will take long enough for some railwaymen to retire and their children taking up new jobs opening up. The railways could also, in the long run, reduced transport of coal and find other freight created by additional manufacture of goods now imported from China/other low wage economies.

    • Daniel says:

      Another bug maybe. Someone made a comment on a topic dated August 23rd. I received the comment through my email account and when I clicked the message, I was taken to the main article and not on the specific comment thread as usual.

      This has happened a few times. We are not transported to the correct emplacement in the conversation when we click a link to a comment.

  2. Jagdish says:

    I have always stood for co-0peration between various energy systems. In case of coal, it should start at the coalfield itself. Nuclear steam at high temperature should be used for hydrous pyrolysis of coal so that it is extracted as gas leaving most of ash underground. It will also reduce life and limb risk to miners. The gas, which is also called syngas, can be used:-
    Directly as piped fuel.
    To run gas turbines for producing power
    For conversion to liquid fuels.

  3. Joel Riddle says:

    Of course, an alternative route down this path might better re-use existing infrastructure and be much more amenable to the railroad industry.

    That alternative path (not without challenges) would involve installing modular reactors and the coal-to-liquids infrastructure at already-retiring (due mostly to EPA rules) coal-fired power plant sites. Existing rail infrastructure could be re-used, coal handling equipment could probably be used with relatively minor modifications, and some people’s jobs that looked like they were evaporating could be converted into some slightly different types of jobs after some amount of training.

    A paradigm of installing the coal-to-liquids infrastructure at the mine exit could very well require more investment capital overall.

  4. donb says:

    The US produces about 1.1 gigatons (yes, giga!) of coal per year. The energy contained in that coal is more than enough to replace all US oil imports. Note that this neglects the energy that would be added (from the nuclear-provided process heat) during the coal to liquid conversion.

    Using the sites of existing coal-fired power plants may not be that far-fetched. In addition to the already existing rail lines to bring in the coal, these sites have also have water that is needed for cooling and as input to the coal to liquid conversion.

    The disadvantage may be that such a site may now also become something akin to a petroleum refinery, which typically has high emissions. On the other hand, a lot of those emissions may be due to the combustion of hydrocarbons for process heat, which the nuclear heat source would eliminate.

    • Cal Abel says:

      The emissions would be much lower. There is a significant incentive to not let carbon go away. The use of nuclear heat for high temperature electrolysis allows SOFC (like BloomBoxes) to be used in the reverse water gas shift reaction to produce Carbon monoxide and water. Incidentally that is the work the founder of Bloom Energy was looking at doing for NASA for a Mars expedition, he just reversed the reaction and produces electricity instead of consuming it. The effluent from a nuclear energy park is stable products, electricity, gasoline, diesel, ammonia, sulfur, and char. The mercury that is produced would have to be disposed of.

      There is a further continuation of use that can be achieved with the use of the coal handling facilities to handle and crush the coal for feedstock preparation.

      If one then begins to think even more out of the box, there is the possibility of using plasma furnaces to convert garbage into syngas which is much more valuable when converted into liquid fuels than electricity.

      Our access to low cost energy is available. It will require a capital investment to realize, but the technology is there and is for the most part already commercially deployed or operated in a full scale pilot plant.
      The exception is the reactor heat source. The reactor needs to be around 500C to make this all happen. The one in the oven that is close enough is GE’s S-PRISM. Even with an aggressive prototype time line under existing regulations will be at least 20 years before we will see one built. If we go with anything else it will take only longer.

      Nuclear heat is not needed to liquify coal to meet near term transportation fuel needs. The coal plants can be retired, replaced with natural gas or nuclear for powering the grid, and then converted into liquid fuel facilities. A utility can anticipate the addition of nuclear heat later to use the chemical process to store fission energy when the reactors become commercially available.

      This is perhaps the lowest cost alternative that we have for lowering the domestic price of transportation fuel within the next decade. After that nuclear process heat will add further cost reductions.

      • Rod Adams says:

        Cal – high temperature gas reactors are operating today at temperatures in excess of 500 C.

      • Cal Abel says:

        Rod,
        You are quite right. Ft. St Vrain actually operated commercially, as did Fermi-I. Not that I would use either as an example of how to deploy a technology.

        My comment is more on the state of having a viable design that is ready to go through the NRC. S-PRISM completed a PSER in 1994 and that is more than any other Gen IV design. I used 20 years as a baseline of what we just witnessed with the NRC feet dragging and the design and redesign of the AP-1000. I also like S-PRISM for the closed fuel cycle and onsite fuel fabrication. I think access to fissile material is going to become an issue especially as the megatons-to-megawatts ends.

        It will take a little more to get a HTGR up as the production of nuclear grade graphite has faded from existence and will take a capital investment to rejuvenate, which can readily be done in the next two decades.

        If we reexamine our licensing then a much sooner time line will be possible. It is a very hard pill for a reactor vendor to swallow with a COL application taking forever. The money invested will not receive any form of capital payback for way to long to be a viable business option.

      • Alex P. says:

        Cal,
        regarding gas to liquids I do note that natural gas can be used as it is in compressed natural gas tank (at about 250 atm) petrol engines, with minimal modifications

        • Cal Abel says:

          The volumetric energy density of natural gas is much lower than that of diesel, thus payload is reduced for a given size of a vehicle. This is problematic when converting cars to natural gas.

          There is another factor and that is the time to refill takes a long time. Natural gas is effective as a transportation fuel for fleets where refilling of tanks can be done overnight. I had looked into hydromethanation of coal initially as the process to supply transportation fuels. There are on-trivial problems with adapting natural gas to transportation. It is why T. Boone Pickens is seeking government subsidies to force the conversion.

          It really is much easier and more cost effective to liquefy natural gas and coal to sell then as diesel and gasoline.

        • Alex P. says:

          Cal,
          I think this is a quite overstated problem. Even a 100 liter NG pressurized (~ 200-250 atm) tank, weighting no more than 100-150 kg, allows a storage of about 15 kg of gas that means an energy equivalent of 22 liter of diesel fuel, thus an available range much more than 100 km, at least, well above almost all daily uses. The only limit I see is in the widespreadness across the country of gas infrastructres, but where they are already available it’ s much better to use methane as it is than liquefy it (while coal liquefaction remains still a great idea)

        • Cal Abel says:

          Alex,
          I am not saying that natural gas will not find a niche in the transportation sector. It is a viable fuel, it does have drawbacks that will limit its market penetration:
          1. 100L natural gas tank takes up 100 L compared to an equivalently sized 22 L diesel tank. That is a loss of 78L in payload on the vehicle. Works fine for large vehicles but is a significant sacrifice in volume for smaller vehicles.
          2. The act of compressing a gas for storage adds heat. Thus the pressure that you actually get is significantly lower than what you put in. I haven’t run the numbers but take a pipeline gas at 5-10 atm and compress it to 200-250 atm (adiabatically) then put the hot gas in a tank. The tank will get warm on the order of 10 C (this is a guess). This will limit the number of moles of gas in the tank. So the tank has to cool off and then recharge and repeat that cycle. This works fine for a fleet of vehicles because they can amortize the cost of the compressor over a larger number of vehicles and recharge them overnight. However for people like you and I that is not necessarily a viable option.

      • Alex P. says:

        Hope this thread is still followed…

        Forgive the ignorance, but does the nuclear heat has to be supplied to a FT system at a temp of only > 500 °C ? Does it really need external heat at a temp as low as that ?
        I’ m a little confused about this point, if gasification usually occurs at temp of about 1000-1400 °C, how that only 500 °C heat (indeed easily producedable by a HTGR or MSR nuclear plant) allows convesion of solid to syngas ?

        • Cal Abel says:

          Yes the needed nuclear heat needs to be >450 C. There are lots of ways to get it to gasification temperature, notably using a heat pump:
          http://www.faqs.org/patents/app/20120039430#b

          Electrical heating, partial oxidation of the feedstock, etc.

          As for the gasification temperature you need to crest 600 C. GreatPoint energy built a pilot plant to do just this and it worked quite well. It turns out 600C gives a suitable product gas.
          http://www.greatpointenergy.com/

          Their focus was on methanation however, the methane produced can be put to good use in methanol production and then feed into a Mobil M process. As for the remaining CO and H2 that would go to a FT synthesis or get recycled back into the gasifier depending on what you want to do. The other advantage of my approach is that you have high temperature high purity steam that can be used as a feedstock into a high temp electrolysis (reverse fuel cell). DOE did a study a while back and showed that 800C was the optimal economic temperature for high temp electrolysis. Thus as much hydrogen as economic can be used to crack the CO2 byproduct gas in a reverse water gas shift reaction (again a reverse fuel cell reaction basically reverse the feeds and polarity on a BloomBox).

          This approach will allow 100% conversion of feedstock carbon into synthetic fuels. So it is possible to achieve a cold gas efficiency >1. Without the cracking my approach has a cold gas efficiency of 97% which is 5% above the leading fossil approach.

          The idea is to get close enough with technology that has already been developed and deploy it as rapidly as possible. It is a “third best” approach.

          As for reactors, a friend suggested using Hyperion’s (Gen4) module. This is an excellent approach and perfectly suited for repurposing coal plants. One Hyperion module 70 MW(th) can fully service a sub-Bituminous coal plant that was operating at 200MW(e), or 17.5 kg/s of 10,130 Btu/lbm (sorry about the imperial units) coal feedstock into a product gas (multiply coal feed rate by HHV by cold gas efficiency to get product gas HHV).

          The reactor technology doesn’t matter and for practical purposes the size doesn’t particularly matter either (HPM is 25 MW(e)). All that matters is that can you get above 450C and can you produce heat on a MW scale. Answer yes to both and you have a match.

          My faith in HTGR’s is that they can readily provide a steam supply temperature of 560C which under conventional wisdom is not hot enough, in my mind, more heat for gasification. There is also an added benefit if the reactor is less than 550C you can use salt peter (solar salt) as a working fluid ($0.50/kg) for a temperature storage system which has other advantages check out Rod’s interview of me on the Atomic Show. Why push the temperature envelope in the near term when good enough is good enough. Let my kids generation (my son is 5) figure out how to make high temperature reactors. We have work to do using what we have.

        • Alex P. says:

          Thanks very much Abel, this is really SUPER interesting !

          Perhaps you already described it elsewhere, but roughly speaking, which are the specifics of your high temperature S-CO2 heat pump ? For example, in terms of temperature range (input/output) of work, efficiency, COP, etc…I’ m very curious about it

        • Cal Abel says:

          The COP is 0.051 with a pressure ratio of 2.86 the high side pressure and temp is limited to 820C and 285 bar for materials considerations 617 ss from Heatric heat exchangers. It would take a little more for me to pull out the energy balance. The patent should have the information to calculate the enthalpy at the various points as well as the mass flow rates. The S-CO2 is a new technology and needs further development it can be replaced with a more conventional helium heat pump but this will require larger turbo machinery. This approach is what will probably get implemented. If this tech ever happens. Hope this helps.

        • Alex P. says:

          Thanks again Abel.
          Actually I don’ t still understand what an heat pump with a COP < 1 is for, I wasn' t able to find any other infos – anyway the idea to "lift" low grade heat is very appealing

        • Cal Abel says:

          It means that the primary heat input is from mechanical work of the compression of the gas. 95% of the high temperature heat is from the compression of the gas the remaining 5% comes from the low pressure side. There is comparatively very little heat transfer coming across the low pressure heat exchanger. I also use the regeneration and recuperation as a heat balancing and temperature control method of regulating the chemical reactor conditions. So I sacrifice efficiency for operational flexibility.

          I checked the COP equation using Moran and Shapiro and that was the number I got.

          I used an approach of the concept of “quality” with the heat. Better to think of it as internal energy, and made the design reluctant to give up any internal energy unless it had a specific purpose or need, and then sought to make them as integrated as possible to kill multiple birds with one stone. It was a fun project. Even if nobody buys it, I can say unlike renewable energy storage that scalable technology exists today to entirely repurpose coal plants, using existing materials and technology. That and just do some fun engineering.

          Truth be told that was why I designed it. I did not want to extoll something that can’t be done today. If I did, I would be as unethical as the environmental left. Policy on the other hand may make me a liar, but that too can be changed.

  5. DV82XL says:

    Nuclear powered coal-to-liquids is a great idea, the same can also be said for nuclear powered gas-to-liquid schemes, however the likelihood of ether happening is very low. Big Carbon is not likely to see this as anything other than a Trojan horse for nuclear.

    I suspect that this is also the reason that nuclear energy is no longer being considered as process heat source for bitumen production at the Canadian Tar Sands, despite the fact that the idea has had a good airing. Why should they go for cheap heat, when one can sell expensive Artic gas to the project, in essence double-dipping?

    • Joel Riddle says:

      DV8, coal is legitimately losing massive chunks of its market in the U.S, due both to new EPA regulations and due to the present gas glut (which admittedly could be a very short-term phenomenon).

      I think that for that reason, “King Coal” would be very, very wise to get on board the Nuclear Coal-to-Liquids “train” as quickly as they possibly can.

      I am rooting heavily for Cal Abel’s thesis eventually turning into a commercial success.

      • DV82XL says:

        Why when they can burn their own product to make process heat? This is the point I was trying to make about the Tar Sands. In short: why buy a cow when milk is so cheap?

        Nuclear will never compete with fossil-fuels until the latter is made to pay for its external costs.

    • Cal Abel says:

      The economics improve significantly as you stop using the feedstock to supply the heat for the reactions. Nuclear heat reduces the overall cost of production and allows 100% conversion of the fixed carbon into liquid fuels. Forcing accountability of cost externalities will only enhance the cost differential creating a stronger incentive for using nuclear heat.

      Until there is a reactor available under 10CFR52 above 450 C, wether NGNP, S-PRISM, or some other design, the concept of using a nuclear reactor looks good only on paper. Because of the financial risk of building under 10CFR50, I doubt we will see any Gen IV design any time soon. It might be worthwhile for the NRC in its rule making to prevent blocking the transition from a construction license to an operating license if a set of general criteria are met, to allow private sector innovation. As it stands another political shut down like Shoreham is a strong incentive not to build under 10CFR50. I hope TVA manages to transition this with WBN-2 and BLN-1.

      Interestingly, the gasification technology can be readily adapted to handle just about any carbon containing material, including fixed carbon in biomass. The only way to make this sort of a carbon cycle a carbon cycle on the scale the economy need is to use nuclear heat to drive the reactions.

      • Alex P. says:

        Cal Abel said : ” the gasification technology can be readily adapted to handle just about any carbon containing material, including fixed carbon in biomass. The only way to make this sort of a carbon cycle a carbon cycle on the scale the economy need is to use nuclear heat to drive the reactions.”

        I’m very interested in biomass to liquids, at least for coal-poor countries, have you got any guess about the nuclear heat/electricity/hydrogen to produce that and/or the yield per tonn of dry biomass ?

        • Cal Abel says:

          I have not done the detailed calculations, I had a hard enough time trying to figure out how to liquify lignite. There is a massive heat penalty that you incur with biomass production. That is in the drying of the feedstock. This is a major limiting component of the bioliquids industry. The funny thing is if they did use nuclear heat to dry and retort (temps above 350C in oxygen deprived environment turn the feedstock into char) their feedstock their return on investment would likely become positive.

          There is a biomass company here in Georgia that dries and retorts the feedstock. I can’t think of their name off the top of my head. All I know is that it is highly dependent on the selection of feedstock and the caking of the ash is a big deal as it kills overall heat transfer. From the biomass standpoint the amount of research I did was to find out that it is commercially possible to produce syngas with a biomass feedstock. I am more interested in coal now because of the higher energy and carbon content.

        • Cal Abel says:

          Another source of carbon is garbage. The plasma garbage incinerators can be a tremendous source of carbon in this regard to feed liquid fuel production.

          I also did some preliminary research into adapting the gasifier to produce reducing gas for the direct reduction of iron. The heat balance needs a little work to optimize, and the economics verified, but it is technically possible to achieve zero emission iron ore reduction.

  6. Bill Young says:

    Did a little reading up on F-T after reading your post. Came across an interesting article on naval researchers extracting CO2 from sea water and blending it with H2 from electrolysis to generate diesel. They were using the heat from a nuclear reactor for the endothermic reactions.

    Fuels by F-T without coal is more attractive. Its a carbon neutral liquid fuel. Anyone for an aircraft carrier that makes its own jet fuel?

  7. Sam B says:

    The Chinese are burning more coal than the next three largest consumers combined. The result is acid rains and environmental disasters. The products consumed in the US and manufactured in China incur heavy environmental costs and I wonder how much of that pollution makes to the US. In the meanwhile, the accelerated ocean acidification is an established fact.

    http://motherjones.com/environment/2007/12/last-empire-chinas-pollution-problem-goes-global

  8. Jason Kobos says:

    Perhaps China not the U.S. is where this technology should be targeted.

    • Cal Abel says:

      I have a philosophical problem with enabling an inexpensive energy supply to a regime that does not respect individual property rights.

  9. Andrew Jaremko says:

    Rod – thanks as always for the post. It’s great to see this idea discussed and all the issues that surround it. I’m glad to hear that you’re”on the page” with both Cal Abel and Jim Holm.

    Gordon McDowell at ThoriumRemix has collected the funds he needs for his Thorium Remix 2012 documentary. He says he’ll be shooting a lot at the Thorium Energy Alliance 2012 Conference. Speaker positions are still open according to the TEAC site. Even though this is a thorium focused conference, I think it would be great for Cal to present his ideas. For Jim it’s a natural; he likes the LFTR, and I hope he gets there.

    Gordon’s documentaries are exemplars of what can be done to promote and disseminate ideas. Please check out his work. We need more, of course!

    Thanks to all the commenters here as well. I always learn a lot from all of you.

  10. 4 x (CH4) + 2 x (2C,H) –> C8H18

    Combining coal and natural gas with in a nuclear heated chemical plant is a possible way to make liquid fuels such as gasoline or diesel. Compared to octane (C8H18), methane (CH4) has too much hydrogen, and coal (approximately H,2C) has too little. Mixing them comes out right in terms of the proportions of H and C to make liquid petroleum substitutes. Combining them to make octane is endothermic, so we need only add energy (from nuclear). This is much better than the two standard ways. Coal-to-liquids plants are powered by burning coal, so they emit more CO2 than drilling for oil. Gas-to-liquids plants are powered by burning natural gas, emitting CO2, also. The US has plenty of coal and natural gas for raw materials to make gasoline and diesel without emitting any additional CO2 compared to drilling for petroleum.

    I’ll write this up better in my new book out midyear, THORIUM.

  11. Alex P. says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but even if all coal is converted to F-T liquefaction this doesn’t stop alone the need and buden of coal trasportation (by rail or trucks, etc…) or wasn’ t this the point of this post ?

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Alex P.

      Maybe I’m missing something, but even if all coal is converted to F-T liquefaction this doesn’t stop alone the need and buden of coal transportation (by rail or trucks, etc…) or wasn’t this the point of this post ?

      It would not stop the need, but depending on where the liquifaction takes place, it could reduce the need for both road and rail transportation considerably. It would achieve that result by both halting the transportation that is currently being use to carry contaminating materials that do not burn and end up as ash at the power station, and by enabling pipeline transportation of the resulting liquid fuels.

    • Jagdish says:

      Keeping conversion plants close to pithead will reduce transportation and fuel use. You could also convert coal rejects and recover fuel value. It is generally preferable for open pit mines.
      Using underground gasification will enable transport by pipeline. Ash will be left in the ground. It is preferable for deeper seams with higher cost in lifting and life risk. Some deeper seams will become viable. It is also preferable for higher ash coals as in India.

  12. Alex P. says:

    By the way, have you ever looked at biomass to liquid, rather than coal to liquids, with external nuclear heat and/or electricity

    • Daniel Doiron says:

      Alex,

      Plasma converters are meant exactly for that purpose. To take civilian waste and recycle them.

      • Alex P. says:

        Interesting, according to wikipedia plasma torches are 99% efficient in converting electricity to syngas, I’ve never thought about that

        • Alex P. says:

          Actually, rethinking a bit about it, I realized that even with that 99% efficiency is a waste of energy and resource to use electricity for high temp heat. It’ s much more useful to use nuclear (high temp) process heat and save nuclear electricity to produce hydrogen (high temp electrolisys) or power the other processes

  13. Ed B. says:

    On this topic, I’ll side with James Hansen, Bill McKibben, George Monbiot and many others. It’s important to find energy solutions that aviod transferring carbon from the ground to the atmosphere.

    If we are to be simultaneously technically innovative and sympathetic to the railroad industry (and I am since a very close family member is a retired conductor); let’s consider high-speed, electrified rail transport instead of continental air travel. Those trains could be powered by no/low emission energy sources and I’d wager the volume of travel would rival that of coal at the moment. The effort to develop the infrastructure would be massive and sustain quality jobs throughout a country for quite some time.

    Electrified / high speed rail exists elsewhere.

    • Cal Abel says:

      Ed B.,
      The problem that I came across in getting to the point of where we close the carbon cycle above ground and eliminate the delay of the geologic time scale needed to produce fossil fuels, is that it takes a fixed energy input to be able to make the transition. We must continue to use what we have and adapt it to new purpose. If we don’t the standard of living will drop and we will place a significant strain on the biosphere as we withdraw more energy from it to compensate for the reduction in fossil energy input. Fossil fuels have saved our forests, leading to an overall reforestation of North America, reduced the strain on whale populations, and enabled humanity to reach average lifetimes 2-3 times what we’ve seen in the past, although not without cost.

      I do not think we can make the transition to a closed cycle economy abruptly. It should be done purposefully and with great effort and thought to use existing capital investments to the maximum extent possible. It takes energy to make the things around us if we ignore functioning assets then it will require a greater energy input to make the necessary change.

      DV82XL and others bring up salient points about the internalization of costs. Cost externalities and for that matter over regulation are significantly detrimental to the economy and to the world in which we live. They act to distort the optimal path, the path with the largest number of degrees of freedom, and constrain the choices that we have available. Each actor in our global economy is accountable to the others thus if one pollutes and spreads their pollution taking welfare away from another then they are taking away some level of freedom from that other individual.

      Aviation opened whole new avenues for people to be able to travel and will continue to do so. It is one of the five most significant technological advances of the last century, nuclear energy, radar, micro computing, and medicine. Companies like Gulfstream are developing supersonic aircraft that can fly over land with negligible noise signatures. Our economy thrives on portions of it being able to move as fast as possible with the greatest freedom. This requires energy, roughly proportional to the cube of speed. Things like high speed rail would free up liquid fuels for other purposes. More efficient use of energy begets more energy consumption, and this is why it is vitally important to have the external costs fully incorporated into the cost of the energy source. It acts to enable advances like these.

      I do not want to get into anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric valuations other than to say that to adopt a form of valuation that is not centered around maximizing one’s utility (anthropocentrism) is to act towards one’s destruction. The problem is that our current valuations of the environment around us ignore the simple reality that we are dependent upon the world in which we inhabit for our survival. We can change this quite simply through accounting for cost externalities and removing over-regulation. I fail to find a philosophical contradiction between increased energy consumption, including fossil fuels, and strong environmental values, when placed into this context.

      • Ed B. says:

        I’m not suggesting all air travel be eliminated Cal, only that high speed rail could displace continental air traffic.

        I do not agree with you about regulation. Regulation done right builds the foundation of a society. Regulation done wrong (or absent) leads to Fukushima and financial crises.

        I do agree that policy decision makers must always consider context, that utilization of existing capital whenever and wherever possible is not only wise, but fairly obvious and that there’s only so much energy to be extracted from the biosphere before it really starts to hurt humanity worldwide.

        However, I still agree with the gents listed in my original reply. Being an engineer (not a scientist) I put my trust in scientific consensus; the vast majority of which points to increasing carbon and other gaseous emissions as the greatest threat of our day. The shift away from emitting technologies must be accelerated in America and elsewhere. It’s wise to worry about the economy for sure, but as time passes more dire concerns will take priority. I recommend we get ourselves ahead of the curve.

        • Rod Adams says:

          @Ed B

          I think we tend to agree on the overall goal of reducing the amount of carbon that enters the atmosphere. Accepting and enabling nuclear fission to compete more fairly in the energy markets would achieve that goal.

          My support for coal to liquid technology is not aimed at increasing overall hydrocarbon combustion, but it is about increasing the potential sources that can compete for the portions of the hydrocarbon market that will remain even after fission spreads out to the markets it should naturally dominate.

          I do not want to cede the aviation fuel, over the road diesel fuel, or gasoline market to the dictatorial regimes who currently dominate the easily extracted sources of “light” crude oil. Without technologies like nuclear heated F-T that could turn other readily extracted, well-understood resources like Powder River Basin coal, Appalachian underground coal or Illinois high sulfur coal into valuable, relatively clean liquid fuel, the remaining hydrocarbon market would remain the domain of some pretty nasty people.

          I do not want to automatically put hard working, skilled US coal miners out of business. I believe that the world would be a safer, more egalitarian place if we could make a considerable dent in the income of dictators, billionaires and oligarchs in places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Iran, UAE, and Houston.

  14. Alex P. says:

    I apologize to be a bit off-topic, but I found these interesting documents about biomass-to-liquids processes previously mentioned using only external hydrogen/heat/electricity, thus maximizing biomass yield
    http://www.wcce8.org/doc/090803_CH_Technico_economy_of_ScBtL.pdf
    http://www.tresor.economie.gouv.fr/File/327940
    In the more efficient/sustainable configuration it needs almost one kWh of electricity per kWh of diesel liquid fuel – definitely, these docs worth the read

  15. Jason C says:

    As many have already pointed out, a coal to liquids or coal to gas type of process made with nuclear process heat may end up proving the inferiority of the resource they started with. In other words, why invite the competition?

    That’s rather short sighted of course. But then there’s a huge regulatory hurtle to jump over as well.

  16. Cal Abel says:

    Ed,
    You will find no argument with me about the reality of anthropogenic global warming. I think the best way to tackle global warming is to place a price on carbon that accounts for the stress that it places on the environment. I however, think that that is as far as we should go. Dictating the winners and the losers is very inefficient and will only lead to further harm. As for intra-continental air transportation there are many places that a small plane can get to much faster than high speed rail, automobiles or anything else that has been invented for that matter. There is no panacea. Everything has its niche purpose and value.

    I am interested in what you think caused Fukushima to happen from a regulatory stand point. In fact, one can argue, and quite reasonably, that the regulation was effective in preventing any loss of life from a beyond design basis event with the simultaneous melt down of three reactors and preventing the melt downs of an additional 5. However, the policy that Japan had in place was not sufficient to deal with the massive and widespread damage that killed 20,000 from the millennial tsunami. I also argue that the Japanese have done remarkably well in dealing with the damage. The pictures form a year ago to today are remarkable. I doubt there is another society that could have withstood such a catastrophe as they have, with as much dignity. The catastrophe that they failed in was maintaining their existing nuclear capacity in operation. Their economy is suffering significantly from such short sighted policy.

    The nuclear industry is over regulated and the regulation is so glacial that what should take a few years takes twenty. The added burden exceeds stated safety requirements by a factor of 1000. Is that value added or value taken away?

    So when is enough regulation enough? It is simply when the costs of any potential or real damage that may be caused by a certain activity are included in precise proportion to the total cost of the product. Too little and then there are cost externalities. Too much and then the potential welfare that item can bring is being artificially limited. Both are inefficient and both take from others that which is not freely given.

    As an engineer you understand that things can only be made to a certain degree of efficiency and is theoretically limited for quasi static processes by the Carnot efficiency. In real world applications, our real constraint is materials and the cost to procure the materials. Thus the environmental goal of “efficiency” although surely admirable is limited. One of Lovin’s “nega-watts” means that watt is now less expensive and being used for something else increasing the demand of the resource that was averted with the nega-watt. Where we can make real progress is that the economy is operated on an open cycle which is very inefficient. We can make great improvements in this regard by closing the material loop on the economy. This requires reliable energy to ensure the most efficient use of capital. Using and continuing to use existing infrastructure in new purpose is vital in making any transition.

    Any change will take time and it will take energy. The less new things that have to be made, the less overall energy input and the faster the transition. Fossil fuels are not inherently bad or immoral. Not including the price of cost externalities is simply inefficient. One can place a normative value on efficiency as being good or in a weaker sense desirable, as engineers we do this in our designs by seeking maximal efficiency based on constraints of budget and purpose. In this sense, the historic production of fossil fuels was not optimal, can be improved on and surely is not bad or wrong or that which should be abandoned. If it were, then we are saying the growth in welfare we experienced since the dawn of the industrial revolution was evil and would have to be repealed. There are those who openly advocate this point of view in the environmental movement.

    The most effective way of enabling the shift away from emitting technologies that we both desire is properly addressing the cost externalities of our energy production, specifically where they are over regulated and where they are under regulated. Any other unnecessary regulation, forced RES, production or investment tax credit, mandated production level, loan guarantee, abandonment of the Clean Water/Air Acts, failure to enforce a price on carbon, mercury particulate, etc, will only serve to distort the market from the optimal path forward. Ensure the price take on that Btu contains the full cost of producing the energy. The market will respond to the price signal much faster and more efficiently than any other government interdiction ever could.

    I think that the coal companies will stand to make a great deal of money in this type of efficiently regulated economy, much more than what they are experiencing today. Understanding how energy production is structured shows what can be done in a reasonable time. To make a change we have to preserve the economy, that means not artificially inflating the price of energy by constraining our energy supply. We face perhaps the single largest challenge to our economy, and that is constrained conventional oil production, aka peak oil.

    We can use peak oil as an opportunity to start working with new technologies that really can act as transition technologies bridging our economy to a zero emission future. Coal and natural gas liquefaction are just such technologies, and until we have a reactor license ready to go, we will have to forgo the use of nuclear process heat. Light water reactors will act to free coal and natural gas from electricity production so we can start producing more liquid fuels. Once we have higher temperature reactors (steam supply temperatures around 500C) we can use them to enhance liquid fuel production. They will act to increase the output for a given carbon input fixing inexpensive nuclear heat in chemical bonds. From here the future will depend on the price of carbon. The liquefaction facilities can readily be converted to biomass liquefaction, as once carbon becomes char it all looks the same.

    We live in a world that is not reversible. Path matters a whole lot on how we get to our final destination. I think the generic job description of an engineer is to manage the production of entropy to minimize the loss of free energy. Thus we should be looking at it as policy engineering from the three laws. We need to examine the paths that are available and adjust the policy constraints such that we have as many options available to us as we can. No one path is optimal and the combination that is optimal will remain unknowable.

    • donb says:

      Cal Abel wrote:
      So when is enough regulation enough? It is simply when the costs of any potential or real damage that may be caused by a certain activity are included in precise proportion to the total cost of the product. Too little and then there are cost externalities. Too much and then the potential welfare that item can bring is being artificially limited. Both are inefficient and both take from others that which is not freely given.

      In the case of nuclear and its replacement of coal-fired power generation, the amount of regulation needed is that which makes power generation safer in the shortest amount of time. Nuclear power generation is demonstrably safer than coal-fired power generation, especially so when external effects such as the health of the general population is taken into account. Here we have regulatory success — the replacement energy source (nuclear) should be safer than the incumbent energy source (coal).

      However, we have regulatory failure as well. Nuclear energy has been so tightly regulated that the move from coal to nuclear has been stifled. As a result, coal-fired power plants (more dangerous) continue to operate. Those that are being shut down are being replaced by natural gas power plants, which are also more dangerous than nuclear power plants. Had the regulatory climate been more favorable for nuclear, we would probably have only a small number of coal fired power plants left, and public health and safety would have been improved overall.

  17. Ed B. says:

    Cal, regarding regulation and Fukushima, I am mainly speaking about the design basis itself. Japanese nuclear regulations required the Daiichi site to be protected against a tsunami of between 3 and 4 meters. TEPCO actually designed the sea wall to protect to between 5 and 6. Historical evidence of much larger tsunamis existed and should have been factored into the design basis. This is a regulatory failure.

    I also strongly favour a price on carbon. This is an example of what I consider to be wise regulation (tax what you don’t want, etc.).

    As far as picking winners; please see Rod’s original post. He was proposing one technical option, to which I proposed another. Considering that context, your comment doesn’t seem justified.

    I completely disagree with your statement that the nuclear industry is over-regulated. Safety is the priority. Nuclear is not a ‘nimble’ industry and I consider it risky to even allude that it aspire to be one. The technology must be respected and this justifies a technically competent, slow and deliberate approach to any significant change (unless it can be shown that such an approach itself is a threat to safety).

    I’d like to think I know what I’m talking about. For what it’s worth, I’ve got nearly 25 years of nuclear power plant, research reactor and weapons production facility engineering experience; not as a regulator or plant safety officer, but as a plant engineer and operations manager.

    • Cal Abel says:

      I think where we disagree is about the fundamental role of the regulator.

      The regulator established satisfactory, as demonstrated by the evolution of the reactor accidents in Japan, that protected the health and welfare of the civilian population even for a beyond design basis event. The logical and design mentality that I have issue with is that of determinism in regulations. What you suggest with the wall height is determinism. The Japanese regulator specified a height that was proven adequate in protecting the civilian population. TEPCO exceeded the standard because they wanted to protect their generation asset. Then nature threw a curve ball and we have what we have. Had the Japanese government let TEPCO be accountable for their choice then you would see the utilities operating their existing reactors flat out and at the same time building much larger sea walls and incorporating lessons learned from Fukushima.

      My point is that it is the role of the regulator to ensure an adequate (not risk free) level of public safety. It enforces that minimum standard. The utility then has a responsibility to its share holders to protect their capital to make it grow. If they fail to do this then people will not invest in that company and the company will die to be replaced by a company that can and does protect shareholder investments. Allowing a multibillion dollar investment to be wiped out should have rendered TEPCO insolvent and forced a break up of the company and sale of their assets to pay for damages, the clean up, and debt.

      The problem is that we as an industry think that we can prevent accidents. We can’t. Although gifted, we are not that gifted. When we can admit our own humanity and say that we can and do design things that are safe enough to minimize damage when something untoward occurs, then we will unlock the potential of nuclear power. For that which we cannot anticipate, we can accept responsibility for our actions and ameliorate the damages to others caused by our actions.

      The issue at the heart of this is, what is the role of government and what is the role of the private sector. That debate is viral and has been going on for a very long time in this and other countries and will not likely ever get resolved.

  18. Rod Adams says:

    @Ed B.

    We can come to some agreement on the value of trains, but there are technical reasons why high speed rail is not a complete substitute for air travel.

    For example, trains are terrific at carrying large masses of material from one place to another with great regularity. That employment maximizes some of their inherent energy efficiency of using moderate grades and smooth, low friction steel. It also provides good payback for the high capital cost effort of laying rail.

    However, rail is not very flexible. If you are not on or near the rail line, service is quite hard to provide. It is not easy to conceive of a way to provide a train that can profitably move groups of hundred or so people from one side of the country to another at several convenient times of day from multiple source and multiple destination cities. Airlines need good ground facilities, but they do not have to invest any capital in the supporting pathways between destinations.

    With regard to over regulation, I might agree with you from an operational point of view, but certainly not from a technology development point of view.

    The performance of our current fleet of nuclear reactors shows that regulators and operators have worked out a reasonably good balance. When a whole fleet can achieve an average capacity factor over a ten year period of 90%, there is evidence of a lot of good things happening with regard to making decisions and taking preventative actions in a timely manner.

    However, regulations and the way that nukes respond to regulations have contributed to a situation where we have priced and scheduled ourselves out of the new power plant market. My current employer has been working for three years on a design that is a refinement of existing light water reactor technology. We are investing tens of millions every year and that burn rate will increase. However, we will not have an application that is ready to meet NRC prescriptions until the end of 2013 and will are not scheduled to have our first unit starting commercial service until 2020.

    The NGNP project has similar timelines.

    The initial AP1000 application was filed in 2002. It took a lot of its concepts from an already licensed design that was filed sometime in the early 1990s.

    Those timelines have to be shortened. The alternative is a slow death of nuclear energy to the great detriment of the health and safety of the population.

    In the past few weeks, I have started to realize that a part of the problem is the zero defect mentality that operational nukes adopt – with a reasonably good basis. In a developmental environment where designs need to evolve quickly, the quest for zero defects – even in relatively unimportant aspects of the effort that are going to change anyway – can result in zero production.

    There is no such thing as perfection in an imperfect world. It is an impossible standard that guarantees failure. More nukes have to figure out how to apply a graded approach the recognizes that some things do not need to be perfect – fortunately, the smart people who wrote ASME NQA-1 have provided some guidance in recent years (2008 & 2009) but far too many nukes are stuck in the 1990s or even earlier in their thinking about new ways of achieving excellent results.

    • Joel Riddle says:

      Perfection might very well be the enemy of adequately good and adequately safe.

    • Ed B. says:

      I take your point on regulation Rod. My only additional thought would be that one man’s over-regulated industry is another man’s under-resourced regulatory body. I would prefer applying more resources as opposed to degrading the rigour, integrity and/or quality of the process. I imagine you’d agree. If I’m wrong, please correct me.

      In the US, plant license extensions seem to have been the priority over the past decade. I agree with that. It will give the industry some time to deploy replacement plants and, from there, expand to well over 100 operating reactors.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @Ed B

        No, I do not agree. NRC regulation already costs a billion dollars per year with 90% of the bill going directly to licensees and applicants for licenses.

        I do not want to “degrade” the integrity or quality of the process, but I do want it to become more informed about the actual risks and the fact that resources expended developing mountains of paper to prove that the risk is actually 1 in 10^-10 vice 1 in 10^-9 cannot be spent to produce more power and displace more fossil fuel consumption.

        The NRC’s mission includes protecting public health and safety and contributing to the common good. A more complete view of that mission should include the recognition that energy that is NOT being produced by nuclear fission due to excessive and costly regulations is going to be produced by something that is more harmful to the environment and less contributing to the common good. Most likely, it will be replaced by using more deadly natural gas or dirty coal.

        • Ed B. says:

          Then I will gladly agree to disagree, mostly because I can’t point to another country that does it better (meaning closer to what you’re looking for); UK? South Korea, maybe? Certainly not France. But it’s not hard to name countries where the lack of regulation raises safety, environmental and other concerns.

          A billion dollars sounds like a lot, except the scope of the NRC’s work extends far beyond nuclear energy reactors to research and test reactors, hospital/nuclear medicine facilities, fuel cycle facilities, waste management sites and any other civilian nuclear material use not listed above. Oh, and the security of those facilities and that material as well.

          I won’t hold the duration of the NRC design review processes accountable for more or less coal pollution. That’s the EPA’s domain; whose annual budget is $8.5 billion by the way.

          Similarly,
          FDA ~ 4 Billion
          FAA – ~12.6 Billion

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Ed B

            You are right. We will continue to disagree.

            The EPA has no tools with which to reduce coal pollution other than regulations that increase costs to even the most vulnerable people in our country – those who are struggling to make ends meet every day.

            In contrast, nuclear reactors have the ability to produce cleaner power at a substantially lower cost – if you can get them built.

            I have frequently argued for a large NRC budget if that would allow them to do more work in parallel and speed the process of license reviews. However, the current Chairman has seen fit to keep the budget essentially flat, with no adjustments for inflation or for additional work load self imposed by overreaction to an event that happened at least 5,000 miles from the nearest NRC regulated facility.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Ed B

            One more thing. While I would point to South Korea as a better model than ours, there are not really outstanding models of effective nuclear regulation.

            However, I would point to the FAA as a reasonably effective regulator of a vital, inherently dangerous industry.

            (Aviation is inherently dangerous because gravity works.)

        • Ed B. says:

          And I love that tool within the EPA. A carbon tax system can be designed such that revenue is diverted back to the low income households so the impact on their energy bills is nil (an aspect of the plan recently enacted in http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2011/07/carbon-tax-plan-supports-low-income-australians).

          Furthermore, nothing has been shown to drive change in the energy industry faster and further than economics. Why did US utilities stop constructing plants in the late 70′s? TMI? Safety? No. It was the economics. Regardless what you or I may believe, decision makers within utilities could’t make it work on paper. This looks to be changing as more countries enact a price on carbon emissions. I completely support that trend. It may or may not result in more nuclear (my guess is that it will); but at least it will drive down the use of coal and, to a lesser extent, gas.

          Utilities are also pro-actively increasing rates to help finance new nuclear plants. Consistent with my support of a price of carbon emissions, I also support this ‘nuclear pre-pay’ finance mechanism. Regrettably, I do not believe any of the additional revenue is going back to the poor. Realising your defence of low income households, I assume you oppose these rate increases. If not please explain how you are not just a bit of a hypocrite.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Ed I guess you did not fully understand my objection to raising the price of energy through the imposition of carbon taxes and requiring ever tighter emissions controls.

            Unless ALL of the fee revenue is returned back to the public through the use of a system like James Hansen’s fee and dividend approach, imposition of higher energy costs will be a drag on prosperity and will hurt poor people the most. That is true even if there are schemes that attempt to reduce the specific impact of higher electricity bills. Every single product that they purchase will be impacted by higher electricity costs because every product includes the cost of electricity as part of its price.

            Utilities stopped building power plants in the mid 1970s because the Arab Oil Embargo resulted in a drop in power demand growth at the same time as coordinated efforts like the Ralph Nader-led Critical Mass Energy Coalition convinced politicians that there was something wrong about having a nuclear energy regulator that was specifically tasked with enabling nuclear energy to flourish.

            That tasking is not a conflict of interest any more than having an FAA that generally likes air travel is a conflict of interest. The AEC was doing a fine job of keeping the public safe, but after the NRC was set up and the promotional aspects of the AEC were set adrift and then combined with all other energy sources a few years later, not a single new construction permit was issued and the time to completion for all existing projects stretched out into the decades.

            Those delays happened at a time when borrowed money cost 15-20% per year and added huge costs. Paying the ever increasing interest costs, paying workers to rebuild already completed work, and paying engineers to redesign perfectly adequate designs all led to the result of executives being unable to make the numbers work, especially when load growth slowed down.

            By the way, I have been critical of CWIP rate increases, especially in situations where the utility has not committed to moving forward with construction. I am less critical of Southern Company’s arrangements because they are working hard to put their customer money to beneficial use by completing the plants as promptly as possible. I remain HIGHLY critical of the NRC’s incredibly long delay between the completion of all staff work in August and finally issuing the Design Certification rule for the AP1000 in mid December. I remain even more critical of the fact that Southern Company still, to this day, does not have its COLA for the Vogtle plant. Those delays cost about $2 million per day and are strictly the result of an appointed politician imposing the will of his political sugar daddies on the regulatory process.

  19. Alex P. says:

    I apologize to be a bit off-topic, what do you think about these docs on biomass to liquids processes using external hydrogen, electricity and heat
    http://www.wcce8.org/doc/090803_CH_Technico_economy_of_ScBtL.pdf
    http://www.tresor.economie.gouv.fr/File/327940
    In the most efficient version It takes almost one kWh of electricity to produce one kWh of diesel fuel liquids, though increasing liquid yield x3 per weight of biomass input (vs ordinary ethanol/biodiesel processes). Maybe it’s too much electricity intensive, but I think anyway they worth the read

  20. Alex P. says:

    An other argument I find interesting about coal liquefaction, as far I understand it : many countries, including US, has huge reserves of very dirty coal, too polluting and expensive to be burnt in a power plant (for example, high ashes lignite). The idea, correct if I’m wrong, is to convert them to ultra clean diesel fuel through F-T liquefaction, rather than let it underground. Is that correct ? Can you comment it ?

  21. Ed B. says:

    Why do I feel words being thrust into my mouth (or onto my fingertips as the case may be).

    Never said (nor meant to imply) that trains can (or will ever be able to) displace 100% of continental air travel. In my opinion it’s just smarter – all things considered – than finding new and exciting ways to continue hurling megatons of carbon into the atmosphere.

    Don’t recall saying the role of a regulator is to prevent accidents. Regulations must, however, ensure to a reasonable degree, that the public and environment are protected in the event of an accident. Considering the availability of information in Japan – I still maintain this a colossal regulatory failure. Was it reasonable that the regulatory would review siting information to ensure the design basis was adequate? In my opinion, unquestionably YES. As additional evidence, just look at what’s happening at coastal nuclear power plants in Japan and elsewhere… given (recent) available evidence. Does the utility also bear responsibility? Of course, but these are both barriers in a defense in depth approach.

    • Cal Abel says:

      Ed,

      Of the 9 reactors that were directly impacted by the tsunami 3 suffered melt downs and released fission products. The release of fission products and the 4 explosions associated at the Dai-ichi site have not lead to a loss of life or even induced radiation sickness. The area that is contaminated is contaminated well below levels that would prevent habitation, except in a few isolated and small regions.

      The tsunami was roughly twice the height of the installed sea wall. Your statement about the “colossal regulatory failure” and failure to adequately review the design basis states that by some miracle we are supposed to kill less than zero people and not release fission products, which are by the way included as a defined source term in the FSAR for the DBA. Did this event cause the source term to be exceeded? Yes. What is it that you are saying is the failure? That the design basis provided an inaccurate source term?

      The Japanese have started to review their design basis for various plants and have found for the most part that they are more than adequate. This does not satisfy the populist desire for retribution and is therefor not a socially acceptable answer. They cannot accept that stuff happens and there is no one to blame. The only thing to do is to carry on and incorporate lessons learned.

      Existing regulations, policy, and plant design are proven to exceed requirements for a beyond design basis event here in the US (see SORCA) and in Japan.

      The policy breakdown is in the response of the Japanese government after the tsunami where they shutdown and are preventing the restart of their existing nuclear reactors. They are basing this reaction not off of the facts, but off of fear and the expectation that all risk can be removed.

      The level of control that you are arguing for is for the regulator to protect the capital asset. This is too much regulation and will stymy the existence of nuclear energy or any major capital investment for that matter. It is the role of the regulator to protect the health and welfare of the population, which they have done. If you do not think that the regulator succeeded in this what facts do you propose that contradict what I opened with this comment?

      What measure do you use to define “colossal failure”? It is by this statement of contrasting your statements to what happened that I am putting words into your mouth. I am saying what you are not. A broad general statement of “colossal failure” of the regulator must be backed up with what they exactly failed in doing. The role of the regulator is not to prevent reactor accidents. The role of the regulator is not to prevent the loss of life. The role of the regulator is to balance the risks associated with a technology with its benefits and to ensure minimal safety levels are established and complied with. How did the Japanese regulator fail in this regard other than perhaps being overly conservative?

      It is the role of the government to ensure the welfare of their society, which they have failed to do by shutting down their reactors for no good reason. If this is the colossal failure to which you refer, then I agree emphatically. However, based off of your justification to look at the warrantless termination of nuclear generation to suit populist fears as evidence of the justification that nuclear power as it is is not safe, I doubt it.

      As for the carbon dioxide emissions from converting coal into liquid fuels. How about meeting 80% reduction from 2005 levels by 2050? I modeled a utility and ratioed their production to the entire US to see the impact of what this concept would be. I found that electricity is decarbonized, as is the industrial sector (for the most part 85%). By keeping the gasification reaction endothermic and supplying the needed heat to liquify from nuclear, you increase the specific energy content per carbon atom. This is how we achieve our reductions. Transportation sector remains the only carbon dependent sector at roughly 20% of 2005 total levels.

      We can make much more money selling our natural gas to those who don’t want to operate nuclear reactors. I am sure Europe would welcome a natural gas supplier that wanted to sell them as much gas as possible instead of playing games and threatening their economy like Russia. I want to increase the amount of energy supplied into our economy to the point where we can export LNG and refined petroleum products. By doing this we can hold dictatorships accountable and not be party to their stealing from their people.

      Understand what it is that you are asking for. Sit down and do the macroscopic energy balance sometime and see what the overall energy and material input is needed to be able to make the change that you advocate in the time that you desire. Then compare that with what I propose. You will find that mine will provide the lowest possible energy prices, create the most wealth, and have the lowest overall carbon dioxide emissions while increasing our energy intensive heavy industry.

      The approach of cutting fuels like natural gas, coal, and oil out of our economy will be deleterious. We need those energy sources to make the transition. About the only thing we don’t need is wind and solar. If we can ever get rid of the RES or the subsidies then the markets will eliminate them. As it stands, the only way for those low value sources to survive is to socialize energy production which will kill our economy. By 2050, conventional oil production will be half of what it is today, I’ll be in my 80′s then and would like to have had the foresight now to ensure a stable and secure source of energy for my hopefully great grandchildren and that we will continue to live in a democratic republic, with the carbon dioxide emissions that my grandmother saw when she was a kid.

      • Ed B. says:

        Death is only one metric Cal.

        To my knowledge TEPCO was in full compliance with all applicable laws before the accident. Yet, an external event (with historical evidence to show it was feasible) triggered accidents at multiple reactors that led to numerous emergency action levels – including evacuations and (projected) severe core damage in several cores, simultaneously. The design basis was wrong; the design basis is established according to regulations; ergo the regulations were wrong. Site staff must still do their work in respirators, the recovery of land and decommissioning of the site will cost billions (far beyond any normal decommissioning costs). These and other aspects of the accident – exceed my criteria for ‘colossal regulatory failure’. The fact that one of the first changes Japan announced in the weeks following the accident was a restructuring of NISA, their regulator, is an indication that they seem to agree.

        I note your disagreement, but think you’re argument is generally damaging to nuclear advocacy. I strongly support the continued (accelerated in fact) deployment of nuclear power. But at this moment it’s better to be circumspect, to acknowledge the significance of last year’s event, and to work hard to identify the true, ultimate root causes and address them to ensure they don’t challenge nuclear safety in Japan or elsewhere in the future. And speaking of root causes, nuclear plants are designed, built, operated, maintained and regulated by people. For what it’s worth, every moment of training and experience I’ve gained in this industry has taught me that it is completely unacceptable to just ‘chalk one up for the universe’. There is always one or more people, group(s) or organization(s) that can modify or improve their performance to prevent inadvertent events in the future. I’d say it’s a foundation / core value of the nuclear industry.

        Regarding coal and carbon emissions, genuine experts have compiled too much great information for me, a nuclear engineer/project manager, to compete. I’m happy to rely on their work and credentials. Saving the economy’s important – but it’s only one of many variables in an extremely complex situation. Based on what I’m reading from them (cited far above), Rod’s idea is a poor one. High speed electric-powered trains exist in Japan and throughout Europe. I find it hard to believe that they’ve overcome any technical problem that America can not.

        • Brian Mays says:

          High speed electric-powered trains exist in Japan and throughout Europe. I find it hard to believe that they’ve overcome any technical problem that America can not.

          It’s not a matter of technical problems. It’s a matter of demographics, geography, and economics. Japan has a population density of 836 people per square mile. Most of the European high-speed rail network is located in the following countries:

          The Netherlands, with 1259 people per square mile

          Belgium, with 889 people per square mile

          The United Kingdom, with 650 people per square mile

          Germany, with 630 people per square mile

          France, with 289 people per square mile

          (The last, France, is a little misleading, since almost all of the high-speed rail in France is located in the more heavily populated northern part of the country. The main exception is the line that connects France’s three most populous cities.)

          The population density of the US is a mere 84 people per square mile — that is, one tenth of Japan’s. Only three out of the fifty US states has a population density that is as high as Japan’s: New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. None has a population density as high as Holland’s. So high-speed rail might make sense in the heavily populated Northeast, and if it could be made inexpensive enough, it could possibly work connecting the major population centers on the West Coast. But for most of the US, it’s simply not going to be a practical or economical alternative, when you consider all that must be done to build these high-speed rail lines, plus run the wire to electrify them, plus supply the electricity to power the trains.

          I find it extremely difficult to believe that electrified high-speed rail could make any kind of significant dent in travel by air or automobile in the US in the foreseeable future.

        • Cal Abel says:

          Ed,
          You are quite right that death is one metric. It is the one as operators that we are held to perhaps the most and serves as the the most universal measure. You are right the Japanese had a historical precedence for observing tsunamis that were even larger than what they saw as a result of the north east earth quake. There are roughly 20,000 deaths attributed to the society deciding that the benefit of living closer to the coast outweighed past experience and had nothing to do with nuclear power. The reactor’s contained the bulk of the fission products releasing a few kilograms mostly as fission products entrained in escaping steam. Yes there are nontrivial airborne activity levels at the site, however, they are and have been for quite some time less than the US annual exposure limits for radiation workers.

          Leslie Corrice has a good bit of this data and analysis on his blog Scroll down to June 20th 2011: http://www.hiroshimasyndrome.com/fukushima-11.html

          So why are they still wearing face masks and respirators? Surface contamination? You need to get above 10,000uuCi/100cm^2 before worrying about that. Granted there are some regions on the site where there are significant activity levels orders of magnitude above that, but hopefully at this point they have identified those areas fairly accurately and are starting to initiate cleanup. So there has to be some other reason. The only one that I can come up with, with my very limited information is fear.

          The fission products are contained, and everybody, other than the two who died after not vacating the turbine building are able to go home, or to what is left of their former home with ten fingers and ten toes. That is beyond success. Where I disagree with you is that you think that no accidents should be allowed to occur. This is an achievable policy goal, to regulate failure out of the business. It is done by regulating you out of business then nuclear power can’t possibly hurt a soul. It also can’t help anyone either.

          This is a larger failure to understand what the purpose of regulation is. It is to balance the risks to the society (the people offsite) with the benefits that the society can realize, the most inexpensive electricity produced by man. In economics this is measured in terms of welfare.

          Don’t confuse political “action” as actual justification of failure to achieve the actual job. The Japanese government was looking for a scapegoat to blame the earthquake and tsunami on. TEPCO and NISA were caught holding the bag. It is much easier to subdue a populist movement by being able to point at a person or a group of people and say, “They are at fault.” That’s Real Politik 101. Don’t think that happens, who’s to blame for the economic crisis here? Take a guess? Actual wrong doing or failure is not a prerequisite for blame. Success serves as the greatest justification.

          In an earth quake and tsunami that killed 20,000 and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands, the worst that happened was about a square kilometer or so got an appreciable level of radioactivity and the country lost 6 generating assets? How did you ever let your kids ride bikes or heaven forbid cross the street with that kind of risk tolerance? There is a point when a natural disaster occurs, that the last thing you give a hoot about is the nuclear reactors. This tsunami came close.

          The consequence, IMHO, of this is that TEPCO should have been liquidated to fund the cleanup. They failed to protect their generating assets thus they pay. The moves in Japan were political and cultural, with the nationalization of TEPCO and how the accountability played out. Quieting the vox populi had much more to do with the need for perceived action.

        • Cal Abel says:

          As a nuclear engineer and project manager myself, I shared many of the same opinions and viewpoints that you bring up on this blog. I no longer share the same viewpoint as you. I think it is pertinent to let you know why. I questioned what those experts who had compiled the information you rely on as they were the ones who said that nuclear power was much too expensive. I taught myself engineering economics and went to understand the problem, and saw they had missed the mark.

          I thought coal could just be replaced on a whim, that it was dirty and to some extent evil. I then started looking at the overall macroeconomic impact of what a change out would entail and how to mitigate the stranded asset costs in order to incentivize a rapid transition under cap and trade. I saw very clearly that abandoning the capital that is in place across the economy that is invested in fossil fuel, production, transportation, and consumption would be far worse than the bursting of the housing bubble, we have 17 trillion invested in energy production in this country of which over 85% is fossil fuel related. It was at this point I realized that all of the people in the fossil fuel industry were very right in screaming, “You are insane.” Then the task became how to integrate what exists with what is new, and that was when I realized, all we need to do is change out the heat source from electricity and reuse our existing infrastructure as a general strategy.

          This is how I came to understand the need to reuse everything humanly possible down to the gas station on the corner and the cars in our driveways. I started studying economics, sustainability and resilience theory. There is a factor in macro economics called the endogenous growth factor. Economists when they don’t understand something make up excuses with big and fancy names, In engineering, if we practiced the same approach we would get people killed, and in history we did, until we developed thermodynamics. Turns out this endogenous growth factor is simply the energy that we put into the economy. The economists failed to conduct a first law balance on the economy and thought economic activity just happened, it is why they think that printing money creates wealth. It really is quite sad.

          Sit down sometime and think about the amount of energy it takes to build a highspeed rail network, a nuclear plant, implement widespread energy efficiency measures, and anything else that needs to be new. There is much more engineering in economics than you think, or really anyone thinks. Now make a rapid change out of this entire infrastructure while we almost eliminate the energy input into the economy. How feasible, much less efficient is this?

          Ever wonder why we invented powered flight in America? Our country is so large that for economic activity to occur it needed to have an infrastructure capability that was not dependent on a largely material network. Back in the 1950’s before the interstate system was built, everyone was going to have an airplane in their garage and the aircraft industry was booming. Then interstates came along and we built a massive infrastructure around these, at a much higher capital cost than had we allowed normal development to occur. Coincidentally the interstate system also killed the short haul rail line. Shippers now did not have to pay for the use of the infrastructure because it was a public good, paid for by taxpayers.

          There is good reason why we do not have highspeed rail. It is because we have airplanes and our country is absolutely massive. Europe regulated the private and public aviation industry almost out of existence, their efforts with taxing CO2 from airplanes is another example of this prejudice against air travel, instead of going after the coal plants in Germany. But they can’t because, Germany shut down their reactors and need the energy to fund the Greek bailouts. C’est la vie. Japan is much smaller than the US and can service a higher percentage of their population with a a few rail lines with adequate ridership to justify the capital expense. China is a communist regime and built their network to service their highly concentrated cities with billions within miles of the coast.

          You may get your wish as the little value added security measures at the airports force consolidation and concentration of commercial aircraft service to the point where the economy has little benefit from the airlines. Want to watch a tragedy? Watch what is happening to air travel in the US. It is the same thing that happened and is happening to nuclear power, for the exact same logic. It is well worth doing some research on the impact and benefit of the post 9-11 security measures and how those measures got into place. The Congressional testimony and minutes are insightful as to how politicians respond to public demands for action and is another topic that is well worth the study.

        • Ed B. says:

          Brian, National population density comparisons are not relevant. There are 9 states where density exceeds that of France. Still, even this isn’t all that relevant since a high speed rail network would (just a regional air service currently does) link major population centers. And, just like certain areas of Europe, there are pockets of North America with high population densities.

          Also in the US, one should consider cargo haulage (6.9 billion tons by air in the US for the year ending November 2011 according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics). I imagine rail-roaders would love to compete for that market.

          The state of the American rail network is like our road network was during the first half of the last century – dirt roads and 2-lane highways. We can, and should, do better. We’ll create jobs, we’ll be less dependent on foreign oil and we’ll have a small environmental footprint (very small if those trains are driven by electricity generated at nuclear energy stations).

        • Brian Mays says:

          Brian, National population density comparisons are not relevant.

          You must be kidding. When considering transportation, distance matters; where the people are matters. See the examples below.

          There are 9 states where density exceeds that of France. Still, even this isn’t all that relevant since a high speed rail network would (just a regional air service currently does) link major population centers.

          Perhaps you don’t understand what “regional air service” is. The major population centers are mainline service.

          High-speed rail is not used for “regional” service. In France, the TGV (high-speed train) connects only the major cities, since only those connections are built to the requirements needed for high-speed rail. Regional service is provided by the TER. Most of the TGV lines are in the more populous north.

          France is the largest country in the EU, but it is smaller than Texas. It takes two hours to travel from Paris to Lyon (a route that I have taken many times). Now consider how long it would take to travel by TGV between some of the major metropolitan areas in the US, if the high-speed lines were available:

          New York – Chicago – 6 hours

          Chicago – Denver – 7 hours

          New York – Denver – over 12 hours

          New York – Los Angeles – almost 19 hours

          A flight from New York to Los Angeles takes only about 5 hours.

          Even a TGV from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take about two and a half hours. The drive is about six hours. A flight takes about 45 minutes. Even considering arriving at the airport two hours early to deal with lines and the TSA, a flight is competitive with high-speed rail in terms of the amount of time required.

          A high-speed line connecting, say, New York and Boston might be feasible, depending on the amount of demand for such a route, but that is one of the few that seem feasible in the US. In any case, due to geographic considerations, high-speed rail is not going to make a dent in air travel in the US anytime soon.

          Cargo by rail is a totally different issue. One hundred years ago, the railroads used to have the bulk of over-land freight shipping, but they blew it. I doubt that adding high-speed rail simply for cargo would ever work out economically.

          • Rod Adams says:

            Even a TGV from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take about two and a half hours. The drive is about six hours. A flight takes about 45 minutes. Even considering arriving at the airport two hours early to deal with lines and the TSA, a flight is competitive with high-speed rail in terms of the amount of time required.

            Those numbers also illustrate why many of us use our own cars when making trips that are less than about 500 miles. After taking into account all of the overhead associated with going to a station or airport, waiting in line, getting hassled about baggage, paying for parking, and arriving at a destination still needing to obtain ground transportation driving in America is a great option for relatively short travel.

            I like Ike. I figure I have driven well over a million miles on his Interstate Highway system over the past 36 years.

        • Joel Riddle says:

          Rod, it is a shame though that Ike couldn’t see the unintended consequences of a certain CIA operation from 1953 that I have only recently come to know about due to a link you tweeted regarding possibly the world’s most prominently repeated misquote.

        • Ed B. says:

          No, not kidding Brian.

          New York to Chicago in 6 hours? Compared to the absolute garbage that is US domestic air service (Jet Blue, notwithstanding)? Plus all the hassles Rod points out? Six hours on a high speed train, with wider seats, a better view, a restaurant and bar-car? Yes, please.

          I’ve taken that run for work related meetings… just for something different compared to the flight. The overnight sleeper was pleasant enough. That trip in 6 hours would be too good to pass up.

          The linked maps show a representation of a http://brokensidewalk.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/high_speed_rail_map_03-500×319.jpg plan (note, no cross-continental HS lines) and the comparative existing network. http://www.theworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/High_Speed_Rail_Map_Europe.jpg

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Ed B

            Domestic air service could be a heck of a lot better. It was far better just a few years ago. Stupid security theater with no gain at all has made it far less convenient.

            From 1999-2003 I was what a recent BusinessWeek article calls a “super-commuter”. I did not know it at the time; I called myself a “geographic bachelor.” Due to personal circumstances, I worked in Annapolis, MD but maintained my permanent residence in Tarpon Springs, FL. During the first couple of years, I could leave work at 5:00 on a Friday afternoon and be sitting in my recliner at home by 9:00. The round trips were costing about $120 and I made that trip every other weekend.

            After 9-11, things got progressively untenable and I ended up making the trip home only once per month or once every six weeks. The theater added several hours to the trip and the rise in fuel prices partly engendered by the senseless war doubled the fare.

            Passenger trains work in densely populated areas. They are not the solution when the population is spread out so far that the tracks do not connect and the stations have too few passengers.

        • Daniel says:

          We all seem to be forgetting an important factor in this discussion. Trains, the faster the better, take you downtown to downtown.

          That is something that airplanes cannot do. And it is an important discriminant.

    • Ed B. says:

      Forgot to mention one additional thought… regarding regulation and the design development process; here again I would urge a bit of caution. When I think of nuclear power technology R&D, I cast a pretty broad net. Fostering rapid(ish) R&D in the US is appealing for a number of good reasons. But then wouldn’t those same regulations then be applicable for designs coming from, say, China? This is a very real possibility and in this case, I am grateful for our rigorous technical review and approval process. Arduous or exhaustively thorough depends entirely on one’s perspective.

  22. Well, I for one respectively disagree with Rod. I think such a process of providing nuclear power for liquid fuel production is a very bad idea. Yes, we will need liquid fuels, but a broader outlook including far more *cheap* public transportation, strict miles-per-gallon regs for ALL vehicles and potential advances for vehicular battery life/tech as what we need.

    Rods idea only institutionalized coal and coal mining, something that needs to be phased out. Worse, it also *ties* ‘culturally’ coal use with nuclear, instead of John Holme’s “Coal2nuclear” perspective.

  23. Ed B. says:

    Rod,

    FYI – I’ve posted a few replies over the past day or two. Two or three of these have not made the page. I hope this is a technical issue with your blog and not intentional screening.

    One post highlighted the hypocrisy of your comment defending low cost energy for low-income Americans from an EPA mandated control such as a price on Carbon (an issue easily engineered out of a carbon price program, as shown by a link to a plan being implemented in Australia) and rate increases implemented as a pre-commissioning finance mechanism to support nuclear energy station construction (fees of 5.8619% according to Georgia Power’s Nuclear Construction Cost
    Recovery Schedule which are not returned to low income households by the utility). In the post, I mentioned my support of the higher rates, and a price on carbon emissions, even though the former is going to cause more genuine financial pain.

    The second was a rebuttal to Brian’s most recent comment about travel time and highspeed rail. Also with links to the existing network in Europe and a proposed network in the USA. I mentioned that I’d very much enjoyed a sleeper room in a train from New York to Chicago and back and would very gladly take a 6h highspeed version of the same in lieu of all the hassles you list in your reply.

    Since they both include links, maybe there’s some technical problem. If so, you should be aware.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Ed B – I can assure you that I am not screening your comments. Even though we disagree, you are following the unstated rules on Atomic Insights of civil discussion.

      I found your comments in the “spam” folders. Both of them contained improperly formatted links; I pulled them out of the spam folder, reformatted the links to include the closing tags and then approved them.

      I will now go and answer the comments.

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