Does nuclear energy need to do it all?

At The Energy Collective, there is an active comment thread on a post titled Is Bill McKibben Really Serious About Climate Change? that has been sustained since March 8, 2013.

Recently there was a comment that provided an opportunity to address a frequently expressed meme that is often used by people who oppose the use of nuclear energy. The basic thrust of the objection is that it is not worth pursuing nuclear energy unless it can supply all of our energy needs. Here is the comment posted by Steven H Johnson on March 25, 2013.

Hmm. If nuclear is to meet all the demand, it has to be able to warm and cool all our buildings, power all our vehicles, including aircraft, and power all our factories. It’s an interesting proposition. Could you take us through each of those challenges and show us how nuclear is the best solution in each instance?

That question provided me with the opportunity to briefly summarize my position on why nuclear fission energy can make a real difference, even if it does not have the ability to power automobiles and aircraft directly.

@StephenHJohnson

Nuclear does not have to do it all in order to make a huge difference in the world’s energy supply and carbon emissions situation.

It can start with the market application where it has proven to be extremely competitive – supplying large scale, reliable electricity that would otherwise be produced by burning coal, natural gas or oil. It can also take large chunks of market share in another application where its proven capability is just as extensive, though less visible to most of the people in the world – propelling large, fast, emission-free ships that would otherwise be powered by burning oil.

As nuclear energy increases its market share and suppliers begin building in earnest, manufacturing economies that are almost guaranteed with any product will enter into the picture. As volume sales increase for all of the special parts that go into nuclear plants, they will become less unique and more standardized, leading to overall cost – and then price – reductions.

Nuclear can enter into markets for both space and industrial process heat with almost as much ease as with the previous two markets I mentioned; there are probably a dozen or more reactors around the world that are already supplying reliable heat to urban space heating systems and at least a couple that have been used to supply industrial process heat.

Factories can either be supplied by the grid or by smaller units on site. We have a great deal of experience in building smaller nuclear plants in the same power output range as would be needed by a moderate to large factory. An on site small reactor (or several for an industrial complex) would be able to be a cogeneration facility that supplies both heat and electricity.

Nuclear heat can play a role in supplying personal vehicles and aircraft with fuel by being an integral part of the process that converts carbohydrates from plants or carbon from coal into a liquid hydrocarbon using processes like the endthermic Fischer-Tropsch for coal to liquid or one of several distillation processes for carbohydrate conversion.

There are many challenges to be overcome between our current state and a state of atomic abundance, but the primary hurdles have been erected by human decision making rather than based on physics or weather. The nice thing about human decisions is that they are easier to change than the laws of nature that limit the competitors to nuclear energy.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

About Rod Adams

32 Responses to “Does nuclear energy need to do it all?”

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  1. Jason C says:

    Let’s not forget another killer app for abundant electricity: desalination.

    If we have abundant cheap and clean electricity, fuel stations that convert water to hydrogen onsite that could power hydrogen vehicles or other types of hybrids. That combined with desalination would provide an endless supply of clean fuel without straining water supplies. Granted hydrogen has its own challenges but it might be a good fit for certain markets.

    If we had abundant cheap and clean electricity, mining and manufacturing costs could go down thereby providing a higher standard of living to more people.

    Heck, we might even be able to figure out a way to do some cool geo-engineering projects that address that climate change issue that would require lots of clean energy like pulling CO2 out of the air to make fuel.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Jason C

      In terms of pulling CO2 out of the air for useful purposes, it is hard to beat natural plants with some focused human assistance. Just think about how we can turn areas that have been subjected to desertification back into lush, productive, greenery filled lands. The abundant fresh water you mentioned would be beneficial in that effort.

      We can solving world hunger, climate change, and energy scarcity all in one master plan! Gotta love it.

      • Gareth Fairclough says:

        Atoms, gotta love ‘em.

      • donb says:

        If we can figure out how to do CO2 sequestion, the best application for this would be biofueled power plants. They could generate electricity and help remove CO2 at the same time.

        • Rich Harrison says:

          When you look at the sheer quantity of CO2 that would need to be captured and sequestered forever (CO2 doesn’t decay), it makes more sense to just skip biofuels altogether and use nuclear to produce electrical power and process heat. Plus, we already know how to do nuclear today.

          • Michael Messner says:

            Yeah,
            I’m completely with you. Best carbo-sequestation ever invented is by nature: woods of big old trees, the soil under these trees, coral reefs and so on.
            Our main job is to emit es less new Co2 as posible by replacing all the fossile fuels by nuke. Co2 caused by cemical processes by principle like in cement production or iron reduction can be transformed to fuels by fisher-tropsch syntheses, but the rest of (transportable) fuels should be replaced by nuclear-produced hydrogen or direct EV-vehicles.
            And of cource the trees in teh woods should be protected (or used as raw materials for houses, furniture, paper and so on) but not be burned.

          • Rich Lentz says:

            Look back at Rod’s article on the amount of coal burnt. Dig out your chemistry book. The weight of CO2 will be about 3 times that of the coal burnt. And about 2 times that if a gas plant of the same size (if solid). Even if in the form of liquefied gas that will call for train of tankers about half again as long due to axle/wheel weight limits and the weight of the needed, hefty, tank holding the liquid CO2. That still leaves you with an unimaginable storage problem. There are also many new concerns about just what all of this CO2 will do to the minerals and the effects of the seepage of the CO2 from that underground container. And now they are discovering “new” (actually they are older than what we commonly call “life”) forms of life discovered deep in the crust of the Earth.

          • donb says:

            Rich-
            You are missing my point. I do not like biofuels. I don’t even like CO2 sequestration.

            But, if CO2 sequestration can be made to work, then it should be used for one thing only — sequester the CO2 from biofuel power plants, in order to remove CO2 from the atomsphere, faster than what nature can do by itself. That CO2 may slowly leak back into the atomsphere, but one hopes that if it does, it leaks so slowly enough that nature can take care of it.

            We may be able to get some electricity or process heat from the biofuel power plants as a byproduct. But as our main source of energy, nuclear is the way to go.

          • Rich Lentz says:

            If you want to sequester CO2 then skip the process of making biofuel. The plant life that you use to make the biofuel already has sequestered the carbon. That decaying plant life makes good fertilizer eliminating the need for manmade fertilizers and their hazards across all forms of plant and animal life. It would even be better to just use some form of enhanced CO2 absorption into phytoplankton, algae, etc., then use this as fish food or fertilizer. If you burn it you make gaseous CO2 again that needs to be sequestered, again.

            A Nuclear Power Plant avoids ALL of the above and has less total lifetime CO2/mWh than solar or wind. So why are we even talking about wind, solar, sequestration, etc. …..?

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            If you want to sequester CO2 then skip the process of making biofuel.

            There are some things that don’t have many better uses, so we might as well.  They can be used to make the stuff that can’t be replaced by e.g. electrons.

            The plant life that you use to make the biofuel already has sequestered the carbon. That decaying plant life makes good fertilizer eliminating the need for manmade fertilizers and their hazards across all forms of plant and animal life.

            You’re assuming that there’s much nutrient value in the matter, and nothing toxic.  Further, the decay process releases carbon again.  If we are trying to restore the atmosphere we need to capture carbon in forms which are roughly as stable as the fossil fuels being dug up now; compost won’t do that.

            As long as we’re processing carbonaceous matter for fuels and raw materials, we might as well find a way to grab any CO2 that comes off and convert it to a stable form.  Solids are fairly stable, and there are a number of proposals for ways to lock up CO2 using an accelerated weathering process.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Engineer-Poet

            Further, the decay process releases carbon again.

            I don’t quite understand this statement. Aren’t the hydrocarbons that we burn today the result of algae, plankton and plants having absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere, fallen to the ground or the bottom of oceans and lakes, and decaying? Maybe I have it all wrong, but it sure seems that the process resulted in a lot of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere and stored in the earth’s crust.

            If we were supplying most of our power from nuclear reactors, we could assist the natural process by actively burying fallen biomass on a periodic basis. Burying solid biomass in landfills seems like a far simpler and well proven way to sequester CO2 than attempting to capture the gas after it has been released in a combustion process, separating it from other combustion gas constituents, compressing it and piping it deep underground in hopes it will stay there.

            Of course, if we pick the right kinds of biomass to encourage, we could also sequester carbon by building beautiful wooden structures, creating wonderful works of art, and other creations that do not decay and release CO2 to the atmosphere (at least anytime in the foreseeable future.)

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            Aren’t the hydrocarbons that we burn today the result of algae, plankton and plants having absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere, fallen to the ground or the bottom of oceans and lakes, and decaying?

            They’re the product of a carbon capture process.  The limestones and other carbonate minerals are also products of carbon capture, where silicate minerals weather to release ions such as calcium and magnesium which react with carbon dioxide to make solid products.

            If we’re going to take today’s biomass and use it for atmospheric remediation we need to isolate large amounts of carbon for at least thousands of years, not the lifespan of a compost heap.

            If we were supplying most of our power from nuclear reactors, we could assist the natural process by actively burying fallen biomass on a periodic basis.

            Anaerobic decay of biomass releases carbon again, about half of it as methane (GWP = 23+, CO2=1); landfills have gas flare systems to avoid venting it.  If we’re going to bury carbon we need to bury it so it stays put.  Stable forms include char and carbonates of alkalai earths.  Nuclear power can certainly help convert biomass to char, and the liquid and gas yield from pyrolysis can be used for chemicals and liquid fuels.

            if we pick the right kinds of biomass to encourage, we could also sequester carbon by building beautiful wooden structures, creating wonderful works of art, and other creations that do not decay and release CO2 to the atmosphere

            Use acetylation of the wood to make Accoya™ so fungi can’t eat it.  If we can make waterproof wood and glues, it may be feasible to use wood in lieu of steel in a host of structural applications.

        • Engineer-Poet says:

          You should take a look at my old blog post, “Going Negative“.

          • Robert Hargraves says:

            Jim Holm has been diligently working on realistic solutions to “Repair the Air” by removing carbon dioxide using high temperature nuclear power.
            http://thoriumapplications.com/

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            I took a look at that, and I can’t see anyone being willing to pay for 25,000 “Skyscrubbers” at smaller powerplants.  The capital and operating costs are privatized for a public (global) good; this is a recipe for a non-starter.

            To make that work, you need to produce a product or service that everyone wants and tweak the process so it also sequesters carbon.  Maybe some chemists can help with this one, I’m out of my depth.

      • Jason C says:

        I like the reforestation idea! Abundant clean power could also save many forests from destruction that are being cleared to grow fuel like sugar cane in Brazil.

      • Marcel F. Williams says:

        According to the Los Alamos National Laboratory Green Freedom concept for producing carbon neutral synfuels from nuclear energy:

        “A field of switch grass removes CO2 from the air at a net rate of ~15 ton per acre per yr. An alkaline lake absorbs CO2 at an estimated rate of ~450 ton per acre per yr.”

        So using an alkaline pool could be 30 times more efficient at extracting CO2 from the atmosphere than using plants.

        Green FreedomTM(Patent Pending)
        Synthetic Fuels and Chemicals Production

        LSU Alternative Energy Conference: 2008 4/23/08
        Dr. F. Jeffrey Martin
        Dr. William L. Kubic Los Alamos National Laboratory Los Alamos, New Mexico

  2. SteveK9 says:

    I’m more optimistic about EV’s than you are. Heat pumps will also be an important use for nuclear electricity, I think.

  3. James Greenidge says:

    This feature’s heading; I say — why the guilt trip questioning oneself? That notion sure doesn’t enter the heads of wind and solar advocates! Even in schools and the media you’d swear that windmills and solar farms CAN “do it all.” Personally, I’d have nuclear help fuel a hydrogen economy to run vehicles and aircraft by hadn’t I preferred nuclear be applied to coal liquidification to keep such running and coal miners employed. Aside, I think Bill Gates and Paul Allen and a couple of other of these computer moguls ought put their money where their mouths are and forget waiting on fusion and plunk down for a nuke or two and show how to profitably run one here. Better — hawk a groundbreaking electric-desailzating SMR in Africa and show how advanced a charitable person they are.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  4. Engineer-Poet says:

    Curiously enough, I am right in the middle of digging through EIA numbers looking to see where all our energy goes, and in what forms.  Industrial energy is a particular issue just because it is spread across the spectrum of resources and there are so many products.  Whether nuclear power is a substitute is a question which must be answered almost for each individual one, mostly whether it’s used as an energy source or as a chemical feedstock.

    I will be going into that in a big way after lunch.

  5. agimarc says:

    Think of total energy use here in the US as roughly divided into thirds – electricity, vehicular fuels, and heating / cooling. Reactors play primarily in the electricity part of the equation. They can also play nicely in cooling, as it is primarily electrical based. This leaves heating and vehicular fuels. How can reactors play here?

    Heating is obvious, as reactors are fundamentally heat engines. A nice application would be for smaller devices connected to greenhouses for early season and late season growing.

    Anyone remember the videos of the Japanese tsunami flowing across the flat countryside? In several of them you could see long rows of plastic covered rows of temporary greenhouses. They are widely used in Japan and Korea to extend the growing season. Expect a move to greenhouses here in the US, particularly in the northern part of the country over the next couple decades as a response to quiet sun, colder temperatures, later springs, earlier frosts, etc. Captured carbon dioxide is already used to juice greenhouses, improving initial growth of new plants here in the US and elsewhere.

    How do reactors play with vehicular fuels? This one requires a move toward synthetic diesels / gasoline via Coal to Liquid / Gas to Liquid. After the long string carbon molecule is constructed, it needs to be cracked to the appropriate length. This cracking requires addition of hydrogen to populate all the locations along the shorter molecule. And reactors are a nice producer of excess hydrogen.

    This does not replace what is currently being done anywhere except on the electrical generation part of the equation. Reactors help us do things better and more efficiently in heating and the production of vehicular fuels. Sell it on the grounds of improvements in efficiencies. Cheers -

  6. Marcel F. Williams says:

    Nuclear energy has to do it all if we are going to completely replace the greenhouse gas polluting fossil fuels that are raising global sea levels and acidifying the oceans.

  7. Rich Lentz says:

    Many cities have a “District Heating” utility delivering either steam or hot water to buildings in the city. Many more used to exist and were shut down due to the EPA concerns of the ancient plant that was cost prohibitive to upgrade. Several cities even burn their garbage (can you call that renewable energy?) to make the heat they deliver. All produce CO2. An SMR could easily provide these same services with no CO2. They could even use waste heat while making electricity (in some cases.)

    For homer heat an electric driven heat pump (air exchange) is at least as efficient (therm wise) and competitive in actual cost as gas, much better than oil. If you go to Geo-sourced heat pumps it is a no brainer.

    Then you can also use a nuclear reactor for direct production of Hydrogen for use in fuel cell operated vehicles. CNG could easily be used on all local delivery vehicles, from pizza delivery to furniture trucks and for every day commuting.

    This idea of all electric cars has a big problem in that every business would have to have a plug at the parking space for every car, especially in California (who is going to pay for that change and who pays for the electricity you take from your employer?) BUT, wind and solar are not going to cut it. The highest peaks are during the day NOW. Look at the graphs of hourly energy usage. When we get to more than 25% electric vehicles you can’t get enough capacity to charge during the day even with 10 times the present amount of solar/wind CA has. You can’t charge it at night as that is when there will be NO solar and less wind. The rate may be lower then, but the usage is still in the neighborhood of 75% of the daytime peak. Do we all need to work at night to save the Earth? And the greenies claim that your car batteries will act as storage for the wind/solar generated power – in your dreams. That only works when plugged in when the sun is out and would still require a completely different charging mechanism, a combination charger/inverter (about another $1 – 2,000.)

    • JBW says:

      Why does every business need to have chargers at every parking space? Currently available electric vehicles have ranges in the 100-300 mile range. As battery technology improves that range will only increase. Considering that most people don’t live >50 miles from work then the current range is plenty for the daily commute. I would guess that better than 90% of drivers would have no need to charge during the day. As cars charge during the night that 25% difference between nighttime low and daytime high decreases. That decrease is a big boost for baseload power and could really help with the argument for more nuclear.

      • Rich Lentz says:

        Because the sun does not shine at night.

      • Engineer-Poet says:

        The Chevy Volt has an electric range of only 35 miles; the various Energi models from Ford are around 20 miles.  Chargers at a great deal of parking (or reserved parking) is essential for them to get the most out of their electric capabilities.

  8. Engineer-Poet says:

    I’ve thought about this question for a while, and came up with an answer:

    “So what?”

    So what if nuclear can ONLY provide all our electricity.  Oh, and power all large ships, and most if not all industrial process heat, and a large fraction of transportation through battery vehicles and electrified roadways.

    So what if there’s still something left over?  It’s going to be much smaller and easier to deal with than it ever could have been without nuclear.

    • George Carty says:

      Isn’t nuclear power for civilian ships financially non-viable, because the savings in fuel costs would be outweighed by the much more expensive labor required to crew a nuclear ship?

  9. James Greenidge says:

    Wind-Solar advocate Weather Channel at it again with unchallenged anti-nuclear tone reports.

    http://www.weather.com/news/science/environment/fukushima-fish-20130318

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  10. Alex BArth says:

    Anyone remember Alvin Weinberg saying that at the Asymptote, when all concentrated deposits of minerals and energy are exhausted, we will have to live by burning the rocks?

  11. David Herr says:

    Having read through the post and comments, I think everyone is overcomplicating the route to vastly increasing nuclear power’s share of the entire 100+/- Quad BTU US energy picture. I am not a nuclear professional, but bring to the table a layperson’s fascination with nuclear power.

    I envision a nuclear buildout, with fuel recycling, far beyond the amount necessary to produce the 4000 TWh of electricity the US currently consumes. Imagine that, to start, nuclear is built out to the extent necessary to provide all electricity at peak load — replacing all of those dirty and inefficient fossil fuel peaker plants that only operate a small percentage of the time. Call it 1000 GW of capacity running 24/7. That would mean that during many times of the day and year, a large portion of the 24/7 steady nuclear generation would not get used by household and commercial consumers. What to do with the extra heat and electricity?

    I would use that fluctuating load to power removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, and then refining it into synthetic, carbon-neutral liquid transportation fuels, and perhaps also gaseous space heating fuel or chemical industry feedstock (nuclear-powered synthesis of methane or ammonia). In other words, at night, when electricity demand is low, the excess capacity is used for making carbon-neutral fuels. The economics is compelling — cheap electricity gets converted to expensive liquid fuels, 40+ percent of which we currently have to import. The environmental benefits are also compelling — the end environmental result of this program would be the cessation of coal particulates entering the atmosphere, and a substantial reduction in the carbon footprint of our liquid fuel, space heating, industrial process, and chemical industry needs.

    Ideally, this build-out can be accomplished by adding LFTRs (liquid flouride thorium reactors) to existing reactor sites to save on permitting times, and also to solve the thorny issue of “spent” fuel disposal by obviating the need to transport the spent fuel rods over the roads and rails. It also simplifies the energy picture, since capacity additions are as simple as popping in another 250 MW unit on one of the 75 or so existing reactor sites, and/or another CO2 extraction and synfuel refining module at one of our existing oil refineries.

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