Nuclear Fission Energy – Best of the Above

While preparing to take the SAT (many moons ago) I learned a trick I would like share (again). When faced with list of possible answers that each seem correct on first glance, “all of the above” is almost NEVER the right answer. It is as true with regard to choosing an energy path today as it was during my days as a student. The best choice of our available options is a system in which nuclear fission heat sources play an ever increasing role.

Creating a multiple choice test is no easy task; the authors work very hard to compose the choices so that they can be legitimate measures of critical reading skills, prior knowledge and mathematics ability. For all of the criticism leveled against the genre of standardized testing, well-constructed tests do a reasonably good job of simulating real life decision making – within the admitted constraints of limited time and the requirement of being easy to score quickly and consistently.

Making choices from a menu of options is an everyday occurrence for both individuals and groups. Even countries and collections of countries sometimes have to make such decisions. One of the most important decisions facing all developed societies today involves choosing between several possible energy supply paths. The laziest and possibly worst answer is “all of the above”, but for a variety of reasons, it seems to be one that has attracted a large amount of popular support.

Back in the days of enforced quiet in the SAT testing rooms, it was possible to carefully study each choice and recognize how the chosen phrases separated the right answer from other answers that might have been correct had they included a slightly different combination of words. None of the answers on those tests were being promoted by vested interests who had access to the best loudspeakers or most skilled marketers that money can buy.

The stakes associated with selecting the right answers on the SAT were low in comparison to the trillions of dollars worth of wealth and power associated with the world’s energy markets. As just a tiny measure of the importance of the choices that will be made during the energy discussion, I highly recommend reading Fossil Fuel Industry Ads Dominate TV Campaign. (Thanks for sharing that link, Gwyneth.)

I suppose it is a little optimistic to think that our elected officials will take the time required or ignore the golden opportunities presented by keeping all of the well-promoted options open. It is completely idealistic to think that the advertiser-supported mainstream media will risk offending any of its customers by helping people critically evaluate the menu of energy path options to select the best path.

Aside: Just in case you need a reminder, mainstream media customers are the companies and groups that pay for advertising in order to reach the media’s product – which is you, the readers and viewers. (You can learn more about this truth by listening to the “media assassins” John C. Dvorak and Adam Curry on the No Agenda podcast.) End Aside.

The only way I can see to make correct choices for our energy path is to find a way to convince an ever growing number of people to turn off their televisions, ignore the purchased politicians, and do some deep critical thinking supported with some real numbers. Once they have been through the exercise and discovered the truth about nuclear energy in comparison with its alternatives, they need to use all of the independent media tools at their disposal to promote the fact that an energy path with a strong and growing component of nuclear fission energy is the best of all possible choices.

An energy system built on a strong foundation of nuclear fission heat sources is not the easiest path, it is not the most promoted path, and it is not the path that will provide the quickest return on investment. That is okay, the same things can be said about deciding at age 6 to be the next Michael Phelps, or determining at age 14 that you are called to be a neurosurgeon, or determining that you are tired of leading a country where half of your population is starving because of an ill conceived “Cultural Revolution.”

Here are some objective measures of effectiveness in which fission dominates the competition:

  • Energy density – 2 million times as much per unit mass as oil
  • Emissions – clean enough to operate inside a sealed submarine
  • Abundance – fission fuel sources are essentially inexhaustible
  • Reliability – average capacity factor for US fleet has been near 90% for past ten years. The FitzPatrick nuclear power station just completed a 700 consecutive day operating run in between refueling shutdowns.
  • Operating cost – Average total O&M for nuclear 47% less than “cheap” coal in US (2.19 cents/kw-hr versus 3.23 cents/kw-hr for coal – 2011 from table available at U.S. Electricity Production Costs and Components (1995-2011).
  • Available choices – light water, heavy water, liquid metal, helium, nitrogen, supercritical CO2, Rankine cycle steam, Brayton cycle gas, oxide fuel, metal fuel liquid fuel, zircalloy, stainless steel, SiC, burners, converters, breeders, uranium, thorium, plutonium, above ground, under ground, underwater.

“All of the above” is a lazy, incorrect choice when it comes to energy. It is impossible to overemphasize how important that choice is for the future prosperity and sustainability of human technological society. Can we struggle forward without nuclear? Sure, but how long can we last and why would we want to try?

One last, sort of related point here. Reuters recently published a story titled Nuclear power champions Japan and France turn away that deserves to be read by critical thinkers. I want you to go and read that article carefully, especially close attention to the following section:

But some analysts say that Japan and France are well placed to deal with the results of their decisions.

“Regulators (in Japan and France) are not being irresponsible because with gas generation there is a credible alternative,” Luis Uriza, of consultancy Bain & Company said.

“Japan is already one of the world’s biggest gas importers and is experienced in the market, and France has many options, including imports from the North Sea, Russia, Africa and the Middle East or even to develop its own large shale gas reserves.”

Uriza said export capacity improvements in the global gas sector made the political moves in Japan, France and Germany possible.

“The gas industry made a lot of progress in terms of new export capacities in the past years, so this is good news for new producers in Australia, North America, the Middle East and East Africa,” he said.

In other words, that advisor from an investment firm thinks it is okay for France and Japan to turn away from their nuclear power stations, which employ hundreds of thousands of well trained citizens and burn cheap, emission free fuel. He thinks that move is okay because both countries can replace the electricity produced by those nuclear plants with electricity produced by burning expensively imported natural gas – probably produced by companies with a financial relationship with his employer. That is an argument that makes no sense at all for anyone other than the oil and gas companies and their friends in finance, politics and the media.

PS – It might be worth pointing out that I did reasonably well on multiple choice tests. Without ever attending any practice sessions or taking the test more than once, I was a National Merit Scholar. I credit the love of reading passed on by my parents along with the advantage of having an engineer for a father and an English teacher for a mother.

About Rod Adams

40 Responses to “Nuclear Fission Energy – Best of the Above”

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  1. Brian Mays says:

    The saddest part is that Obama’s “all of the above” strategy is not all of the above, because it does not include nuclear power. The Democratic platform does not mention nuclear even once in their so-called “all of the above” energy policy.

    It’s a shame that we don’t have Paul Tsongas as a candidate this year. His honesty was refreshing. Never let anyone tell you that ol’ Slick Willy was ever a friend for nuclear power.

    Yes, we don’t have the perfect candidate this year, but it’s pretty clear that a substantial and influential part of the Democratic Party gave up on nuclear power during the Carter administration and it has never recovered from that, in spite of having opportunities, such as 20 years ago.

    • Jeff S says:

      There really is no go to candidate for nuclear supporters this year. The republicans favor nuclear power, in theory, but they’re too busy serving their fossil fuel masters to actually do anything about it. If Romney is elected, they’ll probably support the 4 reactors currently in progress, but energy policy will be about Wells, pipelines, and gutting the EPA.

    • John Tjostem says:

      I, too, was saddened to see that the Democrats platform left out nuclear. The Tea Party on the other hand is set against raising taxes. Yet often government investment in infrastructure has been the catalyst to a robust economy. The man-on-the-moon initiative resulted in the information age. I recently read a story about a philanthropist who immigrated to California in the 1950s. He put an add in the paper. “Young physicist wants investors to start a new company.” He credits our 70% tax rate for his success in attracting the necessary capital. He said his new company soon employed 1600. Maybe instead of fearing an increase in tax on the rich, we should reinstate the 70% tax bracket to stimulate investment in venture capital. A paradigm that features development in emission free generation IV fission reactors can provide abundant clean energy to stimulate our economy to the point of full employment and generate the resources to pay down our national debt. This energy paradigm may include electrified highways for trucks and buses and even passenger cars. Farmers have satellite guided equipment that turns off nozzles to prevent double application of seed, fertilizer and chemicals when working on a triangular field and their tractors and combines are steered by satellite.
      High temperature reactors can efficiently separate hydrogen from water for production of synthetic hydrocarbon fuels or energy efficiently stored in metals for use in transportation.

      Iceland is building synthetic fuel facility that is scheduled to open in 2014. It will produce dimethyl ether from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Dimethyl ether is a clean fuel for diesel engines. They expect that the new plant will reduce their petroleum fuel imports by one third. Unlike fossil fuels, synfuels do not increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Our government should invest in R&D to make synthetic fuel. It would create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign fuel.

      • Nicholas Thompson says:

        Maybe I’m missing something (or maybe they changed it), but when I searched for the Democratic Platform, I was directed to http://assets.dstatic.org/dnc-platform/2012-National-Platform.pdf . While it only mentions nuclear energy for domestic electricity once, it does mention it in the blanket statement,
        “That means an all-of-the-above approach to developing America’s many energy resources, including wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, oil, clean coal, and natural gas.”

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Brian

      I supposed I’m a little late to the party, but I recently learned a lot more about Gary Johnson. His positions align better with my thoughts than either of the candidates offered up by the Establishment parties.

      A vote that is a statement is not wasted.

      • Brian Mays says:

        Rod – I have nothing against libertarians.

        I assume that you’re now registered in your new home state, which means that the value of your vote is second only to that of a voter in Nevada in terms of the impact that it will have on this year’s presidential election (at least according to an article that I read recently). Pretty cool, eh?

        Although I don’t mind discussing politics, I never tell anybody how to vote. That’s your decision, and you should vote according to what you think would be best for this country. That’s how democracy works.

    • John Tucker says:

      I think it likely some type of carbon tax will be put forward after the election by Obama. I also think a wave of calls for reactor proposals may be forthcoming. The science is coming down decisively on one side of this argument.

  2. SteveK9 says:

    My teeth grind whenever I hear ‘all of the above’ … the opposite of leadership.

    For those who think Republicans are strong supporters of nuclear, it’s my opinion that most of the support is just hatred of tree-hugging hippie freaks. GOP goes where the money is, oil and gas.

    • Brian Mays says:

      it’s my opinion that most of the support is just hatred of tree-hugging hippie freaks.

      You say that like it’s a bad thing. ;-)

      • Rod Adams says:

        As a life-long tree hugger who sported long hair in high school and has always loved rock music, I am offended. :-)

        As I’ve tried to explain, I am a hard headed BHL who believes fission provides the capability for the kind of world I believe we should strive to achieve.

        • Brian Mays says:

          Rod – I assume that your long hair didn’t impair your ability to take a joke.

          (Yes, I know that you’re not serious.)

          • Rod Adams says:

            Obviously I can take a joke, but one of the reasons I responded the way I did was as a warning to people who want to promote nuclear energy. We need to stop talking down to our audience. We also need to help more people recognize that the power available in fission really does mean more power to the people. With more power to the people, the distance between us and “them” (the people at the very top) will inevitably shrink. That is something that true liberals – both in thought and action – fundamentally desire.

            Just think how easy a group of hippies could have it if they had their own tiny nuke to power their commune. (We know how to design and build tiny nukes that are inherently safe and control themselves. They can be supplied with decades worth of fuel. The only thing that puts that vision out of reach is human imposed rules and attitudes.)

          • Brian Mays says:

            Rod – Well the stereotypes work both ways. Your talk of “them” is as much of a talking-down stereotype as “tree-hugging” or “hippie.”

            The difference is that I was joking. You’re actually serious.

            Consider this: that group of hippies is not going to build their own tiny nuke by themselves. No, they are going to purchase it from a company, probably a very large company run by “them.”

  3. Dr. Kenneth Noisewater says:

    An oldie but goodie:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWUeBSoEnRk

  4. Michael R. Himes says:

    Vladimir Putin claims Russian energy path will be a “Balanced Mix” which sounds to me like “All of the above”. On the otherhand, ships being converted from diesel to nuclear are joining the fleet. LCS ships tend to remain gas turbine powered but keep in mind they are never far from port and fuel. When it comes to new Ice Breakers nuclear power is preferred. In fact, in the far north, nuclear is almost always used for power because no fuel supply chain must be maintained.

  5. John Tucker says:

    Im ready to admit :

    Money spent till now on reactors instead of “renewables” would have been better spent.

    Money spent now and in the future converting coal to gas but more intently replacing as much as possible with reactors would be a better investment.

    BUT – public opinion and passion was with “renewables” until now and it was probably the only doable route that was/is available. As that passion is waning and we are approaching situation where they are overrepresented with respect to current technology and existing infrastructure and climate issues are not being mitigated by an appreciable amount its time to push nuclear power technology harder and get results. .

    • John Tucker says:

      Note: where I say “Reactors” or “Nuclear Power” I should be saying nuclear power technology as we know there is a wide range of technologies and fuels. Generalizing just serves to let the anti nukes set the agenda outside areas of reasonable discussion.

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      I’d like to mention the way the word ‘innovation’ is used within the renewables lobbying sector. There are many government funded programs currently in my country (netherlands) where different amounts of money (5 million, 20 million, etc.) are awarded to ‘teams’ headed by captains of industry who are tasked to ‘support innovation’.

      Rarely is it clear exactly what innovation is being sought. And often, one can read in the Final Reports of such ‘teams’ that most of the funds were spent on ‘feasibility studies’ and ‘workshops’. Concerning the subject of such workshops, I then find such things as a study into the merits of providing pedalpowered electric generators in privacy rooms in offices, so that office workers who need to make a private phone call can do so while pedalling on the electric generator, thereby creating sustainable, green energy.

      So now, whenever I see that the object of some (well funded) government (stimulus?) program is to support ‘innovation’ within one or the other sector of the economy, I always think of that office worker, happily pedaling away at his generator, thinking to himself how he is doing his (or her) part to ‘save the environment’…

      I think the word ‘innovation’ is going to lose it’s public appeal pretty soon. I think it will have to. What people need to understand is that almost all types of machinery and process have *already* seen most all the innovation they are ever going to need, throughout the last few decades. There is not a whole lot more ROI on further innovation. With one exception of course. Nuclear energy. Innovation in nuclear energy is the only pursuit that is still very clearly going to deliver benefits and new applications.

      (sure, innovation in electricity storage would seem to also be very worthwhile, but I happen to believe that electricity storage is *also* pretty much innovated out. Sure, there ‘could’ be some highly unexpected and exotic fundamental physical invention that will give us batteries that are 20 times as energy dense and cheap as current batteries. But I highly doubt it. In fact, I’m pretty sure it is not going to happen, based on my reading of the literature.)

      • John Tucker says:

        Joris I am working on a economics blog post and there is considerable disconnect it seems with what we think is going on, what people think in general and what is occurring. Its even worse in energy and basic infrastructure issues, with expressed opinions closer to populist religion probably really than reason.

        In a way social media makes some problems worse. I wonder if we are not seeing the perfect storm of our times building unfortunately to unsustainable stresses at least if not a spectacular failure in many interconnected systems.

  6. Robert Margolis says:

    It is sad that most of the “opinion leaders” endorse a de facto policy of whatever is cheapest now (i.e., oil and gas). Perhaps the Wright Brothers should have waited for the right consumer focus study (when can we have REALLY fast bicycles?). ;-)

    • John Tucker says:

      This article sums up the truth and my feelings well:

      Without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost

      More people die each day from coal pollution than have been killed by nuclear power in 50 years of operation, and that is even before factoring in the impact on global warming. That such populist irrationality should guide public policy in so many countries – and on such an important issue as energy – is nothing short of a disaster.

      ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/sep/14/nuclear-global-warming )

  7. garett schweik says:

    The problem with large scale nuclear is that it uses millions of gallons of water for cooling and steam production. In areas where water is scarce (especially fresh drinking water and including many areas in the USA) nuclear energy is NOT feasible. This issue will only be amplified by the effects of climate change.

    And then there is radiation and nuclear waste.

    Two truly renewable energy sources are Solar PV and Wind. With high tech large scale battery storage progress and improved power grid transmition across contential expands, who is to argue this is the way to go?

    Two

    • George Carlin says:

      Solar PV and wind will not save anybody. The price without storage capacity for this intermittent, unreliable energy takes it out of most markets instantly. Adding battery storage to the equation complete negates its use. If you don’t use storage (which no one probably will) every MW of installed solar or wind must be matched MW for MW by a natural gas quick start generator. Neither solar nor wind reduce carbon emissions by any appreciable amount because of this requirement. Why not skip the middle man and just build natural gas at this point?

      Nuclear energy does not remove millions of gallons of water from the local ecosystem. The thermal system takes water from the near river/lake system for condensing the steam that spins the turbine. However, this water is, for the most part, returned to the river/lake system a few degrees warmer. This is usually not any sort of issue for the river/lake system being used.

      It is an issue for areas that do not have any river or lake systems near by. But that is a different issue from what you are referring to. Advanced nuclear reactors should address this issue by using air cooling as the final heat sink.

      • John Tucker says:

        Im glad someone else answered this. Reactors “use” 1 percent of water I think- (evaporated and recycled by natural process) the rest is recycled as you say and of course there is infinite water available in the oceans for cooling if carefully engineered.

        What I am wondering why people so concerned with water and power didn’t evaluate the effect of wind turbines (increase in surface temp – enhanced mixing ( http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/tx-wind-farm.html )) or the surface albedo changes of the huge solar farms required to replace one reactor. Not to address the aesthetics and ecosystem disruption of vast expanses of aerial blenders and maintained fields of black panels.

        And then to mention the gas co-generation REQUIRED by these technologies usually also requires fresh water.

        • Joel Riddle says:

          John, 1% might be a bit low. If my memory is serving me well, a certain operating plant’s hyperbolic cooling tower evaporates approximately 15,000 gpm at full power out of about 120,000-144,000 gpm that is brought into its neighboring (not-yet-operational) unit’s cooling tower basin (and then flows to the mentioned unit’s condenser), so that is closer to 10%-12.5% being “used” (aka evaporated), which will increase to about 20-25% of the water brought in being “used” once the 2nd plant comes online.

          • George Carlin says:

            I actually partially forgot about cooling towers. In Canada we don’t use them and lapse on their use while writing.

          • Joel Riddle says:

            Most people would probably presume that cooling would be less of an issue in Canada, due to the higher latitude and thus generally cooler temperatures.

          • John Tucker says:

            I was thinking percent of total water supply Joel but thanks for the actual numbers. So around 1400 gpm. Its too bad that waste heat cannot be used I am still wondering about induced evaporation with wind power and runoff/evaporation land use issues with solar. .

            Incidentally there is an interesting post on the “things worse than nuclear power” on the vast amounts of low level waste created by solar. ( http://thingsworsethannuclearpower.blogspot.com/ ). I also remember reading somewhere that most solar panels DONT make it to a 20 year rating in testing. I need to look that up and see if its still correct.

            We shouldn’t be taking ANY numbers for granted in this, we need to be on the correct path. I wouldn’t assume that environmentalists that have been so hard and unreasonable on nuclear power technologies are somehow being upfront when it comes to renewables. Sometimes what we want to be true isnt.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @George Carlin

        Did you know that one of the largest nuclear generating installations in the US is in the desert outside of Phoenix, Arizona?

        http://www.powermag.com/water/Reclaimed-cooling-waters-impact-on-surface-condensers-and-heat-exchangers_318_p4.html

        Getting rid of waste heat is not the overwhelming challenge that antinuclear activists like to describe. It is a simple matter of engineering that has to be accomplished with every “heat engine” power plant, which includes solar thermal.

        • Joel Riddle says:

          Rod, I think a similar type of reclaimed water system is planned for the 2 AP1000′s that will likely be built at Turkey Point, with construction possibly starting in the 2015-2016 timeframe (merely my timeframe guesstimate).

  8. Rick Maltese says:

    Rod. You’re not getting older. You’re getting better. This is one of my favorite postings if that means anything. You accomplish what you set out to do early on. But you keep giving a lot in a short space. Economical and smoothly connected thoughts. Hope you don’t mind me saying your message is clear and I love how you say it. No. I have not been drinking. I for one am recommending this on my http://deregulatetheatom.com and hope others do too.

  9. Jim L. says:

    I’m always surprised how folks always expect/take for granted technological progress in everything from the newest iPhone to automobiles, and even wind mills and solar panels. Yet folks do not seem to accept that nuclear power also can/does have technological progress. They just seem to figure that our nuclear power plants are locked-in to 1960′s technology and thats it. Now, the NRC may be part of that, but that has been covered before.
    I guess my point is that the nuclear power advocates should be trying to persuade using our own technological advancements – there is an entire world of options out there! We should be advancing a “using technology to save the environment” argument – heck, “clean coal” does it with a straight face.

    • EntrepreNuke says:

      Thus how I came up with the silly name for my blog: http://entreprenuclear.blogspot.com

      I have sadly not been able to be very active lately with my Entreprenuclear projects, due to working considerable hours to help get a Gen II plant up and running at about 120-140 MWe more than it was operating at before undergoing its uprate. I should be gaining more free time soon though.

  10. Daniel Taylor says:

    When it comes to energy production there isn’t one right answer.

    Or perhaps I should say that there is one, but it’s “diversity of sources”.

    Nuclear should be our dominant power source instead of coal and gas, but the rest do have a place in hedging against unforseen events.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Daniel Taylor

      I agree and tried to make that point clearly when I talked about “An energy system built on a strong foundation of nuclear fission heat sources…”

      Hydrocarbons, used properly are immensely valuable and can do things that fission reactors will never be able to accomplish.

      If you read old posts on this blog or listen to Atomic Show podcasts, you will find that I am a huge fan of hydrocarbons and have been a loyal customer for about half a century. I just want to reduce their use from their current high levels and I would love to reduce the prices down to something more similar to the 25 cents (USD) per gallon (I’ll allow for some inflation) that my Dad paid when we took a 6,000 mile trip from Florida to Colorado in our Volkswagen camper. Heck, even when my twenty something daughter started driving, gasoline only cost $1.00 per gallon and natural gas was a little south of $2.00 per million BTU.

  11. Daniel says:

    Reactor news from Canada.

    In Ontario, Bruce 1 is back online after a hiatus of 15 years. Bruce 2 to follow soon. Once all reactors are back online, Bruce Power will have the biggest capacity in the world for a nuclear plant.

    In La Belle Province (Québec), the newly elected government has put a death sentence on Gentilly II. Gentilly I operated for only a few months a long time ago before being canned.

    • Daniel says:

      From the newly elected Premier of Québec on closing the Gentilly II nuclear reactor:

      “I want this gesture to become a symbol of Quebec’s commitment to the environment and to the well being of generations to come,” Marois said at a press conference.

      Priceless.

  12. Cal Abel says:

    My problem with the all of the above strategy is that government has presumed the warrant to decide what our energy mix is. It is fundamentally an economic decision of the utilities. Government influences this through the enacted policy. Because of the regulatory uncertainty and cost nuclear will be ha,pered in our country. Real shame. The problem is in the policy constraints. These are set to skew investment and tax payer dollars to already established sources, chiefly fossil fuels by eliminating the competition.

    Utilities have legal obligations to provide electricity. Tus a renewable mandate is a mandate for fossil fuel back up… We need to ge out of the engineering and into public policy.

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