While at the 12th annual Platts Nuclear Energy Conference, I heard a speaker say something that made my competitive and creative juices begin to flow. I have the exact words and the speaker’s name buried in my notes and may dig them out someday, but right now, I feel the need to share the “wild and crazy” ideas that began to form.
The speaker chided the audience for the nuclear industry’s defensive attitude. He acknowledged that posture has been developed over many years of bloody public battles over new projects, trivial material releases, and overreaction to routing mechanical or personnel challenges.
He pointed out, however, that it’s difficult to inspire young people to get excited about joining an industry that appears to be satisfied with merely treading water. The nuclear industry seems to be spending most of its political capital asking for what appear to be special subsidies designed to keep existing power plants operating for a few more years until they die a more natural death at the end of their useful life.
Even when industry-employed spokespeople acknowledge that there is some room for new construction, they tend to talk about it in terms of replacing retiring units and possibly adding enough extra new plants to maintain the 19-21% market share of the electricity market held by nuclear energy since the early 1990s.
He told us about his visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. There, the scientists and engineers talk about their plans and research aimed to enable a 100% renewable energy future. They are excited and aggressive about doing all they can do to reach this goal, including working hard to ensure that their annual budgets from the Department of Energy grow rapidly enough to make it possible to make real progress.
Some of you might recall my interview with S. David Freeman and Leah Y. Parks about their vision for an All-Electric America that is based on a fantasy grid composed of wind, solar, a little water, a lot of storage, and a massive quantity of electrically produced hydrogen for vehicle fuel.
As Senator Cory Booker might say, the 100% renewable energy crowd has a BHAG – a Big, Hairy Audacious Goal. They believe that they know a way to “get to the roof.”
I think they have absolutely no understanding of the incredible costs that their visions will impose in a doomed mission to an unreachable goal. They haven’t found a way to get to the roof, they are proposing a path that will cause our high energy society to fall into an abyss reminiscent of the Dark Ages.
Aside: As I’ve noted before — in my broken record method of teaching — some of the people who preach 100% renewables are fully cognizant of the fact that their goal is unreachable. They are cynically promoting that goal in order to kill nuclear energy development and keep modern societies dependent on their current foundation of hydrocarbon combustion. Amory Lovins, Mark Z. Jacobson and Daniel Cohan fall into this category. They all have strong, documented financial ties to the hydrocarbon establishment. End Aside.
That is perhaps a lengthy way to set the stage for my BHAG of a 100% clean energy system fueled mainly by atomic fission of thorium, uranium, and plutonium.
It is already well-proven that it’s possible to operate village and small town sized electrical grids using nuclear power plants designed for responsiveness, reliability, ease of operation and maintainability. The navies of the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China have been doing this with nuclear powered submarines and ships since as early as January 17, 1955 when the USS Nautilus first reported that it was underway on nuclear power.
Those ships contain grids that would be classified as “micro” or “mini” if they were on land. They serve not only 100-5000 residents and a wide variety of electronic or mechanical loads that need reliable, smooth power as many seconds of the day as possible but also provide the vast quantities of power required to push large vessels through the water at high rates of speed.
Shipboard power systems are able able to distill pure water from seawater and to use rejected heat for a number of useful applications like air conditioning, space heating and cooking.
Mostly because of limited production rates, excessive security requirements, and engineering choices required for maritime applications, the 100% nuclear electrical power systems used on ships so far would not be economically competitive with large scale fossil fuel plants connected to an existing grid. However, they are demonstrations that proven technology exists to supply large quantities of reliable power to remote villages, industrial sites, or small cities without needing to burn fossil fuels or construct lengthy transmission lines.
We already know, of course, that nuclear energy can supply the electricity needed for large cities or even whole countries.
The cool thing about my audacious proposal is that it can be accomplished one village at a time. It is not dependent on massive new transmission lines; two way communications between suppliers and customers; “smart” devices vulnerable to malware, intrusive surveillance or centralized control; dependence on favorable weather patterns; or the invention of magically cheap, energy dense and durable storage devices.
It’s not an all-or-nothing path. Each community has the opportunity to decide for itself if it would like to make the investments required to fully eliminate hydrocarbon combustion from their power system. It might not be the cheapest way to go, but the analysis of cost is something that has many situationally dependent variables. Speaking as a former analyst, I can testify that it’s possible to produce almost any desired answer by carefully selecting the initial assumptions.
Speaking as a nuke who has run a non-nuclear manufacturing enterprise, I can testify that there are countless ways to improve nuclear technology and oversight to safely squeeze out unreasonable costs and achieve predictable costs and schedules.
There are numerous possibilities for ways to convert the thermal energy produced by atomic fission into useful power. There are several different fuel materials and countless economically accessible deposits of those materials distributed all around the globe. This is not an “all your eggs in one basket” proposition.
It is exciting, it is real, and it is achievable. Just in case you are the kind of person who is most fully energized by visions of space travel, fission works there just as well as it does on earth. Try saying that about Mark Z. Jacobson’s WWS (wind, water, solar) power sources.