Roger Fraley at XDA produced a pithy summary of the benefits and limitations of various energy alternatives. Here is what he said about nuclear power:
There is one solution that seems just the ticket. Nuclear. It produces almost no CO2. It works really well (just look at Sweden and France) and a single, merely large nuclear power plant would produce as much power as 1400 of the largest commercially produced windmills. I’d much rather have the nuke power plant. You have to store some of the nuclear waste safely, forever, but there is a mountain in the middle of nowhere Nevada (I know that doesn’t narrow it down much) that is all ready for just such storage.
Of course, you all know by now how I feel about the futility of continuing down the Yucca Mountain path of transporting lots of valuable material to a location as inaccessible as possible, but that is a common disagreement between me and most nukes. I made a comment on Roger’s blog that you can read by clicking on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below.
Roger: Excellent and pithy summary of the options. My contribution is to expand on the idea of nuclear fission a bit.
The common perception – somewhat reflected in your option list – is that fission is only useful in large, central station steam power plants, but the reality is quite different.
It can be used as the heat source in other kinds of heat engines – like Brayton Cycle gas turbines or thermoelectric converters – and it can be made as small as a household trash can.
The US just decommissioned a 400 ton research submarine – the NR-1 – powered by a nuclear steam engine that would easily fit into a single car garage. It had been operating since 1970.
I just spoke to a man for my last episode of The Atomic Show who was involved in the construction of the PM2-A, a 1000 kwe heat and power station used to provide electricity to a remote station in Greenland. That plan was a prefabricated unit that was built and tested in about 14 months and then delivered and installed in Greenland in a single season. Total time from preparing contract specifications to operating the plant was just 2 years (October 1958-November 1960)
The US navy has been using fission power plants as oil combustion replacements in submarines and aircraft carriers for about 5 decades. The machines work fine and now run for 33 years without new fuel. The world’s inventory of ships big enough to be pushed with fission consume about 6% of the world’s current oil production.
The list of other small, more quickly constructed nuclear reactors built and operated over the years is quite extensive. The really exciting thing is that there are several start-ups like Hyperion, NuScale and at least two more in stealth mode that are focused on build small fission power plants as direct replacements for oil and gas in distributed applications.
Thorium is great, but it is just another expansion on the theme. The introduction of thorium 232-uranium 233 fuel cycles as part of the mix does not negate the value of uranium as a heat source any more than the introduction of natural gas negated the value of oil.
With creative use of heavy metal fission fuels – uranium, thorium and plutonium – we have the opportunity to dramatically increase the world’s overall supplies of useful heat that can be converted into work. We can use that heat in so many ways, but one of the more important is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels so that more of those valuable materials are left for future generations and so that we can reduce the emissions from those fuels to a level that can be mitigated with natural processes like photosynthesis.
The only people who have something to fear from such a concept are those people who make their living finding, extracting, transporting, refining, marketing, financing, and controlling carbon based fuels. In other words – there is going to be a HELL of a lot of resistance to the notion because that is one powerful group of people. They fight hard to protect their market share and may use sneaky or nefarious tactics.
Editor, Atomic Insights
Host, The Atomic Show Podcast