Atomic Show #186 – SMRs, Climate Change, and Natural Gas Competition
On the evening of July 29, 2012, Suzy Hobbs-Baker, Director of the Nuclear Literacy Project and founder of PopAtomic Studios, Dan Yurman, who blogs at Idaho Samizdat and writes for Fuel Cycle Week and the ANS Nuclear Cafe, Margaret Harding, an independent nuclear energy consultant who blogs at 4 Factor Consulting, and Cal Abel, a PhD student at Georgia Tech and the founder of a startup company developing nuclear process heat production systems, joined me for a roundtable discussion about a variety of atomic topics that have been in the recent news.
Dan filled us in with details about the Department of Energy’s Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for the development of small modular reactors using light water reactor technology.
Suzy introduced the topic of encouraging nuclear scientists and engineers to recognize the expertise of climate scientists and to aggressively offer nuclear technology as an ultra low carbon energy source. Suzy has published a thought provoking blog post on the topic at the ANS Nuclear Cafe titled Climate Change and Nuclear Energy: We Need to Talk.
Cal explained how he was working hard to develop and then provide technology that performs the challenging balancing act of increasing our access to useful energy, decreasing the cost of that energy, maintaining the value of much of our current energy production infrastructure, decreasing our CO2 emissions, AND increasing the reliability of our energy production systems. He is not talking about perpetual motion machines but real system designs based on hard science and engineering.
Margaret offered her usual expert commentary on all topics discussed.
I continued singing my currently favorite song about how highly motivated the global fossil fuel industry marketers and decision makers have been during the past fifty years to discourage any shift in the energy markets from fossil to nuclear energy.
As Dan pointed out, however, even some of the world’s most prolific producers of petroleum are making serious investments in nuclear energy production systems. When the UAE, Iran and Saudi Arabia all decide that it is time to build nuclear power plants, they are sending the world a signal indicating that they know their fossil reserves are getting more and more difficult to extract at a rate that will allow them to continue developing.
We should all be paying attention to the many reasons why it is past time to be building lots of new nuclear power plants. There is an old saying about trees that is apropos here:
The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 1:12:18 — 33.2MB)
Subscribe: Google Podcasts | RSS
Those last 3 paragraphs are an excellent way of framing the decisions of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and that needs to be repeated quite a few times.
It is a shame that NEI won’t be putting out any commercials with similar phrasing to tout new nuclear builds, but that doesn’t mean us individuals can’t do it.
This show is a great beginning conversation for having Bill McKibben as a future guest of the Atomic Show.
I don’t know how dumping 30 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere is going to work out long term but I also feel that it’s a grand experiment with no conscience and no purpose. Humanity must accept its role as being the stewards of our planet, it’s the only one we have. This is why I strongly believe that environmental care should come before politics and economic considerations. The choice for nuclear energy is then a choice which brings many other goodwill benefits not seen on the bottom line.
This was a good show! I envy you all having a delicious lunch session next time!
I’d very much like to see the very same sage cast again including Meredith Angwin and Will Davis and especially Suzy to shine on a roundtable about public nuclear education and the media. Joel Riddle’s lament above (“It is a shame that NEI won’t be putting out any commercials”) goes down the whole line of nuclear professional outfits and nuclear industry and atom unions who, rightly or wrongly, appear to be sitting back with their dues on the public ed front and letting valiant and unsung nuclear bloggers carry the water for them to keep the pitchforks off their butts. Yes, I sound a little harsh on this score but then I’m a simple street guy who knows more about the law of the jungle than corporate ones to avoid being shafted by unscrupulous opponents wielding every shade of FUD and chronically unchallenged nightmares to shut your whole field down. I mean Arnie and Helen’s rants and lies should’ve been thoroughly publicly trashed long ago with historical records and certified proof and facts but instead they keep bouncing back on their feet like cheap kung fu movie baddies after getting whacked a dozen times. A lesson at aggressive PR self-defense isn’t being learned in the arena of media and public nuclear perception here! Please tackle the issue in one of your sessions! Good work because I know it’s a strain!
If the most efficient solution is sought as government policy to solve concerns over AGW by reducing emissions of CO2 then the most logical transition would be to displace coal — the most carbon intensive fuel — with fission, the cleanest from of baseload generation.
Apart from AGW concerns, coal also happens to be the largest stationary source of air pollution in the US and shortens the lives of >10k people a year. Now coal is already being displaced rapidly with gas, yet that flood of cheap and plentiful gas would be better used as fuel for our cars & trucks (it’s cheap, now 40 cents per GGE, and cleaner & safer than gasoline) but for the market failure that our cars and trucks now don’t come equipped with dual-fuel tanks. The gas we are burning now to generate electricity could completely displace the equivalent of all US oil imports, if we simply would use it to fuel our vehicles instead; and if US petroleum demand were cut in half the world oil market would collapse from $90bbl down to ~$20-25 which by itself would solve a lot of our geostrategic problems vis-a-vis Russia, Iran, & Venezuela. And natural gas is inherently easier, safer, & cleaner to produce and work with as an economy-wide transportation fuel than F-T or methanation & MTG process conversion of the billion tons of coal extracted from mountaintop removal and valley fill operations, or by coal miners risking their lives every day.
So fission should supply at least all of our baseload electricity (~2/3 of our generation) and displace coal and baseload uses of natural gas. But how to overcome the vested interests standing in the way of any significant expansion? China (PRC) now is the #1 burner of coal in the world, also in absolute terms the #1 greenhouse-gas emitter. So logically US policy should aim at constricting any further “carbon outsourcing” of industry to the PRC with a sizable tariff of 25% on manufactured goods imports (legal under WTO rules for environmental reasons) which would raise ~$100 billion/yr. This money could then go to purchase and shut old US coal units at a generous rate of say $2000 per kW; in exchange, plant owners would have to re-invest that money in a non carbon-emitting source of dispatchable generation and to utilize existing balance of plant brownfield infrastructure (switchyard, transmission lines, heat sink, cooling towers). This could supply utilities with $75-100 billion/yr in capital which should purchase ~20GW/yr in NPP, which would completely phase out coal in 10-15 years.
Margaret Harding & Cal Abel seem to doubt ground-source heat pumps can operate in northern climes. Actually GSHPs have been in use in Sweden since the 80’s and increasingly since the 90’s, ~40k systems are installed annually. There is a MN-based study (PDF) on residential & commercial retrofits and new build. Their findings were that GSHP in MN buildings could completely displace natural gas at the cost of net increases in electricity usage, however since MN still uses significant amounts of coal this would lead to net increases in CO2, SOx, NOx, etc. Sweden has the advantage of choosing between domestic nuclear, Norwegian hydro, and even cheap subsidized Danish wind energy. However any heating system could be made to work; it’s the insulation that’s really the key. Super-insulated small homes with R-40 walls and R-70 roves can be warmed through winter via their hot-water heaters along with incandescent light-bulbs and the body heat of their occupants!
You are quite right. I was not referring to ground source heat pumps. But rather air exchange. I sat down and did a cost analysis for a ground heat exchange at my home. It was a net money looser without direct subsidies paid by my state, Georgia, and the US gov’t. Where I am in Atlanta, I have a higher degree heating requirement than I do a cooling requirement. It only gets stronger the farther north you go. Yes these systems can be sized to provide a large enough heat sink to heat a home way up north, even Sweden, or Wisconsin. The issue comes down to economic viability. The cost of a NG furnace including fuel ($8/MMBtu) far outstrips a ground loop heat pump. Most of the cost is associated with drilling the loops.
Where I think in general you are becoming confused is the difference between new construction and building retrofits, along with the desirability of less utility of a home. By reducing our energy consumption we reduce the economic utility of our society the same can be said for an individual level too. By having a smaller home one has to make more allowances for physically avoiding the other members in the home. This requires an input of thought and action of an individual. It can become second nature. After 10-years on submarines. Cramped is not beautiful. It is cramped and brings a whole appreciation for space. Having done a number of home renovations and doing models for industrial buildings the R-40 and R-70 does not pay off unless subsidized either. Maybe in Europe with the high energy costs they do, but definitely not in the states. Remember, my goal is to keep those energy prices as low as possible.
True natural gas can be used as a transportation fuel. It will however require an investment in infrastructure to be able to support a massive change out. That is capital not used for some other application, an abandonment of existing investment, and consumption of even more energy to make the infrastructure change. Why not reuse existing infrastructure to the maximum extent that is economic?
Nuclear heat in coal gasification is a significant improvement of existing coal gasification. Using fossil heat to gasify and liquefy natural gas or coal, the process consumes about 20% of the heat content in the original feedstock. Nuclear heat adds 10% to the heat value of the feedstock. As for GHG emissions. Nuclear provides a capability to include all of the carbon fed into the process into the product. In this case the ratio of the heat in the product to the coal feedstock is 2.76. Coal is upgraded by nuclear heat, effectively storing carbon free heat in the chemical bonds and using a carbon free source to do the conversion as some of the heat is not captured, ~20%. Particulate, sulfur and roughly 1/3 of the carbon are captured in this process, making a fuel source
This approach allows maximal reuse and continued use of existing infrastructure, and does not rely on gov’t intervention to be economic. Gov’t can still mess it up through over regulation, but that is another issue all together. Action dictated by government is inherently inefficient as there is little incentive to innovate and much more incentive to push the bureaucracy forward. This is why developing ways for a company to make money and improve their return on capital is so important. By making money it allows them to invest more money.
When I say small I meant more “modest” as opposed to tiny, say 1-1.5k sq ft. The design philosophy of so-called “zero-energy buildings” appeals to me since about 1/3 of US primary energy is used to heat and cool buildings and I believe it is this segment of energy demand, as opposed to personal transportation, that is more readily electrified.
If the US could displace all fossil fuels used for baseload generation (as has happened already in France, Switzerland, and Sweden), this would still mean only 1/4-1/3 of our primary energy would be derived from fission; presently all forms of electrictricity generation constitute 40% of US primary energy. The two other major sectors are transport and indoor heating. A lot of attention is directed by the Obama admin on electrification of vehicles with plug-in batteries, but I think interior heating, particularly in the NE where they still mostly use heating oil, offers greater opportunity for savings.
Rod often likes to point to “smoking gun” conspiracy theories involving the fossil fuel industry, or with some amusement the smoking “pop-gun” conspiracies involving their alternative fuel decoys. What must be of most concern to the petrochemical industry would be the demand destruction and market collapse of petroleum by natural gas getting into the US transport sector; they are willing to lose money on cheap gas (and remember shale gas is being produced mostly by the highly competitive small independents, not the big-oil majors) so long as they are making more money on expensive ~$90-100 oil. If Americans get the idea that they could be filling their cars with natural gas at $3-6MMBTU (>$1 GGE) and demanded OEM dual-fuel versions out of automakers it would implode the global oil bubble. Only fission is capable of displacing both coal & natural gas and free them up as transport fuels.
The only question then is what fossil fuel do we use? Natural gas methane can be converted into liquid fuels just as coal can plus it’s already a gas so we can eliminate the whole gassification process entirely with supplies cheap and apparently plentiful gas already available. No doubt there will be gov’t sponsored demonstration projects of nuclear heats capability to refine coal and oil; GA is working on just such projects with their 1000 degree helium designs.
Coal requires an enormous effort to haul and I assume most refineries are not going to be located next to mine-mouths. Barges even now are straining on the low Mississippi, and coal consumes about half of railroad cargo-miles. I’m sure even Mr. Fox of “Gasland” fame would concede that the extraction process of coal is far more destructive than natural gas. The watershed of whole valleys in WVa have been fouled — in fact whole valleys have been filled over with mountains of overburden. Given the option of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and all its caveats I still prefer it and keeping Appalachia substantially the way it is.
Gas also has an extensive infrastructure, arguably larger than coal; pipelines are the most efficient way to transport fuel and all major metro centers are already hooked up right down to the neighborhood distribution level. With economies of scale no question CNG tanks of 8-GGEs in dual fuel sedans and 16-GGEs in SUVs and minivans could be produced for no more than $1000 option which would pay for itself in 2-3 years easily as opposed to battery hybrids or electrics which don’t make a lot of economic sense so longs as the batteries cost >$10,000. Plus there is no “range anxiety” with dual-fuel cars have 150% greater range and can use gasoline until most stations install natural gas pumps. The only sacrifice is trunk space, but even with the dual-fuel version of the Chevy Cavalier that came out in the 90s I recall you could still fit a week’s groceries or a set of golf clubs in the trunk.
Perhaps I am misunderstanding you. From my point of view, 1000 to 1500 square feet is a tiny house. My first one out of college was 1300 square feet.
Re: Cal Abel “After 10-years on submarines. Cramped is not beautiful. It is cramped and brings a whole appreciation for space. Having done a number of home renovations and doing models for industrial buildings the R-40 and R-70 does not pay off unless subsidized either…Remember, my goal is to keep those energy prices as low as possible.”
I’m with the mindset that we should strive to eventually be able to tap all the energy we need or desire. Who wants to live in a bland glassless thermos bottle for a home or office? We’re sardined into boxy “fuel efficient” cars to go cross country (ever been in a car from the forties or fifties? Like rolling living rooms compared cars today! THAT’S comfort!) My parents’ home in Queens was a standard built in the late 1930s with only one electrical outlet per room and no insulation under the rafters, yet we were very comfortable there in deep winter in pre-1970 times using oil heat which was so relatively cheap then that energy bills were on the low end of payment concerns. It’s said Frank Lloyd Wright couldn’t build his lovely and sweeping homes with the EPA and green building codes today. Our architectural creativity and true comforts are being compromised and hamstrung because of this race to strain the max dickens out of every drop of water or watt and cord of insulation, yet we’re smelling life’s flowers less for it. Why can’t we shift back to the future to the idea of advancing as a goal cheap abundant energy instead of “just produce enough” and see what heights our standards of living can really go!
“In the 1930s Frank Lloyd Wright started building more modest and efficient houses — usually around 1,200 square feet — than the sprawling two-story ones he had designed in the 1890s and the early 20th century.”
The average family home in the 1930s must have been smaller than 1000sq ft, according to Census figures median home size was about 1500 sq ft in the early 70s.
My folks’ two-story six-room plus basement home in Queens was labeled as a “California Ranch” in the ’30s (don’t see much California or ranch there myself — If you watched the first Spiderman movie and saw the home Parker lived it’s similar) but it’s a basic style to the old standard in Queens which comfortably accommodated a family of five. (7 in our case). They’re no mere 1000 sq. feet. They were originally built for coal — in fact we could see the basement wall’s bricked up patch where the coal chute was before it was converted to oil when my parents purchased it in 1950 (a great buy-in for black Americans in a predominately Caucasian neighborhood then!) But no roof insulation (then)! — yet we were snug as a bug in a rug even in some really bad winters because oil heating was cheap! I think the “Mount Rushmore” house in “North By Northwest” was a Wright inspiration and that certainly was way more than 1200 sq feet. Give me lots of cheap energy and I’ll die happy in lots of comfy room instead of a shoebox! It was possible with cheap oil long ago and maybe with cheap nuclear electricity it can be so again!
Back in 2007 Los Alamos National Laboratory released a report describing Green Freedom http://www.lanl.gov/news/newsbulletin/pdf/Green_Freedom_Overview.pdf , a patent-pending concept to produce carbon-neutral liquid fuels from atmospheric CO2 utilizing standard light water reactors in combination with a host of conventional industrial processes. Analysis showed the process to even be reasonably economically feasible. This approach would keep the petrochemical industry in business doing what they do best, while avoiding a wholesale alteration of our transportation infrastructure. Texas A & M is dabbling in a partnership with Los Alamos on this. This seems to be a great opportunity. Does anyone have some inside information on Green Freedom?
Guess you never lived in Manhattan, certainly not just out of college.
Conceivably one day district heating from local neighborhood SMRs could heat any size urban home quite cheap & sustainably. Clean & highly efficient ground-source heat pumps (in NYC a lot of warm water [sewage]) and steam is passed underground perhaps water-source heat pumps could make additional use of it before it hits the Hudson. Better than Bloomberg’s urban windmill plan.
Yes I’m familiar with the Los Alamos “Green Freedom” concept and you might also be interested in George Olah’s work (PDF) on converting CO2 into basically any kind of hydrocarbon fuel. These were rather intriguing ideas back in 2007 but the “shale gale” is upon us and methane is so cheap and so easy to work with that it’s going to be a while yet before we have to suck CO2 out of the air.
Anyone who believes that the atmosphere, even if CO2 concentration tripled to 1200 parts per million, will ever be an affordable source of carbon for any purpose other than growing plants needs to try operating a few CO2 scrubbers.
Back in my days of maintaining an artificial atmosphere, our amine based CO2 scrubbers used to lose their effectiveness by the time we had sucked our concentration down to about 0.5%. Sometimes we could get it a bit lower, but it was not usually worth the extra noise and power requirement.
Lest the zeros be an inhibition to understanding, 0.5% is equivalent to 5,000 parts per million.
If you want carbon to make into hydrocarbons, there are a heck of a lot of cheaper and easier to process sources. If you want to take CO2 out of the atmosphere, the first step is to slow down the rate at which you are putting it there. The next step is to plant a lot of green, growing stuff in places that used to be used for extracting, processing, refining, delivering and consuming fossil hydrocarbons. Use a lot of cheap nuclear energy to produce as much fresh water as needed.
If you think you cannot turn a desert into green, check out photos of Israel over the last 50 years.
No, I never lived in any big city. We thought about moving to DC for a little while, but the idea of paying $300 per month for a parking space and an extra $100 per month for each of our two cats nixed what was already a big reluctance to move from a spacious home surrounded by lots of green into a cramped apartment that was less than half of the size.
My wife and I are both suburbanites who like the culture of families, athletics, good schools, open spaces, and reasonable mobility on our own schedule.
Comments are closed.
Recent Comments from our Readers
The Clinton Nuclear Plant also in Illinois was shutdown essentially for almost 2 years before it was taken over by…
Good Podcast – Very informative One thing that was not discussed is how to deal with a particular fear that…
Renewables people are masters in marketing. Unreliable intermittent generators whose output is all over the place, and usually badly correlated…
Looking at their lineup, Westinghouse seems bound and determined to keep Gen IV in its “place” which is apparently the…
So they are developing a scaled down version of the AP1000, which is a scaled up version of the AP600,…