Empowering a more prosperous world – one atom for peace at a time
I spent New Years Day 2012 engaged in an activity that reminded me how much fun it can be to rapidly consume energy for what some may consider to be a frivolous purpose. I joined a group of successful, relaxed and energetic members of the Smith Mountain Lake Water Ski Club to participate in the 19th Annual Polar Bear Ski Day. We had a blast and shared some welcome fellowship while consuming copious quantities of refined hydrocarbons.
Yes, I actually spent some time waterskiing on an unseasonably warm New Years Day with both air and water temperature hovering near 50 degrees F. I might not have had quite as much fun it it had been a more typical New Years Day in central Virginia.
The experience gave me some additional food for thought about why I think it is so important for those of us who are alive today to work hard to develop and build the technologies that will allow our children, grandchildren and countless future generations to enjoy some of the same benefits that we have enjoyed for the past 100-150 years in the industrialized world. It also reminded me that the benefits of abundant power have not been universally shared, but that the world would be a safer, cleaner and more friendly place if they were.
It might put me into a slight minority among the people who invest time in thinking about our energy future, but I see an incredible opportunity for using currently readily available natural hydrocarbons as tools for enabling a prosperous and powerful future for a growing portion of the world’s population. The availability of “cheap gas” in the US should not be an excuse for slowing down our nuclear energy system development; it should be celebrated as a way to make that development happen faster and at a lower cost. I want petroleum, natural gas and coal resources to be used as bridges to a higher energy future powered by fuels that do not release any pollution to the atmosphere.
In most of the developed world, we are experiencing a time of reduced expectations, a period where there is tremendous talent sitting on the sidelines, and a time when interest rates are at an historic low. In some places, we have more fossil fuels being produced and in storage than we can effectively use immediately, so prices have dropped rather dramatically. As we all should know by now, it takes a lot of initial capital – in the form of cash, people, and material – to build new nuclear power stations, but all of those ingredients are currently available at lower costs than most might have imagined just five years ago.
Once we get uranium, plutonium or thorium fueled facilities up and running, they will last for many decades. Their operational costs and continuing need for additional capital investments are quite modest. They do not consume hydrocarbons and do not produce any more polluting emissions once they are built.
That is a good thing because no one is actually predicting that our current abundance of natural hydrocarbons will last for much longer. According to the most recent evaluation by the Potential Gas Committee, an organization with some interesting bias towards optimism about resources, the total amount of natural gas in the United States (even when you include proven, probable, possible and speculative categories of reservoirs) is only 2170 trillion cubic feet. Even if we do not increase our consumption by a single TCF per year, that resource will disappear in 90 years. The math is really simple – 2170 TCF/24 TCF/Yr = 90 Yrs.
That might seem like forever to an executive who is worried about making next quarter’s numbers, but it is a brief period considering the length of a human life and the duration of human history. I had a grandmother who lived to be 97 and a great grandmother who lived to be 101. My granddaughter is two years old; I expect that she will still be alive in 90 years. I cannot imagine bequeathing her a world that is using up a valuable material like methane as quickly as it can.
It would be far more equitable on a generational basis if the world that I departed in a few decades included at least two to five times as much nuclear energy generation capacity as it does today. If I have any say in the matter, that capacity will be used about 60-95% of the time and it will include a growing number of smaller individual units.
It will also include units that are configured to take advantage of heat locked up in atoms of uranium, plutonium and thorium to convert abundant sources of hydrogen and carbon into synthetic hydrocarbons. Energy dense, easily pumped, and easily throttled liquid hydrocarbons will always have useful purposes for such activities as powering airplanes, speedboats, and automobiles.
Aside: I recognize that current nuclear plants are achieving capacity factors averaging more than 90%, but I believe that there are good reasons for allowing some nuclear plants to serve as load-following, on-demand generators that will not be used at that high a capacity factor. They will have very high availability factors and generate value in ways other than producing maximum power output for as many hours as possible. End Aside.
2011 was a challenging year for nuclear energy advocates, but it should be remembered as a year when a nagging question was answered in a way that favors continued growth in the technology. Though some observers have often asked about the worst case scenario, a far more important question has been “What is the worst that can realistically happen?”
In spite of what you might have read in the advertiser-supported media or sourced from press releases from organizations that have been fighting nuclear energy development for decades, the bottom line is that even nuclear plants that were built 35-40 years ago and are not perfectly operated can withstand the worst that nature can throw at them without causing widespread injury or death.
In fact, with reasonably effective response planning and implementation, it likely that severe accidents that melt nuclear reactor cores and release radiation into the environment will not kill anyone. By using realistic radiation safety limits based on health effects and not based on an assumption that the tiniest amount of radiation is dangerous, nuclear power plant accidents will not produce any significant property damage or population dislocation.
We can build nuclear plants that are more resilient to outside influences and are located in places that are less susceptible to those influences. As demonstrated by the performance of other nuclear plants hit by the same tsunami as units 1, 2, and 3 of Fukushima Daiichi, we started building those kinds of nuclear plants at least 30 years ago.
However, I do not want anyone to forget that something akin to the worst possible confluence of events resulted in an accident with demonstrated, measured consequences that were many orders of magnitude less than the consequences predicted by the hand-wringing naysayers. They were far less than the official predictions computed by regulatory contractors who were given tasking to build models that included worst case assumptions – with additional “conservatism” tossed in for good measure.
We need more low cost power in this world. We have been gifted with an abundance of incredibly energy dense materials along with the knowledge of how to use them for the benefit of mankind. It would be a wonderful way to start a New Year if a growing number of decision makers recognized the incredible opportunities that God (nature if you will) has provided just when we need it the most.
TwinCities.com (December 30, 2011)
Happy New Year Rod (and all) unfortunately the torch will probably have to be carried by China and India for the next few years, but we should consider ourselves lucky that indeed there are others that will keep going while we in North America dither on the subject at best, or pretend it isn’t relevant at worse.
Not so fast DV82XL.
Read this upbeat article from John B Ritch, director general of World Nuclear Association and a former US ambassador to UN organizations in Vienna.
The thing about India is that the government there knows when its fine to pander to public opinion, and when it needs to be changed. India has always had an active antinuclear community, it is only being noticed now in the wake of Fukushima, however it will not have any long term impact on the development of nuclear in that country.
India needs nuclear power, and unlike the West, there aren’t any other real options and the government knows this. So indeed we will see a campaign to educate the public, and and other steps to get nuclear back on track there.
I agree !
India suffers terribly from a lack of reliable electricity. It is their number one hurdle to a bright economic future.
Regarding the future supply of hydro carbons, Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) can produce synthetic oils when they are burned in plasma converters.
We do not mention this technology often on this board, but Blees argues in his book ‘Prescription for the planet’ that letting MSG decay and creating methane can be avoided with plasma converters. The products of these plasma converters, aside form energy, are pretty cool and some of them can even be used for geo engineering.
I got that beat. I can capture unicorn farts and convert them in my quanto-gravitic left-hand frannistan. It produces zero waste and has an effciency of at least 113%.
I’m confident the powers-that-be will eventually “get it” once the realization sets in that continuing to play the fossil-fuels game is a dead end. Although Exxon and its kin will profit mightily from sky-high fuel prices as peak oil settles in, there are plenty of other very powerful business interests that won’t like it very much. At some point a consensus of opinion will have to form around changing our energy and transportation systems at the bedrock of the economy as a matter of survival.
Perhaps it will take a Sputnik moment, with China making serious breakthroughs in the availability and use of low-cost, flexible nuclear heat. It may be that or some other catalyst to galvanize our society to action.
In the meantime, I think the situation behooves all us nuclear / engineering / scientific techno-geeks to continue keeping the flame alive by pushing the truth out. There is a very powerful message to be told: there is a better, sustainable way forward to a world in which general prosperity and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive. The path to such a world is made possible only by the millions-to-one energy density advantage of nuclear fission where the tiniest amounts of raw materials can release incredible amounts of energy – without emissions. Plenty will try to argue and obfuscate matters, but immutable scientific facts and the laws of physics are guaranteed to win in the end.
I think Churchill said it best:
“Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”
>> powers-that-be will eventually “get it”
Sam B gets it. The people at energyfromthorium.com and Rod Adams certainly do not.
Sam B? Excuse my ignorance – to whom are you referring?
It is not surprising that Rod went dark side on us while enjoying our local hydroelectric facility that includes pumped storage.
The thing I have find so irrational about false environmentalist is that in the same breath that they claim to worry about running out of fossil fuel for their grandchildren, they drive a 100 miles so that brag about doing something that is pretty stupid. I am not saying that stupid can not be a lot of fun it is a poor lead into safety and running out of fuel.
“abundant power have not been universally shared ”
And why do I think Rod is a socialist who engages in class warfare? In any case Rod is again wrong. It looks to me like nuclear power has been universally shared. We do ask that technology to produce electricity is not used to make weapons.
South Korea is an example of one of the poorest countries with no energy resources is 60 years later one of the most prosperous and competing with the US selling new reactors.
I am an engineer but have always found political science interesting. Show me a poor country and I will show you a country with a corrupt government. Whatever the form of government, people must be free to express themselves. Part of that freedom is knowing that some might disagree. If an anti-nuclear activists had a good point I would listen to it. That is just hypothetical because usually they just make up stuff. Like Rod does to advocate nuclear power.
“unfortunately the torch will probably have to be carried by China and India for the next few years ”
Really, all this time I thought the US was the world leader in safely making electricity with nuclear power. Even corrupt countries understand that when the US NRC says a reactor is safe it means it is not a rubber stamp of corrupt government officials. Americans have all the power that the need. That can not be said of India and Chine. Let me know when India and China have 104 reactors operating at a 90% capacity factor.
If I understand you correctly, there is never any need to be concerned about propaganda driven anti-science, anti-nuclear activism. Magically, logic will cause nuclear power to be utilised whenever the economics dictate it, never mind if the industry is driven oversees or even into extinction? I’m not so sure. I think in these strange, troubled times we are looking at the possibility of losing access to nuclear technology in the west. That’s judgeing from the extreme anti-nuclear sentiment in the netherlands now. In the Netherlands, electricity prices for consumers have been on 9% yoy price explosion for more than a decade, yet calls to eliminate the only commercial NPP we have are louder than ever. The latest casualty is the last dutch aluminum smelter that has closed shop citing high energy prices. Meanwhile Germany, our technological and industrial heavy-weight neighbour, will phase out nuclear power within the next 10 years. And even in France, throughout the last year, a history of solid popular support for nuclear power is being overturned under the force of relentless antinuclear propaganda.
I am not happy about that. I’m not confortable that the economics of nuclear power alone is enough to halt and reverse this process of regression.
Joris, the problem with anti-science Luddites is that they are against everything. Debating with them is a waste of time. Unfortunately when they take control of the government, you have to wait them out.
However, one of the problems with living in a democracy is somebody is not going to like the policy. If we do a good job of making power with commercial nukes it will continue to have an expanding market share. What I am saying is have a little faith in the technology. In the US, public input at meeting means we get a say too. Just do not sound a nuts as the unwashed.
Nobody is complaining about the Luddites, only about the governments which use them to excuse irrational policies. Also, about the corrupt money used to produce propaganda and deceive people into becoming Luddites in the first place.
Somehow, the Founding Fathers figured out that a “democracy” can’t stay democratic for long without checks and balances. The fact is that starting with unbalanced trade and the repeal of Glass=Steagall almost all checks and balances have been also unbalanced and unchecked.
Note: Glass-Steagall was repealed under the pretext that the US banks wouldn’t be able to compete with European ones. Compete at what? Ruining their own economies? They all did it. Apparently that was the real meaning.
Ah, should I mention how the big banks lease huge oil tankers to keep oil on storage, raise prices and make money by speculating on oil? It’s not the only commodity hoarded by banks but it’s the most lucrative and this makes nuclear energy unwanted.
What about the destruction of the US industry caused by unbalanced trade and a speculation-poisoned economy? No industry – no need for energy, look ma, we have enough, magically… just another faux talking point against nuclear. Likewise, when the patient dies there is no need for any medicine whatsoever…
Thanks for the explanation, I understand what you mean now, I think.
I have faith in the technology, but not in markets. A quadrupling in crude oil prices has coincided with a flattening of global crude production in the last decade. Similarly, a near tripling of energy prices for consumers in the Netherlands has coincided with a strengthening of anti-nuclear sentiment in this country. Aside: not only anti-nuclear sentiment is rising. There is even a group of environmentalist extremists who actively *applaud* the continued rising electricity prices, because they hope (!) that it will eliminate all energy-intensive industry in this country even while improving the economics of solar and wind energy, calling both of these developments a boon for sustainability and energy security.
So while I have faith in technology, for the moment I am concerned about the strength of Luddite ideology and opportunist (fossil) propagandaproduction. I hope that both of these will decrease sooner rather than later, before too much damage is done.
Kit, your middle name wouldn’t happen to be “Wet Blanket” would it? Have a happy new year.
The whole point of nuclear is to ditch the International “Community” at the side of the road…not wax poetic about peace, endless prosperity, the environment and other such claptrap. The fools at energyfromthorium.com will never receive the blessing from the 1 percenters that they so desperately seek. The pointless My Reactor Design is better than your Reactor Design is another stupid distraction away from the main objective: SELF-DETERMINATION. None of the reactor designs leads to paradise…they are all riddled with problems…NUCLEAR is a way out of international banking cartel hellhole.
Just on Rods “Aside” issue about load following nukes.
Outside of the energy industry, we use terms like “capacity” “capacity factor”, etc. However, in the filings for new builds, for operators concerned in keeping their plants being able to fulfill contract obligations and loading, we simply never never use these terms. Not on the ‘inside’ anyway. They are really planning and analytical tools for planners, state PUCs and ISOs.
What operators and plant management uses everyday is ‘availability’. If we are contracted, say with a “Reliability Must Run” contract, are required to be AVAILABLE for whatever load the ISO asks for. “We” (meaning the boss) is paid for this availability. In fact, in my last plant, the Company’s *entire* revenue stream was paid according this availability and not on a “per-MW-basis”. That paid exactly ‘zero’.
We could be sitting at minimum load for weeks and be paid a contract price for being “available” for full load or any load. We would be paid when our direct digital control was working (about half the time) a few extra mils per KWhour. They worked on our load controllers and fuel/air relays and we were able to get the unit down below our usual minimum load 50MW to 35MWs. We were paid for this too.
No ‘peaker’ unit is paid, at all, for how many MWs they put out. If they were they couldn’t afford to build them. They are paid for “availability” full stop.
When a plant can’t make that available obligation they pay through the nose for replacement power.
I believe that as part of a centralized regulatory and financial regime, the same could be had for load changing nuclear plants of any size. Revenue wouldn’t stop because the plant was not a full load it would continue, maybe at the minimum necessary to pay expenses: wages, salaries, bond notes, etc.
If you talk to any control operator or plant manager, they will concur with what I wrote above. Everything a plant can do: load changing (automatic and/or digitally and/or remotely from the ISO), frequency control, minimum load capability, synchronous condensing, ALL have ‘value’ that can and be negotiated into the price of a new NPP…or any plant for that matter. Only nuclear seems to be beyond the pale in this. It’s a huge error.
David- As long as LWRs continue to operate at low levels of enrichment and continue to produce xenon-135 as a fission product, load-following is going to be an issue. The French seem able to load follow with ~75% of their power from nukes, but slow load changes during a 24 hour day is different from the quick ups and downs from a grid with significant numbers of wind turbines or other chaotic, unpredictable renewables. The trend is to build more and more wind farms as part of a “renewable portfolio standard” in many states. Only quick responding nat gas turbines can make the load changes required.
Pete, yes, it’s true what you say. But they were designed for slow response. New reactors, like the APR1400 from Korea can respond to 50MWs/min or more. If you design the plant to have limited load-changing…and this is likely not true load following as determined by the system but operator initiated load changing…then that’s the kind of plants you get.
On the other hand, if you change the paradigm, such as every nuclear navy in the world does, they handle xenon and other poisons because they built into their systems the poison control necessary for extremely rapid load changing. It would be interesting to see the load changing/following capability of the worlds currently proposed SMRs.
“[Nuclear navies] handle xenon and other poisons because they built into their systems the poison control necessary for extremely rapid load changing.”
It is my understanding what they mainly do is use highly enriched fuel with crap-loads of excess reactivity. Any xenon build up can be countered with a corresponding reactivity addition. Commercial plants, with ~5% enriched fuel, have a more difficult time. The IAEA frowns upon using HEU in commercial reactors, and the economics probably don’t add up to use any higher enrichment due to burnup limits.
LFTRs will supposedly be able to remove xenon and other fission product poisons from the fuel on-line. That is a great selling point, but the on-line reprocessing system is perhaps easier talked about than actually done. It is probably the part of the R&D that will need the most engineering work.
I am reading Alan Greenspan’s ‘Age of Turbulence’. In his chapter on the long term energy squeeze, nuclear is very positively evaluated.
Here are some bits:
… there is no longer a persuasive case against increasing nuclear at the expense of coal…
.. Nuclear power induces fears beyond any rational calculation…
.. Nuclear is not safe without an appropriate infrastructure. But then, neither is drinking water.
.. I believe we significantly underuse nuclear power.
May be Alan could join the cause !
I find it amusing when people pit one energy source against others. (Smoking gun posts). Mercifully, this post is not one of them.
Oilfed machinery makes extraction of uranium (and other minerals) possible. Electricity used in milling is mainly from coal or gas.
It is sad that use of nuclear energy to mine the hydrocarbons in Canada has been shelved. I feel that nuclear steam should be used for underground gasification of coal and other fossil fuels.
Alberta doesn’t even have a nuclear engineering program at either university. Chemical engineering anyone?
There are only four university programs in nuclear engineering in Canada, and except for the École Polytechnique de Montréal, they are in Ontario. Hardly surprising as these are where the reactors are.
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