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24 Comments

  1. Pro Publica has a long standing series on the environmental impacts of natural gas drilling, and is one of the leading news organizations doing serious investigative reporting on hydraulic fracturing. Their reporters also attend symposia on energy issues (such as this one on-line at Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto), where they talk about the regulatory environment created after the 2005 Energy Act, the many loopholes for fossil fuels, and what this has meant for public lands, risk to drinking water supplies, and the industry. I have a huge respect for Pro Publica (they are a non-profit, and focus on a select group of stories where they can do follow-up and investigative reporting). Here’s the link to all the articles in the series (called “Buried Secrets”). It’s well worth spending time there and reading their many reports.
    http://www.propublica.org/series/buried-secrets-gas-drillings-environmental-threat
    On renewables … I think most environmentalists see them as an “energy resource,” and as such as a reliable way to cut down on fossil fuels (including natural gas). Even moreso with their “utopian bridge,” as you put it, which is not natural gas but a better grid, storage, smart regulation, siting and forecasting, transmission, demand management, and more. It’s energy policy that is giving rise to large surpluses of natural gas and development, not renewables (but we can have that argument another time).

      1. What would it take to get a natural gas phaseout imposed, similar to Schroeder’s nuclear phaseout?

        1. @George Carty. We’re committed to natural gas for home heating (so it won’t be a complete phaseout). But we can certainly stop building “new” natural gas peaking plants (there are better ways to manage a grid than expensive new spinning reserves). Repeal of 2005 Energy Act, federal oversight of shale gas industry, and putting a price on CO2 emissions (something like a carbon tax or cap and trade). Once the market realizes natural gas is expensive when properly regulated, the rest is basically a done deal.

            1. @George Carty. So yes, we’re talking about the same thing.
              NG is significantly underpriced at the moment (we currently have a glut in supplies due to a regulatory free for all in domestic drilling). It’s primarily loopholes in Energy Act of 2005 that are keeping costs so low. There has to be an adjustment when much needed regulation on shale gas comes into place, and NG gets priced accordingly. A cap and trade program would be an even further challenge. I can’t envision any scenario where NG doesn’t get more expensive in the long run.

  2. Direct application of nuclear fission to personal transportation certainly isn’t feasible, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to realize that removing coal from our rail system will free up those tracks to ship goods. This could then reduce the number of goods that need to be transported by truck. This then leads to less congestion on our highways (how much gas do we burn siting in the parking lot that is otherwise known as I95 to DC?) so we can use our cars more efficiently.

    1. Of course that assumes that BEV won’t be developed to the extent that supplementary FF power won’t be needed on board.

  3. Rod Adams wrote:
    About the only places where I have trouble visualizing nuclear energy as a replacement for oil is in personal vehicles and aircraft. All other markets are fair game.
    We are beginning to see practical modern electric cars appear, so even largely replacing the use of oil in personal vehicles by nuclear generated electricity is quite do-able. We will certainly continue to burn hydrocarbons in aircraft for a long time. And there will probably be a certain amount of freight shipment that will need to burn hydrocarbons as well (shipments to/from rural areas distant from urban centers). But if we can narrow the burning of hydrocarbons to these few areas, we can make major reductions in the use of oil (or natural gas).

      1. @EL – until battery technology improves dramatically, I will have a hard time accepting the idea of V2G. From a purely practical point of view, electric car owners are going to incur enough expense in battery replacement already. Wasting the limited number of charge/discharge cycles on an unrewarding activity like supporting the grid seems incredibly silly to me.
        Besides, there is nothing efficient about charging and discharging a battery. You lose a significant amount of energy to heat generation in both directions.

        1. From an energy efficiency standpoint, an electric engine is a no-brainer. Some 80% efficient as compared to 33% for a gasoline powered car. Any energy lost in charging the battery is still a significant net gain. And you are also correct, batteries are expensive. But so too are rising fuel costs. The industry has been dragged kicking and screaming to produce a plug-in car, the liquid fuel industry is practically a taken for granted force of nature, and they are still making engineering choices to limit their broad utility (such as 13 mile driving range in full EV mode for Prius Plug-in). Presumably, this is Toyota’s effort to meet a niche market of urban commuters who drive short distances. It’s not hard to see a role for nuclear in this evolving picture of less oil and gas, increasing consumer choices, massive conversion of transportation infrastructure to electricity, and energy for new manufacturing plants to build electric cars, engines, charging stations, solar panels, transmission lines, etc. We built our aging coal and grid infrastructure around manufacturing and the lifestyle of the automobile for last 60 years, why not do the same again along a more sustainable basis with new transportation choices and energy coming from less polluting sources than coal, gasoline, and natural gas? I don’t see the technical challenge, only a political one (and dealing with competing interests in society and economy).

          1. @EL – please reread my comment. I have nothing against electric engines or electric cars. I simply said that V2G concepts are impractical. I can accept the idea that grid to vehicle charging is a reasonable idea. I cannot believe that any electric car owner who has any concept of the limitations of his batteries and the cost of replacing them will participate in sending power back from those valuable and expensive batteries to the grid. There are a limited number of cycles available – use them for powering your car not for trying to power the grid.

  4. Second the comments on electric vehicles. The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are the leading edge of the electric car revolution. Even with today’s electric generation these are much cheaper to operate at current gasoline prices. The cost is in the upfront capital investment (a little like nuclear). Even with aircraft we can use synthetic fuels.

  5. Hydrocarbons still have an advantage when you want to make chemicals. Just as carbohydrates have both an energy storage and a structural role, we use hydrocarbons for fuel, to make plastics, and fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. That said, the last time I checked, the petrochemical industry used 7% of the petroleum produced on Earth.
    In the short term, Nuclear energy could grab a large chunk of the electricity market in the U.S., which would be a roughly fivefold expansion. (Obama talked about getting 80% of energy from “clean” sources by 2035 last night, and he counts nuclear as “clean”.) The only ‘breakthrough’ needed for that is some way of controlling the costs of building LWRs.
    Now, using more nuclear energy for space heat, transportation, chemical synthesis and such is going to take some changes in how we do things and some new technology, but a lot of progress is going in that direction. A nuclear “Pickens Plan” could make a lot of sense: use nuclear energy where it’s feasible to free up gas and petroleum for things where fossil fuels have an advantage. As technology changes and market prices move, nuclear energy could find more markets in the 2035-2050 time frame.

  6. Someone needs to not only think outside the box, they need to get out of the box!
    They do not have steam generators, turbines and generators on the nuclear powered satellites and interplanetary research vehicles. In many, the electricity is converted directly from the nuclear source emissions. Some use the Pelletier effect.
    There is a tremendous waste of potential energy in the present commercial methodology of transferring the heat to a liquid and then using that liquid to make steam and then using that steam to turn a turbine (Only the B&W PWRs have any superheat so they are very inefficient.) and then using that rotational energy to make electricity. You are talking about 30% efficiency.
    We are presently using less than 0.000,000,000,000,001% of the total energy released in nuclear fission! On top of that we are only using 5% of the fissile fuel and then throwing the other 95% away!
    Why can’t some of 200 million electron volts released by each nuclear fission of U235 be captured and directly converted into electricity? Get rid of the wasted steps. Who is working on this? How big of a black “energy” box would be needed to power a car? Wouldn’t a “source critical” reactor with a high enough leakage factor that it could never go to the point of adding heat be rather simple to design, safe, and SMALL, and weigh less than all of those batteries? Even a “Large Scale” (1000 Megawatt) system sounds more plausible than the pipedreams of satellite generators beaming down electricity to earth collection sites! Electricity would again be “to cheap to meter.”
    Read http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/Articles%202008/Energy_cost.pdf

    1. @Rich – I have no idea where you got your numbers. I have some experience with direct conversion systems; they are quite a bit less efficient than the old fashioned steam plants. I was once associated with a group that had an excellent reason for dreaming about making direct conversion systems more efficient. They also had many tens of millions available to invest and did so over a decade or more. They remain committed to old fashioned steam as the best way to capture a large quantity of the heat produced by fission and convert it into something useful. In other words, investing in their dreams amounted to a HUGE waste of money.
      Satellites and interplanetary research vehicles use systems that use nuclear heat (mostly radioactive decay heat) to produce hundreds of WATTS of useful power. Power plants and ships use nuclear fission heat in systems that produce dozens to hundreds of useful MEGAWATTS. There is a slight difference in units of measures there.
      Dreams of something better often inhibit the use of good enough.

      1. My numbers came from the appendix of the referenced article! Did you look at the article or just feel I needed flamed because you had no idea what the numbers were?
        There are other ways of getting electricity from natural decay and fission than by using the heat produced. My post was to spark an interest into looking into those other methods. Just as photons hitting a solar collector produce electricity, fission products hitting the correct material will produce electricity. I have worked with and seen usable electrical current produced by some of the sensors used in today’s nuclear reactors. The active portion of some of these are no larger than a pencil eraser, yet could easily power your iPhone or iPod. A thousand of these would keep a battery charged enough to use for daily, short range, commuting. In this era of nanotechnology, possibly the electrons emitted by nuclear fission could cause electrons on a nanotechnology matrix to move in one direction and thus create a useable electrical current. Or are you also an expert in nanotechnology and know that that won’t work either?

        1. Post Script –
          Divide the megawatt electrical of any NPP by the megawatt thermal and get the efficiency. Typical, it is less than 33% – and those numbers ignore “house” loads such as reactor coolant pumps, feed-water pumps, condensate pumps, river-water/cooling tower pumps, etc. factor those in and the real efficiency is less than 30%.

        2. “In this era of nanotechnology, possibly the electrons emitted by nuclear fission could cause electrons on a nanotechnology matrix to move in one direction and thus create a useable electrical current.”
          Someone’s already working on this, although I believe it relies on radioactive decay rather than nuclear fission.

        3. @Rich – no, I did not look at your source because I knew it was wrong simply by inspection. Do you have any idea what you wrote when you said the following:
          We are presently using less than 0.000,000,000,000,001% of the total energy released in nuclear fission! What the heck kind of number is that? Who puts commas to the right of a decimal point?
          With regard to “nano” technology – that is not something that I write about or care about. I am worried about moving tons, not nanos. I care about heating cities, not microprocessors. I never said that direct conversion does not create a “useable” electrical current; I said it does not create a useful electric current, especially if the need is for millions of watts.
          The conversion efficiency of the very best direct conversion system I know of is a bit less than 20%. Steam is better, more proven and far more scalable.
          If you call technical corrections “flames” you need to develop a thicker skin.

  7. I recently had a brainwave on how nuclear could power aircraft. High speed trains have been proposed to replace continental jet routes, but to cross the oceans fossil free now you need a yacht or the US Navy. Yet the original goal for the fluid fueled reactor designs was an aircraft that could stay airborn for months.The main obstacle was the weight of shielding, the crew not being radiation hardened, with some worries about the electronics and the tyre rubber succumbing to long term neutron or gamma exposure as well. But imagine an unmanned flying reactor on a non stop circuit between,say, London and New York, never coming closer than fifty or a hundred miles to land, and towing a half dozen drogues far enough back to minimize radiation exposure.Automated systems are far more capable than they were in the fifties, and the military have developed radiation resistant electronics. Current airliners could be retrofitted with a tow attachment point near the front undercarriage, link automatically with the drogues, and switch off the engines till the other side of the Atlantic. The only fuel needed would be for takeoff, landing, the auxiliary power unit,and enough of a reserve to reach an emergency strip from any point en route. Every few months when the tug needed a fissile top-up it could divert to a remote military airstrip, drain the fuel, have a maintenance check, receive a fresh load of uranium fluoride, and off again. A mobile cradle designed to synchronize speeds with the tug on landing and takeoff would avoid the need for an undercarriage.
    This might sound like technofantasy, but if climate change starts kicking in seriously (last year was equal warmest and absolute wettest on record, even before all January’s floods), there could well be a backlash against the continual injection of thousands of tons of water vapour, co2 and noxes into the stratosphere, but people will still want to travel. Worst conceivable accident? A midair between the towees? They should be able to maintain station evenly spaced round the tug’s slipstream, well apart. Cable break? Drogue and tug would have automated retraction systems. Splashdown of the tug? It would be well out to sea, and the uranium fluorides are insoluble,so should sink to the sea bed. Fission products might be a worry.
    Failing this, A G R Cowan claims he knows how to fly clean.