A friend sent me a link to an interesting article on the web site of the International Herald Tribune titled A green city confronts its energy needs and nuclear worries. The article is intriguing on several levels.
It talks about two businesses with a common location. One is a solar panel manufacturer – AVA Solar – that will produce power generation systems using a new process developed at Colorado State University that includes the use of cadmium in the process. Cadmium has a number of interesting characteristics from an electrical systems point of view, but it is also a human health hazard if not properly managed and monitored. A student at George Washington University posted a very useful summary of both the applications and potential hazards of the material at http://www.gwu.edu/~macche/EOHtutorial/EOHStudents/Cadmium.pdf.
At full production, the AVA Solar factory would employ about 500 people and produce about 200 MWe (peak capacity) of solar panels each year. A reasonable approximation of the capacity factor for solar systems is 20%, so the annual production of the plant would supply panels that would generate about 350 million kilowatt-hours each year. I would guess that the average life of the panels would be about 20-30 years.
The other business – Powertech Uranium – is in the process of developing the ownership and permits required to begin an in-situ uranium mine at a site where exploration in the 1970s identified a deposit of about 9.7 million pounds – of uranium. A single 1000 MWe pressurized water reactor using a once through cycle requires about 200 tons of U3O8, also known as yellowcake, to be fed into an enrichment facility which produces 25 tons of fresh fuel for its annual consumption. (Reference: Uranium Information Center’s excellent educational resource titled Nuclear Fuel Cycle.)
If the mine is able to extract the proven resource, it could supply enough fuel for about 24 reactor-years. Reactors can operate at an average capacity factor of 90%. A nominal 1000 MWe reactor will produce about 7.9 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.
Each of the companies forming production plans in Fort Collins has the goal of contributing to the eventual production of clean, emissions free energy. The entire state could benefit from both projects since Colorado is one of the most fossil fuel dependent states in the country. A bit more than 94% of its current electricity currently comes from fossil fuel combustion. (Note: 71% coal and 24% natural gas based on 2006 figures from the Energy Information Agency)
Each of the companies has its challenges in terms of protecting workers and the general population from the potential hazards of its industrial processes. One thing that came through clearly in the article was that there are some very reasonable people in Fort Collins who are willing to listen and think. The people interviewed for the story seemed to agree that each project deserves a fair hearing and may point the way to a cleaner, greener future.
They also agreed that there is a difference in the first impression generated by each project – people generally feel good about solar panel producers, and not so good about uranium mining. I really liked the comment from one utility board member:
Jeff Lebesch, another member of the city’s utility board, said he worried that the popularity of some energy projects could make for bad public policy.
“I think there is a risk that the popular ones have some things overlooked,” said Lebesch, who is also a co-founder and president of New Belgium Brewing, a 16-year-old company that has been a leader in pushing energy conservation and renewable sources like wind power. As for nuclear power, Lebesch said he was not opposed, if the energy was really needed.
“The big issue of power plants is carbon emissions,” he said, “and nuclear plants don’t have them.” The fuel is the bigger issue for him. Extracting uranium, processing it and disposing of it, he said, all have long-term, unresolved questions.
There are answers to the questions as long as people are willing to take the time to listen. It is incumbent on those of us who have computed that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the challenges to keep sharing that message.
I am happy that uranium prices have increased to the point where there is strong motivation for companies like Powertech Uranium to work the challenging task of selling that will be needed to spread that information. My day job continues to remind me of the difficulty of communicating with large groups; repetition is required before most people get the message. No message will ever be received by everyone.