Nuclear power is often dismissed as “just another way to boil water” as if that is not an industrially important activity. The problem with people who try to turn that statement into a condemnation is that boiling water is historically the most lucrative and important physical process that enables modern human society. It was, in fact, the basis for the Industrial Revolution. The Age of Steam is synonymous with the Industrial Revolution and steam is the desired product from boiling water.
Steam is a useful form of water. It can be used to move, purify, melt, or heat a wide variety of materials. It can be combined with coal to produce oil using the Fischer-Tropsch process. Steam is also playing a growing role in the Alberta tar sands production process by melting the tar in-situ and enabling it to flow to collection points.
Environmentally and economically speaking, this is a superior method to the original one used – which was more of a mining and transportation process that including destroying thousands of acres of forest, ripping out massive quantities of material formerly under the forest and trucking that tar laden sand to a processing plant. In production sites that use steam, the tar drips out of the sand to be collected and piped to a processing plant. Still not idea, but a big improvement.
Making steam is a simple process – perhaps that is why the ill informed believe that stating that fission reactors just boil water is a condemnation. All you need is a concentrated heat source and a reliable water source. Most of us think of water as something that is freely available and abundant – unless you live in a desert. Most of us, however, also know that you have to pay for heat.
In fact, most of the world’s “energy” market is really a heat market. If you want to compare “apples and oranges” in energy to understand the value and cost of various options, you can do some unit conversion to put everything in terms of the venerable British Thermal Unit. Since a BTU is a fairly small amount of heat, most market participants talk about “MBTU” or even “MMBTU”. You can earn an energy market merit badge if you understand that both of those generally mean the same thing – one million BTU. The single capital M is more modern and stands for “mega” while the double capital M is a quaint “thousand thousand” with M being one thousand in Roman numerals. It is pretty simple to convert almost any fuel price to a price per million BTU.
Sometimes I suspect that traditional market units for fuels were deliberately chosen to obscure information that many market participants would prefer to keep to themselves. For example, natural gas is most often priced in $/million BTU while oil is priced in $/barrel, coal is priced in $/ton, and uranium is priced (outside of normal commodity markets) in cents per kilowatt hour. If customers are not adept at making unit conversions they can miss many opportunities for substitutions that can save dramatic amounts of money.
Traders like unbalanced markets that provide arbitrage profits. Here is homework – suppose a trader has a customer that burns 1000 gallons per day of oil in a boiler. How much could the trader make if he can convince the customer to trade him the oil for natural gas when oil is selling for $50 per barrel and gas is selling for $3.50 per million BTU? If that same trader has dozens of similar customers, there is an opportunity for some serious profits.
Many traders would not be terribly excited about several of those boiler customers being approached by a different supplier who offered to substitute another heat source costing just 47 cents per million BTU. The boiler operators, however, should love the idea. Wherever there is a boiler burning oil, coal or natural gas, there is a potential market for another source of heat that can “just boil water.”
That is essentially the attraction that nuclear fission is bringing to the tar sands operators – low cost heat that just happens to also prevent release of any carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and many other noxious byproducts of burning natural gas. If you want to participate in a pretty good discussion on the topic, visit Using Nuclear Power to Extract Oil?