Though it has been a few days since a full new post here, I have not been slacking off. Instead, I have been spending some quality time engaging in some interesting, possibly rewarding and sometimes frustrating discussions in the expanding universe of nuclear related discussions. I even managed to spend some time in real, face to face situations where I could share some atomic insights with people. I know that surprises some people – I actually leave the keyboard on occasion and interact in the physical world.
One of my more interesting online discussions has been in response to an article titled Gary Griggs, Our Ocean Backyard: Nuclear not a real answer to energy problems published on November 9th by the Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel. Gary is a bi-weekly columnist on the paper and holds a full time job as director of the Institute of Marine Sciences and Long Marine Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz. He is one example of the fact that there are a lot of people with science educations who still have little understanding of nuclear power and its potential benefits. His concerns were primarily with the effects of the direct cooling water used by coastal plants and a misperception that there is not enough fuel to make it worth while to invest in much new nuclear capacity. In addition to my efforts to share some knowledge, there have been others who have worked to set Gary straight.
One of the the things that I have not yet mentioned in that thread, but which I will mention here is the inconsistency of Gary’s interest in systems like wave power, tidal power and ocean thermal energy conversion compared to his dismissal of nuclear power. When it comes to power systems that have large impacts on ocean dwelling creatures, you have to imagine that moving large volumes of water directly through turbines or through pipes designed to bring cold water from the depths to the surface (for OTEC) will have at least as much impact as flowing through the condensers of a steam power plant. If you have ever run any numbers on the volume of water required per unit power for those low head, low thermal efficiency systems, you will quickly realize that the flows are HUGE even compared to condenser cooling water.
There is also a rush of attention being paid to Hyperion Power Generation as a result of an article about miniature nuclear reactors that appeared in The Guardian over the weekend. The article did not really provide much information that would be new to Atomic Insights readers, but it did mention that the company now claims to have about 100 orders, many from oil and gas producers.
I think that is a great application for a Hyperion Power Module, especially for those deposits like oil sands or shale oil where a reliable heat source is a required part of the production facility. It makes sense for the companies to be interested in relatively small heat sources since transmitting heat via long pipes is a notoriously “lossy” endeavor. Other posts that link to the Guardian story include:
- Physorg.com – Mini Nuclear Power Plants Could Power 20,000 Homes
- Baltimore Business Examiner Buy your own nuclear plant to power your home
(Note: the headline writer was definitely reaching there unless your home is REALLY big.)
- The Tech Herald – Hyperion hopes mini nuclear reactors will power the world
- Yahoo Tech –OK, who wants a pint-sized nuclear reactor?
- Next Big Future – Update on Hyperion Power Generation mini-nuclear reactor
- TechRepublic – Micro-Nuclear Reactors
- FoxNews – Portable Nuclear ‘Hot Tubs’ Could Power America
- Discover Magazine – Could Mini-Nuclear Reactors Power Developing World Villages?
- Investor’s Business Daily – NIMBY: Nukes In My Backyard
In the original Guardian article, there is one quote that does not make much sense; I am trying to contact Hyperion to clarify if it is the result of a misquote or a misspeak.
‘Our goal is to generate electricity for 10 cents a watt anywhere in the world,’ said John Deal, chief executive of Hyperion.
The quote is repeated in most of the above articles without questions. Unless I have become very confused in my old age, I believe that a more reasonable statement would be “generate electricity for 10 cents per kilowatt-hour”. I have not yet heard back from Hyperion, but I imagine that their email is a bit busy today after all of the attention in the press over the past few days.
Update posted November 12, 2008 0202 I heard back from Grizz Deal – as I suspected, his in-box had been filled to overflowing because of the recent attention being paid to their product plans. He confirmed that the cost expectation for Hyperion Power Modules is 10 cents per kilowatt-hour at essentially any location in the world. I will make one more suggested modification to that claim – there needs to be a large enough market to support 27 MWe to make that number work. A smaller power demand would make the HPM last longer before it runs out of fuel, but it would also reduce the annual income and require longer term financing and higher interest costs.
That is not to say that such a system might not still work for smaller markets, just that the numbers would have to be revised depending on the situation. Capacity factor is always a major factor in determining the cost per unit of energy, and capacity factor depends as much on the pattern of energy demand as on the reliability of the energy production system.End Update
Would increased subsidies benefit nuclear power or just the subsidy recipients?
I also spent some time reading and thinking about another Heritage Foundation issue paper titled Washington Subsidies Not Necessary to Rebuild U.S. Nuclear Industry. I am in cautious agreement with the thoughts expressed, but I did contact the authors to mention the fact that there are direct government impediments to nuclear plant construction that put it at a disadvantage compared to its competition.
It should NOT be thought of as a subsidy to work to remove those barriers to entry – like the challenge that the NRC faces in manning and equipping license reviewers fast enough to keep pace with license applications. That one still bugs me, especially since the applicants are paying for the slow response with checks that are supposed to cover the government’s costs.
Energy Conversation – Better Place
Last night I attended another of the monthly Energy Conversations held at the Doubletree Hotel in Crystal City, just a few blocks up the road from my day job office. The guest speaker was Michael Granoff from The Better Place, which is a company with a modest
goal of achieving global freedom from oil through the use of an infrastructure designed to enable the large scale use of electric automobiles.
The basic idea is that established automobile companies would build electric cars, Better Way would own batteries (Lithium ion) and changing stations, and someone (presumably the electric power companies) would put in plugs at as many parking spaces as possible. Customers would pay for their cars and rent the batteries on a per mile basis. Software and hardware, including GPS location and direction devices would be an integral part of trip planning to allow for 2-3 minute battery change for those trips that are longer than about 100 miles. According to the company, they expect most customers will only need to use the changing stations for about 5% of their trips based on statistics that show that most drivers do not travel more than 100 miles per day on most of the days.
Better Place has some heavy hitting investors; it started up with $200 million in capital from its original funders. They will be rolling out their concept in Israel and Denmark in 2009. Michael told the audience to pay attention to the news for additional announcements.
The company is only contracting for power from “carbon free” sources, but – somewhat reluctantly – accepts nuclear power as one of the potential sources of that power. One questioner called that stance “immoral” and claimed that nuclear power just polluted the earth instead of the atmosphere, but that did not seem to be the general impression of the audience. You should not be shocked to find out that I like the concept of electric cars that are fueled with juice produced in nuclear power plants. I just hope that the changing stations have a sufficent stock of batteries for holiday travel.