Sometimes there are discussions in the comments of previous posts that deserve to be elevated to the main pages since I know that not everyone is a fan of trying to follow long threads of conversation. I received a comment on an earlier post from reader Ian who asked:
Can you summarize how you think building more electricity-producing nuclear reactors can reduce the pump price of gasoline in the United States?
Here is how I responded to his question.
There are numerous overlaps between oil and natural gas demand and nuclear power.
First of all, I do not limit my arguments to conventional assumptions that uranium fueled power plants can only supply electricity or that their capital cost is so high that they cannot be used to supply variable loads.
If you know much about me, you know that I gained much of my initial knowledge about nuclear power by training as a ship propulsion plant operations specialist in the US Navy’s Nuclear submarine program. The reactors produced for that program directly replace diesel engines and oil fired steam plants and certainly operate in a load following mode for their entire operational lives.
Since leaving the nuclear Navy in 1990, I have been working on the Adams Engine (www.atomicengines.com), a completely different kind of nuclear power system – one that uses gas instead of water as the coolant and working fluid. That design (there are not yet any being produced), is called an engine for a very specific reason – they are designed to be load following machines specifically aimed at markets where oil and gas are the main competitors.
Even the conventional reactors that are being built by much larger companies, however, will have a significant role to play in shifting from petroleum (oil and gas) to uranium and thorium.
Here are the markets where nuclear power can compete with petroleum and change the supply/demand balance that is currently driving higher prices:
1. Baseload electricity – Texas currently produces 72% of its electricity by burning natural gas, New England and California have similar portions. In order to supply those kinds of portions of the power supply, there must be more baseload and near baseload gas (with oil backup) plants than you assume.
2. Home heating oil – all electric houses are economical if the price of electricity is low enough, which includes using a very low cost fuel source. It would not make sense to burn gas or oil in a power plant to supply home heat, but it can certainly make sense to use 0.4 cents per kilowatt hour uranium, especially since heating demands tend to increase during low usage hours (it is colder at night in the winter in the Northeast and upper Midwest where oil is burned in home furnaces.)
3. Ship propulsion – large ocean going ships operate at a near baseload profile and could benefit greatly by the use of uranium fueled engines.
4. Power for remote areas – in most areas that are remote from the grid, all controllable power is supplied by burning oil. Places like Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Puerto Rico in the US and hundreds of other places outside the US are completely dependent on petroleum for their power.
Nuclear power is also a great heat source that can be used to increase the supply of oil from unconventional sources like tar sands and coal. This application would probably require very high capacity factors since the production would be a 24 x 7 operation.
(Note: Just a quick explanation about my comment regarding leaving the nuclear Navy in 1990. I did not leave the Navy at that time; that is simply when I completed my last assignment involving actually supervising and operating nuclear power plants. I left the active Navy in 1993 for the Naval Reserves and was recalled to active duty in 1999. Someday, I will retire from the Navy.)