Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Nuclear Solution

Recently, Jay and I made a couple of comments about nuclear power. I'm a huge proponent, as it's the cleanest, safest and most efficient power humankind has yet discovered. I've posted much of this information before, but if you haven't read it, it's worth a bit of your time.

In the way of new technologies, I've recently found out about a reactor type called the "Pebble Bed" reactor. It's an amazing concept. The idea was to create a reactor that wasn't essentially an engine. Traditional reactors use control rods that can be raised or lowered to slow down or speed up the reaction. For civilian power use, continuous, reliable output works just fine in most reactors, especially as we learn to better store power produced in off-peak hours.

As the population of our nation continues to grow, our needs grow with us. Even with the current push toward conservation and reducing personal power consumption, our need for increased supply of electricity won’t ever shrink.

There’s only one responsible solution, and it may come as a shock. We need more nuclear power plants. Over the last 30 years we’ve actually come to depend more on nuclear energy, not less. Hydroelectric power is at capacity–we’ve tapped most of our resources. We could expand to tidal power generation, but that would involve expensive development and it’s only viable for coastal states. Compared to 30 years ago, we actually generate less power using hydroelectric plants and oil plants today than we used to. In 1973, about 30% of the nation’s power was generated from these two fuels. Today, it’s more like 10%. Nuclear energy, however, has gone from supplying us with 5% of our power to 20%, and we haven’t even built new plants, we’ve just renovated the old ones and brought them up from about 50% capacity to over 90%.

Why haven’t we built new plants? We have an extreme cultural bias against nuclear power. We still bear the guilt of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and fear the power we unleashed there. Ironically, the Japanese are way ahead of us, generating 37% of their power with modern reactors with plans to bump that up to 41% by 2009.

In addition to our guilt, the peace movements of the 70’s and environmentalists that arose from those cannabis-scented days have ingrained upon us a simple formula: nuclear equals bad. Some cities, like Berkeley, California, proudly proclaim themselves nuclear free zones. Is there danger in nuclear power? Absolutely, but not to the degree we’ve been led to believe. The worst case scenario is Chernobyl, an out of control reaction. 56 people died at Chernobyl, and the total death toll from radiation directly and cancers arising from radiation is expected to reach around 4,000. While that’s not good, compare it to more than 5,000 coal mining deaths worldwide per year, and note that since petroleum gas is only skyrocketing in price, new power will have to come either from nuclear plants or coal-fired plants.

How do we prevent more Chernobyl-style accidents? In theory, they’re next to impossible today. France is generating more than 70% of its power using nuclear generators, with no major incidents. They may have had unexpected shut downs, but no emergencies or accidents. Chernobyl happened for a couple of reasons, including the fact that the reactor had no containment vessel and the engineers, who could have prevented it, were reluctant to do so because of the negative personal consequences that may have resulted in their near totalitarian political state.

The only commercial nuclear accident in the United States was Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island reactor, and that incident was more to nuclear power what Apollo 13 was to the space program: a very successful failure. The containment vessel worked perfectly, and though the reactor was damaged no radiation escaped and there was no explosion. Unlike Apollo 13, which was followed by many further missions into space, Three Mile Island spelled the end to new plants in the U.S. Despite the fact that incident demonstrated the effectiveness of containment technology and that it was the only one of more than 100 reactors in the U.S. to fail, we haven’t built any new plants since then due mainly to popular bias against them.

Technology has only gotten better in the intervening 25 years since Three Mile Island, and new plants would be the safest yet. Even better, new reactors can use up more of their initial fuel and use recycled fuel, reducing waste. Some of them can be designed to not only react safely, but at such a high temperature that they can be used not only to generate electricity, but split water, creating a cheaper source of hydrogen to power hydrogen fuel cells, which are ultimately the most promising technology to replace our antiquated combustion engine technology (hybrid engines are a great bridge, but not the end goal).

What about that waste? Within 40 years, nuclear waste is only one thousandth as radioactive as it was when it was removed from the plant. While it will give off some radiation for many years, that radiation becomes much less dangerous much more quickly than we’ve been led to believe. The nature of a half life is such that radiation emitted never drops to zero, but it does become safe, and eventually nearly undetectable. The U.S. has also lifted its ban on recycling nuclear waste–much of it can be reused and re-enriched. Finally, of all the countries using nuclear power, the U.S. is one of the very few that has plenty of geologically stable wasteland suitable for long-term storage.

Solar and wind powers are promising, but variable output technologies. They can’t replace coal-fired plants, at least not in the near future. The price of oil is only going up, and we don’t want to depend on foreign oil and continue to be involved with the problems of the Middle East because of our addiction to oil as our primary source of power. In the end, we will be left with the choice of coal-fired plants or nuclear power plants. Even with good scrubbers on the emissions stacks, coal-burning plants put pollutants into the air. Leaving out the argument about human-caused global climate change, why pollute the air at all? Nuclear waste, the big boogeyman of years past, is not just manageable, but much of it is recyclable.

If you do believe global warming is man-made, nuclear energy is a foregone conclusion. For example, if we replaced our current hundred nuclear power plants with combustion plants due to our unreasoning fear of fission, we’d be putting an additional 200 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. If we replaced our more than 600 coal-fired plants with nuclear technology we’d reduce our carbon dioxide output by some 2 billion tons per year.

No presently viable energy source is ideal for the United States at this time, but given the options, it’s time to go green. Glowing green and nuclear, to be specific. Whether you’re against pollution or against paying exorbitant amounts of money to Middle East dictators, this is the solution that works.

For more information, you may want to read articles by Dr. Patrick Moore, Ph.D. and founder of Greenpeace. Shockingly, he’s pro-nuclear energy (he’s broken with Greenpeace). He’s also carefully researched it and presented very cogent arguments on the subject. For a couple of examples, visit:



Big Jay said...

I will add a couple of things -

First - France has been nuclear for about 30 years now. The amount of nuclear waste produced per capita during that time? About the size of one silver dollar. It fits in a room the size of a high school gymnasium. Whenever somebody talks about this huge problem with all the waste, it's important to remember that it's a problem we can manage. We have the technology.

Second - The newer more advanced reactors can use different fissionable fuels such as thorium which is abundant in places like India where demand for electricity is guaranteed to grow exponentially over the next several decades.

Great post Andrew. I've tried to sum up the arguments in favor of Nuclear, but you did it in a very articulate way.

jrleek said...

I think you've understated your case on Chernobyl. That plant could win an award for worldwide least-safe design, and it still took the party hack they put in charge all day, violating every procedure in the book, and turning off every saftey alarm, to get the thing to go super-critical.

Comaring Chernobyl to any modern reactor is sort of like making the argument that cars are unsafe by strapping a bomb to a pinto and blowing it up.

Furthermore, although you can only reprocess nucear fuel for use in normal plants a few times, we have good reason to believe that technologies can be developed to burn the dirty fuel as well. In fact, one such research project at Argonne saw great success before Clinton killed it.

My understanding is that we currently use about >5% of the energy availible in the Uranium we mine before we dump it. With good reprocessing technology, we may be able to increase that yield to 99.5%, and we have enough proven Uranium in the US to power us for 1000 years. I have a publication on this if anyone is interested.