Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Coming US Nuclear Renaissance?

My feelings about this are mixed.

threemileisland The Obama administration soon may guarantee as much as $18.5 billion in loans to build new nuclear reactors to generate electricity, and Congress is considering whether to add billions more to support an expansion of nuclear power.

These actions come after an extensive decade-long campaign in which companies and unions related to the industry have spent more than $600 million on lobbying and nearly $63 million on campaign contributions, according to an analysis by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.

Nuclear power generates about 20 percent of America's electricity, but many existing reactors are aging and no new plant has been authorized since the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island, when small amounts of radiation were released and authorities feared for days that a huge surge might escape. That's in part because it can cost as much as $8 billion to build a nuclear plant, and in part because the problems of nuclear waste and safety remain unsolved.

The problem of global warming remains unsolved, too, however, and as the nation struggles to rebound from a deep recession, building new nuclear reactors increasingly looks to some like a big jobs program.

The industry, capitalizing on both developments, argues that nuclear energy must be part of any effort to curb heat-trapping carbon emissions.

Its longtime foes — environmentalists, labor unions, Democrats — increasingly agree. "This is nuclear's year," said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who in recent years has become one of the industry's champions on Capitol Hill.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has pledged that the climate bill that's making its way through Congress will include new government help for the nuclear industry. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says he'd provide a much-sought Republican vote for the bill if its energy provisions include help for the nuclear industry… [emphasis added]

Inserted from <McClatchy DC>

This is one of those damned if you do and damned if you don’t issues.  On the one hand, I’m concerned about safety and nuclear waste, especially given the industries track record of externalizing costs by leaving the cleanup to taxpayers.  On the other hand, current green technologies, which I believe should be pursued to the maximum extent, cannot create sufficient power to keep up with our ever increasing demand for more energy.  Unless we add nuclear power to the mix, we will be even more dependent on fossil fuels, which have no upside at all.

For a long term solution, I think our best bet is to invest massively into research to develop commercial fusion power.  While still not commercially viable, there is progress.

fusion-reactor …Following the first fusion experiments in the 1930s, fusion physics laboratories were established in nearly every industrialized nation. By the mid-1950s "fusion machines" were operating in the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Germany and Japan. Through these, scientists' understanding of the fusion process was gradually refined.

A major breakthrough occurred in 1968 in the Soviet Union. Researchers there were able to achieve temperature levels and plasma confinement times - two of the main criteria to achieving fusion - that had never been attained before. The Soviet machine was a doughnut-shaped magnetic confinement device called a tokamak.

From this time on, the tokamak was to become the dominant concept in fusion research, and tokamak devices multiplied across the globe.

Producing fusion energy, it soon became clear, would require marshalling the creative forces, technological skills, and financial resources of the international community. The Joint European Torus (JET) in Culham, U.K., in operation since 1983, was a first step in this direction. JET is collectively used by the EURATOM (European Atomic Energy Community) Associations from more than 20 European countries. In 1991, the JET tokamak achieved the world's first controlled release of fusion power.

Steady progress has been made since in fusion devices around the world. The Tore Supra Tokamak that is part of the Cadarache nuclear research centre holds the record for the longest plasma duration time of any tokamak: six minutes and 30 seconds. The Japanese JT-60 achieved the highest value of fusion triple product - density, temperature, confinement time -of any device to date. US fusion installations have reached temperatures of several hundred million degrees Celsius. Achievements like these have led fusion science to an exciting threshold: the long sought-after plasma energy breakeven point. Breakeven describes the moment when plasmas in a fusion device release at least as much energy as is required to produce them. Plasma energy breakeven has never been achieved: the current record for energy release is held by JET, which succeeded in generating 70% of input power. Scientists have now designed the next-step device - ITER - which will produce more power than it consumes: for 50 MW of input power, 500 MW of output power will be produced… [emphasis added]

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Once the breakeven point is surpassed, the excess power can be cascaded into more reactors, producing even more.  The fuel for a fusion reactor is Deuterium, abundant in sea water.  While not a ‘renewable resource’ per se, there is sufficient supply in the oceans to supply earth’s energy needs for millions of years.  The end product of fusion is helium gas.  It does not contribute to global climate change and is a valuable commodity in it’s own right.

I see no other way to permanently end US dependence of fossil fuels, which will only become more expensive over time, contribute to climate change, and contribute to international instability.


the walking man said...

If a nuclear reactor, which have been used safely in France and Japan for decades, has a life span of 20-30 years that buys time for the development of fusion power and limits the need for fossil based fuels within a relatively short time frame.

Combined with hydrogen & plug in technology for automotive use and more reliance on our own abundant cleaner burning natural gas supplies for home heating and industrial production (which leads us away from coal) I think we should invest in nuclear infrastructure.

BUT with the caveat that the jobs from the janitor to the construction to the engineers who run the plants are not imported labor. We need to re-ramp up our own production facilities to make the parts and components necessary, not import them from China or anywhere else.

The WTO and it's trade rules be damned.

rjs said...

hmmmm...who of you reading this wants a nuke plant in their backyard? volunteers?

a few, fissionable uranium is in short supply; most of the fuel we're now using comes from decommissioned russian nuclear weapons; second, the half life of high-level nuclear waste is 10,000 years...thats five times longer than christianity has been around...unless were plannning on building the next major religion around securing and worshiping that waste, using fission for a short term solution that creates that long term a problem seems like its just satisfying our energy comfort at the expense of future generations...

TomCat said...

Mark, it'd take it one step further and stipulate that all components in the construction come from the US, provided that they are available here.

RJ, I had one. They tore it down a few years back and cleaned up the site at taxpayer expense. Like I said, I have mixed feelings. Now, you're in trouble, because I was gung-ho on green energy, and YOU were the one who convinced me that green energy could not begin to fill the need. ;-) OK, you're out of the dog house, but if not nuclear short-term, then what?

RealityZone said...

Bechtel, G.E. and others will be pushing for this big time.
There is no such thing as "nuclear energy, short term" it is not meant as a [bridge fuel]. A major part of the problem is energy consumption. America consumes 5x the amount of natural resources that the planet can replenish. I live near the Palo Verde nuclear plan in Arizona, one of the largest in the nation. As others my concern is the nuclear waste, and the safety of the plants.
What we need today is a modern day Tesla, not an Edison. LOL.

rjs said...

tomcat, to answer your question honestly, living in ohio's snowbelt, where we have 4 seasons; almost winter, winter, still winter, and road repair, im in favor of a little global warming; let new yorkers come up with their own solution when manhatten floods...

ivan said...

Nukes have been an economic disaster in Ontario. It almost bankrupted the province. There is still a category on Ontario Power Generation's bill that goes toward paying the old debt.
We have two old rickey 50's style reactors left. The others have been down for maintenance for a generation.
Maybe The Walking Man is right. Learn from the Europeans for economies of scale?

Lisa G. said...

What walkingman said. I'm in favor of using natural gas as a bridge fuel - we have enough of it to get us through 70 years even with increasing demand. If all the diesel trucks in the US were converted to natural gas, we could save 500 million barrels of oil a day. We need natural gas cars as well. As soon as one comes out, I'm buying it. It's clean, safe and we have a shitload of it.

No more nukes. Too dangerous and the storage of the used rods will be with us forever, unless we can ship them off into space with all the other crap that out there.

If people from another planet ever come here (notice, they only show up in the US - curious?), they will turn right around thinking we are the stupidest people in the universe and they'll be right.

otis said...

Let me say from Joliet, IL (Home of Midwest Gambling, prisons, and 3 nukes within 1/2 hour) that I think that we should explore the nuclear option and run with it. My caveat is that no regulations change. Because while I am in the home of nuclear power plants, I am also in the company that runs them the worst.

I actually worked for Excelon (Which was still Com Ed at the time. They sold all of their 'dirt burners' to Midwest Generation to break the union. It succeeded. The nukes went under the Excelon name.) Excelon has 4 nukes left. They closed the one in Zion IL (By the WS border). I don't remember the official reasons, but because I was working for the company I heard the inside story. Apparently they were doing things like moving control rods without engineering say so, I heard rumors of operators stuffing other operators in lockers as pranks, etc. The facility was apparently run by yahoos. Com Ed closed it before the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) made a public scene closing it down.

Excelon has spent more time on the NRC Watch List than off of it. However, the TVA (Tennesse Valley Authority) runs the most nukes (I think over 10, but I am not certain) and they have always been one of the best run outfits. Furthermore, Three Mile Island has become almost the pinnacle of compliance since the Incident, and has remained that way since about 1981.

The area of research should be 2 fold on this:
1. Figuring out what to do with the waste. Some NASA engineers already used some Plutonium to run a satellite, but we need to recycle this stuff somehow.
2. I agree that we need to get to fusion, but I think that we are going to have to use fusion to get there, like our fusion bombs (sorry, it is the best example)

I also want to point out that even Greenpeace at one time 'bit the bullet' and stated that nuclear energy is among our cleanest options. I don't know if they have since pulled back from that.

RealityZone said...

Lisa G: I spent 10/08 in S/Korea. They have NG stations every where. They even give you a rebate if you buy an NG car. Extra Terrestrials have been seen all over the world, not just in the U.S.A. but yes we are the dumbest beings in the universe.

We are not alone.
Like Alice Cooper said. " Aliens coming to Earth, is the same to them as us going to the Zoo. LOL.

rjs said...

RZ: the ET aliens just show up in western US, mostly in the Ohio, they have visions of the virgin mary in their pancakes instead...

RealityZone said...

RJS: Oh really, I live in the desert of Arizona. I look for them 24/7 have not seen one yet.LOL. Maybe I should start looking into my pancakes instead.

I do believe there will be a new type of energy technology coming. Question is when.

TOM said...

Regular rockets to the Sun, packed full of our nuke waste.
An accidental rocket explosion is about one in 500 (hoping we can better that % with innovation and experience) which would kill about 1/16th of the American population.

We should create a power system powerful enough to meet our needs, getting it's source from the Sun.

There are many ways to approach the problem. Problem is we have wasted time by not attacking the problem for decades.

GRLCowan said...

In general when you hear an allegation that nuclear power has problem 'X' you should surmise that the oil and natural gas interests are aware that oil and gas have problem 'X' and nuclear power doesn't. Its problem is that uranium is 20 times cheaper than gas.

Launching rocketloads of nuclear waste over the ocean would put the ocean at risk of having a load dumped in it. There would be no way of ensuring the stuff dissolved and mixed thoroughly into the ocean, but if there were some magical way to make that happen, the result would be an increase in the ocean's radioactivity by something like one part per million. No-one would be harmed.

Gas and oil are heavily taxed, and governments therefore are among the fossil fuel interests that hypocritically pretend to take the one-ppm-extra problem seriously.

RealityZone said...

S/Korea building nuke plants in U.A.E.

libhom said...

This is sickening. Those billions should be used to promote public transportation and solar, not nuclear. Nuclear plants are incredibly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

rjs said...

being that my recent comments were somewhat frivolous, i ought to drop back in with a few serious suggestions...first, everyone has to get it out of their heads that there is a magic bullet, nuclear or otherwise; you have experienced in the past decade the highest standard of living you ever will; the future is gonna be a painful belt-tightening; the planet is running out of we need something like a federal tax on gasoline and diesel high enough to curtail my driving; something high enough to at least double the gas price; like it or not, with our massive deficits we're gonna have to rasie some taxes anyhow, so why not do it in a way to change consumption & driving behavior? some offsetting work-credit rebate should be paired with that so that those who need to drive to work can still do it...
secondly, as tomcat noted, i pointed out a lot of the problems with attempting to rely on green tech in his thread on climate 12/19; what i didnt cover there was biofuels...the numbers ive seen on the (oil) energy cost of corn were at 40% of market value at the time ethanol was being heavily promoted, and 25% of our corn crop is already going into gastanks...the energy cost of extracting new oil, such as those deep gulf deposits, is given at 25%or more of that extracted, and what else do we have?
wind power poses the problem that there is massive energy cost in manufacture, and well as energy cost in building a new grid, which i delineated in the mentioned thread....& even t boone pickens has apparently given up on that for now...even if fossil fuels become expensive enough to re-consider wind power, we have a problem with china again; all low carbon technologies, from wind turbines to electric cars and low energy lightbulbs, use elements known as 'rare earths'...95 per cent of these are found in China, and theyve curtailed export of them at any price...china itself is investing heavily in wind power, so they are likely to keep what they need to go forward to themselves...
also, our subsidies for biodiesel have run out: i prefer biodielsel over corn-based ethanol, because soybeans, being a legume, do not need heavy (oil based) nitrogen fertilization, but to me, the preferred method of developing an alcohol alternative would be using wood, for several reasons...first, trees dont have to replanted with heavy annual energy inputs...your land use also becomes vertical (ie max height of corn being about 8 feet)...some hybrid poplars grow that much each year, as well as spread outward.. and several species of fast growing trees will regrow several times from the roots after being cut down..but even our biomass subsidy is having an unintended consequence of encouraging sawmills to sell their waste to be converted into biofuel, thus shutting off the supply of cheap timber byproducts to composite wood mfgs., which cabinetry is made of...
the energy inherent in a complex carbohydrate is also greater than that of a simple sugar...and we shouldnt be growing corn for high-fructose corn syprup, if not for health reasons, then because our sugar import restricitons and domestic price supports contribute to keeping countries like haiti poor...maybe we ought to also consider beets & sugar cane, which grows well in the south, as an energy souce...brazil has been successful with cheap sugar-cane based ethanol...

TomCat said...

RZ, a modern day Tesla is a great idea. Do you have him handy?

Ivan, weren't Ontario's reactors installed at the dawn of the industry? Europe and Japan are using them successfully, but nothing on our continent incorporates the newer designs.

Lisa, I share your reluctance, but won't using NG contribute to climate change?

Otis, do you mean use fission to get there? Why so?

Tom, how about launching from DC, so that is the 1/16 of the population wiped out? ;-)

Welcome GRLCowan. I have never heard of that approach. I'll have to look into it.

Libhom, ideally I agree with you, but to make public transit an option for all Americans would take a generation or two to completely remodel our urban and suburban layouts. As much as I favor solar, to get enough power to meet the need, we'd have to cover all our farmland with solar panels.

RZ and RZ, aliens? flying saucers?? Your tin-foil hats are showing. ;-)

RJ, those are all good ideas. The only way I could lower my carbon footprint is to stop blogging and eat less chili. But none of them get us off fossil fuels.

I remain whee I began on this issue. I have mixed feelings.

rjs said...

guess i got so wrapped up in making my points that i overlooked something in the article, which was just brought to mind by an similar article @ bloomberg...your article talks about a $18.5 billion program; the BLM article talks about adding 36 billion to that...perry nuclear, on lake erie, completed in '84, cost $6 billion

RealityZone said...

RealityZone said...

rjs: As I have been saying all along. Obama is the [chosen one] The Manchurian Candidate. Mc Cain could have never pulled any of this off. They needed a sales person. Obama gives a speech, and the Dems step back in line.

TomCat said...

Thanks, RJ.

RZ, when Obama took office a year ago, he had so much on his plate that fixing everything at once was not a possibility. The spending to which the article refers is a carry forward from Bush/GOP legislation.