Posts tagged with: nuclear

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Some may recall that before BP’s recent disaster (public relations and otherwise), there was a period of rebranding the company from ‘British Petroleum’ to ‘Beyond Petroleum.’

Beyond Petroleum

I’ve long argued that the opportunities afforded us by the use of fossil fuels are best spent seeking long-term sustainable and reliable sources of energy. These sources must include, and indeed in the nearer term be largely based upon, nuclear energy.

Two recent items underscore this: 1) the question of waste and what to do about it (HT); and 2) what waste actually is and is not. Says Hillsdale College econ prof Gary Wolfram, “95 percent of the used nuclear fuel could be recycled.”

PopSci follows up with the question I asked awhile back, “Why Not Just Dispose of Nuclear Waste in the Sun?”

The piece raises doubts about launch reliability: “It’s a bummer when a satellite ends up underwater, but it’s an entirely different story if that rocket is packing a few hundred pounds of uranium. And if the uranium caught fire, it could stay airborne and circulate for months, dusting the globe with radioactive ash. Still seem like a good idea?”

This is precisely why I raise the possibility of a modified space cannon to shoot the material that cannot be recycled into the sun.

In today’s Acton Commentary, I examine the overtures President Obama has been making lately to usher in “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.” I call for in part a “level playing field” for nuclear energy, which includes neither direct subsidy from the government nor bureaucratic obfuscation. The key to the latter point is to avoid the kind of breathless concern over the countries involved in the manufacture of the components for elements of the stations.

The playing field now is rather complex, of course, given the comprehensive system of tax breaks, incentives, and other subsidies that makeup today’s energy policy. In making this call I echo to some extent the complaint of Ralph Nader, although I’m much more sanguine about the ability of nuclear power to compete in a “free market” (HT: The Western Confucian).

Planet Gore’s Chris Horner calls Obama’s recent moves on nuclear energy contradictory and “flat-out dishonest.” Horner links to a couple of other important pieces that outline some of the economic distress potentially caused by clean energy legislation, as well as the official announcement of new guaranteed funds for nuclear power projects.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) points toward complicating factors beyond the availability of federal funds. I address the concern of regulatory “bottlenecks” in the commentary piece, but I pass by the concerns over nuclear waste disposal.

Apart from recycling possibilities, which is of course a special concern for fissile material, how might we be able to safely dispose of the waste from this “new generation” of nuclear power plants? I’m talking here about the 4% or so that can’t be productively repurposed.

For a long time I’ve thought that an extraterrestrial solution might be ideal, given the political problems surrounding terrestrial storage (as in the case of Yucca Mountain), although in practice finding the technology to safely accomplish some kind of outer space disposal is more difficult. Space elevators might work. Storing material on the moon afterward might be an option, although in lieu of a lunar solution perhaps a solar solution might work. Although volcanoes aren’t hot enough to break down radioactive material, the sun would be.

So maybe we could develop and apply the technology to shoot nuclear waste into space on a trajectory that would draw it into the sun, or failing that, into a path that would not run back into us on the way around or interfere with future intra-system travel. Why not use “a cannon for shooting things into space” to dispose of nuclear waste?

How the Space Cannon Works, John MacNeill

How the Space Cannon Works, John MacNeill

Any disposal site or method, especially one that included the transport of material into space, would need to be virtually immune from the kind of attack that destroys The Machine in the film Contact.

Selected related items:

More background links from a PowerBlog reader:

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 12, 2010

When it comes to energy policy, there is no perfect fuel. But in these debates, as elsewhere, the imaginary perfect fuel cannot become the enemy of the good.

And for the first time in recent memory, this means that nuclear energy, by all accounts a good alternative for the scale of demand we face, might be getting a seat at the table. Coal, which still provides more than half of the energy for the American grid, is cheap and plentiful, but environmentally and politically costly. And according to Popular Mechanics, it can only be “cleaned” up so much. That leaves a huge gap for other sources to fill.

As James B. Meigs writes,

Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur–dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.

The rest of the piece goes on to argue how we’re really talking about “cleaner” coal, rather than “clean” coal. Remember that debate over whether it was appropriate to call sex with various forms of birth control “safe” or “safer”? We might well see a similar shift in language about coal from “clean” to “cleaner.”

But what about so-called “alternative” energy sources, like geothermal, wind, and solar? Well, as John Whitehead over at the Environmental Economics blog concludes, “…potential supplies of wind and solar don’t appear to be large enough to completely replace oil and coal in the foreseeable future. If that is the purpose, then no, alternative energy can not effectively replace fossil fuels.”

So for the foreseeable future what we’re looking at in terms of the sources of our energy, in the face of growing global demand, is a mélange; coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, wind and solar, all have their place. But so does nuclear, and that’s one of the positive takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he commended “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”

The challenging for existing energy firms will be to adjust to providing the right sources in this mixture. One way to do this is to be cognizant of the alternatives and their relative costs and benefits. ExxonMobil’s “Energy Outlook” released at the end of last year predicted that the growth of some of the newer sources, like wind and solar, would grow faster than some of the conventional sources, like oil and coal.

This means that a focus on innovation and efficiency will move some surprising players to fill the demand for cleaner energy, and the vision of increasingly transient reliance on fossil fuels might indeed come to pass.

As I wrote in 2006, “The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A debate about the future of energy policy is being held over at sp!ked, sponsored by Research Councils UK. From their notice:

Expanding supply or managing demand?

In the opening articles, five commentators address the question from different viewpoints.

ADAM VAUGHAN, online editor, New Consumer magazine argues that saving energy is the way forward: ‘By taking a number of simple steps, consumers can save energy and money – and help save the planet.’

JOE KAPLINSKY, science writer, spiked, believes that we need to greatly expand energy supply: ‘The best thing that we could do for future generations is to build a new energy infrastructure, bigger and better than the old one.’

MALCOLM GRIMSTON, associate fellow at Chatham House, argues that we need to embrace nuclear power: ‘Nuclear energy remains the only proven large-scale option that can deliver major saving in greenhouse gas emissions.’

MARK JACCARD, professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver believes that fossil fuels, particularly coal, remain central to energy supply: ‘Zero-emission fossil fuels will remain cost competitive for at least a century.’

JIM SKEA, research director, UK Energy Research Centre argues that renewables are not a panacea to all our energy problems, but ‘A variety of renewable technologies may play an important part in energy generation in the future.’

spiked is keen to find out what readers think, and you can respond to the debate here.

I would also briefly mention that you can read a related article by me here, and that in general I think the options posed in the debates subtitle (reduction of use or expansion of supply) is similar to the options posed by the problem greenhouse gas emissions (reduction of emissions or increase of sequestration).

Most of the policy recommendations I’ve seen regarding CO2 emissions have focused on reduction of emissions rather than an increases in the rate and amount of carbon sequestration (in forests and so on). There’s a lot of work to be done on that latter point, especially if largescale reduction of emissions is untenable both politically and economically for the foreseeable future.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, October 26, 2006

The blog Autopia passes along this NYT story outlining some of the fundamental challenges facing plug-in hybrid electric cars. The basic formula for the appeal of such hybrids is as follows: “The electric system runs mostly on coal, natural gas and uranium, all relatively plentiful. Cars run mostly on oil, oil and oil, which lately has been expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice to connect the two?” And as attractive an option as this might be, the NYT story writes that “despite the hopes of policy makers, engineers say there is no prospect of this happening in the near future.”

Coal Burning With Scrubbers

John Gartner is not so pessimistic about the short-term prospects for plug-in hybrids, and concludes, “The competition between the oil companies and electric companies will result in cleaner and more cost-efficient choices for consumers, and that we can all be happy about.”

But here’s the kicker for advocates of plug-in hybrids: The main source of electricity for the United States is fossil fuels, according to the DoE providing “nearly two-thirds of our electricity,” and more than half of that comes from coal. So it isn’t the case that moving from gasoline-powered engines to plug-in hybrids will move us away from the use of fossil fuels. It will, for the most part, simply shift the consumption from oil to coal.

That has some attractive national security implications, since “one quarter of the world’s coal reserves are found within the United States,” as opposed to our need to massively import foreign oil. It is on this basis that Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. argues, “It makes eminent sense to make as rapid a transition to those plug-in hybrids as we can.” This of course assumes that the withdrawal of international trade actually improves rather than worsens the prospects for international peace. Let’s leave that questionable assumption aside for now, which contradicts Bastiat’s observation, “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”

With respect to the “green-ness” of plug-in hybrids, their environmentally-friendly image belies the fact that such hybrids will to a large extent be running on the energy provided by coal. Until our nation’s electricity comes from renewable and alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear power, the environmental attractiveness of hybrids will remain illusory.

In a previous commentary examining some related aspects of these issues, I ask rhetorically, “Just how many coal-powered SUVs have you seen lately?” Well, if there were plug-in hybrid SUVs, they would to a great extent be coal-powered…and not so green as you might first think.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 25, 2006

As I’ve written before, you don’t need to be a climate change convert to believe that nuclear power represents a very attractive alternative to nonrenewable fossil fuels.

In this lengthy piece in Cosmos magazine, Tim Dean examines the possibility of nuclear reactors based on thorium rather than uranium. Regardless of your position on climate change, and Dean certainly makes it a key point in his article, the essential reality is that “fossil fuels won’t last forever. Current predictions are that we may reach the point of peak production for oil and natural gas within the next decade – after which production levels will continually decline worldwide.”

Even if these predictions are much too cynical with respect to the fossil fuels left, the bottom line is that these are finite, nonrenewable resources. Dean talks about the conditions needed for an alternative energy source besides coal, which is the source of vast amounts of the world’s power: “It should offer abundant power. It also needs to be clean, safe and renewable as well as consistent. And ultimately, it needs to be economical.”

Again, as I’ve said before, “If the purpose of petroleum fuels is to pave the way for their own obsolescence, it’s becoming clearer day by day that this means the embrace of nuclear power.” You don’t have to agree with all of Dean’s analysis, I don’t think, to be intrigued by the possibility of thorium reactors.

Among the advantages of thorium as opposed to uranium: “Thorium is not fissile, so no matter how much thorium you pack together, it will not start splitting atoms and blow up. This is because it cannot undergo nuclear fission by itself and it cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction once one starts. It’s a wannabe atom splitter incapable of taking the grand title.”

There are some complications, mostly drawing from the fact that thorium cannot self-sustain. As Dean writes, “The main stumbling block until now has been how to provide thorium fuel with enough neutrons to keep the reaction going, and do so in an efficient and economical way.” Dean goes on to describe two recent innovations that have the potential of addressing this stumbling block.

“Can atomic power be green?” asks Dean. Another way of asking the question is whether folks like Greenpeace will embrace nuclear power if the primary fuel is thorium rather than uranium.

Update: Deroy Murdock passes along wonderment regarding the question “why environmentalists reject alternatives to fossil fuels if they agree with Sir David King, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s science adviser, that global warming is ‘the greatest threat facing mankind’ and is ‘worse than terrorism.'”