October 08, 2004
Thousand Nuclear Reactors Could Hydrogen Power All Cars In America

Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick, and his brother Jim, claim that to switch to hydrogen power for vehicles would require either covering half of California with with turbines or building 1,000 nuclear reactors.

Converting every vehicle in the United States to hydrogen power would demand so much electricity that the country would need enough wind turbines to cover half of California or 1,000 extra nuclear power stations.

The Oswalds are making the argument that hydrogen isn't an easy solution to our energy problems. Fair enough. But could hydrogen play a role if we really thought we were better off ending our reliance on fossil fuels? Let us leave aside the fact that hydrogen has a lot of problems associated with it that its enthusiasts tend to ignore. Perhaps some day those problems will be solved. Or perhaps if we only had a non-fossil fuel based way to generate enough hydrogen to power our cars we could instead use the power to generate synthetic hydrocarbons or we could develop better battery technology. The more important question then is whether we could get that power from somewhere if we really wanted to.

While I would oppose the construction of so many wind turbines on esthetic grounds some might disagree. I'm not sure what the cost would be of all those wind turbines but the 1,000 nuclear reactors are at least within the realm of the affordable. It is not clear what reactor size the Oswalds assumed in their calculation. But suppose they based their calculation on the new and very large Westinghouse AP1100 1,100 Megawatt nuclear reactor. The cost for a pair is estimated to be about $2.2 to $2.7 billion. But if 1,000 of them were built it seems safe to assume that there'd be considerable economies of scale. So let us suppose the reactors would cost $1 billion each. Well, that is only $1 trillion to build 1,000 of them.

Put that $1 trillion in perspective. The US burns about 20 million barrels of oil per day which at $50 per barrel is $1 billion per day or 364 billion per year. Though much of that is not for cars. Still, is that $1 trillion affordable if we really needed to switch to nuclear? The United States has a $11 trillion dollar a year economy. For a cost equalling slightly more than one month's economic production we could drastically cut our use of fossil fuels. So when people say we have no choice but to use fossil fuels, well, that just isn't true.

Granted, we couldn't convert to a nuclear economy in a year. We'd have to develop a number of supporting technologies and deploy them. It would take a couple of decades to make the full transition. Yet it really could be done.

There are problems with going the nuclear route. Waste disposal is a problem and is a large cost too. Operations and fuels are additional costs but much lower than construction costs. Securing so many nuclear reactors against terrorist attacks would be another substantial problem. Plus, increased use of nuclear power throughout the world would raise the risk of nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists.

Also, implementation of a massive nuclear reactor building program might be premature. Pebble Bed Modular Reactor technology could first be developed to provide a safer and cheaper nuclear option. Then PBMR reactors could be built instead. But even the current cost of nuclear power demonstrates that we do not absolutely need fossil fuels in order to maintain a modern industrial economy with fairly high living standards.

Nuclear power is also not the only energy alternative available that could totally displace fossil fuels. Another option would be to construct massive arrays of space-based solar photovoltaic panels, usually referred to as Space Solar Power Satellites (SSPS). Though it is harder to estimate what the costs would be of such an undertaking it seems safe to assume that an effort of that scale would create enough demand for space launch capabilities that space launch technologies would advance as a consequence of the demand for launch services. In conjunction with a space solar power project giant reflectors could be built in space to prevent global warming.

Ironically, while Hoffert’s team recommends harnessing the Sun’s energy from space, they also suggest blocking some of it, either with giant translucent shields or mirrors. About 2 percent of the Sun’s energy would need to be blocked in order to correct for climate-warming gas production. Such an effort is called geoengineering.

"For this application a sunshield or solar parasol would have to be very large (thousands of kilometers in diameter), possibly very thin, and possibly fabricated from lunar materials," Hoffert said. "At this point, space mirrors are more of a thought experiment than a real option."

We could build space-based solar power collection systems or space-based reflectors to cool the Earth. So we could either eliminate our need for fossil fuels or neutralize the warming effects of the continuing increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fossil fuel burning.

Rather that either government spending or government mandates for private spending on massive non-fossil fuel power systems my own preference is for an increase in government funding of energy research in combination with government prizes offered in various areas for achievements in advances in technologies that would help toward the development of alternative energy technologies. Better to develop new technologies that the market will then choose to implement. Implementation of a mandated alternative power source in the United States would be more costly than current energy sources and still would only reduce American demand for fossil fuels while the demand of the rest of the world would grow to eventually far exceed today's current world aggregate demand.

On the subject of prizes to advance energy technologies imagine, for example, a $1 million dollar prize for every demonstrated single point increase in photovoltaics material conversion efficiency. The size of the prize per percentage point increase could even be scaled to provide larger prizes the higher the best existing efficiency becomes. So increasing from 25% to 26% conversion efficiency would not yield as big of a prize as going from 50% to 51%.

The challenge with a prize system for advancing energy technologies would be to find a large and appropriate set of technological goals that would each have a prize offered for their attainment. For example, prizes to researchers for better batteries would have to include both achievement of higher energy/weight density, total energy capacity, size, and number of cycles the batteries would have to be able to be recharged. There could not be just a prize for achieving a battery good enough to make electric cars feasible. We'd need lots of prizes to reward the reaching of intermediate points toward the ultimate goal.

The biggest problem with solar power is the cost. But to incentivize academic researchers to come up with better materials for making solar cells it would make more sense to leave aside the cost question and instead reward achievement of more scientific and technical goals such as new efficiency records for each of several different classes of materials. For example, separate rewards could be made for higher efficiencies of thin film carbon-based, silicon-based, nanotube-based, and other categories.

Update: Ergosphere blogger Engineer-Poet takes a look at the Oswald paper and argues that the Oswalds made some errors in their calculations and that the number of nuclear reactors needed to power cars isn't nearly as many as the Oswalds believe.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 October 08 11:28 PM  Energy Tech


Comments
Kurt said at October 8, 2004 11:41 PM:

Both the pebble bed and integral fast reactors are useful concepts for nuclear plants. Space solar power is also good, but implementation requires low cost access to space, which is something that NASA has failed to accomplish in its 40 year history. US$1 trillion is alot, but if construction is spread out over a 30 year period, it amounts to around US$35 billion per year. Its a toss up as to whether nuclear or space solar power is the most cost effective on this scale. Maybe both.

In any case, independence from the vagrancies of irrational, unstable cultures are worth the cost and effort. I believe a strategy of technology and enery independence is a far better option than the neocon option of Empire. The neocons may argue that the middle-easterns pose a threat to us. However, if our energy is coming from space or from our own nukes rather than from the middle-east, there will be far fewer financial resources being used to finance the terrorism in the first place.

Left-wing terrorism of the 70's and 80's largely disappeared once the USSR (paymaster) collapsed. If the rest of the world is energy independent from Saudi Arabia, that fiancial source of terrorism will similarly disappear. The way I see it, the neocons have no valid counter-argument to this.

Alexander Williams said at October 9, 2004 2:58 AM:

Well, the obvious counter-argument is that the US is not the only consumer of oil on Earth. With India and China continually gearing up their far-less-efficient industrial power, the desire for oil will soon be increasing way, way past current levels, even if the US were to suddenly ascend to a wholly spiritual plane of existance.

In that light, terrorists funded by states selling oil aren't looking at more than a mild recession if the US decided TOMORROW to go all nuclear. By the time we geared up and built the infrastructure, at the cost of far more than $1tril, they'd be guzzling their monies from India, China, and the rest of the developing world.

In that sense, we can't afford to wait to destabilize the ME sufficiently to rebuild it without terror-supporting States in charge. Time is most pointedly not on our side.

Engineer-Poet said at October 9, 2004 9:25 AM:

I hope the Oswalds aren't betting their careers on this paper, because it has significant errors and omissions.  But they are all errors in our favor; it will be much easier than they posit.

Z Fool said at October 9, 2004 9:27 AM:

There is a lot of Earth surface area that is covered only by oceans. We could create wind turbine farms the size of california in the middle of several oceans, with no prime aesthetic land ruined. If we can create stable off shore drilling riggs we can create wind turbine riggs. An added benifit is the ability to also harness the power of waves to produce electricity at the same time.

Patri Friedman said at October 9, 2004 12:51 PM:

and number of cycles the batteries would have to be able to be recharged

The number-of-cycles problem has been solved for batteries, although only for fixed locations as they are somewhat heavy. See my description of the vanadium redox battery, or the inventor's page. Current energy density is about 25 Wh/kg, which is like a bad lead-acid battery, and 1/4 - 1/6 a lithium battery. Nor are they merely theoretical, a 25 kW stack in Japan has been through 16,000 charge/discharge cycles.

Might be an interesting topic for a post...

I like your idea for performance-based prizes. Having government directly fund research seems like a bad idea, it will be victim to the curse of all projects where you're spending other people's money, and be wasteful and inefficient. But if you fund prizes for performance, then you only dole out money for success, which is quite different.

As Alexander points out, the idea that moving the US away from oil will hurt terrorists is laughable. Oil is valuable stuff, someone will happily buy it.

Also, I don't see how the nuclear vs. oil question has much to do with hydrogen. Hydrogen is energy *storage*, not an energy *source*. The question of where we get the energy (nuclear, wind, oil...) is quite different from the question of how we deliver it.

Kurt said at October 9, 2004 1:31 PM:

Engineer-poet:

In the case you have postulated, it would require only 250 1.1 gigawatt nukes rather than 1000. Since we currently have 132 nukes, at US1 billion each, this would be around US250 billion to build them all. The hydrogen distribution infrastructure would probably be an additional US250 billion or so, but would be mostly private investment. This is actually doable. Especially considering that we will probably be pouring US200 billion or so into the middle-eastern rat-hole that the neonazi-cons thought they could rebuild.

Both the integral fast reactor and pebble-bed reactor concepts offer significant improvments over the conventional nuclear plant design. I would provide tax and other incentives for the development and construction of nuke plants based on these concepts. I would have a series of X-prizes for the development/commercialization of electrcity-to-mobility technology as well as expanding the Z-prize program for space development and extraterrestrial materials utilization.

I have more faith in our engineers than I do in our government and state department. Its a no-brainer as to which option should be pursued.

Kurt said at October 9, 2004 1:37 PM:

The Chinese are going nuclear in a big way. Check out the "Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom" article in Wired magazine. The rest of the developing world is following suit. Also, if we were energy independent and the Arabs were selling all of their oil to China and India, we would be much less of a terrorist target in their eyes than we are now. Note that there have been no Islamic terrorist acts in China or Japan. The conflict between muslims and hindus in India is essentially a local thing having little to do with the middle east. The fact that these other countries have not be the targets of muslim terrorists should tell you something. This is fact that the neo-cons seem to ignore.

Other possibilities include natural gas extraction from gas hydrates in the ocean. The Japanese are going for this in a big way and expect to be energy independent by 2015.

Engineer-Poet said at October 9, 2004 5:08 PM:

Kurt:  The inefficiencies of conversion to hydrogen make it an undesirable medium unless you have one of the following reasons for using it:

  1. An energy source which yields hydrogen as its direct product (e.g. hydrogen-producing algae or a gasification process), or
  2. A need for medium-to-long term storage of energy and no medium of greater efficiency, density, or other merit.
The state of the art in hydrogen storage yields 60 miles or so in range, while lead-acid batteries easily give 80 or 90 and lithium-ion gives 300 with rocket-ship performance.  Hydrogen is a shibboleth, and making it from electricity just to convert it back is pointless; what we really want to use is electricity without gratuitous complications.

We already have a very large distribution network for electricity which would not be stressed by carrying all transport energy so long as it was moved during off-peak hours.  Using that $250 billion to add redundancy and reliability to the electrical grid makes much more sense than creating another essential, separate energy network with its own points of failure; we should have learned this lesson after the gasoline pipeline outages in Arizona and in Michigan before that, and the electrically-powered natural gas pipelines in California during the electricity crisis there.

I'm currently re-writing a piece on energy for the USA which happens to cover some of the same ground as the Oswalds' paper.  I hadn't thought of going all-nuclear because I believe the political opposition would prevent adequate progress from being made, but if it could be done I'd say build those suckers.

Invisible Scientist said at October 10, 2004 6:22 AM:

Building 1,000 new conventional nuclear reactors, even the Pebble Bed reactor,
is prohibitive because this will immediately cause a shortage of uranium in the world.
It turns out that uranium is also scarce.

Also dealing with the excess long term nuclear waste will be a nightmare.

However, the Integral Fast Reactor, solves this problem. This IFR concept has already
been demonstrated during the last two decades, and this reactor design requires only
1 % of the uranium fuel needed by the current conventional reactors, because it burns
the long term nuclear waste as its own fuel while it is being generated. The fuel cycle
is 70 years for these reactors. This is one thing the government must focus on immediately
to commercialize it in a few years. Otherwise a new military draft is the next political change
on the horizon.


http://www.nuc.berkeley.edu/designs/ifr/
http://www.decentria.com/ifr.html
http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA378.html
http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/phy99/phy99xx7.htm
http://www.anlw.anl.gov/anlw_history/reactors/ifr.html

Invisible Scientist said at October 10, 2004 6:37 AM:


Hydrogen is getting most of the attention because Bush mentioned in his
propaganda, and there are already some fuel cells for hydrogen.

But the zinc-air fuel cells have also matured even more.
Please see the following web sites where a fully demonstrated pure-electric bus
is shown. The zinc-air fuel cells are air-breathing batteries that can be
charged or loaded with charged zinc, whenever a source of energy, such as a nuclear
reactor or a coal-fired electric plant is available.

The zinc-air fuel cells are already competitive with regular gasoline powered cars.

http://electric-fuel.com/ev/index.shtml

http://www.electric-fuel.com/evpro/Phase3.pdf

http://www.electric-fuel.com/evnews/041208.shtml

Engineer-Poet said at October 10, 2004 7:46 AM:

I've been waiting for this.  Back when I still subscribed to kiddy magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science, one of them ran an feature about a guy who was running a station wagon on a zinc-air battery (primary cell) with NiCd for storage during the regeneration cycles.  It's been obvious that the chemistry will do the job, but the engineering to turn it all into product wasn't done yet.

Kudos to these guys if they can do it.  May they become billionaires.  And if they can't, there is always aluminum-air.

Invisible Scientist said at October 10, 2004 9:01 AM:

Engineer-Poet:

Please read the links I wrote above for the zinc-air battery bus that is already operational.
This is a pure zinc-air vehicle, and for acceleration it is not using NiCd auxiliary batteries,
it is only using some big capacitors as buffers.

The POLITICS is the issue here. Like Randy was mentioning, it will take no more than
$1 trillion to build 1,000 nuclear reactors at a time the annual government deficit
is already $500 billion (equal to the annual foreign trade deficit.) And yet, Bush and Cheney
would sabotage any attempt to displace the oil undustry.

We are talking about a military draft, and also a possible "death march" for the US
soldiers in the deserts of Arabia. We will be lucky if they give us back their skeletons
after the jackals and crows eat them in the desert. All of this can be prevented
if we start a Bronx Project for energy.

Graham Cowan said at October 10, 2004 9:01 AM:

I would like people also to consider boron-air.
Internal boron combustion is, in my opinion,
what motorists are going to make their first choice
once they see it.

More at http://www.eagle.ca/~gcowan/Paper_for_11th_CHC.doc

Kurt said at October 10, 2004 11:58 AM:

Has anyone done a comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of the integral fast reactor vs. the pebble-bed reactor? Also, what about the use of an IEC device (a.k.a. farnsworth fusor) for generating high energy neutrons to fission U238 rather than U235?

Engineer-poet, you are correct that hydrogen is not very useful, for a variety of reasons. My guessing is that we will end up using liquid fuel derived from natural gas (gas hydrates or other deep earth source) for transportation and the nuclear and space solar power used for electricity. In any case, eliminating dependency on crude from the middle-east and other places is worth pursuing.

As I mentioned before, I have more faith in our engineers than in our state department to solve problems.

Invisible Scientist said at October 10, 2004 3:00 PM:

Kurt:

I am not a nuclear physicist, but from what I have read, the Pebble Bed Reactor is using pieces of
uranium envelopped in graphite spheres about the size of a billiard ball. Thousands of these spheres
are loaded in a giant funnel or cylinder, and helium gas is flowing around these spheres to carry the
heat to the turbines. This is a very easy to operate reactor, as the graphite spheres can be moved
around in order to be recycled periodically, making it easy to put them inside the reactor and remove
these to be replaced during reactor operation, without interruption.

The ease of operation, and the fact that the sparse geometry makes it impossible for the reactor
to have a meltdown or leak of radiocative gas even if the core of the reactor is punctured and helium
is allowed to escape, make the Pebble Bed Reactor very marketable, from a political point of view.

However, this does NOT make the Pebble Reactor a good reactor in the sense that the fuel efficiency
is not much better than the conventional reactors, in fact, the latest Westinghouse reactors
are still water-cooled, but they are more efficient in the use of uranium fuel, and they
do burn an important fraction of the long term nuclear waste inside the reactor, even though
not anywhere near as successfully like the Integral Fast Reactor. As a compromise, since IFR
was not yet ready, the Chinese officials are willing to get started with the latest Westinghouse
design which is much more fuel efficient than the previous water cooled reactors, and much
better than before, for reducing long term nuclear waste. China and the rest of the world
is fully aware that uranium is also scarce, and that it must be used economically.

Additionally, it seems
to me that the Pebble Bed Reactor may not have the capability to prevent the formation of long term
nuclear waste, and it may not be able to burn any of the long term waste as its own fuel, making
if necessary to bury the final nuclear waste in the Yucca Mountain, or to reprocess it in a messy
factory. What makes the Pebble Bed Reactor nice is that it is cheaper and faster to build, it is
totally safe to operate, and very simple. But the issue of uranium scarcity is serious, as it
can be seen from the skyrococketing price of uranium, and the highest stock prices of uranium companies
at this time.

But note that thorium is much more abundant than uranium, and there is a reactor design that
can use thorium as a seed to make extra uranium during operation. India is interested in the
thorium reactors, since there is plenty of thorium in the world. But basically, the breeder
reactor technology has been around for a long time, both in the US and Japan, as well as France,
but the "Green" people were opposed to it, due to the threat of plutonium being stolen by terrorists,
as well as anti-nuclear hysteria. And this also played to the hands of the oil companies, and ironically,
the oil companies as well as the "green" people ended up colluding. To this, I must add that the
uranium companies, led by Cameco which has a virtual monopoly in uranium, also had an interest
in suppressing the breeder reactors (that generate more plutonium to burn as fuel in the operation of
reactors), because the breeder reactors would need much less uranium fuel, only 1 % of what the
conventional reactors, and this was bad for uranium companies. Thus strangely enough, both the
Green people, the oil companies, as well as the uranium companies ended up working together
to suppress the breeder reactors, even though they did not have secret meetings to bribe each other.

But seriously, if a political decision is made, the breeder technology can be made commercial,
in such a way that there will be enough uranium and thorium in the world to derive ALL the
needed energy such as electricity or to make diesel fuel from the thermal energy, for the entire
world, for thousands of years. And since the breeder reactors can burn their long term nuclear waste
as fuel, the resulting nuclear waste will have a half life less than 300 years, meaning that even if
the entire world is using nuclear energy for everything, the waste storage will not be a problem,
Yucca mountain will not be necessary.

Brock said at October 10, 2004 4:44 PM:

Good debate. I don't really have anything to add to the scientific disucussion, the technical aspects have already gone beyond what I have useful experience with.

I've noticed in past comments that some readers took a rather unfriendly tone to Stephen Den Beste's articles on why oil will not be obsolesced any time soon. I just tought I'd point out that he felt that nuclear wasn't an option because of political and social conditions, not engineering limitations, and therefore would largely agree with the above posts.

Engineer-Poet said at October 11, 2004 5:03 AM:

Brock:  My issue with Steven Den Beste's claims is that he appears to be relying on outdated information, and his impatience with the "true believers" leads him to dismiss the issue without giving it the depth of analysis he applies to other subjects (very well, I might add).  But nobody's perfect.

Nuclear isn't absolutely required for e.g a conversion of transport from petroleum to electricity (or just a very large displacement).  As an example, if all the fuel now burned for domestic and commercial space heat was instead burned in cogenerators, the electricity produced would be on par with that required to power the entire vehicle fleet during the heating season.  We could make up the energy tapped off for vehicles by feeding part of the electricity to heat pumps, and the use of heat pumps allows any source of electricity (e.g. nuclear or wind) to displace heating fuel.

Peter said at October 11, 2004 6:41 AM:

I'm going to have to side with Steve Den Beste on the impracticality of adding this many nukes to our power systsm. And I'm going to also recommend that you read Normal Accidents by Perrow. Normal Accidents is more about systemic accidents and how some technologies cannot reduce accident levels below some level. Humans have been building dams for over 2000 years, and dams still fail. You would think that we would have some understanding of them by now. We've been building petroleum refineries for over 100 years, and they still burst into flames. We've been suppressing details about nuclear energy for decades, and we have no way of determining if BrandX reactor design is better than BrandY (unless you have a DOE clearance). And the current administration has passed regulations making it far easier to cover up accidents, and hide potential accidents, just by uttering the T word.

The resistance to nuclear power has more to do with lack of trust than fear. If I am going to live with certain risks, I have to be able to determine what those risks are. If all I see is cover-ups, instead of information, I'm going to assign a very high degree of risk to that thing.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0691004129/

Heck, if the oil producing states wanted to destroy America, they need only switch to taking euros instead of dollars (which Iraq did a couple months before we invaded, and Iran has been publically talking about). Since every country wishing to purchase oil has to pay for that oil in dollars, by purchasing dollars, the purchasers of oil are subsidizing the dollar. If you ever see an announcement by OPEC where they switch away from the dollar as the basis for oil, run for the hills as the dollar will crash within a year.

Invisible Scientist said at October 11, 2004 8:18 AM:

Peter,

The lack of trust for nuclear power has more to do with former politics than
anything else. Note that the coal-fired plants release a lot more uranium particles
(contained in coal) than what the nuclear plants are burning as fuel currently.

Please read the links about the Integral Fast Reactor that I am pasting below
once again:

http://www.nuc.berkeley.edu/designs/ifr/
http://www.decentria.com/ifr.html
http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA378.html
http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/phy99/phy99xx7.htm
http://www.anlw.anl.gov/anlw_history/reactors/ifr.html

In any case, unless we start a Bronx Project for alternative energy sources,
a new military draft will start in a couple of years, and our soldiers
will die, possibly in a "Death March" in the deserts of Arabia.

Randall Parker said at October 11, 2004 11:04 AM:

Peter,

One problem the nuclear power industry faces is that they exaggerated their risk of accidents in the past and managed their plants poorly. Now the technology has advanced and the risk has fallen by orders of magnitudes. At the same time, pebble bed would allow more orders of magnitude reduction in risks.

But nuclear power is going to grow in use because there isn't the opposition to it in China that there is in the US and Europe and China's demand for energy is growing even as the price of oil has risen.

Also, consider the bigger longer term picture: We are consuming oil faster than new reserves being found. Something is going to replace oil. Will it be natural gas clathrates? Some of the more recent reports suggest there isn't as much natural gas tied up in clathrates as previously thought. I do not see wind power costs as being able to fall as much as photovoltaics. I expect photovoltaics to eventually fall far enough to be competitive.

Nuclear also has cost and security problems. But the pebble bed approach might be able to solve the cost problem.

I see the big competitors in the future as nuclear, Earth-based solar, and maybe space solar. Eventually fusion or cold fusion might be possible.

As for Den Beste's analyses: We need better energy sources for national security, environmental, and economic reasons. Naysayers who argue we can't accelerate the development of new energy technologies or that particular technologies can't be made to work (e.g. the wrong argument that there is not enough surface area for photovoltaics) or that there is not a national security benefit from developing new energy technologies are, in my view, spewing what is obviously nonsense.

Read thru my Energy Tech archive for reasons why I think the naysayers are wrong. Read thru my Grand Strategy archive for why I think the world's dependence on oil is a national security problem for the United States.

Invisible Scientist said at October 11, 2004 1:32 PM:

Randall Parker:

As I have mentioned above, I am under the impression that although the Pebble Bed reactor is very
cheap to build and operate, and immune to accidents, it was initially designed and at a time when
uranium was much cheaper. The only way the Pebble Bed Reactor design can be adopted worldwide
for most of the energy needs, is to modify the Pebble Bed Reactor, so that it can use not only
uranium, but also the reprocessed plutonium and other long term nuclear waste. This means that
a certain number of government regulated reprocessing plants must be built to reprocess the
nuclear waste that will come from the Pebble Bed Reactor, instead of sending the waste
to the Yucca Mountain. Otherwise, the cost of using the Pebble Bed Reactor will be prohibitive due to
the uranium shortage. The fear of terrorists stealing the plutonium, made it illegal to build
reprocessing plants in the US, and this is why Yucca Mountain was chosen to bury the plutonium and
other long term nuclear waste together with the short term waste. I do not have the latest figures,
but the fuel value of the portion of the nuclear waste that can be re-used as fuel, must be hundreds
of billions of dollars right now, if it were legal to re-process the accumulating spent
uranium rods from the curent reactors that are operating right now. So I think that a dozen or less
government owned re-processing plants would make the Pebble Bed Reactor economically feasible, since
the cost of fuel would then remain affordable even if we have a thousand such new reactors. But note
that if this policy is adopted, then MOST of the graphite spheres of fuel, will contain plutonium
in addition to uranium, and then terrorists would be interested in stealing a small percentage of
these spheres by replacing these with black billiard balls which would look the same. Maybe the
government can find a fool-proof (or smart-terrorist-proof, since the future terrorists won't be fools)
way of keeping track of so much plutonium circulating around between
1000 Pebble Bed Reactors (hundreds of tons of plutonium, enough to make thousands of
nuclear bombs). One reason the Integral Fast Reactor is politically interesting is that it
basically never sends away any plutonium containing nuclear waste once it is fueled, since
it has its internal re-processing system.

back40 said at October 11, 2004 6:06 PM:

As with other minerals there seems to be some disagreement about how much U235 is available. Proven reserves and probable reserves are different things. The market for U235 has been in the tank for some time since the hopes of earlier years for growth were dashed.

The Federation of American Scientists, formerly the Federation of Atomic Scientists, thinks there are a lot of probable reserves of U235, 100 times as much as proven reserves, but the cost of production will be much higher. They also think that recovery of the billions of tons of U235 in sea water is both possible and affordable even compared with reprocessing spent fuel.

Who's right? It seems that the truth about such things changes depending on the price. U235 is cheap now compared to the cost of production since there is a glut of inventory built up in anticipation of growth that never came. If demand and so prices rose I suspect that both proven and probable reserves would as well. There has to be a limit to this process but we haven't even begun yet.

It is an issue, a concern, but I see no clear answers yet and based on experience with other minerals it seems reasonable to expect that the answers will be fluid for some time to come.

If there is an end to U235 then breeders and Pu can fill the gap. Proliferation is perhaps less a problem than it seems since most of the energy users are already armed. India, China, Europe and the Americas account for a lot of present and future energy use, a lot of world population, and they all have weapons now.

In addition to concerns for reserves and proliferation there are concerns about wastes. The argument that seems most sensible to me so far is that we must contrast these concerns with the alternatives, and if we consider CO2 a pollutant that's a waste product that is produced in abundance. Energy generation with hydrogen byproducts that can be used for mobile energy rather than CO2 byproducts seems pretty compelling but as the E-P points out it is more efficient to use electric.

Garson Poole said at October 12, 2004 1:11 AM:

I support mandates that require a fraction of utility power be derived from sources such as wind, solar, hydro, tidal, and/or geothemal. Randall Parker criticizes mandates yet again, but I do not have time to write a cohesive counter argument right now. Below is an interesting quote from a recent article in “Fortune” magazine that discusses mandates.

“How to kick the oil habit” by Nicholas Varchaver
Aug. 23, 2004 issue Fortune magazine

Thirteen states, in fact, have already seized the initiative, requiring that utilities obtain a specified portion of their electricity -- typically 2 percent to 10 percent -- from sources such as wind and solar. The programs, which phase in over years, have been successful even in the unlikeliest locales -- such as the oil-soaked heart of the Lone Star State. And there's a bigger surprise: "Wind generation is slightly cheaper" in Texas than getting electricity from natural gas, says Henry Durrwachter, who oversees wind projects for the Texas utility TXU. Texas is unusual: Its strong winds and heavy reliance on natural gas for electricity tilt the price equation in wind's favor. Still, it rebuts the assumption that renewable energy is always exorbitant.

The article is blocked at the Fortune website but it is available here:
http://www.pbs.org/wsw/news/fortunearticle_20040823_01.html

Markus Fix said at October 12, 2004 9:01 AM:

It's been a while since I read "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist" regularly.
Back then Carlo Rubbia's "Energy Amplifier" was my favourite energy solution.
It uses Thorium as fuel and a particle accelerator to create neutrons by
spallation to support the chain reaction.
See the rest of my article here: http://lispmeister.com/blog/futurology/peak-oil.html

Kurt said at October 12, 2004 9:31 AM:

Invisible Scientist:

Thanks for the run down on pebble-bed vs. integral fast reactors. It sounds like the ifr is a better concept in the long run, although there is more engineering involved.

I had a fasinating email conversation with some people several years back who were trying to develope the IEC into a fusion device. They were not certain that it would work. However, they were very certain that the IEC could be used as a neutron generator to fission U238. As you may know, U238 is very abundant. Its the U235 thats rare and that must be processed from natural uranium using isotopic enrichment. An IEC driven U238 powerplant would have several notable benefits. One, no enrichment is necessary, thus eliminating the need for a critical technology to make bombs. Two, such a power plant would be incapable of suffering a "criticality" accident because the reaction is not a self-sustaining chain reaction. Also, they said cooling could be done by helium gas, just like the pebble-bed reactor.

I lost contact with these people, so I do not know what the status is of their work. However, everything they told me seemed to make sense and they did not seem to be "pie in the sky" types (they admitted that their fusion concept may not work).

In any case, the pebble-bed and IFR are two examples of paths that nuclear fission technology can take. I suspect there are others. There may even be designs that are even better than those two. In any case, I think nuclear technology (either fission or fusion) is a technology that is vastly under-utilized. I also believe that utilization of nuclear processes will lead to technology breakthroughs comparable in economic effect to that of biology and semiconductors (i.e. low-cost transmutation of the elements).

Bee Man said at February 7, 2005 7:00 PM:

Are there readers interested in supporting a photovoltaic efficiency improvement and cost reduction prize?

I'd like to begin a serious dialog with anyone who is willing to work towards a prize for improvements in photovoltaics.

These improvements can come in a variety of ways. For example here are two that come to mind: 1. Efficiency improvements, with a judging/ award scheme similar to the post by Randall Parker & 2. Cost reduction (i.e. cost reduction with or without efficiency improvements). For example, if I could by a roll of visqueen, mylar or other plastic ( sheet of clear or black plastic) and it costs less than $15 for 20' x 100' folded roll, from my local Home Depot, but it also had the added advantage of being able to produce DC at say 5% to 10% efficiency, then who cares about the cost? What we need is a prize for Polymer or Paint chemists who can bring the cost to the same level as the cheap plastic film we were encouraged to purchase by Mr. Ridge. Furthermore it has great export potential. The citizen's and consumers of emerging markets, China, India, South East Asia, and even old command an control economies of the post soviet union are all in desperate need of something as simple as lights at night in the winter time to keep thier spirits up.

A significant portion of the people in the world do not have electric light, particularly in the winter when it's so helpful from a psychological point of view. Democratization of inexpensive power supply has never happened in a wide scale form. Will it ever happen?
Clearly we have some folks like http://homepower.com based in the US who advocate and help to educate how to accomplish getting off the grid, and even helping to supply the grid, but they are the exception not the norm.

Wouldn't be fascinating to sell a very low cost, (even low efficiency) sheet of plastic that has photovoltaic capability, and have high efficiency batteries and lights in places like Georgian republic, where AES took a beating and where the cronies from our old Nemesis the Soviet Union has had a bit of a success in having the power distribution and production slip back into "State" controlled hands. (See the recent PBS special on AES in Georgian Republic.)

Christopher Fritz said at January 15, 2008 8:26 AM:

I'm curious to see what technologies would be advanced and which would be yesterdays news if tomorrow oil the world over were to be depleated and any oil or gas still remaining in our reserves, cars, homes, stations etc were to just vanish. Think of the panic and chaos that would unfold if every drop of combustable fuel somehow seemed as though it were never there. Detroit would shit their horsepowered pants.

Would make a good book... anyone want to co-write it with me?

Justin said at August 20, 2008 8:41 AM:

Hello all. I am a studient at a highschool and im am in debate class. This years topic is "The united states federal government should substaintally increase alternate energy incentives in the United States". I have no idea what kind of plan to run. Could any of you give me an idea of what i could focus on that is cost effective for energy produced, require almost no new technology, and can be done within 10-20 years.
Thanks for your help
please e-mail me at admiraljf@yahoo.com

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