March 14, 2006
New Process Cleans Coal With Hydrofluoric Acid

Will coal ever become a clean source of energy?

A new chemical process for removing unwanted minerals from coal could lead to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations.

There is already a way of burning coal in a cleaner, more efficient fashion that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions: this is where the coal is turned into a gas and used to drive a turbine. However, problems with cleaning the coal before it is burnt have made generating electricity in this way very expensive. This new chemical process could make it more commercially viable.

Under development by a University of Nottingham team with EPSRC funding, the new approach involves using chemicals to dissolve unwanted minerals in the coal and then regenerating the chemicals again for re-use. This avoids the expense of using fresh chemicals each time, as well as the need to dispose of them, which can have an environmental impact. By removing unwanted minerals before the coal enters the power plant the new process helps protect the turbines from corrosive particles.

The aim is to cut unwanted minerals in coal from around 10% to below 0.05%, making the coal 'ultra clean'. Removing these minerals before using the coal to generate power prevents the formation of harmful particles during electricity production. To do this, the team is using specific chemicals to react with the minerals to form soluble products which can be separated from the coal by filtration. This process is known as 'leaching'. Hydrofluoric acid is the main chemical being tested. The chemicals not only dissolve the minerals but are also easy to regenerate from the reaction products, so they are constantly recycled. It is this aspect that has largely been overlooked in past research, but is virtually essential if chemical coal-cleaning is to be environmentally and commercially viable.

With half of US electricity (and probably most mercury emissions) coming from coal and a strong possibility that percentage will even increase I'm for anything that'll make coal cleaner. But in my view for decades the regulatory pressure on the coal burners hasn't been tough enough.

One of the reasons I favor nuclear power is precisely because coal plants pollute so much.

As for the argument that terrorists will some day explode a nuclear bomb next to a nuclear plant: First off, I think Islamic terrorists really won't be able to resist the temptation to nuke New York City and DC first. Second, the terrorists already have nuclear power plants to nuke. Third, imagine (and this isn't going to happen until after nukes have gone off) all the existing nuclear power plants were dismantled precisely to deny the terrorists nukes as targets. Well, there goes NYC or DC then.

One solution to the nuke plant as terrorist nuke bomb target would be to build nuclear power plants underground. But, again, we'll still lose millions of people if terrorists can get nukes to a Western country.

My guess is if terrorists ever set off a nuke the Western response will be so severe and far reaching that this will happen only once. I'm far more afraid of terrorists releasing genetically engineered pathogens than I am of terrorist nukes.

If you place a high probability on huge costs from global warming then go back and read my post "Planned Coal Plants Reverse 5 Times CO2 Impact Of Kyoto Protocol". So even if burning cleaned up coal reduces CO2 by as much as 20% for a given amount of generated electricity the growth in total coal demand is going to be so great that CO2 emissons from coal will still rise. The only way to stop the CO2 emissions would involve expensive CO2 sequestering technology. Anyone for 2 or more cents per kwh of electricity just for CO2 emissions elimination? I'm not expecting that to happen in the US or China for the next 10 years. Beyond that point I'm still not expecting it in China. Ditto India.

You have three current choices for satisfying most future demand growth in electric energy: Nuclear, coal, or higher prices. Accelerated energy research across a broad array of technologies could produce more choices in the future.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 March 14 09:36 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels


Comments
Wolf-Dog (formerly the Invisible) said at March 14, 2006 10:51 PM:

The issue with nuclear energy as a worldwide panacea for energy, is that this would mean building not hundreds but thousands of reactors in the world.

1)This means that UNLESS we find a new kind of reactor that is guaranteed to burn all the long term nuclear waste, there will be so much unwanted long term elements accumulating in the world that this will be a disaster, making nukes insufficient to solve the long term energy problem.

2)Additionally, going fully nuclear all over the world means that hundreds of times more uranium will be needed than today's yearly consumption, and this will be year after year, causing a uranium shortage in the world. This means that the newer generation reactors that burn the long term waste must be built so that the result becomes 100 times more fuel efficient than the current generation reactors that only burn 1 % of the uranium (the fissile U235).

(Note that 2) means that there will be a fight for uranium similar to the oil wars, unless we really finish the designs for the new generation reactors that are 100 times more fuel efficient, also capable of using thorium.)

Otherwise, we are better off with coal.

Paul Dietz said at March 15, 2006 1:30 PM:

Clean coal of this kind is most useful in direct carbon fuel cells (DCFCs), which can have a practical efficiency (chemical energy to electrical energy) of 80%. Cleaning the ash and sulfur increases the lifetime of the electrolyte and reduces corrosion.

Dezakin said at March 15, 2006 2:22 PM:

"This means that UNLESS we find a new kind of reactor that is guaranteed to burn all the long term nuclear waste, there will be so much unwanted long term elements accumulating in the world that this will be a disaster, making nukes insufficient to solve the long term energy problem."

First, we allready have such a reactor, the molten salt breeder reactor.

Second I feel the waste problem has been vastly overstated by both those in the anti-nuke camp and the pro breeder camp. Theres simply vast amounts of empty land that no one would ever want to live in where you could store concrete casks; If not until the end of time then at least for a couple of centuries and that damned well ought to be enough. One might assume we'll find a use for spent nuclear fuel by then.

"Additionally, going fully nuclear all over the world means that hundreds of times more uranium will be needed than today's yearly consumption, and this will be year after year, causing a uranium shortage in the world. This means that the newer generation reactors that burn the long term waste must be built so that the result becomes 100 times more fuel efficient than the current generation reactors that only burn 1 % of the uranium (the fissile U235)."

This is an oft perpetuated myth by both the anti-nukes and pro-breeders also. There's enough U235 ores above 50ppm (where the energy payback on uranium extraction has been calculated at 20ppm for the once through cycle (Chapman)) to last once through light water reactors with 20000 reactors about 25000 years. But its often framed as uranium left that is recoverable at todays (absurdly low) market price in currently exploited deposits.

I think I've had to write this at least 25 times, but the myth is deep rooted and widespread.

http://www.americanenergyindependence.com/uranium.html

Dezakin said at March 15, 2006 2:23 PM:

Oh, my opinion of clean coal is its a waste. All this should be used for synthetic fuels rather than some stupid baseload electricity when nukes do it at the same cost.

wcw said at March 15, 2006 3:58 PM:

If 2 cents per kwh is all sequestration cost, I could get California ratepayers to do it today. Where'd you get that cost estimate?

Randall Parker said at March 15, 2006 5:42 PM:

wcw,

I got the 2 cents per kwh from a Department of Energy web page and have previously published it on an old post a year or two ago. Sorry, I'm busy at the moment and can't go looking for it. But it came up in a debate here. I made the point then that the 2 cents per kwh makes coal clearly more expensive than nukes and that cost still doesn't include the cost of removing all the other coal pollutants.

But California isn't most of the US, let alone China, India, etc. People resist paying more.

Paul Dietz said at March 15, 2006 6:59 PM:

The cost of sequestering CO2 will depend on the technology. Extracting CO2 from the flue gas of conventional powdered coal-fueled boilers will be more expensive than handling the CO2 from IGCC, IGCC with air separation and CO2 recyle, or from direct carbon fuel cells (which produce only about half as much as ordinary steam plants of the same electrical capacity, and produce it in nearly pure form, not mixed with nutrogen or unconsumed oxygen.)

peter said at March 15, 2006 10:00 PM:

How does coal gassification reduce CO2? Some portion of the carbon has to not end up in the atmosphere for it to reduce CO2 over the amount it would be with a straight burn of the coal in a furnace. Is there a carbon containing residue from the gassification process that is buried?

Wolf-Dog said at March 15, 2006 11:46 PM:

Dezakin,

I am 100 % in favor of the Molten Salt Reactors since these can be configured to reprocess all the long term waste as fuel, but the problem is that so far no commercial prototype was ever designed or constructed... And in this current situation, unless the government helps and invests many billions comparable to the scale of the Manhattan Project, the Molten Salt reactors will fall way behind schedule. This is what I meant by "finding" a new kind of reactor. The devil is in the details, and so far this project has not been developed.

Robert Schwartz said at March 16, 2006 8:18 AM:

anti-nuke: You can't build more reactors until you solve the waste problem.

pro-nuke: We can solve the waste problem with new reactor type X.

anti-nuke: you haven't built type X and proven that it will solve the waste problem.

pro-nuke: OK, let's build type X.

anti-nuke: You can't build more reactors until you solve the waste problem.

me: sits in corner, groans, rocks, and pulls hair out.

Dezakin said at March 16, 2006 2:28 PM:

Not to mention that a prototype did run for years at Oak Ridge, with only one unexpected phenomena regarding tellurium corrosion of the hastelloy that was easily mitigated by modifying the hastelloy with titanium.

But I guess we can just build Rod Adams pebble beds since theres no shortage of uranium and no shortage of storage space for spent pebbles. Not as aestheticly pleasing to me, but hey its better than coal.

Wolf-Dog (formerly the Invisible Scientist) said at March 16, 2006 6:12 PM:

The Oak Ridge prototype was a heroic effort, but it was only a preliminary project, which was cruelly terminated by the government, just like the Integral Fast Reactor was terminated: after there were signs that these things were likely to work. Unless there is a new Bronx Project to start an intense effort, it will take decades to commercialize these new designs. I was the one screaming in favor of the new reactors several years ago, but the truth is that without throwing $100 billion government help into this project, it will be too little too late.

tdean said at March 16, 2006 6:14 PM:

Parker: “As for the argument that terrorists will some day explode a nuclear bomb next to a nuclear plant: First off, I think Islamic terrorists really won't ne able to resist the temptation to nuke New York City and DC first. Second, the terrorists already have nuclear power plants to nuke. Third, imagine (and this isn't going to happen until after nukes have gone off) all the existing nuclear power plants were dismantled precisely to deny the terrorists nukes as targets. Well, there goes NYC or DC then.”
Jeez. It is pretty hard to imagine a more specious set of arguments. If Parker were a terrorist with a 50 Kt. Warhead, would he choose to take out a one mile wide chunk of Manhatten, with a fallout footprint that will last a few months, or would he choose to take out the entirety of NYC by vaporizing a nuclear core and spreading thousands of times more long-lived isotopes over thousands of square miles? I think even Parker can figure that one out. We know they have or have it as the number one priority to obtain a nuclear warhead and we know that they have studied nuclear plants as targets in detail. Guess what? 2 + 2 = 4. Connect the dots people. Even terrorists can read Scientific American or http://www.mapw.org.au/mapw-commentary/submissions/05-05MAPWsubmissionVic-Uraniuminquiry.doc
And “…the terrorists already have nuclear power plants to nuke.” Come again? I think they would prefer to nuke the nuke plants in the land of the Great Satan. What the hell is Parker trying to say here? Anybody? They are going to nuke their own nuke plants? Huh? If you don’t have a valid argument, just try to confuse people. It’s a strategy.

And his third point actually is valid, but it is not an argument to go whole hog into replacing our electric power infrastructure with nuke plants. Quite the opposite. When it does finally happen (and I think it is a matter of time) we will see the politicians responsible wringing their hands saying “Nobody could have imagined that terrorists could nuke a nukular power plant.” Then they will proceed to turn off our lights as they do a crash program of nuclear shutdown. Not a great plan. And it goes without saying that a nuke on a nuke power plant is more likely to take out NYC or DC than the warhead by itself.

We, the taxpaying public can go on pretending these critical and killing risk factors of nuclear power don’t exist. But the Big Business investors in nuclear power aren’t dumb. They have gotten us to cover their liability in a nuclear disaster with the Price – Anderson Act. That is the ultimate proof that the danger is real. The insurance business also knows it and wouldn’t touch nuclear power with a ten foot pole (as if they could cover a trillion dollars of losses per incident). We have to realize that risk is a real cost of technology, and even at a low probability, terrorist attacks on nuclear plants will be so costly that nuclear power, whether molten salt, pebble bed or Gen 8 is not in the running for cost effectiveness when compared to renewables, enhanced efficiency and sequestered fossil fuel plants. It is not just about the cents per KW-hr as Parker would have us think.

Wolf-Dog said at March 16, 2006 10:09 PM:

tdean wrote:
"and even at a low probability, terrorist attacks on nuclear plants will be so costly that nuclear power, whether molten salt, pebble bed or Gen 8 is not in the running for cost effectiveness when compared to renewables, enhanced efficiency and sequestered fossil fuel plants."
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The danger that a terrorist nuclear bomb can be used to evaporate an American nuclear reactor, is certainly serious, but in this case, we have to be quantitative in our analysis: During the Cold War I against the Soviet Union, both sides knew that using intercontinental ballistic missiles to attack each other's nuclear reactors, would multiply the radiation poisoning hundreds of times. But the reason this was taken seriously is due to the fact that the ballistic missiles of superpowers carry very powerful warheads measured in megatons.

If the future nuclear reactors are built underground, at least 500 feet below ground level (which would not be too expensive since the reactor building itself is not very large), then I believe that it would be almost impossible for a terrorist nuclear bomb to evaporate the core of a reactor.

I have made the above claim based on two assumtions:
1) The future nuclear reactors will be meltdown proof cores by design, such as either the Pebble Bed reactor, or like the Molten Salt reactors which have sparse fuel.
2) The terrorists will have only traditional hydrogen bombs not exceeding 10 megatons. (The 1954 test in Bikini Atoll was approximately 13.6 megaton, and although the crater was 6,000 feet wide, the depth of the crater was only 250 feet,
despite the fact that this was a low altitude detonation. As long as we prevent the terrorists from bringing their bomb underground, as long as the reactor is 500 feet below the surface, it will be impossible to evaporate the reactor core. However, note that if the terrorists are able to build a hydrogen bomb that is as powerful as 10 megatons, they can also coat these bombs with gold, cobalt, and other elements that amplify the radiation poisoning to levels comparable with the evaporation of a nuclear reactor core by means of a nuclear attack...

For this reason, the biggest reason not to decide to build nuclear reactors for electricity and hydrogen production, is not the danger of terrorism, but economic reasons like the terrible sin of angering the oil companies.

tdean said at March 16, 2006 10:57 PM:

Wolf-dog,

I'll give you that burying a nuclear reactor under 500 feet of earth and rock would probably protect it from being vaporized by a nuclear bomb. But it would certainly be destroyed. Nevertheless it would make the plant an unattractive target. I doubt that the engineering involved in doing so would not increase the cost of nuclear power over that of the competition. Note that no underground nuke power plant are being proposed. In fact a recent DOE study makes it clear that even a totally conventional plant design, sitting pretty on the surface will require considerable government welfare (http://www.ne.doe.gov/nerac/bergOct02NERAC.pdf) Note that the most important barrier that needed to be addressed on behalf of their big energy clients was re-authorization of Price - Anderson. Of course the greasy palmed Republican Congress got that little problem taken care of (and there are more gifts and trips for congressmen where that came from). And the greatest risk mentioned in the report is "terrorist attack". Surprise, surprise. The author diplomatically states that "Attack simulation exercises on nuclear plants during the last several years—much of it before the attack of September 11—have shown mixed results in success by nuclear operators." That's a nice way of saying that the security forces of nuclear plants fail in fake attacks on the reactors about 50% of the time, and that is when they know when their coming and they aren't really going to get killed. Nuclear plant security against even marginally competent terrorists is a joke.

Paul Dietz said at March 17, 2006 3:23 AM:

How does coal gassification reduce CO2?

By being more efficient. There's less CO2 produced per kWh.

If gasificiation is done with oxygen and steam, and CO2 is recycled so the combustion turbine is fueled with oxygen rather than air without exceeding temperature limits, then the gas coming out of the turbine is mostly CO2 and water. Condense the water and the CO2 is ready for compression and sequestration.

Engineer-Poet said at March 17, 2006 7:52 AM:
Note that no underground nuke power plant are being proposed. In fact a recent DOE study makes it clear that even a totally conventional plant design, sitting pretty on the surface will require considerable government welfare...
Perhaps that's because the public has been propagandized so effectively by the anti-nukes that they aren't asking for plants to be sited under cities where the spent steam would give them winter heat and summer absorption A/C without having to buy another nickle's worth of natural gas.
tdean said at March 17, 2006 5:45 PM:

E-P: "Perhaps that's because the public has been propagandized so effectively by the anti-nukes that they aren't asking for plants to be sited under cities where the spent steam would give them winter heat and summer absorption A/C without having to buy another nickle's worth of natural gas."

That plants aren't being built isn't because of propaganda. It's about investors understanding that nuclear power plants are very risky investments, and unless the corrupt congress effectively guarantees their investments with our tax dollars, they won't be built. Read about it in http://www.ne.doe.gov/nerac/bergOct02NERAC.pdf, a report by the DOE about their plans to make nuclear viable by pumping taxpayer dollars into the nuke industry. Since we can trust congress to serve the will of the deepest pockets, it is likely that the nuke industry will be awarded billions in corporate welfare. Who knows, soon all of the city dwellers will have nuke plants humming under their homes, with free hot water! Well, free until you consider how many billions of our tax dollars went into helping the nuke industry with all their problems. But then we can just put it on the collective tab known as the national debt and let our kids pay for it.

Dezakin said at March 18, 2006 3:40 AM:

Would almost be believable if it were true.

But nukes are allready taxed for a repository that wont ever be built and they still have to pay to do their own waste storage and disposal.

I dont agree with any corporate welfare; On the whole nukes receive far less than coal, oil, or gas.

Paul Dietz said at March 18, 2006 6:06 AM:

It's about investors understanding that nuclear power plants are very risky investments,

You mean, like those gas turbines that got built by independent producers and then were defaulted on when natural gas prices spiked?

unless the corrupt congress effectively guarantees their investments with our tax dollars, they won't be built

Yes, wind turbines advocates would never stoop so low.

tdean said at March 18, 2006 7:41 AM:

Dezakin: "I dont agree with any corporate welfare; On the whole nukes receive far less than coal, oil, or gas."

This guy can't get nuthin right. In the 2005 energy bill, estimates are that oil and gas gets $6 billion and nuclear gets 12 billion. http://www.citizen.org/cmep/energy_enviro_nuclear/electricity/energybill/2005/articles.cfm?ID=13980 I think most people would call that far more than coal, oil or gas. How did they get those billions handed to them? Simple:

"Since 2001, energy corporations have showered federal politicians with $115 million in campaign contributions—with three-quarters of that amount going to Republicans. This cash helped secure energy companies and their lobbyists exclusive, private access to lawmakers, starting with Vice-President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force, whose report provided the foundation of the energy bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush on August 8."

What a great investment money spent on lobbying is. Especially when the Republicans are in charge of Congress.

Dezakin, check your facts before putting your foot in your mouth.

Paul D

I would say that a good reason to subsidize a particular technology is because that technology has a net benefit to society. That doesn't really apply to nuclear. "A September 2004 study by Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, using the NRC’s own analysis method, found that a worst-case accident or attack at the Indian Point nuclear plant 35 miles north of New York City could cause up to 43,700 immediate fatalities and up to 518,000 long-term cancer deaths. Such a release could cost up to $2.1 trillion, and would force the permanent relocation of 11.1 million people." And that is just a conventional attack. A nuclear attack would spread short-lived and long-lived isotopes all over New York, killing even more people. The damage would far exceed the value generated by the nuclear industry in it's history. That would be a net cost to society. But the subsidies are to protect the investments of Republican billionaires, not to benefit society.

And don't bother talking about me making this a political issue. It is a political issue and when Big Energy gives more than three fourths of their money to Republicans, it is partisan issue.

Engineer-Poet said at March 18, 2006 10:58 AM:

If someone can make a bomb that will crack a nuke plant 500 or more feet underground, there's no point in aiming for the plant; they're going to use it on a city instead.

tdeanous writes:

Well, free until you consider how many billions of our tax dollars went into helping the nuke industry with all their problems.

What's that in the context of production?  Nukes crank out roughly 90 GW continuous.  Over the 788.6 billion kWh they cranked out in 2004, a $12 billion subsidy would come out to

(wait for it)

a whole 1.5¢/kWh for one whole year!  Spread that over 10 years, it's 0.15¢, about 1/10 of the wind production tax credit.

I'm all in favor of wind (we can expand it a lot faster than any other non-fossil energy source), but I try to keep a sense of proportion.

tdean said at March 18, 2006 4:20 PM:

E-P “If someone can make a bomb that will crack a nuke plant 500 or more feet underground, there's no point in aiming for the plant; they're going to use it on a city instead.”

I already conceded that a nuke plant 500 feet underground would be an unattractive terrorist target. The problem is THERE ARE NO NUCLEAR PLANTS 500’ UNDERGROUND. And none are planned.

I am much more against the six billion dollar giveaway to oil and gas than to the 12 billion to nuclear because in the current environment of huge profits the petroleum sure doesn’t need tax breaks and subsidies. Nevertheless, if the free market recognizes the problems with nuclear maybe the problems are real. But the free market is not perfect. Indirect costs and risks of the various energy technologies should be reasonably incorporated into cost structures in subsidies for pollution free, safe power and taxes on highly polluting sources. Giving massive subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear is 180 degrees from that principle.

Dezakin said at March 19, 2006 3:36 AM:

"Dezakin, check your facts before putting your foot in your mouth."

You don't have to be such an uncivil jerk all the time, do you?

Half of the 'subsidies' are in for nuclear are in tax credits which amount to supposed lost revenue (Which I'm also opposed to for their obfuscation of funds) over 20 years and the other half is in loan guarantees that assume an 50% default rate years down the road. Theres another billion of 'fusion energy research' which is absolute nonsense obfuscation as its certainly not nuclear energy. The biggest outright subsidy is the overt billion earmark for Idaho.

Compare that with the 5 billion outright earmark for coal plants immediately. Theres a game of funny numbers here, which is fine if you're saying subsidies are bad, but if you're comparing which subsidies are more costly this isn't a very complete picture. Even assuming if it was a clear entitlement, its less clear which costs more, 6 billion upfront or 15 billion over 20 years.

Now I'm not defending such convoluted twists in the law, merely suggesting that many of the figures defined as nuclear subsidies are either exagerated subsidizing something besides nuclear energy. I'd gladly be done with them all. That applies to renewables as well of course, since most of the renewable energy funds are just givaways to the farm lobby for bio-fuels anyways.

"by Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists"

Well we know what that means. UCS consistantly distorts figures for alarmist estimates; They are an explicitly anti-nuclear agency.

I looked at the report and its absolute garbage. Chernobyl was as bad as you could get and there simply wasn't anything like Lymans fantasy world. He doesnt even reference chernobyl except in regard to how the high radiation plume may have dispersed more of the radiation than an Indian point accident would and so its less dangerous, and mentions it no further, for good reason: Reality doesnt fit his case study.

Look, rail against politics, big oil, corporations, ideologies and whatnot. Find real dragons to slay; Hell be a pompous jerk and go on on why nuclear power actually receives more subsidies than coal and oil and argue accounting. But stick to reality, and its not this nuke plant blown up by terrorist and then causes tens of thousands of people to die overnight and millions over the next few years.

tdean said at March 19, 2006 8:35 AM:

Dezakin: "Chernobyl was as bad as you could get and there simply wasn't anything like Lymans fantasy world. "

Chernobyl was far from as bad as a nuclear accident can get. It was pretty bad though. Still only about 2% of the core was ejected from the immediate premises of the plant. Therefore, a nuclear attack on a nuclear plant would be fifty times worse that Chernobyl, plus the effect of the device itself. You say "stick to reality" but so long as we are talking about a hypothetical event, it isn't real and can only be a projection. UCS's projection is likely to be different than that of a nuclear supporter, but if you want to be critical, you have to do better than calling it garbage. I think the UCS analysis is comprehensive and supports a position against nuclear power. It is your burden to explain why that is not the case.

You say: "Compare that with the 5 billion outright earmark for coal plants immediately." The coal giveaways aren't immediate any more than nuclear's are. The appropriations for coal are over four to ten years, in general. The exact year by year appropriations aren't specified precisely in any case. Still, the energy bill is a litany of pork projects and corporate welfare that taxpayers should be aware of and the efforts of Public Citizen should be commended in that regard. This disgusting product of the lobbyist's art can be found at: http://www.citizen.org/documents/energyconferencebill0705.pdf

Engineer-Poet said at March 19, 2006 2:17 PM:

A nuclear attack on a nuclear plant with a fission bomb would involve the violent crushing of the containment building, not the vaporization of the reactor core.  Chernobyl had an explosion IN the core followed by a fire; it's likely worse.

Dezakin said at March 19, 2006 2:25 PM:

"I think the UCS analysis is comprehensive and supports a position against nuclear power. It is your burden to explain why that is not the case."

Because the UCS analysis is directly analagous to the Chernobyl event, a meltdown, rather than some incinerate the whole core with a nuclear bomb story. That they insist on ridiculously high casualty estimates when nothing like that in the town of the reactor occurred, (with enormous mismanagement and iodine deficiencies) is an obvious blow to credibility.

You've obviously convinced yourself that you can't possibly be wrong in this, but its not about clashing of ego's no matter how much you want to make it so.

tdean said at March 19, 2006 10:30 PM:

Dezakin: "You've obviously convinced yourself that you can't possibly be wrong in this, but its not about clashing of ego's no matter how much you want to make it so."

I have no problem admitting I am wrong when someone can convince me with actual evidence. You have not convinced me of much of anything other than you penchant for ad hominem attack.

The UCS study is a worst case scenario and Chernobyl was not a worst case event by any means. In spite of the extremely poor design of the Chernobyl reactor in terms of stability and containment, the graphite moderators encasing the fuel are very refractory and the fuel bundle is more distributed which protected it from melting through the floor of the reactor building. US reactors are much more stable, but if the pressure vessel is compromised and all cooling systems fail, the fuel is very compact and can melt en masse relatively quickly into a blob of white hot corium that could melt through the base of the reactor building and into the ground water where steam explosions continuing for years would fragment the the fuel and emit plumes of highly radioactive steam for many years. That is a worst case scenario and that did not happen at Chernobyl. Only 2-4% of the refactory core material, which includes long half-life uranium and plutonium as well as very short half-life and very highly radioactive neptunium 239, was ejected from the reactor site, and far less went farther than a kilometer. In a nuclear attack or a worst case meltdown the core would be vaporized and/or pulverized and the high activity neptunium would be distributed as a ceramic dust that kills very quickly when inhaled. This is totally different than what happened at Chernobyl. So your statement that Chernobyl is in any way similar to a worst case meltdown of a PW reactor is flat out wrong. So that must make me right. And I am pretty convinced that you are not capable of convincing me otherwise. But feel free to try or to just whine about what a jerk I am.

Engineer-Poet said at March 20, 2006 8:45 AM:

Oh, get real.  Chernobyl's core melted, merged with the sand packed around the reactor, and flowed down into the building (look up "Chernobylite").  The graphite of the core proper burned like a giant radioactive hibachi.  Compare to TMI:  partial core melt, didn't even get through the bottom of the reactor vessel.

tdean said at March 21, 2006 3:43 PM:

Parker: “As for the argument that terrorists will some day explode a nuclear bomb next to a nuclear plant: First off, I think Islamic terrorists really won't ne able to resist the temptation to nuke New York City and DC first. Second, the terrorists already have nuclear power plants to nuke. Third, imagine (and this isn't going to happen until after nukes have gone off) all the existing nuclear power plants were dismantled precisely to deny the terrorists nukes as targets. Well, there goes NYC or DC then.”
Jeez. It is pretty hard to imagine a more specious set of arguments. If Parker were a terrorist with a 50 Kt. Warhead, would he choose to take out a one mile wide chunk of Manhatten, with a fallout footprint that will last a few months, or would he choose to take out the entirety of NYC by vaporizing a nuclear core and spreading thousands of times more long-lived isotopes over thousands of square miles? I think even Parker can figure that one out. We know they have or have it as the number one priority to obtain a nuclear warhead and we know that they have studied nuclear plants as targets in detail. Guess what? 2 + 2 = 4. Connect the dots people. Even terrorists can read Scientific American or http://www.mapw.org.au/mapw-commentary/submissions/05-05MAPWsubmissionVic-Uraniuminquiry.doc
And “…the terrorists already have nuclear power plants to nuke.” Come again? I think they would prefer to nuke the nuke plants in the land of the Great Satan. What the hell is Parker trying to say here? Anybody? They are going to nuke their own nuke plants? Huh? If you don’t have a valid argument, just try to confuse people. It’s a strategy.

And his third point actually is valid, but it is not an argument to go whole hog into replacing our electric power infrastructure with nuke plants. Quite the opposite. When it does finally happen (and I think it is a matter of time) we will see the politicians responsible wringing their hands saying “Nobody could have imagined that terrorists could nuke a nukular power plant.” Then they will proceed to turn off our lights as they do a crash program of nuclear shutdown. Not a great plan. And it goes without saying that a nuke on a nuke power plant is more likely to take out NYC or DC than the warhead by itself.

We, the taxpaying public can go on pretending these critical and killing risk factors of nuclear power don’t exist. But the Big Business investors in nuclear power aren’t dumb. They have gotten us to cover their liability in a nuclear disaster with the Price – Anderson Act. That is the ultimate proof that the danger is real. The insurance business also knows it and wouldn’t touch nuclear power with a ten foot pole (as if they could cover a trillion dollars of losses per incident). We have to realize that risk is a real cost of technology, and even at a low probability, terrorist attacks on nuclear plants will be so costly that nuclear power, whether molten salt, pebble bed or Gen 8 is not in the running for cost effectiveness when compared to renewables, enhanced efficiency and sequestered fossil fuel plants. It is not just about the cents per KW-hr as Parker would have us think.

tdean said at March 21, 2006 3:51 PM:

E-P,

Part of Chernobyl’s core melted and there was no containment of radioactivity. But less than two percent of the core material left the immediate vicinity of the reactor. Part of the graphite burned, but what didn’t burn, didn’t melt. The molten part of the core cooled spontaneously because the fuel was relatively dispersed. The fuel in a PW reactor like TMI is more concentrated, but the emergency cooling system of the reactor worked, so it didn’t melt down completely. That’s good. But that was an accident where everybody was trying real hard to make things work. That is a completely different situation than a terrorist attack where people are doing everything they can to break the reactor. Time and time again, the weasley simulated attacks on reactors produced simulated core damage. Why do you feel so confident? You should get real. An accident is a different situation than a terrorist attack. Neither Chernobyl nor TMI approached a worst case event.

Whether or not a nuclear power plant core is vaporized or merely smashed to bits by a nuclear warhead depends on how close it is to the core when it explodes. If it is inside the containment dome thousands of times more radioisotopes will be distributed by the fireball and mushroom cloud. than was released by the Hiroshima bomb. The resultant death and damage would far exceed the value of the nuclear industry. That is why Big Power needs the Price – Anderson Act to protect them from liability for this type of disaster. Nuclear power is the only source that can destroy far more value in a single incident than the industry is worth. It is that real potential for catastrophe that makes nuclear the least cost effective power option. And both the industry and the USDOE knows it. They just don’t have a problem gambling with taxpayer’s money and citizen’s lives.

tdean said at March 21, 2006 4:55 PM:

And speaking of government money and citizen’s lives, the Bush energy bill’s massive direct subsidies and tax giveaways to Big Energy tells us a lot about the nature of “compassionate conservatism”. A recent article in Science (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/311/5765/1246 AAAS members only) discusses what research is necessary to find a new anti-tuberculosis drug to cure a disease that is now killing two million people per year. The authors state:
“Our model further suggests that, in the absence of any compounds currently in phase II trials, the TB Alliance would need 30 compounds in phase I testing to be 95% confident of generating at least one successful drug. Clinical testing in this scenario could take 12 years and cost as much as $400 million.” But the international TB Alliance has only $36 million in funding, only a fraction from US agencies like USAID and the CDC. Even if the program were fully funded for the 12 years needed to discover a new drug, that amounts to only about $17 per dead person. That’s far more than the US government has actually authorized. Yet congress doesn’t even blink at lavishing billions on private corporations that are making record profits by gouging customers and polluting the environment. Two million people dying painful, lingering deaths don’t matter, but a handful of Big Energy lobbyists with millions of campaign dollars to hand out get to literally write their own tickets in the form of laws that gives their clients billions of taxpayer’s money. “Compassionate conservatism” makes me puke.

Wolf-Dog said at March 22, 2006 12:18 AM:

TDean:

I agree that the existing OLD reactors are sitting ducks for nuclear terrorism.

However, I was trying to explain in the comments above that if we build new generation reactors, and if we build these reactors 500 feet underground, then it would be impossible for the terrorists to bring a nuclear bomb near the core of the reactor. The new generation reactors can be mini-reactors with very little fuel, and they can be molten salt reactors without even a core.

tdean said at March 22, 2006 3:46 AM:

Wolf-Dog,

Well, I don't disagree in principle that it is possible to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks to acceptable levels, as I said twice before. But I am very much inclined to believe that the more cost effective path is to pursue carbon sequestration paid for by carbon taxes on electric power rather than corporate welfare. Without corporate welfare to the nuclear industry, I think it is clear, based on DOE's own reports, that nuclear isn't viable and the private funds will not be there to develope the newer reactors. Nuclear and renewables would gain an advantage with a carbon tax, but if the other hidden costs and risks of nuclear were properly factored in, I think nuclear wouldn't have a chance. What is the value gained by the Price - Anderson Act for the nuclear industry? It is hard to calculate since no insurance company could possibly cover the potential losses of a single nuclear catastrophe.

K said at March 22, 2006 12:48 PM:

I'm not an expert but the atomic bombs dropped on Japan did not varporize steel and concrete buildings. They would have if the explosion had been at ground level. I seem to recall the explosions were at 5000 feet, roughly a mile. So how close would they have to get to a nuclear power plant to vaporize the core with a crude bomb?

Terrorists will either have an effective bomb obtained from a military source or a quite heavy and probably weak device similar to the 1945 bombs. I would expect the latter to be used in a harbor due to logistics. But if they get a military weapon they probably can get more than one and then damage can only be stopped by stopping the terrorists.

Wolf-Dog said at March 22, 2006 8:50 PM:

K:

The fission bombs that were detonated on Hiroshima and Nagazaki were detonated intentionally at a high altitude in order to maximize the blast damage to people and buildings, because these nukes were small in yield, by modern standards.

But if a modern nuclear bomb (non necessarily a hydrogen bomb, but a decent one with a 100 Kiloton yield, would evaporate the relatively thin walls and the core of a reactor if the bomb is brought just near the walls of the building.

However, as soon as you build the reactor 500 feet underground (not terribly expensive if you make the reactor efficient), then it is impossible to evaporate any part of the reactor even if the terrorists use a very powerful nuke.

Here are some examples:

1)The first hydrogen bomb ("Mike")was tested in an island in the ocean, in 1952, and this 10 Megaton explosion was at ground level (the weight of the "bomb" was over 80 tons):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivy_Mike
Apparently, even though the diameter of the crater was 6,240 feet, its depth was only 164 feet. This is because of the way the blast gets deflected horizontally and upward.

2)Similarly the following Bikini Atoll test in 1954, was also at the ground level, was the strongest test conducted by the US: The yield of the hydrogen bomb was approximately 15 Megatons. Even in this case, even though the diameter of the crater was 6,500 feet, its depth was only 250 feet.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo

In the future, affter 20 years, the terrorists can certainly obtain or even build a light enough 5 megaton nuke, but if they obtain such a powerful device, they would NOT need to bring it near a reactor in order to maximize the radiation poisoning effect: All they would need is to coat their megaton range bomb with cobalt or gold, and the resulting radiation fallout would be equally bad.

In fact, even though a few dozens of medium size (I mean 1 Megaton range) nukes would only mildly damage the United States (I am serious about this), if these few dozens of medium size nukes are coated with cobalt, zinc or a few other elements, then most of the US might become severely poisoned and uninhabitable enough to make the American civilization come to an end. Note that the half-life of the radiocative Cobalt-60 is 5 years, and this would kill and genetically damage a high percentage of the population of the US if several dozen such devices are dispersed uniformly in the continent.

Same story for Europe. The Europeans who are so anti-American, recently joined the US in opposing the Iranian nuclear program. Why?

For conquest
For these reasons, the nuclear reactors are not the main thing to worry, the thing to worry, is the possibility of irrational powers obtaining nukes.

tdean said at March 23, 2006 10:10 AM:

Wolf-dog,

I think you make a reasonable argument. Certainly a nuclear bomb can be made more or less dirty depending on the interaction of the intense neutron flux with the bomb's casing material. But you would have to get tons of cobalt or gold to case the bomb, and I can't imagine that would be easy to do without attracting a lot of attention. On the other hand, a power reactor has tons of already radioactive material with a good range of half-lives already conveniently concentrated in a very poorly guarded container. And huge supplies of high level waste are often found on the same site, yielding a great bonus for the enemies of the Great Satan. We really shouldn't make it so easy for them. Burying the nuclear reactors and waste would go a long way to eliminate the risk, but no one besides you and me seem to be talking about it. I am afraid that it will take a multi-trillion dollar demonstration to develop interest. But then the the reaction will be to completely decommission all reactors. Then the era of fission nuclear power will be over for good.

Bob Badour said at March 23, 2006 11:57 AM:

I am shocked and awed! A civil post! And one that I mostly agree with.

Well done, tdean.

If gold makes lots of fallout, I predict the first rogue nuke in the US will go off next to the federal reserve in NYC.

We already know the financial district of NYC is a preferred target along with DC.

Wolf-Dog said at March 23, 2006 12:22 PM:

TDean: "I am afraid that it will take a multi-trillion dollar demonstration to develop interest. But then the the reaction will be to completely decommission all reactors. Then the era of fission nuclear power will be over for good."
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The last sentence you wrote makes me worry... Because this gives extra incentive to the OPEC countries and the oil companies to sponsor such a "demonstration" event to stop the building of reactors in the world... I have never thought about this... I am now thinking of moving from California to Alaska, where I might make a living as a sled dog like in Jack London's books...

But seriously, the leading company that sell uranium, the Canadian uranium company Cameco, said that about 500 reactors will be in operations in the world by 2015. This is simply too little too late, because by 2020 the oil reserves will start peaking, and this time, it will be a fight to the death: all the nations of the world will be at each other's throats in 2020. Once again my wolf genes give me an advantage, but I prefer working as a sled dog since I was raised as a house dog.

Paul Dietz said at March 23, 2006 2:08 PM:

If gold makes lots of fallout, I predict the first rogue nuke in the US will go off next to the federal reserve in NYC.

Gold makes a lot of fallout if that's what the tamper of a thermonuclear device is made of. The neutron flux there is extremely high (the density maximum of neutrons in the compressed fusion fuel can reach several grams per cc.) Gold located some distance from a bomb will not intercept very many of the neutrons that do escape.

My favorite imaginary terror scenario involves terrorists hijacking the SNO detector in Sudbury, Canada and using a large H bomb to ignite its 1000 tons of heavy water. Fully fused, that much heavy water yields a 20,000 megaton blast. Huge amounts of activation fallout cover the eastern US and Canada.

tdean said at March 23, 2006 2:46 PM:

Bob B.

Don't forget that Ian Fleming covered this a long time ago in Goldfinger. Set off a nuke at Fort Knox. It is true that one nuke will ruin your whole day, whether it's in the financial district, Fort Knox or Hoover Dam. I just think that doing a large power reactor gives the terrorists more bang for the buck (or megaton). But the key point made by Wolfie is that time is on the side of the terrorists. They have all the time in the world to buy HEU from corrupt military guys in Russia, Pakistan, N. Korea or Iran and we have to be able to find a tiny radioactive target the size of a bowling ball in billions of tons of stuff coming into the US. Isotopic separation using tuned lasers is also here and a lot simpler than centrifuges. It's a hard rain gonna fall.

tdean said at March 23, 2006 2:53 PM:

Paul D.

I hope that's imaginary. That big of an explosion would take us from global warming to nuclear winter pretty damned fast. That would be something to model. I wonder if that much heavy water could detonate. Any refs?

Wolf-Dog said at March 23, 2006 4:27 PM:

As I mentioned above, such apocalpytic doomsday machine type hydrogen bombs are not simply science-fiction stories like in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove movie... These things can be built by any rogue nation.
They do not need 1000 tons of heavy water, it is much cheaper and also much more efficient to use Lithium isotopes that are easy to manufacture in large amounts, as I mentioned the reference in my comments above:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo

But in the future, it is safe to assume that by 2025, rogue nations will be able to manufacture 50 megaton range hydrogen bombs by the many hundreds...

If they smuggle a few hundred such nukes into Europe (piece by piece to avoid detection at the customs), then theoretically they can convince EU to surrender unconditionally.


Randall Parker said at March 23, 2006 5:44 PM:

Wolf-Dog,

Regarding the nuke that blew away down to 164 feet: What materials would lose a thinner layer when subjected to such a bomb?

For example, if you had a couple hundred feet thick layer of steel and a nuke blew up on it how far down would things evaporate?

Or suppose it was steel reinforced concrete?

Or suppose it was lead?

Would you be better off with a steel reinforced concrete layer on top of a water layer and then allow the water's evaporation to carry away alot of the heat energy?

Also, suppose we built nuclear plants at ground layer but surrounded them by trucked-in dirt. If the power plants had large security perimeters and were surrounded by 200 foot thick and 200 foot high dirt berms (and dirt type chosen and treated for this purpose) would that be enough to prevent the nuclear reactor from evaporating?

Again, short of burying the nuclear reactor what would it take to protect it from a ground level nuclear bomb?

Paul Dietz said at March 23, 2006 7:18 PM:

tdean: you can do some back of the envelope calculations. The cavity in the rock at SNO has a volume of about 10,000 cubic meters, filled mostly with water and (in a 12 meter acrylic sphere) 1000 tons of nearly pure heavy water. You'd need roughly a 20 MT bomb to heat it to about 1 KeV (with energy roughly equally partitioned between particle kinetic energy and thermal radiation). The energy would be trapped in the rock cavity and only slowly diffuse into the rock. At 1 KeV, the deuterium in normal density heavy water would fuse with a time constant of about 20 milliseconds, which is rather slow. The question then is: would self-heating cause the heavy water to run away in much less time (fusing .2% of the deuterium would roughly double its temperature, and the reaction rate rises very rapidly with increasing temperature, being 100,000 times faster at a temperature of 100 KeV)?

The whole assembly would be prevented from expanding too rapidly by the inertia of the surrounding ordinary water and rock, so the time available would be more than in a compact bomb. This general principle means that if you can make the system big enough, and get the initial temperature high enough, it should go; size helps reduce the rate of energy loss to radiation and expansion. Whether this here is big enough I can't judge, but it seems close enough to being workable to make me worry.

Wolf-Dog said at March 23, 2006 7:56 PM:

Randall Parker,

The 10 Megaton nuke in the 1952 test at ground level, only managed to dig 164 feet, but at another location, but the 15 Megaton nuke in the 1954 test at another location, managed to dig 250 feet, which is 50 % deeper, even though the yield of the bigger nuke was only 30 % higher this time. This is because the type of ground, does seem to make a difference.

Note that during the Cold War I, the strategic intercontintal ballistic missiles were kept in deeply buried silos. The lids of the silos were only a few fee thick at the opening:

Here is a web site with a picture of a silo from the cold war days:
http://www.phildorsett.com/silo.html

Apparently, it was calculated that unless a Soviet ICBM managed to hit the American silo with perfect precision just within less than 50 yards or so, the silo was cosidered "still operational", because apparently nothing would have happened to the weapons inside. The only thing they worried about was the fact that since the lide that was made of reinforced steel (or some complex material)would temporarily melt and then re-solidify in such a way that this might act as a "glue" to impede the opening of the lid. Apparently, the engineers devised some ingenious ways to re-open the stuck lids in order to fire the ICBMs. This is why the Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction theory was viable, and the Soviet Union never attempted a preemptive strike.

Thus reinforced concrete would do a very good job, and even less than a hundred feet of such a material would probably stop a medium size (1 Mt) nuke.

Building a thick enough second wall around the existing reactors would do a good job of protecting the reactor's core from evaporation, as long as this secondary dome is 50 feet thick concrete reinforced by steel. Then even a 1 Mt nuke cannot evaporate the reactor. Then you can also cover the latter secondary dome with dirt, and you now have an excellent protection for the reactor at minimal cost.

But this was for the old existing reactors: returning to my original suggestion about building the future civilian reactors underground, recall that the future reactors can be made very small, and it does not cost too much to build them 500 feet underground, it might add only a few million dollars to the entire cost of buillding the whole reactor. Recall that the new reactors which will be very fuel efficient, can have fuel cycles about 70 years, meaning that they do not need to be refueled for 70 years (I am not talking about the miserable Pebble Bed reactors, I am talking about the Molten Salt / Integral Fast Reactor), andso the cost of building these things underground is not a problem...

In any case, it is estimated that even by the year 2015, there will only be approximately 500 reactors in the world, while in 2002 current number was 442.
http://www.npp.hu/erdekesseg/vilagreak-e.htm

This means that only a small fraction of the energy in the world will come from nuclear power in 2015 (possibly LESS than today's percentage, since the overall energy consumption will increase a lot in the world by 2015).

This is why we must stop digressing and return to the original subject of your post: Coal as the solution to the American energy problem... Coal factories will cause less pollution for the purpose of making liquid fuel for cars, and these can be build very quickly in the case of national emergency.

To be sure, it will take another 20 years to finish the actual design of the new generation of commercial reactors that are 100 times fuel efficient. The science phase is not to be confused with the commercial phase.

Meanwhile, from the way oil is running out, it seems that the military will probably rigtfully confiscate all the remaining oil fields in Texas, California and Alaska, because no war can be fought without fuel. Probably electricity and water will be rationed by 2020.

Remember that it is now a near certainty that many rogue nations will build hundreds of nukes. This is why Alaska is a place I like, where I can make a living as a sled dog, even though I was raised as a house dog...

Randall Parker said at March 23, 2006 8:45 PM:

Wolf-Dog,

The US military is working to reduce its fossil fuels energy reliance:

The Defense Department uses more than four times as much energy as the other government agencies combined, and accounts for almost all the government's petroleum consumption, according to the Department of Energy."

...

The Air Force has already gone beyond a 2013 target, using renewable sources for 11 percent of its electricity, according to Air Force spokeswoman Nicole VanNatter. The Air Force leads the nation in purchasing renewable energy, she wrote in an e-mail.

...

About 80 percent of the Air Force's energy budget in 2005 went toward the more than 2.1 billion gallons of aviation fuel used for aviation operations.

...

The report evaluated the effectiveness of different sources of renewable energy, and gave a timetable for expected payback benefits. Geothermal power plants cost more than diesel generators, but are a reliable power source that could give back five times the investment costs over 20 years. Wind power plants would give back 1.5 times the cost; a hybrid wind-solar plant would cover costs; and a solar plant would not pay back within 20 years without government incentives, according to the report.

2.1 billion gallons of aviation fuel isn't all that much. That'd be about 6 gallons per American citizen. Or about $4-5 billion dollars per year.

The expected benefits from geothermal energy are surprising.

Wolf-Dog said at March 23, 2006 10:26 PM:


Apparently, 3-6 miles below the surface of the earth, there is real hot dry rock, which can be exploited by pumping cold water and getting volcanic hot steam for free.

But we do not yet have the technology to drill that deep with efficientcy. However, with enough work, this can easily be done, the only barrier is the impedence from the oil industry.

http://www.sandia.gov/media/mammoth.htm

If only it were possible to drill 5 miles below surface, we would get unlimited hot steam, probably solving the energy problem for 1000 years (until the magma starts to cool because of our theft of energy from the center, and then this would solidify the core of the earth, and hence the magnetic fields would stop, the polarity of North and South would disappear, and hence the cosmic rays that were deflected by the magnetic fields, would kill every human being on earth. But of course, the question is, how much geothermal energy would lead to the solidification of the magma leading to the interruption of the subsurface magma currents.)

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