Tag: Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Power: Has the Time Finally Come?

 

Commercial nuclear power emerged in the mid-1950s, to great enthusiasm. The Eisenhower administration promoted it as a major part of its Atoms for Peace program.  There was talk about ‘electricity too cheap to meter,’ and about making the world’s deserts bloom via nuclear-powered desalination.

And quite a few commercial nuclear plants were indeed built and put into operation.  In the US, there are presently 93 commercial reactors with aggregate capacity of 95 gigawatts, accounting for about 20% of America’s electricity generation.  But overall, adoption of commercial nuclear power has not met early expectations.  Costs have been much higher than were  expected.  There have been great public concerns about safety, stemming originally from the association of nuclear power and nuclear weapons as well as by practical concerns and then supercharged by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and then by Chernobyl (1986) and the Fukushima disaster in 2011.  Permitting and construction times have been long and  unpredictable, driven by the public concerns as well as by the general growth of regulation and litigation in the US and the custom, one-off manner in which these plants have been constructed.

Michael Shellenberger joins Brian Anderson to discuss America’s nuclear industry, China’s deal with Saudi Arabia to produce uranium “yellowcake” from uranium ore, and Shellenberger’s new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.

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“The history of π is a quaint little mirror of the history of man.  It is the story of Archimedes of Syracuse, whose method of calculating π defied substantial improvement for some 1900 years, and it is also the story of a Cleveland businessman, who published a book in 1931 announcing the grand discovery that π was exactly […]

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A few questions, only loosely related: Do we still rely on Middle Eastern nations to produce oil and natural gas? The US now has access to plenty without them. Also, the region has been in turmoil for years and yet I’m paying less than $2 per gallon, so even their impact on the world market doesn’t […]

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Germany’s Green Blues

 
900px-Schneebergerhof_01

By Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Ask a self-professed environmentalist what kind of energy policy he’d like to enact, and he’ll likely describe something like Germany’s 2010 Energiewende, which set ambitious emissions-reduction standards, provides immense subsidies to solar and wind power generation, and mandated the phase-out of the country’s nuclear plants. How’s it going? Via the Economist, very poorly, as one should have expected of legislation with conflicting mandates:

Subsidy Upon Subsidies

 

1200px-Indian_Point_Nuclear_Power_PlantConfronted with a grassy bump in a playing field, a normal person would simply level it out to match the rest of the turf. But when government is put in charge — and egged-on by lobbies — the more common solution is bring in truck-load after truck-load of soil to raise the entire field to match the bump. For the latest and most cussedly frustrating example of the phenomenon, Ron Bailey brings us this report on energy subsidies in New York State:

Unable to compete with heavily subsidized wind and solar power or electricity generated using cheap natural gas, the operators of four upstate New York nuclear reactors were planning to shut them down. Closing the plants would be a significant setback for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ambitious plan to reduce the state’s carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector. Currently the state gets 32 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, 19 percent from hydropower, 3 percent from wind, and 0.1 percent from solar. Burning natural gas currently generates about 41 percent of the state’s electricity with the remainder from coal and oil.

In order to forestall these nuclear shut-downs, state regulators decided this week to subsidize nuclear power plants at a rate of $500 million per year. The deal was announced by the state’s Public Service Commission when it adopted a plan to mandate that 50 percent of the state’s electricity be produced using renewable energy by 2030. Under the new Clean Energy Standards, each nuclear plant will be allocated zero emissions credits, which utilities must purchase when buying power from them. It is estimated that the credits will sell for about $17.48 per megawatt-hour of electricity. That money will go to the bottom lines of the plant’s owners, Entergy and Exelon. Now everybody’s a subsidized rent-seeker.

Solar Revolution? Don’t Hold Your Breath.

 

Ivanpah_aerial_shotThe $2.2B Ivanpah Solar Power Facility is in the news and in danger of closure for underperforming on its contracted power production. If you are a Ricochet reader, you are probably not surprised, but early results from Ivanpah and two other large scale solar power installations — the Desert Sunlight and Topaz plants, which are also located in Southern California — do not bode well for the future of solar as a replacement for fossil fuels or nuclear power. (Ivanpah’s predilection to burn up birds has been covered on Ricochet previously so I’ll skip it).

Solar has offered the promise of nearly limitless carbon-free energy for nearly 40 years, with a few caveats. First, solar power is expensive but prices per kilowatt are falling rapidly and approaching that of traditional plants. Second, size matters, which means that solar will need to be scaled-up from boutique rooftop installations to larger plants that can produce power at a cost on par with other forms of power generation. This is all done, of course, with the advantages offered by federal loan guarantees specifically designed to prove-out the scalability of these concepts so that the private sector can take over.

In the words of Peter Davidson, solar panels “… existed before as a technology, but that technology hadn’t been deployed at a large scale. Once we’ve done that, the government steps aside let the private markets take over.” However, results from these demonstrator plants appear to show that they are not cheaper than even nuclear plants — which are very expensive — even when scaled-up to large size. The line of companies waiting to take over without federal loan guarantees will be a short one.

This Is the Attitude America Needs More of

 

twenty20_e53193ea-55f3-4b01-a34e-ed38b3f4f7fe_idea-e1457386612357Y Combinator’s The Macro blog has an interview with Jacob DeWitte, co-founder and CEO of nuclear technology startup Oklo, which is trying to develop “a new kind of nuclear reactor that’s small, portable, and waste- and carbon-negative.” Here is DeWitte on how he ended up in Silicon Valley:

Well to start, we were curious about what YC would be like, because they hadn’t done any energy projects yet. But it ended up being phenomenal. We didn’t really get to benefit from getting specific advice on technical stuff, like some of our peers did – we’re building a nuclear reactor, after all. But it was so helpful on the vision side, and on how to build a great business.

Also, the receptiveness to what we were doing was so different out in Silicon Valley than it was on the East Coast. On the East Coast, we’d often be met with skepticism, people asking, “Is that safe? How is that possible?” Out here, it was like, “How can I help?” The investor discussions were tremendously different. People were so interested in the potential, and the upside, and not getting stuck on the potential difficulties and the time scales. People interested in startups understand that there are always drawbacks, but they don’t have to be deal breaker.

Power too Cheap to Meter

 

fire2fusionReading Churchill’s 1931 essay about the technology of the coming half-century, I was struck once again by the failed promise of the Atomic Age. Churchill speaks of bringing Newton to a contemporary undergraduate physical society, and the reaction he would have had to Churchill’s world. If one had whisked Churchill ahead to 1981 he would have been astonished — not at our taming the atom, but at how little we’d done with it.

Churchill predicted we would harness nuclear energy like this:

The discovery and control of such sources of power would cause changes in human affairs incomparably greater than those produced by the steam-engine four generations ago. Schemes of cosmic magnitude would become feasible.

Nuclear Energy Is Obama’s Nixon-to-China Opportunity

 

shutterstock_320521304President Obama and other world leaders are in Paris for talks to limit climate-altering emissions. Now the problem here is that a) the world needs to get richer, b) that requires more energy, and c) more energy has meant rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.

So we have to get better, a lot better, at de-carbonizing our energy. As the Ecomodernist Manifesto correctly notes, ” … rising energy consumption is tightly correlated with rising incomes and improving living standards. … For that reason, any conflict between climate mitigation and the continuing development process through which billions of people around the world are achieving modern living standards will continue to be resolved resoundingly in favor of the latter.”

The solution is clean-energy abundance for a high-energy planet — not scarcity — with the goal of decoupling human progress from its potential impact on the climate. That path forward would seem to be one that rests on advancing solar and nuclear technology. In a New York Times commentary, venture capitalist Peter Thiel focuses on the latter:

Ask The Expert: Spent Nuclear Fuel Handling and Storage

 

nuclear-basilisk A basilisk is a mythical creature able to kill with a single glance. Used or “spent” nuclear fuel would have a similar effect, if you were to stand close to it without benefit of shielding: Within a matter of minutes, you would receive a lethal radiation dose. Unlike basilisks, however, spent fuel isn’t out to get you, and is handled and stored safely at every nuclear power station in the United States. In contrast, new fuel that has never been loaded into a nuclear reactor has a very low — almost negligible level of radiation — and can be touched and directly handled without incurring any significant radiation dose.

The smallest unit of nuclear reactor fuel is a fuel pellet, a cylinder of compressed uranium dioxide, enriched to about 3 – 4.5% of the U-235 isotope. Each fuel pellet is less than half an inch in diameter and less than an inch long. Fuel pellets are loaded into a slender tube (called cladding) about 12 feet long, usually made of Zircaloy (a metallic alloy); the sealed tube is called a fuel rod, which looks similar to a wooden dowel. Fuel rods are arranged in an array called a fuel assembly. A boiling water reactor (BWR) has a 7 x 7 or 8 x 8 array of fuel rods running parallel to each other, in an assembly about five and a half inches square, about 14 to 15 feet long, weighing about 600 pounds; a typical boiling water reactor core holds between 500 and 600 such assemblies.

In contrast, a pressurized water reactor (PWR) has larger fuel assemblies that contain significantly more fuel rods — between 14 and 17 per side, though hexagonal arrays also exist — and weigh 1300 lbs or more. A typical pressurized water reactor core holds fewer than 200 fuel assemblies. A few spaces in each assembly are fitted with guide tubes instead of fuel rods, to allow control rods or in-core instrumentation to be inserted.