Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi - A Neutron Reader

The news from Japan has had the predictable result of inflaming nuclear energy haters world wide and especially in the United States.  The argument is all too familiar now.

1. "I want enough electricity to turn on my lights."
2. "I don't want to use nuclear reactors to make that electricity."
3. "I don't want to burn coal to make that electricity."

As is the case with most populist, media inspired logic, the argument begins to break down immediately when a few facts are applied.  Of course we would all prefer a nice, clean, renewable option in the matter, but when that choice is not one which we actually have, we are left with the prospect of choosing something that we do have.

This posting is, hopefully, a chance to look over the choices which are actually "on the table" given the political, technical and economic realities of the moment.

 Some Statistics on Electric Energy Consumption (source - Wiki)


Population:  6.5 Bn
Total Electrical Use: 17.1 Bn MWh/Yr   (Mega Watt Hours per Year - ie. annual energy sales)
Consumption per Individual:  297 Wh/Yr  (Watt hours/ person/ year - i.e. Kilowatt/Hrs on an electric bill)
Number of Nuclear Reactor Plants:  
Operating: 442
Under Construction: 65

United States

Population:  310 Mn
Total Electrical Use: 3.7 Bn MWh/Yr 
Consumption per Individual:  1,460 Wh/Yr
Number of Nuclear Reactor Plants:  
Operating: 104
Under Construction: 1
Population:  128 Mn
Total Electrical Use: 964 Mn MWh/Yr
Consumption per individual:  868 Wh/Yr
Number of Nuclear Reactor Plants:  
Operating: 54
Under Construction: 2

A typical coal fired generation plant produces roughly 600 - 700 MW.
A typical household in the US uses 8,900 KW hours per year; in the UK, 4,700 KW hours.
Typical U.S. nuclear power plants have net summer capacities between about 500 and 1300 MW.

 Apples and Oranges Energy Wise

There are several concepts floating around which are highly relevant to a discussion such as this one, and we have been hearing about them as parts of the Obama administration "wish list" for a comprehensive energy plan.  We can take an abbreviated glimpse of these basic ideas before we jump into the three articles posted below.

1. Previously, there has always been a "great divide" between fuel and energy.  Fuel meant all the aspects of petroleum, crude oil, refineries, gasoline and the like.  Energy meant, regardless of its origin, electricity to run in households, factories, irrigation and all sorts of other uses.  The "great divide" is getting much narrower.

2. Most of the energy generation in the modern world comes from coal.  Of course, there are alternatives at play (see chart above), but the main source of electrical energy has always been coal fired, steam generation.  There is plenty of coal.  All of it is an environmental disaster, even though serious work is being done to make its use less destructive.

3. With the gradual advance of a "post peak oil" situation, a natural interest in converting the power source requirements previously met by petroleum use to alternative electrical sources is growing.

4. Renewable energy is becoming more economical, and hence, attractive as this world wide train wreck approaches its inevitable demise.  However, two great obstacles confront this conversion:   a.) existing power grids are unable to distribute renewable source power effectively, and, b.) the maximum scope of renewable power in the immediate future falls far short of the world's energy consumption levels.

5. There is no shortage of very bad players in the game.  The coal and petroleum industry lobbyists will fight to the death to delay and retard the conversion to alternate energy forms.  Nuclear is the present victim of a remarkably vast public outrage, not all of which is undeserved.  Still, we must remember that the Japanese plants having all the trouble now were designed to end power production 20 years ago.  The criticism of nuclear energy has more to do with the very bad habits of nuclear plant owners and managers than with the basic process itself.

For a little extra reading, check out MeanMesa's post on this topic from February 2010:

First Article: --  source

If You Want Electric Cars, You Need Electricity

Previously by Bill Walker: US Education: Show Us the Money!

As of March 2011, China is building 27 new nuclear power plants (and plans 50). Russia is building 10, India and South Korea five each, Japan and Canada two. In the US, there is exactly one new reactor complex being built.

France gets 80% of its power from fission. Most major nations have used nuclear power to make their environment cleaner and their economies less vulnerable to $100/barrel oil. Yet the US remains in superstitious dread of fission… even while dependent on the 20% of our electricity that comes from our 40-year-old Homer Simpson specials.

US Nuclear Industry: From Pollyanna to Panic

The US built the first nuclear reactors. We even built the first nuclear rocket engines, way back in the misty pre-Internet days of the 1960s. (It was misty from all the coal and high-sulfur diesel smoke). Why did we turn into a nuclear backwater? Because the US government in all its genius "helped" nuclear power with subsidies.

The US government shoved nuclear power into use in the 1960s, before it was ready for prime time. Early reactors and their fuel were subsidized, and the Price-Anderson act dumped the liability for accidents onto the taxpayers. (Taxpayers do seem to attract liability for everything from subprime mortgages to shaky foreign dictators, don’t we? It’s a wonder we can get insurance at all…)

Then, once nuclear technology actually became reliable, US policy turned against it. Our new electricity needs are now met almost entirely by frantic construction of fossil-fuel plants, while we publicly bemoan the potential problem of Global Warming from those very fossil-fuel plants. 

US nuclear power was killed by media-generated fears. Most of those fears were imaginary, and all were exaggerated. But fear still trumps the actual numbers. It’s time for a look at the current realities of nuclear power.

Not Your Grandfather’s Reactor

The first hard fact about switching to nuclear power: it reduces your radiation exposure. Nuclear power plants, even old ones, release very little radiation. In fact, they release from 100 to 400 times less than coal plants, per kilowatt-hour. (There is a significant amount of radium and polonium in coal). You get more radiation by escaping to NH from Vermont than you would by living next to a reactor for your whole life (manly NH granite is full of uranium and thorium, unlike the soft, limp sediments of Vermont). 

So the net environmental effect of US anti-nuclear policy has been… to raise our radiation dose for the last 30 years. But don’t worry; compared to the tons of mercury and vast quantities of organic chemical carcinogens released by the coal smokestacks, the trivial extra radiation from coal doesn’t matter. Of course, in addition to cancer there is the little matter of Global Warming CO2 from fossil fuels. Nuclear plants are entirely carbon-free (which will be a good thing in a few centuries, once we get enough CO2 into the atmosphere to stave off the Final Ice Age). 

New nuclear plants are also meltdown free. There are several ways to make nuclear fuel rods or pellets that stop fissioning when they reach a certain temperature. The US built the first intrinsically safe reactor in 1986, the Argonne EBR-II. The Argonne system used fuel rods made of an alloy that expanded with heat to beyond critical density. Newer designs have used pebble beds and Doppler scattering, but the result is the same: fuel elements that shut off over a certain temperature, even if Homer Simpson turns off every cooling system. 

Yet another breed of new nuclear plants uses cooling systems which use convection instead of pumps; again, even if everything is switched off, they can’t overheat. The Westinghouse AP1000 uses this principle. (The Westinghouse nuclear division is now owned by Toshiba, a company that thinks more than one fiscal quarter ahead.) 

Other concepts include small mass-produced reactors like the Hyperion. These town-sized (only 25 megawatt) units would be more decentralized than most current fossil or nuclear generators. They would also have passive safety features… in fact the reactor itself is a sealed unit, with no way for Homer to get inside.

The US has none of the newer, safer plants yet (the one reactor under construction in Georgia is an AP1000). Yet just like the ex-Soviet satellite nations, we remain economically dependent on our 1970s reactors. Again, our anti-nuclear policy has put us at more risk than other nations.

No Recycling Allowed

Then there’s nuclear "waste". Nuclear fuel rods are about 3% uranium-235 when they go into a light-water reactor. They quit producing energy when they are roughly 1% uranium, 1% plutonium, and 1% radioactive elements like strontium-90 and cobalt-60.

In other countries the rods are removed from the reactor, the uranium and plutonium are recycled into new fuel rods, and the other radioactive elements are used by industry for various purposes. Excess non-fissionable isotopes can be mixed with Pyrex glass and made back into radioactive "rocks"… which, after all, is what uranium ore is in the first place.

But in the US, no nuclear recycling is allowed because of Carter-era regulations. Used but radioactive nuclear fuel rods must stay in open ponds outside the reactors just in case terrorists might need some. Thus the US has a "nuclear waste problem", while other nations do not. 

Speaking of recycling, it’s hard to do much recycling of any kind without electric power. Conversely, cheaper and more plentiful electricity will make recycling profitable…. and thus universal.

"Peak Uranium" A Long Way Off

Currently known reserves of uranium are enough for a couple hundred years or so… enough that no one puts much effort into finding more. Breeder reactors can make more uranium out of thorium; estimates of thorium reserves get us up to 20,000 years. By the year 22,211, fission reactors will be in museums next to the flint-knapping tools. The lights will stay on from fusion… or more likely, something we haven’t even imagined.

Even on a shorter time scale, nuclear fuel cycles are very stable. Once fueled, a reactor will run for years, independent of possible wars, blockades or interruptions of trade.

Obama: Nuclear OK As Long As It’s Taxpayer-funded

On February 16, 2010, President Obama announced $8.33 billion dollars in federal loan guarantees to construct the two AP1000 units at the Vogtle plant in Georgia. This continues a long tradition of meddling and favoritism (in other countries, we call giving tax money to private companies "corruption"). Corruption of course knows no technological boundaries; all forms of power production have been distorted by subsidy. 

Time For A Level Playing Field

Nuclear power is the cleanest rapidly expandable source of electricity. It produces no greenhouse gases, no acid rain, no chemical pollutants. It doesn’t need ecologically disruptive dams. It doesn’t cover up thousands of square miles of forest with solar panels, it doesn’t kill migrating birds with eyesore windmill blades. 

But is new nuclear technology better than other alternatives? That is the question that matters, and it can only be answered by the market. Let all power technologies compete against the same safety and emission standards, and all be liable for any damage they cause. Let coal plants have to meet the same radiation emission standards, and let non-subsidized solar plants pay for the forest land they cover up (and for their own capital costs). 

Since the Congress and Administration can’t seem to find anything to cut from the budget, here’s a suggestion that would save a few billion: cut all corporate welfare to all forms of energy companies. Government bureaucracy is no more likely to pick the right technology this time than in the 1970s, when they decided to leave the US forever dependent on burning coal. 

The "right technology" depends on time and place. Solar cells are fine, if they’re covering buildings in Albuquerque instead of snowy forest in Vermont. Windmills, wood-burning plants, methane from cow pies, whatever can pull its weight on the market is great. 

But neither windmills nor wood chips will take us to the stars.

March 5, 2011
Bill Walker [send him mail] is a research technologist. He lives with his wife and four dogs in Grafton NH, where they are active in the Free State Project.

Second Article: Scientific American -- source

The Coal Truth: Will the Coming Generation of Electric Cars Just Be Coal-Burners, Once Removed?

Some analysts expect that existing grid capacity may be enough to power U.S. electric cars in the near future, yet they do not rule out the possibility of new coal or nuclear plants coming on line if renewable energy sources are not developed.

Image: Rich McGervey, courtesy Flickr
Coal-fired power -- albeit indirectly used -- will be the predominant source of electricity used by electric and plug-in hybrid cars unless we begin to source significant amounts of electricity from renewables like solar and wind. Pictured: the Virginia Electric and Power Company's Mount Storm coal-fired power plant in northeastern West Virginia.
Dear EarthTalk: Isn’t the interest in electric cars and plug-in hybrids going to spur increased reliance on coal as a power source? And is that really any better than gasoline/oil in terms of environmental impact?
—Graham Rankin, via e-mail
It’s true that the advent of electric cars is not necessarily a boon for the environment if it means simply trading our reliance on one fossil fuel—oil, from which gasoline is distilled—for an even dirtier one: coal, which is burned to create electricity.

The mining of coal is an ugly and environmentally destructive process. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) burning the substance in power plants sends some 48 tons of mercury—a known neurotoxin—into Americans’ air and water every year (1999 figures, the latest year for which data are available). Furthermore, coal burning contributes some 40 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that coal mining and burning cause a whopping $62 billion worth of environmental damage every year in the U.S. alone, not to mention its profound impact on our health.

Upwards of half of all the electricity in the U.S. is derived from coal, while the figure is estimated to be around 70 percent in China. As for Europe, the United Kingdom gets more than a third of its electricity from coal, while Italy plans to double its consumption of coal for electricity production within five years to account for some 33 percent of its own electricity needs. Several other countries in Europe, where green sentiment runs deep but economics still rule the roost, are also stockpiling coal and building more power plants to burn it in the face of an ever-increasing thirst for cheap and abundant electricity.

On top of this trend, dozens of electric and plug-in hybrid cars are in the works from the world’s carmakers. It stands to reason that, unless we start to source significant amounts of electricity from renewables (solar, wind, etc.), coal-fired plants will not only continue but may actually increase their discharges of mercury, carbon dioxide and other toxins due to greater numbers of electric cars on the road.

Some analysts expect that existing electricity capacity in the U.S. may be enough to power America’s electric cars in the near future, but don’t rule out the possibility of new coal plants (or new nuclear power plants) coming on line to fill the gap if we don’t make haste in developing alternate sources for generating electrical energy. And while proponents of energy efficiency believe we can go a long way by making our electric grids “smarter” through the use of monitoring technologies that can dole out power when it is most plentiful and cheap (usually the middle of the night), others doubt that existing capacity will be able to handle the load placed on even an intelligent “smart grid” distribution network.

Environmentalists—as well as many politicians and policymakers—maintain that the only viable, long-term solution is to spur on the development of renewable energy sources. Not long ago, the concept of an all-electric car charged up by solar power or some other form of clean renewable energy was nothing but a pipe dream. Today, though, such a scenario is within the realm of the possible, but only if everyone does their part to demand that our utilities bring more green power on line.

CONTACTS: EPA/mercury emissions;
EarthTalk is produced by E/The Environmental Magazine. 
c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; 

  February 17, 2009, 5:33 am

Third Article: New York Times -- source

Electric Cars and a Smarter Grid

ZapcarPeter DaSilva for The New York TimesZapcar electric cars charging in Califorina. Analysts are sanguine about this kind of thing becoming more common — someday.
Electric cars and a smart electric grid have a bright future, according to panelists at a roundtable discussion on the subject that I attended last Friday in Boston.

“I would say that electricity is a vastly superior fuel for the light vehicle fleet,” said Willett Kempton, a professor and alternative energy specialist at the University of Delaware.

And in a true smart grid, electric cars will not only be able to draw on electricity to run their motors, they will also be able to do the reverse: send electricity stored in their batteries back into the grid when it is needed. In effect, cars would be acting like tiny power stations.

“Most days, most cars are going to have lots of extra battery capacity,” said Mr. Kempton, noting that on average, American automobiles get driven for just one hour each day. Electrifying the entire vehicle fleet would provide more than three times the U.S.’s power generation, he said.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate transmission of electricity, is on board with the idea.

“Vehicle-to-grid is, I believe, the salvation of the automotive industry in the United States,” declared Marc Spitzer, an agency commissioner who was also on the panel.

Sven Thesen, the communication and technology director for Better Place, a start-up that is gaining traction (see this recent New York Times article) in its effort to create a network for electric cars in various countries, likened the concept of electric cars to cellphones. 

“Fifteen years ago, how many people had a cellphone?” he asked. 

Now, people are used to cellphone subscription plans and plugging the phone into the wall at night, Mr. Thesen reasoned, so a switch to electric cars would also be manageable.

And where does Better Place fit in?

“We will own the battery. We will always own the batteries,” said Mr. Thesen. “You guys own the cars.” 

He envisioned “hundreds of thousands” of charging spots, as well as a number of stations where drained batteries could be exchanged for fresh ones.

A key thing, he said, will be to recharge the batteries at an acceptable time for the electricity grid — to “make sure people aren’t charging at the very peak, peak time,” like late afternoon when the electricity grid is already weighted down by demands like air conditioning.

Battery recharging would typically take two to four hours, he said.

So far Israel, Denmark, Australia, Hawaii and California’s Bay Area have plans to implement the Better Place model. Mr. Thesen said that a factory in Turkey was being refurbished to be able to produce 100,000 electric vehicles a year.

But a large-scale system of electric cars and smart grids is unlikely to be ready soon.

Asked when there might be one million electric vehicles on the road that could also feed their battery capacity back into the grid in a two-way exchange, the panelists generally said between 2017 and 2020.

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