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Out Of Big Oil And Into Big Nuke

The oil gusher in the Gulf is bad. It’s turning people away from fossil fuel, which could be good. If it turned the powers-that-be to clean, sustainable energy, that would be very good.

But here’s what I bet will happen.

Once the weeping and gnashing of teeth has subsided to a numbed realization that we need to do something next, that’s when the real problems will start. That’s when the nuclear lobby will be back.

[Well, that didn't take long. That was written around May 15th. This was on Marketwatch, May 21st.: "Nuclear Option Back on the Table." ]

They’ll say we need energy, lots of energy, which we can get only from a large, serious energy source, like nuclear. So let’s go over just a few points related to getting energy from nuclear reactors. (I’m repeating myself. There’s a lot more information and links in those long posts.)

By 2050, North America is projected to need some 7.8 terawatts (pdf) of total primary energy under a business-as-usual scenario. The pro-nuclear argument is that it will provide for business as usual without the sacrifices required by trying to make do with renewable, sustainable, distributed energy which can only provide a fraction of what’s needed.

Take them at their word. Let’s say the weak sisters can’t provide more than about 25% of the projected amount. (I’m setting it higher than pro-nuke scenarios usually do out of kindness. Why it’s a kindness will be clear in a moment.)

Since nuclear plants don’t safely last longer than their operating life of 30 years, if that, all the ones needed in 2050 will have to be built between now and then.

We have forty years (or 2080 weeks) in which to build 75% of 7.8 TW, which is 5,850 gigawatts of capacity. The large reactors built now are on the order of 1GW, The number of fully operational 1GW reactors needed to provide 75% of energy in four decades is 5850.

So about one fully operational 1GW reactor has to be completed every day, except Sundays, starting five months ago. If there are technological breakthroughs so that, say, 5GW commercial reactors can be built, then only a bit more than one per week needs to be finished.

That doesn’t include permitting or siting. Just physical construction. With no delays, large reactors take about five years to build, so there would need to be hundreds of reactors under construction at any one time.

Keep firmly in mind that it is renewable, distributed energy that is unrealistic.

Think about it. You’d need about 21,000 square miles of photovoltaic panels to generate 7.8TWh of power per year at the insolation near Chicago or New England, where it’s 0.3kWh per square foot per day, using 12% efficient solar panels. That’s a square 145 miles on each side. The built-up area in the US is about 125,000 square miles (and some of that’s in Arizona and California, not Chicago). So, worst case, if 15% of built-up areas is roofs, parking lots, windows, and roadways which could have photovoltaics installed, then 100% of US energy needs would be met. That’s without using wind, geothermal, tidal, or any other clean energy. That could be added. Production of photovoltaic materials would have to be ramped up to where the stuff could just roll off the presses. There’s also the fact that you and I can install PV panels if we put our minds to it. You and I aren’t ever going to be installing nukes. That takes rare and highly trained experts, so it’s a much more serious option.

Moving right along, the next item is construction time and costs for nuclear reactors. Costs are in the billions and time to completion in years, so the business risks are immense.

Note: these aren’t the risks of operation. Liability for those is limited by the Price Andersen Act, which makes the taxpayer the insurer of last resort for the nuclear power industry. In current terms, if they lose too much money, you bail them out.

Companies normally carry insurance for projects with business risks too large for them to absorb, but the professional actuaries at insurance companies consider the business risks of reactors (not the radiation risks, just the business risks during construction) to be too large. So, once again, the taxpayers step in to provide guarantees so that construction can go ahead.

For instance, Obama recently tripled the Federal loan guarantees from $18 billion to $54 billion. The guarantees are intended to cover about 80% of costs, so suddenly instead of only being able to build three nukes, we can build thirteen or so. That’s about two weeks’ worth of the necessary number of reactors if nukes are the solution to the end of oil.

It’s a start. And this way that $54 billion can’t be wasted on funding efficiency retrofits of old buildings or a cash for clunkers program.

The third point about using nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels, is that nuclear fuel is a limited nonrenewable resource. If reactors operated on the scale I’m talking about, the practically recoverable uranium would be depleted in a matter of decades.

(New designs don’t change that equation. Commercial fusion energy, or mining seawater or asteroids are not practical solutions on the necessary timescales. Breeder reactors, sometimes called renewable nuclear energy, solve energy problems the same way decapitation solves brain cancer. So-called advanced designs that share the dubious features of breeders, like fast neutron fluxes and exotic coolants, are just more attempts to sell people on the same failed pig in a new poke.)

Insofar as nuclear energy is a real world option, it is not renewable and its fuel would be gone in decades if it was a major energy source.

So. Nukes can’t be built fast enough to replace oil. They’re uninsurable. Uranium is a depletable resource. None of that even considers the usual roster of health, environmental, and waste problems. So, why do nukes ever come up? How can it be that anyone wastes valuable brain cells on such a total loss of an option?

Well, there’s a lot of money to be made for a few people in any big construction project. Highway money pork is nothing compared nuke pork. Roads to nowhere have been built for the pork of it, and nukes will be, too, if the recipients have much to say about it. (One day after I wrote that, I came across this report from January 31st:

Rather than try to propose a similar project that, like Yucca, might take decade [sic] of grueling planning only to be shot down at the end, the administration’s solution is to commission a panel of experts that includes academics, politicians and businessmen like Exelon CEO John Rowe.

The panel will consider fixes like making some easy changes to waste handling laws, but will doubtless also look at some ideas that have gotten little play in the U.S., like breeder reactors that can reprocess old waste into new, usable fuel. [Emphasis added]

The other good thing is that reactors keep the energy monopoly right where it is now. Backyard mini-nukes get, ahem, glowing reviews full of that old time optimism, but it’s not an option many people would choose for their kids’ playground. So there aren’t any real worries about any of that distributed energy, profit-draining hokum. That makes this nonrenewable polluting energy source a real solution to the problems caused by the other nonrenewable polluting energy source.

Get ready for the serious, correctly dressed people telling you so.

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A blog note

The long silence is about sadness. It’s not personal sadness. I kind of live in paradise. But watching the US political system go to ruin is depressing.

I started writing a post talking about the Administration’s plans for education — which look shrubbier than the Shrub’s — and found out when I was looking up links that it’s even worse than it sounded at first.

There’s another post in the, ahem, pipeline about the BP oil spill. Actually, no, not about the oil spill. About how the spill will be used to shill for nuclear energy the minute the lobbyists think they can get away with it. They’ll tell us it’s our only choice. We have a polluting disaster here, so the solution is obvious. Put all your money on another polluting disaster!

It goes on and on. So my heart fails me, and I go off into my own world and write instead about how government should be.

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