BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD – Today I attended an interesting presentation on the merits of ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) and fusion with heavy ions (HIF). Fusion is the “miracle” no-radiation, no noxious waste energy concept that for the past 50 years it’s been “20-years in the future.”
There are no fusion power plants in existence, in part because of the giant size they require, and the giant budget that comes with it: $50 Billion for one installation which, in turn, would be enough to supply all of California with fuels and electricity. But $50 Billion for the first-of-its-kind installation is a proposition that no private company or politician has put forth.
What we have available today is the much more scalable and affordable fission process of nuclear reactors. So I summarized below ten key reasons why nuclear energy is necessary for areas that anticipate growth in one million people increments. Many cities in Asia and Africa fit this growth profile.
1) Growth: World population was 3 Billion in 1960, 6 Billion in 1999 and expected to be 9 Billion in 2046. Population growth and improving standard of living globally demand increasing amounts of energy. Energy production must roughly double in the next 30 years to accommodate demand.
2) Fossil fuel depletion: Fossil fuels are being depleted, are not renewable and carbon taxes or pollution limits incentivize low carbon power production alternatives, one of which is nuclear.
3) Plant aging: The post WWII rapid growth of 1st world countries was facilitated in large part by electric power plants of various types and sizes. Many of them are past 50 years of age and need replacement.
4) China alone is growing very fast and a major bottleneck of its growth may become the supply of electric power. Mopeds are electric in its large cities and BYD and CODA are selling full-featured electric vehicles.*
5) Uranium as a fuel has advantages: It is relatively abundant, it does not cost much, not a lot of it is needed to fuel nuclear reactors, and supply comes from stable countries such as Australia and Canada. It is only mildly radioactive and its alpha radiation does not penetrate the skin. Uranium metal is commonly handled with gloves as a sufficient precaution.
6) Modern nuclear power plants provide large amount of power, typically over 1 GW which is 1,000 megawatts. One 1.5 GW plant can cover the needs of a 1st world city of about one million population. Its impact on land and other earth resources is very small compared to many other clean energy sources such as photovoltaic and wind.
7) Familiarity: By 2010 there were 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries supplying about 15% of the world electric power. Also, there are hundreds of naval vessels with compact nuclear reactors.
(8) Vinod Koshla told The Economist that Earth is on an unsustainable energy trajectory and the development of affordable new energy is essential for the billions of peoples on the planet and particularly in fast growing China, India, Indonesia and Nigeria.** Until a feasible and affordable breakthrough is achieved in the energy field, nuclear energy is a major option for large populations because of its cost per MW, safety and near zero carbon footprint.
9) Normal safety: Current nuclear plant designs have many more safety features than the 1950s-era power plants that exhibited critical problems in Pennsylvania, Russia and Japan. Here is an example of a late 1980s nuclear reactor that shut down recently because it auto-detected some equipment failure. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/22/us-nuclear-reactor-shuts-down-georgia_n_852515.html
10) Catastrophe scenario: The Fukushima, Japan Daiischi nuclear power plant failure is a great example of resilience. Whereas nature’s force and infrastructure failures in the 9 R earthquake on March 11, 2011 (Tōhoku earthquake) claimed over 30,000 lives, this major nuclear power plant accident had no fatalities. The plant designed with 1950s technology and built for an 8 R earthquake actually withstood an earthquake that was 10 times stronger. Flood water from the powerful tsunami jumped over the 25 ft. protective sea-walls and drowned the external diesel generators used to circulate water and cool the reactors. Because of the surrounding catastrophe, nobody was able to fix this external power system. After the 8-hour backup batteries ran out, cooling stopped and partial meltdown commenced. The September 1, 2011 press release of TEPCO Power Company reads in part: “By bringing the reactors and spent fuel pools to a stable cooling condition and mitigating the release of radioactive materials, we will make every effort to enable evacuees to return to their homes and for all citizens to be able to secure a sound life.”
Power is the key ingredient for prosperity. Without adequate and affordable power, our life-style, health and well-being cannot be maintained. Power fundamentally affects our basic needs such as water distribution, sanitation, food production and transportation for covering essential needs. Once it is understood that every 750,000 population requires approximately 1,000 MW per day, the production of affordable energy by existing solar and wind technologies appears only on the lists of severely math (and reality) incompetent individuals.
Unfortunately “environmentalists” and self-appointed “public protectors” are most effective in blocking nuclear power plants for communities with the best engineering, strict safety standards and political stability (e.g., Germany, Japan and U.S. locales.) At the same time, gigawatts of nuclear power are shifting to less secure environs, such as developing ex-soviet and ex-communist countries. This is an unwelcome transfer of risk for the planet as a whole.
(*) China is one of a few nations with no apparent hesitation for the deployment of nuclear energy. I show a sample collage above. The approximately 10 million population city of Harbin in northern China has two large nuclear reactors as part of the cityscape. They were within a 30 minute walk from my hotel where I took the picture shown in late August 2011. A week earlier I was sitting on the left side of the bus from Nanjing to Shanghai, a 160 mile trip. I saw and photographed three large nuclear power plants shown at the bottom of the picture; one every 50 miles!
(**) Add the U.S. (~500 million) and the Philippines (~200 million) to those four and their combined population projection for 2100 reaches 4 Billion.
Good discussion, Panos, and I mostly agree, but the threat has never really been of catastrophic reactor failure (until Fukushima?). Rather, we still have not discovered a 250,000 year storage solution for spent fuel rods. I would argue that fossil fuel depletion is a politically contrived fallacy, as we have no domestic shortage of coal, natural gas, and shale oil reserves.
As far as an emerging energy technology, are you aware of the intriguing, if not dubious, work being done by Italian “inventor” Andrea Rossi? He claims to have developed a nickel/hydrogen “Energy Catalyzer” (E-Cat) device that can output 8 units of energy for every 1 unit of input. Major skepticism is warranted, but a purported 1 MW operating plant somewhere in the US is promised for this coming October.
I certainly do not ascribe to the notion that fossil fuels will be gone soon but they are definitely finite and non-renewable. The last quarter of natural fossil fuel deposits will require a huge expense to be extracted. This includes oil, coal and natural gas.
There have been horrific cases of industrial pollution and oil spills. I think that spent rod storage is a relatively tiny problem and processes for reprocessing them are available.
IT would seem to me that Thorium reactors are a much better alternative for us here in Hawaii.
Perhaps, although in my opinion Hawaii should look first into geothermal. Both Big Island and Maui are good candidates. Abundant energy also helps us use it to generate fuels which lessen our sea and air dependency on oil-based fuels.
Also relevant to your suggestion: Dr. Pat Takahashi, past director of Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, on fusion and thorium: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-takahashi/star-power-for-humanity_b_949883.html
[…] Ten Reasons Why Nuclear Energy Is Necessary For Another 50 Years – Hawaii Reporter […]
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First, nuclear energy is not necessary for the next 50 years. We have far more solar energy striking the Earth each day than we need to produce the electricity that we need. We have many more times the potential from wind than we would need to power ourselves with nothing but wind. Add in geothermal, tidal, biomass, wave and hydro and we could power ourselves many, many times over while using zero nuclear or fossil fuel sources.
Here are the numbers…
Now, let me give you three reasons why we probably won’t rely on nuclear to get us through the next 50 years.
1) Cost. Nuclear is one of the most expensive ways to produce electricity. I’m talking about sources yet to be built, not older, paid off plants. Wind and geothermal are clearly cheaper than new nuclear. Solar is already cheaper in sunny parts of the globe and its price is falling fast. Existing dams can be converted to power producers for less money than building a nuclear reactor. Tidal and wave are likely to drop below new nuclear in the next few years. (Tidal may already be there.) Add in some storage to make renewables 24/365 power and they are still cheaper.
2) Time to build. It is currently taking more than ten years to build a new reactor and bring it on line. We do not have the ability to build more than a small number of new reactors per year. We do not have the ability to forge the containment domes and we do not have trained/experienced personnel needed to build more than a couple at a time. Wind farms are built and brought on line in less than two years using existing construction skills and technicians who can be trained in a few months. Large solar arrays are completed in only months.
3) Safety. We have no answer for nuclear waste. Not just the fuel, but the millions of gallons of waste water and for the reactors which are currently being allowed to rot in place. Nuclear brings a risk to our neighborhoods totally unlike that created by any other energy source. The meltdowns in Russia and Japan have caused Germany, Switzerland and likely Japan to swear off nuclear. Let one of our reactors melt down in the US (like Three Mile Island did and Bessie-Davis and Browns Ferry almost did) and it will be ‘game over’ for nuclear in the US. People will not tolerate that amount of danger when there are clear alternatives.
Hawaii – is there any place on Earth with more renewable energy sources? You’ve got sun, wind, waves and geothermal resources in abundance. Why would you even want to bother thinking about nuclear which would make you dependent on imported fuel and risk the total loss of an entire island?
Get busy and tap your hot rocks, grab some of your marvelous sunshine, spin some turbines and quit paying a fortune for imported oil. The technology you need is available and affordable.
Bob, I appreciate your input. I believe that you are wrong on all counts. (1) Cost is high mostly in the US and Europe. (2) Anything large requires a lot of time. China is an example that neither (1) or (2) are big problems. Again please note that I referred to locales that are likely to grow in population by the millions. (3) Nuclear plant safety is comparable to loss of life of other energy producing technologies.
You will find several articles in which I support geothermal energy in Hawaii, so our bottom line is the same. Unfortunately madame Pele offers her plentiful resource only on the Bis Island. It will take a huge investment to pipe geothermally produced electricity from Hawaii Island to Oahu (where the consumption is) either directly (cable) or by a chemical avenue (syngas or NH3).
What may be more appropriate for Oahu, and what I haven’t seen addressed in the previous comments, is OTEC. I understand OTEC International is in negotiations w/HECO to deliver up to 100MW’s from a platform off Oahu’s Coast. Supposedly, 10 such stations could provide all of Oahu’s electric needs.
Panos Prevedouros, Ph.D., professor of civil engineering at the University of Hawaii – get in touch with Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil engineering at Stanford and let him get you up to speed re: renewables.
Mark can give you a few links which can educate you on how Hawaii can become energy dependent in a hurry and not risk your wonderful state in the process. Hawaii should be a world leader in renewable energy given its natural resources and what it could save by not having to import oil. You guys could create a lot of great jobs for your citizens and show the rest of the world the best way forward.
Bob Wallace, Ph.D., not in civil engineering and retired…. ;o)
Bob, thanks for the advice. Renewables are plentiful but very expensive and cost-ineffective. Hawaii has 400,000 taxpayers only and among the highest tax burden in the nation. Most renewable schemes for Hawaii are pipe-dreams or tax-payer financed profiteering ventures for special interests (green-mongers.)
Panos – what kWh numbers are you using for nuclear, wind and solar?
I’ve seen no credible numbers for nuclear which are lower than around $0.18/kWh if subsidies are included.
The lowest estimate for new nuclear that I’ve seen is $0.12/kWh and that was from a nuclear industry person who refused to release any details so that one could determine if he had included everything. And he was not including government subsidies. All-in estimates for new nuclear are running much higher.
Wind is roughly $0.05/kWh before subsidies in good wind locations.
What would be the cost of a meltdown on Oahu? You’re a civil engineer, you know that no plant is every built 100% safe, humans are involved. We’ve got a long history of human screw-ups, several of which could have easily caused meltdowns. It’s not just the three reactors which actually went sour.
What would it cost to store the used fuel for a few hundred years? Don’t count on the mainland doing that job for you.
Do some research. It is a stone cold fact that wind farms are commonly built in a couple of years or less and that large solar arrays get installed in only months. If you want to lead your community please do it from a position of knowledge, not nuclear industry spin.
It’s a stone cold fact that practical wind capacity once pegged at 30% is quickly falling to the low 20s. That’s close to useless.
Please note that the emphasis of my article is the World, not the US. The latter has shown with its past focus on corn ethanol and windmills that energy-wise does not know right from wrong.
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