Nuke Solution

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New at Reason: Straight from the catwalk in Milan, Ron Bailey speculates on how hydrogen power might actually happen.

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  1. Super man,

    Talk about nuclear accidents waiting to happen: what about an accident on launch?

    Not only that but the the earth itself is radioactive at sea level every year the dose is about 200 mRem. About double that in Denver. And even higher for airline workers.

    Now personally despite having a nuke reactor operator for a brother in-law and having been an RO myself in the Navy. I don’t favor nuke power. Wind is coming down the cost curve nicely and will soon be cheaper than nuke power.

    Two points. With wind widely distributed intemittancy is not a problem. The dangers of nuke power are over rated. The mercury spewed from coal burners is probably as dangerous as the radiation hazard from the American nuclear power system. I do mean system not just the plants.

  2. Jimmy, I’m reasonably certain that the figures I gave include industrial usage.

    MadPad, I thought the figure for spaceshots was was closer to $10,000 per pound. Maybe not.

    Anyway, most (in terms of volume) of what we call ‘radioactive waste’ consists of gloves, booties, masks, disposable PPE’s, etc. It is treated as radioactive waste by stipulation, i.e., because it was once used in a contamination area, not because it is necessarily contaminated (which some is, some is not). This is largely reg-driven.

    Most of the remainder of radioactive waste is process waste and D&D (that’s decontamination and decommissioning, NOT Dungeons and Dragons!) associated waste . This is a large class of waste that encompasses just about everything else not directly used in a reactor, and includes things like contaminated concrete and process equipment and piping (pumps, valves, chillers, you name it). The contamination associated with these is very low and not dangerous (unlike you routinely TRY to ingest/ inhale contaminants). Also included here would be things like tailings.

    This leaves spent fuel. As I noted in a post a few days ago, a LOT of energy is wasted by the once-through, low burnup fuel cycle currently employed in the US. Even so, the total amount of spent fuel is quite low, especially in terms of volume. All the spent fuel ever generated in the US could quite easily fit inside a single large building (not in one lump, however — must always be mindful of criticality).

    Also, the dangers of radioactivity are often overstated. It seems that most of the American public equates radioactive with magical. Not that there is no danger at all, of course. Eating a hearty steak dinner has a more pronounced effect on your blood chemistry than a “whopping” 100 rem dose, but 500 rem will almost certainly kill you. Most nuclear industry workers receive less than 5 rem per year.

    We are also exposed to radioactivity from all sorts of sources. For example, airline workers and frequent business travelers receive more annual dose, on average, than nuclear industry workers, due to increased cosmic ray exposure at higher altitudes. So do dentists and radiologists (from x-rays). And having sex is good for a few millirem due to the naturally occuring potassium 40 in your partner’s body (assuming you have a partner! :-).

    And nothing beats nuclear for sheer power density.

  3. Mark,

    Could the discrepancy be in the wording between ‘electrical generation’ and ‘total energy use’? Since I’d imagine there are very few electrical cars, compared to gasoline cars, and no nuclear cars, the use of the term ‘energy use’ could include the large amounts of fossil fuels used for transport, which would depress the total percentage for nuclear since it is only used for electrical generation, especially when you include the direct burning for heating and cooking that you mentioned. I’m not familiar enough with the numbers, but this may be a plausible explanation.

  4. Highway,

    The DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) compiles all kinds of stats concerning energy use (http://www.eia.doe.gov/). From these, it appears that transportation accounts for about 27% of total US consumption. Assuming the rest of the world uses as much energy in transportation (proportionately), this still would account for a little more than half of the discrepancy.

    Of course, we use WAY more energy for transportation than the rest of the world (again, proportionately, although I suspect that this is true in absolute terms as well), even more than large, mostly empty countries where large distances could be traveled on a regular basis (like Russia) (our own consumption is certainly related to both our size and our relative freedom [at least freedom to travel]). Upshot is, while you may be correct, I doubt that transportation energy consumption can account for enough of the difference.

  5. A very good article that zero’s in on the facts about basic laws of physics and how they impact these kinds of issue.

    I’m a little concerned about the second to last paragraph that reads:

    “But the way forward to the carbon-free nuclear/hydrogen future is hampered by the Kyoto Protocol, which excludes nuclear power as a “clean” source of energy despite the fact that it produces no greenhouse gases.”

    The only fault I have is with the narrow scope of the definitiion of “clean.” True, it generates no greenhouse gases, per se making it clean stricly in terms of greenhouse gases.

    But it DOES generate a tons of highly toxic, non-dispersing and immediately deadly radioactive waste in the form of radioactive water, spent fuel rods and irradiated metals and building materials.

    There is currently no good way of getting rid of this stuff. It must be warehoused and as the rate of use grows, the warehouses get bigger.

    Add on top of that, the fact that as the storage volume and transportation increase, the possibility of catastrophic failures (or catastrophic terrorist acts) in the generation, storage and transportation systems goes up with it.

    Dealing with those issues will certainly increase the energy it will take to transport and store it thus further decreasing the net benfit of the energy initially created.

    Comparitively, fossil fuels are fairly benign.

    Nuclear power does not become a realistic alternative until those issues are dealt with.

  6. Mark and Highway,

    Did you consider industrial power generation? Much of that is fossil (natural gas and coal), and some is process heat generated by chemical reactions in chemical plants.

    I’m not saying the UN is necessarily right hardly ever, but the 7% figure (for the world) sounds reasonable to me.

  7. Can’t we (me) launch our radioactive waste 1)into ourterspace or 2)at the sun? It wouldn’t do much damage there.

  8. Dear SuperMan,

    It currently costs about $3,000 per pound to launch anything into space. That would massively increase the energy & expense to deal with the waste issue further eroding the net benefit.

    Nice to ponder, though…

  9. I don’t know where UNEP gets their numbers, but nuclear energy currently accounts for 20% of the US electrical output and about 17% of the world’s. It is stated that nuclear accounts for only 7% of the TOTAL energy use in the world. If we assume that there is negligible home use of nuclear power, then that means that TOTAL energy use, worldwide, is 17/7 ~ 2.4 times the electrical production. There must be a hell of a lot of people burning oil, coal, natural gas and peat directly in their homes for heat.

    Since most of the world’s non-industrialized population is located between the Tropics, it seems highly unlikely that this 7% figure for nuclear is accurate. This would also mean that the US must be considerably less avaricious in its power usage than the 25% of the worldwide total generally attributed to it (of course, we really DO use that much, so the UN figure is even more suspect).

  10. If hydrogen research was currently worth pursuing on a large scale, it would be done without federal subsidies. The fact that nobody finds it worth doing indicates the technology won’t be competitive with fossil fuels at current prices.

    When fossil fuels get expensive enough, as they likely will if talk of extraction having peaked is true, plenty of money will be going into hydrogen R&D through purely market incentives.

    And as for control of global warming (assuming it exists, which it may) requiring a technological revolution–balderdash! It requires only an end to government subsidies that prevent consumers of energy and transportation services from fully internalizing the costs. When government subsidies and other intervention distort market price feedback, consumers of a resource are unable to make a rational decision of how much to consume based on the cost of providing it. The result is exponential increases in consumption. That’s why our economy is so transportation and energy intensive.

  11. Mark A.

    Thanks for the enlightenment on nuc waste…I’ll have to study that side of things a little more.

    As for the $10k vs $3k, I’ve read that NASA charges somewhere in the neighborhood of $10K but the actual launch costs seperate from the system that sustains NASA’s various enterprises when placed in the market should hover closer to the $3k mark.

    Still no one aware of the science would argue the nuclear is by far the most efficient form of power generation.

    Assuming the waste issue were dealt with rationally (yeah, like THAT’s gonna actually happen) that leaves only the ongoing saftey of the plant operation in question.

    I share your wry observation about most people’s perception of nuclear power bordering on mystical.

    Still, despite my own education, open-mindedness and capacity for rational thought, I cannot escape the fear of the ramifications of human failure.

    Chernobyl was real and I just can’t trust that the moneyed interests behind nuclear power won’t cut corners on safety when the bottom line is at stake. And trust me, this is not “China Syndrome” paranoia.

    It is with a love and appreciation for commerce, capitalism and free-market idealism that I put this forth.

    I don’t expect irrational guarantees from my fears and risk is truly a part of life but the ramifications for failure are so damned high when talking about nuclear power.

    I am encouraged by developments that confront those fears such as pebble-bed reactors and such.

    It may be that after 3-Mile Island (which actually proved how well safety system work) and Chernobyl, developing the technology so that it passes muster with a suspicious public will answer those safety fears as well.

    Time will tell. France has used nuclear quite effectively for some time now with no incidence of catastrophe.

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