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In another Tech Central Station report from Canada's climate change confab, all Ron Bailey is saying is: Give nukes a chance.

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  1. I’ve been singing the nuke power song for twenty years now. All the Greenies I?ve encountered stick their fingers in their ears and go ?LA LA LA LA LA? at the opening notes. Here’s hoping a new chorus will attract more members to the choir.

    One nit to pick.
    A gigawatt is enough energy to supply about 400,000 homes each year.
    Being an electrical engineer this gave me spasms. A watt is a unit of power. A watt-hour is a unit of energy. My guess is that Ron meant to say:
    A gigawatt is enough power to supply about 400,000 homes.

  2. for how long? (not an engineer)

  3. HaHa, my plan is working. The coal miners union is crushed, and now the subsidies for nuclear power will proceed apace. Bwahahaha

  4. We wouldn’t be having anywhere near this many problems with nuclear waste if the government and activist groups weren’t so keen on keeping breeder- reactors from being built. Until they admit many of their complaints about nuclear power could be solved by building something they banned, their position is worthless and hypocritical.

    Felix Matthes fails at the “life test” because he requires government to subsidize his ideology through legislation and take the liability for his own stupidity.

  5. Apologizing in advance, I?m going to go all Beakman on you (bite me Bill Nye).

    Energy is a mythical beast (like the unicorn) dreamed up by science types guys to help them understand the world we live in. It was noticed for instance that you could roll a ball down a hill, and the farther it rolled the faster it went, and the faster it went the bigger dent it put in whoever?s head it hit at the bottom. Also it was noticed that carrying balls back up the hill was hard work. The idea they had was the when you carried the ball up the hill, you put that hard work in the ball and when it rolled down it let the work out, so to speak. Well after rolling a lot of balls down a lot of hills, and carefully measuring everything (how high, how heavy, how fast, etc) they figured out how to calculate ahead of time how big a dent they could put in your head if you fell asleep at the bottom of the hill.

    To do this they invented the concept of energy. Energy could take different forms. For instance, lifting a ball off the ground stored potential energy in the ball equal to the mass of the ball times the height it was lifted to. A ball in motion had kinetic energy equal to the mass times the speed. As a ball falls from a height it trades potential energy for kinetic energy. It was also seen that the total energy in the ball (potential plus kinetic) was constant as it fell. This led them to conclude that energy is always conserved. That is, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. The conservation of energy is an important law. Science types depend on the conservation of energy and run screaming from the room if ever it is suggested it isn?t so.

    Later, they did experiments where energy seemed to disappear. So they decided it must be going somewhere and began looking for where it could be going. This led to the classification of more types of energy, such as chemical, thermal, and electrical. Ultimately even mass itself was reclassified as a form of energy (thanks Einstein).

    If all the different forms of energy are carefully measured before and after an experiment, the totals must be equal. (When somebody is able to repeat an experiment where energy appears to be destroyed we again go looking for where it went. Sometimes we even have to resort to blaming virtual particles stealing the energy undetected, but the phenomenon must be preserved!)

    Now, burning a log is an example of energy conversion. You start with a complex arrangement of chemicals called a log. You add a little heat and oxygen and those chemicals begin to rearrange themselves. As they do, they loose their chemical potential energy, and so the log gets hot and gives off light. The heat and light are energy that are the result of the chemicals making themselves more comfortable.

    Power is the rate at which energy is used. If you define a log as a unit of energy, then a log per hour is a unit of power. If you burn two logs at the same time you will get twice the light and heat as burning them one at a time, but they will burn up twice as fast (actually they?ll burn even faster but that?s beyond the scope of this course).

    So if we are talking about electricity, we define the rate we use energy as a Watt. If you turn on the lamp and there is a 100W bulb in it, it uses 100 Watts as long as it?s on. So if you want to know how much energy you used, you multiply the rate of usage (power) times the length of time. If you have the lamp on for one hour, you used 100 Watt-hours of energy. This is what the electric company bills you for (one thousand whatt-hours is one kilowatt-hour).

    So if each home has enough lights, TV, stove etc. on to draw 2.5 kilowatts, then you would need 1 gigawatt to supply 400,000 homes. Alternately, 1 gigawatt-hour would supply 400,000 homes with enough electricity for one year if each home only averaged less than a third of a watt.

  6. “We wouldn’t be having anywhere near this many problems with nuclear waste if the government and activist groups weren’t so keen on keeping breeder- reactors from being built. Until they admit many of their complaints about nuclear power could be solved by building something they banned, their position is worthless and hypocritical.”

    I freely admit that I really haven’t the first clue about nuclear energy, so I looked Breeder Reactors up on Wikipedia.

    How is it possible for a nuclear reactor to create more fuel than it uses?

  7. Breeder reactors???

    I haven’t heard anyone mention those since… oh… since CHiPs was on the air.

  8. mediageek,
    I think they refer to non-fissile uranium 238 into fissile 239, which only takes a couple of subatomic particles as opposed to the larger thorium atoms used to make it happen.

  9. mediageek,
    I think they refer to non-fissile uranium 238 into fissile uranium 239, which only takes a couple of subatomic particles from the larger thorium atoms used to make it happen.

  10. Mediageek: it’s quite simple. There’s more than one kind of fuel. During fission, neutrons are spewed out as a sort of unusable energy. If one of those neutrons strikes an otherwise useless uranium-238 atom, it makes a plutonium-239 atom.

    Most reactors use a fuel that has a percentage of uranium-235 (the good stuff) and uranium-238, referred to as “depleted uranium” when it is refined as used as a penetrator in kinetic energy weapons. The uranium you dig out of the ground is usually one percent U-235. Some reactors use heavy water to maximize the use of neutrons in the core and this enables them to run on natural uranium. All Canadian reactors, for example. All American reactors are intended to work with “enriched” fuel, meaning that some of the U-238 has been siphoned off (this is harder than it sounds). Needless to say, there is still a lot of U-238 in the fuel; as the reactor burns up the U-235, part of the U-238 is converted to plutonium by these loose neutrons.

    A breeder reactor is designed specifically to produce as much plutonium as possible, which can then be cut into natural uranium or waste U-238 in place of the scarce U-235.

    Incidentally, there’s a hell of a lot of plutonium already out there. Remember that every reactor makes plutonium as a byproduct. Every spent fuel rod has some plutonium in it. It is currently illegal in the US to “reprocess” spent fuel rods to remove the plutonium and unspent U-235 for new fuel rods.

    Breeder reactors are a dead issue in every country except Japan. The notorious nuclear accident that occurred in Japan a few years ago involved plutonium being processed for fuel.

  11. The biggest reason they don’t want them built, or so they claim, is because when they reprocess the spent fuel rods they output weapons-grade plutonium.

    While it may be a dead issue now for most countries, it will be interesting to see how long those same countries deny the great potential of breeder-reactors once current fossil fuels (in particular oil, but coal as well) run out.

    Thanks for explaining that part James, I myself didn’t understand the mechanics, just the basic theory.

  12. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires electricity consumers to pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund a fee of one-tenth of a cent for every nuclear-generated kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed. That fund now totals $24 billion. It may be government mandated, but it is not government financed.

    The 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) (also known as the “Screw Nevada Bill”) amended the 1982 Act by limiting study from Hanford, WA, Deaf Smith County, TX, and Yucca Mountain, NV, to just Yucca Mountain, NV. You know, because Tom Foley(?) (WA) and Jim Wright (TX), thought that would be ok, and Chick Hecht (NV) really didn’t have any say-so in the matter. Also, the funds that the nuclear energy rate payers provided were moved from the NWPA fund to the government’s general fund (to make the deficit look smaller than it actually was). Congress still has to earmark all the money for the project each year, so saying that it isn’t currently government financed seems almost as misleading as saying the interstate highway system isn’t government financed.

  13. Warren, nice explanation, but you made a minor error, kinetic energy is equal to 1/2 mass times velocity squared.

    David Rollins, a watt can be viewed as an instantaneous unit of energy, so Ron is presumably saying a gigawatt will supply 400,000 homes for an instant. Looking at it another way, a gigawatt-hour will supply 400,000 homes for an hour.

    Using an online energy calculater, I came up with an estimated typical home usage of about 1060 kilowatt-hours per month, or roughly 1.5 kilowatt-hours per hour, which for 400,000 homes is roughly 600,000 kilowatts. Close enough to a gigawatt to suggest Warren’s correction of Ron is correct.

  14. James,

    France has breeder reactors as well.

  15. Rover: what few people understand about “reactor plutonium,” as its called, is that it really isn’t all that useful in nuclear weapons. This is a point that has been deliberately distorted by various persons and groups, so it’s worth flogging.

    One neutron into one U-238 atom yields on Pu-239 atom. However, if that Pu-239 atom gets hit again, it makes Pu-240. Another hit? Pu-241. When the US goes to make plutonium for nuclear weapons, they don’t reprocess reactor fuel. They take rods of U-238 and slip them into the core of a reactor for short periods of time, often just a few hours, then take them out and reprocess them. In this way, they get very little Pu-239 (VERY little, they have to do this over and over to get a meaningful amount of plutonium) but it is nearly all Pu-239, with no Pu-240.

    It turns out that Pu-240 and the other heavier isotopes are too unstable. They are in the habit of throwing off neutrons unexpectedly, turning a boom into a fizzle if used in a nuclear weapon. That having been said, it’s not impossible to build a nuclear weapon out of “reactor plutonium.” It’s just never been done. Not by anyone. People in the know say that the major nuclear powers (US, Russia, and France) who have built and detonated hundreds of nukes could probably do it. But they probably wouldn’t get it right on the first try. The idea that Iran or al-Qaeda could do so is preposterous. To make reactor plutonium useful would require enriching the plutonium to get the heavier isotopes out of it. No one has ever done so. If you can build an enrichment plant, hell, you just use uranium.

    So the threat of a theft of plutonium from a reprocessing center isn’t much of a threat, really. Fuel rods spend years in a reactor core. Sure, they got plenty of plutonium, but of mixed isotopes that aren’t going to be turned into a bomb by anyone al-Qaeda is going to find in the Yellow Pages. The real threat, as always, are the actual bombs in the hands of governments who, as we all know, have killed far more people than all the terrorists and all the criminals put together and multiplied by ten.

  16. Yeah, sure, give nukes a chance. Without government subsidies to uranium extraction, R&D, waste disposal, and decommissioning. And without any government indemnities or assumption of liability for nuclear accidents. Without these things, nuclear power wouldn’t even exist today, so it would be a moot issue.

  17. I want my Mr. Fusion already.

    Honestly, I’m not asking for much–fusion, home-based nanotech manufacturing, flying cars, solar system colonization, and VR Salma Hayek with haptic interface. Is that so much to ask?

  18. Yeah, sure, give nukes a chance. Without government subsidies to uranium extraction, R&D, waste disposal, and decommissioning. And without any government indemnities or assumption of liability for nuclear accidents. Without these things, nuclear power wouldn’t even exist today, so it would be a moot issue.

    That street goes both ways. A large part of why nuclear needs subsidies to survive is because the industry’s regulatory environment is many times as severe as that of its competitors. I suspect that even with the energy act’s new loan guarantees, subsidies, and tax credits, they still don’t offset the financial burden imposed by government regulations in the first place. We don’t know how nuclear energy would fare in a free market, because no government has ever trusted the market enough to let it handle nuclear power. And yes, that includes pre-TMI.

  19. phocion: Nobody knows what anything really costs nowadays. Consider the fact that the new energy bill had Congress voting tax credits for new drilling and throwing money at solar-power research. Consider the billions of dollars that the government spends protecting oil company installations in unstable countries. Consider, for example, that all nuclear waste has to be controlled, sequestered, and disposed of, while the petroleum and coal industries spend millions lobbying to allow more of the waste from combustion to be dumped into the atmosphere.

    In such a heavily regulated, taxed, policed, and subsidized energy environment, arguments that nuclear power “wouldn’t exist without subsidies” ring hollow, especially from the crowd that thinks that the Feds should pour billions into solar energy, which has been “just around the corner” since before I was born.

  20. That “just around the corner” sounds a bit like the thought of humans on Mars way back when. Oh, but wait, space exploration isn’t as important as abortion. How could I forget.

    I appreciate the explanation James, but with that it just makes me all the more pissed they refuse to use the reprocessing reactors. It’s like they’re trying to protect the oil industry and coal power plants. Either that or it’s just some ignorant, freaked activist group with tons of money.

    Oh hell, it’s government, why am I even asking?

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