Frack Away: Who Needs Nukes Anyway

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Natural gas triumphant

Over at The Daily Beast, Manhattan Institute analyst Robert Bryce makes a persuasive case that abundant supplies of cheap natural gas will outcompete nuclear power for many years to come:

This much-ballyhooed nuclear renaissance was little more than a mirage. Love fission or hate it, the rebirth of America's nuclear sector—with some 20 reactors reportedly planned for the next 15 to 20 years—was going nowhere fast. And this stillborn rebirth was readily apparent for months before the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan, damaging several of the country's reactors and giving the world its worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. 

Needless to say, the news from Japan, especially for hard-core nuclear advocates like me, depresses on many levels, as it will clearly slow down popular demand and give fresh fodder to anti-nuclear environmental groups, most notably, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

But the forces that already undermined the revival of America's nuclear sector are largely economic, not political. The most formidable obstacle: the ongoing shale gas revolution. The ability of drillers to unlock vast quantities of natural gas has resulted in an avalanche of methane production and a resulting collapse in prices. Last year, U.S. gas production hit its highest level since 1973. And despite a very cold winter, natural-gas prices have generally stayed below $4 per thousand cubic feet, which is about half the level seen as recently as 2008.

However, Bryce is bullish on the prospects for nuclear power further along in this century, especially mentioning modular reactors and thorium reactors.

A while back, I looked at the prospects of modular reactors such as the Hyperion Power Module, Babcock & Wilcox' mPower reactor, and Terrapower's traveling wave reactor in my article, The New Nuclear Future, for Chief Executive Magazine.

With regard to thorium reactors, I noted yesterday:

Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) have a lot to recommend them with regard to safety. Fueled by a molten mixture of thorium and uranium dissolved in fluoride salts of lithium and beryllium at atmospheric pressure, LFTRs cannot melt down (strictly speaking the fuel is already melted). 

Because LFTRs operate at atmospheric pressure, they are less likely than conventional pressurized reactors to spew radioactive elements if an accident occurs. In addition, an increase in operating temperature slows down the nuclear chain reaction, inherently stabilizing the reactor. And LFTRs are designed with a salt plug at the bottom that melts if reactor temperatures somehow do rise too high, draining reactor fluid into a containment vessel where it essentially freezes.

It is estimated that 83 percent of LFTR waste products are safe within 10 years, while the remainder needs to be stored for 300 years. Another advantage is that LFTRs can use plutonium and nuclear waste as fuel, transmuting them into much less radioactive and harmful elements, thus eliminating the need for waste storage lasting up to 10,000 years. No commercial thorium reactors currently exist, although China announced a project earlier this year that aims to develop such reactors.

Bottom line: cheap natural gas will likely outcompete all other energy sources for producing electricity for some time to come. One caveat: Natural gas will win unless governments somehow succeed in putting a sufficiently price on carbon dioxide emissions.

Whole Bryce article is well worth reading.