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Out Of Big Oil And Into Big Nuke

quixote's picture

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 to 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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S Brennan's picture
Submitted by S Brennan on

"Thorium reactors

1. Fuel is 10 times more abundant and readily available in the waste streams of existing metal mines. This will ensure a good supply without additional mining of any kind especially Uranium mining. Thorium ... See More technology will also keep fuel prices low compared to what will happen if a major build out of new Uranium reactors is begun. Ur prices have been suppressed for decades because of the availability of reprocessed Russian warheads taken out of service in arms control deals, this supply stream is ending and Ur prices will skyrocket in the next decade if major new projects come on line.

2. Thorium reactors are self regulating and don't need expensive and dangerous high pressure systems, lower costs and lower risk.

3. Thorium waste is only hot for a couple hundred years and contains fewer exotic and toxic materials. While still a major storage problem this fact greatly improves the long term logistics of nuclear waste.

4. Thorium reactors can be built without worries of weapon development, You can't make a bomb from it so places like Iran can build them without threatening their neighbors.

5. Thorium reactors can be used to downgrade the toxicity of other nuclear wastes containing plutonium while using them as part of the fuel mix. This reduces dangerous waste and weapons grade fuel, win/win."




Submitted by jawbone on

From commenter at quixote's cross-post at The Confluence. Hey, it's one Prog who seems to seeing Obama in a different light. No longer the Lightbringer he was thought to be by some.

The comments are interesting. Most see the satire, but some are upset that Obama isn't being treated seriously. And, besides, he can't go down to the seabed and fix the leak himself, ya know. (Freakin' strawman arguments, now brought to you by freaking progessives.)

I only ask why we can't have an Apollo Program Redux, but earth bound, using the sun's rays to get electricity from solar panels...on every possible rooftop and suitable site. NOW. Get rid of some of our carbon based pollution. Yes, right now we don't have the means to fuel most transportation with electricity or non-polluting fuels, but we could lessen use of carbon based energy for some things.

And, of course, Pres. Obama could still begin a crash program to get cars, trains, planes more fuel efficient. Could do a mass nation-wide solar collection program. Create jobs and an industry. Use the right of eminent domain to place solar panels on all rooftops. Begin immediately.

That would require leadership and a realization that as president he ought to work for the common good, not just the corporate profits.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

is that the whole thing could have worked together:

1) desperate need for government to pour money on the economy,

go to step 2) provide universal, single payer health care and take one huge monkey off everyone's back, businesses and individuals,

and combine that with Step 3) the Energy Works program to move the country off oil (and nuclear...) and onto a sustainable path.

Yes, it would have taken a lot money. Maybe as much as a trillion dollars or two. That's the whole point. The government had to pour money on the economy anyway. At that critical point, a week or so after inauguration, an FDR-type administration would have pushed that whole interlocking package through. Instead we got a couple of trillion poured on Wall St. and war and a big zero.

(Re thorium reactors: Why go for something a bit less bad, which cannot be built fast enough to solve the problem, when we could instead spend the money on a real solution? Why? That's like saying let's have a war to stimulate the economy, but our side will use drones. It makes no sense.) (Sorry to be shouting, but, honestly, all this stuff is just a no-brainer.)

That Common Dreams article by David Green is perfect. Thanks for providing the link!

mojave_wolf's picture
Submitted by mojave_wolf on

I saw it in my mail feeds for both here and the Confluence. Glad you are making the case; sad to see so many not heeding.

And you're totally right, the nuclear industry has already been upping the propaganda ante for years, and have people convinced of completely non-existent limitations on solar, despite an issue of Scientific American a couple of years ago that layed out clearly and convincingly how the entire power grid could be solar within 50 years, even if there were NO advances in technology. (And, given the relative paucity of resources spent on solar development relative to nuclear/oil etc, no new advances seems highly unlikely). Obviously, simply getting most of the power grid to a solar and wind combo would be far easier.

It simply requires the will and no greater short term sacrifices than nuclear, with far less risk, and far less present and future pollution.

Also, solar and wind can be set up on individual homes so that in many parts of the country (practically all of the American Southwest) people don't even have to be connected to the main power grid (several homes near me are fully self-sustaining), so it leaves less room for monopoly power abuse of rates and such (which, as anyone living in SoCal can tell ya, has been a big problem ever since the wonders of deregulation were foisted upon us, and that's without peak oil shortages or world destroying gushers or such, or any excuse at all except completely made up ones). You'd think everyone concerned about civil liberties would be pushing solar and wind, from the left to the libertarians, for these reasons alone, even aside from the "no chance of humongous accident due to corporate cost-cutting and regulatory willful blindness" and "nuclear is a big pollution issue just to mine and build" issues.

Submitted by jawbone on

wherewithal and property, plus inclination. But, for the common good, if we band together we all come out ahead. A homeowner's or property owner's roof will have solar panels on it, but the electricity will be pooled, and the power that comes from the one home will be part of that pool. Some small rental fee may be part of the plan, but the main goal should be cutting pollution, lessening global warming. Avoiding the need to drill in deep, deep waters or polar waters until we have no more oil for the things which only petroleum can be used to make (not exactly sure what those things are, but right no medical equipment comes to mind0.

Not going to be easy, since private profit has been made the "normal" for this nation since St. Ronnie, and for Repubs even earlier, but the real goal should be to take care of pollution. And thereby take care of our world, ourselves, and our future generations.

It can't just be Bush's "ranch" house which is green, has solar power, etc.; it has to be everywhere, with as little electricity as possible coming from coal and oil--carbon based energy.

To achieve real change in this nation, we need a strong and convincing leader, not just us here on blogs or people who do their own solar (bless them).

Leadership: It's not just for wars, dude.

mojave_wolf's picture
Submitted by mojave_wolf on

Sadly, what actually seems to happening is that people are instead gonna develop huge chunks of seemingly empty-but-inhabited-by-plants-and-small-wildlife desert, some of it pristine.

Which is still a GIANT improvement over any other option I have read about, but it would be nice if enough people pushed enough government sources fast enough to head that off at get the rooftop installation going instead. It won't stop all the desert development, but it will stop some, and I wanna preserve as much as possible of our dwindling open space.

(to the objectors, yes, you're right, private property issues and people not wanting the construction on *their* rooftops would make this problematic, but if ever there would be sufficient will to get this done, now seems like a good time to push it, and there are ways of making this work for everyone involved).

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

and rents. That's why they (i.e. They. Big Solar.) pooh pooh rooftops, which they can't own, and push for massive installations. Preferably on Bureau of Land Management Land, probably. At the very least, you'd think they could push for using derelict industrial areas. But, no-o-o.

Submitted by jawbone on

loss of power over increased distances. This allows established Big Bidness to say that solar in inefficient and not feasible.

Solar collectors on roofs in urban areas collect and transfer to the grid where the user are.

Again, massive solar collection is a bridge tactic which helps lower the use of carbon based fuels in the short run. We may indeed, if we push for R&D now, now, now, find that solar can become more efficient and thus work long term as well. Or we may find other possibilities.

We need a leader who will push, prod, incentivize and/or force the recalcitrant to make genuine changes. Now, now, now.

But, we've got an incrementalist who worships at the alter of St. Ronnie and Capitalism as practiced by our Bid Bidness corporations. Alas, alack.

mojave_wolf's picture
Submitted by mojave_wolf on

Sorry to thread spam, but this posted after I loaded the page:

The government had to pour money on the economy anyway. At that critical point, a week or so after inauguration, an FDR-type administration would have pushed that whole interlocking package through. Instead we got a couple of trillion poured on Wall St. and war and a big zero.

That says it all. Instead of a green jobs program giving tens of thousands of unemployed and poorly employed people a living wage and maybe even benefits, we get tons of money poured into failed institutions so rich people wouldn't have to be less rich.

The former actually *would* have stimulated the economy, in a meaningful way over the long term. (hell, just writing checks to lots of poor people would do that, but why not build the infrastructure for the future, get us off polluting energy sources, and give people something to put on their resumes while you're at it?). The latter? Well, here we are.

S Brennan's picture
Submitted by S Brennan on

1] "Why go for something a bit less bad?"

Thorium reactors will reduce the present amount of high level waste in the world, spent rods stop working after about a 3% depletion. Those rods need to be stored for "eternity" in nuclear waste dumps. OR they can be fed into Thorem reactors where they will be converted into 1/50th waste that has a half life of around 500 years. That's NOT A BIT LESS BAD, those are huge numbers to people who are not arithmetic challenged.

2] [Thorium reactors] "which cannot be built fast enough to solve the problem"

a] You don't understand the technology, these are low pressure, they self regulate, to hot, the reaction stops, take energy away, they stop. Thorium reactors are much smaller too 1/12 the size, built in a plant and delivered to the site. Comparing them to building a uranium nuclear plant is the equivalent of comparing the ENIAC to today's work stations.

b] I am not excluding any technology, they all have a place it, it is the author of this post [and the 3 commenters so far] that seeks to exclude technology. I welcome solar, both thermal & PV, wind, wave & tidal. All have pluses, all have minuses, including the fact they "cannot be built fast enough to solve the problem"

What's more they won't be built in poorer countries until their current coal fired plants have been driven into the ground from use

3] "when we could instead spend the money on a real solution?"

We will get nuclear whether you like it or not. We will get solar. We will get wind power. Your desires won't play a role, economics of the wealthy will. You can chose to get a safe, clean nuclear, or the same old shit that makes bombs. A lot of powerful people will make more money with uranium...but it is hard to argue against Thorium if you going to make nuclear power plants anyway. That's the reality. Another reality is those powerful people I mention above really want to shut down the Thorium conversation. I am not accusing the author of this post of anything unethical, but "astroturfed" groups will appear to shut down the Thorium conversation the same way "single payer" conversation was shut down. FYI, far more uranium has been put into the environment by the burning coal than all the nuclear accidents and air burst together...something like a factor of ten.

3] "That's like saying let's have a war to stimulate the economy, but our side will use drones. It makes no sense."

Those powerful people I mentioned above will use "astroturfed" groups to make arguments like you are making here to confuse people with tenuous analogies.

4] "all this stuff is just a no-brainer."

That seems to be an American response to most subjects, I don't agree with the Fox network approach, I think energy policy should take a lot of thought

Submitted by jawbone on

I'll bet R&D is necessary to take such an idea to implementation. Could be part of what a real leader would be doing for this nation. Along with the Apollo Project Redux. It's not one thing or the other -- It's finding out what works, what is feasible. And doing is NOW, ASAP.

Take the testing and trials out of the hands of Big Corporations. Just find out what the hell works. It works; it 's implemented. It doesn't work or needs more work, it gets worked on, studied, tested until it's shown one way or the other it does or doesn't.

Submitted by Elliott Lake on

"those powerful people I mention above really want to shut down the Thorium conversation."

Or, it could just be, you know, a really really bad idea for the reasons already pointed out. And freakishly expensive, polluting, and rent-provoking. YAY just what we need, to be more in thrall to private industry.

But if you have a job in the industry, or property with thorium on it, I suppose it sounds good.

beowulf's picture
Submitted by beowulf on

I say America should go right to time reactors!
"A time reactor (patent pending) is a system accessing and applying the stored potential energy within regions of curved spacetime or hyperspace."
Patent pending, eh... I pity the patent examiner stuck with reviewing THAT application. :o)

Seriously though, thorium reactors clearly are the best nuclear power plant design, the real problem with Obama's nuclear power plan is in how its structured. Its an exercise in rent seeking, analogous to Obama ignoring the Government's own Medicare system to instead subsidize private insurers.

The most experienced operator of nuclear reactors in the world is the US Government, more precisely, our Navy (the TVA operates a few civilian plants as well). If Uncle Sam wants to build out nuclear power plants, the logical model would be for the Navy to build out and operate the reactors just as the Army operates dozens of hydroelectric plants at reservoirs built by the Corps of Engineers. it'd be both more cost-effective for taxpayers and safer (eliminates any moral hazard risk if the insurer is also the operator).

But that approach leaves billions of dollars of federal funding unavailable for corporate rent-seeking, so it was never even an option.