Thursday, February 19, 2009

Energy, Nuclear Power and the Future of the American Economy

I have argued since December 2007 that the future of energy lies with nuclear energy.
I have argued that this is the case even if the problem of Anthropogenic Global Warming is discounted. My argument in no small measure has rested on the limitations of renewable energy and the high costs of overcoming those limitations. Although my argument is not yet reflected in mainstream discussions of energy, there is growing recognition that the problems I point to cannot be easily solved.

I have also pointed to problems with the conventional nuclear option. I have defended the conventional nuclear option from the ritualized, mythic criticisms from anti-nuclear spokes-persons, but this does not mean that I think the the conventional nuclear option is without flaws. My view is that despite some flaws, the conventional nuclear option comes in at a lower cost than renewables, once the flaws of renewables are corrected and the corrections paid for. I have been criticised for taking this viewpoint. I have also been criticized for pointing to the flaws of conventional nuclear power, even though there is no real disagreement with my account of those flaws.

Now some of my critics, critics who would say I should not talk about the issues, are people I respect, including Rod Adams and Bill Hannahan. But they must understand that the issues that I raise are not new issues and they are not trivial issues. Nor do I view these issues as trivial in their implication. I will not shove issues-related technological progress in nuclear energy under the rug.

I have a stake in both sides of the issues I discuss. My brother David came by my apartment on Saturday. He brought with him two boxes of my father's publications which he had brought back from Oak Ridge. In one of the boxes was a letter acknowledging that my father's assignment of patent rights to the industrial process for the separation of zirconium and hafnium. This was an important patent for the development of conventional nuclear power. My father looked with satisfaction on this achievement, and his role in the development of conventional nuclear technology does give me something of a personal stake in conventional nuclear power production.

The two boxes of my father's papers contained copies of many of my father's papers documenting his Molten-Salt Reactor chemistry research. So I have another stake in that. Although my father's nearly 20-year involvement with Molten Salt research was not crowned with success my father never stopped believing in the idea and my LFTR advocacy gave him much satisfaction during the last year of his life.

My father also holds a patent for the fuel formula used in the first MSR prototype. As I have documented elsewhere in this blog, his Molten-salt research at ORNL included numerous accomplishments. Although he was proud of his accomplishment in the development of conventional reactors, even during the last year of his life, in conversations I had with him, he saw MSR/LFTR technology as the way into the energy future.

Thus even if I had no views independent of my father's views. I would still be forced to acknowledge his views, that the LFTR represents the future of nuclear technology. I simply, and in all honesty cannot keep quiet on the relative merits of the LWR and the LFTR, and it is not fair to ask me to do so.

The debate between the LFTR and the conventional reactor is far too important to be allowed to pass without noting. We are in urgent need of addressing the emissions of CO2 in energy because of global warming. The issue of peak coal was recently placed on the table. I am not convinced by the case for peak coal yet, but even without arguing either for peak coal or for Anthropogenic Global Warming, a strong case can be made for the elimination of coal use in the generation of electricity. I expect that energy concerns are very quickly going to become much more important in the public mind, and in the mind of decision makers. I also expect that there will be growing awareness of the short comings of renewables, and no small amount of dismay at the inability of renewables to cut the mustard.

Between Anthropogenic Global Warming, peak oil, and the liabilities of coal, society faces a looming energy gap. This will be no where more significant than in the United Kingdom, where the need to close reactors and old fired power plants in the next decade will almost certainly lead to significant electrical shortages. It is unlikely that the British Government's plan to build 33 GWs of wind powered generating capacity can be accomplished within the timeframe projected as a project goal. Constructing enough nuclear generating capacity to fill the gap would be a realistic alternative, if the British Government were willing to go beyond a business as usual approach, and assign the construction of nuclear power plants a war-time-like priority.

The case for urgency in resolution of the British power gap is very powerful, and it failure to do so would be a disaster for the political system. In the short run politicians who might be aware of the problem are afraid to get out ahead of the public. Thus national leaders are are failing to provide leadership. I am aware of the problem from the writings of Christopher Booker and Richard North, and discussions on the Oil Drum. A number of reports have also discussed the energy gap problem, but to date the problem has not gotten sufficient traction with the British public to become important.

But within less than a decade the British Energy Gap will begin to tell. Whatever else will happen, electricity will be in short supply in the UK. The insecurity of the British gas supply, which Mr. Putin demonstrated this winter, can potentially aggravate the problem. New electrical capacity, whether nuclear or wind, is likely to be more expensive than the old plants that are being shut down. The term "energy poverty" is beginning to pop up in discussion of the inability of the poor members of society to pay for electricity. Energy poverty is very much a life and death issue in the United Kingdom where winters, while hardly Arctic, can still be very cruel to those who cannot afford to pay for heat.

In addition, there are serious implications for the British economy. First the energy intensive industries that remain in the United Kingdom must look at the future reliability problems of the British electrical system. Chinese reactor costs are currently running between $1565 and $1760 per KW. The Chinese plan to have as many as 100 reactors under construction or completed by 2020, with the capacity to rapidly expand that number between 2020 and 2030. Yesterday I pointed out that Indian reactor costs appear to be even lower, with construction costs for Generation IV Liquid Metal Fast Breeders coming in at $1400 per KW. The Indians also possess an long term assured reactor fuel supply, and the Indian nuclear program, although complex is well thought out and technologically more advanced than the Chinese program.

Thus the British Industrialist, contemplating future energy shortages and electrical costs, might well be tempted to move his production to one of the emerging Asian superpowers. Such temptation is widely shared and acted on, would contribute to an economic decline for the United Kingdom. Even if the British government acquired the cojones needed to prevent the energy gap, the cost of a high priority nuclear solution would leave British electricity more expensive than Chinese or Indian electricity. Thus the Chinese and the Indians would possess a considerable competative advantage over the UK. Add to that advantage, the advantage of lower labor costs, and you get a formula for a long term economic decline of the UK. Of course this would not make the greens weep, not at first at least. But eventually the Greens would come to see that they did not solve the problems associated with human wealth, rather the problems would be transfered from Europe to Asia.

Unfortunately current understandings, or rather misunderstandings of American energy have distorted public thinking about our options. Renewable advocates are both dishonest and confused. I have on Nuclear Green, Energy from Thorium, and Daily Kos, explored the renewable options, and the cost of making renewable electricity dependable. Renewable advocates when confronted with the shortcomings of renewable electricity usually resort to talking about three options. They are:
1. Energy efficiency
2. the smart grid
3. energy storage
Separately, and in combination energy efficiency and a smart grid will not produce electricity if the wind stops blowing on a cold winter night. Curiously when confronted with these facts, renewables advocates fall back on the carbon emitting grid back up as if we will never dispense with it. When it comes to negative comparisons with nuclear, renewables advocates will argue that renewables electrical generation will always be supported by and will require the burning of CO2 emitting fossil fuels.

I have documented the conceptual problems involved in the claim that energy efficiency can fill the gap. Nothing about a smart grid allows it to deliver energy that is not produced or stored. I have looked at a number of proposed systems for storing electricity from wind generation under very favorable wind conditions. Even under favorable wind conditions, no wind energy storage system can make reliable West Texas wind cost competitive with conventional nuclear generated electricity. Nor will West Texas wind even with energy storage ever be as reliable or flexible as conventional nuclear. The problem then with conventional nuclear is not its cost competitiveness with renewables, rather it is the fact that both renewables and conventional nuclear cost too much.

My advocacy of the LFTR then is not simply motivated in my father's role in its development. My father never looked at the potential of the LFTR for lowering electrical costs. Thus in addition to solving the major issues of nuclear power, including outstanding safety, and largely resolving the problem of nuclear waste, cutting CO2 emissions to next to nothing, and eliminating the need to mine for nuclear fuel for thousands of years, LFTRs have the potential of being built at a fraction of the cost of renewables or conventional nuclear.

My view has always been that a rapid conversion to a post-carbon energy system that is safe, efficient, reliable and affordable is not an option. If the American economy is to have a future, and the American people are to live in relative prosperity, comfort, safety, security, and good health, then the potential of the LFTR is not an option. The only post-carbon energy source that has the potential to realize these goals is the LFTR. I believe then that it is appropriate for me to discuss the relative advantages of the LFTR over both conventional nuclear and renewable electrical sources.


Anonymous said...

Charles, a well reasoned argument.

As far as LWR vs. LFTR, I don't think it is a matter of either-or. I think it is a matter of both, but with somewhat different goals.

We should not let "better" or "perfect" be the enemy of "good", when we are trying to replace "worse" (fossil fuels). Conventional LWR power plants are in hand and are being built today. Yes, there are a number of issues that add to their cost, but at least they are producing clean energy right now. At a minimum, they are a good interim step on the way to better advanced, sustainable nuclear energy systems.

I think we need a three-pronged approach: 1. Build LWR plants quickly to replace coal as soon as possible; 2. Agressively develop the LFTR. 3. Agressively develop another sustainable nuclear technology (something on the order of the IRF perhaps).

With a bit of luck, an advanced nuclear technology will be available from one or both of the development programs to replace fossil fuel power plants before the LWRs have finished the job.

Will this be costly? Yes. But not as costly as letting our economy slide downhill due to expensive energy from intermittant renewables.

Is it not wasteful to be developing two advanced nuclear energy technologies? No, I don't think so. There is an old saying, "Competition improves the breed." There is another old saying, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." I would like to see two programs competing not for funding but for the opportunity to provide safe, abundant and economical energy. There is such a need for energy world wide that both can be successful.

The second technology might turn out to be a breeder that in conjunction with the LWRs already in operation could have good economies if the cost of uranium should rise a lot. I don't view this as a bad thing. It is akin to using a LFTR as the heat source to replace coal in a steam cycle power plant. These solutions may not be what you would do if you were starting from scratch, but given in-place infrastructure, they are a good way forward.

Anonymous said...

Great post! You are truly a voice of sanity in the wilderness.

DW said...

Unfortunatly Charles I tend to agree with Rod and others. Not because you are wrong in the facts, but wrong, maybe wrong, in the *politics* of this question.

I, as a strong LFTR advocate, blogger, advocate, also support the new wave of LWR (and some HWR as well) because I think one can't separate out the public conception of fission power quite as easily as you think. I'm convinced that the future of the LFTR is intimately tied to the successful future development of Generation III reactor technology.

The policies on nuclear, be they local or State or planetary, are in large part going to determine the politics of LFTR development. There are to many cross overs in engineering, health physics, safety, etc to think "Well, we are over HERE with the LFTR, they, the GEN III crowd, are over THERE....".

I think this is an artificial, out of place Chinese Wall, or perhaps Berlin Wall is more appropriate term. To get to 2050 and the beginning of a Thorium Economy will require a several decades long acceptance of LWR technology by ALL stake holders.


Anonymous said...

Charles, I found this interesting master thesis on the storage requirement and land area use of power the US grid with only wind and solar.

Under his assumptions, which he freely admits are too optimistic, he gets a storage requirement for an electric grid of acceptable reliabillity of ~80 days worth of backup for the entire electricity production of the US grid.

If I remember correctly US average electricity demand is around 400 GW. Using your numbers for the Northfield mountain facillity in the pumped storage post on the 7th, this comes out to ~260 trillion dollars worth of pumped hydro storage if there was actually somewhere to build that much storage.

If we go down the renewable road we'll be burning gas and coal by the quadrillion BTUs until they run out or reality beats enough sense into us that we stop trying.

It might actually be good for the world if Germany keeps going the way they are; when their electrical grid disintegrates or goes ever deeper into coal and gas it will be an illustrative example.

Charles Barton said...

David W., you should consider carefully my discussions of the Idols of the Tribe, or of tribal shibboleths. Truth is not a matter of politics, or tribal prejudices, and never has been. Who am I if I criticize renewables if i criticize renewables advocates for deceptive arguments, and then turn around and hide the weaknesses of conventional nuclear power.

Anonymous said...

Charles Barton: a true warrior of knowledge, or maybe even a saint.

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

John Adams, 'Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,' December 1770
US diplomat & politician (1735 - 1826)


Marcel F. Williams said...

The United States needs to use nuclear electricity to become completely independent of coal and gas. And it also needs to use nuclear energy to produce the hydrocarbon synfuels that will make us totally independent of the petroleum fuel economy. Additionally, the US needs to become the first major exporter of nuclear produced synfuels in order to put an end to the fossil fuel economies around the world.

And this could be done even with today's nuclear and electrolysis technology. But future breeder and high temperature nuclear technologies over the next 20 or 30 years will help to make a nuclear economy even more efficient.

However, attempting to become independent from the fossil fuel economy solely through renewable energy would be far more expensive than nuclear energy and could possibly wreck our economy before this goal was ever even achieved.

Marcel F. Williams

DW said...

For sure Charles you should speak the truth, the issue is clarity. Kirk has the same problem, however. You both have defended nuclear energy on it's own merits, as is. I've seen you do this numerous times. But it is not necessary to emphasize *to make the point* that LFTRs are good things because LWRs somehow suck or are bad things and this sometimes can come across like that.

Now, if in fact your POV has changed and you think that nuclear LWRs are a necessary evil, then that is different, that's your position (I hope it is not), and you should speak truthfully.

My other point still one will make LFTR work, deployable, if the antis win. *Politically* safe LWRs must continue to give the needed momentum to consider LFTR technology as a serious contender.

Laws that ban nuclear ban ALL nuclear, regardless of how little actual waste a LFTR would produce or how little water it would use to cool it's turbines, etc. Without the success of Gen III LWRs there will be no Gen IVs.

David Walters

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure Dave. LFTR technology is giving hardened anti-nukes an "exit" strategy from their anti-nuclear opinions, which can then be recast as an "anti-LWR" opinion rather than a broad "anti-nuclear" opinion. This is happening, quietly behind the scenes in a number of places and in the minds of some very important people. They don't have to embrace LWRs to embrace LFTR. In fact, some are embracing LFTR for EXACTLY this reason.

DW said...

Well, that's true Kirk, we've seen it on the DK, I can't deny it. But while it may be true for anti-nukes, as a sort of 'transition' away from hardened anti-nuclear positions, it doesn't address the overall political issue of the hardened anti-nuclear lobby that current holds sway...we are bound to LWRs because of the LWRs being deployed and setting the stage for things that come after it, like GEN-IV/LFTRs.

It's not a Iron Wall, but the reality is that they (antis) WILL go after LFTR, perhaps more so, since it is so much better than LWR technology ,it's more of a target.



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