Monday, March 22, 2010

No Silver Bullets for the RAE

The last two posts on Brave New Climate concern the future 0f energy in the United Kingdom. The most recent post by Barry Brook and Martin Nicholson discussed a thoroughly unimaginative report by the Royal Academy of Engineers, on the energy future of the UK.

The report suggested a range of energy options, without the slightest consideration of cost. The report further compounded its errors by writing off the very possibility of an all nuclear solution, by use of the catch phrase.
There is no single ‘silver bullet’ that will achieve the required cuts in emissions,
How do we know this? The report des not provide us with the slightest clue. The report also calls for stringent demand reduction measures, a scheme that is likely to fail.

I write in response to Brooks and Nicholson:
Why is it that the Royal Academy Engineers was not able to figure out what I was able to figure out in one afternoon in 2007? i never took one college hour in engineering, yet I figured out a way to make turning nuclear power into the very sort of silver bullet that the RAE denies exists. In one afternoon I was able to figure out how to answer all of the objections to nuclear power, including the cost objection, and to produce all of the nuclear power plants we need by 2050 with out breaking the bank, while assuring inherent reactor safety, solving the nuclear waste problem, assuring sustainable nuclear power, and decreasing the likelihood of nuclear war. What is more, once I came to these conclusions I looked around the Internet and discovered that other people had come to the same or similar conclusions.

The solution was quite simple. If you want to build a lot of industrial objects, you build them in factories. If you want to build a lot of reactors, you build them in factories. But how do transport a huge 1000 MW reactor out of the factory? The answer is that you don’t, you make the reactor small enough to transport by rail, barge or truck, say 100 MW. You can do things t make the reactor lighter too and if you make it less complex, it will cost less to build. I knew of such a reactor, an advanced reactor design that my father had spent 20 years working in developing at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That was the Molten Salt Reactor.

i quickly realized that the MSR had the potential to answer all of the classic objections to nuclear power, and that it could be built in factories is sufficient numbers by 2050, to provide all of the worlds energy needs. Furthermore, the MSR could run on a thorium fuel cycle, in fact would run better on a thorium fuel cycle than on a uranium fuel cycle, and could be made to breed thorium until we ran out of thorium several billion years from now, thus rendering the “uranium is not sustainable” objection absurd.

Furthermore, the thorium breeding molten salt reactor, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LF’tR), could be operated at temperatures as high as 1200 C, hot enough to for many industrial process uses, hot enough to produce hydrogen.
I became convinced that mall LFTRs could be built in factories at low price, set up rapidly and could revolutionized the energy economy with a time frame of as little as ten years after the completion of LFTR development and the completion of a LFTR factory. I grew up in the shadow of the Manhattan Project. I knew and know what people are capable of accomplishing within a short time, if they set aside the business as usual model, and commit to an all out effort to develop new technology, Far more was accomplished in Oak Ridge between 1942 and 1945 than would be required to see hundreds of LFTRs rolling off assembly lines. But the will has to be there to accomplish it.

What the RAE lacks is a vision, and a willingness to commit to it.


Barry Brook said...

Hi Charles,

Actually, the first post on Britain's energy future is by Douglas Wise, the 2nd post on the RAE study is by me and Martin Nicholson.

SteveK9 said...

The whole 'there is no silver bullet' and 'we must utilize a broad mixture of technologies', and similar comments are political, not technical. On the face of it such a thing is unlikely. We need baseload and load-following technologies. Two or three approaches are going to be best.

Even the advocates of nuclear are too frightened to tell politicians, 'look, nuclear is the answer' (you see wimpy statements like the above on Areva's blog all the time). They want to get the ball rolling without rocking the boat (to mix metaphors).

I think you will see nuclear plants built. They will do the job, they will get cheaper. This will all happen in Asia first. Then those countries will scale back and eventually abandon windmills and mirrors (I've read that grid operators in China are complaining about incorporating the wind farms into their systems). The rest of the world will follow close behind.

Unfortunately I think the long-term solutions like LFTR will have to wait until fear of nuclear power is greatly diminished in the western countries.

DocForesight said...

@SteveK9 -- You could either 'MoX' your metaphors or stick both oars in the water without rocking the boat.

And I agree with your assessment about nuclear companies being unwilling to tout their technology as being the best, if perhaps not the only, answer.

donb said...

History demonstrates that there indeed have been "silver bullets" in the field of energy. At a time when firewood was getting scarce in Europe, coal came along as a silver bullet. And before coal became scarce, oil came along as yet another silver bullet. Nuclear represents the next silver bullets. The first round has already been fired with the fission of U235. Unfortunately, there are many whose vision is so poor that they cannot see that it has hit the target. There are more rounds in the ammo clip with thorium, and breeder reactors for uranium. Again, there are many with such poor vision that they cannot see the ammo clip either.

Tony Wildish said...

I have to say, I wonder if the RAE have done nuclear power a favour.

If they'd said "Britain can do it if they use lots of nuclear power" they would simply end up being attacked by greenpeace and the other anti-nuclear groups.

Instead they've said that Britain can't do it easily, with as much renewable power as possible, even with a modest mix of nuclear to fill the gaps.

That surely puts the anti-nuclear, pro-renewables camp in a much weaker position. They have to defend their pro-renewable stance, rather than attack someone else's pro-nuclear position.

Frank Kandrnal said...

I wonder what would the World War-2 generation of Royal Engineers say about present day wimps?
The guys in WW2, or shortly after, were not afraid to undertake any project. Today, the statement from RAE must be politically correct before any common sense. With the ideology like that coming from the prestigious engineering institution we are all in very serious trouble. Hold on to your wallet, the rape rates for electric power are coming to your town.


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