Saturday, October 30, 2010

A candidate silver bullet

In his David J. Rose Lecture John Holdren voiced an oft repeated urban myth, that is there are no silver bullets in energy. Does the statement "there are no silver bullets," representative of good science, the sort of thing a Science Advisor should be telling the President, or is it a myth?

Some 11 years ago, Cato Institute scholar, Jerry Taylor, wrote a paper on Clinton Administration Energy Policy titled, Energy Efficiency No Silver Bullet for Global Warming. Taylor argued that the Clinton Administration Climate Change Technology Initiative was
little more than a sham. The CCTI is but a repackaging of failed programs that have littered the federal budget for 20 or more years. The program offers misleading and incomplete cost/benefit analyses, is obsessed with remedying market failures that do not in fact exist, projects emission reductions that are wildly implausible, asserts a correlation between energy efficiency and energy consumption that is demonstrably false, proposes counterproductive labeling and product standards, and misleads the public about the ability of such a program—even if it performs as advertised—to measurably affect global temperatures.

The CCTI is built on economic ignorance and political symbolism. Regardless of one’s position on the threat of global climate change, the CCTI is nothing but an empty and expensive political gesture.
That makes thing clear.

Taylor Commented,
More than half of the CCTI comprises ongoing R&D programs for energy efficien- cy and renewable energy. The Clinton administration is rather cavalier about pre- dicting the future of those speculative programs. Typical is the claim that “by 2010, DOE will help develop and commercialize fuel efficiency and alternative-fuel technologies that reduce oil consumption by nearly 1 million barrels per day and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 million metric tons.”9 The EIA, however, cautions rightly that predicting which technologies will be successful is highly speculative. A direct link cannot be established between levels of funding for research and development and specific improvements in the characteristics and availability of energy technologies. In addition, successful development of new technologies may not lead to immediate penetration in the marketplace. Low prices for fossil energy and conventional technologies; unfamiliarity with the benefits, use, and maintenance of new products; and uncertainties concerning the reliability and further development of new technologies are all factors that may slow technology penetration.1 0
The government’s track record of successful energy-related R&D projects hardly gives one confidence that the R&D component of the CCTI will prove as successful as the administration claims.
One of the few serious third-party evaluations of federal R&D programs—conducted for the Brookings Institution by economists Linda Cohen of the University of California at Irvine and Roger Noll of Stanford University—found that energy R&D has been an abject failure and a pork barrel for politi- cal gain. “The overriding lesson from the case studies is that the goal of economic efficiency—to cure market failures in privately sponsored commercial innovation—is so severely constrained by political forces that an effective, coherent national commercial R&D program has never been put in place.”1 1
Taylor in fact believes that the best energy policy is no energy policy, But it is a far cry from failed Clinton Administration policy on efficiency to a blanket statement that there is no silver bullet that can prevent global warming. This week the silver bullet problem again emerged in the Financial Times, which posted a story, Masdar: ‘No silver bullet’ for problems facing cleantech city.
Masdar City was meant to be the world’s first carbon neutral city. Based in Abu Dhabi, its creators envisioned a glittering city in the desert, entirely self-powered, and after the initial building stage, having no net effect on the world’s carbon emissions.
Maslar City CEO, Sultan al-Jaber, and the city’s director, Alan Frost both told the Financial Times,
Do you think that a silver bullet solution exists to help Masdar city achieve its goals today? Obviously it does not. If it did we would have seen Masdar city developed in a number of places around the world.
How do Sultan and Frost know that no "silver bullet" exist?

The Utah Statesman's Face book page carries an account of a speech delivered earlier this month by New York Times Correspondent, Matthew Wald. Wald repeated the
no silver bullet
formula, but then went on to offer some observations that were helpful in understanding what sort of silver bullets were being specified.
Wald said there are many renewable energy sources available that could be put to good use and the only thing holding them back is the market and simple economic principles like supply and demand.

Calling the energy crisis the nation and world are facing a “steep hill,” Wald said the people have to make the decision with their dollars to make a switch to alternative energy sources.

“This is a steep hill and it’s got to be climbed by market economics,” Wald said. “The government is just not big enough or powerful enough to subsidize massive amounts of electricity.”

Cost effectiveness plays a major role in the current energy crisis, Wald said, citing the use of gasoline and other carbon-emitting fuel sources as being more affordable and consistently available than renewable energy sources.
So the silver bullet has to go over in the market/ None of the currant post-carbon energy options are likely to do so, and as much as consumers love the idea of renewable energy, they are unlikely to buy renewable energy given its costs and limitations.

The question should be then, what other options do we have available, if renewables and conventional nuclear costs too much, and the other options emit CO2? if we have another option that can potentially work in the market, that option would be a possible "Silver Bullet."

What would that option have to look like? Well first it should be cost competitive with coal and natural gas. In fact it would be highly desirable for our silver bullet to cost less than the current cost of fossil fuel generated electricity from new generation units. "Not going to happen," you say. Maybe, but according to Wald's analysis, a switch to post-carbon generation sources is not going to happen until better deals are offered to consumers. The first product into the market that offers CO2 free energy coupled with reliability, scalability and low cost will be the "silver bullet."

Critics of the nuclear option offer the following complaints:
* Its too dangerous
* It leaves the problem of nuclear waste
* It creates a danger of nuclear proliferation and thus nuclear war.
* It is too expensive
* Nuclear power plants take too long to build
* We cannot build enough nuclear power plants fast enough
On Monday I heard a distinguished Japanese Scientist say that the nuclear critics are wrong. I heard him say that it is possible to build nuclear power plants that are
* Safe
* Solves the nuclear wast problem
* Is very unlikely to lead to nuclear proliferation or nuclear war
* Cost at least 30% less than conventional Nuclear Power Plants
* Can be rapidly built in factories
* Can be mass produced in factories
In short the scientist, Professor Kazio Furukawa of Japan, said that a candidate energy silver bullet does exist. It is a thorium fuel cycle Molten Salt Reactor. Dr Furukawa calls his silver bullet the Fuji Molten Salt Reactor. Now the interesting thing was that I was not in a bar when I heard Dr. Furukawa talk about his silver bullet, I was in a conference room at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. There were a couple of retired ORNL researchers in the same conference room, Uri Gat, and Dick Engel, and they both backed up what Dr. Furukawa had to say. Furthermore, I had heard a Canadian physicist, Dr. David LeBlanc make the claim that Molten Salt nuclear technology was the silver bullet, also at ORNL in May. No one, least of all Dr. LeBlanc was drinking when he made the claim, and no one at ORNL said to either Dr. Furukawa or Dr. LeBlanc, "Your crazy, there is no silver bullet."

These ideas are not new, and the conclusions of Dr. Furukawa and Dr. LeBlanc have been endorsed by other well informed observers who were acquainted with the facts. When Tammy L. Stoops wrote her thesis for her BS and MS in Nuclear Engineering at MIT, She consulted with Furukawa, Gat and Engel before writing her thesis. Her Thesis advisor, Professor Michael W. Golay wrote
The results of this investigation show that this molten salt breeder reactor concept is passively safe. The reactor power may be increased without bound, provided that an increase is made in reactor fuel salt volume, thereby reducing the decay power density. The ability of this concept to meet the desired characteristics for a global warming response is very powerful.
The only reason Golay did not proclaim this is the silver bullet was
The questions of economic performance are not considered in the work reported here.
In her thesis, Stoops argued
For the future of our planet, an alternate means of energy production must be developed to mitigate the effects of global warming. A nuclear system suitable for this use must be capable of large-scale power production, fuel breeding, hydrogen production, online fission product removal, and nuclear proliferation resistance.
She concluded,
With these (suggested) system augmentations, the degree of passive safety of the molten salt reactor system is enhanced. Capable of large-scale breeding, hydrogen production, active fission product removal, and resistance to nuclear proliferation, this safe reactor system meets all of the characteristics required in a global warming mitigation effort. Thus, the molten salt breeder reactor represents a viable and sustainable energy option to ensure the long-term protection of the global environment.
Clearly then if the thorium breeding molten salt reactor can be made economically viable, we have a silver bullet candidate. We will of course not be able to say that this is the silver bullet until we have the candidate in the market and actually delivering energy. Dr. Furukawa and others have vouched for the potentially superior economic performance of Molten Salt breeding reactors. This argument point to parsimonious use of materials, and diminished labor requirement per kW of electrical generation capacity. Given the fact that compelling reasons for rejecting this assessment have not yet emerged, we should at the very least consider the thorium breeding Molten Salt Reactor to be a candidate silver bullet. As a candidate silver bullet, it will face a number of significant tests before it can be said to have emerged in full blown silver bullet status. But given that we have a candidate silver bullet, the assertion that "there are no silver bullets" is wrong. We have a possible silver bullet, but we will need to know much more, before we can say with certainty that there either is or is not an energy silver bullet.

Friday, October 29, 2010

MIT TechTV – 2010 David J. Rose Lectureship in Nuclear Technology

John Hodren lays our Obama Administration thinking about energy and climate change and inadvertently reveals some of its flaws. Not only does Dr. Holdren not Know what the LFTR is, but he clearly believes that LFTR technology is a priori impossible.
MIT TechTV – 2010 David J. Rose Lectureship in Nuclear TechnologyMIT Tech TV
David J. Rose Lectureship in Nuclear Technology
This distinguished lectureship honors the memory of David J. Rose (1922-1985), a renowned professor of nuclear engineering at MIT. The lectureship was established in December 1984 on the occasion of Professor Rose's retirement and in recognition of his work in fusion technology, energy, nuclear waste disposal, and his concern with ethical problems arising from advances in science and technology.

Professor Rose received his B.A.Sc. degree in engineering physics from the University of British Columbia in 1947 and his Ph.D. degree in Physics from MIT in 1950. When the Department of Nuclear Engineering at MIT was formed in 1958, David Rose was invited to join the faculty. He went on to lead the development of the Department’s program in plasmas and controlled fusion, and remained a member of the MIT faculty for the rest of his professional career.

Professor Rose's professional life encompassed three distinguished careers: scientist and engineer; technology/policy analyst; and bridge builder between the scientific and theological communities. He authored over 150 articles ranging from high technology to theology, and with Melville Clark wrote Plasmas and Controlled Fusion, which became the standard textbook in the field of fusion energy. Professor Rose's book, Learning About Energy, which drew on two decades of research and teaching on energy technology and policy, was published posthumously. Before joining the MIT faculty, Professor Rose was a member of the technical staff at Bell Labs. While on leave from MIT in the early 1970s he served as the first Director of the Office of Long Range Planning at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He was honored as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a Fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. In 1975 Professor Rose received the Arthur Holly Compton Award of the American Nuclear Society for excellence in teaching, and at MIT he was the recipient of the James R. Killian Faculty Achievement Award in 1979-80. In 1986, the Board of Directors of Fusion Power Associates established a prize to be presented annually for excellence in fusion engineering in honor of Professor Rose.

John Holdren
Dr. John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Prior to joining the Obama administration Dr. Holdren was Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, as well as professor in Harvard's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Director of the independent, nonprofit Woods Hole Research Center. From 1973 to 1996 he was on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, where he co-founded and co-led the interdisciplinary graduate-degree program in energy and resources.

Dr. Holdren holds advanced degrees in aerospace engineering and theoretical plasma physics from MIT and Stanford and is highly regarded for his work on energy technology and policy, global climate change, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as foreign member of the Royal Society of London. A former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, his awards include a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship, the John Heinz Prize in Public Policy, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and the Volvo Environment Prize. He served from 1991 until 2005 as a member of the MacArthur Foundation's board of trustees.

During the Clinton administration Dr. Holdren served as a member of PCAST through both terms and in that capacity chaired studies requested by President Clinton on preventing theft of nuclear materials, disposition of surplus weapon plutonium, the prospects of fusion energy, U.S. energy R&D strategy, and international cooperation on energy-technology innovation. In December 1995 he gave the acceptance lecture for the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international organization of scientists and public figures in which he held leadership positions from 1982 to 1997.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dr. Furukawa's vision

Dr. Kazio Furukawa is 85 years old, and at an age when most people are content to enjoy a leisurely retirement, he is working hard to change the world. To that end, Dr. Furukawa participated in the founding of a new company, the "International Thorium Energy & Molten-Salt Technology Inc." (IThEMS), earlier this year. Dr. Furukawa is nothing, if not adamant in his views. According to David LeBlanc, at the Recent Thorium Alliance Conference in London, Dr. Furukawa said the same thing to everyone who was not working on a Molten Salt Reactor related project,
I know your heart is in the right place but you must know you are completely wrong so please stop wasting your time!
Dr. Furukawa's interest in Molten Salt Nuclear technology goes back some 30 years, to when he worked with a molten salt medium in an accelerator driven thorium breeding system. Accelorator driven thorium breeding remains a part of Dr. Furukawa's long range thinking. During the early 1980's Dr, Furukawa began to establish contacts with scientists in France andthe old Soviet Union who shared his interest in Molten Salt/thorium technology.

By 1983 scientists at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow were interested in building a Molten Salt Reactor and invited Dr. Furukawa to participate in the project. By 1985 Dr. Furukawa had designed a small-self sustaining molten salt reactor the Fuji reactor concept. The beauty of Fuji was the extent to which it was based on technology already tested in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Molten Salt Reactor Experiment. Thus Furukawa was able to demonstrate that self sustaining nuclear power was potentially possible without any further technological breakthroughs, or expensive prototype developments.

The full beauty of Dr. Furukawa's project can be grasped once its simplicity, reliability and economy are understood.

Dr. Furukawa must be viewed as a visionary who looks at the big picture. For Dr. Furukawa it is not enough to design nuclear power stations, the entire fuel cycle must be analyzed, and nuclear power systems designed and built to create better fuel cycle efficiency. In doing so, Dr. Furukawa would eliminate the problem of nuclear waste. As early as 1944, Eugene Wigner had favored fluid core homogenioues reactors because of their superior fuel processing potential. Initially homogenious reactors were designed to use heavy water as the carrier fluid, and uranium as either dissolved in the heavy water, or carried along by the flowing liquid in the form of a slurry. An outer liquid blanket in which heavy water carried thorium was used for breeding. However, there were numerous problems with the Aqueous Homogeneous Reactor, and a second fluid fueled reactor concept had emerged in Oak Ridge.

In 1947 Oak Ridge scientists and engineers were investigating the possibility of powering a jet bomber with a reactor. The first concept involved the use of a sodium cooled reactor, but Oak Ridge engineers including Ed Bettis thought that the sodium cooled reactor was dangerous, and suggested a reactor which used fluoride salts as a coolant and fuel carrier. During the next 30 years Oak Ridge produced 2 prototype reactors, and completed a great many molten Salt related research projects. All-in-all ORNL spent under $1 billion 2010 dollars, to develop Molten Salt Reactor technology. In contrast the United States Government has spent over $100 billion 2010 dollars on the development of Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors. If anything development of the MSR is further advanced than development of the LMFBR. So much for throwing money at a problem.

Dr Furykawa argues that Th-232-U233 are superior to U-238-Pu-239 breeding systems because they produce little or no trans-nuclear waste,

Dr. Furukawa believes that Fuji costs would be as much as 30% less than the costs of Light Water reactors, and that electricity from the Fuji can be sold for as little as $0.06 per kWh. However, given what I call the full court method of MSR cost containment, it is likely that the cost of a Fuji like reactor can be lowered significantly below Dr. Furukawa's estimate,

Much of Dr. Furukawa's ORNL talk consisted in a recitation of things he had done to bring about the implementation of the Fuji MSR concept. From 1985 onward he kept trying to reach people who might be in position to do something to move MSR technology. This determination does not come from a monitary interest, but a vision, an idea about what the future of energy can and should be. If the thorium breeding MSR concept is thought through to its full implications, the thinker becomes aware that this is a new energy paradigm. A paradigm offers safe nuclear energy that can be free of long term waste, and proliferation dangers. It the same time the Thorium breeding molten salt reactor, the LFTR, offers abundant, low cost energy for the entire human popilation of the earth. Dr. Furukawa sees the Fuji as a boon to humanity, and as his guift to the human race. He is determined that that gift not be wasted.

Dr. Furukawa sees the thorium-MSR paradigm emerging in three stages. In the first stage the Mini-Fuji emerges, to provide a small but useful energy package that can be used to tackel a variety of present and future energy problems including motive power for commercial shipping in a post carbon era. In the second stage a much larger, but still relatively small 200 MWe Fuji emerges. This Fuji can either serve as a stand alone energy/electricity source, or can be clustered. In the third stage a spallation breeder emerges. The spallation approach harnesses neutrons created by a particle accelerator, to the thorium breeding cycle. Dr. Furukawa believes that the thorium can be contained by a molten fluoride salt target, thus the breeding process is directly tied to the Fuji carrier salt/fuel cycle technology.

Dr. Furukawa also offers a three stage vision of the development of the fuel cycle, with Plutonium from weapons stockpiles and from "nuclear waste" being used to start Fuji reactors. In the second stage, as the number of Fujis grow, accelerator driven breeders produce U-233 to start and power the Fujis. In the third phase 20 to 30 chemical processing centers around the world are created to "clean" the apent fuel salts from Fuji Reactors.

By making maximum use of technology first tested by ORNL beteen 1965 and 1969, Dr. Furukawa believes that research and development costs for the Fuji system can be kept extremely low. For example he estimated the cost of R&D for the Mini-Fuji prototype to be no more that $300 million.. He believes that the Mini-Fuji project can be wrapped up in 5 or 6 years. The next stage, which entails the development of the 200 MWe Fuji is expected to cost $1.5 billion, and can be complete by 2020. The development of the accelerator breeder will take 25 years, and Dr. Furukawa believes that it will cost $20 billion. I should note that younger MSR designer developers, such as Dr. LeBlanc and Kirk Sorensen now expect the emergence of MSR breeding technology to come more slowly than they had envisioned 18 months ago. Recent MIT estimates of the global Uranium supply suggest that no Uranium shortages will devlop duruing the next century. Thus even a very large number of MSRs can be operated with from U-235 and P:u-239, without quickly running out of fuel. Still realization of Dr. Furukawa's 10,000 GWe nuclear power starions make a rapid development of some thorium breeding technology very desirable.

The use of Spallation technology in the breeding process is one of the few places where others scientists who are researching MSR technology disagree with Dr. Furukawa. Canadian physicist, and highly regarded MSR designer, Dr. David LeBlanc observed,
I personally agree with 95% of the FUJI approach due to its great simplicity but I disagree with the approach of needing to produce an external makeup of U233, especially by accelerators. I believe though I am having success in convincing more of them that using Low Enriched Uranium with thorium is a more practical and politically acceptable route (the DMSR is basically a denatured FUJI approach).
Dr. Furukawa would argue that Dr. LeBlanc fails to close the fuel cycle, and because he, Dr. Furukawa does, he offers a better solution. The good thing about this disagreement, is that it insures that the Molten Salt reactor community is not going to put all of their eggs in one basket, and indeed one of the things that is most confusing to outsiders, is the large number of baskets
competing for those eggs.

How much energy are we talking about putting in those baskets? Dr. Furukawa spoke of 10,000 1000 MWe energy coming from thorium powered MSRs. By closing the breeding cycle that 10,000 kilos of thorium, about 11,000 tons could power the entire kit and kabootal for the entire globe. if Dr. Furukawa's paradigm were to become a reality, the pessimistic visions of the neo-Malthusians could be put off for millions of years to come.

In his ORNL talk, Dr. Furukawa pointed to several advantages of his MSR-thorium fuel cycle system. They included:
* Safety
* Elimination of long term radioactive nuclear waste
* Nuclear Proliferation resistance
* Economical construction and operation
Dr. Furukawa observed,
Simple is better,
He foresees the emergence of a huge new nuclear industry based on Fuji like technology with quick low cost launches of MSR projects, factory mass production of reactors, and the rapid emergence of a MSR based infrastructure.

In Dr. Furukawa's Thorium MSR paradigm not plutonium production is needed, there will be no core melt down problem, reactors will be small, safe, efficient and economical. Such an energy order is practical, not Utopian, and is implicit in the adoption of a thorium based Molten Salt breeding cycle.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dr. Furukawa and Mr.Fukushima Reveal Future Fuji Reactor Plans at ORNL

Monday Afternoon, I drove to ORNL to hear a presentation by Dr. Kazuo Furukawa and Keishiro Fukushima of the "International Thorium Energy & Molten-Salt Technology Inc." (IThEMS). Dr. Furukawa is a distinguished Japanese nuclear scientist who for over a generation has worked to keep international interest in Molten Salt Reactors alive. IThEMS is a vehicle for launching Dr. Furukawa's Fuji reactor technology. Dr. Furukawa and Mr. Fukushima are looking for investors and development partners. They want to build their first prototype, the 10 MW Mini-Fuji in the United States with an American partner doing the prototype construction. The Mini-Fuji is a practical project because uses technology developed at ORNL for the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (1965-1969). Thus the little research would be involved in prototype development. IThEMS business plans call for the Mini-Fuji prototype to be operational by 2015 and for a larger 200 MW Fuji reactor to follow by 2020. IThEMS plans to market both reactors.

Mr. Fukushima stated that IThEMS is negotiating with Korean Shipbuilders over the potential sale of Mini-Fujis for ship propulsion systems. According to Mr.Fukushima the Korean shipbuilders are in competition with the Chinese, and view mini-Fuji power as potentially offering a competitive advantage. It should be noted that in the long range energy picture decarbonization would require that fossil fuel powered engine technology be replaced by energy from non-carbon emitting source. The options appear to be nuclear power, or synthetic liquid fuel. IThEMS claims that it can build the Fuji for 30% less than conventional water cooled reactors. Thus ship propulsion would appear to represent a market opportunity for the Mini-Fuji. Industrial process heat would be another. The Mini-Fuji would also serve as the energy source for a stand alone nuclear battery system, although that field looks crowded at the moment. The Mini-Fuji would have some advantages over its competitors including superior safety and low cost.

I offered to have lunch with Dr. Furukawa and Mr.Fukushima today, but they were headed south and would be, I surmise, talking with a potential business partner.

Investing in or partnering up with IThEMS would certainly have its risks. The upside for the investor would be to make a ground floor investment for a potentially huge Molten Salt Reactor market. The down side is that IThEMS is basically a start up with no money and no resources. All it really has is an idea and Dr. Furukawa's name.

The Mini-Fuji represents a potential opportunity for the American prototype development partner. First Dr. Furukawa's name does mean something and it offers an entry to a number of research laboratories in Japan, Russia, and Central and Western Europe. Participating in the Mini-Fuji prototype development would be a great opportunity for anyone who wanted to get into the Molten Salt Reactor business. Even if the Mini-Fuji failed as a business opportunity, the prototype development experience could prove invaluable for anyone who was interested in further MSR development.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Encounters with Jerry Olsen

Becky, her mother and I went to see the movie Ghost Bird on last Thursday,. Before the movie started a gentleman introduced himself to us. It was Jerry Olsen. I told Jerry that he was mentioned in Nuclear Green. I believe that Jerry had played a role in 1971 by alerting Alvin Weinberg and the rest of the ORNL staff, which included me at the time, about the relationship of CO2 emissions to a potential global climate change. Jerry acknowledged that Alvin Weinberg had credited him with alerting Weinberg to the CO2 AGW issue, but he stopped short of claiming credit for it. My recollection is that Jerry was the first person to alert me to the problem of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). I told Jerry on Thursday, that he was a celebrity because of his pioneering communications on the issue.

Jerry was a credible scientist. No one in 1971 thought that Jerry was bullshitting about CO2 and global climate change, and scientists who viewed science as the judicious determination of facts, scientists like my father, George Parker, and Alvin Weinberg were quickly convinced that CO2 emissions from energy related sources were a major hazard to the future well being of people on the earth.

This was back before global warming became political. Almost everything that is written on Global Warming denial now focuses on Republican denial. In fact there is a second school of global warming denial, that is even more irrational. This school does not deny the CO2/Anthropogenic Global Warming link, but denies that we have to stop using fossil fuels in order to prevent AGW. This school denies the danger of AGW, arguing that the most effective tool to prevent global warming is too dangerous to use. This school, warns of the dangers of burning fossil fuels, yet at the same time conspires with coal, oil and natural gas companies to support continued fossil fuels use through back door arguments, such as the notion that burning fossil fuels won't hurt if we burn them efficiently, or burning fossil fuels won't cause climate harm if they are used to back up renewables.

In reality supposedly pro-environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, the Friends of the Earth, The Natural Resources Defense Council, and numerous other groups, supported energy policies which in practice were highly favorable to the continued use of coal, oil and natural gas as energy sources. Anti-nuclear spokes persons such as Amory Lovins, and Ralph Nader, greatly exaggerated the risks of nuclear power, while ignoring the disastrous consequences of backing fossil fuels instead of nuclear power.

In 1976 Amory Lovins foresaw that a soft path to post carbon energy. Lovins believed that in the short run coal use would expand as if filled roles which also could be performed by nuclear power, but in the course of a generation soft path energy sources would replace more and more fossil fuels, and by 2010 over half of all energy used to power the United States would come from soft path sources. In fact in 2010 over 90% of American energy still comes from hard path sources.

in a December 1976 Energy Policy review of Amory Lovins book, "NON-NUCLEAR FUTURES: The case for an ethical energy strategy," Alvin Weinberg pointed out the greatest single environmental flaw of Lovins' argument, his failure to identify CO2 emissions from energy as a major environmental issue, and his willingness to accept carbon emitting coal as a substitute for nuclear energy. Weinberg wrote,
the authors regard net energy analysis as a convenient device for casting nuclear power in an unfavorable light, a feat they attempt to accomplish by ignoring significant comparisons, - nuclear and non-nuclear of the same doubling time and relative effects of heat release and CO2 release.
In response to Lovins recommendation of a coal burning bridge between the period when nuclear power was considered acceptable and the time when all energy would come from renewable resources, Weinberg asked,
Can we really ignore CO2 during the coal burning fission free bridge?
Lovins countered that he
worried about the climate effect of the release of CO2
but that nuclear power would not prevent CO2 emissions from high coal use. Clearly then Lovins offered a Faustian bargain with his anti-nuclear energy scheme. In 2010, long after a process which Lovins forecasted would have begun to shift human society from fossil fuels to soft path energy sources such as renewables, coal use for energy continues to rise. If Lovins worried in 1976 about the climate effects of CO2 emissions, he did not worry enough. In 2010 American coal use continued to rise rather than fall as Lovins had forecasted. In addition, Chinese coal used, much of it burned to produce energy for the production of goods destined for the United States, increased dramatically during the last decade. Lovins has never acknowledged that his 1976 soft path forecast proved in 2010 to be utterly wrong, and that his recommendation of a coal burning fission free bridge, has set the world firmly on the road to environmental disaster.

Neither Lovins nor Ralph Nader ever considered the possibility that the consequences of burning fossil fuels might be worse than the consequences of nuclear production of electricity. They are. The casualty rate fro the entire nuclear fuel power cycle is far lower than the casualty rate for fossil fuels. Even in terms of radiation exposure, the public is exposed to far more radiation from fossil fuel related sources, than from Nuclear Power Plants. And of course NPPs emit no more CO2 than wind generators do. In fact, high CO2 emissions from the Solar PV production process make Solar PVs a worse source of CO2 than nuclear plants are. Thus NPPs can play an important role in CO2 mittigation.

Renewables are expensive, it costs more by the kWh to produce electricity from solar or wind than it costs to produce electricity from new nuclear plants. Renewable based future energy acknowledge that there will be a very large gap between expected future energy production from renewable resources and the current level of consumer energy demand. How will that gap be filled, if not by nuclear energy? Not to worry, the renewable energy planners tell us, the gap will be filled by increased energy efficiency which will greatly diminish consumer energy needs. in May of 2009, the Economist noted:
Almost all blueprints for tackling global warming assume that energy efficiency will have a huge role to play. Nicholas Stern devoted a whole chapter to it in the report he wrote on climate change for the British government. In the greenest of futures mapped out by the International Energy Agency, a think-tank financed by rich countries, greater efficiency accounts for two-thirds of emissions averted. The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), the research arm of the consultancy, thinks that energy efficiency could get the world halfway towards the goal, espoused by many scientists, of keeping the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere below 550 parts per million.
The Economist also notes that America has become more energy efficient since 1973 a year in which we spent 12% of our gross domestic product on energy. Recently that figure has fallen to 7%. Of course some of that decline in energy use was due to the transfer of energy intensive industries (and jobs) to other countries. Green experts like Amory Lovins insists that an enormous amount of energy use savings that could be accomplished through greater energy efficiency.
Because so much can be done with just technical efficiency, there's a great deal of flexibility -- in how and where people live, what houses look like, how we get around, what our settlement patterns are. For example, it's very straightforward to have uncompromised, normal-sized family cars achieving upwards of 100 miles a gallon, with improved safety and excellent economics. We know how to triple the efficiency of trucks, and we can probably do even better on planes, I think by a factor of six or so better than now.
According to Lovins incredible energy savings that practically pay for themselves as soon as they are installed are available for the American home.
My own house uses 1 percent the normal amount of space- and water-heating energy, and 10 percent the normal amount of electricity. The efficiency upgrades took ten months to pay for themselves in 1983. But if we were building the house now, we'd be able to save another two-thirds of the remaining electricity, and it would probably cost even less to build.
Quite obviously Lovins does not spend much time watching plasma TV's. Lovins doesn't have time to watch TV because it takes all of his time to dream up such bullshit. As a householder I did my own home energy efficiency program in the 1980's and 90's. And while my wife and I were able to effect substantial energy savings we never came close to the energy reduction Lovins claims to have realized. Nor did the energy efficiencies pay for themselves in anything like 10 months.

If my readers are wondering about energy savings investments, solar water heaters would be high on my list for many localities. But there are areas of the country where a cloudy climate makes solar hot water heaters a bad investment, even with tax and power company subsidies. Solar hot water heaters would be a good investment in Snowmass, Colorado, but 10 months is not to believed. Lovins heated the water with the assistance of a second system, one while relied on a lot of bullshit to supplement heat from the sun. A payback period of 10 years would not be unusual for a solar hot water heater. But in some cloudy localities it might take 30 years. The solar heating project in a cloudy community might never pay for itself. Thus when the eco-cheerleaders at Treehugger want to put solar hot water heaters on every roof, they reveal themselves to be exceedingly ill informed. Local climate factors play a far bigger role that Amory Lovins allows in determining the payback time for energy saving technology.

There are other factors that may differ within localities that can effect the value of efficiency. For example, in hot climates shade trees have a cooling effect on buildings, but if you have shade trees, the shade effects the efficiency of solar hot water heaters. While ground source heat pumps are more efficient than air source heat pumps, they are far more expensive to install, and far more expensive to repair.

In addition, unanticipated factors may negatively impact on energy efficiency. For example, the clay soil of North Texas expands during rainy periods and contracts in dry weather. The soil movement can damage home foundations, and this in turn can damaged the effectiveness of home insulation. Thus investments in home energy efficiency might in Dallas include foundation repairs. Doubling home insulation might not pay for itself if the shifting foundation has unseated double pane windows, allowing drafts to enter the home at numerous points. Even repairing the windows might not help, since the next time the foundation shifts, the windows would become unseated again. Repaired foundations can and do shift with new soil movement.

The fact that anyone gives the slightest amount of credence to Lovins energy efficiency argument, represents the triumph of hope over fact and logic. People believe Lovins because it is comforting to do so. As long as they do, politicians do not have to confront the public with unpopular energy choices. Thus Amory Lovins is a hero to every politician who wants to avoid uncomfortable energy related issues. Lovins is not a hero to people who are deeply concerned about the energy future, and for people who have high regard for rigorous standards for truth.

But if Amory Lovins is wrong that efficiency will fill the energy supply gap, then renewable based solutions that rely on energy efficiency to fill the gap between energy demand, and a renewables based energy supply, are likely to fail badly, and to leave society in deep trouble.

The entire renewables, energy efficiency paradigm is built on an intellectual foundation laid by Amory Lovins. Given the importance of Amory Lovins energy theories, relatively little scholarly analysis has been directed toward assessing it. Alvin Weinberg offers deep and telling criticisms of Lovins, often without direct references to Lovins texts. There was a considerable dialogue between Weinberg and Lovins and the mention of Weinberg's name in "The Road not Taken" does not fully indicate the true extent of Weinberg's influence on Lovins. It is Lovins latgely unacknowledged dependency on Weinberg, that makes Weinbery's criticism so telling.

Vaclav Smil should be mentioned among the other scholars who have paid attention to Lovins. Smil's comments on Lovins contain no small expression of accademic sarcasm:
Amory has become a celebrity after wholesaling his fairy-tale of “soft” decentralized small-scale energies as THE solution (with its deep countercultural, Berkeleyish appeal), and it is the first law of celebrity-hood that, right or wrong, coherent or not, you retain the status. Combine that with the just-noted mass scientific ignorance of the population and with Amory’s sleek offerings of no-pain solutions (nothing will cost anything, or as he famously put it, “abating climate change for fun and profit”) and you have new believers signing up every time he speaks. By the way, by this time we all should have been driving nothing but Lovinsian hypercars (something like 200 mpg, made like new Boeing 787s solely from carbon composites) whose conceptual design he launched more than a decade ago; have you seen any?
Smil attributes to Lovins numerous failed predictions including:
1. Renewables will take huge swaths of the overall energy market. (1976)
2. Electricity consumption will fall. (1984)
3. Cellulosic ethanol will solve our oil import needs. (repeatedly)
4. Efficiency will lower consumption. (repeatedly)
Smil, of course, knows all about Jevons and his famous energy efficiency paradox, the paradox which Lovins ignored in "The Road Not Taken."

Thus we have a second type of denial that impacts our ability to deal effectively with climate change. The first type of denial, the denial of the threat that climate change due to CO2 emissions, by the political right. The second type of denial, practiced by some self styled members of the political left, denies the unique potential of nuclear power to mitigate climate change and claims that we can continue to use fossil fuels, while at the same time preventing Anthropogenic Global Warming. The intellectually dubious claims about energy made by Amory Lovins, including his attack on nuclear power, have become major obstacles to mitigation of AGW.

Friday, October 22, 2010

China and Belgium Sign Agreement On Development of Plutonium Fuels.

Paul Sattler, American, Contemporary, Still Life For 2000. (2001.)

Cross posted from Daily Kos, with an amusing poll, but without the artwork.

Only three nuclei have been used commercially in fission reactors. The most commonly used of course, is uranium-235, which represents, depending on the source of uranium ore about 0.7% of natural uranium. Without this the presence of this isotope, the commercial use of nuclear energy would have more than likely proved impossible.

Only about 12% of the uranium-235 that was initially present at the time the earth formed is still present. About two billion years ago, the concentration was still high enough that natural nuclear reactors occurred in certain sandstone formations around the world, most famously at Oklo in Gabon in Africa. These historical reactors have given much insight to the behavior of radionuclides over billions of years. The geological behavior of technetium, for instance, can be inferred from the distributions of the ruthenium isotope into which it all decayed.

In modern times, with the exception of the wonderful CANDU (PHWR) reactors, most reactors require enrichment of the relative proportions of U-235 in natural uranium, raising the percentage to about 3%.

Enrichment is a controversial matter, because it is certainly one technology that is really useable either for peaceful or war-like purposes, although, for all the carrying on about the subject, only one nuclear war has ever been observed - it actually started as an oil war, at least where the nukers and the nukees were concerned - and it ended 65 years ago.

Some people point to the limited supply of U-235 and start in with "peak uranium" talk. It's nonsense, actually.

I personally regard nuclear enrichment as an unnecessary technology, although some would argue - selfishly I think - that it is the most economic approach to using nuclear energy.

Another isotope that has been used commercially - the rarest of the three - is uranium-233, which is obtained by transmuting thorium-232 by bombarding it with neutrons in a reactor core. If the reactor produces more uranium-233 from the thorium than it consumes of other nuclei, the reactor is a breeder reactor. Uranium-233 is the only fuel that can operate as a breeder reactor using so called "slow neutrons," that is neutrons whose kinetic temperature is about 298K, room temperature on the Kelvin scale. Actually "slow" neutrons have a speed of nearly three kilometers per second, roughly in unfortunate English units, about 16,000 miles per hour!

The first commercial nuclear reactor in the United States, the reactor at Shippingport, PA, operated for one fuel cycle as a breeder reactor using U-233 that had been prepared under the supervision of the great American physical chemist Glenn Seaborg. This took place in the late 1970's, and the occasion was important enough that President Jimmy Carter participated in a ceremony in which he switched the reactor on (figuratively of course) from the White House.

There has been much renewed interest in thorium cycles around the world, now that the anti-nuke faith has been consigned to the intellectual waste heap where it belongs, in recent years. The Indian nuclear power program, which may soon assume a position of world leadership, is heavily invested in the use of thorium, since it has enormous reserves of this element and only tiny reserves of uranium.

The third nuclear cycle is the second largest fuel cycle in the world in current use, the plutonium cycle. The isotope used commercially - usually mixed with the 240 isotope - is plutonium-239. I regard another isotope of plutonium, plutonium-241, as very valuable, but unfortunately this isotope which has a half-life of only around 13 years - is most often wasted. Although I am something of an iconoclast even in nuclear circles on this point, I strongly support plutonium cycles, since I'm not very fond of mining. With a plutonium cycle, uranium already mined, and thorium already mined, could support world energy demand for several centuries. Indeed, the depleted uranium that exists in the United States is sufficient to meet the world energy demand for about 80 years.

The plutonium cycle has been commercial for several decades now, even though Jimmy Carter claimed that commercial application of this cycle would inevitably lead to nuclear war. He was wrong on this score, and even a cursory examination of the technological points of the matter that should have been obvious even in his times should have easily shown as much. The United States nevertheless because of Carter's policies, abjured plutonium recovery from used nuclear fuel, but, disregarding Carter's self proclaimed "moral example" Britain, France, Russia, China, India, and Japan have all operated chemical plants to recover plutonium from used nuclear fuel.

China, India, and Japan all have relatively new plutonium recovery plants, although arguably none of them have advanced beyond very primitive chemistry - known as the "Purex" (Pu extraction) process - for doing such recovery. This is solvent extraction. It's not terrible, but saying that something is "not terrible" is not the same as saying it's "good."

The following nations have used plutonium recovered from used nuclear fuel to fuel commercial reactors: France, Belgium, Japan, Russia and Germany. Only one of these nations ever participated in a nuclear war - in receipt and not delivery - and that was before a single commercial nuclear power plant existed anywhere on earth.

Belgium uses plutonium obtained from France to manufacture nuclear fuel rods. These rods are called "MOX" rods, for mixed oxide fuel, and they contain a mixture of plutonium and depleted uranium.

China has committed to build 200 nuclear reactors - about twice as many as we now have operating in the United States - in the next twenty years, and now has 24 under construction, having started a new one a few weeks ago after commercially certifying another last month.

The new Chinese nuclear fleet will be very technologically diverse, and will be able to use many variations of nuclear fuel. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. China intends to recover 100% of the energy in all of the uranium they have: There will be no such thing as "depleted uranium" ultimately in China. The Chinese are committed to having a closed nuclear fuel cycle.

To evince their seriousness on this point, they have just signed a deal with Belgium to expand their indigenous capability in this area.

Here is a news item on the subject:

MOX plant and Myrrha in Sino-Belgian deals
07 October 2010
China and Belgium have signed a framework agreement on the construction of a pilot MOX fuel fabrication plant in China, and a research collaboration agreement covering developments in the Myrrha hybrid research reactor project.

The framework agreement signed in the presence of the Chinese and Belgian prime ministers, Wen Jiabao and Yves Leterme, defines the context for construction of a pilot plant to produce mixed oxide nuclear fuel (MOX) and for the use of MOX in Chinese nuclear reactors. A commercial agreement including technology transfer and technical assistance could soon follow, according to Belgian partners Belgonucleaire, SCK-CEN and Tractebel. The plant would be built by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) with the support of the Belgian companies.

Belgium has a wealth of experience in MOX fuel development and production dating back to 1960, including 20 years of industrial MOX production at Belgonucleaire's 35 tonne per year Dessel plant from 1986 to 2006. MOX has been in use in Belgium's nuclear power plants since 1995.

China's nuclear plans would see it operating about 200 large reactors in 20 years time, and it wants to limit the amount of imported uranium required to support them. For that reason it is very keen to 'close' the nuclear fuel cycle by reprocessing used fuel to recover useful uranium and plutonium and then to recycle the plutonium in MOX. Reprocessing and recycling have the other benefits of greatly reducing the volume of high-level radioactive waste for disposal and of preparing and packaging that smaller volume at the same time.

China opened a 50 tonne per year pilot plant to reprocess used nuclear fuel in 2006, and the next year signed an agreement with France's Areva to look into the feasibility of building an 800 tonne per year reprocessing plant in Gansu province, employing advanced French technology and operated by Areva.

MOX plant and Myrrha in Sino-Belgian deals

I am, by the way, always more than passingly exasperated when I hear Americans - whose per capita energy consumption is six times larger than the per capita energy consumption of China - complain about China's effects on global climate change.

The Chinese nuclear power program plans to produce more nuclear electricity than the United States produces electricity from all sources within 40 years.

They will nearly match US nuclear production within ten years.

I would argue that Chinese technology now under development will make it possible for them to phase out coal burning way before the Americans could even dream of doing so.

(The following comment was something I added in the comments section of the Kos post, in response to former IFRer Bill Mosby. The comment was titled "China has just agreed to purchase two LMFBR from Russia.")

They are going to be large for LMFBR, 800 MWe. They're going to make a lot of plutonium and, maybe, U-233.

From my perspective, these, LMFBR, are not ideal fast reactors, but some have been moderately succesful, including the old Soviet BN-350 which operated about 30 years in Kazakhstan.

Japan has restarted Monju after a fire some years back which caused a lot of political concern. The reactor seems to be operating fine. The basic problem with the reactor involved vortex shedding in the pipes. The problem has been corrected and the reactor seems to be running fine.

I believe France should have restarted the Superphenix, but again, political issues trumped scientific and technical issues.

I expressed my feelings on LMFBR in a series on India's plans for this set of reactors, the last of which is here:

The Light of Day: India's Fast Breeder Nuclear Reactor: Some Technical Comments. (Pt. 7)

I like the IFR and was sorry it was canceled. Some of my friends in the online nuclear community don't think much of it, and want to go to liquid fluoride thorium reactors. The chief benefit of the program was its approach to reprocessing which was, in fact, very interesting, and certainly worth further consideration.

I like fluid phase reactors and believe they are probably ideal in many ways. They are part of the Gen IV program. But I don't really object to other types of fast breeder reactors. All that said, I believe that as much of the world's existing nuclear infrastructure as is possible should have thorium in the core, because a rapid scale up of nuclear energy such as required to save humanity will require that.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Barack Obama Still Deserves an F on Energy

In March of 2009 I wrote a post in which I argued Barack Obama deserved an F for his energy policy. This continues to be the case with the Obama administration continuing to make poorly thought out energy related decisions. Virtually every Obana administration energy related decision over the last 18 months, has been poorly thought out and has wasted opportunities.

Obama has used the stimulus package to offer further subsidies to the renewable energy industry, even though renewable energy is unreliable and is not cost effective when compared to nuclear energy.

Obama has avoided a heads up comparison of renewables and and nuclear energy by failing to appoint a commission on the national energy future.

The Obama administration has mismanaged nuclear loan guarantees.

The Obama administration probably acted improperly in its decision to shut down the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste project. I am no big fan of Yucca Mountain, but the Yucca shut down decision was political and not a response to the national energy need. Thus while the national energy situation is existential, the Obama administration continues to engage in political games over energy

What should Obama have done?

I suggested that the next President set up a Blue Ribbon fact finding commission,
to go about determining energy goals and steps required to accomplish preferred goals. . . .

Above all else the blue ribbon fact finders must not simply identify a vision but must begin the contagion process without which the vision will not be realized. They must also provide political leadership with political cover. There will be no doubt political opposition to the vision and the steps that will be taken to realize it. The first line of defense will be, "this is what the experts recommend". Because they are on the front line and ultimately exemplars, members of the blue ribbon commission must be selected for their courage, as well as their intelligence, capacity for rational thought, and vision. They will be exemplars for a nation and for the world, because it is anticipated that they will set a path on which all people will be traveling for the next 40 years.

It would be very nice to find a group of Richard Feynmans to set on the blue ribbon commission, people who are gifted visionaries, who have great respect for facts, and who have to the ability to ferret out the critical facts.
The Obama administration did eventually set up a Blue Ribbon Commission, but one that was mandated to bring recommendations regarding the nuclear future, and primarily offer alternative measures to fulfill the United States Governments legal obligation to manage nuclear waste. Although some of the Commission members were very competent, the Commission's members collectively fell far short of the Richard Feynman level. I made clear the role of the fact finders would face grave responsibilities, including providing political cover for political leaders who would be faced with difficult and possibly unpopular decisions.
The decisions related to electricity generation will be perhaps the most important, because potentially up to 80% of the energy in a post carbon society will be transmitted through electrical lines. Decisions cannot be left to the market. The market, while providing efficient mechanisms to determine price, and product choice, is poorly equipped to make strategic choices for the future. Decision makers have to basically anticipate future markets. That involves informed guesses, something the market regards as speculation. Markets like to gamble only if there is a great deal of money potentially to be made on bets. There is far too much at risk, and too much uncertainty about the energy future at the moment for most investors to feel comfortable about the risks involved in future energy investments. In the case of solar and wind generated electricity, this has led to the demand for government subsidies, both for the construction of generating facilities, and in tax linked support of revenue produced from energy generation.

The stake in the decision making process is such that wrong decisions could easily lead to the misspending of tens, or hundreds of billions of dollars and perhaps even trillions of dollars of tax payer, rate payer, and investor money, without the production of a satisfactory electrical system. Impossible you say. Well just pay careful attention to where the decision making process is today. Mark my word, if the decision making process is not improved, it will lead to very unsatisfactory outcome.

We cannot hope to reach a proper decision without a Judicious determination of facts, and there are at present a lot of of enemies of facts in the environment. Enemies of facts include people who are selling flawed ideas and flawed products. Fact finding needs to be turned over to people who are skilled in determining facts, and this would certainly include nobel prize winning scientists. Others who are somehow representative of the general public need to included among the fact finders, and the fact finding process needs to be open to the public. The fact finders need a first rate staff, and the ability to commission research.

The fact finders need to be aided by skilled politicians who have ascended to the rank of statesmen. My father observed one such politician while attending a hearing of Project Independence in 1974. "I was most impressed," my father wrote. "He is young, intelligent, and highly articulate." Such a figure, if he were still around 34 years later, might well prove a valuable asset to the fact finders, perhaps as chairman of a fact finding commission. And if the politician, by now an elder statesman, were to hold high political office, so much the better. The name of the young politician who so impressed my father was Joseph Biden.

Any group of fact finders would need to carefully separate fact from hype before reaching its decision. As I have demonstrated on Nuclear Green there is a lot of hype in our current discussion of energy options. In fact the hype to information ratio in any discussion of renewable electrical sources is astonishingly high.
Secretary Chu's Blue Ribbon Commission fell far short in its composition and mandate. I wrote,
Blogger "uvdiv" has a negative assessment of many of the panel members, and many panel members are far less distinguished and gifted than could have been hoped. I had hoped for a energy panel chaired by Joe Biden, with members of the charisma and ability of Richard Feynman. In addition the panel reports to Secretary Chu, and not to the President. All of this suggests that the Mr. Obama does not yet know what he is doing.
The latest episode in the sorry story of the Obama Administration's mishandling the Nations Energy future, involves the mishandling of loan federal guarantees for a Nuclear Power Plant project in Maryland. Not only did the Obama administration fail to offer the Calvert Cliffs 3 project a subsidy, but loan guarantee conditions would have made the cost of the loan at least as high as a no guarantee loan would have been. In contrast, the Obama Administration DoE is offering the renewawable power industry sweetheart loan guarantee deals.

Barack Obama was elected to put an end to the non-deliberative policy approach of the Bush administration. So far, however, the Obama administration's attitude toward energy has been anything but fact based. Let us recall Ron Suskind's account of the Bush staffer:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
The Obama administration has not yet engaged in a judicious determination of the facts about energy. Confident in their own power and in their ability to set policy on whim, they have decided to follow what will surely be a disastrous policy if followed long term. We can only hope that during the next few years, as America's war to assure itself an energy future becomes obviously more difficult, and Mr. Obama's ability to see his own mistakes, admit them and correct them will come and prevent a disaster. If not we are headed out into the wilderness without food or water. Leading people toward disaster surely is not progressive.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reading about Nuclear Technology and Energy Issues - The Oak Ridge Perspective

Reading about Nuclear Technology and Energy Issues - The Oak Ridge Perspective

Many curent energy issues were explored in Oak Ridge, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge Associated University over a generation ago.

Energy from Thorium document archive.

The Molten Salt Reactor Adventure by H. G. MacPherson (NUCLEAR SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING: 90, 374-380 (1985))

Fluid Fuel Reactors, Edited by J. A. Lane, H. G. MacPherson, and F. Maslan, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts (1958).

Experiences With The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, Paul N. Haubrmreich & J. R. Engel, NUCLEAR APPLICATIONS & TECHNOLOGY VOL. 8 FEBRLJARS 1970

MOLTEN SALT REACTORS – SAFETY OPTIONS GALORE. By Uri Gat & H. L. Dodds, Oak Ridge National Laboratory& The University of Tennessee.

Reactors with Molten Salts: Options and Missions, by Charles W. Forsberg, The 2004 Frédéric JOLIOT & Otto HAHN Summer School.


WASH-1097, The Use of Thorium in Nuclear Power Reactors, Prepared by the Staff of Brookhaven National Laboratory. The Division of Reactor Development and Technology, U.S.A.E.C., 1969.

Books by Alvin Weinberg:

Can the Sun Replace Uranium, by Alvin M. Weinberg, Institute for Energy Analysis, 1977.

Toward an Acceptable Nuclear Future, by Alvin M. Weinberg, Institute for Energy Analysis, 1977.

Are the Alternative Energy Strategies Achievable, by Alvin M. Weinberg, Institute for Energy Analysis, 1979.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Peter Braford Slays the Nuclear Straw Man

Peter A Bradford, the author of Honey, I Shrunk the Renaissance: Nuclear Revival, Climate Change & Reality is an anti-nuclear activist, who was early in his career a Carter era NRC commissioner. Bedford is by training a lawyer, and his understanding of nuclear power issues cannot be said to be deep. Like all ideologues, his views are faith based. It is thus a great irony that Bedford introduces an essay by quoting Ron Suskind's famous statement attributed to a Bush aide,
When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality . . . we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
The irony of Suskind's quote was the extent to which the aide had over estimated American power, and had used that over estimate to justify policies which further undermined America's ability to act in the unilateral way the quote envisioned. First of all, there is a Nuclear Renaissance. it is a reality, and it is growing, but not yet in the United States. The Nuclear Renaissance is taking place in Asia, where China and India accept that nuclear power will play a large role in their energy futures, South Korea plans to make the building nuclear power plants for foreigners will be a corner stone for their economy, and the nuclear power industry is also play an important role in the future of Japan. The Nuclear Renaissance is not occurring yet in the United States, but we have to ask, if this is die to some inherent defect in the nuclear power paradigm, or is the tardiness of the Renaissance yet another sign of the rapid decline of the United States as an economic, and political power.

Perhaps the reason Bedford quotes Suskind, is because he is singularly short of quotes which illustrate his claims. For example, Bradford claims,
For the second time in a generation, the nuclear industry is undergoing a breathtaking transit from overblown hope to crushing disappointment.
Yet no where does he offer a quote which illustrates his claim about the nuclear industry's supposed expectation of a breath taking transit. Indeed, had Bradford been energetic enough to google his subject, he would have found the official voice of the American Nuclear Industry, the NEI Nuclear Notes stating,
Here at the Nuclear Energy Institute, we’ve always tried to create reasoned expectations about new nuclear plant construction. We believe the renaissance of nuclear power in the United States will unfold over time, relatively slowly at first, particularly given the inputs to the project development process (not the least of which is limited availability of high-quality construction management expertise). We believe that we’ll see 4-8 new plants in the first wave – in commercial operation by 2015-2016. We also know the rate of construction depends on a range of factors (most beyond our control), including electricity market conditions, the capital costs of nuclear and other baseload technologies, commodity costs, environmental compliance costs for fossil-fueled generating capacity, natural gas prices, customer growth, and availability of federal and state support for financing and investment recovery.
Clearly Eric McErlain of the NEI Nuclear Notes had a very different expectation than Peter Bedford, claims the nuclear Industry had.

So why is Bradford's claim about the expectations of the American Nuclear Industry so far off? The answer is that Bedford has not the slightest interest in the actual views of the nuclear industry. Bradford is interested in creating a straw man, and then setting about bashing his straw man while pretending that he is bashing the nuclear industry. Bradford makes a number of unsubstantiated claims
The good news is that this time reality has set in before hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent to build plants fated eventually to be canceled or to come on line at costs far above the costs of providing the same energy services in other ways.
But he does not offer claims about what energy sources would cost less than NPPs. The NEI Nuclear Notes observes,
These are tough times in the electric power business. The power industry must invest approximately $1 trillion by 2020 to upgrade and expand our electricity infrastructure – new power plants, efficiency programs, transmission and distribution, environmental control technology – at a time when input costs are increasing dramatically.

A recent assessment by the Brattle Group, a well-regarded consulting firm, shows that between 2004 and January 2007, the cost of steam generation plants, transmission projects and distribution equipment rose by 25-35 percent, compared to an 8 percent increase in the GDP deflator. The cost of gas turbines: Up by 17 percent in 2006 alone. Prices for wind turbines: Up by more than $400/kWe between 2002 and 2006. Prices for iron ore up by 60 percent between 2003 and 2006, and for steel scrap up by 150 percent. Aluminum prices doubled between 2003 and 2006, and copper prices almost quadrupled. Much of this is driven by double-digit economic growth in China and India.

These cost increases hit all new power plants – nuclear, coal-fired, gas-fired and renewables. Small wonder that companies are holding back, waiting to see if input costs moderate, before making billion-dollar investment decisions.
Bradford ignores these realities, as well as the conclusions of yours truly, and numerous better qualified researchers, that the cost of renewables will be higher, not lower than the cost of new nuclear power. It is not by accident that Bradford quotes his Vermont Law School colleague, Mark Cooper, on nuclear costs. Cooper, of course, failed to offer a realistic comparison between nuclear and renewable costs.

The reality, as compared to Bradford's faith based hostility to nuclear power, renewables are not cost effective carbon mitigation tools, when compared to the carbon mitigation potential of NPPs. NPPs generate electricity at a lower cost per kWh than renewables do. The only reason renewable power facilities are being built is the ideologically based scam which Bedford and Mark Cooper are peddling to the faithful.

This is not to say that Bradford is completely wrong. The NEI has never claimed that conventional nuclear power offers a comprehensive solution to our post carbon energy woes. Their limitations is also the limitation of the conventional nuclear industry. Bedford observes,
Even within the industry, some innovators are pushing forward next-generation designs for small reactors, for traveling wave reactors, for thorium-based fuel cycles, for converter reactors running on nuclear waste.
Indeed the innovations that will create a true Nuclear Renaissance in the United States are not going to come from GE and Westinghouse, although Babcock and Wilcox seems to understand the need to innovate in order to move forward with nuclear developments.

Bedford makes numerous questionable claims. For example,
The industry must first prove that it can deliver cost-effective reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact numerous studies have concluded that nuclear power is the most cost effective means of carbon mitigation among proposed generation sources. While conventional nuclear power is clearly more cost effective than renewables as a carbon mitigation tool, it is still not a highly attractive option. The problem is not that nuclear power is a far more attractive option than Bedford suggests, but that renewables are a far less attractive option than he is willing to acknowledge. The truth is that the United States can only begin to restore its status as a world power once it solves the problem of 21st century energy. I have repeatedly pointed to Molten Salt nuclear technology, and in particular the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor as offering by far the best hope for a future American energy solution. The failure of a Nuclear Renaissance over the next 40 years would be a great tragedy for the American people.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sources of nuclear cost saving from small and advanced reactors

There are eight primary sources of nuclear costs:

The cost of the land upon which the nuclear power plant (NPP) is built.
Costs related to designing the NPP
Cost related to the materials from which the NPP is built.
Labor costs related to manufacture and construction.
The cost of obtaining regulatory approval
Investment related costs (interest, etc.)
Transportation and Access related costs
The cost of the electrical transmission system that connects the NPP to the grid

Any attempt to lower nuclear costs must find a way to lower the cost of one or more of these.

Land related costs can be lowered if the investor already owns the land. In the case of NPPs, land costs can be lowered if the NPP is built on a preexisting NPP site. Other, for example transportation related investments may not be required, and access to water is very likely to be available. NPPs can also be located on the site of obsolete coal fired power plants slated to be shut down for technological or environmental reasons. The same advantages of the NPP location would apply to the coal powered site, and additional facilities – for example the turbine hall, parking lots, administrative buildings, workshops, transformer farms, etc. - can potentially be recycled. The layout and size o an existing coal fired power plant may not be appropriate for adaptation for a large nuclear plant, but a cluster of small reactor approach would allow for far greater flexibility in facility layout, and would be far more easy to accommodate.

Small reactors, especially advanced technology small reactors, offer advancements is siting flexibility. For example, clusters of small reactors can be located in former salt mines.

Serial production lowers design costs. Design costs are largely fixed. Design costs can be divided among all of the units produced. If one reactor of a particular design is produced, then the recovery of the cost of that design would be through sale of that unit. If hundreds of units are produced, the recovery of the design cost can be divided between all of the units.

Finally, design simplification can lower nuclear coss. The Generation IV Molten Salt Reactor design offers revolutionary design simplification. In the Molten Salt Reactor the fuel is dissolved in the coolant. Thus much of the core structure is eliminated. Because the Molten Salt Reactor features a negative coefficient of reactivity, the reactor is highly stable without operator control input. Control rods can be partially or completely eliminated. These simple features lower manufacturing costs. And lesson manufacturing time.

The material input into a NPP per watt of output typically decreases as total reactor output rises. Traditionally this has lead to the economies of scales argument, which maintains that the larger the reactor output, the lower the per watt cost. There are, however, problems with this assessment. While it is true that larger size usually means lower material costs per unit of electrical output, there are exceptions to this rule, especially with respect to advanced nuclear technology.
For example:

The greater thermal efficiency of a reactor of similar core size might lower output cost per unit of heat, compared to that of a similar sized, but efficient design.

Reactor safety issues may effect materials input. Light Water Reactor cores and heat exchanges operate under very high pressure. They require significant amounts of material to prevent steam explosions. LWR outer containment structures are typically massive, and thus require large

A more compact reactor core may lower material requirements. Thus if two reactors have the same output, the one with the smaller core is likely to require fewer materials.

Underground reactor siting could potentially lower reactor structural costs, by offering protection against terrorist attacks from aircraft and at surface levels with lower materials inputs.

Small generation componants can lower material requirements. Thus supercitical carbon dioxide turbines are much smaller than steam turbines used in convential reactors. Small turbines require fewer materials, and can be housed in smaller turbine halls, which in turn require less material and labor input to build.

Thus a small advanced technology reactor with a compact core and high thermal efficiency, that operates at a one atmosphere pressure level, and can be sited underground might require fewer materials inputs per unit of electrical output than a much larger conventional reactor.

In addition manufacturing costs can be lowered by simplifying reactor design. Passive safety features can in some instances lower nuclear costs. For example thermosyphoning of reactor coolant, may save the cost of manufacturing and installing coolant punps. Gravity feed emergancy coolant systems save on manufacturing costs in several ways, They do not require backup generators or pumps, thus many of the expenses of older emergancy coolant sysyems can be saved.

Labor costs can be lowered by shifting work from the field to a factory. The more labor which can be performed in a factory, the lower the over all costs. Modular production is consistent with factory manufacture. Factory manufacture lowers labor costs in several ways. First serial production leads to the division of labor, which in turn typically increases labor productivity. The division of labor decreases the skill set required from individual workers. Decreased labor skill sets decrease labor wage expectations. Factory work settings, as opposed to field work settings also decrease wage expectations.

Thus serial production of small reactors in factories would tend to lower labor costs of nuclear manufacture.

The current nuclear regulatory environment favor serial manufacture. Once an example of a particular nuclear design is approved by the NRC is approved, the approval of all subsequent reactors using the design is automatic. Environmental aspects of subsequent application, however, receive the same attention, since they varie from facility to facility.

In addition to NRC license requirements, other licenses may be required. For example, the use of cooling water from rivers and lakes is not automatic, and usually requires regulatory approval. One of the advantages of recycling coal fired power plant sites, is that water access permits may already exist, and potentially can be transferred.

But what if obtaining a water use permit is not possible? With small reactor designs air rather water cooling is practical, with relatively modest efficiency penalties. With efficient advanced reactors, the efficiency benefits may far outweigh the efficiency losses related to air cooling.

Interest accrues as nuclear power plant construction, and accrued interest may amount to a significant percentage of NPP capital costs, especially if the construction project st reaches to half a decade or more. Small factory built reactors are expected to have shortened construction times, compared to large conventional reactors. Simplified advanced reactor designs are also expected to shorten NPP construction time. These shortening construction time can decrease the interest component of capital costs significantly.

Interest charges may reflect the market's assessment of project risks. The greater a projects assumed risk, the higher the interest premium the market will assess. By decreasing a project's size, and lowering projected manufacturing/construction time, nuclear project builders can offer the market lower perceived risks. Lower perceived risks, will lead to interest discounts compared to higher risk large nuclear projects.

Small, factory manufactured reactors offer advantages in transportation costs. Conventional reactors include a number of very large and heavy components, that present transportation challenges. Components such as pressure vessels and steam generators may require special and highly unusual transportation arrangements if they are transported overland. Special huge road transportation vehicles, some capable of moving no more than three miles an hour may disrupt highway uses in large areas over several weeks as they transported conventional reactor steam generators and pressure vessels to reactor sites. In contrast, small reactor cores may be moved by trucks or by rail as ordinary freight.

In areas where water shortages represent acute problems, small reactor access to reliable water supplies is unnecessary. Air cooling will enable small reactors to operate with out a reliable water supply.

Small reactor clusters located at recycled coal fire power plant locations potentially have greatly simplified grid connections. Not only can they be located near to the cities they are intended to serve, but grid hookup is facilitated by existing transformer farms, and grid connections. Because they can be located close to served cities new transmission lines will not cover long distances, thus lowering grid expansion costs. Large reactors may require new transmission lines that are hundreds of miles long, in order to move surplus electricity to market.

In addition to the above savings, and potential savings mentioned above there are other potential savings that may be available with small reactors. For example, with advanced nuclear technology, for example molten salt reactors, combined Rankine (steam) and Brayton (gas) cycles are possible. A bottoming desalinization cycle could be offered to to the system, thus offering formidable efficiency from small reactor packages. A high temperature reactor can provide top cycle heat for industrial processes, as well as producing middle cycle electricity generation, and bottom cycle heat for electrical generation. By adding a second generating cycle, small reactors can lower their electrical generation costs. Desalinization would add a further revenue stream from the reactors operation through the sale of portable water.

Thus it can be concluded that shifts to small nuclear power plants will potentially offer significant savings over current conventional nuclear costs. Shifts from conventional nuclear technology, to some advanced nuclear technologies, also offer significant potential savings. Some advanced technology savings are available to both large and small nuclear power plants, but the flexibility of small NPPs may mean that at least in certain situations small advanced nuclear power plants may offer very significant potential savings in comparison to large conventional NPPs.

Thus small factory produced advance reactors may offer a revolutionary approach to lowering nuclear costs. Economies of scale, often viewed as the only decisive factor in nuclear costs does not control many nuclear cost sources, and is unlikely to be a decisive approach to controlling nuclear costs. Numerous cost containment stratagies, some involving the factory construction of small reactors, but most compatible with small reactors can be drawn on to lower nuclear costs.


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