Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Reverse Engineering the Future of Energy: A future nuclear option?

Reverse engineering is usually thought of as a software development practice, but it can be used to produce the design of all sorts of products. One of the best known cases was the design of Intel instruction set microprocessors by Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Inte. originally licensed AMD to produce copies of its 8086 and 8088 micro-processors for IBM. But AMD'sIntel clones proved too popular with computer manufacturers, so Intel interpreted its license with AMD to not include its new Microprocessors. For AMD this meant the loss of its principle business, and this involved a future that it found unacceptable. AMD had a choice, sue Intel for violating its agreement, or develop an alternative, competing product. Eventually it chose to do both.

AMD's business depended on delivering microprocessors that used the Intel instruction set and matched Intel performance. Under its license AMD simply received Intel Microprocessor designed and reproduced them. Faced with the withdrawel of its right to do that, AMD chose to reproduce the Intel instruction set and match its performance by reverse engineering. In that case reverse engineering meant designing a microprocessors without borrowing from Intel's designs. The new AMD Microprocessors had to at least match Intel instruction sets, and performance. while being competitive with Intel prices. Thus AMD designers began with a list of instructions, and performance and cost targets, and they had to engineer CPU designs that could produce all of the goals.

The process of discovering designs that would realize all of the AMD microprocessor goals is called reverse engineering. AMD wanted a microprocessor that would deliver better performance at a lower price than the targeted Intel product. If AMD could offer its customers - computer manufacturers - better than Intel performance at a lower than Intel price, the customers would buy enough from AMD to keep AMD, if not always profitable, at least in business. Thus the ultimate object of AMD's reverse engineering was to give AMD customers a better deal than Intel did. The AMD business model has been successful for over 20 years.

Reverse engineering is typically applied to technological developments, but it can be applied to all sorts of things. It is my argument that reverse engineering can be applied to future energy plans. The object of future energy business is to give the customers what they want, and what the customers wants is energy at the lowest possible price, and a reliable energy supply. Thus any viable future energy plan must address the issues of customer costs, and reliable supply.

Yet, for the most part, plans for post carbon energy systems fail to adequately address future energy costs, and they fail to to insure the reliability of the post carbon energy sources they advocate, or that future market demands for energy will be meet. Furthermore, most future energy plans fail to offer sufficient carbon lowering, and either overtly or tacitly relies on the continued use of fossil fuel energy sources, to bridge gaps between likely energy demand and the likely maximum energy output of favored energy technologies.

In addition to their continued reliance on fossil fuels, many future energy plan place unrealistic expectations on efficiency to bridge gaps between likely maximum energy output from featured post carbon energy technology, and plausible energy demand. Arguments for the substitution of efficiency for energy generation capacity, often ignore the long term conclusions about efficiency by economists. Economists, since the 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons studied the effect of increased efficiency on coal consumption, have argued that efficiency leads to greater energy use on a macro-economic scale. While it might be argued that there is not strong direct empirical evidence for Jevons hypothesis. Research on the effects of efficiency on energy consumption tends to rely on indirect evidence, because Jevons hypothesis is a macro-economics theory. not a micro economics theory. Efficiency advocates argue, rather weakly, that the reliance on indirect evidence weakens the case for Jevon's paradox. It should be noted, however, that this is also a problem for the efficiency advocates as well. The evidence problem has to do with formulating a reasonable test, but if a test can't be formulated for their null-hypothesis, then the efficiency position may not be falsifiable, and thus arguments the energy benefits of efficiency do not qualify as scientific arguments.

Thus references to reliance on energy efficiency as a substitute for energy production, are speculative in nature. Reasonable people can doubt such arguments, and thus a prudent energy plan should if possible include a fall back position, in case anticipated developments do not occur.

Plan costs are a further issue. In a recent paper titled, Wind and Energy Markets: A Case Study of Texas, Ross Baldick argued that a 30% wind penetration into the ERCOT (Texas)' grid would cost Texas consumers about $4.5 Billion a year, . Baldick estimates that Texas wind costs would run in the neighborhood of $105 to $110 per MWh. But this is current costs and future costs will probably be higher, as evidenced by the steady inflation of wind facility costs between 2003 and 2010. Recent wind cost estimates are influenced by current low interest rates, and the effects on current market risk perceptions of high wind power subsidies from both federal and state governments. In contrast Bendick's wind cost estimate, levelized cost estimates for the B&W mPower reactor would run under $60 per MWh given a 5% interest rate. At a 10% interest rate, the levelized cost of the mPower would be a little over $80, a cost which would still be highly competitive with the Baldick's Texas Wind estimate. It is doubtless the case that the market would find the mPower reactors far less risky than reactors that are 10 times their size, and thus there would be few problems with its finances. There is little doubt then that utilities would find mPower Reactors an extremely attractive alternative to wind generators, especially if the wind generators no longer received a large subsidy. Future energy plans cannot assume that the market will prefer a higher cost, less reliable option over the lower cost, high reliability option.

Thus any plan calling for the use of the high cost, poorly preforming wind option in preference to the lower cost, better performing nuclear option needs to rationally justify its choice. Rational justification would not include the usual Greenpeace or Natural Resources Defense Council anti-nuclear scree. One Greenpeace energy plan proclaims,
the dangers of nuclear waste and proliferation pose similar existential threats to humanity as global warming itself . . . .
Of course, Greenpeace does not offer an evidence based account of these supposed dangers to the future existence of humanity. Anti-nuclear renewable planner, Mark Z. Jacobson does provide us with one such account,
the ability of states to produce nuclear weapons today follows directly from their ability to produce nuclear power. In fact, producing material for a weapon requires merely operating a civilian nuclear power plant together with a sophisticated plutonium separation facility. . . .
Then he demonstrates some remarkable excirsions from logic in support of a judgement that discounts nuclear power
The explosion of fifty 15 kt nuclear devices (a total of 1.5 MT, or 0.1% of the yields proposed for a full-scale nuclear war) during a limited nuclear exchange in megacities could burn 63–313 Tg of fuel, adding 1–5 Tg of soot to the atmosphere, much of it to the stratosphere, and killing 2.6–16.7 million people.68 The soot emissions would cause significant short- and medium-term regional cooling.70 Despite short-term cooling, the CO2 emissions would cause long-term warming, as they do with biomass burning.62 The CO2 emissions from such a conflict are estimated here from the fuel burn rate and the carbon content of fuels. Materials have the following carbon contents: plastics, 38–92%; tires and other rubbers, 59–91%; synthetic fibers, 63–86%;71 woody biomass, 41–45%; charcoal, 71%;72 asphalt, 80%; steel, 0.05–2%. We approximate roughly the carbon content of all combustible material in a city as 40–60%. Applying these percentages to the fuel burn gives CO2 emissions during an exchange as 92–690 Tg CO2. The annual electricity production due to nuclear energy in 2005 was 2768 TWh yr-1. If one nuclear exchange as described above occurs over the next 30 yr, the net carbon emissions due to nuclear weapons proliferation caused by the expansion of nuclear energy worldwide would be 1.1–4.1 g CO2 kWh-1, where the energy generation assumed is the annual 2005 generation for nuclear power multiplied by the number of yr being considered. This emission rate depends on the probability of a nuclear exchange over a given period and the strengths of nuclear devices used. Here, we bound the probability of the event occurring over 30 yr as between 0 and 1 to give the range of possible emissions for one such event as 0 to 4.1 g CO2 kWh-1. This emission rate is placed in context in Table 3.
Supposed existential threats to the human kind, the unlikely and extremely difficult use of perhaps reactor waste to produce nuclear weapons, and the very implausible notion that somehow civilian nuclear power will play a causal role in nuclear exchanges between civilian reactor armed states perhaps as often as once every 30 years. The argument depends on numerous implausible assumptions. And the argument that military weapons can be produced from reactor grade plutonium derived from civilian power reactors, has been challenged by physicists who are experts on nuclear arms control.
We thus have our existential threat, but one which seems highly improbable. Proliferation treats appear to come from rogue states, such as North Korea, and apartheid South Africa, rather than states that are heavily involved in civilian power programs. International treaties are intended to limit what nations can do with civilian reactors and any plutonium extracted to them. The choice to build or not build reactors in the United States would seem an exceedingly unlikely cause for the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a rogue state like Iran.

Future energy plans should not be formulated with ideological biases about energy that seem wholly derived without recourse to the use of common sense. Considering the relatively low cost of the mPower nuclear option and the high competing cost of wind, our reverse engineering of the post-carbon energy world should undoubtedly include a nuclear option.

If nuclear critics object, nuclear power is currently by far the safest energy technology, yet there are Molten Salt Reactor options that can make nuclear power far safer. The question then becomes, how safe is safe. When the greater risk that a member of the public will be killed by a wind generator accident than by a reactor accident, shouldn't the environmentalists be more concern about wind generator safety, than nuclear safety?

Nuclear critics object to nuclear power because a once through fuel cycle creates reactor waste, a future hazard. Recycling options are available, but the nuclear critics oppose them, alleging that recycling nuclear waste will lead to nuclear weapons proliferation. There are proliferation resistant nuclear recycling options, but the nuclear critics are not interested. Proliferation based argument seem more intended to obstruct deployment of nuclear power in the United States and Europe, than to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. None of the states which have acquired nuclear weapons during the last 30 years, did so by through use of light water weapons technology. Yet proliferation critics still worry that,
producing material for a weapon requires merely operating a civilian nuclear power plant together with a sophisticated plutonium separation facility
Thus the argument goes that somehow, building reactors in the United States will cause the failed state of North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, and for this reason we should not build reactors in the United States. Yet the same nuclear power critics offer no rational justification of their view that building new yeactors in the United States, will cause nations like North Korea to set up nuclear weapons production programs.

Thus nuclear critics play tag team with the nuclear waste, nuclear proliferation arguments. Recycling materials in nuclear waste that pose long term dangers is possible, but critics argue, recycling nuclear waste will lead to nuclear proliferation. The critics don't want the public to pay the slightest attention to their highly improbability of their argument, that building of new reactors and nuclear fuel recycling facilities in the United States, will some how contribute to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by nations like North Korea. Greenpeace is not in the slightest interested in rationality. The Greenpeace business plan is dependent on the perpetual creation of moral panics.

Two more objections to nuclear power might be viewed as standing in the way of including at least a nuclear component in a reverse engineered future energy plan. They are scaleability, cost, and sustainability. Proposals, such as that by Babcock & Wilcox to build small reactors in factories appear to address both of these concerns. If more factory built reactors are required, reactor factories can be scaled up. There appears little reason to doubt that building large factories intended to produce small reactors, and that small reactors would require less time to deploy than reactors that are 10 times as large. Finally, multiple factors seem to point to over all cost lowering with factory build reactors. If the cost of factory build small reactors is still viewed as to high, further steps are available to lower nuclear costs. ORNL researchers estimate that reactors designed to use molten salt rather than water coolants, can be built for half the cost of conventional reactors. Building such reactors in factories would pose few problems, and small MSRs can potentially operate with far greater efficiency than much larger water cooled reactors. In addition MSRs are highly safe, and fuel recycling technologies that are directly tied to MSR operations are available. Finally, many experts have suggested that Molten Salt Reactor variants offer highly attractive proliferation resistant features.

Finally we must address the sustainability issue. How long can nuclear power provide society with energy? Again a molten salt reactor option, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, offers very attractive prospects. Thorium is relatively abundant in the Earth's crust, yet it is virtually unused at present. Yet thorium 232 if fertile, and in a reactor can be converted to U-233 a fissionable material. The neutron economy of U-233 is such that the a thorium fuel cycle can be used to breed U-233 in Molten Salt Reactors. There is enough thorium in the Earths crust to supply all of society's energy needs for a very long time. How long? Millions of years. Quite possibly tens of millions of years, or even hundreds of millions of years. A thorium energy economy would be sustainable enough to answer even the harshest of nuclear critics.

In future posts I intend to continue to offer a reverse engineering energy plan perspective, by looking at the potential for reverse engineering solutions for a number of post-carbon energy problems, using nuclear solutions.


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