Friday, May 23, 2008

Sea power

I was googling the words LFTR safety this morning, and I came up with something unexpected. The Navy Post Graduate School Foundation encourages Naval officers to study for graduate degrees. Listed under RESEARCH PROJECTS AT THE NAVAL POSTGRADUATE SCHOOL, I found:

CURRENT PROJECTS: Thorium Ship Power

Well, well well, I thought, and read further.

Project Objective: An NPS student design team is investigating the benefits of a liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) as a ship power plant. The LFTR offers greater power system density, deep inherent safety, and a simple, closed nuclear fuel cycle using abundant thorium rather than uranium. Successful development of LFTR power plants enable future naval operations for any size vessel even if fossil fuel prices rise dramatically.

Operational Payoff:
The payoff for this work would be a fleet that could operate with impunity to fuel price/availability with a reactor design that is simpler, safer, and less expensive than today’s pressurized-water reactors. Unrestricted electrical power for propulsion, weapons, communications, and land support services (water desalination, electrical power, hydrogen or fuel production).

Design Advantages:

• Smaller systems volume
• Minimizes fissile inventory with no external fissile addition
• Immediate restart or shutdown
• Inherent load following without control rods
• Extraordinarily safe - high negative temperature coefficient / passive decay heat removal

Technical Objective:
High efficiency, safe, low-cost, compact naval nuclear power.

Technology Challenges:
• Thorium fuel requires continuous reprocessing to remove bred 233U from blanket to core.
• Optimized gas turbine machinery for closed-loop and wide temperature range operation.

Technical Approaches:
Online thorium blanket processing, graphite/BeF2 slurry moderator, spiral core design, multi-reheat helium gas-turbine power generators.

Quote: "Increased fuel costs could threaten future naval operations. US thorium reserves can
power us for thousands of years. Increased fuel costs could threaten future naval operations. US
thorium reserves can power us for thousands of years."

Someone has been reading Energy From Thorium!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Robert Hargraves on the economic advantages of small reactors

Introduction: I cross-posted yesterday's post on "Energy From Thorium. Robert Hargraves responded to that post with a comment, and I thought it was worthwhile to reproduce his comment here:

I'm not a nuclear engineer, but here are my ignorant observations about the benefits of small sized nuclear power plants....

1. Small size enables mass production with more experience per unit produced, leading to the economies of production lines and smaller costs for errors.

2. Small size means lower capital investments at risk, with the opportunity to add to power plants as needed.

3. Small size means that low energy demand areas of the developing nations might be able to acquire nuclear power plants.

4. Small size means that power plants can be distributed closer to the points of power consumption, reducing transmission losses, reducing network management requirements, and enabling local control of production and consumption in emergencies. The "intelligent grid" concept flies in the face of the success of the distributed network control intelligence of the Internet.

My latest adventure in nuclear power is the course I gave and posted at

Afterword: Robert's blog is well worth looking at.  Robert probably started looking at the small reactor-mass production equation before I did.  However, Robert was thinking in terms of producing reactor construction kits here, which would still require considerable onsite  assembly. My view is that everything possible should be done in the factory, with the reactor shipped out in a few large modules, such as a core module, or a power generator module.  Local assembly of the modules should be like putting together "legos", simple and quick.   Robert advocates building Pebble Bed Reactors, and of course, the Pebble Bed concept has many attractive features, including a potential for high thermal efficiency, and inherent safety.    Of course the the LFTR matches the advantageous features of the PBR, and offers many attractive features which the PBR lacks.   But Robert's observations are correct for the manufacturing potential of both reactors.  Robert is a big picture thinker.

California wind fails again

David Walters has past on to me "2008 Summer Loads and Resources Operations Preparedness Assessment", an interesting summery of the operation of the California electrical grid system by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO).

The Report paints a damning picture of the unreliability of wind generated electricity:

Wind generating facilities are the fastest renewable resource to install and interconnect to the power grid. Wind generation presents enormous benefits as well as significant operational challenges. Wind generation energy production is extremely variable, and in California, it often produces its highest energy output when the demand for power is at a low point. During some periods of the year, wind generation is hard to forecast because it does not follow a predictable day-to-day production pattern.

Typically, during the summer, wind generation peaks when the total system load is low and is at
its lowest production levels when the total system load is high

Furthermore the reports shows that monthly average capacity factor of wind during periods of peak demand will reaches its maximum in January at 25%. The average monthly peak demand capacity factor for the other 11 month is under 20%. The the monthly peek demand capacity factor for wind
is under 10% four months a year and is only 2% for 2 of those 4 months. Despite its truly terrible performance California investors plan to add more than 4,000 MW of new name plate wind generation facilities, despite the worthlessness of such facilities to meet peek electrical demand, The only reason why investors put money into such facilities is because electricity produced by them is subsidized by the US Government. Because California needs reliable electricity all of the wind generators must be backed up fossil fuel burning generations plants, that must be constantly kept online burning fossil fuels in case the wind would drop. As a method of fighting global warming building more windmills in California is about as useful as licensing rickshaws in Los Angeles would be.

Update: David has a post on this subject at Daily Kos. He even quotes my post!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Raymond Clare Briant

In 1957 Alvin Weinberg presented co-authored paper whose ostensive lead author, Raymond Clare Briant had been dead for three years. This is a procedure is sciece to memorialize a scientist who had made a significant contribution to a research project but who had died before the contribution could be recorded in a scientific paper. In the paper Weinberg recored:

At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory we have been investigating another class of fluids
which satisfies all three of the requirements for a desirable fluid fuel: large range of uranium and thorium solubility, low pressure, and no radiolytic gas production. These fluids, first suggested by R. C. Briant, are molten mixtures of UF4 and ThF4 with fluorides of the alkali metals, beryllium, or zirconium. In order to assess better the possibilities of molten fluoride reactors, ORNL in 1954 constructed and operated a high-temperature, molten-fluoride, circulating-fuel reactor with a BeO moderator and an outlet temperature which ranged above 1500°F (1100 K). The papers which will follow are a description of this reactor. Since the work was supported by the Aircraft Reactors Branch of the U. S, Atomic Energy Commission, the reactor was called the Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE).

Later Weinberg, in his autobiography/ was to elaborate Briant's role not only in the original concept of a Liquid Fluoride Reactor, but in the development of the first Loquid Fluoride Reactor.

ORNL, in the meantime, was gearing up for aircraft nuclear propulsion. At first Cecil Ellis was in charge. Cecil was a physicist who had organized the training of operators at the gaseous diffusion plant in the use of the newly invented helium mass spectrometers for the detection of leaks. He was a born teacher, and he carried out this important job effectively. He was also an optimistic showman: Cecil would adorn his office with large signs summarizing the current main line of the week; I particularly remember a huge sign that touted liquid lithium as the coolant for the indirect cycle. But Cecil, despite his great enthusiasms, was hardly equipped to head ORNL's aircraft nuclear propulsion project. For this I turned to Ray C. Briant.

Ray was an extraordinary combination of chemical engineer and applied mathematician. When he joined ORNL in 1948 he was about 50 years old. He had spend much of his career in the marble industry and he probably knew more about marble than any other American. During the war he worked at the Johns Hopkins Physics Laboratory with Larry Hafstad, and he came to ORNL at Larry's suggestion. Ray was brilliant, original and practical. Soon after he arrived I found myself more and more impressed with Ray's instinct both as a chemist and an engineer. Though Ray arrived about the same time as the TAB convened, he was not a member of the TAB. Instead he spent his time thinking about high-temperature reactors.

Note that I say high-temperature reactors, not aircraft reactors. Ray had little sympathy for the nuclear airplane. Though he was familiar with the arguments proving it was not impossible, he realized that the task was hardly feasible, and he was not convinced that the goal, if achieved, would be very useful. But a reactor operating at high enough temperature to energize chemical reactions - this was a valid, even attractive, goal.

At the time Ray took over, our group had chosen to concentrate on the liquid-metal-cooled indirect cycle. The reactor, basically a souped-up version of the submarine intermediate reactor of General Electric, was to consist of a block of beryllium oxide into which many long, thin cylindrical fuel elements were placed. Liquid sodium, sodium-potassium, or lithium was to flow over the fuel elements and deliver the reactor-generated heat to a heat exchanger. There the heat was picked up by the compressed air that drove the jet engine.

From the beginning, Ray was troubled by the concept. With his great experience with high-temperature materials, Ray could not believe that the fuel elements resembling jackstraws could retain their integrity at a temperature of 1,600 degrees F or higher, under extreme heat fluxes and neutron bombardment. He would ridicule the whole concept, saying, "The damn fuel elements will come out looking like spaghetti!"

Ray tried to visualize a reactor that was not a Swiss watch operating at red, even white, heat. This naturrally led him to the notion of liquid fuel: reactors that would have no solid-fuel elements to be deformed. Ray's idea struck a responsive chord in me, with my attachment to the aqueous homogeneous breeder ideas of Eugene Wigner and Harold Urey.

Raymond Clare Briant's death in 1954 must have been a significant blow to the ORNL Liquid Salt Reactor research. I have recently been in contact with Briant's grand daughter, Clare King. She is attempting to develop a more comple picture of her Grandfather.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Chinese AP-1000 contractors

More information is emerging about contracts related to the construction of the first four Chinese AP-1000s.   Of particular note is the role of a Korean company Doosan Heavy Industries which is building both the reactor pressure vessels and the steam generators for the first four Chinese AP-1000s. The Doosan components of the AP-1000 reactor kit appear to be running between $175 million and $144 Million, with perhaps some price drop as serial production of AP-1000 components begins.

I suspect that China plans to add the heavy industrial capacity to build pressure vessels and steam generators in the not too distant future. It was already known that Curtiss-Wright will build the coolant pumps for the first batch of AP-1000s. Curtiss-Wright recently received purchase orders for 24 AP1000 coolant pumps for over $300 million. This would mean a price of at least $100 million per reactor for coolant pumps. Serial production of pumps by Curtiss-Wright would probably lower per unit costs.

Curtiss-Wright can expect another order for 8 more pumps n the near future, and probably for dozens and even hundreds more during the next few years. Steam turbines for Chinese AP-1000 will come from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and its Chinese partner Harbin Power Equipment. We could probably expect that Harbin Power Equipment will be producing a large number and perhaps all of the stram turbines fir Chinese AP-1000s.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What Will Happen to Aviation When Oil Hits $200 a Barrel?

There is an irony to the recent Green Peace Publicity stunt at Heathrow Airport.  The rapidly increasing price of oil is threatening to put the air industry out of business.  The new Heathrow runways which Greenpeace advocates risked their lives to protest may no longer be needed by the time it comes into service.   

No one sees it coming more clearly than the blogger with the nom de plume of Jerome a Paris.  Jerome does not say so directly, but if what Jerome says is true, the hand writing is on the wall for air travel.   Jerome is writing the same story on the European Tribune, Daily Kos, and The Oil Drum,  $200 a barrel oil is coming.    I believe that he is right.   No gas tax holiday is going to stop it, in fact a gas tax holiday is a political stunt that will only hasten the day when $200 a barrel oil is upon us.  The problem is simple.  Chinese oil use is increasing by 5% to 10% a year, Car sales in India are up 17% over last year, and the production of Middle Eastern oil is either about to peak, or has actually peaked already.  The result is a squeeze between the increasing demand for oil, and the stagnant or decreasing oil supply.  

 The consequence of this squeeze is an ever increasing demand for oil until demand can no longer be sustained.   Jerome a Paris's chart at left illustrates how the dramatic rise in the price of oil during this decade.  A Paris argues that it is only a matter of time before oil hits $200 a barrel, and indeed $200 a barrel oil seems inevitable.   

"But," you ask, "how is this going to kill air travel?" 

The answer is simple.  The airlines have to pay for jet fuel, and what they pay is directly tied to the cost of oil.   Now one of two things is going to happen as the price of jet fuel goes up.    Either the airlines raise ticket prices to cover the cost of get fuel, or they subtract the fuel price increase from their bottom line.   Either way the air industry looses.  Air travel will drop as air ticket prices increase.   If an airline does not increase ticket prices to cover the cost of fuel oil, it will eventually loose money, and go bankrupt.   But if air travel drops to much, eventually the airlines' fixed expenses will catch up with them, and the airlines will be forced into bankruptcy.  

Eventually the increasing cost of oil will enforce changes on the way we travel, do business, and one our way of live.  It should be noted that rail transportation is far more energy efficient than air travel.  High speed electrical trains can move passengers from city to city almost as quickly or even more quickly than  jet aircraft can.  Of course a good deal of money would have to go into upgrading the rail system, in order to carry 200 MPH+ trains.   But there would be money to make too as passengers increasingly shifted from air travel, to high speed passenger trains.  

The future of the air industry looks dismal.  Hopes would include bio-fuels which are beginning to encounter increasing environmental, humanitarian and economical objections.     Another hope would involve some form of hydrogen.  Don't bother to think about it.  For multiple reasons, hydrogen is not going to save the airline industry.  

Is air travel then going to be a thing of the past - a phenomena of the 20th century?  It is beginning to look that way.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Missing From the Oil Drim

Several weeks ago, the oil drum began a series on Energy EROEI, a concept which I find problematic.  I was to say the least suspicious of the series and its intent.  The concept of EROEI is to say the least problematic, and nuclear EROEI is even more problematic.  In the hand of "Storm-Smith" the concept of nuclear EROEI is even more problematic as their conclusions defied common sense.  Indeed subsequent research showed the "Storm-Smith" nuclear EROEI calculation contained numerous errors, all of which appear to make nuclear EROEI look worse than it really is.  Some Storm-Smith estimate calculations appear to be very mistaken.  For example applying the Storm-Smith energy input calculation to one african uranium mine led to the conclusion that the mine consumed more fuel than the entire country in which the mine was located.  A calculation of the cost of the fuel which the "Storm-Smith formula said the mine would consume, revealed that the cost of the fuel would be greater than the sales price of the Uranium which the mine produced.  Yet the owner of the mine said that it was making a profit.  Clearly the Storm-Smith formula was mistaken.  And the magnitude of the error suggest that the entire "Storm-Smith ETOEI exercise was an excuse to discredit nuclear power.

The Oil Drum EROEI study was produced by Professor Charles Hall and his students.  Very quickly I began to questions Hall's qualifications to produce an EROEI.  Hall is and Ecologist.  Now Ecologist do study the energy economy of systems of living organisms  in the environment, but this is a very different energy system than that which is developed by industrial societies.  Hall's CV, reflected research in ecology of Costa Rican  jungles, but it it did not reflect any expertise on resource economics, or other subjects that would be needed to understand the EROEI of advanced societies.  I found this troubling.

HaLL published the first 4 parts on the series on April 8, 15, 22, and 29.   I found the April 22 study on Nuclear EROEI every bit as troubling as I had anticipated.  

I wrote a long response to the post In which I raised questions about the way the EROEI concept was applied to nuclear power:

The entire business of EROEI studies is a diversion from the question of reactor efficiency. We know that vast amounts of energy are locked up in uranium and thorium. What we need to be doing is studying the efficiencies of fuel cycle/reactor systems in extracting that energy, rather than expending our time arguing about the EPOEI of one system. Any review of the uranium/light water reactor fuel cycle will review that it does an extremely poor job of extracting the potential energy of nuclear fuel.

EROEI studies never note the different between the energy economies of the CANDU reactor and the LWR. CANDU reactors have a demonstrated ability to operate with almost nuclear fuel including natural uranium. The EROEI of natural uranium CANDU fuel cycles should be examined. There are presently 18 CANDU reactors operating in Canada. Other CANDU reactors operate in India, China, Korea Argentine, and Romania. CANDU Reactors can be operated using "spent" nuclear fuel from LWR. The EROEI for recycled fuel would be very large, since recycled fuel would enter the CANDU with only the energy input of transportation and fuel fabrication. Tests have been run on CANDU reactors.

The Indians has just completed construction the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) a CANDU type reactor to run on thorium cycle fuel.

It is one of the most advanced reactors in the world, and should have an EROEI significantly better than the EROEI of Light Water Reactors. The Indians plan to embark on serial production of AHWR type reactors, before 2020.

A second reactor type whose EROEI should be examined, is the Russian BN-600. Although the BN-600 is a developmental LMFBR reactor that has successfully delivered commercial nuclear power since 1980. The Japanese have purchased BN-600 technology from the Russians, and may build duplicates.

Thirdly, the Indiana are engaged in a significant thorium fuel cycle. The Indians have already built and tested both thorium fuel cycle proof on concept and developmental thorium fuel cycle reactors and have built or are building prototype thorium fuel cycle reactors including the just completed AHWR, the soon to be completed Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam, and the more advanced , Fast Thorium Breeder Reactor (FTBR) underdevelopment at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in second thorium fuel cycle breeder. The Indians are in the last stage of a 3 stage developmental program for a complex Uranium/thorium reactor fuel system, that is many times more energy efficient than the Uranium/light water reactor fuel system.

The Indians plans to build thorium fuel cycle reactor capable of producing 20 GWy of electrical energy by 2020, and to produces 30% of their electricity from thorium cycle reactors by 2050. Indian scientists calculate that the assurred thorium reserve of India is large enough to provide it with electrcity for 400 years. Given the extent of Indian thorium cycle reactor development, and future plans and EROEI of nuclear industry EROIE that ignores the Indian plans is at the very least incomplete.

Further, any discussion of nuclear EROEI ought to note that that real world LWR EROEI using MOX is much than the EROEI of normally fueled French LWRs. The use Pu-239 in nuclear weapons absorbed the original energy input into weapons fissionable materials. The energy input into recycled fuel (MOX) would equal the energy requirements for disassembling nuclear weapons, fabricating MOX, and transporting it to the reactor. Reactor grade Plutionium can also be a source of MOX. U-238 in the MOX can be assummed to come from Depleted uranium stockpiles.

American civilian power reactors are being used to dispose of surplus Russian U-235. Fully half half of the uranium used in American reactors USA is ex-Russian military U-235. One sixth of the current world U-235 supply comes from recycling Russian nuclear weapons. In addition, Pu-239 from American and Russian nuclear weapon stockpiles, not ony can but should be used as reactor fuel.
The estimated US U-235 stockpile was estimated to be in the range of 750 tons in the early 1990s, of which 174 tons (23% of the total) have been declared surplus.[13] More than 30 tons of the excess HEU has been blended down, reducing the total stockpile to something in the range of 720 tons. The US has a plutonium of 111.4 tons. The UK acknowledges possession of a military stockpile of 7.6 tons of plutonium, 21.9 tons of HEU (U-235). The Japanese hold a plutonium stockpile of from 16 to 20 tons. In 2000 the US and Russia agreed to each dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Estimates of the total world stockpile of weapons grade plutonium range as high as 300 tons.

In addition to surplus stockpiles of reactor grade plutonium, mostly found in "spent nuclear fuel" equals 400 tons. Civilian plutonium stockpiles are growing and constitute the largest single problem associated with "nuclear waste." But even if all civilian reactors shut down, the disposal of military and civilian plutonium would be a significant problem. By far the best solution from an EROEI viewpoint would be to burn the plutonium in breeder reactors or thorium converters as the Indians plan to do.

EROEI studies of nuclear power commit numerous other EROEI errors.

EROEi calculations do not evaluating reactor grade plutonium reprocessing in the UK, France and Germany, despite the fact that reactor grade plutonium returned to reactors amounts to largely free energy.

Various sources describe the amount of fissionable material remaining in “spent” nuclear fuel. The Wikipedia reports that 1% of the fuel mass of “spent fuel” is reactor grade plutonium. While unburned U-235 would constitute >.83 percent of the "spent" fuel mass. The Wikipedia also reports, “Fissile component starts at 0.71% 235U concentration in natural uranium). At discharge, total fissile component is still 0.50% (0.23% 235U, 0.27% fissile 239Pu, 241Pu).”

Plutonium based fuel can be used in Heavy Water Reactors.

With Heavy Water Reactors a burnup rate of 50% of reactor grade plutonium is possible with the use of a U-238 fuel cycle, and 75% with the use of a Th-232 fuel cycle.

The encyclopedia of the earth reports

Reactor grade plutonium contains about 55-70% of fissile Pu-239, and >19% of non-fissile Pu-240, non fissile isotopes of Plutonium will never constitute more 30% of reactor grade plutonium.

In contrast. studies of the use of ex-nuclear weapon Pu-239 in MOX fueled light water reactors suggest that only a net burnup on only 1/3 of the original plutonium, leaving an unsatisfactory burn is disposal of plutonium.

Depleted Uranium contains 0.25-0.30% U-235.
Thus the Uranium enrichment process looses 35% to 42% of the U-235 in natural uranium. 20% of reactor fuel U-235 fails to fission after absorbing reactor neutrons, thus becoming non-fissile U-236. (WASH-1097) Another 25%+ of reactor U-235 remains when the fuel will no longer support a chain reaction. In addition, plutonium remaining in the reactor amounts to nearly 25% of the original U-235 in the fuel charge. Thus the net fissile burnup rate in a light water reactor is only 30% of the original U-235 charge.
In contrast CANDU reactors contain about 0.2% U-235.

An equal amount of spent CANDU fuel will be PU-239. Hence Heavy Water Reactor fuel post-reactor fuel is more truly spent, while spent light water reactor fuel, contains more fissile material than natural uranium a fuel that can be used in Heavy Water Reactors.

Heavy Water reactors are also more efficient in burning U-235. Assuming 0.1% U236 content in "spent fuel" (WASH-1097), this means that 57% of the U-235 in natural uranium gets burned up heavy water reactors, verses a burnup of around 35% of the U-235 in natural uranium for light water reactors.

Since part or most of the nuclear energy of uranium and plutonium in post reactor LWR nuclear fuel is capturable by other reactors, it should be added to the energy output of light water reactors in a fair assessment of the uranium.LWR guel cycle..

Various sources describe the amount of fissionable material remaining in “spent” nuclear fuel. The Wikipedia reports that 1% of the fuel mass of spent fuel is reactor grade plutonium. While U-235 would constitute >.83 percent of the fuel mass. The Wikipedia also reports, “Fissile component starts at 0.71% 235U concentration in natural uranium). At discharge, total fissile component is still 0.50% (0.23% 235U, 0.27% fissile 239Pu, 241Pu).”

Plutonium based fuel can be used in Heavy Water Reactors.

With Heavy Water Reactors a burnup rate of 50% of reactor grade plutonium is possible with the use of a U-238 fuel cycle, and 75% with the use of a Th-232 fuel cycle.

The encyclopedia of the earth reports

Reactor grade plutonium contains about 55-70% of fissile Pu-239, and >19% of non-fissile Pu-240, non fissile isotopes of Plutonium will never constitute more 30% of reactor grade plutonium.

One Kg of fissile Plutonium burned in a reactor produces 10 MWh of electrical power. Thus one ton of fissile plutonium will produce 1 GW years of electrical power.

Studies of the use of nuclear weapon Pu-239 in MOX fueled light water reactors suggest that only a net burnup on only 1/3 of the original plutonium, leaving an unsatisfactory burn is disposal of plutonium.

Depleted Uranium contains 0.25-0.30% U-235.
Thus the Uranium enrichment process looses 35% to 42% of the U-235 in natural uranium. 20% of reactor fuel U-235 fails to fission after absorbing reactor neutrons, thus becoming non-fissile U-236. (WASH-1097) Another 25%+ of reactor U-235 remains when the fuel will no longer support a chain reaction. In addition, plutonium remaining in the reactor amounts to nearly 25% of the original U-235 in the fuel charge. Thus the net fissile burnup rate in a light water reactor is only 30% of the original U-235 charge.
In contrast CANDU reactors contain about 0.2% U-235.
An equal amount of spent CANDU fuel will be PU-239. Hence Heavy water reactor fuel is truly spent, while spent light water reactor fuel, contains more Fissile material than ordinary Heavy Water Reactor fuel does.

Assuming 0.1% U236 content (WASH-1097), this means that 57% of the U-235 in natural uranium gets burned up heavy water reactors, verses a burnup of around 35% of the U-235 in natural uranium for light water reactors.

Such great inefficiency leaves a great deal of nuclear fuel unused by light water reactors, but re-enrichment of so called "depleted uranium tailings" is currently being conducted at Paducah,
and in Russia.
And research continuses on improving the burnup ratio of LWRs.

In short some of the inefficiencies of the uranium/light water reactor fuel cycle are either being corrected or are amenable to correction. Nuclear EROEI is a snapshot in time, that often ignore the complexity of nuclear fuel cycles, as well as the effect of reactor, enrichment and fuel recovery technologies on nuclear fuel efficiency. Since it is impossible to generate a single number in calculations involving so many independent variables, the value of nuclear EROEI studies which arrives at a single number is very questionable, and a meta-analysis of such studies will lead to a distorted and inaccurate picture. The best we should hope for is a range of EROEI numbers for a given fuel cycle, with the possibility of a comparison between the ranges of various fuel/reactor options

The study on Nuclear EROEI confirmed my worst fear.

First it contained no empirical data. Hall does not tell us how much energy is used to mine, mill, enrich and fabricate reactor fuel. He does not tell us how much energy goes into building a reactor. He does not analyze back end options for “spent fuel” and the energy input for each option. Although he acknowledges my email to him suggesting that he should review the Canadian and the Indian Fuel cycles which are significantly different from the Light Water Reactor Fuel Cycle of France and the United States, he acknowledges is inability to perform the task.

Secondly most of his bibliography did not include Internet links, even though in some cases the source is posted on the Internet.
For example Hall lists an unpublished paper by Gene Tyner, but provides no link to it. Yet that paper is posted on the Internet.

Thirdly, Hall’s bibliography referes to Anti-nuclear propagandist, such as Helen Caldicott and Jan Willem Storm Van Leeuwen.

Caldicott’s writings on nuclear energy have not been peered reviewed. Numerous critics have poked holes in Caldicott’s work. When given a chance to respond to her critics, arguments Caldicott flatly refused. Instead she simply attacked her critics because they disagreed with her.

Hall relies heavily on Storm Van Leeuwen to support his case. Yet David Bradish has shown that Storm Van Leeuwen has made serious mathematical errors in his work.

Roberto Dones, a distinguished scientist (, writing under the Letterhead of the Paul Scherrer Institute, subject the work of “Stom-Smith to withering criticism.

Dones argues that "Storm-Smith" cherry pick data:
"the authors do not critically address their own evaluation in view of findings from those studies. Instead, they extract worst data from just one presentation (Orita 1995: Preliminary Assessment on Nuclear Fuel cycle and Energy Consumption), which is a highly incomplete survey, was never reviewed, nor it reports the used sources. ISA (2006, #35) discard figures reported in Orita (1995) on mining as “outliers”. . . SvLS qualify the data presented at that meeting as oversimplified and incomplete as if this were representing the whole of studies on the nuclear chain. Incidentally, several studies whose intermediate results were presented at the IAEA had and have been published in reports and journal papers and are acknowledged as reference LCA studies."
Dones points to methodological errors:

"SvLS (2005) often convert costs into energetic terms using generic factors, not reported in the text, lacking critical consideration of cost components, and lacking use of technical match to compare with real energy expenditures."

"SvLS (2005) add thermal to electric energy directly to give “total energy”, which is certainly not recommended practice."

"SvLS do not provide explicitly conversion factor(s) PJe or PJth to CO2 mass."

Dones also notes, "SvLS (2005) comparison of CO2 emission from nuclear with natural gas is not consistent.." and "SvLS (2005) use references that are likely to be outdated."

Dones also states,
"SvLS (2005) is not accounting for mine industry practices." Dones, as well as other critics reports, SvLS (2005) pay no consideration of co-production of minerals as common practice for economically viable mining and milling (processing) of the ore especially in case of low grades. If co-production or by-production occurs, the energy expenditures shall be allocated to the different products according to the specific needs, accurately analyzing (to the extent possible) the complete process flow."

Dones then points to
"Storm-Smith's" notorious Olympic Dam mine error:

"[A]s reported in (ISA 2006), in the Olympic Dam mine, where uranium is extracted as
a byproduct of copper, “most energy requirements would have been attributable to the recovered copper” under consideration of energy allocation to different products by process flow analysis. ISA (2006) reports the results of Olympic Dam’s own calculations based on such energy allocation, obtaining 0.012 GJ of energy to uranium “for every tonne of ore that we process in its entirety (from mining through to final product)”. This would correspond to 0.012/0.7/0.85/0.82 = 0.024 GJ/kgU for U-grade of 0.07% (proved ore reserves), or 0.041 GJ/kgU for 0.04% U-grade (total resources).9 Application of the formula in (SvLS 2005, Chapter 2, #5) would give for 0.07% grade the energy intensity of 4.4 GJ/kgU and 10.6 GJ/kgU, respectively for soft and hard ores, while with 0.04% the energy intensity would be 8.2 GJ/kgU and 19.5 GJ/kgU, respectively for soft and hard ores: i.e., SvLS formula would calculate two to three orders of magnitude higher values than this specific case."

Dones argues,
"SvLS (2005) systematically overestimates energy expenditures, thus the associated GHG."

It should be noted that like “Storm-Smith” Hall prefers old sources.
“The seemingly most reliable information on EROI is quite old and is summarized in chapter 12 of Hall et al. (1986). Newer information tends to fall into the wildly optimistic camp (high EROI, e.g. 10:1 or more, sometimes wildly more) . . .”
It is quite clear that Hall dismisses any study of nuclear EROEI that comes up with a figure higher than he and Storm Van Leeuwen would allow as wildly the wildly optimistic, and automatically dismissed.

Martin Sevior criticisms of “Storm-Smith” have previously been twice debated on The Oil Drum. Hall ignore Sevior, Sevior’s debate with “Storm-Smith” ( and the debate of Sevior’s critique of “Storm-Smith on The Oil Drum. ( and

Fourthly, Hall dismisses peer review publishes studies of Nuclear EROEI.

“Newer information tends to fall into the wildly optimistic . . .”.

Fifthly he dismisses alternitive reactor technologies.
“Previous “new technologies” such as Breeders (Clinch River, Super Phoenix) have been abandoned as too expensive. Plumbing issues have plagued the Candu style reactors, although they appear intrinsically cheaper and safer and do not require energy-intensive enrichment.”
In fact the Russian BN-600 breeder has been successful. ( The Japanese recently paid a billion dollars for BN-600. The so called plumbing problems of the CAND reactor are technologically fixable, and at any rate, CANDU reactors have a capacity factor of 87% and an availability factor of 92.4% which is more than satisfactory. (

Sixthly, Hall sites sources that do not appear in his bibliography.

“according to at least one source, extraction of uranium from seawater would cost much more energy than contained in the uranium itself.” (Leeuwen 2006)

Hall also references (Leeuwen 2005) several times,

There is no mention of Leeuwen 2006 or Leeuwen 2005 in the bibliography.

Hall thus uses this seemingly non-existent source from a discredited authority to prove that extraction of uranium from sea water is not an economic possibility, and to argue that uranium is a non-sustainable resource.

Seventhly, Hall confesses his lack of a technical capacity to assess the EROEI of reactor/fuel systems in India and Canada:

“I am not technically qualified to judge from all these differing perspectives.”

Yet it is this very lack of technical capacity that is at the center of Charles Hall’s failure to assess the EROEI of nuclear power. Far from producing a rigorously reasoned, well documented argument, factually based argument, Hall has given us an argument without data through the use of what Bruno Latour called black boxes, that is by reference to sources whose data are neither assessed nor reported. Hall tells us, I did that else where. a long time ago., and newer information is
“mostly as disparate, widespread, idiosyncratic, prejudiced and poorly documented as information about the nuclear power industry itself. Much, perhaps most, of the information that is available seems to have been prepared by someone who has made up his or her mind one-way or another (i.e. a large or trivial supplier of net energy) before the analysis is given. “
In other word it does not support Hall’s conclusions.

Instead Hall relies on one schematic to set out his argument.
“The following diagram, which should be considered conceptually if not necessarily quantitatively appropriate, illustrates the main issues.”
The diagram is found here:
On that schematic in the mid right there appears the word “Time” and an arrow that points to the word “Storm”. The word “Storm” of course represents the dubious conclusions of one “Storm Van Leeuwen.”

As we use to say when I was younger, “garbage in, garbage out”.

The paper had actually been written by one of Hall's students, but Hall had failed to correct his student's errors, and the seriously flawed paper which was published on The Oil Drum.

The nexr week on April 29, the 4th post in Charles Hall's EROEI series appeared, but LattyCO commented:


I'm not going to spend time on someone whose previous posts have been shredded.

Robert and Jeffery don't always agree, but it is because they disagree about how to interpret the data they present, not because one of them picks data from discredited sources.

You can get offended if you want, but this series does not deserve to pass the Oil Drum Editors and I am shocked that it continues.

Interestingly the 5th part of the Charles Hall's EROEI series did not appear this week.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Sovacool Strikes Again

Benjamin Sovacool - or as he is known to his friends as Dr Benjamin K. Sovacool - is at it again. This time he is attacking nuclear power by arguing in effect that nuclear power plants are accident prone. I have elsewhere in this blog and in bartoncii noted the accident history of dams and the potential danger of dam accidents. Dr Benjamin K. Sovacool has used his connection with the scitizen web site to launch an anti-nuclear crusade. His latest posting is based on a paper he is publishing this month: “The Costs of Failure: A Preliminary Assessment of Major Energy Accidents, 1907 to 2007.” Sovacool's scitizen essay is called, "The Costs of Major Energy Accidents, 1907 to 2007." I will presently show that both titles are misnomers because Sovocool ignores thousands of energy related accidents and tens of thousands of of energy related deaths.

Sovacool tells us, "From 1907 to 2007, a new study finds that 279 major energy accidents in the coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric, and nuclear sectors have been responsible for $41 billion in damages and 182,156 deaths." Of course the study is his own. Notice he refers to energy sectors in his introduction. The term "energy sector" is usually understood to refers to the exploration, production, marketing, refining and/or transportation, and use of energy sources including oil and gas, coal, nuclear energy, renewable energy and alternative fuels.

Sovacool asks, "what counts as an energy “accident,” especially a “major” one?" We will presently see that a great many energy sector accidents do not count in Sovacool's research.

How does sovacool get his information. He tells us, "by searching historical archives, newspaper and magazine articles, and press wire reports from 1907 to 2007." this would in fact be far to great a task for one person to undertake in a lifetime, let lone a person of such great intellectual accomplishments that he holds a PhD from an institution of higher learning found in Blacksburg, Virginia. There are however shortcuts. Sovacool tells us. "The words “energy,” “electricity,” “oil,” “coal,” “natural gas,” “nuclear,” “renewable,” and “hydroelectric” were searched in the same sentence as the words “accident,” “disaster,” “incident,” “failure,” “meltdown,” “explosion,” “spill,” and 'leak.'" well this distinctly sounds like that well known research method called googling.

How did Sovacool decide to pick out accidents to study? He reports his criteria as follows:

# The accident must have involved an energy system at the production/generation, transmission, and distribution phase. This means it must have occurred at an oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, renewable, or hydroelectric plant, its associated infrastructure, or within its fuel cycle (mine, refinery, pipeline, enrichment facility, etc.);
# It must have resulted in at least one death or property damage above $50,000 (in constant dollars that has not been normalized for growth in capital stock);
# It had to be unintentional and in the civilian sector, meaning that military accidents and events during war and conflict are not covered, nor are intentional attacks. The study only counted documented cases of accident and failure;
# It had to occur between August, 1907 and August, 2007;
# It had to be verified by a published source;

Almost immediately Sovacool's research failure emerges. He writes:
"While responsible for less than 1 percent of total energy accidents, hydroelectric facilities claimed 94 percent of reported fatalities. Looking at the gathered data, the total results on fatalities are highly dominated one accident in which the Shimantan Dam failed in 1975 and 171,000 people perished."

In fact not one but 62 Chinese dams failed in the 1975 dam disaster, and the Shimantan Dam was not the largest.

Sovacool reported finding "279 accidents" which meet his criteria. This is an astonishingly small number, and is a certain clue that something is seriously amiss with Sovacool's study.

How far has Sovacool missed the marek in his study? He tells us "The second largest source of fatalities, nuclear reactors, is also the second most capital intense, supporting the notion that the larger a facility the more grave (albeit rare) the consequences of its failure."

In fact had Sovacool not made such stupendous blunders in his research, he would have known that neither of these assertions were true. Arguably the largest number of fatalities are associated with the hydroelectric sector since around 200,000 people were killed by or died as a result of the collapse of several dozen Chinese dams in 1975. It is quite possible that the cumulative death tolls for the coal mining industry is higher than the death toll for hydro. Sovacool mentions one oil pipeline in Nigeria, actually there were several. A 1998 accident at Jesse, Nigeria killed 1200 people. Two 2006 accidents killed 150 and 500 people. An oil pipeline explosion kills 508 in Cubatão, Brazil, during 1984. Other oil pipeline disasters have occurred.Sovacool also ignores oil welk fires, and both oil refinery fires and explosions. One explosion and fire in Texas City, in March 2005 killed 15 people and did hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage. The U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied a $21 million fine against BP after the fire. A Shell Oil refinery fire, loss worth $49 million (2003 dollars), Roxana (IL), 1985. An oil refinery fire, in Norco (LA), 1988 did $513 million in damage. A Union Oil refinery fire kills 17 & loss worth $177 million (2003 dollars) at Romeoville (IL) in 1984. A Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. refinery fire kills 19 firefighters at Sun Ray (TX) in 1956. A Phillips Petroleum plant fire, loss worth $1,113 million at Pasadena (TX) in 1989. A 1975 fire at the Gulf Oil Refinery Philadelphia killed 8 firefighters. Other large fires occured at the same refinery on May 16, 1975, and on October 20, 1975.

It would also appear that fatalities involving natural gas pipelines also accounted for far more casualties than nuclear power related accident. A single LPG pipeline explosion near Ufa in Russia killed up to 645 people on June 4, 1989.

Thus It would appear that the coal, hydroelectric, oil and natural gas sectors have accounted for a far higher death toll than the nuclear sector has.

What about property loss? In order to assess the cost of nuclear related accidents, relative to costs related to accidents in other sectors, we must have to make a comprehensive list sector accidents. Clearly coal mining and other coal sector related accidents might well involve greater property loss. Our lists of energy sector accidents would be extremely long, and involving literally thousands of accidents. Many accidents would involve the loss of human life, but thousands of accidents would meet Sovacool's property loss criteria. Since it is quite clear that Sovacool has failed to do include thousands of energy related accidents that would have meet his criteria in his research, no value can be ascribed to his work.

Sovocool has produced another typical example of his work. His research is weak, his research methods are suspects, and his conclusions will not withstand critical examination.

Benjamin K. Sovacool, “The Costs of Failure: A Preliminary Assessment of Major Energy Accidents, 1907 to 2007,” Energy Policy 36(5) (May, 2008), pp. 1802-1820.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Are Renewables Cost Competitive with Nuclear Power?

Update on future energy 

Last year on my other blog, bartoncii, I undertook a study of future post-carbon energy sources.  I focused primarily on solar and wind generated electricity.  My research method was fairly simple, and is based on Karl Popper's theory of knowledge.  I set out to test what renewable advocates were saying about solar and wind generated electricity, by looking for information that would tend to disprove their claims. Evidence had to be reasonably construed as factual and had to clearly contradict the claims of wind and solar advocates.

The starting point of my investigation was the intermittent nature of solar and wind power. Could the problem of intermittency be overcome? If not, what would justify a massive implimentation of solar and/or wind power generation sources be justified? Another question had interesting implications. Would some of the objections to nuclear power also apply to "renewable electrical resources.

What I found was that installation costs of renewable electrical generation was not cheaper than nuclear energy if judged by actual electrical output rather than name plate generating capacity. nuclear power plants are simply more reliable producers of electrical energy. In order to make up for the unreliability of renewable electrical sources, generating capacity needs to be replicated from 2.5 to 5 times, and the surplus energy placed in storage, to be retrieved for electrical generation when energy output drops. The cost of such redundancy was such that it costs as much to build solar and wind generation capacity that would actually have the potential to displace current fossil fuel generating systems, as it would to displace those systems with nuclear power, without factoring in the cost of energy storage and retrieval, required to compensate for intermittency.

None of storage options I looked at were inexpensive. In fact, options like battery storage or pump storage were not significantly cheaper than the cost of constructing nuclear power plants, and offered inferior benefits. The rub was that if one took the superior nuclear option - superior in terms of energy returned for the investment dollar, and superior in terms of EROEI - there was little room for solar and wind generated electricity in the post-carbon energy world.

Hence the renewable electrical generation systems I looked at were going to be far more rather than less expensive than nuclear electrical generation systems. Let me look at for a moment comparative costs. The cost of an installed large land based wind generator is now running at around $2.00 per name plate watt. The cost of a sea based wind generator is considerable more expensive. The most regular winds in the United States will produce about 40% of a windmills rated energy. So if you want to average producing 1 billion watts of electrical energy from a wind generating system that produces at 40% of name plate capacity, you will need to build windmills with a name plate capacity of 2.5 billion watts. This would be the best case scenario. At $2.00 a watt, the generating system would cost $5 billion. In addition, if you wanted to produce electricity 24 hours a day with this system, you would need a storage system capable of storing the equivalent of 15 GWh of electricity. A pump storage system would to that, but at todays construction cost, that pump storage system could well cost another 5 billion dollars.

Hence the cost of a carbon free wind generating system under a best case scenario would be around 10 billion dollars per GW of electrical reliably delivered. This would be overnight costs, and does not factor in the cost of interest. Systems using offshore winds would be considerably more expensive.

What would building the equivalent nuclear generating capacity cost? Paul Bowers of the Southern Co., which owns Georgia Power, in early April estimated that building Westinghouse's AP1000 reactors would cost Georgia power between $2,500 and $3,500 per kilowatt. Westinghouse has recently estimated the kit price of AP-1000s to be something more than $1.50 per watt. An estimated 16 million to 20 million man-hours to build an AP-1000 reactor according to Bowers. TVA estimates that the cost of its first two AP-1000's will run between $2.5 and $3.0 billion on partially prepared sites. Thus $3 per watt overnight cost will get you a reactor, and of course interest must be added. Thus reactors are 40% less expensive than equivalent wind generating capacity, and three times less expensive than a system that would deliver an equivalent amount of carbon free wind generated electricity 24 hours a day.

Similar cost problems confront PV electrical generating systems, and many ST - also called CSP - systems.

Not all of my conclusions about renewable energy were negative. Solar systems are cost effective for water heating in much of the United States and for space heating in parts of the United States. The use of solar heating for space and water heating would tend to decrease the difference between day and night electrical demands.

Since I did this assessment, new claims are being made about other renewable electrical generating technologies. In a recent article in Salon, Joseph Romm argued for the economy of CPS. Romm claimed "According to a 2008 Sandia National Laboratory presentation, costs are projected to drop to 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour when capacity exceeds 3,000 MW."

The Sandia cost estimates are not backed by published data, and significant questions remain. Construction costs including the price of building materials have doubled during the last five years, and can be expected to continue to rise. It is not clear to what extent Sandia based their cost estimate on building realistic cost estimates. Romm claims, "[t]he technology has no obvious bottlenecks and uses mostly commodity materials -- steel, concrete and glass." but that is exactly the rub, the cost of steel, concrete and probably glass have doubled in the last 5 years and can be expected to inflate rapidly. Research on CSP technology and construction of CSP facilities are regionally concentrated in the American Southwest. In fact the desert climate of the Southwest means that useful sunshine will be available for an average of 8 hours a day or even more. In other parts of the country the availability of sunshine drops. Two thirds of the United States can expect an average of 5.5 hours of sunshine a day or less. Even worse cloud cover is not uniformly distributed in time, so in many locations clouds may obstruct the sun for several days at a time.

Thus CSP, even if it turns out to be a cost effective electrical generating source for the Southwest, still might turnout to be not cost effective for the rest of the country. Romm in the best tradition of renewable energy advocates, completely ignored the regional nature of CSP. Romm tells us, Finally, we will need more electric transmission in this country. "The good news is that because it [CPS] matches the load most of the day and has cheap storage, CSP can share power lines with wind farms. When the country gets serious about global warming, we will need to get serious about a building a transmission system for a low-carbon economy. "

In short good old Joe wants to build a lot of extremely expensive and highly vulnerable to terrorist attack electrical transmission lines to export CSP generated power from the Southwest to the rest of the country. How much would Romm's national CSP electrical generation system cost? No one knows, but it is a good assumption that building a thousand or so AP-1000 would be cheaper, and building several thousand LFTR's in a factory and using innovative siting approaches would be cheaper still.


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