Monday, April 17, 2006

Yes Nukes?

by Tom Bozzo

Lots of talk in the blogiverse about Greenpeace's Patrick Moore coming out in favor of expanded nuclear (fission!) power generation, and about the evidence-immunity of some of the backlash.

I'd have considered myself a nuclear power skeptic, perhaps in line with Mark Thoma, having grown up not too far worst case scenario terms from Three Mile Island — the accident happened on my 11th birthday — and quite a bit closer to the not untroubled Salem nuclear generating station. Maybe I inhaled some irrational technopositivism along the way somewhere, but several factors lead me to think that more nuclear generation has a place in the future generation mix.

1. Electricity, as the saying goes, brings good things to life. The 'information economy' is particularly dependent on reliable electricity supply. Moreover, electrical power can be substituted for lots of uses of hydrocarbon fuels, directly or indirectly (as in, where d'ya think the 'hydrogen economy' is coming from).

2. Coal, while plentiful and relatively cheap, is an environmental disaster of a fuel. "Efficient" mining methods are destructive and/or dangerous, it's bad for greenhouse gas emissions, and widespread mercury contamination is the kicker (in my view, at least balancing the nuclear accident risk). I could discuss "clean coal" but then would have to stop myself from laughing long enough to finish the post.

3. Someday, maybe, a nanotech miracle will allow a lot of surfaces that presently only keep the sun and rain out of buildings to serve as solar plants. There are only so many un-dammed rivers, and arguably some of the dammed should be freed. Etc. etc. etc. for other renewables. Real energy policy can't — OK, shouldn't — depend on vaporware in the near term.

So you want more electricity without accelerating the climate processes that might wipe out the world's low-lying areas and presumably trillions of dollars in present-day wealth? Smashing atoms isn't the perfect solution, but neither is anything else.

Quote du jour from Mark Kleiman: "There's actually a strong analogy between refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to Gore was Bush and refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to nuclear is coal."

Clarification: I wish renewables well, really I do. The issue at hand is how to generate gigawatt quantities of greenhouse gas free 'base load' within today's power plant planning horizon in all weather. That's where the Kleiman quote applies.
I grew up 60 miles NE of TMI and was 6 when the accident occurred. Still, I'd like to see something positive happen in that area, especially because #2 in your list (coal) is so horrid.
Does this make Mark Kleinman an example of what is wrong with the Democratic Party, with his implicit idea that capturing solar energy and harnessing wind power equates to Ralph Nader?

I'm not looking for a nanotech miracle (expecting one, yes, but not willing to price the option), but solar panels at libration points (or even suborbital), wind harnessing such as in Central California, and OTEC (to name three) are all cleaner, less risky choices than coal ever will be. Even adjusting for any current inefficiencies, as resource allocation, solar expands the pie and wind and OTEC leverage current conditions.

(Yes, I spent several grade-school summers traveling by car from IN to PA and back, which then took one through the strip-mined glories of WV, some terrains of which have almost recovered, and most of the miners of which never will.)

One of these days, I'll get it right.
JM: That's pretty much my view.

Ken: I may have let snark get the better of me. I have nothing against wind or solar, and imagine Kleiman doesn't, either. For me at least, it's more a matter that neither is going to produce gigawatt quantities of all-weather base load in the potential (i.e., coherent energy policy) time horizon for building additional nuclear power plants.
That's where we disagree. Solar really is all-weather, even moreso if you leverage orbital and suborbital satellites. (OTEC is a more difficult leap of technology, and has exposure problems in a Katrina-like situation--the same as the rigs in the Gulf did, to be certain, but issues nonetheless--but it's nearly ready for prime time.)

Well within current technology, at least as cost-effective as building a secure nuclear plant, and less likely to present a large social cost than either coal or nuclear power.

(The oil companies believe so as well--look where their research dollars have been growing, and the areas of BP that the company itself is celebrating.)

Can you switch right now? No, but you can't do that with nuclear energy either. Given the timeframe under discussion and costs involved, nuclear will only get more expensive, while a concerted solar/wind/OTEC effort (probably 75/10/15%) would reap dividends.
Well, I should have specified "all-weather" with respect to wind and "round the clock" with respect to solar plants not located in GEO.

I would agree that orbital solar plants should be high on the lift priority for the space elevator once materials science advances to the point of being able to build one.

Regarding your point on the greener energy companies' solar efforts, I very much would like to see projects like this one become more widespread. Apart from blending relatively well with the old-style architecture of the house, which is a few blocks from mine, my understanding from an article in the local paper (that I can't find online) was that the system had a finite payback time at electric rates 20% or so lower than they are now -- at least, assuming that the panels survived the great hail of '06.
I'm also thinking that, sooner or later, we're going to have to be talking about solar arrays of vast size in the Lagrange points with microwave transmission back. I also think that we could probably manage it before we have a fully-constructed skyhook. Quasi-automated facilities on the moon would be a great help, as would the shallower gravity well.

That said, I mostly agree with Tom: we need some sort of stopgap power because I don't think vast solar generation capability is going to come online soon enough.
Before I rant again, would you gents please explain the timeframe and time-to-market you are discussing?

Solar cells solve the round-the-clock problem with current technology; give them 15 more development years and I would expect greater storage capacity and efficiency.

The same applies to wind power, though not with the same freedom of location.

Even my most limited technology choice (OTEC) has the virtue of more portability and availability than nuclear.

If you're talking scale, bang for the buck, and TCO, I still can't see how nuclear expansion is the choice for scarce dollars.
Ken, I'm thinking about capacity that could (in theory) be brought on-line around the middle of the next decade. That's a stretch for nuclear, but the issues are policy-related as much as technical.

There will, I'm sure, be a lot of wind-power development, but big wind projects still seem to be measured in tens and not hundreds of megawatts, and have run into well-publicized NIMBY issues themselves.

"Micro-scale" solar projects should benefit a lot from reduced component costs, but will take a long time to retrofit to a sufficient fraction of structures once it's de rigueur to generate a couple kW at home. Those cost something like $5 billion/1000 MW at residential scale, and admittedly falling.

The nuclear cost/ROI question would be whether economies of scale from standardized plant designs could be achieved.
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