Sep 7, 2011

a victory for fossil fuels

People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. - MIB

People popping potassium iodide tablets
Chinese hoarding iodized salt

I suspect Fukushima will have a larger impact on anti-nuclear sentiment than the much more catastrophic Chernobyl accident. Primarily because it was not a man-made issue. Scientists can no longer say "poor design", "poor procedures", "poorly trained workers", etc. This was a random dice being thrown and coming up 7.

All energy production requires tradeoffs.
  • Coal is estimated to kill 30,000 a year.  I suspect it much higher than this. It liberates nasty radioactive particles and radiation.  The CO2 it produces will eventually kill 100s of millions if it isn't removed from our gen grid.
  • Hydroelectric is one of the best but dams are not immune from earthquake damage. Oh you didn't hear about the dam that failed in the Sendair earthquake and flooded a town of 1,800.  Not surprising.  While that wasn't a power dam it's shows the damage it can do. How about Banqiao Dam. 18GW dam that failed.  26,000 died from the flooding and 145,000 died from subsequent epidemics and famine. Finally in the US at least our hydro is tapped out.  We are actually losing hydro due to environmental lawsuits which dislike the damage to the environment they create.
  • Natural gas is very clean.  Still produces a lot of CO2 though.  About half as much as coal. The "fracking" of shale rock however is done in a manner that could be screwing with our water table. Unclear what the effects of this are.  Plus it's incredibly price volatile.
  • Wind is outright one of the cheapest to build and operate.  But it too has issues.  There aren't a ton of great sites to place wind gen.  We've tapped out Western Texas to the point where T Boone Pickens just up and left his projects there to die.  And generally the wind blows where people aren't.  Ever driven through West Texas?  That means transmission lines and those are both pricey and also unbelievably hard to build in the US.  10 year lead times.  Plus it generally blows at night when no one is really using power.  One way to offset this is with batteries but then you have an expensive energy solution again.  Plus it is not dispatchable.  You can't just create energy from wind turbines when you need it.  It stops blowing and there is very little forewarning.  This is a strain on the operation of the grid and against costs money.  Plus some potentially biased sources claim that more people die per wind MWh produced compared to nuclear.
  • Solar is like wind.  Non-dispatchable, generally runs where people aren't, and unfortunately is still pretty pricey without massive subsidies.  Plus it is not immune from environmental concerns either.  Silicon production is a dirty business.  And thin films used Cadmium.  Ugly stuff.  
  • Geo is almost perfect.  It's dispatchable, deadly cheap to run, and no CO2 or any other environmental issues that we are aware of.  The problem seems to be that the current technology has limited site applicability.  I personally don't understand why this is.  We are good at drilling.  We have the oil and gas industry to thank for that.  But that doesn't seem to make the capital costs work out or how to apply technology to capture the heat.  Hopefully we'll figure that out one day.
So that means I like nuclear right?  I think people having a pro or anti nuclear position are making this way too simple.  There are good reactor designs and bad ones (1st gen BWRs).  There are good procedures and bad ones.  I like some of the new designs a lot.  And I'm not against closing down dangerous reactors.  And I think a lot more could be done.  Like an international SWAT team that can be deployed in situations like Chernobyl and Japan quickly and with "best of" practices and tons of mitigating procedures and equipment.  Quite frankly from what I've read Japan would never have been an issue if they would have dropped a good portable generation solution down on the plant while the batteries were being used.  I still don't know why this didn't happen.  

Nuclear power is dangerous stuff.  But it has some great attributes.  You can build big plants in small areas, it's cheap to run, there is no CO2, and it is dispatchable.  We need that in our arsenal.  And there are some interesting designs out there like,

Integral Fast Reactors. They in theory pull most of the energy out of the uranium or thorium compared to 1% for current reactors.  You read that right.  They can "burn" our nuclear waste.  The fission byproducts half shorter half-lifes.  They operate at ambient pressures (no chance for pressure explosions).  The salt cooling system can be passive and operate purely by convection from the heat from the reactor.  A loss of power to these reactors doesn't lead to dire consequences.  They are self-regulating.

As the reaction heats up it causes neutrons to escape reducing the reaction and heat generated.  Are there issues?  Of course.  There are always issues.  The sodium burns in air and explodes in water which of course is in the turbine.  It also produces precursors to weapons grade plutonium.  This was the reason the initial work by the US was shut down in 1994. In 2001 the DOE tasked scientists to evaluate the best reactor designs.  IFR was #1.  There are none in operations but some prototypes exist. And of course more work needs to be done.  You may be familiar with one configuration.  Bill Gates has backed a traveling wave reactor concept.

It's all part of a portfolio of imperfect energy tools we have.  I don't like the idea of throwing one out.

No comments: