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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Finally, After the Apocalypse, Comes the Nuclear/Hydrogen Age


It’s a stretch, but possibly it can be argued that extreme environmentalists are indirectly responsible for the murder of 3000 Americans on September 11, 2001 and for other, anti-American terrorist acts over recent years. This is because these extremists, aided by certain journalists like Walter Cronkite and by movies like The China Syndrome killed the continued development of nuclear power in the USA, and forced us to become totally dependent on oil from Muslim countries. This has had disastrous consequences for our environment, for our economy, for our military, and for our future well-being.

If we had not been misled by these people, and had continued our development of nuclear power, say as France has, we might have eliminated the need to protect the oil-fields and supply routes of the Persian Gulf, greatly reduced the production of greenhouse gases, saved 10’s of thousands of lives of coal miners, soldiers and others, and saved Americans countless dollars that were transferred to the pockets of Arab sheiks. We might also have avoided handing them a weapon to use against us and a pretext to do so.

Now, as the “Peak” of affordable oil production passes, as is happening right now, and as oil prices skyrocket and supplies shrink, we face the need to develop nuclear power almost on a ‘crash’ basis. (In France, for instance, about 75 percent of electricity is generated from nuclear power. Worldwide, it provides 17% of our energy. The US has not brought a new plant online since 1996 yet still generates 788.6 billion kilowatt-hours (KWh) yearly – almost 20% of the US total – accident free.)

US ELECTRICITY PRODUCTION FROM NUCLEAR



City Journal:

“For such a nuclear-powered future to arrive, however, we’ll need to get beyond our nuclear-power past. In the now-standard histories, the beginning of the end of nuclear power arrived on March 28, 1979, with the meltdown of the uranium core at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The Chernobyl disaster seven years later drove the final nail into the nuclear coffin. It didn’t matter that the Three Mile Island containment vessel had done its job and prevented any significant release of radioactivity, or that Soviet reactors operated within a system that couldn’t build a safe toaster oven. Uranium was finished….”

AND AS TO RENEWABLES

Renewable fuels, by contrast, made no visible dent in energy supplies, despite the hopes of Greens and the benefits of government-funded research, subsidies, and tax breaks. About a half billion kWh of electricity came from solar power in 2002—roughly 0.013 percent of the U.S. total. Wind power contributed another 0.27 percent. Fossil and nuclear fuels still completely dominate the U.S. energy supply, as in all industrialized economies.

And uranium’s combination of power and super-density makes the fuel less of a terror risk, not more, at least from an engineering standpoint. It’s easy to “overbuild” the protective walls and containment systems of nuclear facilities, since—like the pyramids—the payload they’re built to shield is so small. Protecting skyscrapers is hard; no builder can afford to erect a hundred times more wall than usable space. Guaranteeing the integrity of a jumbo jet’s fuel tanks is impossible; the tanks have to fly. Shielding a nuclear plant’s tiny payload is easy—just erect more steel, pour more concrete, and build tougher perimeters.

Greens don’t want to hear it, but nuclear power makes the most environmental sense, too. Nuclear wastes pose no serious engineering problems. Uranium is such an energy-rich fuel that the actual volume of waste is tiny compared with that of other fuels, and is easily converted from its already-stable ceramic form as a fuel into an even more stable glass-like compound, and just as easily deposited in deep geological formations, themselves stable for tens of millions of years. And what has Green antinuclear activism achieved since the seventies? Not the reduction in demand for energy that it had hoped for but a massive increase in the use of coal, which burns less clean than uranium.

The accident at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1979, was the most serious in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, even though it led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community. But it brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations.

Detailed studies of the radiological consequences of the accident have been conducted by the NRC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), the Department of Energy, and the State of Pennsylvania. Several independent studies have also been conducted. Estimates are that the average dose to about 2 million people in the area was only about 1 millirem. To put this into context, exposure from a full set of chest x-rays is about 6 millirem. Compared to the natural radioactive background dose of about 100-125 millirem per year for the area, the collective dose to the community from the accident was very small. The maximum dose to a person at the site boundary would have been less than 100 millirem.

In the months following the accident, although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal, and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident. Thousands of environmental samples of air, water, milk, vegetation, soil, and foodstuffs were collected by various groups monitoring the area. Very low levels of radionuclides could be attributed to releases from the accident. However, comprehensive investigations and assessments by several well-respected organizations have concluded that in spite of serious damage to the reactor, most of the radiation was contained and that the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.”

With respect to Chernobyl, as terrible as it was, the World Nuclear Association had this to say: “Thirtyone workers and firefighters at the plant were killed. But a 16-year investigation by the UN and WHO concluded that there were no public radiation deaths or injuries No significant increase in any illness resulted except for 2000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer, a highly treatable disease from which there have been few if any deaths. But fear of radiation led to unnecessary evacuation of large population groups, causing unemployment, depression, alcoholism and suicides. In the year after the accident, there were 100,000 additional abortions downwind of the accident, presumably in unwarranted fear of bearing a "nuclear mutant." Deformed "Chernobyl victims" used to raise money for relief were later found to be unrelated to the accident. Some were from far away, others were deformed before the accident...

The European Commission’s Marina II study recently concluded that North Sea oil and gas operations now contributed more man-made radioactivity to the seas of northern Europe than anything emanating from the nuclear industry. Meanwhile, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd is committed to reducing radionuclides emissions into coastal water to ‘nil’ over the next 15 years...

The new, high temperature nuclear reactors — now undergoing trials in Japan and the US — are able to produce both electricity and, as a by-product, hydrogen. This latter may be our brightest hope to avoid a descent into the Stone Age when the lights eventually, inevitably, go out in Saudi Arabia."



The PBR Reactor – Our Future?

“Physicists and engineers at Beijing's Tsinghua University have made the first great leap forward in a quarter century, building a new nuclear power facility: a pebble-bed reactor (PBR) – sometimes also known as a Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). This reactor is small enough to be assembled from mass-produced parts and cheap enough for emerging economies. Its safety is a matter of physics, not operator skill or reinforced concrete. This reactor is meltdown-proof.

What makes it so safe is the fuel: instead of conventional fuel rods made of enriched uranium, PBRs use small, pyrolytic graphite coated pebbles with uranium cores. As a PBR reactor gets hotter, the rapid motion of atoms in the fuel decreases probability of neutron capture by U-235 atoms. This effect is known as Doppler Broadening. Nuclei of heated uranium move more rapidly in random directions generating a wider range of neutron speeds. U-238, the isotope which makes up most of the uranium in the reactor, is much more likely to absorb the faster moving neutrons. This reduces the number of neutrons available to spark U-235 fission. This, in turn, lowers heat output. This built-in negative feedback places a temperature limit on the fuel without operator intervention.

PBRs use high-pressure helium gas, not water, for cooling. Reactors have been “run dry” – without cooling gas. Result: they simply stabilize at a given temperature – lower than the pebbles’ shell melting point. No meltdown can occur.
South Africa may have the most modern PBR on the drawing board. With the help of German scientists – acknowledged leaders in the field - they have planned to build several reactors within the next five years. Images in this article come from their design.

PBRs use helium, which has high thermal conductivity and inertness (read: fireproof and noncorrosive) for cooling. This makes them more efficient at capturing heat energy from nuclear reactions than standard reactor designs. The ratio of electrical output to thermal output is about 50%.
The high-temperature gas design also has a silver lining – it can produce hydrogen. Think about that – fuel cell vehicles need expensive-to-produce hydrogen to run on – this reactor could make hydrogen as a byproduct.

Generation of hydrogen has been the biggest stumbling block to its adoption as a clean fuel. Hydrogen, found primarily in water, is expensive to extract as a gas. While the technical problems of handling, storage and use as fuel are largely solved, the high energy cost to produce hydrogen has made it an energy transport medium, not a source.

James Lovelock, well known green activist and creator of the Gaia hypothesis that Earth is a single self-regulating organism, published a plea to phase out fossil fuels. Nuclear power, he argued, is the best short term hope for averting climatic catastrophe:

"Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies, and the media. … Even if they were right about its dangers - and they are not - its worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of intolerable and lethal heat waves and sea levels rising to drown every coastal city of the world. We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear, the one safe, available energy source, now, or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet." - From the London Independent – May, 2004”

Hydrogen cannot be produced economically in low-temperature, water cooled nuclear plants or by other, conventional means. It is a practically free byproduct of the new, high-temperature nuclear plants now being designed and built, of which the PBR design looks the most promising. Perhaps our shutdown of the continued development of nuclear energy can be turned to our advantage, since our sunk cost in conventional nuclear plants is so low, compared to the size of the problem and the size of the opportunity that confronts us. Energy independence, a clean environment, cheap electricity and vehicle fuel - all seem possible, but to avoid the cataclysm confronting us, we must act now.
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1 Comments:

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