Saturday, January 25, 2014

Random Thoughts: Anti-nuclear protesters, please stop trying to kill people.

Anti-nuclear camp

They have good intentions but they are doing harm.
I do not want to paint the average anti-nuclear person as being evil. A lot of them think they are doing the right thing. However the facts do not back up their fear driven actions. The fact that they have actually stopped the building of reactors in the US for decades and are now shutting down reactors in other nations has cost and in the future will continue to cost lives. That is not what they want but it is the result of their actions.

A resent study by Pushker A. Kharecha  and James E. Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University took a look at Nuclear power and how many lives it has cost compared to other sources of energy. What they have found is that Nuclear power has saved over 1.8 million lives compared to other sources of energy. 

Here is the paper for you to read for yourself Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power. From this paper we can see data that shows that every nuclear power plant not built has cost lives and contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. 

To put it into a nutshell, coal powered power plants cost the most lives and produces the most carbon. Natural gas is second in deaths and carbon emissions followed by nuclear. This accounts for all deaths including those from mining accidents, transportation, waste disposal, and power transmission. Here is the data from the report. 
electricity sourcemean value (range)unitbsource
coal28.67 (7.15–114)deaths/TWhref 16
77 (19.25–308)deaths/TWhref 16(China)c
1045 (909–1182)tCO2-eq/GWhref 30
natural gas2.821 (0.7–11.2)deaths/TWhref 16
602 (386–818)tCO2-eq/GWhref 30
nuclear0.074 (range not given)deaths/TWhref 16
65 (10–130)dtCO2-eq/GWhref 34
As you can see there are between 387 to over 1000 deaths caused by coal fired plants for each death caused by nuclear power. Natural gas is much better with only 38 times as many deaths as nuclear power. When you look at carbon emissions, coal produces over 16 times as much carbon for gigawatt hour and natural gas over 9 times as much carbon for gigawatt hour. 

What about Solar and Wind?
Well let's just get the big answer over with first. Not a single canceled or closed nuclear power pant has ever been replaced by solar or wind. Even in the state of Vermont which is known for being ecologically sensitive is replacing it's nuclear power plant with natural gas. 

Nuclear does not compete with solar or wind. Nuclear is a base-load technology and competes with coal and natural gas. Solar and wind are not suitable for base-load because their output fluctuates based on weather and not demand. Solar is not now, and unless massive improvements are made will never be, a viable replacement for base load plants. 

Wind as a base load solution.

Depending on location wind can be a workable base load solution. The midwest is rich with wind resources which is funny because that is also where the source of much of the natural gas and oil is located. It is also where much of our food is grown and the source for most ethanol and bio diesel. Wind is better at solar for a base load, but you still will need peaking plants burning natural gas for when the wind is not blowing or is blowing too hard. Yes, wind turbines have to shut down when the winds get too high, so too much wind is as bad as too little.  There are also siting issues. Do you really want wind turbines on every mountain top of every national and state forest? That is another advantage that midwest has for wind power. The majority of the land of the great plains is used for farming, ranching or just open grass land. Wind turbines do not interfere with those land uses. Good news is that wind farms are being built in the midwest. The down side is it takes a lot of wind turbines to replace one nuclear reactor. The largest wind farm in the US is the Alta Wind Energy Center in California. It covers thousands of acres and produces 1550 gigawatt hours of power. The Saint Lucie nuclear power plant, which is an average sized  nuclear power plant produces over 11,000 gigawatt hours. As you can see it would take 10 of the largest wind farms in the world to replace one nuclear power plant. That would mean 9000 very large wind turbines and well over 10,000 acres of land.

What about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima?
Let's take those one at a time.
Three Mile Island
So far the studies of the people that lived around Three mile island has found no significant increases in cancer and no direct deaths. It is hard to tell for sure since the area has a lot of Radon naturally. But it is clear that any harm is so small that it is hard to detect.  Here is the report by Columbia University
Chernobyl is a different story. Officially 33 are listed as killed but could be as high as 3000. The reactor design used at Chernobyl was, to be blunt, terrible. It was never safe and no western power reactor ever used that type of design. It also lacked any type of containment building. Should anyone build a reactor like that again? No. Should the existing ones be shutdown? Yes. Western power reactors are all light water reactors with containment buildings. They can not fail in the same way. 
Death toll from radiation is zero. As bad as Fukushima was no one has died from radiation. How they manage clean up will really tell the story. The problems at Fukushima were caused by the backup generators being flooded. The reactors were actually undamaged by the quake and tsunami that followed. When looking at Fukushima it is important to look at the scale of the disaster, 18000 people were killed by the tsunami and over 400,000 left homeless but none died from radiation. 

What about the waste.
The answer to the waste is recycling. Fuel recycling reduces the mass of the waste and the amount of time it has to be stored. Today fuel recycling is more expensive than just using new fuel. I agree that just sticking spent fuel in Yucca mountain is not a good plan at this time. Dry cask storage while not popular is probably the best plan available today. If in the future recycling is still not practical than vitrification and storage in Yucca mountain may be the solution. I know this is not a popular solution because it feels incomplete but I believe it is the best course of action at this time. 

The future of nuclear reactors.
Today the most advanced commercial power reactors in the US are only second generation reactors. In the rest of the world gen 3 and gen 3+ reactors are in already use. The US has produced gen 3 and gen 3+ reactors but have built them in other nations.While the current generation of reactors have a good safety record the gen 3 and 3+ are much safer and use less uranium so produce less waste. Work has already started on gen 4 reactors that are even safer and more efficient than the gen 3. A reactor that holds huge promise is the liquid fluoride thorium reactor. 

Thorium holds great promise as the fuel of choice for future reactors. Thorium its self is not dangerously radioactive. It was used to make lantern mantels burn brighter. You can not make a bomb out of thorium and it is free. How can it be free? It is a waste product from the production of the rare earth metals used in hard drives and the motors of electric cars.  If the US mined all the rare earths that we use there would be enough thorium produced to power the US with ease.  The most exciting reactor design is the liquid fluoride thorium reactor. The US built a liquid fluoride salt reactor in the 70s and it worked well. It also featured "walk away safety", you could literally shut the power off and walk away with the reactor in any state and it would shut it's self down safely.  Currently China and India are moving ahead with thorium reactors using the research done in the 1970s in the US. 

Today Fusion is not practical. Let's be honest, the joke is that fusion is always 20 years away and has been for the last 60 years.  There are some exciting new ideas in fusion research that may actually pay off in the near future. The first is the Pollywell reactor invented by Robert W. Bussard and funded by the US Navy. So far the Navy has been happy with the results of the research and have continued to fund the research.The other reactor that is very interesting is the high beta fusion reactor being developed by the Lockheed Martin Skunkworks. The claims that Lockheed Martin are making are hard to believe, they are promising a working prototype by 2017 and production by 2022 and the ability to meet the world's energy needs by 2050.  Frankly if it was any other company than Lockheed I would not believe a word of it.  Lockheed is the company that built the US's first production jet fighter, the first spy satellite, and the world's fastest airplane the SR-71. The number of times Lockheed has done what everyone thought was impossible is impressive, so maybe they will do it again.

So what is my answer?
Working with the technology currently available I would start with replacing all coal fired plants with nuclear power plants. That alone would cut the US's carbon output by about 40%.  Keep increasing the investment in wind farms in the midwest and solar. Ideally, we want to replace all base load power plants with nuclear with wind, solar, and natural gas as peaking loads. Once we have enough clean, cheap power things get really interesting. With excess power the production of synthetic natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuel becomes practical as does producing fresh water through desalinization. 
Be positive not negative. 
If you care about the environment and climate change be positive. Be pro-solar and wind not anti-nuclear. Nuclear really does not compete with wind and solar, it saves lives, and reduces carbon. The safety record of nuclear is very good. I know that people fear nuclear power but the facts do not support their reactions. Even one or the co-founders of Greenpeace Dr. Patrick Moore has changed his stand on nuclear energy. As always, just read the reports and the links and decide for yourself. Some people will never get over their terror of nuclear power but I hope at least some people can do so.

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