Thursday, June 11, 2015

Will nuclear die and solar live? It sure doesn't look like it...

I would like to write more about Atheism, Humanism, Anti-Theism and Forestation issues but I'm currently in the middle of a campaign to educate people about "Energy-Realism". In this capacity I get to see a lot of people who are pro-nuclear, pro-renewable and anti vice versa. My stance on nuclear has changed significantly a couple of years ago. That's right I've been opposed to nuclear energy for a long time, I would flinch if we drove past one, and there are quite a lot reactors in West Europe.

When I started this path "to the dark side" I was worrying a lot about climate change and had been pondering on how to contribute to the debate. I was already looking for other houses, I wanted a home that could be made carbon neutral by installing PV panels, a Solar-heating system and a heat-exchanger. This was when I decided to look at it from a "numbers" standpoint, rather than an economic standpoint.

So once you're on this path, drop your presuppositions and look at the issues from an unbiased viewpoint you'll can make a rational assessment. How did I end up here? Not only did I seek for a home that could be carbon neutral, I also wanted to go and make sure that more people would go and do it. But before I could do that I had to be comfortable with the idea, I like empiricism, I like to convince people with warranted arguments and I always look at the bigger picture. It doesn't make any sense to address the energy issues on a very limited scale, since the "big bad world" doesn't care what one tiny little facet of it does. The reality is that fossil fuels are the gang-busters... Our use of fossil fuels is so big, booting it out of the picture is, like I said so often, a herculean job.

Yesterday I was tweeting some stuff with a pro-renewable guy and he pointed me at this blog :

So obviously I said : challenge accepted.

The title is quite is clear, it's a statement, not a question : "Nuclear will die. Solar will live."

they are inanimate so none of them will die, but I'll humour the author of the article and play along.

"In a recent article, I suggested that batteries might replace oil for many of our transportation needs within two decades. Batteries store energy, and we need a way to produce that energy in the form of electricity."

I've read the other article as well, and I agree that batteries are probably the best bet of supplanting oil, but only in a transportation sense, not a grid sense, The argumentation can be found here. The best bet is batteries, why? Simply because the conversion losses are the lowest, all the other possibilities are conversion-based and from an energy conservation perspective we have to limit the amount of conversion as much as possible.

"Currently we produce most of our electricity from natural gas and coal. And while our use of natural gas and coal doesn’t feed the coffers of unsavory regimes like Russia and Saudi Arabia the way our use of oil does, it’s still the case that these energy sources are limited. They run out.  What will replace them?" 

Coal will run out in approximately 100 years, Gas in 60 years and oil in roughly 40 years. This quite obviously shows the necessity to turn things around, the trouble is that our consumption of said sources is so vast that we have created a huge problem that won't be solved easily.

The answer to your question "What will replace them?" Is quite easy : Nuclear Fusion, Nuclear Fission, Wind, Solar, Hydro, Geothermal and Wave power. This small list is in the order of magnitude, it is only a matter of timescale. Even though solar and wind are making a strong push and are gaining high percentages of newly build capacity, overall per capita of energy production gas and coal are still the biggest growers.

"The leading candidate is solar power. Cost is dropping like a rock, including “balance of system” costs that include things like installation and land. For an update on the status of solar power, see this excellent article from The Economist."

This is funny, people keep focussing on the price, while the price isn't really the issue. The issue is the material feasibility, the quantitative feasibility, the propensity to reproduce, reclaim, and keep the process going. The scale is so incredibly immense that you simply have to concede that it's probably impossible to do.

Let's have a look at some numbers shall we, and then we'll return to the feasibility question :

"Total world energy use rises from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2010 to 630 quadrillion Btu in 2020 and to 820 quadrillion Btu in 2040 (figure 1)" : Source EIA

820 Quadrillion Btu translates into 240.000 TWh.

The Topaz 550MW is one of the biggest PV plants in the world. It consists of 9 million PV panels each producing 116 KWh in a year. Even worse these panels are low-quality, they have a capacity of 61 Watts each.

Now comes the true test, let's fill the world with enough panels to generate 240.000 TWh's shall we? It would take TWO TRILLION panels of 61 watts to fuel the energy needs of the entire world. If we where to implement this gargantuan amount of panels in a thirty year timeframe we would have to manufacture and install roughly 70 billion panels a year.

Let's suppose we manage to create a "super PV panel" with these characteristics : 250 Watts, 40% efficiency. It would take 274 billion panels to fuel the world's needs, installing them over a thirty year period takes 9 billion panels a year.

The current rate of installed PV capacity is 50GW's a year... that's 200.000.000 250 Watt panels. Sounds big huh? In order to achieve our annual goal of "super" PV panels, we would have to increase this production capacity 46 times.

Let's look at it from the "Topaz" perspective, the feeble 61 Watt panel : We would need 84 times the current production rate.

The point with solar panels is that they have a limited operational lifespan, and deteriorate at a rate of .60% / 0.70% each year. So first of all before the 30 year lifespan is over, you're already replacing panels from the first ten years. So you see a progressive accumulation of solar panel production is required to keep this process going.

Try to imagine the amount of materials required to build this vast amount of solar arrays...

"Of course, improvements in battery storage are very helpful for solar, since you need to store some energy for nighttime."

This only increases the problem, why? because you have to make sure that there's over capacity, many times over. But given the fact that the numerical problem is so big, even thinking about batteries to store the energy, is a rather dumb idea.

"But there is still a strong contingent out there who is dead-set against the solar revolution – not because they want to keep using fossil fuels, but because they are convinced that only nuclear power can solve our energy crunch."

As you've seen from my simple yet clear math, presented to you above it is quite clear that we are going to need nuclear power. An average nuclear power plant produces an average  6.8 TWh a year. The capacity of the nuclear fleet is increasing, nameplate capacity per unit is increasing. New nuclear developments offer more scalable solutions.

"One example of this faction is the Breakthrough Institute, which regularly releases articles comparing nuclear and solar, invariably supporting the former over the latter. Of course, solar costs continue to perform much, much better than they predict, but they continue to insist that nuclear – and only nuclear – must be the energy source of the future."

I'm quite convinced that we need renewable in the short- and mid- term in order to bridge the gap. Especially to supply rural-off-grid area's in the developing countries. But in the long run we will probably be able to sustain human civilization on highly advanced and sustainable nuclear energy, with either feedstock from ocean water or sustained extra-terrestrial mining.

I’m always a bit puzzled by the anti-solar antipathy of the pro-nuclear crowd. Energy is energy, after all. Perhaps nuclear looks muscular and futuristic – an emblem of national greatness – while solar looks like wimpy hippie stuff.

It has nothing to do with any of the megalomaniacal issues, it's simply a matter of reason and science. It puzzles me why people simply assert that Fukushima and Chernobyl is proof for the unreliability of nuclear energy, whilst it has proven to be extremely reliable, far more reliable than any other source of energy.

But regardless of people’s feelings, the fact is that conventional nuclear power – by which I mean uranium fission, the kind of thing Mr. Burns produces on The Simpsons – is on the way out. This is not a cry of triumph on my part, but a lament. Nuclear power is cool. It’s just not the future.

Only partially true. First, yes it is cool... If you're a true technology geek and love science, nuclear reactors (be they fission or fusion) are incredibly cool! I mean I'm a total geek, I have no professional background in any of the mentioned technologies, but I know a shitload about them, simply because it's so cool!

Now for your second assertion "uranium fission is on the way out." Also partially true. Generation II reactors are definitely going to be closed down. Generation III reactors like the AP-1000 are being accepted as the new norm, but will encounter resistance of much newer designs. Molten Salt Reactor Technology, proven in the sixties, is going through a very potent revival. As said in my earlier articles, these reactors will cause a paradigm shift in nuclear technology. It's so potent, so slick that it'll win a lot of you people over. And it simply has to, since I've already shown you what kind of job it is to get the world going on solar alone.

Simply look at the proposal from "Transatomic Power" for instance, have a look at the young and upcoming nuclear professionals that are environmentalists and want to change the world in a positive way
Kirk Sorensen @ TEDxYYC
Leslie Dewan @ NatGeo
Sunniva Rose @ TEDx Oslo

What about CCL frontrunner James Hansen?

Or have a look at this YouTube channel

We aren't out to destroy the world, we want to save it. We want to help build a prosperous civilization for everyone. We have faced up to the fact that renewables don't pack the punch required. Do we mean to say that renewables don't have a part to play? I don't, I'm very sceptical though, especially around wind turbines, since they cause a lot of bird deaths, this is something I really don't like.

Let's look at what Leslie Dewan has to say about this :

"If you look at the numbers, it's actually thousands of times safer than coal and tens of times safer than solar or wind. There are about a hundred deaths per terawatt-hour of generation with coal. There are also a significant number of deaths every year from people installing rooftop solar panels or installing and maintaining wind turbines. The rate for nuclear is 0.04 deaths per terawatt-hour. The next-generation reactors will have all the benefits of conventional designs but be even safer, as they can consume their own nuclear waste."

"For the most convincing evidence that uranium fission is on the way out, I again point you to The Economist. Their 2012 special report, called “The Dream That Failed,” shows how nuclear usage is flat, and expected to decline in rich countries.           

There are three basic reasons conventional nuclear is dead: cost, safety risk, and obsolescence risk. These factors all interact."

The cost is going down with the arrival of MSR technology as can be read in Robert Hargraves's "Thorium : Energy cheaper than coal". The safety of MSR technology is significantly higher than conventional nuclear reactors.

Let's look at the safety of some prominent MSR designs...

What about economic value, other than electricity generation?
  • Desalinated water
  • Medical Radioisotopes
  • Radioisotopes for diagnostic purposes
  • Radioisotope power for NASA deep space exploration & sustained extra-terrestrial mining
  • Stable fission products
Let's have a look at some Facts vs. Myths

And then there's the renewed push for innovation, new designs, new research in the nuclear field especially with regards to MSR's and Fusion reactors.

Basically all of the factors will disappear within the coming decade, it is guaranteed, these technologies are so profoundly different and better than contemporary nuclear reactors, that they will change the paradigms in energy generation.

"Second, safety risk. In 1945, the U.S. military used nuclear weapons to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but a decade later, these were thriving, bustling cities again. Contrast that with Fukushima, site of the 2011 Japanese nuclear meltdown, where whole towns are still abandoned. "

The Japanese sure as hell have made a mess of things, wait... That was the Tsunami, right? Secondly TEPCO repeatedly ignored professional guidance in terms of upgrading the safety measures around the facility.

Now it is true that this accident has dispersed radioactive particles on the land, the air and in the sea. The earth-bound radioactive elements are easily contained, the rest has been dispersed and diluted so much that they form no real threat to life anymore. They do not exceed natural radiation levels.

What have we learnt from this accident? Never to build a nuclear reactor, ever, again? Or have we learned that we have to take a critical look at our designs and have to be more diligent?

"Or look at Chernobyl, almost three decades after its meltdown. It will be many decades before anyone lives in those places again. Nuclear accidents are very rare, but they are also very catastrophic – if one happens, you lose an entire geographical region to human habitation."

I want to visit the Pripyat area because nature has recaptured it. We humans only inhabit 4~5% of the entire surface of the Earth. Even though the Chernobyl accident was the worst in nuclear history, it's radioactive signature is nill compared to the 2500 atomic bombs that have been detonated on the face of the Earth.

Secondly I question whether losing a geographical region to human habitation is such a bad thing.  I present this case in my book. We've altered the face of the Earth significantly, and I see pripyat/Chernobyl as an excellent case for giving land back to nature. Too bad that there's a chunk of concrete in the midst of that geographical region. I guess I'm even more conservationist on this issue than you are.

We also have to acknowledge that there have been two really serious incidents, with "archaic" nuclear technology. We're past that now... Nobody wants this!

Uranium fission was a great idea, but it hasn’t worked out. If nuclear fission is going to be viable in the future, it’s going to require thorium fuel (which is much safer than uranium) and much smaller, cheaper reactor designs. Those technologies are still in the research stage, not ready for immediate use. Meanwhile, solar power is racing ahead much faster than anyone expected, continuing to beat all the forecasts.

Uranium fission is still a great idea, it's using one of the most fundamental forces in the universe, it's tapping into energy densities that are impossible to reach with other technologies. The distinction you need to make is that the way of fueling a reactor is going to change, not the feedstock itself, this only get's an extra boost. Thorium is fertile material, it will be transmuted into Uranium (one additional decay step in between) and this Uranium will be fissioned. So basically Thorium is turned into Uranium... So it's still Uranium Fission we are talking about.
The paradigm shift will be this : We move from a solid fuel cycle to a liquid fuel cycle in which the fuel- and cooling medium are the same. The significant changes :
  • Liquid fuel
  • MSR's work at atmospheric pressures / contemporary reactors work on high pressure
  • Fuel utilization rises from 3~4% to 90+% Reducing the amount of waste by an equal amount
  • MSR's are walk away safe, no operators are required to shut the reactor down and keep it cool
  • We can "burn" spent fuel/waste/weapons - turning them into Megawatts...

Our government should continue to fund research into next-generation nuclear power. But what next-generation energy source should we be installing, right now? It’s not even a contest. Solar beats nuclear.

You may have won the battle, but you sure as hell haven't won the war. Simply because solar can easily be implemented at this moment, doesn't mean that it will be game changer in the long run. This accolade clearly belongs to the Molten Salt Reactor. We're only experiencing some lag, this technology has only recently been revived and significantly improved. We'll see mass implementation of this technology by the mid 2020's. In the meanwhile solar, wind and other renewables can alleviate some of the stress, but they don't pack the punch required to KO fossil fuels...

What is funny is that in the end you negate the proposition with which you began : "Nuclear will die. Solar will live." by saying "Our government should continue to fund research into next-generation nuclear power."

We want the same thing!
A plentiful, peaceful, clean future for human civilization

No comments:

Post a Comment