Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Is more nuclear power inevitable?

It is difficult to reconcile social, economic, energy, and economic issues, but I've been stating for more than five years that greater reliance on nuclear power is inevitable. I don't harbor any ill will towards other sources of energy and electricity. In fact, I am staunchly agnostic! I believe in conservation and at least containing, if not reducing, one's personal environmental footprint. I am a proponent of coal as much as I am a proponent of wind and renewables. I am a proponent of things that make sense, face reality, and move us forward.

I find it ironic, though, that we are becoming fixated on the lowest density energy sources at a time when global economic growth and energy supply and demand (driving prices to historical highs) suggest we should be relying on the highest density sources.

So I want to offer a scenario that you don't read or hear about in the media.

Here's my premise: If we are to satisfy economic growth and supply significant quantities of electricity at reasonable prices worldwide, and decelerate growth in carbon emissions, without adding undue investment or technological risk (infrastructure must be financed, after all), then we need to pursue a policy of nuclear power plant construction concurrent with a program to convert transportation systems from fossil fuels to electricity. I would add that the only place where additional governmental intervention is needed would be to accept and manage the liability of high level nuclear waste. Reprocessing of the fuel would go a long way towards minimizing the waste management issue.

Nuclear power and electric vehicles require little stretch in today's technological know-how. Both can be incrementally improved to reduce cost but neither requires breakthroughs.

The nuclear industry doesn't need subsidies (such as provided in the energy bill) to build new power stations or demonstrate advanced reactors. It does need regulatory certainty that decisions made today won't come back to haunt them later. The financial community needs a predictable financial model, unlike what occurred during the last nuclear construction program.

This scenario is the only plausible one if you want the most electricity generation for the lowest carbon generation in the fastest amount of time at a fair cost to consumers and society. There are other excellent options if you can accept more modest carbon reductions, higher priced electricity, mandated reductions in energy demand, and other factors.

Yes, there are tradeoffs. Big ones. We build new targets for terrorist attacks. We have to store and manage the wastes for thousands of years. But no option comes with a clean bill of health. Logically, it seems to me we're better off exploiting our highest density energy source (nuclear fuel) to supply our most valuable and flexible primary energy source (electricity).

I am not agreeing or disagreeing with the science of global climate change. I am accepting that the popular vote is already in. Most people seem to believe it is a problem demanding a solution. Truthfully, if you read between the lines, energy company executives have already "baked" carbon constraints into their short and long-range planning scenarios.

At some point, we may have to accept that both managing global climate change and the nuclear fuel and waste cycle require cooperative international efforts, the first to maintain a healthy planet, the second to prevent abuse and terrorism.

Do I think coal is out? Absolutely not. We can get so much more out of a ton of coal (electricity plus numerous other products) than we do today. It just has to be exploited and priced in such a way that the externalities (negative impact on society) or converted to "internalities" (beneficial impacts for society). I am a huge fan of mine-nouth coal facilities that generate electricity, recycle ash into construction products, produce fertilizer, convert sulfur emissions into gypsum, supply pipeline quality natural gas and/or other "refined" products, and recycles or sequesters carbon dioxide. When the full value of coal is extracted on the basis of industrial ecology, it makes tremendous sense.

Am I against renewables? Don't be foolish. How could a thinking person be against a fuel-free source of electricity? But these sources are low density, intermittent, and therefore involve costs that are also not being properly accounted for. Making the economics work on a mass scale will likely require technological breakthroughs.

What are your thoughts?


Mark Goldes said...

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They can be in production rapidly and are inherently cost-effective.

The unexpectedly rapid melting of the Arctic Permafrost threatens all human life within 50 years. This looming and little known emergency requires consideration of breakthrough technology.

See our website: magneticpowerinc.com
or e-mail me at magneticpower@gmail.com

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