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mygif

Oh while we’re in Q+A mood, no love for the cthulhu pic? :(

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mygif

I’m sorry, I should have mentioned that it was a thing of beauty.

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mygif

I don’t complete dismiss nuclear power as a world source of power; the French have proved that if your government isn’t made of total morons and you aren’t held in bondage to capitalist ideology, you can do nuclear power fairly effectively and safely.

However, even the French haven’t come up with a really good way of dealing with the waste long term. And here in the US, which *is* held hostage to crazed capitalist ideology, any new nuclear installations will be built by the same fucking idiots who ran up gigantic cost overruns et al on the old ones.

So fuck nuclear, thanks very much. At least for *my* countgry.

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mygif

Is it wrong that 1 billion dollars a year to invest in solar energy seems like a rather modest amount relative to how much other stuff (like waging a modern war) is costing?

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mygif

The French “recycle” their spent fuel rods, which leaves you with ready-to-burn uranium and weapons grade plutonium.

I’ve always wondered why the powers that be in the US don’t find the recycling option more attractive.

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mygif

If a nuclear power plant produces 1000 Mega watts of power, how many windmills would it take to replace it?

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mygif

Brian: It’s mostly to do with the fact that more weapons-grade plutonium makes people nervous.

John: The Prince Project wind farm under construction in Ontario is designed to produce approximately 1350 megawatts from 126 turbines spread over 50 hectares (which is about half a square kilometer).

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mygif

I’m not going to debate the majority of your points, as they’re mostly opinions, but two in particular make me curious. Firstly, you claim nuclear power costs, on average, 12 to 15 cents per KWh. If that’s true I’d find it very interesting, but I’ve never heard anything remotely that high before. Do you have a source for that number? Secondly on #4 you claim we’ve used up the majority of the natural enriched Uranium, and the rest of the uranium isn’t easily accessible. Do you have a source for that ‘used up most of the natural enhanced uranium’? Naturally occurring Enhanced uranium capable of being used in a nuclear reactor would be rare enough that I find it easy to believe we’ve used it all up. I would highly doubt more than .1% of fuel used in reactors was naturally enhanced, because of the rarity of U-235 in nature and it’s decay rate. Also, last I checked, there was plenty of easily accessible Uranium being mined, and plenty more being found. Where’d you learn we’re running out?

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mygif

Binks: I’m looking for a source on the 12-15 cents figure (I was working off memory and Wikipedia for that, I admit), but here’s a source quoting it at 8.3 to 11.1 cents per kilowatt hour. The source in question is frankly pro-nuclear, and some of their methodology for determining costs (like their choice to ignore government subsidies as part of cost, or their assumptions about the construction and maintenance cost of more advanced plants) is questionable. That having been said, even in a pro-nuclear study, the cost is still more expensive than the highest predictions for wind (which, remember, is still an immature technology, and ramps up by the economy of scale in a way that nuclear does not).

The International Atomic Energy Agency here states that the world uranium supply is good for 85 years – at present levels of use, which is to say “four years ago.” A mere doubling of worldwide use of nuclear power and we’re down to forty-two years – enough time that the Uranium Crisis could come within our lifetimes, hooray for us getting to see two energy crises!

(Yes, they state that fast reactor technology can increase that to centuries, but fast reactor technology isn’t widespread and it’s very expensive, so expecting it to become widely used in the next two decades is optimistic to say the least.)

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mygif

The International Atomic Energy Agency here states that the world uranium supply is good for 85 years – at present levels of use, which is to say “four years ago.” A mere doubling of worldwide use of nuclear power and we’re down to forty-two years – enough time that the Uranium Crisis could come within our lifetimes, hooray for us getting to see two energy crises!

That article only discusses the idea of mining uranium, and doesn’t discuss the idea of obtaining uranium from sea water, which is the common assumption people make when assessing long term nuclear supplies. (Note that they’re only considering uranium that can be mined at $130 per kg: uranium from sea water is generally only considered feasible if the price rises to $1000 per pound, but even then uranium is the cheap part of nuclear power compared to building the plants and safety concerns.) Sea water extraction raises the amount of accessible uranium from millions of pounds to billions of pounds. (Possibly less, since we actually do have to work on the engineering for the extraction of sea water uranium, but the point is that any uranium crisis is overstated.)

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mygif

Thok: Seawater mining’s tendency to increase fuel costs tenfold, though, in turn increases the cents-per-kilowatt rate. Not exponentially, but upwards to ten to twelve cents being the absolute low end for nuclear power.

Again, it’s worth stressing that this argument isn’t being made in a vacuum. The point of assessing nuclear energy’s strengths and weaknesses is only worthwhile when mentioning it in comparison to solar energy, which is its strongest competitor for “source of immediate power grid shift.” Nuclear is at present slightly cheaper than solar (and only if we ignore the recent prismic panel advances which should change that drastically).

Solar is getting cheaper all the time and by every other conceivable metric is better – it’s cleaner, faster to deploy, cheaper to deconstruct if we ever get fusion plants working, can work on an individual non-centralized level, and is an immature technology that we’re still studying and improving. Once it’s cheaper than nuclear – and if it isn’t by 2010 I’ll be very surprised – advocating for nuclear power is just retarded.

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mygif

The estimate in the Popular Mechanics article states the cost would be $420 billion, not $42 billion. However, considering that we’ve spent an estimated $600 billion on the Iraq war and a conversion to solar power would actually improve the economy and create jobs, the return on our investment would be huge even if we have to borrow the money. With new tech it would be even cheaper, as MGK pointed out. Here’s a few ideas:

1) Buildings that generate their own solar power: The solar concentrators MGK mentioned don’t actually increase the efficiency of the solar cells, they convert light into wavelengths the solar cells can use, which increases the output of the cells by a factor of forty. This does increase the overall efficiency of any solar array be eliminating the need for cooling, but the real advantage is that you don’t have to rotate the cells to get the most light and you can stack them. This means you could install cells in the window jambs of existing office buildings and coat them with the dye to turn them into concentrators. Ta-da, instant solar power, without a solar plant. The government can encourage conversion by offering tax breaks to companies who install them. Tax breaks can also be offered to construction companies to build solar arrays into rooftops new homes and buildings. This would reduce energy demand and take the stress off an aging power grid (which is a serious problem in the US that we’ll have to deal with sooner or later, so we might as well start now).

2) Energy storage: Even if 90% of all buildings produce the majority of their own power and we cover all of the Southwest with solar plants to provide the rest, there’s still the problem of storage. Right now the fuel cell is still a little too expensive for widespread use, mainly due to the cost of producing the membranes and storing the hydrogen (which can only be done in carbon fiber tanks), but you really don’t need fuel cells. A solar plant equipped with HVDC cables could send power to a pumped storage plant. We would need to build a lot of these, which would be costly, but they can stay in service for decades and they would create in jobs in places where the solar plants aren’t located (making them attractive to lawmakers who want to bring federal money to their districts). For homes & buildings, this would mean a hook up to the grid that would allow them to draw power from a pumped storage plant when they needed it or sell their excess power to the plant when they don’t.

3) Recycling: The big obstacle, in my opinion, is producing enough solar cells. Thin film bring downs the cost, but the two most common types are made from gallium or silicon. We don’t have enough gallium, so that leaves silicon. A large demand for silicon will drive up the price, so we need recycling to keep cost down. This will also reduce the energy needed to produce the cells making them an even better option. Again, government incentives to companies that use recycled silicon cells are a good way to encourage their use. (For the record I’m aware that current research will yield better solar cells in the future that won’t need silicon, but we need to get started on this now.)

The case is for solar power is far, far better than most people realize. Hopefully they’ll figure out soon.

T

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mygif

Excuse me, that should be “figure it out soon”. Whoops.

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mygif

@MGK: Fair enough. My main problem is that I’m not convinced that we can get solar power up and running in time to replace fossil fuels (I don’t think the Popular Mechanics plan is fast enough, since I believe we need to get off fossil fuels completely by 2040, not be partially off of them by 2050) and I do think we can get nuclear power plants running that quickly if we choose to start doing so now. Obviously, you believe that the reverse is true, and I do agree that solar energy wins if the two technologies are close.

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mygif

I don’t think the Popular Mechanics plan is fast enough either, but the point to be made about it is that the only factor preventing wider, faster adoption of solar is cost. If you’re willing to spend the money, you can do it, and in a very short time indeed solar will be cheaper to install than nuclear will (and be more immediately useful, since nuke plants take 4-6 years to build after you get through zoning).

I just don’t see where nuclear is the best option, under any circumstance.

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mygif

Ya got me, MGK…!

I totally agree with you, and I think that solar power is definitely what we should be doing for at least the rest of -our- lives.

However, a few of your points are a fair bit faulty, and they kinda weaken your argument. Some of what I’m gonna be telling you is hearsay, or my physics might be messed up a tad, so please take this with a big, fat grain of salt.

Nuclear Power is cost-effective if the waste is refined to use again. This not only reduces the waste, but also provides exponentially more power from the same amount of substance. The reason that the USA doesn’t do this is that’s weapons-grade uranium once it’s been refined, and for whatever reason, USA doesn’t other people getting nukes. Something like that.

Nuclear Reactors *are* safe. Three mile island? Nobody got more radiation than they get flying in an airplane. Everybody is scared shitless from Chernobyl hysteria, which was a shoddily run Soviet base, being intentionally pushed to see where the breaking point was.

As for the waste? The Uranium-(numbernumbernumber) gives off a fair amount of quite bad radiation. HOWEVER! When Coal (for instance) is burned for fuel, it results in Carbon-14, which is slightly radioactive. For the same amount of energy, coal will release more radiation. And what do we do with that hugely radioactive amount of coal? Nothin’. It’s ashes. It gets pumped into the air!

Then again, that has absolutely no bearing on this. Nuclear power is expensive, rather dangerous, and will only be all that important if it becomes space, not money that we don’t have that much room for (it takes a HUGE amount of land to harvest wind energy). Solar, if sustainable (And I cannot see a future where it *wouldn’t* be) is basically an infinately-sustainable source of energy, which has (and will) been benefited by rapidly increasing scientific prowess.

Side-note: Fanboy geekout to me for having my name in an MGK blog post! Wooo!

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mygif
Thomas Wilde said on September 1st, 2008 at 5:02 am

Side-note: Fanboy geekout to me for having my name in an MGK blog post! Wooo!

Jesus Christ.

I look forward to a future where men and women kill and die in your name, Chris.

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mygif

My honest question would be about the solar concentrators- would they work for areas that do not receive a lot of direct sunlight for long periods of the year? Northern or arctis regions, for example.

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mygif

This post is better written than my OW comment you linked a while back, but I’m posting the old link anyway, because’m a huge narcissist.

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mygif

My honest question would be about the solar concentrators- would they work for areas that do not receive a lot of direct sunlight for long periods of the year? Northern or arctis regions, for example.

Whether or not they “work” in the economic sense depends on your definition, but in the technical sense solar concentrators are hugely important in northern regions because they significantly increase generation under indirect light.

In practice, though, there’s a lot of oil and geothermal potential in those areas (see, e.g., Iceland), and generally less overall power consumption, so I imagine that the demand-pressure issues probably aren’t as serious either.

If you’re talking about the areas above the Arctic circle, that’s a different question entirely. In either case, the nuclear vs. solar calculus is much different there than in, say, the continental U.S.

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mygif

The fuel reprocessing business was, so everyone says, scuppered in the United States during Jimmy Carter’s tenure, on anti-proliferation grounds. I presume that the concern was that nefarious elements abroad would use American reprocessing/enrichment activities as precedent for their own, ultimately weapons-oriented projects. It was, after all, a decision from back in the days when American presidents were not ashamed to practice diplomacy. The alternative, stupid explanation would be that there was somehow a fear that bad people would steal the reprocessed fuel and use it for bombs. The real solution to that problem is to call Keifer Sutherland, because if terrorist superspies steal your plutonium, you are on television and Jack Bauer can sort the situation out in at most a day.

My concern with fuel reprocessing is that you probably have to do stuff to the hot “waste” rods to get them ready for their next trip through the reactor. Like the initial refining, enriching, and fabrication process, reprocessing will result in dust and/or sludge, crud, and leftover stuff, none of which will be tidily stacked like the rods. Our existing fuel rod fabrication facilities do, despite their many air filters, let out some dust. On top of that, there’s the fact that a reprocessing plant will be dealing with hot, glows-blue-in-the-bathtub fuel, which smells to me of complicated automation, ludicrously involved maintenance procedures, and “shoulda thought o’ that” problems like neutron embrittlement.

I presume that the most efficient way to go about fuel reprocessing is to put some reactors and a reprocessing plant all on the same site (even if everything works perfectly, why truck radioactive waste around more than you have to?). That’s a megaproject, and the resulting project management complexity is a tremendous risk factor in itself. Even if everything goes exaclty as planned, you end up with a big, centralized egg basket for your power generation capacity.

Headlines including the word “boondoggle” are a distinct possibility, whatever the engineers believe they can do.

All of that said, if we wanted to go massively nuclear as a way of putting all of the coal plants in North America out of business, the public health benefits would be substantial.

My prediction for fusion is that it’ll turn out that the plants will be even more expensive, be even less durable, and end up being more radioactive at the end of their lives than the waste produced by equivalent fission generation. But that’s pure pessimism based on little knowledge and no research.

Geothermal, on the other hand, sounds like a great deal of fun.

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mygif

As an admitted “pro-nuke”, I’d answer your points as follows:
1. Expense is relative. You correctly bring the cost comparisons onto the per-kWh side of things, but I think you’re using high all-up figures for nuclear and narrow generator-only figures for the comparisons. For example, as of today, PV power generation’s costs are (at least) double the cost of panels; changes to panels are unlikely to bring the balance-of-plant costs down. One advantage of nuclear from the long viewpoint is that we’re already pretty sure these expensive plants can last 60 years and more.

2. Nuclear still has plenty of potential for development. You might like to investigate molten-salt reactors, for example, but the slide-rule-designed reactors in use today can easily be improved in various ways. Even revised fuel geometry in current reactors shows prospects of large potential gains.

3. I agree that nuclear power requires a more skilled workforce. I seem to recall that solar and wind projects always promise lots of jobs, are they all unskilled? On the other hand, I’m not sure that checking on a giant turbine 100m in the air in an area specifically chosen to be windy is exactly trivial, either.

4. Actually, there’s no such thing as naturally enriched uranium any more. There was about two billion years ago, when the natural reactors at Oklo were bubbling away – but there’s been none in the history of our species. On the other hand, not all reactors need enriched uranium – you might like to look up CANDU. Also “strip-mining” is not a real likelihood, since uranium can actually be dissolved straight out of ore bodies (unlike coal, of course) – see in-situ mining. There are good ways to regulate its environmental effects, too.

5. Doesn’t this conflict with your point 2? Anyway, yes, PBMRs are still a little way off, and molten-salt reactors are even further off, but current upgrades to exisiting mechanisms are good too. Real operational experience has shown that the right regulation and the right designs can be and are safe, in any normal sense of the word.

One little thought: Massive infrastructure investment is what we’ll need either way, whether we choose nuclear or not, because massive infrastructure is what we need to replace. One of the more attractive (but speculative) nuclear options I saw was to engineer a drop-in replacement fission heat source to re-use the electrical-side infrastructure at coal plants. This needs a certain amount of flexibility, to cope with a variety of coal-fired plant sizes, but basically did not have huge technical obstacles, although it did not reach the efficiencies we enjoy today at nuclear plants.

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mygif

Joffan: I seem to recall that solar and wind projects always promise lots of jobs, are they all unskilled?

The majority of jobs in solar and wind projects will be in manufacturing and distribution, which, while not purely unskilled, isn’t something that needs an advanced degree either. You can retrain a laid-off auto-worker to make windmill blades and put together solar panel installations fairly easily; the same doesn’t apply to any job in nuclear power generation.

Nuclear still has plenty of potential for development.

Not in the aspect that matters in this regard, namely cost reduction. No matter what new technologies might come along to make nuclear safer, they’re not going to make it cheaper. In comparison, the primary barrier to making solar cheaper is the economy of scale; nanosolar ink panel generation is already stupidly cheap.

One of the more attractive (but speculative) nuclear options I saw was to engineer a drop-in replacement fission heat source to re-use the electrical-side infrastructure at coal plants

The electrical-side infrastructure across North America is woefully outdated and in need of desperate repair and upgrade anyways. Solar is once again a more attractive option since it can obliviate at least part of the need for a grid.

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mygif

Development potential for reactor cost reduction: probably the most promising example is the molten salt reactor, which does not require the heavy reactor pressure vessel that water-based reactors do, because nothing inside ever approaches its boiling point. This would allow a much more “assembly kit” approch to reactor construction, reducing the amount of on-site fabrication used today. I hope this gets some serious development time spent on it soon – it is one of the technologies in the GenIV international project.

My point on solar is that the panel costs themselves are becoming less important; the “hidden” costs in installation and hookup are starting to dominate. I sincerely doubt that solar power (even more so wind power) will reduce the need for the sorely-needed grid updates; if anything, even more elaborate grid control and capacity will be needed.

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mygif

And I should say that I support additional solar thermal, geothermal, tidal and some wind. I actually prefer solar to wind, as far as beefing up supply is concerned. Wind power needs to be coupled to fast-response on-demand generation, so I’d love to see wind farms in the same region as hydro, to stretch the water supply. Elsewhere they seem to have the effect of entrenching gas generation.

PV for grid purposes is really too expensive. Also “A million solar roofs” to me says “a hundred fall deaths a year”.

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