A Nuclear President?

NuclearThree Mile Island, Control Room 1.

Well, someone has come right out and said it:

“Sen. John McCain called Wednesday for the construction of 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030.”

That’s according to an A.P. article by David Espo, well worth reading in its entirety.

We have written quite a few times about the likelihood of a return to nuclear power in this country and elsewhere.

It could simultaneously satisfy the growing demand for electricity and the growing concern over carbon emissions released by the burning of coal, which is the primary source of U.S. power plants. (About 20 percent of our electricity already comes from nuclear energy; some people seem to think that we burn oil to make electricity, which is rarely the case any more.)

There are a lot of hurdles to nuclear power (many of them addressed in Espo’s article) and a lot of potential negative externalities as well, including the risk of a nuclear disaster — but there are a lot of reasons to believe that this risk has been gravely oversubscribed.

If nothing else, I am glad to see that nuclear energy is on the table during this presidential campaign.

One big factor to keep in mind as the energy future is worked out: even if the perfect electric car were brought to market tomorrow, it would hardly be a perfect solution from a carbon-emissions standpoint since the electricity needed to run the car would still come from coal-fired plants. If, however, our electric grid 20 years from now were mostly nuclear, it could be a double win, since nuclear plants could provide emission-free (for the most part) electricity for homes as well as cars.

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  1. Mike B says:

    Oil is burned for electric power. While not a large % of the national power generating capacity it is significant. Oil fired generating stations burn so called “Residual” or Bunker C fuel, which is the sludge left over after refining. There are a bunch of oil fired plants in Connecticut and a quick look at Google Maps shows about 3 oil barges moored along side of the Ravenswood station on the East River.

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  2. Dan says:

    Current issues with electrical…
    I don’t think this is brought up enough from the green friendly people, but I had a conversation with a high ranking executive from a large energy cooperative, and he basically said if we switched over to electric cars, the current power grid wouldn’t be near ample to suit our needs. It will be a long and slow transition, but nuclear is a no-brainer in my opinion.

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  3. jacob says:

    if the batteries become feasible this would be a good way to power electric cars.

    coal burning power (when used to power an electric car) is not as beneficial as people think it is in terms of emissions

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  4. AaronS says:

    A lot of folks see the world “nuclear” and get a bit concerned. That’s understandable. But some years ago, my cousin, who is an electrical engineer for TVA, took me on a tour and made it very simple. Here it is the elementary explanation (and the best one I understand):

    A nuclear plant is really a huge steam engine. It’s sole purpose is to produce steam that will turn a massive turbine (or turbines), and which will, in turn, produce electricity.

    To produce the steam, atomic material is submerged in a large tank of water. (This tank, by the way, along with all the pipes connected to it, is completely self-enclosed. This water never runs into the river or the ground, but stays in the pipe.) This atomic material, being active, has a lot of atoms/electrons flying around. They bump into each other at an increasing rate of speed, generating heat. Of course, being submerged in water, this heats up the water, generating steam.

    Before I go further, lest someone think it might all get out of hand, to prevent overheating (a meltdown), each nuclear plant has, in the tank of water, “rods” of material that serve as a kind of magnet to these very active atoms. When those rods are lowered, those atoms stop flying around, stopping the heating process. And when it’s time to produce more steam, the rods are lifted as needed.

    OK, so all that steam runs along these self-enclosed pipes and turn the turbine, producing electricity. But that water has to then be cooled. What happens is there is a parallel pipe of cold water that runs alongside the pipe filled with the steam. This allows the heat to transfer to the cooler water, thus turning the steam back into water for further use in the nuclear process.

    This cool water (now hot), was likely drawn from a river and is not radioactive. But it is still hot. What to do with it? Well, it is pumped up to those huge cooling towers.

    Inside the cooling tower, about halfway down, is a “field” of dimpled rectangular plates (about 4 inches by 12 inches, if memory serves). This non-radioactive hot water is sprayed on those dimpled plates, the dimples serving to provide more surface area for cooling purposes. As the water trickles down the plate, it is exposed to the cool air, and cools down. But it does produce the steam/condensation tha you may see rising from these cooling towers. As big as they are, you think that is where the real work is being done, but it’s just cooling off water.

    I know that won’t cut it with some of you engineers, but that’s the very simple version of how nuclear energy works…and perhaps shows that we should not be so fearful about it as we have sometimes been led to be.

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  5. Steve H. says:

    While oil is rarely used for electricity any more, isn’t it true that energy prices generally track each other, so an increase in one source of energy will increase the cost of another?

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  6. Gabe says:

    Keep in mind that if all cars became electric tomorrow (assuming that there was a commensurate growth in power plants to accomodate the increased demand) then our emissions would drop. Producing power on a mass scale in a carbon-producing plant is still far more efficient than relying on millions of individual internal combustion engines to do the job.

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  7. Craig Severance CPA says:

    It was not environmentalists but utility executives who stopped nuclear power 30+ years ago, because of extremely high costs.

    New proposed nuclear plants are estimated to cost over $8000/kw capacity, roughly double estimates from just a year ago. Most U.S. utilities are still not sold on this. They are funding needed grid capacity cheaply by adding gas turbines at only $600-$650/kw, assuring the lights will always stay on. This leaves a lot of money left over to buy solar and wind, and fund conservation programs to reduce actual fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

    If we simply mandate utilities to reduce carbon emissions by a certain percentage, the free market will work out the most cost-effective methods.

    If nuclear power is the best way to meet these goals, it will win. It is telling that McCain thinks nuclear will need hundreds of billions in government subsidies even after cap-and-trade is adopted. Those subsidies are just a way to do a favor for the nuclear industry, at the expense of the renewable industry.

    Craig Severance, CPA, is co-author of “The Economics of Nuclear and Coal Power” (Praeger, 1976)

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  8. Oyp says:

    What would you rather have, a pound of solid radioactive waste that you can store away underground, or several tons of gaseous carbon dioxide and other pollutants that you have no choice but to release into the atmosphere?

    The fear of Nuclear Power is irrational when compared with the alternatives.

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