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.


Luke P

Two things to know about the future of energy:

1.) Carbon sequestration is a fool's errand.
2.) Pebble bed reactors are safe and cheap.

The research is out there.

Craig DeForest

There are several comments about radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, and whether it is better or worse than equivalent waste from coal-burning plants. In much of the U.S., the distinction is not between "radioactive waste" or "non-radioactive waste", but rather between degrees of radioactivity.

A lot of the New Mexican bituminous coal contains about 20-30 ppm of uranium, mixed with various decay-chain products. At that concentration, you can get more energy out of the coal by extracting the uranium and using it in a reactor, than you can by simply burning the coal.

The result: most of New Mexico is now covered with radioactive fallout from its "safe" coal burning plants.

People argue about the difficulty of storing radioisotopes generated by nuclear power plants; but the sad truth is that the coal industry is happily belching radioactivity all over the American southwest.

Gabe

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.

Chance

You want irony? Liberals (and some conservatives as well) are concerned about CO2 emissions and global warming, conservatives (and some liberals) are concerned about high taxes, and everybody is concerned about dependancy on foreign oil, and yet tax incentives for solar power are in danger of expiring because the Senate can't agree on how to pay for them.

Here is an area where you would thing even polar opposites on the political spectrum could agree, and yet we might lose these (rather stingy IMO) incentives.

Alan

Nuclear is in large scale use today. Renewables, such as solar and wind, simply can't match the scale that nuclear can. The government will have to subsidize the building of nuclear power plants though. Investors are still weary about putting money nuclear because of the public's irrational fears. Activists have a knack for costing investors a lot of money. If public perception of nuclear power can shift in support of it, then investors will start putting money into without the subsidies, though a cap and trade system on carbon emissions would certainly help.

Murdock

Stephen,
I hope you and the NYT remember to pay the A.P. there $12.50, you quoted more than 4 words.

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20080617/0740561432.shtml

David S

The best place to bury nuclear waste is in trenches in the ocean where one plate slides under another. This is far from where people live, grow their food, get drinking water. In time it will be pulled under and absorbed into the mantle.

Helen

It's odd to hear free-marketeer economists such as yourselves so excited about nuclear power, considering the industry has (so far) survived on government subsidies for virtually every aspect of their operations -- from the govt-funded R&D that created the industry, to disposal of waste.

I'm all for subjecting nuclear energy to the same rigorous cost accounting that other energy sources must submit to to compete. But nuclear power advocates generally want only to consider the near future -- not the incredibly long lifecycle of nuclear waste - and conveniently ignore the value of government subsidies.

Peddling nuclear power now as cheap and green, when there exists no long-term waste disposal capacity, is madness.

elena

This is a little off-topic, but tangential. Recently, on my daily walk around the neighborhood, I saw multiple trucks of the same delivery company delivering packages around the neighborhood. Which got me thinking:

Is it more fuel efficient for the the aggregate of people who buy a product to drive 40 minutes to buy something versus ordering the same product through the company's on-line store and have it shipped to one's house? (something I just did)

Call it the conservationist's dilemma

AaronS

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.

Read more...

Steve H.

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?

FrankTheTank

I'm sorry Oyp, that is the dumbest argument I have ever heard for nuclear power.

You do realize that "several tons" of carbon dioxide is hardly the same as as even a pound of nuclear waste contained underground, right?

"Several tons" of carbon dioxide doesn't have the potentially for lethal complications and deadly side effects that nuclear waste does. Not to mention that carbon dioxide dissipates at rates so much faster than radioactive waste.

I am all for nuclear power and I do believe concerns over it's use are overstated, but this is a terrible, terrible way to make the point.

Morten

@Oyp
Well, soon we will be able to store the carbon dioxide underground as well. Only a matter of a few years (not decades).

Dan

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.

jacob

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

Kinglink

Lord, the problem is the market can't build a new plant unless they get a license from the nuclear commission (I forget the name) and they haven't issued a new license in something like 20 years. McCain isn't personally going to build plants, he's issuing the rights for companies to build them.

Mike B

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.

Max Kaehn

One perspective that makes sense to me is that we don't have to worry about storing nuclear waste until it ceases to be radioactive. We just have to store it long enough for us to develop efficient breeder reactors, at which point much of it is fuel again, or can be run through the reactor until it turns into something that has a short half-life.

PaulK

The biggest fear is not the meltdown disaster, it is the handling of waste material. No one wants this material, no one wants it transported by them, and no one wants it buried in their State. The idea that it can be safely buried (for 1000s of years) has never been shown to be true and the costs are huge. Some experiments have been done in storage in a stable form (e.g. glassified), but the salt mine burial and other methods have been shown to be less safe than originally thought (earth shifting, water penetration, etc).
As to the costs of such plants, the up-front costs are huge and the ROI is very slow in coming, even if the plant owner does not have to deal with the waste handling costs. This tends to mean lots of government money (as happens in Europe).
I do not think anyone thinks we should be spending more money on gas and oil fired plants, but when we spend all of our tax dollars subsidizing Nuclear vs. other "alternative" energy systems, that is very short sighted. Nuclear may have its place, but its total cost must be considered.

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David S.

One thing you can do with electical cars is charge them at night when electricity demand is lowest. The other thing you can do with plug in electric is to use the battery capacity as a reserve for use during peek demand or emergency.

This can postpone new power plant consturction and prevent rolling brownouts during peak summer afternoon usage.

I have seen reports that we could replace 70% of our auto fleet with electric cars and not have to build another powerplant if all these vehicles recharge at night and take advantage of unused night time capacity.