Prescription for the Planet – Part III – Renewable atoms and plasma-charged waste

Last time in my multi-part review of the book Prescription for the Planet, by Tom Blees, I overviewed chapters 4 and 5, which describe the technology behind Integral Fast Reactor nuclear power and boron combustion for vehicles. But Blees had made a fairly bold claim in the subtitle of his book — “The painless remedy for our energy and environmental crises“. Painless? Energy and environment? That’s a big call, and however good these carbon-free energy alternatives may be, there are still leave gaps that must be filled if we are aiming to achieve a sustainable society. 

This post, part III of VI, reviews chapters 6 and 7:

– Chapter 6: A Decidedly Immodest Proposal (pg 155-172)

– Chapter 7: Exxon Sanitation, Inc. (pg 173-195)

The immodest proposal starts with a good quote by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein — “Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done and why. Then do it.” (a thought occurs — perhaps this is why no one is doing anything serious to fix the greenhouse gas problem — they’re not even listening to the experts!). And the first sentence by the author sets the scene well for what chapter 6 is trying to push through — “There is perhaps no field of scientific endeavor more rife with misinformation, ignorance, passion and hysteria than the field of nuclear power” (well… I can think of one other — check out the main theme of this blog). That is, can nuclear really be a viable, large-scale solution to our future power needs?

First there is a critique of a 2003 MIT review of the future nuclear power. This report’s recommendation apparently reads like something out of Australia’s Switkowski Inquiry  — a slow and steady increase, ignore closed fuel cycle technology (which will apparently only be ‘feasible and preferred in the distant future’), stockpile huge amounts of radioactive waste for millennia, and get places like the US to run the enrichment and re-processing game. I haven’t read the full report in detail, but I did read the for-the-public précis that two of the report’s authors wrote up for Scientific American called “The Nuclear Option“. All I can say is that any ‘antie’ who read that article (go on, I dare you)  would have every justification to say “gee, well, on that basis, I opt for no!”. So Blees spends half a dozen pages carefully explaining why this vision is myopic, at best.

With that (necessary) grizzling about the MIT study aside, most of chapter 6 is devoted to explaining why IFRs really can be a major 21st century energy solution. Some discussion of the international energy consortium that will be required to manage the IFR programme worldwide is to be found here, although this is expanded upon greatly in chapters 10 and 11. There is also a fascinating description of sealed IFR-style nuclear ‘batteries’, which sit in an underground concrete silo and could deliver 10 MW of power for 15-30 years before needing to be recharged. As the book notes, “The possibilities for Third World nations in desperate need of electricity are stunning”. This tech will need more R&D before it goes global but it is by no means pie-in-the-sky — Toshiba Corporation are ready to deploy the first demonstration unit, for free, in Galena, Alaska by 2012.

Blees then runs through some ‘what if’ scenarios for IFR roll-out, based on a number of conservative assumptions. Given a 2005 total energy use of roughly 16 terawatt-years (TWy) of energy for humankind, and triple that in 2050 (taking the worst-case scenario), we’d expect to need an average of 32 TWy of energy, on average, over the 2005-2050 period. If we took each of the non-renewable fuels as delivering that total demand, how long would they last (remember, this is just a thought experiment to get a handle on the stockpiles available). Well, we’d have 16 years for conventional oil and another 22 years for the unconvential stuff, or 156 years for coal (almost 1000 years for oil shales and tar sands), a mere 47 years for uranium in Light Water Reactors (LWR — the once through style in use today), or… around 46 thousand years worth for uranium in IFRs (even if fusion is ‘always 40 years away’, we should have it or something better by then). Why such a long-term future for IFR fuel, when they are “only” 60 to 100 times more efficient in their extraction of the energy value of uranium than the LWR? Well, because at that level of efficiency the EROEI skyrockets, meaning the peak uranium problem all but goes away. As Bernard Cohen has argued, with breeders and seawater, uranium effectively becomes a renewable energy source.

A wholesale or even 50% conversion to IFRs would take decades, to be sure. But as Blees says, the IFR plan is NOT the enemy of renewables. It’s simply a proposal to replace the portion of the world’s energy supply that renewables can’t meet (whatever the fraction may end up being), with a24/7 baseload technology that has the side effect of solving a suite of currently intractable problems such as long-lived radioactive waste. There’s no time to delay starting with the roll-out though, as both IFRs and vast renewable deployment have a common problem — entrenched fossil fuel interests.

This is where, in chapter 7, a really nifty rabbit is pulled out of Blees’ energy hat — an idea that may just loosen the iron grip of the oil cartels on world energy and at the same time tackle a whole lot of garbage and wastage. Solid and liquid, dirty nappies to old orange pee, toxic sludgel and scrap metal. The rotting ‘stockpiles’ of municipal solid waste (MSW) and all future goods that society churns through and discards each and every day. Just call in the fourth state of matter — plasma.

The idea sounds rather fanciful — pour all the waste society produces into incinerators which are so hot (around 17,000 C, or a couple of times hotter than the surface of the sun),  that they don’t produce the usual ash and char (nor vent heavy metals, dioxins etc. into the air) — they instead dissagregate the molecular structure of everything that goes into them. Something for the distant future perhaps? Well, no actually, these so-called plasma reactors are already operating and thermal plasma torches have been used for years in industry.

So, just drop the waste (almost everything that currently goes into MSW dumps, and more, such as old oil, industrial chemical waste, treated sewage sludge etc.) into a giant hopper, where a massive shredder breaks the solid garbage component down into ‘bite-sized’ chunks, and then feed the whole vile mixture into the plasma combustion chamber. The result is a hot molten stream and an abundance of sythesis gas (syngas) which can be captured and used to make plastics, lubricants etc. or used as a combustion fuel (after about a quarter of the syngas must be channeled back to continually power the plasma gasification plant burners and operations).  

The slag can be spun into ‘rock wool’ (a substance with properties similar to fibreglass), and water cooled to recover its valuable metal elements for recycling. Blees spends some considerable space explaining the great variety of possible uses for syngas and the molten ‘waste’ stream, and it’s honestly hard to do justice to the detail of his argument in this short space; so I simply recommend you read the chapter yourself. The idea of virtually 100% recycling of materials that would normally end up in landfill is certainly appealing.

In classic Blees style he is of course thinking big and bold — perhaps the big oil companies will see the value in becoming garbage kings and so retain some corporate interest in the syngas and derivative products market (after all, if the P4TP vision becomes reality, there will be no market left for their mineral oil — which is dwindling fast anyway). Convinced? I’m not sure, but the idea is already getting some serious traction in the US and it certainly has to be infinitely better than the current throw-away-and-bury method of MSW disposal. After all, if we (global society) are going to have any chance of avoiding ongoing depletion of natural capital and the staggering environmental destruction that ensues, we MUST aim for a near-100% recyclable system. Plasma burners might just be it.

Next up, in chapters 8 & 9, we look at costs, logistical feasibility, and likey impediments to realising the grand vision.

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84 Comments

  1. My copy of Blees arrived recently and I’m just up to chapter 7. I didn’t know anything about the plasma waste processing stuff but have a real sense of “if it was so simple, why wasn’t this done decades ago?”. After all, the fusion people have been doing tricky stuff with plasma for rather a long time. Perhaps the whole game changes when you bolt on cheap electricity?

    I can’t help thinking that breaking down stuff into its constituent atoms isn’t really useful without tools to put the atoms back together again — e.g., making nitrogen fertiliser looks trivial, just take N2 turn it into N1 and then bolt on a few hydrogens. In practice it needs high pressure and temperature and an army of chemists haven’t managed to make it simpler despite a century of pretty hard work. Likewise biologists have no trouble making the building blocks of DNA but are a fair way from making anything really useful, like a good mango :) yet.

    Blees nuclear argument is actually easier to accept because he can point to real projects which demonstrate the key elements. Australia’s big problem is that our only way to pay for an IFR seems to be to dig up more coal, smelt more aluminium or produce more beef! And I’d like to see Mike Rann’s face when you told him we don’t need Roxby downs mine any more, or its jobs, or its income.

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  2. My mistake. Obviously I don’t understand plasma physics. It seems you can make really high temperatures somehow and still have a net electricity output. Sounds like a free lunch to me. I don’t know where the energy is coming from.

    I’m looking for websites which explain this stuff in a little more detail than Blees.

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  3. Barry – have you read anything from Saul Griffith? Here is a presentation he gave that lays out some interesting facts:

    http://assets.en.oreilly.com/1/event/8/Energy%20Literacy%20Presentation.pdf

    Assuming that nuclear was to be part of the energy mix we would have to roll-out 1 3GW nuclear plant a week for the next 25 years. For 2 TW of wind we would need 12 3MW turbines in good wind spots every hour again for the next 25 years and 50 m^2 of solar thermal mirrors every second for the next 25 years. To put this in perspective we currently produce 110 bn cans /year = 200 GW solar thermal/year. Also GM produces 1 car every 2 minutes. Perhaps GM + FORD = 1 wind turbine every 5 minutes is doable.

    If we accept that we have 25 years to make a difference do you honestly think that we can turn out a nuclear plant a week inside 20 years? The other technologies such as solar and wind have industries that are far closer and easier to convert than nuclear which is highly specialised. Also due to the exacting nature of nuclear could we inspect one plant a week properly and what would be the consequence if sub-standard nuclear power stations were commissioned. At least a wind turbine will only fall over or a thermal power station might have a steam leak however an accident in a hurried and substandard nuclear power plant can be far catastrophic.

    Lets also assume that it would take a few years for the nuclear bandwagon to get going:

    http://books.google.com.au/books?id=fCWKClWP_TwC&pg=PA203&lpg=PA203&dq=energy+required+to+enrich+uranium&source=web&ots=oyaNWvLyUc&sig=RuNBX0w6QT8E84KrROJUwZdUCRc&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result#PPA203,M1

    It takes 355MWh of energy to enrich 1kg of nuclear fuel. Neglecting the fabrication of the fuel we would need to produce 30 tons per reactor so we would need 30 * 52 * 355 * 1000 = 553 800 000 MWh of electricity just to produce the fuel required for the first year. Of course the first reactors will be producing energy for the enrichment process however this is a significant amount of energy and this would also be sourced from fossil fuels initially. Is there enough energy to initially start the cycle? A 1 GW power plant produces 1000 * 365 * 24 *.85 = 7 756 250 MWh per year so the enrichment process would take the full output of 70 or 80 1GW power plants. It will be a long time before this amount of energy is surplus to do this.

    We need to reduce the problem first with energy efficiency and cutbacks even if the nuclear option is the best.

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  4. Ender #3:
    First, let’s do some simple numbers to compare nuclear, wind and solar. I’ll use Australia and just stick to electricity for now, because the numbers are small compared to global figures, so it makes it easier to digest.

    Besides, Oz is one of the best places in the world in terms of renewable energy options. But the principles remain the same, for World demand or total energy demand. Okay:

    1. The Garnaut Review 2008 estimates Australian electricity demand will be about 530,000 GWh/year in 2050 (Fig 20.5).

    2. 1 year = 365.25 x 24 = 8766 hours

    3. A large 3GW nuclear plant, 90% output, produces about 3GW x 0.9 x 8766 = 23,668 GWh/year

    4. A large wind turbine produces 2MW, 25% output = 0.002GW x 0.25 x 8766 = 4.383 GWh/year

    5. Solar thermal, let’s base numbers on the 50MW AndaSol Power Plant, since calculations done (20% output): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_thermal#Conversion_rates_from_solar_energy_to_electrical_energy

    So 0.05GW x 0.2 x 8766 = 87.66 GWh/year, covering 0.51 km2

    First, nuclear. Let’s say we get our act together late, and don’t start building IFRs until 2030 with the aim of replacing our electricity supply completely with them by 2050 (i.e. a 20 year building programme). [It would likely start earlier in the US, Japan, China etc. – perhaps 2015-2020].

    Nuclear plants = 530,000/23,668 = 22.4 so we need about 23 large 3GW plants, or just over 1 per year.

    Second wind and solar. Let’s say we start in 2010 and finish 2050 (40 year building plan):

    Wind turbines = 530,000/4.383 = 120,920, or about 3,023 per year over the 40 years

    Solar thermal = 530,000/87.66 = 6,046 Andasol-1 equivalent plants, or about 77km2 per year for 40 years (151 Andasol-1 type plants per year)

    (the above for wind and solar is not including the energy loss from energy storage [e.g. compressed air, chemical conversion, molten salts etc.] to cover calm/cloudy periods [and night for solar] – it is optimistic)

    Australia’s current wind generation capacity is 817MW installed.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_Australia#Installed_and_proposed_capacity_by_state

    3,023 turbines per year = 6,046 MW, so we’d need to install 7.4 times Australia’s current total wind capacity each and every year for 40 years.

    Australia currently has only about 1MW of solar thermal delivering, but let’s add solar thermal and photovoltaic and then compare with the task. Total (non-rooftop) solar either installed or in the planning or construction stage is about 240MW: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Australia#Projects_and_status_by_state

    151 Andasol-1s = 7558MW installed capacity, so we’d need to install 31.5 times Australia’s current total installed, planned or in-construction plants every year from 2010 to 2050 to meet the goal. Or about an Andasol-1 type plant ever 2.4 days.

    To me, the 23 nuclear plants over 20 years between 2030-2050 doesn’t seem that infeasible to me. And of course if we undertake a large expansion of renewables in the interim, we might only need 10-15 instead or <1/year. If we assume energy efficiency and conservation cuts the 530 TWh/year figure by 30%, then we might need <10 IFR plants, or less than 1 every 2 years for 20 years.

    The point is, no matter what way you look at it, (1) nuclear CAN play an important role and (2) the challenge facing renewables as an energy replacement is MUCH bigger than almost anyone cares to admit.

    But if you are truly convinced otherwise, could I invite you to do a detailed critique of Ted Trainer’s piece? If you can show where he is wrong, and why, I’d be delighted to hear it and would use that information to continue to spruik renewables as a real and viable solution. But so far, I’ve found nothing that does this – instead, his numbers are much the same as the ones I present above. Hence my ‘cooling’ on the ability of renewables to contribute more than a moderate fraction (perhaps 20 to 30%) of delivered energy by 2050.

    Finally, regarding the question of enrichment energy: “Is there enough energy to initially start the cycle?

    Yes — in the decomissioned nuclear weapons and spent fuel, there’s plenty. And once we’ve had a bunch of IFRs breeding fuel for the new fleet of IFRs for a few years, they’ll mostly be in burn mode thereafter. Point is, your figures are not relevant because We don’t need any further enrichment with IFRs – I suggest you look a bit harder at the technology behind it.

    We need to reduce the problem first with energy efficiency and cutbacks even if the nuclear option is the best.

    I agree, as I’ve said many, many times before. No one is arguing that energy efficiency is not sensible.

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  5. Geoff #1: Agreed, I think it needs more R&D and demonstration, but it’s not theoretical by a long-shot, as the links I provided illustrate. The key, in common with IFRs and boron-fuel, is whether there will be the will and investment required to scale this up — and how long it will take.

    Regarding “It seems you can make really high temperatures somehow and still have a net electricity output. Sounds like a free lunch to me.”; that was also my first thought. Certainly the initial combustion to high temperatures must be initiated by an external source (such as IFR electricity) to atomise everything. I guess I need to do more reading on this. The links I posted are not specific about it, e.g.

    Some more from that link I provided:
    Plasma Gasification
    First, garbage is fed into an auger, a machine which shreds it into smaller pieces. These are then fed into a plasma chamber – a sealed, stainless steel vessel filled with either nitrogen or ordinary air. A 650-volt electrical current is passed between two electrodes; this rips electrons from the air and creates plasma.
    A constant flow of electricity through the plasma maintains a field of extremely intense energy powerful enough to disintegrate the shredded garbage into its component elements. The byproducts are a glass-like substance used as raw materials for high-strength asphalt or household tiles and “syngas”.

    Syngas is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide and it can be converted into fuels such as hydrogen, natural gas or ethanol. Syngas (which leaves the converter at a temperature of around 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit) is fed into a cooling system which generates steam. This steam is used to drive turbines which produce electricity – part of which is used to power the converter, while the rest can be used for the plant’s heating or electrical needs, or sold back to the utility grid.

    Therefore, aside from the initial power supply from the community’s electrical grid, the whole machine can produce the electricity it needs for operations. It also produces materials that can be sold for commercial use so, at some point, the plasma gasification system will generate profit for its users.”

    There are some good links at the bottom of the Wiki article, but I haven’t read them. They may explain the energy conversion issue in more detail:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasma_arc_gasification

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  6. just a few words regarding Geoff’s comment, “It seems you can make really high temperatures somehow and still have a net electricity output. Sounds like a free lunch to me.”

    Essentially, the power is coming from the burning of whatever gurry you’re feeding in the thing – the “fuel” of it could be considered the waste fed in, although very indirectly, as the plasma torch itself could and probably would be just hooked into the power grid.

    This is by no means the fabled perpetual motion machine. The power requirement for the combustion process in smaller plants already in operation has been known to exceed the power produced at output, in fact. But this appears to be an instance where scaling up is the key to increased – and excess – output. So the energy available to go out to a grid (or wherever) is TotalEnergy-minus-WhatItTakesToRunTheBloodyEnergyHogginPlasmaMachine (as I see it, anyway).

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  7. Thanks Dave. I guess the issue to resolve is this: It takes x amount of energy to break all the molecular bonds of the gurry fed into the burner so that we get an atomised plasma. Then, when the plasma cools, a component of it gets re-aggregated as syngas with y chemical energy contained in the molecular bonds of this hydrocarbon (which can be re-released by burning the syngas).

    The question is, how can y be larger than x? If x comes from an IFR and syngas it the byproduct, fine, we need more IFRs to power the plasma burner, but isn’t the claim that only about 25% of the input garbage is required to power the process?

    I guess I need to do more reading on this to wrap my head around it…

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  8. Barry has formulated by vague suspicion well. I can burn wood with an oxy-torch but I’ll bet the energy to run the torch exceeds the heat generated by the wood. So hello, are there any plasma physicists reading this blog? … a little help is required.

    Also, is Dave Blees = Tom Blees? Sibling?

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  9. Barry – “5. Solar thermal, let’s base numbers on the 50MW AndaSol Power Plant, since calculations done (20% output)”

    So lets challenge some assumptions. Modelling work done by David Mills in this paper:
    http://www.ausra.com/pdfs/T_1_1_David_Mills_2049.pdf

    Shows that the capacity factor of a solar plant that has, what he terms a 3 solar multiple, is 40% to 60%. Such a plant is being constructed in the USA at the moment and is of the very simple flat panel fresnel design.

    Assuming that we can use this design in gigawatt powerplants it would generate.

    Ausra solar thermal – 1GW *.4 * 8766 = 3506GWh per year

    “4. A large wind turbine produces 2MW, 25% output = 0.002GW x 0.25 x 8766 = 4.383 GWh/year”

    A large wind turbine these days is 3MW with 5MW ones on the way which in a good location will have a capacity factor of over 30%. Australia has an abundance of really good wind sites so there should be no need to use the poorer sites so the overall capacity factor can be much higher. Additionally the newer turbines are just about all of the variable speed type that generate power in more wind speeds that the older constant speed types.

    So this becomes 0.004 * 0.3 * 8766 = 10.51GWh per year (assuming a future mix of 3 and 5MW turbines).

    “Second wind and solar. Let’s say we start in 2010 and finish 2050 (40 year building plan):

    Wind turbines = 530,000/4.383 = 120,920, or about 3,023 per year over the 40 years

    Solar thermal = 530,000/87.66 = 6,046 Andasol-1 equivalent plants, or about 77km2 per year for 40 years (151 Andasol-1 type plants per year)”

    Lets assume we start building a sensible mixture of wind and solar plus the HVDC links. No-one doing renewables assumes one technology can do the job.

    So a more realistic renewable grid would be:

    Wind 200 000/10.51 = 19 000 wind turbines. As wind turbines are commonly in farms of 100 then we need 190 wind farms in 40 years. This is a rate of 3 or 4 per year. (There were 7 under construction in 2008 with a combined capacity of 500MW) As we require only 1500MW per year that is only 3 times the amount being constructed in 2008.
    http://www.geocities.com/daveclarkecb/Australia/WindPower.html#Wind%20power%20capacity%20in%20Australia

    Solar thermal 200 000/3506 = 57 1GW Ausra plants which could be built easily at a rate of 1 or 2 per year for 40 years

    The remaining 130 000GWh would normally be generated by existing peaking plants that you neglected in your nuclear analysis. Also biomass and rooftop PV etc can contribute to this as with storage from cars they become peaking and spinning reserve. Only up to about 60% of the energy mix can be baseload.

    You assume 90% capacity factor for nuclear. Given that Australia has no experience of nuclear power generation and would require many years to train sufficient personnel, a 90% capacity factor is very optimistic. A more realistic figure would be starting with the 56% percent that US reactors had in 1980 ramping up to 90% after 20 years.(http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/nuclear/page/analysis/nuclearpower.html) A more realistic average of the entire 40 years would be closer to 75% or 80%. Also not all the 530 000GWhrs can be baseload. You would have to build a corresponding amount of peaking capacity. A commenter also noted the water problem. If the reactors are fresh water cooled climate change will decrease the capacity factor of nuclear as there will be more days when the water will be too hot to be used and the plant will have to be idled or shutdown. Solar thermal plants with their much lower thermal load are almost always air cooled. Seawater nuclear plants are restricted by the amount of acceptable sites near cities that are already not being used by desalination.

    I cannot see the need for nuclear in Australia as solar thermal and wind can do the job here easily. Why waste money and resources on nuclear when existing renewable technology can do it? This is basically what I have been saying all along that nuclear is an expensive boondoggle that could really sink us by consuming money and resource better spent on technologies that can actually do the job, quicker and with no risk.

    I guess I can do the analysis of Ted Trainer however it will take me some time and of course assuming I can actually do it. However I will let you know if I can.

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  10. Geoff – yes, Tom’s brother here…
    Though I am far from being a physicist of any credentials whatsoever, I can tell you for sure that a flaming woodpile is going to produce lots more energy than it takes for me to strike the match that sets it alight. Where’s that energy coming from?

    db

    [Ed: BWB – True Dave, but we’re talking about atomising the woodpile – still, Geoff’s analogy wasn’t the best one because as you point out, you wouldn’t use the blowtorch after the wood started crackling]

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  11. Sorry Ender #10, it still doesn’t add up.

    First, you worry that 90% capacity for nuclear is too high beause it will take time for Australia to train personnel. So we have to reinvent the wheel do we, and not learn by the 50 years of American experience? Forgive me if I’m not convinced, but let’s say we take your 75% worst-case capacity.

    Then you need:
    3GW x 0.75 x 8766 = 19,723 per plant, so instead of 23 plants we need 27. Fine, let’s build 35 in 20 years just to be sure and to eliminate peaking problems (see below for uses in off-peak).

    Then, you raise Ausra’s 1GW plant with solar multiples at 40% efficiency. You realise how this is done, don’t you? To get the backup storage, they must overbuild the installed capacity. A solar multiple of 3 means the collector farm is 3 times that required spin the steam turbine at full capacity at noon in summer. Excess heat then goes into the storage medium, such as molten salts.

    There is only so much accessible sunshine per m2 — you can’t make more. Renewable energy is (mostly) very diffuse. Ausra’s own estimate of a SM3 design with storage, delivering 40% capacity, is 3.9 km2 for 177 MW. So let’s redo the solar calculations on the basis of a 1GW Ausra SM3. As you note this would deliver an average of 3,506 GWh/year.

    How much area do you require for a 1GW Ausra SM3 plant? That would be (1,000/177)*3.9km2 = 22 km2. For the hypothetical scenario of total energy replacement, that makes 530,000/3,506 = 151 Ausra plants, covering 3,322 km2, a building rate of 83 km2 per year. Looks remarkably similar to my earlier estimate of 77 km2 per year, but based on the Ausra figures instead of Andasol-1. At least these two agree… So the job looks the same, doesn’t it?

    Oh, and I’m quite aware that in reality we need a mix of contributions from energy sources — how clear can I make it? For instance, I said:

    To me, the 23 nuclear plants over 20 years between 2030-2050 doesn’t seem that infeasible to me. And of course if we undertake a large expansion of renewables in the interim, we might only need 10-15 instead or < 1/year. If we assume energy efficiency and conservation cuts the 530 TWh/year figure by 30%, then we might need <10 IFR plants, or less than 1 every 2 years for 20 years.

    In other words, a sensible mix with nuclear playing an important (but not sole) role — feasible scenario for Australia. You should realise that my hypothetical ‘what is required’ scenarios of full supply from a single tech (be it nuclear/wind/solar) is merely for the matter of relative comparison. But if it is really tough with wind, and really tough with solar, it will still be really tough in total no matter what fraction each one contributes (same goes for other diffuse energy sources). I hope you simply misunderstood the purpose of my comparison.

    Ausra plants which could be built easily at a rate of 1 or 2 per year for 40 years.

    Define ‘easy’? Covering ~40 km2 a year (that’s 110,000 m2 of mirrors per day, every single day [plus piping, steam turbines (just like nuclear), transmission interconnections) for 50% of our energy supply?

    Regarding your wind analysis and larger turbines you say:
    There were 7 under construction in 2008 with a combined capacity of 500MW. As we require only 1500MW per year that is only 3 times the amount being constructed in 2008..

    That’s 521 MW of installed capacity, not delivered power (and these won’t all be completed in a year). Which, at your optimistic 30% capacity (the average of good sites is currently ~23%, but let’s assume your 30%), that’s 156 MW delivered. So crank that to 10x.

    The remaining 130 000GWh would normally be generated by existing peaking plants that you neglected in your nuclear analysis.

    And these would be powered by what? Gas? Sorry, still a carbon-intensive option and a dwindling supply — we’re aiming for zero emissions remember. Nuclear? Sure, and that’s exactly my point — but be sure to build enough capacity to eliminate the concept of ‘peaking power’, because the IFRs can either supply grid electricity in peak times or desalinate/fire plasma burners/reduce boron in the off peak times.

    Why waste money and resources on nuclear when existing renewable technology can do it?

    For the simple reason that, as I’ve shown in a simple form above and others such as Trainer have shown in far more detail, existing renewable technology patently CANNOT do it. I’m not trying to invent difficulties that don’t exist. Indeed, I want to fix the climate and energy problem as much as anyone I’ve met. I recognise the scale of the challenge. Hence, I’m seeking full solutions that can withstand scrutiny and are feasible. I used to think diffuse renewables (e.g. solar, wind, wave) were the complete solution. Then I did the calculations for myself, and read more widely. Now, more informed, I figure they’ll make some useful contribution to the final zero-carbon energy mix, along with energy efficiency. But, alas, they ain’t going to get us there on their own, even in a well-endowned nation like Oz – not by a long shot.

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  12. Sorry I don’t have time to dig deeply into the solar/wind/nuclear numbers here, but just as a comment Ausra is expected to have about a 20% capacity factor, meaning its cost will be in the range of $14 million USD/MW, a lot more than even the worst case nuclear power plant costs. Nevada Solar One has already been operating and purportedly got about a 23% capacity factor (Ausra’s location has more cloud cover, hence the expected smaller number). At that rate the construction cost for NSO was about $17.6 million USD/MW (using their own numbers).

    As for the concern about water use and nuclear plants, they’re the same for any plant that uses steam to turn a turbine, no more, no less. Even a CSP plant that creates steam to turn a turbine will have to recondense the steam. The idea that nuclear plants require more water per megawatt is a common misconception. Think of it this way: The coal or gas burner or nuclear plant gives up its heat to the water to make steam and drive the turbine. That steam/water must necessarily be a closed system of distilled water, otherwise you’d get mineral buildup on the turbine and wreck it. Now the steam has to be condensed to reuse it. That’s what your cooling towers/river/ocean input are doing: they’re condensing the distilled water. Same for any type of steam plant, the amount of water per MW will be pretty much the same across the board. Oh, as for capacity factors, that’s one reason why we want standardization and modular factory-built newclear plants. The PRISM (the design ready to build now) is very good at load following and will require very little operator input. We can expect better than 90% capacity factor, likely quite a bit better than that even. It won’t take a rocket scientist to run one of them, they’re pretty foolproof and can’t melt down (see the book for details).

    As for the plasma torch (by the way, Barry, you can’t really call a plasma converter an incinerator, it’s really quite different in terms of its effect on molecules), the amount of syngas you get out of it depends on the material you’re putting into it. If your input contains a lot of metal, silicates, etc. you’ll get less syngas. If you feed in agricultural waste, you’ll get really a lot of syngas. That’s why the plants in Japan pre-sort the garbage coming in, pulling out the obvious metal and glass which would add nothing to the syngas. If you put in typical municipal solid waste (MSW) and burn the resulting syngas to produce electricity, you’ll have to feed about 20% of that electricity to the torches, and there’ll be about 80% left to go to the grid. The energy is coming from the MSW itself. That’s a pretty good efficiency, especially since you still get the slag for building materials, etc.

    So why wasn’t this done before? Because tipping fees (the amount a garbage hauler pays the landfill to dump his garbage) were very low until recently, used to be in the range of $10 USD/ton. Because of the cost of the plasma recycling plant, it didn’t pay. Now tipping fees are $30-35/ton or more, and it makes economic sense. We don’t have to wait for further R&D, though. Several of these plants have already been built (some for very limited and specialized purposes like deconstructing nerve gas, etc) and a few are in commercial operation in Japan. The biggest in Japan processes MSW and shredded cars and can do about 300 tons/day. Bigger ones will be basically the same as that one, just with more torches. In other words, figure it as a modular system with 300 ton/day modules. Been there, done that. Within a year we’ll see some up and running in the States, and there’d be more but for the ridiculous naysayers who object because “this technology has never been proven in the United States.” (Seriously, I’ve heard this many times, as if Japan operates under a different set of laws of physics.) It’s one of those negative effects of the cult of American exceptionalism. Pay it no mind.

    Hope this helps.

    Tom

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  13. Ok, my analogy was a little dodgy, but nobody said you turn off the plasma torch once the “reaction” gets going. But I’ve never seen a log I could light with a match either – yes, I did get my boy scout firelighting badge! Still, somewhere between two dodgy analogies is something that gives a little comfort. I can imagine waving a heat source over a log and not getting a sustained fire, but still getting more heat out than I put in.

    As for the Ender-Brook calculations. You both ignore roof top PV. A rooftop PV would be a modest fraction of the total technology on any suburban block now, so provided there is no show-stopper bottle neck component in the PV (like a practical battery), then a few million rooftop PVs should be doable and affordable and reduce the baseload energy requirements substantially.

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  14. Geoff, my one single kilowatt grid-connected system cost $11 500 to install. I have a reasonably efficient house so that’s actually getting us by in summer. Would barely scratch the surface for most people though, particularly if they want A/C. (on a day like this?) Now the nice government have me $8000 for that system. Try scaling up those numbers if you want to get a shock, even if you choose to use optimistic/futuristic scenarios. Current-tech photovoltaic power is out of the ball-park, it is the real boondoggle compared to solar thermal, to wind, or to ‘newclear’ (gah, an awful word, it will not catch on (I hope)).

    Ender, Barry, nice discussion, lucid and civil and educational for others. Giving it to Barry on points at the moment, it seems clear we need all solutions, and 4th generation nuclear doesn’t have any objections from me, except that there’s not one working plant in the world.

    But tell me, what about tidal or geothermal, surely those numbers will be feasible before 2030 as part of the mix?

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  15. Wilful #16. The average motor vehicle costs rather more than $11500, so by the same logic, it is impossible for all households to have one and change it every 12 years. Globally, this may be true for both motor vehicles and PV systems, but is it locally true (in a wealthy country)?

    A motor vehicle is far more complex and embodies far more stuff that has to be dug up and fabricated than a PV system. I have trouble believing that, with motor vehicle level manufacturing expertise, a PV can’t be made for far less than currently.

    But if I’m wrong and PV is intrinsically expensive, then it becomes a luxury item that may actually impede public spending on efficient power infrastructure. ie., we may be so busy lowering taxes so that the rich can buy PVs that we don’t have the money for IFR or anything else.

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  16. Sorry Barry at #12 you numbers don’t add up either.

    First of exactly 0 power generating nuclear power plants have been build in Australia so the operational experience is also zero. Unless you have not been reading my comments I noted that there is a current drastic shortage of nuclear qualified personnel and materials that even with the most optimistic analysis will not get any better inside 10 years. So glibly announcing that it easy to build 27 instead of 23 is totally ignoring the fact that none have been built yet. Certainly you can learn from past mistakes however in the operational experience of other industries is that we still make some of the same mistakes anyway. Witness the Nomad aircraft.

    “Then, you raise Ausra’s 1GW plant with solar multiples at 40% efficiency. You realise how this is done, don’t you? ”

    Yes I do however why are you so obessed with the area that a plant covers? I don’t see you quoting the area of the Olympic Mine or the fact that a new fossil fuel power station might have to be built to power the expansion of it. It is the cost and speed of deployment that matters not the absolute area. AUSRA’s design is cheap and simple to deploy in mass produced modules with normal materials. 40km^2 per year is no less feasible than your 1 or 2 nuclear power stations a year given that the mirrors are made of common materials that there is no shortage of. Nor is there a shortage of people to erect and operate the solar plants or is there a shortage of available land in Australia.

    “And these would be powered by what? Gas? Sorry, still a carbon-intensive option and a dwindling supply — we’re aiming for zero emissions remember. Nuclear? Sure, and that’s exactly my point — but be sure to build enough capacity to eliminate the concept of ‘peaking power’, because the IFRs can either supply grid electricity in peak times or desalinate/fire plasma burners/reduce boron in the off peak times.”

    Barry you are talking here about technology that does not exist yet and I do not think that you have a firm grip on how electricity is generated in an operational grid (not that I have much a better idea). From all the reading that I have done I have found you cannot have too much baseload power. Load following nuclear plants are a myth as thermal loads and shocks from stop start operation drastically reduce the lifetime of a plant. Also how do you get someone to put up the money to build a 4 billion dollar nuclear plant that is used for 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon?

    Peaking plants fuelled from something will be needed for a long time yet. Natural gas will last for a while and is a low carbon alternative however biomass can provide syngas for power plants and biochar for improving soils. Surplus wind and solar can also be used to make hydrogen that can fuel peaking plants. Yes I do realise that you can generate the same from nuclear. You really need a mix of different power plants please read this from Mark Diesendorf
    http://www.energyscience.org.au/BP16%20BaseLoad.pdf

    Also perhaps you could read some of the other papers there like:

    http://www.energyscience.org.au/factsheets.html
    18. Uranium, India and the NPT Regime

    19. Who’s Watching the Nuclear Watchdog – A Critique of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office

    20. The Nuclear Industry: A History of Misleading Claims

    for the other side of the nuclear power debate.

    “I used to think diffuse renewables (e.g. solar, wind, wave) were the complete solution. Then I did the calculations for myself, and read more widely. Now, more informed, I figure they’ll make some useful contribution to the final zero-carbon energy mix, along with energy efficiency. But, alas, they ain’t going to get us there on their own, even in a well-endowned nation like Oz – not by a long shot.”

    However why do those differ from people like Mark Diesendorf and Peter Mills who have both done extensive modeling from actual experience and they conclude that renewables can. My guess, which could be wrong, is that you are listening to the exggerated claims of the nuclear industry which they have consistently failed to deliver on.

    Why is David’s analysis wrong here?
    http://www.ausra.com/pdfs/ausra_usgridsupply.pdf

    That concludes:

    “The relevance of base load generation as a technical strategy needs to be carefully re-examined. Human activity does not correlate well with base load coal or nuclear output. It should by now be recognized that base load is what coal and nuclear technologies produce, not what is required by society and the environment.

    Solar power with storage can take up as much of the grid generation load or vehicle energy load as is
    desired, and can host other clean energy options by treating them as a negative grid load. A mixture of storage and non-storage renewable options thus appears to be fully self-consistent as an alternative to the present generation mix, with the main co-contributors to STE probably being hydroelectricity and wind.”

    Are these people just misguided or is their work just wrong?

    Or Mark in this:
    http://www.energyscience.org.au/BP21%20Myths%20v3.pdf#

    “The water heating example shows that base-load power is to some extent an artificial construct. The important thing is to have a generating system that supplies clean, reliable electric power, while limiting wasteful demand growth. Renewable energy, coupled with efficient energy use and backed up with gas power for a transitional period, can do the job.”

    His article here reads very much like Coby’s “How to talk to a Climate Change Skeptic”. A lot of your arguments for nuclear power can be answered straight out of Mark’s mythbusting article.

    If you make your calculations to favour nuclear power and ignore the different operating profiles of renewables then add is some imaginary technology that is yet to be developed nuclear seems to be the better option. However people that have been working in the renewable area for many years have the same answers but without imaginary technology. These same people have been butting their heads against the same baseload fallacies that you have presented in your support of nuclear power. They have also seen and written about the problems with nuclear power that are covered up by creative accounting or ignored to make nuclear power more attractive.

    I am just an unqualified punter however both these people are researchers of many years experience and they have opinions 180deg different to your own and have also done the calculations and have the modelling to prove it.

    Again I do realise that you support renewable power and energy efficiency and I have taken on board the fact that you support a reasonable mix of power however your claims that renewable power cannot do the job without nuclear power is not supported by the facts as I see it. Prominent Australian researchers have concluded from studies that they have done that renewable power can do the job and do it fairly easily even without nuclear power.

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  17. Tom Blees – “The PRISM (the design ready to build now) is very good at load following and will require very little operator input. We can expect better than 90% capacity factor, likely quite a bit better than that even. It won’t take a rocket scientist to run one of them, they’re pretty foolproof and can’t melt down (see the book for details).”

    Sorry Tom but if your reactor is load following then it is very unlikely to achieve a capacity factor of 90% as it will be idle most of the time. Peaking plants capacity factor is often under 20% as they are only used for a couple of hours in the day.

    “Even a CSP plant that creates steam to turn a turbine will have to recondense the steam.”

    And that can be done with air cooling which is usually chosen for CSP in desert locations.

    http://www.nrel.gov/csp/troughnet/pdfs/2007/dersch_dry_cooling.pdf

    and

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/cooling_power_plants_inf121.html
    “Generation III+ nuclear plants have high thermal efficiency relative to older ones, and should not be disadvantaged relative to coal by water use considerations. If water is very scarce, dry cooling can be used, though this has some cost and efficiency penalty.”

    As nuclear is marginal in cost at best, adding costs in air cooling to an already very expensive system is going to be hard to justify.

    Solar thermal costs are high at the moment however it has the potential for dramatic decreases as the scale of mirror construction increases. Nuclear seems to be getting only more expensive.

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  18. Ender #18:

    Interesting, you say my numbers don’t add up but then you don’t present any direct critique of them.

    Let’s be clear. An IFR is no more or less theoretical or imaginary than a 1GW solar thermal plant (with or without heat storage). Neither have yet been built to full commercial specs. That’s what’s now clearly required. But akin to the demonstration 50MW Andasol-1 and 250MW Nevada One solar plants, a demonstration IFR reactor ran successfully for 10 years (the EBR-II ran for 30 years). The BN-350 in Russia used a sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor for years to generate about 150MW of power and desalinate a large amount of water each day. It ran for over 20 years, used pyroprocessing, and they are now building larger BNs. So there has been no commercial-scale demo of the full IFR package, but it’s ready to go. Just like we’re ready to try some large scale solar thermal.

    Let’s look at some of your points:
    …noted that there is a current drastic shortage of nuclear qualified personnel and materials that even with the most optimistic analysis will not get any better inside 10 years

    My stated schedule for Australia was a 2030 to 2050 build-out. Not inside 10 years.

    …why are you so obessed with the area that a plant covers?

    Because the larger the mirror field, the higher the cost. If you need to build a mirror field that is 3 times larger than the installed capacity to supply sufficient heat for storage, then it will cost roughly 3 times as much. And it will take 3 times as much effort to manufacture, install and maintain. And the transmission losses will be higher. And so on.

    I don’t see you quoting the area of the Olympic Mine or the fact that a new fossil fuel power station might have to be built to power the expansion of it.

    That would be because expansion of IFRs does not require any further uranium mining for a few centuries. You would understand this if you’d read the documentation. There are other reasons why this is a non argument even for LWR, but I’ll save that for another day.

    AUSRA’s design is cheap and simple to deploy

    Cheap per mirror, perhaps, but you need a helluva lot of mirrors.

    Barry you are talking here about technology that does not exist yet

    Yes, it does. Saying it doesn’t won’t make that fact go away.

    I do not think that you have a firm grip on how electricity is generated in an operational grid…Load following nuclear plants are a myth as thermal loads and shocks from stop start operation drastically reduce the lifetime of a plant. Also how do you get someone to put up the money to build a 4 billion dollar nuclear plant that is used for 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon?

    You clearly didn’t properly read what you quoted from me. I said that that you’d overbuild your number of IFRs to the amount required to meet peaking rather than average demand. But you wouldn’t try to idle down the ‘spare’ IFR capacity during off-peak/low demand periods. You’d keep them going full pelt, and use them to desalinate water, reduce (de-oxidise) boron, fire plasma converters, etc. I maintain that if your ‘solution’ with renewables includes long-term peaking power from natural gas or crop-based biofuels (perhaps you were thinking of microalgae? – another tech that is still mostly theoretical) then it is no full solution.

    why do those differ from people like Mark Diesendorf and Peter Mills who have both done extensive modeling from actual experience and they conclude that renewables can.

    The Diesendorf “BP21 Myths” piece you link to is an interesting document but grossly out of date regarding nuclear and not relevant to IFR. I’ll look at a few of the claims he makes that are relevant to this discussion:

    -Fallacy 4: Peak uranium and mining/milling CO2 – not relevant to IFR, and his hand-waving are not supported by the detailed life-cycle analysis done by Manfred Lenzen USyd. Mark’s 15 year argument implicitly assumes that renewables can fill this ramp up gap.

    -Fallacy 5: IFR fuel cannot be used to create weapons without a specialised PUREX facility. This, and another bunch of reasons detailed in the links I provided earlier on IFR show how damned proliferation resistant it is.

    -Fallacy 6: Again, he implicitly assumes by this statement that renewables CAN make a useful contribution by 2020 and that after 2020, nuclear cannot quickly reduce (eliminate) emissions by 2050 (worldwide).

    -Fallacy 8: I never said renewables can’t be scaled and engineered to provide baseload. I maintain that there are far better zero-carbon ways to do this, however, that use far fewer resources and are far cheaper. Such as IFR.

    -Fallacy 9: No argument there about no-brainers such as solar hot water systems. But baseload is required for cities.

    -Fallacy 10: Diesendorf says 510 km2 of solar thermal at 20% efficiency could supply all of Australia’s current electricity demand. Interesting. 2005 electricity generation was 226,000 GWh. Based on the solar thermal calculations of your favoured Ausra plant with thermal storage, you need 3.9 km2 to generate an average 177MW, which over 1 year is 0.177 x 0.4 x 8,766 hrs = 620 GWh. Then 226,000/640 = 353 x 3.9 = 1,377 km2 – so I’m unsure as to how Mark arrived at the 510 km2 figure – no calculations are given in the linked document [his numbers roughly work if you ignore average capacity as just base it on rated maximum output at noon in summer – but that is a purely theoretical number with no relevance to actual power generation].

    The residential PV estimate requires optimal conditions and leaves the gap after nightfall, or in winter with strings of cloudy days, to be met from other sources. There is a reason why solar hot water systems have electric or gas boosters, for instance. Geoff notes that with good batteries, this may not be such an issue – agreed, but you then need to cover even more room area (not all obviously in the optimal position) to meet the extra requirement of battery charging.

    -Fallacy 11: Cost (I haven’t even bothered to go there). There is an interesting analysis of Carrizo and some other plants here.

    http://ecoworld.com/blog/2008/11/11/ausras-kimberlina-solar-thermal/

    It suggests (among other interesting things) that: “Ausra’s estimated capacity factor, in the only slightly less hot and sunny southern San Joaquin Valley is between 18% and 22%. – so the 40% capacity calculation I used above seems highly optimistic, but could theoretically work if we built all of Australia’s capacity in the optimal location (though we’d have to figure in at least 10% transmission loss then if we got HDVC out there).

    Okay, so the cost of the yet-to-be-built 177MW Ausra Carrizo plant is estimated by Ausra to be $US 550 million. Using an average delivery over the year of 0.177 x 0.4 = 0.0708, or 71 MW. So that’s $7.7 billion per gigawatt. That would be reasonably competitive, but it strikes me as optimistic. For instance, Ausra says in its San Joaquin Valley location it will deliver up to 22%. That would make it a less attractive $14.1 B/GW. By comparison, Nevada Solar One cost $260M, and when averaged over the year produces 0.064 x 0.23 = 14.7 MW, or $17.7 B/GW. Doesn’t look all that cost competitive to me.

    You also worried about Nuclear and water for cooling. To keep PV or solar reflectors running efficiently, you need to pressure wash them every 10 to 20 days, based on the Californian experience. Where will all the water in the desert come from to pressure-wash over 1000 km2 of solar reflectors a couple of times a month?

    Regarding the energyscience link, I suggest you read P4TP (I keep needing to suggest this). It is all covered there and explained why these critiques of old nuclear are either not relevant to IFR or can be dealt with via a GREAT scheme.

    Why is David’s analysis wrong here? “…Solar power with storage can take up as much of the grid generation load or vehicle energy load as is desired…”

    David Mill’s statement is absolutely true. But how is it relevant if in order to achieve this you need to overbuild installed capacity between 3 to 12 times (for a justification of the latter figure, see the Trainer piece I referred you to earlier that you kindly said you’d have a go at critiquing). The number of mirrors thus required becomes staggeringly huge and even then, we need new kinds of storage. Enough solar energy falls on the Earth every 40 minutes to supply human needs at today’s levels for a year. But the fact is it’s incredibly diffuse and so spectacularly difficult to capture in sufficient quantity. That’s basic physics.

    If you make your calculations to favour nuclear power and ignore the different operating profiles of renewables then add is some imaginary technology that is yet to be developed nuclear seems to be the better option

    But I haven’t ignored the operating profiles of renewables. I’ve explicitly factored them in, as I’ve explained above and in previous comments. And as to your other point, I’ll say it again. Saying it doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.It’s been build and tested at Argonne, and components (sodium-cooled fast reactors, metal fuels) have been demonstrated worldwide. The only two things missing are commercial-scale demonstration of pyroprocessing (though BN-350 provides a reasonable demonstration that this is quite feasible), and for some support to build S-PRISM and get it certified.

    … however your claims that renewable power cannot do the job without nuclear power is not supported by the facts as I see it

    It is interesting that you now believe this. Back in 2005, you clearly didn’t:

    The main problem is ‘rising energy demand’ until we reverse this with lifestyle changes and increased efficiency there will always be a call for more generating capacity.

    Really if you install a cheap inefficient air-conditioner in your house to improve your comfort you are basically saying yes to nuclear power. If you have a 400sqm house that you have dreamed of and use only a few rooms you are saying we want more power so I can have a big house I want instead of the small one I really need. This increased demand has to be satisfied somehow. This is the danger. To support the current and rising level of energy consumption, to supply our wants, we need massive power generation capabilities which nuclear or coal power are the logical answers.

    Until we ‘power down’ we will never get rid of the Nuclear option. Renewable power cannot power our current demands. The only way renewable power will work, is for us, you and me, to reduce demand,.

    (boldface added by me) I’m curious – what information came to light that changed your mind?

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  19. Wilful wrote: “But tell me, what about tidal or geothermal, surely those numbers will be feasible before 2030 as part of the mix?

    Yes, they’ll be a contribution. Fairly optimistic estimates, such as the Greenpeace Energy [R]evolution report, suggest up to 10 TWh/year for ocean energy (wave and tidal) and 38 TWh/year for geothermal in Australia by 2050. That seems to me to be in the right ballpark, although Geothermal is hard to pick as it could be more or could yet strike some deal-breakers (due to mineralisation of the cracked rock strata, for instance). Wave energy is potentially a baseload source when based on the swell, such as the method used by CETO – the big question is scale-up potential.

    To get a handle on those cited numbers, in 2005 coal-fired power supplied 174 TWh, gas and hydro about 17 TWh each, and wind and diesel 2 TWh each.

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  20. Willful writes:…4th generation nuclear doesn’t have any objections from me, except that there’s not one working plant in the world.

    Actually there’s a breeder reactor running in Russia for many years now, albeit not metal fueled. And they had one on the shores of the Caspian Sea way back in 1972. EBR-II ran for 30 years at Argonne National Laboratory (now Idaho National Lab), the FFTF ran at Hanford for many years. The PRISM reactor, that GE could build now, is based on the EBR-II research. There are no deal breakers here except for political inertia.

    Ender writes: …Shows that the capacity factor of a solar plant that has, what he terms a 3 solar multiple, is 40% to 60%.

    Ausra, the planned solar thermal plant in California, expects a capacity factor of between 18 and 22%. The link Ender provides points to a document rife with pie in the sky figures, such as the claim that all the electricity demand the USA needs can be harvested from about 8,000 sq. mi. of CSP arrays. Yet Scientific American says it would take 30,000 square miles to provide just 69% of America’s projected 2050 needs, which by most accounts will be no more than double today’s demand. Anybody who talks about solar achieving a 40-60% capacity factor is living on another planet—one with at least 2 suns. Might I suggest a free download of an excellent book at http://www.withouthotair.com if you’d like to get beyond all the exaggerations and get to the bottom of what can really be done.

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  21. Barry #20 – “Let’s be clear. An IFR is no more or less theoretical or imaginary than a 1GW solar thermal plant (with or without heat storage). Neither have yet been built to full commercial specs”

    Solar thermal plants have been operating commercially since 1984 and the capacity of the SEGS plants is 384MW making it at least a third less imaginary. Making a 1GW solar thermal plant means joining 4 250MW plants. Plants of this size are in commercial operation and have been for years. The critical difference is that CSP plants have been built and operated commercially in real world conditions with normal operating personnel. Joining 4 proven CSPs together is lot easier that commercialising what is basically a research reactor into a fully working commercial reactor ready for mass rollout especially in the scale that you need.

    “Because the larger the mirror field, the higher the cost.”

    However in mass production this is not necessarily the case. As the components for the mirror are normal materials available off the shelf and the entire process is automated a larger amount will not be necessarily 3 times more. This is a simplistic assumption that may not be true. As the price of electricity that the plant can deliver is higher because it is despatchable the overall economics of the plant may be better even though it is overbuilt. Nuclear and coal because it is baseload can only bid into the bottom and cheapest end of the market which is why it is only economic to run them flat out 24X7. Intermediate plants like CSP can bid into the more expensive end of the market as they can supply power on demand.

    “You clearly didn’t properly read what you quoted from me. I said that that you’d overbuild your number of IFRs to the amount required to meet peaking rather than average demand.”

    First of all this is ridiculous. Sorry Barry but no-one in the power generating business would entertain this for a second. Building hugely capital intensive power plants to do peaking power does not make commercial sense. As I said you would not find an investor willing to pay up to 8 billion dollars for a plant that does work for 2 hours a day and then has to find make up work to do. You baulk at overbuilding a solar plant to raise the capacity factor however you are quite happy to overbuild baseload with 8 billion dollar nuclear plants – this does not make sense. At least the mirrors are relatively cheap.

    “The Diesendorf “BP21 Myths” piece you link to is an interesting document but grossly out of date regarding nuclear and not relevant to IFR.”

    Again you are critiquing it with technology that is not in commercial operation (I backed off from the imaginary). If IFR was in full swing generating power in commercial power stations then your critique would make sense, as it isn’t then it loses some of its validity.

    “David Mill’s statement is absolutely true. But how is it relevant if in order to achieve this you need to overbuild installed capacity between 3 to 12 times”

    Overbuilding 3 times with cheap mirrors results in a grid supply of nearly 96% which is enough as CSP is not the only energy source. In a smart grid with other renewables we could well find that 2N is quite sufficient. This will be up to the individual operators of the CSPs and what market they are selling into. One operator may be happy with 1N and sell cheaper electricity whereas another will want to bid into the higher end and need 4N. Solar thermal has this flexibilty to work with other power stations including wind and biomass.

    “It is interesting that you now believe this. Back in 2005, you clearly didn’t: ”

    I am flattered that you took the time to look up some previous comments of mine. However I am still singing the same tune. Renewables need demand management. As good as solar thermal and wind are we still need to reduce the problem first for a sustainable solution. Coal and nuclear are for people that want everything exactly as they are today without any cutbacks or change and are prepared to ignore the consequences.

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  22. Ender:

    the capacity of the SEGS plants is 384MW making it at least a third less imaginary – yes, but factor in 20% capacity and that’s a yield of 77MW. The Argonne EBR-II IFR plant yielded about 50MW (64MW rated). Same ball park I’d say :) And remember your 1GW plant is installed, not delivered, so it’s actually a 200MW plant (or thereabouts). Also, you didn’t listen to me or Blees about what has already been demonstrated with sodium-cooled breeders, such as Russia’s BN-350 – supplying the equivalent of 350MWe for 30 years (it actually supplied around half for electricity and half for desalination).

    Re: scaling cost reductions, there are a lot of inbuilt assumptions there. 3 times size might only be 2 times costs for materials, I agree, but you still need to lay out and maintain them.

    You are still not reading what I’ve been saying about peaking power. The overbuilt plants are primarily for other purposes (desal, boron reduction, plasma burners) but can be called on when needed to divert to peaking demand. They’re always running 24/7. I don’t know how else I can say it other than what I’ve explained below – I’m saying they will run 24 hours, not 2 hours. I don’t know why you keep misrepresenting me on this, and calling it ridiculous to boot. Also, your $8 billion per plant estimate for nuclear seems high. The Gen III AP-1000 and ESBWR are retailing at about $1.2-1.5 billion per GW – but more on that in the next P4TP installment.

    Most of Diesendorf’s myth’s are also irrelevant to Gen III+ reactors, or at least a Gen III moving to Gen IV development schedule. The argument that ‘it’s not ready and therefore not an option’ can be used just as readily for wave power, geothermal, solar with thermal storage, wind with compressed air storage – but that would be silly as ongoing R&D and commercial demonstration MUST go hand in hand with sensibly scheduled layout.

    Re: overbuilding requirements for renewables, I agree a diversified supply makes things more management. But not greatly so. I look forward to your critique of Ted Trainer’s calculations on this matter.

    Re: looking up your past words – I do my homework :) My disagreement with you here is that nuclear+EE+renewables is the solution required to fully fix climate change. Your mischaracterisation of me as being “prepared to ignore the consequences” suggests to me that you are (a) willing to misrepresent my stance of climate change and (b) unwilling to change your stance on nuclear no matter what evidence is offered. That’s your choice, but I suspect it will not be the path taken by most who seek real, complete solutions to our manifold sustainability problems.

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  23. Ender, you are clearly in serious denial. With Ausra and Nevada Solar One costing roughly $14 and $17.5 billion USD/GW, you keep saying that mirrors are cheap and you can overbuild three times over and still produce power cheaply. You also maintain that “Nuclear and coal because it is baseload can only bid into the bottom and cheapest end of the market which is why it is only economic to run them flat out 24X7. Intermediate plants like CSP can bid into the more expensive end of the market as they can supply power on demand.” That is the reverse of what is the case. Nuclear can supply power any time, while solar can supply it when the sun shines. Want to overbuild your solar so that it can store the heat for non-sunny times? Drop your capacity factor, then, to compensate for the conversion loss. You’d be lucky to get an 18% capacity factor in that case, so bump your price/GW accordingly, say to around $15-20 billion/GW. Then take the pace they built Solar One and speed it up to build a 5.5 year project in one day. Build them every single day like that until 2050 and you’ll be 2/3 of the way to supplying the electricity that the US needs. And while you’re doing that, see if you can find the time to argue the case that solar can supply all our needs, and cheaply at that.

    I know you probably won’t go near MacKay’s book I linked to in my previous post, Ender, but if anybody else has their head spinning after all the posts about costs and capacity factors, I urge them to go download it and read it. Facts trump fantasy.

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  24. Tom – “Ausra, the planned solar thermal plant in California, expects a capacity factor of between 18 and 22%”

    Thermal storage and multiplying the solar arrays so that extra energy is stored to be released when the sun is not shining raises the capacity factor. Also as noted by Mark and David is the fact that solar’s 18 to 20% capacity factor is very often exactly when the energy is needed. Nuclear’s 90% capacity factor includes at least 50% when then demand is just not there except for devices that have been developed to take advantage of cheap off peak power. Eliminating the demand for off peak eliminates the advantage of baseload.

    “Anybody who talks about solar achieving a 40-60% capacity factor is living on another planet—one with at least 2 suns. Might I suggest a free download of an excellent book at http://www.withouthotair.com if you’d like to get beyond all the exaggerations and get to the bottom of what can really be done.”

    With respect anyone that bases an entire energy future on a technology that is really not out of the lab should perhaps take a look at the same book. Perhaps you can ask Dr David Mills about his modelling and then show where he is exaggerating.

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  25. Ender: With respect anyone that bases an entire energy future on a technology

    But Blees never said this (i.e. that it must be all IFR and nothing else) – you are using the same straw man on him as you did with me, presumably because your unmoveable position is to have a mix that excludes nuclear. Blees, like me, says that renewables and energy efficiency will have a share – the extent of which will ultimately be determined by their relative capacity and attractiveness as a zero-carbon option compared to IFR. Read the book and understand what he actually says, don’t try to second guess and get it wrong.

    Regarding Mills – as I said, he’s not exaggerating, he’s reporting correct numbers. It’s just those numbers get incredibly large as you scale up – amply illustrated in the comments above.

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  26. Barry – “Also, you didn’t listen to me or Blees about what has already been demonstrated with sodium-cooled breeders, such as Russia’s BN-350 – supplying the equivalent of 350MWe for 30 years (it actually supplied around half for electricity and half for desalination).”

    Are any reactors of this type currently in the planning stage, or even pre-construction phase? Demonstration is one thing actually operating the reactors is quite another.

    “You are still not reading what I’ve been saying about peaking power. The overbuilt plants are primarily for other purposes (desal, boron reduction, plasma burners) but can be called on when needed to divert to peaking demand.”

    Barry with respect have you talked to people in the electricity generating business about this? I am pretty sure that they will shoot it down better than I can. Even France has not taken this route even though they could. In an isolated market like Australia this simply would not work. France has an oversupply of nuclear baseload that is only workable because they have the wider market of Europe to sell electricity to and then import peaking power from Sweden and Denmark when the wind is strong. The practicalities of finding investors to build large capital intensive plants to do jobs like desal that is unlikely to return the cost of the plant or a speculative notions like plasma torches or boron reduction would be prohibative. Just the control network to switch from one to another would be a challenge. You would be far better just to spend the money for one or two plants on NAS batteries to do peaking power and not overbuild in the way you suggest. Even without overbuilding, as in the current electricity network, there is plenty of oversupply at off peak times, more than enough to desal etc. The fact that off-peak rates even exist means that there is more than enough baseload already.

    :My disagreement with you here is that nuclear+EE+renewables is the solution required to fully fix climate change. Your mischaracterisation of me as being “prepared to ignore the consequences” suggests to me that you are (a) willing to misrepresent my stance of climate change and (b) unwilling to change your stance on nuclear no matter what evidence is offered. That’s your choice, but I suspect it will not be the path taken by most who seek real, complete solutions to our manifold sustainability problems.:

    I am sorry you misunderstood me here. I was not directing the comment to you personally as I understand you understand the consequences of climate change and admire you for that as is the reason I read this blog. No insult was meant and I am upset that you took offence from my carelessly written words. I did not lump you in with the climate change deniers that want fossil fuels no matter what however you are ignoring several problems with nuclear power that I find important. Again I find it sad that you think that to be serious about climate change you must embrace nuclear power and again you seem pretty fixed in this idea no matter what information on renewables from qualified people is presented to you. Also the people that present solutions with renewables are not just theory people but are actually in the business of building solar plants and have invented some of the technology involved.

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  27. No worries Ender.

    Are any reactors of this type currently in the planning stage, or even pre-construction phase?

    Yes. The BN-600 has been operating since 1981 and delivers 560 MWe to the grid. See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BN-600_reactor

    The BN-800 is currently under construction. Details here: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf08.html

    To quote from the above link:
    The Russian BN-600 fast breeder reactor has been supplying electricity to the grid since 1981 and has the best operating and production record of all Russia’s nuclear power units. It uses uranium oxide fuel and the sodium coolant delivers 550°C at little more than atmospheric pressure. The BN 350 FBR operated in Kazakhstan for 27 years and about half of its output was used for water desalination. Russia plans to reconfigure the BN-600 to burn the plutonium from its military stockpiles.

    Construction has started at Beloyarsk on the first BN-800, a new larger (880 MWe) FBR from OKBM with improved features including fuel flexibility – U+Pu nitride, MOX, or metal, and with breeding ratio up to 1.3. It has much enhanced safety and improved economy – operating cost is expected to be only 15% more than VVER. It is capable of burning 2 tonnes of plutonium per year from dismantled weapons and will test the recycling of minor actinides in the fuel.

    You say:
    a speculative notions like plasma torches or boron reduction

    Plasma converters are not speculative – they’re already being rolled out. See post above. Boron cars are, but based on sound design principles that need more R&D. But do you have a better solution for zero-carbon vehicular transport? It is certainly worth some serious investment. But if you think electric cars will do fine, we can use the extra power for those instead.

    however you are ignoring several problems with nuclear power that I find important

    What were they again, other than IFR is not proven at every level and therefore should not be pursued?

    Anyway, thanks for your ongoing feedback — you’ve prompted me to do another brief post which sketches my vision a little better, so bear with me for a few hours if you are online now and reply to the next thread (if you wish).

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  28. It is great to see such a passionate debate taking place and I must say that I am a little envious (this is apparently a sin)that we get such a quality debate about the mix if possible winning technologies. I am always hoping for an equally passionate debate about getting the market framework right to drive our economy to implementing low emissions technologies at the scale needed. The mechanism of the CPRS in its compromised White Paper form and the related firm target at 5% reductions by 2020 gives no hope of such change at the scale we require in my view.

    I would just like to add my voice to consider technologies that are suited to southern Australia’s growing water scarcity.

    Wind is doing well to show what can be achieved even with the small driver created by the few percent MRET of 9500 GWh/year established by the Howard Government. Wind generation does not require water. Wind still has great potental for growth at around 30% output.

    In South Australia my understanding is that wind generation already provides close to 20% of the State’s needs (acknowledging firming up by other grid sources such as coal , gas , interlinks and yes, other wind farms). Whether the grid management limits are reached at 25%, 30%, 35%, 40% renewables or more may only become known for sure when we hit the limits.

    Wave and tidal power are also well suited to Southern Australia and don’t reqire water (other than the ocean). Any rollout of generation from this resource is also not daylight dependent and can increase the renewables ceiling.

    Solar thermal convection towers do not require water in operation and my understanding is that they would keep producing some power overnight, helping to match the typical daily load variation and again, helping to increase the renewables ceiling.

    Hot rocks is dependent on managing water and trying to keep a closed loop for a number of reasons, yet this too could increase the renewables ceiling.

    Solar PV has its place and also does not require water in operation. I just wish we could have good quality re-buildable and serviceable batteries for small scale generation units to prevent waste and expensive 5 yearly (or so) battery changeover.

    I am not ready to participate in the debate as to whether nuclear power is, or is not needed but do suggest that in Australia we are nowhere close to what can be achieved with energy efficiency and renewable energy and this can be rolled out over the next 5-10 years starting as soon as the new MRET 45,000 GWh target (35,500 GWh increase)can become law and as soon as the voluntary market mechanisms are confirmed to drive an additional voluntary boost above MRET.

    The work on advances to nuclear technology and safety will continue during this time.

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  29. Barry – “Anyway, thanks for your ongoing feedback — you’ve prompted me to do another brief post which sketches my vision a little better, so bear with me for a few hours if you are online now and reply to the next thread (if you wish).”

    Thank you for the discussion. I will I guess participate as I have a few other avenues to explore along the lines of if the IFR concept tanks.

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  30. Tom – “Ender, you are clearly in serious denial. With Ausra and Nevada Solar One costing roughly $14 and $17.5 billion USD/GW, you keep saying that mirrors are cheap and you can overbuild three times over and still produce power cheaply.”

    Again I can make nuclear look just as bad. As you have no real idea of an operational IFR’s capacity factor lets say at the start of the learning curve the IFR has a capacity factor of 60% so the 8 or 12 billion cost of it is for a 600MW plant. Therefore the cost would be 13 or 20 billion/GW.

    The initial cost for the first plant will always be higher than for the mature technology. Ausra’s mirrors will drop in price with mass production whereas the very specialised components for nuclear power plants will be very slow to drop in price due to very strong demand from your agressive rollout. Perhaps you are in denial about the very real supply shortage of nuclear components along with skyrocketing prices.
    http://blogs.wsj.com/environmentalcapital/2008/05/12/its-the-economics-stupid-nuclear-powers-bogeyman/

    This if course was before the economic crash however now the problem would be the cost and availability of money.

    “That is the reverse of what is the case. Nuclear can supply power any time, while solar can supply it when the sun shines. Want to overbuild your solar so that it can store the heat for non-sunny times? Drop your capacity factor, then, to compensate for the conversion loss. You’d be lucky to get an 18% capacity factor in that case, so bump your price/GW accordingly, say to around $15-20 billion/GW. Then take the pace they built Solar One and speed it up to build a 5.5 year project in one day. Build them every single day like that until 2050 and you’ll be 2/3 of the way to supplying the electricity that the US needs. And while you’re doing that, see if you can find the time to argue the case that solar can supply all our needs, and cheaply at that.”

    So can a nuclear power plant supply power when it is refuelling? How about when the cooling water gets too hot? The point is that there is no solution that is 100% available.

    I think that you should take the 18% capacity factor thing with storage up with Dr Mills. He is building a business around the contrary. You really need to show where his modelling is faulty rather than making glib statements.

    I have never argued that solar can do it on its own. All through all my comments the common theme is that it will take all different forms of interconnected types of renewables along with deep efficiency cuts in demand to make a renewable grid work. The rollout scenerio of renewable plants is no more fanciful that your required rollout of nuclear power, not even yet in commercial production, given the documented shortages of materials and personnel.

    Also it is not true that I am against all forms of nuclear. I could support the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). It is completely proliferation proof and would earn its keep solely eating the thousands of tons of nuclear waste. As it is a high temperature reactor it uses a gas turbine so it can interact with a renewable smart grid with automatic controls and would not saddle us with more inflexible baseload.

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  31. Ender: Thermal storage and multiplying the solar arrays so that extra energy is stored to be released when the sun is not shining raises the capacity factor.

    Sorry, that kind of bogus reasoning won’t fly. Capacity factor isn’t about how many hours of output you get, it’s about how many kilowatt-hours of output you get. You don’t increase the capacity factor of a power plant by storing the energy somewhere for a while. You actually decrease it that way because you’re burning up some of your kWh in the storage and conversion process. So you’ve got a solar system rated at 64 MW, for example. It puts out 64MW when the sun is shining brightly and directly on it with no cloud cover. That’s going to be for a few hours a day at most. For most of the rest of the day it’s putting out considerably less than 64MW, and of course at night it’s putting out none. So you figure out how many kWh (or MWh, if you prefer) were produced in that 24-hour period and compare it to how many kWh could be produced if it was putting out 64MW constantly for 24 hours. That gives you your capacity factor (same for wind or anything else). How you USE that energy is an entirely different issue. If you store it, though, you lose some of it, effectively diminishing your capacity factor. Of course every day isn’t the same, the capacity factor will be higher in summer, so you look at a year-long figure to really get the story (like the 23% for Nevada Solar One).

    Similarly you’ll look at capacity factors for nuclear plants: how many kWh can they produce in a year relative to their rated capacity. For a nuclear plant that mostly has to do with how much time it can spend online, versus being offline for maintenance or refueling. That’s why nuclear plants have such a high capacity factor. If you decide not to use the electricity and just idle the plant, that’s not a reflection on its capacity, but on your planning (or lack thereof). It’s like the situation in Denmark with their vaunted wind power projects. They produce a lot of their wind at night, when nobody needs the power. So they have to sell it at a steep discount to their neighbors, and during the day the Danes have to rely on their coal plants, which supply most of their power. If storage was as easy and efficient as you imply, how come the Danes never employed it?

    Another example of this excess power situation is France’s overcapacity. At night they sell electricity at a discount to Switzerland. The Swiss use it to pump water from below dams back up into the reservoirs. Then they sell electricity to the Italians the next day at a higher price. Ah, those Swiss! The consummate middlemen.

    I think there’s perhaps another reason why wind and solar advocates are so dead-set against nuclear power. Imagine if we got to the point where wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear provided virtually all our electricity, and we’ve managed to convert our space heating from gas to electric. This is, after all, where we’re aiming with the abandonment of fossil fuels. It’s November and the reservoirs are low, keeping hydro’s contribution to a minimum. A high pressure system moves in from the Arctic [this being a USA/Canada scenario] and brings both a cold snap and still air for a week. The windmills are idle, the sun already low enough in the sky that the solar panels are putting out 15% or less (Sacramento’s PV array averaged 15% for the year). Where do we get our power? In order to not have the lights going out and people shivering or freezing, we’d have to have sufficient nuclear capacity to provide nearly all the electricity that’s needed.

    Now of course that wouldn’t be a problem if we just had enough reactors built. Everything could perk along like normal. But if we have that much nuclear capacity built into the system-which we would have to have-then when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing and the reservoirs are full to bursting, that means that we’d just have to throttle back our nuclear plants to allow all the renewables to provide what they can. But what’s the point of that? If we have enough nuclear power capacity to provide everything we need, and the fuel is virtually free and unlimited (as it would be with IFRs), and the plants can run 24/7, what’s the point of all the expense and grid juggling necessary with the wind and solar component in the mix?

    With such an unlimited source of energy, we wouldn’t need wind and solar power. They would be simply an expensive redundancy. I’ve never seen anybody state this in so many words, and wind & solar advocates probably wouldn’t ever admit it to themselves even in their most private moments, but if you look at France it becomes pretty obvious. I don’t believe France has much in the way of wind and solar development, do they? Meanwhile, Germany has been pouring money into wind and solar like nobody’s business, yet buys nuclear-produced electricity from France and is planning to build a dozen coal-fired plants even as they prepare to shut down their nuclear plants. Kind of tells the tale in microcosm.

    Is this the truth that dare not speak its name? Is this why there’s so much sturm und drang about even building one single PRISM reactor to demonstrate its cost, time to build, and practicality?

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  32. Ender: France has an oversupply of nuclear baseload that is only workable because they have the wider market of Europe to sell electricity to and then import peaking power from Sweden and Denmark when the wind is strong.

    France doesn’t have to import power from Sweden or Denmark. France has overbuilt their nuclear capacity by about 22%. They have more than enough for peak times. Electricity is their 4th largest export (ironically, much of it to rabidly antinuclear Germany). If nuclear power is so prohibitively expensive, it’s odd that they’d have built so much excess into their system. As it turns out, France is probably the only country that would be ready to adopt electric cars en masse if technology breakthroughs in batteries/capacitors come to pass. Could it be that the French are just crazy? Don’t they have any economists over there to reveal that they’re losing money hand over fist with their silly nuclear power systems? Or could it be that those who argue against nuclear power based on economic arguments are wrong? Hmm. I guess the French are just crazy.

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  33. Ender: Again I can make nuclear look just as bad. As you have no real idea of an operational IFR’s capacity factor lets say at the start of the learning curve the IFR has a capacity factor of 60% so the 8 or 12 billion cost of it is for a 600MW plant. Therefore the cost would be 13 or 20 billion/GW.

    The difference between this completely baseless argument and my figures for Ausra and Nevada Solar One is that I use their own figures to calculate their costs, whereas you are pulling all your numbers out of the air (or some darker place). With this last straw man I believe I have come to the end with Ender.

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  34. Barry and Edner: Regarding the debate about whether IFR are currently more theoretical than renewables like CSP:

    The 2002 Technology Roadmap for Generation IV Nuclear energy systems http://gif.inel.gov/roadmap/ gives the following yet-to-be-met requirements for Sodium Cooled Fast Reactors:

    (1)- Confirm the reliability of the passive feedback from heatup of rector structures and establish the long term coolability of oxide metal fuel debris after a bounding case accident. The technology gaps is stated to be -ensuring of passive safe response to all design basis initiators, including anticipated transients.

    (2) Proof by test of the ability of the reactor to accommodate bounding events.

    (3)- Pyroprocessing has been under development since the inception of the IFR program. Pyroprocessing of plutonium and actinides remains at laboratory scale. The technology gaps is stated to be the -scale-up of the pyroprocess with demonstration of high minor actinide recovery.

    (4) The acquisition of irradiation performance data for fuels fabricated with the new fuel cycle technologies.

    (5) Development of oxide fuel fabrication technology with remote operation and maintenance.

    (6) Sealed systems make monitoring a challenge. Yet embitterment (due to extreme radiation requires rigorous monitoring. An important SFR reactor technology gaps are in-service inspection and repair (in sodium).

    (5) Capital cost reduction: A key performance issue for the SFR is cost reduction to competitive levels. The extent of the technology base for SFRs is noted …yet none of the SFRs constructed to date have been economical to build or operate. (However, design studies have been done, some of them very extensively, in which proponents conclude that both overnight cost and busbar cost can be comparable to or lower than those of the advanced LWRs.) [Similarly optimistic design studies show that PV will soon be US$1/Watt- cheaper than coal fired power] http://www.heliotronics.com/papers/PV_Breakeven.pdf

    Which of these technology gaps are relevant still? In addition isthe concept for capturing/storing radio active gas as suggested by Blees, well developed and cost effective? Or still limited by cost or technological gaps?

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  35. Tom Blees @34,

    “The French nuclear industry’s good reputation also relies on the manipulation of economic reality. A comparison between France’s economic development over the last 40 years and that of comparable countries that have made different energy choices reveals no competitive advantage that can be attributed to nuclear power. On the contrary, it seems incapable of protecting the balance of payments. Indeed, in 2006-07 France’s energy bill saw levels of deficit comparable to those of the first and second oil crises, before the present nuclear fleet came into service.

    Nuclear power’s contribution is not zero : in 2007 it is estimated to have ‘saved’ gas imports worth up to €10.7 billion. But demand for hydrocarbons has not fallen, and the energy bill reached €44.8 billion in 2007, leading to a balance of payments deficit of €39.2 billion. Conversely, the supposed financial benefits attributed to massive exports of electricity (actually a way of disposing of the French nuclear fleet’s excess capacity) have never exceeded €3.5 billion a year and are falling markedly : base-load exports are dropping while peak-rate imports, at much higher tariffs, are increasing. Electricity price comparisons do not support the French authorities’ claim that French prices are the lowest in Europe thanks to nuclear power, even if overall they do appear to be low. Moreover, the comparison is skewed by some important factors. For example, France’s high ranking is in part due to the fact that it maintains a dominant regulated market, whose rules as regards the passing on of real costs are set by the state, which is both the regulator and the principal shareholder of EDF. Furthermore, while French households enjoy attractive tariffs, they also, as a result of the policy of promoting electricity, consume on average twice as much electricity per dwelling as the European norm (used for price comparisons).

    What is more, it is known that the official reports, with very few exceptions, have systematically underestimated the real costs of nuclear power compared with the alternatives, and continue to do so – sometimes hiding behind commercial confidentiality. When EDF presented its EPR reactor project to the public debate in 2005, it had to justify the fact that its own cost estimate appeared to be 44% higher than the estimate presented by the Government in 2003 in order to include the programme in energy planning legislation. EPR’s costs – both those of EDF’s French project and those of the plant being built in Finland by Areva – have risen continually since the outset. The most recent estimates in mid-2008 were respectively €3.4 billion (for a reactor announced at €3 billion) and €5 billion (for a reactor sold at €3.3 billion).

    Current discussions on the cost of reactors should not draw attention from the hidden associated costs. These of course include all the costs associated with the fuel cycle and with decommissioning, which are subject to the same distortion in the official estimates. For example, the assumed costs of reprocessing are set not at the actual level but at half that level, explicitly in order to ensure parity with the cost of the non-reprocessing option. Structural costs, although their extent is hard to establish, must also be taken into account. For example, they include the additional electricity network infrastructure costs associated with the highly centralised nature of nuclear generation, and the costs of inspection and security.”

    http://www.global-chance.org/spip.php?article89

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  36. Barry #20: There is a note on the BN-350’s use:

    https://www.iaea.org/inisnkm/nkm/aws/htgr/fulltext/29067742.pdf

    and it was only desalinating up to 14000 m3/day (14 ML/day = 5 GL/year).

    Just to put this number in perspective, Adelaide (population 1.1m) is building a 50 GL/year desalination plant for about $1.4 billion (cost still rubbery). The Australian dairy industry was pulling about 4,200 GL/year out of the Murray Darling Basin back in 2000 (see page 73 in:

    http://www.clw.csiro.au/publications/consultancy/2004/MDBC_stage2_report.pdf)

    So I’m thinking that P4TP rather oversold the application of nuclear for desalination. It will have some applications, but would need a lot of improvements to assist in preventing the big water wars of the future, which will probably be over agricultural water.

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  37. Geoff #39: Not so sure it’s that pessimistic. BN-350 was diverting about half of its average electrical energy to desal – around 150MW. From this it got 5 GL/y. So you need roughly a 1500MW power station to churn out about 50 GL/y (that’s a standard size of a coal-fired unit or nuclear ESBWR or other Gen III+ type).

    It simply boils down to an energy issue (pardon the pun) – desal uses a comparative lot of energy (more for salty or heavily polluted vs storm water), whether it comes from nuclear, solar, wind or coal/gas. If you’ve got the overbuilt capacity for other reasons, it can be pretty cheap. If you overbuild the capacity specifically for desal, then it’s more expensive. But neither am I arguing with you that 4,200 GL/y of river water for irrigated pasture is not a good example of a gross representation of water mismangement, and we could do a lot better in a whole heap of areas with sensible allocations! But desal will probably be a necessary backup under climate change.

    Will get to some of the other points above when I have a little more time.

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  38. The BN-350 was running in 1972. There have been considerable advances since then in desalination technology, but as Barry pointed out even at the rate it’s still reasonable, all the more so with the new tech. Here’s the bottom line: glaciers upon which billions depend for water are fast receding. Population is increasing dramatically. We are going to need to have massive desalination as these two realities collide. For that we need similarly massive amounts of energy, from whatever source. Where will it come from? Nuclear power, specifically fast reactors, can provide virtually unlimited energy with fuel already out of the ground, as long as we build them. No reason to worry about running out of uranium, or the environmental consequences of mining and enriching uranium. Find a better answer and I’ll be your biggest cheerleader. I don’t see ANY other solution to fend off water wars.

    In regard to the comments about the French, it should be noted that their power plants and their system of reprocessing are much different than the fast reactors and pyroprocessing advocated in P4TP. MOX reprocessing doesn’t come close to utilizing all the energy in uranium, and is more problematic and expensive on a number of levels, yet AREVA still is making money on it. And the argument that France’s oil consumption has anything at all to do with their nuclear power program escapes me. They use oil for running their cars, not for generating electricity. If the French drive more than other Europeans, that has nothing to do with their electricity generation. Once we get some breakthroughs on batteries for electric cars, you’ll see France jump into it before any other country because they have the excess electrical capacity to do it.

    And why all the nitpicking about France? Is this all to somehow attempt to prove that nuclear power is really not feasible on an economic basis? Don’t you think the French would have realized this by now if that were the case? Instead, they’re already planning their next round of nuclear plant building to replace the current fleet as its reactors reach the end of their service lives. Those who want to argue strenuously against nuclear power have trouble with France, and in order to dismiss them the arguments usually end up resorting to “Oh, those Frenchmen keep everything hidden to cover up the fact that they’re losing money on their nuclear power system.” Well, actions speak louder than words. I think their system could be far better once they switch to fast reactors and pyroprocessing, but that’ll come.

    What if the French ARE actually paying more for their electricity than their policies would lead one to believe? What options would you suggest for them to abandon their use of nuclear power? Build coal plants? Gas? Go whole hog into solar and wind like Germany? Germany’s going to build a dozen coal plants because they haven’t been able to come close to supplying their needs with renewables. Even if (contrary to appearances) France is paying more for electricity, I applaud them for their sacrifice since they are contributing far less to GHGs than their neighbors, and actually helping reduce their neighbors’ emissions by selling them nuclear-generated electricity (including to Germany).

    This notion that overbuilding is some sort of fault is crazy too. Since electrical demand is necessarily variable, we’re always going to have to overbuild to meet peak demands. Wind can’t be depended on for that, it often produces more at night when you don’t need it. Solar’s production hours correspond more closely to peak demands, yet in the summer demand peaks as people get home from work (from about 5-8 PM), when the sun is lower in the sky, so unless you store energy (with the attendant power loss) you still need to get power from elsewhere. Daylight savings time helps in this regard, of course. Maybe if we bumped it to three hours instead of one you’d get a better synch with solar power.

    We need to get away from fossil fuels. If wind and solar (and other undeveloped technologies perhaps yet to come into their own) can supply everything we need, I sure haven’t seen any convincing evidence of it. Quite the contrary. You can cite all the studies you want projecting what can supposedly be done, but look at what HAS been done, how much it’s cost, how long it takes to build, and project out how much we’d have to build, and how fast, to provide all the energy we need (don’t forget massive desalination!). Look at the glaring lack of demonstrated storage systems. Why haven’t the Danes developed them? They’ve had a head start of decades and continue to sell off-peak power for a song instead of storing it (and continue to burn coal like crazy).

    Sunlight is diffuse and time-limited and seasonal, and there’s no way around those facts. Wind is fickle (and likewise diffuse), and there’s no way around that. If you’re going to get away from fossil fuels in any way but resorting to very large pies in the sky, nuclear power can provide all you need. Instead of fighting it, why not look to the very safest, standardized, factory-built modular designs and urge the nations of the world to deploy them? This is no time for ideology.

    As for the points regarding development of fast reactors made above, several of them are referring to oxide fuel, which is not the type of fuel used in the PRISM. The argument that pyroprocessing has only been done on a lab scale is only because the government shut down the program as they were ready to pull the trigger on a commercial-scale demonstration. Realize that this is a small batch process not at all unlike lab-scale recycling which was done repeatedly and successfully. A 1 GW fast reactor’s recycling facility would have to process about a few liters (solid, of course) per day of spent fuel. We’re not talking about some sort of massive manufacturing process here. Nor is the process one that any reasonable person who understands it would assume to hold deal breaking problems in scaling it up. It’s a very simple and time-proven electrorefining process.

    The “embitterment” mentioned above I assume refers to “embrittlement” (from the context), presumably of the containment vessel. The EBR-II ran for thirty years and was still in great shape. Eventually the vessel would have to be replaced, but it’s a virtual certainty that it would be plenty good for 50-60 years based on extensive past experience with reactors of all types (neutrons are neutrons). Besides, outside the containment there’s a full-scale backup vessel. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already reviewed extensive safety aspects of the PRISM reactor and sees no problem here.

    Cost arguments? Build one 360MW PRISM reactor. Then let’s talk. I’m taking bets.

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  39. Tom #41: Your book has changed me from an antie to a proie. I have reservations about nuclear in Australia because the main way we pay for imports is to sell more coal, beef and aluminium (coal fired). i.e., so we could increase global emissions while decreasing local emissions. But assuming that can issue can be solved, my objections to nuclear have subsided into an uneasy feeling in the back of my gut, but without any substance!

    My point about desal is that producing water for running cities is an order of magnitude smaller problem than producing water for growing food. The latter is also harder because the area of need is less concentrated. You not only have to desalinate but pump. My answer is to change the food. The current growth in meat (particularly beef) and dairy in China will accentuate their water problems and make the 40% reduction in anthropogenic methane called for by Hansen back in 2004 tough to achieve. Hansen has repeatedly said that
    CO2 control is necessary but not sufficient for avoiding runaway climate change — assuming this is still possible. Other forcings need to be reduced also. The cessation of coal burning will wipe out a large negative forcing as well as a positive forcing. The fossil fuel with the biggest short term net forcing is actually natural gas, not coal. So a rapid phase out of coal without concomitant control of methane and NOx could throw us out of the frying pan into the fire. As you Americans would say — we need to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. The concentration on CO2 is understandable but insufficient for dealing with climate change.

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  40. Geoff, don’t worry, that uneasy feeling in the back of your gut will subside as you learn more about IFRs. You’re right about desal being way more serious when it comes to water for agriculture. Nevertheless, coincident with better ag practices (and, one would hope, less meat eating) we could build plenty of IFRs for meeting peak power needs plus city water needs. Then when peak power isn’t needed we could be using them for desal, adding to the supply for ag needs. What’s crucial to remember is that there are no real limits on the fuel supply. As long as we build them, we can fuel them, and we don’t even have to mine uranium. If you design them to do desal when they’re not being used for electricity demand (and this can be done) then you’ll be able to run them productively 24/7. When you end up with too much fresh water, give me a call and I’ll come down and drink the excess.

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  41. Tom, thank you for your detailed response to my query,
    You raise a lot of interesting points, (and I believe Barry has done a good job of passing on other points you raise in your book). Let me say that I am open to the possibility of all the positive claims about IFRs being true. Though I am also open to the possibility of some of them being not quite everything claimed. If there is a gap between the optimistic hope and realities, then depending where that gap lies, I am open to the possibility of either:

    1) IFR making renewables redundant in the near future.

    2) IFR filling a niche where renewable are insufficient.

    3) IFR still having a valuable role in reducing plutonium stockpiles and producing low carbon power.

    4) IFR having a cost effective role, but due to proliferation concerns is limited to the nuclear club or similar (in effect establishing a perverse energy apartheid).

    5) IFR being a costly drain like some other nuclear power, where a dollar spent on such LWR represents a lost opportunity to have greater (carbon abatement) effect deploying other strategies/applications.

    6) Or some other possibility.

    I’ve been questioning Barry quite a bit on IFRs as the current claims sound too good to be true, and there is also the unfortunate history of previous claims by nuclear proponents that have been dangerously far from the truth. Yet there seem to be a good number of points on which Barry and I apparently agree. I believe we agree:

    1) That renewables cannot not provide energy for a continually growing economy, and that (without further break through) it is unlikely that renewables will meet the fantastic global energy projections set by the IEA for 2050 (I think IEA projects a tripling of energy deman).

    2) That the energy blueprint scenarios provide a credible ball park figures for the capacity of renewables to 2050 (based on current technology, except for an assumption about some as yet uncommercialised geothermal power) http://www.energyblueprint.info/

    (From memory the energy blueprint scenarios suggest that renewables [and efficiency] can deliver 40% carbon cuts by 2020 and enable the complete transition away from coal by 2030 (base on IEA energy demand projections).
    But if we are to follow the endless growth assumptions beyond 2050 then renewables will begin to run out of viable options (timing will change if technology improves between now and 2050). So if we want to pursue that growth paradigm a new energy system is part of that.

    Yet I’m confident we agree that energy is not the only constraint to continual growth. Our current footprint is heavy and already unsustainable in many ways, with extinction running at between 100 and 1000 times higher than background extinction levels.

    Thus I am sceptical that IEA projections will be close to the real energy demand by 2050. I am fearful we will be already facing severe and abrupt population contraction. This will fall heaviest on the least responsible, those in less wealthy nations who have long been exploited, occupied, had there democracies undermined and were historically enslaved.

    It is in this context that I bring a sharp eye to the issue of nuclear proliferation. If we follow our current trajectory we can already foresee tremendous injustice. We can foresee continuing asymmetry of power, and thus desperate (extreme) responses.

    But I’ll first address some points raised in the recent exchange @36 and @41:
    1) Am I to assume that the closing of the IFR program has meant that the technology gap (referred to in posting 36) has not been solved since the 2002 report? But also that you believe that the pyroprocessing technology gap is not a major obstacle?

    2) Regarding your comments on embrittlement @41, I’m not sure, are you implying that you are not aware of a solution to technology gap on sealed systems in-service inspection and repair (in sodium)? And that you think this is not a problem?

    3) Re your comments about oxide fuel not applying to IFR, I assume this makes item (5) @38 irrelevant.

    4) Does this leave items 1 though 4 and 6 and 7 (@38) as continuing technology gaps to date, as well as the radioactive gas capture/storage?

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  42. Mark,

    I appreciate your concerns and I hope you understand that I usually simply don’t have the time to answer every one of the numerous points in each post. The ones that are pretty well dealt with in my book I usually tend to skip over unless I have lots of time, which is almost never. That said, let me just try to briefly respond to your four points above:

    1) For starters please realize that sometimes the people who put these reports together don’t have the full picture, as much as one would hope they would. I worked directly with the people who conceptualized, designed, built, and operated the IFR system. I’ve had ample corroboration of their statements which has led me to the conclusion that there are plenty of reports out there purporting to be authoritative that are anything but. The report you cite above is from the Dept. of Energy, the same DOE that, after the IFR project was killed in Congress in 1994, ordered the scientists who worked on it to NOT publicize it. Thus their supposedly definitive report talks about how this technology is going to be worked out in 2030 or whenever. In fact the IFR team was ready to demonstrate commercial-scale reprocessing in 1994 when they pulled the plug.

    The IFR team fabricated thousands of fuel slugs using pyroprocessing and ran them through the EBR-II reactor at least five times to prove the concept. There are no substantial R&D obstacles to overcome. Please understand that the DOE has, in recent history, been a pro-fossil fuel organization. Why would they squelch a technology that virtually promised to put coal (and ultimately oil and gas) out of business? Am I charging conspiracy? No, not exactly. But why else spend billions on the biggest energy research project in history and then actively cover it up after its stunning success?

    The fact is that GE-Hitachi could start building a PRISM reactor immediately if they got the go-ahead to do so from the Obama administration. Building a commercial-scale recycling facility to complement it could also be accomplished in short order. This is what I’m pouring all my energy into making happen. I believe we have a good chance to see it happen considering the people that Obama has appointed in two crucial positions.

    2) Stainless steel of the type that will be used for the containment vessel (remember, it’s non-pressurized) has been used in reactors for many decades. Yes, the neutron bombardment does make it brittle in time, but as I said this is not considered to be compromising during the normal lifetime of the plant, and there is a second vat surrounding the first. The gap between the two can be constantly monitored for any hint of leakage. One thing about sodium is that it has essentially no corrosive effect whatsoever on stainless steel (contrary to what some say). In fact, after thirty years in hot sodium the welders’ marks were still visible in the EBR-II’s tank and heat exchanger loop.

    3) The PRISM uses metal fuel, not oxide, so a couple of your points were indeed irrelevant with respect to the PRISM. Metal fuel is one of the core advantages of the PRISM system for a number of reasons that you can read about in P4TP.

    4) I can’t vouch for every single type of test that is referred to somewhat imprecisely in your other points (not your fault, but theirs) has been run, but I know at least some of them have and that the data is already available. As for radioactive gas, I didn’t write about that in my book, as I recall. The main 3 of note are usually iodine, xenon, and krypton. You can read about how those can be dealt with here. You’ll also find my responses to several other points raised by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    The DOE has had an ax to grind for years. Hopefully under the very capable Dr. Steven Chu, it will now take a more objective approach to energy issues. I have high hopes for that. Unlike the DOE, I have no particular ax to grind. I’m not involved financially or otherwise with either the nuclear or the fossil fuel industries, or any other industry or special interest group. I simply found out about IFRs and spent years digging out the truth about them because my initial suspicion was that they might provide the key to extricating ourselves from our energy dilemma. Nothing I’ve found out in the intervening years has led me to doubt that. Quite the contrary. I was never a pro-nuclear guy, always considered myself an environmentalist (and still do). It feels odd to be castigated for being pro-nuclear, when I’d be the first to admit the shortcomings of the current generation of reactor technology. I’ve even been accused of being a shill for the utility companies when in my book I advocate a plan that would drive them out of the nuclear power business altogether. It’s really laughable. I can assure you that many, many top-notch physicists and engineers take the IFR very seriously. It’s not pie in the sky, and it’s not going to take a decade or more to get them up and running unless we dither unconscionably. I’ll do my utmost to see that that doesn’t happen.

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  43. Tom #44: Review done. I was brief … who will read down to review 28?

    Mark #45: I don’t know enough to estimate the hype-factor of any IFR advocacy, Tom’s or otherwise. But P4TP did convince me that the IFR deserves to be in the mix of technologies that are receiving support and funding. Perhaps the people Tom got first hand information off are not reliable estimators of how close the technology is to being deployable. Those pesky Rumsfeld unknowns can always get in the way or people who have spent a lifetime on a project get “too close” and don’t recognise the warning signs of a lemon. But we don’t have an abundant set of tested and scalable alternatives. We need to put as many horses in this race as we can afford.

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  44. Tom,

    Thanks again for taking the time for your thoughtful response. Barry’s belief in this technology and the promise that you describe is such that I will get your book and invest more time to study it more deeply. (I’ve signed up for your footnotes- thanks for making these available).

    I have more questions about proliferation resistance of the IFR, if you have the time to have a shot at them?

    Finally (for now) Barry linked to a critique of your book with your rebuttal. How many such critiques are you aware of, and how many have you made rebuttal for? Are any more of these available?

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  45. Hi Mark,
    You can thank my brother Dave for the footnotes. He’s the one who built my site. I’ve been remiss in not posting and getting it going as a blog, but I’m just swamped with actually making GREAT happen.

    As for proliferation, any time you have fissile material being handled there’s a proliferation concern, and thus there should be control by responsible agencies which are dependable and have authority. One thing that’s certain is that nuclear power is expanding around the world, including into many non-nuclear club countries. Thus we are going to be forced to create some sort of international framework to get a handle on all this, and we neglect or deny that fact at our peril. Granted, some nuclear power systems are less susceptible to proliferation than others. LFTRs and IFRs are two of the best.

    The pyroprocessing process in an IFR is by its nature a bit sloppy. It doesn’t separate out the actinides from each other, and it leaves a smattering of fission products in the mix. This is a good thing! For you incorporate the long-lived actinides into the easily-fabricated new fuel assemblies but the hot dash of fission products mixed in assures you that they can’t be handled (by terrorist, for example). You can still burn them in the reactor to use up the actinides, the small amount of FPs won’t interfere. Thus once uranium and/or plutonium enters an IFR, they never come out, nor are they ever separated, nor can the mix that they’re in be handled.

    The international agency to oversee all of this is something that I spent a lot of time thinking about, and I deal with it at some length in my book. I’m happy to say that the concept has taken hold with some very important people in high places, and at the moment we are assembling a group of scientists, ex-political figures, economists, etc. to actually make it happen. Expect to see more about this as it takes shape over the next year. I’ll post about it on my website when I can. Some of the political maneuvering I’m doing must be kept under the radar for the moment, as you can imagine. But things are looking quite good, I’m happy to say.

    You asked about the critiques and rebuttals regarding my book. I assume you were referring to that one I had with David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. I have had many more such exchanges by email, but I don’t normally post them because most of the arguments are made in my book, and by avoiding publicizing them I hope to avoid making enemies. Actually the Lochbaum piece was posted without my consent originally, but I decided not to ask that it be taken down because I discovered that he’d been asked by others about my book and continued to provide them with the unrebutted version, even though he knew full well that the majority of his criticism had been answered. Amory Lovins and I have gone back and forth but I’d just as soon not publish those. Amory’s main arguments against nuclear power are economic, and the PRISM is a quite different animal than the reactors he talks about. All I’m proposing initially is that we build a single PRISM reactor, which would provide us with a data set to work from: How much will they cost, how long will they take to build, how well do they work. Last time I saw Amory I told him that, and he was reasonable enough not to argue the point. It is, after all, a quite modest proposal. I’m quite sure he doesn’t think it will prove to be economical, and he seems pretty sure that efficiency plus renewables (plus gas, alas, at least in the near term) can provide the energy we need. I suggested to him that just in case he’s wrong, it would be good to have the option to build safe and economical reactors if it’s possible. Like Jim Hansen, just look at it as a relatively cheap insurance policy. At least I can talk to Amory, unlike some other vehemently antinuclear people. I suspect he’ll be curious to see if the PRISM can do what I say it can. Like Geoff, who has that uneasy feeling in the back of his gut, it might be hard for him to feel comfortable with it, but I believe if it proves out he’d acknowledge the fact. Once we get one built, I’ll be anxious to discuss it with him again.

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  46. Hi Tom,

    Thanks Dave and thanks again Tom for the background (and candour), I think your tone will help people listen to what you have to say.

    Re the 2003 MIT study, why were they so against IFR? It’s been a little while since I browsed their report, but were they saying IFR are higher proliferation risk than once through LWR?

    Also George Stanford writes about the difference between isotopic purity and chemical purity regarding proliferation risks. I think he wrote that isotopically impure (relatively) plutonium can be used in nuclear explosives(like the 1962 reactor grade explosive test [my example]), but a similar level of chemical impurities make this more difficult. Is this consistent with your understanding. I assume that George Standford was also saying that the IFR process maintains chemically impure plutonium (contaminated with more than transuranics?) Or are there some stages where it is chemically impure? Or did I misunderstand?

    Stamford writes that with IFR we can choose not to breed plutonium, which implies you can also choose to breed plutonium (which I suppose is the point with a fast breeder). I assume this plutonium has the potential to be generated/manipulated in a manner that would have Hans Blix concerned about some states using IFR (hence your suggested international framework?} Is this the greatest proliferation risk you see for IFR or have you come across any different risks that I’ve failed to consider?

    Thanks again for helping me sort through my concerns.

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  47. Tom #51: With regard to things that “can’t be handled”. Do you mean can’t be handled SAFELY? If so, then a “suicide handler” only has to live long enough to move the material to its point of use. In any event, the security measures described in P4TP look good to me.

    With regard to that feeling in my gut. Some fears are demonstrably irrational and my residual nuclear fear is one of those. The bizarre way we rank fears and respond to them will give rise to serious challenges as you try to get GREAT going. I’ve often figured that the French went nuclear because, as a country of Gaulois smokers a little nuclear radiation is neither here nor there.

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  48. Visualize a brightly sunlit lunch-hour. A streetlight with a defective photoswitch is still shining. Underneath it, the day must be that much brighter; but only if you happen to look directly at the lamp do you become aware it is still on. No-one would ever notice the patch of increased brightness on the ground. That is the sort of little we talk about when we talk about a little nuclear radiation due to nuclear power. When government finds it cannot reduce its oil and gas income because of public fear of nuclear power-related radiation, you should smell astroturf.

    — G.R.L. Cowan (How fire can be domesticated)

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  49. Mark, the MIT study was one of those committee deals with politicians and economists in addition to scientists, who self-admitted their knowledge of the fuel cycle wasn’t what it should be. I discuss all that in my book.

    As for the proliferation aspect, this is too hot to handle, and even a “suicide handler” wouldn’t be able to access it, separate enough of it, and move it around. It’s just not realistic. Besides, engineering the place to be terrorist proof is really pretty easy. Granted, it hasn’t been done in the past, but it could be done in the future. That’s all in the book too. As for separation of plutonium (of any isotopic composition), it would be no easier to separate it from IFR fuel than from LWR spent fuel, and the latter is easier to come by. It would take a technology like PUREX to do it. Bear in mind that all LWRs (the kind of reactors we use today) and IFRs create plutonium. The issue of breeding is just whether you create more than you use up.

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  50. I could believe nuclear power plants have not been made unicorn-proof, and the apparent smallness of the number of people simultaneously trampled and irradiated by unicorns that have rampaged through reactor cores has been mostly a matter of luck. Perhaps a compliant press has hushed up most of these cases.

    Terrorists, however, exist, and have used fossil fuel tanks, both wheeled and winged, to hurt people. Nuclear power plants have so far, IIRC, replaced about 110 billion barrels of petroleum, or some large equivalent volume of natgas. So nuclear power plants’ first 100 billion barrels of oil replacement’s having been accomplished without any known terrorism involving them is significant, and I wouldn’t be as quick as Blees to say, “engineering the place to be terrorist proof is really pretty easy. Granted, it hasn’t been done in the past …”

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  51. Thanks Tom,

    I appreciated the point about too hot to handle. But others say this is not a total obstile. Organsised states handle this material, hence I assume your comment about terrorist?

    I just got a response from questions I put to a rep from a local environment group. His concerns were that:

    “IFR envisages plutonium which is much more contaminated and would be either very difficult or impossible to use as the fissile material in a nuclear weapon

    which is small comfort because proliferators wouldn’t use IFR as it is envisaged to be used
    – they would produce high-purity plutonium by shortening the irraditation time to maximise the ratio of plutonium-239 vis a vis other, unwanted plutonium isotopes
    – they would modify the reprocessing technique (or use separate, conventional reprocessing technology) such that the plutonium is not contaminated with long-lived waste isotopes which complicate weapon manufacture.
    – they would use IFR to ‘breed’ large quantities of plutonium rather than ‘burning’ plutonium to get rid of it and generate electricity in the process.”

    Does this fit with your understanding of the potential of IFR?

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  52. Mark #57, this has been well answered by George Stanford:

    —————————–

    Why is the IFR better than PUREX? Doesn’t “recycling” mean separation of plutonium, regardless of the method?

    No, not in the IFR – and that misunderstanding accounts for some of the opposition. The IFR’s pyroprocessing and electrorefining method is not capable of making plutonium that is pure enough for weapons. If a proliferator were to start with IFR material, he or she would have to employ an extra chemical separation step.

    But there is plutonium in IFRs, along with other fissionable isotopes. Seems to me that a proliferator could take some of that and make a bomb.

    Some people do say that, but they’re wrong, according to expert bomb designers at Livermore National Laboratory. They looked at the problem in detail, and concluded that plutonium-bearing material taken from anywhere in the IFR cycle was so ornery, because of inherent heat, radioactivity and spontaneous neutrons, that making a bomb with it without chemical separation of the plutonium would be essentially impossible – far, far harder than using today’s reactor-grade plutonium.

    So? Why wouldn’t they use chemical separation?

    First of all, they would need a PUREX-type plant – something that does not exist in the IFR cycle.

    Second, the input material is so fiendishly radioactive that the processing facility would have to be more elaborate than any PUREX plant now in existence. The operations would have to be done entirely by remote control, behind heavy shielding, or the operators would die before getting the job done. The installation would cost millions, and would be very hard to conceal.

    Third, a routine safeguards regime would readily spot any such modification to an IFR plant, or diversion of highly radioactive material beyond the plant.

    Fourth, of all the ways there are to get plutonium – of any isotopic quality – this is probably the all-time, hands-down hardest.”

    Why isn’t that a forceful argument? [that IFRs produce a greater purity of Pu-239 than LWR]

    First, isotopic contamination is only one of many obstacles between a proliferator and a weapon from IFR fuel. I mentioned some of them a while back.

    Second, having material that is 80% Pu-239 instead of 60% does not greatly lessen the difficulty of designing and building a bomb. [Ed: you need >94%]

    Third, and most important, remember that there are far easier ways to get fissile material for weapons – high quality material, at that – than from spent reactor fuel. Iraq, for instance, chose uranium enrichment. No country has ever used reactor-grade plutonium to make weapons.”

    You mentioned the best argument against the IFR. What is the best argument for it?

    Proliferation prevention. Near-term, the IFR makes PUREX illegitimate and plutonium inaccessible. Long term, it relieves future generations of the responsibility to guard the plutonium mines, and of the risks of not guarding them adequately.

    There’s another huge benefit, of course. If nothing better comes along, the IFR can supply the world with pollution-free energy for thousands of years.”

    —————————–

    Most of this FAQ is actually about proliferation resistance. Tom has much more about in the book.

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  53. Good job it is not a spelling contest!

    We all have wrong spellings and numerous typos, even Barry (I have noticed a couple in his posts).
    Perhaps typing too fast is the the problem :)

    That’s my excuse anyway:)

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  54. Perps,

    I don’t think anyone I know would be in fear of my contribution to such a contest.

    ;)

    Barry, Thanks for the referesher.

    Is there much of a peer reveiwed literature on this topic? I read competeing categorical claims (such is life). I’ll post a reference when I relocate it to a claim that the radiation from IFR plutonium is not an obstacle to proliferation.

    Without extensive (and diverse) peer review I feel more confident with Tom’s less categrical proliferation statement than with George Standford’s categorial conviction.

    Given Tom’s explanation that IFR’s are ready to go. Is there more outstanding work, assessment, or review that you (or Tom) deem necessary? I recall Barry’s desire for proliferation assessemnt?

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  55. I don’t think more assessment is necessary, but if people are serious about proliferation (and we should be) we do have to put some kind of international framework together that can get a handle on and keep control of fissile material in the future. That’s my main project right now, and probably for some time to come.

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  56. Barry, as a quick aside question, where do the radiative forcing figures for CO2 come from (1.6 W/m2), direct spectral asborption measurement or from climate models?

    (The rebuttle of the neo-skeptics is never ending).

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  57. Mark #63: Barry will probably elaborate, but I like p.278 AR4 Chapter 3. Of 3 satellites measuring the difference in energy arriving at and energy leaving the planet, the 3 give values of 0.7, 1.4 and 1.8 W/m2. Analysing that forcing into components necessarily involves both models and additional data. Why does the 0.7 figure look out of whack? Andrew Glickson or Barry might know, but I don’t.

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  58. The radiation from plutonium isn’t what’s thorny for a would-be bombmaker. It’s the fission products that are always mixed in with the plutonium (in an IFR) that make it too dangerous to handle. You can actually hold plutonium in your hand. That’s precisely why we don’t want to use systems that separate it from the hot stuff.

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  59. The U&W equation I’ve posted here before doesn’t deal with specific isotopes, but closely approximates how their collective behaviour varies over time. It says fuel of equal burnup is 2300 times more radioactive ten minutes after removal than it is ten years after removal.

    Here, table 7, one can learn that a CANDU fuel bundle, ten years after its retirement, can give a lethal radiation dose from 1 metre’s distance in 12 hours, as long as nothing denser than air is in the way.

    CANDUs are water-cooled power reactors, and share that class’s historically perfect proliferation resistance, perhaps due to their excessive conversion of the plutonium-239 they produce to 240, 241, etc. If it were possible for a ten-years-retired CANDU bundle to fall off a truck, an informed malefactor would not need physical courage to scoop it off the roadside with his bare hands and hide it under his coat for a few minutes. But he would also know that no great mischief could be done with it. If nothing better than CANDU reactors ever turns up, they’re good enough to give the world many thousands of years of abundant clean bomb-unrelated energy.

    As I understand the IFR idea, between taking fuel out of the reactor and reprocessing it you delay ten minutes rather than ten years; also, as it comes out, it has a much higher loading of fission fragments than CANDU fuel, a higher burnup. Say ten times higher.

    That makes the radioactivity at any given post-removal time also ten times more, but this is a detail. The really big increase in radiation is due to the quickness with which the IFR operators would get it to the de-asher and get the de-ashed fuel back into service.

    Adding in the estimated ten times greater burnup and we get the ashes in IFR fuel, just before they are removed from it, making it ~20000 times more radioactive than the ashes in CANDU fuel after ten years.

    In terms of foiling a theft attempt, this 20000 is bound to be a slight underestimate, because the radiation from fast-decaying isotopes is more penetrating, less likely to be absorbed within the fuel itself. So dividing the 12 hours by 20000 gives us a conservative estimate of how quick the supposed thief, having neglected to bring a 50-tonne self-propelled shielding flask, will decide to sit down for a little rest, and never get up again: two seconds. Whoa, I hadn’t known it was that quick. But since this estimate is conservative, it’s probably quicker.

    Of course, a half-dozen evil miracles would have to happen for him to get his tongs anywhere near a fuel rod during its brief, high-temperature journey from reactor to de-asher. Recall, the de-ashing in an IFR is also called pyro-processing. Not because of any combustion, rather, because it occurs at a high temperature.

    (How fire can be domesticated)

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  60. You can link to part way into a PDF, but clearly, it’s not easy!

    Trying again: here, table 7, one can learn that a CANDU fuel bundle, ten years after its retirement, can give a lethal radiation dose from 1 metre’s distance in 12 hours, as long as nothing denser than air is in the way.

    [Ed: Thanks Graham – I also fixed your original link]

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  62. Ender:
    >Prominent Australian researchers have concluded from studies
    >that they have done that renewable power can do the job and
    >do it fairly easily even without nuclear power.

    Perhaps you can explain, why Australia burns more and more coal, now over 2x more than two decades ago, and about 4x more coal burned than 3 decades ago? This means that proportionally more dangerous fossil fuel wastes are produced, in spite of wishes.

    Also, why does Germany, European leader in renewable energies, plans 26 new coal burning plants?

    Apparently experience tells us that relying on prominent solar utopia dreamers in practice only solidifies the use of dangerous fossil fuels, as people become complacent that “wind/solar/fairy dust energy will solve our issues”, while in reality these resources are inadequate to contemporary energy needs, which can be demonstratively met by either combustion or fission.

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  63. Concerning proliferation, given the fact that IFR fuel cycle does not separate Pu, and the Pu isotopic mixture is unusable for a practical weapon design, the proliferation risk of IFR is zero.

    It would take more effort to just separate pure Pu from the IFR fuel mix, than to make a simple well known graphite pile with natural uranium, and after low burn-up obtain a superior weapon grade Pu. Decades old and known technology needed, low radioactivity involved, proved and available (declassified) warhead designs, no major R&D issues.

    Even after much more involved (due to intense radioactivity) separation of Pu from the IFR fuel, one would end up with vastly inferior material, which even if it could perhaps theoretically explode, practical problems such as the need for heavily shielded robotic manufacturing and machining of the warhead, problems with heat dissipation of the RG-Pu fuel nearby explosives, radiation damage to warhead electronics, and ease of weapon detection through intense radiation signature, present significant obstacles.

    As shown by isolated and starving North Korea, if any government decides to acquire nuclear weaponry, there is no real technological challenge in repeating the 60 years old process, independently of any nuclear energy for electricity in either case.

    Therefore the issue of nuclear weapons proliferation is an issue of international politics, and it’s tie to commercial nuclear energy is only indirect – societies with abundant affordable clean domestic power producing infrastructure are much less conductive to conflicts than societies impoverished, starved for energy, or dependent on energy imports from unstable or hostile regions.

    There are other issues with nuclear materials than proliferation, including radio sources for medical or other uses, and all these materials need to be accounted for in a sane regulatory environment, similarly to explosives, fertilizers, etc., as is indeed the case.

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  64. Geoff Russell
    The reason rooftop PV costs so much is that it has been subsidised at he point of sale for over 10 years.
    The solar companies just pocket the subsidy and serve up the same 10 year old stuff.
    Same goes for nuclear actually, except the subsidy period has been for 60 years. The IFR will never get going without a massive subsidy. Unfortunately the major source of subsidy – bomb making – will not apply. Or maybe it will; you could make a good Hafnium bomb with the IFR. Now the thought of that should make you go all gooey inside :)

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  65. It’s not hard to make ammonia, you just have to produce the hydrogen. Once you have that it’s easy. Now we get it from natural gas. With abundant IFR energy you could get it from electrolysis. As for plasma converters, the reason they didn’t take off since the 70s is because tipping fees (the cost of dumping garbage) were about $10/ton in the USA, and the cost of building plasma converters isn’t really economical until you get to about double that or so. Now that tipping fees are topping $30-35 it makes sense. Japan already has a couple, and we’re now building them in the USA. The energy comes from the garbage, of course. It’s not a perpetual motion machine!

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  66. Read on. I propose building two 2.5GW IFRs/week, and show how it can be done without undue economic hardship. Quite the contrary, actually. One secret is their operation at atmospheric pressure, another is their modularity, allowing the construction to be divvied up amongst companies all around the world, resulting in greater efficiencies, quality control, and economies of scale. And fuel enrichment isn’t an issue, nor is mining. You need neither with IFRs.

    Energy efficiency, as you suggest, is the low-hanging fruit that should definitely be pursued.

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  67. The amount of water needed for nuclear is the same as that needed for an equivalent output of coal or gas-fired electricity. Read up on how cooling systems work in power plants and you’ll see that this is a frequently misunderstood (and harped on!) argument against nuclear that falls flat when you understand it. CSP of equivalent output would need as much cooling system capacity as with a nuclear plant.

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  68. The simplest method is to simply harvest the heat coming off the plasma process to generate steam, and burn the syngas to generate more steam. With typical American garbage you’ll generate enough electricity to feed about 80% to the grid, with 20% going back to keep the torches running. The energy comes from the garbage, as Dave said.

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  69. Given that Australia has no experience of nuclear power generation and would require many years to train sufficient personnel, a 90% capacity factor is very optimistic. A more realistic figure would be starting with the 56% percent that US reactors had in 1980 ramping up to 90% after 20 years.

    It’s not like you have to have people shepherding these things along to keep them running. They pretty much work as on autopilot. The increase in capacity factors in the USA had to do with improvements in technology, not in training.

    Solar thermal plants with their much lower thermal load are almost always air cooled.

    As I’ve said before, the cooling requirements for CSP per kWh produced are the same as for nuclear, coal, or gas. If solar can do it all air-cooled it’s because they produce so little power. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    Seawater nuclear plants are restricted by the amount of acceptable sites near cities that are already not being used by desalination.

    You’d use IFRs for both, they’d be dual-use plants. That way they can be used for peaking very easily. You’d run them at full power all the time, varying the amount of heat channeled to each purpose as the electrical demand requires. That way you avoid having to throttle them back. Others would be dual-use for vehicle fuel (boron, or hydrogen for ammonia-powered vehicles). Likewise that would allow them to run at 100% while still being highly responsive for load-following, obviating the need for natural gas plants for peaking. It’s the multipurpose aspect of this that makes IFRs so ideal. As is they’re still very good at load-following, but dual-use makes them every bit as responsive as gas, or even better.

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  70. Here is a New Scientist article that’s just appeared which discusses, in a fair amount of depth, the plasma gasification methods described in the post above and detailed by Tom Blees. Definitely worth a read:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20227051.500-zapping-rubbish-into-ecofuel.html?DCMP=NLC-nletter&nsref=mg20227051.500

    There does seem to be too much conflation in the article between ‘gasification’ and the much higher temperature ‘plasma gasification’ — the latter avoids most of the flaws of the former, though might be a bit more expensive until commercialised on a large scale.

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