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New research into nuclear's feasibility shows that it simply does not make for a sole fossil fuel replacement.

The death knells of the Earth's dwindling fossil fuel supply have helped to prompt a growing push for alternative fuels.  Whether it be cellulosic ethanol powering the next generation of hybrid vehicles or microbial hydrogen driving advanced fuel cells, America's top technology corporations are making massive investments in alternative energy.  Basically, alternative energy advocates remain split about what is the best solution -- solar power, wind power, biofuels, hydrogen, and nuclear power are seen as the best bets.

Not holding out much hope for an exotic solution, many have turned in the last few years to seriously considering nuclear as a potential replacement to fossil fuel demand.  The result has been resurgence in nuclear efforts.  In the U.S. an application has been filed by NRG Energy for the first new nuclear plant in 30 years.  In Canada, a nuclear research reactor taken temporarily offline was quickly brought online after swift legislative action.

However, despite the growing enthusiasm there has already been one major hiccup.  The record drought that has been plaguing the U.S. Southeast is threatening to cripple the nuclear industry in this region, as many of the plants require large amounts of water.

Now, a new research study, conducted by Physicist Joshua Pearce of Clarion University of Pennsylvania puts another dent in nuclear efforts.  Professor Pearce's research, published in Inderscience's International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, indicates that while nuclear research and small-scale growth remain promising, large scale growth remains non-viable.

Professor Pearce is actually an advocate for nuclear power.  He warns that his research should not be misinterpreted.  Professor Pearce suggests that the nuclear power industry focuses its efforts on improving efficiency.  He gives two easy ways to accomplish this.  The first is to utilize only the highest grade ores, saving on refining energy costs.  Secondly, he suggests the industry adopt gas centrifuge technology for ore enrichment, which is considerably more efficient than the currently used gaseous diffusion methods.

Professor Pearce feels that plants must also adopt technology for capturing and distributing their waste heat.  He points out that nuclear plants dump large amounts of heat into their surroundings, a practice which both wastes energy and can cause significant harm to the environment.  Professor Pearce believes that current nuclear weapon stockpiles worldwide should be dismantled and their nuclear fuel "down-blended".  He points out that this could produce a bounty of nuclear fuel.

The not-so-good news which Professor Pearce points out is that nuclear is simply not a viable candidate for large-scale growth.  In order for nuclear power to maintain growing future power demands and the shrinking fossil fuel power supplies, between 2010 and 2050 a growth rate of over 10 percent a year would be necessary according to Professor Pearce.  This, he says, is simply not possible.

Professor Pearce points out that such a growth program would simply cannibalize older plant's power output to provide the power needed to maintain the processes involved with building the new plants and refining ore for them, leaving no power for human needs.  Large-scale growth would require massive power investment in terms of plant construction, plant operation, mining infrastructure expansion, and energy investments to refine ore.  Professor Pearce says the books simply don't balance -- these power needs could not be met by the energy produced from the refined ore.

He points to a significant problem with large scale growth.  Large-scale growth, barring the discovery of new reserves would necessitate the use of lower grade uranium.  This sets an additional limit on growth.  As Professor Pearce points out, "The limit of uranium ore grade to offset greenhouse gas emissions is significantly higher than the purely thermodynamic limit set by the energy payback time."

Professor Pearce also points out to environmentalists and global warming skeptics alike that nuclear power is hardly an "emission-free panacea", as he puts it.  All aspects of plant operation, including plant construction, mining/milling of uranium ores, fuel conversion, enrichment, fabrication, operation, decommissioning, and long-term and short-term waste disposal, require massive amounts of energy provided by fossil fuels.  The burning of these fossil fuels will create large amounts of greenhouse emissions, a criticism oft-leveled against the solar and wind power industries by nuclear advocates.

While emissions are certainly troublesome, the simple energy requirements infeasibility, if accurate, would almost certainly nix the large scale expansion of nuclear power in its current form.  If Professor Pearce's research withstands the test of review then it offers little choice but to pursue his suggested strategies -- develop more advanced nuclear power on a smaller scale and pursue other alternative energy solutions as a major source of capacity.



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RE: What?
By masher2 (blog) on 3/5/2008 4:24:59 PM , Rating: 5
Of course, Pearce ignores the fact that we essentially stopped exploring for uranium almost 40 years ago...and we had barely begun when we stopped.

Uranium is quite abundant in the earth's crust; basing any analysis off known stockpiles is pure bunkum. Furthermore, reactors can run off thorium as easily as uranium -- and thorium is 3X more prevalent.


RE: What?
By Grast on 3/5/2008 5:03:05 PM , Rating: 5
Thanks Masher.

From an old submariner, his arguments just did not sit right with me. He is making assumtion based off exploration data from the 70's. Additionally, the issue of fresh water is only an issue obviously in land locked states. The NAVY has been using sea water for secondary cooling loops for the last 40 years. The Navy's experience with running nuclear plants in a salt water environment needs to be investigated once again by civilian sources.

In the end, I just do not buy it that nuclear can not be scaled to meet our sustained energy needs.

later....


RE: What?
By gsellis on 3/6/2008 8:31:43 AM , Rating: 2
The problem he stated was that because of the drought here in GA, there is not enough water in the rivers to cool the reactors, potentially.

It does show a lot of inefficiency in the design. It generates a lot of heat to quickly heat water to steam. There are other phased approaches that should be investigated. I think I remember 1 coal plant that was 'exporting' its heat to a local series of greenhouses. I remember the vague details of Einstein's only contribution to engineering with 7 steps of hot water to cool to do washing. You have step 1, the heat sitting there. I understand the issue of cross-contamination, but they are dumping this heat into a river... A set of industries should be included. Heck, ethanol production requires distillation (an energy requirement to make the fuel). Tie a couple industries that require heat for distillation to each plant. 2 birds, 1 ore...err stone. And, the left over heat from distillation could pass on to lesser need next door. How about sugar beet farms or hardy cellulose crops in warmed beds around the area?

And just to be fair to the prof. I think he may have been thinking also of all those electric cars added to the grid to replace the gasoline ones? But I could be reading more into it.


RE: What?
By kattanna on 3/6/2008 10:02:21 AM , Rating: 2
come now.. thats not the kind of thinking we need in this country.. its not full of fear and ignorance.

we all know that everyone should simply give up everything and return to their caves.

;>)


RE: What?
By rcc on 3/6/2008 1:24:52 PM , Rating: 2
As for coastal plants, the surfers love the waters off San Onofre


"So if you want to save the planet, feel free to drive your Hummer. Just avoid the drive thru line at McDonalds." -- Michael Asher














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