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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: Time Scale
By Comdrpopnfresh on 3/5/2008 6:09:45 PM , Rating: 2
I was told in a class once that it takes 20 years of full-scale uptime to recoup the cost of construction of Nuc plants. I suppose a similiar argument could be used for anything that is built- but I don't think any other source (solar, geotherm, wind) has such a long period...

RE: Time Scale
By Tsuwamono on 3/5/2008 8:46:44 PM , Rating: 3
Dont believe everything you're told. My Teacher told me my text book was blasphemy and if i believed in evolution and science i would go to hell.

Again... just cause someone says it. doesnt make it fact.

RE: Time Scale
By Comdrpopnfresh on 3/5/2008 11:32:06 PM , Rating: 3
This was the Doctorate Professor who helps run the reactor at my school...

RE: Time Scale
By Hoser McMoose on 3/5/2008 9:09:03 PM , Rating: 2
I was told in a class once that it takes 20 years of full-scale uptime to recoup the cost of construction of Nuc plants.

I suspect that's probably pretty close.

A new 1,000MW plant will cost somewhere in the order of $3B to build these days. That includes all the planning, environmental assessments, procurement, etc. etc.

Now that new plant would produce a theoretical maximum of 8.76 TWh of power per year, but in practice it will probably run at a capacity factor of 90%, so 7.884 TWh. The plant could sell the electricity for about $0.05/kWh, or total revenue of just shy of $400M/year.

Now, the tricky part that I don't know is what gross margins are at a nuke plant, I can't find any good reference for this. However they should be pretty good. A wild guess might say 50% gross margins (ie it costs them $200M/year for staffing, material, maintenance, taxes, etc for the above $400M/year revenue).

This translates into $200M/year profit. If there was no interest on the loan that would work out to paying off the $3B upfront cost in 15 years. Factor in interest vs. inflation and 20 years is probably not too far off.

That being said, new nuke plants have a 50-60 life cycle. Add to that the fact that most people guess energy prices will exceed general inflation over the near to medium term and it's not too bad of a prospect.

The payback time or the other forms of power you mention is HIGHLY variable. The cost to implement and the amount of power produced will vary considerably depending on just where they are produced, especially for solar. A solar setup up in north-west of Washington would probably produce less than half the power of one in the Arizona desert while costing as much or more to build.

RE: Time Scale
By JustTom on 3/6/2008 2:16:26 AM , Rating: 2
The plant could sell the electricity for about $0.05/kWh

The average retail price for electricity is closer to $0.09 than it is $0.05 and in parts of the country it is closer to $0.20. Adjusting for a higher price would significantly lower how long it would take an utility to recoup its initial inverstment.

RE: Time Scale
By elessar1 on 3/6/2008 10:44:32 AM , Rating: 2
And pebble bed reactors???

They seem cheaper and safer than most of the designs currently in operation...

At least China is trying to go that way...

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