The death knells of the Earth's dwindling fossil fuel supply
have helped to prompt a growing push for alternative fuels. Whether it be
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
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
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.