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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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So much better than coal
By BlackIceHorizon on 3/6/2008 6:04:53 PM , Rating: 2
We need to act now to set ourselves on the right energy course for the next century. The third world is rapidly developing and represents a massive new energy demand. Globally, energy demand is set to increase 60% over the between 2002 and 2030 ( Electrical demand will likely rise even faster as we start using electricity for our other energy needs to solve fuel shortages in other areas (think plug-in hybrids). Our only other proven, economically viable technology, coal, is nasty whether you think global warming is a big issue or not (I’ll personally be cautious and listen to the majority of climate scientists who currently say we should be concerned. Better safe than sorry). But even if they’re wrong, consider the following:

- A Harvard School of Public Health study found that coal-burning electric power plants have fouled the air with enough heavy metals, carcinogenic particulate and other noxious pollutants to cause 15,000 premature deaths annually in the US alone . The public should be outraged at this. If these effects were locally concentrated instead of insidious and widespread, the news media would be outraged. Case in point: The Three Mile Island incident released a tiny quantity of radioactive material - for comparison, that year the U.S. coal burning industry released 155 times as much radioactivity into the atmosphere ( Experts estimate that the TMI release killed either 1 or less than 1 person. The story was pounced on and is still heralded as the worst U.S. nuclear disaster ever. Exactly.

- Believe it or not, a coal-fired plant releases 100 times more radioactive material than an equivalent nuclear reactor - right into the air, too, not into some carefully guarded storage site.

- The mercury from those plants damages neural function and development, especially in the brains of young children, all over the world.

- Fly ash from coal fired power plants is full of plenty of other toxic material too: Cadmium, Radium, Lead, Arsenic, Uranium, Thorium, the list goes on. It’s radioactive enough that if you take it into a nuclear power plant and then try to remove it from the site, it will set off the strict regulatory equipment. Legally, it must then be disposed of as low level radioactive waste . Ask to walk the grounds of a coal plant sometime. You’d be amazed at how many acres the barren, toxic mountains of ash cover. And you don’t even see the majority of the emissions; they’re released into the atmosphere. Sure, coal can be cleaned up to an extent. But the waste has to be put somewhere, and it’s in massive quantity. There’s no getting around that.

- In contrast, a nuclear plant can store 30 years of spent fuel in the volume of a medium sized swimming pool.

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