Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Learning to Love Nuclear Energy

By Alan Caruba

For those of us who have been warning that America is going to start running out of electricity soon if the governors of our various states do not permit the construction of either or both coal-fired and nuclear plants, the news that Republican candidate, John McCain, says he wants a crash program to build nuclear plants should be greeted with joy.

So let’s at least give a hurrah to a politician who says something, anything, nice about more energy.

McCain has proposed at least 45 nuclear plants be built by 2030, twenty-two years from now. Considering how difficult it is to fund and build a single nuclear plant in the year 2008, the likelihood that anywhere near this goal will be achieved is small.

Happily, nuclear energy now produces about 20% of the electricity Americans use. In Europe, France famously gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear so maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to make fun of the French.

The U.S. got off to a start in the 1970s, but a phony scare generated by Three Mile Island, plus a history of delays and overruns combined to virtually kill the industryfor a decade or two. Today it is making a return with off-the-shelf designs for standardized reactors, along with a much more streamlined federal licensing process.

Still, you don’t put up one of these babies overnight. A 1,500 megawatt reactor used to cost $2 or $3 billion dollars not long ago, but the rising cost of everything, including concrete, steel, other construction materials, and labor now peg the price at closer to $7 billion.

When you throw in the Not-In-My-Backyard crowd, plus the usual environmental groups eager to sue for any reason, you have other factors that slow down McCain’s dream to a crawl. If a migratory bird happens to fly over the area where a plant is sited, you can be sure that the bird will get the first priority from the Greens while the rest of us get another kind of bird.

Naturally, the industry that builds such plants is not going to take on that kind of debt or lay out that kind of cash without federal guarantees that it will receive a certain amount of money per kilowatt hour of electricity and loan guarantees in order to raise the cash in the first place. So, in effect, the public will end up footing the bill and, frankly, if that is the only way to ensure sufficient electrical power, so be it.

There is, however, a much cheaper alternative. It’s coal. The U.S. has centuries’ worth of coal and, since coal-fired plants provide just over half of all the electrical power we use, the obvious question is why not build more?

The answer, in part, is that Greens like Friends of the Earth are waging a huge propaganda campaign against “dirty fuels” and, for several years now, state governors have been resistant to giving their blessing to this common sense answer.

The less obvious answer is that these politicians have thrown in their lot with the Greens and McCain is one of them, a true believer in a global warming that isn’t happening. It is to his credit, however, that he has begun to talk about drilling for oil in the U.S. continental shelf and even that he is proposing nuclear energy.

Unless more politicians begin to respond to America’s growing need for electrical power at some point their refusal to do anything is going to leave you in the dark.

1 comment:

Clive Graham Smale said...

Imagine this nuclear ideal:
- an inherently 'naturally safe' design,
- regulatory requirements much less complex,
- a stable fuel supply with high burn rate,
- much reduced potential consequences for sabotage,
- a modulaar design giving three-year lead times to operation,
- a design allowing any MWe capacity,
- easy plant expansion for future demand,
- build just the size you want with tailor-made modules,
- major compponents that have a high life,
- continuous fuelling with the plant at full power - no outages,
- no active safety systems therefore no manintenance s/downs,
- spent fuel ready for disposal out of the core - no cooling,
- carbide-coated fuel stable up to 1600DegC and not requiring any further processing prior to geological disposal,
- reduced staffing, only one person per 5MWe,
- an operating efficiency of +45%,
- no expensive water-based cooling required,
- 'waste' heat can be further utilised,
- fully 100% auto-shutdown due to passive system design,
- cheaper all-round build, operation and maintenance.

So goes the promotional blurb in 1998 for the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR)
Sounds too good to be true? Well the design team responsible at MIT certainly didn't think so back then as they proposed a better product than the one in operation. Of course nothing is 100% and the naysayers are always out there. Mention 'nuclear'and the Green numpties go into a collective bout of apoplectic fibrilation. Things take time and for the fission process the PBMR seems to be where it's at and moves it a step closer to public nuclear acceptability. Like any process it has to be sorted and Quality Control protocols firmly established.
As soon as these dreamers realise , in government and elswhere, that for the ballooning power requirements of an advanced and advancing technological civilization no other method comes close to nuclear. Get used to it.
Clive, Laoag City, Philippines