How many nukes would we need to replace oil, coal, natural gas
June 6, 2007 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Lets just say that the U.S. decided to stop burning hydrocarbons (oil, coal, natural gas) completely for environmental reasons. Lets say that everything went electric. Cars, Power Plants, factories, everything. How many nuclear plants (using current technology) would we need to produce? Would there be one in every moderate sized town? Also, how long would the raw materials last before another energy crisis was imminent (peak uranium, I guess)?
posted by DarkForest to Technology (52 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Current technology also allows for the use of solar, wind and tidal, right? Why focus on nuclear?
posted by boo_radley at 3:22 PM on June 6, 2007


OK, add those too. I didn't think of them. I have the idea that those aren't as mature or scalable as nuclear power, but I might have the wrong idea. I'm just wondering what it would take to go completely off hydrocarbons, without substantially affecting our lifestyles.
posted by DarkForest at 3:29 PM on June 6, 2007


Searching for "us power consumption" kicks out this, which is a good start.

It would definitely not be one in every moderate-sized town. Most of the problems would come with transmitting power over great distances. You can get some efficiency over a few hundred miles of power cable, using alternating current. You'd probably see a system much like our current setup. Small states would need zero to one reactors, and maybe up to five in California (just a guess).

Peak uranium might come rather quickly, but I wouldn't be too sure about that - it hasn't been studied as extensively. Plus, I think those guys are a little biased.

However, peak uranium really wouldn't be an issue if we branched out into fast breeder reactors that, say, used thorium. Not only would our thorium supplies last us a very, very long time, but we could also use it to "burn" old radioactive wastes - those nice fuel rods you hear about, the ones we have to store for ten thousand years? Whoosh. It'd still generate waste, but waste that was only dangerous for about five hundred years. Also, they can't suffer from China Syndrome.

In short, there are a lot of variables to consider to really give you an answer. Power consumption will continue to increase, too.
posted by adipocere at 3:33 PM on June 6, 2007


The US currently uses about 100 quads of energy a year. A quad is equal to 1x1018 Joules. So we need to generate 1020 Joules a year. If we assume (incorrectly, but this is only an order of magnitude calculation) that power demand is constant, then we need to produce 1012 Watts of power.
A nuclear power plant produces about 1000 MW of powers, so we require 1000 nuclear reactors.
posted by atrazine at 3:43 PM on June 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


adipocere: a quick search indicated there are about 100 plants operating in the US now. Are you saying that perhaps 100 more would let us go completely off hydrocarbons??? If so, it sounds easier than I would have thought!
posted by DarkForest at 3:44 PM on June 6, 2007


The US uses power at an average rate of about 4.1 terawatts, i.e. about 4100 gigawatts. A big nuclear reactor produces about 1 gigawatt.

Note that no power generation system is capable of running 24-365; there must always be some downtime. Also note that energy usage varies quite a lot by time of day and season. And a robust system should have sufficient overcapacity to cope with unusual demand.

American energy use is growing at a rate of a couple percent per year, compounded. This is due to a number of factors, not least of which is that our population is growing.

But what you're suggesting isn't really practical, because a lot of the things that coal and oil are used for now can't easily be phased over to electricity. (How do you electrically-power a 747?)

This page is a good source for the kind of information you're looking for.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:54 PM on June 6, 2007


Yup, 104 power plants in the US are able to produce 19% of what we currently use.
( http://www.eia.doe.gov/basics/energybasics101.html )

I cannot fathom why we have stopped more plants from being constructed. (Okay, I CAN, I just don't see the tradeoff as worthwhile)
posted by FuManchu at 3:56 PM on June 6, 2007


adipocere is grossly underestimating the number of reactors needed. Illinois at about 13 Million people has 11 nuclear reactors, and many more coal and gas fired power plants. California, with over 36 million people would require much more.
posted by borkencode at 3:57 PM on June 6, 2007


I remembered the number wrong. Our average power usage in 2000 was 3.29 terawatts. It's probably about 3.4 terawatts now. (Atrazine's number is only correct within an order of magnitude; he didn't really do the math.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:59 PM on June 6, 2007


FuManchu, those plants produce 19% of the electricity we currently use. Electricity represents less than a quarter of our total energy usage.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:00 PM on June 6, 2007


A pie chart of how much energy is produced from each type of source : ( http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/figes1.html )
posted by FuManchu at 4:00 PM on June 6, 2007


I didn't mean to post that last one; please ignore it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:01 PM on June 6, 2007


Sorry, SDB is right. Including cars completely screws that calculatoin.
posted by FuManchu at 4:01 PM on June 6, 2007


scdb: yeah, you're right. Aircraft would have to continue to use fuel. Some other kinds of remote users would have to use hydrocarbons too. But I'm imagining that the majority of the power we use could potentially be switched over to electric. No?
posted by DarkForest at 4:02 PM on June 6, 2007


Are you saying that perhaps 100 more would let us go completely off hydrocarbons??? If so, it sounds easier than I would have thought!


Not so fast. Part of the useful nature of hydrocarbons is that they're energy dense and easy to transport. Until major breakthroughs happen in battery tech, all-electric power doesn't have the same qualities that are necessary for say, long distance transportation.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:03 PM on June 6, 2007


Yeah, I didn't do a lot of thinking on the current reactor setup. Mostly because I don't believe our current design is worth a damn.

I'm a bit of a nut on the thorium issue. I got a bit carried away. Sorry.
posted by adipocere at 4:14 PM on June 6, 2007


I cannot fathom why we have stopped more plants from being constructed. (Okay, I CAN, I just don't see the tradeoff as worthwhile)

The reasons that nuclear plants are not dotting the landscape like mushrooms:
  • it is not economically competitive without huge subsidies;
  • no one has figured out what to do with the spent fuel;
  • nuclear material is very dangerous stuff to produce and transport in a world increasingly concerned with terrorism;
  • even granting that the risk of accidents is low, nuclear plants are still dangerous to surrounding communities because of their vulnerability to terrorist sabotage.

posted by alms at 4:21 PM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Don't get me wrong. I'm not any particular advocate for nuclear power. I'd run my life off of geothermal or bio-diesel grown in my backyard if I could. I'm just wondering what it would really take to get off hydrocarbon fuels, if it is at all feasible.
posted by DarkForest at 4:29 PM on June 6, 2007


But I'm imagining that the majority of the power we use could potentially be switched over to electric. No?

Depends on how much money you are willing to spend. You're talking about replacing trillions of dollars of capital plant. For instance, if you want to replace all the petroleum-burning cars and trucks, it means you have to build enough electricity-using cars and trucks to replace them. (And despite what you may think, all-electric cars are not yet ready for prime time.)

Who pays for all this? What if they don't want to? And how long will the transition take? The logistics of what you're talking about are really stunningly difficult.

There are a lot more of those "can't really be switched over" applications than I suspect you realize. Some steel finishing plants run on electricity, but I'm pretty sure that if you want to produce steel from iron ore you have to use coal; nothing else will do. The process doesn't just rely on heat, it relies specifically on carbon burning. This country produces 95 million tons of steel per year, and consumes a lot of coal doing it.

Energy generation is a fundamentally difficult problem. It isn't the kind of problem that can be solved by "Why can't we simply do this?" There is no "simple" solution.

Unfortunately, it's big enough and visible enough so that it's the prime target of Mencken's solutions. He said, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong."
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:35 PM on June 6, 2007


adipocere: no sorrys allowed. The thorium info is interesting. Thanks.
posted by DarkForest at 4:38 PM on June 6, 2007


Also note that energy usage varies quite a lot by time of day and season. And a robust system should have sufficient overcapacity to cope with unusual demand.

This is an important point, especially for nuclear. I understand that for reasons of both design and safety that nuclear plants are generally started up, taken to their nominal generating capacity, and then kept there until an infrequent maintenance or emergency shutdown.

The nature of electrical power is such that at any given time you more or less have to generate the amount of power that is demanded at that time. Generate too little or "too much" and the grid breaks down. It's a big grid, and it can take a jolt such as a few plants going offline or online, but in general the supply has to match the demand. There are ways to store power when "extra" is available, but batteries and capacitors aren't useful at these levels - as far as I know the only thing that stores power at the level of being able to draw on megawatts is stored hydroelectric, where they pump water uphill into a man-made lake and drain it through hydro turbines when power is needed.

It's set up right now so that the nuclear plants are running at nominal load all the time. Gas and coal plants, however, may be expected to lower their output at night and raise it during the day, and so on.

There's also the issue of peaking power. It would not be economical to have enough extra capacity in the big plants to keep the system from breaking down during the hottest few hours of each day during the hottest few weeks of summer (or if a couple big plants go down), and a big fossil fuel plant still takes a while to ramp up and down. Peaking power is provided by large numbers of small gas turbines, each of which can start up in a few minutes and each provide 15 MW. They're expensive and dirty to run, but they can start up and shut down quick. (There's other things they do, like run the big plants at above nominal load with increased wear and tear, but the gas turbines are a big one.)

In short, current nuclear technology could definitely replace a lot of the baseload capacity, and if you designed one that could slowly ramp up and down for nighttime it could replace even more, but the system couldn't go fully nuclear.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 4:39 PM on June 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


alms is wrong. Nuclear is cost-competitive, and we know what do to with spent fuel, our politicians just can't get around to authorizing burying it. Hs points about terrorism don't explain 30 years of non-construction. The real reason was people got spooked after Three Mile Island, even though hardly any radiation was released there. With more modern reactor design, nuclear is as safe as it comes. I'll take small amounts of containable waste over massive atmospheric emissions any day.
posted by Dasein at 4:55 PM on June 6, 2007 [3 favorites]


There's also the issue of peaking power.

Good point. Still, I doubt that these peak power needs accounts for a large percentage (more than 10%?) of our overall energy usage. And couldn't more of those stored hydro-power systems be built to cover most of this?

This country produces 95 million tons of steel per year

Sure, there are chemical reasons for using hydrocarbons. But I'm imagining that such uses are not the major contributors to our overall usage.

Depends on how much money you are willing to spend

Yes, this is all theoretical, not practical in the immediate future. I'm just wondering what the possibilities are.
posted by DarkForest at 4:59 PM on June 6, 2007


To clarify: each provide 15 MW is an example, they don't of course all produce the same amount.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:02 PM on June 6, 2007


I'm just wondering what the possibilities are.

I don't like the word "possible" in discussions like this. The only things that are "impossible" are things that contain logical contradictions or which violate the laws of physics.

I prefer the word "feasible" -- things which can be done using tools and techniques and resources available to us now, in a reasonable time frame, costing an amount of money that we would be willing to spend.

What you're proposing is possible but not even remotely feasible.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:08 PM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


What you're proposing is possible but not even remotely feasible.

When we geared up for WW2, it was certainly must have been a massive effort, in redirection of material, financial and intellectual resources. But it was done. Suppose the same effort was applied to the cause of global warming (not that you could get everyone to agree that it's important to do so, and that is not my question). With that degree of great, but possible effort, what is feasible?
posted by DarkForest at 5:16 PM on June 6, 2007


Not what you're talking about, that's for sure. That's the problem. I don't think you understand the magnitude of the effort. Winning WWII was easy by comparison.

Besides which, that kind of effort applied to this cause is itself not plausible.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:18 PM on June 6, 2007


The largest nuclear power plant in the US, the Palo Verde Station in Arizona is a 3,875 megawatt plant, and it made 24,000,000 megawatt hours of electricity in 2006.
posted by jefeweiss at 5:34 PM on June 6, 2007


I think we will see that kind of effort, but not for "green" reasons. Here's why I think we'll see a thorium (or other, more friendly) reactor technology spread:

The US is hardly the only country in the world that uses power, just one of the biggest (if not the biggest) hogs. Pretty much everyone has warmed up to the idea of oil eventually running out. Every country in the world with significant power usage and not a lot of sun or other handy renewables will begin scrambling for nuclear power.

Take our saber-rattling at Iran. Iran wants nuclear power, but once you've started refining your uranium to be reactor-grade, you've got more steps to go ... but you could go to weapons-grade. Or make plutonium, etc. This is a scenario we will see played out, over and over again, and the U.S. can't threaten the entire world, despite what it thinks.

Thorium, however, can't be used to make nuclear weapons. (Well, dirty bombs, okay, sure). The same thing that keeps a thorium reactor from experiencing China Syndrome is the same thing that keeps it from being good for a nuke.

So, I think it could be done, not out of the greenness of our hearts, but through a much more powerful motivator: political fear. People won't spend on renewable energy research, but they're happy to chuck a trillion at the Iraq war. It's been a very, very long time since any of my nuke e classes, but I vaguely remember a nuclear power plant costing about four billion bucks to make. Granted, we'd have to dump a bunch into research for the new model, but we have the cash, and I believe the willpower - just from a different direction, fear of nuclear proliferation.
posted by adipocere at 5:45 PM on June 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


France's EDF, the largest utility in the world, already generates something like 80-90% of their energy through nuclear. I think they have like 60 nuke plants, though Wikipedia says 58 plants and 70% nuclear. They supply a few hundred million people and businesses with this.

Our utilities in the US are on a nuclear building spree as well.

For electricity delivered over power lines, yours in an interesting question because, in the US at least, given current technologies, going all-nuclear is really the only long-term option out there. The coal, oil, and all that stuff is running out, no joke.

As for the other stuff (cars, 747s), until we get Mr. Fusion we are out of luck.

Let me say that I have a job working as an energy industry software expert that normally has absolutely no use outside of my professional life. It is satisfying that I can actually put my knowledge to use on AskMeFi.
posted by charlesv at 5:57 PM on June 6, 2007 [3 favorites]


I get increasingly annoyed every time I hear this question. It's always the same thing. Coal and oil bad, so nukes good, amirite?

No, you're not right. Nukes are crap. Here's why.

Every single dollar spent on installing nuclear power generation plant would save at least three times as much CO2 emission, and do so far more quickly, if spent on implementing end-use energy efficiency measures. These, in turn, would yield an effective ROI that absolutely dwarfs that of the best nukes.

In fact, nuclear plant is so expensive per generated watt that even spending that dollar on replacing coal fired plant with natural gas fired plant (still emitting CO2, though less of it than coal) is a net emissions win. Clearly, building new fossil fuel plant is a deeply stupid idea - but doing so could clean up the atmosphere faster than building nukes. So how stupid does that make nukes?

Ultimately, energy supply will need to move onto a fully sustainable basis because ultimately, we will have no economically feasible reserves of stored energy available any more, and we will be forced to rely solely on ongoing energy flows (solar, wind, tides, waves, rainfall, geothermal and so forth). That's not green politics, that's hard economic reality.

We have a choice of two ways of arriving at that point. The way most people instinctively think about this is what Amory Lovins calls the "hard path": respond to projections of ever-increasing energy demand by building ever-increasing energy supply. Effectively we just keep doing what we're doing now until we can't do it any more. This is the path of Coal Bad, Nukes Good, Problem Fixed, Go Back To Sleep. This path ends at no fuel, massive energy demand, and huge economic pain. Along the way, we get resource-driven wars like Iraq.

The other way is the "soft path": respond to the same projections by adoption of public policy that rewards end-use efficiency and penalizes inefficiency, so that we actually end up with the same or better end-use services while driving total energy demand down.

At the same time, we ramp up deployment of energy supply technologies that tap indefinitely sustainable energy flows rather than relying on stored energy. The cheapest of these (wind generation) is already less than half the price of nukes. We overcome the inherent variability of most of these flows by implementing energy storage technologies (batteries, hydrogen fuel, pumped hydro, others). And we aim to decentralize energy supply, to take advantage of local energy flows (wind, sun, earth heat) and economies of scale from mass production of relatively small generation machines, and match energy supply type (heat, fuel, electricity) to local demand (hot water, mobility, lighting).

Nukes don't really figure on the soft path.

The soft path doesn't end. Its aim is sustainability, and it will get there with much less total expenditure, and much less social disruption, than the hard path.

At present, our leaders and opinion makers seem pretty determined to shove us onto the hard path and keep us there; very few actually appear to have thought these issues through. And it seems to me that if we let them do this, and the bigger we allow our total energy consumption to grow, the harder it is going to be to get back on the soft path.

By and large, market forces are actually steering us pretty close to something resembling the soft path despite prevailing public policy. The last thing we need is to have that steering jerked around by astroturfed support for the nuclear lobby.

If you're seriously interested in energy policy, and you want to form your opinions based on actual numbers as opposed to vested-interest handwaving or figures pulled out of flabdablet's arse, head over to the Rocky Mountain Institute web site. Also, get hold of a copy of Amory Lovins's 1977 classic "Soft Energy Paths: toward a durable peace", and check for yourself how close those predictions from thirty years ago are to what we see today.

Wikipedia has a pretty good article on this, too, with loads of useful external links.
posted by flabdablet at 6:13 PM on June 6, 2007 [15 favorites]


France's EDF, the largest utility in the world, already generates something like 80-90% of their energy through nuclear.

Um, no. 80-90% of their electrical energy, which is maybe a quarter of their total energy usage.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:25 PM on June 6, 2007


DarkForest:yeah, you're right. Aircraft would have to continue to use fuel.

Not necessarily.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:27 PM on June 6, 2007


nuclear plants are still dangerous to surrounding communities because of their vulnerability to terrorist sabotage.

Forget terrorism. Nuclear plants are more dangerous because of their vulnerability to plain old human stupidity (builders, managers, or workers trying to cut corners, or just making dumb errors).

I know, I know. New nuclear plants are perfect and nothing can go wrong. That's what they said about the old ones, too.

I had a roommate in college who was getting his master's in nuclear engineering. He spouted those same nuclear industry cliches... until he actually started working in the field. Then he saw the cost-cutting, the mistakes, and the large gap between propaganda and reality. He became a nuclear-power skeptic very quickly.

I'm sure they are somewhat safer than they used to be, but nothing is idiot-proof. And the problem with nuclear is that when things go wrong, they can go very, very wrong.

There's also the waste issue. Yes, in theory that problem has been solved, but in practice it hasn't.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 6:44 PM on June 6, 2007


Steven: By "their energy" I mean EDF's generated energy, not France's or the EU's consumed energy.

True story: I know of a large utility in northern Europe with a big nuclear plant that pumps water up hills all day with its plant into a reservoir. At night, they open a dam and the water flows down, running a separate plant and generating emissions-free hydro power for the Benelux market. This allows our utility to meet their required percentage of green power. Isn't green power the greatest?
posted by charlesv at 6:54 PM on June 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


Every time there's a thread on nuclear weapons, you have people like flabdablet posting who don't know what they're talking about.

Here is a very important fact about energy efficiency, which the green movement likes to hold up as a panacea because it avoids making tough choices about production: increases in energy efficiency don't reduce energy consumption; they increase it.

Money that is saved through efficiencies is reinvested in new energy-intensive applications.

You change your old appliances for new, energy-efficient ones. You change all your lightbulbs to compact fluorescents. As a result, you save $200 a year on energy, say. Do you just put that in a bank account? No, you buy a flight to Hawaii. Has your CO2 footprint gone down? If the power had been produced by a nuclear station, it might just have gone up.

A business invests in energy efficiency and saves a million dollars a year at its factory. What does it do? It drops prices on its products, allowing it to sell more for the same profit, and put the savings towards expanding capacity. Lower prices mean more people buy more of the product. Gains in efficiency are offset by increases in absolute production enabled by the efficiency.

It's the paradox of energy efficiency. It may shift some demand off the grid in the short term, but in the long term, and looked at globally, it does not reduce energy consumption or CO2 emissions. Amory Lovins is deeply wrong. His basic mistake is to say, "we just need to give people their current standard of living, and we can do that at lower cost through efficiency." As long as there's money left over, people will want a higher standard of living, which means more consumption, which means higher energy use. Efficiency makes consumption of energy more affordable - it makes wealth more efficient. It does not stop the growth of demand.

As for these alternatives, I don't know where flabdablet gets his numbers, but in Ontario wind costs twice what nuclear does. (New nuclear is being built at a cost per kilowatt-hour that is competitive with fossil fuels, and you get none of the nasty emissions.) And there is the fundamental problem of wind and solar: they're intermittent. Because there is no efficient (cost-effective) way to store energy, it needs to be produced on demand, so you can never rely on wind and solar for more than a small fraction of production. You always need to have backup capacity for a cloudy/still day.
posted by Dasein at 6:59 PM on June 6, 2007 [11 favorites]


I'm sure they are somewhat safer than they used to be, but nothing is idiot-proof. And the problem with nuclear is that when things go wrong, they can go very, very wrong.

The thing about that is: most of nature and most of the planet doesn't care much about radiation; they simply don't notice moderate amounts of the stuff. Humans are uniquely rad-vulnerable. We're the ones benefiting from the power, so we should be the ones paying for mistakes, no?

With nuclear power, we have a big problem for humans if we make a mistake. With coal and gas, we have a big problem for every living thing on the planet even if we do everything perfectly.
posted by Malor at 6:59 PM on June 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


Another concern in this thought experiment is the lack of qualified technical staff in the US. I don't have the numbers with me but I remember talking to a professor at a very well respected US university who was telling me that his department might have to cancel their nuclear engineering program because they had so few US citizen students that the government was no longer interested in underwriting the expense. Since there is so little new nuclear engineering going on in this country it is not a field that is very attractive to ambitious engineers, and as such a program on that scale would require a major academic, as well as technical, retooling program.
posted by frieze at 7:14 PM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


(batteries, hydrogen fuel, pumped hydro, others)

Batteries? Let me tell you about batteries. When I was in a power plant, they had two rooms, maybe 10x15' each, lined with the biggest batteries you ever saw. With all these, they hoped to start up one of the small gas turbines in case of a total blackout. Batteries also waste energy to keep charged, and then they wear out and are made of toxic waste. Not sustainable. Capacitors are similar to batteries, but the best capacitors aren't ready to replace your cell-phone battery or your AA.

I don't know enough about hydrogen's efficiency and other characteristics to really say anything about it.

Pumped hydro can store a bunch of power, and won't self-discharge or wear out right away, but that means dams and artificial lakes. I don't think of those as nice either.

Here's sustainability and environmental friendliness: fission for now. The plants that are too expensive were built thirty years ago. Get some better ones, and start on those thorium ones that could last a good long time, just in case. But hopefully, ITER comes through and we can do fusion for a while. The fission and fusion don't really pollute (seriously, dump the spent fuel rods in the middle of Greenland or Antarctica- it would probably be better than the toxic wastes produced by large-scale conversion to solar.) Then, with all that energy, put the solar panels in space, where they can actually work well. That's sustainability. At that point, the next environmental issue with energy is probably waste heat.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:28 PM on June 6, 2007


alms is wrong. Nuclear is cost-competitive, and we know what do to with spent fuel, our politicians just can't get around to authorizing burying it. Hs points about terrorism don't explain 30 years of non-construction. The real reason was people got spooked after Three Mile Island, even though hardly any radiation was released there. With more modern reactor design, nuclear is as safe as it comes. I'll take small amounts of containable waste over massive atmospheric emissions any day.
You mean that it released less radiation than a coal fired plant does in a day, thanks to the crap in the coal that goes up the smoke stack.

Personally, I think a mix of nuclear and hydro is the way to go, perhaps with a few gas turbines thrown in there to handle extra high peak loads during droughts.

The track record of the US nuclear industry is pretty darn good, although not perfect by any means, unless perfect means "no significant radiation release by a civilian reactor in the US," and that's with reactors that are substantially less fault tolerant than current designs. All of the transportation and disposal problems people go on about are all solved problems, but with the activists refusing to get out of the way of making our current situation safer (say, by not storing spent fuel in relatively vulnerable on site storage instead of in incredibly sturdy shipping casks) because they think it would open the door to new nuclear reactors in the US.

Unlike what anti-nuke activists would have us believe, spent fuel reprocessing will extend the life of plain uranium plants (with no need for breeders or anything of that sort) for a few hundred years. Hopefully by then we'll have figured out fusion, more efficient solar, or even something entirely different.

All that said, we don't really even need to stop with the internal combustion engines, we just need to stop digging carbon up out of the ground and releasing it into the atmosphere. Whether we stop by using biodiesel or thermal depolymerization or any other means to extract or create oil from carbon that's already in the carbon cycle doesn't matter much. Obviously we need to work on efficiency gains so we can bury some of the carbon we've already dug up, but half the battle at this point is not making the problem worse.

Of course, this is all academic because there are several large industries who have planted themselves firmly against doing anything that would stop us from digging up various hydrocarbons from the ground, whether it be oil, natural gas, or coal. Those people would rather us switch to hydrogen, which is no solution at all, thanks to the inefficiency of creating it.
posted by wierdo at 7:54 PM on June 6, 2007


We're not exactly on a nuclear power plant building spree. A nuclear plant hasn't been built here for 30 years. A permit is in the process of being granted but breaking ground at the site is still a ways off.

In my opinion, it's fairly likely we will see a number of them constructed in the next ten years or so, but I doubt that they will be producing more than their current percentage of the electrical supply (about 20%) for another few decades. We aren't going to reduce our natural gas power plants any time soon. Natural gas is just about it for peaking production. Because the U.S. is so rich in coal, we'll stay with it for economic reasons. Coal gassification may be a workable process right now, if it isn't, the kinks will get worked out. That is the model that is most likely to be the predominant type of plant built over the next few decades.

I agree, that hypothetically, nuclear plants could take over a lot of our baseload capacity. We could build another 150 plants or so, but if all that electricity was being produced by uranium, prices on coal and gas would drop sharply. Even if those fuels couldn't be used in the U.S. because of new environmental regulations, the price drop could make it feasible to sell to other countries. So, the environmental benefit might be less than figured even in a best case scenario.

I don't know how much higher peak electricity usage is over baseload production, but I do know that its rate of increase is predicted to be substantially higher than baseload's rate of increase. For what it's worth, this is one spot where solar power could be an effective solution for the everyday consumer.

The fact that there is a bit of a shortage in nuclear power engineers and technicians is not a major issue. Supply and demand is our friend. If we ever get a few of these gazillion dollar sites running, they'll find people to run them. Qualified people. The Navy isn't going to stop training people in nuclear power any time soon. Admiral Rickover created about as strong and effective of an educational institution as imaginable. If industry starts raising salaries to attract workers, the Navy will expand its program and universities will start up new ones. This isn't much of a stumbling block.

On preview (reading TheOnlyCoolTim's post):

A few years ago I read an article about a guy who wanted to build a large number of solar panels on the moon. This was an engineer who had been affiliated with NASA. Many serious people thought his idea was feasible just 50-100 years ahead of his time. This is a probable future path.

And weirdo's:

I find biodiesel pretty interesting. But for those who are concerned with environmental issues it is creating more problems than it is solving. In Indonesia they are clearing jungles so they can increase production of palm oil. Biodiesel will be of real benefit if they can find a way to produce it from algae.
posted by BigSky at 8:02 PM on June 6, 2007


BigSky, Re: naval nuclear power

The Naval Nuclear Power training pipeline is but a shadow of its former self. I am reasonably certain that if I had been around to make an attempt at it while Rickover was still in charge, I wouldn't have made it through. There were several people that I met that I know shouldn't have.

Just before I got out I spoke to someone from my ship who went to teach at Power School, and he said they were under pressure from the command to reduce student attrition.

The salaries for Commercial nuclear power are already pretty high, especially to those getting paid E4/E5 and pulling 18 hour days 6 days out of 7 (in port!). Most of the guys I worked with were keeping power plants as 'fall back' jobs for when they got out, because the plants are always hiring.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:43 PM on June 6, 2007


For more on the damage so-called "environmentalists" are doing by blocking safe, clean nuclear energy (prolonging our dependence on coal and oil in the meantime), Penn and Teller's Bullshit! had an episode this season ("Nukes, Hybrids, and Lesbians") that gave the anti-nuclear crowd the usual P&T treatment. It refuted most of what the skeptics here have offered -- in fact, using mostly the same bullet points alms did.
posted by SuperNova at 9:46 PM on June 6, 2007


ArgentCorvid,

I'm surprised and sorry to hear that. My father went through the Navy-Westinghouse program at Idaho Falls in the mid-70s on the civilian side. Afterwards he taught there for a year. Rickover was very old at that point and not really around. I think my father only crossed paths with him once. Anyway, my father had a fair amount of experience in the nuclear industry, including working startup for reactor 3 at Palo Verde. He had a rather low opinion of most of the engineers he came across but he thought the graduates of the Navy Nuclear program were better than most and that the education he received there was vastly superior to the training engineers could get anywhere else.
posted by BigSky at 10:18 PM on June 6, 2007


To respond to the original question: Rod Adams owns a research company that does reactir design. He claims there would be between 1000 years and 100'000 years worth of uranium fuel available, at current energy consumption rates, with the longer estimates assuming that fancy technique are being used to extract more energy from "spent" fuel.

You can watch his talk at Google.
posted by gmarceau at 11:26 PM on June 6, 2007


Here is a very important fact about energy efficiency, which the green movement likes to hold up as a panacea because it avoids making tough choices about production:

Maybe we could just stop feeding coal into our thermal generators, and run them off your straw men instead.

No credible commentator offers energy efficiency as a panacea. Energy efficiency alone will not assure future energy supply. But pursuing opportunities to stop pissing energy up against the wall for no end-use benefit is the most cost-effective way to cut present emission levels, and should be a priority for public policy. Arguing about whether it's better to subsidize nukes or wind farms is like arguing about whether buckets or bilge pumps would be a better choice to stop the boat from sinking, when we can see where the hole in the hull is and we have the capacity to fix it.

Energy efficiency is not the be all and end all of the soft energy path. Decentralized generation, decentralized storage, and adoption of whatever energy transformation technology is most appropriate to the local end use are the other keys.

It's completely misleading to imply, as so many do, again and again and again ad nauseam, that the soft path is unrealistic tree hugging greenie commie anticapitalist ineffectual wishful crap, simply because none of its parts in isolation will fix everything.

If you reckon Amory Lovins is wrong, point to numbers that refute him. This handwaving crap is noise.

increases in energy efficiency don't reduce energy consumption; they increase it.

That may be true in some cases. As a blanket statement, it's unsupportable.

Money that is saved through efficiencies is reinvested in new energy-intensive applications.

Leave out the words "energy-intensive" and you might have some chance of making that argument stand up.

You change your old appliances for new, energy-efficient ones.

I fitted a solar hot water heater, displacing roughly AU$250/year in off-peak electric heating. It cost me AU$2700 to do that, which I expanded my mortgage to get. Financial savings from this arrangement will probably start arriving in about ten years; for the time being, it's roughly cost-neutral.

You change all your lightbulbs to compact fluorescents. As a result, you save $200 a year on energy, say.

At my house, I'm achieving about that level of savings from the light bulb replacements alone.

I have made no significant changes to the way I use my other appliances.

Do you just put that in a bank account? No, you buy a flight to Hawaii.

I'd be more likely simply not to bother to earn the $200 in the first place.

Has your CO2 footprint gone down? If the power had been produced by a nuclear station, it might just have gone up.

I'm not sure what you're getting at there.

In fact my house's electricity-derived CO2 footprint is now zero, because my demand is matched by supply from a generation plant in Queensland built to run off sugar cane bagasse that would otherwise have been burnt as waste.

It costs me about 2% more per year to have this supply arrangement than it would to get coal fired electricity. Part of the lighting savings pay for that; the bulk of them means I can just work marginally fewer hours.

A business invests in energy efficiency and saves a million dollars a year at its factory. What does it do? It drops prices on its products, allowing it to sell more for the same profit, and put the savings towards expanding capacity. Lower prices mean more people buy more of the product. Gains in efficiency are offset by increases in absolute production enabled by the efficiency.

There are no numbers in this argument except the million bucks you pulled out of your arse to start it off. The rest is all handwaving.

If you are claiming that energy demand reduction due to efficiency gains is always and everywhere cancelled out by the knock-on effects of lowered cost of production, you will need to support that claim with some actual numbers before it should be taken the least bit seriously.

I mean, I could mount an equally credible handwaving argument that organizations that embrace energy efficiency, thereby lowering their costs of production, would tend to displace less energy-efficient competitors from the marketplace altogether, thereby lowering total energy consumption. It's all noise.

As for these alternatives, I don't know where flabdablet gets his numbers, but in Ontario wind costs twice what nuclear does. (New nuclear is being built at a cost per kilowatt-hour that is competitive with fossil fuels, and you get none of the nasty emissions.)

Darlington Nuclear Generating Station is Ontario Power Generation's newest CANDU (CANada Deuterium Uranium) nuclear generating station. It is a 4-unit station with a total output of 3,524 megawatts (MW)...

1993: Construction completed at Darlington, a decade late and at a total cost of $14.4 billion.

the four Darlington Units ... achieved a unit capacity factor of 90.6 per cent in 2005

$14.4 billion / (3524MW * 91%) = $4.5/W

Huron Wind Farm has a nameplate rating of 9MW, is achieving capacity factors of around 25%, and cost $15 million.

$15 million / (9MW * 25%) = $6.7/W

I stand corrected.

What's a coal-burner worth these days?

And there is the fundamental problem of wind and solar: they're intermittent. Because there is no efficient (cost-effective) way to store energy, it needs to be produced on demand, so you can never rely on wind and solar for more than a small fraction of production. You always need to have backup capacity for a cloudy/still day.


One of Amory Lovins's interesting ideas is using people's cars as general purpose energy storage devices. Let's look at some numbers.

The Tesla Roadster's battery pack is good for 56kWh of energy storage. If we take that as typical, and assume we're looking at a future scenario where the entire car fleet is electric, and assume about quarter of a billion cars in the US, that works out to roughly 14 TWh worth of car batteries. The same kinds of numbers would apply to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. And although the primary purpose of vehicles is transport, in fact most of them spend most of their time parked.

By way of comparison, today's total US electricity production is about about 4 PWh/year, roughly 11 TWh/day.

So if the US were to give up oil and go all-electric, more than a day's worth of electric energy would, in fact, be stored in passenger cars alone (never mind trucks and buses). It doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to see distributed load-levelling becoming standard practice: people could buy electricity when it's cheap, store it in their own cars, and sell some of it back when it's expensive and their cars are parked.

I'm at least as optimistic about the energy storage problem being solvable as the nuke fanbois are about their little waste storage issue.
posted by flabdablet at 1:44 AM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


If we stopped using hydrocarbons then we would have to stop using nuclear too. Mining of uranium relies on extensive use of an explosive called ANFO which is largely a long chain hydrocarbon. It's use leads to considerable emissions of CO2.

A potential problem for future expansion of nuclear is not just the amount of uranium available but also the concentrations in which it exists. As demand goes up, then lower concentrations will become economic, however, these lower concentrations require increased mining in order to produce the same volume of uranium, this implies increased use of ANFO and thus increased climate change emissions. Storm and Smith have presented evidence that over the full lifecycle electrical generation for nuclear generation, then CC emissions may be on a par or even exceed those associated with electrical generation from gas.
posted by biffa at 3:44 AM on June 7, 2007


Supernova wrote: Penn and Teller's Bullshit! had an episode this season ("Nukes, Hybrids, and Lesbians") that gave the anti-nuclear crowd the usual P&T treatment.

Part One is here and the other two parts linked from there.
posted by Martin E. at 7:04 AM on June 7, 2007


[this is getting way far afield, further derails to what is basically a math question can go to metatalk or email]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:08 AM on June 7, 2007


metatalk thread here for anyone interested.
posted by DarkForest at 1:42 PM on June 7, 2007


biffa, you raise an interesting point about ANFO, but you oversimplify. ANFO stands for Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil. By weight it's mostly Ammonium Nitrate. Yes, the fuel oil comes from oil oil, but I'm guessing you could probably concoct a similar mixture by substituting biodiesel. My guess is that bulk of the fossil fuel used in producing ANFO comes from the industrial synthesis of Ammonium Nitrate, which requires lots of hydrogen. As we know, most hydrogen production currently comes from the decomposition of fossil fuels, primarily natural gas.
posted by Good Brain at 10:14 AM on June 8, 2007


Which Power Generation Technologies Will Take The Lead In Response To Carbon Controls? (Google cache) analyzes the cost of various building new power generation capacity using a variety of technologies (coal, gas, nuclear, wind, etc). Costs are given both for the current scenario -- without carbon constraints -- and the future scenario -- with carbon constraints.

Without carbon constraints, coal wins. With carbon constraints wind is cheapest and nuclear comes in second.
posted by alms at 2:56 PM on June 20, 2007


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