We Need More Growth of Nuclear Power

With this post, I’m beginning a new series or category of bog posts that I’m loosely terming “A Better Future.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the grail of infinite power, coupled with the enormous rise in gas prices this week.

While I am all in favor of reducing wasteful consumption, increasing efficiency, and generally being smarter about everything, I do not believe we will ever reduce our energy requirements in the long-term. We are always inventing, always creating, and most things we create require power in some form. It’s a fool’s errand to try to reduce the actual energy we’ll use overall. This doesn’t even take into account all of the peoples of the world who are just now beginning to participate in the global economy. There will always be something to eat up the energy we produce. Fighting against this trend seems to me, in a way, trying to run evolution and progress backwards. Our race as a whole won’t do that. Given this, it makes much more sense to develop clean, efficient, abundant, cheap sources of energy.

Increasingly, I am convinced that the way to build out a vast network of nuclear reactors powering our grid. We have an enormous network of power distribution–we should be taking more advantage of it.

According to the US Department of DOE, our 103 active nuclear plants provide 20% of the nation’s electricity. You can even get the operational status of each one.

Worldwide, the IAEA predicts that the electric power generation capacity of the world in 2015 will be roughly 20,000 billion kilowatt hours. In that year, nuclear generation will provide roughly 2,972 billion kilowatt hours, or less than 15%. That report has a lot of other information and I highly encourage you to read it.

We need to increase that percentage drastically–to the point where it supplies power not just to homes, but to plug-in hybrid cars, and everything else.

Nuclear power has gotten a bad rap in the US and other parts of the world for a long time. I think the attitudes are changing, but not quickly enough. At what point will the benefits outweigh the risks in most minds? I think that point is almost upon us.

With the increasing development of pebble-bed reactors, nuclear technology is advancing. We need to increase this development to promote further advances in the safety and efficiency of these promising power sources. None of the operational reactors in the US are pebble-bed reactors (aka HTGR–high temperature gas-cooled reactors), nor are any planned. There is a research reactor at Idaho National Laboratory. All of the commercial HTGR development is taking place for other countries. These reactors, while not universally acclaimed, seem to be safer, cheaper, and the spent fuel less able to be repurposed as weapons-grade material.

We can’t wait for others to do these things–we need to do them. Our country needs to get in on the act at a higher level of commitment than ever. We can’t wait for these technologies to become perfected, either–that will happen over time. As we use a technology more, we will learn new techniques, ways to improve efficiency, and how to lower costs further.

There is no excuse for the US not  to be a leader in this area–we have one of the largest energy demands, the most capital, the most to gain by investing in it, and the most  to lose by not doing it.

The next generation of nuclear technology may not be the ultimate energy savior we’re looking for, but it’s a huge step in the right direction–a step we’ve delayed taking for too long.

Nuclear certainly has some down sides, but I’ll discuss those in a future entry.

Relevant Links:

  1. Pebble-bed reactors at wikipedia
  2. Energy Information Administration / Department of Energy
  3. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
  4. Inconvenient  Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green (Wired Magazine)
  5. Idaho National Laboratory
  6. Module Pebble Bed Reactor (MIT)

7 thoughts on “We Need More Growth of Nuclear Power

  1. Harsha

    Interesting post, Ben.

    Just watched a documentary called “A Crude Awakening” from 2006 about the oil crisis. They interviewed the head of the dept. of Physics at CalTech & asked him about his opinion on nuclear energy being able to completely replace energy produced currently via oil / coal / other fossil fuels & he was of the opinion that nuclear energy was at best a stop-gap solution. He said “To replace the approximately 1 terawatt of energy currently consumed daily, we would have to build about 10,000 of the biggest nuclear reactors & even if these reactors start working at full capacity, we would run through all the available Uranium -235 in about 10-20 years, not to mention the problem of dealing with the radioactive waste generated in this process”.

    Just my $0.02. You’ve obviously done your research, what is your opinion on this? By going nuclear, are we choosing an untapped fossil fuel (U-235) which might run out in a couple of decades, over one that’s almost depleted (oil)?

  2. Ben Post author

    Harsha, I had not heard that there were only 10-20 years worth of uranium, but I will research that some more.

    The immediate thing that comes to mind, though, is that there have been predictions about crude oil running out in the same time frame for many, many years, and none of those have come true–there are many more reserves and we keep getting better at finding them and taking advantage of. (though, of course, some of this is because the price has gone up, making it more worthwhile to tap previously unprofitable reserves)

    I also believe in human ingenuity–we can find more uranium; we can use it more efficiently. If demand were to increase for uranium, more sources might suddenly become available and plentiful.

    It’s not a perfect solution, of course, and any non-renewable resource will have an ultimate limit, but I think all things considered, nuclear is still the way to go for the forseeable future. Research will continue with fusion, solar and other renewables will continue to be improved.

    The waste problem is real, and I will address that in an upcoming entry, but in short I think we need to decide what are priorities are: pollution everywhere or a localized dump for toxic materials?

  3. Peter

    Harsha has it right, there isn’t enough U235 in the world to make this work. Just like there isnt enough anything to make the current level of consumption provide all billion of us with the life style that us luck billion have. The maths is simple we would need six earths.

    It is also debateable whether you ever get any energy out of a nuclear power station. By the time you add up the energy required to build the station thousands of tonnes of steel, concrete etc and the energy to process the fuel before and after plus the energy to decommission and match that against the energy produced to end users it is doubtful there is any positive gain. Add that to the fact they are supposed to have very low carbon footprints, a tonne of concrete produces at least a tonne of C02, it is hard to see why this is a good idea. Except of course to politicians who want ot be seen as doing something.

    Reduce, reuse, repair and recycle and of these Reduce is the most important. In order of priority. Nuclear is not even in the starting blocks.

  4. Ben Post author

    Peter, Fair points, but newer types of nuclear reactors require far fewer resources.

    I definitely agree with you that recycling all resources needs to become a fundamental practice of society. Unfortunately, I think our technology needs to improve this drastically to make it easier and cheaper.

  5. Pingback: Nuclear Energy and the Question of Uranium Supply | Philosophical Geek

  6. shawn

    Just to put what i’ve researched over the years is probably the best choice we can make is using renewable energies and a mix of nuclear until we can fully utilize fusion energy. The great thing with fusion we have 1,000’s of year worth of hydrogen on earth in the form of water and the by products do not remain radioactive for thousands of years and we would primarily produce helium as a waste product. I’m only 16 but thats what I can see as the best future. Also for continuing to use oil if we can become good at using enzymes to break down cellulose we could that to produce our liquid alcohol fuels to take the place of hydrocarbons for heavy transport vehicles and possibly for aviation. Also this cellulose could be from waste paper, sawdust, or really any other waste source.

  7. Ben Post author

    I’m not sure waiting for tenuous breakthroughs in fusion is the best strategy. I think a combination of renewables and nuclear are the way to go for the forseeable future. I also think the problems of nuclear waste storage have largely been solved and that it’s mostly a political problem, not technological or scientific, which is unfortunate.

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