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Nuclear power won't fix the energy problem

  1. Jun 29, 2008 #1

    Ivan Seeking

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    In the midst of the debate about the price of oil, constantly we hear the reference to nuclear power as a solution. This is a fallacious argument that I have probably heard referenced at least 50 times, here, and in the news media.

    As is evident from McCain's suggestion of a 300 million dollar prize for the company that can develop an effective battery for electric automobiles, which is silly because there is already incentive enough, we don't have practical electric cars. Indeed, it has never been shown that a practical electric car can ever be made that would compete with the performance of traditional transportation technologies, much less at a competitive price. Nor can industry use electric power for shipping, trucking, aviation, etc. Nor do we have the infrastructure to support a nation of electric cars and trucks.

    We can certainly fill little nitches in the transportation needs of the average person with electric vehicles, but in the grand scheme of things, the only option to oil is to use alternative fuels. Don't be fooled by the red herring of nuclear power as an option to oil. We wouldn't be able to use it.
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2008
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  3. Jun 29, 2008 #2

    russ_watters

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    Re: Nuclear power won't solve the energy crisis

    Odd, but except for the title, I don't see anything in that post that has anything to do with nuclear power. The point of the post seems to be that electric cars aren't viable. Agreed. So what does that have to do with nuclear power?
     
  4. Jun 29, 2008 #3

    Ivan Seeking

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    Nuclear power is often discussed within the context of the oil crisis. It is a misleading and fruitless discussion because we don't have viable electric cars.

    For one, we saw this here in the thread about $139 a barrel oil.
    https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=239058

    And also in the thread about genetically modified organisms
    https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=241122

    I agree that the electric grid is another issue of concern, but it has little to nothing to do with the price of oil.
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2008
  5. Jun 29, 2008 #4
    But...if we use nuclear power instead of coal we can use the steam powered engine again! America has enough coal lol.
     
  6. Jun 29, 2008 #5

    Ivan Seeking

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    Yes, on that point one has to consider whether it is cheaper to produce clean energy from coal, or cheaper to make the nuclear industry failsafe; including against the unintended proliferation of nuclear materials, as well as against terrorist attacks and sabotage. Since I don't believe anything can be made failsafe... And in fact a viable alternative fuel could replace coal.
     
  7. Jun 29, 2008 #6
    I was making a joke, sry if it was transparent.

    It is obvious that we will not be taking around portable nuclear cars. No one will disagree with you on that point. However, I have heard it discussed that in the next ten years or earlier we will need more power plants for daily use power. Nuclear power is very clean, produces little waste, and more importantly produces a lot of power!
     
  8. Jun 29, 2008 #7

    vanesch

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    I think you are right in the middle term that no form of electricity production can do something seriously about transportation, but then one should also say the same about solar and wind power. I have to say that I was against biofuels on land for different reasons (low - or negative ? - efficiency etc....) but I have to say that your algae look promising.

    The main reason to switch to nuclear is to get rid of the massive use of fossil fuels, and especially coal, mainly for their CO2 production and the possibility of AGW and the danger they represent to public health. Also, the US has serious coal reserves, but not all nations have that. Nuclear is much healthier than coal - contrary to all propaganda against it.

    In the long term, I'm not sure whether electric, or hydrogen cars are not a possibility. If in the mean time algae come up big time, then I guess the market will decide (with a serious advantage for biofuels, which requires the minimal change in infrastructure and technology).

    In that case, we have two solutions for the transport problem, both which get rid of CO2 production and of oil. So that's going to be ok.

    But there are contradictions in the "green" discourse - simply because they hate for ideological reasons - nuclear. It's the basis of their trade. Why do they annoy people with "reducing energy consumption" which they put equal to electricity consumption ? Why do they promote wind and solar ? Also to "solve the oil crisis" ? No, the only effect this can have is to reduce electricity production by coal, and that is something that contributes to less CO2 exhaust, and less pollution (public health) ; however, nuclear does so too, and in "unlimited" quantities, for a reasonable price.

    In other words, as you correctly point out, there's no link yet between "oil consumption" and "electricity consumption". If we only have a problem with oil, then people shouldn't be annoyed to switch off their TV sets instead of holding them in standby, and they shouldn't be showing off "I have low-consumption light bulbs"...
    It is only because coal pollutes and produces CO2 that turning down electricity production, produced with coal, is beneficial. The other solution would be to produce electricity with a clean technology, such as nuclear (brrrrr!) or wind and solar....

    However, wind and solar face a serious problem (apart from being gigantic and expensive): they don't produce electricity when we need it! As long as it is a minority contribution, the other means of production can adapt and buffer, but as of now we don't know any technology that could run a country electrically on, say, 70% solar and wind. And the reason why is exactly the same as with electric cars (but scaled up!): we have no way to store electricity. True, there are pumping stations, but they should be monstrous to take over base load.

    So in order for solar and wind to be potentially a majority source of electricity in a country, we have to solve the same problem as what is used as an argument against electric cars: good "batteries" of one or other kind. So in as much as, without this, nuclear (or wind, or solar) is not going to be a replacement for cars (and oil consumption), in the same way, wind and solar are not going to replace coal for electricity production. Nuclear can without problems.

    So one is mixing a lot of technologies and what is presented as an unsurmountable difficulty for one point (to serve one's agenda) is going to be a non-problem for another (again, to serve one's agenda).

    In summary: nuclear is a good, clean, and working replacement for electricity production with coal. It kills much less people through pollution, and it doesn't produce CO2. Solar and wind cannot yet come close until we have a good way to store electricity.
    No source of electricity production can solve the transport problem until we have a good way to store electricity, or run on hydrogen. So it won't replace oil consumption. However, biofuels can in principle, as long as they don't use land agricultural surface.
     
  9. Jun 29, 2008 #8

    vanesch

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    The nuclear industry (in the west) is already "failsafe" for ages. That doesn't mean that nothing can happen, but it means that on the long term, it generates on average much less victims than most other human activities - which should be the criterium for "failsafe". I'm not sure that one can call the oil industry "failsafe" either. What we have to see, is what is the risk (the probability that an average person will die of it), and how that risk compares to other risks that are accepted. No matter how you do that, it turns out that nuclear is at least 4 or 5 orders of magnitude safer than driving cars. Not many industrial activities can claim that.

    As to nuclear proliferation and terrorism, I think you guys have been fed too much terror-propaganda. The terrorist making a nuke in its basement is mostly a fantasy, and the only material with which it would be thinkable is going to be HEU, something that is not present in the civil nuclear industry. Making a plutonium bomb is much harder, and needs serious infrastructure, so the help of a nation, which makes them subject to retaliation. Also, the civil nuclear fuel cycle of a country is not the only way to get nuclear material. I would think that by far the best way would be laser isotope separation, making HEU.

    Finally, even a nuclear terrorist attack, serious as it might be, won't stop the world to turn. Terrorists don't want to kill loads of people, they want to induce politicians to take stupid decisions that serve their agenda. The best way to counter terrorists is not to take into account their actions. If one would have done that after 9/11, OBL would be seriously pissed off. If the imaginary threat of nuclear terrorism would induce countries to put their economy, public health, and who knows, maybe earth's climate in danger by refusing to use the technology that can help them solve their problems, then they have already won!
     
  10. Jun 29, 2008 #9

    Ivan Seeking

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    I completely agree that at this time, neither solar or wind can replace coal or nuclear power. It does appear that very promising solar technologies may change this equation with innovations such as paint-on solar cells, but as is often the case, this is still pie in the sky. As for wind, there just isn't enough of it - unless perhaps we go to flying tethered wind turbines that utilize the airstream near the 30,000 foot level, which might be doable. At that altitude, we find wind speeds of between 100 and 200 mph, which could provide enough energy density to be practical. But again, this is a virgin technology [which, interestingly, was predicted in HG Well's 1933 novel "The Shape of Things to Come".]

    As for terrorism, I don't think this problem is exaggerated. In fact, it is predicted by intelligence experts that there is a 50% change of a terrorist nuclear attack on the US within ten years. And beyond that, dirty bombs are the most credible risk. This in itself is not such as concern if we are talking about one or two isolated incidents, but it is also possible that with the mass proliferation of nuclear materials, dirty bombs could be a standard mode of attack.

    It isn't the people with a little common sense and grudge that worry me. What worries me are the maniacs. The world has always had maniacs. And even in the US we find people who WANT the world to end as a part of God's plan. In fact, they want to help it along. Interstingly, they support John McCain.

    The world has never experienced a dramatic loss of population due to a meteor strike in recorded history, yet our changes of dying from a meteor are greater than the chances of dying in an airline disaster. Why? Because WHEN it happens, millions or billions will die. IMO, nuclear energy poses the same problem. The numbers may not be as large as for a meteoric event, but one event will change the measured risk to benefit ratio dramatically, and future generations will wonder how we could have been so short-sighted.

    It is also a fact that, terrorists and security concerns aside, coal power is much cheaper than nuclear power. I will dig up the reference when I am back in my office, but historically, coal cost something like five cents per kw-hr, and nuclear cost something closer to seven or eight cents. And it is my understanding this cost does not include decomissioning, which is tremendously expensive. So before we even consider security, we have room to work to make coal cleaner. In fact, by using algae as a CO2 scrubber, in part we can fix two problems at once.
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2008
  11. Jun 29, 2008 #10

    Ivan Seeking

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    But we agree on the most important point: Electric power cannot presently solve the oil problem.
     
  12. Jun 29, 2008 #11

    Dale

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    I think I disagree.

    But first, how about defining some terms. What is "the oil problem"? IMO, it is that the transportation sector relies almost entirely on petroleum. In that sense it is a question of diversification.

    Nuclear power would be an important part of that diversification. We should be able to choose between nuclear, coal, wind, hydroelectric, biofuels, and petroleum for a significant portion of our transportation needs. That will prevent fluctuations in the price of a single commodity from impacting the overall economy so dramatically.
     
  13. Jun 29, 2008 #12

    Chi Meson

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    I think we should stop using terms such as "replacement." What we ought to be moving toward is an increase in Nuclear production to take it from 10% to 30% of the grid demand (I'm using extremely rounded figures). Wind and solar (solar furnace and photovoltaic) should go from "trace amounts" to at least 20% in the near future and expand from there. Hydroelectric provides 20%. That leaves 30% to be provided by coal and NG.

    On top of that, we should expect a reduction in demand from this grid as people move toward point-of-use energy generators (rooftop collectors, PVs, small wind turbines, small hydro-generators) where possible. These generators, when inter-tied with the grid need no batteries. Energy is pushed into the grid when not needed at the source point (your meter runs backwards), then energy is taken from the grid when the sun is out.

    Fluctuation of demand and supply through daily and seasonal cycles is easily predicted and adaptable. Vast storage units will not be necessary.

    The price of all fossil fuels is still to cheap to force this vision to come true. But give it a week or two.
     
  14. Jun 29, 2008 #13

    vanesch

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    Ok, we're trying to solve real world problems, so we should consider working technologies: technologies that have demonstrated their technical and economical viability on large scale. It is IMO erroneous to include in a real-world planning any future research and development. When the results are there, we can talk about it. All the rest is "unobtainium" to me.

    The fundamental problem with wind and with solar is electricity storage. On top of that come problems like price, size of the installation and all that. But these can be eventually taken into the balance. Electricity storage can't. If it isn't there, your installation doesn't work. Period.

    When did they state that ? 7 years ago ? It depends of course what you call "a nuclear terrorist attack". In fact, it already took place. The victim was a single person, he got a polonium injection. It happened in the UK. With some rhetoric, we can call it a nuclear terrorist attack. There. But then, it doesn't represent anything serious. To me, a nuclear terrorist attack is the detonation of a nuclear weapon, period.

    Well, by the time it becomes a standard mode of attack, we can think of how to tackle the problem. In fact, it is true that a dirty bomb is the ideal terrorist weapon: it doesn't do much harm, and it scares the hell out of the targeted nation. But a dirty bomb, you can make it with any industrial or medical source of radiation. It is much easier to obtain and much easier to handle than, say, nuclear waste. So I think that if there is to be a lot of dirty bombs, the main culprit is going to be all those Cobalt sources in industry and in the medical world. It is not going to be nuclear power.

    Biological weapons seem to me a much more realistic way to kill off humanity. And that CAN be done in a basement. You just need to put together the perfect virus.

    I think you are off. Let us assume that every century, we have 200 Chernobyl disasters, and 50 Hiroshima-like bomb explosions by terrorists. Admit that I'm being generous here.

    Now, although there is some polemic about it, we can safely assume that Chernobyl didn't cause more than 10 000 victims. So 200 Chernobyls mean 2 000 000 people. Hiroshima meant about 100 000 dead. 50 Hiroshimas means 5 000 000 people dead.

    So that "terrible disaster" brought to us by nuclear power, but also by terrorism and so on, in - admit it - very generous estimations on my side, will have caused, during ONE CENTURY, 7 million dead.

    Now, car traffic alone causes about 1.2 million dead worldwide A YEAR. So that terrible technology, the reason why we can't have it, has killed as many people in one century than car driving does regularly in 6 years. And the nuclear victim numbers are, again, extremely generous. I don't think we will have 200 Chernobyls and 50 Hiroshimas in the 21st century, unless of course we go to war over some oil.

    So no matter all propaganda, nuclear technology and even nuclear terrorism isn't that destructive.

    I have seen analysis that show that nuclear and coal are on par. I guess it depends on the context. In France, for instance, there is a percentage of the price of nuclear power which is set aside for decommissioning. Then one may argue over whether it is sufficient. Now, tell me, I never understood why one should decommission an old nuclear power plant. Of course one has to remove the core, but why shouldn't we just keep the low-activity material (pressure vessel and so on) within the very strong containment building, which is a much stronger protection than anything that will ever contain that low activity material in a waste dump ? It can't be for the acre of land it uses, can it ? That wouldn't be cost-effective at all. So why is there a need to decommission nuclear power plants ? What's the rational view behind it ? The fear that the "whole country will soon be full of old nuclear power plants" ? That's not reasonable. The US has 104 nuclear power plants. With 400 of them, it could produce ALL of its electricity from nuclear. Assuming a life time of 60 years, that means on average the loss of 7 plant surfaces a year (for the whole US). You can run many millions of years that way. USA land surface: 10 million square km. Land use of a nuclear power plant (of the nuclear building): about 1000 square meters, or about 0.001 square kilometer. So you could fill up the USA with 10 billion nuclear power plants. The USA would be full of power plants after about 1.2 billion years at the rate of 7 plants a year. For the first millennia, that wouldn't be a problem, would it ?
    So if it is not a matter of the puny amount of space it takes up, why would one want to destroy an extremely strong containment building, that contains some very low active material, just to cut it to pieces, and put it somewhere else, where it takes up also some place, and is much less confined now ?

    Now, some time ago on PF, with mshelep, we did a calculation, and we found out that wind power uses actually orders of magnitude more steel than does nuclear. So I wonder if the decommissioning of wind mills is included in the price of wind energy.

    Another argument concerning the price of nuclear power: how come that France sells a lot of electricity to Germany then ? If nuclear electricity were more expensive than coal (of which the Germans have a lot), then they would not buy their electricity in France, right ?

    Moreover, the electricity price in Germany and in Italy for an industrial user is around 9 Eurocent per KWhr, while in France this is around 6 Eurocent per KWhr.
    http://www.leonardo-energy.org/Files/KEMAReport.pdf
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2008
  15. Jun 29, 2008 #14

    vanesch

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    The problem with 20% of wind and solar is that you've strained the buffer capacity of your grid to the extreme. Ask the Danes. It is as if you added 20% of variation to the already existing variation in demand. Wind and solar don't take into account the demand profile of the user.

    "Energy is pushed into the grid" (and where does it go ?) by home installations. They put an even bigger and unpredictable burden on the regulation capacity of the grid. A cloud comes over a big town: suddenly all those solar panels, which were generously providing electricity, drop their contribution. At the same time, people get inside, switch on light, TV, cooking...

    You've just increased seriously the fluctuations in demand. Moreover, wind is very very variable. You can be a week without wind. So you have to have the full backup capacity somewhere else. Solar doesn't work at night. In winter, it gets dark exactly when there is peak demand, in the early evening. So you also have to have full backup capacity.

    In other words, if you don't add storage, you have to have a fully working grid without solar and wind, that can cope with the full load, but moreover, you have to add extra regulation capacity, equal at least to the amount of wind and solar that you have in your grid, as this can turn on and off at any moment. So concerning grid investment, you have to have a better grid and provision WITH than without solar and wind. This is why may experts think that until we have a radical change in technology, 20% is about the reasonable maximum of solar/wind one can have in a grid.
     
  16. Jun 29, 2008 #15

    vanesch

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    I would like to add that I don't mind other technologies replacing nuclear! I'm not an all-nuclear buff, although I may sound like one. However, one still has to show me a working example of something that works on a large scale. Apart from fossil fuels, the only thing I know, I've seen etc... is nuclear. When I compare both, I prefer nuclear by far.

    But if one day, we have demonstrated that solar, wind, algae .... whatever is really working out, can provide 70% of a country with electricity (without the need to limit one's consumption and so on), economically and reliably, with growth potential and without introducing another serious problem, then I'm all for it. Then I think it is time to stop with nuclear too. But show me first.
     
  17. Jun 29, 2008 #16
    In terms of energy for the twenty first century, nuclear power is our best option, as I see it. Nuclear fission is the only source of power that can be quickly and readily added to the power grid to replace coal, gas, and oil plants. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power emits no pollution nor greenhouse gasses (with the exception of water vapor).

    As far as alternative energy production, solar energy is the only one that has any significant potential. Other sources of alternative energy are simply not viable for large scale implementation. Solar power is probably the best source of energy available now, but actually implementing a solar power energy solution is going to take fifty years or more, and require a very expensive and time-consuming investment in infrastructure.

    In the meantime, nuclear power can get fossil fuel plants shut down right now. Solar power requires a complete revamp of the national electric grid.
     
  18. Jun 29, 2008 #17

    russ_watters

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    Ok, that makes more sense. You weren't very specific in the OP: "The energy problem" is a pretty broad thing. If you were talking only about gas for cars, yes, I agree. Nuclear power can't help much with that energy problem unless there is a vast improvement in battery technology or hydrogen "fuel" technology.

    Btw, the first thread there expanded to discuss pretty much everything having to do with "The energy problem" (and you made the first reference to global warming in that thread, which is where nuclear power comes in) - the second makes no mention of nuclear power at all.
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2008
  19. Jun 29, 2008 #18
    I should add that nuclear power can be used to produce hydrogen, which, in some form, is likely to be the fuel which replaces petrol as a source of energy in automobiles.
     
  20. Jun 29, 2008 #19

    Dale

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    A nuclear power plant even emits less radiation than a coal power plant. (approx .009 mrem/yr vs. .03 mrem/yr)
     
  21. Jun 29, 2008 #20

    russ_watters

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    Whoa, back up a step: first one has to determine if it is possible to produce clean energy from coal. The technology just plain doesn't exist yet.
    So....nothing can be made failsafe, but we should require nuclear power to be? That's a rediculous, illogical, self-contradictory, horrendously biased thing to say.

    Cars aren't failsafe, so we shouldn't have cars.
     
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