Sunday, February 26, 2006

Nuclear Energy Hype

For some reason, Liz, Jesse, and I have been talking about nuclear power a lot latley. I'm hearing that it's being pushed pretty hard and might get some serious funding in the coming years. I googled "nuclear power radioactive waste" and found some interesting numbers and sites.

Nuclear Tourist - A site by an old nuclear engineer. Very useful.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission - a mostly useless government website.
Energy Information Admin. - good statistics on nuclear fuel production
Nuclear Information and Resource Service - an anti-nuke alternative energy site - good comparitive statistics and alternative ideas, but obviously slanted (not that that's a bad thing).
Nuclear Energy Institute - Looks like a pro-nuke lobbying institute funded by corporations (DC).

The first interesting thing I learned was about Chernobyl. Here's a copy from nuketourist.

The Chernobyl event occurred during a test and was due to a combination of design deficiencies and operator error. The event sequence included:
* A power spike which resulted in a localized overpressure of the reactor cooling system, which caused a loss of coolant (This was NOT a nuclear explosion). The power spike also causing overheating of the fuel.
* Steam release with overheating of the graphite resulted in a fire, which in turn resulted in burning and dispersal of the reactor core's contents.

BWR, PWR, CANDU, and VVER designs do not have positive void reactivity coefficients as in the Chernobyl design, nor do they have graphite. These factors preclude an event of a similar type.

A "meltdown" usually refers to when the fuel melts (molten metal at a few thousand degrees). It was dispersed by the fire caused in surrounding materials. Anyways, most of the sites say that can't happen again because they've removed all flamable materials. Safety is a huge issue.

Here's some numbers - the amount of high level radioactive waste produced in a year covers a football field 1 yard deep ( 10000 metric tons, NEI). I was surprised at how little waste that is compared to the 2 million tons of raw uranium oxide that goes into it. World energy consumption is about 2 terawatts (I'm assuming that means from power plants, NIRS) and nuclear energy is some small percentage of that (10ish I think) from about 430 plants worldwide. 90% of the radioactive waste produced is low-level with a short half-life from irridation, so things like paper, clothes, cleaning solvent, etc. This is disposed of by burying it in a concrete lined trench or bunker. The rest of the high-level waste is supposed to be buried very deeply, but there's no real burial happening yet in the US (per NEI).

Plant failures are also a huge issue - we don't want to release a bunch of radioactive junk into our environment. Nuketourist gave an estimated failure rate of less than 1 event per hundred thousand years per reactor or one per 250 years, but NIRS says one per decade. A factor of 25 is a huge difference....... Since Chernobyl was the only event that released radioactive waste outside the plant, it's been 20ish years since that happened, and there are a little over 400 plants around the world now, that's a rate of 1 event per 20 years per 400 reactors or 1 event per 20 years per 400 plants. That puts the rate closer to the nuke tourist one..... I find once a decade hard to believe since it's been a few decades since the last major event and the big freak-out after Chernobyl changed policy.

One major issue is the environmental impact. The nice thing about nuclear power is that the waste you produce is contained and not blown out into the atmosphere. We could trap a lot of the coal-burning waste products by processing the smoke but that's very expensive and only rich countries that care about their populations have started to pay for that (which is not done here....), not to mention the huge transportation issues of hauling one trillion tons of coal around each year.

But I do agree with the UN and other anti-nuke people that it's not sustainable and it does produce nasty waste. It has potential to be much better than blowing a bunch of smoke everywhere, but it has drawbacks too. The NIRS site had a good discussion of other alternates, and in depth pages about wind power. There's a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research last year (2004JD005462) that estimated 70ish terawatts was available in wind power from weather stations around the world. I've read the abstract and it looks really good. Anyways, lots of countries are doing wind power, and it could feasably provide all of our energy needs if harnessed properly. Solar is nowhere near high production yet, but is nice to have on houses.

Enough rambling - thoughts? comments? statements? utterances? objections?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make some interesting points, always were very full bottle on things. I will be sure to read up on some of those links you have on your page

2:35 AM  
Blogger Sean said...

you should definitely go to the McMurtry talk on Friday 3/2...your spirit will be crushed, and you'll probably start hoarding gas.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Jesse said...

Basically graphite becomes more efficient the hotter it gets, so you get a run away if anything goes wrong (perturbations aren't damped out, the run away), where as with water the hotter it gets, the less fission you get...also you can use the hot water supply for the population (if people stop being afraid of living near the plants). Don't forget that coal also releases carcenogenic material into the atmosphere, not just "smoke"...its really dirty smoke. The US breakdown is 70% coal, 25% nuke, 5% other. Britian is investigating alternatives like making self-sustained units. So an apartment building will have its own powersupply (wind/solar). The solar cell industry is currently on a 30-40% increase per year trend, this is a perfect technology for developing countries...minimal infrastructure requirements. There's also been a successfully tested solar design in carly's neck o' the woods (Ausie right?) the "power tower" design. Basically an array of mirror focussing light onto a column with molten sodium running through it. Wind is good- but it kills birds, for real...there's a huge wind farm just west of here that has appearantly helped endanger a type of raptor...finally lighting is something like 10-20% of our energy expendature- incandescent is the worst, flourescent is better, led's are the best (but to expensive).

11:53 AM  
Anonymous david said...

hey dave can fuel cells be used for mass power distribution or are they only practical for smaller output. also have you ever heard of the 'coral castle'. pretty interesting little guy. do a google and let me know what you think. the reason i mention it is because they say he invented a device to self-power his castle. a little on the mystical side for you perhaps but it makes you wonder.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

Who's McMurty? and do you mean friday 3/3 or thursday 3/2?

8:54 AM  
Blogger Liz said...

Hey David, just so you know, fuel cells use more energy in the ir manufacturing than they produce after the fact. Steve (works for a fuel cell company) says they're basically useless.

12:06 PM  
Blogger geekedout said...

i looked at the coral castle and it looks like a neat building but i don't know of any way that he could "self-power" it. you have to get power from somewhere and unless he's using solar, magnetic, heat, or something that carries enough energy, i don't think he could make himself a glass of tea very easily. it's hard to see how calcite would focus energy anywhere you could use it in a squarish building. i have no idea what the mystical signifigance would be, but most of these things are fasciating in the same way the pyrimids are. unique.

i agree with liz on the fuel cells. they're like batteries. they suck up a ton of energy in manufacture just so that you can carry a little bit of it in your pocket. they're great when you're camping but horrible for the environment and efficiency. to make "green energy" you really need something that doesn't require nasty things to manufacture it or require more energy that you put in, both of which are very hard to do. fusion would be nice since it just produces helium, but it requires tons of energy. nuclear is nice in that it produces a ton of energy for the amount of waste, but the waste is ass-nasty. solar and wind are really great, but you need to manufacture a bunch of wind towers or panels and the solar panels aren't quite up to the challenge yet. i'm with jesse in that i'm half considering dropping this astro-bullshit to go try to develop better energy technology.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous david said...

i was thinking about the hydrogen fuel cell. you know H2O in- split it up- electrons make electricity- H2O out, used for cars and buses. no?
about the coral castle power thing, apparently he designed some type of a/c generator. check it out on this guys site:
and yeah you should be solving our world energy issues duh
if not you then who i think more importantly though than solving an energy crisis is changing our perceptions that it's ok to do what ever we want with this world- but that's a whole different ball of wax
hey dave if you have time check out another 'mystical' type thing. it's called shamballah (not sure about spelling) and it's said that these people derive all their energy from the volcanic activity of the earth (from what i remember). interesting fairytale type of reading. they followed their ancient king into the 'tunnels' of the earth about 10,000 yrs ago, when man kind started to get corrupted, and have been prospering ever since by using the earth's internal energy. the locals in the himalayas swear by the legend and say that that's where ufos come from.
happy day

2:13 PM  

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