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McCain calls for 700+ new nuclear plants (and seven Yucca mountains) costing $4 trillion

By Joe Romm on May 4, 2008 at 3:40 pm

"McCain calls for 700+ new nuclear plants (and seven Yucca mountains) costing $4 trillion"

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nuclear-car.jpg“A nuke in every garage” is the GOP nominee’s energy and climate plan.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) made a stunning statement on the radio show of climate change denier Glenn Beck this week:

the French are able to generate 80% of their electricity with nuclear power. There’s no reason why America shouldn’t.

The Wonk Room, which has the audio, writes of the interview, “McCain Seemingly Agrees With Glenn Beck That Solutions To Climate Change Can Be Delayed. That is lame all by itself. But the statement quoted above is even more radical. McCain is repeating his little-noticed uber-Francophile statement from his big April 2007 speech on energy policy, “If France can produce 80% of its electricity with nuclear power, why can’t we?

Why can’t we? Wrong question, Senator. The right question is — Why would we? Let’s do the math.

The U.S. has some one hundred nuclear reactors providing about nearly 100 Gigawatts of capacity (see here) and nearly 800,000 Gigawatt-hours of electricity, roughly 20% of total U.S. power. For the record, France has only 59 reactors, capacity of about 63 GW, generating 550,000 GW-hr (some of which is exported), covering nearly 80% of their usage (see here). [Note to Sen. McCain: France is a much smaller country than ours.]

WHAT WOULD IT TAKE FOR US TO BE 80% NUCLEAR?

We would have to quadruple the number of reactors to 400, which would take decades even if we could somehow return to — and sustain — the fastest decadal rate of U.S. nuclear plant construction. But that wouldn’t mean just building 300 new nuclear plants, for several reasons.

First, by 2050, almost all of the existing plants would need to be replaced, so that is another hundred to build if we want to hit the 80% goal.

And then, since McCain is not a big booster of energy efficiency (his McCain-Lieberman climate bill has no substantive energy efficiency provisions in it at all), we have to deal with some 1.1% annual electricity growth, which means we’ll need more than 600 nukes in 2050.

Third, McCain wants to switch much of our oil consumption to electricity (a strategy I endorse). As he said in last year’s energy policy speech:

I’ll work to promote real partnerships between utilities and automakers to accelerate the deployment of plug-in hybrids…. Fifty percent of cars on the road are driven 25 miles a day or less. Affordable battery-powered vehicles that can meet average commuter needs could help us cut oil imports in half.

We import more than 12 million barrels of oil a day. To cut that in half to 6 when EIA projects we will import over 16 in 2030 (see here), means replacing far more than 100 billion gallons of gasoline a year with electricity. If 80% of that electricity comes from nuclear power, then that is — very conservatively — another 100 nukes.

BOTTOM LINE

To satisfy McCain’s odd desire to be like the French and get 80% of our electricity from nuclear power in the coming decades would require building more than 700 (GW-sized) nuclear power plants by midcentury — more than one a month.

Although we have been unable as a country to agree on even one storage site for our existing nukes’ radioactive waste (Yucca Mountain), the McCain plan would require seven such sites — for a longer discussion of just what 700 GW would entail, see the Keystone Center’s 2007 nuclear study discussed at “Nuclear Power No Climate Cure-All.”

And remember that the Bush administration just signed a deal permitting all reactor fuel to come from Russia post-2020 (see here). McCain trusts the Russians so much, he wants to exclude them from the G-8 meetings. So where would we get all our uranium from?

Finally, in October, Moody’s Investors Service said “new reactors would cost up to $6,000 per kilowatt of capacity to build” — I’ll be posting a longer review of nuclear costs soon, and suffice it to say, Moody’s estimate is not the high end these days. Since $6,000 per kw is $6 billion per GW, 700 GW would require a cost of some $4 trillion, assuming there was no significant cost escalation from production delays and from the serious bottlenecks in the nuclear supply chain (see “Look up nuclear bottleneck in the dictionary….“) — and not even counting the cost of the uranium.

Dontcha think the country could find a better use for that kind of money in the effort to avoid catastrophic global warming and the harsh consequences of peak oil — something better than committing this country to an ultimately unsustainable high-cost energy source for the entire 21st Century?

Apparently the GOP nominee thinks the answer is “no.” Caveat Emptor!

For my fellow energy realists, I would add that it would take an astonishing effort just to have nuclear power in 2050 provide the same 20% of U.S. power it does today — an outcome I am not inherently opposed to, but I certainly wouldn’t devote yet more tens of billions of federal subsidies to, as McCain would, especially given the myriad flaws nuclear power has.

That’s why I have little doubt that if we can move beyond the uninformed platitudes of people like McCain and ever really get serious about global warming and peak oil, then the realistic, affordable solution is at hand — namely energy efficiency to avoid significant load growth, concentrated solar power to replace most coal, and wind power for plug-in charging. And yes, we’ll still have some hydro and nukes and combined cycle natural gas turbines and/or cogen in 2050, and possibly even some coal with carbon capture and storage, assuming that industry ever gets serious about that possible solution.

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93 Responses to McCain calls for 700+ new nuclear plants (and seven Yucca mountains) costing $4 trillion

  1. Lamont says:

    The increase in reactors would also create an increase in the demand of uranium that would cause the price to skyrocket.

    Uranium also has a “peak uranium” problem just like “peak oil”. Even though there’s lots of uranium left to be dug up, we will hit a peak in production and it will become more and more expensive to dig up after that. It’ll buy about 10 years after peak oil.

    We need sources of energy that we do not dig up.

  2. Nick says:

    Hey Joe,

    I know you might have covered this in other posts, but can you give a quick run down of the “myriad flaws nuclear power has.” I have some general ideas (waste disposal, rate limiting factor of containment units produced, uranium mining/poisoning, nuclear accidents, targets for terrorists). What else?

  3. Joe says:

    You got a lot of the big ones, Nick

    Proliferation risk is of course, large — not so much for our nukes, but if we were to drive a global resurgence.

    Water Consumption in a climate change world worries me. Yes, you can design a nuke with less water use, but it’ll cost you more.

    Yes, Lamont is right in that we are clearly headed towards lower grades of ore — if the world were actually to build several hundred more nukes, that would accelerate the problem.

    I’m sure others can list more problems.

    Why the federal government would want to spend tens of billions of dollars (or more) misdirecting trillions of dollars of private capital into nuclear power is a mystery? That said, I’m sure conservatives will insist that we throw a fair amount of money that way as part of any climate deal. I’ll write more on that subject soon.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Latest issue of The Nation has an interessting article on the nuclear power industry. (I’ll try to remember to provide a more complete reference tomorrow.)

  5. Eric` says:

    Reading your great piece, I wondered what the per-gigawatt capital cost of nuclear versus renewable is. So I went and looked. No less an authority than Business Week says (at http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/mar2008/tc20080314_194178.htm?campaign_id=rss_tech):

    “The average up-front capital cost for a new 1-gigawatt nuclear plant, sufficient power for about 1 million U.S. homes, is $2 billion to $6 billion. The cost of 1 gigawatt of geothermal and wind power is less than $2 billion; the same amount of solar power cost $5 billion to $10 billion. Never mind it can take years to bring a new nuclear power plant online; the U.S. hasn’t had a new nuke plant in more than two decades….”

    And when you count the positive externalities of renewable, and the negative externalities of nuclear, it’s even clearer that nukes are just bad economics. McCain is insane.

  6. PJD says:

    Joe,

    How would not constructing new nuclear electric plants in the U.S. prevent other countries from building them for proliferation purposes?

    I would agree with your assessment that getting to 80% nuclear in the U.S. is probably unrealistic, but I’d certainly take nuclear over new coal plants any day. Here in the Southwest local renewables, including large amounts of concentrating solar thermal, probably can meet increasing demand and even begin to phase out fossil fuels. However, for other parts of the country it will either mean massive build out of transmission to places like the desert Southwest or something done locally. Given that their seems to be a structural/political bias towards regional generation, nuclear may be a reasonable option to displace coal in those areas not renewables rich.

    I would certainly support a vast national network of renewables connected by HVDC, but it doesn’t seem like that idea is getting any political traction. Perhaps you could comment on whether you agree with that assessment and what could be done to change the situation. Aren’t states going to want to have the plants and jobs local rather than creating a type of trade deficit with far flung windy and sunny states?

  7. hapa says:

    also my understanding on the russian uranium was that it has a real good side — a warheads-to-watts program, in part — and far cleaner than digging out of ground.

    i don’t have a citation for that tho.

  8. PJD,
    An HVDC national/continental grid integrated with local renewables is the only way we are going to start to create in the next decade a viable renewable alternative as the basis for our future energy system. Unfortunately there are three main hurdles two of which you put your finger on:

    1) The Balkanization of our electric grid creates state by state business and regulatory structures which put, for instance, states in the Southeast, at a disadvantage.

    2) The uneven distribution of renewable energy resources by region.

    3) The renewable energy movement is divided between those who advocate distributed energy to the exclusion of large renewable generators and those who advocate both distributed and centralized energy. See this article which is not an unusual view: http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/reinsider/story?id=52252

    For, let’s call it, the National Renewable Grid, to get some traction more advocates of renewables would need to speak strongly for it. So far they haven’t, as many are caught up in the “Small is Beautiful” philosophy. They see renewable energy as the way to usher in a society built on a smaller scale leaving out the equation, the uneven distribution of renewable energy flux, the benefits of economies of scale and the actual scale of current and projected future energy demand.

    I’ve put up this website (www.solarsouthwest.org) as one possible format/ suggestion for creating policy momentum in this direction. The TREC/DESERTEC idea is the equivalent for Europe and Africa http://www.desertec.org .

  9. There is no difference in energy consumption between a nuclear power plant and a solar thermal plant employing water-cooled condensers. This is a myth I recently debunked on a nuclear discussion on “Mother Jones”

    here

    here

    here

    and here

  10. Joe says:

    PJD — Nuclear is better than coal, that’s for sure. Staying at 20% in 2050 probably means building 150+ nukes in 4 decades — so that’s probably the maximum we’ll see.

    The proliferation effect is an indirect one — I merely meant that a massive federal subsidy would help the technology to have a global renaissance, which would lead to proliferation.

    Yes, we are going to need a massive build out of HVDC for renewables. It is inevitable, so I hope we do it sooner rather than a later.

  11. Joe says:

    Not sure what “myth’ you are debunking, Kirk.

  12. The myth that there’s any difference, per kilowatt*hour, in the water consumption of a nuclear power plant or an alternative.

    Most of your other nuclear myths are debunked on the Mother Jones debate as well, Joe.

  13. The proliferation effect is an indirect one — I merely meant that a massive federal subsidy would help the technology to have a global renaissance, which would lead to proliferation.

    Again untrue and showing an ignorance of the nature of nuclear technology.

    This blog is called “Climate Progress”–I assume we’re trying to make progress in the war on global warming and you’re wanting to go into battle with our most effective weapon left back at base.

    It kind of reminds me of that scene in the movie “Aliens” when all the Marines have to give up their heavy weapons and one of them says, “What are we supposed to use, harsh language?”

  14. Lamont says:

    I still don’t see anything that addresses the economics. Recycling and reprocessing and seawater uranium won’t help us accellerate production of uranium enough to meet demand, particularly with 80% of the US energy supply coming from nuclear.

    For example, while you can get uranium from sea water, it costs $300/kg which is about ten times the current spot price of uranium.

    This is the same problem with everyone who looks at all the oil reserves and claims that we’ll never run out of it. That is true, but the remaining oil gets more and more expensive to get out and harder to pump fast enough to supply growing energy needs. Uranium has the same problem — its nearly infinite in supply, but its costly to get at it.

  15. Joe says:

    Kirk: There is no one perpetrating that “myth.” Both nuclear and CSP can have low water use. It just takes money.

    “our most effective weapon left back at base”???
    That ain’t nuclear. Our best weapon is efficiency — easily.

    And I was being quite conservative with my calculations here. I even used EIA’s new much slower growth for electricity demand. And a very efficient plug-in. In reality it would probably be 800 to 1000 nukes to be 80% in 2050 — and $6000 is NOT a high estimate these days.

  16. Kiashu says:

    A civil program certainly leads to weapons proliferation. See the article here for a start.

    AQ Khan, the Indian-born father of the Pakistani bomb, and who also sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, Libya and Iran (probably with the blessing of the Pakistani intelligence service and government), learned a lot working for the Dutch company FDO on “peaceful enrichment”. After three years he went to Pakistan to start work on their bomb, and it only took him so long because Pakistan had one or two sane Prime Ministers in the intervening years.

    If nuclear technology is shared, then nuclear weapons are spread. And if you’re going to build a nuclear reactor every month in your country, nuclear technology will certainly be shared, simply because of the vast number of people you’ll need to work on them all. If you restrict the number and backgrounds of the people working on the things, then you won’t be able to build one a month.

    You can have lots of nuclear reactors and lots of nuclear weapons, or not many reactors and few or no weapons, but you cannot have lots of reactors and few or no weapons.

  17. Lamont, a thorium-based liquid-fluoride reactor puts fuel supply issues to rest for ten thousand years–no kidding. Klaus A explained how on this thread:

    http://climateprogress.org/2008/04/17/leaving-no-small-stone-unturned/

    Kiashu, a thorium-based reactor doesn’t require enrichment and has a fuel that is worthless in nuclear weapons–proliferation concerns addressed.

    You can have NO reactors and lots of nuclear weapons, as the US did for years, and you can have lots of reactors and NO weapons, as the Japanese have had for years. The technology to build a reactor is not the same as the technology to build a weapon. I’m a perfect example–after years of nuclear engineering education, I know a fair amount how to build a reactor, but I don’t know the first thing about how to build a bomb, other than that all I know about steady-state neutronics, heat-transfer in the core, stable dynamic operation, and fission product buildup and fuel depletion, have NOTHING to do with how to build or operate a weapon.

  18. Joe, I agree with you that efficiency is the “easiest” gain from our perspective, but it’s also the gain that will be lost the easiest. I predict in the next year or two we will see amazing improvements in US driving efficiency, as drivers figure out how to use less gas to do the same stuff, but that gain in efficiency will go away just as quickly if gas falls back to $2 a gallon.

    I also agree with you that we will need 1000 reactors. That’s why it’s so very important to figure out what those reactors will be. Will they be light-water reactors that waste most of their uranium, take lots of steel and concrete, and produce transuranic waste? Or will they be liquid-fluoride thorium reactors, that use thorium at nearly perfect theoretical efficiency, have modest resource demands, and are inherently safe?

  19. One of the most cogent arguments against a full-scale energy program based on nuclear fission is that it is irreversibly converting rare elements for the purpose of mundane activities like lighting lights and toasting bread. This assumes that some of the more immediate problems highlighted above can be resolved by fuel reprocessing or thorium reactors.

    Why not use plentiful renewable energy to power our daily lives and reserve these rare, energy-dense elements for special purposes. Who knows what future uses we will have for them?

    It is a repetition of the same dynamic and type of planning that got us into the fossil fuel bind.

  20. Michael, thorium’s not rare.

    The basic resource of “renewable” power is abundant, but the mechanisms to convert it to useful forms (solar panels, windmill blades, concentrating surfaces) are by definition expensive because of the diffuse nature of the source. There’s no getting around that.

    We can talk about Moore’s Law all we want with integrated circuits, but you don’t change the fact that 1000 watts of solar energy fall on every square meter of well-oriented surface. Now, a thousand years from now.

    Nuclear power is a concentrated (incredibly concentrated) energy source that can have a tiny fraction of the capital investment of solar/wind technologies if utilized properly. It’s no secret that I don’t consider the light-water reactor the “proper” utilization of nuclear energy.

    We used solar and wind energy for millennia and moved to fossil fuels because they represented a denser form of energy that made less demand on capital to realize. Nuclear power is theoretically six orders of magnitude better than fossil fuels, and doesn’t produce the CO2 we’re all so worried about (in addition to the mercury and other filth spewed). Nuclear technology is overwhelmingly the most promising response to our future energy needs.

  21. Kiashu says:

    Indeed, thorium reactors could supply all our electricity needs – in theory. However, two points.

    The first is that a thorium reactor requires a plutonium core to supply the neutrons to keep it going. So you cannot have thorium reactors without a few conventional reactors producing weapons-grade plutonium. So in terms of proliferation you’ve not reduced the risks very much by going for thorium reactors.

    Secondly, let us know when we have commercially-proven thorium power reactors. Pro-nukers, like pro-renewable people, tend to look at the best practice in theory for their favoured technology, and the worst practice in reality for their disfavoured ones. A more honest appraisal would be to look at what has actually been achieved in each case. And for thorium reactors, unfortunately that ain’t squat. Maybe in a decade or two, we’ll see. Keep researching, by all means – but don’t expect the world to make plans based on those technological maybes. Yes, yes, I know – your favoured technology is a certainty, honest, not like all those other ones that have worked so well on paper or in labs but are still so slow to come about.

    It’s not true that the US produced nuclear weapons without reactors; see the B-Reactor, which made plutonium for the Trinity test, the Nagasaki bomb and many others until shutdown in 1968. No country has produced nuclear weapons without having nuclear reactors first.

    It’s not true that the science in the power industry is of no use in the weapons industry. If that were true, nobody would be worried about Iran. If that were true, then Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, India, and North Korea would never have acquired nuclear weapons. All those countries had scientists and technicians train in the “Atoms for Peace” programme, or got information from those who did, and all except Israel have said that these “peaceful” studies were the base on which they built their weapons technology.

    The demonstrated result of the US and SU in the 1950s and 1960s trying to spread nuclear power generation technology was weapons proliferation. And for every country that got them, there were several others (Australia, Bulgaria, Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan, etc) who considered getting them, took deliberate steps towards getting them, but then rejected it for political and diplomatic reasons.

    You can’t have a lot of reactors without also ending up with a lot of weapons. Now, you may not consider a lot of weapons as a problem, or you may say that it’s inevitable no matter what. That’s a different argument, though. Fact is, the more reactors we build, the more bombs we’ll get.

    Of course, the same goes for the chemical industry and chemical weapons. If you can make bleach and so on then you can make mustard gas. But we’ve managed to ban chemical weapons. That took a deliberate effort over many years, international treaties, and countries being willing to destroy their chemical weapons stockpiles. The same’s quite possible with nuclear weapons – but at this point it’s a theoretical possibility only, we’re stuck with the weapons for the next couple of decades at least.

    If you want nuke reactors, you’ll get nuke weapons, too. That’s the demonstrated history of the world.

  22. The first is that a thorium reactor requires a plutonium core to supply the neutrons to keep it going.

    That is demonstrably false. A thorium reactor can operate without ever using plutonium at all.

  23. Eli Rabett says:

    Joe, I have seen your argument now many times, however, it lacks context. What is the current rate at which power plants of all types are being built, not only for new capacity but for replacement?

    I imagine that every power plant in the US will be replaced in 50 years. In that context 700 plants (nuclear or other) looks pretty much like business as usual.

  24. The first is that a thorium reactor requires a plutonium core to supply the neutrons to keep it going. So you cannot have thorium reactors without a few conventional reactors producing weapons-grade plutonium. So in terms of proliferation you’ve not reduced the risks very much by going for thorium reactors.

    You’ve reduced the risk dramatically…if experience holds, to nothing. A thorium reactor requires a fissile “start” to it. Plutonium is one option, but it is the worst. Uranium-233 is the best. Uranium-235 is in the middle. Once started, the thorium reactor produces the fissile material it needs from the thorium and does not require additional “starting” fuel. For a LFTR, at shutdown, the fissile U-233 is simply recycled into the next LFTR core, along will all other core fluids. The connection between thorium and weapons-grade plutonium does not exist.

    There is a company called “Thorium Power” proposing to “degrade” weapons-grade plutonium in a mixture of plutonium and thorium fuel, but there’s is an entirely different goal that isn’t relevant to this discussion.

    Secondly, let us know when we have commercially-proven thorium power reactors. Pro-nukers, like pro-renewable people, tend to look at the best practice in theory for their favoured technology, and the worst practice in reality for their disfavoured ones. A more honest appraisal would be to look at what has actually been achieved in each case. And for thorium reactors, unfortunately that ain’t squat. Maybe in a decade or two, we’ll see. Keep researching, by all means – but don’t expect the world to make plans based on those technological maybes. Yes, yes, I know – your favoured technology is a certainty, honest, not like all those other ones that have worked so well on paper or in labs but are still so slow to come about.

    Fair enough. There aren’t any LFTRs to speak of right now. But let’s be fair across the board as well. Solar power is a tiny fraction of 1% of world energy output. Do we through it out as well? This same line of reasoning can be used to exclude any new advanced technology.

    We’re fighting a war against climate change, and trying to make “Climate Progress”. We’ve got to figure out how to replace 90% of the energy generated in the world. It’s doesn’t matter so much where a technology is at, it matters how hard it will take to get it where it needs to be. Does it require technology innovation, or breakthrough? What are the capital costs? What social factors will oppose it? These must be addressed for any technology, and I will be happy to stack LFTR up against the best of them.

    It’s not true that the US produced nuclear weapons without reactors; see the B-Reactor, which made plutonium for the Trinity test, the Nagasaki bomb and many others until shutdown in 1968. No country has produced nuclear weapons without having nuclear reactors first.

    Pardon me, I thought it was clear from the discussion that we were talking about POWER reactors. And the US has never used POWER reactors for the development of nuclear materials. Neither have any other countries. They use dedicated production reactors that are far simpler to build and operate. You don’t even need this to get weapons-grade materials. Simply build enrichment technology, or buy highly-enriched uranium from some other country. But possessing the material is necessary but not sufficient for a weapon–you need much more knowledge beyond that for success, and those are not skills taught to nuclear engineers.

    It’s not true that the science in the power industry is of no use in the weapons industry. If that were true, nobody would be worried about Iran. If that were true, then Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, India, and North Korea would never have acquired nuclear weapons. All those countries had scientists and technicians train in the “Atoms for Peace” programme, or got information from those who did, and all except Israel have said that these “peaceful” studies were the base on which they built their weapons technology.

    I never said they were of “no use” I said that a trained nuclear engineer has very little application for his/her skill set in the arena of weapons design. It is an entirely different field and not taught in any books or courses that I know of.

    The demonstrated result of the US and SU in the 1950s and 1960s trying to spread nuclear power generation technology was weapons proliferation. And for every country that got them, there were several others (Australia, Bulgaria, Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan, etc) who considered getting them, took deliberate steps towards getting them, but then rejected it for political and diplomatic reasons.

    The US and USSR never tried to spread weapons technology…in fact, they tried very hard to preserve their technological advantage, even over “allies”. Other countries developed the technology on their own because it just wasn’t that hard for a committed country to figure out how to do it. None of which has anything to do with nuclear power. If you want weapons and you’ll devote the time and energy to getting them, you’ll get them.

    You can’t have a lot of reactors without also ending up with a lot of weapons. Now, you may not consider a lot of weapons as a problem, or you may say that it’s inevitable no matter what. That’s a different argument, though. Fact is, the more reactors we build, the more bombs we’ll get.

    That’s not a fact and is actually contradicted by real-world experience. Japan has lots of reactors and no weapons. South Africa had weapons and no reactors. Israel has weapons and no reactors. South Korea has lots of reactors and no weapons.

    Of course, the same goes for the chemical industry and chemical weapons. If you can make bleach and so on then you can make mustard gas. But we’ve managed to ban chemical weapons. That took a deliberate effort over many years, international treaties, and countries being willing to destroy their chemical weapons stockpiles. The same’s quite possible with nuclear weapons – but at this point it’s a theoretical possibility only, we’re stuck with the weapons for the next couple of decades at least.

    You bring up a good point–technology is never fundamentally good or evil, only what we do with it. We make bleach instead of mustard gas. We make electrical power instead of nuclear weapons. The benefit to humanity of nuclear power is overwhelming, and for the sake of future generations we need to use this technology.

    If you want nuke reactors, you’ll get nuke weapons, too. That’s the demonstrated history of the world.

    No, the demonstrated history of the world is that if you want nuclear weapons you’ll get them. You can later go and develop reactors to make it look peaceful as the United States did, or you can simply develop power reactors in the first place with no intention to develop weapons, as Japan did, but there is no link between developing power reactors and later developing nuclear weapons.

  25. hapa says:

    There aren’t any LFTRs to speak of right now. But let’s be fair across the board as well. Solar power is a tiny fraction of 1% of world energy output. Do we through it out as well?

    this is a terrible argument. solar thermal’s general proof is something we call “day,” expressed as the equation:

    sun + water = critters

    MSRs are a wee bit more complicated than turning “day” into “steam” instead of “clouds.”

  26. Joe says:

    Eli — There is no question we are going to have to build a lot of carbon-free power plants. Indeed, one of my central point is that once we become serious about global warming, we will be diverting all available capital and materials and personnel towards clean energy. That’s why I wouldn’t spend $4 trillion on nuclear power plants, which simply are not a terrific long-term solution.

  27. Ed Davies says:

    “How would not constructing new nuclear electric plants in the U.S. prevent other countries from building them for proliferation purposes?”

    It wouldn’t, of course. However, if countries build a lot of new nuclear plants then it’s extra hard for those countries to object to others building nuclear plants without making themselves look like complete hypocrites.

  28. Eli Rabett says:

    Joe, I am asking for the answer to another question. In the normal course of things, how many power plants are built each year with what capacity? Carbon free or coal. Multiply this by 50 and you get an estimate of how many will be built in 50 years. Power plants are not forever.

  29. Mauri Pelto says:

    Great topic, can nuclear power be economically viable. Joe makes a good case that it cannot with the current model. Kirk makes a case that it could if we change the model. I am not a nuclear power expert, but I did work on the DOE in the 1980′s selecting Yucca Mountain as the high level waste site. If we build the additional 700 plants, not realistic, we still would not need seven more Yucca Mountains. It is likely just one more would do.

  30. Joe says:

    Mauri — no doubt you know more about the waste subject than I do, but I am just quoting the nuclear-industry-funded semi-independent Keystone report about the number of Yuccas. I suppose it is angels dancing on the head of a pin, because it is doubtful that any state in this country wants a Yucca-sized repository.

    Eli — the world can build a fantastic quantity of power plants in a short period of time if it wants to. China alone built 200 GW of mostly coal plants in the previous two years. That, of course, has driven the price of both coal and coal plants through the roof. And nuclear is different because it has not seen a lot of new power plants built in the past decade, so a lot of the suppliers have disappeared and it has mere yet supply bottlenecks.

    Finally, as to your statement “Power plants are not forever” — I wish. Tell that to the grandfathered coal plant operators in this country.

  31. I am with Kirk. It would probably cost about what we spend in a week to finance the war in Iraq to develop the LFTR for commercial power production. Very little is at risk against the potential gain. The government is going to spend more than that on hydrogen research over the next 10 years, and as Joe tells us that is barking up the wrong tree. We have far worse projects, such as biofuels, getting government research dollars.

    The LFTR has the potential to answer all of Joe’s and Earl’s objections to objections to nuclear power. Everyone who has researched them agrees that they are very safe. They generate far less waste than LWRs. In fact most of the material coming out of LFTRs is radiologically stable, and has industrial uses. They can be mass produced, and they cost far less to build than conventional reactors. They can be cooled by air, thus do not have a water problem. Their waste heat can be used for desalination. The thorium fuel cycle is proliferation resistant. There are easier, cheaper and more practical ways of obtaining bomb making material than by diverting fissionable material from a LFTR. Finally Enough thorium is known to exist in the United States to power the entire American economy for thousands of years.

    Opposition to nuclear power is more like a religious cult than a rational stance. We have good reason for wanting to replace carbon based energy sources with land efficient, environmentally friendly non-carbon energy resources. We desperate need energy systems that will prevent rather than fight global warming. Come on Joe, do you really hate nuclear power so much that they would prefer sacrificing the future of the planet and of the human race, rather than to support a nuclear power solution?

  32. hapa says:

    i, emperor of nowhere, hereby decree that all money currently devoted to missile defense, corn ethanol subsidy, and coal-to-liquid development shall be made in part available for the discovery of an implementation of thorium-based nukes that is price-comparable with industrial wind power and solar thermal.

    as i do not expect this technology to be fully deployable within ten years, may i suggest that the first round of changes, otherwise known as “staying under 425ppm and averting the worst of peak oil,” involve the wide just-build-it application of clean power that is ready for building.

  33. Jay Alt says:

    Nice job Your Highness. But you should also allot plenty of funds to clean up the old thorium waste sites; despite their 20+ year Superfund status.

    For example, Kerr-McGee still has tons of radioactive tailings at their Kress Creek site in W. Chicago. They have spent more than $500 million dollars but still aren’t done. The plant closed in ’73 but is still contaminated with radioactive waste.

    Here is a letter some homeowners got last year from EPA informing them their property may not have been properly cleaned. And, oh, by-the-way beware of radioactivity if you dig.

    http://www.wegoweb.net/blog/archives/103-EPA-Sends-letter-to-117-West-Chicago-Homeowners.html#extended

  34. The wisest path would seem to be to start with the relatively simple technologies that we know will work and develop some backups that may include some existing conventional plants as well as newer more experimental technologies. This means coordinated renewables, which together can serve the electric load. They are less complex and risk-prone than the as yet unbuilt thorium plants/mining operations.

    I don’t consider myself knee-jerk anti-nuke but here in the US we do have the opportunity to start to develop a sustainable energy solution now, not re-cycle the 20th century options. It may be that a place like Japan might not have the same options, though I wouldn’t claim to speak for them.

    One of the difficulties with nukes is that the technology is largely inscrutable except for a very small group of nuclear engineers and physicists. They could, together, be engaged in some type of “group think” that overlooks some difficulty which billions of dollars later is only discovered by chance by some “outsider”. Meanwhile, if this happens, the group of nuclear engineers will have every reason to engage in obfuscation and “arse-covering” rather than level with the public. A grid run largely on renewables will be complex but it should be understandable to at least the broader technical community if not everybody with a basic science education. I’m not anti-big science or anti-complexity but more of a fan of Occam’s Razor.

  35. hapa says:

    it shall be as you suggest. we are very concerned with the health and well-being of our people.

  36. Charles Barton says:

    Jay, Exactly how much thorium waste do you think there is going to be. Nothing leaves a LFTR except burnt thorium, and a LFTR burns a ton of it a year. Most of the burnt thorium leaves the reactor in the form of stable isotopes which can be recycled for convention industrial use. All processing of fission products for LFTRs takes place inside the reactor containment facility. Thorium ore at a purity of between 25% and 63% will provide 100% of American energy for 400 years, and much of the ramain ore is valuable rare earths. So there will be few tailings from thorium mining for the next 400 years. So exactly what will there left from a Thorium fuel cycle to clean up?

  37. David B. Benson says:

    Christian Parenti
    What Nuclear Renaissance?
    The Nation, 2008 May 12, page 11 ff.

  38. Michael Hoexter, some people do not understand nuclear technology not because “the technology is largely inscrutable except for a very small group of nuclear engineers and physicists,” but because they are to lazy to learn about it. Your argument is circular. You claim “They could, together, be engaged in some type of “group think” that overlooks some difficulty which billions of dollars later is only discovered by chance by some “outsider”.” Obviously if citizens don;t avail themselves of the opportunities to inform themselves of the details of energy options, and distrust anyone who is well informed, no good decisions will be made. The source of the problem is not the knowledge of scientist and engineers but your own unwillingness to learn.

    You finally argue “A grid run largely on renewables will be complex but it should be understandable to at least the broader technical community if not everybody with a basic science education. I’m not anti-big science or anti-complexity but more of a fan of Occam’s Razor.” In other words, if it requires some effort for you to understand, you will hide your laziness and ignorance under the claim that you are applying Occam’s razor and the pious and false claim that you are not being anti-science.

    You have in effect appealed to own ignorance and laziness as an argument against developing nuclear technology.

  39. H-Man says:

    Joe-
    I heard recently that it takes over 100 years to decommission a nuclear power plant and that the staffing levels during that 100 years are higher than during the 50 years the power plant is operational. Is that true?
    If so, that is one more huge expense placed on the government for “cheap” nuclear power.

  40. Charles Barton,
    Your arrogance exceeds your knowledge base, in this case, of me.

    In any case, I have written about nuclear power in a way that is not at all dismissive:
    http://terraverde.wordpress.com/2007/09/15/the-renewable-electron-economy-part-vi-nuclear-power%E2%80%A6climate-saver/

    I am a quite open-minded and curious person, so I believe you are way off the mark. Life, however, is not just a series of intellectual challenges…at some point one needs to use “Occam’s Razor” to decide which of these intellectual challenges are worth pursuing as realistic options. I feel that pursuing renewables is a first line of defense given their relative simplicity versus nukes, as well as the issues already outlined above by Joe.

    Better watch that ad hominem style of argumentation….

  41. Abgrund says:

    “Knee jerk anti-nuke” covers it quite well. I can’t think of a less-convincing argument against any technology than “some people don’t understand it”. How about we ban television, too?

  42. Abgrund,
    So you like to make your life more complicated, if something else will do the trick for you with less waste, less bells and whistles….? You must have all the time and money in the world….

  43. If I thought that wind or solar thermal could do the job of stopping global warming with “less waste, less bells, and less whistles” than LFTR technology, then I wouldn’t be (potentially) wasting my time on this site trying to advocate it.

    But there is a strong current on this site that thinks wind and solar thermal can do the job. The way political winds blow, it’s much more likely that they will get a chance to prove themselves than thorium will, and much like corn ethanol before them, they will be introduced to the harsh world of unintended consequences.

    Those will include, but not be limited to: more coal, more oil wars, draconian energy curtailments, rolling blackouts, economic stagnation and regression, and political recriminations.

  44. hapa says:

    * not “wind or solar thermal” — wind and solar thermal, large and small, and the rest, including LTFR if it works, as it becomes available. big wind and CSP are highly complementary and over a wide grid can provide stable power. it wouldn’t be on demand the same way — i think the days of sticking a powerplant directly to a factory are over for a little while, replaced by “increasing available application” — and like said they’d need careful balancing and backing up, but to get costs down on replacing today’s infrastructure we need to reduce and balance demand anyhow.

    * nothing can stop global warming except carbon storage or quadrillion-dollar sunglasses. energy supply choices affect the speed of the warming. if your concern here is the need instead of the means, you should be working on improving large-scale wind and solar because that’s what we’ve got.

    * near-foodstock ethanol, commodity markets, and petroleum-based agriculture are not comparable with large-scale renewable energy generation.

    * your certainty of the utter failure of renewable energy in the hands of the world’s engineers today is at odds with your faith in those same engineers being able to perfect LTFR tomorrow.

    * if practical, LTFR can’t be implemented for at least a decade. if construction times are anything like LWRs, that’s “whoops.”

  45. Klaus A says:

    Kirk Sorensen wrote:

    “Those will include, but not be limited to: more coal, more oil wars, draconian energy curtailments, rolling blackouts, economic stagnation and regression, and political recriminations.”

    Those ARE already seen in those european countries that have phased out, or have a moratorium on phasing out nuclear, and have tried to replace them with renewables.

    Italy, Germany and Denmark are building coal plants. In Italy energy allotments per household are already in effect. Denmark is only saved by hydro from Norway (lucky draw of geography for Norway). Germany exports a lot of wind-power as demand does not match supply, and buys back (expensively) nuclear energy from France. The high subsidies required for wind in Germany have resulted in high electricity prices, despite the far higher and more effective push to energy saving (home and office insulation for example) than in the US. The high electricity prices are pushing energy intensive industries (aluminum, steel, copper refining) out of the country.
    Germany does not have the geography to expand hydro much. Switzerland does, but has enough sense NOT to concrete over the alps.
    The US does not have the luxury of energy richer, and/or common sense richer neighbors that can supply the energy needed to make up for expensive experiments with renewables that will prove ultimately futile and economically futile on the scale needed, as Denmark, Germany and Italy have.
    The push to coal in europe is the best real-world example on how well weather based renewables can replace baseload. Not a single coal plant has so far been shut down by them anywhere, despite billions of euros expended on them.

  46. hapa says:

    *LFTR. i have acrynom dyxlesia.

  47. hapa says:

    i don’t see people say this very often but when you’re talking about the wind’s cost-per-kWh, you have to be careful how you look at germany and denmark, because of how they financed their wind capacity — they encouraged people to build their own micropower cooperatives in order to grow the industry.

    f’r'example denmark has about 5,500 turbines amounting to ~3,200MW installed capacity. if you take out the 203 turbines of ~400MW total in the offshore farms, you get 5,300 turbines averaging 0.5MW — a far cry from joe’s (and lester brown’s) call for >1.5MW turbines — and a much higher average cost. but for the co-ops the money works out.

  48. I don’t think we have seriously yet tried to deploy renewables to replace fossil generation. Existing renewable policies in most countries have been using renewables as badges of honor rather than integrating them effectively into the grid. The Spanish feed in tariff law treats renewables more as serious grid participants and I believe it is a starting place for other renewable policies.

    Re: Germany, nukes, and coal. Germany’s renewable policy is aggressive but I believe does not have the same grid-friendly policy as Spain. Only recently have German scientists at ISET come up with a plan to coordinate different types of renewables so as to actually replace fossil or nuclear generation. Without effective policies to replace fossil generation by renewables, I agree that shutting down nukes is premature. I also believe that we need some form of non-solar based generation as a back up to renewables especially if we experience massive disturbances to the weather from events like a Krakatoa style eruption (unlikely but possible). We might have Enhanced geothermal by then but the timeline for EGS is not yet well established. So research into less polluting, more secure nukes should proceed.

    If Europeans are serious about renewables they should look into the DESERTEC/TREC model which additionally provides a post-oil source of trade for North Africa and the Middle East. The US however domestically has strong enough renewable resources to easily replace most of its fossil generation with current technology.

    So, I think “either/or” is not the way to go…perhaps this attitude frustrates those here spoiling for a fight…but so be it.

  49. Reader says:

    Somewhat ironically, didn’t you also suggest building 700 new nuclear plants in your book, Joe? Or was it 900?

  50. Joe says:

    “Suggest” is not the right word. It was — and is — in my list of wedges.

  51. hapa says:

    re: grid friendly, based on these from stanford, a north american wind speed map with colors adjusted to highlight good 80m-hub wind farm sites. i urge you to draw your own conclusion.

  52. Ann Garrison says:

    The nuclear power plant work force, and the power plant work force overall, is rapidly aging. I’ve read many places that recruitment and training are a big challenge for those trying to bring on the nuclear renaissance, and that they’ve already had to accept a scaled back renaissance, so McCain can long for all he wants without getting it.

    This is incredibly twisted anyway because there was, in the first place, no reason to build a nuclear power plant except to create enough plutonium to build a nuclear bomb. It’s the most expensive and dangerous form of power ever produced

    The only other reason, to build a nuclear power plant now, is a nuclear military industrial complex with a will to survive, which arose in the U.S. during the Cold War.

  53. Kiashu says:

    Sadly, the merest brief mention of nuclear, let alone a full article about it like this one, brings out all the same names again and again.

    Kirk, you said that a thorium reactor does not need plutonium, it can use U-235. However, we were speaking of: (a) thorium’s requirement for conventional enriched-uranium reactors, and (b) weapons proliferation. Now, uranium is not enriched by reactors, it’s true – but we still get weapons proliferation, since highly enriched uranium is used for nuclear weapons, and indeed has been used in the nuclear weapons development of several states since WWII.

    And we still get that thorium use will be limited to available U-235.

    In addition, your own site tells us that plutonium is among the products of your favoured salt reactor.

    So really, whatever kind of material we use for our reactor fuel, and whatever kind of reactor we have, we can’t get away from fissile material well-suited for weapons as either an input or a product. This shouldn’t surprise us, since after all reactors and bombs have the same basic process, it’s just a matter of whether they’re sub- or super-critical.

    I would expect neither renewables nor nuclear to displace fossil fuels. History shows that when a country gets renewable or nuclear energy, it keeps burning fossil fuels as well. The largest nuclear energy power in the world is the US, and it’s also the largest user of fossil fuels, and the largest per capita user outside fossil fuel exporting countries. The French with nuclear as 80% use as much oil per person as the Danes or Spanish with wind at 20%.

    So we can’t just build nuclear reactors or wind turbines or whatever and expect fossil fuel use to magically stop in response. We will use less fossil fuels when we decide to use less fossil fuels. That decision can be expressed in many ways: by bulldozing coal-fired plants, setting incredibly high fuel efficiency standards for all vehicles past and present, carbon tax, making more walkable and bikable our cities. and so on and so forth.

    But if we have (say) 1,000GWh of coal-fired plants and then build 1,000GWh of nuclear or renewables, we won’t shut down the coal-fired plants, we’ll just use 2,000GWh of electricity instead.

    Neither nuclear nor renewables will remove fossil fuels and mitigate or stop climate change. That’s what history shows. To remove fossil fuels we need to make a decision to remove fossil fuels.

  54. hapa says:

    To remove fossil fuels we need to make a decision to remove fossil fuels.

    today we can change the demand while maintaining quality of life; today we are suffering radical consequences of over-application. the decision’s never been easier.

  55. Eli Rabett says:

    Joe, clearly 700 nuclear plants worldwide in 40/50 years is doable, indeed, the French did it, and the Japanese did it covering their needs over one or two decades. The US may not have the capacity at this time, but the US is not the only country that can build good reactors. What is needed is a small number of good designs that can be replicated.

    As to grandfathered coal plants, grandad can be a pretty young guy. The walls may be old, but the insides and controls are routinely replaced over 20 years or less, so, willy nilly, well over 700 GW of power plants are going to be built over the next 50 years and 700 GW of them could be nuclear.

    There are arguments against nuclear, but the inability to erect 700 GW of capacity is not one of the believable ones.

  56. Joe says:

    Eli — you are misreading my piece. Not saying it CAN’T be done, just that it probably WON’T. But in any case, one wedge for nuclear is the tops. Plus this post is on 700 nukes in the U.S. — not gonna happen.

    The French did NOT do 700 — try under one tenth of that.

  57. Susan K says:

    Curious about a summary of your wedges, and amounts.

    While McCains plan is clearly ridiculous, Obama’s is hardly better, with his advice coming from the Bipartisan Policy Center.
    http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/3/14/221425/110

    I do NOT think you can be bipartisan and get to a clean energy future.

    That is because there is a real difference between Democrats’ ideas (solar, wind, geothermal, ocean, efficiency and clever legislation to push consumers and businesses and utilities to the Common Good a la EU and Al Gore ideas) -

    and Republican ideas: dirty industries like nuclear, coal and oil. The only bipartisan part is ethanol – which has Democrats like Daschle along with Republicans like Dole lobbying for it, and they are also surrogates for Obama.

    New vested interests like ethanol are making it now become the same resource curse of the corn states that oil has been for the South (and Canada and Russia.) regardless of the costs.

    Democrats should be driven by Common Good. Obama dilutes that by being “Bipartisan”.

  58. Oh yeah, nuclear’s so dirty. That’s why all their waste would fit on a football field.

    Don’t lump nuclear in with coal and oil. They foul the air and nuclear doesn’t.

  59. Peter Foley says:

    Susan K. Have you every toured a nuke plant? There isn’t any “cleaner” industries. All with any capital have a “vested” interest in our economy growing in spite of the latest factually erroneous Green fad. If you truly want a cleaner world, push for nuclear plants quickly. Run a spreadsheet on US economies that grow @ 0.5, 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 percent over the next hundred years and then tell me we can afford the crippling effect of unneeded regulation of the power industry.
    Again the cheaper energy is the more funds available for actual needed conservation. Poor people pollute more than wealthy persons. Americans may use more energy than other cultures but our gross pollution is less than some one who’s living in an EPA free state.
    The wealth destroying memes of the Green cults is actually anti-environmental. Every scheme that increases the fixed and variable cost of energy generation will negatively impact future funds to lower net emissions.
    McCain’s taken a huge step toward your movement’s unproven theory(Carbon-forced AGW) with the support of nuke instead of coal power, and yet you selfishly demand ever more extreme positions from a mainstream politicians.
    Have you ever participated in the democratic process at any level besides whining?
    The far fringe positions posited here have no chance in the real world.

  60. Jay Alt says:

    Charles Barton writes:
    Jay, Exactly how much thorium waste do you think there is going to be. Nothing leaves a LFTR except burnt thorium, and a LFTR burns a ton of it a year. Most of the burnt thorium leaves the reactor in the form of stable isotopes which can be recycled for convention industrial use. All processing of fission products for LFTRs takes place inside the reactor containment facility. Thorium ore at a purity of between 25% and 63% will provide 100% of American energy for 400 years, and much of the ramain ore is valuable rare earths. So there will be few tailings from thorium mining for the next 400 years. So exactly what will there left from a Thorium fuel cycle to clean up?

    If you need help, my estimate is about a 10E6 pounds a year from the preceding discussion and criteria.

    And while I’m sure the interior of all thorium reactor mockups would be spotless, I wasn’t referring to irradiated waste from old US projects. The word ‘tailings’ means the problems arose from the processed ore waste, known as gangue. I’d have thought that would be clear to someone touting the thorium fuel cycle.

    I am pointing out it’s taken 20 years and 3/4 of a billion dollars to partially cleanup 2 sites made by producing non-nuclear products. Your proposal would require a return to those or similarly messy/unsustainable processes on a wider scale. (acid leaching anyone? ) At the moment, the US produces no thorium of our own so we’d start from scratch.

    Finally, a question for Charles or Kirk –
    What keeps terror organizations unconcerned with their own safety from using the fissile U233 produced in a thorium reactor and making a bomb? (One like those tested by the US decades ago) And if they don’t make a bomb, isn’t that more highly radioactive uranium isotope a ‘better’ material for a dirty bomb than ‘ordinary’ U238?

  61. What keeps terror organizations unconcerned with their own safety from using the fissile U233 produced in a thorium reactor and making a bomb?

    The incredibly ease of detecting U233. Unlike U235 and Pu239, the U233 is always contaminated with U232, whose decay chain includes a hard gamma emitter (thallium-210) which makes detection easy and manufacture suicidal.

    That’s why we don’t have operational U233 bombs. It’s an incredibly bad idea, even for incredibly dumb terrorists.

    There’s 3200 metric tonnes of thorium sitting in a shallow grave in Nevada. We don’t have to mine thorium for decades, which would resolve your concern if that was what you were really concerned about.

  62. Sorry, make that thallium-208. You can’t get to atomic mass 210 from atomic mass 232 because alpha decay reduces mass by 4 each time and (232-210 = 22 which is not divisible by 4).

  63. I am pointing out it’s taken 20 years and 3/4 of a billion dollars to partially cleanup 2 sites made by producing non-nuclear products. Your proposal would require a return to those or similarly messy/unsustainable processes on a wider scale.

    Look, I can’t help that a public ignorant of radiation and an EPA anxious to justify their own existence have built Mt. Everest out of a molehill with these thorium contamination sites. I think they should go tell everyone who lives near these sites if you smoke or eat a few bananas a week your exposure to radiation is so vastly greater from these sources than from the thorium that there’s really no point in us trying to spend millions and millions of dollars trying to remove something from the soil that’s present naturally and has been for billions of years.

    But no, the lawyers smell radiation and victims and government money, and they pounce.

    How many people will starve to death who could have been saved by spending those millions on food aid? How many thousands will die of coal pollution who could have been saved by developing LFTR technology instead of wasting money hauling away dirt? Once again, the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.

  64. Susan K says:

    “If you truly want a cleaner world, push for nuclear plants quickly. ”

    Reminds me of something else: “quickly” – it takes a couple months to put up a wind turbine which starts work right away. It would be about 13 years to get one nuke plant going…only to run out of fuel in 50, and then we pay to slowly decomission it.

  65. David B. Benson says:

    Kirk Sorensen — You about have me convinced that building an LFTR demonstration electric generator at some DoE site would be a good idea. Now you need to start convincing congresscritters to provide the authorization and $$.

  66. Klaus A says:

    Susan,

    If you advocate wind power, answer me the following questions:

    1. What is the power output of a wind turbine if the wind-speed is 1/2 of its design wind speed relative to its design capacity?

    2. What is the power output of a wind turbine if the wind-speed is 1-1/2 of its design wind speed relative to its design capacity?

    3. What is the amount of concrete used per produced MW of wind vs. current generation nuclear?

    4. What % of annual worldwide CO2 output comes from cement manufacture?

  67. Kirk Sorensen — You about have me convinced that building an LFTR demonstration electric generator at some DoE site would be a good idea. Now you need to start convincing congresscritters to provide the authorization and $$.

    Good, one down, who knows how many to go!

    I need some help on the second part, that’s why I’m here telling all you guys about this.

  68. Oooh, oooh, oooh! Klaus, call on me!

    1. 1/8th

    2. 0

    3. 10 to 1.

    4. about 5%.

  69. Klaus A says:

    Kirk has the right answers. He gets an A :-)

    But question number 1 and 2 show that the power output of wind turbines is so variable over short timeframes, that backup power (spinning reserve) has to be running basically full on even when wind is producing. Coal plants can take 2 days from cold to full power, while gas turbines still take about 18 minutes. Wind power output fluctuates faster than that and the backups needed therefore don’t save much fuel, but waste their energy (when wind is blowing) into the cooling water without much to get in return for the CO2 they emit.
    Actual capacity factor of large wind installations (country-wide) in europe show capacity factors (average output over a year) of 15-24%. Nowhere near the 30% often quoted by wind power advocates, and that is the reason those european countries with large wind installations and anti-nuclear energy stance are building coal plants.
    As far as I know, no wind turbine has achieved a 20 year lifetime either. The mechanical stresses in operation are very high and they just don’t last long. This gets us to question 3 and 4. The concrete foundations of wind turbines cannot be re-used. Replacement wind-turbines require new foundations. This means, combined with their low capacity factors, over 60 years (lifetime of a nuclear reactor) they require up to 60 times as much cement, and therefore emit many times the life-cycle CO2 of a nuclear plant from the building process alone, not even counting the CO2 belching backup required. Nuclear plants of course can be upgraded. There is no reason a lot of the long duration infrastructure of a nuclear plant cannot be re-used.

  70. hapa says:

    it was fun researching those questions. there’s a little war of mindsets between nuclear power advocates and renewables advocates, in terms of what people think power grids are for and whether smoothing and storage can reduce spinning reserve needs.

    if this were only up to the manufacturers of huge solid blocks of energy that need to capture markets we’d never get a grid that could tolerate a thousand thousand points of production. this will be a very entertaining debate as the months go on.

  71. hapa, I’d love it if there was a form of renewable power that could do the things that thorium could do, but I just can’t seem to find it. It would be really nice because there would be a lot less political and social opposition to a renewable option then there will be to any nuclear option.

    I’ve been looking for a very long time now and I’ve just about given up hope. The basic reason why there’s little hope is that a renewable energy source that would do what is needed would have great power density, be widely available, and be available day and night. The physics of weather and the thermodynamics of energy distribution just don’t really permit this to happen in nature.

    Thus, I pursue and advocate what I recognize is a politically and socially unpopular option, but one that must be advocated nonetheless, because it will work–nuclear energy, and specifically nuclear energy from thorium.

  72. Klaus A says:

    Hapa,
    A lot of renewable advocates think the electric grid can be modeled after the internet, with thousands and millions of points sending and receiving. What is forgotten about this debate is that what makes the internet work is NOT primarily the transmission infrastructure, but hard-drives. When you send an email, it is ALWAYS first stored on a hard-drive on a server somewhere. You can also retrieve it as many times as you want. Same for web-pages. The information retrieved is the same as was stored. You don’t loose a percentage of a web-page or email when you store and retrieve it. In the internet frequently used information is also commonly replicated at different access points (caches) so that retrieval from the original hard-drive does not become a bottleneck.

    We do not have a hard-drive equivalent for electrical energy. A kWh is not a web-page that can be shared. Moore’s law does not apply. And even if you had storage, different to the internet, the quantity retrieved is forever lost. You cannot retrieve the same energy multiple times or “cache” it. Electrical energy HAS to be produced at the same time it is consumed. Even if it is temporarily converted (while loosing a portion) to a different energy form, it has to be re-converted to electrical exactly matching the demand.

  73. hapa says:

    things we don’t need to do that we do today because we do.

    1) we don’t need to have a grid structure that tries to maintain voltage for millions of customers at once on the same set of wires. we can isolate cities and maintain voltage on wires that feed them. this allows greater abstraction of sources.

    2) we don’t need to have electricity and application of electricity completely in sync. there are clearly mission critical applications that must have constant supply, in uncertain amounts, but most applications are very steady as a class. by building demand management assumptions into the grid, it encourages whole classes of application to be more compatible with a grid with more offset supply.

    the electric car is a perfect example of this. it doesn’t take all night to recharge a car. if the battery charges quickly, it can charge smartly. can we do the same thing with a refrigerator? build into it thermal storage and electrical storage, offsetting its demand? we need that stuff to reduce peaks, regardless. can we do the same thing for a television? probably not. but that’s why we need to outlaw plasma televisions.

    every house and building will have electrical storage. not to charge cars; just to offset the house’s application from the grid’s supply.

    3) we don’t need to treat kilowatt-hours as a commodity, encouraging speculation and monopolistic behavior. in my head i picture a seriously demand-managed grid as the single-payer of electrical service. you don’t sell your energy to the consumer’s agent, you sell to the grid aggregator, who has a systems-wide outlook. over the entire region — in this case, north america — all the little generators add up to more than enough for the new, lower must-have-it-now base load — first locally then abroad — and also more than enough to maintain the new longer demand curves.

    that aggregator may then say, we can’t manage this without blending these feeds together. well what if the weather gets hot? you seal and insulate the houses, completely revamp the building codes, reduce the energy cost of cooling. then you worry about demand. this needs to be done already.

    4) we don’t need to worry about energy loss. if one turbine, or one hundred, generates more than its wire can handle, or than anyone needs, that’s fine. a smart grid will find a use for that juice. the environmental impact of “extra” generation is near zero; the important thing is that the facilities be well-sited so their potential cost is good.

    this is not simple energy utility economics. we’ll have extra capacity in each category of generation because that’s what it will take to turn us away from securing energy by making war on each other and the natural world in general. the cost of energy isn’t really the cost of energy as paid by the electrical consumer and we all know that. we just like to play dumb to make the utilities look like heroic capitalists.

    5) we don’t need to pay much for these things to happen. the infrastructure maintenance moment is here and most other gadgets turn over quickly. to change the model, we need only concentrate on doing it.

    SO, that is the case as i understand it. it’s a pretty different way of looking at energy but it is not incompatible with physics or reality.

  74. Earl Killian says:

    Klaus A, Kirk, it appears to me that you are posting misinformation about wind. I suggest you cite references if you want to dis your non-favorite technology. Yes, wind power is a cubic function of wind velocity, but turbines don’t produce 0 power after they reach their rated power. Please see
    http://www.gepower.com/prod_serv/products/wind_turbines/en/36mw/index.htm
    and click on “technical data” and “technical specifications”. The graph on the data page should make this clear. Yes, there is a “cut-out” wind speed you will find on the specifications page, but that is twice the speed at which the turbine produces its rated output.

    Also, I have seen gas turbines specified at 13 minutes, not 18.

    Also, I took a quick look at the Denmark wind data. Countrywide in 2007 they had 3,124,345 kW and generated 7,172,754,494 kWh, which looks like 26% to me, not 15-24%.
    http://www.energistyrelsen.dk/graphics/Energi_i_tal_og_kort/energidata_kort/stamdataregister_vindmoeller/oversigtstabeller_vindmoeller/Oversigtstabeller_UK-DK_20080417.xls

  75. Earl Killian says:

    On wind, consider the work of Archer and Jaconson:
    http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/winds/aj07_jamc.pdf

    Here is the abstract:
    Wind is the world’s fastest growing electric energy source. Because it is intermittent, though, wind is not used to supply baseload electric power today. Interconnecting wind farms through the transmission grid is a simple and effective way of reducing deliverable wind power swings caused by wind intermittency. As more farms are interconnected in an array, wind speed correlation among sites decreases and so does the probability that all sites experience the same wind regime at the same time. The array consequently behaves more and more similarly to a single farm with steady wind speed and thus steady deliverable wind power. In this study, benefits of interconnecting wind farms were evaluated for 19 sites, located in the midwestern United States, with annual average wind speeds at 80 m above ground, the hub height of modern wind turbines, greater than 6.9 m/s (class 3 or greater). It was found that an average of 33% and a maximum of 47% of yearly averaged wind power from interconnected farms can be used as reliable, baseload electric power. Equally significant, interconnecting multiple wind farms to a common point and then connecting that point to a far-away city can allow the long-distance portion of transmission capacity to be reduced, for aexample, by 20% with only a 1.6% loss of energy. Although most parameters, such as intermittency, improved less than linearly as the number of interconnected sites increased, no saturation of the benefits was found. Thus, the benefits of interconnection continue to increase with more and more interconnected sites.

  76. Earl Killian says:

    Kirk said “I’d love it if there was a form of renewable power that could do the things that thorium could do, but I just can’t seem to find it.“. What is it that Ausra says they can do that fails to meet our needs?
    http://www.ausra.com/pdfs/T_1_1_David_Mills_2049.pdf
    I personally don’t want to see a single CSP array 145 km on a side to power the U.S. (diversity of supply is important), but it helps to get a sense of what is possible with renewables.

  77. What is it that Ausra says they can do that fails to meet our needs?

    It’s huge and you have to place it far away from where most of the population lives (the eastern US) necessitating intercontinental HVDC transmission lines that will be expensive and unpopular.

  78. Joe says:

    Guess what. People don’t want to live near nukes, so lots of them need expensive transmission too.

  79. People don’t want to live near nukes, so lots of them need expensive transmission too.

    Actually, recent polls of people who live near existing nuclear power plants show the majority favor additional reactors at those sites.

    Nuclear power can be situated in the eastern US, far closer to demand, and thus require much less transmission lines and attendant losses.

  80. Dezakin says:

    I personally don’t want to see a single CSP array 145 km on a side to power the U.S. (diversity of supply is important), but it helps to get a sense of what is possible with renewables.
    Maybe someday… wind is competitive in some parts with minimal grid penetration, but CSP just isn’t yet. If it were, utilities would be all over it.

    We need to build nukes today, design LFTR designs for tomarrow. I have hope for wind and solar, but my fear is entheusiasm for such renewables will delude people that they cant meet the demands for the grid alone and let their fear of nuclear electricity to block nuclear plant construction. Historically whenever this has happened, this led to coal filling the demand Gap. Its happening today in Germany.

  81. Earl Killian says:

    Dezakin, the utilities are all over it.
    500-850MW SCE with Stirling Energy Systems
    300-900MW SDG&E with Stirling Energy Systems
    177MW PG&E with Ausra
    533MW PG&E with Solel
    500MW PG&E with BrightSource
    280MW APS with Abengoa
    The above are just the ones I’ve read about; there are probably others.

  82. paulm says:

    nuclear:
    - who pays for clean up when the economy blow? (which it is probably going to do)
    - how do we move all those plant at sea level when it starts going up? (which it is going to)
    - what happens when we start to take all those unsafe short cuts/options to keep them running past their sell by date? (which we will)

    This is one dark horse on the horizon for us all!

  83. Uncle B says:

    McCain = 19th century groupthink (ignorant of the facts). Obama/Clinton/Clinton triumvirate = 21st Century Progress.

  84. puttputt says:

    McCAIN IS INSANE! DON’T LET THIS GUY NEAR THE BUTTON!

  85. Ken says:

    Kirk or Charles, I’ve been meaning to ask you for a few months now if it would be possible to add actinide waste from other reactors to LFTR fuel for disposal purposes. Also, although I agree with you in principle that a MSR design is superior, is there a practical reason why the Radkowsky design is not a sensible alternative for the current reactor fleet for the introduction of thorium into the fuel supply?

  86. Alex says:

    Are we still living in the early 70′s and the china syndome fear? Let’s not fear the future but embrace it . Nuclear is the best way to meet our continuing addiction to cheap energy, and is required to keep our economy strong. I don’t understand these reactionary views to the rest of the world’s aggresive pursuit of nuclear energy. We are living the in the 21st century. Nuclear tecnology has improved greatly, both in terms of safety and reusing plutonium rods. Why let the french engineers beat this country in having technology leadership in this field? Do we have to lose yet another high tech industry to foreigners? Let’s address concerns and move forward. Have no fear of atomic energy, for none of us can stop the time.

  87. James Tyrer says:

    Your sophistic argument is based on the presumption that if we build more atomic power plants that they will be the same as the existing ones. (e.g. mostly pressurized light water reactors). That would be a very foolish thing to do.

    The idea of burying the spent fuel rods in Yucca Mountain is also a foolish idea. Remember that those spent fuel rods are over 90% U238 and that is one of the main disadvantages of PLW reactors.

    IAC, those spent fuel rods should not be buried, they should be reprocessed and we just need to store them somewhere till it is economically practical to do it.

    All reactors to be built should be new designs. And, new designs don’t generate a large mass of “waste” material. Some of them don’t even run on Uranium (a thermal breeder runs on Thorium).

    But you do have a valid point about the number we would need to build. But, this point doesn’t apply just to atomic power plants. It applies to any and all new power plants — can we build solar or wind plants that fast? Can we build SynFuel plants that fast? No matter what you are talking about building a lot of them is a real problem.

  88. Kevin says:

    Uranium is far more abundant than oil in relative terms. First, Uranium does not have a peak like oil, partly because spent uranium fuel in the form of U-238 can be reprocessed in a breeder reactor to add one neutron, making it PU-239 (plutonium), so it can be reused. In a way, uranium is a reusable fuel. There is plenty of uranium in the world, and most of it is untapped and in Canada and Australia.

  89. Jason says:

    The logistics of any energy infrastructure overhaul is going to be expensive, no doubt, however the question is not of expense, it is of economics. Wind, solar, and tidal forms of energy all have a weather dependency, limited capacity factors, and intensive CO2 frontload profiles. Vandium batteries are not practical as baseload balance elements either.

    Nuclear, hydro, and geothermal are the only non CO2 emitting baseload power sources. Environmentalists, and everyone for that matter, need to give due credit to the job nuclear has done so far by suppressing the equivalent pollution from all the vehicles in America. Consider that to be anti-nuclear is to be pro coal and pro oil. Nuclear energy is the only readily available technology that has the power to threaten coal and oil’s reign.
    If I was a coal or oil company, I would give lots of money to renewable investments because it would make me look like a good guy while I know that the little pinch it makes in my business amounts to good PR. If you are anti-nuclear, then you are pro fossil fuels, end of story.

    We would only need 250-300 new reactors that could be added to existing or be placed on new plant sites to be 80% nuclear powered electricity for the 2015-2020 term.
    Yucca mountain need not be a show stopper and should not be to make nuclear go forward. Nuclear “waste” is not waste, there are valuable elements and unused energy there that needs to be harnessed. There are many technologies to recycle, transmutate and use that fuel. We need not be afraid of our science, we need to embrace it and build a better tomorrow with it.

  90. Cyril R. says:

    Kevin: you need a fast reactor to breed from U-238 which is very problematic and even then you still cannot sustain a chain reaction on the plutonium alone; you cannot burn up nearly all the U-238 and so far fast breeders have proven to be very expensive, unreliable and/or dangerous.

    Jason: it is a question of money because you need to convince private investors/companies to put trillions in new energy infrastructure and generation worldwide. If they cannot have a decent return, you lose the lion’s share of private investment.

    I am not convinced that we can build out lightwater reactors soon and quickly enough to really matter. Most of the industries are comatized. It takes at least a decade to revive it to reasonable levels. I am in favor of seriously attempting this, however that is not a guarantee that it will work as well as some people like to think, nor that it will be cheap. For one thing, the nuclear EROEI suffers somewhat with lower grade ores. Not a huge problem but it is when you’re talking about exponential growth. Nuclear power is not as readily scalable as you would like to think. So nuclear absolutism is too dangerous a position, there is no basis for exaggerating to nuclear absolutism, in fact it is counter-productive. Efficiency and conservation must be the primary focus of government policy and subsidies for the short term. Once a serious price is put on carbon, and non-market barriers are mostly removed by the government and institutions, the market will decide very effectively what low carbon choices will be implemented. A small pruction tax and investment tax credit for all low carbon sources makes sense to me at least until there’s a reasonable price on carbon.

  91. msn nickleri says:

    We would only need 250-300 new reactors that could be added to existing or be placed on new plant sites to be 80% nuclear powered electricity for the 2015-2020 term.
    Yucca mountain need not be a show stopper and should not be to make nuclear go forward. Nuclear “waste” is not waste, there are valuable elements and unused energy there that needs to be harnessed. There are many technologies to recycle, transmutate and use that fuel. We need not be afraid of our science, we need to embrace it and build a better tomorrow with it.

  92. john says:

    that is a dumb approach. We need to produce energy safely and not cause harmful problem to us and the environment. What about solar,wind,hydro etc. come on people lets use our brains. we moved all of jobs oversee that is the only thing we have let better than the rest of the world. screw it back on tight.