By Allen Penticoff
Our Future Energy, the complete series
“Mr. Green Car,” The Rock River Times
I began this series with the intent to end up with an endorsement of nuclear power. However, I could not go directly to that goal without laying the groundwork of analyzing the current energy generation problems and myths.
Much of this series of nine articles flies in the face of common wisdom. But it is important that it all be considered – that the reader should do their own research to validate the opinions herein expressed or to refute them. There are innumerable resources dedicated to these topics. However, I wish to endorse reading one small book as a quick and easy read for the support of atomic energy as our future salvation and sustenance of our lifestyle:
“Climate Gamble – Is Anti-Nuclear Activism Endangering our Future?”, byFinnish authors Rauli Partanen & Janne M. Korhonen, 2017 edition. Despite originally being written in Finnish, this book’s English translation reads very well. The Finns have wrestled with all the same energy issues as the United States. Do read it.
Note there are formatting irregularities due to using Google Doc converted to MS Word in some cases. The dates noted on each are the date the draft was written and submitted. These are usually published inÂ The Rock River Times, a weekly newspaper in Rockford, Illinois under my column name of “Mr. Green Car” with little additional editing, although there may be minor changes from these drafts when they were published a few days later.
Questions, comments, or corrections may be directed to me at TheBoteSkipper@gmail.com
No anti-nuclear rants please. You are the problem, not the solution. Enjoy.
Perils of Natural Gas – Part I
“Mr. Green Car”
The Rock River Times
As I continue to evangelize the purchase and use of electrically powered vehicles, there has been no let up in opposition to their deployment. The number one argument of the opposition is, electric cars are essentially coal powered.
There is some truth to that, but it really depends on where you live and what is the source of your electric utility’s energy. I repeat what I’ve said before, that even with coal as the primary source of energy, electric vehicles are still much better for the environment than driving a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle. And, as it turns out, natural gas needs to be looked at in the same light as coal. This is because many coal- powered plants have been converted to burning natural gas and many new electric generators are natural gas powered as well. This is due to our vast overdevelopment of natural gas resources driving down the cost of this fuel.
Coal versus natural gas: Let’s begin with airborne pollutants – burning natural gas, the cleanest burning of all the fossil fuels – whether in a building or vehicle (and buildings are the biggest consumers of natural gas and thus the problems with natural gas use are directly linked to our building heating needs as well) releases only negligible amounts of sulfur, mercury and particulate matter into the atmosphere.
Coal is well known for releasing a lot of sulfur and mercury into the air – both very hazardous to our health and the environment. Natural gas emits roughly 50-60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2), a major contributor to climate change than coal. Burning natural gas, as burning anything does, causes nitrogen in the atmosphere to change into nitrogen oxide (NO2). NO2 is a source of smog. Natural gas does produce significantly less NO2 than coal, and somewhat less than gasoline and diesel (true of CO2 release from vehicle use of natural gas as well).
This sounds like a big win for natural gas over coal. But the devil is in the details. That detail is the Total Life Cycle Emission (TLCE) of natural gas. All energy sources have a TLCE and one cannot honestly evaluate their impact on the environment without considering all that it takes to make the energy source usable. In the case of natural gas there is the hidden release of methane when the gas wells are drilled and during the gas extraction process. Basically, they leak a lot of methane.
Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Its presence in the atmosphere is 34 times more powerful per ton than CO2 over a 100-year period and 86 times more potent in warming the planet than CO2 a year over a 20-year period. These so-called “fugitive emissions” for natural gas are estimated to range from 1 to 9 percent of the TLCE of natural gas.
Comparing the TLCE of natural gas to coal and other fossil fuels, studies suggest that the TLCE of natural gas needs to be at 3.2 percent over a 20-year period to be cleaner in regards to CO2 emissions than a “new” coal burning power plant. For natural gas to be cleaner than diesel fuel, the TLCE should be less than 1 percent and for gasoline it should be under 1.6 percent.
The latter two make for an easier target and put natural gas generated electricity on par with gas and diesel for cleanliness in charging your electric vehicle (few of us get our electricity from these sources). However, there is considerable room for improvement, as anti-leaking technology exists – but there is not the regulatory structure in place to require gas companies to endure the expense of implementing it.
This is a case where we may, as citizens, have to pay for something that private enterprise could may well afford to implement on its own to save the planet. The oil and gas lobby is quite powerful in congress and has had its way with government for a very long time. I think it would be worth it to agree to pay for it ourselves – as I don’t think there is sufficient political will to make the producers pay for it.
In the next “Mr. Green Car,” we’ll look at some of the other environmental impacts of our consumption of natural gas.
Perils of Natural Gas, Part II
“Mr. Green Car”
The Rock River Times
In my last column on the perils of natural gas use I mostly compared coal to natural gas and the difference in their affect on air pollution. I did leave out one critical comment, that of particulate pollution. While natural gas is very low in particulate matter releases, and is therefore a better alternative to diesel and gasoline’s way lower than coal in fine particulate matter released into the air. Particulate matter is easiest to think of in terms of smoke.
Smoke is particulate matter, but such visible particulates, while doing no good for you, at least precipitate out of the atmosphere fairly quickly. It is the minute, invisible particles associated with coal, diesel and gasoline use that are most harmful to humans and the earth in general. Our air is quite full of them and many studies have linked health problems to that emission.
Back to the perils of natural gas – out of sight out of mind, in 2011 there were 35,000 oil and natural gas wells in the United States alone. Many of these are of the sort that is known as horizontal fracturing (fracking) type of well/drilling. Through a rather secretive process, water and chemicals are injected deep in the earth to spread rocks apart to release oil and gas trapped there.
Continued use of high-pressure water is needed to get the oil and gas out. The EPA has identified up to 1,000 different chemicals that may be used in fracking, although typically only a dozen from this list are used on a given well. In 2011 the EPA estimated that all these wells consumed 70 to 140 billon gallons of water. That’s a LOT of water.
One fracked well may consume between 3-12 million gallons of water–then need this much again each time the well needs to be refreshed or “worked over.” Most need this at least twice in their production life span. This, while a conventional “vertical”well may need only 1/12th of the water of a fracked well.
On top of consuming vast quantities of surface and ground water, that in many cases reduces the availability of water for other uses. The water that has been through a well cannot be cleaned up sufficiently to be returned from whence it came. The wastewater is generally injected under high pressure back into empty pockets deep in the earth. This process is known to cause minor earthquakes as well.
In addition to the literal “wasting”of our precious water resources–contaminants from drilling, production and disposal are known to get into ground and surface waters. Many people have found their tap water to be unusable–or even flammable due to these contaminants.
The well sites themselves are environmental negatives. The construction and operation of these wells causes erosion, fragments wildlife corridors and the roads and pipelines damage the earth in many ways as well. Pollution from the wells and equipment often gets into streams and lakes causing aquatic damage and sedimentation. A study in the state of Michigan found these factors to be significant in their impact on the environment.
Since tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals are trucked to these remote well sites and the chemicals stored there, the opportunity for spills and leaks are profound. And they do occur. These spills have a habit of ruining the land and water in which they come into contact.
To wrap up this column, I’ll say what should stick in your mind, that while everyone knows there is no such at thing as “Clean Coal” there is also no such thing as “Clean Natural Gas.” While certainly better than using coal on all accounts, it is not a good solution to our vast energy needs. Natural gas still is contributing heavily to greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet. There are options that are better and we’ll look at the pros and cons of some of them in future “Mr. Green Car” columns in this series.
Energy Perils Part 3
“Mr. Green Car”
The Rock River Times
Recently I drove the length of Illinois in our Volt (24 gal. used for 900 mile round-trip). At the start of my trip I was cruising down Interstate 39 on a cloudy windless day. In the area of Mendota and Paw Paw all the giant wind turbines were still. There was precious little sunlight. These are two significant problems for solar power and wind power.
Interestingly enough, these two immediate downsides to wind and solar are exactly why companies in the natural gas business are pushing wind and solar. Since at present neither energy source has any real storage capacity – their power must be used as it is made. When they can’t make power – at night – on windless days – guess what steps in to fill the void? Natural gas turbines.
Wind and Solar cannot provide for base load power. That is the capacity to provide for our everyday needs. Without substantial, and I do mean SUBSTANTIAL battery storage capacity, neither can provide for our normal needs on their own. This has been proven. To take our present “thermal” (coal, gas, nuclear) power plants out of action and depend on solar and wind at this point in time would be to make our area of the world unlivable. All you need is a cloudy, windless day in the winter when you need heat and there would be no electricity. Without your own personal generator it is going to be very cold. There will be no warm place to go to unless they have a generator.
As it is right now, solar and wind only make matters worse. Their output is variable over short periods of time. The thermal plants cannot react quickly to make up for these variations and must be kept “spinning” – that is they are up and running, but inefficiently, ready to ramp up and meet the demands as they come. Ironically, the more wind and solar there is, the more reserve capacity the power plants need to be able to make up for when the renewables can’t do their job.
The needs of thermal power plant operation override the need for alternative energy – on windy days the power being put out from wind turbine fields is often “dumped,” turned off, wasted. There is no place for it to go. Even with no renewables in the grid power mix we are offered discounted electricity at night. The power plants cannot be throttled down much and they NEED someplace for the electricity to go. And at times of high demand, renewables cannot be turned up to meet that demand. Grid suppliers then turn on gas turbine engine “peaker” plants to help meet that demand.
That’s why they offer discounts if they can cycle your air conditioning off in the summer. Saves them from firing up the peaker plants. Worldwide, it has been shone that even where there are large-scale wind farms, the net result is that it does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions – that they’d be better off with the thermal plants operating at efficient levels with no wind power at all.
Wind and solar power have some serious downsides and rather than stretch that much to say into a small space here, I’ll continue the series on evaluating what forms of energy will power our future. What is driving this series is my firm belief that to keep our planet habitable, we’ll need to dramatically curtail all use of fossil fuels and all other forms of energy that involve burning something.
The future needs to be extraordinarily energy efficient and fully electrically powered. Only through massive conversion of transportation, heating and cooling, industrial processes to purely CLEAN electric power are we going to have some chance to curtail climate change. As we’ll see in pages to come, the process is not so much technical as political.
We know how to do this now, but there is no leadership in making this happen. We have to take a hard look at going with publicly owned power generation and forego letting the “market” decide what is good for us. Much like the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, we must decide that there is a need and that “price be damned,” we have to do it. Until then, I have little faith in the necessary changes happening in the time frame that is needed to avert a climate disaster.
Energy Perils Part 4
“Mr. Green Car”
The Rock River Times
Before I dive in too deep into forecasts of how our future energy will be supplied, I must make a disclaimer – Mr. Green Car is not an expert in any of this.
I like most of my readers, have a life. A life full of things to do. Commitments to others. Yards. Hobbies and other interests. I read a lot, and not all of it technical. And despite what it may appear, I do not spend hours and hours on the Internet reading the latest and greatest in all things green. I do maintain an above average interest in all things – and so, with a little additional research on topics of interest to me – I go forth and render opinions. Much like yourselves.
With that in mind, I may be “full of it.” But I’m doing my best to formulate a learned opinion and to disseminate it. I’d be glad to debate you over a cup of coffee if you find I need some “education” but that doesn’t mean I’ll change my mind either. Of late, I’ve been reading several books with pros and cons of alternative energy sources spelled out and debated, and with those in mind I am venturing forth to explore a shift in the decades old paradigm that wind, solar and other “renewable”energy is our salvation.
Authors will often put the end of the story at the beginning – then explain how you got there. I will do the same here so you are not left wondering where this is going. I am going to make a case for a new and improved form of atomic energy. At this point my green friends will throw up their hands and say, “what the heck (or words to that effect)? “That’s okay. Bear with me as we analyze the pros and cons of solar, wind, hydroelectric and atomic power. Save your judgment until the end please.
As I said in my last “Mr. Green Car” column, I believe we need to move to an all-electric powered society. This will create a much bigger demand for electric power than our current needs. And bear in mind that as China, India and the rest of the world seek to up the quality of life for their citizens, it involves increased energy needs. China alone has created as much new electrical power through coal and atomic energy in the last 15 years equal to the entire grid of the United States. If something is not done right away, this need for power will be met by burning coal.
My reading and intuition says that the first order of business it increased efficiency. While a lot has been done to reduce our electrical consumption – actually to the point of not needing any new electrical generation, there is still much that can be done to tighten up drafty old homes and replace out-of date appliances. In a perfect world we’d discard much of what we have and replace with new super-insulated homes and drive only electric vehicles.
The demand for more electrical power would arrive not because of inefficiency, but with conversion to an all-electric life. While there are many who say this can all be done with wind, solar, hydro and bio fuels, there are an equal number of voices who say they are not practical enough to go all the way with “renewable”power.
Also, there are voices calling for “distributed power.” That is power generated from many sources and pooled together to make a more flexible network of power. I sort of agree with this. But it has pitfalls as well. The best thing to say for distributed power is that it can be more secure. It is hard for all the sources to be knocked out by one attack, failure or accident. Some say that in this model, solar power will come from the sunny places to the cloudy places and all will be good. I think that too hopeful. Also, there are several hours every day when the entire country is dark. Snow falls across entire regions covering solar panels. Several states can be under a high-pressure system that has no wind to speak of. Droughts reduce the output of hydro-power.
And in the economic analysis – sure it is fine if YOU can afford a $50,000 solar system that powers your home and sends some off to the grid – but the vast majority of Americans and people around the world cannot afford such a luxury. Folks who live “off-grid” do so mostly by living very frugal lives, in tiny homes, campers or boats. It is a lifestyle that does not appeal to everyone. But it can be done. In fact, it cannot be done by everyone. If everyone heated their home by burning wood, weâ€™d soon have no forests and the air would be toxic. To be continued…
Energy Perils Part 5
“Mr. Green Car”
The Rock River Times
Wind turbines, love ’em or hate ’em. Many folks think that their number one disadvantage beyond not being able to produce energy all the time is that they industrialize the skyscape. The United States has virtually no offshore wind farms due to this very objection.
Go down to the area between Sterling and Peoria, IL if you want to see what the future would look like with hundreds of wind turbines everywhere. While it can sort of be acceptable to look at them during the day — it is at night when they are really objectionable – for most of these towers have a blinking red light on them. This is true wherever industrial scale turbines are located. Rural-living folks generally don’t like their night sky full of blinking red lights.
People who get paid for turbines to site on their land love them. Their neighbors not so much. Sunlight passing through the slow turning turbine blades can cause “shadow flicker.” That is the sunlight flashes on homes and businesses. Your only defense is thick shades – when you’d perhaps rather be getting sunshine through your windows. Some folks claim mental illness from blade flicker. Some can hear them and are bothered by that too. Birds and bats collide with the blades and are killed – but recent improvements in blade design and siting have eliminated much of that.
Worldwide – the amount of energy produced by wind turbines is a tiny fraction of the electricity we all consume. If not for government subsidies and huge tax credits there would be virtually no industrial scale wind turbine farms. The money is in making them and putting them up, not in the electricity they produce. In the United States these wind turbines come about with the Production Tax Credit (a subsidy through the tax code). It expires every two years and must be reauthorized by Congress. When the tax credit ends – so does the installation of new turbines. This makes the wind turbine labor market volatile.
While over the 20-25 year life span of an industrial wind turbine, although it does produce much more energy than it took to make and set it up – they require much maintenance to keep them going. Wind turbine maintenance involves a technician (always young) to climb a very tall ladder, straight up inside a dark tube taking tools along.
When they get to the top – they are inside a noisy transmission/generator that is swaying in the wind. Sound like fun? Do that several times a day. It destroys knees. The generators may also catch on fire. They have been known to throw a blade and vibrate to death. The blades need inspection and cleaning. Very few people can go to the top of a wind turbine then rope down the face of a blade – inspecting and cleaning it. It is a job only for the most fearless of rock climbers.
Drive through a wind farm on a light wind day. You’ll see the turbine blades are not spinning. Most require a fair breeze to generate energy worth spinning the transmission and generator. Why wear it out if it can’t make power. They also stop them to avoid bird strikes in these conditions.
Why kill creatures when there is nothing to gain. On windier days you will almost always see some turbines not turning due to maintenance or breakdown. While some economic analysis factor in “decommissioning,” I have to wonder how many of these monsters will be abandoned by the last owner in the chain of owners. Will these hundreds – thousands of landscape covering turbines be taken down and rebuilt? Hard to say. Who will pay for that? I have serious doubts unless some regulation is in place to force removal or repair. The fiberglass in the blades is not presently recyclable. The metals? And that’s going to be every 20 years or so. Forever?
Wind and solar power are nice in that their fuel is free and they don’t cause much carbon dioxide release in their manufacture or operation, but without storage of energy they have serious drawbacks. In both cases, one must greatly overbuild capacity in order to get long-term output at a useful level. While there is some hope that batteries of one sort or another can be economically deployed to save power for another time, I can’t see where they will be big enough to go for days of cloudy skies with no wind. Presently the best storage system is called “pumped hydro.”
This is a fairly simple set up. You build a big reservoir – a lake high above a series of pump/power turbines. When you have excess power – say on a bright windy day – you turn on the pumps and pump water up into the reservoir. When you need to boost your power output – you drain the water back down through the pumps that are now generators.
Pumped hydro is the number one system of utility scale power storage in the world. It is popular in Spain and Portugal and other places. I know of one site in the American Midwest and that is on the east shore of Lake Michigan just a few miles south of the pretty little lakeside city of Ludington (you can easily find it in Google Maps). What you can’t see in satellite view is how tall this “lake” is or that it is a thermal power plant providing the excess power.
How practical is it to build these reservoirs all over the country? The actual siting possibilities are rather limited. Canyons and valleys are obvious places to install pumped hydro, but just as with damming a river to create a power generating reservoir you will destroy something in the process.
My favorite alternative energy is solar. You have very little impact on the environment as long as siting is not covering arable farmland. Solar can be on rooftops, parking lots and otherwise unusable land. They can be installed in roadways and new styles of solar are coming along all the time. Like wind turbines – their lifespan is 20-25 years. This is mostly due to their delicate internal structure – tiny metal connections – breaking. A friend of mine has had a 2000-watt solar system for 11 years now. He says it has lost 25 percent of its capacity.
During summer solstice 2019 (the best day of the year for solar) his system produced only 1350 watts of power. His recent October output was only 52,000 watts for the entire month. The average U.S. home uses 909,000 watts per month. You are charged by the “kilowatt hour”so this is calculated by dividing the usage by the total number of hours in a billing period. It was a cold dark month.
While prices for installed solar have dropped dramatically over the last few years, mostly due to the panels being made in China, one has to watch for purchasing the inexpensive sort. There is a big difference in construction (and price) between sturdy industrial grade solar panels and those that are found at discount retailers. Solar has the best potential for distributed energy generation.
There are forecasts that our electric cars will provide storage capacity as well as transportation from our homes. But what if you have driven off with your car at night – and you don’t otherwise have a battery storage system – well, you are back on the grid, perhaps getting power from your neighbor’s car – or from that coal-fired power plant. Until this distributed power scheme is implemented on a massive scale (everyone has it) I don’t see it as helping the carbon emissions problem all that much. And going to an all-electric future would indeed exacerbate the problem.
Yes, I’ve focused here in this “Mr. Green Car”on the downsides of the two most popular and reasonably practical forms of “renewable”energy. But this leads us to the next segment in this series wherein a radical rethinking of atomic energy is analyzed and perhaps shown to be our salvation. Stay tuned for Part 6 of Energy Perils.
Energy Perils – Part 6 – Our Energy Future
“Mr. Green Car”
The Rock River Times
Before I get into the next energy related column, I’ll make a quick review of the previous five columns.
In my studies and observations I can say for certain that there is no such thing as a “free lunch.”Every form of energy has a downside. Wind and solar power are clean but intermittent. Anything that burns pollutes the air and releases planet warming gases. Growing bio-fuels takes away crop production for food.
Building hydroelectric dams is expensive, releases much carbon dioxide in the construction phase (but you get a lot of clean energy in return for a very long time), ruins the land behind them, destroys natural pathways of aquatic life and failures have killed thousands. Hydro also suffers from lack of suitable siting– it already exists in the places it is practical to locate, so additional sites can’t be easily created where the power is needed.
For a century now the world has become more and more reliant on “rock oil”- ancient deposits of liquid hydrocarbons from decomposed plant and animal matter millions of years old for our energy needs. We’ve burned it and put it into Earth’s paper-thin atmosphere – altering the very climate. Its acquisition has caused global conflict and many have died trying to get or defend access to it. Oil wealth has corrupted our government and made self-governance a joke. Yet our addiction to profligate consumption of oil causes us to look away from all the evils that come with it. We use it as though there are no repercussions and that the supply of it is unlimited and somehow renewable. It is not.
I will repeat that I believe our future needs to rely entirely on electricity for our energy needs – to transport us, to warm us, and to illuminate our lives. By going “all-electric”we can divest ourselves of the troubles in the Middle East. Indeed, global terrorism would vanish without oil-backed funding. We can end the corrosive effects of oil money in government and we can clear the air so thatÂ future generations can have a habitable planet.
I and many other forward thinkers believe this change over to a clean, all-electric, future can only be brought about by our use of atomic energy on a massive scale.
Atomic energy has long been known to be capable of producing abundant clean energy – but a strong public sentiment against it developed in the 1970s and continues to influence energy decisions made today. My readings on the â€œanti-nuclear movementâ€ show that most who protest atomic energy also lump it together with nuclear weapons. This is apples and oranges.
Nobody wants to see another nuclear explosion take place – anywhere, but at the same time, we need atomic energy to transition to a truly clean lifestyle that would cause little sacrifice on the part of the world’s population. Yet ironically, the major environmental groups, whose roots are in the anti-nuclear movement, are steadfast against atomic energy. This ideology is at cross-purposes to the urgent need for carbon-free power to mitigate climate change.
Among the many public figures who advocate for an atomic energy future are: James Lovelock – the originator of the Gaia hypothesis that the Earth is one giant living organism; Patrick Moore, an early member of Greenpeace (a past president of Greenpeace Canada and presently an outspoken global warming critic) has gone from “nuclear is evil” to insisting that we need atomic energy for a clean healthy planet; Billionaire philanthropist, Bill Gates, has realized the necessity of an atomic-powered future and has been actively involved in getting new technologies developed that would enable this on a worldwide scale. There are many more individuals and organizations that are onboard with this notion and you can read the list at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pro-nuclear_movement
Obviously there are concerns about atomic energy, and they are significant. But I will get into those concerns and what is happening to modernize and make atomic energy more practical and safe in the next series of columns – there is simply too much to say in so small a space. So stayed tuned for more about Our Energy Future.
Our Energy Future
“Mr. Green Car”
The Rock River Times
I will begin with the ending, “Atomic energy is good.” Great even. We need it to power a clean future.
If you agree with that statement, you may go read something else, for the many words to follow will be deployed to inform, illuminate and convince folks the above statement is true. Or, if simply curious, read on.
Throughout my discourse I will refer to power generated by the fission of atoms as “atomic energy.” This is synonymous with “nuclear energy,” the difference being that the word nuclear has attached to it negative emotions. To break the cycle of repeating a bad word, I will only use it sparingly. I will begin with a brief history of atomic energy. Knowing where we came from is important to understanding our present status with atomic energy and where the future lays.
First, a defense of radiation. There has developed a notion, spurred by Hermann Muller in a flawed 1926 paper, “The Problem of Genetic Modification,” that claimed all radiation is bad – this is now referred to as the “Linear No-Threshold model” (LNT), please look it up and read it’s controversy. That theory states our tolerance for radiation should be zero, including sunlight. From this comes our fear and opposition to nuclear power and it is based on presumption and ignorance, rather than empirical science.
We are surrounded by radiation. It cannot be avoided. In fact, there would be no life on Earth if not for radiation from our sun. It is in our ground, it is in our food, and the very air we breathe. We have visions of what our two nuclear explosions did to the people living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and we have tested bombs that make those explosions look like cheap firecrackers.
Oh, yes, radiation on that scale can be awful, but it was not radiation that destroyed those cities–it was the blast– the heat and the shock wave created by the explosion. Today Hiroshima and Nagasaki have rebuilt on ground zero. The radiation has dissipated enough to be safe to live there. Many people survived the high radiation exposures (our bodies can fix radiation damage to a certain degree). Japan embraces (somewhat reluctantly) atomic power. They have little choice as they have few natural energy sources.
Much angst is made of the half-life of radiation. That radioactive things, like the unused uranium from our power plants is radioactive forever. Can’t get near it. Sort of true – yet a material with a long half-life is actually less dangerous than one with a short half-life. The latter is releasing its radioactive particles quickly–sort of a small explosion of radiation. This is the stuff to handle carefully. Yet some of it is needed in medicine to kill cancer in our bodies or to trace a path to an obstruction. Deep space probes use it for power. This intense radiation is useful. And oddly, there is not enough of it to meet the demand.
The man who patented nuclear power, Alvin M. Weinberg, realized early on that light-water reactors (considered Generation 1) using uranium were not the best way to produce power â€“ but Admiral Rickover chose the light-water reactors for the U.S. Navy ships and submarines– so that became the path we took. Weinberg knew there was better potential in use of abundant Thorium. Again, the U.S. military was concerned with the Cold War and was looking to design a nuclear-powered airplane that could stay aloft with nuclear bombs for long periods of time or travel great distances unrefueled.
Weinberg knew that such a notion was impractical, but took the government’s money so he could work on building the kind of reactor he knew was possible. In 1954 an experimental molten salt reactor (MSR) was operational, intended for the nuclear-airplane project. An operating reactor was installed in an aircraft, but not propelling it during shielding tests. Two competing designs were worked on and were finding some success, when the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles doomed and cancelled the project after spending a billion dollars on it.
That money was not really wasted – it proved Weinberg’s theories. So, another experimental MSR was built and made operational at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1965. It remained operational at full power until 1969. Both it and the aircraft reactor had highly-enriched uranium cores, but were using different methods of moderation and cooling considered safer than what is needed for light-water reactors.
Our Energy Future Part II
“Mr. Green Car”
The Rock River Times
We left off in the last column with a historical introduction to the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). These have yet to be deployed to power communities. Rather, we have been using “light water reactors” (LWR) since the beginning of the atomic age. The problems that arise from LWRs is that the core modulating water is at a very high temperature–400 degrees–and thus must be kept under high pressure to not boil. This creates the need for expensive plumbing and pumps that of course need electricity to run. When these bits of plumbing fail for any reason, then you have a nuclear disaster.
This was the cause of Three Mile Island and more recently Fukushima. No cooling. The water boils, turns to hydrogen and boom. There has never been an explosion of the core of a reactor. Chernobyl, which was a poorly operated reckless older graphite-modulated design has been the worst nuclear power failure–yet only 45 people were directly killed (17 by thyroid cancer and 28 emergency responders). Nobody was killed at Three Mile Island, which was put back in operation and has been running ever since.
Fear of nuclear power is far greater than its reality as a safe clean source of power. There are about 400 LWR atomic energy plants in the world. In the U.S. there are 60 atomic power plants operating 98 LWR reactors. This is because one reactor is often shut down for refueling while the other continues to supply power to customers. Their safety record is quite good. But there are even safer options.
Most operating atomic power plants in the U.S. are of fairly old designs–although they do get upgrades in performance, efficiency and longevity. One was recently licensed to extend its life to 80 years. However, most supporters of atomic energy see “small modular reactors” (SMR) as the next step in expanding atomic power. We’ve been building “what we know”for a long time– but with SMRs–which are still LWRs, the design is fixed, manufactured on more or less a production line and certified for use wherever one is needed.
The U.S. military is planning to use them to power some of their bases “off-grid.”A SMR is no more complicated than building an airliner or ship and should be certified for the design, with the manufacturer then relieved of re-certifying every unit they build. They could easily cleanly power smaller cities and large factories, and built aboard ships for coastal deployment.
Although the experiments with MSRs in the 1960s provided evidence that theoretically, a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR, pronounced “lifter”) concept was worthy of development as a safer alternative to LWRs, it was never pursued. MSRs can also operate on spent nuclear fuel, what most folks call “waste” that really is not done with providing power. There is much new interest in this design now, as it could greatly expand the use of atomic energy worldwide.
The main ingredient of a LFTR reactor would be hyper-abundant Thorium. It is one of the most common elements/minerals on the planet. In fact, the hot core of the Earth is a Thorium reactor– you are standing on it. It is easy to dig up. It would be incredibly cheap to make ready for use in a LFTR reactor. It is everywhere â€“ so there are no political battles or issues over who has it and who does not or how much of it you use.
In the LFTR reactor, Thorium is combined with Fluoride to become a solution that has a reaction. Unlike uranium it does not need containment to control stray neutrons. Essentially you have a big pot of molten metal (over-simplified here) in an expensive corrosion resistant tank that sits there and gets hot to the tune of about 700 degrees. This then heats water much as in the light-water reactor to provide steam for use in steam turbine generators– with the distinct advantage that the higher temperatures can make for more efficient and powerful turbines–creating more electricity for a given amount of fuel. The temperature of the reactor is controlled via circulated water. If there is a failure of the electrical supply to the reactor cooling pumps–a “freeze plug”melts and the reactor solution drains naturally into some reserve underground tanks for storage and cooling off. Safe and simple. To be continued…
Our Energy Future, Part III (and last of this series)
“Mr. Green Car”
The Rock River Times
As good as a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) reactor could be to develop, the United States and the rest of the world followed Rickover’s light-water reactor path. Over time it became entrenched–it is what we know– is how the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) feel about it, and they have little incentive to change. Presently, builders of the reactors make their money not on building hugely expensive reactors, but in supplying the fuel rods to keep them running–it is a sure thing. So – we’ve decided to stick with using the Model T of reactors when we could be driving a Tesla. No thanks. Not changing.
There are a few other nuclear reactor designs in use–considered Generation 2 and 3. Generation 4 is in the works including LFTR and similar technologies (much of it is over my head and I’m not going to try to explain it in layman’s terms). There is debate on what is best and has the fewest problems, but the consensus still is that nuclear technology needs to advance in the next few decades to save the planet.
Since Molten Salt Reactors (MSR) can burn “nuclear waste” all that we need to do with unused uranium fuel is to safely store it until such time it can be economically reprocessed or used directly. The world already has hundreds of years worth of this fuel on hand–even in an all electric age. It is not “waste” in need of disposal (I prefer to think of it as “leftovers”), and it has already been properly secured against nefarious diversion or accident–a mostly in heavy cement/steel containers stored near power plants or other essentially big well-guarded parking lots (i.e. the shut down enrichment plant near Paducah, Kentucky that is now a state wildlife area).
While Alvin Weinberg realized you could not practically build an MSR/LFTR small enough to power an airplane (or could we?), our military is now eyeing development of semi-trailer sized LFTR reactors that could be used in the field. As we’ve learned in Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq, a weak link in our military operations is the long supply line that brings in fuel to power our generators and vehicles.
With a powerful portable atomic power plant, much of the military’s energy needs could be met. Future wars will likely involve autonomous vehicles powered by electricity. These desert nations we seem to end up in don’t have power to spare, so we perilously bring in fuel. While I fully expect our military to implement LFTR technology in the field, on bases and perhaps even ships and submarines, our NRC is dragging its feet.
Because a LFTR reactor is not under high pressure, its construction is rather simple metal work. It does not need a huge concrete building built to withstand a hydrogen explosion. The design is scalable, so even small towns could have their own power source and definitely larger cities could have them. Our energy supply would be much more secure by this diversification. They could be on their own grid networks and controlled as needed without the threat of hacking into an interactive network of power-sharing grids.
Since the construction is so straightforward, they can be mass-produced with common tools and machinery. Rockford, with its manufacturing know-how, could be a leader in building these billion-dollar machines and selling them to the world. Good jobs and a high standard of living come along with that leadership.
Alas, our NRC has put a lid on LFTR development in the United States. Billionaire philanthropist/investor Bill Gates sees the wisdom of expanding LFTR technology worldwide to wean us off fossil fuels. Yet his attempts to get something going in the U.S. were thwarted– so, he went to China, whose government not only sees a great need for clean power, but doesn’t mind leading the world by manufacturing this technology they borrowed from our research. But Gates’s efforts in China have been thwarted by the U.S.’s economic war with China by embargoing funds and technology transfer.
We really have no time to lose on all counts. Keep our current light-water reactors online, subsidize them (or better yet let them be owned by the public) as does “sustainable”sources. On the sites of fossil fuel burning power plants, assemble a manufactured LFTR reactor that can tie into the existing electrical infrastructure and shut the fossil fuel burners down. Look seriously for other places that this power can replace or augment the power grid. Convert our entire society over to a 100 percent electric powered life. We’ll breath easier. We’ll start reversing some of the damage we’ve created and perhaps Gaia can once again keep all in order on our lonely little blue planet.
I am sorry to have angered my green friends by finding flaw in their sustainable energy ideology and having good things to say about nuclear/atomic power. But either you want to immediately reduce the impact of climate change by going nuclear– or you are going to delay until it is far too late by trying to use the sun and wind to save the day.
Much thanks to Dr. Richard Steeves for informing, enlightening and encouraging me on this topic. He hosts a website called Rethinking Nuclear. It is a good start. I first came to learn of Dr. Steeves because he built an electric ultra-light aircraft. I’ve seen it fly. I also started attending his PLATO lecture series for seniors that takes place in Madison, Wisconsin. Each of these lectures (not all on atomic power) are well attended by thoughtful seniors who seem to overwhelmingly endorse this notion of atomic power for the salvation of the planet. Visit platomadison.org. to learn more about their many programs.
There are many good videos on YouTube explaining LFTR technology as well as all other aspects of advanced atomic power. On Netflix there is a three part biographical series about Bill Gates, Inside Bill’s Brain, wherein the third part, Mr. Gates expounds on his support for advanced nuclear technologies.
I did not have space in the final column in this series to get into the bugaboo about nuclear â€œwasteâ€ in depth. It is a problem, but not an insurmountable one. It is more a concern to me in developing countries where security may be lax or even malevolent.
That said, I find it difficult for a bunch of under-educated terrorists to hi-jack super-heavy casks of radioactive material and then come up with the resources to build an atomic bomb. Uranium 235 must be very highly enriched — to the order of 80+ percent purity to be of use in a bomb. Commercial grade uranium is enriched to about 20 percent for use in power generation.
Super-enrichment is an expensive and technically difficult task. I worry more about the stuff that is already made and laying about from deactivated nuclear weapons in the hands of people who have no conscience whatsoever and who will sell this stuff to third world dictators (i.e. Russian actors to North Korea). This is no reason to forego using atomic power to clean up our energy future. It is an existing problem that must be dealt with ever-onward.
Yet this super-enriched uranium is of great value to power generating reactors. Even with the bomb threat hanging over our heads–burning coal kills hundreds of thousands of people every year (see endcoal.org). We seem to be worried about the wrong thing– potential devastation against actual devastation.
I also believe that beyond going to atomic clean power and an all-electric future we will need this clean power to start de-carbonizing the atmosphere made possible via abundant cheap electricity. The power of atomic fission can also desalinate water in great quantities, making fertile lands that are now drought- stricken and to water human populations around the world.
Cheap electricity from atomic power can also be used to convert water to hydrogen through electrolysis. This hydrogen can then be used to power everything from airliners to ships. I believe that hydrogen fuel cells will replace lithium-ion battery technology this way. Lithium-ion batteries have geo-political problems of their own.
Wind and solar power can be used to create hydrogen as well. I believe this to be the best use of their intermittent energy potential–make hydrogen while you can–store it–sell it. This would also help with the conversion of our natural gas heating systems to hydrogen. Current hydrogen supplies are coming from converting natural gas! This is ridiculous and not the least bit green.
Most scientists do not believe electricity from “fusion” will be practical any time soon. Atomic-fission can get the job done now of creating carbon-free energy in vast quantities.
Lastly, the economic forces that need to drive this conversion in power generation must come from making electricity “too cheap to meter”- as they thought nuclear power would provide in the 1950s. We must make using fossil fuels to be economically disadvantageous. Future generations will ponder our use of fossil fuels and wonder what took us so long to see the wisdom of atomic power and nearly free electricity. We can only say, “Well, it was easy, we were hoodwinked, we were selfish and uncaring. Sorry.”
Your help in promoting an atomic-powered all-electric future will be much appreciated– by your grandchildren, great-grand children and… .