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Going Green! or Not, Part III – The Impact of Nuclear Energy

This is Part III of the on going segment called Going Green! or Not.  Today I’m going to try and wrap up nuclear energy, hopefully I’ll end with a bang.  As always, if you missed any of the other installments, they are but a click away Part I, Part II. So let’s get back on track, and get to the atom smashing power of a nuclear reactor.

Nuclear energy is up there with abortion, capital punishment, and Yankees/Red Sox, everyone has an opinion, and everyone thinks they’re right, and just mentioning your opinion is grounds for termination of your friendship.  Unlike all the moral issues associated with the other three, nuclear energy is a misunderstood, unknown technology.  It was born from War, but used for good, it was the hopes and dreams of millions of kids to sail across the stars on a nuclear powered star ship, what happened to those dreams?  Fear, scaremongering, and false information.  The Chernobyl disaster, and Three Mile Island Incident really destroyed the nuclear industry when it was just getting interesting.  Before I go on, here’s a little background on both incidents for you:

Chernobyl:

Chernobyl MonumentChernobyl Monument {An1m4l}

Basically what happened was a perfect storm of accidents, human error, and bad design.  While performing an experiment that simulated a blackout, the core ran away from them, got too hot, and there was nothing they could do to cool it off, because the cooling pumps were intentionally shut off for the experiment.

In the worst areas of the plant, humans could receive a lethal dose of radiation in several minutes.  In terms of deaths, 56 people died directly, 4,000 cancer deaths, and ~600,00 people were exposed to elevated radiation levels, the effects of which are still being felt.

It’s also something to note that had the they passed the test, they would have found out that failed the test, because of the meltdown.  And yes, that makes sense.

Three Mile Island:

This was another series of unfortunate events that on a normal day, wouldn’t have been an issue, but when combined, was a problem.  However, in this case, it wasn’t a deadly problem.  The plant operators were stuck with too much information, most of which was useless, and didn’t know what to do when the reactor lost its cooling water, and quickly became over heated, causing the core to partially meltdown.  Unlike Chernobyl, the problem was caught, and fixed, and almost no radiation released to the atmosphere.

Zero people died directly, and numerous studies over the years have shown zero deaths from cancer attributed to the radiation that was, or was not released.

Now that you know this very basic history, (and it is basic, there is much more to each event, (here’s a nice Chernobyl resource)), it should be somewhat easier to understand where I’m going here.

These people over at AlterNet seem to think there’s problems with nuclear energy, and that it can’t help.  They’ve come up with 6 reasons why it wont save us, and quite frankly, they suck.

Reason 1. Length of time to come on: It currently takes so long to come online because of all the bureaucratic crap we have to go through to get one even commissioned.  Between the valid issues such as: “is this a viable place for the plant”, “is there suitable water supply”, “is the area in need of more power,” we get the fucking nut jobs that chain themselves to trees and prevent things from moving froward.  If it were legal to kill people trespassing on your property (it is in some places, look it up!), then these plants would get built much quicker, and with much more fun.

Reason 2 & 4. Insurance and Cost: When compared to wind, or solar which once are put up require only regular maintenance, sure nuclear costs more money.  But in terms of sheer wattage, you get more bang for your buck at a nuclear power plant, then a wind farm.  And, when the wind stops blowing, or you get a week long snow storm, nuclear power plants will still crank out 1MW of power.

Reason 3. Waste: I dealt with that last time.

UraninitePitchblende, is the most common ore mined to extract uranium

Reason 5. Peak Uranium: Just like Peak Oil (which I will get to later), this is a make believe term made to scare you.  They claims that there is only 60 years worth of uranium left in the earth to mine and use for fuel.  What he isn’t saying is that there is 60 years left of uranium we can access today.  Mining technology gets more advanced every year, and in 6 decades, I have confidence we will be able to dig deeper, and in more remote places.

And that’s just my mind speaking, here are some facts: at current reactor design, and current demands, there is enough high grade ore to last 85 years.  With new more efficient reactor designs capable of using lower grade ore, there is enough for 2500+ years.  These designs are in use, or in development now, and if it weren’t for reason 1 holding us back, we’d have no problem at all.
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Reason 6. Carbon Emissions: This is the one reason I somewhat agree with, but at the same time, when you think of it, it doesn’t mean anything.  During the operation of the plant, it releases no carbon emissions, making it clean.  However, people argue that mining and enriching the uranium releases carbon.  You’re right it does, but if you don’t mine uranium, then you must mine coal, or natural gas, and those release carbon emissions in the mining process too.  So the mining carbon emissions are canceled out.  Next you have the building of the plants.  Wind turbines, and solar cells are not born the earth, they are manufactured just the same, they use steal, and glass, and plastic.  Sure they use less of it, but they still use it, so the construction, and manufacturing is canceled out.  So, what’s left is a power plant that produces an average of 6 GW/hr (6,000 Mega Watt hours) a year, and releases no carbon.

If you don’t believe me, check out the research Barry Brook did concerning increasing the mining operation in south Australia.  He even got a nice graph which I’m embedding at near full size so you can read it well about it:

Vattenfall finds that averaged over the entire life cycle of their Nuclear Plant including Uranium mining, milling, enrichment, plant construction, operating, decommissioning and waste disposal, the total amount CO2 emitted per KW-Hr of electricity produced is 3.3 grams per KW-Hr of produced power. Vattenfall measures its CO2 output from Natural Gas to be 400 grams per KW-Hr and from coal to be 700 grams per KW-Hr. Thus nuclear power generated by Vattenfall, which may constitute World’s best practice, emits less than one hundredth the CO2 of Fossil-Fuel based generation. In fact Vattenfall finds its Nuclear Plants to emit less CO2 than any of its other energy production mechanisms including Hydro, Wind, Solar and Biomass although all of these processes emit much less than fossil fuel generation of electricity.

Now, let’s take a look at the different types of nuclear reactors:

PRessurized Water ReactorPressurized Water Reactor Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Boiling Water ReactorBoiling Water Reactor Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Fast Reactor {FR}
    • The first one’s developed to produce electricity, current FRs are liquid metal cooled, which provide better thermal transfer than water
  • Pressurized Water Reactors {PWR}
    • The most common type of nuclear reactor, there are two coolant loops, which means the radiation is separated from the cooling water loop
    • Requires high pressure liquid for cooling, which means high strength materials = expensive
  • Boiling Water Reactors {BWR}
    • Fewer components in the loop less confusing setup in general
    • A much larger pressure vessel = expensive
  • Generation III+ Reactors {G3+}
    • Advancements made on current gen nuclear reactors
    • Increase the life of new built systems
    • Uses less fuel, more efficient
  • European Pressurized Reactor {EPR}
    • A Generation 3+ reactor currently being built in Finland and France expected to open in 2010
    • 300% redundancy in cooling
    • 8.5 foot thick concrete wall designed to withstand airplane impact, and system overpressure
  • Pebble Bed Reactors {PBR}
    • Generation IV reactor, not in use yet, still testing
    • Able to use enriched uranium, or natural uranium = less carbon emissions
    • Exceptionally safe design

With the construction of G3+ reactors, and the developments of the PBR, the world of nuclear energy is about to change radically.  The only thing standing in it’s way are these types of people.  Man do I hate them.  But anyway, there are much more things regarding the different nuclear reactor types.  I could try and go into explaining it myself, but that’s not what I’m trying to do.

And looking to the future, some researchers in California have come up with a prototype for fusion using Lasers! It’s not true fusion, because that’s still unobtainable, but they use the Lasers start a regular fission reaction.  And if that’s not enough, they have claimed that they will be able to use the spent fuel from existing nuclear reactors to power this fusion/fission reaction.  However, I am skeptical of this new technology, because the running joke is that fusion is 20 years away…always.

That is nearly all the nuclear energy information I have for you.  I have a few other resources that don’t really fit this part, so I’ll use them later on.  Stay tuned for future installments of the Going Green! or Not series.

  1. Anderson
    Very well written article. As a huge fan of nuclear energy, I was atomically pleased with this series. (lately I've been trying to work the word "atomic" into my conversations as much as possible.
    1. steve
      thanks for your input anderson, I'm glad I'm getting such a positive reaction from my readers. Much luck on your atomic quest by the way

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