Nuclear Power Can and should be the Solution for both Global Warming and Nuclear Waste
OK, I’ll say it even though it may be wildly unpopular in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. We still need a nuclear renaissance in the U.S.A. I’ve been studying nuclear energy and there just might be a design that is safe, burns nuclear waste, emits no CO2 and might just help save the world.
Environmentalists are right that nuclear power, as we have it today and have seen it in Fukushima, is not entirely safe. The light water reactors we have today are not passively safe, use only about 1% of the natural uranium in their fuel, are badly sited and are getting old. Despite that, by the numbers nuclear is not nearly as dangerous as coal, gas, wind or even solar. The reality is that we have had Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, yet commercial nuclear power has not killed a single person in the U.S.A. in 61 years and only 56 at Chernobyl which was an epic failure of communist management, incompetence and disregard for their workers. Maybe we have just been lucky, but as of today, at least forty-one workers have died in the production of modern wind turbines, hundreds, thousands in China every year, have died mining coal ( 25 at the Upper Big Branch mine in W.Va last April) not to mention thousands or tens of thousands affected by emissions by coal plants. Hundreds have died in petroleum plant disasters and extraction accidents. Natural gas is certainly safer and cleaner, but still emits tons of CO2. Don’t get me wrong because I’m still a strong advocate for solar, wind and biofuels (there is nothing so efficient as a liquid fuel for transportation). Natural gas is leaps and bounds better than coal in so many ways so I am strongly in favor of replacing as many of our aging coal plants as can be replaced quickly with natural gas plants. Even with all these options, none of them really solves all the problems we need to solve for global society for power generation in the first half of this century.
For modern society there are three major problems that we have to solve or at least get on the road to solving in the next ten to twenty years. Those problems are as follows:
- We have to find some way to lower and then eliminate the majority of CO2 emissions as early in this century as possible.
- We have a serious problem with nuclear waste and weapons grade nuclear materials that we have to deal with by using them for fuel or storing them safely.
- We need a base power source for the grid that can produce reliable power on a 24x7x365 basis which solar and wind cannot satisfy.
Nuclear power plants also have some problems that we have seen close up at Fukushima and some that are not so obvious:
- Most of our plants are old and based on old designs that are very inefficient and not nearly as safe as the new designs. The last plant was begun in 1977 as a Gen II design and now we have Gen IV designs almost ready to go.
- Nuclear power plants are take a very long time to build and are incredibly expensive as well because they are each one off designs built in place.
- Supplies of known uranium will run out using current designs in 50 to 150 years depending on how many new plants are built.
- Both light and heavy water reactors of current designs in use less than 1% of the natural uranium that begins th fuel cycle and they produce masses of dangerous waste products that cannot reused.
What if there were a safe new nuclear reactor design that produced consistent reliable energy with almost no CO2 emissions and could be mass produced and put into service much more quickly and inexpensively than our existing designs? What if those new nuclear plants were designed for passive safety and could use up most of the nuclear waste and weapons grade fissile materials that we need to get rid of at a 95% efficiency? What if the new nuclear plant designs could do all that and revive U.S. manufacturing prowess and rejuvenate America as a leader in safe green energy in the world? What if we had tested this new technology safely for 30 years and one of our industrial titans has a design ready to build now as a prototype and could begin manufacturing commercial reactors as early as 2015.
You say that sounds like too good to be true? Well, GE has their S-PRISM advanced reactor design almost ready to go. What it mostly needs now is public, political and financial support to get going again. The design, known as an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), Sodium-cooled Fast Reactor (SFR) or Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor (ALMR), is not new, so it is tested. It was originally developed at the Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho achieving first criticality in 1965 and it operated until 1994. GE Hitachi has a variant for commercialization called the Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (S-PRISM), which is the reactor portion and a key component to closing the nuclear fuel cycle by reusing spent nuclear fuel (and weapons grade fuel) instead of storing it. The DOE in 2001 created a 200+ PERSON task force of scientists from DOE, UC Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, ANL, LLNL, Toshiba, Westinghouse, Duke, EPRI, and others to evaluate the best new reactor designs on 27 different criteria. The IFR ranked #1 in their study released April 9, 2002. Though there are a few IFRs operating as test beds at present there are no Integral Fast Reactors in commercial operation.
- Meet the Man Who Could End Global Warming – Eric Loewen
- The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) Project
- GE Hitachi’s PRISM Reactor
- Dan Rather’s take on Nuclear Reactors
- TEDxYYC – Kirk Sorenson on Thorium LFTR reactors
- Energy From Thorium.com
While I believe that in the near term the IFR derivatives like GE’s S-PRISM are the answer to both managing our nuclear waste stream and producing CO2 free electric power for management of global warming, the Thorium LFTR reactor concept is probably the answer to base electric production in combination with wind, solar, wave and bio fuels. In fact the LFTR can help in production of eco-friendly synthetic fuels via heat from water and CO2.