Key words :
three mile island,
The Nuclear Future That Never Arrived
29 Jul, 2008 02:57 pm
Understanding how the great hopes of early nuclear power advocates eventually turned into great disappointment may shed some light on nuclear power's future.
Today, however, nuclear power generates a little under 20 percent of the country's electricity, a figure that has varied only slightly all the way back to at least 1995. No plants are currently under construction in the United States though some new plants are expected to be built in energy-hungry Asia. So, what happened on the way to the 21st century?
When President Dwight D. Eisenhower made his now famous "Atoms for Peace" speech to the U. N. General Assembly in 1953, it seemed that with the right support and controls, nuclear power could become a revolutionizing agent in the development of the world, especially that part without electricity at the time. And, there was hope that breeder reactors, that is, reactors that can manufacture more fuel than they consume, would provide energy to all of humankind for centuries to come.
With the weight of the federal government behind it, nuclear power eventually found a ready audience in the form of America's utilities. The utilities may have surmised that if they did not participate in the building of nuclear power plants, the government would proceed on its own by forming public power entities that would compete with the utility industry. With the passage of the Price-Anderson Act which limited liability for nuclear plant operators, the stage was set for rapid expansion of the nuclear power industry in the United States.
By 1977 232 nuclear power plants were either in operation or planned in the United States according to a contemporary history of nuclear power, Science, Politics and Controversy: Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1946-1974. The author's perception about the trajectory of nuclear power probably mirrored that of most people at the time. In his preface dated May 25, 1979 the author wrote, "Given the world energy situation, it is unlikely that nuclear power development can or will be halted in the near future."
Strangely, the author was writing two months after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Perhaps the effect of the accident on the utility industry was not yet apparent; but, the ultimate effect was devastating for it led to the cancellation of many nuclear plants on order and a virtual cessation of all new orders. A single accident had dealt a death blow to the American nuclear industry and as a result to much of the industry abroad. The number of nuclear power plants in the United States today stands at 104, less than half of the total operating and planned some 30 years ago.
The 1980s saw sharp declines in the price of fossil fuels--oil, natural gas and coal--all of which compete with nuclear power in the generation of electricity. At the time it seemed as if the Three Mile Island accident had actually saved America's utilities from an unnecessary investment in expensive, increasingly unpopular, and potentially hazardous nuclear power plants.
Meanwhile, the French were moving ahead with their nuclear plans. There were no investor-owned utilities to get spooked by the Three Mile Island accident. Nuclear power in France was strictly a government affair. And, the French public was much more accepting of nuclear power than the America public had ever been. Perhaps the reason for this acceptance is summed up in a common French response to questions about why the country has embraced nuclear power so enthusiastically: "No oil, no gas, no coal, no choice."
Today, France has 59 nuclear reactors producing electricity that satisfies close to 80 percent of its needs. Some of the power is even exported.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the United States and France is each country's domestic fossil fuel supply. France has essentially no indigenous supplies of fossil fuels left. The United States remains one of the world's largest producers of oil, natural gas and coal. And, because of that it has a powerful fossil fuel lobby that has little interest in seeing nuclear power succeed.
Because the rest of the world did not follow France's lead and nuclearize, the future envisioned by the early proponents of nuclear power has never been realized. Nuclear power offered at least the possibility of electrifying most of the infrastructure including transportation. But in a globalized world even though France can produce prodigious amounts of electricity, it is still dependent on petroleum-powered trains, planes, trucks, and automobiles to move goods and people since this is the only way it can connect itself to other countries. (Of course, many of the trains are electrified in France and Europe as a whole, but they carry primarily passengers. Close to 80 percent of all freight in Europe is moved by truck.)
Quite often nuclear power is portrayed as part of a path to energy independence. But France's domestic production of uranium has shrunk to zero, and some of the world's largest mines are in troubled places in Central Asia and Africa.
Uranium, the main nuclear fuel, is often portrayed as virtually limitless. But a study done by Germany's Energy Watch Group suggests that uranium supplies could be exhausted within 70 years even if now uneconomic deposits are taken into account.
Of course, the world could always embrace breeder reactors which were mentioned at the outset of this piece. The problem is that such reactors breed fuel that could easily be used to produce nuclear weapons. That means they pose special security risks for operators, and their use would almost surely lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. In addition, those breeders which have been built with the intention of producing electricity commercially have proven to be dangerous and uneconomical to operate. To my knowledge, no commercial breeder reactors are in operation today.
In the 1950s scientists already knew that fossil fuels were finite and that if the whole world industrialized, these fuels might decline relatively soon, within a century or so. Harrison Brown in his classic book, The Challenge of Man's Future, imagined a day when nuclear and solar power were the only two sources of energy for society. If a nuclear future with breeder reactors, or better yet, fusion reactors, could be achieved, humans around the globe would be able to get all the basic resources they need to live ever more prosperous lives. Long after rich metal ores run out and fossil fuel supplies disappear, humans would still have abundant energy, enough to extract whatever they need for a modern technical civilization from the ultra-low-grade resources of rock, air and seawater.
But it seems that the dream of virtually unlimited energy from nuclear power is gone. Nuclear power may just barely maintain its share of energy production over the coming decades. And, this presumes that existing plants which will have to be shut down at some point will all be replaced.
Even if government policies worldwide were to turn around tomorrow and large subsidies were provided, there is another limit which could easily prevent the establishment of a nuclear economy. Nuclear plants require vast amounts of fossil fuels to build and then maintain. With a peak in the production of oil likely in the next decade, and peaks in natural gas and coal now likely within two or three decades at most, we are now faced with what is often called the rate-of-conversion problem. In short, we need to use current energy sources to create the facilities for future energy sources. If current energy sources are declining, it becomes exceedingly difficult to maintain the functioning of society and build a new energy infrastructure. With the lead times for new nuclear facilities measured in decades, it now seems unlikely that a vast number of new nuclear power plants are going to be built.
It is a sad commentary that so many who knew the planet would one day run short of fossil fuels were unable to convince the world to embrace nuclear power in a more thoroughgoing way. With enough development, with careful and serious attention to the waste problem, and with lower-cost, decentralized designs that maximize safety, nuclear power might have succeeded in making any decline in fossil fuel availability just another historical footnote--but only if deployed on a large enough scale and far enough in advance of such a decline.
Now it may be too late. The time for the development of the nuclear economy appears to have come and gone with few people even realizing it.
Brown, Harrison. The Challenge of Man's Future (New York: Viking Press, 1954).
Del Sesto, Steven L. Science, Politics and Controversy: Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1946-1974 (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1979).
Energy Watch Group. "Uranium Resources and Nuclear Energy." December 2006.
Key words :
three mile island,
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I suppose it's unavoidable that where misinformation is needed there always is a political group like the Energy Watch Group ready to provide it. And, as usual, standard misinformation is included, such as the characterization of the Price-Anderson Act as a liability-avoidance gimmick. For better information, please look here.
Finally, the conclusion, which has the appearance of having been written before the rest of the article, doesn't follow from the information given. The article relates clearly that France is succeeding in dealing with the energy conundrum because of nuclear energy, at least relative to everyone else. And the article is spot-on in attributing the delay in nuclear development to supplies of cheap fossil fuel.
Still, this website has been so consistently political and unscientific about the issue of nuclear energy that this article is a welcome improvement over the reckless propagandizing we're use to seeing here.
Certainly, the resource estimate provided by the Energy Watch Group is subject to debate. But the real point is that no one really knows how much extractable uranium there is. No doubt new techniques would make more extractable. But ultimately, we would run out of usable ore or actually much sooner reach a peak in production after which supplies would decline. That would make it very difficult to continue running reactors using the once-through fuel cycle at that point.
The solution, of course, is to build breeder reactors and I have seen designs which address the proliferation problem, in part, by using a hybrid technology that allows non-breeder and breeder operation in sequence and so the reactor doesn't have to be refueled for something on the order of 50 years. But I have come to the conclusion that the regulatory hurdles facing such designs are so great that it is unlikely they will be approved and built in time to address the energy deficits we will be facing after fossil fuels peak.
If we had built a nuclear economy starting several decades ago, it is conceivable to me that we could, in fact, have the long-promised hydrogen economy. But as Chris Rhodes points out above, this would have require a complete remake of our infrastructure. Even if starting now we could build enough nuclear plants (of the breeder kind) quickly enough to offset energy loses from fossil fuels, I wonder if we could also simultaneously completely rework our transportation and other infrastructure quickly enough. This would involve huge expenses which would essentially have to be mandated by government or in some cases borne by it. I don't see any appetite for that right now and I'm not sure the necessary resources for such a project would be available to its conclusion since oil supplies, for example, may start to decline in just a few years.
If you accept that oil will not peak until, say, 2037 as the U. S. Energy Information Adminstration still believes in its so-called reference scenario, then it might be possible to build the nuclear economy. But we had better start now and work fast given the timelines for nuclear plants and those plants better be breeder reactors if we expect fuel supplies to last much longer than the end of this century.
The IAEA says there are hundreds of years' worth of uranium even without advanced fuel cycles [source]. Your conclusion that the world has to get started quickly on building new power plants is 100% correct because it will take decades to build up the construction capacity required. There are good reasons to work toward breeder reactors, but I think there is time to manage it in an orderly way. It seems clear to me that renewable energy and efficiency are the other two legs of the tripod we'll need to minimize global warming.
Mr. Rhodes's remark that replacing motor fuels is the hard part of the problem is exactly right. It isn't clear what technology the world will use, but for sure a lot of energy will be required. I think something similar to Green Freedom will be a big part of the solution.
The report also states that if we use breeder reactors that number extends to 2500 years. Now it also says that the uranium resource could be expanded greatly by considering uranium in phosphates. But one must be careful here. Resources are different from reserves. Reserves are known deposits than can be mined with current technology. Seawater can be considered a resource for all kinds of minerals including uranium. But it is a considerable distance from current technology to technology and energy supplies that would turn seawater into a reserve. The same can be said for phosphates as a source of uranium. I'm not saying it can't happen. I'm simply urging caution in estimating reserves. All of this means, in my view, that any plausible nuclear future must be based on breeder reactors. That way we'll know that we have sufficient fuel supplies for a very, very long time. If we rely on "resource" estimates to justify building once-through fuel cycle reactors, I fear we will be sorely disappointed when it comes to the issue of adequate fuel supplies.
And then there's the waste. No one knows what to do with the waste. This deadly, long-lived poison just keeps piling up. And there is not a single geologically stable place on the planet to bury it. It's the height of irresponsibility.
The need for more energy is constantly invoked to justify nuclear. But why do we need so much energy? It is possible, believe it or not, to live culturally rich and economically sufficient lives on far less energy. But we are caught in the industrial mindset that keeps us looking for more and more. Let's leave uranium in the ground, and stop generating more deadly waste that poisons our home.
Rice Farmer seems to me to be one of those lost souls who are so full of misinformation they'll never be brought in to reality. I'll just reply to the most tired clich? of all, the one about waste. In the US there are actually two programs in development to deal with spent fuel, one involving recycling and the other not. Other nuclear countries have their own programs. He'll never take the trouble to learn about them but anyone else can do so easily by looking around on the internet.
One other thing. The rate-of-conversion problem is real, but there is another pitfall which too many people still overlook. Those who claim that industrial civilization can be maintained argue that we can convert our motor vehicles and heavy machinery (mining, construction, etc.) to electricity. This is the same pitfall that is expertly skirted by proponents of alternative-fuel vehicles who claim that if we just convert our motor vehicle fleets to EVs, PHEVs, etc., all will be well. But where does the energy come from to manufacture and maintain the vehicles and machinery? We are right back to fossil fuels.
In that sense, even without the rate-of-conversion problem, it still appears that industrial civilization is doomed, unless some totally new, and very dense, source of energy is discovered.
I wish you would consider two thoughts. One, for all the imaginative adjectives you've used in your comment, nuclear-energy waste has never caused harm to anyone or anything. In fact, commercial waste will not "end up with a soup of deadly poisonous crap" but in vitrified logs encased in stainless steel and isolated from the environment. The amount of energy required for treating the spent fuel is a pittance compared to the energy produced. Second, the alternative to nuclear energy is coal, the wastes of which very definitely have harmed people. I'm writing here about the captured material that is piled up in heaps and sludge ponds from which the toxins leach into the ground water and poison people, wildlife, and farms. The filth released to the atmosphere is something else.
As I read your second paragraph, you seem to to be arguing in favor of nuclear energy, not against it. We don't have a good substitute for petroleum-based fuels, but we can see that whatever the substitute is will require electricity and hydrogen, both of which can be generated most effectively by nuclear energy. Biofuels will never provide more than a fraction of the fuel required, but hydrogen can triple the output (google H2CAR). With enough energy, fuel can be synthesized from atmospheric CO2 (google Green Freedom).
The world is getting pressure from two sides. Billions of people are working hard at improving their living standards, even while the population is continuing to grow. But the strain on the environment is weakening Earth's ability to support all of us. There is no reason to believe that people will choose low-quality lifestyles; history shows that in the absence of nuclear energy people will simply continue to use fossil fuels and environmental destruction will be the inevitable consequence. Worldwide, more millions of people will die from pollution, soil and waterways will continue to be poisoned, and the climate will be irreversibly altered.
I guess the difference between your viewpoint and mine is that to me the new and very dense source of energy has been discovered.
You seem articulate and versed in a wide range of information. Too well versed and articulate to sound like a real ordinary citizen.
What I saw was that the anti-nuke side had no scruples against inventing any "facts" that would help them win, knowing that by the time the truth could be established they would be gone, safe from accountability. On the pro-nuke side I saw an insistence on saying only what could be proved. In the end, the initiative failed, not so much because the voters supported nuclear energy but because the initiative was blatantly dishonest.
Anti-nukes haven't changed. If you show that their concerns over wastes are misplaced, they jump to CO2 emissions. When you show them they're wrong on that, they shift to costs. When you show they're wrong on that they shift to something else, proliferation maybe. No matter how many times you show they're wrong they just keep shifting.
Antinuclearism is a cause. True believers won't give it up just because you can show they're wrong. Doing so just challenges their faith so they have to be more strident so as to overcome any backsliding tendencies. That's what we're up against as we try to deal with modern energy problems in a world with growing population and higher expectations.
I suggest you spend some time on theoildrum dot com or visit some of the links on my blog. Here are some balanced looks at nuclear: http:// www.theoildrum.com /node /2323 ( ) http:// www.theoildrum.com /node /2379
But let's get to the most fundamental problem with your perspective: your agenda leads you to accept the best possible outcome with regard to fossil fuels. The USGS? Their estimates have been so badly over the top that they are now disavowed in general. Their methodology tells us why: extrapolate how much we will need, assume that is production. Bizarre, but true. I invite you to look up the IEA's recent comments on future production and pay attention to their new report coming in November which will strongly revise reserves and future production downward. No, we do not have 20 years to peak. We are at the plateau now. Look at the stats: @74 mb/d in 2005, @74 mb/d in 2008.
Sadat al Husseini, former head of production and exploration at ARAMCO stated ME reserves are 300,000,000,000 less than stated. A recent BusinessWeek article confirmed this. http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/jul2008/db2008079_865368.htm
Oil production decline is now at minimum 4.5% a year, and almost certainly higher. The latest IEA number is 5.2%. Some think it is as high as 8%. Let's look at the numbers of new production needed: At 5.2% decline, we need 25 million barrels a day (mb/d) by 2015, 37 mb/d by 2020. And that only covers decline. That is, if we never needed another additional drop of oil after today, we would still need that much new oil. Let's add in just a 1% increase in demand (it's currently higher than that and has been about 2% for the past decade or so): That's another 6mb/d and 10mb/d, respectively, for totals of 31 mb/d and 47 mb/d. We haven't been replacing the oil we've been consuming for 25 years, so how is it going to suddenly start happening now? (You can go to the Megaprojects database on Wikipedia for future production listings and analysis.)
There is no time for your nuclear build out. At best, nuclear will be a small part of the solution.
1. I haven't met any advocates of nuclear energy who even compromise the truth. In this case I'm excluding persons whose attitudes toward nuclear energy are founded entirely on aversion to the views of political environmentalists. I've never met an anti-nuke who had any respect for the truth or who would hesitate to trample it in his zeal to promote his misguided cause. That is an honest statement of what I've observed. If you know an anti-nuke who tells the truth, please post a reference.
2. I believe all the commercial nuclear power plants in the US are privately funded except for six reactors belonging to TVA..
3. I have heard of leakage from a Japanese power plant. So what? Did it cause harm? If so, what and how much?
4. I am a tree hugger. The wastes will not need to stay buried for thousands of years because they are much too valuable. Reprocessing the wastes separates out the valuable uranium and transuranic actinides to use as fuel. The remaining wastes are only 3% of what was there before and lose their toxicity in much less time. [chart] Many geologic places, such as caves or abandoned mines, could store those wastes safely. Besides that, proven technology exists to irradiate the wastes into other, shorter-lived materials.[source] To deal with the wastes this way doesn't require any technological breakthroughs, just a political decision.
In contrast, coal wastes are many times more dangerous and stay toxic forever. In fact, they don't lose any of their toxicity except for a negligible part of their radioactivity. To put this in perspective, consider: A 1000-MW coal plant generates 300,000 metric tonnes of toxic waste per year, not including the filth that is released to the atmosphere. A comparably-sized nuclear plant produces 23 tonnes per year, enough to partly fill a railroad boxcar. Can you see that 23 tonnes is much less than 300,000 tonnes? But it gets better. Reprocessing the spent fuel reduces the wastes by 97%. So the same nuclear plant will produce only 0.7 tonnes per year.
You have me mixed up with someone else. I haven't made any projections about fossil-fuel supplies.
Renewables can't be built any faster than nuclear power plants. Consider that 1.5 MW wind turbines are very large structures, with rotor-tip heights of 450 feet. To get the same energy from one 1500 MW nuke takes over 3000 of them. Or it takes over thirty square kilometers of solar panels. And neither wind nor solar can provide energy full-time. If nuclear energy isn't a major part of the solution we're screwed.
Nuclear waste is too dangerous to have on the planet. Vitrification, underground storage, and the like are just sweeping it under the rug. It is only a matter of time until waste comes back to haunt us, big-time. That is because there are natural disasters, human error, and no such thing as absolute safety. You have to look thousands of years into the future when considering how to deal with nuclear waste. Who is going to guard the waste for generations? Remember, language and cultures change over time, so that even after the words "DANGER: NUCLEAR WASTE" are no longer intelligible, the waste will still be deadly. And keeping the waste sequestered requires still more energy. Where will that come from? Nuclear power proponents, I dare say, have not solved or even addressed these problems.
Nuclear plants themselves present a real danger to life on Earth. We have had catastrophic accidents (Chernobyl) and near-catastrophic accidents (Three Mile Island). The accident here in Japan, at the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex, could easily have been the world's worst, a first-class global disaster. Only luck saved us. And what about the fire at Japan's fast-breeder reactor, Monju? Again, catastrophe narrowly averted. When you consider the potential damage, these systems are clearly planetary in scale. And uncontrollable.
Finally, nuclear is not the "dense" source of energy that is going to replace fossil fuels. As I have pointed out before, nuclear is dependent on fossil fuels from start to finish. Take away the coal and oil, and nuclear is DOA.
In fact, as yet no source of energy that can replace fossil fuels and save industrial civilization has been found. Renewables too are dependent on fossil fuels. So I advise everyone to hone their gardening skills.
The Soviet monstrosity at Chernobyl is not a reflection of nuclear energy in the free world. All the other reactors have so many layers of safety it's not plausible that they could cause harm. The reactor at Chernobyl had no layers of safety, not even a containment. In contrast, Three Mile Island caused no harm to any person or any thing. None of the accidents you cite caused harm. Your fear of them is based on nothing but imagination.
Coal is only a factor in nuclear energy because it produces most of the electricity. When the world is 100% non-fossil, nuclear will depend only on itself.
You're on the wrong side. Give it up.
Unfortunately, my experience with folks like Rice Farmer is that they are incapable of mastering their preconceptions with such flimsy things as evidence, history, and facts. They have been spoonfed misinformation so long that their hatred and fear of nuclear technology has "vitrified" into an insoluble nugget of unassailable, willful ignorance. Still, I suppose there's always hope... I applaud you for making the effort to educate "Rice" man, and for maintaining your equanimity doing it... personally, I'd have been less polite.
One thing that always frustrates me is this crazy notion that since something will take some time to develop, it's viability as an option is compromised. This is a very detrimental component of our "instant gratification" culture in my opinion. To my way of thinking, the fact that ramping up our nuclear fleet is a long term project is all the more reason to get started now... TODAY!!! We have pretty much established which designs to use going forward, and with this uniformity will come economies of scale and the benefits of controlled factory production of reactor components. These complaints as to long lead times to bring reactors on-line have to do with political and regulatory constraints, and nothing to do with engineering barriers to (relatively) fast and prolific expansion of nuclear capacity in this country.
And of course, "breeders" coupled with hydrogen from water is the long term answer... stand aside Rice Farmer.
"May the Good Lord save us from good intentioned fools"