It was 71 years ago today, December 2 1942, when the very first controlled nuclear chain reaction on earth was started in the "atomic pile" built in the squash court at the University of Chicago. Rod Adams has more details.
Exactly 15 years later, the first commercial nuclear power station at Shippingport went critical for the first time. Thus swords were beaten into plowshares, and 56 years on some 1.8 million people who would otherwise have lost their lives to air pollution from fossil-fuel combustion lived instead.
Now we need to clear the air of something far less obvious than smoke and acids, but much more critical to the earth. Let's hope we wise up in time.
The EOS grid-storage system and nuclear power: a marriage made in heaven
EOS Energy Storage is peddling a megawatt-scale, fully containerized energy storage solution based on zinc-air (or zinc-oxygen?) cells. Self-contained in a standard 40-foot footprint, the cutaway shows blocks for batteries, inverters, and cylindrical objects which seem likely to be some sort of gas storage or perhaps filtering/processing system. The stated performance figures:
75% round-trip efficiency
Cycle life 10,000 cycles
30-year design calendar life
This appears designed to operate roughly 1 cycle a day for 3 decades.
If they actually deliver at those specs, it's worth thinking about what it could do. For instance, at $1000/kW output and 75% round-trip efficiency, $300 million invested plus 2400 MWH input over 6 hours (400 MW) yields 1800 MWH output (300 MW) over 6 hours.
Let's try this as a hypothetical example with something else that's already coming: the AP1000, with 8 currently being constructed worldwide. This will supply base-load power which can be cycled to follow load, but is most economical if it's run flat-out. The AP-1000 is rated at 1154 MW(e), and the estimated pricetag per plant of about $8 billion at Vogtle isn't out of line for first-of-a-kind efforts.... batteries not included.
At full cycling, the daily output is (1154*24-600)=27096 MWh, or 1129 MW(e) average. Other attributes:
Peaking: self-supplied (either centralized or distributed)
Reactive power: presumably available from the EOS inverter systems, distributed with the storage units.
Air emissions: zero.
Spinning reserve: as much as 700 MW (the difference between 400 MW maximum charging rate and 300 MW maximum discharging rate).
Amortizing $8.3 billion over 20 years at 7% interest costs $772 million/year; divided over 1129 average MW at 0.9 capacity factor, I get 8.7¢/kWh. Selling off-peak power at 5¢, mid-demand at 9¢ and peaking power at 15¢ I calculate $913 million annual revenue vs. $772 million annual amortization (salaries and fuel not included). Even at the extreme first-of-a-kind price of $8 billion for the nuclear unit, this is clearly affordable. After 20 years the bonds are paid off and the system becomes a cash cow for likely 4 more decades or longer.
The value added by the battery is the difference in purchase (or opportunity) cost of the off-peak power and the sales price of the peaking power. At the same 0.9 capacity factor I see $49.3 million annual gross revenue from the battery, paying off in just over 8 years. Plainly the battery is pulling its fiscal weight! But it will also cut the supply of off-peak power (shifted to charging), so off-peak prices may increase. This would further improve the economics of the system as a whole.
The impact on unreliables
Would the EOS battery make the dream of an all-renewable grid possible? That's very doubtful, given the need to tide the system over lulls adding up to days of average output. 48 hours of storage would itself cost $8000/kW, or around 16¢/kWh even if it was cycled continuously (50% capacity factor). That's over and above the cost of the power to charge it, which is hardly cheap at feed-in tariff rates. What would people do, looking at that pricetag to go "green"? They'd go the way of Germany and Poland, and burn coal. If stored energy comes at caviar prices, we should not be surprised if people decide to eat energy "junk food" instead.
The impact of a carbon tax
Suppose for a moment that the current system of production and investment tax credits is replaced by a simple, non-discriminatory figure of merit: a straight-up carbon tax. Let's set this carbon tax at $40/ton of CO2, which matches the 2.2¢/kWh PTC for a gas-fired generator emitting 550 gCO2/kWh. Coal plants will be assumed to emit 900 gCO2/kWh, with coal at 15 million BTU and $100/ton delivered (average bituminous and sub-bituminous). Also, with the North American shale-gas investment bubble about to collapse and multiple LNG export terminals ready to push prices up to world levels, wholesale NG delivered to major markets costs $15/mmBTU.
This was worth working through in detail, so I posted the spreadsheet in both text and downloadable file at ergosphere.wordpress.com. This spreadsheet assumes a grid capable of delivering 600 GW average, to allow expansion for electrification of transport etc. I used a 20-year amortization for all RE generation (wind farm lifespan appears to be shorter than that), 30 years for nuclear (licenses are now being extended to 60 years), 7% interest rate, and highly decentralized and interconnected networks for both wind and solar generation. Without storage the RE must be consumed at the time of generation, so transmission capacity must equal peak generating capacity. I assumed cost of $2 million per mile for a ±1.2 megavolt, 1000 A (2.4 GW) dual-circuit HVDC line with an average of 1800 miles length between generation and market. That's enough to get Dakota wind power to the coasts, and Arizona and New Mexico solar power to both Seattle and Georgia. I also rolled in a $40/tCO2 carbon tax for the fossil-backed options, with emissions of 550 g/kWh for gas and 900 g/kWh for coal. In the all-RE case, some 2.3 million miles of HVDC line are required. Some of these may be able to share rights-of-way; some may not. This many times the total mileage of the Interstate highway system. I assumed for the sake of simplicity that fossil-backed RE could use DSM to use peak generation productively and would require neither storage nor spillage.
The cost figures for the RE options are all dismal. Gas-backed is cheapest at $114/MWh (11.4¢/kWh), with coal not far behind. The gas option emits 122 gCO2/kWh, which is at least twice what we can tolerate in the long term. Getting this down using storage is staggeringly expensive. Using the EOS zinc-air system at $167/kWh, total cost soars by a factor of almost 10 and power rises to a prohibitive 90¢/kWh.
The nuclear option comes in best. Assuming $5000/kW average for a new-build fleet of nuclear reactors (roughly twice China's cost for a new AP1000), and 180 GW (1200 GWh) of EOS battery storage, total capital cost is about $3.3 trillion. No HVDC network is required. Amortization over 30 years at 7%/year is $270 million. Total amortization cost comes to 5.1¢/kWh. Carbon taxes are zero, so the only unknown is O&M at perhaps 2-3¢/kWh. CO2 emissions from operations are ZERO.
The nuclear system does not depend on natural energy flows, so it can be expanded when and where desired. For each new application electrified on this grid, all the carbon it formerly emitted is displaced. This appears to be a cost-effective way to de-carbonize entire national economies.
This would be anything but a small task. 632 GW of AP1000's is 575 units, not allowing for refueling and repair outages. Even so, building 30 a year the USA could finish the job in 20 years. The alternative is to build something like SMRs, where we'd be turning out several a week instead of one every couple of weeks. That looks doable too.
Trying to de-carbonize the US grid with enough excess to electrify transportation is a massive task. The cost of the all-renewable scenarios for doing it, with the requirements needed to provide a reliable supply to dark/calm parts of the country, is prohibitive. Nuclear energy and the energy stockpile of fissile metals eliminates both the long-distance interconnections and massive storage needed for reliance on fickle energy flows. If we want to go green, nuclear is the only real option we have.
In a terribly dangerous process, 22 fuel elements from the Fukushima Dai'ichi Unit 4 spent fuel pool came within mere light-years of causing the end of all life on earth. Lifted one at a time from their protecting racks, they came several crucial meters closer to the top of the water pool which is the only thing keeping them wet. Then, in a maneuver fraught with tedium, they were laid vertically in a cask already placed at the bottom of the pool. This process was repeated a harrowing 22 times over 2 days at the blistering average pace of more than one per hour. This cask was then sealed and lifted from the pool and away from the building by a crane. The cask fell toward the ground at a rate of inches per second, coming to rest at the last moment in a cradle atop a flat bed truck.
It did not end there. The truck proceeded to careen about the site at the rate of several miles per hour until it came to the common fuel pool at the F. Dai'ichi site, where the threat of encountering a pebble or running over an insect finally ended. The cask was again thrown through the air, whipped about at inches per second at the end of fragile steel cables, until it came to rest at the bottom of another pool of water in a miraculously undamaged state. The dangerous cask-sealing process was reversed in a dangerous cask un-sealing process, and the harrowing transfer of fuel rods was repeated in mirror-image from cask to rack. Each bundle of rods was observed to strike its supporting rack stops, which physical contact is expected to continue indefinitely or until the fuel, the Sun, or the universe explodes.
This tragic lack of bad news means that the dream of ending humanity's use of nuclear energy remains out of reach. TEPCO expects to repeat these steps more than 160 times to empty the Unit 4 fuel pool. Mr. Wasserman's forecast of nuclear armageddon is bound to be satisfied sometime. He has years and years for his predictions of catastrophe to finally come true.
UPDATE: TEPCO videos can be found here. Note the blistering, inches-per-second pace of work!
Petition to restart the Integral Fast Reactor program
As many readers of this blog probably know, the Integral Fast Reactor project was killed by a very narrow Senate vote in 1994, with the connivance of the Clinton administration.
This was all done very much behind the scenes. The public at large had no knowledge of what was going on (I sure didn't), and what happened was probably driven by a few relatively narrow special interests.
Times have changed.
In an effort to dis-intermediate government a bit, the Obama administration (Energy sec'y: Steven Chu) has a new feature on the White House website called "We The People". It allows people to create petitions asking the White House to examine certain topics. If a petition receives 5000 endorsements, it gets a closer examination. This isn't anything like a guarantee of action, but at least it's something. If nothing else, it forces someone close to the seat of power to get familiar with the issue.
I highly recommend this 2 hour mashup of various LFTR- and nuclear-related video clips, most of it taken from lectures and interviews with Kirk Sorensen. It begins with the "LFTR in 5 minutes" sequence but broadens it with major and up-to-date bits about many matters, including Fukushima Dai'ichi.
North Sea gas production has slumped by 25% in the second quarter of the year, an alarming increase in the rate of decline that will cut tax revenues and could put more pressure on government to agree controversial shale gas developments.
Figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) also show a 36% rise in coal imports, but a leap from 6.3% to 9.6% for the amount of electricity generated by wind and other renewables.
The department records that the output of oil and associated gas liquids fell by 16% in the three months to the end of June, compared with a year earlier – the biggest decline since records began 16 years ago.
This left Britain importing 3.6m tonnes of oil in the second quarter, compared with 2.8m tonnes in the same period of 2010, even though total oil demand fell by 1.7%.
But the largest fall was in the amount of gas produced from the southern North Sea, where operators have been arguing that projects may have to be shut down because of a rise in government taxes in the last budget.
A drop like that is serious bad news. Britain in particular is in a precarious position fuel-wise, with little storage for gas and dependency rising as old nuclear power stations are closed and not replaced. The alternatives are Russia and LNG, and Japan's shutdown of even undamaged nuclear power stations has driven up demand for both LNG and fuel oil.
Wind generation rose... by a whole 3.3% of demand. This is not good, this is not good at all.
I highly recommend this rebuttal (from 1976!) to the book "We Almost Lost Detroit" which addresses the claims about the Fermi I fast-breeder reactor and the accident which took it out of service. In short, nothing much happened, and the design basis accident for the plant was so overwhelmingly large compared to the actual event that it's hard to see how something could have.
¶ 9/19/2011 03:27:00 PM0 commentslinks to this post
Sunday, September 11, 2011
9/11, ten years later
On this day ten years ago I was fighting my way through morning rush-hour traffic, going to an out-of-town plant to work on some production issues. After getting through the worst of it, I stopped for refreshment and another motorist told me that a small plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I switched from the CD player to the radio, and listened the rest of the way as the horror unfolded. By the time I got live TV coverage, the towers had collapsed. The TVs at rest stops showed the smoking rubble all day.
At my destination, people were desperately filling up every gasoline container they could find. I saw two men with a trailer full of brand-new 5-gallon cans, filling them all. I filled my car with enough fuel to get me through the week and home again. I had hoped to get a New York Times the following morning. I don't think I saw one that whole week.
The lack of contrails in the sky was eerie.
The agents behind the first (failed) WTC attack, and the suicide nature of the successful one, suggested strongly that it came from Islamists, specifically Al Qaeda. This was later proven; the attackers were from the Middle East, all Muslim, 15 of the 19 from Saudi Arabia. Our so-called "friends" there killed roughly 3000 people that day, mostly Americans, on American soil. Yet there was zero political response to this in Washington; while illegal Pakistani immigrants received a lot of attention and many returned home abruptly, the Saudi royal family was treated with kid gloves.
Nothing has changed in that respect. The US government has, against all reason, expanded allowances for Saudi immigration. Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was admitted to the US in 1999 (after the first WTC attack) and granted US citizenship in 2009!
US immigration and citizenship policy is somewhere between reckless and suicidal. The question everyone should be asking is "Why?", followed immediately by "How do we fix it?"
It's easy to see why. The answer is "oil money". We have done precious little to wean ourselves off oil since 9/11 (Congress and the Bush administration continued policies of guzzler promotion for years after the attacks), and all those dollars flowing to Riyadh and Caracas and Kuwait flow back as political influence. We're not buying oil with dollars or grain, we're handing over control of our government.
It's imperative to cut US dependency on oil. The price of oil wouldn't matter to the economy if there wasn't an effective "petro-state tax" on most people just to get to work. I did what I could in 2004, when I cut my fuel needs by about 1/3. But today I'd find it hard to do that again. I'd need to get up to 60 MPG or so, and there are precious few vehicles sold in the USA which can do that. The Volt (sold out for months) is good for a couple iterations of this game and the latest Prius is in the ballpark, but the Fusion hybrid barely ekes out the mileage I often get today.
We've done practically nothing. We've continued to hand money and power to the people who've proven they will use it to do us harm. If it were only our elites I'd say it was treason, but sentiment among ordinary Americans is the same. See no evil, and drain the retirement account to fill up the pickup to take the toy-hauler and the 4-wheelers out for a weekend on the trails.
Fixing this requires a complete 180 in attitude. Oil must be treated as a necessary evil, but an evil. Guzzling vehicles and wasteful driving must be subject to both fines and social opprobrium. We need the PNGV or something like it back pronto, expanded production of all supply-chain components for hybrids and PHEVs (preferably all sited in the USA), feebates, higher gas taxes, the works. We can't manage a full war footing yet, but we need urgent action NOW. That attitude shift would help fix the flow of dangerous immigrants as well. We should have no Faisal Shahzads or Umar Abdulmutallabs or even Richard Reids coming into the USA.
I don't see this happening. Anyone who advocates any of the necessary changes is immediately stigmatized as "anti-American" (like R. James Woolsey?) or "islamophobic" (which is only half a step from "racist"). There's a stone wall, maintained by both major political parties, against making the changes we urgently needed to make starting on that clear sunny day ten years ago.
If this country doesn't wake up and get a clue, we're doomed.
Remember what happened to prices in the Asian Flu of 1998? Gas prices would go down again... temporarily... if that was us.
If the Republicans put this loon on the 2012 ticket (in any position), it means the party does not have a candidate, an idea, or a shred of respect for the American public. I hate Obama with a passion and would like to see him impeached, but I'll vote for him over Bachmann.
I'd like to call attention to the article with the above name (about 7 years old now) hosted at The Center for Reactor Information. It lays out the brief history of the Integral Fast Reactor, including how it came within a hair's breadth of surviving the 1994 vote to kill it. It also gives a brief listing of its selling points, including (contrary to claims often made by anti-nuclear activists) that its fuel cycle is unable to produce weapons-grade material and is effectively proliferation-proof.
This is an article suitable for non-technical readers and ought to be spread widely. Some of its figures are out of date (wind power is now pushing 2% of US electric supply, not ¼%), but this is good for further analysis to show just how difficult it is to scale up renewable energy to the quantities we need.
Bureaucracy is a tool to keep the world as it is, not to change it. So, in perfect Tainter-style, the system works hard to avoid innovation, not to promote it. It is almost impossible to be financed to study resource depletion; that would highlight problems that would require changes and that's a no-no. Instead, it is still possible to obtain research grants as long as there is no risk that the results will threaten the status quo. Hydrogen as a fuel is a good example. It is high-tech, fashionable, sophisticated, popular, environmentally friendly, and it doesn't work. This last characteristic makes sure that its development will bring no changes whatsoever.
There are a lot of companies and websites who want space on your sidebar. I've received dozens of requests for link exchanges over the years. I've turned them all down, not even putting my blogroll there. I just didn't think anything was worth that much attention.
That just changed.
Flibe Energy is now featured there. This is not a commercial endorsement; I have no relationship to Flibe Energy or anyone in it, personal, financial or anything beyond commenting a few times on the energyfromthorium blog. I just see nuclear energy as the best, and probably only, prospect for keeping industrial civilization going for the next several decades without fouling its own nest, and LFTR as having the best potential for efficiency, safety, scalability and cost.
I admit that there's a lot I don't know about things nuclear, and especially about the byzantine regulations which have essentially blocked new ideas for decades (which makes the area ripe for innovation, as Bill Gates has noted). But, aside from being introduced to the concept of MSR/LFTR itself, nothing I've learned has surprised me as much as learning in the post about the third TEAC conference that... well, I'll just quote it.
Also presenting was Col. Paul Roege, U.S. Army, who delivered the event’s other piece of important news. The Pentagon, Roege said, could be able and willing to offer licensing capability for companies building LFTRs or other forms of innovative nuclear power reactors. Most thorium advocates agree that the NRC is unlikely in the near term to license alternative reactor designs – even ones, like LFTRs, that have been thoroughly proven out in operation. Given the military’s need for clean, modular, transportable energy sources for forward operating bases, the swiftest routes to a license could be through the Army, which has the regulatory authority to approve new reactors for military bases without NRC involvement.
In the traditional licensing process, Roege said, “Innovative reactors are at the end of the line. That obstacle could potentially could be overcome if we pursue military applications.”
Note this well: "the Army... has the regulatory authority to approve new reactors for military bases without NRC involvement."
The fundamental problem of the nuclear power industry
I don't know how I missed this gem attributed to Freeman Dyson. I don't have much time for books these days, but quotes like this usually find their way into my stream of reading rather quickly. Pithy, and oh so timely (and corrected for spelling and grammar).
The fundamental problem of the nuclear power industry is not reactor safety, not waste disposal, not the dangers of nuclear proliferation, real though all these problems are. The fundamental problem of the industry is that nobody any longer has any fun building reactors. It is inconceivable under present conditions that a group of enthusiasts could assemble in a schoolhouse and design, build, test, license and sell a reactor within three years. Sometime between 1960 and 1970, the fun went out of the business.
The adventurers, the experimenters, the inventors, were driven out, and the accountants and managers took control. Not only in the private industry but also in the government laboratories, at Los Alamos, Livermore, Oak Ridge and Argonne, the groups of bright young people who used to build and invent and experiment with a great variety of reactors were disbanded. The accountants and managers decided that it was not cost effective to let bright people play with weird reactors. So the weird reactors disappeared and with them the chance of any radical improvement beyond our existing systems.
We are left with a very small number of reactor types in operation, each of them frozen into a huge bureaucratic organization that makes any substantial change impossible, each of them in various ways technically unsatisfactory, each of them less safe than many possible alternative designs which have been discarded. Nobody builds reactors for fun anymore. The spirit of the little red schoolhouse is dead. That, in my opinion, is what went wrong with nuclear power.
We already have quite a few "paper reactors" that look promising. Likely they need more design simulation. But we will not know how good any of these reactors really are until those paper designs are expressed in operating hardware.
I think our shortage of prototype reactor hardware is much more critical than any shortage of reactor simulation tools.
Regarding the on-going crisis of the nuclear plants in Japan, I received this (which I have abridged and reformatted as a numbered list):
So, what do we learn?
Don't use nuclear power.
If you do, don't build in an earthquake zone.
If you do, don't build on a tsunami-prone seaside.
Make sure the emergency cooling system works, even in an emergency.
Make sure the reactor is fail-safe in a power cut.
Of course, if you started with #5, #'s 1-4 would be superfluous.
I think the real lessons look more like this:
Don't be careless with nuclear power.
If you use nuclear power, don't stop your research and development efforts.
If you have to build in an earthquake zone, build to withstand all possible tremblors, landslides and tsunamis.
Make all your plants passively safe (if any are not, see #2).
Nuclear power has saved Japan an immense amount of money for imported fossil fuels, as well as the pollution from burning those fuels and dealing with e.g. ash. Even if several of these plants have to be scrapped, a small radiation release will not contaminate land (as Three Mile Island proved) and will not prevent rebuilding. Japan's nuclear balance sheet probably still shows a fat profit.
The biggest problem may not be the loss of the plants themselves (I understand that they are among the oldest in Japan), but the lack of ability to replace them quickly. The plants which make the large forgings for reactor pressure vessel heads are booked years in advance. If R&D had pushed forward over the last 40 years to yield e.g. small modular molten-salt reactors, it would be much quicker and cheaper to replace the lost plants. There might not even have been an issue, because the oldest, least-robust plants might have been replaced already. But that, sadly, isn't the world in which we find ourselves.