|The Nuclear Energy Option: the good, the bad, the ugly
by Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center
Many people think that nuclear energy constitutes a viable “green” approach. Yet, consider the following:
- Uranium is rising in price at a rapid rate. Costs are expected to increase drastically around 2025,when Uranium becomes incredibly expensive to mine and extract. Although it is plentiful, even in seawater, the costs of extraction will not be “cheap.”
- Most nuclear energy plants worldwide are “light water” reactors, which only “burn” some 15% of the fuel. The rest of the heating value resides in the highly radioactive waste, which remains radioactive for a very long time. Currently in the U.S., the federal government has taken ownership of the waste, but has nowhere to put it. It is being stored onsite at the 104 plants in “swimming pools,” etc. that are greatly over capacity.
We were working on storing the waste in a site at Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles outside of Las Vegas.
But, after spending some eight-plus billion dollars, we discovered water. Analysis of the gas crystals shows that they were formed by hot water welling up into mountain, indicating geothermal activity which could potentially flood the area and cause an explosion. The price went to some 80 billion, and the project was stopped. Studies are ongoing to store waste in open-air fuel casks on a huge paved parking lot at an Indian reservation in Southern Utah.
Yucca Mountain, Nevada
The cost of nuclear power plants is huge. Currently, only one source exists for the huge forgings of containment vessels, and it is located in Japan. Production of the vessels is low. China is now building the capability to produce the vessels as well.
So – “conventional” nuclear power plants are very expensive, not very efficient, and produce nasty waste that has no good disposal solutions. As we have recently seen, waste storage on site is prone to disasters associated with power disruption for the water pumps, which can be caused by various natural and man-made “events.”
There are alternatives.
Thorium and breeder reactors recycle/burn the waste and use FAR less fuel. Still expensive but the fuel cost and waste problems are far less. India, which is well endowed with Thorium, is going to this approach, as are a few others.
The U.S. had the Clinch River Breeder Project years ago, which was stopped. Breeders and thorium in the U.S. has been uphill, as has just about any plant after the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island.
Three-Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, 1979
Goaded by “green” influences, the U. S. nuclear industry, was just getting re-started when the Japanese accident occurred. That resurgence is probably far less likely now, due to a combination of the accident, plant costs, and the exploitation of the huge natural gas resources in the west, which has less CO2 emissions than coal.
And, there are a large number of “green” options.
- • High altitude wind off the east coast (a capacity equal to twice that of the U.S. Installed Grid)
- • Halophyte - salt plant biomass, a tough plant and possible source for biodiesel or bioalcohol
- • Nanoplastics - 30 cents a watt PV/Distributed Generation (create flexible photovoltaics to harness the sun’s infrared spectrum)
- • Solar thermal
- • Drilled geothermal
- • Terrestrial and off-shore wind
- • Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion off the Gulf Stream
These options could make the more expensive nuclear option unnecessary, if it were “safe,” which is obviously not the case now.
Hazards of storing spent fuel http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/12/world/asia/the-explosion-at-the-japanese-reactor.html?ref=asia