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Go Nuclear

An excellent review of the reasons for expanding nuclear power — something that’s sure to put the luddites’ Birkenstocks in a bind: Why the U.S. Needs More Nuclear Power

Astonishingly, over this same period, uranium?s share of U.S. electricity has also risen?from 11 percent to its current 20 percent. Part of the explanation is more nuclear power plants. Even though Three Mile Island put an end to the commissioning of new facilities, some already under construction at the time later opened, with the plant count peaking at 112 in 1990. Three Mile Island also impelled plant operators to develop systematic procedures for sharing information and expertise, and plants that used to run seven months per year now run almost eleven. Uranium has thus displaced about eight percentage points of oil, and five points of hydroelectric, in the expanding electricity market.

Renewable fuels, by contrast, made no visible dent in energy supplies, despite the hopes of Greens and the benefits of government-funded research, subsidies, and tax breaks. About a half billion kWh of electricity came from solar power in 2002 – roughly 0.013 percent of the U.S. total. Wind power contributed another 0.27 percent. Fossil and nuclear fuels still completely dominate the U.S. energy supply, as in all industrialized economies…

No conceivable mix of solar and wind could come close to supplying the trillions of additional kilowatt-hours of power we?ll soon need.

Nuclear power could do it?easily. In all key technical respects, it is the antithesis of solar power. A quad?s worth of solar-powered wood is a huge forest?beautiful to behold, but bulky and heavy. Pound for pound, coal stores about twice as much heat. Oil beats coal by about twice as much again. And an ounce of enriched-uranium fuel equals about 4 tons of coal, or 15 barrels of oil. That?s why minuscule quantities contained in relatively tiny reactors can power a metropolis.

What?s more, North America has vast deposits of uranium ore, and scooping it up is no real challenge. Enrichment accounts for about half of the fuel?s cost, and enrichment technologies keep improving. Proponents of solar and wind power maintain?correctly?that the underlying technologies for these energy sources keep getting cheaper, but so do those that squeeze power out of conventional fuels. The lasers coming out of the same semiconductor fabs that build solar cells could enrich uranium a thousand times more efficiently than the gaseous-diffusion processes currently used.

And we also know this: left to its own devices, the market has not pursued thin, low-energy-density fuels, however cheap, but has instead paid steep premiums for fuels that pack more energy into less weight and space, and for power plants that pump greater power out of smaller engines, furnaces, generators, reactors, and turbines. Until the 1970s, engineering and economic imperatives had been pushing the fuel mix inexorably up the power-density curve, from wood to coal to oil to uranium. And the same held true on the demand side, with consumers steadily shifting toward fuels carrying more power, delivered faster, in less space.

But what about safety? Contrary to the stupid, stupid premise of the current season of 24,

Today?s plants split atoms behind super-thick layers of steel and concrete; future plants would boast thicker protection still. All the numbers, and the strong consensus in the technical community, reinforce the projections made two decades ago: it is extremely unlikely that there will ever be a serious release of nuclear materials from a U.S. reactor.

Read the whole thing.

[via Carl Carlsson]

1 comment to Go Nuclear

  • Have you looked at the impact of the bill we passed here in Colorado about the renewable fuels? I think without nuclear power it will be hard to achieve. Here in Colorado Springs they are offering to buyback excess solar power, if you have the right equipment, probably to meet some of their requirements for renewable energy.