next energy source...small scale nuclear?

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strabes's picture
strabes
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next energy source...small scale nuclear?

 Don't think I've seen this on the threads, and I know I'm going to push a lot of buttons with this given this site's dominant support for peak oil and its consequences.  I tend to side with economic thinkers who understand that if peak oil is physically true, microeconomic forces will find a new source (however this doesn't mean I don't see the problems with exponential growth or that I'm any less committed to a sustainable living future!  I just see the monetary system as the problem...the cause of exponential growth...whether we had peak oil or not, we would still have the problem).  Anyway, curious for your thoughts on this if anybody has looked into the technology:  

Prechter just noted an old article from the Guardian that talks about the next evolution of energy:  "Nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes will be on sale within five years, say scientists at Los Alamos...Hyperion has more than 100 firm orders...plans to produce 4000 plants between 2013 and 2023...Toshiba has been testing 200KW reactors..."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/nov/09/miniature-nuclear-reac...

 

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

Actually this was local news here in Alaska a few years ago...

Alaskan Town OKs Mini Nuke

http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/gadgets/household/alaskan-town-oks-mini-nuke-...

As far as I know Toshiba is still finishing the design and it hasn't been installed in Galena yet.  But on the surface at least it sounds like a good idea for some if not all communities.  I think isolated communities like this that already pay very high prices for power are the most suited for this technology.  I'm not familiar with how efficient these small-scale reactors are compared to their larger brethren, though, and if I was forced to guess I'd say the mini-reactors would be a more costly alternative (in terms of price paid per kW) making it not as ideal for large metro areas.  Though considering how old most existing US reactors are, I could be wrong.

Regardless though, whether big or small these reactors require fissionable material, and to the best of my knowledge uranium deposits are not nearly as rich or plentiful as they used to be (I believe the Crash Course mentioned this as well).  And it's not so much that there isn't plenty of oil, uranium, etc. left on the world, it's how hard it is to get to in terms of energy cost.  Nuclear fission reactors can definitely be a part of our future energy plan and these mini-reactors could fill an important niche, but I don't see how it could be THE energy of the future unless a massive new source of easily obtainable uranium is found. 

- Nickbert

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

in terms of efficiency, the article said 10 cents per kilowatt hour. 

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

This references an MIT paper that gives its most recent estimate of the cost of new nuclear power at $0.084 per kWh:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economics_of_new_nuclear_power_plants

So assuming that figure is accurate and Hyperion reaches their target goal, any new large-scale plants would have an edge in efficiency.  This same link quotes another source giving a figure of $0.25-30 per kWh based on historical data, and if that's true then perhaps the old existing plants (and to a lesser extent maybe even new plants) are horribly cost inefficient compared to the mini-reactors.  I don't know how any of these sources calculate their costs though, so comparing these figures may be meaningless if differences exist.  And who knows if they include such things as estimated costs for the numerous civic and legal hurdles that pop up whenever the word 'nuclear' is mentioned.... from what I understand those things are part of the reason no new nuclear plants have been built in the US in the last couple decades.  NIMBY strikes again

- Nickbert

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

Here's one thing I'd like to know regarding nuclear: Isn't there a legitimate problem with disposing of the waste? It's my understanding that there is no good solution with disposing of the by-products of fission, save for burying it deep underground. I know there's a disposal plant located in Carlsbad, NM. They dig enormous caverns underground out of the salt formations, fill the caverns up with waste, and then the salt formations slowly erode and seal in the waste products for all time. The NIMBY people in (Nevada?) who don't want the waste buried in their mountian have a legitmate point that needs to be heard, in my opinion.

Forgive me for being a naysayer, but when we include the "human error" component to this, it just doesn't seem like the "ultimate" best solution. With all the brain power we have in the US, it would seem like there's a better solution with what to do with this stuff. It's highly radioactive for millenia, right?

Does anyone have any thoughts to this portion of the issue? 

 

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

Tex,

In my opinion, the nuclear waste issue is horribly overblown.  The amount of waste produced is tiny.  The cave they equipped to store it is typical government overkill.  I guess this is one issue where overkill is OK.  Seriously though, the pictures I saw of the depository make it very difficult to imagine how the waste could possibly leak, corrode, or be tampered with in any way.  

It seems many people just go nuts when they hear the word, "nuclear".  Yes, it's dangerous, but if handled correctly, it is not anymore dangerous than handling rat poison.  I can't think of a safer place to put it than caves in the middle of the desert.

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

I also agree with Patrick that the storage issues are blown way out of proportion.  Also, the Carlsbad WIPP (NM) site is only low level radiation (contaminated items, radioactive medical waste, etc). The Yucca Mountain (Nevada) site it supposed to be for high level waste.  I would much rather have waste stuffed into either of these sites than sitting around in above ground storage areas, which is where it currently is.

On that note, there are other potential nuclear fusion options that have been in the news lately:

The NIF: lasers.llnl.gov/

which is a massive spending effort, there is also a group in Europe trying to get fusion to work.  An interesting out of the box method that was in Popular Science a few months ago  are trying to use mechanical compression to achieve fusion: www.generalfusion.com/

So who knows, maybe someone will get something to work, I still doubt it will happen before we have an Economic collapse, then the question will be do we have enough resources (capital) to continue to push these efforts.  Also, I suspect if we can actually build some of these things, we will have massive pain before they can be completed since it will take many years to roll out any new technology.

-- Rob

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

Of course there is a possible big problem with this...

Uranium is pretty rare, and how long will it be before we've tapped out that source? Plus extraction and refinement are also pretty expensive (and leveraging nuclear weapon stockpiles, might not be an option, or feasible depending on the reactor). I wonder what the ERoEI is on these things, since if it's negative (and I suspect that it will be) then in fact we're wasting energy making these rather than gaining energy. Which of course is not in our best interests.

But it is a cool idea, although I remember reading about these quite some time ago, wonder how the current economy is affecting their orders.

 

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

 And FWIW, I reckon new nuke stations will founder on the shoals of NIMBY -- unless there's a yuge energy shock sometime soon...in which case it might be too late (the necessary investment money might not be there any longer if enough wealth/credit/money is destroyed [and nobody's buying US bonds...])...

Viva -- Sager

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

Google: Pebble Bed Moderate Reactors

I think theoildrum.com has covered as well. Problem is the change over to electricity of course: conversion (from Oil) is going to take a huge amount of resources, energy, dosh, . . . ., not a good time to be spending billions on futile wars IMO. HTH

 

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

A small reactor was made by a kid out of high school using smoke detectors (and he was arrested for stealing thw smoke detectors but not making the reactor to power his apartment. . (any one else remember the story from a few years ago?).  Radio-active material is easy enough to find, we live with it as a requirement for our own "safety".   EGP

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Going really small scale nuclear

Of course, why stop at nuclear power the size of a yard shed? Why not just make nuclear power the size of a shoe box? ...say size 14s? to power cars, tractors, trains, the neighborhood and a factory or 2? The biggest obsticle would be the massive amounts of hot water . . which could be used to warm simming pools, greenhouses (for year round food production up north, or shrimp ponds - tropical ponds in northern climates) or just air cooled to be re-used. For a car - run it all the time and plug it in at work to add power to the office, factory or whatever. Take it home and plug it in to power up the house, barn, greenhouse, the dairy down the road and a few other night-time operating items (tv, computer, automated robotic vacuum, refrig, freezer, hot water, spa, sauna, . . )

This could take care of the battery problems for the electric car, semi, tractors and trains by air cooled and recycled to be re-heated.

However, the most interesting use of radio-active material I ever saw was the use of imbedding radio-active material suspended in polymeres (TI did it in AR in the 80s) and I have batteries build from then that still power the calculators they were sold in. . from 1986. When I estimated the half-life of the materials to be 12.5 years, they have exceeded that by 10+ years.  The small .25" dia battery will most likely be running that little calculator 100s of years after I am gone . . EGP

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

yeah he partially created a breeder reactor and contaminated himself and the immediate area. He was extracting the Americium-241 from smoke detectors, then thorium, and a bunch of other stuff including pitchblende. He eventually figured out that he might have too much radioactive material going, when his Geiger counter was picking up radioactivity 5 doors from his home.

I'm actually stunned that he hasn't died yet, for sure the guy deserves a Darwin award.

 

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

 that's a cool kid

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Really small scale nuclear?

Yeap - then you've heard of him.

The thing is - if you want to light a fire under this economy to get it burning again - you need to develop a new product that everyone needs and costs over $2,000. That's what made the world economy great to start with- the production of the car made jobs and boomed the economy. Oil, occationally wars boosted the economy (why borrowing money keeps you out of bankruptcy - but only if you are a country inflating money), the demand for owning your own home, radio, television, plumbing, electricity, air planes and the last boom was the computer integration into our lives --> all these products brought on jobs, economic security, increased revenue for governments and higher standards of living. Historically - the world economy has been lead by the individual's demand for a new product to make money flow. And - the more the product costs - the bigger the economic boom.

Though I totally agree that solar, wind, geo-thermal, heat pumps, better insulated buildings as well as living green are the way to live but those products do not produce energy security to countries or individuals in a meaningful way - they are not 100% on. The performance ratio makes them cost prohibited unless the governemtn subsidzes them (and so they cost everyone more- the whole model is f wrong).  However, a few key designed products could launch the world back into prosperity and be a instrument of world peace. The answer to all of our economic problems, peak oil, growing population, food production/transportation and even water availablity can all be solved by the need for low-cost small scale transportable energy.

Too bad the government would never allow it to fly - so I get we get the deepest depression in history . . .EGP

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Re: Really small scale nuclear?

I'm sorry EGP, but I disagree.

It's thinking along those train tracks that led us to this position in the first place. Invent the next big thing and everything just "goes away" well unfortunately it doesn't, the economy is driven by energy (oil) we don't have a replacement (fissile nuclear material is not energy effective, fusion is at least 10 maybe more away) even if we could switch to primarily electric powered vehicles that's a huge energy and economic hit.

Nope we're not digging our way out of this hole so easily.

 

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

Hi Gungnir-

You are so right - and I do agree we can not get there from here, but maybe for different reasons.  I see the road is fraught with political obsticles, the change over could never happen in a timely manner and people have a "phobia" about radio-active materials - though they live with them every day and it even makes up a part of the water we drink as a natural element.

However, as you pointed out in another post - the effecency of all our other options seem in-effective as all other sources (oil, ethanol, bio-fuel, wind, solar and others - hydrogen as fuel cells would be too much bulk weight compared to what can be done with nuclear) as well as populations powering down (which, though we have done to a degree, no matter how much we power down - we can not go powerless) could not add up to the amount of energy gain from a sustainable nuclear solution. Unlike solar panels, the energy in-put would at least match or exceed the energy gained.

And I'll address the safety issue here & now. When any product is miss handled (gas, oil, ethanol, bio-fuel,coal and on) the result is pollution. We have a long way to go before we can manufacture large scale mini or micro nuclear devices but robotics have come a long way in manufacturing and that's a resource the kid mentioned above doesn't have.

I'm fairly confident that micro, mini - nuclear is a solution to the peak oil and if this country doesn't jump on it - then someone else will and that will be the new world center of growth in the global economy. People want energy - it translates into freedom. And power sources that can run for 3,200 + years are the solution.

Warm Regards, EGP

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Re: next energy source...small scale nuclear?

Hey folks (good discussion so far!),

Several considerations regarding nuclear fission and power derived from such sources come to mind (the following are my opinions, but where not 'educated opinion'--I have so duly noted):

1) A geopolitical consideration regarding storage safety of by-products of fission. I have NO faith in any government faced with diminishing resources to safeguard even tiny amounts of plutonium for twenty years, let alone thousands. Can you say "easy target for enthusiastic bad-a**ed folks who really really do not like us much?" (Or anyone else for that matter, not wishing to be euro-amerocentric). It does not take much radioactive matter to construct small dirty bombs...are we being responsible if we provide the technology and more raw materials for these weapons in decentralized locations?

2) I believe (and I could be wrong about this) the cost of decommissioning nuclear plants historically has not been figured into the economic equations of ROI for this source of electrical generation. Do the small (really small plants) have a similar cost comparatively speaking? I'd like more info if anyone has it. I am really ignorant about these small plants.

3) The use/re-use of water for cooling--water is a major limiting factor in this brave new world of ours -- will continue to be so and the impact of thermal pollution on the ecology in adjacent water bodies from nuclear plants has been underplayed or not well understood during design and development (from what I have seen in the Midwest).

4) Factoring in natural events such as earthquakes...I have major concerns regarding the siting and safeguards of nuclear plants in proximity to earthquake zones, including in this country the New Madrid, which appears to be overdue for a big one (my interest is natural as I'm a geologist by training). We have been witnessing the impact of seismic activity of some magnitude (no pun intended) globally in various countries: China, Italy, Pakistan, among others.

So, appropriate siting of nuclear plants has to take into account hazards such as flood and seismic zones, as well as potential sea level increases in coastal areas. Where are our major population centers? Are nuclear facilities supposed to be "farmed out" to more rural areas to accommodate hazard mitigation due to these ecologic considerations? As a rural resident, no thank you.

For far too long, the major economic "development" in rural areas has been prisons and landfills (it has become a bitter joke in rural America). I have no desire to add "nuclear power plants" in any additional numbers until the serious design, maintenance, and security flaws are addressed. Is that a NIMBY attitude? 

I continue to have hopes for fusion--I sincerely hope we put additional private/public resources into the R&D for safer, more effective energy sources as well as conserving technologies that reduce by several magnitudes our need for such vast amounts. I am really afraid, however, that like drug addicts, we'll let TPTB sell us on nuclear "solutions" that do not force us to change our ways and whose hazards and cradle-to-grave costs are not made transparent.

juli

 

 

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EndGamePlayer
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Mini or Micro - scale nuclear?

Hi Juli - I think (and I could be mistaken) but mini or micro nuclear would have less chance of harmful exposure to humans or the environment than even the lead in batteries, spilling oil, gasoline or mercury. Fuion would not be my first pick. Maybe a breeder but my favorite research paper was on a "nuclear battery" where they recycled spent fuel rods by initiating magnetic fields through it and it produced power. The article was from 1987 from Argonne West Lab in ID. But, that's just the way I think.   EGP

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Juli B
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Re: Mini or Micro - scale nuclear?

Thank you for the article info, EGP...I'll see if I can find more info on that nuclear battery technology...

ciao,

juli

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