First, let me head off some objections. I will grant that...

a) there have been some stupid mistakes made in choosing sites for the plants

b) there have been shortcuts in the designs of some plants in terms of inadequate backup systems

c) politics has interfered in the design, construction, and choosing of sites for plants

That said, we MUST get away from fossil fuels for several reasons.

a) they are unsustainable because they are a finite resource which become more and more expensive to extract, and then of course we'll ultimately run out of them

b) through pollution of the atmosphere, they damage the environment and are playing a key role in damaging the ozone layer and causing climate change

c) their by products are unhealthy for humans

d) we need them for a lot more than just fuel; they play key roles in many non-fuel products and they are essential for the production of most plastics, and we can't have a modern world without plastics

e) solar power on a large scale takes up a lot of space and itself uses up finite resources

f) scaling up solar, wind, and water power hugely to replace fossil fuels will do environmental damage of their own

Renewable energy is either dirty or unreliable. The wind doesn't always blow, rivers can run low, and burning wood is about as dirty as burning coal, perhaps more so.

Problems need to be solved, such as what to do with spent fuel; finding safe locations for plants (far away from coastlines, rivers, and fault lines, but with a reliable supply of water for cooling. 

No alternative (or combination of alternatives) can offer nearly as much power.

Finally, I anticipate one objection which I'll handle before someone offers it, and that is pointing out the danger of accidents. Back to the beginning of my piece. Eliminate those problems I listed, and we may never have another accident.

But let's suppose accidents continue one every decade or two as in the past. Despite the damage these accidents do, they do less harm than continuing to use fossil fuels will do over time. Fossil fuels kill slowly but constantly whereas when a nuclear plant has a problem, it's front page news for weeks, which seems to have convinced the public that nuclear plants are more dangerous over time than they actually are. It is the burning of fossil fuels which are the bigger health danger.

My parting thought is that the biggest danger in amping up nuclear power is politics, not the practicalities of science and engineering. How can we keep the politics of "not in my back yard" or "bring it here to my coastal community because we need the jobs" out of it?

So, what are your thoughts?

Tags: alternative, energy, nuclear, power

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You might want to change the heading to We need Thorium Nuclear Reactors. The advent of smaller, safer facilities actually makes our current facilities obsolete. Link is a 10 minute TED talk about a scientist at NASA who was initially tasked with providing energy for a lunar colony, but found that the technology actually makes sense to use on Earth.

I think I'll leave the title as it is, but I'm sure your idea here will provoke some discussion.


When I woke up this morning, I decided to research thorium reactors a bit, knowing that there are problems related to any technology. I found one article very helpful:

What are the benefits of Thorium?

Thorium is more abundant on Earth than Uranium and can therefore last us for longer times. This is relevant for the common "once-through" fuel cycle where fuel is mined, burned, and then disposed of. If closed fuel cycles or breeding ever become mainstream, this benefit will be irrelevant because the Th-U and the U-Pu cycles will last us well into the tens of thousands of year, which is about as long as modern history.

The Th-U fuel cycle does not irradiate Uranium-238 and therefore does not produce transuranic materials like Plutonium, Americium, Curium, etc. These transuranics are the major health concern of long-term nuclear waste. Thus, Th-U waste will be less toxic on the 10,000+ year time scale.

Thorium cycles exclusively allow thermal breeder reactors (as opposed to fast breeders). More neutrons are released per neutron absorbed in the fuel in a traditional (thermal) type of reactor. This means that if the fuel is reprocessed, reactors could be fueled without mining any additional U-235 for reactivity boosts, which means the nuclear fuel resources on Earth can be extended by 2 orders of magnitude without some of the complications of fast reactors.

Thorium can (practically) breed without making weapons material. Th-U cycles with some U-238 dilution build up fissile U-233, but it is not chemically separable from the fuel like plutonium is in U-Pu cycles. Discharged waste, therefore, will not be easily converted into weapons. Buildup of U-232 also leads to increased proliferation resistance.

What are the downsides of Thorium?

We don’t have as much experience with Th. The nuclear industry is quite conservative, and the biggest problem with Thorium is that we are lacking in operational experience with it. When money is at stake, it’s difficult to get people to change from the norm.

Thorium fuel is a bit harder to prepare. Thorium dioxide melts at 550 degrees higher temperatures than traditional Uranium dioxide, so very high temperatures are required to produce high-quality solid fuel. Additionally, Th is quite inert, making it difficult to chemically process.

Irradiated Thorium is more dangerously radioactive in the short term. The Th-U cycle invariably produces some U-232, which decays to Tl-208, which has a 2.6 MeV gamma ray decay mode. Bi-212 also causes problems. These gamma rays are very hard to shield, requiring more expensive spent fuel handling and/or reprocessing.

Thorium doesn’t work as well as U-Pu in a fast reactor. While U-233 an excellent fuel in the thermal spectrum, it is between U-235 and Pu-239 in the fast spectrum. So for reactors that require excellent neutron economy (such as breed-and-burn concepts), Thorium is not ideal.

And from the same source:

Proliferation Issues

Thorium is generally accepted as proliferation resistant compared to U-Pu cycles. The problem with plutonium is that it can be chemically separated from the waste and perhaps used in bombs. It is publicly known that even reactor-grade plutonium can be made into a bomb if done carefully. By avoiding plutonium altogether, thorium cycles are superior in this regard.

Besides avoiding plutonium, Thorium has additional self-protection from the hard gamma rays emitted due to U-232 as discussed above. This makes stealing Thorium based fuels more challenging. Also, the heat from these gammas makes weapon fabrication difficult, as it is hard to keep the weapon pit from melting due to its own heat.

The one hypothetical proliferation concern with Thorium fuel though, is that the Protactinium can be chemically separated shortly after it is produced and removed from the neutron flux (the path to U-233 is Th-232 -> Th-233 -> Pa-233 -> U-233). Then, it will decay directly to pure U-233. By this challenging route, one could obtain weapons material. But Pa-233 has a 27 day half-life, so once the waste is safe for a few times this, weapons are out of the question. So concerns over people stealing spent fuel are eliminated by Th, but the possibility of the owner of a Th-U reactor obtaining bomb material is not. (source)

When I was growing up they said we'd have fusion reactors up and running between 2000 and 2010. I'm still waiting. After reading recently that the new estimates are for between 2020 and 2050. How has the fusion reactor gotten farther away? Are conspiracy theorists right about big oil?

I had heard about possible fission reactor designs which would be more stable and better designed but was uncertain about endorsing them because of the radioactive waste issue. But Unseen's list of a-f (about current power sources) are spot on so we can't just keep going as we are.

After seeing the TED talk Melvinotis linked, I know what we need to be building - now. While the designs need to be verified by other scientists, after that we need enough thorium reactors built to shut down everything that pollutes. Personally, I'd like to see any non-scientist who stands in the way of thorium reactors arrested and tried for treason. I know, I know, it won't happen but I can dream.

So, how do we get the thorium reactors reviewed, approved and built?

 

I think it is probably a better idea than our currently accelerating global warming due to fossil fuel use.

Surprisingly but even chernobyl, the worst nuclear plant meltdown in history, has not turned the surrounding area into a deadly wastezone . Instead nature seems to be far better able to survive a nuclear meltdown than our presence.

Have you looked at Geothermal power? One full scale Geothermal power plant takes up less space than a Nuke, and generates the same amount of power. 50% of this nation can be powered by Geothermal power alone.

New advances in Solar Technology have decreased the size and increased the efficiency. Look at the SES Sun Catcher. A single unit is the same size as a 24 foot satellite dish, but capable of powering 5 homes indefinitely, (even at night). Edit: Upon further research, SES has filed for bankruptcy because of the horrendous market in the US, mainly caused by Oil and Coal based energy companies that perceived SES as a threat. The v3Solar Spin Cell is small, can be placed any where at any angle, and has a 4% efficiency increase over standard flat panels. This small increase is only in solar production, it doesn't take into account the angle of the sun. Solar energy can create 20% of this nation's power alone, possibly a lot more.

Tidal and wave power stations operate off the coast, and can both produce a constant 15% each of the nation's power.

I live in Texas, and Windmills are becoming as common a sight as Oil pumps. Wind power is pretty constant on flat plains, though admitedly not so much up in the hills and mountains. Still, they have a bout a 10' footprint, for the largest model. They can produce 20% of the nation's power.

Add it all up, and using logical placement, and not sim city style urban planning, we get a constant 120%+ of cheap, infinitely renewable, Zero Emission electricity.

Yes, the manufacturing process can be tricky. They're new technologies. The process of building a car wasn't pretty, cheap, or clean until Henry Ford invented the assembly line. It takes time.

A geothermal plant, solar or wind farm, or wave/tidal installation won't blow up, spill anything, or become radioactive. Set them, Forget them, They pay for themselves in the savings.

Geothermal:

The availability of geothermal energy that is capable of feeding geothermal power stations is limited. This intense energy source is often only available in countries where geothermal activity is at its peak, mainly tectonic/volcanic regions such as Iceland.

A significant investment is often required prior to building a geothermal power station. Geological surveys have to be undertaken to ensure the location is suitable for geothermal electricity production before any potential installation work can go ahead. It's often costly to transport any required materials to remote locations where there is sufficient geothermal activity.

Geothermal power stations have the potential to release harmful gases into the air. Toxic gases exist deep beneath the ground in various regions and can sometimes be released via the infrastructure used by geothermal power stations. Most modern geothermal power plants have systems and procedures in places to deal with these harmful gases.

Localised Supply - As geothermal is trapped beneath our feet, we cannot extract, store and transport this energy source to other countries as we do with fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas. Geothermal energy has to be used at source to generate electricity, thus providing a supply of electricity for the electrical grid system of only the source country.

Geothermal power stations have the potential to cool the rocks beneath them buried deep under the ground. If the rocks are cooled via too much water flowing into the well, they will no longer be able to produce the steam required to turn a generator, thus rendering a site useless and resulting in significant losses for any company making use of geothermal energy at that location.

Geothermal power stations, as with many other power station designs can be unsightly and provide visual pollution. Networks of pipe systems have to be utilised for production purposes and many people are opposed to the sight of these.

Wind:

The strength of the wind is not constant and it varies from zero to storm force. This means that wind turbines do not produce the same amount of electricity all the time. There will be times when they produce no electricity at all.

Windmills are bird killers. Unfortunately, many of the best places to put windmills are the worst places from an environmental point of view, where birds take advantage of the flowing air the mills depend on.

Windmills can cast long shadows at sunrise and sunset, the blades creating pulsing shadows that can be very annoying to people and ruin property values.

Many people feel that the countryside should be left untouched, without these large structures being built. The landscape should left in its natural form for everyone to enjoy.

Wind turbines are noisy. Each one can generate the same level of noise as a family car travelling at 70 mph.

Many people see large wind turbines as unsightly structures and not pleasant or interesting to look at. They disfigure the countryside and are generally ugly.

When wind turbines are being manufactured some pollution is produced. Therefore wind power does produce some pollution.

Large wind farms are needed to provide entire communities with enough electricity. For example, the largest single turbine available today can only provide enough electricity for 475 homes, when running at full capacity. How many would be needed for a town of 100 000 people?

Tides:

To me, this is one resource we're not taking enough advantage of. Yes, it goes in once a day and out once a day, which is a problem UNLESS a worldwide power grid could be set up. It's far more dependable than solar or wind or even geothermal.

Geothermal power stations, as with many other power station designs can be unsightly and provide visual pollution.

Windmills can cast long shadows at sunrise and sunset, the blades creating pulsing shadows that can be very annoying to people and ruin property values.

These two are pretty weak complaints. The design of a Nuclear Powerstation isn't exactly glamorous, so that's not exactly a point against Geothermal. The majority of wind turbines aren't in urban areas, they're in the middle of pastures and farm fields, away from any homes. Vanity is a pretty poor excuse.

Wind turbines are noisy. Each one can generate the same level of noise as a family car travelling at 70 mph.

The turbines are also close to 100 feet in the air, and far away from any homes, as previously mentioned, so boo hoo.

Many people feel that the countryside should be left untouched, without these large structures being built. The landscape should left in its natural form for everyone to enjoy.

Does this Natural form include billboards spaced 50 feet away all the way down the interstate? I'd rather admire the serene motion of a windmill than be blasted advertisements any more than I have to. It's bad enough that they don't actually play music on the radio any more, except when you've already gotten to your destination, and are getting out of the car, I have to be visually assaulted with the most redundant and horrible signs that the mundane minds of advertising executives can squeeze out of their shriveled up little heads. Give me the synchronized ballet of power producing windmills, and less distracting eyesore. If I want to go to waffle house, I'll ask Google where it is.

When wind turbines are being manufactured some pollution is produced. Therefore wind power does produce some pollution.

Can you say cop out? Name one manufacturing process that is absolutely 100% pollution free. I'll guess honey, but that's made by bees, not humans..

The strength of the wind is not constant and it varies from zero to storm force. This means that wind turbines do not produce the same amount of electricity all the time. There will be times when they produce no electricity at all.

This is why the blades on modern turbines can pitch like wings on an airplane. They self regulate their speed using an on-board, low power computer. They can actually handle gale force winds while keeping power production constant. And as high up as they get, it is really rare for there to be no wind at all.

Large wind farms are needed to provide entire communities with enough electricity. For example, the largest single turbine available today can only provide enough electricity for 475 homes, when running at full capacity. How many would be needed for a town of 100 000 people?

How many of these 100,000 people have rooftops? That's close to 100,000 possible solar panels that are out of the way. How many of them use the bathroom? We have the technology to actually generate large amounts of electricity from raw sewage. Let's face it. Americans are so full of shit, we can power ourselves.

p.s. Wave power runs off of the constant kinetic motion of the ocean. Have you ever seen the sea stand still? I don't mean calm, I mean still as the glass of water on Jurassic Park? Nope. Always in motion, which means always making power.

And the issue with birds? The shadows thing is a big problem, too. Before you get too enthused for windmills, you might want to watch the movie Windfall:

The ocean can get flat as glass. You've never heard of a sailboat that can't sail because of a calm? The tides are 100% dependable. Probably the only natural phenomenon that's equally reliable is the Sun. The thing is, a way needs to be developed that doesn't kill fish the way dams do.

I have seen Windfall, and it's rubbish. They use fear tactics and their main points are the kinds of points old people make when they get a new appliance. "There's too many buttons, it makes too much noise, There's a shadow on the lawn." It's nothing more than a Don Quixote film. Literally jousting at windmills.

Birds are not stupid creatures. Yes, some will make the stupid mistake of flying into one, just like they occasionally make the stupid mistake of flying too low over oncoming traffic, and on an even rarer occasion getting sucked into a jet engine. Please don't try to make it look like entire flocks will funnel straight into it like some kind of demented blender. The turbines are pushed by the wind, and they have no other affect on the air currents. Plus on the scale of environment that the blades inhabit, they're easy enough to swing wide of.

Ah, old people. Starting to feel like "old guy is the new nigger" here at TA. First off, that's a rather scurrilous and inaccurate stereotype of "old people" (how old is old, anyway? 40? 50? 60? 70?...100?). Many of the concerns raised in the movie are concerns younger people have, too, by cracky. LOL

Old people doesn't refer to people of a certain age, it refers to people with a certain strength of will. Old people in this context are constantly tired of change and will attack anything with the weakest of arguments just to try and get the world to slow down so that they can stop adapting so much. You can be 20 years old, and be considered an old person, if you have the gall to attack something as good for the environment as renewable energy based on something as vain and easily fixed as visual appearance.

Conservatives are old people, no matter what their age.

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