Thursday, March 15, 2012

Nuclear reality check

The Economist muses over the impact of Fukshima and the nuclear big picture:
And if the blow is harder than the previous one, the recipient is less robust than it once was. In liberalised energy markets, building nuclear power plants is no longer a commercially feasible option: they are simply too expensive. Existing reactors can be run very profitably; their capacity can be upgraded and their lives extended. But forecast reductions in the capital costs of new reactors in America and Europe have failed to materialise and construction periods have lengthened. Nobody will now build one without some form of subsidy to finance it or a promise of a favourable deal for selling the electricity. And at the same time as the cost of new nuclear plants has become prohibitive in much of the world, worries about the dark side of nuclear power are resurgent, thanks to what is happening in Iran.
After reading Burton Richer's incredible "Beyond Smoke and Mirrors" (which I hope to formally review pretty soon) I had a rekindled enthusiasm for nuclear energy. The problems of disposal can be greatly mitigated by running fuel through plants twice, albeit at the cost of a greater threat of nuclear proliferation if the stuff goes wandering. The actual threat posed by plant malfunctions to human safety is minimal, far less than that of just the deaths caused by inhaling the smoke from burning oil or coal. Nuclear is readily scalable with many promising technologies on the horizon. But for those hoping for modular reactors or micro reactors or molten sodium reactors or thorium on a white horse, another article in the review points to an important problem, beyond a nervous public or heavy-handed regulation, a problem that I, for one, had failed to consider:
Such homogeneity in a 70-year-old high-technology enterprise is remarkable. Seven decades after the Wright brothers’ first flight there were warplanes that could travel at three times the speed of sound, rockets that could send men to the moon, airliner fleets that carried hundreds of thousands of passengers a day, helicopters that could land on top of skyscrapers. Include unmanned spacecraft, and there really were flights a billion times as long as the Wright brothers’ first and lasting for years. But aircraft were capable of diversity and evolution and could be developed cheaply by small teams of engineers. It is estimated that during the 1920s and 1930s some 100,000 types of aircraft were tried out.

Developing a nuclear reactor, on the other hand, has never been a matter for barnstorming experimentation, partly because of the risks and partly because of the links to the technologies of the bomb.
Wind and solar, not without their disadvantages compared to nuclear power and energy sources, have this great advantage; they are relatively safe and easy to tinker with. There are hundreds if not thousands of designs of solar panels and wind turbines, at every stage of development. You will never be able to build and test 100,000 different types of nuclear energy generation, not if your regulators were raving Randian paleolibertarians. If you don't like the shape of your wind turbine you can radically redesign it and throw it up in the wind and see what it does; will you ever be able to do that with a nuclear reactor? And if not, what can we reasonable expect in the coming decades except that renewable technology will continue to advance and nuclear will be (at best, if the public's fears can be allayed) a bridge technology on the way to a low-carbon future?

5 comments:

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  2. Typical "Economist": "Nobody will now build one without some form of subsidy to finance it or a promise of a favourable deal for selling the electricity." It's not clear from this comment what makes "now" any different from "then." Plus, the grand analysis misses the point that, what is also demanded is that governments put the burden of insuring against the result of accidents onto the taxpayers. The nuclear "industry" is as about as impeccable a disproof of the magical "free market" as can be found.

    Maybe the blogmaster can explain the second half of the quote and why it was included: "And at the same time as the cost of new nuclear plants has become prohibitive in much of the world, worries about the dark side of nuclear power are resurgent, thanks to what is happening in Iran."

    What, exactly, is the "dark" thing happening in Iran except that 80 million Iranians insist on living atop OUR second largest reserves of natural gas and third of oil?

    John Puma

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