Monthly Archives: January 2016

Nuclear is Not the Answer


James Hansen is the climate scientist who first loudly and persistently proclaimed a risk to society of global warming and the consequent climate change and acidification of the oceans. Recently he and a few others suggested that a vigorous expansion of nuclear power is the only option for producing enough power to completely replace fossil fuels for energy production.

To achieve this goal would require the construction worldwide of over one hundred reactors a year, every year till 2050. As the United States uses something like twenty percent of the world’s energy, our share of the nuclear construction would be about 20 to 25 reactors every year. Conservatively that would be close to 700 nuclear reactors. Based on population that would mean about 7 new reactors in Arkansas alone.

This is a construction rate far, far beyond the heyday of reactor construction in the 1970s. It is just not going to happen for several reasons. Hansen has blamed environmental concerns for blocking the expansion of the nuclear power industry and there may be some truth to this. Past catastrophic nuclear reactor failures loom over the industry. And the seemingly intractable, politically at least, problem of permanent storage of high level nuclear wastes. The best we have come up with so far is on site storage in concrete containers – essentially the radioactive spent fuel rods are placed in casks standing around in parking lots adjacent to the reactors.

Environmental concerns are not the real issue, it is that nuclear power can’t compete economically. The extremely long planning and construction time make essentially impossible to stay on budget. The Union of Concerned Scientists report that the cost for the planning, construction, and licensing has gone from an estimated 2 billion dollars in 2002 to an astounding 9 billion in 2009.

Meanwhile the carbon free competition – efficiency, wind, and solar PV have see an opposite cost curve. For comparison, the cost of a 2 megawatt wind turbine is about 3 million dollars. For an equivalent amount of power produced by a nuclear reactor, the cost is a little over a billion dollars. For large scale commercial solar photovoltaic arrays the cost is about 2.5 billion dollars. Most importantly the cost curves for sustainable energy are downward whereas for nuclear they are upward.

The fuel costs for nuclear power are now relatively modest, but in a scenario with 700 nuclear reactors requiring Uranium, the cost will be substantially greater. Most likely fuel reprocessing will be necessary to produce new fuel but also to deal with the waste stream from all these reactors. Reprocessing fuel will add to costs and increase the risk of additional handling of radioactive material. Both accidents at reprocessing plants as occurred to at Kerr-McGee facility in Oklahoma, or the possibility of diversion to terrorists as weapons.

The future may see some expansion of nuclear reactors, as they serve an important function for baseload power, but something will have to be done to control costs. Savings via deregulation is a non starter. In fact increased regulation may save money. Standardized designs and construction methods may be able to contain costs somewhat. Additional subsidization of the nuclear industry via taxpayer backed insurance is a must. When it comes to the nuclear industry; capitalism, meet socialism.

Solar Based Solar Energy

A major drawback of most if not all sustainable sources of energy is the matter of intermittency. Power can’t be generated by wind turbines if the wind doesn’t blow, and solar panels don’t generate power when the sun doesn’t shine.

There are three ways to deal with this. One is to simply expect to use power when it is available. This is impractical for homes or hospitals or industries where power is necessary 24/7, but it is conceivable that certain industries could run their industrial processes when power is available. Sources such as wind and solar are intermittent, but reliably so. A major problem with this strategy is that expensive equipment can’t be used for sizable amounts of time, making the industry less efficient and therefore less competitive.

The obvious solution is energy storage for leveling the availability of power, and there are a number of different strategies. Pairing energy sources to level access to power may be possible in some cases. In some areas the wind blows more at night. This could be combined with daytime solar PV. Actually this is already occurring to some degree via our electrical grid that utilizes both wind and solar inputs.

The holy grail of sustainable but intermittent energy is inexpensive grid scale battery storage. This is a major forefront of sustainable energy research today. Some Japanese researchers are taking another tack however. What if you could find a place to put solar panels where the sun always shines, with no shadows or clouds, just sunlight 24/7. No problem, just head out into space about 20,000 miles. Solar panels are already hard at work powering hundreds, even thousands of satellites and of course the international space station.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a 25 year plan to develop gigawatt scale solar panels in space and then beam that energy back to earth. For perspective the average nuclear power plant produces a little less than a gigawatt. The two reactors at Arkansas Nuclear one combined output is about 1.8 Gigawatts.

This will be a BIG project. To produce that kind of power requires an array of solar panels that weigh on the order of 10,000 tonnes and covers an area of a couple square miles, but this is the easy part. Getting that power back to earth is the really tricky part of the plan. The idea is to beam the power back from space via microwaves. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit would point a sending device towards an earthbound antenna which would absorb the microwave power, then convert it to electrical energy that could be sent to grid along with all the other energy sources.

We use microwave ovens to heat up cold cup of coffee, but in this application the power is sent only a few inches, not tens of thousands of miles. Microwaves are sent long distances in the form of radar, but the relative power level is extremely low. To beam relevant amounts of power tens of thousands of miles is the real challenge.

So far testing has only involved sending kilowatts of energy over a fraction of that distance. Stay tuned.

RIP David Bowie 1947-2016

National Security is More than Bombs

The focus of a previous Republican debate was national security. To a man (or woman) the only concern was for the security that comes from a bullet or battleship. Their strategies involved variations on sending our troops to die in Syria, greater involvement of the Arab nation’s troops, increased drone attacks and a strangely abundant call for carpet bombing.

Other kinds of security may come to mind on a national scale, food security is a biggie, and avoidance of floods and droughts, and disease vectors such as insect born infections, and epidemics, and heat waves and on and on from global warming and climate change. Bullets and battleships won’t help here, just the opposite. Instead of fighting we must work on agreeing so we can reach solutions.

Back to national security of the bombing kind. Last July the Department of Defense (DoD) released a report outlining possible threats to national security that could involve the military. “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries…”

When the British exited the Indian subcontinent they partitioned the area into India and East and West Pakistan, based strictly on religious grounds. Later east Pakistan became Bangladesh. It is a small but populous, low-lying country. A predominantly Muslim country adjacent to a predominantly Hindu India. What happens when rising sea levels push 150 or so million Muslims “upslope” into Hindu India? The capital of Bangladesh is not coastal but still is just 4 meters above sea level. Even without forcing migration across borders, population concentration can cause strife.

Hardly any place on earth is immune from threats that could turn into military conflict. The melting of Arctic sea ice will bring several major nations into proximity in the area. Some of the area has ill-defined borders which when covered with ice weren’t much of an issue. Now those issues along with the seas are heating up.

Access to fresh water will surely become a flash point in the future. The high latitudes and low latitudes are predicted to get wetter, but the mid latitudes drier. There are already over a billion people with limited access to potable water and this may only get worse with global warming.

The DoD report emphasizes that the threat is real and requires planning to be prepared for the future. “The ability of the United States and other countries to cope with the risks and implications of climate change requires monitoring, analysis and integration of those risks into existing overall risk management measures, as appropriate for each combatant command, they added.”

A recurring theme in science fiction novels and movies has been the coming together of otherwise warring nations to fight a common enemy – space aliens. Will global warming be the threat not from space but from within which will bind us together as a world community? An important step was taken recently in Paris with a much heralded agreement among all nations. The meeting of world leaders has resulted in an international resolve to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.


Selective Environmental Review for 2015

A review of environmental protection, locally, nationally and internationally are all somewhat positive for 2015, especially when it comes to clean air and climate change issues.

Without doubt the biggest win for the environment was the December signing of an agreement by representatives from 190 countries to rein in global warming by reducing Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions. Most of the world, with the exception a few countries such as North Korea and the republican leadership here in the US, agree that global warming and rapid climate change must be addressed. Of course the plan is voluntary and each country has submitted there own plan as to what they will achieve but it is an important first step for the international community.

In August this year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the clean power plan. The aim of the plan is to reduce CO2 emissions over 30 % by 2030. Each state has it’s own target. The formula is based on the amount of CO2 released per energy produced. Those states that have already taken steps will have an easier time achieving their particular goal. California has a relatively high mix of non carbon energy sources already so their target is only a 14 % reduction in emissions, whereas Arkansas needs a net reduction of 36 %.

Meeting the targets for the clean power plan will be made easier by the signing of the omnibus budget bill last week. Under the current legislation existing tax credits will not expire. The 30 percent Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar will be extended for another three years. It will then ramp down incrementally through 2021, and remain at 10 percent permanently beginning in 2022. The 2.3cent per kWhr Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind will also be extended through next year. Projects that begin construction in 2017 will see a 20 percent reduction in the incentive. The PTC will then drop 20 percent each year through 2020.

After years of stalling the EPA will begin enforcement of their regional haze rule. This rule is will reduce smog especially in wilderness areas and National Parks by forcing regulation of cross-state emissions. Essentially power plants and Texas and Oklahoma will have to reduce smog which drifts downwind and impacts Arkansas’ air quality.

In November president Obama moved to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This oil pipeline was designed to move the heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Athabasca in Saskatchewan Canada to refineries on the gulf coast. Because of the nature of this heavy crude, most of its refined products would be exported and provide little benefit to the US, while adding a significant carbon load to the atmosphere.

Cleaner water has not escaped attention either. In May the EPA finalized a rule broadening the definition of what waters would be regulated and at the same time clarified the regulations for the Clean Water Act. The original act was initially applied to “navigable waters” and this lead to confusion. What is now called the waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule is meant to protect drinking water specifically and the environment more generally.

Finally a partial win to protect the Buffalo National River (BNR) from agricultural nutrient pollution follows from the state Pollution Control and Environment commission’s 5 year extension of a moratorium. It will prevent development of any new medium to large size hog factories in the watershed of the BNR. The existing 6,500 hog factory at Mt Judea will remain in operation.