Tag Archives: nuclear power

Scalability in Energy Production.

Scalability is the capacity to expand production as the need for additional power comes to the fore. A nuclear power plant can take years from the time of initial planning, permitting, and construction, whereas installation of solar panels for a home array will take only a couple of days. The material and labor costs during the construction or installation phase raise the cost of the power source over the cost to fuel and operate the facility once completed.

For necessarily large projects like nuclear or hydro-power facilities, long lead times are needed to bring power on line. This means that planning and construction must begin long before the power is available. This has considerable monetary cost because money is spent year after year before any money comes in from the sale of the power after completion.

An unpredictable risk inherent in the long term, big projects is that conditions may change. A steep drop in the economy during the recent “great recession” resulted in decreases in demand for energy world wide. Changes in technology, particularly with power sources which are more scalable may make a large project obsolete. Natural gas turbine technology is quite scalable. Turbines designed for jet aircraft can be used to generate electricity. The advent of directional drilling and fracking has greatly increased the availability and lowered the cost of natural gas which fuels scalable gas turbine facilities. Planning and construction of large scale coal plants are being canceled left and right.

Our economy is slowly recovering from the recession and new power sources are needed. Scalable power supplies are rapidly replacing large projects because they can reliably deliver power when and where it is needed and at a lower cost.

Solar power is booming across the country. Solar PV is growing 17 times as fast as the economy as a whole. This is due in large part to its scalability. If you need a little power, use just a few panels, such as what be need to charge the batteries on a remote cabin or an RV. To power the average home requires about 20 or 30 panels (10 kilowatt system which can produces 1100 kWh per month.)

For utility scale solar the numbers can get quite large. A one megawatt facility in Benton AR just went online. It employs 3,840 panels on a 5 acre site. The largest planned in Arkansas is an 81 MW, 500 acre facility with 350,000 panels. The country’s largest array not surprisingly is in California. At 550 MW, the array of over 2 million panels will power close to 100 million homes.

Wind is similarly scalable except at the lowest end of the spectrum. Modern wind turbines for utility scale facilities are 2 MW, however 8 MW turbines are being used in offshore locations. For perspective an average nuclear reactor is 1000 MW. Wind farms in the midwest vary in size but average around 200 turbines. A wind farm of this size could cover 50 square miles, but the actual footprint is minuscule as the land within the farm can still be used for forage/pasture.

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.


What Price Clean Water?

The Cuyahoga River last caught on fire in 1969, but had burned uncontrolled on numerous occasions dating back to the latter half of the the nineteenth century. The river flows north through northern Ohio and Cleveland into Lake Erie. Numerous industries discharged wastes into the river to the extent that at times the river was coated with several inches of highly flammable sludge.

Cuyahoga on Fire

Cuyahoga on Fire

The 1969 fire along with a growing environmental movement resulted in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The waters of the nation have benefited from the laws, but problems still exist, especially when it comes to our demand for cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels and even cheaper food.

In one of the ironies of our time, a chemical used to clean coal means that the drinking water of Charleston, West Virginia is not so clean. In January 2014 several thousand gallons of an industrial chemical leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank on the banks of the Elk river, just upstream of the drinking water intake for several hundred thousand people. To this day, some residents of the area refuse to drink the water as it still smells faintly of licorice.

In North Carolina, the Dan River has recently been contaminated by a pipe failure from a coal ash containment pond owned by Duke Energy. The river and even groundwater are now polluted with sludge that is highly contaminated with Arsenic, a heavy metal that is both toxic and carcinogenic. There are fears that the massive 40,000 ton spill is not over as another pipe may be leaking.

What these Clean Water Act violations have in common is that both were easily preventable. Had the responsible corporations taken care of business, the spills would never have happened. And had the responsible regulatory agencies done their job the problems that caused these spills would have been prevented. But no, businesses don’t want to spend extra money and taxpayers don’t want to properly fund the agencies that provide oversight.

A similar disaster is brewing in Arkansas. In our case it is not the result of industrial use of fossil fuels but the industrial wastes from a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO.) The hog farm, the first of its type in the watershed of the crown jewel of Arkansas, the Buffalo National River, was permitted by a deeply flawed process. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality granted a general permit for the operation. It did not consider the sensitive location in the Buffalo watershed, nor consider the uniquely porous limestone geology of the Ozarks.



Thousands upon thousands of gallons of liquid wastes, urine and feces, are contained in two ponds. The permitted design required only enough free board to contain a 25 year rain event. When the dirt bank ponds are breached, they will likely fail catastrophically, releasing the wastes into Big Creek and a few miles downstream, the Buffalo River National Park. Even during times when the banks hold, the clay lined ponds are allowed to leak wastes through the soil. Because of the Karst topography, the wastes can make their way rapidly to pollute the nation’s fist national river. Its not a matter of if but when.

Why do we continue to set ourselves up for these kinds of disasters? Because of short sightedness. Because we just can’t seem to learn that proper regulation of industry takes careful oversight, and the funding to provide for it.

reactor schematic

The Future of Nuclear Power?

There are discussions among members of the environmental community about nuclear power. Some have suggested that nuclear power can be part of the solution to curbing the release of greenhouse gases. Others disagree.
Dr Amory Lovins, noted physicist and sustainable energy guru, notes that “Each dollar spent on a new reactor buys about 2-10 times less carbon savings, 20-40 times slower, than spending that dollar on the cheaper, faster, safer solutions that make nuclear power unnecessary and uneconomic”. Then there is this:

In March 2011 a magnitude 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami has initiated a crisis in northern Japan. Damage to several nuclear reactors has caused the leakage of three hundred tonnes of radionuclide containing water into the ground and nearby sea.

Four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant were irreparably damaged.  Although the reactor cores may not have suffered any catastrophic failure of the containment vessels, partial meltdowns have occurred. Partial meltdowns occur when the fuel in the core gets so hot that the metallic cladding of the fuel rods melt. This means that the reactors will never be used again and in fact constitute a huge expense for cleanup.

Radiation due to fissile isotopes has been detected at levels some 400 times normal in the soil about 25 miles from the plant and traces of radiation have been detected in air as far away as Seattle, Washington. An ocean plume of radioactive water will reach the US in 2014.

ocean plume

Ocean Plume

The relative risk is unknown but simply calls attention to the magnitude of the damage which has occurred at the reactors in northern japan.

Much of the radiation must be coming from the on-site waste storage. The issue of nuclear waste continues to plague the nuclear industry in one form or another. We all want the power, but nobody wants the waste.

The problems at the Fukushima plant are due mainly due to the loss of power on site. The diesel generators which should have provided backup power to the site to maintain reactor coolant water failed because of the tsunami. Because of lack of coolant water, the fuel rods overheated, causing the metal cladding to melt, then react with steam in the reactor to produce Hydrogen. It was this Hydrogen which caused explosions in two or more of the reactor buildings. These explosions damaged the spent fuel pools which allowed water to leak out, thus precipitating radiation leaks.

The fuel rods in the spent fuel pools constitute high level nuclear waste. Unlike the fuel rods in the cores of the reactors, those in the spent fuel pool are not within any containment barrier. Rather they sit at the bottom of a swimming pool like structure. When coolant water is lost from these pools the rods overheat, melt and release radioactivity.

Every reactor in the United States stores its high level radioactive wastes in this relatively insecure fashion. The wastes are stored in the pools for five to ten years until cool enough to be moved to other storage locations. Severe weather events such as tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes, or even terrorists could damage the integrity of the fuel pools, unlike the much more secure reactor cores.

If nuclear power is to have a renaissance, there must be greater attention paid to the issue of on site waste storage. Of course more secure handling of wastes will only add to the cost and it is ultimately cost factors which will determine the fate of nuclear power here in the United States.