My post from yesterday raised questions about the economics of nuclear power plants. So, as is my custom, I spent five minutes on Wikipedia absorbing as many misconceptions about this topic as I could.

The first important concept to understand is that solar and wind power can never replace more than 20 percent of the world's total energy needs because they are not reliable sources for any given hour of the day. We still need baseline energy production.

And then you have the problem of getting the energy from where it is produced to where you need it. That means Nebraskans won't be powering their microwaves from ocean wave energy any time soon.

The economics of nuclear power plants aren't as easy to calculate as you might assume. One of the bigger unknowns is what technological breakthroughs we'll see in the next twenty years. In other words, is the most economical way to build the next nuclear power plant to wait 20 years before you start, thus benefitting from new technology?

And who can predict technological breakthroughs in renewable energy? If someone comes up with an absurdly cheap way to store electricity, or to transmit it thousands of miles without much loss, then solar and wind have more potential than anyone imagined. And if the scientists figure out how to inexpensively turn just about any fast-growing organic matter into oil through chemistry, that's a game changer.

And what are the costs for the fossil fuel alternatives? What price do you assign to the human contribution to global warming, and the occasional war over oil?

The U.S. nuclear power debate usually gets characterized as a wrestling match between irrational scaredy cats and clear-headed rationalists, refereed by a comically incompetent government. The only thing I know for sure is that no one can understand the economics of a 40-year investment.
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May 14, 2009
The big issue with renewables is that they don't store energy very well. But they do produce electricity cheaply. Why not use this electricity to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen? This is a pretty clean process (plants do it) and you can then transport the hydrogen to where it's needed. Tidal generators could then feed Nebraska.
May 14, 2009
I am a nuclear supporter, but I also would like to save money on my high electric bills, so I looked into solar panels. They would be installed on the roof, so no transmission costs. I live in Nevada and the roof has a souther exposure, so I am in the best place possible for solar panels. Then I got an estimate. For a mere $41,000 I could expect to save about $90 a month on my $150-$290 electric bill. Yep, if you work that out, it pays for itself in a mere 38 years! After that, gravy man!

It is a farce. We have abundant energy resources out there and we restrict our own access so we have to fight with others (either literally or economically) over the artificially scarce resources.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2009
You said: "The first important concept to understand is that solar and wind power can never replace more than 20 percent of the world's total energy needs"

But many of the world's energy "needs" are not really needs. Because energy's been cheap for a long time, there's a huge amount of waste in the system. And there are more efficient appliances coming out all the time. Energy efficiency and conservation are often orders of magnitude cheaper than solar panels or nuke plants.

We've cut our household electricity use from about the national average to half that in a couple years, with some pretty minimal changes. And I have a family of five, so it's not like it's me in a cabin with a candle. If you walked into my house, you wouldn't know the difference. There's a ton of low-hanging fruit.

You just have to watch out for the Jevons Paradox: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox
May 14, 2009
Solar has an important future as an energy source, but it's inherently limited; It is intermittent and very diffuse. We can occasionally use the later property to our advantage, by deploying solar panels widely, but it makes it much less desirable as a base source. It is unlikely to ever supply even 50% of our electricity, and anything even close to that would have a significant environmental impact simply due to the space consumed. This is true regardless of technology efficiency.
Biomass is just another form of solar power, and not a very efficient one. If we electrify transportation it makes no sense at all.
Nuclear is the only technology that can realistically replace the need for coal. The technical problems (waste, fuel supply, risk of major disaster) are generally overstated, but in any case have all been solved in theory; now we just need to learn how to apply the lab science for real. There is a healthy industry overseas pushing the technology along already, but we could certainly speed things up if we decide to get on board.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2009
I wonder if one key for total reliance of renewal energy is diversification. Possibly the same way stock portfolios are diversified to avoid too much risk. Perhaps a healthy collection of renewal energy could cancel out of the risk of each one?

Also, I'd love to hear thoughts from you and your readers on sugarcane ethanol:

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May 14, 2009
Nuclear power is not renewable. Eventually, you'd run out of uranium or lithium. So it seems like replacing fossil fuels with another non-renewable source wouldn't really resolve the main issue.

Why not spend the research money on storage and transmission and solve the problem correctly the first time?
May 14, 2009
Scott, the cheapest thing we could do is ... Save energy!

And there is quite some potential for savings.
May 14, 2009
Cars get better each year. But maybe we should stop building them because they will so much better 20 years from now.

There is no logic in that. The reason cars get better is because we are constantly building/testing/re-engineering.
If we want nuclear reactors to get better, we need to actually build one. We could even start with a small one out in New Mexico/Utah/Nevada where there is lots of land.

Also, don't get caught up on the uranium part of it. As I pointed out yesterday, Toshiba has already developed a smaller scale reactor that uses lithium.
May 14, 2009
I believe that the long-term answer will be orbital solar power collectors that transmit the collected power down to earth by microwave beam. Early stages of development are going on now.


+3 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2009
Of the nine comments, no one discussed the real issue of why nuclear power is not being utilized today...lack of political fortitude by our leaders. If/when a political leader makes this his/her agenda, a la Al Gore, it will be amazing just how fast a highly technical, clean plant with minimal waste issues will be created. Perhaps even in your own backyard...just saying...
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2009
I worked in the US nuke industry for 8 years, both in ops and engineering. Nukes are definitely the most stable economically of all the large-scale viable energy production schemes. That said, there are a few costs that we don't associate with the plants that probably should be factored in if you are taking the long view:
-Price-Anderson act. This establishes a US liability cap of $10B for an accident. This is a form of subsidy that the taxpayers have to cover if a large accident were to occur. Any plants built after 2026 will not have this waiver and will have to purchase insurance based on credible accident scenarios.
-The previously mentioned inevitable increases in the price of uranium as demand increases due to the number of plants coming on line.
-The long term off-site storage or reprocessing costs. These vary wildly depending on location, laws, transportation, etc.
Even with the above, I still think nukes should be a substantial part of our energy mix. Currently, they comprise around 20%. We could probably expand that to 30-35% while phasing out some of the less green existing technology and adding more solar, wind, wave, tidal, etc. The nukes would help to keep the grid stable while we work out the newer green technologies.
May 14, 2009
"The U.S. nuclear power debate usually gets characterized as a wrestling match between irrational scaredy cats and clear-headed rationalists, refereed by a comically incompetent government. "

You forgot about the NIMBYs (more accurately known as the BANANAs) and the petrochemical industrial lobbyists, who would fight any kind of large-scale nuclear development hammer-and-tongs. On the plus side, it would be quite amusing to watch the forces of Chevron/Texaco and the Sierra Club join together in common cause to combat the Evil Atomic Scourge.

Siting of nuke plants has always been a tricky situation, but there are already hundreds (if not thousands) of ready-made and secure locations, already owned by the Federal Guvmint, and which will probably never be made into any sort of developable land. I refer, of course, to all of the myriad bases which have been closed over the years, but which are still federal property and which still maintain a level of security in some cases that would beggar some banks.

In the Bay Area, Naval Station Mare Island (near Vallejo) immediately springs to mind as potential outstanding site for a nuclear power generation facility. Or place such a plant out at Nellis AFB or the NAS Fallon area - or even out where Trinity was first set off in New Mexico.

Any sort of construction project of this scale will ultimately be Guvmintal in nature, so to my mind it only follows that the plant be placed on Guvmint land.
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2009
I thought we were discussing the economics of a 40 year investment. Put simply, since you do not know what your returns will be on any 40 year investment given changes that can happen in that time frame, any 40 year investment is as good as another. If you have a few spare billion, either invest in something shorter term or try the nuclear thing.
May 14, 2009
Nuclear is a viable short term solution for the energy crisis. I would reccomend building them now, then wait for the technological advances that coudl bring us fusion, or more viable methods of renewable energy production.

for consideration, there was an article you posted some months back telling about bacteria that ate waste, turning them into crude oil.

also, Hemp, a fast growing highly starchy plant, can also be turned into a form of crude, which can be made into plastics, diesel, and a variety of other products that could at the very least, help stymie crude oil usage.

two problems with that, however.
A.) its illegal for reasons well known (and probably not a good idea to legalize without spending more money in regulation then its worth)

B.) there is still the problem that growing hemp takes up arable land that could otherwise be used to grow food, driving food prices higher, which basically makes it little different from corn ethanol production.
May 14, 2009
Nuclear power sounds good, but uranium is a limited resource and it's only getting more and more expensive. The Nuclear Energy Agency (you know, pro-nuclear people) expects that it will take between 50 and 80 years before uranium reserves get depleted to a point where it's not longer economically viable to use nuclear power.

Last-generation thermal power plants are already starting to store the power in molten salt so that they can generate power during night - see http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/oct08/6851

"Heat from the solar thermal power station's 510 000-square-meter field of solar collectors will be stored in 28 500 tons of molten salt—enough to run the plant's 50-megawatt steam turbine for up to 7.5 hours after dark."

Don't know how expensive is the process, though, those are the first plants in using that kind of thermal storage. But it sounds like it will improve in the future.
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May 14, 2009
The biggest problem facing nuclear power, at the moment, is that nobody's figured out how to get it to scale. When you build the second power plant, it's at least as expensive as the first power plant, possibly more expensive thanks to competition for resources. And the technology doesn't get any less expensive to make.

So there's a catch-22: there's not enough serious development on nuclear power to solve the problems, and the problems prevent serious development on nuclear power.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2009
Some things to remember about the costs of nuclear power:
- You have to spend energy mining and enriching uranium.
- The whole process is very water intensive.
- What do you do with the waste products? There is currently no good storage / disposal system for high grade nuclear waste materials.

Also, a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility would be much more devastating than for any other form of energy generation.
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