Thursday, July 13, 2006

Thought-Provoking Article on GNEP

The Bush administration has been working on a program called GNEP (Global Nuclear Energy Partnership) which would have the result of re-introducing nuclear fuel reprocessing in the United States, and would set up a program to distribute fuel and collect used fuel from other nations.

Jenny Wang was kind enough to forward this article in Technology Review, in which Matthew Wald questions the value of GNEP.

It's an excellent article. After reading it a few times, I can't say I agree with him completely, but at the same time his points are quite valid. It's well worth some debate. In fact I believe that the GNEP program is currently soliciting comments from nuclear energy experts on the first draft plan, and so nothing is finalized yet.

Here's my take:

1. Carbon Sequestration

Wald talks about the "horse race" between carbon-sequestered coal, nuclear, and wind. But carbon sequestration is still extremely speculative. People talk about the "problem" of nuclear waste, but disposal of nuclear waste is a snap compared to carbon sequestration on any scale. It's a simple matter of density: one small pellet of nuclear waste, which is a very dense solid easy to vitrify in a form which is chemically inert, is equivalent to a mile-wide cloud of carbon dioxide gas which must be pumped somewhere and sealed, and which will leak and corrode the local ground. The idea of carbon sequestration in the ocean is even more bizarre (except for Iron Fertilization, a technique which might really work, but which is unsuitable for power-plant carbon sequestration).

Really, carbon sequestration is a stunningly difficult and unlikely engineering problem, and any researcher who claims otherwise is blowing smoke. Here's a nice post on carbon sequestration by Rod Adams

2. Wind

Regarding wind, we already have discussed at length it's problems. It's completely random and intermittent and essentially usesless for baseload power. On the other hand, wind works very well if you can back it up with a solid baseload generator like nuclear power. So wind, solar, and nuclear are really not competitors at all. They are collaborators. This view will slowly gain traction in the general public and will eventually be conventional wisdom.

3. Proliferation

He also worries about proliferation. Well folks, Pakistan got a bomb, North Korea got a bomb, and Iran is getting one. Hate to say it, but it's already too late. The bigger proliferation problem is the enormous flow of oil money into the middle-east and african nations, and the western world's unhealthy dependance on these nations. Energy security trumps proliferation, in my view.

4. Build What You Have

Wald suggests that the GNEP vision (which is essentially based on fast reactors) might hamper the current new build of commercial nuclear plants. That's a valid concern. It's crucial that we build the plants we have now. That's how all industries grow and what you have, tinker and improve it later after you've got a healthy cashflow and vendor/engineer infrastructure in place. In fact, I've been interviewing a lot of retired nuclear industry leaders lately, and they all make that point. "Build what you have now! Resist chasing the new designs, because then you'll never build anything!"

5. But Vision Is Important. Perhaps Crucial.

But you also can't stop researching new designs. We will need the fast reactor option in place in 20 or 30 years. That is a clear vision for the future of the planet and a vision which could serve the human race, and provide a clean energy civilization for the next century at least. That's a hell of an important vision.

In fact you might find that this vision -- of a healthy clean future for all of human civilization -- might be crucial to the future of nuclear power. As you've probably seen me talking about (endlessly) on this blog, I think we are at an important turning point for the human race. China and India between them are attemping to raise their 2 billion citizens, 1/3rd of the human race from poverty to dignity in the next few decades. That is an awesome moral crusade for the human race. Nuclear power could be the keystone of that effort, just as the Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric project of the 1930's was the keystone of the Rural Electrification projects of that time in the US.

Nuclear power could be seen as a symbol of an amazing future for human civilization. Nuclear power and Wind and Solar, as partners, could be even better. The question, what leader will step up to deliver this vision to the waiting public?

6. Nuclear Engineers Might be Too Cynical and Dry. Time to Spice it Up?

Many nuclear engineers are uncomfortable with this kind of talk. I don't blame them. Let's face it, it sounds like hype, and the nuclear industry got severly burned by this kind of hype in the 60s. Nuclear industry people prefer to be quiet and behind-the-scenes. They just want to build some reactors, get them licensed, start generating, and turn their reactors into enormous cash cows. Not a bad plan at all.

But you still have to have vision, because the public needs it. Dry, purely functional engineering just isn't quite enough in today's world. You need some flair, and some vision, and some sex appeal. If for no other reason, you need a little sex appeal if you want to attract students into your nuclear engineering degree programs, and develop your nuclear workforce.

7. In Conclusion.

So just like anything in life, there is a balance that needs to be struck. In this case the balance will lie between "build what you have now" and "plan new visions for the future". Hopefully the Bush administration and whatever administration takes power in 2008 will be able to make this balance.


At 8:38 AM, Blogger Rod Adams said...


Interesting thoughts. Perhaps even in the 1970s there were not enough nukes that were willing to do the marketing.

Many engineers that I know hate to repeat themselves; they think that people should "get it" on the first try. They tend to ignore the proven success of advertising - repetition works.

Engineers also are quite trusting - they are truthful themselves and project that to others. They do not understand that there might be hidden motives behind some people's statements about nuclear power.

At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Doug said...

The vision of a non-fossil-powered future is compelling. The trick is to get the environmental lobby organizations to stop playing into the hands of the fossil fuel industries. Their response to practically any proposal for a new power plant is that conservation measures would be more cost-effective. They're probably right, but people rarely call them on the issue that you can't conserve your way to zero. If pressed, they fall back to renewables like solar and wind. Also good ideas, but once again, no one ever calls them on the fact that these sources cannot provide baseload power, and banking of power from intermittent sources is not a solved problem. Their tactics and arguments are effective because they make sense at the margin, i.e. versus an expansion off of the existing base. They need to be made to talk about the fact that the base is fossil-powered. Environmentalists know that conservation and renewables can't do the job. They know that they'll lose the unthinking support of the public once the rolling blackouts start, so they've grudingly allowed more gas-fired plants to be built here in California. Guess what? Gas is another fossil fuel that will start to deplete in a few decades. It's also far too versatile and useful for other purposes to waste it generating electricity. Ultimately the environmental lobby will have to fall back into the arms of one of their current devils, the nuclear industry, or the coal industry. Aside from the global warming implications and the unsolved problem of sequestration, coal is yet another fossil resource that will eventually start to deplete. Then what? We should certainly accept the need for increased energy efficiency and greater exploitation of wind and, if the costs can be reduced, solar. But we should look ahead to the exhaustion of these strategies and start now to build nuclear power plants with proven designs. In parallel with this we can continue research on technologies for banking power from intermittent sources, breeder reactors, and fusion reactors. We need to shift as much of our transportation needs as possible to the electrical grid with plug-in vehicles, and try to meet the rest with both biofuels and, if necessary, with coal. We should save as much coal as possible to serve as a feedstock for chemical and steel industries. So, which 2008 presidential candidate is going to champion this vision?


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