Business/Finance

The Weekly Carboholic: Distributed nuclear a cheaper nuclear solution?

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It’s been just over a year since I launched the Weekly Carboholic in late 2008, and I had grand plans to write up something special to mark the anniversary and the new year. Instead I took three weeks off from writing the Carbo and dumped my time into writing about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal ash sludge spill. But we’re back as of this week, although we may be a little hit-and-miss through February.

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Distributed nuclear “batteries” a solution for expensive nuclear?

Nuclear power is expensive, with a new birth-to-death analysis suggesting 20-30 cents per kWh – 10x what the nuclear industry has claimed previously. But does it have to be that way? Is there no way to eliminate the risks of proliferation, reduce nuclear waste, and make the plant safe from terrorism and meltdown, all while making the reactor cheaply? It turns out that there just might be.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Hyperion Power Generation (HPG) has commercialized a nuclear “battery” that runs of low grade, proliferation-proof uranium hydride fuel that can’t melt down, that produces enough electricity for 20,000 homes, and is small enough that it can be sealed at the factory and then shipped on a big truck to it’s operational site. And because it’s buried underground, it’s relatively terrorism proof and doesn’t need a thick, heavy containment vessel.

And the Chronicle reports that HPG has 100 orders already, at only about $30 million each, for use mostly in Canada for extracting oil from tar sands.

The economics of nuclear power in a mass-production model like what HPG has proposed are radically better – France and Japan have relatively inexpensive and reliable nuclear reactors precisely becuase they developed a couple of standardized designs and then deployed them widely, working out the bugs in the process. HPG will have the opportunity to do the same here assuming that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants the necessary permits.

While the development of a small commercial nuclear energy supply is new, the technology that HPG has used is 50 years old and has been proven safe. That said, the problems of the uranium supply, fuel refining, and waste disposal and/or reprocessing remain. And until those problems are solved, it’ll be hard to know what the full lifecycle cost of these nuclear “batteries” are.

But for the first time in several years, I’m actually reasonably upbeat about a nuclear power technology.

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A brief TVA sludge spill update

According to both the Nashville Tennessean and the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the holding pond for the ash sludge had problems that went back decades. From the Tennessean article:

A Dec. 22, 2003, report listed several repair alternatives, including converting to a dry ash collection system, a liner over the entire landfill, a vibrating beam cutoff wall and a new dredge cell.

A dry collection system — a method that is more labor intensive — is considered more environmentally safe for waterways and groundwater than the wet method. It also was the most expensive fix at $25 million, according to the TVA report. The liner installation was estimated at $5 million, but TVA noted that it would set “a precedence for all other dredge cells” and “take a long time to construct.”

In other words, the expensive options might make the TVA have to install liners at other power plants, so the TVA made a business decision not to install liners (which are required on standard landfills and mining ponds, and will likely be required of ash pits sometime in 2008). Given the clean up costs from this disaster, TVA’s cost-benefit analysis was apparently a bit flawed this time.

And from the News-Sentinel:

The pool’s walls, called dikes by the agency, are made of bottom ash that is sculpted and landscaped to prevent erosion.

Over the past five years, the dikes have been prone to leaking except when repairs were being made, according to the report.

As a result of TVA, the Charleston Gazette reports that West Virginia Congressman Nick J. Rahall, Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, plans to close a loophole in existing federal law that permits power-plant dams to avoid regulations designed to prevent blowouts (like what happened in Tennessee) at pre-combustion coal slurry impoundments.

Photojournalist Antrim Caskey has a story at AlterNet that focuses on the residents who are affected by the sludge slide more than most stories have to date – the house that was destroyed just after 3.5 years of extensive work, the man who leapt out of his bed and kicked out a window to escape his home and who suffers from insomnia now – and a truly amazing slideshow of photos taken around the area at the bottom of page two.

And for those of you who aren’t in Tennessee but who live reasonably close to a coal plant or know people who do, Environmental Health News has a list of over 100 news stories from around the country, a significant number of which are regional papers reporting on the risk of similar collapses in their communities. And the Society of Environmental Journalists has a tips on how to track down what’s happening with coal ash in your communities here. (disclosure – I’m a member of SEJ)

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New definition of seawater to improve ocean modeling

Most people don’t think about water since it’s so common, but water is not all the same. Lots of people don’t like to drink their tap water because of its taste, and we don’t put fish into swimming pools without expecting them to die in short order from the chlorine. And of course there’s saltwater and freshwater. But as with different varieties of freshwater, there’s different varieties of ocean water too.

But until now, climate models have assumed that all sea water is the same, and so the new effort to define seawater around the Earth is expected to improve the accuracy of climate and ocean models. The issue is that differences in mineral content, salinity, density, and temperature all affect how the ocean reacts to, and drives, changes in weather patterns, climate variations over years or decades, ocean current circulation, etc. And so the need for more accurate models has driven oceanographers to take another look at seawater.

deepcurrents

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UK MET Office expects warmer 2009, more record temperatures starting in 2010

There are a only three or four sources of global temperature data, and the one with the longest record is the Met Office of the UK combined with the University of East Anglia. And the Met Office is predicting that 2009 will be the warmest year since 2005 even though La Nina conditions – which usually cool the entire planet somewhat – are persisting in the eastern Pacific. Not only that, but Reuters reports that Met Office researchers expect that after 2009 the record global temperature set in 1998 (in the Met record – NASA and NOAA have 2007 as the hotest on record) will be exceeded.

So much for global cooling….

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Food pests expected to thrive in warmer climate

potato plantA warmer world with more carbon dioxide will produce more plant growth, but at reduced nutritional value for staple crops like potatoes, rice, and corn. In other words, more plant mass but less food, and as a result no less starvation. A new study reported in Planet Ark makes the picture even bleaker – a warmer world will favor crop pests that eat staple food crops like corn.

The researcher’s methodology was simple – estimate the number of winter days cold enough to kill pest insect eggs and larva and the number of days warm enough to allow the pests to grow and eat and compare that to today’s weather and crop losses. And the result of warmer winters means more pests and so more crop losses.

The key paragraph is this one, although you might not realize it:

For example, temperatures in Iowa, the top US corn producing state, were suitable for corn earworm survival in zero to three years of every 24 years in the 20th Century. But in the 21st Century, that frequency was projected to increase to one to seven out of every 24 years.

“Zero to three years” out of every 24 years means that there were some 24-year periods where the corn earworm didn’t affect corn crops at all. But the estimates of “one to seven years” means that there will be no periods in the 21st century when temperatures are low enough to keep the corn earworm from damaging crops. None. And there will be some periods where there could be over twice the damage to corn crops than was seen in the 20th century. That’s a huge deal, given that the article points out that corn earworms destroy 2% of the corn crop in the U.S.

2% from this pest alone – when there some periods when there was no loss at all from this pest – will more than double the losses when there are no periods without loss from the corn earworm. And that’ll either require lower corn use or more land cleared for corn farming. Given the damage to the Gulf of Mexico that corn cultivation causes, neither is a great solution.

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Climate to impact port of New Orleans

An article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that sea level rise driven by climate disruption is expected dramatically affect the port of New Orleans. It’s part of a large series that is and excellent and in-depth exploration of how subsiding land and a rising Gulf of Mexico will stick the state of Loiusiana, and the city of New Orleans, between a rock and a hard place, metaphoricaly speaking. But what grabbed my attention in this piece was that it’s talking about how the port will be affected – raising the port more than it has been already may be required, roads that are presently on land may become bridges, and so on. And the costs for all that work is likely going to be in the billions of dollars just for the port of New Orleans.

And while it’s true that most other ports around the world don’t have to deal with a river delta that’s slowly sinking into the ocean, there are still 189 U.S. ports in this Wikipedia list, far more than that in this list, and even more here. Lowballing the cost to upgrade each one to handle sea level rise at only $1 billion will still add up to a global total of trillions of dollars.

Image credits:
Hyperion Power Generation
Capital Regional District, Vancouver, Canada

3 replies »

  1. I like the Hyperion project, but probably because i’m a fan of decentralization more than being a fan of nuclear. But with a lifespan of 5″+” years, i wonder how much sense it will really make at $30M/reactor. One of those might be able to power my whole city, but i doubt that we’d be able to raise the funds to replace it every five years.

    As unglamorous as the subject is, we will need to start thinking/talking about agriculture in the near term if we hope to avoid serious problems in the medium to long term. But Monsanto would tell us that the corn ear worm is nothing to worry about, because they developed the Bt, GM corn. My guess is that if we don’t talk about agriculture, the solutions will all be of that type.

  2. Good point on the cost thing, although the Hyperion site makes it abundantly clear that it’s not targeted at commercial/residential uses (even though everyone converts the electricity output to “houses powered”, including me) – they’re targeting high energy-use industrial customers, and such customers might find paying $30 million for a 20 MW transportable, pre-fab power plant that doesn’t need hundreds of miles of power lines or a year to build a bargain.

    While I’m not inherently opposed to GM foods (people have been modifying the genes of organisms for millenia via selective breeding, after all), I’m not a inherently a booster either. I’d rather not have to go the route of adding fungus DNA to my corn, for example, if we don’t have to, and smarter agricultural practices seems a better place to start.

    You should probably post something yourself about it, Lex, as you’re far more an expert in this stuff than I am.

  3. I’m thinking/working on such a post, Brian, i just keep getting trapped in the thicket of organizing too much information and opinion.

    I don’t think that most people realize, when discussing climate change, just how much a small change might be amplified in agriculture. Few people would connect the dots that warmer temperatures might lead to more crop pests which will lead to smaller harvests.
    Even fewer people are likely to read about agriculture without first seeing those connections; after all, food comes from the grocery store.

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