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Nuclear Energy: More Than Meets the Eye in Agriculture

As many of my readers have probably already surmised, I don't confine my writing and commenting on nuclear issues just to NEI Nuclear Notes. I try to keep an eye on what folks are saying on other blogs, and it's not out of the ordinary for me to shoot an email off to another blogger, or leave a comment where I think it might help.

That also means talking with anti-nukes pretty regularly. Granted, there are plenty of people on the other side of the fence who will never be convinced of the benefits of nuclear energy. Instead, I try to hop into conversation where we might be able to reach folks who either are willing to be persuaded or just haven't made up their minds. And sometimes I just like to clear up some misperceptions, like this comment that I found over at Anthropik:
Nuclear Energy doesn't even provide what civilization will need in the short run (next decade)--FOOD. Modern Agrobusiness, uses massive amounts of petrochemicals to allow depleted soil to produce foodproducts. Having Nuclear powered tractors wouldn't cut it, food production would decrease. No point in having the lights on, computer working, fridge on if you don't have food in the fridge. As it stands much of the food products in the US require Oil even if the energy for equipment could be replaced in short-order with 'alternate' energy sources.


Building Nuclear power plants are Billion dollar ventures, and take a fair amount of time. When it comes down to it, potable water & food in the belly will not come from Nuclear. So if anyone wants to be a techno-optimist, you are again left with 'praying for NanoBots' to turn the world into a Nano-Digital playground where whoever controls the technology can turn carbon monoxide into clean water etc. etc.
We've dealt with the cost question before, but what I was really concerned with was the statements about food and water.

In terms of direct effects, irradiation is a proven and safe method of retarding spoilage and killing bacteria that causes food borne diseases. And if it takes longer for produce to rot, you don't need to grow as much food. As for drinking water, there are already plenty of plans around the world to leverage nuclear energy to desalinate water. Further, because nuclear energy doesn't emit pollution like Mercury, NOx and SOx, it also contributes to keeping our air and water clean too.

But there's another non-obvious benefit, and that's in the area of natural gas supply. As we've said many times, because the U.S. overbuilt natural gas fired electric generating capacity in the 1990s, we've put incredible strain on natural gas supply. And one sector of the American economy that has gotten battered because of this is agriculture:
Testifying before a House Small Business subcommittee, Kruse, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau and a member of the AFBF [American Farm Bureau Federation] Board of Directors, said the United States'’ failed energy policy cost U.S. agriculture more than $6 billion in added expenses during the 2003 and 2004 growing seasons.

Natural gas is especially important to agriculture, Kruse explained, because it is used to produce nitrogen fertilizers and farm chemicals, as well as electricity for lighting, heating, irrigation, and grain drying. Natural gas can account for nearly 95 percent of the cost of nitrogen fertilizer.

"“Between 2000 and 2003, the average retail cost of nitrogen fertilizer skyrocketed from $100 per ton to more than $350 per ton,"” Kruse said.

According to Kruse and Farm Bureau, domestic exploration and recovery of energy resources using sensible, environmentally sound methods must begin immediately. Greater use of renewable energy sources including ethanol and biodiesel also will go a long way toward solving our nation's energy woes, Kruse said.

Farm Bureau also supports incentives for the use of clean coal technology in electric power generation and the use of nuclear energy.
And if we build more nuclear generating capacity, we can take some of that pressure off of the natural gas supply, and give some relief to the agricultural sector. And we haven't really even begun to discuss the use of hydrogen or plug-in hybrids in agricultural applications.

Like I said, there's more here than meets the eye.

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back40 said…

What is it about methane that is useful for ag chemicals? It's the 4 hydrogen atoms of CH4. Methane is the hydrogen source for ag chemicals like NH4 and NH3.

What is needed to do this magic transform of CH4 to NH4 or NH3? Heat and pressure, which is also often generated with CH4 since it is already at the plant.

Perhaps you can use your interest and knowledge of nuclear facilities to imagine how the necessary hydrogen, heat and pressure could be co-generated.

NH3 is not only a fertilizer, it is also a fuel for alkaline fuel cells., and a useful refrigerant - something else of agricultural interest.

If you put your mind to it you could spin an interestiung tale of nuclear benefits to ag.
Starvid, Sweden said…
The Norwegians made fertilizer with hydroelectricity until the 80's when natural gas became more competitive.

As the price of natural gas rises nuclear and renewable fertilizer manufacture will become profitable again.

And even if that doesn't happen due to economics, it should happen anyway. Combustion of fossil fuels is utterly immoral, pure evil.
Jason Godesky said…
I think you've misrepresented the comments on food and water from Anthropik. It wasn't concerning any kind of nuclear pollution, but rather, how nuclear power could replace the petroleum usage that is so essential to the methods of the Green Revolution. Packing a small reactor on the back of a tractor doesn't seem feasible. I pointed out hydrogen cells, but all of this is still very experimental, so counting on it all working out is a long shot, at best.
David Bradish said…
It's not a long shot, it is only a long time, probably 30 years before hydrogen cells are produced on a commercial scale to power cars. Where will the hydrogen come from? Using nuclear plants for electrolysis is where.

Also, nuclear energy powers submarines for the navy and rockets for NASA. Powering a tractor can be feasible. It only takes a few kilograms of nuclear fuel to send a rocket to Pluto. You don't need a reactor.
Jason Godesky said…
And then a fender-bender sets off a nuclear meltdown?

Anyway, our discussion on Anthropik was in light of the idea of "Peak Oil," with mounting evidence that we are currently at Hubbert's Peak. If Peak Oil is going to lead to the collapse of civilization, it will be due to a high depletion rate--something over the next 10-20 years. So, assuming hydrogen cells do work out (and there's no guarantee they will--that's why they're still in development), we're going with the estimate of 30 years before they're economically viable on a global scale? That's still 10 years too late, even if all those aforementioned "if's" turn out just the way you hope--and when has that ever happened before?
Paul Primavera said…

There is a better method to produce hydrogen from water than electrolysis. In the files section of the Safe_Clean_Nuclear_Power Yahoo message board is a PDF document entitled, "Hydrogen Production from Nuclear Energy.pdf". See web page:

< >

Or e-mail me and I can forward it to you.

This document states that while the direct thermolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen requires temperatures in excess of 2500 C (i.e., 4532 F), it also goes on to explain that a thermochemical water splitting process does much the same, but at significantly lower temperatures, i.e., temperatures that can be acheived by a High Temperature Gas Cooled or Liquid Metal Reactor. This process is much more efficient than electrolysis.

The nuclear energy that powers submarines is from PWRs fueled with HEU. These are ill-suited for anything but military purposes.

The Casini probe to Saturn was powered by a Pu-238 RTG. It did NOT have any 'nuclear rocket engines'. In fact, it was launched by a chemical booster. The RTG simply provided on-board electricity. RTGs are also ill-suited for most civilian purposes. However, they are ideal for small power generation in remote locations in hostile environments (e.g., deep water stations, Artic or Antartic stations, deep space, etc.). Nevertheless, while it may only take "a few kilograms of nuclear fuel to send a rocket to Pluto", no nation has ever done this. The Pu-238 fuels an RTG but does NOT send the rocket to Pluto - chemical booster do. Articles on this are posted at:

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However, I encourage the interested reader to embrace space craft nuclear propulsion such as the fully integrated VCR / MHD Vasimr NEP system at:

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Did you know that NRC Chairman Diaz was once the head of INSPI and had worked on ideas such as this in the early 1990s? Read his biography at:

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Paul Primavera said…

The idea of using a small, liquid metal reactor to provide electricity over decades without refuelling is one that Toshiba has offered Galena, Alaska. Kindly read:

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BTW, if you're really worried about what happens when a nuclear powered craft crashes, then kindly e-mail me and I will forward you photos of the USS San Francisco (a 688 class nuclear powered fast attack sub) that crashed into an undersea mountain at a full or flank bell (I forgot which) last year. Yes, the forward main ballast tanks were ruined and yes, one person lost his life and many were injured, but NONE due to any reactor anomaly. As I understand it, the PWR wasn't even affected. It never tripped off line. It ran just fine. Imagine that! Crash at 30+ knots or however fast they where going and your plant STILL runs!
Starvid, Sweden said…
Putting a nuclear reactor in a small vehicle such as a tractor seems really stupid. Sure, ships, but tractors?!

The cost would be prohibitive, with heavy shielding and everything. Not to speak of the awesome proliferation threat. Every farmer would be a potential nuclear weapons power.

On hydrogen fuel cells: don't count on them. They are really expensive, have vast technical challenges and lack any kind of hydrogen distribution infrastructure. Furthermore, their thermodynamical efficiency is really bad. And they are always, like fusion, a few decades away.

Electrolysis 85 % * fuel cell 40 %= 30-35 %

There is an alternative that is cheaper, vastly more thermodynamically efficient, no need for a new distribution system and about ot hit the market in the next years.

Electric cars (efficiency: battery 80 % * electric motor 95 % = 70-80 %.

Except this time they won't have bad range and speed or long recharge times since they won't use lead acid batteries but lithium ion ones.

Mitsubishi will launch a number of electric cars (the "MIEV's") in 2010.

And battery development is going really, really fast at the moment, in differnece to fuel cell development.

"The A123Systems batteries promise up to 10x longer life, 5x power gains and dramatically faster charge time (more than 90% capacity in five minutes) over conventional high-power battery technology."
Jason Godesky said…
Actually, my father was one of the draftsmen who worked on the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, so I spent my childhood surrounded by more than my fair share of information about nuclear-powered subs. It's actually because of that that I can say that there's a big difference between a nuclear submarine, and a nuclear automobile and a nuclear tractor.

The submarine fleet is relatively small. The automobile fleet is ... decidedly not. Getting this technology to scale is going to be a major concern, and scale is one of those deceptive little problems that everybody tends to ignore, and winds up being one of the most significant hurdles any project faces.
Paul Primavera said…

You are correct when you state, "...there's a big difference between a nuclear submarine, and a nuclear automobile and a nuclear tractor."

I don't think fission reactors or RTGs could be used for automobiles or tractors. The associated risks are too high, and there are severe weight to speed penalities (the weight of the shielding for a reactor in an automobile would make it unmoveable, and an RTG simply can't generate enough power). However, a small fission reactor could be used for a rail-road train though it would be better to have base-load fission power plants to supply electricity for electric rail-road trains.

The best solution is to use nuclear energy to produce hydrogen gas to replace petroleum for fueling our transportation vehicles, or to produce boron as Graham Cowan has suggested:

< >
David Bradish said…
I wasn't serious saying that tractors will be powered by nuclear. I know it's pretty far-fetched. My point was that nuclear can and will do more than just provide electricity.
Starvid, Sweden said…
paul primavera:

A much better idea than using nuclear power to make hydrogen for cars is to cut out the middleman and supply electricity directly to the batteries of the car.

* It is cheaper.

* It is simpler.

* The technology is here now, or very soon. No need to wait 20 years.

* It is three times as efficient, and hence you need only 1/3 as many reactors (still you'll need hundreds or thousands for the entire world).
Paul Primavera said…

You may very well be correct. I would recommend reading:

Hyping Hydrogen: The Energy Scam
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The Great Hydrogen Myth
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That's why I also posted a link to Graham Cowan's work on boron as a substitute for petroleum:

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My point is that there are solutions to our fossil fuel addiction that nuclear can help solve. Whether the eventually implemented solution is battery cars, boron or hydrogen fueled cars or some as yet uninvented solution (e.g., flywheel - generator car) I do not know. Sadly, we (both in the US and in Europe) are not working fast enough to replace oil.
Paul Primavera said…
In my previous post, please change:

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< >
Rod Adams said…

There is no need to think about nuclear engines powering tractors in order for nuclear power to significantly help in the effort to power tractors. You do not even have to think about implementing technologies like hydrogen production or even fuel cells.

All we really need to do is to reasonably quickly expand the use of nuclear engines in already proven applications to take markets away from oil and gas.

Certainly, submarine engines use a different technology than do commercial reactors, but that choice is made for reasons that do not affect commercial ships. The NS Savannah, the Otto Hahn, the Mitsu and the Russian icebreakers demonstrate that low enriched uranium can fuel ship sized reactors.

There are thousands of diesel engines operating in the world to supply electricity in places where ship sized nuclear power plants can fit.

There is also a proven way to crack water and combine it with coal to produce a very clean burning diesel fuel using the Fischer-Tropsh process. Nuclear power can make this process more efficient by contributing the heat required for the first stage of the process.

There are lots of ways to use the energy stored in atoms to stretch the available fuel.
Starvid, Sweden said…
I am very positive to nuclear powered ships, but one wonders at what oil price they become profitable?

Just like an oil plant is cheaper than a nuclear plant when oil is cheap, an oil ship will be cheaper than a nuclear ship until the oil price reaches a certain level.

What price level might that be? Any guesstimates?
Paul Primavera said…

I don't know if Rodney answers your question directly at the following links on his web site, but these make for some good material on nuclear powered ships:

Why Did The Savannah Fail?
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Marine Nuclear Propulsion: The Undeniable Facts
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Nuclear Research Ship: Japanese Learn Nuclear Techniques as Sea
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Historical Repetition: Will Nuclear Propulsion Follow Steam Propulsion?
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