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Asking the Wrong Question on the Left Coast

In an interview with Steve Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley Livermore Lab, Michael Kanellos of CNet makes a common mistake about projected new nuclear build:
Nuclear fission, or traditional nuclear energy, can't be an easy way out of burning fossil fuels either. To go all nuclear, the world would need enough nuclear plants to provide 3 terawatts of energy. "We'd have to build a gigawatt reactor every week for fifty years," he noted.
I love this line of thinking: Since we can't build enough nuclear power plants to supply all of the world's energy needs, we shouldn't build any at all.

Nobody in business or government is proposing supplying all of our future electricity needs with nuclear energy. All we are saying, and it looks like we're going to have to keep saying it, is that nuclear has to be on the table. And in fact, if we kept nuclear energy's share of American electricity generation at 20%, we could go a long way toward reducing carbon emissions, supporting energy price stability, and doing it all with a fuel source that comes from countries we can trust like Canada and Australia.

In a way, Kanellos is casting the issue in the same manner a lot of tech journalists wrote about broadband Internet access back in the 1990s. We saw millions of pixels wasted over questions about whether cable, DSL, fiber or satellite would dominate the marketplace, when in fact a combination of all of these had a role to play.

And that's the case with energy too. When it comes to electrical generation, we're going to need all the nuclear, coal, natural gas, hydropower and renewables we can get our hands on. The increase in electricity demand is simply going to be too high (projected by the DOE to increase 45% by 2030) for us to take any one option off the table.

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Anonymous said…
Your point is well-taken. But what about the assumption that demand must grow? Isn't demand-side management an option that should be on the table as well?
Eric McErlain said…
Fine with me, just as long as we don't fool ourselves into thinking demand side management can do it alone.
Ken said…
The neat thing about this whole equation is that if you believe the Amory Lovins theory that we can drastically reduce energy use through conservation, then it is very feasible to replace almost all coal plants with nuclear and the whole CO2 issue goes away. As has been established renewables alone can't do it economically because of availability limitations so you need a mix of traditional baseload (nuclear) and renewables. I could never understand why Lovins has never managed to close the loop on his theory.
Anonymous said…
Why not? According to that same CNET post California has managed to hold demand steady and if we switch our lights for compact fluorescents, incorporate green building designs in future construction and generally do a better job limiting our need for electricity, can't we minimize the need for new plants? I realize there is no particular economic incentive for those who sell power to do this but surely the right policy framework can encourage it, just as it can encourage building more power plants. In that case, we might only need to replace the nukes we already have, not build a vast new fleet.
mike said…
I agree with your point. Nuclear is an essential transitional technology towards renewable energy - if indeed 100% renewable is even possible.

Anyway, I've made some comments on the current Australian Nuclear Debate at my blog, I'd love some contributions:
Jim Hopf said…
Getting back to the original blog entry:

Even better than the assumption that nuclear has to do it all ("or else why bother") is the fact that while everyone blathers about how "impossible" it would be to build one nuke a week, they never even mention or discuss the fact that under the current (business as usual) plan, more than one 1 GW of fossil plant per week is called for.

Apparently, building a nuke a week is next to impossible, but building a coal plant per week is so "easy" that it doesn't even merit discussion. BTW, didn't the world actually build ~400 GW of nuclear capacity in a ~15 year period in the '70s and '80s? That's a plant every two weeks, and world GNP was much ower then.

As the number of plants ordered increases, we get MORE able to build them, as the costs would come down and nuclear would get more competative. Someone may actually have the bright idea of setting up an assembly line. Lower cost, higher quality.
Jim Hopf said…

I agree that it may be possible to hold the rate of increase in demand to very low levels.

After doing the above, yes, one idea would be to hold CA's generation mix roughly constant, and not order any new nukes (note that the existing ones will not be shutting down until ~2040).

But an even better idea would be to build a few nukes, along with some renewables, in order to reduce CA's extremely expensive and unwise dependence (~50%) on natural gas for power generation.

In the future, CA (and the US) will have to import a large fraction of its gas from places like the Middle East, and gas-fired power plants are most of the reason. The list of reasons why this (using foreign gas to power baseload power plants) it a bad idea is too long to go into here....

Your main point is right though. Reducing the rate of demand growth is definitely a good thing, as it greatly reduces the number of new power plants (of any type) that will be required, and it does so in a "domestic", pollution free manner.
Rod Adams said…
One thing that seems to be lost in the discussion about how successful California's demand management has been is the fact that part of the success has been achieved by shutting down energy intensive industries in the state and importing finished products instead.

When was the last chip fabrication plant built in CA? How about the last aircraft or automobile assembly plant, the last rocket factory, or the last major juice processing plant?

Of course it is possible to limit the rate of demand increase in a particular state that has higher than average energy costs. The energy expended in other states or countries to supply the finished products no longer counts against California's energy demand.

The paychecks no longer contribute to its Gross State Product either
Eric McErlain said…
Thanks, Rod. And that's exactly when demand side management can't work alone.
Kirk Sorensen said…
I love the "reactor-a-week" argument...because I think it can be done! Not by LWRs of course--they're much to big and capital intensive, but a liquid-fluoride reactor coupled to a closed-cycle helium gas turbine is a much more compact affair. The reactor itself is very power-dense and does not need a large containment because it operates at essentially ambient pressure and there's no water in the vessel to flash to steam. The power conversion system is much much more compact than the steam turbine of an LWR as well, because by choosing a closed-cycle we can vary both pressure ratio and initial pressure to achieve nearly any size of turbomachinery desired (within limits of course). I think we could build these reactors in a factory on an assembly line, at a rate of at least once a week. You just can't build big 10m steel vessels with 9-inch-thick walls that way. Plus the LFR could be much, much safer than an LWR, since it has a very strong negative temperature coefficient and a completely passive approach to decay heat removal that works even if the plant sustains severe, even intentional damage. Learn more at:
gunter said…
The issue here, gentlemen, is spending in construction costs about $3 billion to $6 billion a week in construction for the several decades.

Aint gonna happen.
Brian Mays said…
Mr. Gunter ... you never took an economics class, did you?

To label something as a week's expenditure for an asset that will last 60 or more years? Well, it make me question every other number you have "contributed" to this blog.

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