Friday, October 10, 2008

When It Absolutely, Positively Must

In nature, every niche has its creatures and every creature has its niche. From Psalm 104 to Darwin, humans have noted the precise fit between resource and need across all existence. Much of the debate about energy arises from differing views on the needs that are to be served and the fit between those needs and the resources available. Sometimes the needs of a particularly demanding niche help us to see what a resource does, or can do, elsewhere.

This week a news article described the retirement of the Russian ice-breaker Arktika. Lead ship in a class that includes five sister ships, the Arktika is powered by two nuclear reactors that in combination deliver more than 72,000 horsepower to the propellers. The ship entered service in 1975 with a design life of 25 years. According to the article, the ship's life was extended an additional eight years through "engineering knowledge", much as the life of U.S. nuclear plants is being extended through design studies and replacement of critical components.

Nuclear energy is perfectly suited to the needs of an icebreaker, where intense power is needed to drive the ship through the ice, the power source must be extremely reliable, and refueling is often not an option. Nuclear energy also frees the icebreaker's operators from the vagaries and logistics of fossil fuels. Although our land-based electrical grid presents a much less hostile operating environment, it demands power sources that are just as reliable. With the high density of development in our major metropolitan areas, the electrical grid needs similarly dense energy sources that can provide large amounts of power in a small land area. No source is denser than nuclear energy. While refueling needs are less a concern for land-based power plants than for ships, nuclear power plants excel nevertheless, having lengthened the time between required outages and reduced the duration of those outages through the sharing of best practices and pursuit of excellence. Whether you're at sea or on land, when you need intense, reliable power, nuclear energy is indispensable.

1 comment:

Rod Adams said...

Jim - Great commentary. I think you gloss over the challenges posed by refueling for land based power plants, but the overall thought is really on target.

One thing to remember about nuclear fission fuels - they are so dense that a guy with a fairly common backpack weight capacity (about 20 kilos) could carry the energy equivalent of a supertanker!