Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Future Will Save The Present

I suspected that Karl was a cornucopian and an unabashed worshiper of technology, and he's proved it with a recent post, 'The Sort of Decoupling You don't Want'.

He made a number of statements that I disagree with on various levels. But what really caught my eye, was this one...

"It is also a fact that nuclear fission can be entirely fuel-cycle neutral, as we proved the technical ability to run breeder reactors in the 1960s."

And he's almost right. Except it's not fuel-cycle neutral. That implies that a fixed mass can produce infinite energy. When I asked him if this is what he meant, he didn't answer, he kicked me from the forum.

Now I'm aware that breeder reactors can coax energy out of materials that won't sustain fusion on their own. But this is still energy in a high potential state. When the neutrons are knocked out, and the atom is split, we have material at a lower energy state. We have extracted energy out of the system. To keep this going, we must provide a steady supply of neutrons from U-238, plutonium or some other source, and we have to provide the feedstock that the energy is being extracted from. Though some of this reaction appears to run uphill. The net reaction is tending to entropy.

This reaction does require that you add fuel. It is not 'fuel-cycle neutral'. There is no free lunch. you don't get something for nothing.

One poster made a long technical comment, I'll post a couple of choice lines.

"If it takes a million years to get fusion up and running cost effectively, then so what? With breeder reactors you can do that standing on your head."

"ETA: Also keep in mind that we don't strictly need breeder reactors for quite some time, there's plenty of uranium if you are willing to go up to say $10 per barrel of oil equivalent which is ~$500/lb of yellowcake uranium."

Karl commented, "(Oh my God, someone gets it!)"

Except, that they don't. No one has gotten a commercial breeder reactor to work yet. And folks with deep pockets have tried. Maybe one day, someone will prove that a commercial breeder reactor can be profitable and safe, but for now, I'm asking, 'Show Me The Money'. If these things could be proven out, you can bet that GE would be building them. They like money. They like to build things that make money. They like to earn profits. If these things could be built for a profit and generate cash flow, they'd build them.

Waving your hand and saying that it's easy to do, ignores the problem that it's actually hard to do. The hand waving doesn't make it easy.

And the yellow cake comment? That's a demonstration of ignorance. Now I know that most people don't know what Yellow Cake Uranium is, and that's fine. But when someone writes something technical, pretends to be an expert, and uses this argument to back it up, they are just advertising to the world, their ignorance.

Let's use the current Wikipedia Definition, it's a good one for this purpose...

Yellowcake (also called urania) is a kind of uranium concentrate obtained from leach solutions, in an intermediate step in the processing of uranium ores. Yellowcake concentrates are prepared by various extraction and refining methods, depending on the types of ores. Typically yellowcakes are obtained through the milling and chemical processing of uranium ore forming a coarse powder which is insoluble in water and contains about 80% uranium oxide, which melts at approximately 2878 °C. Although uranium is one of the densest metals on Earth, yellowcake is relatively light, with a density approximately that of elemental sulfur.

Our intrepid commentator has implied that Yellowcake costs $10 per 500lbs and that it's ready to use as fuel. I would bet that if pressed on it, the person would clarify the statement and it would lose it's argumentative value. Because it's bullshit. Yet, it's bullshit that Karl agrees with.

The yellowcake is not ready to use. It requires additional processing to produce uranium hexafluoride gas or other 'pure' compounds that can then be used in centrifuges or other technologies to separate the isotopes, and concentrate the more radioactive forms of uranium. then this must be chemically processed again, to produce Uranium Oxide for use in fuel rods.

The yellowcake is the first easy, and relatively low energy step. The additional steps are where the expense and high energy inputs come in.

The commentator appears to be making the argument that fuel rods can be manufactured for $10 per 500 pounds. This is a falsehood.

In fact we may not actually be able to determine the true costs from where we sit. Much of the processing is subsidized by the weapons industry. Our civilian nuclear plants are a byproduct of our war machine. Without subsidies, none of our civilian nuclear power plants would even turn a profit.

As a specific example, when the Commanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in my area went live, electrical rates were doubled overnight. This was blamed on the fact that it there were protesters driving up costs. It seems it costs more to hire security guards than it does to build a nuclear power plant. I knew a lot of folks at the time who honestly believe that it costs hundreds of millions of dollars (1970s) to hire security guards. They believed that this was the source of cost overruns, and why the plant cost ten times more to build, than the publically stated estimates.

So after the first big electric bill, there were so many complaints by the City of Fort Worth, corporations doing business there, and residents, that the Federal Government announced they were subsidizing the loan for the plant. TXU essentially got a free nuclear power plant, paid for, by the US taxpayer. After this, electrical rates were reduced to about 20% over the previous rates.

I've posted before the ratio of nukes to US energy consumption. The figure is approximately fifty nukes equals 1% of the energy we get from oil. Now I'm not talking electricity, I'm talking raw BTUs.

So the idea that nukes are gonna save our bacon, leads to some pretty wild math. To offset a 3% decline in oil with a modest 3% growth rate, we need to complete 300 nukes every year.

And this increases the odds that a serious failure will occur. Each nuke will have a low probability of serious failure, but as the number increases, the probability that one of them will have a serious failure, increases.

Consider the simple case of the lottery. Each single ticket has a low probability of winning. But when enough tickets are sold, the probability that one of them will win, becomes high. And the fact that the lottery goes on week after week, guarantees that a ticket will win.

So if we build thousands of nukes and operate them year after year, the probability of a serious failure becomes certain.

This is the risk that Karl is talking about.

There is no such thing as risk-free energy; environmental and health damage from our existing power-production infrastructure in one year dramatically exceeds that of nuclear energy over its entire time on the planet!

And he gets it wrong. His argument works if we don't add more nukes. And is assuming that we find a way to keep future generations from being harmed by the waste we're producing. After all, the fossil fuel waste problems will clear up on a much shorter time scale, than the nuclear waste will, if left to natural processes.

And now I'm going back to that exponents problem. We can't attain infinite consumption on a finite planet. Our need for eternal growth to power capitalism is at it's core, impossible to satisfy. Chasing nukes is merely an attempt to kick the can down the road. Our general willingness to live in a much more polluted environment, in order to chase infinity, simply means that other problems will become more severe as we continue this path.

Our problems are much bigger than trying to figure out how to build thousands of nuclear power plants over the next decade. We are exhausting our food and water supplies. We are killing off our life support systems. and Karl wants to kill the planet faster, to eat polluted food and drink polluted water.

And say we enjoy the prosperity that comes with a more polluted world. Will we be happier with shorter lifespans and more sickness throughout our lives? Is that worth it? I don't think so.

Our quest for infinite growth is destroying our ability to produce food in a sustainable fashion, even as we seek to expand our population. We are on a collision course with the wall of exponents and Karl, who normally gets the exponents problem, is saying we should bring it on.

On my final note, a lot of folks are saying the environmental whackos have stopped progress. As if they are supermen, immune to bullets, able to encase oil industry CEOs in blocks of ice through sheer force of will...

That's just more bullshit. If someone can make money building a nuke plant, they'll build it. The environmental whacko bullshit is for the people who prefer not to engage in critical thinking skills. we don't build more plants because we have enough to satisfy the waste disposal for the US Military's production of nuclear weapons, and because the gov doesn't want to subsidize more plants. They are not a profit center. If China is really building them, it's because their nuclear weapons industry sees a need for them.



The prototype Fermi plant that Karl uses as a counter example, I'll give partial credit for. It provided civilian power, and suffered a partial fuel meltdown. It was shut down in 1972 when it came very close to a second meltdown. I have trouble reconciling this example with his argument that the risks are worth it. I think a an uncontrolled meltdown would've cost more than the value added by the plant.

It still hasn't been fully decommissioned. The monetary costs are too high.

I'm not sure that a plant that costs more to operate than it earns can be considered commercial... and on that note, perhaps no civilian plant really qualifies?

And now that the Gov admits a cover up in the Three Mile Island episode, how can we trust the industry at all? When there's an imminent danger, they lie to us.


At 7:41 AM, Blogger Bukko_in_Australia said...

Weas, the world has gone fecking insane, through the Looking Glass, where any crazy thing can be real, and the simplest things can look impossible. It's as though a virus causing paranoid schizophrenia has been unleashed on the collective psyche. I'm with you on the advice you gave about "keep your head down, do what you need to do to survive and try to help out a few other people along the way."


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