Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Hyperion and LFTR: Charles Barton at Nuclear Green Discusses Small, Factory Built Nuclear Reactors

Charles Barton at Nuclear Green discusses the advantages and costs of small, factory-built, sealed nuclear reactors. These plants, such as the Hyperion slated to be installed in Galena, Alaska, which uses conventional nuclear fuel but with a technology vastly different from that of conventional large light-water reactors; and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, a technology that India is aggressively developing and whose fuel, thorium, is much more plentiful than uranium and utilizes a much safer, cleaner technology that results in steeply reduced levels of "waste".

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

There's No Such A Thing as Nuclear Waste

One of the larger concerns surrounding nuclear power is the management of the byproducts of fission, popularly known as "waste". As matters stand at the moment, the Yucca Mountain repository is on hold, and further development of nuclear power could be curtailed until a "solution" is found.

Only in a society accustomed to plentiful resources would these materials be considered "waste". France and other chronically resource-short nations recycle fuel, and only a relative abundance of fissionable uranium here in the U.S. makes it possible for us to take such a cavalier attitude toward the 56,000 tons of material residing in containment pools at reactor sites all over the country. Aside from the considerable amount of uranium left behind that can be recycled into fresh nuclear fuel, fission byproducts contain dozens of isotopes that are valuable in many other applications, and include some of the "rare minerals" that we now depend upon China for and that are indispensable in the manufacture of electronic devices, as well as in many other industrial processes.

Kirk Sorensen at Energy From Thorium  writes of the large variety of isotopes produced by fission, and the characteristics and uses for these materials, some of which are rare minerals of the sort that China is now restricting access to. This chart, from the blog, describes them:

As China restricts its exports of these minerals and as the demand for nuclear fuel increases steeply, we will desperately need the fission leftovers and the materials they contain. 30 conventional Generation III reactors are currently in the planning stages here in the U.S., and dozens more are being planned around the world. At current rates of consumption, our estimated supplies of fissionable uranium are sufficient to supply us for only 100 years, which means, of course, that if consumption ramps up steeply, it could become extremely scarce and expensive within a couple of decades. If we want to have regular, cheap, on-demand electricity decades from now, we will have to make use of every material that can provide it, including the most controversial element, plutonium, certain isotopes of which can be blended with uranium to fuel reactors. 

The Unites States is not only fallen far behind the curve technologically, but has a stunning disregard for proper resource management, mainly because we have not experienced genuine scarcity of necessities and essential resources within the lifetimes of most people alive now, and essential resources are still very cheap here relative to their prices other nations. At this time, it is still cheaper to mine uranium than it is to recycle spent fuel, but this state won't last forever, and could end very quickly and just might in another decade or less, as rapidly developing nations containing a billion or more people command more and more of the world's remaining resources, especially fissionable minerals, as well as oil and coal.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Role of Government Intervention in the Financial Collapse

In his Wall Stree Journal article, Three Decades of Subsidized Risk, Charles Gasparino discusses the indispensible role our government played in the creation of the tower of unrepayable debt whose unvelling caused the financial collapse of September 2008. 

Those of us who remember the asset bubbles, and resulting financial disasters, of the 80s and 90s also remember the government bailouts of first the S&Ls and then of a major hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management. Our perception was that an immense moral hazard had been created thereby. Simply put, our government made it clear at that time that it would never fail to backstop any risk with taxpayers funds, no matter what the amount, and when all meaningful controls were removed with the repeal of Glass-Steagal, it was only a matter of time before the combination of extremely easy money borrowed at ridiculously low interest from the government, in combination with implied government guarantees of bailouts and the removal of all reasonable controls to blow up the biggest bubble of debt ever to exist.

However, the government role in creating debt and inflating asset values began long before. The Roosevelt administration's "solution" for rapidly-deflating asset values in the aftermath of the 1929 and 1933 crashes was to create a network of government agencies whose purpose was to guarantee home loans that otherwise would be unworkable, by the creation of the FHA and the GSEs such as Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Ginnie Mae. Before the creation of these agencies, and in the decades prior to the Great Depression, down payments of 50% were often required, and no more than a third of the homes in the U.S. were mortgaged.

Since the 1930s, government-backed home lending, the mortgage-interest tax deduction, and numerous other federally and locally subsidized incentives for home ownership have generated enormous over-investment in housing, just as other massive federal programs have provided massive incentives for the development of suburban sprawl and universal auto ownership, and ultimately the emptying of our cities into suburbs, and the depopulation of the fertile, moist Midwestern states in favor of desert states that would never support their current swollen populations were it not for massive imputs of tax funds drawn from older, established cities in conjunction with federal agencies with almost unlimited power to allocate those funds into the pharoanic infrastructure projects we will be most unlikely to be able to maintain in the capital-and-energy deprived years before us.

A rollback and eventual termination of government-sponsored lending and housing "affordability" programs , and most of all a steep reduction in the government's role in directing our economy, would likely result not only in a sounder financial system, with lending based on the borrower's ability to pay, but would also give us more truly affordable houses. Without these incentives and guarantees, it is likely that housing prices would fall much further and that it might once again be rewarding to be a landlord. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why We Need the Liquid Thorium Reactor

The Daily Kos once published a great post, Why We Need the Liquid Thorium Reactor, which supplies an easily-understood explanation for a complex technology that is becoming extremely important in the nuclear industry. It's recommended reading for those who don't have the patience to wade through the more technical nuclear blogs I link to on my blogroll.

For those who want to explore the subject in more depth, Charles Barton at Nuclear Green , and Kirk Sorensen  and Charles Barton together at Energy From Thorium discuss the LFTR technology as well as other newer nuclear technologies and "renewable" technologies, in great detail on these two blogs, which are considered by other scientists and technicians to be among the richest sources of energy information on the web.

The United States, now a technological laggard, is planning only Generation III light water reactors, which, while being vast improvements on older nuclear technologies in terms of safety, efficiency, and cost, are still tremendously expensive and inflexible. Current industry players here in the United States tend to be dismissive of the thorium technologies, as I discovered when I attended a "dog and pony" show for a uranium mining stock recently and, when I inquired of its CEO if there were plans to mine thorium, he was downright defensive (it seemed to me) and said that the thorium technology would never be developed and had no potential. I could see from his reaction that I'd hit a nerve, for thorium is vastly more plentiful than uranium 235 and would probably render his struggling little uranium mining operation superfluous. Meanwhile, other countries are not waiting for the United States to put its stamp of approval on the most promising energy technology since the first controlled nuclear chain reaction here in Chicago nearly 70 years ago, but are forging ahead and aggressively developing thorium nuclear power, with us or without us. India has been unable to trade in conventional nuclear fuel because of its exclusion from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and therefore has a much greater incentive to develop new technologies that do not require it, and is aggressively developing thorium technology to exploit its indigenous reserves of thorium. Not surprisingly, India has become the front-runner in the development of the LFTR and intends to supply 25% of its electricity by this technology by 2050.

The LFTR technology makes for an intrinsically much safer, cleaner and cheaper reactor that extends the fuel cycle almost into infinity, is much more "scalable" in that the units are smaller, for power plants that can consist of one small reactor for a small town, or clustered together as need dictates. The units are built at the factory and transported sealed by truck and rail to the site, and there can be either buried for greater security or, as some technicians suggest, installed in decommissioned coal-fired plants.

The United States, like other formerly successful countries, is pouring the last of its wealth and resources into the rearguard effort to sustain old, obsolete, and unsustainable industries while spurning developments that could considerably offset the depletion of fossil fuel supplies, supply much cleaner energy and far greater quantities of it, and replace our dying old industries as the drivers of economic growth, with new, growing industries supplying the goods, services, jobs, and wealth we will need in the future. Our regulatory agencies and our ossified utilities with their protected monopolies are years behind the curve in knowledge and development of new technologies.

Instead of shoveling evermore money and effort at shoring up the dying auto and suburban-house-building industries, we need to remove the obstructions to new technologies and new industries, and most of all rediscover the sense of purpose and forward motion that made this country, 100 years ago, the greatest industrial powerhouse the world had ever seen and gave us the prosperity and unparalleled comfort and amenity that we now seem to think are God-given entitlements.  The revival of the nuclear power industry and the development of new nuclear technologies could be the start of the development of a new industrial economy that is sustainable for many decades into the future and could make it possible for our swelling population to make a living and enjoy a reasonable level of comfort and amenity in a time of dwindling resources and heated competition for remaining supplies of liquid fuels.