Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Want cheaper fuel? Go pro nuke.

Nuclear power in the United States has the potential to reduce our carbon production by half. First, by supplanting electricity production. Right now, nuclear power has spent the last thirty years producing about 20% of our power, and hasn't had a single radiologically induced fatality, and very few injuries as a result. There's been only one significant release of radiation, and fast action by the plant owner and the surrounding community quickly saw to it that there was little harm, if any. If we were to increase our nuclear buildout to replace our coal generation industry, we would reduce our carbon production significantly.

There are other targets for nuclear energy. One is to ape the U.S. Navy. They have been running nuclear-powered ships for the last 50 years and have not suffered a radiation release. If we were to enable a move of our commercial fleet of ships to nuclear power, in addition to the gains from electricity, the United States would get an overall carbon reduction by around half.

There is a lot of fear surrounding nuclear power. One is that of coal unions; their opposition to nuclear power is that it eats into Coal's demand budget, thus putting a lot of people out of work. While I don't think that's a convincing argument from an energy perspective, I do think it may have teeth from an economic one. This post is an attempt to provide a path to avoid such job losses.

It is true that a greater dependence on coal for energy budget will reduce the generation demand for coal. If mining companies are smart, they will quickly move into alternate areas of coal consumption.

"Clean" coal
"Clean coal technology" refers to a mix of chemical tricks - the most important one being coal gasification. This is the process of converting coal into a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, called "synthesis gas", or "syngas". While this is a good substitute for natural gas - reducing the need for fracking and oil drilling - there are other uses for syngas.

Further processing via Fischer–Tropsch synthesis yields diesel fuel. You can also convert syngas to methanol - a fine stand in or filler for gasoline. Syngas can be the source for plastics production. Generally, with the demand for electricity covered by nuclear power, coal companies can concentrate on replacing oil. This may not reduce carbon production from the coal industry, but we gain energy security benefits and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Additionally, if we're never burning coal directly, we're not pouring SOx and NOx emissions into the air. If we're mining coal more smartly, using in situ processes - which we can do if we don't need it in solid chunks - we can reduce the water pollution that goes into coal mining.

Unfortunately, this plan does not solve mountaintop removal.

Overall, there are a lot of targets for coal without being our primary production avenue for electricity. The question is: does the coal industry have the wherewithal to eat the lunch of the oil companies?

The primary benefit to consumers, of course, is that without OPEC manipulating prices, there will be a natural reduction in the cost of diesel, gasoline, and natural gas. It's been a while since they had any real competition in the market for these three fuels, and it's about time we gave it to them.

The coal industry will eventually slow to a crawl - that is inevitable - but this path enables a smooth transition while reducing our carbon output. Moving to a syngas-based economy has other migratory advantages. You can also produce syngas via carbon sequestration, Sulfur-Ioidine hydrogen synthesis, and waste heat from high-temperature nuclear plants. You can start building cars that run on electricity, using direct methanol fuel cells, and get much higher efficiencies as a result. Betavoltaics built using Strontium-90 from spent nuclear fuel (present at ~6.5% in U-233 fission, ~6% in U-235 fission, and ~2% in Pu-239 fission) can later be dropped into the same electric vehicles, only requiring a "refueling" (or overall recycling) every 30 years or so.

But replacing coal-based electric consumption and diesel shipping with nuclear power should be our first-order goal as a nation. During that time we should finish development on LFTR and the IFR, so they can be deployed on greater scales.