Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Are nukes our energy answer? Are they any answer at all?

Nuclear energy, to some observers, is the obvious answer to the high cost of electricity and our community's vulnerability to oil supply disruptions.

(Image: The hull of the Russian floating nuclear plant, now under construction, the Akademik Lomonosov. Credit: Rosenergoatom)

Some have argued that nuclear energy is appropriate, that it's readily available, and that it's cheap.

For anyone who does a minimal amount of research, it seems clear that for small communities like Kauai, nuclear energy is none of those things, even ignoring the elephant in the room: the debate over safety and radioactive waste disposal.

First, it remains unconstitutional in Hawai'i to build a nuclear plant. (Here's the actual language from the state Constitution: “No nuclear fission power plant shall be constructed or radioactive material disposed of in the State without the prior approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature.”)

Second, there is not available for purchase today a small (less than 100 megawatts) utility-configured nuclear plant. It's the Holy Grail of energy, and lots of companies are planning or designing them, but right now, you can't buy one, anywhere. (See this article in The Economist, and this article in the Wall Street Journal: )

Third, if there were one for purchase, it wouldn't be cheap. At a minimum, a plant twice the size of Kaua'i's entire grid is estimated to cost $5,000 per kilowatt to build, and that plant has not yet been built anywhere in the world, or even gone through permitting. (See the WSJ article above.) Other estimates have suggested a price that is multiples of that number.

There is a new international initiative to simply move nuclear power offshore. Russia is building a barge-mounted floating nuclear plant of 75 megawatts, the Akademik Lomonosov, which uses Russian maritime nuclear reactors. And we have previously written about the French proposal to put a nuclear plant on the ocean floor.

At a recent utility conference I attended, supporters of nuclear energy estimated permitting alone for a new nuclear plant in the United States could take 15 years. That's 2026 if we started right now.

Our energy needs are more pressing than that. Talking about nuclear in Hawai`i at this time is little more than a distraction.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010


Anonymous said...

There is an excellent book, "Power To Save The World", by Gwyneth Cravens, Vintage Books, 2007, that explains the entire nuclear energy process and its history. In this thoroughly researched book, Ms. Cravens explains the origin of the excessive fears of Nuclear Energy, and gives much recent information about newer reactor designs that use present stockpiles of nuclear waste as fuel. She also explains how modern reactor design prevents the manufacture of weapons grade material. She explains how modern reactors can produce more fuel from the immense amounts of U238 and Thorium that exist, giving a global energy source that will last a very long time.

Newer small modular reactor designs now exist that can provide power even for remote villages for many years, and operate automatically. After many years of service, the core is exchanged and is reprocessed at a central facility.

Modern Nuclear Power is indeed a safe and practical solution to the needs of Hawaii and the rest of the world, and needs to be recognized as such. All approval and regulatory procedures need to be revised to take advantage of the new developments in safety and reliability as soon as possible. We need to become familiar with the information discovered by Ms Cravens during her research.

This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to be informed about Nuclear Energy, and for all of us who want to preserve the planet for the future generations. I know there are many individuals who fervently oppose Nuclear Energy. I used to be one of them. I had studied Physics and thought my objections were founded on logic and a correct analysis. However, after reading this book, and verifying many of the points by doing my own research, I have turned 180 degrees. I now support Nuclear Energy wholeheartedly.

Nuclear energy is the quickest way available to reduce and eliminate our use of fossil fuels of all kinds. It will provide clean power for a long time, and will allow the time needed for the development of other forms of green energy in ways that do not compete with food agriculture and forest preservation.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you; nuclear is not a solution, let alone for our small chain of islands. The only real advocates for nuclear energy are either people talking about nuclear technology that hasn't been developed yet, or the corporations who stand to make billions in subsidies to run their inefficient behemoths and poison us all.

Many individuals in Hawaii are already producing their own solar and wind power; that is much quicker than speculative technology that would be ready in decades if it could be moved from theoretical space at all.