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The Nuclear Future
The Story, History and Potential Future Of Nuclear Energy
The Price Of A Greener California
California right now is in a self inflicted moral paradox, due in large part to the short sighted ideological bent of it’s governor — Gavin Newsom.
With a sweltering heatwave slamming the state (something that’s not uncommon for this time of year), Californians are being urged to limit their electrical usage as the over demand due to fan and a/c units is causing state wide brown and blackouts.
This meme sums it up perfectly:
The paradoxically self inflicted part has to do with the comically bad timing of announcing that gas cars will not be sold in California by 2025 while sequentially asking eclectic car owners not to plug their cars in or they’ll crash the power grid.
The fact is, in hyper-progressive governments like Newsom’s California, such a massive push is put on “clean” energy like solar, hydro and wind that they cripple themselves when the need arises that these inadequate fossil fuel alternatives can’t stand up to.
Saagar Enjeti puts it nicely in this tweet:
So now… this gets to the real issue: what about nuclear?
In a recent podcast with guest and restoration ecologist — Josh Nipper — I was surprised and impressed to find that people in the climate change mind space are talking positively about nuclear as a green alternative to fossil fuel energy sources like gas and coal.
If California had more than one dinosaur of a reactor in the entire state, there wouldn’t be the need for energy usage limits or rolling blackouts.
So, lets get into what we know about the good, the bad and the potentially fantastic possibilities for nuclear power sources in the now and not-so-distant future.
As it stands, there are only 440 nuclear energy planets in the entire world. Yet, they account for approximately 10% of all energy production.
In the US, nearly 100 such plants exist. These make up for 20% of all American energy production, and about 55% of all “carbon free” energy!
That last metric is a massive consideration.
All of the wind, solar and hydro power throughout the entire US of A account for less green energy than 100 second generation nuclear power plants.
How Do They Work?
All current nuclear power reactors are based on nuclear fission.
They generally use uranium and its product plutonium as nuclear fuel, though a thorium fuel cycle is also possible. (I’ll touch more on that when we get to the newer technology coming out)
The simplest description of the energy production cycle works is this:
Radioactive uranium-238 is placed into a holding bath
The element boils the water creating steam
The steam is used to turn turbines
The turbines create electricity
The best part of this whole process is that there is no emissions besides water vapor and heat. Both harmlessly dissipate into the air creating a carbon neutral energy cycle with a significantly higher energy yield than solar or wind.
Feel free to go as deep as you’d like on this Wikipedia link.
What about the cost, maintenance and waste?
Those are some great questions! I’m so glad you asked.
The cost to build a new generation II (the most common kind of nuclear plant) facility is a back breaking 10 billion dollars each. That price tag alone makes even fiscally irresponsible politicians give a double take.
On top of that, they are costly to keep up and operate.
Because of those two monetary considerations, the cost to the end user for an equivalent amount of energy from nuclear is still higher than if it came from coal or gas plants.
Though, as newer technologies come onto the market, through the power of technological democratization, that price will almost certainly go down in a relatively short amount of time as the industry expands.
The uranium rods, once “depleted”, need to be swapped out in a “re-fueling” process that requires a facility shutdown.
This is a timely process that is no small feat and needs to be done every 18-24 months.
During the re-fueling, the plant may be non-operational for up to 100 days!
The more a grid relies on nuclear to feed it, the more facilities would need to be added into the equation to account for these down times so that you don’t ever have low capacity like what California is experiencing right now.
Here in is, perhaps, one of the most critical considerations: what do you do with the spend rods after they get replaced?
The thing about using highly radioactive material like uranium-238 is it doesn’t reach it’s half-life (the time it takes to shed half of it’s material through radioactive decay) for about 4.5 billion years… give or take.
As it stands right now, the process to contain this continually decaying material is this:
Spent rods are put into a water still or wet storage for about 7-10 years
After that, they are placed into holding casks that consist of cement and metal where they can remain without leakage for about 50 years (though life extension modifications can be done to them to add a few decades)
It’s not the best long term solution, and I’ll get into that in the cons section further down. But, as it sits right now, the entirety of all the spent fuel that has come out of all the US nuclear reactors since they started in 1962 could fit on an American football field stacked about 10 meters high. (not accounting for all the storage previously mentioned)
The technology then, now and forthcoming
The evolution of nuclear technology as it pertains to the kinds of, and improvements on, power plants are defined by “generations”. And so far, there are four.
Generation I reactor (early prototypes such as Shippingport Atomic Power Station, research reactors, non-commercial power producing reactors)
Generation II reactor (most current nuclear power plants, 1965–1996)
Generation III reactor (evolutionary improvements of existing designs, 1996–2016)
• Generation III+ reactor (evolutionary development of Gen III reactors, offering improvements in safety over Gen III reactor designs, 2017–2021)
Generation IV reactor (technologies still under development; unknown start date, possibly 2030)
The future of nuclear
I want to take a second to speak to the generation IV reactors though, because they are lightyears beyond the present technology and are ready to be built right now.
The biggest difference between gen IV and every other reactor type is the fuel and what happens to it/comes from it.
Unlike most other generations that rely on the U-238 fuel source with all its long term issues, gen IV uses a liquid solution that contains either uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) or thorium tetrafluoride (ThF4).
Two of the phenomenal benefits to these fuels are that the waste/by-products they create are
Able to be sent back into the system and burned through the same process, creating a secondary fuel source derived from the original one
Creates hydrogen. This can be used for hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that rivals electric as an emissions-free vehicle fuel alternative. (Previously, hydrogen for these fuel cells was created from natural gas plants which in essence just moved the emissions problem up the supply chain)
Check out all the details on this upcoming generation HERE.
SMR (Small Modular Reactors)
Another forthcoming technological leap forward are smaller plants deemed small modular reactors, or SMRs.
These are a perfect example of what the free market does to new technologies when the market is allowed to be competitive.
SMRs are built in a factory in pieces that are then shipped out to site where they can be assembled in about 36 months or less. Quicker than the current 5+ years for the standard full sized plants.
What’s more, they cost only 1/10th the price at about $1 billion per unit instead of $10 billion.
One company is in bidding to build a number of these units in Ontario by 2028.
The golden goose
Now, the REAL future of nuclear is and has long been the possibility of, instead of using fission reactions at all, figuring out a way to use fusion instead.
The amount of energy produced from a fusion reaction in comparison to a fission reaction is utterly tremendous. The biggest, and presently impassible, problem to using fusion as an energy source is the incredible power/heat released from it.
The term “cold fusion” was coined back in the 1940s and has been theoretically possible since then. Though, like all the best scientific problems, proving it on paper and proofing it in the real world are far from the same thing.
But, if man can solve the problem of cold fusion, nuclear will not only power humanity outright, but immediately resolve most of the carbon issues created by the energy industry today.
It does no good waxing philosophical about all the possibilities and benefits without giving air to the biggest and, historically, most catastrophic damages that have come from nuclear power to date.
3 mile island, Pennsylvania, USA : 1979 — https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Mile_Island_accident
Chernobyl, Russia: 1986
Fukushima, Japan: 2011
Though each of the famous examples above were unique in their circumstance, all three of them were generation II plants.
And, not to downplay the extraordinary destruction and damage done between the dollars, lives and nature lost, but they have all played heavily into the prevention of such incidents for both the existing gen II reactors and the future gen IVs.
One of the lesser known knock-on uses of nuclear waste was the US military’s use of depleted uranium tipped munitions in the Iraq war.
Depleted uranium is an incredibly hard metal. So hard, in fact, that it was found to have war implications as a way to pierce heavy armor on the battlefield.
But, when used in the Iraq war, the atomized uranium particles after impact were breathed in by many Iraqi soldiers and civilians. What stemmed from that radiation poisoning was generations of horribly deformed babies.
The perpetual upkeep
Considering the storage solutions mentioned above when removing spent fuel from a reactor, those processes are quite obviously not an ideal long term solution.
If you require a steady oversight for between 57-90 years between the holding baths and the casks, that’s firstly a process that cannot be disturbed or prevented in that time and secondly not a very good solution for a substance with a 4.5 billion year half life.
The possibility of a breakdown in maintenance due to either a man caused or natural catastrophe within that life-cycle is all but inevitable.
A better solution must be found in the time period that we’ve bought ourselves through the current processes.
One solution could come in the form of different and better fuel sources (like the gen IV boasts already), or even an “off-world” solution where we send the spent fuel that exists (until we switch to a better fuel) into outer space.
With the direction that companies like Elon Musk’s Space-x are going, that’s not as insane an idea as it was when NASA was the only show in town.
The story of nuclear is young and riddled with mental and social scars. But, it may wind up finally become an energy solution that both the left and the right can agree on for the sake of humanity, and the planet.
And in the political climate we exist today… that's half the battle.
~ Drew Weatherhead
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Listen to the full podcast episode below:
The Social Disorder Podcast: The Nuclear Future