• A nuclear compromise
    August 23,2014

    One of the primary objections to nuclear powered electricity generation is the fear of it exploding or the massive killing of people with radiation. However, the fact is that nuclear power has proven historically to be the safest and least polluting of all the fuels we use for power generation, even when Chernobyl and Fukushima are considered.

    Let’s examine the subject from the perspective of that fear, but using real statistics published by the World Health Organization. It calculated the historical global deaths attributed to the production of a trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity from each of the electricity-producing fuels. WHO called this measure the “deathprint.” The analysis includes all aspects of the creation of each fuel (mining, distilling, construction, etc.), the use of the fuel (burning, maintenance, supply and delivery, etc.) and the side effects of the fuel’s byproducts (exhaust, land loss, health, environmental impact, pollution).

    One trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity is about one-fourth of the electricity produced annually in the United States.

    According to WHO, coal produces about 50 percent of the world’s electricity and causes about 170,000 deaths per trillion kilowatt-hours produced. Forty-four percent of the electricity in the United States is from coal, and we experience about 15,000 deaths per trillion kilowatt-hours because of it.

    Oil causes about 36,000 deaths. Natural gas causes about 4,000. Biofuel/biomass causes about 24,000 — mostly in Third World countries. Solar causes about 440 deaths. Wind causes about 150 — usually from maintenance accidents, but both solar and wind produce a relatively small amount of electricity. Hydro is responsible for 1,400 deaths — mostly from failed dams.

    Nuclear kills the fewest, about 90 per trillion kilowatt-hours. This includes the worst-case Chernobyl numbers and Fukushima projections, uranium mining deaths and use of the linear no-threshold dose hypothesis in the calculations.

    Using these statistics, we see that coal is 1,889 times more deadly than nuclear generation. Deaths from solar and wind generation are 650 percent greater than deaths associated with nuclear. If we converted all forms of electricity to nuclear, worldwide, we would reduce the deathprint of power generation by a factor of 537.

    Unfortunately, facts like these seldom change people’s minds about this issue.

    But what if we can find a compromise solution that will satisfy the fears of the public and meet the technical issues of demand, base load and pollution — reducing costs and gaining energy independence in the process? Hydrogen as our new fuel will meet all our demands for energy without the burden of pollution, future scarcity or high prices. Hydrogen has sufficient energy to support both transportation and power production and can be scaled from car and house size to base-load power generation facilities.

    Since we can make it from water, and, when burned, it returns to water, it will never become a scarce commodity. Certain new nuclear power plant designs are the only means to “crack” water into hydrogen and oxygen so that more net usable fuel is gained than consumed in the generation process.

    So, we have an ideal fuel and a way of making that fuel in a cost-effective manner and we can convert to and burn this fuel without the burden of scarcity or pollution. The social and political barrier of accepting the use of nuclear reactors to generate the hydrogen remains the only obstacle to overcome. It turns out there is a simple solution to that, also.

    We could put nuclear reactors at some far-away location — northern Canada, for instance — and use them to create hydrogen and then pipe that gas back to the States. The location would not likely engender a great deal of opposition since it could be placed far away from any population centers — far enough north that it could tap into the Arctic waters. Hydrogen escaping into the atmosphere would be like water escaping into the ocean. It is a natural occurring gas that creates no pollution.

    Using recent reactor designs (such as the liquid fluoride thorium reactor) would resolve most of the opposition arguments, since most of these are breeder reactors that reuse 99 percent of the radioactive material they create. They do not use water for cooling — molten salt is used in a closed cycle that resides entirely inside the containment building so it does not need cooling towers — eliminating 80 percent of the plumbing of water-cooled reactors.

    These designs are “walk-away safe,” meaning that if all cooling, power, control and maintenance is lost, the reactor will shut itself down. These are high-temperature reactors that can use produced hydrogen with 50 percent efficiency — the highest of any known process.

    Once there is a ready and cheap supply of hydrogen, the cost-effective sale of fuel cells for small-scale power production, hydrogen-powered cars and hydrogen-powered base-load electrical power plants would all be viable options. Conversion to hydrogen would smooth the transition from gasoline to electric-powered cars. Fuel cells can be used to produce electricity right in the home, which will reduce or eliminate the need for a $500 billion “smart grid” and reduce the need for large base-load power plants. Fuel cells will also extend the range of electric cars using only hydrogen for power.

    The technology to accomplish all this is within our grasp. Fear and misinformation are all that stops us from seriously pursuing a solution like this. It’s worth considering.

    Tom Watkins lives in Montpelier. He can be reached at KeepItReal@21vt.us.

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