14 December 2011

Five Interesting Things I Heard About: Nuclear Energy

I’m back with another installment in my new series, “Five Interesting Things I Heard About: [blank].” In the first installment, I relayed ~five interesting comments that University of Wisconsin – Madison mechanical engineering professor Sandy Klein made about solar energy. Klein, also the director of the Solar Energy Lab at UW, was a guest lecturer in a course I’m enrolled in this semester, the topic of which is energy resources … go figure.

(Image of U.S. government in public domain)
We have had quite a few distinguished and fascinating guest speakers actually during the class, each of whom addressed various types of energy, along with aspects of energy science, resource availability and current and future requirements. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to rattle off five interesting things from each of them. But, I did want to at least get to one speaker: Paul Wilson, a nuclear engineer at UW – Madison who works on both technical and policy issues related to nuclear energy. Wilson spoke a few weeks ago about nuclear fuel cycles, reactor technology and nuclear waste polices among other topics.

While he made many interesting points, here are five that stuck out to me:

1. “There is no [nuclear] reactor operating in the United States today that was ordered after 1973. Some of them were finished more recently than that … but the last reactor that was turned on was ordered before 1973. … So for a long time we were building no new reactors.”

2. Discussing a new uranium enrichment facility (Louisiana Enrichment Services) in New Mexico that uses gas centrifuges for enrichment: “In fact, no American is able to see the construction of these centrifuges. … It’s a European company that owns the centrifuges, they’re running them in the U.S. to provide a service in the U.S. market. But for non-proliferation reasons, the Americans aren’t allowed to see how those centrifuges work. If one breaks, they just take it offline, they don’t send in an American repair team to fix it.”

3. After discussing life-cycle estimates of carbon emissions from different forms of energy production, and the relation to potential climate/carbon legislation: “One of the biggest fans of climate change legislation are people who operate coal-fired power plants. You would say, ‘Why? They produce all kinds of carbon, why would they want climate legislation?’ They want climate legislation because as soon as we have legislation it provides them certainty as to what it’s going to cost them to do business. … What they don’t want to do is be building a coal plant today when they don’t know how much it’s going to cost them to run that coal plant tomorrow. And so the interest in nuclear energy from a utility perspective is really a hedge against the possibility of climate legislation in the future because it doesn’t matter what the cost of carbon is if you build a nuclear plant. It’s really not going to impact you because you produce basically no carbon.”

All the spent nuclear fuel produced in the U.S. would easily fit
in Camp Randall stadium. (Image in public domain; credit: Pbrown111)

4. “Imagine that all of your electricity comes from nuclear energy … and imagine you live for 80 years, and imagine you used your per capita share of U.S. electricity from 2004, which means in 80 years it would be about a million kilowatt-hours. … So if you have a million kilowatt-hours that you are responsible for in your life, the amount of spent nuclear fuel that you would be responsible for would be one soda can, or beer can if you prefer. … By another measure, you could take all the spent fuel in the United States and you could pile it into Camp Randall [the University of Wisconsin’s football stadium] and it would only stand about 12 to 15 feet tall. All the spent fuel ever produced in the United States. … It’s a very small problem in volume. Granted you wouldn’t want to be sitting in the stadium if it was all piled up in there because it’s very radioactive."

5. Discussing a figure showing how the capacity factor for U.S. nuclear reactors has increased from about 40 to 50 percent in the early 1970s to about 90 percent currently: “Our reactors were turned off half the time in the 70s … [the capacity] went up and went up and went up, and now for the last decade or so, we’ve been operating at 90 percent. You have the highest capacity factor of any generation technology in the system. That’s a bit of an apples to oranges statement to make because nuclear energy is so expensive to build, you want to run it all the time. It’s the last thing you turn off. You turn off your gas power plants, you turn off your coal power plants when nobody wants electricity. You don’t turn off your nuclear power plants. … [The capacity factor] is not going to get much higher than this, but it will hopefully stay up at this 90 percent.”

1 comment:

  1. Regarding #3, coal companies supposedly favoring climate legislation? Hard to believe. Here's WV senator Joe Manchin literally shooting the climate bill.