May
13
2011

Nuclear power is not the future. Maybe.

Actually, no.: Possibly not, anyway,
Actually, no.: Possibly not, anyway,Courtesy Garthhh
Don’t you hate it when someone tells you something, and you can’t tell them they’re wrong (just so you feel smarter than them, of course) because you don’t currently have any facts backing up your argument that they’re dumb, and maybe not a good person?

I hate that. I mean, I don’t even want to come up with an alternative argument in those situations—I just want the other person to know that they’re wrong. Again.

Example: You’re running your mouth around the fossil-fuels-aren’t-sustainable track, when someone says, “No, you’re right. They aren’t.” That, naturally, is a good start for a response, but then they go on to say, “And that’s why we have to get on the nuclear energy train, and we have to get on it hard. Done correctly, nuclear energy can provide lots and lots of clean energy, without the carbon emissions you hate. And we will no longer have to rely on foreign sources of oil. And blah blah blah. Check. Mate.”

And you just stand there, flapping your mouth open and shut, but no words are coming out, because you’re all out of words. Maybe you don’t even have anything against nuclear power—you just need to prove that person wrong. Who does he think he is?!

If a similar situation were to happen, except with, say, horse racing as the subject, you’d be back in your home town, Sit Creek, even though you hated it there so much, and you split as soon as you finished high school. Too bad for you. I can’t tell you anything contradictory about horse racing.

But if a similar situation were to come up, and the topic was nuclear energy, well, you’d be in luck. See a professor from the University of Adelaide just published a paper laying out exactly why nuclear power is not the solution to our future energy woes. Lucky, lucky you.

It’s not nuclear energy in general that the prof has a problem with, it’s that nuclear energy can’t be scaled up to replace fossil fuels (which will indeed need to be replaced eventually.) Doing so would be too expensive, require too many resources, and involve too much danger.

Today, we’re using about 15 terawatts of power around the world each year. That’s not just for electricity, it’s also for heat and transportation fuels and all that. But, at some point, we may be using electricity for those things as well.

Of those 15 terawatts, we generate about 375 gigawatts in nuclear plants—that’s just 2.5% of our global energy consumption. (Wikipedia puts the figure at 6%, but maybe that’s delivered energy, or something. Let’s leave it be for now.)

By this scientist’s estimates, we’d need 15,000 nuclear reactors going at once to produce 15 terawatts of power (and this is assuming that our power consumption doesn’t go up. Which it for sure will.). Given a nuclear power station’s lifetime of about 50 years, to maintain 15,000 working power stations, we’d need to commission a new plant and decommission an old one every day. And, currently, it tales 6-12 years to build a plant, and 20 or so years to decommission one. This would be very difficult and expensive to coordinate.

And it would take a lot of land—all those plants in the process of being built, run, and decommissioned would need about 8 square miles of land. That land would have to be near a large body of water, but also away from large population centers. Tricky.

And, says professor, at the rate we’re currently consuming uranium (our favorite nuclear fuel), it will only last for 80 years. Scaled up to 15 terawatts production, it would last for 5 years. We could potentially start extracting uranium from seawater, a source that could last for thousands of years, but that would be an expensive and energy intensive process itself.

And what of the spent fuel? We still don’t know what to do with it, and all that additional nuclear material (both fuel and waste) would almost certainly increase the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.

At any rate, the list goes on, long enough to allow you to shove the argument back into the hot, reeking mouth of whoever was sassing you in the first place. They might bring up technological advances (which the researcher sort of accounts for) or how people are always saying that energy sources, be they nuclear or renewable, aren’t globally scalable, or that presuming that we would use a single sort of energy production for everybody in the world, everywhere in the world, is probably silly … but they’ll probably be feeling so nonplussed in their oafishness that you will have plenty of time to make your escape and set yourself up in another conversation with a much easier opponent, like a child, or a table.

Good luck.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

this is so cool

posted on Wed, 05/18/2011 - 9:52am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i hope it's not going to be the future

posted on Thu, 06/02/2011 - 11:23am
Mike 445's picture
Mike 445 says:

First problem is that you are confusing generating capacity with annual energy use, a generator can produce 1000 watts per hour or a megawatt per year

A single reactor at a nuclear plant produces 1 gigawatt per hour or 8760 gigawatts per year and with regular refueling a plant will average about 87% of it's rated capacity per year.

Also total energy use includes fossil fuels including the gasoline that you put into lawnmower, not easily powered by nuclear or even renewable energy. You could use batteries or synthetic fuel or bio fuel but for simplicity lets just talk about electricity use.

370 Gigawatts per hour times 8760 hours/year puts you at 3,241,200 gigawatts per year or 3241TW/yr. Annual electricity use is 20,269TW/year and nuclear generates 16% of the world's energy currently. There are currently 436 reactors in use so you would need 2,725 additional reactors to generate all of the earth's electricity.

As far as danger goes the danger of nuclear is exaggerated, except for Chernobyl no one has died from exposure to radiation in a civilian power plant. Cancer deaths depend largely on how dangerous you feel low levels of radiation are, estimates of cancer deaths from Chernobyl range from 16 to a several thousand however in most places in the world you will receive much larger doses or radiation from natural sources like radon, potasium-40 or cosmic rays.

Nuclear power is the best hope of having inexpensive, reliable and clear power within our lifetimes. Wind and solar are the way of the future but today the size and scale needed to power the world day and night would be immense. given realistic capacity factors for each in the north east United states a single 1000MW reactor would produce as much power as 49 Square miles of solar farm.

posted on Fri, 01/24/2014 - 4:06pm

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