Sunday, November 23, 2008

Time for Australia to relent on the issue of uranium sales to India.

The United States has signalled its dismay with China’s decision to assist Pakistan with the construction and operation of two new nuclear reactors:

China for its part is not really taking a lot of notice, and can be expected to move ahead with the deal. It is known that Pakistan is the nation with possibly the worst nuclear proliferation record in the world. Potential nuclear proliferation is, of course, the justification given by the Rudd government for not selling Australian uranium to India. Funnily enough, China’s long-standing relationship with Pakistan raised no red flags over the issue of uranium sales to China. In fact, Martin Ferguson is quite chirpy over the deal:

It’s true Australia has insisted that Australian uranium only be used in certain designated reactors for electricity production, but since uranium is a fungible commodity this doesn’t really mean much. Uranium China has purchased from elsewhere will now be freed up for use in Pakistani reactors, and, who knows, perhaps eventually Pakistani bombs.

If we are willing to sell uranium to China and thus indirectly facilitate supplies to China’s allies such as Pakistan, why are we refusing to sell uranium to India? Surely it is in our interests to join with our western allies in fostering a strategic relationship with this emergent Great Power, not to mention our environmental interests to assist India to develop its CO2-free energy sector.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nuclear Power Enables German Utility To Offer Affordable CO2-Free Electricity Option.

German electricity utility RWE has come out swinging against Germany’s absurd nuclear phase-out policy with a new electricity purchasing package for consumers based on a mix of 68% nuclear power and 32% renewables, mainly hydroelectric. The story can be found here:

Although the power purchased through the scheme will be slightly more expensive than usual, RWE has stated that baring changes to taxes, the power will remain at a fixed cost until 2011. It is being promoted to consumers concerned about CO2-induced global warming.

This is not the first scheme of its kind to be marketed in Europe. Finnish utility Fortum has also marketed two carbon emission-free packages, one costing slightly more than usual based on nuclear power, and another devoted to electricity produced by non-nuclear renewable sources, which is more costly:

Predictably enough, reactionary anti-nuclear campaigners from the German chapter of Greenpeace have denounced the RWE initiative in their usual soundbite press release style.

“Greenpeace Germany is critical of the new plan. "'Pro-Climate' is just a label. The product is in no way ecological. It does nothing to help the environment," Andree Bohling, an energy expert with Greenpeace Germany, told Spiegel Online.”

Yeah, right. Anyhow, that quote comes from the following story:

I hope that German consumers will chose wisely with regard to this new option for purchasing their electricity and send a clear message to decision makers, underlined in Euros. Unfortunately it looks like it will be quite some time before Australian consumers will have the luxury of expressing a similar preference.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Affordable Power For The Future.

It is interesting and sometimes mildly entertaining to occasionally kick back and watch the cycle of arguments fielded by anti-nuclear activists in their eternal quest for the extinction of nuclear power. I have witnessed this both on the net and in my personal contact with acquaintances of the anti-nuke flavour. It is entertaining in the long haul, but frustrating in the short term. The cycle goes something like this:

Anti-nuclear activist (ANA): “Nuclear power is not a viable source of energy because of X.”

Pro-nuclear advocate (PNA): “Your argument is incorrect for the following reasons.” (Provides reasons).

ANA: “OK, I see your point, but it doesn’t matter because nuclear power is not viable on account of Y.”

PNA: “Argument Y is also incorrect on account of the following.” (Demonstrates fallacy of argument Y).

ANA: “Very well, but you haven’t considered argument Z.”

PNA: “What?? Very well then!” (Disposes of Z)

ANA: “Yes, you are clearly right about Z, but what about argument A?”

This sequence continues until finally we get back to:

ANA: “Yes, you are absolutely correct that argument W is without merit, but what about argument X??”

Presented in such terms, the sequence is obvious and childish, but I have seen supposedly intelligent adults hide behind that tactic when arguing against nuclear power. Actually, drop the ‘supposedly’. I know that some of these people, who include some very good friends of mine, are unquestionably of high intelligence. The cyclic nature of the debate with them is, I suspect, more of the nature of a religious dialogue than a scientific one.

As a tactic for presenting their case to the public, the anti-nuclear movement is clearly onto a winner. The pro and anti nuclear cases are generally presented in the media as single-issue isolated events, with the connections to associated issues rarely built into a rational whole. The general public is thus left with the impression that an ongoing scientific controversy exists over, say, the safe disposal of radioactive wastes, when in fact the technology for dealing with that particular ‘problem’ has been around for decades, and no competent scientist working in the field doubts it.

The actual period of the cycle has a direct relationship to the size of the anti-nuclear entity you are conversing with. The cycle of argument with an individual might be completed within an evening, or even go through several cycles in an evening. A debate on the net with a cadre of committed anti-nukes might last for days or weeks. When you consider the anti-nuclear movement as a whole, the debate surrounding one particular point might go on for months.

At the moment, the anti-nuclear movement is trying to make an issue out of the cost of nuclear power. Since this is the flavour of the moment for the antis, their chosen battleground on which they presently perceive headway might be made, I shall commence my series of posts on current nuclear issues addressing that topic.

So what is the cost of nuclear power?

This is not an easy question to answer currently in terms of dollars/kW. Unlike coal, the cost of fuel is not a major factor in the ultimate cost of the power delivered to the consumer. The fuel requirements for a nuclear power plant are so minimal that great increases in the price of uranium ore or enriched uranium fuel won’t really have much of an effect on the price paid by the end-consumer of the power generated. The largest cost input to nuclear power by far is the cost of constructing the plant in the first place. In this sense nuclear power plants are less like coal or natural gas power plants than they are like hydroelectric dams. The bulk of the cost is the up-front capital cost of construction.

There are many inputs into the construction of an asset as large and complex as a nuclear plant, but humans have been building them for five decades now, so we should have some experience to go by. Why is it currently so hard to pin down a ballpark figure for the construction of new nukes? Why has the anti-nuke crowd seized on this issue of late?

The anti-nuclear activists have seized on nuclear plant construction costs because the cost estimates for construction have lately gone through the roof. I recall back in 2005 when I started searching the net for information about nuclear power that at the time, firms like GE-Westinghouse were confidently predicting plant construction costs on the order of US$1000-2000/KW output. I believe the current estimates to be 4-6 times in excess of this. What the hell happened? The anti-nukes will happily inform the public of this increase, but rarely look to the reasons why.

The primary reason for the great increase in construction cost directly relates to the increase in price of the construction materials for the plants. The price for new nuclear power plants has gone through the roof because the price of the stuff they’re mainly made out of has gone through the roof. The stuff in question is steel and concrete.

In my previous post I stated that I’d be linking to sites and studies which have looked at these issues in more detail. In that spirit, please check out the following:

You can find a link to John’s site in the links section of this blog. I recommend following it and learning what you can from it. Now for a brief summary of the germane material inputs for nuclear power and other power sources based on the data from a study by Professor P.F. Peterson of UC Berkeley undertaken in 2005. Professor Peterson determined that for each megawatt of power output from a new nuclear plant, 40 metric tons of steel and 190 cubic metres of concrete are required. For the bulk of plant construction costs, take current prices for those commodities and multiply them by the number of megawatts of electrical power output. The price of plant construction, and by extension the ultimate cost of power from the plant, is determined by commodity prices over the period of construction. I’m sure we can all appreciate that these are difficult to determine in advance, especially in such turbulent times for the global economy.

Something that isn’t so subject to sudden alterations is the relative demand for those commodities by competing energy technologies. No matter the current price of concrete or steel, the amounts required for obtaining a megawatt of reliable power from a nuclear reactor, a wind farm, or a coal plant are (barring technological breakthrough) pretty much fixed.

The two non-nuclear examples provided in John Wheeler’s article are wind and coal. For an output of 1 megawatt of power a coal plant requires 98 metric tons of steel and 160 cubic meters of concrete. A wind farm requires 460 tons of steel and 870 cubic meters of concrete (each of those wind turbines might look slender and graceful from a distance, but they are Behemoths in their own right, and you need a hell of a lot of them to provide the same level of power as a standard nuclear plant). This is not an academic exercise. The rise in price for basic construction materials over the past two years (driven by rising demand from China and India) has caused the UK to do an abrupt about-face on its plans for massive wind infrastructure to meet the government’s mandate for its renewable energy target. Sticker shock has even forced the cancellation of some new coal plants, and that’s before any carbon tax has been imposed on their operation. In contrast, major utilities in the US are determined to press ahead with their plans for a new nuclear build because they recognise that in spite of increasing costs, the alternatives are rising in price with the tide as well, and nuclear retains its comparative cost advantage. This will remain true no matter what the global financial situation may be four years from now, when the first suite of proposed new plants reaches the conclusion of their licensing procedure. The input price may go up, it may go down, it may go round and round, but nuclear still wins.

Given the above, it is no mystery why the anti-nuclear movement likes to harp on about the cost of new nuclear build… but doesn’t care to provide too many details as to just why this is.

So When Is Finrod Going To Start Talking About Nuclear Power?

I have received some criticism concerning the content of this site. To wit, there isn’t really all that much stuff here yet that is actually about nuclear power. It is a valid criticism. This results from my history of being a commenter on other pro-nuclear blogs for a couple of years now. During that time I have become quite familiar with many dimensions of the subject of nuclear power, its risks, costs, advantages, challenges, history, paths taken and not taken, potential fuel sources and so on. It is abundantly clear to me that there is a huge pool of talented pro-nuclear people out there, both within and outside the professional nuclear community who are far more qualified than I to present these matters to the public. So why am I doing this at all?

I am doing this because:

A) In my view, the advantages of nuclear power are so obvious that even an unqualified outsider should (with a little research) be able to defeat the anti-nuclear case in a logical discussion of the issue with even the most expert of anti-nuclear activists.

B) I tend to have my own take on certain matters which are not always illuminated to my satisfaction by other pro-nuclear advocates.

C) I have at whiles observed that one or two fairly basic, homely observations of mine have ended up in the pro-nuclear meme pool, without attribution to myself. This is quite OK by me. If some small observation of mine helps the cause I don’t mind not being credited with it, but it does point to the possibility for valid contributions to the debate which are original to me, so I should avail myself of every opportunity to make them.

So getting back to the original point, I started this blog very much in the context of my previous 2-3 years worth of commentary on other blogs, and set out initially to supplement the excellent body of work already in existence, rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel at the outset. Hence my first posts were on topics which I felt had been neglected by their obscurity, or directly related to some topical discussion on a side aspect of the field.

It is clear, however, that some of my readers are not very familiar with the basics of the pro-nuclear case and have looked to my blog in vain to be filled in. I shall therefore post a few articles outlining that case in very basic form, and provide links to other sites with more detailed expositions, to give people something to go on with.

I am also considering doing a few articles on power generation issues in my local area, namely the Australian Capital Territory and surrounding districts in New South Wales, as well as some articles on energy issues currently concerning Australia.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Carbon Dioxide surface sequestration with alkaline earth silicates: A response to G.R.L. Cowan.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a comment in response to this post by Rod Adams on the Atomic Insights Blog:

The next comment on the thread was from G.R.L. Cowan, who denied that CO2 sequestration was a pipedream, and proposed that excess CO2 can be neatly sequestered by reacting it with crushed alkaline earth silicates, such as olivine and serpentine. There was something of a debate on that thread which I shan’t recapitulate here. I did not participate, as my knowledge of the field was inadequate for me to do so. Nonetheless it was an intriguing proposition, and I have been considering it ever since. I was actually inspired to get in touch with an old friend who I have not contacted for many years to get his input. He holds a doctorate in chemistry, although he hastens to add that his field of specialisation is polymer chemistry and he is unwilling to declare confidently one way or the other on the practicality of this proposal. He did state that he considers the term ‘clean coal’ an oxymoron, and shares my opinion that the ideal carbon sequestration strategy is to leave the coal where it is in the first place, but he also concedes that the chemistry for alkaline earth silicate sequestration does work, although we might question the economics. Here following is the email he sent me in reply, which he has graciously permitted me to quote:

Ahoy Finrod, An interesting ramble which covers many possibilities, but facts are more difficult especially since so much is at its infancy. A perfunctory glance at the net shows the chemistry is well known i.e. it is scientifically established process. However, while the thermodynamics may be favourable, evidently the kinetics are not so much so. In other words, while the overall journey may be downhill, it is uphill for at least part of the way. Getting over the activation hump is the key and there are 2 main ways to achieve this: a) wait for long enough - scatter the stuff around and walk away in expectation it will do its thing eventually. Grinding it up finely is one way to accelerate the process - after all these rocks have been sitting around for millions of years. If not for this activation energy I would expect life could be quite startling as rocks randomly exploded around us, especially if we breathed on them. b) force the issue using e.g. heat/catalysis as discussed in article below (which I selected more or less randomly). This all involves more inputs. So while thermodynamics may rule, kinetics will dictate when this will happen. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to say if and when this process would become viable, but as we discussed on the phone, there is a hell of a lot of work and machinery involved in locating and crushing all these rocks....and all of this is consuming other resources and generating other byproducts. And are there other side effects of all the dust and carbonates we are generating in the process? CO2 is not our sole enemy.

The ‘article below’ referred to is:

Making rocks
Nature has the best track record for sequestering carbon dioxide from the air into the ground, through the process of weathering. Carbon dioxide is slightly acidic and as it reacts with rocks and soil, it converts into other chemical forms. The only problem in putting nature to work on carbon sequestration is that the process takes too long by human standards. In order to help limit the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, some geologists are looking to speed the weathering process up through industrial means — converting carbon dioxide into carbonate rocks.“We end up making rocks,” says Klaus Lackner of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University. But they have to start with rocks first. To do so, they use magnesium silicates, a class of peridotite rocks that include serpentine and olivine. Exposing magnesium silicate to an aqueous solution of the slightly acidic carbon dioxide forms carbonate and silicate, such as sand. Presto-chango, the carbon dioxide is gone and new carbonates and silicates have replaced the original rock. And the process is exothermic, producing heat. “So its thermodynamics are downhill, it happens spontaneously,” Lackner explains. This is why weathering in nature also occurs over time. So why aren’t we mass-producing carbonate rocks with our abundance of carbon dioxide? Again, time is the limiting factor. The world has an abundance of magnesium silicate rocks, but reacting those rocks with only carbon dioxide is a slow process. “We are trying to take the process and accelerate it for an industrial setting,” Lackner says. In order to speed the reaction up, a stronger acid is also needed and, in some cases, additional heat. The Albany Research Center in Oregon, and Ohio State University, are both working on building cost-efficient methods. Ultimately, achieving large-scale sequestration will mean building power plants at magnesium silicate mines around the world that would convert the olivine and serpentine into carbonates. The newly formed carbonates would then be put back into the mines for permanent disposal.The Ohio group is fine-tuning their high-pressure, high-temperature, three-phase fluidized bed reactor, an apparatus that uses a mixture of acids to dissolve serpentine in an aqueous solution of carbon dioxide. “In 30 minutes we can convert about 25 percent of solid magnesium silicate to carbonate at 1,000 [pounds per square inch] pressure and 80 degrees Celsius,” says Ah-Hyung Alissa Park, lead author on a presentation about this technique at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in November. “At higher temperatures and pressures the conversion rate goes up.” Still, the science is in its infancy, Lackner says. “It is an example of where we learn more the cleverer and better we will get.”

So there we have it. My mind is open on this subject. I still think it’s quite interesting… although I do question the economics of ameliorating the consequences of coal use through mining and crushing five or six times as much rock as the coal we burn. If there is a way around that issue, someone please let us know.

One question which has occurred to me is just how powerfully is the carbon bound up in the resulting mineral? If it is only bound lightly, could we use these carbonates to recycle the carbon back into liquid fuel using power from nuclear reactors? While the economics of using this technique to continue burning coal might not necessarily work, perhaps it has other uses in an advanced nuclear economy.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Further Considerations of the Complexity Ethic.

Thinking back on the time when my friend first announced the complexity ethic to me, I know he was reading a number of books on subjects such as ecology, sustainability, energy policy, peak oil and general history. I’ve asked him if he recalls any particular material which influenced him to consider complexity from an ethical perspective. The following is the list which he came up with:

Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software.
Steven Johnson, Touchstone Press, 2001.

The Hidden Connections: A science for sustainable living.
Fritjof Kapra, Harper-Collins, 2002

Sync: The emerging science of spontaneous order.
Steven Strogatz, Theia, 2003.

Ubiquity: The science of history… or why the world is simpler than we think.
Mark Buchanan, Crown Publishers, 2000.

Our discussions on these and other topics formed a kind of loose dialogue (occasionally broken off for long periods) which my friend and I have been having on the prospects for humanity for many years now.

Academia’s interest in the topic of complexity goes back much further than the turn of the century, of course. Consider the following:

“Organized complexity here means that the character of the structures showing it depends not only on the properties of the individual elements of which they are composed, but also on the manner in which the individual elements are connected with each other. In the explanation of the working of such structures we can for this reason not replace the information about the individual elements by statistical information, but require full information about each element if from our theory we are to derive specific predictions about individual events. Without such specific information about the individual elements we shall be confined to what on another occasion I have called mere pattern predictions- predictions of some of the general attributes of the structures that will form themselves, but not containing specific statements about the individual elements of which the structures will be made up.

This is particularly true of our theories accounting for the determination of the systems of relative prices and wages that will form themselves on a well-functioning market. Into the determination of these prices and wages there will enter the effects of particular information possessed by every one of the participants in the market process- a sum of facts which in their totality cannot be known to the scientific observer, or to any other single brain. It is indeed the source of the superiority of the market order, and the reason why, when it is not suppressed by the powers of government, it regularly displaces other types of order, that in the resulting allocation of resources more of the knowledge of particular facts will be utilized which exists only dispersed among uncounted persons, than any one person can possess.”

-F.A. Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge’ (1974 Nobel Lecture).

And this:

“…we have both observational and theoretical reasons to believe that the general principle holds: Complexity is an important factor in producing stability. Complex communities, such as the deciduous forests that cover much of the eastern United States, persist year after year if man does not interfere with them… a cornfield, which is a man-made stand of a single kind of grass, has little natural stability and is subject to instant ruin if it is not constantly managed by man.”

-P.R. Ehrlich and A.H. Ehrlich, Population, Resources and environment. (Freeman, San Francisco, 1970) p.159.

Friedrich Hayek and Paul Ehrlich seem to be saying very similar things here, although in different contexts. Having those two individuals in agreement with each other is surely remarkable enough to flag that something interesting and unusual is going on with this topic.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Ethics of Complexity.

About half-a-decade ago I was helping a friend in his garden when he announced to me his new ethical framework. I was involved in that instant in ripping weeds out of the garden bed, a task which my friend was constrained from by repeated attacks of gout, and for which he paid me richly in beer and bourbon.

“I’ve just come up with a new ethical system.” He said. “It only has one commandment: Thou shalt not reduce complexity!” Later on he decided that particular expression of the core concept was too negative, and proposed “Foster complexity!” as a more positive formulation.

I paused in my labours for a bit to consider this idea. I thought at the time that it had considerable merit, and I still do. When we consider the central ethical tenets of the major philosophical and religious systems, we can see that pretty much all of them are expressing the same basic idea in different ways, and with different emphases, but what is that core idea? Although it is perhaps obscured in some interpretations, they all seem to attempt to provide a cultural framework for the maximisation of complexity in one form or another.

If someone is murdered, the complexity of the universe is diminished. If a forest burns up, complexity is diminished. If a peasant-society’s crops fail due to drought, complexity is greatly reduced. If a city is levelled by a nuclear bomb, complexity is greatly reduced. Most, if not all undesirable things and situations seem to involve a reduction in complexity, while most if not all desirable things appear to be an enhancement of complexity in one form or another.

One thing that greatly interested me about this notion is the possibility that complexity can be mathematically defined and quantified. If we reach that capability, I suspect that many complex ethical questions are susceptible to a mathematical solution… such as the relative balance of interest between environmental and economic concerns.

Well that’s all well and good, but what does it have to do with nuclear power?

Perhaps when considering the merits and downsides to various energy solutions, we might ask ourselves how their implementation will impact the net complexity of our environment and economy. Does the proposed technology have a severe impact on the net complexity of the living world? Does it allow for the growth of complex, intricate social and economic forms in our society, or does it constrain them through impoverishment and resource diversion? Over my next few posts I might consider some of these issues in relation to nuclear power and its competitors.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

About this blog.

We exist in a sea of electromagnetic force, and are for the most part utterly subject to its dictates. One other force makes itself blatantly known in the course of our mundane activities, namely gravitation, but electromagnetism packs far more power in its punch. It takes a mass the magnitude of Earth to make us weigh ten Newtons to the kilogram, but with a simple rearrangement in the structure of a vanishingly, ridiculously tiny portion of Earth’s mass, we can override the gravitational force of this entire planet, and stand on two feet (by burning sugar in our cells) … or fly to the other side of it in a 747 (by burning hydrocarbons in a jet engine).

The sheer divide of magnitude between the two phenomena is obscured in our minds by the fact that the only kind of object great enough for us to sensibly experience the power of the lesser force is a world. The world is our universe. How can a basic overall fact of life which everyone experiences (stuff falls down) have any relation to the growth of plants, or the warmth of the hearth on a winter’s eve?

The proportional difference between the amount of mass needed to make a sensible impact for the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force is nowhere near as great as that between the electromagnetic and gravitational force, but it is huge nonetheless. Once again we are faced with a sharp fracturing of our experience, but this time in a direction which contradicts our innate sense of cause and effect to a much greater degree than the considerations leading us to appreciate the weakness of gravity. This time we move in the direction of far greater power, and the realm of graphic, iconic consequence.

The images of the early nuclear age have a certain amount of baggage which we need to move beyond to make informed choices for the future. This blog is my humble attempt to encourage people to make that move.