Will Batteries Thrive in a Nuclear Power Age?
by Donald Georgi
So that the reader is not disappointed or wastes time, be forewarned that this story has no cast in stone answer to the question.
Do not be dismayed because BD thinks that no one else has the answer either. The economic and political dynamics of today are
far too complicated, and as time progresses, new factors will be added in to further complicate the role of batteries in a world with expanded nuclear generated electricity.
Electricity Demand Grows
As a starting point, consider a few things which likely will have an impact on expanded electrical demand. The foremost factor is
the growth in world population. Today, we stand at 6.4 billion inhabitants. Projections are that there will be an additional 50 % by
2050. The largest increase will be in the undeveloped nations where both greater population growth and greater energy utilization per capita will build energy demand beyond that which the population growth figure alone suggests. Even without a population increase, world demand is requiring more goods and services which require a greater amount of energy to be generated. Of the five largest countries in the world today, (China, India, USA, Indonesia and Brazil) only the US is targeted for incremental rather than exponential demand in transportation, health care, security, convenience and recreation.
Fossil Sources, Friend or Foe?
Another contributor is the too often overlooked pollution penalty extracted from ever increasing use of fossil fuels. Except for the terrorism ommunity, the people of the world desire a higher quality of life which includes better environmental quality. Hindsight presents a possibility hat if nuclear power had been pursued in the 1960s, the US would today be in accord with the Kyoto targets, suggesting that the Sierra Club may have been the largest single cause of present CO2 levels earth's atmosphere.
Proponents of nuclear power point out that in 1995 the orld's nuclear plants provided clean power which replaced the
requirements for 706 million tons of coal, 5.5 trillion cubic feet natural gas and 620 million barrels of oil.
Nuclear Barriers, Storage and Safety
In other countries, except the Soviet Union, 400 nuclear plants accumulated 8,000 plant years of operation without harming the public. This ncludes the Three Mile Island accident. Even before the Three Mile Island accident and Chernobyl disasters, the negative perception of uclear waste unacceptable time frames because of the radioactive requiring thousands of years; this problem put decades long roadblocks in nuclear plant construction. The runaways confirmed the safety concerns, and the impasse Yucca Mountain as a waste repository confirmed the storage problem.
The current ban on reprocessing nuclear materials has added nails to the nuclear plant coffin because of the possibility of terrorist acquisition of weapons. The U.S. concern over nuclear proliferation of reprocessed fuel has been sidestepped by ?entrepreneurial nuclear countries? which have found ready markets for nuclear tools in Arab countries and North Korea. Since we now have to deal with rogue nuclear countries providing terrorist support, the practicality of reprocessing may require new consideration. Fast reactor technology has an answer to the storage of the ?spent? fuel problem. Present reactors use about 1% of the fuel energy. Fast reactors can utilize 99% of the fuel energy leaving roughly 100 times less spent fuel to deal with. The waste also contains a much lower radioactivity level that is considered safe after 500 years, compared to the present 10,000 year decay time. In addition, the reprocessing technology, ?pyroprocessing,? does
not produce the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons, so the arguments in favor of nuclear safety and storage appear to be building.
"The other guys are doing it"
If nuclear power has so many negative arguments, why does it come up as a subject of possible new electrical generation? In the short term, the U.S. can get by with expansion of coal and gas powered plants. Since the government position has been to ignore the Kyoto Protocol, added pollutants from current sources are considered part of the price we must pay for electrical requirements and convenience. This puts coal in the low cost lead when there is no requirement to put a cost value on the resulting health care and global warming penalties. The
additional health burden may be considered necessary baggage just as the 40,000 + highway deaths each year are considered an acceptable cost for the privilege of driving a car. Left alone, the U.S. could justify continued energy without nuclear power for decades.
The reality for the U.S. is that it cannot be left alone to dictate economic conditions. The dollar is being globally assaulted because of U.S. balance of payments and nations are already shifting the cash flow away from the U.S. Not only does the U.S. have a problem with imports, the isibility of the U.S. as the leading pollution contributor, with no commitment for cleanup, raises the difficulty in being perceived as the world leader.
Such emerging producers as China and South Africa are planning a group of advanced nuclear reactors. By 2020, China is targeted to have 4% of its total power generated from nuclear sources. In this time period, it will complete a fast reactor which will be able to boost the utility rate of natural uranium from 1% to 60-70% in a pressurized water reactor. China has already demonstrated an experimental reactor which does not run away with failure of coolant circuits and full removal of control rods, indicating high levels of nuclear engineering safety.
Not only does the U.S. have a problem with imports, but the visibility of the U.S. as the leading pollution contributor, with no commitment for cleanup, also raises the difficulty in being perceived as the world leader.
Nuclear power created at home could reduce imbalance of payments, reduce dependence on foreign oil, point toward Kyoto Protocol support while contributing to lower home manufacturing costs which could promote internal (in contrast to foreign) manufacturing. Lower manufacturing costs could then make U.S. products more competitive in a world economy and further reduce the imbalance of payments.
Nukes for the Hydrogen Economy
There is a major problem in using the term 'hydrogen economy' in that, for many, it implicitly means that hydrogen replaces oil as a fuel. Oil, sunlight, radioactive materials and coal are primary sources of energy, but hydrogen, unless found naturally, is just like a pipeline or a wire - a conduit with which energy is transported and stored. It is not a primary source of energy.
Thinking ahead to oil replacement, 'conduits ' such as hydrogen or electric grids can service vehicle and train transportation. How the hydrogen is obtained, and at what cost, both environmentally and economically, is of critical concern. If hydrogen is electrolyzed from nuclear or pure photovoltaic sources, there is no pollutant added. If hydrogen is electrolyzed from coal fired generators, the carbon/carbon
dioxide emissions must be removed at significant cost. Only when total costs, including envrionmental damage, are considered can the real comparisons of energy sources be determined.
The U.S. FY 2006 budget has $74.28 million for hydrogen from coal and nuclear power earmarked for the Office of Science programs. The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy has an increase of $5.1 million over 2005, up to $99.1 million.
Can?t other renewables replace oil?
Photovoltaics currently is growing at a 30% rate but suffers from a combination of too small of an installed base and implementation costs which are much higher than nuclear power. Opponents of ethanol say that it takes more than a gallon of oil to produce ethanol with energy equal to that in the gallon of oil. Wind power has also been making inroads but still requires a U.S. tax credit of 1.8 cents/kWh to make it
economically feasable. Additionally, wind power is whimsical in production times and the windmills clutter large amounts of landscape.
With useage of either photovoltaics or wind, steps to utilization also require the development of electric vehicles and trains; the plug-in and electric vehicle definitely would be favorable to battery demand.
Who are the Players ?
One could argue that the government holds the keys in determining nuclear development, but even deeper public sentiment must be created to be friendly to new plants. The taxpayer must be assured that waste fuel storage is safer than the environmental and economic hazards of coal and externally procured energy.
At the implementation level, companies such as USEC, Inc., the world leading supplier of enriched uranium, is poised to provide fuel; plant builders include General Electric and Westinghouse Electric Co. (subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels PLC).
A No-Brainer which won?t happen
Looking at the long term, there is a point where the supply of oil begins to ?dry-up.? Assuming the demand is equally distributed between autos, trains and airplanes, the costs of operating each will follow the resulting rise in oil as supply wains.
All forms of transportation consume 30% (30 quadrillion BTUs) of the total energy used in the U.S. (100 quads) daily. With auto/ truck and rail transportation there are electrical alternatives to oil. Europe has shown the world for a century how to move trains electrically. Autos can operate with battery power or with hydrogen fuels in IC or fuel cell power plants.
But the big hurdle is air transportation. Much as visionaries would like to think that good will win out over evil and fuel cells will come to the rescue of aviation power, neither the power-to-weight ratio of the engine nor the fuel energy density of any observable alternatives to jet engines and petroleum fuel exists. Perhaps when the economically recoverable oil is gone, people who want to fly, as we now know it, are going to have to invent some new power plant and/or fuel combination. But until then, it would be wise to use the time for new inventions in aviation propulsion with available fuels. Unfortunately, this would be a global program which world thinking would have to buy into - an
action which would not happen easily.
The possibility for such diversion of oil to aviation could still happen if economics paved the way for a transportation transition. If nuclear power becomes more dominant, thus reducing costs and pollution, and the price of oil marches upward, more and more hybrid autos could appear on roads. As the price gap further promoted nuke electricity, the revisitation of battery powered electric autos, topped off in owner?s garages at night, could offer additional utilization convenience. As the conversion expanded, the hydrogen economy could replace oil in either fuel cell or ICE autos, trucks and busses. Not only will this require technology advancements, but it should also provide the user
with a discernable out-of-pocketbook savings of over 10% in purchase, operation and maintenance. This scenario could have a heavy involvement for batteries in both prime and hybrid applications.
The rail situation might best be served with electric wire distribution as is done so well in Europe and has performed in some limited applications in U.S. rail transportation. The nuketo-electric-to-train is a solution which exists today can redirect large amounts of oil to air transportation. Unfortunatly for the battery industry, an electric rail system might not significantly increase the role of batteries.
The problem for cleaner power solutions could be advanced by the media and advertising. However, hype for HDTV, ipods, giant TVs, gargantuan auto sound systems and SUVs or trucks dominates the attention of media from papers and magazines to tv, to billboards, and to movies. Doing cool things such as developing clean air and eliminating oil based transportation are missing mostly because big companies make big profits on what the public perceives to be the sexiest, most powerful products.
Just as the undertaker looks at people with an implied ?I?ll be seeing you sooner or later? smile, the world need for energy derived from other than oil sources will happen some day. If we wait too long to make transitions, there could be significant side problems beyond environmental and global warming, to include greater terror and mass conflicts. With oil as a catalyst, this world is mired in a losing energy game which home grown nuclear might be able to win. When the oil replacement happens, batteries will be ready to provide transportation storage for pure electrics