I haven't written too many diaries on energy or climate change, mostly because I don't have any real expertise on the subjects. I'm interested in them, much as I'm interested in health reform. But it's much easier to come up with an idea on health reform-there's none of that pesky science involved. But I received my lates issue of Esquire magazine today, and there was an article about nuclear energy I just had to share.
In other diaries I've commented that I am quite bullish on nuclear power. It is carbon neutral and done on a large scale around the world. There is a down side, of course, and it's a pretty big one: safety. The nuclear process generates deadly waste that lasts forever and is seemingly immpssible to store. But there may be a solution: the sodium fast reactor.
The man selling this possible solution to our energy crisis is Eric Loewen, a former United States Navy officer with a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. His plan relies on recycling nuclear waste, which is 95% uranium, 1% transuranics, and 4% other radioactive elements. Transuranics are highly radioactive elements not usually regarded as sources of energy. But Loewen has a solution for that:
"But if I build a different kind of reactor that uses liquid sodium instead of water to slow things down, I can have a higher neutron speed and that stuff becomes a fuel. You just mix it in the crucible, put in the transuranics, put in some uranium, put in some zirconium, and you cast it into thin rods."
A more detailed description of the process can be found here.
There is a 7 step process by which Loewen proposes to turn nuclear waste into an asset that can meet our energy needs, carbon free.
- Uranium mining, done all over the world, mostly in Canada and Australia. Estimates are that reserves are plentiful, with maybe thousands of years worth available for energy production.
- Fuel fabrication: uranium powder is formed into pellets the size of a pencil eraser and put into 14 foot metal tubes, which are bundled and sold to nuclear power plants.
- Nuclear power plants
- Spent fuel: if not recycled, this waste will take 1 million years to return to the radioactivity level of the ore from which it was produced.
- Advanced recycling center: the used fuel is seperated: transuranics are used to make more electricity. The uranium is recycled, the other radioactive elements are shipped to a geological repository.
- Geological repository: similar to a repository we know of now, except that the waste is radioactive for 500 years as opposed to 1 million.
- Electricity: electricity sales pay for steps 1, 2, & 3. Sales of electricity from the recycling center will pay for the operation of the recycling reactor, and companies will pay the center to take the spent fuel.
Perhaps the best part of this process is that we've already done a huge amount of research on the process. GE started researching it after the Nixon administration dropped an initial effort. After spending $1 billion, they were ready to build a prototype in 1992. But, for some reason, the Clinton Administration killed it. Maybe it was a safety issue. There are certainly many concerns about nuclear plant safety. But remember this: in 61 years, commercial nuclear power has not killed a single person in the United States.
I have often said that nuclear is not the only answer to our energy crisis. Solar can be used in the southwest, wind can be used in the plains and coastlines. But nuclear can and should help fill in the gaps. And it can certainly be a bridge until we get to the point where wind and solar can be a complete solution, if we ever get there. I would love to hear from the many kossacks much more informed on this subject than I.