Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Nuclear Power and Tradeoffs

You can't get something for nothing.

That's the hard and fast rule of life.  There is no such thing as perpetual motion, you can't have life and riches without death and taxes.  Eventually, the ride has to come to a stop, and everybody has to get off.

Nuclear power begets nuclear waste.  That's the hard truth.  So-called "breeder" reactors generate their own fuel by bombarding other material inside the reaction chamber with neutrons.  But what about the fuel that generated the neutrons?  Right, exactly: that gets used up, and becomes waste.

Gotta do something with it.  The Earth is a closed-loop system, you can't push a giant lever (shaped like Florida?) and have all the bad icky nuclear waste just "go away."  Nothing ever "goes away" unless you manage to launch it completely off the surface of the Earth at something more than escape velocity.  Even then, it's no guarantee unless you score a bulls-eye on the sun (best option) or some other planetary neighbor (so much for camping there, future generations of space explorers will spit on your grave).

And of course, I think there's something in a treaty somewhere that would probably write big frowny faces all over the plans for launching tons of nuclear waste on iffy rockets.  Besides, there's not enough launch capacity to keep up with all the waste.  So let's just forget that idea.

So which would you rather have?  Hundred-meter-high smokestacks from the fossil plants, burning tons and tons of coal?  We have one of those close by, see it all the time.  It's not my favorite, but it means my refrigerator keeps running.  Sorry about the acid rain.  Fun trivia: highly acidic rain makes limestone buildings fizz.  Whee!

Hydroelectric power looks pretty sweet, doesn't it?  Never mind it's only useful where there's a sufficient fall of water to turn the turbine.  Never mind that it drowns entire square miles of land upriver of the dam.  I live close to one of those, too: Norris Dam, built in 1933.  I wouldn't trade it, but there's no denying that it uproots a lot of people, it disturbs a lot of ecosystems.  Can't get around it.  If you're a fish, I mean that literally: you can't get around it, not until you up and evolve some legs.  Are you a fish with spawning grounds upstream?  Sounds like a long, dry spell in the offing for you.

Ha ha ha.  I pun.

What other options?  Big ol' diesel.  Not great, but not as bad as you might think: the biggest diesel engine in the world, the Wartsila-Sulzer RTA-96C (shown here in its three-story glory),

actually achieves over 50% thermal efficiency at its best loading rate.  That's better than a good coal-fired power plant, so good on you, Wartsila-Sulzer!  But dang, where does the other 50% of the energy go?

Heat.  So maybe you could wring a few more efficiency points out by using the waste heat of the exhaust to run, I don't know, a steam turbine or three.  Can't hurt to try.

What else is there?  Wind.  Big ol' oscillating fans, or as the treehuggers like to call them, bird blenders.  And there are others who are wringing their hands over whether we're having an effect on the weather, changing the wind patterns like this.  That's a tough call, but I guarantee you that the wind gennies do indeed have an effect.  Whether it's big enough to detect or not I can't begin to say, but again I must reiterate: the Earth is a closed-loop system.  What goes around literally comes around.  Eventually.  Give it a little time.  It's a closed loop, but it's a big loop.

So what drives the wind that drives the gennies?  Heat.  And where does the heat come from?  Ahh - there might be a hole in the loop.  Where does all the energy come from, where did the energy that made the plants that grew and died and got squashed into coal or rotted into oil come from?  What makes the sea evaporate and rise into the sky to become clouds that rain down into rivers to sluice through our giant hydroelectric dams?

The sun.

Solar power.  Efficiencies aren't the stuff of fantasies: 25% is a benchmark that is pretty much unattainable in practical use.  Shoot for the high teens.  Even so, that's not bad.  A kilowatt of energy lands on every square meter of full sun in summer, 15% (being conservative) is 150 watts, no questions asked.  A well-made solar electric (aka photovoltaic) panel will last decades - 25-year warranties are standard.

So why not roof over everything you ever walked inside of with photovoltaic panels?  Every gas station, every swimming pool shelter, every motel, restaurant, grocery store and especially Wal-Mart?

Why not indeed.  The potential is there to run the meter backwards, to feed more energy into the power grid than you take out.

That doesn't mean you get to get rid of the power plants.  We'll still need nukes, coal, something.  The Earth turns her face away from the sun.  Her backside rotates toward the sun every day too.  China needs some light, you know.

Sorry, China.  I make jokes at your expense.

But the silicon in the panels has to come from somewhere, excess panels have to go somewhere.  The beaches are all gone (not an actual risk, chill out).  What's up with all those mirrors in the desert (actually not a dumb idea, read up on assorted marginal land solar installations).

Which tradeoffs are you willing to accept?  What will you set aside to minimize the burden on future generations?  Is an American Fukushima an acceptable scenario, or
an overtopped dam?

Humans make messes, then wonder where all the clean land went.  We have a long history of messing stuff up, because we use up resources faster than the energy of the sun can power the natural processes that make the waste products back into resources.  It took millions of years to generate all that coal and petroleum, at the rate humanity is using it up, it will all be used up in approximately five hundred years  - that's total, since humans started seriously using it.  It's getting harder to find, harder to get out of the ground as fast as the rest of the economy demands it.

Why not pull the power out of the sky, instead?  The sun is free.  It shines on everyone equally.  The tradeoffs are lower.  The grass won't grow under your solar panels?  Fine - build a house under the solar panels, and now you don't have to worry about taking up too much space with your energy demands.  Maybe there'll be some power left for your grandkids.

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