Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Energy Policy and Environmental Choices: Rethinking Nuclear Power

Will the public rethink nuclear power?

I have not posted anything to this blog about pebble bed reactors for months. I have been busy developing a way to educate the general public about the broader issues of nuclear power.

Most people to whom I have presented the pebble bed reactor have been encouraging and supportive. The most common query I receive is "what about the waste?".

I now think public acceptance of nuclear power will depend on reprocessing to burn up the most hazardous radioactive waste. Also, reprocessing will wondrously provide a century of power just from the existing spent fuel inventories at nuclear power plant sites. Not only can non-fissile U-238 be bred into plutonium fuel, but abundant thorium can also be bred into U-233 fuel. We can have fuel that meets all our energy needs for thousands of years and waste that decays in a few hundred.

I have tried to rethink the advantages and disadvantages of pebble bed reactor technology. which I summarize below.

  • Passive safety makes core meltdown impossible.
  • Modularity allows smaller plants, with less capital investment risk, and distributed siting.
  • Small size permits factory mass production and on-site assembly.
  • High temperature, air cooled reactor needs no water for cooling.
  • 50% efficiency means 2/3 the fuel use.
  • High temperature permits direct hydrogen production.
  • Multi-layer pebbles containing all reaction waste products are ready for burial.

  • Technology learning curve not yet fully traversed.
  • Licensing in the US will require new NRC skills and knowledge.
  • US needs more nuclear power now, from already approved designs.
  • Fuel supply will be strained at the proposed one-unit-per-week installation schedule.
  • Reprocessing fuel in the hard pebbles will be difficult.



This is an 8-week course developed for the Dartmouth Ilead continuing education department. The course meets 2 hours a week beginning March 31, 2008, at Dartmouth College in Hanover NH. More information is available at http://rethinkingnuclearpower.googlepages.com.

The PowerPoint slides and audio of the talks will be posted after each session.


Global warming continues. The world consumes oil and gas faster than finding it. We import oil from unstable countries. Producing ethanol from corn consumes almost as much energy as the ethanol delivers. Sites for wind and hydro power are limited. Can more nuclear power help? Are the health risks acceptable? One theme will be how many? How many acres of corn? How many power plants? How many windmills? How many tons of uranium? How many tons of CO2?

1. Introduction

Energy units, uses, sources
Social benefits, demand growth, conservation, developing world
Periodic table, nuclear fission, nuclear power plants

2. Fear

Chernobyl, Three Mile Island
Radiation, health, safety, waste
Nuclear weapons proliferation

3. Environmental choices

Oil and gas depletion
Global warming, mining, coal, oil shale, tar sands
Wind, hydro, solar
Corn, sugarcane, cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel
Uranium and thorium availability

4. Current technology

Submarines and ships
Operating nuclear power plants, industry structure, NRC
Current products: GE, Westinghouse, Toshiba, Areva

5. Nuclear power plant visit


6. New technologies

High temperature gas reactors, liquid metal reactors
Hydrogen production, hydrocarbon synthesis, coal-to-liquid, electric cars

7. Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

Integral fast reactor, waste reprocessing
Fuel supply for non-nuclear nations
Current public awareness, funding, activities

8. Debate

Antinuclear activism, Union of Concerned Scientists, Caldecott
Public opinion, NEI, environmentalist shifts
Congressional and presidential candidate's views


whareagle said...

Okay, you have no idea who I am, but I have been a MONDO fan of Nuclear power, as well as Pebble Bed Reactors, since I saw something on it in 2000 or 2001 in Popular Science. This system is cheap(er), environmentally friendly, expandable, SAFE, and it really is the only viable solution out there. I love my wind farms in W. Texas, but unless the superconductor people can get their temps up to ambient standards, all that power is lost in transmission. Literally! Give me clean atomic fuel any day. It's the only choice.

Thanks and keep up the great work. Unfortunately, I live in TX, where Smokey Joe Robinson rules the roost that putz.

Rod Adams said...


Welcome back to the web. I am looking forward to taking your course in a time shifted mode by reviewing the slides and the lectures as you post them. You are doing important work that may help make a big difference.

As an aside - those Wall Street guys that you introduced to my company have continued their interest. Thank you.

Luke said...

This kind of thing is certainly important work that may help make a big difference.

I wish you success with it.

Also, just a suggestion: Bernard Cohen's famous works on radioactivity and nuclear power, especially his book The Nuclear Energy Option would be a good addition to your list of suggested reading materials.

Robert Hargraves said...

Cohen's work has influenced many of the materials in the course. I've started to post the PowerPoint presentations this week.

Uttam Kumar said...

Okay, you have no idea who I am, but I have been a MONDO fan of Nuclear power, as well as Pebble Bed Reactors,
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