February 2008

Nuclear power one answer, but not the only answer

Most will agree there are many issues to be addressed before we can commit extensive investment in our future energy needs to the nuclear power alternative.

That being said, however, I'd like to address some other issues raised by Dr. Hans D. Baumann's "The Final Say" in November 2007 InTech.

First, as a graduate in Chemical Engineering, I'd like to heartily agree with his assessment of hydrogen as the "fuel of the future." When I hear people talk of the "hydrogen economy" it really sets my teeth on edge. Until we find a "cold fusion" type of answer to catalyze the release of hydrogen from "burnt hydrogen," any current technology is simply a net negative energy situation. Without going into the physical chemistry of the hydrogen oxygen bonding in water and the efficiency of electrolytic cells, suffice to say, hydrogen is an elusive "holy grail" until some crucial breakthrough materializes.

Similarly, the chemistry of the production of ethanol from plant materials, especially from corn, is a net negative energy producer. It remains to be seen what might be developed in the production of ethanol or other alcohols from entire plant materials, including the digestion of cellulose, but my instincts tell me this too will be elusive as a net positive energy producer. We certainly should not be wasting precious fossil fuels to produce the fertilizer and energy required to grow and process corn into ethanol. It seems what we have here is a politically motivated boon-doggle with many profiting along the way and the tax payer and consumer footing the bill.

What I would take issue with, however, is his rapid dismissal of wind energy and electric automobiles. 

Wind turbines

Baumann, in his assessment of wind turbines, states "what usually goes unconsidered in the payback analysis is the high cost of capital." When one promotes nuclear energy as the alternative, he is promoting one of the most capital intensive alternatives in existence. In my view, the biggest problem with wind power generation is the fickle nature of the wind itself. Wind energy will always be a highly fluctuating source, thereby relegating it to a lesser role in any large-scale energy system. There will be times when there is no wind at all, and times when the winds are so high the wind turbines must be feathered to protect the equipment. All of that notwithstanding, however, wind energy can be a "green" portion of a large-scale energy system as it directly produces no carbon dioxide. However, one must remember the production of the turbines does involve carbon footprint manufacturing processes. It is not within the scope of this discussion to analyze all of that from cradle to grave so to speak.

Electric cars (and hybrids)

Baumann states that "if anything, battery-operated cars use more energy than equivalent gasoline-powered vehicles." That statement requires some careful scrutiny. First, one must recognize an electric motor has a higher torque per horsepower than does its fossil-fueled equivalent. Further, the electric motor is vastly more efficient-shaft energy out to energy in-than is any fossil-fueled motor in common usage. And, the lower weight of an electric motor offsets the higher weight of batteries compared to an internal combustion engine plus a full tank of fuel. Another point he neglected is the plug into which you connect to recharge your battery may be getting its energy from one of his nuclear power plants. Or, even better than that, from the solar panels on the roof of your garage. His energy analysis of batteries and electric motors is highly flawed when put up against the combined inefficiency of an internal combustion engine plus the complex transmission and differential required for same. Lots of friction losses along that drive train … especially when one compares that with smaller electric motors directly powering each wheel. Ever wonder why the railroads use electric motors to power their diesel engines? 

Also, I reject his comparison of "burning it (the oil) in a power plant, then transfer the electricity (at a loss) to our homes in order to charge the batteries." We must remember the utilities burn the lowest cost fuel available on the planet, much less expensive than gasoline, and with much more efficient pollution controls. 

Sorry, Baumann, I simply cannot write off the electric car that glibly, and I must also consider the hybrid cars which are rapidly evolving, as is the technology of the batteries utilized in both types of electric cars. High-energy batteries based on nanotechnology are providing much lower weight energy sources and much more rapid recharging cycles. We are going to see a great deal of progress in this arena in the next five years, so we cannot write off the electric and hybrids cars as "less efficient," as it is not-necessarily now nor will it in the future be the case.

In closing, I'd like to thank Baumann for his urging us to again consider nuclear power as a viable energy alternative. I like to hope we can solve the many issues facing their continued use and, even more, the capitalization and construction and safety of new nuclear plants. If and when we do, I can visualize a power system in our country that takes advantage of fewer fossil-fueled plants and many more wind, wave, solar and nuclear sources.

Peter B. Pitsker, retired from Wonderware

Nuclear facts vs. fiction

While the December 2007 InTech "The Final Say" article on nuclear power (page 90) is good, you are a victim of the propaganda about nuclear waste. 

First, the total volume of all waste from U.S. nuke plants since day one would fit in a football stadium.

Second, the idea of this being dangerous for thousands of years is false. High radioactivity will dissipate in about 50 years, the most active having the shortest half life. The remainder will be no more deadly than living at high altitude or flying. 

Third, if waste was reprocessed, as France and others do, the volume would be reduced by about 95% and the rest reused.

The largest source of radioactive waste in the world is the slag piles and smokestacks of coal fired plants. 

Coal is about 3 ppm U2 and thorium. In a billion ton/year coal unit, that is a ton and a half of nuke waste.

Estimates are 60,000 people die in fossil fuel accidents and 200,000 from fuel pollution every year.

Bob Rickman, Benicia, Ca.