Making space for renewable energy:

In order for renewable energy to be a viable energy source for the future it has to have a market space to operate in. This concept is not unique to energy but true for any profitable product line. If the space is not available, then most companies or governments will figure out ways to create the market space. It takes a lot of money to create an opening in the market and many times the best products don’t make it to the consumers.

When you narrow down that market to just energy to produce electricity, cheap will allows win in a deregulated market. For a niche market space a better product will survive because the consumers want better, not cheaper. There is no such thing as better electricity because an electron is an electron (law of physics). In order for wind and solar to succeed, the other sources have to be completely removed or at the least restricted by one of two means: government regulations or a lot of competitive money.

The first and still a very effective source for electricity was hydroelectric power from the Niagara Falls generating a direct current (DC) to New York City implemented by Thomas Edison. His chief engineer, Nicola Tesla had a better idea for a delivery system but didn’t have a market space to compete in. Tesla left Edison and joined up with George Westinghouse and started to offer a cheaper solution with Tesla’s alternating current (AC). Both systems delivered the same electricity but AC won out because there was more money behind it.

There are only so many places that electricity can be generated from water flow because there are only so many rivers that can be damn to create stored fuel for energy. Coal was already being used as a heat source so it was only natural to use that heat to create steam to turn the generators instead of flowing water. Coal was a stored energy source and the US had plenty of it. Coal fired generating plants starting popping up everywhere to create the electricity that completely transformed the industrial age to the greatest epoch of humanity since the beginning of mankind.

Coal had no competition until oil came along. Oil has never been able to displace coal because coal was already the cheapest market source and oil did not really provide a better product for generating electricity. But oil did have an opportunity to create niche markets with better transportation fuels and was able to displace the coal fired trains. Refined oil was also a more convenient way to provide fuel for the combustion engines used in cars, trucks, trains, planes, etc. At this point, coal and oil both had their market shares.

While coal and oil both contributed to winning WWII, another energy source was given credit for ending WWII in the Pacific theater with a couple for every powerful energy explosions – the atom bomb. This energy source was 1,000,000 times more energy dense than coal or oil. That presented a serious problem for the future of coal, oil and gas (O&G) as a viable fuel source for generating electricity. Nuclear energy quickly became the new kid on the block and a government sweetheart for the Department of Defense (DOD). Before you knew it, nuclear power plants are popping up all over the place.

That is when the environmentalist were leveraged to create a distraction with anti-nuclear movements against the government’s continued love relationship with nuclear toys like advancing atom bombs to thermonuclear weapons testing in the remote South Pacific. The environmental movement is now becoming big business still supported by big O&G money to control the energy market spaces. Big business is more concerned about saving the bottom line than saving the environment.

O&G has now decimated the coal industry with cheap natural gas. The O&G lobbies have turned the government against coal also and at the same time backed up the non-threatening renewable wind and solar industry. Renewable wind and solar cannot survive on just being a better product and requires natural gas (NG) as a base load source for 24 hour service. With cheaper renewable year after year and grossly cheap NG, the nuclear industry is being forced out of the market at the cost of the environment.

Palo Verde nuclear power plant near Phoenix AZ is the latest nuclear plant being threatened by big money. In this case, Palo Verde is still making a good profit supplying 79% of AZ clean electricity as well as other states (CA, NV, NM, & TX). However billionaire energy speculator Tom Steyer, who has made billions off of O&G, intends to protect his interest by openly supporting legislation to implement 50% renewable energy requirements in AZ by 2030 and to force an early decommission of Palo Verde nuclear power plant. This would be the worst thing for AZ because NG would be the primary replacement energy, not renewable wind and solar. This affects New Mexico also and both states will increase greenhouse gases instead of reducing it. Guess who the winner is?

 

Advertisements

Radioactive Materials Transport Infrastructure

About 3 million packages of radioactive materials are shipped each year in the United States, either by highway, rail, air, or water. Regulating the safety of these shipments is the joint responsibility of the NRC and the Department of Transportation. The NRC establishes requirements for the design and manufacture of packages for radioactive materials. Most of what has been transported over the last decades has been small amounts of low-level radioactive materials, especially for our hospitals.

Spent nuclear fuel is used fuel from a reactor that is no longer efficient in creating electricity with today’s nuclear reactor fleet. However, the fuel is still thermally hot, highly radioactive, and potentially harmful. Until a permanent disposal repository for spent nuclear fuel is built, utility licensees must safely store this fuel at their reactors sites.

However, two things have changed in the last decade: Yucca Mountain has not been license to store SNF and probably won’t be, and several nuclear power plants have been decommission prematurely for financial reasons (cheap NG) and more in the next decade. The SNF needs to be removed from the decommissioned nuclear power plants (NPP) sites to an interim storage location so the shuttered NPP can be completely cleared of any acute radioactive materials.

A permanent repository for SNF is no longer needed because the newer advance nuclear reactor designs will use the SNF as a fuel to generate electricity without producing waste. These decommissioned NPP’s need to remove their SNF to another active NPP location or to an interim storage site like ELEA/Holtec in New Mexico. This would require safe transport procedures to be defined and tested prior to moving the SNF material. Department of Energy (DOE) funded a test exercise with Sandia Labs in NM, Argonne National Labs, Northwest National Labs and nuclear agencies in both Spain and South Korea.

The test included land transport by truck and rail as well as sea transport by barge and boat. Rail will be the primary vehicle to transport SNF in the US. Sandia Labs has already thoroughly tested the robustness of nuclear waste casks with decades of simulated catastrophic transportation accidents. The next challenge was to stress test everyday transportation on the fuel rods inside the cask. This recent triathlon is actually Sandia’s fourth test to measure routine transportation strains on the content of cask transport modules.

The Department of Defense has shipped over 30,000 units of SNF from both the East Coast and the West Coast to the Naval Recovery Laboratory (NRL) near Idaho National Labs (INL) for over 30 years without incident. The NRL supports the final stages of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program’s mission through transportation and processing spent nuclear fuel for packaging and safe long-term storage after it has been removed from aircraft carriers and submarines. NRF has by default become an interim storage facility for military SNF only. This facility has proven for decades that SNF transport and storage is safe.

Now it is time for the commercial NPP’s to replicate the success of the military in SNF transport management. The ELEA/Holtec Consolidated Interim Storage Facility is a proposed site and the recent Sandia Labs Transport Test provides guidance for Holtec to manage acceptance, transportation and disposal of SNF and HLW in a manner that protects the public health, safety, and the environment; enhances national and energy security; and features public confidence. Holtec International has already been transporting and storing SNF for decades here in the US and around the world.

I recently had a detailed discussion with John Heaton, nuclear consultant involved with the WIPP project and their transport concerns for shipping low-level waste from the DOE National Labs through New Mexico to the WIPP facility by truck. For two decades these special transport trucks have been coming through Roswell without incident. In fact, in my 13 years here in Roswell, I have not seen a single truck or complaint published in the paper, nor have I had any conversation with residents of Roswell after writing my many articles on the topic of radioactive waste. You would have thought someone would be concerned but as that old saying goes ‘out of sight, out of mind”. My source in Artesia said that holds true down there as well, without having a special relief route around their town. The WIPP transport infrastructure is safe and secure.

Anyone can say “what if” but it is more substantial to say “prove it” and that is what has occurred over the last 30 years of transporting radioactive waste by the military to their interim SNF facility inside the City of Idaho Falls, ID and the permanent DOE transuranic storage facility (WIPP) outside the city of Carlsbad, NM. Now it is time for the residents along the BNSF railroad line from Clovis to Carlsbad to consider the safety of radioactive waste transport via rail based on ‘what it’ scenarios or the real world reality of the last 30 years’ experience. I’ll take experience over ‘what if’ every day of the week.

From Pipelines to Pipe Dreams:

The general public doesn’t always grasp that energy is a fundamental industry that powers every other industry, from food to manufacturing to medical care. If an industry that produces 80 percent of the world’s energy can’t explain why that is important, there’s a problem. There are those environmentalist that want to decarbonize the world. There are other environmentalist that believe renewable (wind, water, sun) can provide 100% of the energy the world needs. Both are pipe dreams that will never happen. As a pragmatist, I also realize that nuclear energy will never provide 100% of the world’s energy needs either, which has been my pipe dream for the last 10 years.

After researching and studying everyone else’s assessments, I thought I would try to make some sense of it all. As we look back on all the energy epochs since the beginning of humans roving this earth, the current usage of fossil fuels over the last 200 years has made the greatest impact on humanity. We live in an era of prosperity and abundance like never experienced before. That has come with some concerns about the effect of mankind’s activity on the environment. There is definitely a consensus that the climate is changing but there is not a consensus about how to address it.

The easy approach is to blame climate change on fossil fuels, but to decarbonize is not an easy solution. Look around and think about the percentage of ‘stuff’ we enjoy in life that is carbon based. Asked yourself if you could live comfortably without it. The last Administration was influenced by the environmentalist that wanted renewable wind and solar to dominate the energy policies. The result was very successful with the rapid development of wind and solar in the US and around the world.

However after 10 years and billions of dollars, renewable wind and solar only penetrated about 1.5% of the world electricity production. During that same time period fossil fuels continued to increase in usage but in some locations has replaced some coal generation with a lot of natural gas generation. As for CO2 measurements, there was a drop in the US, but not in the rest of the world. It is a given, in my assessment that O&G will continue to be a major player in future US energy policies. So the question becomes what will be included in the energy mix with carbon neutral O&G in the future?

Renewable wind and solar will definitely be in the energy mix over the next 10 years because of all the government subsidy support it gets to boost its momentum in the market place. However, to achieve the pipe dream of 100% renewable energy (phase out fossil and nuclear) is not mathematically possible. Even with the financial support from the governments (tax payers money), the numbers just don’t add up to success.

The first insane number for a bare-bones roadmap to 100% renewable, without sufficient backup or storage, will cost at least $15.2 Trillion over the next 35 years. That’s Trillion with a T. The national debt is currently running at $21T. The next insane number is all the heavy equipment needed to replace today’s generated electricity. Most of that equipment will last 10-40 years depending where they are located. That means a repair/replacement cycle will be started before the original dream will even be realized. Wind and solar are free, but to capture them will always be a huge annual expense. That cost will be reflected in our electricity bills.

In principle, enough renewables in enough places should provide the energy we need. But in practice, would any roadmap actually work without O&G stored fuel or nuclear stored fuel energy systems? The main issues with a 100% renewable energy (RE) dream are:

• The intermittent nature of RE systems
• The risk of relying on a fuel-free grid with no substantial backup
• The lack of adequate mass energy storage
• The wildly optimistic buildout schedule
• The mind-boggling amount of land
• The eye-popping price tag
• Name your personal issue (besides insanity)

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (NMPRC) has approved a $1.6 billion plan that calls for building two massive wind farms along the Texas-New Mexico border. “These wind facilities will power the regional economy with energy from our abundant, fuel-free wind resource and save customers hundreds of millions of dollars in energy costs for decades to come,” XCEL said in a statement. That is exactly what XCEL said when they contracted for the electricity generated by the large solar farm off East Pine Lodge (on way to Bitter Lake). Has anyone seen a decrease in your electricity rates? Not here, and I don’t expect any reduction after the wind farms are built either.

I need to wrap this article up with something that is practical – more innovative technology with stored fuels. Advanced carbon neutral O&G will be with us for a very long time and advanced nuclear energy is seeing a resurgence worldwide. Both are needed if we want renewable wind and solar energy to be part of the energy mix for electricity generation and addressing climate change.

Nuclear Safety and Security Infrastructure:

The very first concern most people have about anything dubbed ‘nuclear’ is safety. What is concerning to me is why are these people not asking the same question of many products we use in our daily lives. Most people have busy lives and we rely on the consensus of others and the government to provide safe products. Yes, there are times when they get it wrong and recall the products to get them off the market. But in reality, it is up to the people to act on the recall and most of us don’t. I have personally ignored recall notices because I didn’t have a problem, until I did.

When it comes to nuclear safety, there is nothing on this earth that is more regulated and restricted by governments around the world. Along with those regulations is also an element of fear. If you ever want someone to pay attention to a safety concern, fear has always worked historically. There is nothing to fear except fear itself. The only way to overcome that fear is through knowledge, knowledge of the unknown. Who has time to study nuclear science and technology and remove all doubt about the safety and security concerns of radiation in Roswell NM, besides me?

Fear has been and still is projected by the anti-nuclear folks when it comes to storing radioactive materials in New Mexico. Some have extreme positions calling NM the dumping ground for nuclear waste. To the contrary, New Mexico has the safest infrastructure to manage and store nuclear materials, even more importantly, the safest research and monitoring facility in the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring & Research Center (CEMRC) as a division of the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University.

CEMRC was and still is very instrumental in the development and continuance of the WIPP facility from the very beginning and most recently became newsworthy in the detection of the 2014 radiation leak. WIPP stores non-combustible transuranic mixed with combustible materials that are not predictable as the 2014 chemical explosion of a stored barrel deep inside the WIPP chambers proved.

When it comes to spent fuel from nuclear power plants, it is only uranium with fission products and is 100% predictable based on standard laws of physics. That makes spent nuclear fuel (SNF) safer to store than what we have stored at WIPP for the last decade and will continue to store the government leftovers from its Cold War days as their messes around the country are cleaned up.

The WIPP Environmental Monitoring Program is the silent partner that always has your back. There is a complete infrastructure for research and monitoring that include environmental chemistry, external field teams, internal dosimetry testing, organic chemistry (non-radioactive), and radiochemistry with information management to tie it all together. WIPP is one of two places where near-zero background radiation can be achieved for evaluating low-level radionuclide measurements. What that means is that there is less radiation in WIPP’s deep repository than background radiation we experience here in Roswell on a daily basis.

In December 2014, a report called ‘An Independent Assessment of the February 14, 2014 Underground Radiation Release Event at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)’ was released. The simple summary is that the accident should have been avoided because standard procedures were not followed at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) where the barrel in question was improperly packed with the wrong type of material used to control moisture. There is a certain safety culture that has to be maintained at LANL and also at WIPP. Those procedures, new training and new ventilation equipment have been updated and WIPP is reopened for business again.

When the event occurred, the CEMRC external field teams immediately step into action when the alarms went off that detected a radiation leak somewhere in the underground that came up through the vents. The WIPP exhaust air from the underground is measured by four monitoring stations referred to as Stations A, B, C, and D individually. CEMRC routinely collects, analyzes and reports results from Station filters. Since the inception of the release event, WIPP has been in filtration mode so filters have been collected more often. That is a precautionary safety procedural change. Explicit detail information about monitoring is available at the CENRC web site with reports for the curious like myself.

Beyond the WIPP facility, CEMRC manages a network of continuously operating samplers at several locations in the vicinity surrounding the WIPP Site to monitor radioactive constituents in the ambient air. During the WIPP release event CEMRC air samplers detected elevated concentrations of Americium (241Am) and Plutonium (239+240Pu, and 238Pu). The samplers are designed to ensure the protection of human and environmental health. While the concentration levels were elevated they were not harmful.

With the ELEA/Holtec site just a few miles up the road from WIPP, the existing radiation safety infrastructure is already monitoring that area as part of the WIPP environment. There are certain security procedures that are not transparent to the public for security reasons. ELEA/Holtec site will be monitored for safety and security by an independent agency, most likely CENRC.

Nuclear sabotage of G&O is a stretch:

Our local anti-nuclear resident recently wrote that the ELEA/Holtec Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CISF) ‘could’ sabotage the G&O industry here in New Mexico. Well, after chatting with a few of my oil buddies there was no ‘fear’ create by that article. In fact, quite the opposite occurred when I explained how G&O would benefit from the presence of the SNF storage in New Mexico. Holtec has already patented a heat exchanger that can capture the 190C (that’s 374F degrees) decay heat generated from the canisters in storage for the purpose of large industrial water purification. And everyone in New Mexico realizes how valuable clean potable water is, especially during our drought years.

So will the ELEA/Holtec CISF project really sabotage the G&O Industry? NO. Actually, the ELEA/Holtec project will complement the G&O industry greatly, especially with a very cheap and practical way to distill New Mexico’s natural saline water into potable water needed in the drilling and fracking processes. After the fracking process, G&O has a lot of ‘dirty’ water that needs to be recycled and reused at the next well head. Water and energy are both a major cost item, so when both can be produced cheaply and locally, that is an attraction that G&O could never pass up. Holtec International and Elysium Industries have confirmed that 190C is more than enough heat to distill potable water and produce electricity at the same time from the same heat source.

I have already written an article about my opinion of calling the ELEA/Holtec project ‘interim’ storage because storing a nuclear fuel with an energy density to supply all the fuel needed for generating electricity over the next 400 years in just the US, is not interim. If every one of our current water cooled nuclear reactors were replaced with an advance fast spectrum molten salt reactor (all 99) this stored nuclear fuel along with the depleted uranium stored at URENCO could last 4,000 years with each individual reactor producing 30% more electricity than today’s fleet. So, the conclusion for me is that ELEA/Holtec project is not just about storing SNF but about a whole new industry of industrial heat for clean water, clean electricity, medical isotopes and of course nuclear fuel for the next centuries.

The one major benefit that I have not touched on yet is the billions of dollars to the State of New Mexico. Of course, there will be storage fees for the SNF but there will also be hundreds of very well paying jobs from construction to operation and everything in between and secondary businesses that always pop up around every major industry. The primary taxes like corporate taxes, income taxes, gross receipt taxes alone will increase the state revenue source so that schools, roads and other social needs can be addressed instead of always waiting for the next year’s state budget. I think everyone could appreciate that.

So where is the sabotage? Our local anti-nuke activist has really not explained how the ELEA/Holtec project will sabotage the oil industry other than to say – radiation is harmful. Well, as I have written in previous articles I will remind everyone again that life requires radiation and without it, all life dies. There is a threshold of acute radiation that can kill and after 3 nuclear power plant meltdowns and 2 atom bombs studied over the last 60 year (the beginning of the commercial nuclear age), a ‘safe level’ has now been determine to be a very conservative 350 mrem annual dose by the World Health Organization.

The NRC.com web site has a personal radiation calculator that you can determine what your body absorbs annually based on your life style. We are all different and I am getting an annual dose of ~377.078 mrem, mostly because of medical diagnostic procedures. I am also getting ~ 0.0009 mrem from WIPP which is considered part of background radiation dose (240 mrem US average) for this part of New Mexico. If you live in Santa Fe or Denver, add another 50 mrem per year because of elevation. And for the jet setters, you’ll probably max out wherever you live.

Every industry has a risk factor of something going wrong. Just recently, Tri-Chem Industries in Texas had the most unusual (freaky) fire/explosion accident that killed one,  injured two and released tons of toxins into the atmosphere. Tri-Chen provides chemicals for the G&O industry. A few years back, a fertilizer plant exploded in West Texas where 15 people were killed, more than 160 were injured, and more than 150 buildings damaged or destroyed. Basically, part of town was wiped off the map. West Fertilizer Company had supplied chemicals to farmers since it was founded in 1962. The commercial nuclear industry, both power plants and waste management facilities, have had zero deaths caused by radiation exposure because it is so heavily regulated for safety.

Maybe other industries should take heed and be as responsible for their operations and waste too.

Batteries not included:

I recently had another conversation with someone here in Roswell that is absolutely convinced that renewable wind and solar is the only energy solution we need for our electricity needs. We have a very large solar farm tracking the sun northeast of Roswell that can provide electricity for 40,000 homes at its peak capacity which is about 8 hours during the day. There is also a small wind farm north of Roswell that is capturing the wind, when the wind is blowing.

When I ask a very simple question like: “What happens when the sun isn’t shinning and the wind isn’t blowing?” I get the following answer – batteries. Unfortunately, batteries were not included in either of those energy farms north of town so what we are replying on for backup are the XCEL nuclear power plants and combined coal/gas power generators, which do not need battery backups.

Elon Musk, who is known for his SpaceX program and his Tesla electric cars is also a big advocate of battery storage systems for the renewable energy industry. Musk’s battery storage system is designed to overcome one of the main obstacles to greater reliance on renewable power sources — they can store up power produced while the wind blows or the sun shines, and then release it steadily to the grid later when generation stalls.

Yes, this is technically true but the real question becomes: for how long? His recent venture in the outback of Australia proved the concept and stored enough energy for quick energy backup in emergency situations for a short period of time. Then fossil fuel backup kicked in. In order for renewable to service the requirements of an energy hungry world we need to build bigger wind turbines and more and more solar farms to capture the energy that would then be stored in bigger and more batteries. There has to be a better way.

The part of the discussion that needs attention is how big can we build wind turbines until there is no more engineered capacity possible and all we can do then, is populate more of the landscape with them. Solar has a slightly different path. Solar does have an increase capacity potential with newer conductive materials, but we are already locked in to silicone’s low capacity capture rate that will also need more landscape to produce more electricity for the masses and industry. And both will always need battery backup systems just as massive.

What is also missing from the energy discussion is renewable waste. Wind turbines will last about 20 years with constant maintenance for all it mechanical parts lubricated with petroleum products as its capacity rate declines year after year. Then they will need to be replaced and the old stuff disposed of in a special landfill near someone’s back yard. The billions of silicone solar panels are already destined for another landfill within 10 years as its yearly capacity rate diminishes. China is building billions more of these silicone panels because no one can afford to switch to newer more efficient conductive materials like graphene (a nanocarbon product). We are just now starting to populate the world with lithium-ion batteries everywhere and those things will last ~10 years before they create an enormous toxic waste problem, potentially hundreds of times worse than nuclear or natural gas.

The renewable energy system is properly named because the source of energy is always available somewhere on earth. What makes more sense to calling it renewable is the fact that all the capture and storage components have to be renewed every 10 to 20 years. Maybe a more appropriate term to use is the energy recycling system. The real down side of wind and solar is that they are both real-time capture systems that when you don’t use it, you lose it. That is why battery storage is now becoming the add-on component to make the wind and solar renewable energy system work better. But, will it be enough?

When it comes to the efficiency of an energy power system there is nothing that comes close to the capacity factor/rate of nuclear power. It starts with the energy density of the stored fuel itself. Both uranium and thorium have a million times more energy density than fossil and another million times more than wind and solar. The current nuclear power plants have the technical longevity of 100 years and the newer advance molten salt reactor (MSR) designs even longer than that with minimal moving parts. When it comes to cost, that long life is a nice ROI factor to have on your investment. And the best part is that – batteries are not included as storage systems to provide backup energy to the grid.

In order for the world to switch to everything electric and portable, there must be a reliable electricity generating system to recharge all those batteries. Wind and solar is a partial solution but nuclear (and fossil) is a guaranteed ‘always on’ system.