Category Archives: News Article

The Energy Policy should not be bi-partisan

The US energy policy and the world energy policy should be viewed as a betterment of humanity. Energy should be viewed as a whole and not as the individual sources that make it up. Energy should provide humanity and its environment with abundance, whatever that might be, to improve living as we know it today with a long term perspective in hundreds of years, not every four year.

None of the political parties are actually looking at energy with this perspective. The choices so far are 1) no fossil, 2) fossil or 3) what ever the market will bear. None of these are really appropriate because they are basically a pick and choose winners and losers. Each individual energy source has its advantage and drawback depending on where and how it is used. Some are cleaner, safer, cheaper, more efficient and reliable and the list goes on.

The goal of an energy policy should be based on what is best for each geographic center. What is best for California is not necessary the best for Iowa or New York. With 50 individual states, all with different ecosystems, economics and political ideals, a universal mandate from the Federal Government is completely the wrong approach. The Federal government should set guidelines for safe energy and let the market determine the best approach.

For example, the federal government has flat out mandated the elimination of coal mining and burning for generating electricity through non-congressional regulations. This type of policy has a critical impact on several states livelihood. How does this elimination improve the lives in those states and other states that depend on coal shipments? Coal has always provided abundance for all the people but has also created a concern about pollution of the air, water and land. Instead of eliminating coal, it should be made cleaner through technical innovations to directly address the concerns of pollutions.

Another example would be the nuclear power industry. For the last 40 years the federal government has placed regulation upon regulation that it has basically chocked the industry into near non-existence. Nuclear energy has already proved itself to be the most reliable and efficient source of clean energy. But that doesn’t seem to matter when you have selfish advocates against it and fossil fuels (Craig). Nuclear is the safest energy ever devised.

Subsidies and Natural Gas (NG) have been the saving grace for the federal governments preferred choice for electricity generation – wind and solar. While wind and solar do have their benefits in certain ecosystems, they are not the most reliable or efficient source for the national power grid. Subsidies should be removed or all sources of energy should be subsidized equally per actual Kwt, not capacity like wind and solar is today.

Almost 90% of America’s low-carbon energy sources come from hydropower (21%) and nuclear power (67%). It is ironic that the two largest providers of low-carbon electricity, hydro and nuclear, have the most onerous regulatory hurdles that make construction lengthy and expensive. Ten years is common for merely licensing either. Once built, however, both enjoy the longest of facility life-times, the lowest production costs per kWh, and produce vastly more power than any other type of energy facility before they are ever shuttered.

Good News – maybe: The most recent report from the Federal Government (ORNL) is to expand hydropower by 50% through electrifying existing dams and emplacing pumped hydro storage at existing non-powered dams to facilitate more intermittent renewable like wind and solar onto the electric grid. Only 3% of American dams generate electricity. The others provide navigation, flood control, irrigation, water supply and/or recreation without power, but most can be upgraded to supply electricity. However, no new dams are in the report and no mention of droughts.

Of all the energy sources, coal, gas and nuclear fuels are not dependent and have centuries of inventory, most not discovered yet. Uranium can be extracted from our oceans and thorium is just sitting there on every beach. The capacity inventory reaches into the billions of years when you consider the inventory on our moon and Mars, two locations we are destine to conquer.

“All of the above” is the policy that all political parties should be endorsing. Each energy source can be used collectively to achieve the arbitrary goal or limitation set on increased global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius by COP 21 (2015). Global Warming does not care what technology is used, just how much carbon is emitted.


“Nuclear energy by the numbers”

A truism is a claim that is obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning, except as a reminder or as a rhetorical device. If only that were true! What do I mean by that little sarcasm? Whenever I read an article from an anti-group regardless of topic, they use a technique which uses a true fact to lead a scientifically and mathematically ignorant public to a false conclusion. Hmmmm.

When I started writing this series about our nuclear biosphere, I promised myself that I would try to avoid stating a bunch of numbers, pushing partisan politics, definitely no religion and to keep the articles to 600 words. Well, this week I have to violate the numbers rule.

Recently, I started reading a manuscript for a new book about energy and the planet. In the chapter titled “Lets Run the Numbers”, there are many detailed figures for what it means to have nuclear vs. wind and solar as a primary energy source. The comparison was based on standard size 500MW power plants to provide electricity distribution through the US national power grid to service the same base of customers. The following four statements were made and the rest of the chapter referenced supporting statistics, formulas, modeling numbers and did I say lots of números to backup each of the following statements.

  • It would cost over $29 Trillion to generate America’s baseload electric power with a 50 / 50 mixture of wind and solar PV farms, on parcels of land totaling the area of Indiana. Or:
  • It would cost over $18 Trillion with Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) farms in the southwest deserts, on parcels of land totaling the area of West Virginia. Or:
  • We could do it for less than $3 Trillion with AP-1000 Light Water Reactors (Gen3+), on parcels totaling the area not much bigger than Roswell, NM. Or:
  • We could do it for $1 Trillion with liquid-fueled Molten Salt Reactors (Gen4), on the same amount of land as the AP-1000, but with no water cooling, no risk of meltdowns, and the ability to use our stockpiles of nuclear “waste” as a secondary fuel.

Whatever we decide, we need to make up our minds, and soon. Burning carbon fuels are killing us and killing the planet as well. Sorry folks, but a good planet is hard to come by. The above 4 statements are from ‘Power to the Planet’ manuscript/new book by Mike Conley, except for the reference to Roswell, NM.

Without doing the math myself, I actually came to a similar conclusion that nuclear was more efficient than all other sources of energy by sheer observation and a little bit of scientific research. When the energy density of uranium or thorium fission is 2 million times more than the next densest source, coal, you have to wonder why we would want a mixture of other less efficient energy sources with capacity factors less than 50% at production time. The capacity factor is where nuclear power excels; it’s almost always above 90% online. And it’s why the most productive power plants in America are nuclear (Palo Verde, AZ is #1).

For those of you who have been reading my column weekly already know that nuclear is my preference for electricity generation. After 3 years of writing about nuclear I am starting to get redundant and have decided to move on to the next revolution of technology: nano-technology and robotics. This will keep me busy for the next couple of years writing some very interesting articles.

One last comment – Pope Francis is the first Pope to have studied chemistry and who worked as a chemist prior to entering the seminary. In section 104 of the Encyclical it states: “However, we cannot ignore the fact that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, the knowledge of our own DNA and other potential advances that we have acquired, offer us tremendous power and opportunity”. This sentence should have been in section 1. Unfortunately, main stream media won’t read past section 10 and focus only on climate change and social injustice issues.

California Dreaming: “Only as a Last Resort”

Over the last 45 years, California has made some very questionable choices about the future needs of stored water and energy starting with banning new hydroelectric dams back in the 70’s, decommissioning nuclear power plants in the 80’s, ignoring desalination during the epic drought in the 90’s, preventing coal from getting a foothold in the 00’s and recently, limiting fracking. What were they thinking? How much time is there after the decision “ONLY AS A LAST RESORT” is made can they actually build something new? There isn’t any energy or water resource that doesn’t require a 10-20 year lead time to propose, design, develop and implement. Add another 5-10 years to that for regulation court cases that always go with these multi-decade projects. The only new energy sources available to California in a reasonable time frame are wind, solar and natural gas turbines. The alternative for California is to purchase electricity from the National Grid, which is mostly nuclear and coal base generated, two sources that California no longer allows in state. There is no new water available for the state either, that will make a difference in their current drought. When the rains came back after the previous drought in the Southwest, San Diego County decided to seek out a positive solution. They started the largest ocean water desalination project in the Western Hemisphere at a cost over a billion dollars which is schedule to come online in late 2015. This plant will only provide 10% of the fresh water the county needs in 2016 and will drop to 7% by 2020 (population increase). However, that is 10% less dependence on diverted water from Northern California and Colorado River which represents 80% of San Diego County’s water usage today. California does have one operating desalination plant at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Station, currently running at half its capacity, for plant operations and local community water needs. During that same 20 year time line, Israel also decided not to get caught in another drought. Israel has always had a chronic water shortage problem and as the population and industry continued to grow it became critical and needed to be resolved to sustain their economy. Ground water in Israel wasn’t going to do it anymore so Israel turned to the Mediterranean Sea. Through aggressive desalination programs, Israel has created the possibility of transforming the region in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Israel is actually drought proof and has so much extra fresh water that it is now supplying its neighbors, even the ones that are hurling rockets at them. Back here at home, there is a grandiose idea in New Mexico to divert water from the Gila River, west of the Continental Divide, to the east side.  This proposal would require a diversion structure and some combination of a pumping station, a power station, a massive pipeline, canal system, an off-stream dam reservoir and a huge price tag. When asked in a June 2013 poll by the Interstate Stream Commission which approaches the residents would prefer to address the state’s water situation, New Mexican’s overwhelmingly supported alternatives to diversions. Recycling treated wastewater would be a better approach. Congratulations to UTEP for their second place finish in the Desal Prize ($600,000) designing a clean water solution for brackish water contest. Now they have some funding to take their design to a pilot project here in New Mexico which has plenty of brackish water. Without new technology, the alternatives for fresh water are to do nothing, hope for the best, pray for rain or spend $1B for water diversion. Reference Link to a solution:

“Coal energy cheaper than coal energy”

The only reason China is investing in everything possible for their energy mix is because they need more energy then they can generate. Once their energy catches up to their demand they will be able to take a serious look at what energy sources are the most efficient and narrow their scope to what can be considered clean energy. Once their focus on quantity is turned to quality, hopefully they will still include fossil fuels. Really?

There is a needed mix for energy and it includes fossil from my perspective. I struggle to understand why the Obama Administration wants to throw coal under the bus. If we change the way we look at coal, it too can be a cleaner energy source. If we convert coal to electricity via electrochemical oxidation without burning it, we can generate twice the electricity with half the coal and manage the waste without a variety of toxins ever getting release into the atmosphere. We have managed nuclear waste for 60 years so we already know how to do it safely.

The concept is called Direct Carbon Fuel Cells (DCFC) and Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL) has demonstrated this technology as far back as 2005. Why no one is interested in this solution stuns me just like the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) oversight for clean safe nuclear energy did fifty years ago. Natural gas and oil can also be used as a source for this DCFC process and the best part is that it already comes with an existing commercial electrical power generation infrastructure.

I’ve written a short paragraph about DCFC in a previous column but I strongly believe the Unites States Coal Industry needs to take a serious look at this potential technology. There are several reasons why I take this position and the first and most obvious is that the Coal Industry is on the chopping block with the latest EPA regulations. The new regulations have to do with clean air and water from the coal burning process to generate electricity. The EPA itself admits that the plan’s usefulness against the threat of climate change will be so small that it will be impossible to measure. If you eliminate the ‘burning of coal’, you eliminate the need for new regulations and many of the older regulations as well.

Coal is the cheapest source we have to generate electricity today. The fact that there is already a well established infrastructure for mining coal, it only makes business sense to leverage that infrastructure and only change that process which needs to be changed – the burn. At a fraction of the cost to build an equivalent nuclear power plant or renewable wind and solar farm, a new DCFC Converter can be built right next to the existing coal furnaces and the output fed directly into the electrical grid without having to go through a secondary steam turbine process. Wow! That would lower the cost of processing tremendously and make electricity generation from coal cheaper than coal. There is a little sarcasm in that last sentence because coal is the cost baseline for all other energy sources.

There is a book I read recently titled “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” and it addresses the abundance of what fossil fuel has contributed to our extraordinary life style. Even as an advocate of nuclear energy, I just don’t understand the reasoning behind those you want to shut down coal production when clean coal can be achieved if we wanted to commit the effort to it.

DCFC Ref. Link:

“Molten Salt Nuclear Reactors: fifty years late”

Molten salt reactors (MSR) have the potential to produce carbon free energy that is cheaper than coal, safer than natural gas and more efficient than renewable. MSR’s have properties that make them the potential game changer in our energy landscape. Well, that is what they said 50 years ago and it didn’t happen then for a variety of reasons that I have already expressed in prior articles. Basically, it was about political interference and not about the science and technology. Nothing new there and you can read all about it at where all my previous articles are available.

That was then and this is now and we still have a tremendous opportunity to change the energy landscape today because nothing else came along in the last 45 years to change it otherwise (except OPAC). Fossil fuels are still burning up into the atmosphere as CO2 and renewable is just churning up the landscape with their clutter.

MSR energy production figures are quite remarkable.  Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource (whew!). Read that again because it is very important to understand. For example, 1 KwH invested in solar, you get back about 10 KwH of usable energy. For wind, this is about 20. For fire, coal and gas, it is about 40. For the nuclear option, it is about 1200. As you can see, there is a huge increase in usable energy from nuclear over all other fuel source investments.

A major concern of nuclear energy is the production of ‘waste’. The current light water reactor (LWR) design produces 96% waste form the uranium it uses but that waste is completely contained and never reaches the atmosphere by design (yes, there have been 3 commercial accidents with minimal radiation). The good news is that once MSR’s come online, they can fully use this waste appendage of today’s reactors. A single MSR can generate electricity for about 250 years with a single year’s ‘waste’ of a present day nuclear reactor. That fuel is just sitting there stored in protective canisters waiting to be used.

Then there is thorium which is the ideal fuel for molten salt reactors. Natural thorium is safe and easy to handle because it’s actually less radioactive than a banana. However it is fertile and not fissile, so how can it be used as a nuclear fuel? After catching a neutron in the reactor core, thorium transmutes to a very good nuclear fuel (fissile U-233) and produces even more neutrons (breeder) making it consistently fissionable. More neutrons mean efficient burning (99%), so good that you can mix in the leftovers from the fuel of present day reactors. Instead of storing waste for thousands of years in expensive depositories, we can just burn this liability and transform it into a valuable asset – energy.

The greatest characteristic of the MSR designed nuclear reactor is that it uses liquid fuel. The biggest risk for conventional solid fuel reactors is the melt-down of their core if they get to hot. Molten salt reactors have a core that is already melted, and that’s what they’re built for. MSR’s are not under pressure so there’s no risk of a hydrogen explosion (Fukushima) – there is simply nothing that can explode.

Molten salt reactors offer the real possibility of energy independence for all nations. Thorium, as an element, is everywhere. Every country has some and the MSR requires so little fuel to produce tremendous amounts of heat that it is considered sustainable for many thousands of years.

The Thorium Musical Video: Enjoy!

It’s all about risk and probability

In my last three articles, I addressed risk of nuclear energy from different perspectives such as low dose radiation, nuclear plant accidents and waste storage strategies. Here is an overall summary to the ‘risk’ of nuclear energy. I credit Gary Was, Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at University of Michigan for validating my knowledge of nuclear science and technology. The following are extractions from his writings that I have stated before.

Nuclear power is likely the least well-understood energy source in the United States. Just 99 nuclear power plants spread over 30 states provide one-fifth of America’s electricity. These plants have provided reliable, affordable and clean energy for decades. They also carry risk – to the public, to the environment and to the financial solvency of utilities.

Risk is the product of the probability of an occurrence and its consequence. The probability of dying in a car accident is actually quite high compared to other daily events, but such accidents usually claim few individuals at a time, and so the risk is low. The reason nuclear energy attracts so much attention is that while the probability of a catastrophic event is extremely low, the consequence is often perceived to be extremely high.

Nuclear power’s safety record is laudable, considering that nuclear plants are running full-tilt. The average capacity factor of these plants exceeds 90%; that means 99 plants are generating full power over 90% of the time. If you compare that to any other energy form, there’s a huge gap. Coal is a mainstay of electricity generation in this country and has a capacity factor of around 65%. Gas is about the same; wind’s capacity factor is around 30%, and solar is at 25%.

Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 accidents had serious, lasting consequences that aren’t to be trivialized, but the consequences are nothing like what has been feared and glorified in movies over the past 50 years. What we’ve learned about public risk during that time is that the forecasted nightmares resulting from nuclear accidents, even in serious accidents, simply haven’t come to fruition.

Every accident taught us something, and with every accident the NRC unveiled a new set of regulations, resulting in a system of plants that are, from the perspective of a few decades ago, much safer. Such tight regulatory oversight, while needed, drives up cost and means that utilities undertake significant financial risk with each nuclear plant they build.

If we are to keep using nuclear power even at the present rate, our risks related to waste will increase every year until storage is addressed thoughtfully and thoroughly. Monitored, retrievable storage is the safest approach to nuclear waste storage. Waste sites could be centralized and continuously monitored, and built in such a way that waste canisters could be retrieved if, for example, storage technology improves, or if it becomes economical to reprocess the waste to recover the remaining uranium and plutonium created during operation. This is where molten salt reactors can play an important roll for future nuclear energy. They can run on all the commercial nuclear waste (unused fuel) as a primary or secondary fuel source. There would be no need to bury it for thousands of years.

As a society, we accepted over 32,000 traffic accident deaths in 2013 and over 50,000+ throughout prior decades, and no one stopped driving as a result. The risk inherent in nuclear plant operation will always be present and it is one of the world’s most rigorously monitored activities, and its proven performance in delivering zero-carbon electricity is one that shouldn’t be dismissed out of fear.

Fukushima’s Worst Health Risks: “misconceptions”

There were many misconceptions of health risks immediately following the worst tsunami in recorded history with over 20,000 deaths directly related to the mass destruction along the eastern seaboard of Japan caused by a record earthquake on that fateful day, 3/11/2011. Within 3 days, another unnatural disaster was looming around the nuclear power plant facility of Fukushima Daiichi where three of its six reactors could not maintain a controlled shut down without access to electricity that eventually caused a meltdown. This incident immediately overshadowed all those horrific tsunami video images we were all watching on TV at the time.

The world perception that a nuclear accident such as Fukushima Daiichi would have caused catastrophic harm to millions of people never happened. No one died from radiation exposure caused by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Meltdown. That historical misconception put the fear of God, and then some, into the Japanese Government to evacuate as many people as far as possible from the accident site to minimize risks.

The initial evacuation perimeter of 5 kilometers (which was enough) was almost immediately increased to 20 kilometers from International pressures based on the Chernobyl experience (30 kilometer exclusion zone). Although, over a thousand deaths have been linked to the ‘stress’ of the evacuation, it was one of the best decisions made, along with a complete shut down of the food chain out from Fukushima (land and sea), to minimize the potential health risks.

Then there is the misconception of the three primary radioactive isotopes of a nuclear reactor meltdown: iodine-131, cesium-137 and strontium-90. The immediate near term health risks concern was the iodine-131, especially for the children. The human thyroid is like a sponge when it comes to iodine, whether radioactive or not. Distribution of stable iodine pills (iodine-127) is standard procedures to counter radioactive iodine-131 by saturating the thyroid with good stable iodine to keep the bad radioactive iodine out. Radioactive iodine-131 has a physical half life of 8 days, so all that was release from the nuclear meltdown decayed away almost immediately. The facility workers had their iodine pills and no health risks were reported.

The second isotope of concern was the longer term potential health risk cesium-137, which has a physical half life of 30 years. Unlike the iodine isotope, cesium does not permanently store in the human body. The biological processing of cesium through our body is similar to what happens with potassium (K-40 or a banana), and has a biological half-life of about 100 days. Any Cesium ingested will be totally purged after about 1,000 days by natural bodily processes (Oh crap!). The biological half-life of ingested cesium can be reduced through medication (e.g. Prussian Blue) to about 30 days, the same duration as potassium.

Strontium-90, which is the bad radiation and known as the “bone seeker” is the least volatile of the three health risk isotopes. This isotope was manageable at the site and did not pose any serious health risks. However, traces were found in the ground water under the nuclear plant in 2013, two years after the meltdown and ENEWS.COM (anti-nuclear) along with other international news outlets posed a greater threat with misinformation than the actual news event, just like they did with our own WIPP accident.

A misconception is the mistaken notion about something based on the lack of detail information. Fear is usually exploited to influence certain outcomes. This applies to not only nuclear, but also to vaccines, GMO, or fracing. Humans have the God given ability to reason. We can continue to live in fear or we can choose to live with understanding.