Thursday, October 1, 2015

Energy by the Numbers:

A Comparison of Energy Sources

It's no secret that I like numbers.  Therefore, I was pleased to read, in the last few days, two reports that compared various energy sources--one in terms of fatalities, and the other, in terms of resource use.  These are two very different measures, but both are important ones, so I looked eagerly to see how the various energy sources compared.

The greatest concern that most people have, of course, is safety, so I looked first at an article by James Conca in Forbes called "How Deadly is your Kilowatt?"  In this article, Conca presents a table of the mortality rates worldwide for different energy sources (see below).  The results appear to cover all aspects of each fuel cycle.  They highlight the deaths from air pollution for coal, but they also talk about deaths from uranium mining accidents and from maintenance accidents for wind turbines.  They don't actually mention that they include deaths from coal mining, but presumably, if they included uranium mining, they included coal mining as well. 

Energy Source               Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average           170,000    (50% global electricity)
Coal – China                         280,000   (75% China’s electricity)
Coal – U.S.                             15,000    (44% U.S. electricity)
Oil                                           36,000    (36% of energy,8% of elect)
Natural Gas                              4,000    (20% global electricity)
Biofuel/Biomass                     24,000    (21% global energy)
Solar (rooftop)                             440    (< 1% global electricity)
Wind                                            150    (~ 1% global electricity)
Hydro – global average            1,400    (15% global electricity)
Nuclear – global average*            90    (17%  global electricity)

* With Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Some of the results were no surprise to me--coal was the worst globally, while nuclear power was the best, even when worst-case estimates of Chernobyl deaths and Fukushima projections were included.  However the difference caught me by surprise--worldwide, coal had almost 2000 times more fatalities per kilowatt-hour than nuclear power!  There were some other revelations as well.  The extremely high global death rate from coal appears to be dominated by China, so when China and the US were separated out, deaths attributed to coal use in the US were actually less than deaths attributed to biofuel/biomass use. 

I should caution that, like all studies, there are confounding factors.  Some of the energy sources can be used for electricity production, but can also be used in other ways--direct heating, propulsion, etc.  Nevertheless, even if the numbers were adjusted to compare, for example, only electricity production, it is clear that nuclear power is substantially lower than most other energy sources in terms of fatalities. 

The other study I saw is part of the Department of Energy's Quadrennial Technology Review on energy technologies and research opportunities (Chapter 10: Concepts in Integrated Analysis, September 2015).  While the Forbes article talked about materials use, the DOE report has a good table (see below) that shows just how dramatically the materials usage varies from one energy technology to another.  Although we are not talking about scarcity issues for most of the materials listed in this table, we know that some of the materials are energy intensive to produce.  Concrete, which is the dominant material used to build the plants for most of these technologies, is particularly notable in this regard. 

This table doesn't show requirements for rare earths, which has been discussed a lot recently, particularly in the context of wind turbines.  However, the report does cover that separately.

These two studies do not tell the whole story, of course.  There are other measures that need to be considered, ranging from land use, to cost, to different pollutants, to non-fatal health effects.  And the potential for improvements in each technology could change some of the numbers significantly.

Still, seeing these two sets of numbers side-by-side within a couple of days of each other helped me confirm and quantify some facts that I have thought were true for a long time, and that are important to any discussion of energy technologies.  


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Resource Issues and Energy Supply:

What it Means for Our Energy Future

Initially, this is going to look like another article on renewable energy in a blog that is supposed to be about nuclear issues.  But bear with me, this is actually about an article on the resource issues associated with renewable energy that has sparked some broader thoughts. 

The article (which is a few months old, but I only recently saw) starts off listing some of the same issues regarding renewable energy that many, including yours truly, have commented on.  It says that people assume that the wind and the sun are free and limitless, but they need more land, and lots of raw materials:

  • Wind turbine towers are constructed from steel manufactured in a blast furnace from mined iron ore and modified coal (coke). Turbine blades are composed of oil-derived resins and glass fibre. The nacelle encloses a magnet containing about one third of a tonne of the rare earth metals, neodymium and dysprosium.
The article goes on to talk about the waste generated in mining and processing rare earths, the cement needed to build towers for wind turbines, the coal needed to process silicon solar collectors, and the greenhouse gases other than CO2 generated in the manufacturing process.

So far, I'm with the author.  I have seen reports on all these effects before, and have commented on them myself.  I believe they are true and that they should be a concern to everyone who is interested in our energy future.  (Which should be just about everyone, in one way or another.)

However, the article ends in a single paragraph, that says, by contrast, that there is plenty of uranium and thorium for nuclear reactors, and that, anyway, the future is in fusion.  That is quite a leap.

That got me thinking about a comment I received on a recent post that took issue with me for supporting an "all of the above" scenario because of the added cost.  Addressing that comment fully is a subject for a future discussion, but suffice it to say that the "all of the above" scenario basically arises from the fact that no one energy source can solve all problems and meet all needs.  

The reality is that the author of the article I read didn't treat all resources equally.  You can find other authors who dismiss nuclear fission because the uranium and thorium resources are ultimately limited.  And fusion is not yet a realistic option.

The reality is that all energy resources have some limitations.  It may be true that there is more thorium than rare earths, but I doubt that either resource has been fully identified and explored.  It may be true that mining rare earths generates by-products, but so does mining anything. 

Also neglected in the article is any discussion of whether some of these downsides can be ameliorated.  I always got annoyed when people who opposed nuclear power talked about the coal needed to supply the power to operate gaseous diffusion enrichment plants.  Not only did they grossly exaggerate the amount of energy needed, they never considered that we could move away from using coal for this purpose.  That may be a moot point now, but the same point applies to the issue of coal use for manufacturing solar collectors.

My point is that there is no simplistic answer.  "Renewables bad, nuclear fission and fusion good," is no better than "Nuclear and coal bad, renewables good."  Both views are short-sighted.  They fail to address the benefits and short-comings of all technologies equally, and they fail to consider how current practices might be improved for all technologies, and in some cases--or alternatively, they wave away any concerns by assuming advances that have not yet been demonstrated.

Unfortunately, complexity makes things difficult.  There are no simple answers, no brief soundbites, no quick solutions.  But our energy future depends on understanding and addressing the complexities.  


Friday, September 11, 2015

Impacts of Renewable Energy Sources:

More Unexpected Consequences

This is getting to be somewhat of a theme with me, but everywhere I turn, I find reports of new and unexpected consequences associated with the greater use of renewable energy sources.  This week, I I learned of two new potential impacts on the same day, so I just had to return to the topic. 

The two reports apply to different areas:  One calculates that more wind turbines may offer diminishing returns--that is, as wind farms are expanded, the energy generated will not go up proportionately with the number of wind turbines installed.  The other pertains to hydroelectric plants, raising the surprising (to me) concern that hydroelectric plants may create conditions that generate an environmental poison called methyl-mercury. 

The first issue, the impacts of wind turbines, arises from the fact that large numbers of wind turbines may affect wind patterns.  I had heard this before, and while it isn't my area of expertise, it seems plausible.  It also initially seems unimportant.  So what if the gain isn't linear?  Just build more windmills, right?  Wrong.  More windmills require more land, and getting less bang for the buck increases the cost of wind energy.

The second issue is more complex, and is way out of my area of expertise.  The argument is that the flooding associated with hydroelectric dams (at least in the Arctic) creates areas where fresh and salt water merge.  The differing densities cause them to stratify, which creates a feeding zone for marine plankton.  The bacteria in this zone turn naturally occurring mercury into methyl-mercury, which then accumulates in the food chain.  (The article also notes that the melting of Arctic ice due to climate change has a similar effect.)

I must admit that I have a lot of questions about both studies.  How thorough and complete are the studies?  How pronounced is the non-linearity of the windmill effect?  Can the design and layout of the windmills make a difference?  Can anything be done to reduce the stratification of the fresh and salt water?  Can the methyl-mercury be removed? 

The point of mentioning these studies is not to imply that we have to stop building windmills or hydroelectric dams.  Rather, it is to point out that ALL energy sources have effects on the environment.  As we use more and more of any resource, these impacts become more apparent.  The response should not be to ban the use of the resource.  Rather, it should be to continually improve our understanding of the impacts, to design ways of reducing or ameliorating the impacts, and to look at the big picture--both supply and demand.

So, why am I covering these issues in a blog on nuclear power?  It is because I see some parallels to the way some people view nuclear power...or coal, or anything else.  The first time early hominids rubbed two sticks together and created fire, they probably burned themselves.  The point is that every form of energy--in fact, every agricultural or industrial activity--has impacts on the world around us. 

The first, and seemingly easiest, response is to ban the activity.  That is a short-sighted reaction.  The mindset we need to develop is to figure out how to manage the resource and its impacts.  This applies equally to every energy resource, and to every other human activity as well.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Global Warming:

Is it Real?

Although this is a blog devoted to nuclear issues, I keep finding myself drawn into the discussions of climate change.  This seems a very relevant issue for nuclear power, because it is the most reliable source of low-carbon energy.

Therefore, I've made a great effort to learn more about the arguments over climate change--whether it is real, whether it is man-made, and whether we should be doing anything about it.  Despite all my efforts, I remain perplexed.  I'm not a climate scientist, so I have a hard time sifting out what is true and what is not, what is important from what is unimportant: 

  • One day, I read a report that the global temperatures are rising.  The next day, I see a study says that depends on where you measure.  Still another report insists that temperatures fell last year, and that, in turn, is rebutted by the argument that one year doesn't matter.  
  • Some say it isn't the global average temperature that is the problem, but rather regional effects.  Or that the problem is really the changes in weather patterns--more severe storms, more widespread droughts, etc.
  • Other reports detail the changes that will take place in the world.  Parts of the world will be washed away by rising seas, but other areas will benefit from longer growing seasons and temperatures conducive to a wider range of crops.

  • I see accounts of what we must do to get the problem under control--cut down our use of fossil fuels, conserve more, replace current technologies with advanced technologies.  It sounds expensive, but doable.  Then, I read yet another report that makes it sound like it's too late anyway.  The problem is so large and the changes are moving so fast that nothing we can do can turn back the inevitable. 
  • Some reports point to historical changes in global temperature and therefore conclude that it is all natural, and we can't do anything about it.  Or shouldn't to anything about it.  Or, once again, that nothing will work anyway.
  • Others say that maybe we should just plan for the changes--build dikes around our low-lying cities, move some of our infrastructure to higher ground, learn to seed clouds to control adverse weather phenomena.  

So what should we make of all these contradictions?  We sometimes lose sight of the fact that carbon dioxide is only one of the side products of fossil fuels.  Long, long before I ever heard of the problems of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, I heard about smog.  So that might argue that there one more reason should be trying to move to cleaner fuels anyway.  Or, to cleaner ways to use the existing fuels. 

The answer to that, of course, is--at what price?  If we are really in imminent danger of flooding cities that are home to hundreds of millions of people, and if human action can address the issue, most people would be willing to pay a pretty high price.  If there really is a high degree of uncertainty, or if we don't think any actions we take can affect it, then, we might still be willing to pay something for cleaner air, or to reduce the consequences of climate change, but what we should do becomes more of a cost-benefit issue.

I therefore was very interested to discover a Wall Street Journal article by Stephen Koonin, Director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University.  The article, entitled "Climate Science is not Settled," is almost a year old, but in case other non-subscribers to WSJ didn't see it last year, I think it is worth a read.  It identifies some of the many reasons that I keep seeing these contradictory reports:  the variability of natural climate change; the lack of full understanding about the role of the oceans; the roles of water vapor, clouds, and temperature; the deficiencies of existing models, including the fact that they do not use a fine enough grid, the failure to account properly for the behavior of the sea ice at the two poles; and other uncertainties.  Koonin calls for improvements to models and more rigor to "stress test" them.

But I find some of his final comments the most interesting.  He says, "Policy makers and the public may wish for the comfort of certainty in their climate science. But I fear that rigidly promulgating the idea that climate science is 'settled' (or is a 'hoax') demeans and chills the scientific enterprise, retarding its progress in these important matters. Uncertainty is a prime mover and motivator of science and must be faced head-on."

He further says, "Society's choices in the years ahead will necessarily be based on uncertain knowledge of future climates. That uncertainty need not be an excuse for inaction. There is well-justified prudence in accelerating the development of low-emissions technologies and in cost-effective energy-efficiency measures. But climate strategies beyond such 'no regrets' efforts carry costs, risks and questions of effectiveness, so nonscientific factors inevitably enter the decision. These include our tolerance for risk and the priorities that we assign to economic development, poverty reduction, environmental quality, and intergenerational and geographical equity."

Finally, he concludes, "Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future.  Recognizing those limits, rather than ignoring them, will lead to a more sober and ultimately more productive discussion of climate change and climate policies. To do otherwise is a great disservice to climate science itself."

I think that would indeed be a rational way to approach a very difficult, but very important, issue.


Friday, August 21, 2015

All of the Above:

A Matter of Common Sense

One recurring discussion we seem to face is what the mix of energy sources should be.  This discussion has become particularly important as the drive to reduce carbon emissions grows, and as the costs of renewable energy simultaneously seem to be plummeting.  That combination of factors has tempted some to envision a world powered entirely by the sun and the wind.

Many of us in the energy field have long tried to challenge such a scenario.  Experience has taught us that new problems often emerge as the use of a technology increases.  I recall many years ago reading a "look back at history" type of article that lauded the fact that those newfangled automobiles would solve the pollution problems created by horses in the city.  No one recognized then that automobiles would bring another type of pollution, and that, years later, we would spend time, money and energy to address that pollution.

Therefore, I was very pleased to see a very rational discussion of the issue entitled The Environmentalist Case against 100% Renewable Energy Plans.  The article draws a distinction between what is technically possible and what is optimal, thus transforming the argument from whether or not something can be done to whether it should be done.

The article also takes on the difficulty of achieving a 100% renewable power supply.  Although proponents of such a scenario cite various storage possibilities (as well as grid interconnections), the article points out that energy storage is not just a daily problem.  Wind patterns are seasonal, and there can be extended patterns of wind variability for other reasons.

In fact, shortly after I read this article, I saw some statistics from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) that graphically showed a 5-month period at the beginning of 2015 where the capacity factors of wind plants on the West Coast were lower than the average of the previous 5 years.  The EIA notes that capacity factors vary non-linearly with wind speed, so small decreases in wind speeds can result in much larger changes in capacity factors.

As a result of these variations, a huge investment in storage would be required in order to assure a reliable energy supply during extended periods of low wind speeds.  Yes, wind and solar mixes can complement each other, and yes, grid interconnections can bring renewable-generated electricity from far away, but each of these scenarios has costs and limitations as well.  Reliable baseload sources can do the same job much more efficiently.

The article also takes on some of the other, less technical, issues.  In particular, it notes the irony that eliminating nuclear power in favor of wind and solar energy requires much more transformation of the landscape to produce the same amount of energy, which draws opposition from other environmental groups, as well as from people who don’t want wind turbines marring their scenic views.

The article raises other points as well.  For example, it notes that all energy technologies are evolving, so the projected benefits of advanced solar or wind systems should be compared to the those of advanced nuclear systems and advanced carbon capture and storage systems, not to present technologies.  This is a point that I have found is often glossed over--by proponents of all technologies.

There are probably other points that the article could have made.  It comments on the small footprint of nuclear power plants compared to wind and solar plants, but not on the greater amounts of materials needed for renewable plants producing the same amount of power, and the environmental impacts of mining and manufacturing those.  Or of the need for specialized materials such as rare earths.  It mentions an allegation that mining uranium is energy intensive (and therefore, generates carbon at the front-end), but it doesn't challenge that assumption or compare the front-end energy demands with those for renewable energy sources.    

The article emphasizes that replacing some non-emitting sources with other non-emitting sources gains nothing environmentally, while adding a lot to the cost.  It concludes that the best option is a mix of energy technologies, noting that the optimal mix may vary, depending on location. 

In summary, the article makes a good start at looking at our energy mix holistically.  In particular, it helps make the case of why something that is technically possible (maybe!) is not necessarily the best path to pursue, and suggests how we should be approaching decisions on our future energy supply.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Nuclear Power and Human Factors:

A Close Connection

I was very pleased to read recently that the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD/NEA) has just increased its emphasis on the human factors side of nuclear power. In particular, NEA "has created a new division to support its member countries in their efforts to further improve the human side of nuclear safety." The new Division of the Human Aspects of Nuclear Safety consolidates activities in the areas of training, safety culture and public communications, and encourages greater focus on such areas within member countries.

In fact, I'm more than just pleased.  I'm very gratified.  One of my areas of personal interest for the last dozen or so years has been knowledge management.  Knowledge management includes issues associated with assuring adequate training and other actions to assure that knowledge is transferred effectively within an organization.  My personal involvement in this latter area began when I was in the Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy and continued when I moved to the OECD/NEA as Deputy Director General from 2004 to 2007.  I therefore feel particularly pleased that the NEA has increased the attention it is devoting to training, as that will inevitably help with the knowledge management issues I tackled during my tenure there. 

In more recent years, I've become very engaged in explorations of the issue of safety culture as well, and have made a number of presentations in this area.  Safety culture is another important aspect of the enhanced human factors work the NEA says it will be doing, and I'm pleased to see that as well.  While both issues have been getting more attention at technical conferences and in other venues, and safety culture, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention since the Fukushima accident, I have still sometimes felt that work related to the human element was a footnote for many people in the nuclear field, and that a lot of engineers sometimes feel that you can completely engineer out the potential for people to affect the performance of a facility negatively.

I believe it is particularly valuable for safety culture to be addressed at an international level.  Since Fukushima, there is a growing recognition that there are some traits that have a societal connection--independence versus conformity, going along versus rocking the boat, etc.  There is less recognition that some of these traits are not all good or all bad.  Almost any human trait, carried to an extreme, has a downside.  There is also not enough recognition that individuals within a culture vary a great deal--and even more important, that people can be retrained to overcome behaviors they may have been taught.  What better place to deal with such issues than an international organization, where people of different cultures can have a chance to see how other cultures view issues of behavior at a nuclear facility, and can learn from each other?

I have had less personal involvement with public communications, although in some of my roles, particularly when I served as president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), I have certainly had a chance to see the important impact public opinion can have on nuclear power, how public perceptions can be distorted by biased reports, and how important timely, accurate public information can be.

I therefore applaud the direction NEA is taking, and look forward to them making important contributions in the future to human factors issues in the nuclear area, including training, knowledge management, safety culture, and public communications.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--July:

A Busy Month

Today, I continue my series of nuclear milestones of the month.  If May and June were slightly light on historical events, July more than makes up for it.  July is noteworthy in the US as the first reactor to supply power to the commercial grid.  It is also noteworthy for the number of nuclear milestones that took place outside the US, including in Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Japan, Norway, and the Panama Canal (although this was a U.S. project).  Two of the firsts are for major multinational institutions.

Key July milestones include:

July 1, 1959:  First reactor test in a program to develop rocket propulsion (Kiwi-A, Los Alamos, New Mexico)

July 5, 1961:  First military surface ship to operate using nuclear power (USS Long Beach, U.S.)

July 8, 1955:  First research reactor licensed to operate, and first reactor to operate under a license (Pennsylvania State University Nuclear Reactor Facility, State College, Pennsylvania)

July 9, 1967:  First gas-cooled heavy water reactor to supply electricity (EL-4/Brennilis, Finistere, France)

July 12, 1960: First non-governmental multinational organization for nuclear power (Foratom, Brussels, Belgium)

July 12, 1957:  First sustained electricity supplied off-site (SRE, Santa Susana, California)  [Power excursion July 13, 1959 led to shutdown.]

July 16, 1973:  First commercial-scale desalination using nuclear power (Aktau BN-350, Aktau, USSR/now Kazakhstan)

July 17, 1955:  First electricity to the commercial grid in the U.S. (BORAX-III, Arco, Idaho)

July 22, 1947:  First "large" reactor outside the U.S. (NRX, Chalk River, Canada)

July 25, 1966:  First nuclear power reactor to operate in Asia (Tokai-1, Tokai Mura, Japan)

July 29, 1957:  First international governmental organization for nuclear technology (IAEA, Vienna, Austria)

July 29, 1978:  First thermal power reactor to operate with full MOX core (Fugen, Tsuruga, Japan)

July 30, 1951:  First research reactor built by countries that had not engaged in weapons development (JEEP-I, Kjeller, Norway)

In addition, we have several firsts this month for which I was unable to find an exact date:  First boiling water reactor (BORAX-I, Arco, Idaho); first demonstration of a high-temperature gas reactor (Dragon Reactor Experiment, Winfrith, United Kingdom); and first floating nuclear power plant (MH-1A, Panama Canal).

As always, more information on all of these milestones, and more, is available in my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development.