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 for being the month that the first reactor to supply power to the commercial grid started operation.  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.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Climate Change and Science:

The Case for Greater Logic

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted some of the inconsistencies many of us have long noted between the concerns over climate change and the actions being taken--or not being taken--and added a few.

Eduardo Porter starts his discussion by asking whether America's efforts to combat climate change are going off the rails.  He then continues by saying, "environmental experts are suggesting that some parts of the [U.S.] strategy are, at best, a waste of money and time. At worst, they are setting the United States in the wrong direction entirely."

The point that came as the greatest surprise to me was that allowing the burning of biomass in power plants to help reduce consumption of fossil fuels produces 50 percent more carbon dioxide than burning coal.  This seems contrary to all the discussions I have heard about the benefits of using biomass, and the article didn't provide enough detail to allow me to verify the statement independently, but at the very least, it suggests we may need to analyze the biomass option more thoroughly before we commit to it.   

The article also panned some energy conservation efforts, particularly weatherization programs, on economic grounds, saying that they cost more than twice as much as the energy savings they produce.  Furthermore, energy efficiency efforts worldwide are slowing, according to the article.

The concern is that a lot of the strategy for reducing carbon emissions relies on energy efficiency improvements and the use of biomass, so if these strategies are flawed, the U.S. and the world is unlikely to meet carbon-reduction goals.  The author doesn't mince words, saying that such strategies "are driven more by hope than science."  He bemoans the fact that ideological considerations are limiting the options, and are excluding potentially more viable options such as nuclear power.

While this article seems to focus perhaps a bit too much on concerns about biomass, the overall case it makes--that we need to be guided by science and not by unfounded phobias and unreasonable hopes--is a very important one.  As the U.S. and the world continue to make decisions on how to reduce carbon emissions, we cannot rely on preconceived biases or simplistic assumptions about the benefits or liabilities of any option. 


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Energy and Independence:

Thoughts on Independence Day

As the U.S. Independence Day approaches, I have been thinking of the meaning of independence in the world today.  I realize I am not talking about the same kind of independence that the early citizens of America fought for, and I'm not really trying to draw any analogies to the events of 1776.  However, the word "independence" has arisen time and again, so I have had ample opportunity to ponder the meaning of independence in an interdependent world.

The first time it really came to my attention was in 1973, during the Arab oil embargo.  At that time, the U.S. initiated efforts to achieve "energy independence."  This is not the time or place to go into the details of that initiative, but as we all know, the U.S. never achieved the complete energy independence that was discussed at that time.  The shock of those events did spur energy R&D and a variety of other efforts, but in the end, complete energy independence did not prove practical--and one could argue, it did not prove necessary. 

Nevertheless, that incident certainly sensitized the United States and many other nations to their potential vulnerability.  That sensitivity lingers to this day, and has been reinforced--albeit in other parts of the world--by more recent incidents, such as Russian threats to cut European gas supplies.  However, it seems to me the thinking has evolved from a concept of total independence to one of having multiple options--a kind of independence by virtue of diversity, perhaps.  This manifests itself in a number of ways.  President Obama's statement that we need an energy strategy that includes "all of the above" is perhaps the most explicit statement on the subject.

But the same concept works within a technology as well.  Nuclear power plants are a good example.  Nuclear power plants need uranium to operate, and many nations do not have indigenous supplies of uranium ore (or the capability to enrich it).  Nevertheless, there is far less concern over uranium supplies than there is over oil supplies, in large part because there are significant uranium resources in a number of countries.

There are some who argue that the use of renewable energy provides true independence, but even that is not completely true.  Wind turbines, for example, use rare earths, and currently, the largest known sources of rare earths are highly concentrated in a few countries, such as China. 

Thus, while I am pleased to celebrate Independence Day and all it stands for, I also like to think that maintaining our independence today requires that, to meet critical needs, such as energy supply, we must maintain a diverse set of options, both in the technologies we use, and in the sources of supplies for those technologies.