Friday, November 26, 2010

A Modest Proposal About Energy

Energy is the universal currency of human transactions.  All transactions between people and their societal structures reduce at their lowest level to transactions about energy.  Think about it: what's the most fundamental of your needs?  Food and shelter.  What is food other than energy to run you?  How do you build your home?  If you pay for anything, the transaction reduces to food, shelter and necessities for the other party.  What does your house run on?  Your car?  You have an electric car?  Nowadays, it's best to think of your Volt or Leaf as a coal-fired car, because if you're in the Luddite States of America, your power comes from a coal-fired power plant.  That electricity to charge it has to come from somewhere, you know?
The Nissan Leaf, the most popular totally coal-fired car in America. Zero emission?  Maybe from the car, but that's because they don't carry their primary power source, which has plenty of emissions.

Today, Western Rifle Shooters Association has a link to a story on the coming energy shortages as we go past peak oil.  As I said some time ago, "If there was a free market in oil, I'd say, "peak oil, schmeak oil - I don't care", because all that means is that as oil gets more expensive, other sources of energy will replace it; and it's not like oil hasn't been getting more expensive for the last 40 years, anyway."  Allow me to make a modest proposal. 

The US Navy has powered large surface vessels with nuclear power for around 50 years.  There has never been a major failure of a Navy reactor.  We power ten aircraft carriers, and many submarines.  The latest and largest model reactor in an aircraft carrier appears to be the A4W, capable of 104 MW each; two of these powerplants go into a Nimitz-class "supercarrier".  These nuclear reactors are specified as a product, not as a custom assembly; that is, A4W is a catalog designation in the military stock system that they order to buy these. A designates a surface vessel, 4 is the fourth generation reactor design, and W is the prime contractor who builds them, in this case, Westinghouse.  It is important to know that every nuclear-powered vessel has a crew of young adults who run them and keep them trouble free.  There has never been a serious issue with a reactor on a US Navy vessel.  No reactor meltdowns, no vessels being sunk by their reactors.  It is possible that was the root cause in the loss of the submarine USS Thresher in the 1960s, but we don't know that, and it obviously used an old, long-ago replaced design.  It's also possible it sank due to pressure failure of its hull.

How much power is 104 MW?  A typically sized American house probably consumes, at peak, in the vicinity of 20 kW.  104,000/20 is 5200 homes, which says a residential town of around 15,000 people could be powered by one of these reactors.  In reality, you rarely run your house at full capacity, so more houses could run on one of these reactors. Two of these reactors, the complement on a Nimitz, could power a town of 10,000 homes. 

What if we covered the country with these reactors?  Instead of giant, centralized power plants, what if we had a distributed network of thousands of these reactors?

Although there are undoubtedly restrictions on the ability to buy them, let's assume the legislation to allow them to be sold to private concerns could be passed.  The only thing that would prevent wide scale construction and distribution of these reactors is the public's irrational fear of nuclear power.  The expertise to manage them is widespread, with many Navy veterans having run them successfully.  More can be trained with the existing Navy training materials and classes. 

We can either mope and complain about energy getting more expensive, and gripe about losing our quality of life, or we can face the problem head on, and maybe get a jump on our troubles - for once.  As Alvie over at the Cliffs of Insanity says, "which way are you facing?"


  1. Interesting idea.

    However, according to Chris Martenson, nuclear energy will not be able to solve our problems ... he says that there simply is not enough Uranium available to meet the needs of the hundreds of nuclear plants.

    I don't know whether that is wrong, or right; but it is plausible.

  2. That's an interesting point, which I can only take at face value. Whether it's right or not, I couldn't say, but there are many things to make distributed power. Uranium is just one.

    My wife showed me that many groups are working on this idea, so it's not mine. Convergent evolution, or something like that. One of the things that gets talked about a lot is thorium reactors. Here, for example. One of the Wiki articles I was reading said that some of the Navy's reactors don't even use Uranium, but a Zirconium isotope -- if I remember correctly.

  3. It would never work under the regulatory framework we have now. The Navy is hyper-sensitive about reactor safety from cradle to grave. This sensitivity includes a large amount of fail-safe technology built in to the plant (which is scalable), a large and expensive operator training program, and a huge network of oversight over its nuclear assets (both of which I suspect are not). The product of this attitude is a completely accident-free program, but the cost is huge. Unfortunately, it's exactly that robust safety system that allows the Navy to continue to build reactors in a political environment that has shut down new licensing for decades.

    Thresher's loss was largely unrelated to the reactor. She suffered flooding in the engine room, which caused a loss of propulsion. Submarines are like airplanes in that they need forward motion to stay afloat in their medium. The emergency surfacing mechanism failed, and the fallout was the SUBSAFE program.

    Re your follow-up, I can state categorically that the Navy does not use Zr for fuel. I can't really go further than that for security reasons.

  4. Xenocles - thanks! I appreciate the expert input.

    Re: the regulatory framework - that's what I think needs to be torn down. It just seems there is no reason that new reactors should not be built in the US. I'll be the first to admit that nuclear power is not my area of engineering expertise, but in engineering conferences and other meetings I've been to, I've never met an engineer who wasn't in favor of it.

    I got the Zr idea from Wiki, which said, "the fuel is not UO2 but a metal-zirconium alloy (c.15% U with 93% enrichment, or more U with lower enrichment),[citation needed]" The article is here

  5. I see what you're saying now. The actual fissionable material is still uranium, it's just alloyed differently.

    I absolutely agree that we ought to be building more commercial plants. I'm just saying that the way the Navy does its business is inherently not economical. Each plant would require a baseline level of operators and security that would cause the costs of a decentralized network to spiral out of control.
    I also do not believe that the public is willing to accept a large cut in the degree of government oversight, whether in the style of Naval Reactors or the NRC. Either way, the only realistic way to beat down oversight costs is to consolidate generation into fewer but larger plants.

    I'm not saying that it necessarily can't be done, but it can't be done with the present human realities or with the present state of the technological art (at least as I know it - and what I know is admittedly confined to the naval nuclear system). I'd love to be wrong here.