Energy Supply Perspective
(And comment on Bastard Bush Administration Policy on PBMR)
(in response to a question on the Pebble Bed Modular Nuclear Reactor --PBMR)
The Pebble Bed Nuclear reactor has some good economic opportunities (like potential
on-line refueling if implemented) and safety features. But so does the Chernobyl reactor
concept.The proof is in the details that I know little about.All major reactor designers
have their "next-generation" concepts.My impression is all the "big
reactor" (super economic)concepts are roughly in the same level of safety ballpark;
if you are convinced one is "safe enough" then most all could be made to be as
safe as that.Then there are the PIUS (process inherent ultimately safe) concepts wherein
the ideal is a (generally small) system that all the operators could theoretically just
walk away from and the system would automatically shutdown and limit itself to
"acceptable" consequences.Those type systems are generally more expensive
(higher electricity costs).The engineers generally get down to questions like is a 100
times greater calculated level of safety worth an increase of 50% in electricity costs
when the calculated probability of an unacceptable accident is reduced from say 10E-6 to
10E-8.If so then maybe the big system could be upgraded to give the 10E-8 accident
probability (but a similarly enhanced PIUS concept might then go to 10-10-- so is PIUS
then better?).Whatever the industry thinks or calculates there would have to be a whole
lot of PIUS qualities in any new proposed reactor concept to convince the general public
to let one be built in their neighborhood.
And that would not be enough.All concepts including PIUS have the thorny issue of "disposal" of high level nuclear wastes.Conceptually I don't have any problem with the current frontrunner concept of deep burial in geologically stable salt dome formations like Yucca Mountain. However I am not a geologist and don't know the specifics of any scientific objections to Yucca Mountain.
What it comes down to is the per-capita level of energy consumption in the USA is not sustainable by any means of so called renewable energy supplies(solar,wind,wave,gasohols etc).But the renewables should be developed to the level supported by the publics willingness to pay premium electricity rates for them---presumably not at a very high level considering the uproar over relatively modest CA rate increases recently.The combustible fossil fuels (primarily coal,oil,and gas---but also things like evidently large reserves of peat) should be developed according to availability,cost,environmental(global warming by greenhouse gas effects) considerations,and geopolitical market instabilities.This is obviously very complicated and the very supply of oil is dependent on the market price: apparently the US has vast western reserves of rock bearing coal shales from which liquid oil can be extracted at exhorbitant prices by today's market acceptance.
Increases in energy efficiency should also be pursued again pursuant to what makes economic sense.(How many people would buy a $50,000 Honda-like vehicle if it got 70 miles/gallon?)Also efficiency improvements are only a shjort-term solution.If effiency could be doubled and needs increased at say a modest 2%/year,in less than 50 years we'd be at the same supply vs demand juncture.
And then there's nuclear fission with the promise of supplying about all the energy we'd want for say a 100 years from uranium if the public would accept the safety and environmental costs. And with potential breeder fission reactor concepts (my pet interest coming out of college)(development scuttled by US government in 1970's due to plutonium proliferation concerns---that still might be the right societal decision) well beyond that.Note that nuclear electricity could also power the so-called hydrogen fuel clean burning engines talked about---but you need a source of energy to liberate the hydrogen;a fact often not stressed to general public.
Beyond the 100 or so year timeframe there is the potential of controlled nuclear fusion which appears to be on a more long term development schedule than in the 1980's due to the generally larger reserves of oil and coal now known.
And maybe we'll get lucky and somebody will come up with something revolutionaly like a "cold fusion" or the recent "sonically induced bubble cavitation fusion" .
The science/engineering ends there.
Socially/politically it comes down to all energy sources having associated costs and risks, as does the alternative of doing nothing and reducing per capita energy consumption.People have to ultimately decide where they make the sacrifices.In trading off a marginal risk of radiation releases into the environment due to Yuca Mountain storage 300 years from now for the right to drive a hydrogen guzzling SUV; Or to reduce our US standard of living somewhat to pay the higher prices demanded by oil rich countries to raise the level of their standard of living to something like ours;or to continue to subjugate the resource-rich country peoples by backing non-democratic regimes ,giving rise to hopeless peoples eager to join the ranks of many many terrorist cause leaders---somme legitimate,and others not.;Or to cut back on energy consumption even if available and politically stable and undertake a standard and style of living commensurate with that supported by the earth's ecosystem without initiating an ecological armageddon for future generations.
Now that kind of debate is only going to happen in academia with no likely consensus,but giving rise to a lot of data and opinions.That information is digested by politicians and the general public,and if you believe in democracy, the right course of action will ultimately prevail, despite the messy process.In fact, the democratic process by definition would give the "right" course.
Well,enter the pseudo-democrat fascist Bush Republican philosophy,wherein it is fundamentally clear they believe they the moral and knowledge elite know what's best unconditionally; and have the right if not the duty to implement their agenda,whatever the "opposition" believes-- of course in the best interest of their fellow Americans,and coincidentally industry,which serves the public,and industry leaders which do their damnest in sacrifice to promote those public serving industry objectives.
Cynicism aside,it is the duty of government to bring all the issues to a debate,especially where national interests are involved.And it is the duty to propose plans.It however is not the mandate to impose their plan.For instance,a president elected by less than 50% of the people does not have the right to impose their idea of societal tradeoffs on the public---which is where we'd be if the senate did not have a slight majority.Enen a president elected by a 70% majority does not have the right to impose certain things on 100% of the population.
So I happen to agree with most of the energy supply aspects of Bush's proposal (except drilling in Alaska or sensitive coastal environments) that I know of; but most people do not (even though I might consider it a result of their ignorance);if enough people want to outlaw SUV's and not build another nuclear plant,I'd have to go along,however stupid I might consider that to be. But I'll be damned if I want some elite fascist bastard imposing their ideas of what's best for society on me.....Give me Liberty (ie choices) or give me a gun !!!
In response to my questions on PBMR fire resistance,diversion potential,and nuclear
waste disposal I received plausible answers from technologists involved with PBMR
development.PBMR is a PIUS design.