Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Nuclear Gumballs (not really--the title's just to get your attention)

Popular Mechanics is having another look at nuclear energy. A few days ago, I sent you to a debate about the efficacy and desirability of nuclear power, also at PM, but this article, by Alex Hutchinson, isn't debating anything, not what could happen, nor whether it should happen. Rather, he's looking at what is happening. Hutchinson examines the next generations of nuclear plants about to be constructed in the U.S., and the myriad ways they improve upon previous models. Some of the advances he describes are light years away from the form we've all come to associate with nuclear power: tall towers, water cooled, radioactive steam, melt-down fears--you know, the whole China Syndrome thing.

Some of the impetus for moving forward with nuclear alternatives here in the States come from technological advances, and some from government incentives to produce alternative energy, both as a replacement for fossil fuels, and as a supplement to meet growing energy demands. We all know that oil, and to a certain extent natural gas, are environmentally damaging, increasingly costly, and diplomatically and politically constraining. As part of the quest for a comprehensive solution, there have been some advances in national energy policy over the last few years that have led to more funding for nuclear options:

In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress approved up to $2.95 billion in incentives for new nuclear plants, and set aside another $1.25 billion for an experimental reactor to be built here in the Idaho desert. The reactor will be the centerpiece of a modern-day Manhattan Project, with scientists from around the world working together to revolutionize the production of nuclear power.

Hutchinson looks at the consequences of the Congressional action:

Thanks to the 2005 congressional incentives, a dozen utilities around the country have once again started the lengthy process of applying to build nuclear plants. If all goes smoothly, they could produce power by the middle of the next decade. These reactors would be Generation III and III+ designs--evolutionary improvements on today's Generation II reactors, which use water in some form as both a coolant and a moderator. But, according to the DOE, what is really needed are even safer, cheaper reactors that produce less waste and use fuel that's not easily adapted for weapons production. To develop this kind of reactor, 10 countries, including the United States, joined forces in 2000 to launch the Generation IV International Forum. A committee of 100-plus scientists from participating countries evaluated more than 100 designs; after two years, they picked the six best.

So, scientists around the globe are working on third and fourth generation nuclear designs. Hutchinson's article implies that we will be seeing the results of their work within ten years or so. Each of the better ides brings something valuable to the table. The concepts take various approaches to the nuclear question, with different advantages accompanying each design, but they all share some improvements over existing nuclear plants. The new designs are safer, quicker and easier to build, more cost effective, and more promising in terms of waste disposal than their predecessors. Nuclear energy is also a cleaner alternative than several of the other currently feasible options. As an extra bonus, according to Hutchinson, some of the new designs also have the benefit of producing hydrogen, refining shale oil, or desalinating water as side effects. The hydrogen has promise as an automobile fuel without the environmental drawbacks inherent to oil-based fuels. (In my own personal International Competition of Alternative Fuels, contestants get extra points for positive side effects.)

You should read the whole article for a more complete picture, and a closer look at the various design options. The pebble bed gumball machine is a personal favorite of mine. (Just read the PM piece. You'll see what I mean.) I keep wondering where this is all leading, whether in 20 years we'll be able to recognize the scientific, political, and international relations landscape. Is a potential revolutionary change in the energy frontier (and thus the international relations frontier, from my perspective), as close as this article at Popular Mechanics makes it sound? I certainly hope so.

Hat tip: Instapundit