Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Our Planet - Part 3 Nuclear

This post continues with the series on Our Plant discussing energy and climate change. If you have not seen the previous posts on climate change and Germany's green energy policy then you may want to read these first. For this post I want to pay particular attention to possible solutions to produce cleaner energy for the 21st Century. There is a focus on nuclear energy, an energy source that has fallen out of favour with many people at the moment but a source that myself and many others see as offering great potential and realistically at this point in time the only way to obtain a plentiful and clean source of energy.

Energy is the lifeblood of any developed society. Electricity is all around us and has created a world of wonders, a life of luxury that we would have once only dreamed of. As the century progresses our needs for more energy in particular electrical energy, is going to increase more and more. China and other developing countries in south east Asia and India will continue getting more prosperous and consequently demand more energy, China continues to build a new coal power plant every week. If we are serious about removing our dependence on fossil fuels then that means using electric transport which will put a colossal strain on our current power needs along with increased energy usage in our domestic homes despite all the energy saving technology over the past 20 years. It means replacing our gas boilers, cookers and hobs with electric power and all of these are high wattage items.

In the previous post I made a brief remark that nuclear should be the fuel of choice which goes against the mainstream opinion that believe wind and solar will be our baseload energy sources. I'm not dead against these alternatives but as my previous post points out there are many fundamental issues with these technologies and in comparison to nuclear they are in my opinion uninspiring. When we talk about power generated by coal, gas, oil, solar all involve chemical reactions by getting energy from the electrons of the atom. Hydroelectric gets its power from gravity, wind in effect is solar energy a by product is wind that moves particles around. Nuclear is the only one that involves getting energy by manipulating the actual atom. An atomic reaction produces a million times more energy then a chemical reaction. The source of all life on our planet, the sun, is one large nuclear reactor. Its able to generate so much power, power levels we can't begin to comprehend by manipulating matter at the atomic level. Not only only does Nuclear have so much energy potential it can generate energy on demand. It is also a "clean" energy emitting no CO2 and very little in terms of construction costs. Despite its reputation its also the safest form of energy and I will elaborate on this point later. That may seem completely wrong but when you actually crunch the numbers it really is true. There is no energy which is 100% safe, all sources have risks. Lastly a majority of climate scientists believe nuclear is the only current option we have at trying to reduce CO2 emissions. Past environmentalists, who were once hostile to nuclear such as George Monboit or past members of Greenpeace are now accepting nuclear as the only option. With such a wide range of supporters there must be something about the energy source to garner support from all walks of life.

How do we get energy from Nuclear? Theres two methods, one you split the atom known as fission the other is where you fuse atoms together known fusion. Fusion is what powers our Sun, unfortunately it is not something we have been able to master and all attempts have resulted in having to put more energy in then the energy we got out of it meaning its just theory now. We know it works as our sun does it all the time, we just haven't worked out how to do it in a controlled and efficient manner (the sun uses its huge gravity to do the process, we have to use other artificial means). The other, fission, is what I wish to focus on. This has worked for decades and is a proven source of energy. It involves splitting an atom and the heat from such a reaction is used to heat water which generates steam, which drives a turbine which in turn is connected to an electrical generator that spins at very high speed. Its all standard stuff apart from the splitting atoms part to generate the heat. In conventional plants its by burning coal or gas in a chemical reaction to heat the water.

Another point to consider before I go any further is a quick discussion of radiation. We are constantly bombarded by radiation every day. We get it from the sun, from rocks even our partners when we sleep. We even eat it, bananas for example are packed full of radiation. It is all around us yet our bodies can handle such dosages. They key thing to remember is the concentration of the radiation. Of course getting next to a nuclear reaction would be too much, but a small leakage that is dispersed in the ocean may be so insignificant as to be only a small fraction compared with background radiation. Not all radiation is deadly as we will see despite what many artistic writes may say.

Nuclear Safety Myths

One of the first topics to tackle is the incorrect fallacy that Nuclear is the most dangerous form of energy. There have been three major accidents during its 60 years in use, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukisima. The fact that most people know all these accidents shows how reliable nuclear is when you compare it to all other forms of energy. Thousands of people die from coal mining each year, gas explosions happen all the time killing hundreds, oil rigging accidents are common, hundreds die from the installation of solar and wind, which also kills many animals that either fry or get chopped up by the respective energy forms. Hundreds of thousands of people died in China back in the 1970's when a hydroelectric damn collapsed. If we look at the three accidents of Nuclear by comparison the worst was Chernobyl. If you read up about the accident its as comical as it is tragic. The power plant installation broke all nuclear conventions at the time but as it was within the Soviet Union was not subject to the same international build standards. The fire occurred when the operators decided for whatever reason to do some experimental tests and once the core began to overheat rather than declare an emergency instead argued among themselves as what to do. Once a fire crew was dispatched they didn't even have the correct clothing in order to protect themselves from the radiation. Many would later die from such high dosage levels. For the initial few days the Soviet authorities decided to deny there had been any issues to the international world, rather than get on and evacuate people from the nearby areas. Of course the world could detect the increased levels of radiation by various means.

This was the worst Nuclear accident on record and yet despite all this the only people who died as a direct result were the workers involved in the immediate emergency. There has been no significant evidence of locals who have been adversely effected by the radiation nor the animals. In fact since the area has been evacuated the nearby area is now a rich ecosystem with animals thriving as humans no longer live there. There are no mutant animals and so on. If we look at Three Mile Island, despite all the dramatic news reports no one actually died from the radiation of the accident. There were more people who suffered from the stress of worrying about what might happen rather than what did happen. Again it took decades to clean up the reactor and the area but no one died from radiation or had health effects caused by it.

Fukushima daiichi occurred in 2011 during the record breaking earthquake and the resulting tsunami. While such a disaster killed thousands of people, the media and environmentalists were focusing on the nuclear power plant. Despite all the high drama there have been no fatalities from the radiation or the accident as stated by popular mechanics supported by other scientific literature and people who decide to look at the facts rationally. There were a total of two workers who got radiation burns when their boots leaked. I'm sure this was not pleasant however these injuries were cosmetic and will have no long term health effects. Various blogs have been full of downright lies on the accident. Pictures of sharks with cancer have been exposed as taken before the accident - and yes sharks naturally get cancer regardless of nuclear power. Pictures of starfish with what at first sight seem to have to many legs and get posted as "mutants of the sea". Again these starfish are a known species and pictures of the exact same ones were available before the accident. There was a map that supposedly showed a radiation heat map all around the Pacific when in fact it was a heat map of the tsunamis wave size. Then we have quotes saying that million of Becquerels have been leaked and continue to be leaked. Large numbers are used to scare readers, however due to the short half lives of many of leaked elements or the fact it has all been diluted by the sea has meant the actual dosage of radiation is negligible. So many fallacies, you can go through them but many are complete fabrications. They are all driven by political motives with an aim of trying to discredit nuclear power in order to push energy sources such as wind and solar which in fact kill people year on year. Of course I must be a shill of nuclear energy or some other conspiracy theory that people come up with. All I do is just look at the facts and form a rational view in what I see.

Nuclear is the safest energy on record. An analogy in transport would be an aeroplane. We all know that flying is one of the safest forms of transport. In ratio terms its safer then cars, motorbikes, trains, peddle bikes even walking you have more chance being run over and killed. But yet many have an irrational fear of flying and whenever an accident occurs we see it on the news. Its because they are so rare they get lots of media coverage. Can you imagine if we reported car accidents like this? We would need a dedicated half an hour program every day to just run through all the accidents. With all this hysteria nuclear has been neglected for decades. Similar to planes people focus on the worst case scenario rather than years of robust energy generation.

Engineering is Hard

As a software engineer I know from first hand experience there is no such thing as a perfect solution. Coming up with working solutions is thoroughly enjoyable experience however it is a very time consuming and laborious process. From a high level theory always seems simple. I mention this as many comment on energy production as though it is some simple process. They talk about wind power as just been this free form of energy with no costs and no compromises. As my previous post explained there are all kinds of engineering problems of trying to use wind power to deliver reliable, robust and inexpensive energy. When someone tells you there is a simple solution and its some big oil or nuclear conspiracy that is stopping the technology don't believe them. Don't believe them as engineering and businesses have already looked at other sources and realised all the complications behind the alternatives.

To illustrate the complexity of engineering there is a popular phrase "its not rocket science". Its a phrase that has been associated with what seem like simple tasks and a hint for the person to get on with it. However rocket science is actually not all that complex, in a nutshell it involves putting a couple of fuels together and combusting the mixture. Its the engineering that's the complex part, the part that took decades to perfect to the point that we could fire humans up in rockets. The basic function of cars has not changed for over a century now. You put air and fuel in a chamber, compress it then ignite it. But the engineering that has gone into that over the years to make it reliable, safe, efficient and robust is astounding. Its a similar story with planes, who like cars were once considered a death trap. With decades of constant engineering they have now become one of the safest forms of transport. Not only is engineering a long and hard process but it involves trade offs. Rockets burn huge amounts of fuel are terribly inefficient, contain lots of highly flammable hydrogen fuel that is stored under compression (correction 26/11/2016, its in liquid state) however all of this is used as its the only engineering solution we could come up with at the time to escape earths gravity. Nuclear is often viewed as an unacceptable solution as it deals with potentially highly radioactive materials where the risk will never be justified. However the same people wrongly turn to sources such as solar and wind viewing these as perfect solutions when in fact there are all sorts of engineering headaches that come with those options, not least we don't know how we can power a developed economy on them solely in this current timeframe. With nuclear however we know we can. We know they can scale, can produce lots of energy and can do it all day with relative safety.

Before I go into the next generation of nuclear plants I'd like to state that no technology is ever safe. Just like the examples above, rockets, planes and cars were all considered highly experimental and unsafe. It was the engineering that went into them that made them robust and safer and with self driving cars, planes automated by computers they are still getting safer. If we have a look at electricity itself we don't consider it dangerous despite the fact thousands of people around the world are badly injured and killed every year by it. During the initial commercialisation of it there was the AC/DC wars in which Tesla and Edison went head to head on which power people should use. Edison famously electrocuted an elephant in order to try and prove that AC was too dangerous putting high voltages down the lines and there had also been a number of deaths associated with its installation. DC power which was a safer alternative was considered impractical due to engineering challenges. Electrical engineers realised DC would require very think wires to carry the current over lower voltage lines. It would require power sources to be nearer to consumers in order to deliver the power. There was also the problem of power loss. All of this would make it prohibitive in terms of cost and practicality to the end consumer. We could have banned AC due to health concerns but instead consumers and businesses took that risk and we are all better for it. All the risks and dangers with electricity exist but though various safely measures be that correct insulation of wiring to the simple switch board in your house or the common plug (which is a great piece of engineering - see video below - the end joke also illustrates an engineering tradeoff) we have learnt to make and use electricity reliably and relatively safely. Entrepreneurs are trying to do the same with nuclear power.

Nuclear startups

Nuclear has got a reputation as being the most dangerous energy sources, when in fact the numbers show it to be the safest. However engineers have decided to make nuclear even more robust and safe, coining the term passive failover whereby in the event of something abnormal occurring the plant can correct and fix itself without human involvement. Most of the nuclear plants in existence are whats known as first and second generation plants. Third generation have just begun being discussed and built and people are looking at forth generation plants. Many people see the next generation as far superior. Some of the features include passive safety whereby no power is required for them in order to shutdown and where engineers are now modelling disaster scenarios that will "never happen" but building features to deal with those situations. Micro-reactors and factory assembly are being explored in order to reduce the costs of energy. One of nuclears largest costs for many plants is the fact that they are built as one off designs. If you standardise this you can bring down the upfront costs. Then if you could build smaller reactors investors would have to put in less capital and take less risk in order to see a return. The political climate doesn't help with various Governments at a whim deciding to shut down nuclear plants, its no wonder investment has been so lacking. Simpler fuel cycles and sources of more abundant fuel such as Thorium are being discussed. Even plants such as the travelling wave reactor discuss the possibility of using spent nuclear waste as fuel to generate electricity stating we have hundreds of years of energy sat in waste sites. This also includes no enrichment process making it simpler and more cost effective.

There are a number of startups who are exploring nuclear one such startup is terrapower a firm that has the backing of Bill Gates. He's backing nuclear fission as he's looked at all the options for power and believes that can be the cleanest, most practical and potentially the cheapest source of energy. There are other startups who are trying to explore fusion such as Helion. We have yet to crack it and it may be a problem that takes many decades but still its good people are having a go (however for the past 40 years its eternally been 5-10 years away, we are still waiting). Theres a host of other startups who are exploring nuclear and trying to innovate based on its proven model to produce reliable stable baseload electricity. Of course all the above requires engineering effort and may prove hard when it comes to actually moving from theory to practice. On paper people can say all sorts of things its only when someone actually begins to build it, does all the detail come to the surface. On paper rocket science looks easy, but to engineer it is another matter.

Nuclear Costs

A common criticism of nuclear power is it costs too much to produce compared with the alternatives. It is true that nuclear does cost more than fossil fuels be that coal or gas (not so with wind and solar as they get a lot of government subsidies) to produce electricity but a lot of the costs go towards factors I have discussed such as ad hoc design, huge upfront costs and risks due to political interference. I'm not going to say that one day nuclear will make metering electricity pointless (as was once predicted back in the 1950's) however I believe that the potential for nuclear to not only be cost efficient but also very cheap is there we just need to explore it more. Consider that in the current generation of nuclear plants in use only around 1-2% of the fuel is used to actually produce electricity the rest is wasted or we loose energy just because we haven't figured out a way to produce a more efficient and controlled reaction. Point is if someone was to get a modest increase to say 3% then thats a 50% improvement right there and there are people looking into this. Nuclear has also been neglected for 40 years and there has been little investment or research into improving it. All that has changed recently as more people have become interested in it once more by looking at the practical problem of moving beyond fossil fuels.

Wind and Solar

I mentioned the workings on solar and wind in my last post with particular focus in what the German authorities had done. Both technologies continue to improve (so does gas, oil, coal etc) but the question is, have they improved to the point where they can make a practical difference. My thoughts are wind will never be able to scale what so ever to meet our needs or ever be practical. Every installation requires its own generator and its very hard for example for these to be installed in residential areas to generate any power. Solar on the other hand has more potential. I believe both technologies from a national grid perspective make no sense just because of the sheer amount of land and battery storage a utility company would require to deliver stable baseload power. However there are people trying to deliver it on a domestic level. A lot of people have roofs so putting passive solar panels on there can be done and people have been doing it for decades. Problem is its never been very practical (especially here in the UK). Tesla, a company who is known for their electric cars has recently launched their solar roofs and the powerwall 2 as a domestic option for "clean" energy.

I picked the video above as there is a critical viewpoint on it, if I would have picked the original keynote speech from Elon Musk it would have seemed that all the problems have been solved. Theres a number of other issues with all this. Obviously Tesla is based in the sunshine state of California. If Solar can not pay for itself there then it has no chance anywhere else in the world. As I've previously mentioned solar panels and batteries wear down over time and the initial upfront cost is not for life. With the above solar roof there is all sorts of technical differences compared with normal roofs. With residential roofs they generally have no issues for decades with little maintenance. With a solar roof I can imagine many maintenance issues with them over time. Lets just look at initial costs. The powerwall is estimated to sell for $5.5K, you will then need to pay someone qualified to install it, estimates for such a specialised piece of equipment is say around $1K. Then you need to re-roof your house with these new tiles and wire them all in. This is not going to be cheap lets say $15K for labour and materials (no idea, however these solar cells won't be cheap and you will need a specialist installer). Straight away you are talking $20K. Now my current electric bill is around £400-500 a year (you can see where these numbers are starting to fall down). Now in order to just break even I would need at current prices and a current dollar to pound value of around £16K, it would take around 32 years to make my money back. However it gets worse because in reality a solar roof on my house is not going to provide energy without still using grid energy, I mean in winter I will be practically getting nothing from all this configuration here in the UK. So in reality we are looking at a longer timeframe. Then there is the fact that the battery only has a 10 year warranty and as we know will need replacing at some point, the solar cells do not generate as much energy over time as they degrade, thus needing replacement. In order to maintain operational efficiency I will need someone to clean my roof (I do DIY, but never roofs - too dangerous for me). Then there is the fact that I don't plan to stay in my current house longer than 10 years never mind 30 as I plan to move up the housing ladder at some point. I could take my powerwall with me but I can't take my roof. What about if I moved into a listed or protected building? What about if I moved to a flat in an urban area? What about scaling all of this to urban areas where people live in flats with many residents but limited roof space or offices for that matter?

Now an objection may be that you can pump unused electricity to the grid in the summer months. This is plausible and some saving can be possibly made here. However if say 50% of people get such a system whereby in the summer they pull no electricity from the grid and instead sell it back, then due to this along with the fact that baseload energy will still exist then the price for power would go to near zero as this is just basic supply and demand (thus meaning people in effect could not sell their power). However in winter months those 50% on solar would get little power from their solar systems and would no longer be able to sell back to the grid, in fact they would now consume power from the grid. Its a similar story to the Germany example in the last post. What would happen is we would still need all the same number of nuclear/gas/coal plants in order to cover the dark cold time of winter. We would have a dual grid, only if domestic solar put the price of electricity to zero in the summer months then the utility companies would need to compensate for this loss in revenue. They could use more temp staff through the seasons but would still need a core workforce to maintain and operate the plants all year round. This would obviously raise baseload prices as in order to make a return on the initial build of the plants would need to charge more for electricity to make it a worthwhile endevour. I see more potential in the batteries themselves, for example households could use them to even out the load they put on the grid at peak times, thus meaning less need for excess baseload power.

Fundamentally it boils down to this, I like most people want someone else to deal with the complexities of generating electricity. I just want it delivered to me, when I want it, wherever I may live. Even if the numbers could break even (long way from anywhere near that) I like the simplicity of my current setup. Want to move - simple I just move, I don't need to maintain anything or worry about minimising electricity usage in order to try and recoup the money I have sunk into such a setup. I think what Tesla are doing is great. Its human ingenuity, offering solutions rather than a bunch of people lobbying politicians to try ban something or confiscate wealth. But I just believe the above scenario will not work in the timeframes required, especially for somewhere like Britain. Even Elon Musk admits we will still need baseload power (think about the winter months conundrum above, solars Achilles heel). Think about everyone having electric cars, their heating being electric? Both use cases draw huge amounts of energy, solar and batteries in your home can only scale so far. Despite his preference for solar he does say nuclear is far better than gas or coal as its carbon neutral and very reliable. I believe the whole home solar solution above sounds romantic to many, almost in touch with nature (despite it containing lots of modern technology). In reality the mining operations of the batteries have a real impact on our landscapes and emit pollution, the solar panels require more energy to make and again we need to mine raw materials. There is no such thing as a "green" energy source.

Hydrogen vs Electric Cars

I've assumed that we will use electric cars going forward, however a lot of people tout hydrogen as an alternative. The only thing going for hydrogen is that it can potentially be a very dense storage of energy and can be pumped into cars like existing oil can, meaning less range worry such as with electric cars. However once you start to examine the engineering difficulties with Hydrogen it becomes a non starter. Elon Musk, usually a moderate speaker has harsh words for Hydrogen and in an interview basically dismissed it as useless. We currently have an electricity network, with hydrogen we would need to build one. Hydrogen is highly corrosive and escapes over time. Its so hard to store it can actually escape through steel atoms themselves. For example if you had a car with a full tank of hydrogen and left it for a month by the time you went back most of the fuel would have just escaped the tank. Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in our universe, unfortunately its not a naturally occurring element and if it exists on its own it quickly escapes our atmosphere. The most common way to get it is to extract it from water but you have to break it from its bond with oxygen. The classic technique is to use electrolysis which of course requires electricity. However most of hydrogen is actually obtained by extracting it from methane gas and breaking the hydrogen bonds but here's where the irony is; this isn't clean, it releases all sorts of greenhouse gases as a by product of the process (even the electrolysis method is silly, it wastes clean water, water that is a precious commodity around the world and is hugely expensive hence why methane gas is preferred). Hydrogen is not a source of energy like say gas, its an energy store. So once you go to all the effort to extract it and somehow contain it, then ship it, you then have to use it. Why not just send the electricity straight to the car? It makes no sense, its a completely un-environmental solution and solves nothing.

How do we move away from Carbon Based Energy?

It will be human ingenuity on an individual level. We need to try many ideas and different technologies. We've spent billions on wind power and in my opinion we should abandon it. Its never going to work. Solar is interesting but it will never scale for all our needs, even people pursuing solar such as Elon Musk admits this. What we need is nuclear. It powers the stars and has the potential to be an abundant source of energy. We don't need a revolution we just need steady incremental improvements over time and a greater understanding of it. I believe thats why Bill Gates has picked nuclear fission rather than fusion. He's picked something that can meet our energy needs and builds on top of a power that does generate real power in the real world. What he's trying to do is take it to the next level; bring down costs; make it even safer and make energy abundant for us all. Elon Musk is also trying to incrementally improve electric cars for example. He has convinced many investors through voluntary actions to sink billions into Tesla and its still making consistent losses. Why? Despite what people tell you about free markets many are not in it for the money. They are in it to change the world for the better and have the freedom to try new and exciting things even if that means they loose money. Bill Gates has openly said he doesn't plan to make money from his energy investments, he just wants to try solve what he thinks is a big problem that needs solving. The above may seem mad but thats how a lot of engineers work, they like making things and solving problems.

Despite various Government initiatives to get us all to use bikes, public transport or use electric cars which had an image problem we all stuck to our petrol cars. Point to point transport is going no where and Elon Musk recognised this therefore he gave consumers what they wanted, a car based on electricity that had the performance of a conventional petrol car. He created a brand as good as any other, a brand people want to buy and a electric car with the performance of a super car. There's lots to do to bring down the costs and Tesla are hemorrhaging money as we speak but at least they giving people a viable alternative rather than us all resorting to bikes. There are many more entrepreneurs and engineers who are trying to solve the above. People will solve climate change, not politicians all they will ultimately do is hold up the process. Nuclear regulations dictated by Governments are that bad in the West that Bill Gates has gone to China to try out his companies new ideas. Politically active people try to shut down this one power source, the only one we know of that can actually do the job and provide us all with reliable energy. Governments are trying to shut it down like in Germany; for someone like me who has crunched the data its infuriating to watch. For years Governments squandered billions on public transportation programs, programs to get us to use bikes and so on yet there have never been more cars on the roads. Meanwhile markets just accepted people will continue to use them and have tried to actual bring tangible solutions to the table. They have made them emit less CO2, made them more efficient and now private companies like Tesla are making electric cars desirable. Markets have made car sharing applications and are now creating self driving cars, thus ultimately requiring less of them to be built and giving everyone point to point transportation regardless of income or ability. Governments in Europe on the other hand created all sorts of tax breaks for Diesel cars which turned out to be a far worse pollutant than the original petrol ones they were intended to replace. 20 years ago in the UK there were next to no new diesels being bought, now over 50% of new cars are diesels thanks to Government policies. Various climate treaties are signed, most of them are just photo opportunities for world leaders to feel good about themselves. No solutions are proposed and quotas are broken in many cases with no repercussions for those who signed them. It's left to private companies, engineers and startups to work out how we can make appliances more efficient, how we can use alternative power sources.

How do we move away from Carbon energy? Give engineers and entrepreneurs the freedom to create solutions. We need to move away from the politicisation of climate change, which includes both the right and left virtue signalling with one another. But I won't hold my breath for that. Instead the quiet ones among us will just have to crack on with what we believe needs to be done. As the saying goes "If you build it, they will come". Actions speak louder than words.