Tuesday, 19 April 2011

solar is nuclear

I guess that its moved along enough from the disaster to start discussions on the issues which arise from the Fukushima disaster.

I'd like to start this article off by considering a few things which people often forget; most people know nothing about nuclear power ... or even nuclear issues. I know a little bit as a result of studies in Science (bachelor degree studies), subsequent readings and discussions with friends of mine who are quite specialised in this area.

So like the heading says, Solar (the embodiment of clean the energy movement) is actually nuclear.

I mention this just to start out with thinking differently but still with a rational and dispassionate viewpoint.

We think in abstracts of things because if we didn't we'd be overwhelmed by the complexity.

Energy generation in the world is largely divided into Coal, Nuclear, Hydro and then a few other things, but by far a large share is made by burning things. Burning fossil fuels.

Coal is perhaps between 50% and 30% of the stuff we burn to generate energy around the world (figures are hard to nail down, and vary by country).

We tend to think of Coal as a black lump of pure carbon which we burn and get heat and C02 ... while this is true to a large extent two things need to be considered in this:

1) just how many tons of coal we burn each year
2) what else is in coal?

Coal as it happens contains small amounts of Uranium and radioactive Thorium. But even if it was only 1 part per million (and its higher) that means that for every million tons of coal we burn we have a ton (yes a ton) of what amounts to nuclear waste.

I gotta tell you, globally we burn quite a few hundred million tons of coal every year.

This is not new stuff either, as a look at this link in Scientific American or this link on a US Government site suggests.

But don't just take their words for it ... do some research of your own. If you doubt the figures.

So with our existing coal burning methods we are actually creating a nuclear disposal problem right now.

Of course Nuclear reactors create much more concentrated waste than does Coal flyash ... but that only means we need to break up and dilute the concentrated radioactive waste and store it safely. Remember, it came out of the ground in the first place right?

This is not 'rocket science' either and one such method for this has been around for ages, Synroc, certainly others can and should be developed.

Finally not every nuclear reactor is the same, Pebble Bed reactors
for instance are much safer than the type 1 which popped over at Fukushima. The older hot rod method of boiling water.

Remember, that's what nuclear power does ... just like coal we use it to get heat - to boil water - to run steam engines - to turn generators, just like your basic petrol portable generator, only much bigger.

Clearly we need alternatives, and we need to think about things carefully, because while we may worry about the death toll from nuclear, we need to comprehend the death toll from Coal ... its not just C02. For example in China alone, coal mining accidents kill more than 2000 people each year. Burning coal also leads to smog, acid rain and air toxicity, well before we even enter into the debate on green house gases and "global warming".

If our goal is to reduce the dirty waste from our energy generation perhaps we should look past the fears and ignorances into facts:

figure out what works
figure out what it costs
with that in mind do what we need to do.

There are ultimately better alternatives for energy, and my start to this topic (Solar) is a great alternative. The main criticism for Solar is that its effected by the weather, doesn't work well in winter (when we need the most energy) and is unsightly. An alternative location for solar pannels is space ...

Unlike ground based systems it has much longer (nearly 24 hour) up time, does not loose efficiency because of cloudy days and works well in northern lattitudes.

Right now we lack the technology to do this cheaply (although we can do it right now), but that does not mean we should discount this idea. This would give us almost limitless energy and no ground based pollution.

worth looking at and striving for if you ask me


Anonymous said...

*ahem* both your links to cite radioactivity of coal ash are the same. No need to publish this comment, just update the link please? :)

obakesan said...

fixed ... and thanks :-)

Charles Maclauchlan said...

I can remember reading about pebble bed reactors perhaps 20 years ago. I wonder why they aren't deployed more. It seems to me that the science of nuclear power is under developed. What I mean by that is I am constantly hearing about plants which were built 10 to 20 years ago, developed 15 years before that or so and designed another decade before that.

I wonder if the same things were true about the electronics we take for granted...computers, cell phones, digital cameras, the internet etc, none would exist.

Joshie boy said...

An interesting point about the amount of uranium and trace elements in coal, however I think an important point to consider regarding uranium in flyash is the isotopes involved. At a guess it has got to be mainly the predominant naturally occuring U238 not the nastier U235 (enriched uranium), or it's daughter products. And as you say there is the concentration....

obakesan said...

Hi Joshi

yes, I am guilty of glossing over all the really nasty fission by products of most nuclear reactors and instead focused on the "big names". Many of them are even more filthy and have longer half lives than those we all know and love.

Still, I wanted to just start discussion on the topic in what ever small and insignificant way I can.

People often gloss over all the nuclear waste tossed around after the Gulf war when all that depleted uranium was fired about as projectiles, recalling that its quite a toxic metal.

but thanks for raising those points, its exactly that sort of discussion which the community needs :-)