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January 29, 2006



Thanks for posting about China's pebble bed reactors. I grew up in the shadow of San Onofre, and while I have always considered myself an environmentalist, I have never understood my fellow nature-lover's loathing of nuclear power.

I've spent 20 years talking with people about how nuclear power is a boon for humanity. Small megawatt pebble bed reactors are a good, safe component of any country's energy portfolio.


Pebblebed reactors have two huge problems:
1)The amount of radioactive waste is much greater, and the waste cannot be reprocessed for future energy needs.
2)The moderator is highly combustible. Unless the reactor is deep underground, there is the risk of a catastrophic fire, like Chernobyl.

Jim from The Energy Blog

There is a greater quantity of waste, but it will have been consumed to a much greater degree, ie, contains less radioactivity than waste from conventional reactors. The danger of fire is much less than in a conventional reactor in that 1)each pebble has a melting temperature of 3000 C, more than twice the design temperature of the reactor. The materials containing the pebble act as a moderator limiting the temperature.
2) it is cooled by an inert gas and the reaction is self limiting. In case of a failure of the coolant the reactor simply heats up to an "idle" temperature well below the melting point, the pebbles and the reactor vessel remain intact, it cannot have a steam explosion as a light-water reactor can.
See this paper for a discussion of safety aspects of pebble bed reactors.

Jim from The Energy Blog

It should be pointed out that The Energy Blog tries to publish objective, factual articles about all aspects of energy, not just renewables or alternative sources. The publication of information does not represent an endorsement. Within posts opinion is printed in green type.

Regarding nuclear power, many environmental, groups, not all, which I agree with on this point, have endorsed the use of nuclear power in preference to fossil fuel power because they believe, at the present time, the global warming caused by fossil fuel plants is a more serious risk than the risk of a nuclear accident. Nuclear plants have been operating for a long time with no catostrophic consequenses when compared to that which could result from global warming. The new generation of nuclear plants will be even safer. When, if ever, coal fired power plants are built that don't cause global warming, my preference would change. The fact is, that at the present, both coal fired plants and nuclear plants are required to meet our energy needs and will be until we change our use of energy.


It's not the radioactivity factor that gets me about fission plants, as scary as that can be.

I grew up in the shadow of the Clinton, IL power plant, and heat pollution ended up being the major issue there. The lake now contains an amoeba that can cause brain infections and death if aspirated. In a once recreational lake, this is a problem.

If we actually achieve cheap, clean fission, it will be neither. Demand will spike, production will skyrocket, and shunting away the resulting heat will become as serious a challenge as the greenhouse gases they seek to displace.



Heat pollution isn't a fission thing. It's a heat thing, and you'll have it with fission, fusion, coal, oil, gas, solar-thermal, or any form of biomass.


Obviously, the issue is substantially more complex than either of us have portrayed, and even these comments below cut a lot of corners.

My main thesis is this: We can't solve our 'energy problems', most especially global warming, by blindly ramping up energy output. Without some serious attempts to do more with what we already have, we'll simply replace one set of problems with another set, possibly worse.

Wind, mountain hydroelectric, and geothermal energy are displacing energy that's already actively in the system, ready to convert to heat. Due to issues of albedo, even solar doesn't quite fall into that category, but it's still superior to oil, gas, coal, or nuclear in this respect. In turn, however, oil and gas have certain advantages over coal, which has certain advantages over nuclear.

One thing that oil, gas, and coal have over nuclear is the potential for cogeneration, which can nearly double the efficiency of these systems. To my knowledge, nobody has designed a nuclear plant where nearby manufacturing facilities are desirable. Indeed, in many cases such an arrangement may be insane, or even criminal.

Additionally, nuclear plants would typically serve baseline energy needs, and some of us have hopes that optimising the use of baseline and opportunistic energy sources (like wind and hydro, which vary with the weather) through mechanisms like demand pricing and intelligent consumption, will greatly improve overall system efficiency. Some of us hope for something a little less controvesial and problematic than nuclear to serve that base.

Finally, modern proposals for nuclear plants trend toward the Astoundingly Big end of the spectrum. It's not financially viable to make small plants. They'll be big, which means big energy output (heat, and electricity, which ends as heat). Build a couple of these, and everything is okay. Let the pendulum swing, as humans seem compelled to do, and things aren't so rosy.


Great post, had fantastic time

Ruben Willmarth

I've often wondered if you couldn't create a practical way of recovering heat from a nuclear plant: use low pressure steam through large pipelines, which by my back-of-napkin calc indicate could run many miles from a remote plant, with reasonable economics. A 30 psi back pressure would reduce the output somewhat, this amount I'm not sure. But in cooler climes, with some good industrial or commercial demand in the use mix, might be very do-able. It would eliminate the heat plume in a lake, by putting it to useful benefit.

Burt Shear

Why has liquid fuel from coal kept so quiet? It is made from a simple chemical reaction between low grade coal and water combined with heat. The heat initially comes from burning higher grade coal but in the future as reactors come on line could be converted to electrical energy. We have plenty of coal and the tech right now, no need to build a bunch or anything else. Lets export K-fuel to the world at our price.

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