Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Blog Evaluation III

For those who are not concerned about the class details with respect to blogging itself, I don't recommend torturing yourself with this post.  If you really want to see how I rate my blogging abilities, then by all means, read on!

The end is only the next beginning

The passing of time is always so bittersweet.  I am talking of course about the end of the semester.  The school year has come and gone, and my senior year is quickly coming to a close.  The end of the semester of course means that this class is coming to an end and the blog project that we started back in January is wrapping itself up.

The future of nuclear power, even despite the events of the last few weeks, is very bright.  I believe this so much that I think you should listen to this song as you finish reading this post.  It has kind of become my adopted theme song...  Anyway, to close out the blogging this semester I though it would be appropriate to describe the bright future of nuclear power.  If I could only get one message across with this blog, it would be that nuclear power has a very exciting and productive future ahead of it!

Generation IV reactors are going to revolutionize the face of nuclear power within my lifetime.  The idea of being a part of this excites me beyond words.  When I call a reactor a Generation IV reactor, I mean that is a revolutionary design as opposed to an evolutionary design from the status quo.  In other words, the nuclear industry is going to undergo a total face reconstruction within the next 30 years.  The common types of reactors we talk about today (light water reactors, canduu reactors, etc...) are all going to be a thing of the past as well as are many of the problems that are associated with them.

Just to get a last little bit of a technical stab before the end of the semester, the new reactors are going to operate at higher temperatures, have a higher efficiency, produce less waste, and are going to be passively safe.  And as a kicker, they are going to do this all for cheaper!  This is truly a testament to human engineering.  Let me explain my claims just a little further.

Generation IV reactors will no longer be based on using water as a moderator.  Instead, coolants such as helium gas will be used to cool the reactor.  This allows for reactors to be designed for and run at higher operating temperatures.  From the basics of thermodynamics, higher operating temperatures allow for higher efficiencies in power output.  Keep in mind that nuclear power is already the most efficient form of power production.  The higher operating temperatures also lower the risk of meltdown in a reactor.  The fuel will be designed to operate at extremely high temperatures, so a loss of coolant would be less harmful to the fuel than it would be for the current light water reactors.

I have talked about passive safety features in previous posts, so I will refrain from beating you over the head again with it here.  But the best part is that the new reactors will be cheaper!  How is this going to be done?  Well you see, the nuclear industry made a mistake in our process for building new reactors.  Right now, each reactor has to be individually designed for every new site.  There is not much standardization meaning that construction is slow and the permitting process is a real $&@$...but anyway, the process is changing.  New reactor designs will be standardized which will allow for faster construction and less problems with the NRC permitting the construction.  After all, the construction process is the most expensive part of a nuclear power plant.

Let's not consider the thorium fuel cycle and breeder reactors that we discussed earlier this semester.  These too will have their part in solving the energy problems!

There is a ton of cool stuff to talk about when it comes to Generation IV reactors, but I am going to have to leave it to you to do your own research.  This site is a good place to start if you are interested.  If all goes well, we could be seeing some of this technology coming online within the next 20 years or so.  It is an exciting time to be a nuclear engineer!

So enough technical information.  The semester is over and we are all tired I am sure.  I know that the last few weeks of the semester have been the hardest ones that I have had in my time here at Mines...and that is saying something considering I survived the junior year of being a physics major.  I am actually sad to see this semester come to an end.  I have learned so much about nuclear power especially and I have had a blast sharing it all with you here!

We have covered a long journey here, covering the nuclear power process all the way from taking the nuclear material out of the ground to putting it back into the ground, and much of what is to be discussed in between.  There are many issues to be settled still about nuclear power, but I have full confidence that they can be handled.  The future is bright!

In a perfect world, I will continue to post periodically about cool things I learn.  That is actually my intention, but I also know that it is almost summer which means there will be many distractions calling.  I don't know about you guys, but I plan to see the top of the world from a few different mountains this summer.  I hope to see some of you up there!  The journey has been awesome, now lets continue to share the information with the other 8 billion people out there that haven't been reading this!  Here's to the future...

Waste: not a technical problem but a politcal problem

There are a million things I wanted to talk about this semester, but unfortunately both a limited amount of time and the rise of important events kept me from getting to some of the important issues with nuclear power.  To really address the current state of nuclear power in the United States, I still need to address probably the most concerning issue for many people.  I will admit, it is a problem that still needs to be solved!

I am of course referring to the storage and disposal issues associated with nuclear waste.  In over sixty years of commercial nuclear power in the United States, there has not yet been a solution settled upon.  So the question remains..."What the heck do we do with the stuff?"  Ok, so I exaggerate a little here.  We do have solutions to the problem from an engineering standpoint, but if we have learned anything for this communicating science class over the semester, it has been that science can't escape the human aspect.  In other words, the engineering solution will not suffice here given the extreme amount of controversy surrounding something as scary as nuclear waste.  Politics provide the key to the success of the waste storage issue in the United States.

First, a little bit of history about the nuclear waste issue in the United States.  Back in the 1950's the United States government was a big proponent for this new type of energy.  There was a lot of excitement that this was going to be the method of energy production that would solve all the future energy needs.  In an effort to help the industry grow, the government took on the responsibility of disposing of all waste.  The government didn't want private industry to be slowed in development or deterred by the high costs of dealing with the waste.  It was signed into law that the private industry was to store the nuclear fuel on site until the government had built and opened a permanent repository for the waste.  The original deadline for opening the repository was back in 1998.  Obviously, this didn't happen.

You all have probably heard of a little place in the middle of the Mojave desert called Yucca Mountain.  The funny thing is that nobody had ever heard of it until it became the center of a nationwide controversy.  This was the start of the "not in my backyard" campaign against nuclear waste.  So if this mountain is in the remote parts of the Mojave desert and nobody had ever heard of it before the proposal of this project, then why are so many people against the building of the repository there?  To make a long story short, politics...but I am not one to make a long story short.

When the government first took on the responsibility of building a nuclear repository, they had to identify possible locations for the repository.  The original agreement was that there were to be two repositories built in the United States, one in the eastern part of the country, and one in the west.  Several site locations were chosen around the United States, including sites in Washington state and Texas.  I mention these because these three sites - Hanford, Washington, Deaf Smith County, Texas, and Yucca Mountain, Texas - were the original three sites approved for final research by Ronald Reagen in 1985.  At this point, the western United States had agreed to host the first pilot repository.  This is where the eastern United States kind of forgot about its commitment to build a repository, but no need to cry over spilled milk.

1987 is when the story gets interesting because that is when Congress decided, before the studies of the sites were complete, that Yucca Mountain was proving to be by far the most viable.  Congress was trying to quicken the process and save money by jumping straight to what was proving the obvious answer.  This would be what we would call the engineering solution, but it didn't fly for obvious connotation reasons.  In 1987, Congress decided that only Yucca Mountain would be considered for future study.  This quickly became known as the "Screw Nevada Law."

This launched the career of an at the time unknown junior senator from Nevada by the name of Harry Reid.  He was adamantly opposed to the project, touting that due process was not followed and that the country only wanted it at Yucca Mountain because there weren't enough people to cause a scene over it.  Well, obviously there were enough because Harry Reid soon became one of the most powerful political figures in the United States.  Being that Harry Reid made it his career goal to stop the building of Yucca Mountain, I guess it is not surprising that since he became the Senate majority leader, the project was stopped.

Yucca Mountain was officially ended by President Obama when he took office.  Ending the project was nothing more than a political favor to Harry Reid for his support during the campaign.  With a flick of the pen, 25 years of work and billions of dollars were all killed.

So what now?  Well, the recent events at Fukushima have only emphasized the importance of having a safe place to put the spent nuclear fuel when we are done with it.  It is probably not the best option to have it stored at the reactor sites.  Deep geological storage is a safer and more permanent solution.  When President Obama ended the Yucca Mountain project, he established what is known as the Blue Ribbon Commission to look at further solutions to the project.

In the mean time, Yucca Mountain has been constructed.  It was within about a year of being able to start accepting waste for storage.  From an engineering standpoint, Yucca Mountain is the perfect place to store the waste.  It allows us to put it in a place where it will be safe and away from contact with anything that would be harmed by it.  There is no water there and the geologic formations that the site is built in are some of the most stable formations in the world.  The site would have been the most stable waste repository in the world.  While Yucca Mountain just sits there, the United States government continues to be in violation of its agreement to dispose of the waste.

Nuclear power, despite some controversy, will most likely grow to be a larger source of power production in the future.  For this to happen safely though, a nuclear repository is necessary.  My speculation is that the Yucca Mountain will be revisited in the near future.  Politics are adverse right now, but administrations change.  The good thing about the United States is that politics change.  An administration that does not need the support of Harry Reid might be able to look at the situation more logically.

As of now though, the United States is back at square one when it comes to disposing of the waste.  Fukushima made the disposal issue more urgent, so I think we might see a little more action on the part of the government in the near future.  Really only time will tell.  In the end, the answer is that the waste disposal problem has been solved from an engineering standpoint, but how to implement the solution with respect to the human aspect is causing the difficulty.  It can be done though.  Since we cut Yucca Mountain, Sweden is now going to open the first deep geological waste repository.  Want a little more technical information about how it is being done, I suggest this article.  Note that Sweden does not have nearly as stable of a location to put the waste, but they have been able to engineer a site to perform the task.  We will be watching them closely over the next few years.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Overachieving makes for sleepless nights...but results in cool stop motion video!

This blog has made me totally rethink how to go about trying to explain complicated ideas to people.  Thinking back to the beginning of the semester, I have to laugh at how I almost wore it as a badge of honor that I could speak this language known as science.  What I learned this semester is that most of the world does not speak, nor do they want to speak this highly complicated and often intimidating language.  I know exactly how frustrating it can be when people talk to you in a language you don't speak.

I took violin lessons for 12 years, starting when I was 8 years old.  Many of those years were with one of the most inspirational figures I have ever met.  Her name was Korina, and she was part of the nationally renown Veronika String Quartet.  To make a long story short, the quartet was from Russia, and they were all very Russian.  Korina was trained under the disciplined lifestyle that the Soviets were renown for.  This needless to say caused some friction with American student because we didn't find it appropriate to practice the instrument 8 hours every day.  She was a wonderful teacher none the less.  Being from Russia though, her native language was Russian.  She was always good at explaining what needed to be done to me in English, but she was also good at switching to Russian when talking to the other quartet members about me.  I remain convinced to this day that they made a lot of jokes at my expense that I will never know about... My point is that speaking a different language is often speak around those they don't want to communicate with.  Korina wanted to talk about things she didn't want me to hear (probably the truth about how bad I was), but scientists often use their language to speak above the audience.  They get a weird kind of kick out of it, which I know because I have done it.  Nothing makes a nerd feel better than sounding smarter than somebody else, just like athletes like to show off their abilities on the field.  Just like with athletes though, nobody likes a ball hog.

Ok, so now I am on a tangent.  The reason that I am bringing this up to you is because the end of the semester is coming near.  A couple more posts and this blog project will be complete as far as the class goes.  I started out excited at the beginning of the semester.  Starting a blog, I though I would have the perfect way to just write out all the basics of nuclear power.  That would fix everything as people would read the facts and everybody would be educated on the basics of nuclear power...well as it turns out, when people don't care you aren't going to get them to read anything!  I just had a friend ask me to proof read a paper for a class and I couldn't even finish it because I didn't care.  It is an absolute truth.  Blogging has been an excellent medium for me to get the information I feel important out there so people can see it.  I even like to think that some of my posts have been mildly entertaining.  The fact that people have to put work into reading the blog post in the first place is very limiting to my ability to communicate.

I was very excited when we were given a chance in another one of my classes to do a public outreach project about nuclear power.  I have learned so much in this class about communicating scientific information that I wanted to apply to other mediums.  Reading a book called "Don't be Such a Scientists" by Randy Olsen particularly interested me in film.  When a friend in the class suggested that we do a stop motion film for the project, a flood of ideas came over us about communicating the basics of nuclear power.  I have to admit that this has been the most involved project of my life, but it is by far the school project that I am the most proud of.  The video is a little long, but we cover most of the basics about nuclear power in a relatively short period of time.  In essence, this video summarizes the technical information that I have tried to give up till now.  For those of you following my blog up till this point, I would love to hear if the video is better at conveying information than my writing.  Anyway, without any further adieu, I present to you a look at nuclear power in stop motion!  Enjoy!  Oh, by the way, turn your volume up nice and loud.  The levels are a little soft, but the song is awesome!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What I want to do when I grow up...

I mentioned before that I had a really interesting spring break this year as far as nuclear power goes.  You all know about Fukushima, but also during this time there were a series of public meetings being held in Pueblo, Colorado about building a nuclear power plant there.  This is where I grew up, and being in Pueblo over spring break, I naturally went to all the meetings. 

Going to these meetings as someone who has had some education in the nuclear industry was an interesting experience.  It was really interesting to hear about all the concerns people from the general public had about the nuclear power plant.  Some of the concerns were legitimate issues that needed to be tackled and some of them were issues that had no traction.  None the less, this was definitely a good experience when it comes to learning about what nuclear power faces when it comes to the public.  These issues were definitely exaggerated by the events simultaneously occurring in Fukushima, but it gave me a good understanding of how the public views nuclear power.

I don't really want to get into that now, but I want to talk about one key issue that was brought up.  The issue of transporting nuclear waste held a lot of traction with the local community.  People opposed to nuclear power brought in arguments that nuclear waste would be moved through their residential areas and near schools.  What if something happened?  Oh yes, the dreadful "what if?" the nuclear industry will face until the end of time.  Luckily in the transportation section, the nuclear industry has done a lot of thinking about "what if?" scenarios.

In fact, transportation of high level nuclear waste is one of the most engineered types of transportation out there.  This is both out of necessity as well as out of public outcry.  It is certain though that nuclear waste is special.  Unlike with other waste forms, we need to be careful of the geometries in which we move nuclear waste.  Under the right conditions, we could actually cause nuclear waste to start inducing a fission chain reaction, which would cause it to heat up.  So what is done about this?  Well, we know how to make the material go critical, and we know how to stop it from going critical.  Thus, we can design waste containers which keep nuclear waste from inducing fission reactions.

Most people are afraid of accidents happening on the road.  Nuclear waste is largely transported via truck in the United States.  It is true that sometimes trucks do have accidents.  Let me just say that the waste containers have been designed for this too.  Instead of me telling you though, let me just show you.  I recommend that you watch this whole video.  I got a really big kick out of it!

This is totally what I want to do when I grow up!  Sadly, I think they deemed these kinds of tests too dangerous back in the 1970s, so I never really had a chance.  But wrecking a rocket train!?  Every kids dream!

Anyway, I think this speaks for itself in saying what kind of damage that  nuclear waste transportation flasks can withstand.  If there was an accident on the road, you can remain confident that the radioactive material will be safely contained.  Take away point...I don't think that the transportation of nuclear waste is a good argument for halting nuclear power in the United States.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Earthquake, tsunami, tornado...what's next?

Mother nature has definitely been hard on nuclear power the last few weeks.  First a 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by a 30 foot tsunami cripples the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and now a tornado shuts down a nuclear power plant in Virginia.  If you didn't hear about this, you can check it out here.  It doesn't seem that the major news networks covered this one too much in depth...not that I am complaining.

Last Saturday, a series of nasty storms went through the south eastern United States.  There were reports of several tornadoes from the storm, including one which managed to touch down in the middle of Virginia's Surry nuclear power plant.  It didn't hit either of the two reactors at the site, but it did manage to destroy the switchgear for the plant.  When I say switchgear, I am talking about those fenced off areas you see next to the road that look like a mad scientist should live there.  These are the places where power flow is controlled.  They are responsible for directing where power goes as well as for cutting off power when necessary.  In other words, when the switchgear was taken out at the Surry nuclear power plant, it cut off the outside power.

It seems that people got a little nervous hearing that Surry had lost external power.  I mean, we are still going to the effects of Fukushima Daiichi not being able to restore outside power.  There is a major difference though.  The backup generators at Surry were not washed away by a tsunami.  After the tornado took out the switchgear, the plant lost power and the reactors shut down as designed.  The backup generators then came online and kept the reactors cool.  This is how the safety systems are supposed to work.  There were designed this way.

Some are saying that we were lucky that the tornado didn't hit the reactor buildings themselves.  I think this again is just a product of nerves resulting from the recent incident.  We must remember that when the reactors were built, they were designed to withstand such natural occurrences.  A magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 30 foot tsunami wasn't really believed to be a possibility.  That was a mistake looking back in hindsight.  In Virginia though, the risk of tornado is believed to be a possibility.  Actually, the containment vessels are designed for much worse than even a tornado, such as an airplane crashing into it.  It would have most likely been a less significant nuclear accident had the tornado hit the reactor itself.  The switchgear is much more vulnerable, yet we still have safety systems to account for failure there.

Power has been restored to one of the reactors at Surry and the other reactor is expected to have power within another couple days.  After power has been fully restored, the plant will assume operating at full power again.  The take away message...A tornado hit one of the more vulnerable parts of a nuclear power plant and there was no disaster.  The plant shut down for about a week and then will continue to operate as normal.  If that is not a testament to the stability of nuclear power, I really don't know what is!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sprouted grain and nuclear power

I am not going to lie...I spend a lot of time talking and thinking about energy production.  I have to blame some of this on my brother.  You see, he is also a Mines student.  A junior electrical engineering major focusing on power generation.  Between that, me going to school for nuclear engineering, and the fact that we live together, I spend a lot of time discussing the issues.  The other day though, my brother pointed me to an interesting article on the true economic costs of using coal to produce electricity.

The article was interesting based on its scientific merit alone, but I found it very interesting thanks to an interesting analogy it made.  Personally, I had never thought of coal-fired power plants as being like junk food.  This I think is the perfect way to describe them though!  Junk food is cheap, it tastes good, and makes up a large percentage of the food that most Americans (at least college students) consume.  The bad part about junk food is that it is not good for you.  It is unhealthy and it most likely will have greater cost down the road in the form of heart attacks and what not. 

Coal is cheap and it makes the electricity bill easy for the consumer to withstand.  Aka, coal "tastes good" to the normal person.  It is also dirty and hard on the environment.  It causes thousands of early deaths each year in the United States and the emissions of coal-fired power plants are putting things into the atmosphere that we don't really want there.  Using coal is kind of gearing us up for a planetary heart attack just like junk food does to our body.

You see, I have been trying to avert away from the college diet myself, so this analogy is especially interesting.  I have recently become a fruitaholic and I have even become that crazy guy in the grocery store reading all the labels.  Why you might ask?  Well, because I am interested in my general health.  Do you see where I am going yet?

The article didn't really finish the analogy you see.  While there is junk food, there are also food out there that are good for you.  Incidentally, there are also energy forms out there that are good for us.  This is where the industry is so interested in going nowadays.  Renewable energies are the albeit more expensive forms of energies, but they are the types of energies that are ultimately more healthy for our environment.

Many people use the argument that nuclear power is simply too expensive to implement.  Those of you who have been following me for a while know my opinion on this, but right now it is true that nuclear power has a high capitol cost compared to coal-fired power plants.  Have you ever gone into a grocer store and bought foods that were healthy for you?  Well, when you do you will notice your grocery bill sky rocket.  It is a general fact that higher quality products demand a higher cost.  For our well being, it is just a price we choose to cope with.  To ensure that we are nicer to our environment, we need to be willing to spend more money.  There is such a thing as electricity being too cheap when it is promoting the use of unhealthy power producing practices.  Junk food is too cheap, and that is why college kids have such unhealthy diets. 

Economics still must play a role though.  We must choose the method that provides the reasonable benefits we need without being too expensive.  Is it always worth buying the most expensive health food when trying to eat healthily?  Not really, considering we can gain the same health benefits by eating reasonably healthy.  We shouldn't go overboard and put all our resources toward an energy form that will accomplish the same thing as an energy form that has much less over all cost.  Solar and wind power are both more expensive than nuclear power in dollar cost as well as in the impact cost.  They require huge tracks of land (yes, I said that on purpose)  and are not up to optimal efficiency at this point.  Nuclear also has issues associated with it as far as waste and safety go.  My point?  We don't have an energy solution yet.  What we do know is that we need to try and change our diet.  Our long term health depends upon it.