Nuclear power – a solution for a sustainable future?

I want to write about this subject because of a talk by a science professor that I heard a few weeks ago. He was talking about his vision for the future and how that future would look like concerning the CO2-problem and sustainability. According to him nuclear power should be used in order to be able to produce the electricity that will be demanded for in the future. Solar and wind options will not be able to succeed in producing enough energy for the future.

Solar based power and wind based power could never become a viable option to fulfill the world’s demand for energy. Their efficiency is limited, based on physical laws. I can partly agree with that. At the moment, the efficiency of commercial PV-panels is about 15%. At the other hand, the efficiency of PV-panels is increasing and a lot of research is done to improve the technology (see fig. 1).

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Fig. 1: Efficiency of PV-panels

The results of these tests have to be proven outside the laboratory, but the developments go fast. Another solar based option is to build large fields of PV-panels on empty fields, on empty land in industrial areas, on contaminated soil (examples of PV-fields in former coal-mining areas), floating on lakes or water reservoirs (e.g. at horticulture sites: http://www.valksolarsystems.nl/projecten). In this way, a sustainable option for electricity production is combined with other functions, a multi-functional approach; or contaminated areas can be of some use. We have to look for much more of those options to reach a sustainable future.

The efficiency of wind turbines nowadays is much higher than those 15-20 years ago. More is known also about the problems concerning turbines and possible methods to tackle many of those problems (noise pollution is almost decreased to zero). Next to the turbines on land, the option for turbines at sea came into the picture. That seems a good development.

A sustainable energy system has to be based on multiple technologies: wind and solar power, biomass, hydropower, etc. We all know that the wind and sun cannot produce energy constantly. Therefore, there is need for back-up power or storage capacity. A viable option seems the combination with hydrogen production. A gas that can be stored and used in a later phase to produce electricity. Another option: a large lake in two levels, so water can be pumped up when there is excess of electricity. In moments that wind or sun cannot produce electricity, the water can run down via a turbine and produce electricity via that technology.

Going back to the nuclear power option. I tried to indicate that I believe the efficiency of wind and sun can be improved further. One thing I know about nuclear power is that there is a huge problem with nuclear waste after electricity production. If it is stated that, according to physics, PV-panels can never reach high efficiencies, for sure the physical laws have also to be taken into account when proposing a nuclear solution. We have to keep in mind the physical aspect of ‘half-life’ (fig. 2). The use of nuclear power produces nuclear waste that has a considerable half-life and we do not have a proper way to deal with that waste. The best option we came up with, at the moment, is underground storage. Thereby, hoping that the caverns can store the waste without leakages or other disasters. But, we do not know what will happen in so many years: does the underground storage last forever, do people in centuries or millennia from now recognize  the symbols we have used, can they tackle leakage or misuse?

Isotope Percent in natural uranium Half-Life (in years)
Uranium-238 99.284 4.46 billion
Uranium-235 0.711 704 million
Uranium-234 0.0055 245,000
Plutonium-239 24,110
Plutonium-240 6560

Source: Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, ‘Uranium, its uses and hazards’; Factsheets, posted on December, 2011; Last modified May, 2012 (http://ieer.org/resource/factsheets/uranium-its-uses-and-hazards/) + Wikipedia, ‘Radioactive waste’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_waste#Physics)

Fig. 2: Half-life of some uranium and plutonium isotopes

I would opt for a sustainable future in which I do not see a role for nuclear power. We have to focus on other sources and invest and research more in solar, wind, hydro, etc. I think our future will be a combination of centralized, sustainable solutions (wind turbine parks, hydro power plants, CSP/PV-fields, etc.) and decentralized sustainable solutions (local production with sun, wind, hydro, etc.). Sustainability deals with the here and now, but also with there and later. We have to keep in mind the generations that come after us.

3 comments on “Nuclear power – a solution for a sustainable future?

  1. The use of nuclear power is highlighting a crucial dilemma for mankind: on the one hand it provides us with a reliable and relatively cheap source of energy which will be available for generations to come. On the other hand, it embraces some intrinsic risks which are unique to this source of energy and which, at the same time, appear to be uncontrollable. Although some of those risks are, in my opinion, somewhat overrated, it is clear that there will never be a 100% safety level. At the end of the day, it´s a political decision whether to use nuclear power or not.

    The issue of nuclear waste is critical, too. I think it would be worthwhile to invest more into research on that matter with a view to reducing its potentially harmful impact. However, this point of view is just the opposite of what several countries (like Germany) are doing: they are essentially annihilating their knowledge on nuclear issues. This strategy is very short-sighted in view of the long-term problem of nuclear waste management making it less likely that future generations will be able to properly handle emergencies resulting from their nuclear heritage.

  2. I personally would opt for a middle ground approach. LENR or Low Energy Nuclear Reaction technologies do appear to supply abundant energy in the form of excess heat or electrical production. They also have the benefit of doing so without the radioactive nuclear waste to contend with. I have studied many Atomic, Fission and Fusion devices and techniques. Unfortunately every one of these devices I have studied have an intrinsic weaknesses. They all rely upon circulated water for cooling to avoid a meltdown. They are succeptable to geophysical forces such as Tsunamis Earthquakes and Solar Storms as The recent incident in Japan has shown us. They all pose a risk to human health to some degree should they malfunction as we have witnessed in the Chernobyl and Fukashima incidents. I personally would opt for the development of another alternative to fission and probably fusion as well as it is currently pursued.the grid is already maxed out with respect to its’ load capacity in high use periods like summer months when ACs’ are used and required extensively. I do not see the rational behind producing the very materials required for a device that will insure catastrophic failure due to an airial EMP discharge in the name of producing sufficient quantities of clean and efficient electricity with the obvious negative aspects of the given technology posing such high levels of danger itself. Given the state of social unrest in a large portion of the earths populations I would certainly consider viable alternatives to large scale fission and fusion technology applications.

    • Dear Jessee,

      Thanks for your comments. I would like to receive more information on the LENR-technologies. Can you send me some papers or other information?
      I would like to hear from you.

      Kind regards,
      Wouter

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