by Tom Blees
The past year has been busy and productive. The nature of our work at SCGI often doesn’t allow us to be entirely forthcoming because it often involves consultations with companies and/or governments that are in the midst of negotiations. But I’d like to convey at least a general idea of the progress that’s being made and the promise that the future holds for our goal of promoting an energy-rich planet while addressing the pressing environmental challenges of our time.
For the past few years we’ve been advising the UK government regarding their plutonium disposition issue. With the world largest inventory of plutonium (about 140 tons), SCGI suggested to the British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) that building PRISM fast reactors would be the best solution to their problem. GE-Hitachi then stepped in and offered to build a pair of those reactors and it currently appears to be highly likely that the NDA will choose the PRISM option. If so, it would mean the first commercial-scale metal-fueled fast reactors may well end up being built in England. We continue to encourage cooperation between the US, the UK, and other countries that are interested in this project. 2015 will probably see a final decision being made on this issue.
Meanwhile, SCGI was instrumental in initiating a two-year project at Argonne National Laboratory to design a 100-ton-per-year nuclear spent fuel recycling facility that will convert so-called “nuclear waste” to fuel for fast reactors like the PRISM. This will demonstrate a realistic solution to the oft-lamented nuclear waste problem. Since the beginning of this project in 2013, SCGI has been discussing the building of this fuel recycling facility with representatives of South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, and the UK. An international project to build this relatively inexpensive facility would enable the pyroprocessing technology to be shared and facilitate transition to the widespread deployment of fast reactors. All these countries—and others too—have R&D programs for metal fuel, tacitly acknowledging that ultimately this will be the dominant nuclear power technology. Our goal is to bring that future closer for the benefit of all.
Another exciting breakthrough that is in its very early stages is an electric vehicle technology that promises to make a widespread transition to electric transport a reality in the near future. Amazingly, this has come to pass not with the rollout of a new type of electric car but with a design of an electric 18-wheeler. SCGI got involved with this project a few years ago and in the ensuing years the truck has evolved through three major design iterations. Now it looks as if the lithium-iron batteries that it’s been using to achieve ranges over 150 miles on a half-hour charge will be doubling their energy density, boosting that range to over 300 miles. It will transform heavy truck transportation for, while it costs about 70-75¢ per mile to run a diesel semi, these electric trucks will cost less than 10¢. They’re clean, quiet, will require very little maintenance, and will cost about the same as a regular truck. We’re looking forward to being able to bring this amazing technology out into the open. We hope to have new prototypes on the road by this summer. This same battery technology will be applicable to cars as well and by converting road transport to electricity instead of some other type of fuel (hydrogen, ammonia, boron, etc.) we’ll be able to avoid the need of investing in a completely different fuel infrastructure. Electricity is already available nearly everywhere, so the transition can be quick and inexpensive. What’s needed most is to make sure that there’s plenty of zero-carbon electricity to charge all those vehicles, hence our efforts to bring integral fast reactor technology into play as soon as possible. About the only country that could manage to make a widespread transition to electric vehicles now would be France which has a substantial excess nuclear capacity.
Some of SCGI’s members have been busy recently preparing papers on nuclear power and climate change. What has been especially troubling to us is the issue of methane leakage, something that is rarely discussed but which is extremely serious. What we’ve found is that because leaked natural gas has a significantly more potent greenhouse effect than CO2, wind and solar facilities backed up by gas are often worse, from a climate change standpoint, than burning coal. The Siberian gas that supplies western European countries with the lion’s share of their gas has leakage that may run as high as 25% as it travels from the wells through thousands of kilometers of pipelines. Yet if natural gas leakage rates are even above about 2%, using gas for backup is no better than using coal. This sort of information must be part of the conversation at climate change conferences. SCGI members are bringing these facts to the UN and other organizations confronting the challenge of climate change.
Recently there was news about Google’s RE<C project that was pretty shocking to the general public. Google had put its considerable resources behind an effort to figure out how to make renewable energy cheaper than coal (hence RE<C). The project analyzed the potential of not only wind and solar power but wave, tidal, biomass, geothermal, etc. After four years of effort Google shut the project down. Now two of the men (both Stanford Ph.D.s) who headed up the project have spoken out about why it was canceled. Not only had they found that there was no way to make renewable energy cheaper than coal but they found that there is simply no way that renewable energy can come close to providing the amount of energy that humanity demands. Google, being seen as one of the most environmentally aware corporations, has yet to take a position promoting nuclear power. The results of their project, however, yielded no other known options for generating vast amounts of zero-carbon energy.
We plan to meet with these engineers from Google and invite them to join us for an April seminar at Columbia University sponsored by SCGI and the Lamont Earth Institute. The topic will be nuclear power and climate change and the panelists will include the renowned climatologist (and SCGI member) James Hansen, the noted economist Jeffrey Sachs, former head of the International Energy Agency Nobuo Tanaka, filmmaker Robert Stone, and others yet to be confirmed.
This is but a brief overview of SCGI’s efforts. Our work is dependent entirely on your generosity. We make every effort to trim our expenses to a minimum, relying on the selfless efforts of volunteers as much as possible. If you find our goals to be in accord with your own hopes for the future please consider a tax-deductible donation to SCGI as 2014 comes to a close. Thank you for your support.