Nuclear fuel recycling — Underutilized alternative power resource?

Sellafield-nuclear-fuel-recycling-plant, UK. Photo: Wikipedia.

Sellafield nuclear fuel recycling plant, UK. Photo: Wikipedia.

Nuclear-fuel-based electric power generation has a number of major advantages compared to fossil-fuel-based power systems — particularly the fact that there are no carbon-compound greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and also that nuclear fuels are abundant. But there are clear drawbacks to nuclear power, and certainly one of the most notorious is the production of nuclear waste. This waste must be safely contained, and much of it endures for thousands of years.

But recycling of this waste, particularly to produce more nuclear fuel for power generation, is also not only possible, but a technological process already in use, albeit on a relatively small scale. Especially with worldwide growing concern over global climate change related to GHG emissions, the benefits of expanding the production of nuclear fuel (called mixed oxide, or MOX) have recently started to receive more attention. “Recycling is a way to re-use the valuable resources in used nuclear fuel to produce more nuclear-generated electricity” explained Henry B. Spitz, a Nuclear & Radiological Engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati in an op-ed posted 25 September 2014 on the Cincinnati.com website.

Others articulate a similar case. “As we seek more effective ways to prevent the worst effects of climate change, recycling used nuclear fuel should be high on the list” argues Ivan Maldonado, an associate professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee, in an op-ed in The Tennessean of 21 September 2014.

Maldonado and other proponents of nuclear recycling point out that France, which already generates 75 to 80 percent of its electricity via nuclear power, has a robust nuclear fuel recycling program. Various researchers, politicians, and other observers and questioning why the United States — with an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel in storage — has lagged behind in this area of energy technology.

“If France and other nations can do it, why can’t we?” asks William F. Shughart II research director of the libertarian-leaning, Oakland, California-based Independent Institute, in an October 2014 Forbes article titled “Why Doesn’t U.S. Recycle Nuclear Fuel?

“The nuclear fuel recycling process is straightforward” Shughart explained.

It involves converting spent plutonium and uranium into a “mixed oxide” that can be reused in nuclear power plants to produce more electricity. In France, spent fuel from that country’s 58 nuclear power plants is shipped to a recycling facility at Cap La Hague overlooking the English Channel, where it sits and cools down in demineralized water for three years. Only then is it separated for recycling into mixed-oxide fuel.

The nuclear material that cannot be recycled is embedded in glass logs, where it will remain until France builds a deep-underground repository for unusable waste.

“Compared to electric generating plants fueled by coal and other fossil fuels, nuclear plants have a very light ‘carbon footprint’” says Shughart. “What we ought to do is what other countries do: recycle it. Doing so would provide a huge amount of zero-carbon energy that would help us reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.” According to Maldonado, “Such recycling would reduce the amount of waste requiring permanent disposal by roughly half. It would extend uranium resources.”

Shughart relates that “A major obstacle to nuclear fuel recycling in the United States has been the perception that it’s not cost-effective and that it could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

Those were the reasons President Jimmy Carter gave in 1977 when he prohibited it, preferring instead to bury spent nuclear fuel deep underground. Thirty-seven years later we’re no closer to doing that than we were in 1977.

France, Great Britain and Japan, among other nations, rejected Carter’s solution. Those countries realized that spent nuclear fuel is a valuable asset, not simply waste requiring disposal.

One should note, however, that there are understandable reasons for public and governmental reluctance to fully embrace nuclear power and nuclear fuel recycling. Not only is nuclear material exceptionally toxic, but historic major disasters such as those at Three Mile Island (USA), Chernobyl (Ukraine), and Fukushima (Japan) have demonstrated huge lapses in the safety of both the infrastructural design and the operation of nuclear power facilities (and the energy industry on the whole has not exhibited a comforting safety record in other areas either, as witnessed in recent years by serious problems and accidents with hydraulic fracturing, pipeline operations, and offshore oil drilling).

Bottom line: The technology is available, but the competency of nuclear power developers and producers, within the current social-economic-political environment, to proceed with nuclear fuel recycling at a sufficiently high level of safety, leaves grounds for serious questions and uncertainties. ■

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Solar PV power becoming much more abundant and affordable

Solar PV array harnesses sun's radiation for clean, sustainable power. PVs have been dropping in price, resulting in rapid increase in available capacity. Photo via CleanTechies.com.

Solar PV array harnesses sun’s radiation for clean, sustainable power. PVs have been dropping in price, resulting in rapid increase in available capacity. Photo via CleanTechies.com.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems have been ascending in importance as a source of electric power, according to emerging data.

It’s mainly a result of plummeting costs, writes Peter Diamandis in a Sep. 18th article in the online Huffington Post news site. Diamandis is Chairman and CEO of XPRIZE, described as an “educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

According to Diamandis, “the price per watt of solar panels has gone down precipitously.” His commentary presents a graph indicating that “the price of solar panels has dropped 97 percent from 1975 to 2012”:

2_FPN-graph-Solar-panels-avg-price-per-watt_via-Peter-Diamandis

Diamandis presents another graph illustrating his contention that the “capacity for photovoltaic production has grown at an exponential rate over the last decade.”

3_FPN-graph-Solar-Annual-PV-prodctn-Mwatts_via-Peter-Diamandis

In another article, published April 24th on the online technical website CleanTechnica, Silvio Marcacci focuses on what he calls the “astounding” growth in U.S. solar energy capacity, with data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA):

Solar energy’s rapid growth in America is evident – even casual observers will note the proliferation of solar photovoltaics (PV) across the country. But sheer size is usually illustrated best by statistics, and in this case, the stat is 418%

That’s the percentage installed solar energy capacity grew in the U.S. from 2010-2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s April 2014 Electricity Monthly Update.

In 2010, writes Marcacci, America’s total solar capacity was a mere 2,326 megawatts (MW), representing just 0.22% of the nation’s total electricity generation capacity. “But the plummeting price of solar modules and increasing efficiency of installation has sent solar skyrocketing” he emphasizes:

By February 2014, 12,057MW of solar electricity generation had been installed across the country, a growth rate of 418% and 9,731MW in sheer gain. Solar’s share of total U.S. generation capacity now stands at 1.13% – and EIA estimates continued growth across the industry.

4_FPN_Graph-US-solar-capacity-growth-2010-2014-20140424_EIA-via-Cleantechnica-com

EIA, Marcacci points out, has noted the “quick move” of the solar energy industry from “relatively small contributor” into “one of comparative significance.”

In his own Huffington Post summary, Peter Diamandis concludes: “As we see in so many other areas of technology, solar power is only going to get better, cheaper and easier.” ■

Iceland eyes geothermal energy from magma

Iceland's Krafla geothermal power station resulted from an incident of accidental drilling into subsurface magma of a caldera several years ago. Photo: Wikimedia.org.

Iceland’s Krafla geothermal power station resulted from an incident of accidental drilling into subsurface magma of a caldera several years ago. Photo: Wikimedia.org.

According to an Aug. 28th report on the WorldBulletin.net website, Iceland may become the first country to generate electricity from volcanic magma.

If plans to proceed next year are successful, up to three percent of the nation’s energy requirements could be generated from this procedure, according to Gudmundur Omar Fridleifsson, identified by World Bulletin as the chief geologist of the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP). The IDDP consists of a partnership between three energy companies — National Power Company, HS Energy Ltd., and Reykjavik Energy — plus the government’s National Energy Authority of Iceland.

“Iceland created the first magma-based geothermal energy system after accidentally drilling approximately two kilometers into a chamber of molten lava in a caldera called Krafla in the north of the island five years ago” notes the article.

With this incident, scientists from IDDP decided to use the magma to generate 36 megawatts of electricity in 2012. However, the team’s plans were put on hold when a valve failed during the process and the well had to be closed down.

Fridleifsson related that “The power company then considered either reconditioning the well or drilling a new well to the magma chamber for steam production.” He noted that “The IDDP program is now ready to drill the next well, IDDP-2, but this time not in Krafla, in the Reykjanes geothermal field in south west Iceland, which has seawater salinity and in many respects resembles black smoker systems on the ocean floor.” The IDDP-2 project will incorporate some modifications and improvements in the well design and flow line structure.

Described as “A revolution for the energy world”, the process involves pumping water down during drilling. This “hydrofractures the hot rock next to the magma body…” reports the article. Then the process is reversed, to attract the fluid into the well.

It creates a Geothermal System forming an EGS-Magma system. IDDP claims that by this drilling, they “unintentionally” created the world’s first Magma-EGS system.


Magma could be source for geothermal energy in Iceland and other countries. Photo via Inhabit.com.

Magma could be source for geothermal energy in Iceland and other countries. Photo via Inhabit.com.


Citing data from the International Energy Agency, World Bulletin emphasizes that “This new method of generating electricity could be important for Iceland, where geothermal energy and hydroelectricity make up almost 95 percent of the energy production and 85 percent of homes are heated by geothermal ….”

The potential of producing geothermal energy from magma is exciting many power industry professionals worldwide. Mustafa Kumral, an associate professor of geological engineering at Istanbul Technical University, told World Bulletin that “New Zealand and Iceland are experienced countries with geothermal works because of their geological locations and geothermal sources.” He noted that, for these countries, geothermal power and thermal processes “are very common due to volcanism. Besides, they have more opportunities compared to other countries” he added.

Turkey, with around approximately 14 inactive volcanoes, is also considering magma as a geothermal power source.

Boundary Dam carbon capture-storage (CCS) project heads toward startup in Saskatchewan

Boundary Dam power facility in Estevan, Saskatchewan, undergoing upgrade for CCS. Photo via GAP Inspection Services, Ltd.

Boundary Dam power facility in Estevan, Saskatchewan, undergoing upgrade for CCS. Photo via GAP Inspection Services, Ltd.

A major new installation of carbon capture-storage (CCS) technology is heading for startup in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Demonstration Project, located at its coal-fired power plant in Estevan, involves rebuilding the plant’s Unit #3 with a fully-integrated carbon capture and storage (CCS) system. According to the website of GAP Inspection Services, Ltd., which has been selected as Owners Inspector for SaskPower, “It will be the first commercial-scale power plant equipped with a fully-integrated CCS system.”

The project, also featured in a New York Times article focused on “Corralling Carbon Before It Belches From Stack“, represents another important step forward toward a sustainable source of electric power that minimizes carbon-rich greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As the Times reports, “a gleaming new maze of pipes and tanks — topped with what looks like the Tin Man’s hat — will suck up 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from one of the boilers so it can be shipped out for burial, deep underground.”

The Boundary Dam power project comes in the context of recent restrictions placed by the Canadian government on both old and new coal plants. While CCS “is no magic bullet” says the article, the technology is seen as particularly crucial.

Carbon capture and storage is increasingly a component of global efforts to utilize fossil fuel resources prudently and reduce GHG emissions, while providing sufficient electric power on a sustainable basis to maintain modern civilization and improve living standards. As the article emphasizes,

If there is any hope of staving off the worst effects of climate change, many scientists say, this must be part of it — capturing the carbon that spews from power plants and locking it away, permanently. For now, they contend, the world is too dependent on fossil fuels to do anything less.

Currently, as the Times also notes, CCS technology has its drawbacks. Carbon extraction requires extra energy, and this reduces a facility’s net electricity production — “the whole point of its existence.”

Plus, CSS is currently a quite expensive technology. “Updating the Saskatchewan plant alone cost $1.2 billion — two-thirds of which went for the equipment to remove the gas” reports the Times.

And while the article warns that “There are basic questions of whether carbon dioxide can be safely stored underground”, it’s worth noting that considerable research and innovation efforts are focused on improving the competence of storage methods and developing efficient technology recycling the captured carbon effectively. ■

Solar power production expanding in Texas

A Recurrent Energy solar PV farm in California's Mojave Desert. Planned West Texas installation would be similar to this. Photo: Recurrent Energy.

A Recurrent Energy solar PV farm in California’s Mojave Desert. Planned West Texas installation would be similar to this. Photo: Recurrent Energy.

Texas — where “energy” has traditionally been virtually synonymous with oil and gas — is one of the last places on earth where you’d expect solar power to start gaining a foothold … particularly with the ridicule and outright hostility toward solar coming from many conservative political potentates.

But, lo and behold, solar power development is suddenly having a surge in the Lone Star State. Long considered the energy equivalent of a puny weakling mainly because of its high cost, solar power has become much more attractive over the last couple of years as its cost has dropped precipitously.

Texas’s spectacular solar power surge is the focus of a June 4th examination in the Dallas Morning News. Headlining the “momentum” that solar power has been gaining in the state, the article notes that “vast swaths of ranch land have been optioned for the large-scale solar developments usually seen only in California.”

These recent developments “represent the strongest foothold the solar industry has achieved in a state that does not offer the lucrative subsidies that drive development in other parts of the country …” emphasizes the News.

The article contrasts the scale of Texas’s previous solar power development vs. the future:

From small rooftop systems to Texas’ largest installation, a 39-megawatt solar farm in San Antonio, the state counts less than 220 megawatts of solar power. On a per-capita basis, that is nearly the lowest in the country.

But with almost 350 megawatts of new capacity scheduled to be built by 2016, that is likely to change.

Arno Harris, CEO of the major San Francisco-based power development firm Recurrent Energy, expressed optimism, noting:

Texas is a large market. And it’s a growing market. … It’s really just economics. The solar industry has driven prices down to where solar can compete.

In May, Recurrent announced plans to develop a new solar farm in West Texas, “more than three times the size of anything that currently exists in the state …” according to the report. Designed to produce 150 megawatts of power, the new project was launched after Recurrent signed “a 20-year power purchase deal with Austin Energy.”

Furthermore, reports the News, “That comes just months after First Solar, one of the world’s largest solar companies, began construction on a 22-megawatt farm near Fort Stockton with plans of eventually expanding to 150 megawatts.”

According to the article, driving the recent interest in solar power “are environmental mandates from Austin’s and San Antonio’s city-owned utilities to vastly expand how much electricity they get from solar in the decade ahead.” In addition, “the cost of solar has come down dramatically over the last two years — Harris estimated between 60 and 70 percent.”

The price of solar still needs to become more competitive says the report, noting that Recurrent is “reportedly selling power at the rate of around 5 cents per kilowatt hour ….” That’s “roughly 25 percent above the current wholesale rate in Texas.”

However, the inexorably rising cost of more traditional, fossil-fuel energy sources like oil, gas, and coal suggests that solar will become increasingly more economically attractive as time goes on. “But considering the 20-year contract and that power prices are prone to rise in the decades ahead, solar seems close to winning contracts on pricing alone …” says the article. ■

California’s Salton Sea becoming geothermal energy hotspot

Group of 7 geothermal plants at Salton Sea site generate enough electricity to power 100,000 homes. Photo: Clui.org.

Group of 7 geothermal plants at Salton Sea site generate enough electricity to power 100,000 homes. Photo: Clui.org.

Large-scale exploitation of the potential of geothermal energy to generate electric power seems to be becoming a reality at Southern California’s Salton Sea, a highly saline lake in the Imperial Valley formed by floodwaters from the Colorado River in 1905.

Described by a May 3rd Barron’s article as “one of few areas in the U.S. rich with geothermal resources” and a possible “launch site for geothermal energy in the U.S.”, the area attracts geothermal development because of its unique topographical access to subsurface geothermal formations. As Barron’s explains,

The shallow, salty lake sits atop the San Andreas fault, 226 feet below sea level. About a mile beneath Salton’s southern tip, the earth burns at 680 degrees Fahrenheit, a perfect place to convert naturally occurring heat into electricity.

According to the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), the Salton Sea already hosts several clusters of geothermal plants, creating :a network of deep wells drilled in the geothermal field” that “allow water, heated by the earth’s mantle, to come to the surface and to power electrical generators.” The largest of these geothermal production clusters, notes a CLUI article, is a group of seven plants owned by the CalEnergy Company.

CalEnergy’s electricity, sold to the local power utility, is channeled into the power grid. “The seven plants in this field produce enough electricity to power over 100,000 homes” reports CLUI.

Barron’s describes other efforts by a local utility, Imperial Irrigation District (IID), to develop geothermal resources. Since it owns of the land, IID hopes to farm geothermal energy profits back into restoration projects to preserve the Salton Sea, which is receding, particularly from the effects of drought.

But geothermal development isn’t necessarily easy or cheap, explains Barron’s.

The tricky part will be to find viable locations for injection wells, which can be several miles deep depending on the area. After that, the plants are essentially self-sufficient. Hot water is pumped to the surface, where it turns to steam, driving turbines connected to generators. The steam is then converted to water and pumped back into the ground.

IID estimates that a single 50-megawatt plant might cost $300 million. Furthermore, viability of geothermal development depends on cooperation from the state of California, which “must approve building a $2.5 billion transmission line that would plug the facility into the grid.” ■

Wind, solar PV power leap ahead in clean, sustainable energy “revolution”

Wind turbines at power generation installation. Photo: Inhabitat.com

Wind turbines at power generation installation. Photo: Inhabitat.com

Huge recent strides in both technology and cost reduction have facilitated major advancement in America’s deployment of both wind and solar PV (photovoltaic) electric power generation, according to a September 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

With the galvanizing title Revolution Now … The Future Arrives for Four Clean Energy Technologies, the report focuses on “technology revolutions” also in electric vehicles and LED lighting, but the developments in electric power production are by far the most significant from the standpoint of achieving sustainable future energy availability.

Wind power generation

The deployment of wind turbines to provide electric power has been “on a steep upward climb”, especially in recent years, according to the DOE report, which notes that the technology has benefited from increasing investment in research and development, propelled by funding from both government and private-sector sources. Particularly crucial has been the federal Production Tax Credit, subsidizing the industry with an additional 2.3¢ per kilowatt-hour for electricity generated over the first 10 years of wind turbine operation. This, says the report, has been “critically important to incentivizing deployment of wind energy.”

As a result,

Today, deployed wind power in the United States has the equivalent generation capacity of about 60 large nuclear reactors. … Wind is the first non-hydro renewable energy source to begin to approach the same scale as conventional energy forms like coal, gas and nuclear.

Since the beginning of 2008, says the report, U.S. wind power capacity has more than tripled — even despite a sharp rise in wind turbine costs from 2001 to 2009. In 2012, the USA deployed nearly twice as much wind as in 2011. “In fact, wind accounted for 43% of new electrical generation capacity in the U.S. — more than any other source.”

U.S. wind turbine power deployment and cost. Graph: U.S. DOE report.

U.S. wind turbine power deployment and cost trends. Graph: U.S. DOE report.

The report highlights three technological factors it assesses as “key” to the recent advancement of wind power production:

Increasing turbine size — In terms of electric power generation capacity, says the report, wind turbines have become “progressively larger” over the past three decades. “In fact, since 1999 the average amount of electricity generated by a single turbine has increased by about 260%.”

Scale of production — Increasing turbine size and increasing productive capacity have contributed substantially to cost reduction, thus improving market competitiveness of this power production mode.
“As with many industries, increases in scale tend to drive down costs.” Thus, in recent years, prices have been trending downward.

Operational improvements — Operators of wind power generation facilities have acquired much greater sophistication in terms of their understanding and ability to adapt to dynamic wind patterns. In turn, This has helped nudge up what the report calls the “capacity factor” — i.e., the percentage of operational time that turbines are actually generating electricity.

The DOE report is quite optimistic about the future of wind turbine-generated power. And particularly as a sustainable energy source” Since wind is “100% renewable”, emphasizes the report, “it won’t ever run out.”

Thus,

Wind continues to be one of America’s best choices for low-cost, zero carbon, zero pollution renewable energy. The combined potential of land-based and off-shore wind is about 140 quads – or about 10 times U.S. electricity consumption today.

The report underscores aggressive development current;y under way in the wind power industry. “With continued technology improvements and policy support, the Department of Energy estimates that as much as 20% of projected U.S. electricity demand could be met by wind power by 2030.”

Solar PV power generation

Solar PV power generation installation. Photo: Solar Energy systems.

Solar PV power generation installation. Photo: Solar Energy systems.

The DOE is also enthusiastic about solar photovoltaic power developments and their prospects, proclaiming that “today we are in the midst of a generational shift to solar energy.”

A major reason for this, in the view of DOE, is the dramatic drop in cost, making solar PV electric production “increasingly within reach for the average American homeowner or business.”

This shift has come about because of a dramatic retreat in the price of solar PV modules — a trend that has accelerated over the past 5 years. Today, solar PV is rapidly approaching cost parity with traditional electrical generation from gas, coal and oil in many parts of the world, including parts of the U.S.

Describing solar PV electric power generation as “99% cheaper”, the report observes that

In 2012, rooftop solar panels cost about 1% of what they did 35 years ago, … and since 2008, total U.S. solar PV deployment has jumped by about 10 times – from about 735 megawatts to over 7200 megawatts. … During that same time span the cost for a PV module has declined from $3.40/watt to about $0.80 /watt, and this has catalyzed a rush in solar deployment.

Solar PV power deployment and cost trends. Graph: U.S. Department of Energy report.

Solar PV power deployment and cost trends. Graph: U.S. Department of Energy report.

Much of this, says the report, is attributable to “advances in technology and increased economies of scale.” With more and more solar panels are fabricated and installed, costs have steadily dropped. Solar PV investment has also been significantly helped by government stimulus, such as a federal investment tax credit subsidizing 30% of the cost of installing rooftop PV systems. Similar PV incentive programs at the local level — as well as abroad (e.g., in the the European Union, Japan, China, and elsewhere — have also tremendously assisted development of the solar power industry.

Consequently, DOE sees a “bright future” for solar PV. “Today, Americans are increasingly turning to the power of the sun, which allows them the security of generating their own, low-cost, electricity.” ■