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. ■

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.

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. ■

Philippines: New geothermal project launched on Mindoro Island

Simulation of Montelago geothermal plant. Graphic: Wikimedia.

Simulation of Montelago geothermal plant. Graphic: Wikimedia.

The Philippines, the world’s largest consumer of geothermally produced electricity, is currently operating ten geothermal power plants — second only to the USA in worldwide production of geothermal energy.

This month, yet another major geothermal plant, this one on the island of Mindoro, was launched by Emerging Power, Inc. (EPI) under power supply agreements with Occidental Mindoro Electric Cooperative, Inc. and Oriental Mindoro Electric Cooperative, Inc. for the output of the company’s Montelago geothermal plant.

Mindoro Island site of geothermal plant. Map: InterAksyon.

Mindoro Island site of geothermal plant. Map: InterAksyon.

According to the news site InterAksyon, EPI is constructing the new plant in Barangays Montelago, Montemayor and Melgar B in Naujan, Oriental Mindoro. The facility is designed to generate 40 megawatts (MW) of power, with each cooperative receiving 20 MW.

Under a geothermal renewable energy service contract with the Philippine Department of Energy, EPI plans to commence drilling to tap geothermal energy later this year, with completion and power generation targeted for mid-2016.

In addition to providing additional electricity supply, the geothermal plant is projected to reduce the cost of Mindoro’s electricity rates by 40 percent. Electricity output from the new plant is expected to further stabilize power cost, bringing rates down even further by 2030, according to an EPI spokesman.

China and Australia collaborating on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology

CCS pilot plant at Shenhua Group coal mining site in Ordos, China. Photo: Wu-Hong.

CCS pilot plant at Shenhua Group coal mining site in Ordos, China. Photo: Wu-Hong.

Collaboration between Australia and China on carbon capture and storage (CCS) is highlighted in a 19 November 2013 article on the Geoscience Australia website, focusing on the China Australia Geological Storage (CAGS) Project.

As this article explains, beginning in 2009 and concluding in mid-2012, CAGS Phase I was developed and supported with an allocation of A$2.86 million by the Australian government in accordance with the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. “The project focused on capacity building in the area of geological storage of CO2 in both China and Australia.”

The article notes that many of the materials generated through the CAGS project, “including educational material, are available for download through the CAGS website.”

According to this report, in addition to a variety of research studies and academic activities, CAGS Phase 1 also completed “Three successful research projects within China focusing on storage site characterisation, storage with enhanced oil recovery, and risk management for storage which have produced outputs such as criteria for storage site evaluation and advice regarding the development of a risk assessment and regulatory regime for CO2 storage in China”.

In mid-2012 a second phase of the project (CAGS Phase II) began, via funding approved under the Australia-China Joint Co-ordination Group on Clean Coal Technology. This phase will conclude sometime in 2014 “building on the relationships and work completed in the project’s first phase.”

Altogether, this cooperative project seems an encouraging step toward advancing the development of CCS technology, particularly in China and Australia.

Welcome to Future Power Now

Image

Geothermal power plant, venting steam. Photo via Navigant Research.

Finding innovative ways to improve the production of energy — particularly for electric power generation — that are more efficient, sustainable, and environmentally sensitive, is crucial for the future of our planet.

Future Power Now intends to provide information, news, and analysis of this issue, especially by focusing on emerging technologies such as:

Carbon capture and storage (also called carbon sequestration) — Technology to capture and sequester, and hopefully re-use, carbon emissions from combustion of coal and other fossil fuels.

Environmentally compatible extraction of shale oil and natural gas — Technology to significantly upgrade and ensure the full protection of ground water and other resources in procedures such as hydraulic fracturing.

Environmentally secure protection in deep-water drilling — Technology to effectively prevent leakage and disastrous ruptures from deep-water petroleum extraction facilities.

Geothermal energy — Developments in electric power production from thermal energy extracted from deep within the earth.

Solar power — Developments in improving the efficiency of photovoltaic cells and ameliorating the environmental impact of solar arrays.

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Stillwater hybrid solar-geothermal power plant in Nevada. Photo via Inhabitat.com.

Concentrating thermal power (CSP) — This innovative form of energy production deploys mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large amount of sunlight (solar thermal energy) onto a small area, producing high heat. This can then be used to generate electrical power by channeling the converted heat to drive a steam turbine or similar device geared to an electrical power generator.

Wind turbine power — Developments in improving the efficiency of wind turbine power generation facilities and ameliorating their environmental impact.

Nuclear fusion — Developments in efforts to make this promising form of nuclear energy extraction (with insignificant residual waste) a reality.

Future Power Now (FPN) will focus both on citations and links to news and information from other sources, as well as the results of FPN‘s own original research and analysis. We hope you’ll continue to follow us!