Jun 8 2012

Just an FYI – If you live near a coal plant, you are exposed to a higher dose of radiation than if you lived near a nuclear plant

I find it interesting when people spout talking points with no analysis on their own part.  They rail against nuclear power, yet have no practical alternative solutions.  The politicians respond by preventing new plants from being developed (even thorium), and the coal industry ramps up and causes massive environmental damage in coal-rich areas.  I found an interesting quote from the free e-book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air by David JC Mackay (via reddit user jahjaylee) that you get more radiation from coal-fired plants, than from nuclear plants:


“Coal power stations, for example, expose the public to nuclear radiation, because coal ash typically contains uranium. Indeed, according to a paper published in the journal Science, people in America living near coal-fired power station are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants.”


The data comes from an old, but valid study from a 1978 article in Science Magazine. Now, it may be true that newer coal-fired plants produce much cleaner by-products, but at the time, coal-fired plants spewed out more than 1000 times the radiation than a nuclear plant of the same power.  This is significant, and I would be interested to know how much better today’s coal-fired plants rank on the radiation scale.

Jun 8 2012

Japan unable to run country without Nuclear Power

Following Japan’s 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami, The Fukushima reactor was shut down, followed by a shut down of all nuclear reactors.  These reactors supplied 30% of the power to the country of Japan, and the country has had to make up the difference by burning more fossil fuels and implementing a nationwide conservation effort.  Even with these measures, it seems that the country still cannot function without additional power – and there is no other solution right now – other than to bring some reactors online.   According the Japanese PM, it a matter of survival.  This puts a fine point on what I have been saying – Ounce for ounce, nuclear energy produced more power than anything else on the planet.  What we need is a slow, 100-year transition plan to get away from nuclear, but we may actually have to build a few more in the mean time until we can find a better solution.

May 22 2012

I hate backtracking, but I will – only a little

Much of what I talk about is the soundness of the principles involved.  Nuclear Energy is sensible, clean, and gets rid of filthy, rotten coal and oil.  But we live in a flawed world.  I don’t pretend to completely understand just how bad the regulatory capture is at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but I can imagine.  I’ve been seeing a lot of stories about how screwed up it is.  I continue to be a proponent of responsible nuclear energy – like Thorium reactors. We need to get the lobbyists out of Washington.  I think it will take an Amendment to the Constitution, but it’s worth it.  We can’t run this country yet on wind and solar alone.  People won’t sacrifice quality of life to save a few kilowatts.  So, we have to find the power – and nuclear is the only viable alternative to nasty fossil fuels.  As soon as there is a workable fusion reactor design, or a working space-based solar platform, believe me – I will be onboard to shut down all fission reactors.

Video Below:


Jun 14 2011

How Environmentalists are Making Things Worse

Although the Japan nuclear disaster occurred in March, I’ve purposely refrained from writing anything about it before I had a chance to observe just how bad it was, and what the world reaction was going to be.  Indeed, the situation is a worst-case scenario – a melted core affecting three reactors and radiation leaking into the ocean.  Options are quickly converging on a Chernobyl-style solution of encasing the entire thing in concrete and letting is sit until a better solution can be planned out properly.  Michio Kaku’s now-famous quote sounds bombastic (“Bury it!”), but in reality, this is the safest solution – for now.

Let me make this clear – I am not a hippie.   Yes, I am interested in green technology, but I also support nuclear power. Why? Because I am a realist that understands the need for a clean base-load power source now.  The vast number of people obsessed with green technology haven’t the slightest understanding of the physics involved in the nuclear process, nor do they understand the gigantic-ness of the power production challenges that lay ahead. Someone else said it better than me:

“If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you, and that understanding empowers you”. – Neil Degrasse Tyson

Those who understand the issues, the engineering challenges, and the costs are usually more hesitant of dismissing the value of nuclear power. Nothing now delivers so much for so little space. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m saying it’s unwise.


The Uncomfortable Facts:

The first fact is this – The United States uses a lot of energy – and it’s not going to stop or get smaller. Here are the numbers for energy capacity in 2009 (Summertime capacity in Megawatts)

  • Fossil fuels: 781,218
  • Nuclear: 101,004
  • Renewable: 238,979 with Hydro; 160,461 without Hydro

(source: eia.gov, Existing Capacity by Energy Source (2009))


Of all the fossil fuels available to us, coal makes up the bulk of the energy produced in this country. On the renewable side, hydro power counts for a significant portion, but many environmentalists oppose hydro power due to its negative environmental impacts (I agree, for the most part).

Secondly, coal and oil have high energy density, and they need to be replaced with something that can deliver at least as much energy in an ‘on-demand’ fashion. A utility needs to maintain certain level of base-load energy, which is the minimum amount of energy that a utility must be able to make available at a given time.  Solar and wind fluctuate, and there is simply no good way to store the amount of energy needed, nor is it very economical to transmit this energy across vast distances where it could be useful due to resistance in the power lines.

Even Angela Merkel (German Chancellor, and, oh yeah – a physical chemist) has recently stated that Germany’s decision to simply shut down all nuclear power plants in Germany might not be the best idea. In a more recent article, her statements were more blunt, and she proves my point exactly:


“If we want to quickly get out of nuclear power and into renewable energy, we need fossil-fuel power plants”…“At least 10, more likely 20, additional gigawatts have to be built in the next 10 years,” – Angela Merkel

20 Gigawatts – just for Germany.   Let’s put this into perspective – assuming the newest 7 MW wind turbines become commercially available (and economically viable), it would take 2857 of them littering the countryside and running at maximum capacity.


People are Strange

And then there is the other problem – getting people to change.  A first-year class in microeconomics will tell you that most people tend to respond to incentives – and that’s it.  The only way to incentivize them is to offer them a carrot, or a stick – either make it cheaper than going the dirty route by achieving enough market penetration of the greener options, or have government penalize the public or corporations for choosing the dirty fuel. A combination of both is probably necessary to push most Americans over the tipping point.

This sort of talk makes me a heretic among those in the alternative energy community,   People like to point to the disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima as evidence that all nuclear power is a terrible idea.  The arguments I have heard fail to bring to the table any realistic alternatives.  The solutions range from reduced power consumption as a result of a public awareness campaign, to an astronomical amount of wind and solar farms all over the country.  I’m not sure they understand what country we live in, but that sort of idealism doesn’t really go over too well here.  Not everyone is going to start installing solar panels on their roofs out of their conscience to ‘save the planet’.

Anti-nuclear activists of the 1970s exasperated the situation at 3-mile island and unwittingly played a hand in creating even more dirty power by making the very idea of nuclear energy distasteful to the public.  This resulted in the U.S. abandoning plans for new reactors.  With an increase in power demand in the 1980s and 1990s, markets were pushed towards dirty, filthy coal and oil. Some of the negative externalities of this national move towards this kind of fuel have been:

  • Increased demand for fossil-based energy caused an increase in coal extraction, and led to an increase in coal slurry ponds – an environmental nightmare.
  • Higher dependence on middle eastern countries for oil – (read: reduced national security).
  • Large, sociopathic energy companies pushed towards moronically-dangerous methods of acquiring energy, such as deep water drilling, hydraulic fracturing, tar sand mining,  and a coal strip-mining process known as mountaintop removal mining.
  • More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • Increased acidification of the oceans, which in turn accelerated the destruction of coral reefs and generally made for a more challenging environment for marine life.
  • Increased cancer rates.
  • Increased cost for all fossil fuels, including gasoline/petrol.

Mission accomplished, hippies – thanks a lot.


The Fukushima Quadfecta: Bad Engineering, Bad Location, a 9.0 Earthquake, and a Tsunami

One of the big problems with these reactors has been a lack of good engineering design.  The Fukushima plant is a system of four G.E. Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs), which were designed in the 1960s by GE. and were first recommended for discontinuation as early as 1972.  Newer (Generation III) designs incorporate numerous passive safety features – they have gravity-fed water cooling systems that don’t require electricity to function, they produce more power using less land, use less piping, and fewer valves and pumps (read: less to go wrong). Detractors of some of the new reactors have voiced their concerns, however keep in mind, the opinions were bought and paid for by anti-nuclear non-profits groups. I personally think some of the concerns are valid, and the NRC probably did the right thing asking for more data from Westinghouse.

Poor judgment in the chosen locations also led to the Fukushima disaster.  It’s my opinion that the Fukushima reactors were located on the wrong side of the country.  Japan is narrow – they should have been located facing the Sea of Japan, where, presumably, a Tsunami wave would never get big enough to cause problems. The other option would have been to build a very-large sea wall around the reactor, which is exactly what saved a Japanese town.  Although the area was damaged by the earthquake, automatic systems at the Fukushima reactor activated per the plan.   The problem was that about an hour after the earthquake, a 33-foot tsunami hit the station, disabling all 13 emergency diesel generators which were located almost as high as the tsunami itself.  Leaders need to find a way to put plants where they are going to safely deliver the most public good, and not where it’s most politically expedient.


The Future:

Ultimately, the fuel of the future is still nuclear – but it will be fusion power.  The joke of course is that over the past half-century it’s always been ‘only 20 years away’, but the trajectory of this research can be seen with much more clarity now, and I reasonably predict that fusion power will be a reality before the end of the 21st century.  This of course will set off a new gold rush to the moon, but that’s an entirely different discussion. For the foreseeable future, the most viable approach will be a combination of nuclear, solar, hydro, and wind.  I see solar and wind playing a significant role in the overall grid; however I believe in a gradual reduction of nuclear over the course of this century as reliable sources of renewable base-load power go online – We need to get away from fossil fuels, and this hysteria over nuclear is driving us further towards such sources.

Environmentalists should be looking at the long-term picture – we actually need to ramp up with nuclear until the truly green sources are more readily available.  Such sources that I believe are achievable before the 22nd century include space-based solar, large-scale geothermal, and large-scale ocean current power – each of which probably has its own detractors. I do consider myself an environmentalist, because I am looking far beyond the immediate future – and getting us away from filthy fossil fuels as soon as possible is the first step.

Feb 2 2011

Texas has it’s own power grid, but it doesn’t mean freedom from blackouts

It’s been a while since I’ve have a chance to post anything, but I thought I’d quickly comment on this morning’s news that Texas is under a ‘rolling blackout’ order. This is due to the increased demand on the grid due to the cold-snap.  Yes, it is true that Texas has it’s own power grid (a result of WWII-era factories’ need for reliable power, an independence-oriented Texan attitude, and the sheer abundance of fuel resources within the state.), but it is no guarantee of continuous power.

Authorities say that blackouts are to be no more than 45 minutes at a time, in order to prevent a more serious collapse in the system. This sort of thing simply highlights the need for local, alternative power generation capability – solar water, solar electric, and wind (it’s been really windy lately). Wind and solar could be fed back into the grid, and solar water heaters would reduce the overall load. Both strategies would reduce the need for these rolling blackouts. If Texas is to be truly energy independent, then I think it’s high-time that Texas start thinking beyond the next fiscal quarter, and be proactive in educating citizens about the need to decentralize power production – because that makes us truly independent – ya’ll get it now? Checkout the Houston Chronicle article for more details.

Jul 7 2010

Why You Should Move Your Green Company to Houston Now

Five years of living in Houston has taught me a lot about life on the ‘Third Coast’.  I’ve always either lived on the east coast or the west coast, but Texas has been so good to us that I’ve learned to love it.  Although I have a passion for green technology, I work in the space sector as a contractor, in and around NASA’s Johnson Space Center.  It’s no secret that the future of America’s manned space program is seriously in doubt.

What does the future look like for Houston’s Bay Area? One possible solution seems very clear to me – Clean industries should consider coming to Houston.

Looking at the long list of companies involved in alternative energy – especially wind and solar, I notice a trend – they are mostly located on the east and west coasts. This is partly due to companies formed as a spin-off from university research, and partly due to heavy state subsidies.  Consider this – Houston can provide much better long-term solutions to the clean technology industry than either the East or West Coasts.

Why clean industries should move to Houston:

  1. Business Friendly: Low taxes, lots of land, and lots of highly-educated people.
  2. Location location location: Texas is #1 in the use of wind energy.  The entire state also gets plenty of sunshine, and is ready to make the change towards solar.
  3. Quality of Life: Employees from other states will enjoy extremely affordable homes, no state tax, a world-class city filled with diverse options for entertainment, dining, and cultural activities. By and large, the people in this state are extremely friendly, (especially noticeable if you’re coming in from the east coast).
  4. NASA: Things with NASA aren’t going so well.  Thousand of people are soon to be out of work in the Bay Area south of Houston.  In 2004, the Bush administration decided to cancel the Space Shuttle Program, and last year, the Obama administration decided to cancel its replacement – the Constellation Program.  Regardless of your politics, the fact is that these decisions will mean that there are going to be a lot of very smart people out of work.  Although their expertise revolve around the space industry, many of today’s green technologies are a direct result of the research and development from the space program.  Any green tech company that sets up shop here in Houston will have easy access to a highly-educated workforce in specialties ranging from electrical engineering, power systems, environmental control and life-support, operations planning and program management, systems engineering, physics, mechanical engineering, aircraft design, thermodynamics, and numerous support personnel which could all transfer to the alternative energy industry with relative ease.  Time is critical, however, and plans to move to Houston should be made now in order to really gain access to this diverse professional workforce.  Significant delays in relocating may lead to a lost opportunity, since there will very likely be a ‘brain-drain’  in the area as the manned space program is reduced to almost nothing, and people begin to disperse to other parts of the state or country. The first set of major layoffs are expected to begin within the next few weeks, and may eventually total 7,000 people.

So, I would highly-recommend getting out of the comfort zone of the east and west coast and check out the Bay Area of Houston sooner rather than later – before people begin to disperse.

Jun 17 2010

The World Would Consume all of the Spilled Gulf Oil in 46 Minutes

How long would it take the people of Earth to consume all of the oil that has spilled in the Gulf thus far at the present rate of consumption?  I did the math – Using Wolfram Alpha (very handy, I recommend bookmarking it):

  • Based on 2007 estimates, world consumption was 86.09 million barrels of oil per day.  That’s 3,587,083 barrels per hour!
  • The latest estimates from the Department of Energy show that the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill is leaking between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day.  Let’s take the average: 47,500 barrels per day.
  • 47,500 barrels per day multiplied by 58 days (the number of days the spill has been occurring as of today), and you get 2,755,000 barrels of oil.
  • Divide 2,755,000 barrels by 3,587,083 barrels per hour, and you get 0.768 hours, or 46 minutes and 5 seconds.

I didn’t make this calculation to minimize the spill in the Gulf – I did it to point out how fast we consume oil.  Actually, if you already think we use too much oil, 46 minutes might seem like a longer time than you thought – which would give you an idea of just how big the oil spill really is.