Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Go Nuclear or Go Home

My previous article gave electric cars a conditional two thumbs up as a way of reducing man’s level of carbon dioxide emissions.  The condition is that fossil-fuel-based energy production, which represents about 70% of the total current global energy production, is phased out as EVs are phased in.

A complete makeover of our power plant infrastructure is a daunting task from an economic perspective.  The amount of energy consumed by man is already tremendous, and the demand is going to increase dramatically as certain populous countries develop and cars begin to go electric.  If fossil fuel power plants are to be shut down, what can they be replaced with?

At present, there is only one alternative that can meet the high demand: nuclear power plants.  Solar and wind, while renewable and green, are only effective in certain locations and even then do not give nearly as much bang for your buck.  Put simply, we cannot, at present, expect to meet more than 20% of our global energy production demands with wind and solar.  Perhaps, by the mid-twenty-first century, this percentage will be much higher. 

While nuclear plants do create radioactive waste, the waste can be contained, in contrast to coal plants, which release CO2 directly into the atmosphere.  The sheer amount of waste in the case of nuclear is comparatively so much less because it is 750,000 times more mass efficient then coal.  One kilogram of coal, when burned, can power a 100-Watt light bulb for eight hours.  The fission of one kilogram of enriched uranium can power the same bulb for 690 years.

As an aside, try to imagine the effort involved in acquiring the billions of tons of coal that are burned globally each year.  How can this inefficient practice be cost-effective?  The only reason that the energy produced per dollar by way of coal burning is similar to that by way of nuclear reactor is because the coal miners are not justly compensated for their work.
Why is nuclear power so much more efficient than coal power?  It has to do with the nature of the reaction.  Burning coal is a chemical reaction known as combustion.  A fission reactor houses nuclear reactions, which involves the division of atomic nuclei.  Fission is actually an illustration of the most famous equation in the world, Einstein’s E = mc2.  The equation says that if mass is converted into energy in its entirety, one kilogram becomes 9*1016 Joules, which could power the 100-Watt light bulb for 30,000,000 years.

In a nuclear reactor, only a tiny fraction (about 0.002%) of the mass of the uranium is converted into energy.  As such, nuclear plants only begin to tap into the promise of E = mc2.  Over time, should man figure a way to release all of the energy within the mass of a given spec of matter in a controlled fashion, it would represent a quantum shift for society.  Man’s energy crisis would be replaced by a bottomless pit of energy.  Sadly, this dream sits so far into the future that it is not worth pondering. 

Returning to the current reality, if nuclear power plants can meet the global energy demand, are so efficient, and do not dump massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, then why do we not use them exclusively?  The reason comes down to politics and public perception.

When an airplane crashes halfway across the world, every major media outlet worldwide is sure to cover it.  They will however not bother to cover the thousands of fatal car crashes that occur in the same time span.  As a result, the public is typically more fearful of flying than driving, even though it is statistically safer to fly per distance traveled than to drive.

There have been only five noteworthy disasters at the over five hundred nuclear power plants worldwide over the course of the past half century.  Four of them affected hundreds of people (leaving them dead or afflicted with cancer due to radiation).  The other one is that of Chernobyl in 1986. The WHO estimates that the Chernobyl disaster was responsible for 9,000 deaths.

While the production of nuclear power is not without risk, it must be noted that mining coal is also an extremely risky task.  Countless miners die on the job each year so that our light bulbs may remain powered.   

The reality is that large-scale energy production is a dangerous practice, and regardless of the production method, strict safety standards must be adhered to.  What we must put ahead of anything else is the equilibrium of our biosphere.  Our fossil fuel energy production over the past century has had a global effect on the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.  We must produce energy by an alternative means to fossil fuel burning, and in the short term, the only viable option is nuclear power.

If we are serious about minimizing our impact on our planet, we must situate this out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue in plain sight.


Jiab Zuo said...

Hi Stephen,
I think electric cars are a false sustainable solution, because producing one electric car releases more greenhouse gases (mining the lithium, the rare earth elements, the smelt, the process itself, generating electricity depends on the region, battery replacement…) than a conventional car releases during its whole lifespan. Besides, if we build thousands of millions of electric vehicles, toxic compounds will become an issue and we will have to deal with it like any other industrial processes. And also, how will we deal with all the cars circulating now? They will go the landfills, and burning a car is just very hazardous as well.


The Engineer said...

The cars circulating now will have to go to a landfill (though some parts may be recycled) regardless of what fleet of cars replaces them.
I agree that electric cars are not free of toxins, but until I see a study that proves otherwise, I think they are a big win in terms of environmental impact. This is only true however, if they are powered by a source that is itself sustainable. As of now, most parts of the world have little to gain with electric cars, but those that do ought to go for it.

Jiab Zuo said...

Here’s a study explained:
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/electric-cars-may-not-be-so-green-after-all-says-british-study/story-e6frg8y6 1226073103576?nk=d59bdc9783db662fe3b113092932f4ed

Also, the motor of a petroleum car naturally produces heat (good if you want to heat your car). An electric car has a different battery thermal management system and can’t operate at normal capacity, in the extreme weather (like winter in Quebec). They lose their battery charge more since it makes them work harder to produce an amount of electricity equal to their output in normal temperatures, thus the car's range decreases by more than half.

The Engineer said...

Thanks for the link. A few things to note...

1. The study assumed that all electricity used by the electric car came from fossil fuel burning power plants. I agree that we do not get further ahead from a Greenhouse Gas perspective if this is the case.

2. The study was done in 2011. Electric car batteries have since improved and will continue to do so.

If you compare early design electric cars to early design petrol ones, electric cars win. Give a chance for the electric cars to have a few more development cycles, and they will be more desirable than petrol ones from every perspective.

Jiab Zuo said...

You must be right. Battery life improvement is something I never really thought of until today.

Is it possible to make recyclable car batteries or to use another element rather than lithium?