Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An observation on US nuclear power

A week ago, the New York Times reported the results of a new poll that showed public acceptance for new nuclear power plant construction in the US had declined to 43% from 57% two years earlier.  Yesterday, sources reported that a mass of fuel and cladding appears to have melted through the Fukushima unit #2 reactor vessel.  As the severity of the incident at Fukushima increases, it will undoubtedly affect public opinion in the US.  Obtaining approval for new reactor construction, and extending the licenses of existing aging reactors, will no doubt be much more difficult than before.

I have long maintained that the United States is too large and too geographically diverse to adopt a single energy policy.  Regional differences require regional approaches to the problems.  This is at least one of the reasons that nuclear power in the US is very much an "Eastern" thing.  If the Great Plains is regarded as the separator between East and West -- and there are good reasons for using that separator -- then only eight of the 104 operating reactors are in the West, and seven of those are clustered in the southern half of California and southwest Arizona.  The difference shows up clearly in this map from the NRC:
The most commonly cited figure for the share of "US" electricity generated from nuclear sources is 20%.  However, in (very) round numbers, approximately 25% of Eastern electricity is nuclear while only 6% of Western electricity is.  There are individual anomolies -- about 25% of generated power in Arizona is nuclear in the West, and Kentucky has no reactors in the East -- but the overall picture is clear.  If no new nukes are built, and existing licenses are allowed to expire, the East faces the situation of losing the generators of about one-quarter of its current power usage over the next twenty years.  In the West, the amount is less than one-fifteenth.

The West can almost certainly make up the losses from renewable sources.  There will be difficulties, of course, particularly in maintaining the balance between base load and peaking power, and accounting for seasonal variations.  The West is relatively rich (compared to its population base) in renewable resources.  Plans have been made, even though final commitments have not, for transmission facilities such as the High Plains Express that would make it possible to deliver power from Great Plains wind farms in Montana and Wyoming to urban centers as far away as Phoenix.  The East faces, at least in my opinion, a much more difficult challenge in replacing its nuclear sources.

How the East tackles that problem could well be the source of regional frictions.  If they adopt stringent conservation standards, and attempt to impose those in the West as well (and at a national level the non-western states certainly have the votes to do so), the West would likely see itself as being punished for Eastern choices.  If the East adopts a strategy of exploiting Western renewable resources, very large transmission systems will have to be built.  The West would likely see itself being punished again if the costs of those systems were levied against both East and West.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

New tech for separating oil from sand

Researchers at Penn State University have published a paper describing a new approach for separating heavy oil from sands and clays using ionic liquids.  The method is reported to use very little water or energy, and to cleanly separate the oil, the sand, and the solvent so that the sand goes back to its source, the oil goes on to the refinery, and the solvent can be reused.  A picture is worth a thousand words:

Assume for the moment that the tech can be scaled up to industrial sizes.  Is it a good thing?

As a tool for cleaning up the environment by separating out oil from contaminated sediments of various sorts, it would seem to be a very good thing.  There are any number of places that are simply impractical to clean, or finish cleaning, today.  Waste storage near the Canadian oil sands comes to mind as an immediate example.  Oily waste water in holding ponds and the resulting contaminated sediments could actually be cleaned.  As could areas contaminated by oil spills from tankers, pipelines, and wells.

Canadian and Venezuelan firms that extract oil from oil sands would no doubt regard it as a good thing.  Given that little water or energy is required for the separation process, their costs for extracting petroleum would be significantly reduced.  It would also make the operation more environmentally friendly, at least in the sense of local damage.  Lack of available water is also a limiting factor in production of oil from oil sands in areas such as Utah.  The new technology might enable production from those sources.

On the other hand, if you believe that global warming is an issue that must be addressed, then it is clear that any tech that enables increased production of petroleum is a bad thing.  Production from oil sands using ionic liquids may be much cleaner than the current technologies.  But if it enables production of another million barrels of petroleum per day, that's another million barrels per day that will be converted to carbon dioxide and released into the atmosphere, contributing to the global problem.

I feel reasonably confident predicting that, in the long run, people are going to extract every drop of global petroleum that they can.  And burn it.  Given that as an assumption, cleaner production can only be regarded as a good thing.  Here's hoping the ionic liquids approach is as clean as it looks, and scales.