Nuclear isn’t looking promising either

For quite some time, I’ve argued that, if nuclear power is to make any substantial contribution to reducing CO2 emissions, its growth will have to accelerate in China and to be based on the AP1000, the only Gen III+ design likely to be built in numbers significant enough to achieve any kind of scale economy.

It now appears highly unlikely that this will happen. Although China notionally restarted its nuclear program in 2012, a year after Fukushima, approvals have slowed to a crawl. This article, from Nuclear Engineering International, explains some of the reasons.

More significantly, China appears to have abandoned the idea of using a Western design, and is instead pushing two designs of its own, the CAP-1400 (an adaptation of the AP1000) and Hualong 1, Chinese design with French antecedents, variously rated as Gen II, Gen II+ and “comparable to a Generation III”.

It appears that the cost of imported inputs to the current projects is seen as prohibitive. The hope that the Hualong will generate an export market, and the British government has just agreed in principle to the construction of one such plant, conditional on approval of the design. In the absence of any operational plants, that looks problematic, to put it mildly. The announcement looks to be driven more by diplomatic considerations than by economics, which suggests that actual construction may be a long way off.

105 thoughts on “Nuclear isn’t looking promising either

  1. Ivor, I certainly agree with the idea that when faced with a choice between killing millions of people through uncontrolled climate change or producing hydrogen, one should produce hydrogen. This is because within the shivelled, blackened mass of my heart, there still resides a few particles of basic human decency.

    However, if there is an option that works just as well, but is much cheaper, then I would say go for the cheaper option. This is better because the money saved could be used to make our lives better in other ways, such as developing a drug that makes it possible to tickle yourself.

    Right now, assuming I had whatever permits or permission was required, I should be able to use ocean dumping of biomass to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it long term for less than $100 a tonne.

    Natural gas burned at an efficiency of 50% will produce about 0.37 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt-hour generated, and not the 0.13 kilograms figure I gave in my previous comment. I completely stuffed that up. I am so, so sorry. I am but a worm. Admittedly quite a physically attractive worm, but still just a worm. I apologise both humbly and profusely to the entire internet.

    You know what I would like? I would like people who are hypervigilent to errors of arithmetic rather imagined attacks on their egos. But I digress.

    So, at $100 a tonne to squester CO2 it will cost 3.7 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced for a ship buring natural gas at 50% efficiency to go carbon neutral. Methane leakage is normally very low for large industrial uses. It is domestic and small scale commercial were most of the leaks are, so bumping that figure up to 4 cents to allow for it will hopefully be sufficient.

    So if shipping can go carbon neutral for 4 cents per kilowatt-hour of shipboard electricity generated, it will be cheaper than using hydrogen that costs 12 cents per kilowatt-hour of ship board electricity, when produced with grid electricity that has an average cost of 3 cents a kilowatt hour.

    And currently a figure of 3 cents a kilowatt hour for grid electricity is quite low, although as I mentioned, increasing pentration of renewable generation can push down electricity prices.

    Their are practical limits to how much CO2 can be sequested using the lower cost biologically based methods such as dumping biomass in the oceans, reforestation, afforestation, and increasing the carbon content of soils. And I want to make it clear that’s okay. We need to stop burning all coal except for emergency use, and we also need to stop burning almost all the oil and natural gas we currently do. However, where it is more costly to eliminate fossil fuel use than to remove the CO2 released from the atmosphere and sequester it, we can do that.

    And I will also mention that I am probably much more optimistic about the prospects of greenhouse gas free ship propulsion than I appear to be, but this is because there is a difference between what I expect will be possible in the future and what is known to be possible now.

  2. I probably should have been clearer: At a current price of about $7 a gigajoule for Liquid Natural Gas, burning it at 50% efficiency will result in a fuel cost of about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by a ship. If it costs 4 cents to remove the CO2 released into the atmosphere than that will come to 9 cents per kilowatt-hour for carbon neutral ship board electricity. That’s less than the perhaps 12 cent cost for hydrogen if the electricity used to produce it costs an average of 3 cents a kilowatt-hour.

    The infrastructure required to produce hydrogen will also have to be paid for and this will add to its cost. The capital cost of natural gas production is included in its price.

    The cost of natural gas could increase in the future but I expect it to on average be low because it will mostly be eliminated from electricity generation by increasing renewable capacity. We have seen this occurring in South Australia with increasing wind and solar generation decreasing both coal and natural gas use.

    The cost of electricity could greatly decline in the future, making it worthwhile to use hydrogen or other sythesized fuel instead of using natural gas plus the capture and sequestation of CO2 released, and if that happens it would be wonderful.

  3. From what I have read, hydrogen as an energy source has a number of practical problems. It’s related to the pure physics of it, of course. Overall, the hydrogen economy would be wasteful and inefficient.

    “The large amount of energy required to isolate hydrogen from natural compounds (water, natural gas, biomass), package the light gas by compression or liquefaction, transfer the energy carrier to the user, plus the energy lost when it is converted to useful electricity with fuel cells, leaves around 25% for practical use — an unacceptable value to run an economy in a sustainable future. Only niche applications like submarines and spacecraft might use hydrogen.” – Physics dot org slash news

    In summary;

    (1) Hydrogen does not act as a source of energy, but only a carrier of energy, in a hydrogen energy system.
    (2) “For comparison, the “wind-to-wheel” efficiency is at least three times greater for electric cars than for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.”
    (3) “When storing liquid hydrogen, some gas must be allowed to evaporate for safety reasons—meaning that after two weeks, a car would lose half of its fuel, even when not being driven.”
    4. Hydrogen has a low energy density per unit volume.
    5. Hydrogen leaks easily anyway (tiny molecule).
    6. Hydrogen causes hydrogen embrittlement of many metals.

    The evidence is that hydrogen is a go-er only for certain niche applications (where it can quite useful).
    ““An electron economy can offer the shortest, most efficient and most economical way of transporting the sustainable ‘green’ energy to the consumer,” he (Bossel) says. “With the exception of biomass and some solar or geothermal heat, wind, water, solar, geothermal, heat from waste incineration, etc. become available as electricity. Electricity could provide power for cars, comfortable temperature in buildings, heat, light, communication, etc.”

    “In a sustainable energy future, electricity will become the prime energy carrier. We now have to focus our research on electricity storage, electric cars and the modernization of the existing electricity infrastructure.” – Bossel.

    Of course, we are talking about ships. Electric ships are likely going to be a real problem. I find it hard to guess what solution we will find for ships. But nuclear fission for commercial marine propulsion would be a disastrous and unsustainable. It will remain for military applications however, being realistic.

  4. Looking into efficiencies I have found that reciprocating engines which are specifically designed for natural gas can operate at significantly higher efficiencies than gas turbines. This is good news because recipricating engines are much more durable and have much lower maintenance costs per hour of operation. Turbines are used in military vessels because of their small size and high power to weight ratio, but this isn’t really an issue for cargo vessels. The decrease in efficiency caused by the extra weight is real but trivial.

    If anyone is wondering why I suggested using natural gas plus removal and sequestration of the CO2 released instead of biofuels, it’s because I think it is likely to be cheaper. But perhaps in the future biofuel produced from algae or synthetic microorganisms or some other source will be competitive and used for low emission shipping.

    There is also no reason why poop can’t be used to help power ships. Currently methane produced by sewage processing plants is used to power the processing plant, but there is no real reason why renewable electricity plus a heat exchanger couldn’t provided the necessary process heat and the poo gas could be used as a source of renewable methane. We would strain a bit to power the world’s shipping though. Every dinner would have to be Christmas dinner.

    Currently on board solar power would have great difficulty providing more than a few percent of the energy needs of a typical cargo ship simply because cargo ships tend to be large and so their surface area to volume and mass ratio is low. In other words they can’t collect much solar energy per tonne. But the smaller the ship and the lower its average speed the greater the portion of its energy use could come from the sun.

    Wind is a very useful method to reduce energy consumption and methods being trialled now could reduce shipping energy consumption by 10% or more with very little change in ship design. And while we don’t have practical examples at the moment, photovoltaic sails could both harness the wind and collect a large amount of solar energy. So perhaps wind and solar combined could cut shipping energy needs by a quarter.

    Of course, ships could be specifically designed to harness the wind and small, clipper style cargo ships could sail using nothing but the wind and solar power. But they might have to be crewless and fully automated to be cost effective. While not suitable for high speed delivery, it would be technically possible for them to carry the bulk of the world’s cargo.

    It has been mentioned that the reduction in coal use has reduced shipping tonnages and the electrification of transport will do the same for oil. One thing that could further reduce shipping tonnages is electric flight wich has a lot of potential to reduce the cost of airfreight. Electric flight is a very energy efficient way of moving cargo especially to and/or from inland locatons and being able to travel in straight lines instead of having to do the whole “avoid land” thing is very useful. Perhaps its effect will be very marginal, but it should still be there.

  5. Hmmm… looks like I jumped the gun again. Well, maybe not a gun, but at the very least a slingshot or quite possibly a woomera. It looks like the savings to electric flight will be concentrated in light aircraft and perhaps short haul aircraft, with no big advantage to air freight likely any time soon.

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