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In Europe and North America, the development of nuclear power effectively halted after the March 1979 accident in Pennsylvania at Three Mile Island. Until recently the building of additional nuclear reactors in most developed nations was unlikely. Meanwhile, the greatest hope of the alternative energy industry has been wind power, but people around the world are starting to question the safety and effectiveness of large wind farms. As the public’s infatuation with “green” energy has faded, the resurgent nuclear power industry has been quietly ramping up its efforts to provide the energy the world will need in the future. Even ecological activists have come to realize that nuclear is the only viable option to fossil fuels. As a result, a nuclear surge is underway, with 52 new reactors under construction around the world and more in the planning stages. This about face in energy policy amounts to nothing less than a nuclear renaissance.

Despite growing evidence that the global warming scare was just the latest in a long string of pseudo-science based overreactions, politicians and activists have charted a course of diminishing CO2 emissions for the foreseeable future. But the favorite choices of renewable energy advocates, solar and wind, have fallen on hard times. Recently, activists enlisted the aid of Senator Dianne Feinstein in blocking the development of industrial scale concentrating solar plants in the California desert. This is just the latest action to block alternate energy development, on a scale where it could make a meaningful contribution to the world’s energy needs, be it wind, solar or geothermal. Because of several adverse trends, some of the countries that have pushed wind most aggressively may be approaching a saturation point where further turbine investment would be counter-productive.

Even though wind meets 20% of electricity demand in Denmark, 14% in Spain and Portugal, and 8% in Germany, wind power expansion has stalled. Problems with variability and concernes over damage to birds and bats have dampened the public’s enthusiasm for this most mature of alternative energy sources. From Austrailia to Scotland, and from Main to California people in increasing numbers are opposing wind power development. And as the public support has waned, the wind industry has suffered.

The Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm in Liverpool Bay, England . Christopher Furlong / Getty.

On August 18, after a second straight quarterly loss, the top Danish wind manufacturer Vestas saw the value of its shares drop 20%. While wind currently provides about 2.5% of electricity in the United States, leaving room for significant growth, things are not looking good in the world’s largest wind power market. In fact, according to Bill Sweet in an online IEEE article, “After Soaring, Wind Glides,” the outlook in the US is decidedly gloomy:

A more sober mood has settled over the wind industry this year. In the United States, where 10 gigawatts of capacity was added in 2009, up a record-setting 20 percent from the previous year, new turbine installations this year are expected to be closer to 6 GW.

More bad news comes from the independent business intelligence service Wind Energy Update. The WEU’s Wind Energy Operations & Maintenance Report found that current operation and maintenance (O&M) costs are two or three times higher than first projected and that there has been a 21% decrease in return on investments from wind farms. O&M costs were found to be especially high in the United States. The report states that while close to 80% of the world’s wind turbines are still under warranty, “this is about to change.” Ongoing wind turbine development is focusing on gearbox reliability: “Many gearboxes, designed for a 20-year life, are failing after six to eight years of operation.”

The US Department of Energy (DOE) registered a rather sharp increase in “wind curtailments” during 2009. A curtailment is an order to generators to stop feeding energy into the grid. They can happen because demand is low or transmission lines can’t handle the load. Regardless of the cause, US wind capacity factor—a measure of the time a wind generator is producing at its maximum possible rate—dropped to 30% from 34% the previous year. This means in effect that for every watt of coal, gas, or nuclear capacity installed, about three times as much wind capacity has to be built to deliver equivalent output over time. Enter the nuclear renaissance.

In a thoughtful article in the August 13, 2010, issue of Science, Robin W. Grimes and William J. Nuttall identify the questions that must be answered for the new nuclear renaissance to succeed. They see the coming nuclear rebirth as a two-stage process: replacing or extending the life of existing nuclear power plants in the short term, and a large-scale second period of construction after 2030. They identify the key major problems to be overcome this way:

If the global electricity system is to be largely decarbonized over the first half of this century, then two key challenges must also be surmounted. One will be to develop civil nuclear programs in all parts of the world without risking the proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies. The other will be to deal with nuclear waste in as safe a manner as possible. Settling on policy options has proved extremely difficult in many countries for many decades. Technical proposals are available, including deep geological disposal. The assessment and perception of the risks associated with the transport and storage of radioactive wastes will continue to be reconsidered, given growing concerns about unconstrained fossil fuel wastes being emitted into the atmosphere. Newer reactor designs have the promise of creating less waste or waste that has a shorter lifetime, but some storage issues will still need to be resolved.

While Grimes and Nuttall are strongly motivated by nuclear energy’s ability to reduce human CO2 emissions, plugging the looming energy gap should be motivation enough. They present a possible two-stage nuclear renaissance for the United Kingdom in the graphic below (Grimes is at the Centre for Nuclear Engineering, Imperial College London, and Nuttall the Engineering Department, Cambridge University).

Steps to develop the first wave are already underway, allowing the United Kingdom to “replace nuclear with nuclear.” The second wave would allow nuclear energy to play a major role in electricity “decarbonization.” For most nations, the most immediate challenges are nuclear life extension and how best to renew existing nuclear generation infrastructure. Such steps do little to meet future need, but they can preserve diversity of fuel sources and technology in the electricity generation mix.

To realize the second phase of the nuclear renaissance, new reactor designs will be needed to take power plant design beyond the current Generation III plants. Among the new Generation IV plant designs are pebble bed reactors, the Toshiba 4S (the four S’s in the name stand for super, safe, small, and simple), and the TerraPower TP-1 , a reactor that can run for decades by producing a nuclear reaction wave that breeds and burns its own fuel. Other possibilities include small modular reactors, a favorite of Secretary Chu, such as the small light-water reactor from NuScale and the Hyperion Power Module.

The Hyperion design is interesting because they had been developing a revolutionary, inherently safe sealed small reactor. The Hydrogen Moderated Self-Regulating Nuclear Power Module (HPM), also referred to as the Compact Self-regulating Transportable Reactor (ComStar), is a new type of nuclear reactor originally developed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It uses uranium hydride as both its nuclear fuel and neutron moderator. However, in 2009, Hyperion Power Generation decided to use a different lead-cooled fast reactor design for its power module, based on uranium nitride, citing the long development and regulatory licensing process for the uranium hydride reactor design. Once again, government red tape at the DOE has stifled needed innovation. If the Obama administration wants to prove that they really have a future energy vision the President needs to clear out the ossified bureaucracy at the DOE.

The revised Hyperion Power Module design.

Because intermittent energy sources like wind and solar have by nature much lower capacity factors than baseload coal, gas, and nuclear, their maximum contribution to power generation is limited to around 20%. As Denmark and other European nations have discovered, without the steady baseload power of Scandinavian hydroelectric generators and French nuclear power plants, the wind just doesn’t provide what the public demands—stable, reliable electricity.

The US Congress promised up to $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear construction, an amount that Energy Secretary Chu has pointed out would be enough to secure financing for only two projects at current prices. This might not be adequate to establish confidence in the new designs. Even so, signs of public acceptance are hopeful. Even a number of leading environmental organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, have quietly or implicitly adopted a pro-nuclear position. Still, the neo-Luddites of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Physicians for Social Responsibility remain firmly opposed. Unsurprisingly, these drinkers of green cool-aid offer no workable solutions, just opposition.

In 2008, the US DOE reported that wind could in principle supply 20% of America’s electricity by 2030. In and EnergyBiz interview, Spanish wind power giant Iberdrola’s Renewables executive Don Furman answered that projection succinctly: “Certainly not in the next 20 years.” The question that seldom gets asked is, what happens after we get to 20 percent? Hopefully, the nuclear renaissance will have rendered that question moot before an answer is neaded.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

The Resilient Earth, 6 September 2010