TO NUKE OR NOT TO NUKE: WHY NOT STIRLING SOLAR POWER?
By Francis C W Fung, Ph.D.
James C Townsend, Ph.D.
“On July 17, 2008 Al Gore, former US Vice President, made an important US energy independent announcement. The main theme was to announce the timely and important initiative of converting all US electricity production to green energy in a decade, by 2018. The initiative is wise and admirable, but is it realistic? Is it achievable and how? Currently the US electricity generation is 70% by fossil fuel, 20% by nuclear power and only 10% by solar, hydro, wind and other forms of renewable energy. Gore’s ambitious goal is achievable if supported by concerted national efforts of Solar–Stirling Engine programs to gradually replace existing fossil fuel power plants, large or small.
“America is a country of vast resources and can do spirit demonstrated by the mass mobilization of WWII in airplane manufacturing capability. Half a century later the world has not yet caught up. In the urgency of the present national energy and climate crisis, the same ‘can do’ attitude can be applied to the Green Energy for Electricity Initiative (GENEI) for success. The GENEI policy will put US so far ahead in Solar–Stirling system manufacturing that the world will not be able to catch up. The momentum of GENEI advocacy will make us the largest energy technology and Stirling Engine export nation in the history of world green energy technology and product export. The potential world market of GENEI technology and products together with our reduction in oil imports can be so great as to more than halve the current American trade deficit. The US is in great need of a president who will adhere to the mission and vision advanced by Al Gore.”
Above are the opening two paragraphs from a paper titled “Green Energy for Electricity Initiative (GENEI), Alternative to Nuclear and Fossil Energy” (Appendix 1) by the first author on July 18, 2008. Now, on Feb. 16, 2010 President Obama announced an $8.33 billion loan guarantee for the new Vogtle nuclear reactors, the first step in the Administration's push to jump-start the dormant U.S. nuclear construction industry. Obama also urged Congress to set aside political differences and triple the budget for nuclear loan guarantees. "On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can't keep on being mired in the same old stale debates between the left and the right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs," Obama said.
In view of this unprecedented announcement by Obama, for the first time in over 30 years, the Nuke debate has come back in full force, so as to be able to bring back a “Nuclear Power Renaissance” according to some circles. As stated by Michael Grunwald in “Why Obama’s Nuclear Bet Won’t Pay Off” (Appendix 2), “Obama did acknowledge ‘some serious drawbacks with respect to nuclear energy,’ but the drawbacks he mentioned — waste disposal and reactor safety — are not the real obstacles to a rebirth. It would be nice to have a permanent Yucca Mountain-style repository for spent nuclear fuel, but for now plants have been storing their waste on-site without major problems. And the nuclear industry's safety record has improved dramatically in the 30 years since the Three Mile Island meltdown, although there are still occasional blips like a recent radioactive leak at a Vermont plant. The NRC is not exactly a hostile regulator, but sometimes it does show teeth; in October, it identified problems with the Westinghouse AP 1000 reactor design, which could create additional delays for nearly half the proposed new reactors, including the ones at Vogtle.
“But waste disposal problems, safety issues and regulatory delays do create a much more serious obstacle to a nuclear comeback: They jack up the already exorbitant cost of construction. That is the truly serious drawback of nuclear energy. Recent studies have priced new nuclear power at 25-30 cents per kilowatt-hour, about four times the cost of producing juice with new wind, or coal plants, or ten times the cost of reducing the need for electricity through investments in efficiency.
“Meanwhile, nuclear costs keep spiraling out of control; last year, the estimates for several reactors doubled, and for one Pennsylvania reactor more than tripled. This is why credit rating agencies keep downgrading utilities with nuclear ambitions, which increases their borrowing costs and makes their projects even more expensive.”
As explained in Appendix 1,”The cost of nuclear power plants is manifolds higher than the equivalent Solar–Stirling Engine power plants because of the strict need and regulation requirements to prevent nuclear radioactivity leaks. All nuclear power plants must be housed in huge fortified containment housing, and all systems of hot and cooling water circulation must be heavily protected and isolated. The construction cycle is also unduly long, generally over 5 years. Whereas, for Solar–Stirling power plants, without need for civil structures, site constructions can be less than a year. Despite all the built in safety factors for nuclear power plants, mechanical failures and human errors do occur. Accidents like Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in Russia is unavoidable and the consequences are too dear to accept.”
Besides the unlikelihood of Wall Street financing of nukes without a prohibitive Federal subsidy and the issues of safety and nuclear proliferation of nuke spent fuel treatment mentioned above, there are a multitude of reasons not to go for a Nuclear Power Renaissance. Following are some of the pro and con reasons to say no to Nuke:
1) The five years required for nuclear site construction (after all delays for permits and environmental reviews) is so long that nuclear plants cannot answer current financial and job recovery needs.
2) In comparison, the short onsite construction time of typically less than one year for a field of Solar–Stirling engine power plants can provide immediate jobs in both manufacturing and construction, helping to meet current financial and job recovery needs.
3) Massive Stirling engine fabrication for electric generation can utilize surplus Detroit internal combustion engine manufacturing facilities that will otherwise be idled as automobile electrification comes in full force in the very near future.
4) The strategy of reusing engine-manufacturing facilities provides hope for reviving Detroit’s economy; this is a national priority that demonstrates the principle of efficiency and conservation manifested to the nth degree.
5) Massive deployment of nuclear power plants nationwide will need expansion of expensive special manufacturing machinery and facilities, which will be very time consuming and further extend the dilemma of the nuclear site construction time being too long to help the current financial crisis. (For one discussion of the costs, see <http://www.nirs.org/nukerelapse/calvert/highcostnpower_mdpirg.pdf>.)
6) Stirling electric generation is inherently modular. Individual modules range in power from 1kW to 50 kW or more and can be grouped together in multiples to generate as much power as a nuclear plant. So, a Solar–Stirling power plant can be built up incrementally to any size desired as the need grows.
7) Stirling electric generation can also be built in a distributed manner at all appropriate locations; a single 50 kW module can easily fit in a less than 0.1-acre site. Nuclear plants are very location sensitive because of their large structural size and area requirements for safety and strong security.
8) Nuclear plants must be built near water for massive cooling, which will infringe upon prime land and can cause thermal pollution. The Solar–Stirling power plant does not need cooling water and thus can be built in unoccupied desert lands such as those in the U.S. west and southwest.
9) Stirling engines are multi-fuel external heat engines. Besides solar energy, they can be powered by geothermal heat, waste heat, and biomass or any combustible waste as fuel.
10) Currently America Solar–Stirling Engine technology development leads the world. We must act in time to stay ahead, so as not to loose the massive market for Solar–Stirling power plants in the developing world. An economically attractive approach is to jump start development by teaming up with China immediately to exploit the win–win advantages offered by both sides. The biggest Solar–Stirling engine market will be China, followed by the developing world.
11) The World Harmony Organization is already in active discussion with leaders of China on a “Grand Alliance Strategy for Stirling Power”. The developing world is ready and willing to go forward with electrification by Solar–Stirling power. It is not ready for Nukes and should be discouraged from going on that wrong track.
12) In his Feb. 16, 2010 speech, President Obama made a strong pitch that America must retain its capability as the number one exporter of nuclear power plants by building the new Vogtle plant and other nuclear reactors. But, the export of nuclear power plants concurrently necessitates the shipping of enriched uranium fuel to developing countries. The devastating effect of nuclear proliferation is not limited to the explosive destruction of nuclear weapons but also includes the radioactivity of the enriched uranium and its fission products. Transporting nuclear fuel is more dangerous than transporting a biological virus because the effect of any nuclear fuel leakage has a longer life span than any leakage of a biological virus. The world is more connected than most people realize — what we leak will eventually spread around the world. It is not responsible for a Nobel Peace Prize winner to advocate the export of nuclear fuels.
13) America is fortunately very abundant in solar power. We do not need to resort to more Nukes when we have the technology to quickly exploit that readily available, safe, and environmentally friendly energy. We already have 104 nuclear power plants spread around the country; that’s enough.
In Service of Stirling Engine Renaissance
Green Energy Stirling Engine Partnership (GESEP)
San Francisco, CA
1. Green Energy for Electricity Initiative (GENEI) – Alternative to Nuclear and Fossil Energy, Francis C. W. Fung, Ph.D., July 18, 2008 (See Appendix 1)
2. Why Obama's Nuclear Bet Won't Pay Off, Michael Grunwald, February 18, 2010 (See Appendix 2)
3. Stirling Energy Alliance (SEA) Grand Strategy, Francis C W Fung, Ph.D., General Partner, Green Energy Stirling Engine Partnership (GESEP) (See Appendix 3)
4. Stirling Engine Renaissance in 21st Century, Francis C W Fung, Ph.D., September 2006, World Harmony Organization (Available on request from <email@example.com>.)