The Future of Power Generation in a Post-Fukushima Society
Oct 17, 2012
by Meredith Nelson Mechanical Engineering Magazine
A Partnership of Rising Renewables and Promising Nuclear Technologies
(2012 Arthur L. Williston Award Winning Paper Abstract)
On paper, nuclear energy seems like a miracle of modern science, a futuristic way to cleanly produce large amounts of electricity. When nuclear power plants were first being built, it was estimated that by the year 2000 there would be over one thousand nuclear power plants in operation. Today, there are only 439 worldwide, with a mere 119 of those in the United States. While nuclear energy is not without drawbacks, one of the biggest reasons that growth has stopped is the public outcry against it. Nuclear technology is seen as different from other forms of energy creation as it is not well understood by most of the general public. It was "conceived in secrecy, born of war, and first revealed to the world in horror. No matter how much proponents try to separate the peaceful atom from the weapons atom, the connection is fiercely embedded in the mind of the public." On top of its connotation with hugely destructive weapons, there have now been three major incidents at nuclear power plants: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and most recently, Fukushima. Disasters of this nature are more extreme than conventional power plants considering radiation comes into the formula. The last nuclear power plant to be built in the United States was back in 1977. There are plans to have more built in the next decade or two, but they remain the same type as we've been building for 50 years. The newest trend in energy is renewables, but these are low impact and most require a large area to create even a fraction of the energy a nuclear power plant provides. The question for the future becomes if we will outgrow our dependency on coal and gas and what technologies will be implemented to do so.
Renewable energy (or "green energy") has been picking up a lot of momentum in the past decade or two, although it still has many limitations. The three major renewables are solar, hydroelectric, and wind. Solar power has been stuck with similar technology for decades, still plagued by inefficiency and expense. Hydroelectric power’s issue is that much of its potential has already been tapped out by current damming systems. This leaves wind energy as the great hope for renewable power generation. The growth of the wind industry has been exponential in the past decade, and has only gained more ground due to the current climate of concern over nuclear power. After the Fukushima disaster, Germany declared that they were shutting down all nuclear power plants and put in motion a plan heavily involving wind power. It is easy to see why wind power is so attractive, but is it enough? Considering wind energy’s current limitations, is it really the solution to our energy crises, and reason enough to abandon nuclear technologies?
2008 saw more growth in wind energy than the previous decade combined, with 27,051 MW added to make a totalf 120,798 MW worldwide, which is a growth of 29% in just one year. This growth is not slowing down either. Technology having to do with modern wind turbines is ever evolving, resulting in more efficient, larger, and higher capacity turbines. On paper, wind power seems like a no brainer. While the building of a turbine is expensive initially, after the structure is there, it has almost no cost associated with it whatsoever. With many countries such as Germany abandoning nuclear power in favor of wind power, the scientific facts of energy generated by the wind are even more important to know and understand.
When electricity became something that was necessary for society, the engineers building power plants had six major criteria concerning commercial electricity generators :
- Could they provide large amounts of electricity?
- Could they provide reliable and predictable energy?
- Could they provide dispatchable electricity?
- Could they service one or more of the grid demand elements?
- Could their facility be compact?
- Could they provide economical electricity?
When you go through this checklist with older, “non-green” power plants such as coal or nuclear, it’s clear that the answer to all six questions is yes. Back in the early 1900s, this was enough, which is why coal is still the way we produce most of our electricity. Now however, a seventh criterion has been added :
- Is it detrimental to the environment?
This has become not only an addendum to the first six concerns, but in some ways has overridden the other six completely. Going through each criterion with wind power, it’s easy to see that a society built entirely off of wind power and wind turbines simply will not work. In fact, the only one wind power passes is the latest addition to these criteria. And even that it does not pass with flying colors. In an independent scientific study done by the National Academy of Sciences, it was postulated that even by 2020, the U.S. CO2 savings will amount to only 1.8% thanks to wind energy. 
It is clear that even if wind power could provide us with the type and quantity of energy the world required, it is a long way off from being lucrative or becoming the primary contributor to the power grid. So, assuming that the main reason wind power has becoming the nation’s fastest growing source of power purely on the fact that it is “green”, what kind of solution can we provide that satisfies not only the environmental concerns, but also releases zero carbon dioxide? The obvious choice seems to be a new generation of nuclear power plants. In their current form, it would appear that nuclear power plants are susceptible to failure, which is a much more dangerous than when any other form of energy fails. Radiation poisoning is a serious situation, and while two of the three disasters in the history of nuclear energy have claimed no human lives, they may have shortened some, and that sort of effect is difficult to measure.
Fortunately, there are new ideas and technologies that along with increasing the safety of nuclear power also have other benefits, such as increasing the efficiency and convenience or decreasing the costs. These designs include Small Modular Reactors, Gas-Cooled Reactors, Liquid-Metal Reactors, and Molten Salt Reactors. These innovations improve nuclear power in several ways such as making them more efficient, smaller, easier to build, and most importantly, a lot safer.
My father is an avid fan of German made strategic board games, and we have quite a collection of them at my home. While no game can accurately represent the complexity of the real world, one game in particular attempts to duplicate the situations discussed in this paper. The game is entitled “Power Grid”, and players must buy power plants and resources to power cities they build on the board. There are five different types of plants: coal, gas, nuclear, trash, and green. The first four require the player to purchase fuel in one of the stages of the game, while green plants (which have pictures of wind turbines on them) don’t require any resources at all. After playing the game many times, I discovered that it was impossible to win buying just the green power plants. While it seems like the best strategy (considering you never have to waste your money on any resources), the other power plants have a cheaper initial price and can power more of your cities on the board. Conversely, completely ignoring these green power plants also rarely ends in victory. To win the game, you must have a combination of conventional power plants and green power plants. In a way, this is a simplified model of the real world. In order to power our cities, we cannot rely solely on green energy. If we truly want to get away from coal fired power plants and those that release carbon dioxides into the air, then we have to combine these renewable energies with something else that fits all six of the requirements stated above. With new, safer, and more efficient nuclear power plants being designed and built, it is my belief that the best possible scenario for the future is to combine these plants with something like wind power. Both of these have great potential, and combining the two should address all seven criteria of making a successful power grid.
The Williston Award is presented annually by ASME to the student engineer or recent graduate who authors the best acceptable paper in the area of civic service.
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