Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Wind Energy v/s Nuclear Energy (round two)



Wind or Nuke?

In the last couple of days, I had a closer look at "Craig's" letter on nuclear power, and decided that I need to answer some of the points made.

craig has left a new comment on your post "Wind Energy v/s Nuclear Reactors":

First of all, let me declare that I am an engineer who has worked on technical issues associated with nuclear plant, wind turbines, wave power and other fluid machinery.

At the risk of seeming patronising, the issue of nuclear vs "any other power source" is very complex. I do not claim total expertise, but rather a lot of informed opinion.

And before somebody tries to pigeonhole me as “pro” or “anti” anything, I am pro a highly developed society with the benefits of abundant and reliable, high grade power supply. (i.e. I prefer the idea that most of us should live in the 21st century, and not the 18th).

Some points:

1) Nuclear and wind have very similar investment profiles, per MWe: fuel costs are small, up front capital costs high, and O&M costs are similar. You seem to be talking exclusively about the installed (i.e. capital) cost. This is nonsensical, as this accounts for only about half the cost of electricity supplied by either technology and ignores grid supply issues.

[Craig - I was reporting, not commenting. Fair enough the reports I based my piece on may not be technically the best - I would not know, I am not qualified to make a judgement. Regarding grid supply issues, I did include the idea that wind is intermittent and needs storage facilities to be reliable.]

2) Wind has the huge advantage of being modular (a couple of actual MWe is the incremental unit). Nuclear comes in big chunks (~1600MWe for most modern). Nuclear has the huge advantage of being reliable base-load, with no real “security of supply” issues, at least in the short/medium term. 

[True, but seeing as how you mentioned security, the cost of security has to be factored-in in nuclear power plants - because they are prime targets for all sorts of terror groups and extremists. These costs, in addition to greater than normal on-going site security, would have to include a substantial national security input involving, police, armed forces, and air force involvement, as well as satellite and other monitoring. All that does not come for free.]

3) Wind has an energy density of about 2W/m^2, nuclear has a density 1000 times that. So the red herring question at the head of the post ("Really enhances the Natural Landscape?" under a pic of a nuclear plant) could be answered, "well yes, it does enhance the landscape, actually, as it confines the necessary developed zone to an area about 1km x 1km rather than 50km x 50km for equivalent wind power").

[ I personally would much prefer 5000 acres of windmills than 100 acres of nuclear plant in my back yard - Would you care to take bets on other people's attitudes?]

4) The cost of nuclear power is a hotly contested issue. I can quote from 6 reputable sources all at odds, which estimate nuclear wholesale power costs in the range 10-84 £STG/MWe. Onshore wind has a smaller spread in the range 25-60 £STG/MWe. (apologies for the currency). As for there being no reliable figures to depend on because there has been no new build in the USA recently, this is total crap (not that there has been no new build in the states, but that there are no reliable data). For example, China is building several. And incidentally is also building a lot of wind, so it isn’t necessarily and either/or proposition.

[Again, I reported on news items - I am no expert but as, no doubt, you will agree, there is always more than one point of view.]

5) On the issue of technological development, while modern wind power is younger than nuclear (i.e. turbines which can reasonably by called modern designs), wind power has borrowed heavily from the aerospace industry (design, materials and manufacturing), and has had many iterations, precisely because wind is more modular. Nuclear plant on the other hand, while mature and reliable now, is only on the 3rd or 4th generation. As a result, from a technical viewpoint, I am not convinced that wind has any great technological leaps to make to achieve dramatically lower unit costs.

[Who cares about technological advances - if it works for the planet and for sustainability. Personally, I would be happy to go back to Archimedes technology in order to preserve the planet for future generations.]

The bottom line is that like it or not, nuclear is definitely part of the global and regional energy mix for the foreseeable future. The real question is do we build a plant in Ireland. My feeling is that for technical reasons we should not at this point, but we will absolutely still depend on nuclear through our interconnects to UK and France, so we should be a little more reasonable about nuclear power generally.

[I, and I guess quite a few like me, find it difficult to be academic or reasonable about a technology so dangerous that it has the ability to make a country uninhabitable for a quarter million years. The old seafaring adage, generally referred to as Murphy’s Law, springs to mind when I think of nuclear reactors;  “If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong, sooner or later, and in the worst possible way, and at the worst possible time” Thankfully we do not have too many examples of Murphy’s law at work in nuclear plants, but IMHO more than enough to prove the point]


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