Nuclear Power Plants - A Matter of National Security
Blog Writing

Nuclear Power Plants – A Matter of National Security by Melissa Nichols

As a nation, we are quickly losing our ability to produce domestic uranium for the fabrication of nuclear fuel. State-owned enterprises, most disturbingly those in Russia and China, are on track to surpass the United States as a world leader in nuclear energy. It would be oxymoronic to gain energy independence with fossil fuels only to become dependent on other nations for nuclear fuels. 

Early Retirement

The next ten years could see the United States lose more than 10% of its nuclear capacity. Since 2013, the nation has lost ten nuclear power plants to premature shutdowns. Another seven nuclear power plants are scheduled to be forced into early retirement. Nuclear power creates 55% of America’s clean energy. Why environmentalist groups are so deadset against them is mind boggling.

President Trump realizes the importance of complete energy independence to national security. That is why the United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group established by the President in his July 12, 2019, Memorandum on the Effect of Uranium Imports on the National Security and Establishment of the United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group was created.

New Nuclear Power Plant Technology

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) is working closely with the Nuclear Fuel Working Group and other organizations to promote the growth and development of new nuclear power technology. It has selected two innovative U.S. reactor designs to be awarded $160 million for testing, licensing and building their designs. The plants should be operational within seven years. Over those seven years, the DOE will invest another $3.2 billion.

TerraPower LLC, with GE-Hitachi, Bechtel and Energy Northwest, will develop Natrium, a sodium-cooled fast reactor that leverages technologies used in solar thermal generation systems. “Natrium couples a 345-megawatt electric (MWe) nuclear reactor with a molten salt energy storage system that can flexibly operate with renewable power sources. The simplified design and decoupling of nuclear and non-nuclear systems allow for expedited licensing and construction. The team expects to reduce the amount of nuclear-grade concrete required for the plant by 80% compared to traditional large-scale reactors.”

X-Energy, with Energy Northwest and Burns and McDonnell, is developing the Xe-100 reactor and a specialized uranium-based pebble fuel. “The team will demonstrate a four-unit, 320 MWe plant that uses high-temperature helium gas to produce heat and electricity more efficiently. It leverages previously DOE-supported high-temperature gas technologies and uses the most robust nuclear fuel on earth, TRISO particles. Each 80 MWe reactor continuously refuels, meaning it can operate for a very long time before needing maintenance that might normally be done during refueling outages. The major components will also be factory-fabricated, making the plant faster and cheaper to build.”

The DOE will also provide an additional $30 million to help reduce the risk of as many as five more advanced reactor designs. They will announce who will be receiving these funds later in the fiscal year.

Originally published on ShaleMag.com.

Enough Plutonium to Send us all Back to the Future
Blog Writing

Enough Plutonium to Send Us All Back to the Future by Melissa Nichols

Secretary of Energy Brouillette and South Carolina officials announced an agreement between the current administration and the state of South Carolina. This agreement has been a long time coming.

“The Trump Administration is committed to tackling our nation’s toughest challenges where previous Administrations have failed, including the removal and disposal of Cold War era plutonium from the State of South Carolina,” said Secretary Brouillette. “Today’s announcement is a promise to the people of South Carolina that plutonium will be removed safely from this state while saving the American taxpayers over $1 billion. I thank Attorney General Wilson, Governor McMaster, and other South Carolina leaders who have been strong partners with DOE to get us to this day. This historic agreement could not have been possible without the leadership and support of President Trump and Attorney General Barr. This is a good day for South Carolina.”

Behind schedule and over-budget

It started with the ending of the Cold War. The U.S. Department of Energy needed a place to send now unwanted weapons-grade plutonium. The idea was to send it to South Carolina and have it modified for use in nuclear power plants. A facility would have to be built called a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility (MOX). In 2002, because the facility was not yet completed, legislation was passed to assure either the removal of the plutonium or the completion of the facility by a specific date or reparations would have to be paid to the state.

In 2018 former-secretary Perry and the Trump administration decided to terminate the construction of the facility. By that time, it was $13 billion over budget and 32 years behind schedule. Even for a government program, that seems pretty bad. 

South Carolina has been trying to be rid of the plutonium for years

South Carolina had seen the writing on the wall, and back during the Obama administration, they sued the DOE for not adhering to the 2002 legislation. It is only now, in 2020, that an agreement has at last been reached. 

The DOE had a deadline of January 1, 2022, to remove the 9.5 metric tons of plutonium stored at the Savanna River site. The decision was made to use the “dilute and dispose” method to get rid of the plutonium. Unfortunately, this safe and effective method is extremely time-consuming. The DOE would not be making that 2022 deadline. With the chosen method, removal would be complete sometime in 2049. That’s only 27 years behind schedule. Really, considering the original project was 32 years behind schedule, it’s an improvement. Fortunately, the new agreement reached at the end of August extends the DOE’s window of removal. The new deadline is 2037, putting them just 12 years behind schedule. Impressive. The agreement also calls for $600 million to be paid to South Carolina upfront. In 2037, the DOE will pay a percentage of late fees based on how much plutonium is left in the state by that time.  

Next stop, New Mexico

Much of the plutonium will travel to New Mexico, and it will undergo the “dilute and dispose” method there. Some of the plutonium, around half a metric ton, was shipped to Nevada sometime before 2018, without any officials in Nevada being made aware. But that is another story. You can read more about it here.

Originally published on Shalemag.com.

California Blackouts: There is no Easy Answer
Blog Writing

California Blackouts: There is no Easy Answer by Melissa Nichols

California used to be right up there with Texas when it came to fossil fuel production. But for nearly forty years, California’s production has steadily declined. From 1982 – 2017, their dry natural gas production fell 46%. But their need for it has not followed suit. Now, their production output equals only one-tenth of the state’s demand. 

This isn’t their fault

They are leaning more and more heavily on renewable energy sources: wind and solar. With the closing of many of their natural gas and nuclear plants, their electricity needs not coming from renewables come from neighboring states. This out-of-state supply is what Californian energy officials blame for the electricity shortages. In a letter to Governor Newsome, they point out that heatwaves don’t stop at the state border. Their neighbors are also feeling the heat, and therefore need more electricity for themselves, and so have less excess electricity to sell.   

The letter does have a definite finger-pointing feel. Instead, those officials might want to follow those states’ footsteps and learn to make so much power they have extra. And they do claim California needs to produce more energy – but they feel it needs to produce more renewable energy and to invest in more batteries. 

California: Between a rock and a hard place

The government there seems to have backed the state into an area between a rock and a hard place. In order to produce more renewable energy, they need hundreds of square miles, if not more, on which to build turbines and solar panels. And they need to invest heavily in creating more infrastructure. Batteries aren’t cheap, either. That’s quite an investment for a state not known for investing wisely. 

It would be less expensive to return to natural gas and nuclear power. But the heatwaves they are experiencing could be difficult for even these reliables. Nuclear power plants need cool water running through the plant, and high temperatures beget warm water. Nuclear plants would have to reduce production without enough cool water. In the same vein, high heat has been known to lower natural-gas power plants’ efficiency. What’s a state to do?

An idea might be to allow exploration of the Monterey shale formation. Located in central and southern California, it could be bigger than even the Eagle Ford in Texas, or it could hold almost nothing at all. Estimates, even within the same company, range from one end of the spectrum to the other. But, we may never know who is right about the Monterey reserves. Gaining oil and natural gas permits in California is no easy feat. Even when power plants have to reduce production, a shortage is less likely if there are enough of them.

Cars need power, too

Solar and wind power are used primarily for producing electricity. The state still needs to keep moving, and it is still running on fossil fuel. As of 2017, California had 337,483 electric vehicles (EVs). In 2018, there were 14,762,517 fossil-fuel run vehicles in the state. That’s a lot of gas and diesel.

Roughly 60% of California’s crude oil comes from foreign sources. (Only twenty years ago that that number was 15%.) The countries providing this oil do not have or adhere to the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for American companies. And this oil arrives at the state on large ships that burn significant quantities of fuel and are more likely to have an accident or spill than a pipeline. But, since pipelines are frowned upon, shipping is the only option. 

What can the state do now? They can’t afford to move forward with their renewable plan, and they refuse to move back to the reliability of nuclear and natural gas. Until the Californian government can come to a decision, its citizens will continue to sit in the dark.

Originally published on Shalemag.com

Blog Writing

Nuclear Fusion: What You Don’t Know, But Should by Melissa Nichols

Nuclear Fusion: What You Don’t Know, But Should

Nuclear fusion can knock nuclear fission out of the water, literally. And not only nuclear-fission power, it could erase the need for fossil fuels and renewables. Why aren’t we hearing more about it? I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it might have something to do with fossil fuels and renewables being big business. Let’s not let business stand between us and nearly unlimited energy created with less waste and impact than even traditional nuclear power.

Something old, something new

The theory behind nuclear power is old. It begins in the 1700s with the discovery that matter can never be created or destroyed; it can only change form. In the 1800s, the same was discovered of energy. It cannot be created or destroyed, only change form. Then came Einstein and his E=mc2, which means, generally, that matter and energy are interchangeable. (Click to hear Einstein himself explain the theory.) It was then only a matter of time before the discovery that changing matter to energy created MUCH more energy than the other way around.

Nuclear fusion is the same process powering the sun. According to Merrium-Webster, it is the fusing of two atomic nuclei to form a heavier nuclei, resulting in the release of an enormous amount of energy. Its opposite of nuclear fission, which is widely used today. Fission is the process of splitting atoms. This splitting releases heat energy that is in turn used to heat water and ultimately to create electricity.

Sitcoms aren’t science

Contrary to popular belief, the nuclear reactors we use now create very little radioactive material. The rods needed for the process can be handled with gloves, and they can be used for five years. The nuclear waste that comes from a reactor isn’t the green sludge seen on The Simpsons. It’s used rods that are buried with little to no environmental impact, not unlike the burial of CO2 in the carbon capture process. Nuclear fusion, however, creates even less waste than this.

Renewable but finite

The amount of energy from nuclear reactions, either fusion or fission, is astronomical compared to the finite energy sources we have today. Renewable energy is limited by more than how many sunny or windy days there are. It is limited because it is based on the kinetic flows of matter in nature. Water, wind and solar have a cap on the amount of energy they are capable of producing; this is why they take up so much land. Hydro-power dams fill entire valleys with water. Wind is less substantial than water, so it eats up even more land. Solar power has the same problem as wind – lots of space is needed for creating small amounts of energy. Fossil fuels can create large amounts of energy, but the earth is said to hold a finite supply. 

Nuclear fusion funding

In 1980, Congress passed the Magnetic Fusion Energy Engineering Act, and it was signed by President Carter. The goal was to have demo fusion reactors online by 1995, and functioning reactors providing energy to the grid by 2005. Mysteriously, it never received the funding it needed.

Hope for the future

There is hope. If you are like me, you never heard about the nuclear fusion reactor being built in the south of France. Thirty-three countries have come together to get it built. As of summer 2019, it was 65% complete. It has a target date of 2025 for being turned on. But don’t get too excited, according to a spokesperson for the project, it will take an additional ten years before the reactor is fully functioning. But, considering it will be able to supply more power with the least amount of waste and impact on the environment than any other energy source in history, it will be worth the wait. 

(Originally published on Shalemag.com)

Melissa Nichols is the author and illustrator of the children’s book to help parents and children dispel the fears causing widespread climate anxiety and depression. “Don’t Be Afraid of Climate Change” is available on Amazon. Click here to read more about it.