Sunday, October 26, 2008

Can we build enough plants?

I was watching a fairly good talk from MIT on our energy problems. Right at the start he pointed out the immense scale of the problem the world faces. As an example he mentions that if we were to use nuclear power to create all of the energy use increase in the next 45 years we would need a 8000 new power plants! That is an immense number, but in a world where china alone is building a coal fired power plant a week I decided to try to calculate if it was the sort of number we could reasonably expect to build, or so huge that we may as well give up and try something else.

First, a bit of history. The United States currently has 104 Reactors out of a world total of 439. These reactors were almost entirely build during the two decades from 1970-1990. So as a rough estimate the United States built reactors at a rate of five a year for twenty years.

Now, the United States is something around 3% of the world's population. So an easy way to see if building this many plants is even possible is to assume the whole world could create power plants at a per capita rate that equals that the United States did in this 20 year period. A rough estimate of the number of plants the world could build in a 45 year period is then (45years)*(5 plants per year/.03 percent of the population = 167 plants per year, or around 7500 plants over the whole 45 year period. Because of population growth, this estimate actually has the world creating plants at something like half the rate America built them for that twenty year period. So, it is safe to say that should the world decide to, we could use nuclear power to cover for the whole increase in world energy use over the next fifty years.

Some of these reactors would probably need to be breeder reactors, or thorium reactors. But as there has been a Russian breeder reactor that has operated for thirty years, and an Indian Reactor will soon be running off Thorium there is every reason to expect the technology can be brought to the level required.

I don't see the political will to do so, but it is at least permitted in the laws of physics and economics. That makes it part of a very short list. Given that even the twelve reactors nearly identical to Chernobyl have been operated safely for the past thirty years I don't see the anti-nuclear movement holding up. It is silly to get half our electricity from coal fired plants which kill tens of thousands of people a year because of the small risk that replacing them with nuclear power plants could kill a similar number of people once every couple decades. The biggest accidents involving power plants have involved dam breaks, and as these are less guarded they are the far greater terrorist attack risk.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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