by Marcel F. Williams
The fossil fuel dominated energy economy of modern human civilization has now pushed the carbon dioxide (CO2) component of our atmosphere above 400 parts per million. This is a 40% increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. The Pliocene epoch was last time CO2 levels in the atmosphere were as high , the geologic period that preceded the Pleistocene and the emergence of our genus (Homo). So modern humans are currently living within an atmosphere that is not only alien to our species but also to are genus.
The enhanced greenhouse effect resulting from the ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere by human activity is already starting to melt the the polar icecaps. And melting icecaps are gradually increasing global sea levels. Rising sea levels caused by increased amounts of atmospheric CO2 is nothing new in the natural history of the Earth. But the deposition of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by human activity is something new. And it threatens to rapidly expose our species and the other plant and animal species currently living on our planet to higher global temperatures and sea levels not seen in millions of years. In the decades and centuries to come, the results of global warming from human activity could drown our coastlines and our coastal cities while causing the mass extinction of many, if not most, of the plant and animal species on our planet.
Politicians have tended to expressed concern about the long term consequences of carbon dioxide induced climate change from human civilization. But in reality, there has actually been very little serious pressure placed on the global energy companies to shift from a fossil fuel economy to a carbon neutral energy economy. Fear that a shift from fossil fuels could threaten economic prosperity has often been expressed by the global energy companies. And some politicians beholden to the economic might of the energy companies have even denied that CO2 induced global warming is a problem at all. Of course, since the energy companies have trillions of dollars invested in the fossil fuel economy, they really have no incentive to move away from a fossil fuel economy.
Top Ten Greenhouse Gas Emitters in 2014
China - 29.55%
USA - 14.95%
European Union - 9.57%
India - 6.56%
Russia - 4.95%
Japan - 3.58%
Iran - 1.73
South Korea - 1.71%
Canada - 1.58%
Brazil - 1.40%
World Energy Consumption
China - 20.2%
USA - 19.0%
Russia - 5.8%
India - 4.4%
Japan - 4.3%
Germany - 2.7%
Canada - 2.6%
France - 2.1%
No Shortage of Uranium
Despite the phobia that surrounds the industry, nuclear energy would seem to be the simplest and the most rapid way to deal with the threat of human greenhouse gas induced climate change. Nuclear power produces nearly 20% of the electricity in the US and nuclear energy represents approximately 6% of the world's energy consumption.
The current world demand for uranium is over 70,000 tonnes per year. Terrestrial uranium resources exists in ore reserves that are economically viable at $59 per pound in US dollars. But it is estimated that there are approximately 5.5 million tonnes of proven uranium reserves at a cost below $130 per kilogram. With the resurgence of nuclear power, the exploration for new uranium sources could increase total terrestrial uranium reserves to more than 16 million tonnes. So there should be enough uranium to supply current global nuclear power demand for at least 200 years. But this is clearly not enough provided electric power and synthetic fuels and industrial chemicals for all of civilization.
Nuclear breeding technologies such as fast neutron reactors or ADS accelerator reactors could increase fuel supplies by a factor of 140 since fissile uranium 235 only represents about 0.7% of natural uranium. But terrestrial reserves of fertile thorium are even more plentiful. There is at least 3 times as much terrestrial thorium 232 as there is uranium 238. Thorium would be one of the easiest ways to recycle the plutonium produced from the fission of uranium 235 within fertile uranium 238. So nuclear technologies that also utilize fertile uranium and thorium supplies in breeding technologies could provide civilization with all of the electric power, fuel, and chemicals that it needs.
While terrestrial deposits rich in uranium and thorium are relatively limited, the Earth's oceans contain about 4.6 billion tonnes of uranium. That's also enough nuclear fuel to provide electric power and synthetic fuels and industrial chemicals for human civilization for at least a few thousand years without the need for breeding technologies.
However the uranium content of the oceans is naturally replenished by a natural equilibrium between the hydrosphere and the terrestrial environment. And the rocks that chemically interact with the Earth's hydrosphere contain nearly 100 trillion tonnes of uranium. So whenever uranium is extracted from seawater, it is replenished by is chemical interaction with the Earth's rocks and soil, leaching their uranium content into the rivers and oceans. Marine uranium, therefore, is a renewable resource that could provide all of humanity's energy needs for the next billion years, about the time when the Earth's oceans will probably disappear because of the continuing natural increase in the sun's luminosity.
Current technology can extract uranium from seawater at a price of $200/lb of U3O8. Nuclear fuel, however, only represents less than 12% of the total cost of electricity from nuclear power plants and the uranium ore itself, only represents about 46% of the total cost of the fuel before it is enriched and fabricated for use in a nuclear reactor. So even at quadruple the current price of uranium, marine uranium would only increase the cost of electricity from nuclear power by a meager 15%.
Environmentally Safest Commercial Energy Technology on Earth
Despite a few serious accidents in Japan, the Ukraine, and in the US, commercial nuclear power is still statistically the safest form of electric energy production. Unfortunately, we live in a global society that still has an inordinate fear of ionizing radiation. This is despite the fact that humans and all other plant and animal species on this planet live on a world and within a universe that is naturally radioactive-- and always has been!
Global Mortality Rate related to commercial energy production (deaths/trillion kWhr)
Coal (global average) 170,000
Oil - 36,000
Biofuel/Biomass - 24,000
Natural gas - 4000
Hydroelectric (global average) - 1400
Solar panels (rooftop) - 440
Wind - 150
Nuclear (global average) - 90
Wind and solar energy have long been touted as-- safe long term solutions-- to climate change. But such renewable systems are extremely land intensive and only produce energy when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining. While the storage of wind and solar energy would solve this problem, it would also require a substantial increase in the number of wind and solar power facilities in order to make up for the majority of time when energy is not being produced and the lowered efficiency of energy storage and power production from stored energy. Wind and solar power plants also have significantly shorter lifespans than commercial nuclear power plants that can last at least 60 years or longer. So replacing old wind and solar power plants with new facilities could double or even quadruple the number of units required to produce the same amount of energy as nuclear power plants could.
Solar power currently produces less than 0.1% of the energy consumed in the US. So even if solar energy production were increased by 100 times, it would still produce less than 10% of America's current energy needs-- and even less for the even larger American populations thirty to forty years from now.
The manufacture of solar panels produces at least 10,000 times as much toxic waste as nuclear power plants. The spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants is so tiny that all of the spent fuel ever produced by the commercial nuclear industry in the US could be housed in an area the size of a football stadium only a few meters high. Of course, most of the content from spent fuel could be recycled to produce even more carbon neutral electricity.
Environmentally, wind power plants are well known to be deleterious to predatory birds and bats that feed on pest that either harmful to humans or their food supplies. And while some find them aesthetically beautiful, others find them eyesores the destroy the beauty of the local landscape.
No American lives have ever been lost as the result of exposure to excessive amounts of radiation from the commercial nuclear industry. and America currently has the most commercial nuclear reactors currently operating. But as remarkably safe as nuclear power plants are today, they would be even safer if they were deployed on the Earth's oceans.
|MIT floating nuclear reactor concept (Credit: MIT)|
Lack of coolant (water) caused the partial meltdowns at the Light Water reactors at Fukushima in Japan and at Three Mile Island in the US. However, the deployment of light water nuclear reactors out to sea could offer the commercial nuclear industry an inherently safe environment for producing carbon neutral energy. The ocean's almost infinite heat sink of seawater would completely eliminate the possibility of nuclear fuel meltdowns for light water reactors deployed out at sea.
Most proponents of floating nuclear reactors would like to moor such power plants just 10 to 20 kilometers offshore. While this might be convenient for supply electric power to coastal towns, cities, and industries, it might also leave such facilities easily vulnerable to attacks from both the sea and air by hostile entities. While such attacks on a floating nuclear facility would probably pose little danger to the public and to the environment, the resulting sociological and political effects could be financially devastating for companies that own or who manufacture such facilities.
|US Navy floating modular platform concept (Credit: US Navy)|
Deploying a floating nuclear reactor within the cavity of a pair of floating storm shelters, cement barriers designed to enclose and shield the facility from severe weather and from potential aerial and ocean attacks, could greatly enhance the protection of floating nuclear reactors. Such floating barriers could easily be derived from the US Navy's modular floating platform concepts. They could completely envelope a floating reactor by simply using tugs to pull the larger half of a shelter over the smaller half of the shelter. While such barriers wouldn't make it absolutely impossible for floating nuclear power plants to be seriously damaged, they would make it very difficult and extremely expensive for potential terrorist to damage a floating nuclear facility.
How Many Reactors?
US Energy Consumption in 2015
(Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory):
39.0% - Electricity
28.4% - Transportation
21.8% - Industrial chemical and other processes (minus the electricity utilized)
6.7% - Non-electrical residential heating and cooking
4.1% - Non-electrical commercial heating, cooking, and other processes
About 409 1.1 GWe (1100 MWe) terrestrial nuclear reactors would be required to completely replace all of the electricity currently produced in the US by other sources of electricity (coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, wind, solar, etc.). That would require a five fold increase in current nuclear electric power production. Some of the electricity could be used to convert urban and rural biomass into methanol for the production of electricity during peak load hours. Such a substantial increase in nuclear electric power production in America could easily be accomplished by simply accommodating up to eight 1.1 GWe nuclear reactors at every existing site in America.
A five fold increase in terrestrial nuclear power would still only meet about 39% of America's total energy needs. And, of course, these figures don't even account for future American electricity demand 30 to 40 years from now due to simple population growth. This figure also doesn't include the probable increase in electricity demand from the growth in the number of automobiles that either partially or totally use electricity. This figure also doesn't include the increase in domestic electricity demand if all Americans switched from using natural gas to electricity for cooking, space heating, and water heating.
Even with a shift towards electric vehicles, the demand for transportation fuel for planes, ships, and ground vehicles is still going to be enormous. And huge amounts of energy will also be required for the production of industrial chemicals and fertilizers.
Major carbon neutral synthetic fuels and industrial chemicals that could be manufactured at remotely sited floating nuclear synplexes
3. Diesel Fuel
4. Jet fuel
5. Dimethyl ether
6. Liquid hydrogen
7. Liquid oxygen
8. Fresh water
9. Sodium Chloride
It would require at least 964 synthetic fuel producing nuclear reactors (1100 MWe each) to replace America's current gasoline needs. 441 reactors would be required to replace America's diesel fuel demand. 152 reactors would be needed to replace current civilian and military jet fuel demand. These figures, of course, don't account for future demand over the next 30 or 40 years due to population growth. So 1557 1.1 GWe floating nuclear reactors would be needed to provide the carbon fuels for all of America's-- current transportation needs.
Number of 1.1 GWe (1000 MWe) nuclear reactors needed to annually supply all of America's current transportation fuel needs:
964 floating reactors - carbon neutral gasoline production
441 floating reactors - carbon neutral diesel fuel production
137 floating reactors - carbon neutral production of civilian jet fuel
15 floating reactors - carbon neutral production of military jet fuel
An additional 1195 floating reactors would be needed to meet America's industrial chemical and fertilizer needs. So just to replace fossil fuels for transportation, industrial chemicals and chemical fertilizers would require 2752 1.1 GWe floating nuclear reactors.
And, again, these figures don't include the inevitable increase in energy demand due to population growth. And there's also the daunting reality that America only consumes about 20% of the world's energy needs. Could America or other nations provide for the rest of the world's clean energy needs?
Exclusive Economic Zones
America is a nation that's still finding it politically difficult to keep a little more than 100 nuclear reactors currently operational within the US. And with only four new nuclear reactors (~4.4 GWe) currently under construction, its rather difficult to imagine Americans adding more than 3000 terrestrial nuclear reactors to the continental United States-- over the next 30 to 40 years.
It would be equally as politically daunting, in my opinion, to attempt to deploy thousands of floating nuclear reactors along the coastlines of the United States over the next 30 to 40 years. So why even go through the process of attempting to deploy floating nuclear power plants near any populated American coastline at all when its totally unnecessary!
Public and environmental fears about deploying floating nuclear facilities and floating synthetic fuel producing facilities off the populated coast of continental North America could be completely eliminated by simply transporting such facilities-- far out to sea.
America has economic control over vast amounts of ocean territory thousands of kilometers away from populated coastlines. Some of these Exclusive Economic Zones surround uninhabited islands or islands exclusively occupied by small numbers of US military personal.
Wake Island, for instance, has about 7.1 square kilometers of land area surrounded by a US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of over 407 thousand square kilometers. Administered by the United States Air Force, the island is only occupied by 94 US personal. The airfield on Wake Island is currently used as a mid-Pacific refueling stop for US military aircraft.
|The US territory of Wake Island.|
If just one quarter of the Wake Island EEZ territory that is at least 50 kilometers away from the island's land and lagoon area were allowed to be utilized for the deployment of floating nuplexes and synplexes, nearly 100,000 square kilometers of territorial waters would be available. This region could be used to produce carbon neutral synthetic fuels and industrial chemicals. Another 100,000 square kilometers of territorial water on the opposite side of the island could be exclusively used for potential Seasteading, aquaculture, and floating farms while the rest of the territorial water (more than half) would be under conservation including the 50 kilometer stretch of water encircling the island.
Floating nuplexes could consist of eight to sixteen 1.1 GWe nuclear reactors floating along the arc of a circle four kilometers in diameter. A cruise ship could be placed at the center of the circle, to kilometers away from each floating reactor, to house the nuclear workers when they're off duty and may also serve as a floating home for their families.
Each floating nuplex would provide between 8.8 GWe to 17.6 GWe of power (more than four to eight times more power than the typical two unit nuclear plants in the continental USA).
The fuel and industrial chemical producing synplexes could be positioned between five to ten kilometers away from the nuclear facilities to ensure that any accidental chemical explosions can't potentially damage any of the nuclear facilities or to their protective storm shelters.
Power to the floating synplexes would come from submarine cables connecting them to the floating nuplexes. So the entire 8.8 GWe to 17.6 GWe nuplex and surrounding synplexes could be deployed within a circle up to 24 kilometers in diameter. In reality, of course, the floating nuplexes and synplexes would physically only occupy an extremely tiny fraction of this 452 square kilometer area.
Within the proposed 100,000 square kilometer area, more than 221 nuplexes and their surrounding synplexes could be produce between 1945 GWe to 3890 GWe of electric power. So this one remotely sited region alone could potentially provide the United States will all of its energy needs.
But if we add a quarter of the EEZ waters surrounding the remote uninhabited islands of the Johnston Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, Jarvis Island, and Baker Island and the US Navy occupied Midway Island Atoll then more than 23 TWe of electric power could be produced, more than enough to provide all of the energy needs for the entire planet!
Beyond the tropical Pacific islands, Alaska might be the only State in the Union that might be willing to accommodate thousands of floating nuclear reactors with its Exclusive Economic Zone. This might be particularly true in the vast EEZ waters both north and south of the Aleutians. Less than 8500 people live on a few of the Aleutian islands with more than half living on the island of Unalaska. But Alaska has more than 3.7 million square kilometers of EEZ territory. So just a quarter of Alaska's EEZ territory could provide energy for the entire planet.
Of course, the US shipyards could manufacture and deploy floating nuclear reactors to some of the vast remote EEZ areas controlled by other nations. It might be in the interest of the United States to deploy at least some of their Ocean Nuclear assets in the Atlantic within the remote and EEZ areas of strategic allies such as Europe. The UK Ascension Island EEZ in the South Atlantic might be a particularly suitable for for the deployment of American and possibly British Ocean Nuclear facilities and synplexes.
Using Renewable Methanol in Natural Gas Power Plants and Methanol Power Barges
Beyond the ocean production of transportation fuels and industrial chemicals, remotely sited synplexes could also easily supply all of the world's electricity needs by simply producing methanol. Remotely sited nuclear synplexes could produce methanol by importing biowaste and other carbon waste imported from coastal towns and cities. Coastal communities would probably pay to have their garbage towed away, reducing or eliminating the cost of ocean transport. A floating plasma arc pyrolysis plant could convert the imported garbage into syngas which could then be converted into methanol. However, since approximately 66% of the carbon in this process is CO2 waste , substantially more methanol could be produced through the production of hydrogen through the electrolysis of water distilled from seawater.
The US Navy's new synfuel from seawater technology could also be used to produce carbon neutral synthetic fuels and industrial chemicals.
Ironically, the infrastructure for utilizing methanol for electric power use on continental America already exist thanks to some of the fossil fuel utility companies. Only minor modifications are required to covert natural gas turbine electric power plants into turbines capable of using methanol to produce electric power. This was demonstrated decades ago. So the rapid growth of natural gas power plants could be a back door for the emergence of nuclear power in the form of methanol remotely produced far out to sea at floating synplexes. And the tankers that could ship methanol to continental America could also be powered by methanol as a growing number of vessels are today.
Existing cryogenic carbon capture technology, could liquify up to 99% of the CO2 produced from the flu gasses of methanol power plants. That CO2 could then be transported by tankers back to the floating nuclear synplexes for the production of more methanol. Such a fuel cycle could make methanol from nuclear energy, carbon negative (permanently extracting CO2 from the atmosphere as the number of methanol power plants grow). So if floating nuclear synplex are used to replace existing fossil fuel power plants and even carbon neutral nuclear and renewable power plants, floating nuclear synplexes for electricity production would actually be carbon negative-- gradually reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere until such facilities finally reach the point where they completely replace other forms of electricity production. So while the growth of terrestrial nuclear reactors would be carbon neutral, the growth of Ocean Nuclear Power plants exporting methanol for electricity production and recycling the CO2 would be carbon negative.
|106 MWe natural gas powered electric energy barge (Credit: Wartsila Corporation)|
The waste heat from the methanol power barges could also be used to desalinate seawater, providing both electricity and palitable water to coastal towns and cities. Such electricity and freshwater producing barges might be particularly attractive to states like California which is currently in the middle of a multi-year drought.
Jobs, the Reindustrialization of America, and Seasteading
|States with active Shipyards (Credit: MARAD).|
|Employment related to shipbuilding and repair (Credit: MARAD)|
If natural gas is eventually banned in the US for domestic and commercial use for heating and cooking then there will probably be a dramatic increase the use of electricity. And that would probably require an additional 100 land based nuclear power plants.
Replacing the additional 100 land based nuclear reactors with synfuel from Ocean nuclear reactors would require 400 floating reactors. If all 500 land based nuclear power plants were replace by synfuel from Ocean Nuclear power plants then at least 2000 reactors would be required. This is because of the substantial inefficiency of converting electricity into to carbon fuels, transporting the fuel to coastal towns and cities and then converting those carbon fuels back into electricity again.
However, the cost of electricity at ocean nuclear sites should be dramatically lower than that of land based nuclear sites because Ocean Nuclear reactors are likely to be centrally mass produced. And most of the cost of nuclear electricity is due to it high capital cost. The recycling of flu gases from power plants using fuels from Ocean Nuclear technology could also significantly increase the fuel production since electricity wouldn't have to be used to for the extraction of CO2.
The deployment of floating nuclear reactors, floating protective structures, floating synplexes, cruise ships, methanol tankers, methanol power barges and methanol powered tankers for the transport of other synthetic fuels and industrial chemicals will, of course, require a resurgence of the US shipbuilding industry. And that would mean a resurgence of hundreds of thousands of new jobs at shipyards in States along the Atlantic and Pacific Coast and the Gulf Coast and even within the Great Lakes region.
Major shipbuilding activities in an Ocean Nuclear economy
Floating nuclear power plants
Floating nuclear storm shelters
Methanol fueled tankers:
Diesel fuel tankers
Jet fuel tankers
Industrial chemical tankers
Methanol electric power barges
Synfuel production barges
Biowaste transport barges
Cruise ships designed to house floating nuclear power plant workers and synplex personal
Artificial islands and breakwater structures for ocean nuplex and synplex workers (Seasteading)
But millions of jobs would be created for US citizens operating far out to seas at ocean nuclear synplexes. And this might well be the beginning of still another major ocean oriented shipyard industry, the creation of artificial residential islands for all of those millions of Americans working far out at sea! Ocean Nuclear and Ocean Synplex workers may end up being the first large group of American Seasteaders.
There should still be a place for terrestrial nuclear reactors in the US, in my opinion. But the future of terrestrial nuclear power is in the mass production of small nuclear reactors that are placed underground for enhanced safety. But most of the energy for electricity, synfuels, and industrial chemicals in the 21st century will probably be produced by floating synplexes powered by remotely sited floating nuclear power plants.
Links and References
Fueling our Nuclear Future
The Economics of Nuclear Power
How deadly is your kilowatt?
The Floating Stable Platform: Office of Naval Research
Methanol to Power Demonstration Project
Simple Cycle Methanol Power Plant
The Production and Utilization of Renewable Methanol in a Nuclear Economy
The feasibility and current estimated capital costs of producing jet fuel at sea using carbon diox-ide and hydrogen
Market and Economic Assessment of Using Methanol for Power Generation in the CaribbeanRegion
Exclusive Economic Zones
What is the EEZ
U.S. Maritime Limits & Boundaries
Plasma arc gasification
Power Barges around the world
Waller Marine Power Barges