| Pro New Nuke
by David Pescovitz
The first female nuclear engineering department chair of a Top 10 school in the nation, Jasmina Vujic is also the vice president of the Tesla Memorial Society of New York.
In April, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, standing before members of the U.S. Congress, stated that "nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy global demand." In last month's issue of Technology Review, 1960s icon Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, wrote that "the only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power." Many environmentalists are none-too-thrilled at these public comments from their allies, current or former. On the other hand, UC Berkeley professor Jasmina Vujic is thrilled. According to her research, Moore and Brand are absolutely right.
"This country has neglected nuclear energy for the last 20 or 30 years, but nuclear energy will be the way of the future if the United States wants to have energy independence and reduce the human influence on global climate," says Vujic, who as the recently appointed chair of Berkeley's Department of Nuclear Engineering is the first female to hold such a position in the nation.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the observed climate warming over the last 50 years is due to an increase in concentrations of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Nearly all of that carbon dioxide is generated by fossil fuels like coal and oil burned for energy. A coal-fired power plant capable of producing 1000 megawatts of electricity burns 7,300,000 kilograms of coal per day and releases upwards of 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per kilowatt hour. The equivalent nuclear fission plant consumes just 3.2 kilograms of uranium. Meanwhile, it emits almost no carbon dioxide. While other renewables like solar energy and wind are clean, many argue that the technology isn't efficient or practical enough yet to compete with coal.
Nuclear fission is obviously not waste-free though. And that's one of the main reasons that in this country, nuclear energy has been on the back burner since the 1970s. Currently, 20 percent of the electricity in the United States is generated by approximately 100 nuclear fission power plants, most of which went online in the 1970s. The radioactive waste from those plants is stored in spent fuel pools or casks near the plants.
A schematic illustration of the ENHS "nuclear battery" reactor. (Click for larger image.)
Centralized storage facilities certainly make more sense, Vujic explains, in terms of environmental impact and also to prevent the radioactive material from being stolen by groups who might use it to make "dirty bombs." Even as the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository site is embroiled in controversy, UC Berkeley researchers are developing ways to deal with the waste issue, from assessing proposed repository performance to developing new reactor designs that could produce ten to twenty times less waste.
"You need to ensure that nothing bad would happen for 10,000 years," Vujic says. "We've solved many of those engineering challenges. Our problem with radioactive waste is more political than technical now."
Much of the waste could be recycled, Vujic explains. The U.S. 's current breed of nuclear plants are based on a once-through "open cycle" with fuel. Newer plants employ a "closed cycle," Vujic says. For example, plants in France , (where 77 percent of the electricity comes from nuclear power), China , Russia , and the United Kingdom employ this approach.
"They take out the rest of the uranium and plutonium and then deal with the real waste," she says. "We're looking at ways to transform that spent fuel into something shorter lived before you place it in the repository."
At UC Berkeley, researchers are exploring techniques to optimize the fuel cycle and also improve waste management. Indeed, the Encapsulated Nuclear Heat-Source (ENHS) reactor design, a "nuclear battery" developed by professor Ehud Greenspan in collaboration with Vujic and others, promises an overall increase in fuel utilization nearly 50 times that of the once-through cycle.
The Berkeley research focuses on the development of so-called Generation IV nuclear energy systems. Members of the U.S. Department of Energy-led Generation IV International Forum (GIF) identified six nuclear systems that they believe could offer advantages in sustainability, safety, economic competitiveness, and proliferation resistance.
Vujic is not only confident that nuclear energy could help solve our electricity woes, but she also believes that the Generation IV reactors would drive a shift from oil to hydrogen.
"Besides electricity, one of the outputs of a nuclear power plant is heat," she says. "And with some of the new designs, those high temperatures could be used for efficient production of hydrogen."
Even with seemingly so many pluses, and support from the current presidential administration, a nuclear revival could be a tough sell to the public. Vujic, however, is optimistic that many people are slowly beginning to see the brighter side of nuclear energy. She cites a 2001 statewide Field Poll in California showing that 59 percent of those surveyed support the construction of new nuclear power plants in the state. The pro-nuke number in 1984, the last time the Field Poll posed the question, was only 33 percent.
"The moment you try to turn on your light and there is no power, you have a different perspective," Vujic says.
Jasmina L. Vujic's home page
"What's the Matter With Nuclear Materials?" by David Pescovitz (Lab Notes, August 2004)
"Novel Nuclear Reactor (Batteries Included)" by David Pescovitz (Lab Notes, October 2002)
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