Published on November 8th, 2013 | by Joshua S Hill10
Could Hybrid Nuclear Plants Help Stem Global Warming?
MIT’s Charles Forsberg has come up with an idea that might work to combine nuclear energy generation with renewable energies in an effort to halt the need for fossil fuels. The idea proposes combining a nuclear power plant with another renewable energy system, which Forsberg argues “could add up to much more than the sum of its parts.”
Earlier this week four leading climate scientists published an open letter asking “those influencing environmental policy” to step down from indiscriminately opposing nuclear power options. The letter outlined the current need for nuclear power as a feasible option if we are to ever divest ourselves of our need for fossil fuels, and halt the rising global warming.
“As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems,” the authors of the letter wrote, adding that “continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”
In a fortuitously timed release, MIT announced that Charles Forsberg, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, has published a paper in the November issue of the journal Energy Policy advocating the coupling of nuclear power with alternative energy sources to create hybrid power plants.
The time for new approaches is obviously upon us, and Forsberg believes that thinking outside the box is going to be necessary to fight global warming. “As long as you had inexpensive fossil fuels available for electricity demand, there was no reason to think about it,” he said, but now that we need to address climate change, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and secure energy independence away from fossil fuels and the economies that control those vast reserves, new options are necessary.
Nuclear power and renewable energies like wind and solar both have their pros and cons. Both are comparatively inexpensive and are near-infinitely more beneficial for the environment and atmosphere than fossil fuel-based energy systems.
However the reliability of both suffers somewhat due to their specific intricacies: Nuclear power cannot rapidly be ramped up or down to meet needs or reduce production, and renewable energies are reliant upon stable weather conditions to create constant power, and similarly cannot be ramped up or down according to specific needs.
One solution, according to Forsberg, is to create a way that excess power from a nuclear power plant ca be diverted, making it a ‘dispatchable’ power source — “one that can be easily ramped up or down to balance the disparities between production and demand.”
How? By pairing a nuclear power plant with either an artificial geothermal storage system, a hydrogen production plant, or a shale-oil recovery system. The steam generated from a nuclear power plant could be diverted to affect either of these alternative energy solutions, creating a hybrid system which has the stability and reaction-time of more traditional fossil fuel power stations.
“Many times the most formative game-changing approaches are not single new technologies, but rather novel ways of combining technologies,” said Steven Aumeier, director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies at the Idaho National Laboratory. “Hybrid energy systems could be a game-changing approach in enabling the cost-effective, secure, and high penetration of low-carbon energy into the economy.”
Aumeier adds that such systems would “afford a practical and regionally scalable means of using an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy security.”
Dr. Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution, Dr. Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. James Hansen, a renowned climate scientist at the Columbia University Earth Institute, and Dr. Tom Wigley, a climate scientist from the University of Adelaide and the National Center for Atmospheric Research were the authors of the open letter, published earlier this week, and amongst their recommendations was the need “to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump.”
In the long run, and especially in light of nuclear ‘incidents’ such as the looming spectre of the Ukrainian Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the more recent 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, nuclear energy is not well-liked in the public eye. There are those who believe it is the solution to all ills, but there are a greater majority who believe that nuclear energy is a less attractive option than fossil fuels. Implementing any sort of nuclear energy as a long-term solution is going to be a tricky proposition for any authority who attempt it, but it’s benefits could far outweigh its negatives.