Re: [asa] World sets ocean temperature record

From: Randy Isaac <>
Date: Wed Aug 26 2009 - 20:37:42 EDT

Rsponse from Ian posted on his behalf:
First, just let me correct the comments about nuclear programs a bit.
There are about 25-30 university nuclear education programs in the US right now. Several new ones have started in the past 3 years. During the 90s when nuclear was at a very low ebb, a substantial fraction were closed or merged into other engineering departments. Most universities with nuclear programs are now expanding their faculty in response to a tremendous, factor of 2-3, increase in undergraduate enrolment. In addition, however, the earlier generation of nuclear researchers are rapidly retiring. The result is a tremendous unmet need for academic nuclear experts, as well as a very large demand for high quality engineers by industry for the anticipated nuclear resurgence. This is of course a great opportunity for young people as well as a challenge for the country.

Second on the topic of "greater thermal recovery". There are some opportunities for minor improvements here, but regarding this as a major source of CO2 reduction would be a mistake. All thermal electricity generators (which means all fossil and nuclear, which together make up 90% of the US

electricity) are subject to efficiency limits from the second law of thermodynamics. Depending on the temperature of the source, that theoretical maximum efficiency is typically somewhere between 30 and 40%. The thermal engines (turbines etc) used are highly optimized within this constraint, in the nuclear industry and for combined-cycle gas. (Not so optimized for old coal plants but the key question there is what to replace them with. Gas is very expensive and dependent on foreign sources. Utilities are rightly hesitant to replace old coal with newer more efficient coal, because a 10% efficiency improvement does not do much for CO2 reduction over the multi-decade lifetime of a big plant). It is unrealistic to think that there are major gains to be had by back-fitting some kind of supposed improved-efficiency generators. If that were economic, it would already have been done. There are probably some opportunities for district heating to use the low-grade heat eventually exhausted from these engines. But for nuclear that opportunity is unlikely to be significant, because we deliberately don't site plants near people (where the heating need is significant).

By far the most efficient and economic way for the US to reduce its CO2 emissions from electricity generation is to use its existing nuclear plants to the full (which we are doing) and build new nuclear plants. Solar and wind are good, and should be used in those places where they are economic, or least-uneconomic, (not the North East). But they still make a trivial couple-of-percent contribution to electricity production, and have no prospect of making a significant dent in the base-load generation on a useful timescale. Our nation must face this reality, in my view, if we are going to do anything about reducing our fossil-energy dependence. My biggest headache with the present Administration and Congress is their pie in the sky approach to solving the energy and global environment challenge.


Ian Hutchinson

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Rich Blinne
  To: Randy Isaac
  Sent: Wednesday, August 26, 2009 3:37 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] World sets ocean temperature record

  On Wed, Aug 26, 2009 at 12:14 PM, Randy Isaac <> wrote:

    It's interesting to talk to ASA Fellow Ian Hutchinson about this. He heads the nuclear engineering department at MIT. There's a big problem with the long dearth and demise of nuclear engineering programs in the US. I think he said only about two viable departments existed a few years ago, all the others having shut down. Re-establishing those departments and training a suitable source of expertise for designing and operating nuclear reactors at the level required will take a while. Maybe up to 10 years. Ian is confident that even today's technology can make both operation and disposal safe and future technologies will improve that ability. But it's not something that can change on a dime. Fortunately he says they are flooded with interest now.

    So I wouldn't say no one seems to be talking about nuclear. Some folks are at least doing something about it. Whether it's enough or not, I don't know.


  I have a question that I would like to throw Ian's way. One of the research programs that's mentioned in the House climate bill is greater thermal recovery at existing nuclear and fossil fuel plants. How feasible is this and how much difference does it make? To my non-expert eyes it looks like a great opportunity. There's 800 GW of generating capacity in the US and itís operating at an average of 28% efficiency. EPA and DoE studies suggest technologies like cogeneration and waste heat recovery could produce 40% of the nationís electricity.

  Rich Blinne
  Member ASA

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Received on Wed Aug 26 20:38:16 2009

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