Oil exports and imports

I am going to be lazy this week and post a very short one.

We discussed the Bakken before. It is producing nearly a million barrels a day of oil. This is $100 million in oil sales a day. It costs up to $45/barrel to lift the oil out of the bakken. The Bakken makes profits of about $50 million a day, or about $18 billion a year.

Let's compare this to Saudi Arabia. They pull oil out of the ground for $1 per barrel (it is very efficient there). They make profits of roughly $100/barrel. They produce 12 million barrels a day. In other words, they make $1.2 billion per day.

The US currently imports 11 million barrels of oil per day, and we use a total of 20 million. We transfer about $1.1 billion out of the US per day to drive cars.

What is the end product of this money? Many countries with oil have what is called the "resource curse." It is also known as Dutch disease. It turns out if your country has a ton of natural resources, it becomes inefficient and actually has less growth than it would have otherwise. This has several reasons. First, if a government makes a ton of oil money (or copper or gems), they tend to provide stuff for free to the populace. They take the money they make and just use it to pay for social things, like schools, hospitals, etc. Citizens pay less or no taxes. Corruption and handouts tend to be rife, but since the citizenry gets stuff for free, they don't even care. It is highly inefficient, and the country does not develop a real economy. They often will not use the money to diversify the economy, and once the resource runs out, the country is literally worse off than it was before they found the resource. Finally, having resources tends to allow despotic regimes to thrive. Iraq, Iran, Venezuela,

Interesting, eh? Maybe is a good reason to drive a fuel efficient car. Except that China and India and other developing countries with increasing numbers of cars will ensure every barrel of oil finds a buyer.

One last thing. The US gets its oil imports almost entirely from North America, from Mexico and Canada. The Middle East oil goes to China and the rest of the east. Why does the US spend so much money to maintain peace in the Middle East? Cause if the oil produced there came off the market, the former buyers will have to go elsewhere to buy their oil. Despite the fact that we don't get oil from the middle east, the global price (and our price) is much lower than it would be if war caused the oil to stop flowing from there. So why doesn't China start also enforcing peace in the Middle East? How come the US is the major country to fund this peace keeping? Frankly put, no other country has the experience of the US with having troops on foreign soil. China doesn't yet have the experience to effectively do this sort of thing. But they are already practicing. Eventually, as China continues to rise, they will likely begin to shoulder responsibility of ensuring the flow of oil.

Nuclear Reactors Final

I am getting bored of this topic, and I want to get to wind-solar-hydro so I can finish up with the energy technology stuff and write varied stuff. So I am going to compress it a lot. If anyone wants to see it expanded, let me know and I will take care of it later.

This post is about breeder reactors, thorium reactors, preventing nuclear proliferation, how the electricity costs stack up to other power plants, and why nuclear power is so expensive.

Nuclear power is expensive because the up-front costs are massive. The cleanest and most efficient coal fired power plants might cost a billion dollars to build. It might take 5 years to build it. Nuclear power plants seem to cost about $8 billion to build with all the safety features they use to prevent nuclear meltdowns (seriously, the new tech is very safe, and it shows in the cost). And they seem to take 8-15 years to build, depending on how much Greenpeace or pretty much every other group tries to stop construction via litigation. In other words, they take out an $8B loan and accrue interest for 8-15 years before they can start paying it back. Stuff costs a lot. Why do it? Cause nuclear waste can be contained, unlike the NOx and CO2 from natural gas and coal plants. Also, South Korea thinks it can build a nuclear plant a nuclear power plant in a short amount of time for only $5 billion. United Arab Emirates decided this was a good idea, and is buying four South Korean nuclear reactors to desalinate water.

Schematic of the South Korean nuclear power plant to be built in the United Arab Emirates, from link above.

The US Energy Administration Administration agrees that nuclear power is now less expensive than it used to be. I have ripped a table straight off their web page that shows it (see, I really am getting lazy in this post).

Table 1. Estimated levelized cost of new generation resources, 2018 
U.S. average levelized costs (2011 $/megawatthour) for plants entering service in 2018
Plant type Capacity factor (%) Levelized capital cost Fixed O&M Variable O&M (including fuel) Transmission investment Total system levelized cost
Dispatchable Technologies
Conventional Coal 85 65.7 4.1 29.2 1.2 100.1
Advanced Coal 85 84.4 6.8 30.7 1.2 123.0
Advanced Coal with CCS 85 88.4 8.8 37.2 1.2 135.5
Natural Gas-fired
Conventional Combined Cycle 87 15.8 1.7 48.4 1.2 67.1
Advanced Combined Cycle 87 17.4 2.0 45.0 1.2 65.6
Advanced CC with CCS 87 34.0 4.1 54.1 1.2 93.4
Conventional Combustion Turbine 30 44.2 2.7 80.0 3.4 130.3
Advanced Combustion Turbine 30 30.4 2.6 68.2 3.4 104.6
Advanced Nuclear 90 83.4 11.6 12.3 1.1 108.4
Geothermal 92 76.2 12.0 0.0 1.4 89.6
Biomass 83 53.2 14.3 42.3 1.2 111.0
Non-Dispatchable Technologies
Wind 34 70.3 13.1 0.0 3.2 86.6
Wind-Offshore 37 193.4 22.4 0.0 5.7 221.5
Solar PV1 25 130.4 9.9 0.0 4.0 144.3
Solar Thermal 20 214.2 41.4 0.0 5.9 261.5
Hydro2 52 78.1 4.1 6.1 2.0 90.3


Note that last column is $ per megawatt hour. It is the bottom line cost of producing power from that plant. First, what is dispatchable vs non-dispatchable? Dispatchable means you get it whenever you want it. You can ramp it up or down however you please. Non-dispatchable means that you depend on external factors, like the fickle winds of.. well.. winds?

Tangent! Winds are really just redistribution of energy from the equator to the poles. The sun shines more at the equator, heating it up, and then energy likes to move from areas of high energy to areas of low energy, so it does it using wind. And sometimes hurricanes. So really, wind power is just really inefficient solar power. You know what else is really inefficient (and slow) solar power? Hydrocarbons and coal. Cause they are really just buried plant and algae matter and such. That is tens to hundreds of millions of years old. So, coal and oil are really just really old, slow, and dirty solar power. Tangent done!

Tangent picture? This shows how the equator heats more than the rest of the earth. These extra heat has to redistribute to be more even. Hurricanes start near the equator cause of the heat there, then move away from it. from: http://oceanworld.tamu.edu/resources/oceanography-book/oceansandclimate.htm

Nuclear power is almost as cheap as coal power, and cheaper than clean coal (note, clean coal still produces a ton of CO _2 and NO _X )! What gives? How is nuclear so inexpensive? Well, we haven't built a nuclear power plant in the US in years. We don't know what it will actually cost. Those are just estimates. Also, people are quite scared of nuclear power. The cost of building nuclear power rises when you have environmentalists and NIMBY folks suing the pants off nuclear power developers. But let's make one thing clear: if the new generation of nuclear power plants are as inexpensive as they are supposed to be, the power is less expensive that all other power plants other than natural gas (note: the US does not have capacity to build more hydro power), and less expensive than even that if you account for NO X produced by and methane leaks associated with natural gas power (methane production and transport will always have leaks, and it is 23x as powerful a greenhouse agent as CO2).

Let's look at a few more things on the chart above. Remember when I said natural gas got cheap? Look at how cheap it is to produce power from natural gas on the chart above. Think anyone is building nuclear, solar, or offshore wind when you can build and deploy reliable natural gas power? Somehow, the answer to this is yes. Yes, people are building all these things, despite being expensive. Which is kind of cool.

Before moving away from costs, look at the variable costs. The variable costs are high for everything except renewables and nuclear. Why is this? Cause renewables and nuclear don't really use fuel. Yes, a nuclear plant uses fuel, but it costs almost nothing relative to the labor and the capital costs. All the cost of these is upfront CAPEX (capital expense), and then you get free power.

Finally, lets take a really close look at the variable costs. This link is pretty sweet for those of you interested. It contains variable costs for each power source. You can see that fuel is the bulk of cost of fossil steam plants, but less than a quarter of the total cost of nuclear, and nuclear fuel is 1/4 the price per energy unit than even dirt cheap natural gas.

Enough about costs! Onto breeder reactors!

In the first post I mentioned that one part of nuclear reactions is to give off neutrons. Sometimes instead of a neutron splitting an atom, the atom absorbs it. U-235 is the uranium we use in nuclear reactors. U-238 doesn't produce as much heat, cause it doesn't like to decay as fast, so it isn't viable nuclear fuel. Or is it?! U-238 is like a catcher in baseball. Except it catches neutrons. And then it incorporates them into its nucleus to become U-239. In other words, it really isn't like a catcher in baseball.

The breeder reaction series. From: http://nuclearpowertraining.tpub.com/h1019v1/css/h1019v1_76.htm

What's special about U-239? It decays rapidly through a special type of decay to become neptunium-239 and eventually plutonium 239! This process can extract up to 100x the energy from nuclear fuel. You know what's magic about that? Less nuclear waste produced. Also, you produce a ton of nuclear fuel this way. You can also use thorium-232, which then becomes uranium-233 after absorbing a neutron, which can in turn be used for nuclear fuel. Thorium is very cheap and very abundant. So the plutonium and uranium that is magically created through awesomely manipulating nuclear forces is then used in nuclear thermal reactors to produce power.

Nuclear proliferation!

Having a nuclear power plant does not mean you can make nuclear bombs. Nuclear bombs required U-235 enriched to a very high level. What exactly is enrichment? Natural uranium is less than a few percent U-235, the rest is U-238. The uranium comes as a solid, and is processed by making it dance with a bunch of flourine. UF _6 is produced, which is gasified uranium. The U-238 is slightly heavier than U-235, so it very very slowly settles to the "bottom" if you spin it very fast in centrifuges. Once you have enriched it to somewhere between 5 and 8%, U-235, it is good to go into a reactor and make energy. To make a bomb, you have to enrich it to around 90%. Enriching it further gets exponentionally more difficult. Getting from 50% to 70% is much more difficult than getting it from 10% to 50%. So making bombs is hard.

What about plutonium? Seems like any fool can make plutonium. And in fact, they can! All you have to do it get some U-235, wrap it in U-238, and you have make a breeder reactor in your back yard! This seriously happened. Someone made a breeder reactor in their garage at 17. And this wasn't one of those kids that comes from a brilliant family with a ton of money that goes to work in a world famous lab and 'discovers' a new technique under the watchful eye of one of the most brilliant researchers in the world. This was your every day kid who was just really interested in something.

Except that building a nuclear weapon from plutonium is even more difficult than from uranium. Cause when you make the plutonium, you always get a large amount of another plutonium isotope. The other isotope loves to go critical much earlier than Pu-239. Remember what happens to a potentially critical nuclear reaction when the fuel gets split up? No? Remember what happened to Chernobyl when a small gas explosion spread the core out everywhere? It completely shuts down the critical reaction. In other words, plutonium loves to accidentally blow up to early and just spread itself around without going critical. Not much of a weapon there. How do we have plutonium bombs then? Really smart people made special triggering mechanisms to make this happen. How do they do this? I dunno. If I did, I wouldn't be out in public writing a blog, I'd be doing super secret awesome research somewhere.

Turns out that only the US and a handful of other countries have figured this one out. So while any old fool can make a breeder reactor, the combined science of most nations is not good enough to figure out how to do it.

One last thing. If nuclear power is so difficult, how did so many countries get it? Well, US and Russia developed it. The US gave it to China at some point to balance some power issues with the Soviet Union. The US gave it to several other allies as well. The Soviet union gave it out some, too. China then distributed to crazies like North Korea years later, and Pakistan and India were given it through similar pathways. In other words, it is still pretty difficult to develop.

Hey, I just covered 4 whole things in one post, and managed to get more terrible jokes in. Awesome.

Aww darn, I forgot to include the small amount of original research I did on this topic. Next article

Thanks for reading


Nuclear Disasters

Nuclear meltdowns are scary things. Most people don't understand what a nuclear reaction is. They just know it is big. Three major meltdowns have occurred: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Most people know about the last two; Chernobyl was a true disaster, and Fukushima still is leaking radiation into the ocean. Fukushima in particular would have been easy to prevent at two stages: building a higher protective wall around the plant, and flooding the reactor early. Zero people died in Fukushima and Three Mile. Compare that to the disaster that is 11,000 premature deaths and 24,000 heart attacks per year caused in the US alone by burning coal. Moreover, modern nuclear power plants are designed to prevent these accidents from happening.

Three Mile Island

Three Mile Island occurred in 1979 in PA. A problem began, and human error allowed it to persist. A pressure release valve was stuck open. The valve allowed some irradiated coolant to escape. A poorly trained operator was not familiar with the interface and confused the warning for the loss of coolant (the human-computer interfaces were new and not well designed). When the reactor began to overheat, the control rods were fully inserted. Remnant decay heat persisted, but the chain reaction was halted. Unfortunately, the plant had its emergency cooling pumps shut down for maintenance. You would think that there would be a rule saying that if the emergency cooling pumps were shut down for maintenance, that the plant itself should shut down, right? Well, there was such a rule. It is one the the key rules that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission laid down. The plant was in violation of this key rule.

A series of events followed where the cladding of the nuclear fuel rods melted. Some radioactive gas was released into the environment. The average person living within a 10 mile radius was dosed with about 8 millirem (a measure of radioactivity). This is the equivalent to a single chest x-ray. The average person living in a high altitude city, like Denver, CO, gets 100 extra mrem a year just by being closer to the sun. The average US citizen gets 300mrem a year from the environment. A round-trip flight from New York to Europe will dose you with 3mrem. In other words, this was negligible. The consensus of epidemiological studies since shows no increase in cancer rates from this event.

One a 1-10 screw up scale, this was about a 6. The operators failed to recognize it as a loss-of-coolant event, and allowed the core to overheat. Not a single person died as a result. All the containment methods, which are 1970s technology and design, worked. The only loss was an economic one. To the tune of about $2 billion.


Location of the Chernobyl plant, and the spread of radiation contamination afterwards

Location of the Chernobyl plant, and the spread of radiation contamination afterwards

Chernobyl. April 26, 1986. A real, unshielded nuclear meltdown occurred. Chernobyl did not have the containment building that most other reactors had. In other words, outside of the reactor pressure vessel, there was nothing to contain leaks or explosions. 31 people died that night, and most serious epidemiological studies indicate the total death toll (counting increased incidences of cancer) has caused about 5000 premature deaths in Europe to date. Total increase in cancer by 2065 is estimated to be about 40,000 (not all of these lead to death). Let's be very clear on this. The worst nuclear disaster in history, which has proven to be avoidable just by building a concrete building around it, will have caused 40,000 cancer-related premature deaths in 80 years. This also happens to be the sum total of deaths caused by nuclear. If you look at actual deaths caused in the US alone by coal in the past 80 years, you are looking at numbers close to 1.6 million (about 20k deaths annually in the 70 years prior to strict limitations in 2004, 11k annually since then). This is a conservative estimate, not accounting for likely increase in death through the years when there were no emissions limitations. The number of heart attacks caused by coal emissions over this period is likely double this. Also compare those 40,000 increased cancer incidences to the literally hundreds of millions of unrelated cancer cases that will have occurred over that same 80 year period in Europe alone. 40,000 compared to 1,600,000, the latter produced in an era of much lower population, is pretty staggering. These numbers speak for themselves. Also compare this to the 17,000 deaths that have occurred from airplanes in the 13 years of 1999-2011.

Now that we know the death toll of Chernobyl, and we have a comparison of other deaths, let's talk about this catastrophic failure. It was a very complicated series of events, one that I could write several posts about. Instead, I will direct you to the Wikipedia article. The short version is that they were running some safety tests. They were instructed by Kiev to hold off their tests by 12 hours, making the test run during the overnight shift instead of the shift that was trained to run the test. At the end of the safety tests, they tried to insert the control rods back into the core. Because of several anomalies caused by having moved the test time, there was a minor explosion in the core as the rods were inserted. They were only 1/3 of the way in, and they broke off, preventing full insertion. Unlike modern control rods, these control rods were made of graphite. Graphite is a good moderator, but it also burns really well at high temperature. The lack of control rods allowed a small nuclear chain reaction to happen. This reaction was self-limiting; the energy from the reaction blew the fuel rods apart, making it so there was not enough uranium in one place to continue the reaction. The explosion, however, ripped through the pressure vessel and allowed atmosphere to come in. Air contains O2. Graphite is carbon. Carbon is what burns in coal to produce heat. The heat of the overheated reactor combined with the influx of oxygen was enough to make the graphite burn. This helped spread out the radioactive material. There was no giant concrete containment structure to contain it (remember how Three Mile island had a containment structure, and it worked? So did Fukushima.). The burning graphite spread radioactive material very far.

On a 1 to 10 scale of screw up, this was a 10. Bad idea to do safety tests.


The reactor that blew. https://share.sandia.gov/news/resources/news_releases/images/2012/Fukushima.jpg

Fukushima is still being studied. The latest reports indicate that people living within the immediate vicinity of the plant received 10mrem dosing. Again, this is the dosage a person gets every 10 days just for living on Earth. There have been no increases in cancer, nor is there expected to be any. There are some serious ecological impacts to be dealt with. There are some regions in the immediate vicinity of Fukushima that won't be able to produce agriculture for as much as 20 years. Other areas are uninhabitable for that amount of time. The region groundwater around Fukushima Daiichi is still contaminated and likely will be until a 100 foot deep wall of concrete and steel is built as a containment wall around it. It still leaks radiation into the ocean today. Nonetheless, no one has died from the incident. It could have easily been prevented in two circumstances. An event like this wouldn't even be possible in a modern nuclear power plant, as we will see.

Fukushima Daiichi's emergency backup generators kicked in after the 9.1 magnitude earthquake shut down the power grid. The ensuing tidal wave washed over the protective barrier of the power plant and inundated the generators. They shut down. The emergency backup batteries lasted 8 hours. Then cooling pumps stopped. This is known as a triple power failure. It is something that had been written about in the past for many plants, with measures taken against in. It was something written about with this particular plant, with no measures taken against it. TEPCO was warned by a governmental agency two years prior to this event that their sea walls were not tall enough.

Fukushima Location. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/radiation/images/JapanMap.png

What happened next is that the core melted down. They should have flooded the core with seawater and destroyed the reactor (seawater is pretty corrosive), but the plant operator thought they could contain the situation without destroying the reactor. They were wrong, and the consequences were a full nuclear meltdown. Heat and pressure built up and the explosion could not be easily contained. The surrounding area had to be evacuated. Even in all of this mess, no one was exposed to sufficient radiation to matter, and the situation is handled. It is an environmental disaster, yes. But let's compare this to coal fired power plants. Where do you think all that mercury in the fish over the entire planet comes from? Coal fired power plants.

More importantly, the new generation of power plants would prevent this type of event from happening. The emergency cooling water reservoir is contained above the core. In the event of power loss, the water can dump into the reactor using gravity. No Fukushima, no explosion and radiation.

This post is getting long, but before we go, let's visit one point we have touched on. Nuclear power has risks. Coal power has definite consequences. Far more people die from coal than from nuclear power. Grossly more. Nuclear is still scary to most people, and likely not to win the PR battle in the short run. And all these safety features make nuclear power pretty expensive. What are the other options? We haven't discussed hydro yet, nor wind and solar. For now, let's leave it between the big power plants. I personally believe that Fukushima was the last major learning point in nuclear power. Coal power is pretty gnarly, even at its best. Another solution is to use less energy. This is pretty tough one to make happen, and I don't see it happening any time soon. A post far in the future will grapple some of this.

That's all for now. Thanks for reading my longest article to date.

-Jason Munster

Nuclear Power Safety

Same nuclear power plant as in last post

Nuclear power plant safety has come on a long way. In the first two generations of plants, the engineers were constantly running around to keep the plant running safely. In the newer generation, the engineers main task is to prevent the power plant from shutting itself down. In other words, the plants are designed to shut themselves down safely if someone isn't there telling it not to every few minutes. Sorry, no pictures and no math this time!

Nuclear power plants have melted down. Chernobyl was a disaster. It didn't contain safety measures like a secondary containment vessel. Three mile island and Fukushima are metldowns that were contained. No one died in either three mile island or fukushima, and that no one suffered from radioactivity damage from either event. The protective measures worked. More on this later, though. This post is about these protective measures.

The first safety measure of a nuclear reactor is the control rods. In the prior post, I mentioned that a nuclear reaction occurs when a neutron is given off, which then hits another uranium molecule, causing it to split and give off more neutrons. Control rods moderate this chain reaction. If a neutron hits a control rod molecule instead of another U-235 molecule, that neutron will not participate in and prolong the chain reaction. The control rods can be moved in and out of the reactor. The further in they are, the more likely that they will interfere with the chain reaction. Dropping them in fully can shut down the chain reaction. Pulling them out fully lets the reaction occur rapidly. Control rods can be made of several different materials, each with different properties. This becomes important, because Chernobyl used a type that burned, and Fukushima used a type that makes hydrogen from water under high heat.

The next safety measure is the nuclear pressure vessel. These behemoths have nearly 7 inch thick steel walls. They contain the pressure of the heated water (or other heated material) in the core. In the event of a reactor meltdown, it can contain a low-level meltdown.

The next layer of safety is a giant concrete containment vessel. If the pressure vessel ruptures or melts (yes, a runaway nuclear reaction can melt through the containment vessel), the concrete will contain the blast. It also protects the power plant from outside threats, like small airplanes and jet fighters crashing into it.

A point to ponder: Protecting against a fully loaded passenger aircraft is not in the cards. That being said, most coal fired power plants have 30 day supplies of coal. Or, you know, 280,000 tons of coal. This would be easier for a large airplane to hit, being a giant pile as opposed to a small reactor. This coal is meant to be burnt in controlled conditions where it is entirely burnt all the bad stuff is scrubbed. Burning it outside would be an environmental disaster, and would surely cause more deaths than Fukushima and Three Mile Island (again, 0 for these two incidents). So yeah, a nuclear plant is a target, but so is a coal plant. I really hope writing about this doesn't get me added to some list somewhere.

Getting back on track, most nuclear power plants have an emergency cooling supply that can drown the reactor and cool the reaction. It renders the reactor inoperable, and the reactor will never produce power again, but it can prevent a meltdown. Older generations relied on a series of pumps to pump water in. In the event of total power failure, these won't work. Newer generations have changed this. There is a cistern of water, large enough to drown the entire reactor core, seated above the core. As long as there is electricity applied to the valve, it stays closed and the water stays where it is. In the event of a complete power failure, the valve no longer receives the signal to stay closed. It opens. The cistern of water drains into the reactor, melting it.

The next level of protection is in case of a full meltdown of the core, and a breach of the pressure vessel. Should this happen, there is a massive concrete slab that will catch the molten material and contain it. As in the case above, a massive quantity of water will drop on the material to help cool it. Some of the newest designs even have cooling pipes in the concrete that catches the molten core.

Finally, in the event of too much pressure building up in the concrete protective structure, all new nuclear power plants are required to have filtered vents to release pressure. In other words, if water starts boiling in the reactor and pressure becomes too high, the extra pressure will be released through a vent that will filter our all of the radioactive material.

Clearly all this is very expensive. In fact, the major cost of a nuclear power plant is building things that prevent any problems in the worst-case scenarios. And, as I mentioned before, they work pretty darn well in the case of epic fail meltdown.

So that's about it. The rest of the safety stuff is all related to non-proliferation to terrorist groups, and that is not science stuff, so I am going to ignore it for this post.

Thanks for reading!

-jason munster