back to article Thorium and inefficient solar power? That's good enough for me

So we're all back from our hols, noses down to the grindstone for the run into Crimble: time for some idle speculation on the future of our energy production systems. Or if we're to be purist about it, our energy production/transformation systems. We will, thankfully, leave entirely aside the complete dog's dinner that our …

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  1. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

    Slightly fruity comparison

    I have to point out that for your banana analogy to be correct, the entire world's banana consumption would need to take place in a half-acre block. Suddenly this doesn't sound so safe, and not least from a biohazard point of view. Plus the fruit flies would be unbelivable.

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: Slightly fruity comparison

      The obligatory XKCD reference:

      http://xkcd.com/radiation/

      1. Nigel 13

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        Thanks for the link. Very informative.

      2. Vociferous

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        For comparison, a round trip to Mars would expose an astronaut to about 660 mS, distributed over a year.

    2. toughluck
      Alien

      Re: Slightly fruity comparison

      Fruit flies? Of the radioactive mutant variety?

    3. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Re: Slightly fruity comparison

      If all that banana consumption took place in a half-acre block, radiation would be a minor problem compared to the bowel-gasses!

      1. Karl H

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        re "If all that banana consumption took place in a half-acre block, radiation would be a minor problem compared to the bowel-gasses!"

        sounds like an opportunity to capture biogas to me :-D

      2. Dick Pountain

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        Eeuw, a supercritical banana split

    4. xj25vm

      Re: Slightly fruity comparison

      That's the problem with b***cks statistics. You pick and choose random numbers as you please - and all of a sound make something look exactly the way you want it to. What the frigging hell does the entire planet eating bananas have to do with radiation from a damaged nuclear power plant? I'm sure that will warm up no end those Japanese people who live in the proximity of it and risk developing various forms of cancers down to their 10th generation. You and your family and loved ones, go and live close to a facility which is farting at the seams contaminated materials every other week - and than we'll see after a while how keen you are on academic-but-irrelevant numbers on a paper. Relevance - that's what is missing. Just jumbling up some numbers together to make up a blingy statistic is not enough - the bigger picture is what matters.

      1. cyborg

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        The point is Mr NIMBY is that radiation is a fact of life and we shouldn't base public policy on emotional scaremongering from a position of ignorance.

        That is the bigger picture that matters.

        1. Pete the not so great

          Re: Slightly fruity comparison

          Indeed, the universe is a radioactive place, where's the off switch?

          1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
            Coat

            Re: Slightly fruity comparison

            You drive down to Geneva then turn left at CERN. Take the lift downwards underneath the "Science and Technology Center" copper-colored ball. At level -1.666 there will be a big red button with gothic lettering spelling

            "DO NOT PUSH UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! MISUSE WILL BE PROSECUTED".

            Push it.

          2. lunatik96

            Re: Slightly fruity comparison

            at the restaurant at the edge of the universe. order menu item 42.

          3. Wzrd1

            Re: Slightly fruity comparison

            "Indeed, the universe is a radioactive place, where's the off switch?"

            Near the core of Sag A*. ;)

        2. xj25vm

          Re: Slightly fruity comparison

          Thanks for that enlightening fact. In case you missed it, my point is that spreading a known quantity of radiation uniformly over the entire planet is very, very different from concentrating it in a 100 miles radius. And that is what the fruity statistic is NOT emphasizing. I could say that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs emitted less harmful radiation than the total sum of radiation emitted by some minor and frequently recurring event spread over the entire Galaxy (and I could also use the time dimension to my advantage - and spread it over 100.000 years as well - just to make sure) - and all of a sudden make those two catastrophic events look harmless and pale in insignificance. But that's just manipulating statistics to one's own advantage. And by the way, I don't see how that type of contortion of numbers to fit one's mindset and agenda is more of a clear-headed scientific reasoning than the scaremongering of the "NIMBY's". Sorry pal - you just have a different axe to grind - but axe it is.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Slightly fruity comparison

            "spreading a known quantity of radiation uniformly over the entire planet is very, very different from concentrating it in a 100 miles radius. And that is what the fruity statistic is NOT emphasizing." (and the rest)

            Well said, saved me the trouble.

            Worstall doesn't generally give a monkeys or have a clue outside his specialist subject, that's clear from this article and his rantings elsewhere (there aren't many places that tolerate his output, such as this classic "it takes longer than one year to get planning permission" (in the context of routine UK housing, link deliberately omitted here)).

            In this latest rant here Worstall doesn't even seem to acknowledge the fundamental and largely unavoidable fact that whether a particular electricity generation installation makes money or not over its lifetime depends on the state of the market over its lifetime, which is currently kind of hard for "the markets" to predict (there is a price per kWh like you and I pay, but there are also other factors to consider).

            Illustrating similar effects in the gas market is Centrica's decision this week to abandon their partially completed plans for more gas storage in the UK (which already has among the lowest storage capacity around Europe, in terms of days gas usage).

            Some readers may be aware that recent years have seen a record number of "gas balancing alerts" in the UK where short term demand comes pretty close to exceeding short term supply. A day or two's worth of distributed hydrogen storage may make a small contribution towards avoiding that. Empasis on "may" and "small". You can't really run a successful economy for long on faith (aka "confidence"), whatever the likes of Worstall may think.

            The lack of understanding here from the commentards is sad but not hugely surprising, given the UK's (and presumably elsewhere) state of education in numeracy, logic, and even science, and the volume of media on the side of the nuclear lobbyists.

            A Retired Physicist, former MInstPhys, still MIET.

            1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
              Headmaster

              Re: Slightly fruity comparison

              So.... Mr "Retired Physicist" talking from on high to the rubes...

              It's all down to ignorance and nuclear lobbying? And a lack of logic?

              But on the other hand, relying on solar/nuclear is faith and the infrastructure is crutters anyways because of economic uncertainty over the price of electricity?

              "Member of Institution of Engineering and Technology"

              Yeah. I despair of my profession.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Slightly fruity comparison

                "Yeah. I despair of my profession."

                You and me both mate. Some of the dodgiest characters I know, making some of the dodgiest engineering decisions I've seen, are FIET.

                But how about addressing the message rather than the messenger? (The MinstPhys/MIET rubbish was just to pre-empt the usual "what does he know about it", apologies for the distraction).

                "It's all down to ignorance and nuclear lobbying? And a lack of logic?"

                Lots of comments here seem to be. Please don't encourage them.

              2. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Slightly fruity comparison

                Remember A C Clarke on elderly scientists, which is why I don't go around nowadays telling people what is and is not possible.

                I completely miss the point or relevance of Centrica not investing in gas storage. If we had a government, and not a collection of right wing special interest groups, they would be building our own gas storage facilities. But hey, my manor house has its own oil storage tank and a 50kW generator, you 99% will just have to burn the furniture (saith Cameron et al)

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  Re: Slightly fruity comparison

                  "If we had a government, and not a collection of right wing special interest groups, they would be building our own gas storage facilities"

                  Quite so. But as you rightly say, we don't have a government, and even before this lot, ever since privatisation we've left energy delivery (and policy too, largely) in the hands of "the markets". Hence this week's news, Centrica changing their mind and cancelling plans for much-needed additional gas storage. Clearer now?

                  tldr; Centrica holding us plebs to ransom till they get a more interesting (more profitable) deal on the project.

                  "my manor house has its own oil storage tank and a 50kW generator, you 99% will just have to burn the furniture (saith Cameron et al)"

                  Probably Cameron and most of the rest of our "representatives" in the Millionaires Cabinet (~30 in the cabinet, ~two dozen millionaires. It must be true, it was in the Daily Mail).

            2. Carl

              Re: Slightly fruity comparison

              Faith != Confidence

              If I drop a coin 1000 times I can be "confident" it will be heads 500 times. Ish.

              This is not the same as "Faith", which, when applied in some circumstances would appear to ask the coin to turn into a piece of cheese. Or a toaster. Some people (lets call them "The Cheesists") may have "faith" that that will one day happen. I do not. Rather I have "confidence" that the coin will continue to be a coin and that the only outcomes will be heads or tails.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Slightly fruity comparison

          "The point is Mr NIMBY is that radiation is a fact of life and we shouldn't base public policy on emotional scaremongering from a position of ignorance."

          And of course, big, big thanks to commenter "xj25vm" for providing the textbook example of that ignorance!

        4. Wzrd1

          Re: Slightly fruity comparison

          "The point is Mr NIMBY is that radiation is a fact of life and we shouldn't base public policy on emotional scaremongering from a position of ignorance.

          That is the bigger picture that matters."

          Fair enough. There's prime property vacant and available outside of Chernobyl.

          Since radiation is a fact of life and we shouldn't base public policy on emotional scaremongering from a position of ignorance, move right in!

          Radiation isn't a single thing. Different types cause different effects, depending on how one is exposed.

          Alpha particles aren't a big deal, you can hold a really hot alpha emitter in your hand without significant harm.

          Get it in your lungs or gut, you're SOL.

          Beta particles are a bit more problematic, we'll not even go into gamma emitters. Just rather bad news to hang out around in quantity.

          And therein lies the rub. Quantity. A banana or a granite countertop releases a miniscule quantity of radioactive isotopes or radiation.

          A damaged or destroyed nuclear reactor releases supertanker loads. Repeatedly.

          To date, we've had three reactors either melt down or blow up, then burn. Three mile island (now, two and a quarter mile island (local joke at the college near there), Chernobyl and Fukushima.

          Chernobyl holds the grand prize. Steam void production cut fission efficiency, so the rods were removed further in error. Power then spiked tremendously, so the rods were reinserted. Regrettably, there were graphite tips on the rods, which acted as a moderator causing a prompt critical reaction that explosively disassembled the reactor. The graphite core then caught fire and the superheated fuel rods melted fully down, with no containment, throwing all manner of extremely nasty radioisotopes into the surrounding environment.

          TMI was a debacle that is now taught in nuclear emergency management on what not to do in an emergency. Fortunately, with the significant melt, it finally was noticed and coolant was restored to the reactor and prevented a 100% meltdown. That is rather significant to me, as I'm about two hours by car from it and remember the emergency quite well from my teen years.

          Fukushima was a debacle caused by damage considered impossible creating the conditions necessary to cause the emergency. Had the generators survived and the service tunnels that carried electrical service about the complex not flooded, we'd not even know that Fukushima existed.

          Still, we do know now, it's still an awful mess.

          We do need a bit better planning, both on human factors, unusual environmental factors and byzantine errors being compensated in the design. That is quite good in the generation 3+ plants and generation 4 plants. It can only be better, based upon lessons learned, with thorium plants.

          I rather like thorium plants for a reason not mentioned in the article. They can "burn" the waste from our current nuclear power plants, the residue having a much, much, much shorter half-life, hence having to be safely stored for far less time than tens of thousands of years.

          And believe it or not, I'm pro-nuclear energy.

          So as long as we don't do another Windscale or US Army SL1.

          As for solar, there are experimental cells that are putting out energy with 40% efficiency. The cheap Chinese models get, at best, 10% efficiency, usually less for amorphous cells.

          Meanwhile, the author hitched his wagon to fuel cells over batteries, good idea, but ignored supercapacitors, which could be one component for an interim solution. The author also ignored catalyzed electrolysis, which increases the efficiency of electrolysis significantly.

          In short, there are many, many options from multiple disciplines. Put the lot of the boffins together, heaven knows what they'll come up with, but it'll most likely be cool.

          Expensive as hell, but cool and eventually, the price will come down.

          Just as the price of generators came down when they came into common usage. Just as television prices came down when they came into common usage.

          Just as VAT keeps going up when one least expects it. But the latter is merely a case of unintended results... ;)

      2. Spoonsinger
        Coat

        Re: Fruit flies like...

        a banana.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Fruit flies like...

          "a banana."

          Feed them only on bananas and they develop Type 2 Diabetes - much to the delight of those doing DNA research on the subject.

      3. LazyLazyman

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        xj25vm, the fact that you seem to think that radiation causes hereditary cancers makes me think you may well be the wrong person to be talking about statistics. And adding a "THINK OF THE CHILDREN" just makes it worse.

        Follow the link to XKCD and you will see how little radiation is involved. People living in Cornwall or Devon get more extra radiation over there lifetime.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Slightly fruity comparison

          "People living in Cornwall or Devon get more extra radiation over there lifetime."

          Your mistake is believing that all that matters is the quantity of radiation. It's not that simple. The effect of a radiation leak depends on exactly which isotopes are released in which chemical compounds into which part of the environment. You can't just say: it's so many becquerels/sieverts/roentgens/whatever, which isn't too much, therefore it can't be too dangerous. The famous example is radioactive iodine: even tiny amounts of radioactive iodine are dangerous if they get into the food of people who are short of iodine.

          1. itzman

            Re: Slightly fruity comparison

            you forgot to say that radioactive iodine is dangerous because it is intensely radioactive with a half ;life measured in days, therefore radiation levels are actually a very GOOD way to assess its danger.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Slightly fruity comparison

              No, radioactive iodine is dangerous in small amounts because it goes to your thyroid gland where you least want this radioactivity. You can eat a lot more solid plutonium in bequerel terms without ill effect, because it passes straight through you.

              1. MachDiamond Silver badge

                Re: Slightly fruity comparison

                "You can eat a lot more solid plutonium in bequerel terms without ill effect, because it passes straight through you."

                Actually, Pu is toxic. Never mind the radiation, the metal itself will do you in.

                Radioactive Iodine can be counteracted by non-radioactive Iodine in the form of tablets. The therapy needs to be started immediately to be most effective. The human body prefers the non-radioactive flavor and will displace the radioactive isotope. Chernobyl was a problem as it took a couple of days for the the local bosses to admit that the reactor blew up and people should be evacuated. The 15-30 that died as a result of RA I issues died from politics and a bad case of CYA by the local authorities.

            2. JLV Silver badge

              Re: Slightly fruity comparison

              Not to mention that, by definition, something that is emitting a lot because it has a short half-life, has... a short half-life.

              Though a lot of people who worry about nuclear power miss that bit, it hasn't escaped military thinking about area denial and/or alternatives to blowing stuff up - if it emits a lot, it decays quickly and will shortly only be dangerous to people remaining in the area for a long time.

              Having said, Fukushima has shown us that we need to be way more clever about deploying active-safety reactors near densely populated areas. I read somewhere that the main reason our nuke plants kinda look & feel the same is because they were scaled-up version of the ones first put into subs.

              It's high time more effort is put into designing and producing plants that CANNOT sustain a reaction when not receiving active power and control, rather than ones that tend to overheat. Not sure about selling the idea to Joe Public however, Fukushima was by most metrics a big fail, not least rendering uninhabitable a goodly stretch of coastline on one of the most densely populated countries around.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Slightly fruity comparison

                " Having said, Fukushima has shown us that we need to be way more clever about deploying active-safety reactors near densely populated areas. I read somewhere that the main reason our nuke plants kinda look & feel the same is because they were scaled-up version of the ones first put into subs."

                Ah, finally, a man hitting the point of the topic head-on.

                You are precisely correct, civilian nuclear plants ARE derived from U.S. nuclear submarine development. From that governmentally subsidized technological development the companies most involved with the military contracts - General Electric, Babcock and Wilcox, and Westinghouse - saw the possibility of creating a profitable civilian market for the systems. Voila, 'instant' civiian nuclear power plants and marketing campaigns (because, unless you are a complete fool, you *do* understand that the companies directly marketed their nuclear technology to BOTH the power companies and the communities they served in order to get the construction contracts, because they directly built what they sold).

                So the problem with civilian nuclear power is what our accidents with the technology has proven: it is not fault-tolerant. And this is the reality in a nutshell, what all the vehemently pro-nuclear commentors here never want to mention, the elephant in the room. The pro-nuclear commentors say they do not understand the anti-nuclear concerns, 'They are just ignorant of the truth!', is what is said.

                There's the truth. On the table, but many choose to ignore it anyway:

                Our current implementation of nuclear fission technology is FUNDAMENTALLY UNSAFE because it is NOT FAULT TOLERANT.

                The pro-nuclear side constantly talks about the safe reactor designs that will quell the discussions...but those are not the ones in current operation. The future may bring much safer reactor designs but we must deal with our hundreds of currently operational reactors, including their decommissioning procedures, for a long time to come.

                So we have a problem, a Catch-22: it is believed that we can construct safe nuclear reactors, if only we could make the nuclear reactors we have already constructed safe.

                So, therefore, the public is skeptical and the pro-nuclear lobby doesn't understand why, 'Trust us!', they say. But the public trusted the nuclear designers before and now realize they have a huge worldwide safely problem and, therefore , are not likely to give out that level of free trust again.

                Yet the pro-nuclear lobby just can't seem to understand that most basic of human premise, fear. In the case of the nuclear industry, a fear they caused on themselves: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice... "

                1. Vociferous

                  Re: Slightly fruity comparison

                  Fukushima was hit by not one but two of the worst natural disaster imaginable: a richter scale 9.1 earthquake and a 30 foot tsunami. The only way to top that would be to have either a volcano erupt under the powerplant, or a direct hit by a meteorite.

                  And the result is that not a single person died, and only a small area in the immediate vicinity of the power plant is heavily irradiated. That's pretty freaking impressive.

                  1. Anonymous Coward
                    Anonymous Coward

                    Re: Slightly fruity comparison

                    "not a single person died, and only a small area in the immediate vicinity of the power plant is heavily irradiated. That's pretty freaking impressive."

                    True in so far as it goes, and the massive wider impact of the tsunami must not be forgotten.

                    On the other hand, what kind of plan puts a nuclear plant in an earthquake zone and builds it with sea defences that have a predicted 50% chance of being overtopped during the operational lifetime of the station. And continues to operate it.

                    TEPCO were already in serious regulatory difficulty before the tsunami. At Fukushima they hadn't been doing the legally required scheduled maintenance (including the diesel standby generator maintenance). The generators were also sited at low level, where water could and did cause damage if the sea defences were overtopped.

                    When Fukushima's grid connection failed, as it could have done with or without a tsunami or an earthquake, and even before the water damage, the out-of-maintenance generators didn't start. If I remember rightly, the reactors were already shut down (but hot) at this point, so when the incoming grid power fails, the station's cooling, control and monitoring systems become reliant on generator power. But the unmaintained generator initially doesn't start, and is then wrecked by water predictably coming over the sea defences and getting at the generator.

                    Correction welcome.

                    It's really not that much to boast about in terms of a success story for the nuclear industry.

                    And that's without even starting to think of how they plan to dispose of the massive (and still increasing) quantities of contaminated water still being accumulated around the plant.

                    1. Robert Sneddon

                      Re: Slightly fruity comparison

                      The generators at Fukushima Daiichi did in fact start up OK after the earthquake knocked out the grid connections. The tsunami arrived about 30 minutes after the earthquake and the flooding knocked out the generators. The battery power reserves kept things running for a few hours after that until they were exhausted at which point the reactor cores started to overheat and the hydrogen explosions happened.

                      As for earthquakes, Japan IS an earthquake zone. Over 100,000 people died in the 1923 Kanto earthquake in Tokyo, over 5000 in the 90s in the one in Kobe. I've spent a couple of months total in Japan over the past few years and I've been through two noticeable earthquakes, not noticed a couple more very small ones and seen news reports of others elsewhere in the country on the TV. The earthquake in 2011 resulted in the big refinery at Chiba blowing up and spewing massive amounts of toxic smoke across large areas of eastern Tokyo but basically there are no safe places to build anything in Japan. And let's not forget taifu (typhoons) -- did you know the cause of the second-greatest loss of life in Japan in 2011 was a pair of typhoons that killed over 90 people? At the same time no-one was dying or even getting sick from radiation at and around Fukushima Daiichi.

                      As for the sea defences of the nuclear power stations it's worth noting that nearly every coastal city in Japan was unprepared for a tsunami of more than a couple of metres in size. That failure to anticipate a 15 metre tsunami resulted in 20,000 people dead and large areas of the country smashed. The sea defences at Fukushima Daiichi were actually of a much higher standard than the towns where people lived (and died), built to defend against a five-metre tsunami in an perceived excess of caution.

                2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

                  Re: Slightly fruity comparison

                  "You are precisely correct, civilian nuclear plants ARE derived from U.S. nuclear submarine development"

                  In a large, vague way yes.

                  On the other hand, Fukushima-style Boiling Water Reactors do NOT fint into submarines.

                  For that, you have Pressurized Water Reactors: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_PWR_reactors

                  > But the public trusted the nuclear designers before

                  When was that?

            3. Wzrd1

              Re: Slightly fruity comparison

              "you forgot to say that radioactive iodine is dangerous because it is intensely radioactive with a half ;life measured in days"

              As I recall, it's measured in weeks. As in one week and a day, or eight days. Other isotopes have around a two week half-life, some a 30ish year half-life, etc.

              But, the shorter the half-life, typically the hotter it is for a living organism in a bad way.

              Of course, there *is* a US politician who thinks that adding radioisotopes to the water supply would be a good thing. I'm just happy he's not from my state.

              http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/08/oregon-gop-art-robinson-nuclear-waste-airplanes

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Slightly fruity comparison

            The radiation in the South-West is from radon, which gets directly into the lungs (it's a gas). The means of getting the dosage is important as well as the half-life.

          3. Wzrd1

            Re: Slightly fruity comparison

            "The famous example is radioactive iodine: even tiny amounts of radioactive iodine are dangerous if they get into the food of people who are short of iodine."

            I think worse, such as Caesium-137. I'm rather attached to my soft tissues without that in them.

            Given a choice between significant amounts of Caesium-137 taken in with food or another source, I'd pick sitting on a pound of Cobalt-60.

            Less time and unpleasantness to wait for.

            Even better, regular, pre-nuclear testing background radiation would suit me just fine.

            Now, where did we park the TARDIS...?

        2. sam bo

          Re: Slightly fruity comparison

          "People living in Cornwall or Devon get more extra radiation over there lifetime."

          Hmmm... that explains a lot.

        3. Wzrd1

          Re: Slightly fruity comparison

          "Follow the link to XKCD and you will see how little radiation is involved. People living in Cornwall or Devon get more extra radiation over there lifetime."

          I live in SE Pennsylvania. My area actually has a lower level of background radiation than southwest through north of me 20 miles out.

          My bedrock is largely limestone, their bedrock is granite. Hence, my home has essentially zero radon, 20 miles all around in Pennsylvania, radon in basements is a big deal.

          Well, not the radon, but the radioactive lead that it decays do and falls as dust in the house.

          In those areas, not dispersing the gas from the basement can give a lung cancer rate equal to a two pack a day unfiltered cigarette smoker.

      4. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        > "the bigger picture is what matters"

        > concerns higher background radiation

        > tsunami-devastated region

        IMPLYING!

      5. Marshalltown

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        You obviously either didn't look at that chart link or you didn't understand. Two Fukushima workers experienced potentially hazardous dose according to the chart (http://xkcd.com/radiation/) and that chart actually takes a darker view of the situation than other sources do. None of the surrounding population was. If you have had one or more sunburns during your life, you are as threatened as they are respecting cancer incidence. As regards bananas instead of thinking about the "world" eating bananas, considered walking by that bright yellow pile in the produce section. A shipload of the fruit can set off radiation detectors.

        You can buy into the "be afraid" meme, but that won't protect you from radiation. You need to avoid bananas, long distance jet travel, ski vacations, brick, granite, medical scans, live at the lowest elevation above sea level you can, and absolutely avoid tans and sunburn. That of course leads to an entire raft of other health issues, since you need to be exposed to some ionizing radiation for your system to produce vitamin D. Happy paranoia.

    5. grelbr

      Re: Slightly fruity comparison

      Nope. The radiation is diluted by the entire Pacific Ocean, just to start. Bananas are mostly consumed on land, a smaller area than the Pacific Ocean.

      1. Tim Worstal

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        Not really: you piss out the K-40 over time so it does pretty much end up in the oceans.....

      2. Wzrd1

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        "Bananas are mostly consumed on land, a smaller area than the Pacific Ocean."

        What is really funny is, the radioactivity present in bananas comes from the bedrock. The fruit happens to concentrate it enough to be measured with an inexpensive geiger counter.

        Fun kitchen science. Alarm someone with the "radioactive banana", take a bite from it, while sitting the counter tube on a granite countertop...

        Then explain that detection isn't quantity or exposure.

      3. ;piousdo8ukwanjlkjfb

        Re: Slightly fruity comparison

        Hmmm .. wouldn't that depend on how thinly you smush the banana?

    6. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Slightly fruity comparison

      "...the radioactive release from Fukushima is, per hour, half that from the hourly consumption of bananas around the world. ..."

      I take issue with the wording of the banana-half of this comparison. Properly parsed, it implies a 'release' of radioactivity from the 'consumption' of bananas.

  2. Werner McGoole
    Headmaster

    I think you'll find...

    That "dog's bollocks" means that something is very good. The term is rarely used when referring to government.

    Probably you meant "pig's ear".

    1. frank ly Silver badge

      Re: I think you'll find...

      So called because dogs keep licking them, so they must be good.

      Also, I think he might have meant 'dog's breakfast', i.e a mess.

      1. Ted Treen
        Big Brother

        Re: I think you'll find...

        "...In plain English that means it loses us money..."

        That could also be a description of this government - or indeed ANY government. I've come to the conclusion they're a luxury(?) we can ill afford.

        1. Frankee Llonnygog

          or indeed ANY government

          "I've come to the conclusion they're a luxury(?) we can ill afford"

          I think I know the answer to this one - small government, right to bear arms, well organised militia?

          Is it Somalia?

          1. John Sanders

            Re: or indeed ANY government

            Obviously not Somalia, but an ever expanding government certainly not

        2. Uffish

          Re: ANY government

          Churchill came out with a neat remark about democracy. It seems appropriate here.

      2. Professor Clifton Shallot

        Re: I think you'll find...

        "Also, I think he might have meant 'dog's breakfast'"

        Or indeed a "dog's dinner".

        I don't know if dog's lunches are really so much neater but they do seem to have escaped all this.

        1. Joefish

          Re: dog's lunches...

          Only extraordinarily self-absorbed people think dogs need three meals a day.

          But at least we've been spared the ludicrous 'Meccano Box Deluxe' bolloxplanation of the phrase.

          (And since it's a Friday, anyone reading this far should also look up Star Wars droid BLX-5 if they haven't already...)

      3. Marcelo Rodrigues

        Re: I think you'll find...

        "So called because dogs keep licking them, so they must be good."

        Upvoted just for the explanation. I have always wondered why the "dog' s bollocks" would be a good thing... :D

    2. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: I think you'll find...

      Yes, Tim meant breakfast. It's been fixed. Please don't forget to email corrections@theregister if you spot something like this or we may not see it.

      C.

  3. Jon Green

    Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

    In rather a surprise move, Lockheed Skunk Works has announced a demonstrable 100MW fusion plant (the article mistakenly writes "mW") , shipping container-sized, in four years' time, with commercial production within another four years. That means they've already solved the big problems, and they're going after the final tweaks. Now, we all remember Fleischmann and Pons, and all that, but this is genuinely promising: you don't get to make an announcement like that without Board buy-in.

    If - and I emphasise "if" - they have pulled it off, this changes everything. The amount of radioactive waste generation will be orders of magnitude less than fission, it uses comparatively cheaply-obtained hydrogen isotopes, and it's fail-safe.

    1. John Savard Silver badge

      Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

      Deuterium can be extracted from water.

      Tritium has to be manufactured in fission reactors by exposing deuterium to neutrons.

      1. NXM

        Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

        I think that's lithium which forms tritium when exposed to neutrons at the right energy. The lithium is placed on the reactor wall, and when its exposed to neutrons from the reactor fusion process, it splits to form tritium. The tritium is then fused in the reactor as its process continues. You can't find tritium in nature, because it has a short half-life.

        I know this only because I went to an IET lecture on fusion reactors the other day. Apart from energy, the only significant waste product from the process is helium, handy for balloons and making your voice go all weird.

        1. cyborg

          Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

          "Apart from energy, the only significant waste product from the process is helium, handy for balloons and making your voice go all weird."

          Or more usefully for MRI scanners.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

          "Apart from energy, the only significant waste product from the process is helium, handy for balloons and making your voice go all weird."

          Apparently there is a danger of helium demand outstripping supply. One of the reasons that might hold back any future commercial uses of airships.

        3. DonaldFoss

          Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

          Helium is also massively useful for medical devices, which are mostly useful themselves.

          1. Spotthelemon

            Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

            Not only that but there's a serious shortage of helium, the main source is as a by product of (some) natural gas, we don't produce enough as it is & as natural gas runs out the problem will get much worse so anything that produces helium is of interest

        4. mark jacobs
          Happy

          Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

          The thing is, could you use someone like Homer Simpson to monitor it safely?

          1. lunatik96

            Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

            DOH! Hold my beer

        5. keith_w

          Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

          NIST says its half-life is 12.32 years. I think it's rare because it's created by interactions with cosmic rays.

      2. Nigel 11

        Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

        Tritium will be manufactured in fusion reactors by exposing Lithum to neutrons, if we ever get to the stage of having just one working fusion reactor. In other words, fusion reactors are Tritium breeder reactors if you want them to be (and it's also hard to think of any better way of dealing with the thermal flux and the fast neutrons).

      3. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

        "Tritium has to be manufactured in fission reactors by exposing deuterium to neutrons."

        Actually, another way to get tritium is to bombard lithium-6 with neutrons. You usually end up breaking it into tritium and stable helium-4, plus a decent amount of energy to boot. That's why many countries are keeping tabs on lithium supplies.

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

      We ARE talking about the same firm that took the challenge of reducing radar cross-section and producing the F-117 (which overachieved the goal by an order of magnitude), so they DO have a history of being able to crank out surprisingly effective tech, but we've been trying to crack the fusion problem for the past few decades, so as the saying goes, "I'll believe it when I see it."

    3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

      > Fusion by 2017

      I don't believe any of that.

      1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

        "> Fusion by 2017

        I don't believe any of that."

        Well, the LockMart guy seems to be saying that they can build a prototype plant within 10 years, not quite by 2017. Still difficult to believe!

      2. Skizz

        Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

        I do.

        I don't think a company like L-M would say something like that without a degree of confidence. They've obviously been working on this problem and have come up with a different approach (unsurprising, given the type of facility it is).

        The problem with ITER is that it's government funded and governments do so hate to try something new when they've invested so much time and money into something already. It's not surprising that in the twenty or so years ITER's been in development, a more agile, private company has come up with a better way. I'll wager that even if this mini-fusion system comes to fruition, the ITER will still get built.

        Time to invest in L-M shares?

        1. Jaybus

          Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

          L-M would let this out of the Skunk Works because, when it comes to it, they are a commercial company looking for ways to make profit. Much of their secretive work is military equipment, and although potentially lucrative, the military stuff has an extremely limited customer base. The truck-size fusion reactor has an enormous customer base and no military-specific use, meaning that their usual customers would not be all that interested. Thus the public statement.

          ITER, and also the NIF project, share the government funded issue. But their biggest shortcoming is that even if they work, they are huge infrastructure builds. As I see it, even if all three work well, L-M's device is the winner due to the ability to make it on an assembly line because of its small size. Kudos to L-M. Even if this one doesn't work, it shows that they are on the right track.

    4. HMB

      Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

      I'd be delighted to see Lockheed Martin succeed at this, of course, but it does sound a little too good to be true.

      Time to test the new waterproofing feature of iOS 7 I think. :)

    5. Mage Silver badge

      Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

      "mistakenly writes mW "

      Well a miniaturised 100mW to several watts would be interesting for portable gadgets. No charging or batteries.

      1. Jon Green
        Facepalm

        Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

        I could probably generate 100mW with a few lemons and a handful of zinc and copper nails! Don't think that'd need a shipping container, though!

    6. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge

      Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

      The interesting thing about the link...

      1) The generators would be the size of a trailer truck's trailer.

      2) The by product is helium.

      This has a couple of interesting implications...

      We could see more blimps until we generate too much helium instead of CO2 emissions.

      (Venting gas because its cheaper than trying to capture it.)

      But more interesting is the potential applications.

      1) No more 'nuclear navy'. You could use one to power a ship which would be cheaper than diesel.

      2) You could use it to power rail transportation. No more diesel engines. Just put this on a rail car behind the locomotive, or in place of the diesel/electric generators.

      3) Shipping costs would drop

      4) Urban transportation... Mag Lev is now feasible.

      Sure I could make hospitals and high rises more self sufficient but smaller plants would make things like self sufficient and self healing grids for major metropolitian areas a reality.

    7. cookieMonster
      Boffin

      Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

      This youtube video from Google talks covers this nicely..

      Should Google Go Nuclear? Clean, cheap, nuclear power (no, really)

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rk6z1vP4Eo8

    8. lunatik96

      Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

      What is the H2 consumption rate?

      I wonder how you prevent the core from turning into nickel and iron and the resulting supernova?

      jk

    9. Charles Manning

      Read behind the press release

      Don't just read the overview written by someone who doesn't understand milliwatts form megawatts. To get anywhere near reality, you need to dig deeper.

      I am highly sceptical of outlandish predictions made by tech companies. They have a history of over promising and under delivering:

      * Fission nuke power: It was going to be "too cheap to meter", but ended up being 5x the cost of coal.

      * Super conductors: Absolutely no impact, except from a few very niche applications.

      * Flying cars...

      * Robots...

      Until proven with a significant demonstration, including all lifetime costs, all hyped promises should be treated with a healthy dose of meh.

      1. Robert Sneddon

        Re: Read behind the press release

        The "too cheap to meter" reference was made about proposed fusion power, not fission. It was a publicity guy who said it, not an engineer or anyone who knew what they were talking about. The falsehood is too good not repeat though even though it never applied to fission.

        Nuclear electricity costs about the same as coal-generated electricity. The cost of nuclear fuel is trivial, it's paying off the loans to build a reactor in the first place that brings nuclear electricity pricing up to the same level as coal generated power where digging up and moving millions of tonnes of coal each year makes up most of the final bill. Dumping the coal waste into the atmosphere is free.

        Superconductors are essential in some niche applications, without them devices like NMR scanners and the like wouldn't work. We could make do with X-rays, I suppose but the fine detail and resolution NMR can produce would be lost meaning surgery would return to being a fishing expedition again. Niche but a very useful niche. There are other tasks for which superconductors are essential (Josephson junction sensors etc.) and some engineering depends on them for good performance and energy efficiency, linear motors and maglev systems like the Shanghai airport link and the proposed Japanese high-speed maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya for example.

        1. Jaybus

          Re: Read behind the press release

          Not to mention that millions of robots are currently working 24-7 making the things we use every day.

        2. Don Jefe

          Re: Read behind the press release

          The LM SkunkWorks person is a publicity guy too.

    10. Martin Budden
      Go

      Re: Commercial fusion may not be as far away as you think

      Very similar to Lockheed's idea is Focus Fusion, which uses an electrical current to create a dense plasma focus which is gives the right conditions for aneutronic fusion of hydrogen & boron (pB11). The output is positively-charged helium ions and electrons, and energy of course. No neutrons emitted means no radiation! Fusion has already been achieved using this technique, and work is underway to scale it up to get net-gain of energy (more electricity out than was used to create the dense plasma focus. The whole setup fits in a normal sized room, so yes it could probably be commercialised into a shipping container.

  4. James 51 Silver badge

    So, just like computers, there's never a good time to buy solar panels?

    Sounds like it would be a good way for apartment blocks to create and store energy. Enough surface area to put the panels on and a big enough build to put the necessary equipment underground and you're spreading the cost over lots of apartments.

    Come to think of it, you might see more of this kind of thing on military bases first. Less need for fuel for generators and there’s bound to be other benefits too.

    1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

      Sounds like it would be a good way for apartment blocks to create and store energy

      Well apartment blocks are generally multi-storey, so there's an easier way of storing energy: have a big fuck-off weight that gets raised over the day when there's a glut of energy and then lowered at night with some sort of energy-recovery system in train. Kind of like clockwork for the <checks watch> 21st century.

      1. Robert Sneddon

        Big fuck-off weight... let's say ten tonnes, the sort of weight a beefy and expensive crane can handle so you'll be spending a few thousand quid at least to build it plus its cabling, support structure, generator/motor system, safety gear etc. into the block of flats. Raise it 10 metres, that's about the height of a three story block of flats. Potential energy is m x g x h where g is gravitational acceleration, about 10 m/s/s so that ten tonne block raised ten metres will hold a total of 1 megajoule! Wow! All that energy! That's a kilowatt over... a thousand seconds... ummm... 20 minutes... is that all?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Compressed air?

          You'd be much better off using the excess energy produced during the day to run a compressor, and then during the night slowly allowing the compressed air to escape, running a turbine to generate power. Compressing air also produces heat, so it could probably heat-exchange into the blocks central heating system. Not so sure the opposite effect, being able to provide air conditioning during the night, would be as useful. And of course, it adds the disadvantage that the apartment block would basically contain a primed bomb waiting for the pressure vessel to fail. But still, a lot more energy density that a huge hanging weight.

          1. lunatik96

            Re: Compressed air?

            I think UPS uses a variation on this theme in their new efficient hybrid delivery vehicles, but with hydraulics.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Energy efficiency is not just about technology

              "I think UPS uses a variation on this theme in their new efficient hybrid delivery vehicles, but with hydraulics."

              Might be true, almost certainly irrelevant.

              If you wanted to improve the energy efficiency of parcel (and.or postal) delivery services in a given region, one approach might be to have a smaller number of delivery companies whose vans are each more fully loaded and whose "local" distribution centres aren't all dozens of km away from the delivery point.

              I wonder if anyone's tried that.

              Maybe it could be called Consignia.

              Or would we prefer a world of Yodel-alikes? Because it looks like that's where we're headed in the UK, courtesy of the likes of Amazon and eBuyer, who don't offer their customer any real choice of *named* delivery service, even though they offer several price categories.

        2. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

          That's a kilowatt over... a thousand seconds... ummm... 20 minutes... is that all?

          Damn it! There's another of my dreams cruelly dashed :(

    2. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge

      @ James...

      You need to calculate the value of the lost opportunity by waiting and then you'll see why you should by the computer now, rather than wait. Upgrading could be a different matter.

      To your point about solar...

      You have to consider the cost of the panel, the cost of installation, and then the cost or potential of upgrading after the initial install.

      Solar in an urban environment would be a way to reduce your energy footprint, however there are other considerations...

      Like the fact that you've lost your ability to have a green roof. That is to say that you couldn't create a green environment to capture and use the rain water to reduce the gray water run off which ends up going in to the sewer system.

      And if you wanted to capture that and use it for gray water in the toilets... Good luck the cost of the retrofit would kill you. (New construction would be different.)

      What I would envision is a combination of solar and nuclear.

      As the author points out... thorium could work, however it would be less efficient and potentially hazardous in terms of a natural disaster.

      Note that while the author points to Japan... keep in mind that the plant was built in a quake zone and wasn't very well thought out. Not to mention that it was a first generation designed plant. Safer and alternative designs do exist as well as better plans for structural engineering.

      While plutonium plants would be the most efficient, they would also be the most dangerous in terms of potential terrorist attack sites. You can't just declare it a superfund site and spend millions to clean it up.

      If Fusion does work... that would be cool. Especially if you're Tesla.

      (Think of a mini fusion reactor ever so often as a super charging station which could also feed back in to the grid and supply surplus energy. Then you just need to drive a heavy water truck up to top off its fuel supply.

      (Depending on the efficiency, this could be the size of a small passenger van. )

      1. DougS Silver badge

        @Ian

        Why would solar stop you from capturing water? Water runs off the panels to your gutter, same as before.

        You can't have a 'green roof', but an extra 100m^2 of plant life on a planet that is teeming with it is really not that important in the grand scheme of things compared to being able to reduce fossil fuel usage.

      2. Martin Budden
        FAIL

        Re: @ James...

        Like the fact that you've lost your ability to have a green roof. That is to say that you couldn't create a green environment to capture and use the rain water to reduce the gray water run off which ends up going in to the sewer system.

        What makes you think we can't collect the rainwater running off solar panels? I'm quite sure a simple gutter would do the trick, just like it does for any other flat surface e.g. a roof.

      3. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: @ James...

        Like the fact that you've lost your ability to have a green roof. That is to say that you couldn't create a green environment to capture and use the rain water to reduce the gray water run off which ends up going in to the sewer system.

        Nonsense.

        First: the rain that would fall on your roof, still falls on your panels (they don't magically stop precipitation), runs off them, onto the roof proper and into the rain gutter, from which it can be collected.

        Second: if you have a flat or lightly sloped roof, it's still advantageous to put whatever it is you'd put on it underneath the panels. The roof stays cooler, increasing the panels' efficiency.

    3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      James 51,

      Solar is a pretty poor idea for single dwellings. The use time and generation time mostly don't match up, and the infrastructure costs are high. Retrofitting is even worse. But blocks of flats or commercial buildings are great. Mixed-use buildings are even better, as you've got a good expectation of someone wanting power at any time.

      Sadly the trend in the UK seems to be about providing the minimum central services possible. Even where it's cheaper, most clients I talk to don't even want communal water services in any block where it's feasible to give each flat their own water main, even if this means having several smaller pumps on the ground floor to feed flats higher up. That way they don't have to work out all the billing, or have the hassle of having maintenance - and they get to pay me several times as much money as doing it the more efficient way.

      What could be done now, in any decently sized building at construction time, for very little money is amazing.

      1. You've got to have piles (stop that laughing at the back!), otherwise your tall building falls over. Stick a couple of pipes on each, as you drive it in, and you've got a free ground-source heat pump infrastructure. It costs almost nothing extra, a couple of the pipes will fail in the driving process, so you just pressure-test, then don't connect those ones to the manifold. Heat pumps are very efficient, reliable and cheap.

      2. Solar. If you're building at the same time as the roof the panels cost comparatively little. I don't know what the state of combined PV and hot water are, but that's surely the way of the future. With solar hot water, and decent sized, well-insulated hot water storage vessels - you're set up for a lovely district hot water scheme. So no nasty boilers for each flat, saves money, maintenance and gas or leccy - and even better if all flats have underfloor heating. Then the 40° C water you can pretty much guarantee from solar is all you need for heating. Then it's heat pumps, excess heat from solar you'll get whenever the sun shines, and a nice single set of efficient backup gas boilers for the hot water you need at 70°C.

      3. Rain-water harvesting is marginally useful. Grey water isn't worth it in my opinion. The filters cost a fortune, you need 2 sets of pumps to make it work, so you use lots of energy. And the large tanks take up loads of space. The filters are complex and expensive, and need about 20% of the reclaimed water to backflush them. But take the water out of your gutters, stick it through a relatively course filter to get out the leaves and dead birds, and you've got something to water the garden or wash down the bins and paths. If you want to flush your toilets then you need slightly better filters and UV sterilisation, but it's still pretty good. However the relative lack of water against the demand makes this better suited to places with high irrigation needs, or large roof areas. The cost of an entirely separate set of pipes, makes it expensive for toilets. Toilet flushing also tends to aerosolise water, which makes me queasy in terms of legionnella.

      3. Solar leccy is the area I know least about. But as I understand it the grid isn't designed to take exports of power at the local level - so you may be better off using your own. In a block that's tall, and has solar in the day, but leccy demand at night, there are 2 very simple methods of storing your energy. You're already pumping loads of water up the building, so why not just have a bigger tank at the top, and use solar to power those pumps - rather than bothering with weights. Although it only takes something like a 10kW motor to bung 1,000 litres of water 50m upwards in an hour. The other possibility is heat. Leccy is less efficient than gas, but insulation on hot water vessels is very good nowadays. So you heat your water by solar-leccy in the day, and use that at night and the next morning. However that conflicts with using the more sensible heat pumps and solar-thermal, though solar-electric is a very good fit with air-conditioning.

      Although it would be rather more fun, Thurnderbirds style, to have nuclear powered trains, aeroplanes and buildings. There's also some nice developments on photo-voltaic glass cladding for buildings. And of course there's still loads of efficiencies to be gained from having proper controls on the systems we already have. Far too many large buildings are way too hot, or too cold (when the air-con comes on). I still remember the physical shock from walking into a shopping centre in Dubai. That drop from 40°C and high humidity to 18°C and dryness was like walking into ice. You have to carry a coat in Dubai, for when you go inside... And when you leave again, it's like walking into a baking hot, but wet, brick wall.

  5. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    The problem isn't that the sun doesn't shine

    It's that it doesn't shine where I am when I need the power.

    My observation is obviously from the point of view of a domestic consumer, and not the commercial user, but there's an awful lot of hot dry sunshiny desert hanging around the equatorial regions. We already have national grids and international power distribution systems - surely it is not beyond the wit of man to build efficient solar systems at the places where the sun shines and ship it to cold dark Blighty?

    Local storage systems might be an efficient way of doing things - as long as we're not restricting it to hydraulic storage - but the main need is simply to use some of that sunshine falling on us... it has the simple advantage that irrespective of the efficiency of the solar cell it doesn't dump generation heat into the environment.

    Google tells me the sun throws 3.8YJ/year at us (3.8e24J), while we generated energy in 2008 at 1.2e21J/y... there's a lot to be had if we can take it.

    1. Yet Another Commentard

      Re: The problem isn't that the sun doesn't shine

      Now think about the transmission losses running a cable from (say) Qtar to Edinburgh. And the potential for metal theft!

      IIRC the sun is too intense for photovoltaic anyway, we'd have to use it to boil water like that place in Spain with all its mirrors.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: The problem isn't that the sun doesn't shine

        Hence my 'if' in the final paragraph. I deal with milliwatts, and the boss gets upset if I use too many of them, not gigawatts!

        1. Evan Essence

          Re: The problem isn't that the sun doesn't shine

          The DESERTEC Foundation has been thinking about and developing these ideas since 2009. Generate electricity where the sun does shine, and transport it to places like northern Europe using High Voltage DC.

          http://www.desertec.org/concept/technologies/

          1. itzman
            Mushroom

            Re: The problem isn't that the sun doesn't shine

            Of course we have heard of desertec. analysed desertec and decided that frankly its a hare brained scheme.

            I see we finally have our 2GW short haul link to France working after being down yet AGAIN. and the one to Northern Ireland has been out for several weeks.

            Now imagine one running through prime Islamic terrorist territory, do you really think it would last a day beyond the opening ceremony?

            And it still gets dark at night in the sahara..

            No, the only quarter baked, let alone half baked idea is something like local storage. So you can run your I-pods and central heating in the winter off all that hydrogen you made in the summer. So lets see that will be about 5 x 24 x 90 kilowatt hours of hydrogen needed for the wintah. Roughly 11Gwh or about 9 tonnes of TNT equivalent.

            I think I'd rather have nuclear actually, if its all the same to you. Uranium is a lot harder to make go bang than nine tonnes of TNT equivalent stored as hydrogen.

            In my shed.

            And that assumes 100% conversion efficiency. In reality I'd need fuel equivalent to 20 tonnes of TNT.

            All this enthusiasm for solar that is currently fashionable simply fails to analyse the storage requirements. Storage is big, storage is expensive, storage is inefficient and storage is bloody dangerous.

            We have in the end far more chance of developing medium cost safe reliable low footprint storage for nuclear waste, than for terawatt hours of electricity.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: The problem isn't that the sun doesn't shine

              "I see we finally have our 2GW short haul link to France working after being down yet AGAIN."

              Source? Gridco's balancing reports are the data source for http://gridwatch.templar.co.uk and I don't see any notable downtime on the french link in the last year.

              Also, advances in semiconductor engineering don't just affect the world of microchips. There have also been advances in high power semiconductors which mean that the DC->DC converters needed for an HVDC interconnect should now be significantly cheaper, more efficient, and more reliable than they have historically been.

              "running through prime Islamic terrorist territory, do you really think it would last a day beyond the opening ceremony?"

              If you read the Desertec stuff you will see that the general idea is that you give the locals a financial incentive to make the project continue to succeed. Contrast this with the traditional US approach ("desert storm" etc) where military might doesn't always have quite the desired effect much beyond the opening ceremonies.

              "Storage is big, storage is expensive, storage is inefficient and storage is bloody dangerous."

              Big relative to what?

              Expensive relative to what? If the energy input is free (surplus electricity from any source, currently the UK has times when generators are paid to stay offline because supply exceeds demand?), all that matters is the cost of money to build the storage. Which also addresses the efficiency non-issue.

              Dangerous relative to what?

              Mackay suggests a few GW of one-day storage in the UK for peak lopping using inverters (tried and tested in solar PV) powered by electric vehicle batteries (also tried and tested) at or near the point of consumption. Technically not a problem. No new technology. Definitely no more dangerous than stuff we already know about. Market economics don't work though, which makes it tricky.

              These same market forces are also in the way of a GW-scale interconnect between UK and Norway. Norway has plenty of capacity for medium term pumped storage of electricity. But it's not needed today, there's no money in it today, it's needed tomorrow (or maybe even five years from now). But markets don't do "tomorrow".

      2. Mage Silver badge

        Re: The problem isn't that the sun doesn't shine

        Use desert solar power to both electrolyse and distil water at the nearest coast. Use waste carbon to synthesize hydrocarbon with hydrogen.

        Ship the LPG to Edinburgh. The released CO2 won't really matter as you used CO2 or other carbon sources that would have gone to atmosphere to make the LPG.

        Hydrogen can't be economically shipped except in Blimp envelopes.

      3. Peter Van Gils

        Re: The problem isn't that the sun doesn't shine

        Ever heard of Desertec? They are trying to accomplish exactly that.

        http://www.desertec.org/

  6. hammarbtyp Silver badge

    some good points...

    Some interesting points. I would disagree about wind however. There are some gains still to be made especially at the generation point with permanent magnet generators or even super-conducting magnets.

    I do agree agree about the off shore wind-farm point. The NIMBY's who want to put them there are not the ones who will have to maintain them in even a moderate North Sea state.

    Of course fusion was supposed to be our great savior, but that doesn't seem much closer and like Thorium reactors will most likely suffer from the general populaces ignorance that all nuclear is the same.

    Maybe the big change is not so much in generation but in the grid itself. For example a lot of the inefficiencies is in the conversion and transport of AC power. Producing and transporting the power in DC would heavily reduce transmission losses.

    The other point is that the grid was designed with a few central generation nodes that send the power out to multiple consumers. What we need today is a more flexible grid that can take power from multiple small generators as well as the large load generators. This would make solar more practical too, but you wonder whether the big energy companies would be interested in reducing their monopoly like that.

    1. Wilco 1

      Re: some good points...

      While off shore windfarms are certainly more expensive, they also produce far more electricity than an equivalent on-shore windfarm (40% capacity factor for London Array and Greater Gabbard, the 2 largest off-shore windfarms in the world - on-shore wind farms like Whitelee are about 25%). You avoid the NIMBY argument, loss of land and produce more power, so I would say it is more than worth it. And with several large off-shore windfarms running for over a decade, the idea that they rust away in a few years seems crazy - ships last many decades as well after all. Also there are still major improvements being made to reduce costs further and improve efficiency.

      Improving the grid is certainly a good plan. DC would be great even in homes, most electric appliances use 12V DC internally, so all the conversion steps (with 60-70% efficiency transformers) are just crazy. All mains LED lights for example have a built-in transformer. Adding a single 90+% efficient 12V or 24V transformer in all homes would avoid a lot of wasted energy.

      As for Thorium and fusion, those will be interesting in the future - there is still a lot of research needed before they become practical reality. Ignoring the whole nuclear=dangerous debate, today modern nuclear has a hard time competing with renewables (check out Hinkley C cost per MWh).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: some good points...

        "ships last many decades as well after all"

        Not without extensive yearly maintenance they don't

      2. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

        Re: some good points...

        But you are forgetting one important point

        That is the equation Watts = Volts * Amps

        So you want to supply my uber PC with 1Kw of power and use a 12/24v DC supply, then the power cable is going to have to be able to take a lot of amps, which , due to the cable's resistance, will make the power lead very hot... unless it has a suitably large cross sectional area

        Which all boils down to a big chunky cable that can only be bent in a fly press.....

        And the cost of the cable power lead in metal will be huge

        And you dont even want to know about running an electric cooker on 12/24v DC........

      3. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: some good points...

        "DC would be great even in homes"

        No, it wouldn't.

        Why? Safety. Amongst other things one of the great advantages of AC is that any arc generated is extinguished every 20mS. DC allows self-sustaining arcs.

        A long time ago I read a story about the old 300VDC distribution system in Sydney and one of the recollections published was of a light bulb burning out.

        "The arc which formed as the filiament parted burned its way up the support wires in the bulb, through the base, bulbholder and was most of the way up the power lead to the ceiling rose before someone managed to hit the off switch"

        Arc suppression is also the reason why a switch rated at 10A AC has to be derated to 3A for DC operation.

        HV DC distribution in homes would result in more fires and fatal electrocutions (Muscles hit with DC never relax, AC is more like a series of hammer blows).

        HTDC is great for distribution and now we have the technology for stepping voltages efficiently and without requiring several acres of space there are good arguments for using it right down to 11kv level, but DC in the home/premises requires a complete overhaul of local distribution, house wiring and appliances safety margins.

        1. Wilco 1

          Re: some good points...

          Sure, DC distribution in homes would require a major overhaul. It wouldn't replace 240V AC for high power appliances of course, however there is no reason why any appliance below 100W couldn't use 12V or 24V by default. You can take inbetween steps, for example replace the dozens of inefficient DC chargers and transformers that a typical home has with larger, more efficient ones that can safely supply multiple appliances with a standard voltage. That sort of thing would be useful just to reduce the amount of cable clutter from all the different incompatible chargers.

      4. John Gamble
        Boffin

        Re: some good points...

        As for Thorium and fusion, those will be interesting in the future ...

        Fusion, yeah well, I'm still hoping to see it within my lifetime. Thorium though is for all practical puroses here: CANDU reactors would have no trouble making use of it (the adjustments that I can see being necessary have to do with the level of heat capture, there may be others).

      5. Jaybus

        Re: some good points...

        I thought the DC vs. AC argument between Edison and Tesla was settled some 100 years ago.

    2. TheOtherHobbes

      Re: some good points...

      >There are some gains still to be made especially at the generation point with permanent magnet generators or even super-conducting magnets.

      Far from being a sunset technology, wind is just getting started - for all the reasons you mentioned, and some others, including innovations in blade dynamics, control systems, and smart grid distribution.

      Intermittency is an issue for a single unit. It's not even slightly an issue for a grid. In practice, wind reliably exceeds generation estimates. MIxed-mode renewables are making electricity so cheap the enercos are having to rethink their business models.

      Thorium might be a good thing, but no one has managed to get it working industrially. And while it's not going to go boom like Fukushima, it still produces a nasty mix of toxic and/or radioactive waste with equally nasty clean-up costs.

      1. itzman

        >>"Intermittency is an issue for a single unit. It's not even slightly an issue for a grid. In practice, wind reliably exceeds generation estimates."

        That's really marvellous. Three completely bare faced lies in one sentence!

        >>"Far from being a sunset technology, wind is just getting started - for all the reasons you mentioned, and some others, including innovations in blade dynamics, control systems, and smart grid distribution."

        None of which will breach the Betz limit, or deal with the inherent intermittency. Or the appallingly low power density. Or the maintenance issue in remote places.

        Intermittent renewable energy is totally unsuitable for industrial scale power generation.

    3. PyLETS

      AC/DC

      Very high voltage DC is more efficient for transmission over very long distances, and is used as such for undersea power cables and inter AC interconnections between AC synchronous control regions - e.g. there are 3 such regions in North America. DC isn't suitable for local distribution though. I agree that house lighting will need rewiring for DC when LED lighting takes over. Having one transformer for this per household makes more sense than having dozens of very small ones.

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: AC/DC

        The 'whole house AC/DC transformer' is a step backwards in resilience, reliability, safety and cost. A bunch of small transformers can be serviced as required without the loss of the entire system, unlike a single large transformer. Large transformers are big, very expensive and don't act like consumer wall warts. They are loud, big (you lose living or yard space) and while fault cycles are longer, they are far more dramatic and dangerous. Entire apartment blocks could easily be destroyed by the failure of a large internal transformer.

        To ensure safety and convenience you would have to move transformers fairly far out and you're right back to where we are today. Substations scattered around and electricity converted as needed for specific uses (lights) at the point of use.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: AC/DC

          Transformers? How quaint.

          Switched mode power supply (or multiples thereof, as per your suggestion) to 48V DC, with or without battery backup (just like the olde worlde telephone system ran off 48V DC even during power outages).

          From the 48VDC, ubiquitous power over Ethernet for the little stuff. 48V DC direct for slightly bigger stuff.

          As for multi-kW electric cookers and ~8kW electric showers and kW-scale electric space heaters: enjoy them while you can.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: some good points...

      "a lot of the inefficiencies is in the conversion and transport of AC power."

      No it isn't. Mackay's sources suggest the transmission losses are less than 10%, and that most of those are in the last bit (customer to nearest substation).

      HVDC has some uses but local distribution (or even long distance distribution inside one specific grid) isn't one of them. HVDC comes into its own where you need to connect two different grids and can't guarantee that the grids are in sync (eg France <-> UK).

      "you wonder whether the big energy companies would be interested in reducing their monopoly like that."

      The big energy companies are interested in making money. Energy efficiency is irrelevant to them, barely regulated vertically integrated cartels and monopolies are very convenient for them.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Solar must be reaching some level of profitability

    Solar farms appear to be springing up around the place. I drive past this one every day.

    http://www.newmarketjournal.co.uk/news/latest-news/plans-go-in-for-15-hectare-solar-farm-1-4170879

    It looks pretty big, must have cost a fortune to install.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Yes, we have no jobs. We put them into solar power panels.

      Sure the profitability isn't just in the subsidies?

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Solar must be reaching some level of profitability

      In the early 1980's polysilicon solar panels took about 15 years to pay for themselves.

      At the same time 5000 transistors on a chip cost $100.

      Now we can get 200,000,000,000 transistors on a chip for <$20.

      Solar panels are a lot more efficient and electricity 4 or 5 times the price in real terms and solar panels will pay for themselves in ... 15 years.

      A 1kw wind generator will cost £400, rectification extra, A 1kw generator for you car will cost £50 including rectification. Crack open a modern grid connected inverter and you will see a mass of components handwired by expensive German labour where there should be a couple of solid state modules - and an unnecessary transformer. Modern wind power may have started in the UK in the twelfth century but it is by no means mature. Mass production of current designs should produce electricity at <5p a unit and 85% efficient hydrogen generation/storage has been possible since the early 90s.

      I'm not against thorium power - I studied nukes at big school and its a much better option and actually stands a chance of generating cheap safe(ish) but until the current incumbents in the industry can no longer obtain money for old rope and taxpayers money to subsidise their bonuses and their scare-mongering and lobbying.

      1. Tim Parker

        Re: Solar must be reaching some level of profitability

        "Solar panels are a lot more efficient and electricity 4 or 5 times the price in real terms and solar panels will pay for themselves in ... 15 years."

        This was discussed a few days ago in the comments from another article of Tims [0] - the figures linked to seemed to suggest a pay-back period for PV *systems* (not the isolated panel) was somewhere around 4 years (multi-crystalline, bit less for thin-film). I believe most/all of those figures don't include the full infrastructure adaptation costs, certainly not for linking all local generation to the grid and what that would entail, but I also find it hard to believe the "15 years" figure - can you give any details how that's calculated please ?

        [0] http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/09/19/say_what_you_want_about_marx_he_was_right_about_robots/

        1. Tom 7 Silver badge

          Re: Solar must be reaching some level of profitability

          Re the 15 years - that from a quote I had for installation of 6KW of panels on my own house earlier this year that would be piped directly into the already existing mains connection. A lot of house improvements - extra insulation, redoing the rendering and knocking holes in the walls to let cold air in to my wood fires for safety reasons included. I havent included the cost of the extra heating that I would have had to have to cover the fact that if the air holes that have to be close to the fires would have led to me being able to have a windmill inside the house as well. But thats what the regs I would have had to agree to get the tarifs!

          1. Paul Smith

            Off topic

            Consider a heat recovery ventilation system instead of putting holes in your walls.

          2. Tim99 Silver badge

            Re: Solar must be reaching some level of profitability

            @Tom 7

            I live where it is sunny for most of the year. Our government subsidized 1.5KW solar systems so that they cost about $2,000.00. The subsidy has since been reduced and the systems still cost about the same. A 3KW system costs about $4,000.00. Originally there was a supplier's subsidy of $0.42 a unit generated, it is now about $0.11 a unit (about half the cost that the supplier charges to normal customers). The buy-back time for many users is less than 4 years, which is why most houses around me have solar panels. The take-up in older suburbs is now constrained by limitations in what their infrastructure can take when the generated solar electricity is pushed back to the grid. Replacement of the older systems is a significant cost to the utility.

      2. Yet Another Commentard

        Re: Solar must be reaching some level of profitability

        Some farmers by us are seriously considering stopping farming and installing solar in suitable fields. Seems there is more money in making power than actually feeding people.

      3. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

        Re: Solar must be reaching some level of profitability

        "...until the current incumbents in the industry can no longer obtain money for old rope and taxpayers money to subsidise their bonuses and their scare-mongering and lobbying."

        We have a "societal failure" here. The investment and return horizons are much longer than the political cycle so the politicians don't want to involve themselves. And it's always cheaper to skim money off consumers than gamble on R&D making a breakthrough.

        Actually, there's another article for Tim: find something good in Milliband's proposal.

        1. Tim Worstal

          Re: Solar must be reaching some level of profitability

          " there's another article for Tim: find something good in Milliband's proposal."

          Blimey. So far that article would read " ". I can't see anything sensible in it let alone good.

    3. itzman
      FAIL

      Re: Solar must be reaching some level of profitability

      Of course. all paid for by you and me in terms of increased electricity bills for a technology no one wants and no one actually needs...

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cause for concern

    Correct me if im wrong but considering Uranium-233 is transmutated from Thorium-232, wouldn't it be cause for concern that some unknown entity/country is trying to buy lots of Thorium?

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Cause for concern

      Too hard to handle. Pu is easier: Uhuhuu 233

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Cause for concern

      Given that the isotope you want is Uranium-235, which is hard to get out of Uranium-233, I don't think so. LFTR byproducts are typically contaminated with Uranium-232. Basically, you're better off handling plutonium.

      But this does raise a question. If Uranium-233 is a byproduct of the LFTR, how does one deal with it, given that it has a half-life in the 10^5 range of years?

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Cause for concern

        If it has a half-life of 10^5 years you don't need to get rid of it - the activity is so low you can use it as landfill

  9. Michael

    Methane production?

    Build enough nuclear power stations, use excess power to generate hydrogen.

    Build some zero emission methane burning power stations next to the nuclear plant

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24225901

    Combine the two gases to get more methane.

    Should keep the lights on for the next 1000 years or so. Might be inefficient, but at least we'd have a relatively easy gas to store and burn on demand to account for peaks in demand.

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: Methane production?

      zero emission methane burning

      CH4 + 2 O2 → CO2 + 2 H2O

      Not zero-emission. What the article you linked to proposes is CCS, carbon capture and storage, i.e. burn the fossil fuels, capture the CO2, and "do something with it". As the article itself points out, There is still the question of what to do with the carbon dioxide, once it has been captured and stored.

      It's an expensive stop-gap, punting the problem onto the next generation. It isn't a solution.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: Methane production? @ Phil

        Assuming that carbon dioxide is the menace we are constantly harangued about, of course ...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Methane production?

        Er, Phil (may I call you Phil?).

        Electrolysis: _2H2O_ --> 2H2 + O2

        Methanization 2H2 + _CO2_ + heat --> CH4 + O2

        Combustion: CH4 + 2O2 -> 2H20 + CO2 + heat

        Inputs: 2H20 + CO2

        Outputs: 2H20 + CO2

        It's chemically closed.

        It's a lossy system, that even with effective use of the heat has efficiency in the 70s%. But in exchange for the losses, you have a variable generation demand sink and an energy storage medium.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Storing H2 is not a problem

    Just add it to the natural gas network, so it becomes part of the general gas supply. This way you get automatic use of the H2 without any major storage costs.

    Over time as the amount of H2 increases other solutions would be required, but they would not have to be deployed on day one.

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: Storing H2 is not a problem

      I think (but am not a metallurgist) that significant exposure to hydrogen causes embitterment of various metals, which is a serious issue for storing and handling hydrogen (or H2-rich) fuel.

      Can anyone else who knows cover that topic?

      1. Frederic Bloggs

        Re: Storing H2 is not a problem

        And, as it happens, is one of the big issues with some thorium reactor designs. To be fair, dealing with the side effects of hot H2 in traditional reactors is a bit of an issue as well.

      2. squigbobble

        Re: Storing H2 is not a problem

        It's embrittlement, embitterment only happens to the metallurgists trying to deal with this. Protons (H+ ions) are small enough to dissolve into and diffuse through a lot of common metals (I think 100% pure aluminium is the only common thing that stops it) and they will also accumulate in the interfaces between the crystal grains, weakening it and causing spontaneous cracking. Steam pipes in systems that handle supercritical steam are vulnerable to it, I suspect this is where it was first discovered. http://www.rebresearch.com/H2perm2.htm

        Probably the only upsides to handling it are that it's less poisonous than oxygen (in terms of the partial pressure that humans can tolerate) and you'd have to make a concerted effort to get it to displace all of the air in a workspace and asphyxiate you.

      3. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        Re: Storing H2 is not a problem

        "significant exposure to hydrogen causes embitterment of various metals"

        It's called "hydrogen embrittlement" and is a well known problem. High strength steels, Ni and Ti alloys are the most susceptible. Some stainless steels are resistant and can be used for hydrogen piping but they are expensive and only used for high-pressure lines/storage. Normal pipe steel seems to be OK for low pressure transmission but is affected by corrosion. Non-metal alternatives are being studied.

      4. Tim Worstal

        Re: Storing H2 is not a problem

        This is why if you do go H2 it needs to be distributed and local as a system. Girt great pipelines around the place will fail. And also hte H2 has a way of simply passing through the steel itself and escaping.

  11. ferri

    not wrong but a problem with this is the big electric companies

    for an example look up what is happening in spain right now.. (do a google for " tax the sun" ) solar leads to a decentralised system. big electric companies lobby governments to keep that from happening, leading to politics and regulations that hinder/seek to stop this development.

    1. fandom Silver badge

      Re: not wrong but a problem with this is the big electric companies

      Subsidies for wind and solar in Spain reached 6,600 million euros in 2012 and are expected to be about 9,000 millions this year.

      It doesn't take much lobbying for a bankrupted country to want to change that.

  12. Big_Ted
    WTF?

    WTF......

    "And as to offshore wind: it is more expensive – and there's no marine engineer I've found who thinks that anyone has looked seriously at the problem of maintenance of metallic structures in the salt water of the North Sea"

    So no-one has looked at all those oil rigs. You mean they are rusting away and will collapse at any moment ?

    My god call the Heath and Safety Executive now.......

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: WTF......

      You do know that oil rigs undergo frequent, and *very* expensive (check how much divers can earn, given they can only work a few weeks a year) corrosion inspections.

      1. Richard Wharram

        Re: WTF......

        Indeed. You'd need an order of magnitude or two's more wind turbines than oil rigs to produce anything useful.

      2. Big_Ted
        Facepalm

        Re: WTF......

        You do realise that the first part of my post was a quote from the article and not an opinion from me.......

      3. Professor Clifton Shallot

        North Sea blues

        " oil rigs undergo frequent, and *very* expensive (check how much divers can earn, given they can only work a few weeks a year) corrosion inspections"

        Went to school with a kid whose dad did underwater welding for the oil industry - dangerous and lucrative.

        But at a guess oil rigs have a lot more going on under the surface than wind farms - would be very interesting to know what the estimated maintenance costs are per unit energy generated for something like the Sheringham Shoal - obviously despite the skepticism of the article someone will have thought about this aspect of things, even with the silly subsidies there's too much investment involved for it to have gone unconsidered.

        1. JohnMurray

          Re: North Sea blues

          https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/48171/2806-value-breakdown-offshore-wind-sector.pdf

      4. Kubla Cant Silver badge

        Re: WTF......

        You do know that oil rigs undergo frequent, and *very* expensive corrosion inspections.

        True, but, on the other hand Victorian seaside piers seem to have survived - where they haven't caught fire. Perhaps we should build offshore wind turbines in wrought iron.

        1. LazyLazyman

          Re: WTF......

          For a given value of survived. Most of them are falling apart, need constant maintenance, and are not subject to the full force of the north sea. That and on most of them the bits in the water are made of wood and concrete. The metal is generally not structural and dose rust badly if not constantly looked after.

          1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

            Concrete

            There's a thought.

            Yes, there's a size limit to concrete vessels before wave motion starts to produce uncontrollable cracking but you're not going to mount your wind turbine on a replica of the Titanic are you? I'm not saying corrosion isn't an issue but I'm not convinced that with sensible choice of materials it is insurmountable.

            And, yes let's get cracking with thorium.

            1. Don Jefe

              Re: Concrete

              The problem isn't the windmill structures failing from environmental exposure; you can make metal things last in saltwater conditions. The problem is in the bearings, bushings and other moving parts being exposed to the environment. Nothing at sea is immune to windblown salt and resultant corrosion. The fact they place windmills in windy places just adds to the problem.

              While the corrosion would not cause catastrophic failure immediately, efficiency begins to degrade in the very near term. Service of marine windmills is expensive and, unlike an offshore drilling rig, the windmill must be taken off line for service of moving parts. So the loss of production must be figured in to the costs as well. The total costs are already high, and there really aren't reliable figures to estimate long term maintenance costs.

  13. h4rm0ny

    Intermittency of Solar

    Whilst it is true that output of solar energy goes up and down (just like the sun appears to do, conincidentally), so do our energy requirements.

    At night, we use much less electricity. In the day, that ramps up as we start turning on PCs, kettles, factories, etc.

    Nuclear power is fantastic, but in common with some other sources, it doesn't ramp up and down easily according to demand. (Unless Thorium reactors are different). So what that means is if you put Solar and Nuclear together, you actually need far less capacity to store surplus energy than you might think. You're not having to capture the extra from solar in the day and eek it out through the night. You have Nuclear providing the powerful baseline (plus a bit extra) and during the day as our energy needs rise, so is the output of solar.

    Okay, it's not a perfect match, what it is, is a mitigation of the issue of variability. But it's a really good and handy mitigation.

    1. Richard Wharram

      Re: Intermittency of Solar

      Easier to mitigate against than wind certainly (in the right countries).

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Intermittency of Solar

      The thing is, we can always find uses for excess power (think desalination, aluminium smelting, research into synthetic hydrocarbons). It's a lot better to have too much power than too little. We can find ways to deal with too much.

      1. Richard Wharram

        Re: Intermittency of Solar

        Like amusing displays of millions of twitching frogs' legs. Who hasn't dreamt of the day when that would become reality?

      2. h4rm0ny

        Re: Intermittency of Solar

        "The thing is, we can always find uses for excess power (think desalination, aluminium smelting, research into synthetic hydrocarbons). It's a lot better to have too much power than too little. We can find ways to deal with too much."

        Not sure you understood my point. Our best way of producing power is nuclear power. If you want more power, you build more nuclear capability. The issue is variance. We don't need the same amount consistently throughout the day. Nuclear power doesn't vary easily. It likes to sit at a steady output. Solar however rises naturally in the day which is when our own needs rise. So they go well together.

        Yes, you can mitigate this by spreading out the energy needs - e.g. you run your aluminium plant at night. These things are already done. But it's more efficient, in theory, to actually be able to adjust your power output according to need rather than try to shuffle everything around (like running factories at night) to keep need fixed. Solar plus Nuclear achieves this quite well. Assuming you get the ratios right.

        1. oolor

          Re: Intermittency of Solar

          >Solar plus Nuclear achieves this quite well.

          Not to mention the synergies of raw material mining and production which is a main point of the article methinks. Thorium seems to be 'waste' from the collection of rare-earth metals required for electronics components particularly those used or possibly to be used in solar panel manufacture.

      3. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

        Re: Intermittency of Solar

        ...we can always find uses for excess power...

        Umm... not exactly.

        If you simply had a free source of excess power sitting and waiting for a use, I would agree with you. But the problem we have hear is running a GRID. And on a grid, excess power is a major problem of the same order as insufficient power. The excess power has to be 'dispatchable'...

        What is needed on a grid is basic, reliable, cheap baseline power, then an additional flexible rapid-to-get-online source of variable power to do the 'topping-up'. An ideal system would be nuclear and hydro. And we will probably always need some cheap gas turbine systems hanging around.

        The problem for Solar is that it is not flexible. You may be able to rely on it in the Sahara, but in the UK you can't suddenly call for it to produce an extra 100 MW at 10:06:35 GMT. That is actually the problem with ALL of the modern green 'renewables'. And trying to combine them with 'energy storage' makes them much less efficient and more expensive....

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Intermittency of Solar

          The problem for Nuclear is that it is not flexible. You can't suddenly call for it to produce an extra 1000 MW at 10:06:35 GMT and turn it off again at 16:07. That is actually the problem with ALL of the modern green 'renewables'. And trying to combine them with 'energy storage' makes them much less efficient and more expensive...

          1. smartypants

            Re: Intermittency of Solar

            "The problem for Nuclear is that it is not flexible. You can't suddenly call for it to produce an extra 1000 MW at 10:06:35 GMT and turn it off again at 16:07"

            This may be true of old plants, but not of newer designs. Let's take, for example, a nuclear plant commissioned in 1988 in Emsland Germany (the country which only recently decided, stupidly, to turn its back on the only technology which can safely produce the power the country needs when it needs it without changing the climate)

            Slide 5 of this presentation shows how ably this plant can increase and decrease its output at short notice, with a 'ramp rate' of 140 Megawatts per minute.

            http://www.vgb.org/en/hv_11_praesentationen-dfid-39890.html

            http://www.rwe.com/web/cms/en/16646/rwe-power-ag/locations/nuclear-power/emsland-nuclear-power-station/

            But who needs that when we can just burn coal and stuff the future!

            1. smartypants

              Re: Intermittency of Solar

              Oops, in my rush to be a smartypants, I forgot to make the point that a single nuclear plant need not be able to switch off and on fully at the drop of a hat. All you need is plants which can ramp up or down in a useful and predictable way - even +/- 30% is enough. You then have the flexibility to manage the output of a collection of plants as a single generating resource in a number of ways. The point I was making with the Emsland example is that nuclear plants can have this flexibility too, and therefore we shouldn't rule them out of the picture when talking about flexible generating capacity management.

              Being costly pieces of infrastructure whose fuel is a very small part of the overall lifetime costs yet offsets carbon emission, it makes sense to utilise them to capacity when you can, but that's not the same as saying they can't modulate their output - not the newer ones at least.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Intermittency of Solar

                "even +/- 30% is enough"

                Right. Actually in the UK the variation is probably more than that but we'll let that pass.

                Examples of where it's been done and documented and shown to be reliable medium term?

                Robert Sneddon's pointed to the best I've seen so far, which mentions 10% range (unclear if it means 10% from min to max, or +/-10% from nominal). If you've got one like that that says +/-30%, production quality in the next five years, then we're sorted. And I've got a bridge for you to buy.

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  Apologies to Robert Sneddon and Smartypants

                  I've got your contributions misattributed.

                  Sorry.

                  I'll get my coat. It's going cold in here anyway.

                2. Robert Sneddon

                  Ramping nuclear power plants

                  The French ramp some of their later-generation plants since they generate 80% of their electricity from nuclear and they don't have many fossil-fuel load-following plants available to top up production otherwise. There's a problem dialling the power down in PWRs due to a buildup of a neutron absorbing fission product, Xe-135 in the fuel rods which is usually "burned" away at full-power settings but this is fixed in the newer PWR designs like the EPR1400 coupled with better operating procedures which limits the effects of the Xe-135 buildup.

                  Nuclear power reactors run 100% baseload wherever possible as the cost of fuel is trivial (about 0.7 US cents/kWh according to US government figures I saw a few years back) compared to the cost of operation, regulation and paying off the loans to build the plant in the first place. Generating at a 70% power level doesn't save the operators much money, refuelling tends to be done on a fixed schedule and not when the fuel rods contain a certain amount of "ash", but ramping down output means the operators earn less money than they could at full power settings.

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Intermittency of Solar

              Caution: lots of words, also includes numbers and arithmetic and logic.

              Interesting slides at vgb there, thank you, best I've seen to date. Even mentions the implications of thermal cycling (or better, NOT thermal cycling, on the hard-to-maintain side).

              There's lots of motherhood and apple pie about load following in modern German plants, but slide 19 has the numbers: it says you can very quickly (30 seconds) have plus or minus 2% (20MW in a 1GW plant), sustained for a few minutes. And given five minutes warning you can cover a "range" (half range? full range? unclear) of a whole ten per cent or so, presumably for rather longer than a few minutes. And the ramp rate is quite reasonable.

              So let's now apply the numbers above to the current demand cycle in the UK.

              The UK daily demand cycle for electricity goes between twenty odd GW summer minimum and nearly fifty GW winter maximum, with a little variation depending on time of year (sources: many, but gridwatch.templar.co.uk is quite pretty and readily understandable and illustrates where the electricity comes from and is based on authoritative numbers from Gridco).

              On a typical weekday there is a variation of very very roughly 20 GW between daytime max and overnight min, with only a relatively minor change in range between winter and summer. Bit more than a few percent, that. Gridwatch shows clearly who's doing the load following today: fossil fuels, mainly CCGT.

              However you look at it, it's going to be really hard for nuclear load following to make a meaningful contribution to that range of demand variation. A handful of GW, maybe 2, maybe 5 or so at best ?

              So there's still a big (huge?) hole between current demand pattern and sensible nuclear delivery pattern.

              Is changing the demand pattern part of the answer? Probably, but it's not going to happen overnight (so to speak), and this buffoonery with "active demand management" for domestic fridges and the like is a total irrelevance.

              Is more storage (daily and weekly timescales) part of the answer? Probably should be, though I see little evidence that "the markets" have a financial mechanism for acknowledging this engineering reality.

              Is nuclear part of the answer? Probably, though we'll have to get our skates on (how is Olkiluoto doing this year? Do the control and safety systems have regulatory approval yet?).

              Is nuclear *the* answer? Is it helpful to be economical with the actualite? Non.

              I'm not anti-nuclear, I'm pro-logic (tm).

          2. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

            Re: Intermittency of Solar

            ...The problem for Nuclear is that it is not flexible...

            Which, I guess, is why it is used for base load and not curve-following...

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Intermittency of Solar

              "...The problem for Nuclear is that it is not flexible...

              Which, I guess, is why it is used for base load and not curve-following..."

              And to cover the gap between mostly-fixed base load and very-variable demand (some 20GW in the UK between daily minimum and daily maximum)?

              1. Don Jefe

                Re: Intermittency of Solar

                All the technical arguments skip over the single factor that derails the idea of excess power generation. Producing significantly more than is required undermines the current financial structure of energy markets. No amount of technical innovation or positive (or at least not as negative) environmental impact is going to affect prices and availability until the markets either change and/or new financial models are established.

                Energy has value only because of its relative scarcity. If it is no longer scarce it can't command a high price and won't see much in the way of private investment in R&D or buildout to production. Looking at ROI isn't the correct way to analyze energy creation/distribution because spend on physical plants aren't the concern in any of this, the industry doesn't operate that way. The current market thrives because it is based on high margin cash flow (like any manufacturer), the capex is a non-recoverable cost of doing business (you can't bake bread without an oven).

                If you remove the margins by eliminating scarcity, the only way to profit will be by making infrastructure buildout and service the profit centers as opposed to the cost centers. That means initial costs increase by orders of magnitude until competition (theoretically) turns power generating equipment into a commodity (like in the computer hardware business). There are obviously lots of pitfalls there.

                Anyway, regardless of the source, expanding energy creation beyond the bare minimum to manage peak demand is not profitable at scale for anyone at present. The creation of a real marketplace (not Carbon credit book fixing schemes, but real products), and all the political and societal challenges has to be solved first. Until then we're always going to doing exactly what we're doing now: keeping one step ahead and making a small minority rich but holding society as a whole back.

                I don't had a lot of faith the type of wealthy and powerful people needed to make those changes are extant right now. A lot of somebodies are going to have to be encouraged to not make ridiculous amounts of short term money, and that is a very hard sell...

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  Re: Intermittency of Solar

                  Fair enough, but didn't the wholesale markets (which no longer have much relevance in the UK due to "vertical integration" of suppliers from ground to grid) and the deals for large energy users already reflect the scarcity/surplus factor, with maximum-demand-dependent contracts (with a penalty if you go over), interruptible contracts (lose a few 100kW of demand at short notice and pay less for your electricity), and the like?

                  The closest UK domestic retail tariffs ever got to reflecting that wholesale scarcity/surplus stuff was paying less for off peak (and more for on peak) and those tariffs no longer seem to be widely promoted, even though smart meters are ever so trendy.

                  Serious mismatch between demand and supply. You'd think there'd be serious financial motivation for storage. But both Gridco (with the UK-Norway HVDC link) and Centrica have suspended plans for more storage. (Norway was nominally an interconnect, but realistically it would have been arms length pumped storage).

                  Not an engineering problem, a political problem, being conveniently swept under the carpet (till the lights go out and the central heating doesn't work).

      4. Robert Sneddon

        Re: Intermittency of Solar

        Smelting aluminium is not viable with intermittent energy sources. Cutting the power off and letting the melt in a electrolysis cell solidify means using jackhammers to clean it out, it won't magically spring back into life when the wind starts blowing again as the solid crust doesn't conduct electricity. Abundant hydro in Norway and geothermal generating sources in Iceland allow them to export their cheap electricity in the form of refined Al but the electrical supply has to be reliable and on-demand for the smelters to work effectively.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Intermittency of Solar

          "Abundant hydro in Norway and geothermal generating sources in Iceland allow them to export their cheap electricity in the form of refined Al but the electrical supply has to be reliable and on-demand for the smelters to work effectively."

          Right. A bit of foresight and planning is helpful too, in addition to proper engineering and operating practices.

          Anglesey Aluminium used to have a smelter next door to the Magnox station at Wylfa on Anglesey. But back in the mid noughties, Wylfa was scheduled for closure in 2010 (the Magnoxes were all on the way out), and the follow on timescales for The New Nuke Next Door even if promptly approved and built on time would clearly leave a gap in bulk electricity supply. So Anglesey Aluminium closed, with the loss of around a thousand jobs in an economically deprived area.

          Meanwhile, the 2010 closure deadline was missed, and more recently someone's found some extra fuel rods, so Wylfa is still generating for a while longer. But the AA jobs are still gone. Still at least it leaves a bit more spare electricity for the rest of us. What's not to like?

          http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/north_west/7085001.stm In 2007: just over two years left before Wylfa closes

          http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-11531729 In 2010: still two years left.

          http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-west-wales-22604125 In 2013: still two years left

    3. itzman
      FAIL

      Re: Intermittency of Solar

      actually our peak electricity requirements are just after dark when solar power is zero, and everybody is home with the lights on.

      I bet you used to tell everyone 'the wind is always blowing somewhere' as well

      http://gridwatch.templar.co.uk/

      shows it bloody well isn't.

      1. h4rm0ny

        Re: Intermittency of Solar

        "actually our peak electricity requirements are just after dark when solar power is zero, and everybody is home with the lights on."

        I think you'll find that rather varies with this thing called latitude.

        "I bet you used to tell everyone 'the wind is always blowing somewhere' as well"

        Well no, actually. I've been campaigning against wind power for about as long as it's been pushed as an alternative power source.

        But you clearly just want to argue against some image you have, don't you. "Oh, they're in favour of solar power, they must be in favour of wind power".

        Idiot.

    4. Robert Sneddon

      Re: Intermittency of Solar

      Actually modern GenIII nukes can ramp up and down quite quickly, from 100% power to 70% power in about 15 minutes and about the same time to go back to 100% power. Older reactors can't do this easily for various reasons.

  14. Lis 0r
    Thumb Up

    H2 +2O2 -> 2H2O

    Feed your hydrogen cracker with sea water, and you can have it double as a desalination plant, solving two problems at once.

    1. Anonymous C0ward

      Re: H2 +2O2 -> 2H2O

      Don't you get sodium hydroxide and chlorine gas too if you electrolyse salt water?

      1. squigbobble

        Re: H2 +2O2 -> 2H2O

        ...and all sorts of dissolved minerals and metals precipitating out onto the electrodes unless you run it through a reverse osmosis system first which requires a ton of leccy.

  15. Gavin Park Weir

    Hydrogen Cycle

    Great article if only because it reinfornces what I have been thinking is probably true (I don't want my theories tested).

    My thought is why can't my roof be generating H2 for me to use when I want it? I could fill my car, run my house etc. Additionally it would make a big difference if our grid did not have to support a very peaky power usage profile. Even out the peaks and Nuclear (traditional or thorium), wind etc could be more efficient.

    We would get round big electric organisation the moment local generation costs in without subsidies.

    1. The Axe

      Re: Hydrogen Cycle

      Why not? Because you don't want lots of H2 stored around your house. You think a gas leak is dangerous. What's a H2 leak going to be like. Kabooooom! big style. H&S would not allow it.

      1. Campbell

        Re: Hydrogen Cycle

        hmm.... maybe not so bad.

        IIRC, Hydrogen is 1000 times LESS explosive than petrol and also, IIRC, it doesn't actually "explode" per se but burns very, very quickly as seen in the Hindenburg incident.

        1. itzman

          Re: Hydrogen Cycle

          I am sure the people who like to sell you scare stories about Fukushima will be glad that you told them that in fact since it was a hydrogen explosion, it couldn't actually have happened.

          And that since coal dust is after all coal, which doesn't go bang, finely suspended coal dust and air wont go bang either.

          And that indeed the challenger disaster wasn't REALLY an explosion, more a sort of gentle burning.

          http://www.history.com/topics/challenger-disaster/videos#engineering-disasters---challenger

          1. oolor
            Thumb Up

            Re: itzman

            I find both your sarcasm and satire excellent. Moreover, the technical-correctness of your post is to say the least, incindiary.

            I couldn't decide between the flammable logo or the nuke pic, so have a thumbs up >>

        2. oolor

          Re: Hydrogen Cycle

          >IIRC, Hydrogen is 1000 times LESS explosive than petrol and also, IIRC, it doesn't actually "explode" per se but burns very, very quickly as seen in the Hindenburg incident.

          You recall somewhat incorrectly, or more accurately, incompletely.

          Burning or oxidation is what occurs in an explosion. It can be a fast explosion - detonation, beyond the speed of sound - or a slow explosion - deflagration - such as the Hindenburg incident. Hydrogen burning would not/barely be visible. The flames and smoke would have to come from the skin and perhaps airframe components burning. The nature of a hydrogen explosion varies greatly based on its container and the environment of said container.

          Watch a video clip of the disaster, there is clearly an initial explosion (and a boom) before the entire hulk catches flame. The Hindenburg exploded, then burned.

          Petrol is quite stable and this is a major reason it is used as a portable fuel source. Combustion - a controlled burn - of it occurs in an engine and knocking is when things go wrong and it explodes (very small explosion). Petrol vapours due to the volatility of some of the shorter carbon chain components in improperly stored petrol can indeed explode, but it is far from easy in common situations. Take for example movie explosions, they are set off using a booster explosive and the fuel content of the tank needs to be below 7.6% by volume.

  16. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

    Thorium reactors

    Anytime these get mentioned by their proponents it's usually with a subtext of "I can't believe people are so stupid as not to use them". Since the technical folks who work in the power industry are generally not stupid, I have to ask "What's the catch"?

    Seriously, if Thorium reactors are the cure, what's the snag? Why aren't we using this cheap wonder fuel?

    1. Frederic Bloggs

      Re: Thorium reactors

      Because there are too many vested interests, both business and political, preventing it.

      1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

        Re: Thorium reactors

        The "Big Oil" argument? I don't buy it. Maybe in the US, but not worldwide.

        1. Frederic Bloggs

          Re: Thorium reactors

          No-one said anything about "Big-Oil". And you're right that this might only be an argument in the US and then only if they decide not to play.

          There is simply too much money staked in the uranium fuel cycle plant that both exists and is planned. No-one in industry wants to "waste" money punting on some "new" (but actually older than the uranium reactor) design(s). As for the politicians, they don't want to invest money in anything useful and they want to keep "their" bomb.

        2. Chris Ridley

          Re: Thorium reactors

          >>The "Big Oil" argument? I don't buy it. Maybe in the US, but not worldwide.

          Perhaps because thorium reactors produce next to no plutonium?

        3. Chris 239

          Re: Thorium reactors

          No "Big Oil", actually "Big Nuclear" - the vested interest is in the makers of fuel rods for refueling conventional nuclear power stations. Fuel rods that have to be replaced when just a few percent of the uranium has been used. LFTR would use practically all the fuel and so require a fraction of the fuel supply.

      2. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Thorium reactors

        Meaning, at the time, the US and the USSR WANTED uranium reactors. They WANTED the plutonium byproduct to put into thier nuclear arsenlal. It's only now, after the Cold War, that the idea is no longer as appealing.

        1. Robert Sneddon

          Re: Thorium reactors

          No, they didn't. By the time nuclear power reactors started to be mass-produced in the mid-60s all of the big powers who wanted nuclear weapons had made as much plutonium-239 as they needed in purpose-built reactors like the one at Windscale that caught fire or the ones in Hanford in the US etc. There were attempts to build reactors that could produce weapons-grade plutonium like the British Magnox and the Soviet RMBK-4 but they were not needed for that purpose by the time they were actually getting built.

          Modern PWRs and BWRs have some plutonium in their spent fuel at the end of an operating cycle but it's a mixture of Pu-239 and Pu-240 which is pretty much useless for weapons which need high-purity Pu-239 to work well if at all and the Pu-239 can't be separated out easily -- it's actually a lot simpler to separate U-235 from U-238 if someone wants bomb-grade material and that's difficult enough.

          1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

            Re: Uranium reactors

            Behind da paywall, we find:

            Russia’s Nuclear Reactors Could Take over the World, Safe or Not

            Whether Russian training of foreign nucle­ar workers raises concern or not, it is vital to preventing reactor accidents, many of which are caused in whole or in part by human-operator error. “Even small reac­tors require training people up in a big, big way,” Sokolski says. Russia has been training newcomers in Obninsk, a two-hour drive from Mos­cow. New dorms and classrooms are being added here to old ones to handle a flood of foreigners expected in the coming years. Far from home, the first of some 600 Turk­ish students who will study here — baby-faced and hopeful — sip tea and look to their bright futures as their country’s first nuclear workers. “Thank God there’s Skype” to break the tedium, 21-year-old Gökcehan Tosun says in a coffee shop near her dorm. Next to her is Olgun Köse, practicing his Eng­lish, a relief after months of grueling Rus­sian lessons. “We’ve seen much cold, we’ve seen minus 35 degrees,” he says, his eyes widening at the memory of his first Rus­sian winter. Yet with guaranteed careers and good salaries ahead, they are the envy of their friends.

            Later that night some of the Turks will play in a band, Rockkuyu, after Turkey’s Akkuyu nuclear project. Köse talks of how oil is “finished,” how solar is too expensive, and how nucle­ ar energy is green, “fast and beautiful.”

            The students believe the new reactors will give Turkey, and themselves, entrée into a scientifically advanced and sustainable future. “Turkey will grow up,” Köse says. And Russia will be right there to help them.

      3. Solmyr ibn Wali Barad

        Re: Thorium reactors

        "Because there are too many vested interests, both business and political, preventing it."

        Uh, not that old chestnut again.

        Obstacles really are technological - thorium cycle has lots of nasty byproducts, which are messing with the reaction cycle. And it is very hard to handle those in a running plant.

        It's not a hopeless situation, but some serious advances in engineering are needed.

    2. fandom Silver badge

      Re: Thorium reactors

      Nobody wants a nuclear reactor close to their homes. It may take a dictatorship like China to build one.

      As for the US they have this natural gas boom due to fracking that has made it so cheap there is no real point in looking for other alternatives, not even because of global warning as natural gas allows them to phase out coal plants and reduce they carbon footprint.

      1. itzman

        Re: Nobody wants a nuclear reactor close to their homes.

        I would be perfectly happy to have a nuclear reactor closer to my home. It is only 40 miles away is it is.

        You can bury fuel rods under my back garden too.

        1. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

          Re: Nobody wants a nuclear reactor close to their homes.

          ...You can bury fuel rods under my back garden too....

          I've heard it does wonders for the tomatoes.

          Only problem is, they tend to get up out of their beds and rampage down the street....

          1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

            Re: Nobody wants a nuclear reactor close to their homes.

            I've heard it does wonders for the tomatoes.

            Only problem is, they tend to get up out of their beds and rampage down the street....

            So, we're hunter-gatherers, it just requires a change of tactic. Saves on shopping costs as well.

    3. Denarius Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Thorium reactors

      Chinese are building at least one. ITIRC Yanks had them running in late 1950s but as no good for making bangs they were shutdown. Perhaps a few years of cold might change some greenie leaning minds about nuke safety. Freezing to death really ruins ones evening and not being able to charge the i-whatsit at night really annoys the chavs and fainbois.

      1. BigFire

        Re: Thorium reactors

        You will not question the ONE TRUE FAITH of Global Warming. Even as we freeze to death, it's still our fault that the world is going to boil.

    4. Chris Miller

      Re: Thorium reactors

      I don't work with nuclear power and would welcome correction from anyone who does, but I think the problem is the mind-bogglingly vast cost of getting a new reactor design safety certified. This means that only huge concerns can play and they've usually got existing certified designs of their own. Add to this the problem that (for purely political reasons) there is minimal demand for new reactors, and you can see why there's a problem. (You don't think the ecoloons are going to give up on their 'no nukes' mantra just because you've switched from Uranium to Thorium, do you? After all, it's still full of deadly RAY-DE-AY-SHUN.)

    5. AdamT

      Re: Thorium reactors

      I guess I have the same questions about the Fusion Polywell thing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell). Sounds plausible (to a non-physicist) but "what's the catch?". Even the initial estimates of the cost to produce a realistic sized prototype were being quoted in units of $100M as opposed to investments in "standard" fusion which is measured in $10B units. The cost of just building a plain old nuclear plant are measured in $100M to $1B units. So by any of those measures isn't it worth just building a bigger polywell and finding out?

    6. auburnman

      Re: Thorium reactors

      In a nutshell:

      -Fear of radiation without understanding it (from the cold war legacy, not helped by fearmongering among the lesser news publications)

      -Not in My Back Yard (Because of the Fear)

      -Lack of experience with Thorium reactors (When nuclear power came around most countries chose Uranium reactors because they produced Plutonium as a byproduct, which comes in very handy when you are trying to join the nuclear "Do Not Fuck With Us" Club

      Political Blindness/Spinelessness (See Germany's decision to stop using reactors.

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Thorium reactors

      Seriously, if Thorium reactors are the cure, what's the snag? Why aren't we using this cheap wonder fuel?

      Met someone who works in Nuclear Plant decomissioning a few years back and he talked about Thorium reactors as being the way to go. Think he said that way back the initial ideas about using nuclear reactors to generate electricity were Thorium based but the industry was switched over to Uranium due to the need for Uranium and its byproducts in atomic weapons and since all the industrial scale research and development had been done on Uranium reactors then Thorium had been left way behind. Though he said that the Chinese were picking it up seriously and if we didn't do anything about it then we'd be dependent on buying Thorium reactors from the Chinese in 10-20 years.

      1. oolor

        Re: Thorium reactors

        >Though he said that the Chinese were picking it up seriously and if we didn't do anything about it then we'd be dependent on buying Thorium reactors from the Chinese in 10-20 years.

        Considering that CANDU reactors seem to be the basis of the Chinese work and that they have been talking/working with the Americans behind the scenes, I very highly doubt the USA will be China's bitches so to speak in this matter.

        On the assumption that the technology is developed and implemented on a fast timescale, most economies would be more disrupted by the massive change in capital and pricing surrounding the petrochemical industry rather than changes in the nuclear industry since most current operators are the likeliest candidates for building and operating the plants. Perhaps those thinking that big oil is the major 'foe' are not so tinfoil-hatted after all.

        1. oolor

          Re: Choice of uranium/plutonium

          The decision to use uranium reactors instead of thorium can also be attributed to naval vessel reactor requirements rather than simply being due to weapons material needs.

    8. Robert Sneddon

      Re: Thorium reactors

      Uranium is plentiful at least for the next few decades and cheap right now so the price of fuel is a minor part of the cost of generating electricity in existing reactors. It is possible to use thorium in existing PWR designs but they need lots more neutrons to convert the thorium into uranium-233 which can then be fissioned to produce energy. In a regular reactor uranium-235 is fissioned without that breeding step so they don't need a high neutron flux to run. The planned Indian thorium reactors are designed to use medium-enriched uranium-235 and plutonium-239/240 in the fuel mix to provide the extra neutron flux needed to breed the Th-232 up into U-233; this will have knock-on effects on the reactor structures, the radio-chemistry of the fuel pellets etc. and could lead to unforeseen consequences in a decade or two.

      There have been attempts to use thorium in pebble-bed reactors but they've not been a great success as the pebbles fracture, spall, shed dust, jam the mechanism etc. I think the German pebble-bed reactor that was shut down in 1985 for these reasons is still waiting for someone to come up with a way to decommission it. Basically if you see proposals for a reactor that moves the fuel around while it's running you're looking at something which can go badly wrong with very problematic consequences.

    9. MonkeyCee Silver badge

      Re: Thorium reactors

      My broad understanding of the choice was that researching and building nukes was/is government run (at various arms lengths) even more so than power generation. Perhaps as much as arms manufacturing.

      So two models of reactors where built at prototype stage, fission and thorium. Both promised cheap power, however one had more potential for weapons making. Also the relative cost of power was at the time hard to estimate, as estimating the cost of engineering an upscaled solution involves a fair bit of hand waving.

      Therefore only one program was pushed, since there's a limit to how much resources that can be thrown at it. It's about deciding to follow a path, because there isn't enough time/money/people to pursue it all. While it may seem "easy" I believe the engineering and piping of water, even superheated, was/is easier than doing the same for thorium salts.

      The "but why don't we have it" could perhaps be more directed at the fusion research spending, which if had gone on building larger scale thorium reactors maybe would have more deployable tech. But as noted in the article, it's good that the tech super powers are working on it at a scale that's actually creating demand.

      Always confused by the "subsidies" grumbling. Er, all energy sources are. There are explicit (and often implicit) guarantees to producers in order to ensure stability of the national grid. I'd prefer it if they where all stated, but that might be too hard an accounting feat whilst terrifying the natives more about nukes.

      The author was a little too easily dismissing of some of my favorites. Run of river hydro and geo thermal work well and there is usually existing infrastructure that can be used. A lot of the engineering work for watermills has been done. I hear there's all sorts of holes dug under blighty. As for bio fuels, I thought they'd pretty much moved away from virgin (ie edible) oils, even going as far as renting their oil to food industry first so that it gets used, then used as fuel. All this waffle about hydrogen economy, yet I can still drive a diesel engine right now on corn oil* pressed from locally grown maize.

      * Yeah yeah, it needs treating before it can actually start the engine or be left running it, so you've got to top and tail with real diesel, and if you get corn oil in the wrong hole life is sucky. So big oil will be here to stay

    10. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

      Re: Thorium reactors

      ...Seriously, if Thorium reactors are the cure, what's the snag? Why aren't we using this cheap wonder fuel?

      Because if you propose that a Thorium reactor be built, you will find your house and place of work overrun by protesters who would make the Balcombe incident look like a small picnic.

      I'm not actually complaining about that. It is, after all, what democracy is about. People are allowed to express their opinions. But that is the reason for the lack of Thorium development. It's just not a technical one.

  17. David Pollard

    "What is wrong with this idea?"

    Although the capital cost of solar will fall further, for it to be used externally the panels and supports use quite a bit of material. Unlike chips, there are fairly high transport and installation costs. Also omitted from the analysis here is that even if the cost of land use is low or zero, the cost of maintenance is always likely to be significant.

    Hydrogen has been extensively promoted but it's not all that easy to store. What are real-world costs likely to be for smallish volumes?

    What is really needed is a replacement for liquid fuels, not just for cars but for aircraft, farming and mining and so forth. It might be better to be looking for means to make methanol and ethanol from cheap energy.

    Given that run-of-the-mill nuclear power stations are currently the best option for power generation, how does year round off-peak stack up against solar? In the UK I think this will work out to be considerably better value for some while.

    1. PC Paul

      Re: "What is wrong with this idea?"

      Although the capital cost of solar will fall further, for it to be used externally the panels and supports use quite a bit of material. Unlike chips, there are fairly high transport and installation costs.

      Is there any reason not to make generic roof covering solar panels, instead of having layers of tiles, insulation, brackets, rails, framework and *then* solar PV panels?

      Simple interlocking weatherproof insulated panels designed to be slapped on a roof by your average roofer then plugged in by a domestic electrician would be a massive seller as far as I can see - but the nearest I have seen is hugely expensive tiny solar tiles designed to be installed in amongst normal roof tiles.

      There's nothing at all to stop some of the panels being for solar thermal (water heating) instead of/as well as PV either.

      I'd buy a roof-full.

      1. Frederic Bloggs

        Re: "What is wrong with this idea?"

        They are available, houses have been built with them, but they are significantly more expensive both to buy and then get past the planners who don't seem to be with the zeitgeist (unless one lives in Germany, obviously).

    2. oolor

      Re: "What is wrong with this idea?"

      >What is really needed is a replacement for liquid fuels

      There are methods to use algae to produce hydrocarbons. Lets say we can develop these further, place the reaction chambers (make a semi-artificial membrane) into something similar to the solar roofing shingles (which have been available for years now), and voila, you have your own rooftop/side-of-highrise petrol plant (pun on plant(s) not intended, but considering chloroplasts or a synthetic derivative would be used, I hereby lay claim to my unintended brilliance).

  18. kmac499

    Disruptive Night Time Solar..

    I like your analysis and I agree that efficiency doesn't always trump cost if the net benefit is worth it.. and it's the only serious game in town.

    I also agree that distributed Solar PV, as the pimary device to capture green enrgy sources is a no-brainer. Once we've got a souce of leccy in our homes we can easily modify our house wiring, to keep hot water cisterns or preheaters on combi systems.. warm. Let alone taking a bulk of the base load for fridges freezers phone chargers Tv on stndaby

    Storage could be local batteries maybe even super capacitors initially ( well understood and currently cheap.) which could be migrated to reverseable fuel cells as their cost drops

    The hope is that as well as a version of Moores law applying to panel production we find a novel and disruptive technology to make the from, like this one from Idaho

    http://www.engadget.com/2008/02/02/infrared-solar-panels-even-work-at-night-but-cant-output-energ/

    Dirt cheap Nano-scale antennae printed on sheets that pick up Infra red day and night. Just the slight problem of stepping down the frequency from a few Tera-Hertz to 50Hz at the plug. But that's the nature of disruptive tech, one day it's impossible, tomorrow it's impractical then next week it's everywhere

    Plus If you haven't read it try this http://www.withouthotair.com/ by David Mackay an excellent and Quntitative book on the problem of energy

    1. Tweetiepooh

      Re: Disruptive Night Time Solar..

      When we had solar PV fitted we asked about getting power in a power cut. The answer was no as you need AC to run the inverter and also you don't want to generate if you aren't using it and can't feed into the grid which you can't do in a power cut.

      Surely it can't be too difficult to have some form of UPS to provide the A/C to the inverter to keep it going if mains input is lost and some way to control charging and use in these situations? I'm not an engineer so really just wondering.

      1. squigbobble

        Re: Disruptive Night Time Solar..

        I wondered that myself (though I'm not buying any PV). Plug a bog standard UPS into the mains output from the inverter, then plug the inverter AC input into the UPS AC output.... This probably violates some IEEE reg by creating a temporal causality loop.

        You can get inverters that are meant to run completely off grid, generating their own sinewave but they are £££££, apparently. Some Googling will probably clear up exactly how much more.

      2. Stoneshop Silver badge

        Re: Disruptive Night Time Solar..

        The answer was no as you need AC to run the inverter

        Depends on the inverter. Ones that can run in 'island' mode don't necessarily need mains AC, although getting them synced when AC is restored may require a restart.

        There's also the possibility of using an offline UPS (the type that basically runs off batteries that are kept topped up while there's AC), with a separate charging circuit grafted on that runs directly off your PV panels.

  19. <shakes head>

    insurance

    i believe that the main reason for not building new Pukes is the required public liability insurance.

    and there was a story a while ago about turning water and co2 into alcohole, for fuel

  20. Mike Richards

    'and there's no marine engineer I've found who thinks that anyone has looked seriously at the problem of maintenance of metallic structures in the salt water of the North Sea.'

    Aren't oil rigs kind of made of metal? And in the North Sea.

    1. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

      ..and boats. Don't forget boats. Some of them float in the North Sea.

      Not only that, but they are designed by Marine Engineers. Indeed, there are special Marine Corrosion Engineers. Some of them live in special places like this:

      Center for Corrosion Science & Engineering

      I'm not saying that they have all corrosion problems completely sussed, but I'll bet you could find marine engineers in there who are 'seriously thinking' about maintenance of metallic structures in all sorts of seas...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: maintenance of metallic structures in all sorts of seas...

        "there are special Marine Corrosion Engineers. Some of them live in special places like this:"

        Weird, isn't it. Similar experience also exists in Yoorp, and quite possibly elsewhere. E.g. I bet the Koreans know a thing or two, given their current place in the heavy marine engineering market - Samsung don't just make chips and phones and stuff, they do a few larger and heavier things too.

        It's almost as if Worstall scribbles in some kind of parallel universe which occasionally intersects with what most people here might call reality.

  21. conan

    There are some really interesting comments here and people seem to know a fair bit about the grid and how it works, as well as the energy tech itself. Anyone in London fancy coming to speak at Cleanweb? http://www.cleanweb.org.uk/

  22. Nigel 11

    Thorium reactors and A-bombs.

    The trouble with a Uranium fission reactor is that it inevitably breeds Plutonium, which can be chemically separated and used to make bombs.

    A Thorium reactor inevitably breeds Uranium-233. I've never been able to find out whether it's possible to build U233 bombs. Anyone know for sure? Thorium reactor advocates often say this technology is safe against A-bomb proliferation, but why? U233 is quite definitely fissile.

    Last time I Googled this I found no good answers, and probably got myself an elevated NSA-profile. Anyone *know*?

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Thorium reactors and A-bombs.

      > The trouble with a Uranium fission reactor is that it inevitably breeds Plutonium

      Very inefficiently and very easy to check. Unless your reactor is a Windscale model with a permanent feed. And then you need a reprocessing plant.

      Which why the perma-shitting over Iran's pressurized water reactor is just fakery btw.

      > U233 is quite definitely fissile.

      Amurricans tried it and it didn't work particularly well. It's also easy to detect and difficult to handle because of the gamma-ray barbeque you are building when using U233. Use Pu, young man.

    2. Robert Sneddon

      Re: Thorium reactors and A-bombs.

      The US fired a couple of U-233 devices back in the mid-50s and they worked well enough. They may not have been weaponised i.e. turned into something they could drop out of a B-52 but they had Pu-239 and U-235 to play with. I've never heard what the Soviets might have been up to with U-233 at the same time.

      The proliferation problem with thorium reactors breeding U-233 is it can be chemically separated out of the fuel stream to produce pure U-233 which will work as a bomb core. Regular uranium reactor fuel starts off with a small percentage of U-235 mixed in with lots of U-238 and the spent fuel has a mixture of Pu-239 and Pu-240 in it, produced by breeding up from the U-238. Pu-239 makes good weapon cores but the presence of Pu-240 in the mix causes a lot of technical problems if someone tries this, with massive amounts of radiation and a lot of self-heating and the Pu-240 is difficult to near-impossible to separate from the good stuff next door.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Thorium reactors and A-bombs.

        That's not what I heard. The Thorium fuel cycle normally does produce U-233, yes, but it's usually contaminated with U-232, which is not only extremely dangerous (it's worse than the 233, which is more dangerous than plutonium) but also extremely hard to separate from the U-233 because they're so close in atomic weight (U-235 is 3 away from U-238 and is still a pain to separate, U-232 is only 1 away from U-233).

    3. Herbert Meyer
      Boffin

      Re: Thorium reactors and A-bombs.

      Yes, it is possible to make weapons from U233, the US did it back in the 50's when they were not sure how much Uranium was easily mined. U233 is to Thorium as Plutonium is to Uranium, it can be produced in a breeder reactor. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium-233 for sketchy information about two U233 weapons tests in the 50's.

      My opinion is that the other uses of thorium are raising the price. Thorium is used in vacuum tube cathodes, and gas lamp mantles. There is a US patent 3692689 from 1972 about a Thorium Phosphor used in lamps of unspecified type. Perhaps a CFL lamp ?

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Thorium reactors and A-bombs.

        From a breeder reactor, yes, but from the byproduct of a Thorium fuel cycle? Not likely because the byproduct is usually laced with very-hard-to-separate and very-dangerous Uranium-232.

      2. Tim Worstal

        Re: Thorium reactors and A-bombs.

        Could be: "My opinion is that the other uses of thorium are raising the price"

        Although it's very difficult to think of what they might be. And I speak as someone who has actually sold thorium in the past. That sale price being the cost of the paperwork plus a margin, the metal itself was essentially free.

        There are a couple of pounds a year used in the metal halide lighting industry. The gas lamp mantles stopped using it (in the western world at least) a couple of decades ago. Last I looked the US market for thorium was $300,000 a year (yes, three hundred thousand dollars) which is basically nothing.

        1. Robert Sneddon

          Other uses for thorium

          Thorium is used in small amounts in specialist welding rods and wire. Still not a mass market though.

  23. Nigel 11

    Solar Thermal storage

    The other way to store energy from sunlight is extremely simple, and doesn't even need Solar PV cells. Concentrate the sunlight with a big mirror. Use it to melt stuff. Generate electricity using the molten stuff to generate steam and spin turbines. "Stuff" is one of a number of possible salts and metals (and maybe polymers, if a good polymer chemist sat down to think about the requirement).

    For overnight electricity, pump the molten stuff into a big well-insulated tank, for use to generate steam after sunset.

    Solar-Thermal doesn't get the press that Solar-PV does, but I'll hazard a guess that polished aluminium mirrors will always be cheaper than high-tech PV panels.

    1. PC Paul

      Re: Solar Thermal storage

      It's being done - Gemasolar in Spain uses BIG well insulated tanks to store molten salt at 550C+overnight and generate power 24/7. Full tanks can run the plant for up to 15 hours with no sunlight at all, or just top it up on dull days to keep the output at full power for much longer.....

    2. oolor

      Re: Solar Thermal storage

      >and maybe polymers

      Stick to salts or organic solutions, polymers are a hassle at scale.

  24. mchaplin

    What about the Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor?

    Check out this video

    http://transatomicpower.com/company.php

    Say goodbye to nuclear waste!

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: What about the Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor?

      Hate to rain on the parade, but I believe that design (a variant on the MSR) makes a lot of assumptions about the fuels it can handle. Because there are plenty of contaminants natually produced in nuclear fuel cycles that can affect future reactions (it's part of the reason they're left as waste rather than reprocessed into new fuel).

      MIT may be full of eggheads, but I don't recall the design being vetted by the oldest heads in the nuclear industry as of yet. Some of them, IIRC, posted similar criticisms.

      1. sisk Silver badge

        Re: What about the Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor?

        A shame that. Until they come up with a better way to deal with their waste than burying it I consider nuclear power no better than fossil fuels with regards to pollution. Now cost is a different story (and the difference will grow as the fossil fuels get harder to find), but nuclear energy is far from clean at the moment.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    OK, this may be a really naive question, but taking the idea that we can't use tidal power because metal devices can't stand seawater environments without regular expensive maintenance and too frequent replacement as read, I have to ask...

    why don't we build them out of something else? We've moved on in material science since the days of Brunel.

    1. Nigel 11

      Sea-water corrosion

      Corrosion is probably the easier part of the seawater problem.

      The other part is that it's full of living organisms, and they're looking for something solid to anchor themselves to (and, often, to eat). Look at just about anything that's been sitting in the sea for a while, and it's covered with life-forms.

      They still don't know how to make submarine cables that won't be destroyed by marine life within a small number of decades. Moving parts, that's harder still.

  26. Rol Silver badge

    Transmission is key

    As already pointed out, solar alone is very limiting, requiring either local storage or an even greater international cooperation to feed the power around the globe as it spins.

    I've mentioned this before, so sorry for boring you again, but I do remember the gloriously naive announcement about how quantum entanglement would bring the reality of Star Trek teleporting a step nearer. Although I scoffed at the idea as just another catchy headline, it did get me thinking.

    Well, let's start small, very small, let's transport an electron by this method.

    More pertinently, let's transport an electron from sunny Africa at midday to America at midnight and if that is doable, let's put the solar collectors into orbit around the Sun and power our planet 24/7.

    I have tried to find more information about QE, but beyond the hyperbole of news headlines, lies a world of Unwinese that is beyond this mere mortals comprehension. Any pointers to something intelligible, would be appreciated, by not just me, but the whole of El Reg, as I would at least stop banging on about it.

    Or a qualified rebuttal would do very nicely, like, "I'm a boffin and I can categorically say QE works on spin and only spin, throwing Captain Kirk into the melee, was just a journalistic vehicle to get plebs like you to read something interesting, whilst maintaining your ratio of knowledge verses bullshit within state approved guidelines"

    1. squigbobble

      Re: Transmission is key

      QE can only convey information, not energy.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Transmission is key

        IOW, you're not teleporting an electrion; you're making an electron on the other end move by moving the one on your end. Think of it like a variant of the tin-can telephone.

        1. Rol Silver badge

          Re: Transmission is key

          Thank you, for the answer and also for not rubbing it in. I think that idea's been put to bed, hopefully in a comatose state.

          Oh well back to reality, back to laser sharks.

      2. John 62

        Re: Transmission is key

        There is an energy-information equivalence. Entropy affects information just as much as it affects energy.

        Anyway. QE doesn't really transmit anything, energy, information or otherwise. Well, it does, but it doesn't do so usefully: i.e. while the spooky action at a distance does happen instantaneously as far as our clocks can measure, it does not transfer any information other than that you suddenly know that the other person's photon has the opposite state of your photon.

        Someone here will probably educate me further on this, but my understanding is that QE works by entangling two things together, currently mostly photons are entangled. In this state, both photons will have all possible states, a superposition, i.e. (for for simplicity's sake) both will be spinning left and right simultaneously, but as you know that's absurd, so you look to see which one is spinning left and which is spinning right and you discover that as is right and proper, one is spinning left and one is spinning right, but which is which is entirely random. The fun thing is that photons will maintain their entanglement even if they are far apart and that by observing one of the photons, you find out what spin it has and the other photon instantaneously turns out to be spinning the opposite way, even though it is spatially far apart from it's previously entangled mate.

        BUT as far as transmitting information via QE is concerned, you can't use the collapse of the superposition as a signalling mechanism because a signal has to be observed to be useful and the mere act of observation collapses the superposition. Hence Bob cannot wait for Alice to signal to him via QE (by collapsing the superposition and imposing a state on Bob's photon) because until Bob observes his photon he won't know whether Alice has sent the signal or not - and if Bob peeks to see what the state of his photon is, he'll break the superposition whether or not Alice has already done so.

        Oh, you meant Quantitative Easing! Well, sorry, no-one can really help you there.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    FAIL

    "we might have to do what certain Greens so dearly hope we will do – go back to using energy when it's available rather than this luxury of using it when we want to"

    -- Don't be bloody stupid. There are very few people in the world who actually wish for such a thing. Most 'greens' advocate energy generation in sustainable ways which don't have the side effect of destroying the environment - which is NOT the same thing.

    "We've no decent storage system"

    -- Don't jump to conclusions. I happen to know of engineers who are working on a viable storage technology right now which is capable of solving this problem. Leave the engineering sector get on with solving the engineering problems - Stop putting politically motivated roadblocks in the way.

  28. fortran

    Th cycle, and economic models

    As pointed out above, Thorium can be used in CANDU. Th-232 absorbs a neutron to become Th-233, which decays to Pa-233, which decays to U-233. It is U-233 which is fissile, and can under go fission. U-232 gets into the Th fuel cycle via a (n,2n) on the U-233 daughter. Some neutron captures of U-233 lead to the production of U-234 and not fission. Also, Pa-233 can capture a neutron, to become Pa-234. Both paths lead towards producing heavier and heavier actinides. The longish (about 1 month) half life of Pa-233 is what I dislike. Others in the comments recognized U-232 as being a source of problem.

    I think some of the problems society has with uranium, thorium and by association, the rare earths, is the idea that they can be owned. If a person stumbles across (what is conventionally) a uranium ore, there will be some thorium present and almost always there are rare earths. If you stumble across a thorium ore, there may be uranium present, and almost always there are rare earths. If you stumble across a rare earth "ore", usually thorium is present and sometimes uranium is present.

    There is nothing wrong (in theory) to someone "owning" rare earths, the problem is this idea of owning uranium or thorium. A uranium mine want to only remove uranium, and leave everything else behind. The problem for me, is now all the decay chain of the leftovers is being supported by the Th-230 (half life 75,400 years). The leftovers are nominally 70+% of the activity of the parent ore body. But the original ore body was probably mostly competent rock, and after processing we are left with powdered rock. The surface area to volume ratio has gone from near zero to a huge number. Soluble species are more easily removed, and radon has almost no problem escaping. Refined thorium immediately after processing, is not much of a problem. But refined thorium has a small amount of Th-228 (at almost 2 year half life) in it, and its daughters all quickly come into equilibrium. And there is significant surface hazard right at the end of the Th-232 decay chain, with a 5 MeV beta and a 9 or 10 MeV alpha.

    Thorium has some useful metallurgical applications, the problem is these daughters coming back quite quickly (and sort of temporarily), and then everything getting resupported by Th-232. If people could only "rent" thorium and they had to return it when they were done with it, we could avoid a lot of the radiation hazard by continuously reprocessing radium upon return. If uranium processing was required to capture most of the thorium as well, the long term hazard of tailings would go down significantly. But a person has to attach those ideas to rare earth mining, in that every rare earth mine must recover most of the uranium and thorium copresent, and either store it properly or forward it to an agency which will.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re. thorium

    I did have a thought about using the same technology in photonic lattice LEDs to make solar cells more efficient..

  30. RcR

    Energy inefficiency

    Many posters are missing the point. There is nothing inherently wrong with solar energy and its capture/transition efficiency or inefficiency relative to nuclear/petrol/coal or whatever. Since it is a use it or lose it proposition, it is logical to ignore the efficiency of solar energy when costs to transition it to H, etc. are sufficiently low. After all, photosynthesis is only 1% efficient and that is on a good day.

  31. johnwerneken
    Mushroom

    It's all Religion

    MY religion is human power and empowerment!

    I spit on the Religion of avoiding risks! And on democracy for that matter - useful to control the power of the State, dangerous to have actually in control of ANYTHING!

    Thorium and Solar cells (or space-based) with decent in cost storage, those are great and were the point of the article. Not FuckYuppiesShima.

    There is NO real problem at Fukashima, not compared to the hazards of hydroelectric damn failures in earthquakes, or mining, or even oil transportation. Wake up idiot environmental jihadists!

    Maybe its better if you do NOT wake up. You are the ENEMY OF MANKIND!

  32. sisk Silver badge

    Flywheels anyone?

    It's not a subject I pay a great deal of attention to, but every solar plant that I'm seen (as a regular consumer of documentaries for entertainment and not a knowledgeable engineer, so here's your salt) use massive flywheels to store their excess energy for nighttime use. And, believe it or not, flywheels are another technology that's improving (though not at a Moore's like speed admittedly). Better materials are meaning that we can spin a smaller flywheel faster rather than building a bigger, heavier one. Following a certain formula regarding energy and momentum we get greater efficiency from more velocity than from more mass. Basically the things are ideal for a stationary application such as a solar power plant.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Flywheels anyone?

      Interesting thought. How low have they gotten their coefficient of friction at this point, and how do they address the isue of air viscocity?

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Meh

        Re: Flywheels anyone?

        "Interesting thought. How low have they gotten their coefficient of friction at this point, and how do they address the isue of air viscocity?"

        It's SOP for flywheels to operate in an evacuated sealed enclosure.

        No air friction.

        The SoA system is magnetic bearings to support the wheel and a solid state motor/alternator system

        So no motion friction either.

        SoA also tend to be carbon fibre, designed to fragment into very small fragments, or a Russian design using a wound tape. If the tape fails due to stress the 'wheel dissipates the energy by the tape unraveling.

        Energy storage rises with the square of the rotating speed. I'm not current on top speed but I do know that an air bearing could spin a load up to 250 000 RPM over a decade ago.

    2. Robert Sneddon

      Re: Flywheels anyone?

      Flywheels cost money to build and operate and you don't get a lot of storage for your investment. The cheapest mass energy storage system around is pumped hydro. In the UK the two big storage plants are Dinorwic in Wales and Cruachan in Scotland, holding about 8GWhr each when fully topped up. That's about half an hour of normal consumption in the UK. They cost about a billion quid each in todays money to build so reckon to spend about 100 million quid per GWh for this sort of storage, assuming you've got lots and lots of water (not something solar plants tend to have nearby given the near-desert conditions they're situated in) and good geography with high and low reservoirs separated by only a kilometre or less to reduce energy losses due to friction. They still waste about 30% of the energy produced by solar, wind and other generators in the store/resupply cycle.

  33. djheydt

    Returning to the last topic but one -- offshore wind generators ....

    Long long ago I worked for a Professor of Mechanical Engineering whose specialty was cathodic protection [of turbine blades, etc.] in marine conditions. Could offshore wind generators tap off some of their own generated power to apply cathodic protection against corrosion?

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Well, it's a consideration. Would probably depend on the turbine's current generation. If it's DC, it wouldn't be difficult to tap some of it to apply an impressed current. Thing is, you'll still need a metal anode for the process. It would all depend on the conditions whether or not a galvanic or impressed-current system would be practical.

  34. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    Some fundamentals need to be addressed...

    ...I am making the assumption that we'd all like to have some method of generating electricity that doesn't involve pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere.

    Not necessarily true.

    It has been pretty obvious for the last 15-20 years that increased CO2 in the atmosphere does not result in runaway heating, and is a net benefit to plant life.

    You will also find if you delve into the detail of the various papers on the subject, that the human input to the increased CO2 concentrations we have noted over the last 60 years is not well understood at all, and likely to be FAR lower than the IPCC claims which are politically-based 'science'. It seems likely that CO2 fluctuations are overwhelmingly natural, and human contributions have a small impact, well below the levels which the natural processes can cope with.

    As a general principle, if all other issues are precisely equal, it seems sensible to pick an option which has the least external impact. But if CO2 output has a very small impact, is probably beneficial, and the large-scale manufacture and operation of solar arrays has an unquantified impact, I would be inclined to stick with the fossil-fuel system which was working so well for us until we tried to shut it down on dubious political grounds.

    I agree that the future is nuclear. I see no reason why solar power needs to be added to the mix. You should note that powering nuclear baseline systems up and down again every day will lower the thermodynamic efficiency to something chronic!

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Happy

      Re: Some fundamentals need to be addressed...

      " I see no reason why solar power needs to be added to the mix. You should note that powering nuclear baseline systems up and down again every day will lower the thermodynamic efficiency to something chronic!"

      Because the author has a load of Indium and Gallium he wants to shift perhaps?

      Just kidding.

  35. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    What we have here is a failure....

    ...to understand the fundamental requirement.

    1 - We need energy. We either get this by generating locally as we need it (a car, for instance), or using a GRID.

    2 - The GRID works by matching energy inputs to energy outputs over an energy transport system. To do this it needs:

    a) efficient baseline generation capability

    b) flexible top-up generation capability

    3 - Nuclear is fine for baseline. But Solar is completely useless for flexible top-up. The only thing it could do would be to save a bit of nuclear fuel at the expense of making the nuclear systems less thermodynamically efficient. But nuclear fuel is incredibly cheap, and effectively limitless - so there's no point in saving it as there might be with, for instance, oil.

    4 - Tim Worstall's proposals for running the Grid are therefore fundamentally flawed.

  36. AndrueC Silver badge
    WTF?

    there's no marine engineer I've found who thinks that anyone has looked seriously at the problem of maintenance of metallic structures in the salt water of the North Sea.

    Really? What do they do about oil rigs and ships then? Are you trying to tell me they just drop them in the ocean then hope for the best?

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      These systems typically use cathodic protection: either galvanic or impressed-current (the larger the ship, the more likely it's the latter). Thing is, cathodic protection relies on the consumption and eventual replenishment of a metal anode like zinc. Since ships are regularly dry-docked, replacing their anodes is easy enough. An impressed-current system allows for the anode to be placed elsewhere where it can maintained more easily, but it adds a power requirement. At least oil rigs tend to be manned while in use. The same can't always be said of windmills.

      1. AndrueC Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Thanks for that Charles, you learn something new every day :)

  37. KX1B

    Thorium is the answer

    If it weren't for the radioactive decay of the unstable elements at the core of the Earth, life as we know it would not be possible. Thorium is one of the two radioactive elements found in abundance at the Earth's surface that can be refined into fuel to power a reactor for electric generation. Thorium is four times more abundant on Earth than Uranium.

    Thorium reactors can also recycle nuclear 'waste' from conventional Uranium reactors leaving almost no waste to deal with. The reactor designs can not only recycle waste, they can breed additional fuels that can be 'burned' in the reactors themselves. These reactor designs are not reliant on high pressure steam or hot water to spin turbines that generate electricity. The level of radioactivity is much lower and the reactor designs developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have an automatic shutdown mechanism built-in if the reactor becomes too hot.

    But the fact that its 'nuclear' scares people. Plutonium and U-238 are not produced as a by-product by a Thorium reactor so there is no potential for weapons grade Pu or U being produced. This is why the U.S. Government abandoned this design in the 1960's. They needed a reliable source for the production of Pu and U-238 in weapons grade refinement to power the nuclear weapons programs.

  38. hebintn

    Hydrogen and fuel cells

    A good summary. One point regarding hydrogen and fuel cells. Fuel cells are outrageously expensive. Hydrogen as an energy storage medium will be great when we figure out a good way to produce it. Electrolysis is not the answer. It takes a lot of energy to generate H2 via electrolysis. New technology from MIT is on the horizon using "artificial photosynthesis". And, new "battery" technology will solve the storage of excess power from off hours.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why can we just store energy by pumping water uphill?

    You can turn on a hydro plant in seconds - storage of the water i very efficient and safe. Just pump water to the top when you've got excess energy.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why can we just store energy by pumping water uphill?

      "You can turn on a hydro plant in seconds - storage of the water i very efficient and safe. Just pump water to the top when you've got excess energy."

      Correct. Marvellous stuff, pumped storage.

      Now go read Mackay http://www.withouthotair.com/ and learn about how much space it takes to store a useful quantity of energy (summary: a lot). And how little suitable space there is in the UK (Wales and Scotland have existing significant installations, maybe Westminster should be a bit more careful how it treats the non-Tory areas). And that's before we even start thinking about "the market" and corporate reluctance to invest in stuff that doesn't let them make a fast buck.

      Norway has plenty of pumped storage candidate sites too. It may be across the sea but we already have gas pipelines there, and the technology to connect our grid to Norway exists so we could treat it much like we do Scottish and Welsh pumped storage, or the 2GW HVDC interconnect to France, but bigger.

      What doesn't exist is a market mechanism to make it happen: to paraphrase National Grid, "the technology is there, permits and plans have been in place since 2003, but we can't find a way to make it make economic sense in the current market"

      http://www.nationalgrid.com/uk/Interconnectors/Norway/

      It's not an engineering problem. It's a political problem.

  40. whatsa

    Hydro-Better yet look at its efficiencies

    a lead acid battery which is not great is miles better than hydro on a ROI basis.

    What about indias new LEU thorium reactors.

    What about ITERs new fussion reactor

    ( I honestly think everyone will bicker for the next 20-30 yrs till this is done and then the greenies can be silenced)

    Solar prices - well that's now because Chinas manufacturing the cells

    - any greenie want to hazard a guess what the energy source is?

    as 95% of the cost of them is energy in the manufacturing process?

    Unfortunately we have big energy needs and its going to need a big solution

    Having lived of solar exclusively ( well tried...) its a fallacy...

    LPG and diesel are still the work-horses in these scenerios.

    for the householder

    yes you're still on the grid -its just the smoke and mirrors that greenies lie about.

    1. Robert Sneddon

      India's planned thorium reactors use MEU, about 20% enriched, as a neutron source to transmute the thorium into an isotope, U-233 that will fission and release energy. The planned fuel mix also includes plutonium for an extra kick and the two non-thorium additives produce (theoretically) about 10-20% of the energy produced in a complete refuelling cycle. As far as I know the Indians have never actually built or run a thorium-based reactor, they're still a paper exercise. A few folks are working on using thorium as a fuel additive in existing PWRs and heavy-water reactors but it's still early days and there's no economic justification for using it since uranium is really cheap now and into the forseeable future.

      As for the comparison between lead-acid batteries and pumped storage... Dinorwig in Wales stores about 8 GWh at full capacity, a car battery stores about 600Wh so it would take over ten million of them to match the capacity of Dinorwig. Assume a wholesale cost of about 50 quid each just for the batteries (never mind housing them, supplying the charging gear etc.) the battery array would cost about the same as Dinorwig did to build, roughly 500 million quid. Great! Except you'd have to replace all the batteries after a couple of years of operation, especially if they get deep-cycled. Dinorwig was built about forty years ago and is still going strong -- I think it costs a few million quid a year to run and there's no plans to close it as it still works fine, it's mostly concrete and pipes and water doesn't wear out.

  41. Paul J Turner

    We've also got at least one more major design change possible:

    Wow, that was a quick move from 40% to 44.7% PV efficiency.

    Now to see if they can mass-produce them at the right price.

    http://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/en/press-and-media/press-releases/presseinformationen-2013/world-record-solar-cell-with-44.7-efficiency

    ... conversion of sunlight into electricity using a new solar cell structure with four solar subcells. ...

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      Re: We've also got at least one more major design change possible:

      "Wow, that was a quick move from 40% to 44.7% PV efficiency.

      Now to see if they can mass-produce them at the right price."

      And that's where it gets tricky

      On the upside it can run at 297 suns so 1cm^2 of cell goes a long way.

      And you can probably tap fairly high grade heat off it's back face.

      But it's still a long way from anyone's roof.

  42. SpiderPig

    Rare Earths are not rare

    I think after reading some of the comments people don't really understand what a "rare earth" is. Does not mean it is rare as in limited quantities but it actually means it is rarely used. In the case of Thorium, basically the whole planet is made of the stuff, it is what gives the planet its heat.

    This abundance is also one of the main reasons why it should be utilised as a nuclear fuel instead of Uranium and it cannot be weaponised. You do need the waste from current uranium fuelled reactors to kick the Thorium reaction off but that's it.

    Also regarding fusion - dream on it will never happen, just as getting base load power from Solar and Wind.

  43. edkellyus

    StratoSolar

    The general idea that solar is pretty cheap and is getting cheaper over time and that electrolysis of water from cheap electricity can provide for night-time electricity and liquid fuels is spot on. The problem is the time it will take.

    It's possible that at the historical rate of cost reduction solar PV will be cheap enough in twenty years. That may be soon enough if deployment continues, depending on your perspective on CO2 emissions.

    Deployment is almost 100% dependent on subsidies. These have waxed and waned over the years. Europe was leading the pack, but has just pulled back in a major way. Japan, China and the US have co incidentally and simultaneously increased subsidies so the world subsidy has stayed constant. This was not co ordinated and subsidies could easily decline. For example current solar subsidies in the US are set to decline drastically in 2016

    Even in the sunny southwest of the USA with today's vastly cheaper PV, solar still needs over 50% subsidy (ITC+accelerated depreciation). At the well known 20%/doubling rate of improvement it won't be competitive there for another ten years or more. That's not much help to the cloudy UK and Europe with less than half the US southwest solar resource. These prices will mean that energy from stored PV or fuel synthesized from PV will cost multiples more than today's fuel

    It is unlikely that there will be a breakthrough that accelerates the rate of improvement in PV. This means if you want to accelerate cost reduction you have to find a more abundant solar resource. The desert and Space have much more solar resource than average ground solar. Both have been seriously examined, but are not likely to be viable for a long time either (if ever).

    There is an abundant solar resource 20km straight up in the low stratosphere that triples the solar resource available. This holds the promise of reducing PV electricity cost by a factor of three very quickly, while still benefiting from the long term PV cost reduction. This offers a solution for affordable electricity now rather than waiting and hoping for the next twenty or more years. An acceleration in volume from increased adoption of cheap PV electricity reduces its cost and gets to cheap synthetic fuels.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: StratoSolar

      "There is an abundant solar resource 20km straight up in the low stratosphere that triples the solar resource available. This holds the promise of reducing PV electricity cost by a factor of three very quickly, while still benefiting from the long term PV cost reduction. This offers a solution for affordable electricity now rather than waiting and hoping for the next twenty or more years. An acceleration in volume from increased adoption of cheap PV electricity reduces its cost and gets to cheap synthetic fuels."

      Except for two things. First, how do you get the PV array that high up and KEEP it up there? 20kn is still well within Earth's gravity well. At least in space, you can park in geostationary orbit or at a Lagrange Point and not expect it to drift away and/or fall. About the only way you could achieve this with positive energy return is to build a space elevator first.

      Second, and this one applies to the space solution as well, how do you get the energy back down? A 20-km-long umbilical would be impractical (see the space elevator problem), which means it would have to be transmitted wirelessly, probably by laser, but then there are plenty of horror stories about solar-powered lasers being hacked or going awry and causing havoc. Plus you have to account for some of the energy being diverted into and absorbed by the atmosphere, which could have long-term issues of its own.

      1. edkellyus

        Re: StratoSolar

        Buoyancy at 20km is about one tenth of ground level so you need 10 times the volume for a particular buoyancy. This means things are large, but PV needs square kilometers to generate meaningful amounts of power, so large is what is needed. HV transmission down aluminum conductors 20km long is short compared to what is done at ground level. Aluminum is not strong enough to support itself vertically for 20km without a large taper. Lightweight Kevlar or UHMWPE tethers are more than strong enough to support their own weight, the weight of aluminum conductors and have the residual strength to resist wind and buoyancy forces. Nothing strange or exotic. Just basic engineering. Read the website. Ready, shoot, aim.

  44. Mips
    Childcatcher

    Wow. What a lot of hot air this generated.

    I was thinking about this subject this morning and it is no surprise I came to the conclusion "the only way is nuclear".

    Other sources have some use but PV is limited in capacity, and weather supported ie wave and wind are unreliable with highly testing technology.

    Do not ever think that tidal power is renewable, it is not. The earth rotates and generates tides. When the ride rises it takes energy from the earth and when it fall the tide pushes the energy back. If we take energy from the tide it is not returned to the earth and THE EARTH WILL SLOW DOWN. OK, so the earth is slowing anyway but do we need to make it worse?

    Thorium = Brilliant

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wow. What a lot of hot air this generated.

      "If we take energy from the tide it is not returned to the earth and THE EARTH WILL SLOW DOWN. OK, so the earth is slowing anyway but do we need to make it worse?"

      Have you thought about putting some numbers with that undeniably correct logic, to get an idea of how significant the slowdown will be in the next ten, hundred, thousand, million, whatever years?

      You should have.

  45. yunga

    RE: Thorium and inefficient solar power?

    I think you may find that it is neither the Indians, Russians or chinese developing Thorium reactors..

    check out http://www.thorenergy.no/

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: RE: Thorium and inefficient solar power?

      Well, yeah, sorta.

      Spoke to them a couple of weeks back and they're nowhere near anything other than playing with test tubes. They actually said that the positive price of Th was more likely to be something to do with the Russians, Indians or Chinese....

  46. David Pollard

    Pyrolysis and plasma reforming

    Within a couple of decades we might have a situation where we have sufficient nuclear generation and a significant amount of wind generation still running. If gas is then getting difficult, e.g. because of cost or carbon generation, then CCGT won't be as available to smooth out the bumps in supply and demand.

    At such a stage, the intermittent output of wind farms would be vary cheap, as would off-peak electricity. This would benefit any processes that could usefully use intermittent power.

    Plasma reforming of waste and pyrolysis to biochar, syngas and fuel both look promising in such a situation. The main problem is that long-term contracts have been established for waste disposal, where a potentially valuable resource is simply incinerated, and for electricity generation from wood-chip in the mistaken belief that these processes are green.

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