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Germany and Japan Back Away from Nuclear

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

In the last days, the two countries usually described as the world's third and fourth largest economies have taken steps that may signal the ultimate end of their reliance on nuclear energy. Yesterday Japan's beleaguered prime minister said his government would drop plans to build 14 more nuclear power plants; with plants already being taken offline in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, the economic and political ramifications are sure to be very far-reaching. Meanwhile, Germany's government is being advised in a draft report by a panel it appointed to really exit from nuclear energy by the next decade, rather than exit from the exit, which is what Chanceller Angele Merkel would have preferred pre-Fukishima.

It was never particularly obvious why Germany would have built one of its first atomic power plants, Biblis (above), at a scenic spot right on the Rhine River. So it was rather a foregone conclusion after Fukushima that such plants would soon be shuttered for good. But it was not a foregone conclusion that the government would decide to eventually close down all plants and never build any new ones.

Because the political impact of Fukushima will play out over years, it will not be surprising if ultimately Japan's nuclear phobia prevails and the country decides to opt out of nuclear energy completely, following in Germany's steps.

For the record, Japan and Germany are not actually the world's third and fourth largest economies, China is not second, and the United States is not first. In strictly economic terms, the world's largest economy by a wide margin is the European Union; the United States is second, China third, and Japan fourth. The import and impact of Germany's and Japan's turning their backs on nuclear energy is not to be minimized; it is huge. But nor should it be overdone. Germany is the largest state in Europe, but it is not all of Europe. France, Sweden, and Finland remain highly committed to nuclear power, and that is not likely to change. Germany's decision to gradually stop producing nuclear electricity and adopt an all-green energy strategy is comparable to California's. It will have influence in European states that are undecided about nuclear, but not in those that have firmly made up their minds one way or the other.

Fukushima's impact in Asia will be similar. It's not likely to dissuade China and South Korea from sticking with plans to sharply increase reliance on nuclear energy. But in countries like India, which are wavering, its influence could be considerable.

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Physics Panel Dismisses Atmospheric Carbon Capture

Rather than undertake the challenging job of cutting carbon emissions--whether by switching to lower-carbon or zero-carbon fuels, or by capturing emissions at their source--why not just draw carbon out of the atmosphere and bind it chemically to some substance, which could then release it chemically for storage or industrial use? A panel of the American Physical Society (APS), the world's leading physics association, has subjected that tempting idea to close scrutiny and has dismissed it in unusually blunt terms.

Direct air capture of carbon dioxide [DAC] "is not currently an economically viable approach to mitigating climate change. Any commercially interesting DAC system would require significantly lower avoided CO2 costs. . . . In a world that still has centralized sources of carbon emissions, any future deployment that relies on low-carbon energy sources for powering DAC would usually be less cost-effective than simply using the low-carbon energy to displace those centralized carbon sources. Thus, coherent CO2 mitigation postpones deployment of DAC until large, centralized CO2 sources have been nearly eliminated on a global scale. . . . This report provides no support for arguments in favor of delay in dealing with climate change that are based on the availability of DAC as a compensating strategy."

The APS report, prepared by a task force of its Panel on Public Affairs (POPA), is strictly about carbon capture, not carbon storage. For its analysis, it evaluated a benchmark technological scheme developed by the University of Rome's Renato Baciocchi and colleagues and published in 2006. "This scheme was chosen because it both relies largely existing technology and provides detailed information on material and energy balances that are necessary for a cost analysis of an industrial process," the POPA report says. Princeton University's Robert Socolow, who chaired the POPA task force, says the committee found no other analysis done at a comparable level.

Socolow (pictured above) is best known to the general educated public as the co-inventor of a user-friendly analytic model for assessing carbon reduction strategies based on "carbon wedges." That model, it can safely be said, has been by far the most influential carbon policy tool developed in the last decade. POPA also has a formidable track record. It has produced a series of occasional reports on matters of great public import, most notably the massive study it sponsored in the mid-1980s on "directed energy weapons," the so-called DEW study. It subjected the Reagan administration's Star Wars program to withering criticism and contributed to the administration's decision to downplay missile defense systems based on lasers and instead focus on kinetic kill systems--"smart rocks" that knock out incoming missiles by colliding with them.

If the past is any guide to the present, the latest POPA report, "Direct Air Capture of CO2 with Chemicals," will take atmospheric capture of carbon off the policy agenda. This means, together with the collapse of an anticipated nuclear renaissance, that coming to terms with climate change will be more challenging than ever.

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Compressed-air Car Proponents Losing Faith

Licensees of the much-hyped AirPOD minicar are pressing for results from Motor Development International, the Luxembourg-registered firm behind the compressed-air-powered vehicle. In recent postings to their websites and coverage by European news sources, some of MDI's partners are now openly questioning the technology and MDI's capacity to develop it -- questions that Spectrum raised in November 2009 in the investigative feature, "Deflating the Air Car."

When Spectrum's feature went to print, MDI was guaranteeing mass-production of AirPODs within a few months at its development base on France's Cote d'Azur. A year and a half later there is no sign of the promised minicars and their advertised 140-kilometer range, and outspoken licensees are blaming MDI.

Their highest-profile critic is Swiss developer Catecar S.A., which purchased rights to produce and market MDI's vehicles in Switzerland and Liechtenstein for CHF 650,000 ($741,000) according to a report last month by Radio Jura Bernois. Catecar intended to begin turning out AirPODs in March 2010 in nearby Reconvillier, but has yet to receive the technology. MDI says Catecar must pay an additional fee prior to tech transfer (close to CHF 1.7 million according to RJB), which Catecar says is contrary to their licensing agreement. "Catecar does not owe any amount to MDI until it has produced its technology, which to date it has failed to do," writes Catecar principal Henri-Philippe Sambuc in an open letter posted on the firm's website.

Sambuc's letter states that it served MDI with legal notice on January 12 that it was late in delivering its technology. The letter ends with an appeal to MDI's independent shareholders to "start paying attention" to the plight of its licensees.

Christchurch-based alternative energy developer IndraNet Technologies is also expressing frustration. IndraNet formed a joint venture with MDI to build and sell AirPODs in Australia and New Zealand. This spring The Future, a website created to tout the joint venture's sustainability goals, announced the formation of "a group of concerned stakeholders" seeking dialogue on "how best to take what was a promising technology out of the trouble [into which] it appears to have fallen."

The post is entitled "How to mess-up good technology? Deep Concerns about the fate of MDI" and links to a 7-page document with the same title outlining the group's concerns.

MDI's website appears not to have been updated since November, and makes no mention of the licensees' concerns or an eventual date to begin selling AirPODs.

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World Lithium Reserves and Exports

Perhaps because there's a certain romance in imagining an impoverished land-locked country with an idealistic left-wing government as having a lock on what the world may soon need most, Bolivia not infrequently has been described as the future Saudi Arabia of lithium--the element needed to power most handheld and laptop devices today, and which may be powering a large fraction of our motor vehicles in the near future.

So often have I heard this notion of Bolivia's being dominant in lithium, I was startled to hear during a recent visit to the salt flats (above) of Chile's Atacama desert that it is actually Chile, not Bolivia, that leads in lithium exports. The numbers are indeed startling: According to a Wikipedia entry, Chile  was the leading 2009 producer, extracting 7,400 tonnes, more than a third of the world total. Australia came second, with 4,400 tonnes and Argentina third with 2,200 tonnes. Bolivia was not significant enough to be listed at all.

I am of course not the first by any means to debunk the notion of Bolivia's being a Saudi Arabia of lithium any time soon. A year and a half ago a market research firm posted an article pointing out that "Chile provides 61 percent of lithium exports to the United States, with Argentina . . . 36 percent." The Wikipedia entry says Chile holds about 7.5 million tonnes of the world's 9.9 million tonnes of lithium reserves.

To be sure, that does not square with estimates from the U.S. Geological Services: According to USGS, among the three countries the so-called lithium triangle straddles--Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina--Bolivia does in fact have the largest reserves. The USGS says Chile's come to about 3 million tonnes and Argentina’s 400 thousand tonnes,  while Bolivia's are projected at 5.4 million tonnes. So, if the USGS numbers are preferred to Wikepedia's unsourced statistics--and I certainly prefer them!--that means Bolivia may indeed some day be a dominant supplier. But that day may be quite a long way off. For one thing, to be a big world exporter, it needs better access to ocean transport, which will depend in large part on Chile's cooperation.

What brings all this to mind is a flyer I received in the mail at home this week, with a striking photograph of what appear to be mounds of lithium in the Atacama desert. The headline says, "A global hunt is underway for the next oil"--the equivalent of 148 billion barrels of oil, worth $11.5 trillion dollars in revenues. The brochure turned out to be a plug for a specific company that claims to own a large fraction of the world's reserves, made in the name of a market analysis company.

The moral? With a much trumpeted revolution in electric and hybrid vehicles possibly in the offing, lithium is getting a lot of hype. Be careful about all claims made. Don't suppose, for example, that just because this is a blog post about the world lithium market, that my photograph above is of lithium. As far as I know it's just table salt.

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Solar Haiti

Six trailers containing modular photovoltaic generating systems are about to be shipped from a location on Long Island, N.Y., to the southern coast of earthquake-ravaged Haiti, where they will be transported by truck to a town for a week of training and then to villages. As described in a recent article by Kathy Kowlenko in The Institute, the solar arrays are the product of an IEEE humanitarian initiative, in which volunteer work by a handful of dedicated and visionary engineers has been key.

Each village unit of the SunBlazer system destined for Haiti consists of six photovoltaic panels, capable of generating 7 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day and charging a 40 12-Volt lead-acid home battery packs. Each pack will service a lighting kit in a home.The modular systems consist largely of off-the-shelf technology from a design developed  by two cooperating companies,Nextek Power Systems and Russell Engineering.

Almost all the money raised to support the solar program--about $125,000 for the initial phase--has gone to purchase parts. Engineering and planning has been done on a pro bono basis. The business plan the volunteers developed through Sirona Cares, an NGO committed to business development in Haiti, is perhaps more innovative than the technology. A private company, Sirona-Haiti, will own all the equipment and franchise it to village entrepreneurs. They will repay the cost of the equipment out of proceeds collected from villagers and raise venture capital to support large-scale production in Haiti.

Ultimately, says Ray Larsen, a co-founder and the project manager of the program, Sirona-Haiti’s goal is to build up to 4,500 trailers serving a million Haitians in the firsts five years. IEEE team members from Africa and India are eager to replicate the business model in new areas

Larsen, deputy head of engineering at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory conceived the SunBlazer program in collaboration with Robin Podmore and Liang Downey. Podmore, a New Zealander and IEEE fellow, is president of Incremental Systems, a grid control system company that operates internationally. IEEE Senior Member Downey is a director at Nextek Power Systems, Bohemia, N.Y., which donated technical assistance, equipment,  and labor to build the solar units. Russell Engineering, based in California, contributed expertise it’s acquired as a specialist in home solar systems.

Larsen conceived the SunBlazer program in the context of the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge, a three-year initiative that sought to drive development of new technology for reliable electricity, electronic health records, and health data transmission. Toward the end of last year the SunBlazer volunteers obtained $50,000 from the Humanitarian Challenge, and then got $75,000 more from the IEEE Nuclear Plasma and Sciences Society, Larsen's main affiliation. The IEEE Power and Energy Society has provided an additional $20,000 to support related work.

Until SunBlazer becomes self-sustaining as a business, it will continue to rely mainly on contributions from societies and foundations, says Larsen, But it also is happy to receive individual donations, which can be made at sironacares.org.

U.S. Spends $6 Billion Per Year on Its Own Nuke Cleanup

Though firm estimates are still hard to come by, the cleanup costs for the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan will be monumental. Some say it will cost as much as $150 billion, and take decades; in contrast, cleanup of the comparatively tame Three Mile Island accident took from 1979 until 1993, and cost about $1 billion.

Interestingly, though, the United States still spends an enormous chunk of money every year on a certain brand of nuclear cleanup. Last week, Josh Wolfe at Forbes wrote that almost 25 percent of all Department of Energy dollars are spent on nuclear remediation and cleanup efforts. This seemed so shocking that I started checking out the DOE budget.

In 2010, the total DOE appropriation was $26.4 billion. Of that, there are two main areas that involve cleanup of nuclear material and contamination, known as “defense environmental cleanup” and “non-defense environmental cleanup.” A total of $5.6 billion went to the former, and about another $255 million went to the latter in 2010. This comes out closer to 22 percent of the DOE’s total budget rather than 25, but the interesting and largely ignored point is still valid: a giant portion of the country’s energy-related government spending goes toward cleaning up nuclear contamination.

An important point, though, is that the bulk of these expenditures aren’t particularly relevant in comparing to the Fukushima cleanup that will be required. The much smaller appropriation for non-defense cleanup is at least somewhat related, in that it "supports activities that address the environmental legacy resulting from civilian nuclear energy research. The nuclear energy research and development carried out by the Department and its predecessor agencies generated waste and contamination that pose unique problems, including large quantities of contaminated soil and groundwater and a number of contaminated structures."

In contrast, the $5.6 billion for defense cleanup is for Cold War—and earlier—weapons development sites. One area alone, the Hanford site in Washington state, accounted for almost $1 billion in remediation activities in 2010. It was in this area that plutonium was generated in 1945 for use in early test explosions, as well as the Nagasaki bomb. Our own Erico Guizzo profiled this problematic “Atomic Age landmark” several years ago.

The long-lasting nature of this type of cleanup activity is probably the most important lesson to bring from the U.S. to Japan as Fukushima remediation begins. Cleanup at the Hanford site, for example, may take until 2035. And the fact that close to a quarter of DOE spending goes toward nuclear cleanup may not drastically change a civilian nuclear power cost-benefit analysis (because it is weapons-focused), but the impact is undeniable nonetheless: that’s almost $6 billion we could be spending on something else.

(Image via Tobin Fricke)

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Spain and France Ready HVDC Connection

Siemens is building power converter stations for a 2000 MW high-voltage, direct-current underground transmission line that will connect France's Languedoc and Spain's Catalonia, regions that have deep cultural and linguistic ties but are separated by the Pyrenees The record-capacity, 65-kilometer-long cables are to come into operation in two years and will carry current at 320 kilovolts.

"The centerpiece of the HVDC Plus power converter stations," says Siemens, "is a converter based on IGBT (insulated gate bipolar transistors) which transforms the alternating current into direct-current and back again. By contrast with grid-commutated power converter technology, the HVDC Plus system works with turn-off power semiconductors, so that the commutation processes in the power converter are completely independent of the grid voltage. Very fast control and protective intervention in the power converter makes for a highly dynamic system, which is essential especially for coping with grid faults and disturbance in the three-phase ac network."

As northeastern Spain is more tightly linked to the European grid system,  could electricity prices drop and prospects improve for desalination plants built in Catalonia? Right now a partially built 300-million-euro plant at Torrevieja is sitting idle, without electricity or seawater access, as regional and national authorities feud about its advisability and costs. Wherever such plants are proposed, water and energy needs tend to collide. Tiny Malta gets 40 percent of its freshwater from desalination plants, and Jordan (photo above)--relying on a intelligent water management systems--has plans to move in a similar direction.

Fukushima's Collateral Effects

smoke from No.4 reactor at Fukushima
Photo: TEPCO/Reuters
Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power
Fire and smoke are seen at a building for sampling from seawater near No.4 reactor of the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

What a difference six months make. Last fall, at a smart grid technical meeting organized by IEEE's Communications Society, a Japanese speaker said that his country had no particular interest in making its electric power system more reliable, as it already was very close to 100 percent reliable.

Now we are hearing that because of the Fukushima catastrophe and the temporary shut-down of other nuclear power plants, there are almost sure to be summer shortages that will require the government to impose electricity rationing. The Financial Times reports that Tepco's peak load during last year's (unusually hot) summer was 60 gigawatts; the amount of generating capacity expected to be available this coming summer will be 52 GW. As reported here, Japan's bifurcated national grid will complicate the job of getting electricity to where it's needed.

In a shattering investigative article that led The New York Times on Wednesday this week, reporters Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson describe a "culture of complicity" that drastically weakened nuclear regulation in Japan. A revolving door between industry and government involving "ascent to heaven" and "descent from heaven" meant that regulators relied on industry people to do their technical work, so that in effect the foxes were guarding the henhouse.

That system will obviously have to be drastically reformed if Japan's nuclear industry is to recover public confidence and the country as a whole is to restore its technical reputation. The effects could go even beyond that. The Chernobyl catastrophe was a not insignificant factor in the Soviet Union's loss of legitimacy and the collapse of Russian communism. We won't be seeing a political revolution in Japan, of course, but we may see something close to it: a calling into question of the cozy government-big business system that has dominated the country since World War II.

ARPA-E Aims to Engineer Efficient Biofuel Crops

The fourth round of funding from the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy, or ARPA-E, includes up to $30 million for the newly announced PETRO project. PETRO, or Plants Engineered To Replace Oil, looks to create new or modified plants that "capture more energy from sunlight and convert that energy directly into fuels."

Current biofuel crops suffer from low-efficiency energy conversion both from the sun and then in the processes we use to turn them into fuel, which means relatively low yields of fuel per acre. This, of course, leads to the seemingly paradoxical problem of biofuels from plants such as corn ending up with equal or even higher carbon dioxide emissions (when full lifecycle analyses are included) than traditionally dirtier fuels.

And carbon emissions aside, there is also the threat of biofuel crops displacing food crops, raising food prices around the world. This was evident in 2008 when food prices spiked, and it seems to be happening again now. There are many possible reasons for corn's 53 percent price increase in 2010, but the U.S. policy on corn ethanol undoubtedly plays a role. By 2022, the United States is mandated to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel; even in 2010, with a 12 billion gallon requirement, close to 40 percent of the corn produced went to ethanol production.

All of that is to say that the ARPA-E goal to increase efficiency and yield per acre would, if successful, have wide-ranging and beneficial impacts. The PETRO project is described as follows:

ARPA-E seeks to fund technologies that optimize the biochemical processes of energy capture and conversion to develop robust, farm-ready crops that deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump. If successful, PETRO will create biofuels for half their current cost, finally making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil.

This joins other ARPA-E initiatives on cleaner fuels, including their direct solar fuels project and an umbrella biomass project that includes some work on advanced fuels.

(Image via Steve Jurvetson)

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Renewables Ranked

Earth Day at 41, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the ongoing Fukushima tragedy--what better time to assess the status and potential of green energy technology?

The good news, and it's very good indeed, is that renewables spending has "roared back" from the recession, increasing 30 percent in 2010 to a total of $243 billion. Nine tenths of that is in the G-20 advanced industrial countries, according to a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trust's Environmental Group, done in cooperation with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

"Collectively, the European region was the leading recipient of clean energy finance, attracting a total of $94.4 billion," says the report, "Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race?" Germany, where its far-sighted Feed-in Tariff law of 1999 now is driving installation of rooftop solar arrays, having previously ignited a revolution in wind energy, led the way in Europe. Next comes Asia, led of course by China, which is now the world's leading manufacturer of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.

"The Americas region," by comparison,  "is a distant third in the race for clean energy investment, attracting $65.8 billion overall in 2010." The United States slid to the Number Three position, behind China and Germany. What's going on?

Given uncertainties surrounding key policies and incentives," says the report, "the U.S. competitive position in the clean energy sector is at risk. Growth is sharper in Latin America, where private clean energy investment in Argentina increased by 568 percent and in Mexico by 273 percent, the highest growth ratesamong G-20 members."

Globally, the solar sector grew fastest last year, attracting 53 percent more investment than the year before. Wind investment, in second place, grew 34 percent. Whereas China installed 17 GW of new wind last year, the United States managed only 5 GW.

Altogether, clean-energy generating technology has doubled in the last three years and now exceeds total global nuclear capacity. Even bearing in mind that in terms of actual electricity produced, green energy still is only about a third or fourth's of nuclear, the progress in renewables is impressive indeed.

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