There’s an “n”-word General Motors wants the world to embrace as it continues on its path towards the hydrogen-based economy of the future. It’s likely to stir enormous debate everywhere from Main Street to the halls of Congress in Washington. It’s “nuclear,” and the blue glow from spent fuel could mean a tremendous amount of green for the utility companies and automakers. That’s the vision as the U.S. embarks on a new round of nuclear power plants, boosting the ranks from the current 104 to 114, with plants being built in Texas, New York, North Carolina and Georgia, as the government devises new incentives for utilities to invest in nuclear power. So why is GM so interested in nuclear power? For starters, a single pound of nuclear fuel can provide the hydrogen equivalent of 250,000 gallons of gasoline, with zero carbon emissions. Not to mention the fact that the world has an ample supply of uranium, with more than 14 million tons available—or roughly 350 years’ supply.
There are several problems the nuclear industry must overcome, however, to meet the challenges of providing world electrical and hydrogen needs. First and foremost: perception. Everyone remembers Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, but what about the fact that there have been no major accidents in recent times in the U.S.? Not to mention that fact that the industry has been running a perfect record in terms of unplanned reactor shutdowns for decades, with plants operating at 90.5% capacity on average, providing more than 19% of the nation’s power needs. Nuclear is also very environmentally friendly, especially since plants do not produce nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, or carbon dioxide, all greenhouse gases. It’s also cheap—costing less per kilowatt-hour than electricity produced via coal, gas and oil. Sounds like a perfect solution to help America reduce its dependence on foreign oil, right? Wrong. There are several drawbacks to nuclear energy that continue to plague its growth, like the radioactive waste disposal. Unlike other countries that encourage reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, the U.S. placed a prohibition on the procedure during the Carter administration and it has never been lifted. Even though more than 90% of the spent uranium can be reprocessed and used again, the U.S. has decided the spent fuel must be stored underground for thousands of years in Yucca Mountain, located in Nevada. Currently, the U.S. has 48,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel sitting at dozens of locations across the country. The amount of waste could be cut significantly if the industry were allowed to reprocess the material. Another negative is the fact that nearly 50,000 tons of uranium ore must be extracted from the earth to make 20 tons of enriched uranium.
The challenges of expanding nuclear energy are being addressed with the formation of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, an 11-nation consortium charged with developing global standards for design, construction and maintenance of nuclear facilities with the goal of reducing development costs while improving safety. The group has identified six reactor designs that could lead the way in the future, with the main focus centering on Very-high Temperature Reactors that rely on helium to cool the reactor and have the ability to produce vast amounts of hydrogen. While the industry will continue to rely on traditional Boiling Water Reactors for the near term, the partners would like to progress to new reactor technology by 2030, which poses an additional hurdle for the auto industry as many automakers hope to have hydrogen-fueled vehicles on the market before those spiffy, new tech reactors start up, which means we may have to rely on outdated and inefficient technology to get us started on the hydrogen pathway GM and others have laid out.—KMK