U.S. Deep-Sixes Plutonium Fuel Plant

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has terminated construction of a facility designed to transform 34 metric tons of surplus military plutonium, enough for about 17,000 nuclear weapons, into fuel for nuclear power plants. The Aiken, South Carolina project began in 2007 and was at least $2.6-billion over its $4.9-billion estimated cost and still years from completion — akin to the troubled pair of Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors under construction in nearby Vogtle, Georgia and another pair killed last year at South Carolina’s VC Summer plant.

Mismanagement is only half the story, however, according to Edwin Lyman, a physicist and nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. Lyman says the plant was also plagued by safety, technology and regulatory challenges specific to handling plutonium. Trace amounts of plutonium cause lethal cancers and its 24,110-year half-life means small releases could render lands uninhabitable for generations making it an attractive material for would-be makers of ‘dirty’ bombs. Continue reading “U.S. Deep-Sixes Plutonium Fuel Plant”

Making Power Grids 100 Percent Renewable

nsc_20180609-152x200Just a few  decades ago many experts fretted that variable power from wind turbines and solar panels would destabilize power grids. Today they’re debating the feasibility of 100 percent renewable power, which appears to be the most likely route to decarbonized energy systems by mid-century and thus our best shot at avoiding truly extreme climate change. Two of my recent feature articles explore what running grids on 100 percent renewable energy will take. My June cover story for NewScientist assesses the big picture, identifying the changes required in consumer behavior and power supplies and the technologies available to deliver them. My feature for Scientific American, meanwhile, takes a deeper dive into power grids, and how weather smarts must be built in to make the most of weather-driven “fuel” such as winds and sunlight. Both articles are behind paywalls online. One more reason to consider subscribing to two of the world’s top science magazines!

Double Milestone for Safer Reactors

Call it the world’s slowest photo finish. After several decades of engineering, construction flaws and delays, and cost overruns—a troubled birth that cost their developers dearly—the most advanced commercial reactor designs from Europe and the United States just delivered their first megawatt-hours of electricity within one day of each other. But their benefits—including safety advances such as the AP1000’s passive cooling and the EPR’s airplane-crash-proof shell—may offer too little, too late to secure future projects.

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Swarm Electrification in Bangladesh

Bangladesh hosts the world’s largest collection of off-grid solar energy systems. Rooftop panels and batteries electrify over 4 million households and businesses there. Dhaka-based startup ME SOLshare believes it has the technology to link these systems and foster a solar energy-sharing economy. If the company succeeds, home systems will morph into village minigrids, offering wider access to more power at lower cost. Continue reading “Swarm Electrification in Bangladesh”

Power Vampires Possess Smart Cars

By driving smarter, autonomous cars have the potential to move people in and around cities with far greater efficiency. Their projected energy performance, however, has largely ignored their energy inputs, such as the electricity consumed by brawny on-board computers. First-of-a-kind modeling shows that autonomy’s energy pricetag could be high enough to turn some into net energy losers.

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Cyclone Exposes Trump’s Grid Fallacy

Extreme weather events have knocked both nuclear and coal-fired power plants offline recently, undercutting the Trump Administration argument that subsidizing aging generators is crucial to prevent blackouts. The latest failure came late last week when Winter Storm Gregory forced a nuclear plant in New England offline, ratcheting up the challenge facing grid operators amidst the “bomb” cyclone’s high winds and freezing temperatures. Continue reading “Cyclone Exposes Trump’s Grid Fallacy”

Grid Tech Sparks Wildfires

Wind-swept fires that killed more than 40 people in California have jolted the state’s biggest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE). State regulators and trial lawyers are probing the utilities’ tree trimming and line maintenance — common culprits in prior California fires. But they also examining a utility device that produces sparks by design: automatic circuit reclosers.

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