Nuclear Agro-Industrial Complexes for NAWAPA XXI
In my judgment, the real economic potential of nuclear fuel is no more captured in its substitution for fossil fuels in large scale electric power stations, outstanding technological accomplishment though this is, than was the economic potential of petroleum realized when kerosene replaced whale oil in lamps used in the home.
— Sam H. Shurr, “Energy and the Economy,” Energy: Proceedings of the Seventh Biennial Gas Dynamics Symposium, 1968
NAWAPA XXI requires an intensification of productive output, more important than quantitatively, qualitatively. This will be achieved by applying a more powerful principle across the board, from raw material extraction, to the processing of the end product. The horizon which guides us today is fusion. Let the achievement of an economy based on the principle of fusion drive our transition, now, into an economy built on fission.
Begin this transition at NAWAPA XXI’s new productive powerhouses—nuclear-driven agro-industrial complexes which are centers of mass industrial and agricultural output. Since we will be building many industries anew, we have the opportunity to pre-plan these centers of output to make the most out of the new nuclear plants, as well as the most out of those new and retooled industries. These industrial centers will be fully integrated, driven by nuclear power plants, and flexible enough to assimilate new technologies at all levels, especially upstream. Integration will allow efficient application of both the secondary products of fission, namely heat, steam and electricity, as well as the primary products, namely radioactive elements. The use of coal, petroleum, and natural gas for more efficient uses than energy, will be a byproduct of preparing the foundation for a fusion economy.
Products of Fission
Nuclear agro-industrial complexes will be centered around an array of nuclear power plants designed to provide the products of the nuclear fission reaction. Electricity, steam, heat, and fission products, all produced by nuclear power plants, can be directly fed into the industrial process.
Within nuclear reactors, occurs the amazing process of altering elements by splitting atoms, not to create waste, but to create multiple other atoms, which are not the same element as the first, or even as each other. As a byproduct, large amounts of heat are created. In the most common reactors today, this heat is used in the same way as is heat from the burning of coal and natural gas. The heat is eventually used to boil water, creating steam that can be funneled through a turbine to generate electricity. This electricity contains approximately 30–40% of the energy that came out of the fission reaction as heat. What happens to the rest of the heat energy, and the newly created atoms? Today, they are wasted—rejected as “waste heat” and “nuclear waste.”
The U.S. industrial sector, as dilapidated as it is, currently accounts for one-third of the total energy use of the United States. Much of this energy is consumed in the form of process heat and for producing steam. For example, the steam requirements of the largest chemical plants are around four million pounds of steam per hour at 200 to 600 psi. Similarly, for a 500,000-barrel-per-day oil refinery, roughly half of the 4,000 MW (thermal) of energy input required could be steam, while the balance is high-temperature process heat and electricity.1 “Nearly 49% of all fuel burned by U.S. manufacturers is used to raise steam. Steam heats raw materials and treats semi-finished products. It is also a power source for equipment, facility heating, and electricity generation.”2
Nuclear-powered industrial complexes, with their array of reactors,3 can be designed to supply the heat needs of many different industries—industries which require steam at different temperatures and pressures, as well as direct heat at a higher range of temperatures.
Steam from nuclear plants, paired with the nearby coolant water source provided by NAWAPA XXI, and supplemented by desalinated water from desalination plants, can meet many of the intense water requirements of industry and agriculture.
While steam temperature requirements are typically in the range of 120–540°C (250–1,000°F), direct heat temperature requirements are often much higher, at 800–2,000°C (1,500–3,600°F). NAWAPA XXI will require approximately 300 million tons of steel,4 requiring temperatures up to 1,370°C (2,500 F) with current technologies, and approximately 540 million tons of cement, which require temperatures up to 1,450°C (2,640°F). Below is diagram of a few industrial processes and their temperature requirements.
You can see in Figure 1 that the second- and third-generation nuclear reactors of today are not able to meet the requirements of most of these common industrial processes. Fourth-generation reactors can meet a majority of these needs, and these will have to be fast-tracked, out of the testing phase they are in today.
The broad use of high-temperature fourth-generation nuclear reactors in these production units will change the whole industrial landscape. Not only will it serve to replace low-energy density coal, oil, and natural gas for many current industrial processes, but more importantly, it will create new types of industries and products, while reshaping and multiplying the productive output of existing industries. For example, among many other uses, the centralized mass production and delivery of hydrogen could replace two-thirds of the production cycle for ammonia (NH3), one of the most-produced inorganic chemicals in the world.5
Many more technological breakthroughs will need to be made to eventually replace the higher heat requirements currently being supplied by fossil fuels. Once abundant electricity, steam and heat at increasingly higher temperatures are available, we will see many methods of production evolve and many previously exotic products, such as more advanced specialty steels than can be produced today, be integrated into mass production, providing the platform for a fusion economy.
1. Produced from figures obtained from Majumdar, "Desalination and Other Non-electric Applications of Nuclear Energy," IAEA, Lectures given at the Workshop on Nuclear Reaction Data and Nuclear Reactors: Physics, Design and Safety, Trieste, 25 February–28 March, 2002.
Figure 2 shows the energy content of different fuel sources. One pound of petroleum produces 6.4 kWh of energy, while, with breeder reactors, which breed not-yet-fissile fertile fuel into burnable fissile fuel during operation, one pound of uranium can potentially produce 18,900 kWh.6 If you have ever been stopped at a railroad crossing to wait for a coal train to pass by, then you have seen a part of the vast amount of infrastructure, time, and manpower consumed by the use of approximately one billion tons every year in the United States alone. In contrast, breeder reactors can be designed to burn the initial fuel for the lifetime of the plant, eliminating the fuel transportation cost after installation altogether.
As can also be seen in Figure 2, human economy has always been based on progressing toward use of fuels of higher energy density. However, fuel is only a reflection of the underlying principle in operation at any one time. This type of progression must occur at all levels, not just at the fuel source.
Advanced Industry and
the Nuclear Platform
Nonlinear increases in productivity will not come from better integration alone. Replacement, as much as possible, of machine tools with already available computer numerical control (CNC) laser machine tools, is a way to introduce the high energy flux density of laser technology into all the processes downstream. Many other uses of lasers throughout the economy, such as the tuned catalyzing of chemical reactions, will also drastically increase the rate and quality of production.7
The use of low- and high-temperature plasmas for processing material such as steel will also have a large impact on the productive process. Requiring some of the highest temperatures of common industrial processes, steelmaking can largely be transferred over to furnace designs which would utilize the very high temperatures and other properties of plasmas to process the iron ore into any desired steel alloy.8 Ultimately, besides the coolant, the temperature limit of fission reactor designs will be determined by materials increasingly capable of handling high heat, corrosion and neutron degradation. These limits, however, are not inherent to magnetically confined plasmas. High temperature plasmas, and ultra-high temperature plasmas of controlled thermonuclear fusion, can reach millions and tens of millions of degrees Celsius. With them humans will be able to interact with and control matter the way the Sun does. With fusion plasmas, humans will even be able to synthesize needed bulk raw materials from the contents of landfills.
Yet another upgrade in the productive process comes from the most valuable product of the fission reaction. The remnants of the fission reaction are high-grade ores, which not only contain elements which we commonly use, but also isotopes which cannot be, or are not easily, found in nature. Breeder reactors, which “breed” more fissile fuel during operation, can potentially use up all the larger, more radioactive elements (the actinides, having atomic numbers 89–103), leaving behind neutron-absorbing fission products. Like “waste heat”, it is also now called “nuclear waste,” and considered a hindrance to the fission process. Rather than a hindrance, fission products must be a primary product of specialized reactors, designed specifically to create, collect, and deliver these valuable resources. Fission products, such as molybdenum-99, which is not found in nature, but whose decay product, technetium-99m, is used widely for life-saving medical imaging, are already important factors in our standard of living.
Well-funded research into the nature and uses of the controlled transmutation of elements, especially into natural transmutation within the biological realm, is long overdue. In addition, the full ability to make and manipulate isotopically pure materials by exploiting their particular resonance frequencies will define a completely new degree of freedom, of which we see only a glimmer in the current uses of isotopes (primarily as radioisotopes).9
Nuclear-Powered Agro-Industrial Complex
During the construction of NAWAPA XXI, nuclear industrial complexes would be ideal for new industries in the Great Lakes area, where the raw materials for steel production are in close proximity. Plants producing over 50 GW of electricty will be located in and around Idaho for the most demanding of the water pumping requirements of the NAWAPA XXI water distribution system. These plants provide much more than electricity, if used to produce more nuclear plants as well as other materials needed for the construction of NAWAPA XXI. Nearby will be medical research facilities, as well as plasma research facilities, preparing the way to a fusion economy. Units in Alaska can be specialized to produce warm working environments, and supply nearby emerging cities. Agricultural units, with embedded industrial units, could be placed in the Southwest, along the NAWAPA XXI route or along its tributaries. Each will be tailored to the specific required industrial or agricultural cycles. These units will be crucial for developing the Pacific Development Corridor, strung along the corridor like the cities which connected the east and west of the United States during the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
Nuclear Industrial Water Complex
1. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, "Nuclear Energy Centers: Industrial and Agricultural Complexes," 1968.
2. U.S. DOE, Steam Systems, http://www1.eere.energy.gov/manufacturing/tech_assistance/steam.html.
3. Besides having more flexibility to add reactors, the arrangement of reactors in a bundle, all feeding into the same set of steam, electricity, and heat infrastructure, allows the freedom to have one or two in maintenance at any one time, without affecting the supply to industries, many of which run continually. Since steam and process heat are not as easily transported as electricity, this will all have to be preplanned into reactor designs.
5. 83% of ammonia is used for fertilizer. Currently, the constituents of ammonia, hydrogen and nitrogen, are obtained from natural gas (or liquified petroleum gases such as propane and butane), air, and high-temperature steam (700–1,100°C). The process creates carbon dioxide and water as byproducts.
6. In breeder reactors, non-fissile Th-232 and U-238 absorb neutrons to eventually become fissile U-233 and Pu-239, respectively.
7. See Appendix 2.
8. The plasma arc design is already in use today, though not widely.
9. 40% of the world radioisotope supply comes from Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario, Canada. Only laboratory amounts are produced in the United States