A Silly Way To Boil Water 94

As regular readers know, I have been involved with a company installing gas turbines in Ghana. Our next plan is to collect the exhaust heat, generate steam from it, and feed that into a steam turbine to generate more electricity for no added fuel cost.

That is a sensible way to boil water. It can go wrong – any large machine operating with high forces can do damage. But even the worst disaster would be localised and over in an instant.

All nuclear power stations do is to boil water to make steam for a steam turbine. Given the massively disproportionate potential forces at play, the capacity for a Chernobyl style disaster killing thousands, and the long term dangers from nuclear waste, that really is a very very silly – and enormously expensive – way to boil water. You have to be slightly deranged to see nuclear power as sensible.

Those massively disproportionate potential forces in play lead to nuclear power always bringing in its train government lies, secrecy, restrictions on liberty and increase in state power. For those reasons politicians find it attractive. As it involves massive capital cost, there is a big industry lobby that backs it. As many of the full costs are met by the state, the corruption possibilities are good too. That is why the lobby for this crazed option is so strong.

Here is another better way to boil water:

Within 6 hours deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes within a year. An area of around the size of a living room, covered by mirrors for concentrating solar thermal power plants, would suffice to cover the electricity need of one person day and night – carbon free.

Thanks to Ingo for the desertec link.

94 thoughts on “A Silly Way To Boil Water

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  • YugoStiglitz

    Wow. There are some very serious technological and political obstacles to this venture, and you seem to think that they can be magically pushed aside.

    For good reason, this project has been met with a great deal of skepticism. Start on Wikipedia if you care to know more.

    With all your experience at the FCO, do you really think that any source of big money would invest in this over the next few decades? Can't you fathom how difficult this project would be from the very serious limitation of political stability? Who would sell a political risk policy on this?

    Plus the technology is not quite there yet. Sorry.

    I admire the effort of these people to put this on the agenda, at least as a thought experiment. But you have to be seriously deluded if you think this has any viability.

    And you know that if the U.S. or UK government were pushing this, you would object to it as imperialist.

    • Craig_Murray

      It's a great deal more practical than nuclear which would never have existed at all without mind-boggling taxxpayer subsidy. And unlike hydrocarbon it's not going to run out. Non-voltaic solar will be a major contributor to world energy needs in my lifetime.

      • YugoStiglitz

        More practical? Not in 2011. In that it doesn't work. It won't work in 2015, it won't work in 2020. I'd be thrilled if this could work – I live in the U.S., where we get lots of sun.

        Again, even assuming the technology is there (it's not) …

        Who would invest in this risky project? Who would sell political risk coverage?

        • Craig_Murray

          I don't know why you say it doesn't work. It has been proven but it is not in commercial production yet.

          Political risk? In Arizona, for example? And many of the other places massive scale solar is viable are precisely the places we already get our energy from. We just get it at the minute in the form of oil. Needs a different infrastructure to get it in the form of electricity, but in many ways it's easier to transport. Russia has just offered 6,000 MW to Japan, for instance. Ghana can already send electricity all over West Africa.

          Solar generation in say Dubai or Saudi greater political risk than oil production in Dubai or Saudi? Energy companies already invest many billions in such countries. Again I am rather surprised by your peculiar negativity.

          I certainly don't think solar is the sole answer. But as part of a renewables package, with wind, hydro, tidal, wave, ocean current and ocean thermal, it is part of our future,

          • ingo

            California is operating small scale CSP and it is viable all over the US southern states, I suggest Yugo that you look into it a little more. One rerason as to why this project is important is to link these new found democracies,( sound of a slight hick up) with our markets, it is the most sensible idea since the invention of the railways, imho, and it has been proven to work in Spain for decades.

            Off course such simplicity does not exclude other back up projects, pumping of water with over capacity, release overnight through turbines into prepared agricultural watering programmes, I can think of many different cooperative projects to CSP.

            The greatest risk is political and those vested oil/coal interests who will work against such projects.
            Desertec is going to need diplomatic skills at all times, now, as well as in future, its pan national appeal nevertheless has far better prospects to cement Magreb countries to Europe in a mutual relationship than oil exploitation with no return, fettering murderous regimes and dictators until the stuff runs out.

          • ingo

            What then? What relationship will America have with countries when they have no oil to trade? when there is nothing but sand and rich despots in rich ghettos full of international tax avoiders and non doms, with large very poor populations of all shades, what have we got to offer then?

            So this project has got the 21st. century in mind and I have subscribed to its ethos. Projects and large international companies that have no crux with social responsibility and forward thinking, always out to usurp, rather than cooperate, will find their markets weaning soon.
            Mutuality of needs forges relationships that last, but I'm prepared to eat my words. Will I be still hereshould I be still here when the first megawatts come into the country?

            Well with a few more nuclear accidents like this, I might not have such luck.

          • Michael.K

            I think you're right Craig, but getting there is going to be a problem.

            Nuclear Power is probably the most expensive way to produce electricity devised by man. It is incredibly, monsterously, expensive. But the industry receives colossal state subsidies of various kinds, which would otherwise make it commercially untenable.

            There's also the vexed question of insurance. In the US and the UK, and as far as I know in most other countries, it's impossible to obtain insurance for the full cost of a serious nuclear accident. The insurance companies have put an artificial cap on their liabilities. I think it's a maximum of twelve billion dollars in the United States. After that the state, or taxpayer, has to pick up the tab. Again a massive subsidy to the nuclear power industry.

            Then there is the cost of the plants themselves, especially the colossal costs of de-comissioning them at the end of their "usful" life, which is why one tries to put it off for a long as humanly possible – the cost is massive, and very labour and enegry intensive.

            Then there's the unknown cost of storing the radioactive waste for centuries, how does one calculate this "externalised" cost? It's bound to be massive; let alone the moral question of forcing future generations to pay a price for our energy consumption. Looking at the entire nuclear energy cycle, from digging up the fuel, to storing the waste, one can argue that it's not only incredeibly expensive, one can also claim that it's the nuclear cycle actually consume more energy than it produces, as absurd as this might seem.

            The reactor design of the Japanese plants is also problematic, and has been questioned since 1972. It's an American Westinghhouse design. There are two major problems or design flaws. How to safely vent dangerous explosive gas from the reactor building without causing an explosion which wrecks the building and opens the containment dome above the reactor to the elements.

            Secondly, and I still find this hard to believe, the container for the used fuel rods is housed in the same reactor building above the reactor core, though outside the steel alloy containment dome.

  • Nikko

    The problem with solar is its very high cost, but it is coming down. As for your Ghana project consider supplementary firing for your waste heat boiler. There is a lot of oxygen in gas turbine exhaust gas so the efficiency of the supplementary firing will be very high

  • Clarq

    Yep. Nearly thirty years ago, I used to say of nuclear reactors, "They shouldn't build those things. If the cooling fails, they'll get too hot and blow up". It went completely against my intuition of how to build a safe machine. If a part fails, the machine should stop. You shouldn't build a machine that is inherently unstable, only kept in check by an elaborate control system.

    But Craig, you miss the point when you write "All nuclear power stations do is to boil water…". They are also a vital part of the nuclear fuel cycle. Others understand the political implications of this better than I do, but I think it's very important and involves nuclear weapons.

    Yes, we live 93,000,000 miles from one enormous, inherently stable fusion reactor, and we live on the surface of an excellently shielded and stable fission reactor. The only reasons to build little, inherently unstable examples must be political stupidity.

  • Ed Davies

    Craig, how much solar thermal (for hot water, mostly) is used in Ghana?

    Making systems to work well in poor climates is a bit tricky – many of the solar hot water panels for DIY installations in the UK come from China, for example. These are evacuated glass tubes with heat pipes up the middle so not easy to make in a garage. In a warm climate with reliable sunshine for most of the year, though, it would be possible for simple locally assembled devices to work well. I guess the main limitation is local availability of materials. I know the Ghanaian aluminium industry has had its ups and downs so wonder if it's naïve to think aluminium sheet might not be as relatively expensive as some things, for example.

    I started on this train of thought after reading very tangentially related things about Botswana and about use of very small scale PV in east Africa.

    • Craig_Murray

      Actually there really isn't much demand for water heating in Ghana anyway. Domestic heating is never needed, and almost all Ghanaians use water domestically at ambient temperature.

    • Lee

      Cansolaire in Canada has made a business of manufacturing home solar heating units from recycled aluminum cans. The most expensive part of such a set-up is the double-glazed polycarbonate. In its simplest form, such a set-up has no moving parts, operates by thermosiphoning, and is blocked inside the house in the evenings to prevent reversal of the thermosiphoning.

      Cheaper yet is building in the traditional way with adobe or cob, and siting and orienting one's home properly to maximize solar gain.

  • Dan J.

    Your readers may be interested in the controversy surrounding the relationship between the WHO and the IAEA which has been examined by Professor Michael Fernex. There is a link to a paper of his here, or it is easy to google them. http://www.independentwho.info/Documents/M_Fernex….

    The argument is that the WHO is subordinate to the IAEA when it comes to matters examining the health effects of radiation resulting from nuclear power plant failures.

    The Times this morning reported that the deaths from Chernobyl were 134, which seems a ridiculous figure, not because it is too low, though it probably is this, but because it is suspiciously precise given the uncertain, indeed probabilistic, nature of epidemiology in this field of medicine; this compounded also by the all the uncertainties measuring outcomes in often dilapidated and certainly oppressive political and medical systems – we are talking about Belarus here, for example.

    Focussing in on the number of fatalities, furthermore, seems to exclude any consideration of cases where people might have caught cancer but did not die – where they, who may have been children, needed throat surgery of one kind of another.

    Then, in Belarus also, there has been the curious disease of "radiophobia", where a kind of ME type illness has been explained by the existence of irrational psychological responses to the disaster.

    The list of complexities goes on and on.

    • Vronsky

      There are also suspicions of rather too close a linkage between the WHO and the drug companies, leading to (for example) the hyping of vaccinations for assorted flu viruses, now including pre-emptive vaccination for viruses that have yet to appear.

      More here http://anthraxvaccine.blogspot.com/2011/03/whos-r

      …..Hi dreolin!

      • YugoStiglitz

        I suppose it wasn't going to be too long before this website gave in to the idiocy of vaccine denial.

  • Gaffney

    This is a silly article. Nuclear energy is perfectly safe, the problem is companies not updating their reactors and extending their lifespan. Old reactors were only suppose to last about 30 years. This reactor was built way before Chernobyl and there are reactors now that can bypass these sort of cooling problems. Japan got hit by a 1 in 1,000 year quake for the region and it just so happened to hit near a 44 year old reactor with a tsunami as well.

    One REAL issue that is effecting fission energy is the amount of waste, the amount of research going into Fusion energy should be increased because at this rate fusion energy isn't going to be widely used for another 30+ years.

    • Clarq

      "Perfectly safe". Hmmm. What sort of reactor is inherently stable without cooling? Ever heard of Murphy's Law? "If a thing can go wrong, it will". All machines go wrong. But nuclear reactors go wrong in a very destructive manner.

      Yes, waste "disposal" is also a problem.

      But why have we bothered with nuclear power anyway, fission or fusion? This is an issue of comparative development effort. If solar thermal had had the development funds and effort of that nuclear has had, it would have been up, running and productive decades ago.

  • TFS

    I guess there is a difference between the absolute need for electricity vs the arrogant self indulgent delusionary scale on which we put ourselvs and the planet at risk.

  • ingo

    Thanks for that dreolin, no doubt young William will make a staunch point and wag his finger at our allies, its disturbing, because this also means that there is some sort of crackdown, I bet. But is there an uprising connected which is going to be quelled as well? whats behind this?

    Gaffney, there is nothing silly about this 'article'. 'Only supposed to last 30' years. Stade in germany was built in 1961 I beleieve, its still up and running, albeit at low levels. If these reactors have outlived their age, how come we can't trust 'silly' comapnies and operators of these expensive calamities?

    More confusing who says its 1 in a 1000 year event?

    Now to the old Fusion herring, the most convaluted and inconsequential project ever. It has swallowed billions and has got us nowhere at all. To waste money on fusion when Britain has enough latent power in its surrounding seas is daft, like scratching your left ear with your right hand.

  • alaithiran

    Of the four forces known in nature, using the electromagnetic force in its electrochemical incarnation in the molecular reactions when burning fossil fuels is giving us global warming. The weak nuclear force must by the laws of physics leave us with life-extinguishing neutron radiation if we use it to fission heavy atoms for heat in nuclear reactors. Gravity is different: the idea of focussing gravity to a point for practical application makes no sense. That leaves us with the strong nuclear force, or fusion power. Fusion reactions use seawater deuterium and give off inert helium: humanity’s salvation The only problem is that we haven’t worked out how to do it yet.
    It seems to me then that the world must focus its attention on the short-term goal of alternative energy solutions – solar power in the deserts, tidal power in the estuaries – while putting a global effort into cracking the fusion power problem.
    But we won’t of course. If humanity were a tribe living in a once-dormant but now rumbling caldera, it would spend all its efforts on corrupting the storytellers to pretend that nothing was wrong, while viciously fighting each other for as many pretty beads and feathers as each person can grab for themselves.

  • pmr9

    Solar thermal in deserts would work fine for Europe, which has access to a vast desert region stretching from Morocco to Iran, and short undersea routes (via Spain, Sicily or Greece) for high-voltage DC links to link north Africa to the European land-mass. Of course this would require a long-term partnership between Europe and a post-revolutionary Islamic world, but that's a feature, not a bug (no more invasions, and a one-state solution in Palestine).

  • glenn_uk

    Anyone heard from our old correspondent AngrySoba, who I understood resided in Japan?

    • dreoilin

      Shit – I forgot he was in Japan! I just had a quick look at his blog. He hasn't posted there since Dec 13, 2010. He disappeared from here around Christmas, I think.
      Meanwhile I see Alfred (aka CanSpeccy) is already posting up a storm …

    • angrysoba

      I'm safe down here in Osaka. We felt a small rumble on the Friday that the earthquake hit but that's about all.

      If you want to keep up with what's going on in Japan you can get an English stream of NHK on ustream. I haven't had time to watch it much as I've been busy here with work so I can't vouch for the quality of the broadcasting just yet.

      There's a site here which talks about the radiation levels around the places where nuclear power plants are situated in Japan. Fukushima and Miyagi are "under review". Hmmm… I bet they are.

      Thanks for the heads up though, glenn. I appreciate it.

        • angrysoba

          Cheers Craig.

          As it happens one of the places I was working yesterday was at an engineering plant. They actually make components for nuclear power stations (as well as for other industries in which "balancing machines" are needed for turbines etc…) They have done work on the Fukushima plant, I understand. They're naturally very depressed about the earthquake itself but also are quite gloomy about the nuclear situation.

  • anno

    Well done Craig. Maybe there's a brighter future for Prince Andrew as a heating engineer after all. Plenty of sun in Kurdistan and plenty of British and US spies, like Chris Bowers. The snag with your scheme is not in the technology, but in the European mindset that Muslims are expendable objects and obstacles in the way of colonial activity.

    When will they learn that wrecking countries with their military and dirty false flag politics may be forgiveable, but it's not the way to obtain future energy resources at reasonable cost for the benefit of their own domestic consumers? Stupid stupid stupid stupid. Politicians and businessmen colonialists conceive of their own deviousness and power as cleverer than the honesty and straightness of people who choose to do clean work, and earn an honest living without killing and lying.

    So long as our society retains its appetite for class stratification and dismissing the path of honesty taken by the 'lower' strata, we are doomed. But the self-appointed 'higher' strata will not have the last word over the self-appointed 'lower' strata, because the world out there has taken note of the different values of the two strata. They are not prepared to do business with the lying killing class for all their fair words, ever again. Globalisation was created by the powerful, but the meek shall inherit the earth, inshallah.

  • evgueni

    Hmm, solar – an innumerate environmentalist's recurring wet dream:-) Slight snag with solar – its output fluctuates almost in anti-phase with demand (night-day and winter-summer). The missing enabling technology is efficient and safe energy storage. I personally would love to shake off the oil cartel freeloaders and become self-sufficient in energy. Or failing that, at least have the choice of getting my energy from the solar cartel instead (if say centralised large scale solar were the only viable type).

    For the environmentalists of the numerate kind, nuclear is possibly the least bad option, until something better comes along. No technology is entirely safe. The problem with nuclear is the high "availability" (a psychology term) of its negative outcomes. A meaningful comparison with its alternatives would take into account the much more diffuse and therefore “unavailable” negative outcomes of these alternatives. E.g. looking at deaths/GWh apparently reveals hydro as the most dangerous of the alternatives. The point is people die and get ill along the entire supply chain – miners, transport workers, motorists, victims of busted dams etc. So this type of analysis would be more rational than one based on intuition. I can recommend "Irrationality" by Stuart Southerland for an eye-opening summary of the flaws in human reasoning.

    I remember reading circa 2004 Michael Crichton's notes on his website (these notes sadly seem to have disappeared without a trace) that accompanied his book State of Fear. The book ended up about the AGW, but initially the author had set out to write a thriller about a man-made catastrophe. Naturally, his first idea was to explore the Chernobyl nuclear accident. He was astounded by what his research had turned up – the total loss of life from the worst nuclear accident in history was far short of predictions. He looked for other examples of man-made catastrophic outcomes but found the same pattern of fear-mongering and exaggeration every time. Finally he abandoned the original idea for the book and exposed the dark side of the AGW scare. Crichton's remaining essays on his website are well worth a read.

    I read the Wikipedia entries for Chernobyl and Three Mile Island today. One thing struck me – the kind of design and procedural flaws that were deemed acceptable risks 40-50 years ago would never be accepted in modern health & safety culture. A nuclear reactor with a positive feedback loop – what?! Automatic safety systems that can be disabled by irrational human beings – apparently a situation in which this would be done deliberately had been thought so implausible as not to merit consideration! Ambiguous indicators in the control room and no point-by-point diagnostic checklist for operators to follow under conditions of extreme stress! We understand much better now human psychology, and also we know that we do not intuitively understand risk. Armed with this understanding we cannot fail to design inherently much safer nuclear plants.

    • crab32

      " Slight snag with solar – its output fluctuates almost in anti-phase with demand (night-day and winter-summer). "
      Just one point – non-photovoltaic CSP can even out night/day supply by storing heat energy in eg. a "molten salt" reservior/transport, and take the heat out as demand requires.

      • Craig_Murray

        yes also ignores the fact that in much of the world the major demand is for air conditioning and other refrigeration which is not counter cyclical with sunshine nor is industrial use

  • paul

    Thorium nuclear reactors are perfectly safe, unfortunately they dont generate plutonium.

  • Craig_Murray


    As you know, anyone can publish pretty well what comment they like. Yhis website has not given in to another commenter's views any more than it has given in to yours. You are all commenters.

  • evgueni

    Craig & crab32,
    fair points both but I think the argument still stands – solar as a serious alternative to established energy sources is flawed for the foreseeable future. This is before doing any sort of rough calculations as to what area must be covered with PVs to satisfy demand. A complementary energy source, definitely. "The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won't Run the World" by Howard C. Hayden, allegedly makes a strong negative case on the basis of just such calculations (can't say more haven't read it).

    Once however a viable storage technology is established – battery or supercapacitor based perhaps, it will eventually enable micro-generation. That would be interesting I think because it should have a democratising effect by partially inhibiting one of the ways in which wealth is transferred from the many to the few. Under these circumstances also cost-competitiveness is less important because of the value that people place on being self-sufficient. For this reason I would not expect energy companies to expend real effort on PV and battery R&D. That would be turkeys and Christmas.

  • Richard

    After the Hatfield rail disaster, nobody called for a ban on railways. 6000 miners die each year in China providing us with coal. Aircraft crashj routinely, and we learn the lessons and move on. There's no such thing as perfect safety; only relative risk. Very few people have died in nuclear accidents – please note that in Japan, nobody at or around the plant has been hurt (except for one person who fell to his death during the earthquake). As for alternatives to nuclear, we have only a few: more CO2, or dropping our standards of living and preventing those in the developing world from increasing theirs. So called green energy simple isn't sufficient, and never will be. What we ought to do is build more nuclear reactors of the best possible design. Current Gen III designs are passively safe even with total coolant failure; Gen IV designs also avoid the problem of long-lived waste. (See Wikipedia for the Integral Fast Reactor, for example)

  • Ben Courtice

    It's a shame your first comment was such a smartaleck, and many subsequent posts quite misinformed. Solar thermal power plants can store heat in the form of molten salt, for many hours of electricity generation during the night. See http://www.beyondzeroemissions.org – Australia's groundbreaking zero carbon energy plan authors.

  • Clark

    A re-post of part of Craig’s argument above:

    Those massively disproportionate potential forces in play lead to nuclear power always bringing in its train government lies, secrecy, restrictions on liberty and increase in state power. For those reasons politicians find it attractive. As it involves massive capital cost, there is a big industry lobby that backs it. As many of the full costs are met by the state, the corruption possibilities are good too. That is why the lobby for this crazed option is so strong.

    Craig has a very relevant point, as shown in the reply to George Monbiot’s e-mail from Theo Simon:

  • Anon


    Here’s a good paper on the proliferation resistance or otherwise of reactor produced U-233. If you read Wikipedia you would think you would be glowing in the dark if you just got within ten miles of U-233 from a reactor (I exaggerate slightly but…) but here’s some real good data.

    It concludes


    On the one hand, gamma radiation from U-232 makes the U-233 from high-
    burnup U-233-thorium fuel cycles more of a radiation hazard than plutonium.
    On the other hand, because of its low rate of spontaneous-neutron emission,
    U-233 can, unlike plutonium, be used in simple “gun-type” fission-weapon
    designs without significant danger of the yield being reduced by premature
    initiation of the fission chain reaction.
    The necessity for remote handling of heavily U-232 contaminated U-233
    in a closed fuel cycle provides a strong incentive for integration of reprocessing
    and fuel-fabrication. Such integration was envisioned for plutonium breeder
    reactors in the integral fast reactor proposal.
    In the case of the molten-salt
    U-233 breeder reactor, it was proposed to have continual chemical processing
    of a stream of liquid fuel. Such an arrangement also offers a way to com-
    pletely bypass the U-232 contamination problem because 27-day half-life Pa-
    233 could be separated out before it decays into U-233.
    In any case, no fuel cycle involving the separation and recycle of U-233
    would approach the proliferation resistance of unreprocessed spent fuel from
    which the radiation dose rate is on the order of one thousand rem per hour at
    one meter for decades after discharge.

    I’m sure you note “In the case of the molten-salt U-233 breeder reactor, it was proposed to have continual chemical processing of a stream of liquid fuel. Such an arrangement also offers a way to completely bypass the U-232 contamination problem because 27-day half-life Pa-233 could be separated out before it decays into U-233.

  • Anon

    i note Wikipedia does say “The recovery of high-purity uranium-233 has been raised as a potential nuclear proliferation concern.[16](p99) Most LFTR advocates thus prefer a design with no Pa separation and a breeding ratio ~1.0, not presenting the risk of U-233 separation and ensuring that any U-233 is contaminated with U-232 whose decay chain emits 2 MeV gamma rays too hazardous for weapons workers.”
    So while it briefly does mention the proliferation problem we then get hand-waving about “design”. Yes you can increase the proliferation resistance of the reactors (assuming the host country doesn’t tamper behind your back), the bottom line remains though that molten salt thorium reactors are fundamentally a great way to get virtually totally pure U-233 which behaves much like plutonium but can be detonated at full yield with a simple gun type bomb. No testing required.
    This was, I suspect, one of the real reasons the technology was sidelined. Yet many proponents claim the exact opposite – that it was rejected because you couldn’t make bombs with it. Black is white and white is black.
    Top US nuclear weapons designer, Ted Taylor, put a lot of effort into trying to come up with a proliferation proof Thorium cycle but he could always find a way to make a big bang out of anything proposed. He finally gave up on that.

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