January 31 2005 02:00

There can be no one left who thinks that yesterday’s elections in Iraq will have ended the political instability in the Middle East. It is now assumed even by the US military leadership that the forces in Iraq cannot be significantly decreased for years. There is going to be more and more political pressure to achieve energy independence rather than face the prospect of endless military occupations of sources of oil.

The closest thing to an independence plan produced by the Bush administration or the energy industry is the hydrogen economy. The idea is to convert our vehicles, ships, and aircraft to burn the pollution free fuel in various forms. It would solve a problem, but it could take 20 years or so.

However, hydrogen isn’t a source of fuel – it’s a storage medium. It is produced by expending some other primary source of energy.

The source the government, energy industry, and the automotive industry has in mind is nuclear power. We are talking about literally thousands of new nuclear facilities dedicated to the production of hydrogen through fission powered electrolysis (the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen gas).

The hydrogen economy is really a nuclear economy. Investors and the rest of corporate America may not realise how close the country is to making a gigantic bet on a nuclear future. The scientists and engineers at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory have been developing the advanced nuclear technologies that would power the hydrogen world.

Among the designs the INEEL has been working on is the Very High Temperature Reactor, the one best suited to provide the process heat necessary to break hydrogen apart from water so it can be turned into fuel. (There are a few issues with storing hydrogen, but we won’t deal with them here.) Among the high temperature reactor variants is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor being developed here and in China.

I asked Dr Steve Herring of the INEEL how many of these new, relatively efficient reactors would be needed to displace the estimated US fuel import requirements 20 years from now. Based on the Energy Information Administration’s estimate of 2025 fuel imports (measured in quads, or quadrillion British thermal units), the output of 300MW per VHTR reactor, and the comparative efficiency of hydrogen fuel compared to gasoline, you come up with a requirement of about 4,000 reactors.

Now these reactors are much smaller than most of the power reactors in operation, but that’s still a significant number. However, the US used to have more than 1,000 land-based nuclear ballistic missiles in underground silos. The relatively small VHTR reactors might be housed in underground facilities that wouldn’t be much bigger.

Anti-nuclear activists want hydrogen fuel to come from renewable energy sources, such as wind power. However, that arithmetic doesn’t work. For example, California has the most developed wind power industry in the US. Its share of those reactors in 2025, based on population, would be about 480. The entire current wind development in California would only account for four reactors’ worth of energy for hydrogen production.

Whatever your doubts about nuclear power, the hydrogen economy might at least be cheaper than occupying the Middle East indefinitely. Using a cost estimate of $1,200 per KW for the reactors, those 4,000 reactors would cost about $1,500bn.

The direct costs of the peacekeeping, if that’s the term I’m looking for, in the Middle East, are about $100bn a year. Over 20 years, that’s $2,000bn. Throw in the deferred military capital costs, not to mention the survivors’ benefits, and nuclear powered hydrogen becomes quite competitive. The real hurdle with nukes is the capital cost. Maintenance, fuel and operation add up to less than 1 cent per kwh, and total energy content in a kilogramme of hydrogen or a gallon of gasoline is about 50 kwh, which would mean operating costs of about 50 cents a gallon.

There would still be a couple of issues. The first would be finding all the new uranium supplies to fuel the reactors. Geophysical surveys suggest there should be enough uranium in the US and Canada.

Then there is the problem of storing the used fuel. It would be necessary to find, or create, some caves in geologically stable formations such as the granite in the Northeastern US. That would be politically difficult.

Then we’d have to gather the helium that’s used for heat transfer in the pebble bed reactors. There’s a lot of helium in the universe; little of that is on our planet. The US produces a lot of helium, mostly in association with natural gas. The problem is helium reserves are running down and would be in decline by 2025. It might be necessary to go overseas to where new helium reserves have been discovered.

Where would some of those be? In Qatar, just across the Gulf from Iraq.