Future Prospects for Peaceful Nuclear Power from Iran
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Recent reports of a telephone conversation between the presidents of the USA and Iran suggest the possibility of constructive future discussion, including Iran's plans to develop nuclear electric power. While the diplomacy of Iran's new president is very positive, the behavior of his predecessor was a definite cause for concern across much of the Middle East and beyond. Iran is not the only Middle Eastern nation that seeks to generate future electric power from nuclear energy. Several other Middle Eastern and North African nations seek to do likewise and all using uranium-based fuel.
Much has been written previously including at Energy Pulse, on the more peaceful aspects of thorium-based nuclear power. Previous research suggests that thorium can be more easily reprocessed than uranium and that it is quite unsuitable for use in a nuclear explosive device. The ore that contains thorium occurs quite naturally in nearby nations such as India, Turkey and Egypt. Earlier research has also suggested that a relatively small amount of thorium can generate as much electric power as some 50-times the amount of uranium.
Constructive political dialogue with Iran could open the door for possible discussions about using thorium-based nuclear electric power. At present, much research is under way in China, India and the USA to develop thorium-based nuclear electric power. Chinese researchers have been working on high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors capable of processing thorium fuel. Any willingness by Iran to discuss possible future thorium nuclear power may go far in terms of easing political tensions across the Middle East. Iran may require foreign investment to consider a conversion from uranium to thorium fuel for their future nuclear electric program.
Any easing of economic sanctions against Iran may likely open a possible door to discuss future prospects for thorium nuclear electric power in that nation. Despite having been economically isolated, Iran has connected long-distance electric power lines across international borders into Turkey and into Turkmenistan. Improved diplomatic relations between Iran and other Middle Eastern neighbor states could possibly result in an undersea power cables connecting under the Strait of Hormuz or under the Persian Gulf. The undersea distance between SE Iran and NW India is much shorter than the proposed undersea cable distance linking British Columbia and California.
Mutually cordial diplomatic relations prevail between Iran and China and could open the door to possible discussions about Iran possibly using Chinese thorium-nuclear technology to generate electric power for domestic use as well as for export. Iran's geographic location in regard to time zones allows long-distance power lines to carry electric power to different time zones located to the east and west of Iran. The AM peak demand for electric power would occur in a sequence beginning in India and western China, followed by Iran and the Middle East, then followed by Eastern and Western Europe.
The Desertec Group has previously discussed prospects east-west and also north-south long-distance power transmission across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Except that Desertec focused on renewable energy such as wind and solar power. Several European countries that include Spain, Iceland, Ireland, Greece and Portugal had previously invested heavily in renewable energy, believing that a Green Energy revolution had the potential to rebuild national economies. Except that the economic promise of cost-competitive renewable green energy has faded in several nations. Plans to install solar collectors and panels across the Sahara and Arabian deserts are now on-hold.
Given the seasonal cyclical nature of the demand for electric power across much of the Middle Eastern, the Near East and Western Europe, future development of nuclear power may benefit from the availability of seasonal energy storage capability. Beginning some 5-years ago, a research team at MIT and a British research group named Isentropic Energy independently explored future prospects for seasonal high-temperature geothermal energy storage. There is definitely potential to develop such storage in the Middle East, given the availability of a few exhausted natural gas wells that were flooded with seawater to displace residual natural gas.
Seawater is also used to displace oil from some oil wells, leaving future potential for some form of geothermal energy storage. However, high-temperature geothermal energy storage would require the physical presence of a thermal power station in close proximity to the energy storage site. The Middle East does have potential for pumped hydraulic storage with an installation operating in Iran, as well as potential for compressed air energy storage (CAES) with the added option of seasonal, water-displacement CAES. Across the oil-producing Middle East, large salt caverns and salt domes occur deep underground and also in high mountains.
Salt domes in Muscat and in Iran protrude above ground in high mountains, allowing for excavation of massive volumes of rock salt that may be replaced by seawater. A fabric tent cover placed over the top of the mountain salt dome would reduce evaporation from the upper reservoir of a seasonal water-displaced CAES system. One of more salt domes located at great depth and partially flushed of rock salt would serve as compressed air storage reservoirs. During winter seasonal recharging, compressed air pumped into the lower elevation chambers would displacing seawater or brine into the upper reservoir(s).
The cost of further, prolonged armed conflict across the Middle East would be unproductive. Given the US$5-trillion estimated of the Iraq involvement, it would cost far less to assist Iran to convert their proposed nuclear-electric program from uranium to thorium fuel that would produce far less toxic waste that would be quite unsuitable for use in an explosive device. The future of peaceful nuclear electric power would depend in the nature of future inter-governmental discussions between the Iran and USA as well as other relevant nations