May/June 2004, Volume 60, No. 3, p. 12
BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS
Bush's nuclear FreedomCAR
By Bret Lortie
In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George Bush proposed
$1.2 billion in research funding "so that Americans can lead the world
in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles." At the center of
his vision: the "FreedomCAR."
Touted as a way to reverse U.S. dependence on foreign oil and global
warming, the car's dirty little secret is that putting millions of
them on America's interstate highways may necessitate the construction
of new nuclear power plants, something that has not occurred in the
United States for decades.
"There's one factor the president isn't talking about: the hundreds,
perhaps thousands, of new nuclear power plants his administration
imagines making all that hydrogen," Mark Baard reported in the May 28,
2003 Village Voice.
Could it be true? Could the Bush administration and Senate Republicans
want to give billions of taxpayer dollars to the nuclear industry for
new high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors that in theory will generate
both electricity and hydrogen?
You bet. Entergy, the second-largest nuclear energy producer in the
United States, hopes to break ground on its co-generation "Freedom
Reactor" in the next five years.
Dan Keuter, vice president of nuclear development for Entergy, claims
that the only "practical way to produce large volumes of emission-free
hydrogen is from advanced nuclear reactors" (Advanced Nuclear Power,
April 2003). "The fact is a hydrogen economy only makes sense if you
have a non-[greenhouse gas]-emitting source of hydrogen. That means
using renewable energy and nuclear."
And according to Keuter, renewables just aren't up to the task of
generating the quantity of hydrogen the world is going to need. Market
demand for hydrogen is forecast to quadruple by 2017, primarily for
producing fertilizer, refining oil, and making methanol, methane, and
other products. That estimate does not account for FreedomCARs or home
Another problem is that most hydrogen is today produced by breaking
down natural gas, which leads to climate change and increasing
dependence on limited natural gas resources.
Ethanol, produced from corn, is another potential source of hydrogen,
but current methods of extracting hydrogen from ethanol require large
refineries and large quantities of fossil fuels.
University of Minnesota researchers say they have a solution: a
prototype reactor small and efficient enough to heat small homes and
power cars (Associated Press, February 13).
The reactor--of the non-nuclear variety--is a relatively small,
2-foot-tall apparatus of tubes and wires that creates hydrogen for a
fuel cell, which generates power. The researchers envision people
buying ethanol to power these cells, capable of producing 1 kilowatt
of power, in their basements and garages.
For non-nuclear generated hydrogen to become a viable fuel source,
something like the Minnesota basement reactor has to be developed into
an affordable and readily available technology; at least that's what
the American Physical Society's Panel on Public Affairs is saying. On
March 1 it released a report stressing that major scientific
breakthroughs are required for the president's initiative to succeed.
"The most promising hydrogen-engine technologies require factors of 10
to 100 improvements in cost or performance in order to be
competitive," the report said.
And according to Peter Eisenberger, chairman of the committee that
drafted the report, once all that hydrogen is generated, you still
have to store the volatile gas. That's a "potential showstopper."
Bret Lortie is the Bulletin's managing editor.
© 2004 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists