Cancel
Advanced Search
KEYWORDS
CATEGORY
AUTHOR
MONTH

Please click here to take a brief survey

Nuclear Power and Climate Change: Is Our Choice Glow or Cook?
Alex Steffen, 11 Apr 06

Nuclear energy, which not so long ago seemed an obvious dead-end to most people concerned about the environment, has seen its fortunes rise a bit lately as concerns over climate change (or climate chaos, as the latest buzzphrase goes) intensify.

The argument, as made by people like James Lovelock and the Wired crowd, goes something like this: we must make drastic cuts in our greenhouse emissions; renewable energy is not yet ready for prime time and efficiency improvements alone won't work; nuclear energy is safer than it was and is zero-carbon in operation; therefore, climate chaos demands a massive program of building nuclear reactors.

There are numerous problems with this argument. First and most pressingly, a massive global nuclear program raises massive unanswered questions about the realism of safely operating (and storing the radioactive waste from) so many reactors in so many places. Second, while more research needs to be done, it appears that nuclear energy is not all that climate-safe after all:

[N]uclear power stations may produce less carbon dioxide pollution than those burning coal and gas, but analysis of the carbon footprint of nuclear, from extraction, through to decommissioning and waste storage, shows it to be more carbon-emitting than initially apparent.

What's more, as this discussion at RealClimate points out, mining the uranium ore to run these new reactors is a high-impact activity, and that with a massive growth in the number of reactors, nuclear carbon impacts would likely worsen, as poorer-quality ores are used and/or more distant deposits mined.

Third, the costs associated with nuclear power are often hidden or externalized, and once a full-cost accounting is made, nuclear ends up being a pretty costly way of cutting CO2 (even with the new "pebble-bed modular reactor" technology [PDF]), and may even undermine other efforts:

The government has done its sums and reckons that, by 2020 – the earliest time a new nuclear programme could come on stream – it’ll be cheaper to cut a tonne of carbon dioxide emissions through wind or combined heat and power (CHP) technologies – or simply through energy efficiency. These greener options could even have a negative net cost, the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) worked out. But if an expensive new nuclear build programme draws investment away from the development of clean technologies like these, we could see higher, rather than lower, emissions in the medium term.

Given the long lag-times involved in building new plants, and the hidden costs involved, many are saying that renewables are in fact far more economically competitive, and that with a comparable level of subsidy (and the elimation of subsidies for fossil fuels), wind, solar, hydro and wave energy could in fact deliver a clean-energy future more cheaply and on a quicker timeframe, without any of the attendant security or health risks.

Indeed, the worm seems to have turned on the Nukes-against-Greenhouse argument, politically. More and more scientists are questioning the validity of the pro-nuclear argument, while the campaign to green nuclear power seems to have made little headway in convincing the voters in most developed world countries. Just this week, forty of the U.K.'s leading climate and energy scientists have gone public with their opposition to Blair's nuclear proposals, while Blair's support on the issue within his own party has been described as weak. In the U.S. Germany and Canada, polls show consistant large-opposition to nuclear power, while Sweden already has a nuclear phase-out program.

I personally would not be willing to say that nuclear power never has a role: or, at least, I'm willing to be convinced. But the concerns are dire, and the benefits of making a bold, global commitment to creating a clean-energy economy are clear -- including the fact that it will yield real economic benefits to early adopters.

We should remember, too, that what's important is not that any particular clean energy or energy efficiency technology prove a silver bullet, but that we get smarter about creating dramatic improvements throughout the energy system.

Climate change is a huge challenge, and demands changed thinking. It's pretty clear, though, that we have many more choices than glow or cook.

Bookmark and Share


Comments

Changed thinking might also include the ability to be flexible and to discard ideology for the practical.

To many - but probably not the readers of WorldChanging - 'nukes bad, solar good' is less a statement of learned thought than dogma. Which is good in it's place but not terribly helpful if you're trying to WorldChange.

There is an old saying; - if it's a daft idea but it works it's not daft.


Posted by: Brian on 11 Apr 06

there are sollutions for treating nuclear waste
( for example

http://www.physorg.com/news6046.html

Researchers in Germany have found a way to use bacteria which are able to accumulate toxic metals and survive in nuclear waste as a way of cleaning up toxic dumps.


http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060401110633.htm

Bacteria Aid In Clean-Up Of Uranium Contamination
In research that could help control contamination from the radioactive element uranium, scientists have discovered that some bacteria found in the soil and subsurface can release phosphate that converts uranium contamination into an insoluble and immobile form.

http://www.physorg.com/news11090.html
Researchers develop alternate method to dispose nuclear liquid waste
An alternate method of processing certain liquid wastes into a solid form for safe disposal has been developed by researchers at Penn State University and the Savannah River National Laboratory. The solidified form has been called a hydroceramic and is an improved alternate to other forms and processes )

... but the dangers involved with atomic nucleus splitting is creating fear both of a possible accident while running the atomic splitting plant and with processing/storing the nuclear waste ...

fear is polluting the world even more than the radioactive waste ...

also there is guilt involved ... i feel guilty when using atomic power ( i certainly should ask the housowner where i live to switch to green net energy )

... not to forget the impacts of uran mining on indigenous communities

( http://www.science.org.au/nova/002/002key.htm
http://www.sric.org/uranium/index.html )


...

bacteria and waste ... seem to hold enormous potentional to generate energy

http://www.physorg.com/news6141.html
It's electric: Cows show promise as powerplants
A new study suggests that some of the microorganisms found in cow waste may provide a reliable source of electricity.
Results showed that the microbes in about a half a liter of rumen fluid – fermented, liquefied feed extracted from the rumen, the largest chamber of a cow's stomach – produced about 600 millivolts of electricity. That's about half the voltage needed to run one rechargeable AA-sized battery,


http://www.physorg.com/news4421.html
Microbiologists seeking ways to eliminate pollution from waterways with microbes instead discovered that some pollution-eating bacteria commonly found in freshwater ponds can generate electricity.


alone at physorg.com .... one could find hundreds or thousands of articles like this ...

http://www.physorg.com/news3613.html

Your car's engine loses 70 percent of its energy as waste heat-but Australian and Oregon scientists may have figured out an efficient way not only to recover that lost energy, but to at long last capture the power-producing potential of geothermal heat.
The trick is to convert it to electricity-and a promising way to accomplish this, the researchers have discovered, involves using extremely thin nanowires to potentially more than double the efficiency of thermoelectric materials.
"If all goes well, nanostructured thermoelectric devices may be practical for applications such as recycling of waste heat in car engines, on-chip cooling of computer microprocessors and silent, more compact domestic refrigerators,"


-----

all this inventions lead us to use the energy we generate more clever, waste not, recycle it


and there are more concepts such as using heated oil to power a stirling engine to generate electricity
( http://www.tamera.org/Solar_Power_Village/SPV10_2004_engl.html )


or

http://www.cnet.com/4831-11405-6412811.html
a laptop with a fuel cell instead of a chemical battery

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4794920.stm
At the Cebit technology fair in Hanover, Taiwanese hi-tech firm Antig said its fuel cells should be on the shelves of computer shops by early 2007


to create the biomass to be processed into ethanol ( to power then all this laptops, mp3, handies, tvs, digicams ) ... it just needs to green the deserts:

http://www.hindunet.org/hindu_history/sarasvati/sarasvati_river/projects.html
Salt marshes require a low-energy environment to start, such as a lagoon, estuary, or the inside of a sandbar.
Salicornia farms have been set up in Mexio and demonstration farms have been started also in Pali district of Rajasthan and in Luni, Kutch

it is imaginable to pump seawater with solar photovoltaic energy deeper into desert and enlarge the salicornia fields as pioneer in the desert greening process ... beside this, basins with algae can be installed with saltwater and the algae biomass can be processed into ethanol or biogas ... or also to biodiesel ( depends on the lipid content of the algae ... also salicornia can be processed into oil ... and or ... composted salicornia and or algae biomass can become a fertile ground for freshwater tree plantation projects

( http://www.fao.org/documents/show_cdr.asp?url_file=/docrep/T0122E/t0122e0f.htm

Species for arid zone forestry

Simmondsia chinensis
Jojoba oil from seeds

Salvadora persica
edible fruit, seeds give fat, roadside plantations



Posted by: andreas buechel on 11 Apr 06

Save the energy in the first place through clever city design!

As we approach peak oil, this is going to become paramount.
We can save everything good about civilization while making massive gains in energy efficiency, reducing global warming, becoming energy independent, and stimulating new and interesting economic activity and social cohesiveness through one city rezoning step... gradually implementing New Urbanism.

*Rezoning for sustainability*
Normal home attrition and demolition rates could be used to rezone suburbia into a more traditional, New Urbanist approach to city planning, in about 50 years! In other words, if we don't rebuild a dysfunctional suburban home where it is, but instead transfer the land and title deeds to a New Urbanist or eco-city dwelling, then the suburban home can be rezoned into local farmers markets, sustainable tree farming, etc.

Using the Swedish figures on 'normal' home demolition rates of 1.6% per year, it works out that 80% of suburbia could be rezoned into New Urbanism within 50 years. There are problems such as issues of 'critical mass' to consider — such as when is a suburb no longer a suburb? When have so many people moved out that the corner grocery stores, necessary in a post-oil world, are no longer viable? Maybe the last 30 homes in a district have to migrate en-masse — I'm not sure. However, rather than trying to unrealistically scale up renewable energy to run an inefficient city design... how about we redesign the city so that renewable energy is not just possible, but AMPLE for our needs? I'm just proposing that peak oil is not completely unwinnable. Simply using clever rezoning can save domestic oil use in a hurry.

*Rezoning to save oil in a hurry*
Over 10 years, 1.6% per annum becomes 16% of suburban families moved into oil free TOD's. (Transport Orientated Developments). This saves oil (and any other energy system in future cars) by permanently reducing the need for it in the first place. How about thinking outside of the box, and getting rid of the need for cars in the first place? We need energy efficient cities, not cars. We need to move people, not cars. We are the rulers of this planet... not our cars. Yet if an alien were to begin investigating this world, they might be forgiven if they thought cars were the dominant life form on planet earth as we spend all of our resources to feed them (with petroleum) and make way for them by paving over the planet. It's time for this to change.

See www.newurbanism.org — it's a great website.


Posted by: David Lankshear on 11 Apr 06

Oh, and I forgot — I agree that Nuclear power is too expensive here on earth, but what about if we ever want to set up a base on the moon or Mars? We may need to save nuclear power for the earlier stages of setting up colonies on other worlds.


Posted by: David Lankshear on 11 Apr 06

Hi guys - the link to realclimate seems to be broken (it points back here).


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 11 Apr 06

Nice summary, Alex.

About the buzz:
Back in 2003, attempting to capture the insanity of business as usual, we called it "climate weirdness."


Posted by: Howard Silverman on 11 Apr 06

Within the current design of our political economy, whatever number of nuclear plants you envision, plan on doubling them every 20 years or so. That's how we operate now, and we can't imagine doing otherwise. Stabilizing climate is one thing, but we want to do that and keep growth going too. Humbug.

What are we trying to preserve? If it's exponential growth, nothing we try, including nuclear energy, will work. Full stop.

If one wants to pursue empire by projecting military force, one needs concentrated energy. So far, that's fossil and nuclear. We might run a hyper-efficient, sane world on renewable energy, but we won't run aircraft carriers and fighter jets. Nuclear is a salvation to more than the well-intentioned.

If we can possibly learn to control our numbers and desires, and to find the most efficient, elegant ways to provide for our core material needs, well - I don't know if we can do that on renewable energy alone. I don't think anyone does, even Amory Lovins. We might dig a modicum of coal for centuries - far below the amount that would continue increasing greenhouse gasses. We might have several score nuclear plants. Could we manage the fuel cycle and risks? I don't know. I'm skeptical, yet respectful of intelligent, caring people who argue otherwise.

Let's imagine this: making the world so that no one would have any conceivable reason to pursue nuclear energy unless they had intentions to make nuclear weapons. What if the need for civilian nuclear reactors was so ridiculous, so far fetched, that anybody pursuing one would clearly and obviously be pursuing weapons. What a great non-proliferation strategy!


Posted by: David Foley on 11 Apr 06

Arthur: The link is fixed. Thanks!


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 11 Apr 06

Regarding this quote:
"Nuclear power stations may produce less carbon dioxide pollution than those burning coal and gas, but analysis of the carbon footprint of nuclear, from extraction, through to decommissioning and waste storage, shows it to be more carbon-emitting than initially apparent."

The link doesn't say anything about the reasons for saying that. If its a matter of the use of fossil fuels in mining materials & constructing the power plants, that is an issue for *ANY* energy source until we find a way to run mobile machinery like bulldozers without using fossil fuels.


Posted by: Jim Baerg on 11 Apr 06

The explanation for the carbon footprint has a lot to do with the mining of uranium, from what I've read, which is particularly carbon-intensive (as well as environmentally malign), and with the shipping, safeguarding and storage of nuclear waste.

There are a bunch of sites talking about this -- follow the link trails out...


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 11 Apr 06

Arctic melt back (near total loss of September ice-covered area) is 20 to 30 years away. Any idea what that will mean for postive feedback of methane and carbon dioxide trapped in melting permafrost and tundra?

Folks, the 100,000 year fear of nuclear waste leaking into the environment is a non sequitur when we hold the fate of our children's future in our hands before 2040.

And US (us) electric generation increased 59 billion kilowatt-hours from 2004 to 2005. Assuming a 1.5 megawatt wind tower operating at 40% availability (industry high estimate), it would require about 180,000 wind towers in the US just to meet the one year growth in demand. Note, the total electic generation in 2004 was about 4 trillion kilowatt-hours.

Centalized nuclear power is our children's option and we have a responsibility to help them prepare for whatever they will have to do to survive.

John McCormick


Posted by: John McCormick on 11 Apr 06

Take away fossil fuels and we have only renewables (solar/hydro/biomass/wind) and nuclear left to power our society and our lives.

The biggest problem with renewables is energy intensity and reliability. How will we run industry on a power grid that shuts down when the wind slows down or the sun doesn't shine?

Is it the plan, perhaps, that we should turn the clock back to a simpler time when most people worked the land and lived on a farm? I just can't see it. The only way I believe it will be possible to turn the clock back and slash the energy intensity of society to such a degree will be through catastrophic change. We can't go back without massive social / economic consequences.

Saying no to nukes, even to a new generation of N-technology taking into account all that has been learned over the past few decades, is absurd given the problems we will be facing as the world turns away from fossil fuels and deals with the consequences of global warming.

Dogmatic, ideological thinking that says NO nuclear, under NO circumstances, never ever, is counter-productive and irresponsible.

Nuclear has its problems, but so does letting the lights go out. I have yet to see the perfect solution. I say lets work rationally and responsibly with all options.


Posted by: Steve on 11 Apr 06

Same old tired arguments about "inconsistent supply" etc.

Give it a rest, nuke zealots.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 11 Apr 06

Quite so. Lights that go off when the sun isn't shining are lights that aren't connected to storage batteries.


Posted by: Dave Cutler on 11 Apr 06

"And US (us) electric generation increased 59 billion kilowatt-hours from 2004 to 2005. Assuming a 1.5 megawatt wind tower operating at 40% availability (industry high estimate), it would require about 180,000 wind towers in the US just to meet the one year growth in demand."

Using those numbers, it would take a little over 11,000 turbines. Of course, the standard should be 5 MW turbines, and assuming a more conservative 34% utilization rate, the real number is around 4,000 new turbines to meet that increased demand.

Naturally, that should be combined with efficiency to get the best results.

Even nukes can never supply electricity demand which never stops growing.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 11 Apr 06

Great article, good comments.

Dave Foley -- exactly -- what are we trying to preserve? We can cut carbon emissions by using birth control. It is a cultural issue, not so much a technical one.

Standing in the way of the nuclear hyperbole is the plain fact that too many plants are necesary to replace existing fossil fuels -- 10,000 plants, according to cal tech physicist David Goodstein.

And while there is an abundance of uranium - most of it in the sea - actually extracting and refining it DOES take energy. One must subtract that energy from net output over the lifetime of a plant (and they do have hard, corroding lifetimes, numbered in years less than 100). Cheap fossil fuel is masking the true cost of Nuclear. For now.

I'll put up a windmill myself, thanks. A few knuckeheads might complain that she be an ugly mechanism, but I won't have cancer and global warming on my conscience, now will I?



Posted by: Jon S. on 11 Apr 06

Steve - "The biggest problem with renewables is energy intensity and reliability. How will we run industry on a power grid that shuts down when the wind slows down or the sun doesn't shine?"

Well how do we do it now? The capacity factor of nuclear or fossil fuels is not 100%. There is always downtime and breakdowns. We seem to cope alright now.

Also all solar and wind need is storage. To avoid having all this storage sitting around doing nothing we can use it to drive around in. Parked and connected plug in hybrids and battery electric cars with AC motor drives can supply power to the grid as well as charge off it. In Australia we have something like 7 million cars. If they had batteries of an average 25KwHrs and 80% of them were parked (which is about average) then these could supply Australia's entire electricity demand for about a day. A benfit of this is that we eliminate our transport (Peak Oil) problems as well. http://www.udel.edu/V2G/

There is no need for nuclear at all. Coal at a minimal base load level burnt in IGCC power plants will last for a very long time. Any future power system must include massive power demand reduction. We cannot afford to waste as much as we want. Solar/Wind/Biomass can easily cope with 70% of demand with proper storage. The added huge benefit is that the proper storage solves our future transport problems.


Posted by: Ender on 11 Apr 06

David Foley makes an interesting point: using high efficiency and renewables as a way to slow nuclear proliferation.

But there are a few problems with this.

A country can still build weapons, although not as quickly or easily, without significant civilian nuclear power industry.

And there are other uses for nuclear reactors aside from power generation and weapons production, for example, producing plutonium for RTGs used in deep space probes, making exotic isotopes for physics research or producing isotopes for cancer therapy and medical imaging. Sometimes it's hard to separate all these uses.

Still David gives us something to think about. If we could reduce the need for nuclear power generation, that might vastly reduce the number of reactors a country would need and these might be easier to police with international regulation.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 12 Apr 06

Before I START to think about how to get my electricity, I want to start to think about all the electricity -and energy in general- that I am using but don't need.

I don't need ANY soft drinks, or the big fridges running night and day all over the place keeping them cool.

I don't need those piles of unaskedfor catalogs I get in the mail, nor almost all the stuff they are asking me to buy

I don't need three different kinds of new fighter planes that have nobody to fight.

I don't need any 4wheeldrive big fat cars driving on nice smooth city roads

I don't need 30 different kinds of peanut butter. 2 kinds is more than enough.

I don't need those superfat people squishing into seats next to me in a bus.

I don;'t need almost all the stuff I see in any big box store I have the bad luck to go in to.

I don't need nuclear power. Or anywhere near the power I am actually using right now out of sheer inertia and lazyness.

I do need a lot more simple modesty and sanity than I have been able to find these days. And it sure would be nice to have some real leadership, but I have given up on that, Have to do it myself, if I expect to get any, and I suppose that's actually the way it should be and has always been. Damn.


Posted by: wimbi on 12 Apr 06

There's alot of back and forth going on in this debate, with very good points on each side, but there are a few things that have not been touched upon:

1. Advancing Solar Tech. For instance:
http://www.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/MSD-perfect-solar-cell.html
http://www.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/MSD-perfect-solar-cell-2.html
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/03/1000_suns_from.php
http://renewableenergyaccess.com/rea/news/productstory;jsessionid=F6EF23ECE5BF2C562168392B6538368A?id=44308

The more efficient solar cells become, the more energy we can capture from the sun, and the less of an issue intermittency becomes.

2. Wave Power and Hydrogen. Current methods of obtaining hydrogen for fuel cells involve extracting it from fossil fuels and electrolysis of water, usually by means of juice supplied from a power plant, which chances are, burns fossil fuel or uses nuclear fuel. True, some of that power could be provided by solar or wind, but as it has been said many times before, such sources of power are not constant.

So essentially what is needed for large-scale hydrogen production is a constant (or fairly constant) source of electricity, close proximity of the feedstock, and for our purposes one that has a low environmental impact. Considering these requirements, it would seem to me that a wave power hydrogen plant would be the ideal choice. You have everything you need: constant electricity generation, water for electrolysis, and a low impact design. Of course that last part is subject to debate. The impact of the generator would depend on how it was designed, and whether or not existing port infrastructure was being retrofitted, or "untouched" shoreline was being developed.

3. Advancing Storage Tech. Nanotech ultracapacitors are a more efficient and quicker option on the horizon for storing power for later use, as evidenced by the following:

http://www.cap-xx.com/news/photogallery.htm#2
http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,124986,00.asp
http://www.impactlab.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=7540

4. Efficiency. Yes, I know people love to scoff at this idea, but take a good look around you. Plants, animals, and the ecosystems of which they are apart live completely off of intermittent energy from the sun (in some form or another). If nature can find a way to be that efficient with energy, why can’t we? I honestly believe if the biomimicry community teamed up with specialists in computer evolution programs, we could come up with some marvelous solutions in this area.

5. The Energy Manhattan Project. Admittedly this is not my idea, but it is a good one. The U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a war in the Mideast, which at least in my opinion, has something to do with securing energy resources in the form of oil. Now imagine if we had used all that money to instead fund a massive project to come up with the next big thing in clean, green, renewable, sustainable, electricity generation. If we had done that we’d either be making some damn good progress, or we would actually have the technological solution we need. And I don’t think this is a pie-in-the-sky approach to the matter either; god knows there are enough avenues to be explored in this area, whether we’re talking cold fusion, or something a bit more exotic like ZPE…

From http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/research/warp/ipspaper.html

“Zero Point Energy (ZPE) is the term used to describe the random electromagnetic oscillations that are left in a vacuum after all other energy has been removed (ref 13). This can be explained in terms of quantum theory, where there exists energy even in the absolute lowest state of a harmonic oscillator. The lowest state of an electromagnetic oscillation is equal to one-half the Planck constant times the frequency. If all the energy for all the possible frequencies is summed up, the result is an enormous energy density, ranging from 1036 to 1070 Joules/m3. In simplistic terms there is enough energy in a cubic centimeter of the empty vacuum to boil away Earth's oceans.”

Or tinkering with Maxwell’s Demon…

http://www.execonn.com/maxwell/maxwells_demon.html

Whichever avenue is chosen, I hope you'll agree that this is a project that is sorely needed.


Posted by: Justin Minich on 12 Apr 06

With regards to the debate surrounding green house emissions resulting from the nuclear fuel cycle - The International Energy Agency 2003 study concluded that the nuclear fuel cycle produces the second-lowest greenhouse emissions next to wind. Yes, even lower than solar or hydroelectric.


Posted by: Cliff Harris on 12 Apr 06

I'm no expert, but my gutt feeling says that the argument about the carbon impact of uranium mining is totally hilarious.

All the other renewables (except for biofuels) require much more mining:
-for solar you need to mine vast amounts of rare elements, and you need even higher amounts of minerals for the batteries that are needed with solar
-for wind, you need vast amounts of metals that all have to be mined (there are no wooden or bioplastic wind turbines out there), and again, even higher amounts for the dirty filthy polluting batteries that go with it.

Moreover, in practise, you could use biofuels to mine uranium (mining equipment that works on biodiesel which comes from plants that bioremediate the mining site - there are companies out there planting jatropha on mining sites). I don't see the same thing happening with solar or wind.


The other points Alex Steffen mentions are obviously the old objections against nuclear, and they're still standing.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 12 Apr 06

I feel very strongly that nuclear power should not be part of our changing world. The technolgy does not have inherant safety, has numerous dangerous environmental impacts, represents the "old way" of generating power in centralized industrial scale facilities. We CANNOT dispose of the waste this technology generates, and our remediation and storage will cost vast quantities of money, and pose indefinite risks far into our future. Frankly I am very dissapointed the World Changing community even considers this technology viable for the future. It is not carbon neutral, and is represents major environmental threats.

Let's deal with our energy issues with the double edged sword of creative reduction of usage, and utilization of truly benign renewable energy. There is simply no need for compromise, I am tired of repressing my fears of nuclear. Think about how our generation will be viewed by history.


Posted by: Adam Scott on 12 Apr 06

I find it amuzing that I was called a pro nuke zealot! I'm an engineer by trade and zealot is the last think I could be described as. My point is that zeolotry will be dangerous as we face what is coming - that's the last thing I want to see is ideological, closed-minded thinking. We should all stick to fact-based analysis.

I have done much reading on nuclear power. Looking at it from the perspective of a scientist and engineer, I see that it offers many benefits. Waste is a problem, but a theoretically managable one if handled responsibly. Safety is an issue. Nevertheless, the track record is very good and even more can be done in the future to make improvements. I understand that the marginal cost of adding a MW of wind power is now cheaper than nuclear. But, we're also going to have to look at base load supply in a post-fossil fuel world. My understanding is that energy storage on this scale simply doesn't exist. And, what would be the GHG implications of building such an energy storage infrastructure and hundreds of thousands of wind turbines, vs. building modern N-plants producing the same 24x7 power? Given the 10,000,000 fold difference between nuclear and chemical energy processes, I got a good guess about which option would take MUCH more construction inputs to build for the same power output. I'm sure technology will make progress on large-scale power storage nevertheless - but at what cost?

I am hopeful much progress can be made toward a fully sustainable society (we have to at some point by virtue of living in a finite world), but this will involve BIG changes.

Our society, our economy, my job, my home, everything is built on the assumption of consuming a lot of energy. Changing that is not going to be easy. It will be a lot more difficult, I fear bordering on the impossible without horrendous economic / social dislocation, if you take a reliable source of large-scale energy production that is GHG free right off the table. To me, THAT smacks of zealotry in light of the fact-based analysis.

To those who shout ZEALOT, I suggest you look in the mirror.


Posted by: steve on 12 Apr 06

Well, yes: let's all hurl a few less charges of zealotry around.

This is an issue on which reasonable people can differ.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 12 Apr 06

Nuclear Power has an extremely good safety record even counting TMI and Chernobyl. Compare that to the number of deaths in coal mining accidents and other fossil related energy sources. Nuclear is the cleanest form of energy, with the smallest footprint relative to what would be needed for solar or wind (square miles of land for solar/wind and less than a square mile for nuclear), and handles its waste to the gram level. The waste is a political issue not a technical issue. Renewables have their own environmental impacts as well which are often overlooked (how many birds are killed each year with wind, how many toxic substances are used to make solar panels). The carbon footprint of renewables isn't zero. It takes a mix of several energy sources to have reliable safe electric power supplies. This article is slanted by the author who chooses to not be well informed on nuclear. I'll be glad to live next to a nuclear power plant; seems like most wildlife likes it too based on other articles I've read.


Posted by: Rick G. on 12 Apr 06

Steve said:
"Our society, our economy, my job, my home, everything is built on the assumption of consuming a lot of energy. Changing that is not going to be easy."

I say, no its not... everthing is not built on the assumption of consuming a lot of energy.

It just so happens that some forms of energy have been extremely cheap and easy to access over the last century. There is no inherent "need" for a lot of energy. We - the world - have had very little reason to try to become more efficient.
Now we have a reason, therefore we will become more efficient.

With barely any effort here in the US we have already become more efficient, but we have barely scratched the surface. In the past thirty years, energy usage per $GDP has been cut in half. see - http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/mer/pdf/pages/sec1_16.pdf

I think we cut this rate by a further 80-90% over the next fifty years.


Posted by: Joe Deely on 12 Apr 06

My feelings are that we should work the hardest on improving energy efficiency and expanding the use of renewables but, I'm not willing to entirely abandon nuclear either.

I don't know all the details but, I think it's right to examine the carbon footprint generated by uranium and thorium mining. It is a factor in the equation and it should be considered. My hunch is that even by including this factor, nuclear energy will still generate less greenhouse gases than coal-based electricity generation.

Having said all that, I still favor more research and development to improve energy efficiency and renewables first. Nuclear is expensive and should only be used when there are no better alternatives.

Additionally, I'd rather if we didn't confuse the issue by citing total blue sky stuff like zero-point energy. Zero-point energy, if it even exists, is based on very, very speculative physics--hardly something I'd want to base national energy policy on.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 12 Apr 06

Uranium mining is not carbon-intensive.

Nor do the power plants produce unusual amounts of waste heat ... nor has any country ever joined the "nuclear club" through misuse, or any kind of use, of a nuclear power generator ... nor is a few megawatts of slow-to-decay radioactivity from several decades of a large power station's operation essentially different from the hundreds of megawatts of even more persistent natural radioactivity that it will eventually be buried beneath ... etcetera.

Every argument that is commonly heard against nuclear energy that would, if not deceitful, be enough to kill it all by itself, is deceitful; that's why oil money shuffles them around so often. Each one is soon exposed, and goes into storage until it shall have been forgotten again.

--- Graham Cowan, former hydrogen fan
B: internal combustion, nuclear cachet


Posted by: Graham Cowan on 12 Apr 06

steve - " And, what would be the GHG implications of building such an energy storage infrastructure and hundreds of thousands of wind turbines, vs. building modern N-plants producing the same 24x7 power?"

By replacing the current transport fleet with battery electric and Plug in hybrids the storage could be built with a enormous impact on CHGs as transport accounts for 30% of CHG emissions. A nuclear future has no provision replacing transport for when oil runs short. A distributed power system where renewables and electric transport work together by definition solves 2 problems.

Also nuclear power cannot provide 100% of our demand as something like 60% of daily demand is short term peak power which nuclear power cannot provide. You would still need to back up the nuclear plants with spinning reserve and peaking plants - where does the fuel for these come from?

The desire for nuclear power is really just a desire to continue to consume energy with no changes to our lifestyle. It ignores the fact that our present society is unsustainable and requires changes. Simply substituting N power for fossil power will not bring about those changes.

Finally without breeder reactors uranium supplies are limited. Yes you can use thorium but only by using more raw materials and generating more waste that no-one has really solved the problem of disposing. Despite 50 years of research not 1 kg of nuclear waste is presently in geological storage that would be considered long term and safe. Yucca Mountain is delayed and really the only solution for waste disposal at the moment is to store it and wait for a miracle to happen or I die when it ceases to be a problem for me.

Breeder reactors and a plutonium fuel cycle brings proliferation concerns. At the moment civilian nuclear fuel cannot be used in nuclear weapons without difficult enrichment. Plutonium from breeders in immediately weapons grade. I actually consider the proliferation issue the largest argument against nuclear power. Without supporting the political system of Iran, which I do not like at all, your spread of nuclear power will force countries with political systems that are not acceptable to us to use nuclear power. Either Iran can have peacful nuclear power or it can't and is the model for the nuclear future. If we cannot allow Iran to have nuclear power then how is the future world to be powered? If Iran can have nuclear power how do we stop them making bombs if they feel threatened?

These are larger issues than waste and are not being solved very well at the moment.


Posted by: Ender on 12 Apr 06

Lorenzo:
"I'm no expert, but my gutt feeling says that the argument about the carbon impact of uranium mining is totally hilarious."

Lorenzo, you don't have a sense of scale for how much uranium mining is going on, to replenish stocks that are continually depleting as the fuel is used. Uranium doesn't come out of the ground enriched at 40%.

While it is correct to point out that the average windmill presently requires large initial investment, SO DOES NUCLEAR -- but after that initial investment , nuclear maintenance and fuel costs (think in terms of energy expended) are vastly greater than than maintaining wind turbines.

And btw -- you could build a windmill out of bamboo and cloth if pressed. I daresay the same could not be said for nuclear.


Posted by: Jon S. on 12 Apr 06

Alex said:"The explanation for the carbon footprint has a lot to do with the mining of uranium, from what I've read, which is particularly carbon-intensive (as well as environmentally malign), and with the shipping, safeguarding and storage of nuclear waste."

I find down the link chain
"...This has been countered by claims from those opposed to nuclear3 that analysis of the carbon footprint of nuclear from uranium extraction and processing all the way through to decommissioning and waste storage, indicates CO2 and other greenhouse gas production is upwards of 40% of a gas fired system with the same energy output. It is difficult to judge the reliability of such claims, however clearly nuclear is more carbon-emitting than might be appreciated at first glance, and this point is recognised in the current energy review."

Footnote 3 is - Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith: Nuclear Power: The Energy balance, 2005

So I can't just jump to a website to see the basis of the claim.

I did however, find a response to the claim:
http://neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com/2005/07/nuclear-energy-and-total-life-cycle.html

The claim sounds like nonsense to me. The source of the claim being identified as antinuclear makes me suspect that at least some antinukes play as loosely with facts as creationists.

With current primitive nuke plants getting about 1% of the available energy out of the uranium, that's still 10000 to 100000 times as much energy per kg as you get from fossil fuels. Currently much of the worlds uranium comes from very rich (over 10% U) ores in Saskatchewan. Before those ore bodies were found ores of about 1% or less were often mined, apparently for a reasonable cost.

If we instead build breeder reactors we could run the world for centuries on the uranium already mined & reduce the mass of waste per unit electricity by a factor of about 100.


Posted by: Jim Baerg on 12 Apr 06

Jim Baerg - "Currently much of the worlds uranium comes from very rich (over 10% U) ores in Saskatchewan. Before those ore bodies were found ores of about 1% or less were often mined, apparently for a reasonable cost."

It may be 10% uranium however that is not the problem. The large amount of electricity is needed to run the centrifuges to enrich the uranium to 3% or 5% U235 required for fission.


Posted by: Ender on 12 Apr 06

First off, of course, enrichment isn't necessary at all with heavy water reactors, nor was it necessary with Magnox reactors.

Gaseous diffusion did require large amounts of electricity, almost two percent of the yield, a few years ago when the U price per barrel-of-oil-equivalent was US$0.25. It may be 2.5 percent now, because now the BOE price has risen to a dollar or so. With more expensive U it makes economic sense to enrich it a little harder, so to speak. Not to a higher richness, but with more effort and electricity spent on the depleted part, getting it to a greater degree of depletion, a lower "tails assay" was the term I think. More at the relevant UIC page
(http://www.uic.com.au).

But centrifuges taking a large fraction of the yield? Um ... no. They take 50 times less than do gaseous diffusion plants.

--- Graham Cowan, former hydrogen fan
B: internal combustion, nuclear cachet


Posted by: Graham Cowan on 12 Apr 06

Currently, Paducah, KY is the uranium enrichment facility in the USA. This facility receives its power from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is comprised primarily of nuclear and hydroelectric plants. Even assuming that the enrichment facility was powered by coal, it would take about 2 coal plants to supply 103 nuclear plants. So in effect, 101 coal plants are not needed, which results in a net reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Also remember that coal produces other nasties for our environment like mercury. How much fish have you eaten recently?


Posted by: Cliff Harris on 14 Apr 06

from Ender<>

Enrichment plants can be (& IINM are) run on hydroelectric or nuclear energy. Since fuel costs are a small fraction of the price of nuclear generated electricity from reactors that use enriched uranium, enrichment can't be using a very large fraction of the energy produced by fissioning the uranium 235.

Also not all reactor designs require enriched uranium. Look up CANDU for a reactor that runs on natural uranium.


Posted by: Jim Baerg on 14 Apr 06

From Ender "By replacing the current transport fleet with battery electric and Plug in hybrids the storage could be built with a enormous impact on CHGs as transport accounts for 30% of CHG emissions. A nuclear future has no provision replacing transport for when oil runs short. A distributed power system where renewables and electric transport work together by definition solves 2 problems.

Also nuclear power cannot provide 100% of our demand as something like 60% of daily demand is short term peak power which nuclear power cannot provide. You would still need to back up the nuclear plants with spinning reserve and peaking plants - where does the fuel for these come from?"

Some sort of electricity storage would be *desirable* whatever way the electricity is generated. Nuclear however can be turned on & off on demand unlike solar or wind. The fact that a nuclear reactor costs far more than the fuel means the reactor owner would rather run it at full power all the time.

The fact that electricity demand peaks during the day means that cheap photovoltaics & nuclear would complement each other nicely, with nuclear providing the base load & solar providing the daytime peak. There would still be some mismatch between supply & demand which is where the batteries in those plug in hybrids would come in.

Another possible storage means is to electrolyze water whenever the electricty supply is greater than the demand & burn the hydrogen wherever high temperatures are needed eg: gas stoves.

BTW I meant to include a backquote in my last past, but did something wrong.


Posted by: Jim Baerg on 14 Apr 06

John McCormick "Centalized nuclear power is our children's option and we have a responsibility to help them prepare for whatever they will have to do to survive."

Why assume centralized?

For an alternative idea see: http://www.worldandi.com/public/2001/April/nuclear.html

The author has a lot of other interesting information on nuclear energy at:
http://www.atomicinsights.com/

& his blog:
http://atomicinsights.blogspot.com/


Posted by: Jim Baerg on 14 Apr 06

Jim - "Also remember that coal produces other nasties for our environment like mercury"

Yes it does however this can be reduced to the minimum possible by burning coal in integrated gasification combined cycle plants where the pollutants are captured and not releases and progressively reducing fossil fuel use to virtually nothing as a smart distributed grid with drastically reduced demand starts to work properly.

"Some sort of electricity storage would be *desirable* whatever way the electricity is generated. Nuclear however can be turned on & off on demand unlike solar or wind."

However it does produce waste that needs to be disposed of and people can turn the fuel in nuclear weapons. NONE of these can be done with solar/wind. For all our sakes can't we just do without wasting enormous amounts of power?

The final irony is that after spending 2 billion dollars on a nuclear reactor, 5 or 10 billion on a storage facility and 1 or 2 billion to de-commission the plant when it wears out you STILL have to back it up because it cannot match peak demand quicky enough.

And yes nuclear power can produce hydrogen for fuel cell cars however practical ones are at least 10 or 15 years and 1 or 2 technical breakthroughs away. Plug-in hybrids and electric cars are ready today. These can be also powered by nuclear power and provide the spinning reserve that nuclear power needs however until we solve the waste and weopons proliferation problems of nuclear power I would feel a lot safer with a technology that cannot be used for warfare.


Posted by: Ender on 15 Apr 06

To Ender:
Your quoteback about nasties from coal must be from someone else. I think gassification of coal would be good not for electricity generation but for making liquid fuels to run mobile machinery. That is the thing that is hard to do without fossil fuels.

"waste and weopons proliferation problems of nuclear power"

Both strike me as grossly exagerated. In the case of weapons proliferation I note that there are over half a dozen states with nuclear weapons & SFAIK not one used fuel rods from power reactors to help make a nuclear explosive. (OK there were a few experiments to see if it could be done at all but it's always easier to do it by other means). So giving up civilian nuclear power would do nothing to stop nuclear weapons.

I might concede in the light of the Iran situation, that moving toward reactors that don't require enrichment would help, but I think that's a good idea for other reasons.


Posted by: Jim Baerg on 17 Apr 06

Wow - long debate with often well intentioned folks exchanging a lot of both information and opinion.

I freely admit that my fascination and support for nuclear fission power partially stems from a desire to help the world maintain and even expand access to a lifestyle that requires a large amount of reliable, low cost, controllable energy. My observation of the world over almost half a century indicates to me that trying to move in the reverse direction would be painful, cause a lot of bloodshed, and increase human misery.

I am also fascinated by the potential that nuclear fission energy has to make that comfortable lifestyle that is dependent on plenty of "energy slaves" (to use a term I have not seen in print since the optimistic days of the 1960s) available to a far larger portion of the earth's inhabitants. Not only can fission be far more available, but it CAN be done even while achieving a lower environmental impact than human activity currently has. Fission is very, very new and we are just now starting up the 'S' curve of technology development for systems that capture its potential.

Advocacy of a simpler time might work for some of you, but after I take a few days off for a nice hike in the woods, a bike or kayak trip, or a sail on the ocean, I remember just how nice it is to live in a clean, comfortable home with electric lights, hot water, fresh fruit and vegetables, Internet, transportation that allows freedom of movement, and many of the other comforts of modern living.

I also recognize during my "low energy" trips that I depend on modern materials for my bike, kayak, hiking boots, hiking poles, knapsack, sails, boat hull, diesel auxiliary, dehydrated food, lightweight propane stove, bicycle tires, pump, etc. I also burn up a lot of energy getting to and from the locations where I spend my idyllic days. In other words, I think I am more aware of what makes the world go around than Bernard (from Brave New World) was.

It would be selfish of me to take up too much space in this already lengthy debate. I have been writing about energy - especially atomic energy - off and on for nearly 15 years. You can find some of my thoughts at Atomic Insights - www.atomicinsights.com, on the Atomic Insights Blog - www.atomicinsights.blogspot.com and now on The Atomic Show podcast - http://atomic.thepodcastnetwork.com .


Posted by: Rod Adams on 20 Apr 06



EMAIL THIS ENTRY TO:

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS:


MESSAGE (optional):


Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Worldchanging2.0


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/ worldchanging.com
©2012
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg