Nuclear Salvation

In the minds of some, no doubt, the agonizing Obamacare was how to avoid Medicare For All, and go on with health care gouging. Success. Similarly, in the minds of some, hysteria against nuclear power is a way to go on with the various destructive exploitation schemes fossil fuels provide with.

Continuing hysteria against nuclear power makes humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous changes in the biosphere caused by CO2 impossible. Why? Because it deprives humanity of the only new energy source developed by humanity in the last 100 years.

No Nuclear? Dam That.

No Nuclear? Dam That.

Fossil fuel production can be dominated by a few brutes doing brutish things (Qaddafi, Putin). Burning stuff is perfect for plutocrats. Instead nuclear industry demands a control by advanced science and high standards of regulation and government probity. Nuclear energy is too coldly rational to be a plutocrat friendly environment.

The tides in the gigantic Baie du Mont Saint Michel are up to 14 meters high. The energy therein is that of a several nuclear reactors. Construction cost of a giant dam enclosing the entire bay would be enormous. The river Severn estuary in England has been extensively studied. A dam there could bring more than 8,000 Megawatts (8 standard nuclear reactors).

Windmills, watermills, and even tidal power plants, have existed for more than a millennium, and were massive energy sources in the Middle Ages.

The ancient Greeks used solar energy passively, and Archimedes even used it as a weapon against the Romans, very successfully, during the siege of Syracuse. Nothing new there.

Syracuse fell, and Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier. A Frenchman discovered the photovoltaic effect in the early Nineteenth Century. All this to say: been there, done that.

Wind, solar, current, burning animal waste and wood has been tried before. It’s great. However the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems is, overall, the only practical mean of addressing the CO2 production problem, on a planetary scale. It’s tough, but reality tends to be tough.

True, some regions, such as the famously desiccated and sun struck West of the USA, could do only with solar and wind energy. But such places are few on the planet. They tend to be where people are not, because people need water.

Denmark,  posing as an ecological maven, is trying to go mostly renewable. However that small country is heavily dependent upon electricity from Norway, Sweden and Germany… and coal. It’s even building a new giant coal plant. Moreover, although Denmark is flat, much of its renewable power is stored in Norwegian and Swedish mountain dams.

Mountains, and water to lift up mountains, are not found everywhere (for example, Arabia has plenty of mountains, on a huge area, from Oman to all along the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, but this small continent has no too little water… not coincidentally the first dam ever built was there).

Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow considerably to provide for the needs of developing economies. Those constitute more than 90% of the world’s society. So we are talking about the need to augment energy production by an order of magnitude.

One is not going to do that with a bit of wind in North Sea and a little sun in the Gobi.

The need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming blatant, even to the clueless. The hurricane with the most powerful winds ever, by a long shot, just happened.

The CO2 crisis, entailing climate change, and the concomitant population overload, have brought a need for ever more energy. For example a clean water crisis is developing, all over the planet, and, to reduce it, much more energy is needed to produce clean water (say by treatment, or desalination).

We cannot increase energy supply dramatically while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if the newest power plants keep using the atmosphere as a waste dump. The projections of fossil fuels usage in the next two decades are completely insane, thus doubly irresistible. First insanity attracts, and, as producing the last fossil fuels because ever more financially attractive (like, say cocaine), there is ever more activity to produce more.

The same sort of craziness by greed affected finance, which went from 8% of profits to 25%, as it attracted ever more, the crazier it got! Call that the spiral of greed.

Renewables like wind, solar and biomass will play roles in a future energy economy. However, those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough, or big enough, or everywhere enough, to deliver cheap and reliable power on the scale the global economy requires, especially as the apocalypse unfolds (see Haiyan).

Indeed the coverage of the proposed “renewables” can only be spotty in space and time. Consider Poland, for instance. Poland has plenty of cheap coal. In dreary winter conditions, without wind or sun, the only clean alternatives are coal, or nuclear power (gas is not an option, as it would require Poland to depend upon its historical enemy, Moscow, just when that capital is showing an ever increasing Czarist inclination).

Consider also the energy of the sea: it can be exploited, in a few places, if and when the technology can be invented, but certainly not in the middle of continents. Poland has access to a sea with no significant tides or currents.

For half a century, only one tidal power plant existed, in the entire world, on the Rance river, in France. It produces 240 MW, a quarter of a standard nuclear reactor. The hyper pharaonic project, across the Baie du Mount Saint Michel, was contemplated for a while. Instead, a project going the other way, reinstituting the bay to its original state, was implemented.

It may be theoretically possible to stabilize the CO2 emissions without nuclear power, for a few countries. Say in wind rich Denmark. By cheating, as I just explained. Germany may be able to do so, after huge investments, but, for now, it is augmenting its use of coal.

Switzerland has decided to close one nuclear power plant. A very dangerous plant, I agree. And I want it closed too. However, it will be replaced by a giant coal plant in Germany. USA fossil plutocrats will be happy to sell the coal. Also Mr. Putin will delighted to sell more gas to Switzerland. The more gas he sells, the more dictatorial he can get. To make sure he gets paid, the Russian dictator has just embarked on a hyper paranoiac nuclear weapon program (hey, you want to make sure people fear you!).

In the real world, worldwide, there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a considerable role for nuclear technologies. Considering available, or close at hand, technologies.

The only technology that could change everything and could plausibly work, is thermonuclear fusion. Although Korea, in cooperation with ITER, has a crash program, no power deployment will intervene for at least 15 years, at an unknown cost. Whereas very safe fission plants such as EPR, can be deployed now.

Most of the 400 nuclear plants presently in service use 1950s technology that was deployed to maximize Plutonium production. The West, and the so called “Communists”, were getting ready to fight nuclear wars, so they made “civilian” nuclear reactors that were extensions of the military programs. In particular, they produced nuclear explosives (Pu).

Incomparably safer, much more abundant Thorium technology was not developed, because it has no military use.

Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new nuclear plants, even using the basic Uranium technology of the 1950s, much safer. An example is the French EPR (although it’s expensive, built massively, the cost would go down).

Modern nuclear technology could extinguish proliferation risks. Say by developing Thorium nuclear power. Thorium has no military use, and it reduces the waste problem to insignificance.

If we had scaled-up massive Thorium, it could be proposed as an alternative to, say, Iran. In the future, as the cost of fossil fuels keeps climbing, more and more countries, just like Iran, will desperate to develop nuclear power. As it is they can use only primitive 1950s, military dangerous nuclear technology.

Scientific giants such as India and China have Thorium programs. But the West would progress faster, if it made the crash effort the biosphere needs.

The worst radioactive waste products from the Thorium cycle last only 3 centuries at most, whereas Plutonium’s half period is 25,000 years. Even then, Plutonium can be recycled into a fuel called MOX (for Mixed OXide) and burned again: that’s what France does (and produces MOX for Germany, Britain, Japan and even the USA; although there, weirdly, Congress has made using MOX unlawful).

Hence the radioactive waste disposal problem can be solved by burning current waste, using fuel more efficiently, and using different nuclear processes from different fuels. (Ultimately, more advanced nuclear tech will be able to dispose of all waste, by transmutation, a science discovered by Irene Joliot-Curie around 1932.)

Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants much cheaper than existing plants.

All energy system have downsides. 200 meters tall windmills are a danger for birds, planes, peace and quiet, and esthetics.

Yet quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with the continued use of fossil fuels. Tyrants, such as Putin, will develop weapons of mass destruction, including of the nuclear kind, the weaker our economy and technology gets, and the more they perceive our decisions to be based on irrational tendencies. Because it’s irrational to hate “nukes” just because it was the most human way to force the fascists controlling Japan to capitulate.

The Chernobyl nuclear explosion was a statement about the Soviet Union, not about nuclear science. That was not the only massive nuclear catastrophe in the USSR. Chernobyl employed a type of nuclear technology deemed extremely dangerous in the West, and not developed, precisely because of its dangerosity.

To make the situation worse, Chernobyl did not even have a containment building. Now, no coal plant has a containment building, and it’s free to spill its mercury, lead, arsenic and radioactivity around the world (so called “bag houses” can capture some of these; I think Obama is trying to impose them through the EPA, and they could price coal out.

Fantasies about Carbon Containment and Capture (CCC) are just this: fantasies. Coal plants are competitive, only if they can spill their dangerous waste, worldwide. Right now burning coal makes 44% of the electricity of the USA, and countries such as Australia, are getting rich selling coal to China (Thorium is abundant in places such as India, which have little Uranium).

While there will be no single technological solution, the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to build an energy system that does use the atmosphere, directly, and the ocean, indirectly, as a waste dump.

The planet’s air, soil and oceans are warming, and the seas are getting dangerously acid, from reacting with CO2, and poorer in oxygen, from the temperature rise. Meanwhile carbon dioxide emissions are rising faster than ever.

We cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to replace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed in potential nuclear technologies since the 1950s. The time has come for fresh approaches to nuclear power in the 21st century.

In truth, there are 100 fission nuclear technologies out there that one could plausibly develop. Thorium and high temperature reactors are particularly prominent, because of their promises, and because both were developed on a very large experimental scale at some point in 1960s and 1970s. We know they work. Only details have to be figured out, such as which materials will be the most efficient in the harsh environment of a mighty reactor.

The fact is, civil nuclear energy killed, over the years, much fewer people than, say, skiing. Whereas the atmosphere that fossil fuels creates kills millions.

London Then, China Today, Earth Tomorrow?

London Then, China Today, Earth Tomorrow?

In the USA alone, at least 200,000 die from air pollution, each year. And this is not the place worst affected.

On December 5, 1952, the winds abated, and London sat in thick smog for 4 days. It is now evaluated that more than 12,000 died, in London alone! The recent abandonment of the electric tram system augmented the pollution.

In truth we are doing this to the whole planet, just more dispersed. The plutocrats have displaced their evil works to friendly China, and the slaves there can breathe what they have been ordered to breathe.

Energy decisions must be based on facts, not on emotions and biases that were inappropriate all along, and now prevent us to address the apocalypse we are facing.

The development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy is not just a no brainier. It will happen, no matter what. The only question is whether it will happen after, or before, Jurassic Park is back to an ocean near you. Very near you.

***

Patrice Ayme

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20 Responses to “Nuclear Salvation”

  1. Dominique Deux Says:

    In the small island I lived in for several years, there was an old tide-powered mill. It was rehabilitated and promptly proceeded to trap and drown a kid.

    Even The Economist is pushing for a reversal to thorium and calling the solid-fuel paradigm a huge mistake in retrospect, for the exact reasons you give.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I would be curious to see that article, although most of what’s in THE E is trivial, these days…(I have a subscription). Nothing there jumps out of the page, as Paul Handover would put it. Still, I may have forgotten something. Speaking about Thorium was just an aside. But Thorium would solve a host of problems, and cause none. At this point, it’s only a matter of plumbing (!)

      Indeed, all techs are dangerous. Middle Age windmills are rehabilitated in Ramatuelle, and the blades come next to the ground. Deadly in strong wind. On which island did that tragedy happen?
      PA

  2. Paul Handover Says:

    Another great essay. Isn’t it strange how poorly our societies are powered by common-sense!

  3. Dominique Deux Says:

    You’re right, the piece on thorium was not in TE’s print edition – only in its specialized science blog.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/11/difference-engine-0

    (btw the comments thread opens some issues of concern about thorium, linking to this:

    http://www.quora.com/What-are-the-cons-of-thorium-nuclear-energy

    Yikes!)

    Talking of things jumping off the page in TE, I’d say this week’s leader and piece on US “oubliettes” is quite up to the challenge. The legacy of compassionate conservatism is not limited to gung-ho collateral damage outside the borders or to gay abandon in carbonating our air. Thousands of poor, dim-witted, mainly black, US citizens are rotting in jail for life for, really, nothing.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Dominique; I will look at the links you gave. The USA repression system is little heralded in Europe. Just this year, 2013, I witnessed 2 extremely severe cases of police brutality. If one does not strictly obey a police officer, if he is polite, considerate and civilized, he will inform you that, at his next non obeyed order, he will shoot you.

      The way to avoid this, from my admittedly non scientific sampling, is to drive a brand new, expensive BMW. Then officers don’t want potential trouble with richer than themselves (they are often paid very well), and they are much more considerate.

      Plutocracy is all about the little details.
      PA

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dominique: I read the complaints about Thorium you linked to. The dramatic ones are implausible. That the plumbing is hard to figure out, I already said. Anyway, thanks, very interesting.
      There should be a crash government program.
      PA

  4. Dominique Deux Says:

    PS the island I lived on was Ile d’Arz, in the Gulf of Morbihan. “Enez Arh” its Breton name means “Bear Island” because there used to be bears. You simply can’t walk around without seeing a raised stone or an elaborate stone table, some finely carved.

  5. Old Geezer Pilot Says:

    The problem with thorium is that we have 75 years of experience with uranium. No chance we will go back to square 1. And uranium is 99,999999% safe.

    It is that 0.0000001% we have to think about.

    FUKUSHIMA.

    Black swan events DO HAPPEN.

    And when they do, the results are catastrophic.

    What the world needs is to build these plants well away from population centers, so that the next Fukushima will not be so devastating.

    Why not build future plants on decommissioned warships?

    Run power lines to shore?

    If there is ever a problem, send the ship out to sea to deal with it.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      That we do not have all the gory technicalo-economic details of very large Thorium reactor does not mean we have no experience. We have plenty of experience. India is going full speed ahead with its Thorium program, and their first reactor should come on line in 2016. In 2004, the prototype was levelled by the tsunami (same old laziness problem).

      Rest reassured: Thorium involves U233, that it fabricates. And it’s possible to make gun type (Hiroshima) bomb, but it’s not clear to me that’s easy to sacle up and minutiarize (I doubt it). By controlling the type of reactors, one can make sure much more easily that U233 will not be fabricated and stored.

      Only one country in the world has a full Uranium-Plutonium energy system operating: the French Republic. The first country which, having discovered the nuclear chain reaction, established a governmental nuclear weapons program (January 1938)That’s why it’s subcontracted for MOX by the entire West. One needs to be seriously Cartesian, because the Uranium systems are very complex. Moreover there is a serious military aspect to it.

      The La Hague Treatment plant is very seriously protected, including with ground to air missiles.

      France has nearly non existent Thorium research going on at universities. A professor (a woman, in the Irene tradition), was saying that the plumbing was the problem. The French giant breeder fast hot reactor, Super Phoenix, encountered serious Sodium plumbing problems.

      Thorium will be developed, be it only because India has plenty, and little Uranium.

      BTW, nuclear reactors, even with Uranium-Plutonium, can be made 100% safe. It’s just a matter of spending a bit more on a small reactor (using passive safety; studied in Sweden). And the EPR style (giant fortress) can be made super safe.

      And the fact remains that civil nuclear in the West basically never killed anyone. Compare with the millions killed by fossil fuels. Russian reactors were always more military than anything else.
      PA

  6. Anonymous Says:

    “These Thorium reactor…well, sorry. Trust me when I say, they will never *ever* be built, because every nuclear watchdog agency, joined by every qualified nuclear engineer in the world, would instantly shut down any such project. End of discussion.”

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      “Anonymous”, in her/his lack of widom, seems unaware of the massive Thorium projects in India and China. The first reactors are supposed to be finished in two years or so.
      “Anonymous” has posted more elaborated complaints about Thorium in other places. It is difficult to take the rest of what “Anonymous” says seriously. Terrorists walking in, grabbing U233? Reactors with pooling of U233 organized, so they can explode?
      PA

  7. Patrice Ayme Says:

    BTW, the situation at Fukushima is still catastrophic, and could plausibly lead to the evacuation of Tokyo. Yet, that was entirely avoidable with easy-to-take decisions. And a local nuclear catastrophy because of a deluge of stupid, or corrupt, mistakes does not compare with the certainty of a worldwide climate catastrophe, with no remedy whatsoever.

  8. Tom Lemon Says:

    Tom Lemon comments on your answer “”these Thorium reactor companies…well, sorry. Trust me when I say, they will never *ever* be …”
    Comment: “India is building solid core Thorium reactors, not molten salt MSRs (although they have research into molten salt). Solid core Thorium reactors are perfectly safe, in fact safer than Uranium. It’s molten salt or liquid core reactors that are such a proliferation hazard.

    Note that the US has been using Thorium in some solid core reactors for at least a decade. This is old technology. It’s not especially useful because Thorium has to be irradiated for a while to build up the U233 percentages, and that really isn’t very practical in a sold core design unless you use Plutonium MOX rods mixed with the Thoriuum rods, but that still requires Plutonium.

    Also note that both China and India are already nuclear weapons nations with the appropriate national security personnel who can properly evaluate the proliferation hazards of MSRs. Do their MSR projects are not the probllem. Like the USA, they are not likely to promote MSR technology.

    The true danger of MSR technology is the legions of amateurs who seem to be clamoring to build private reactors.

    You said “It is difficult to take the rest of what “Anonymous” says seriously”. — That demonstrates the problem with Thorium advocates. They seem unable to treat nuclear safety seriously. Nuclear power is inherently dangerous, as any nuclear engineer knows, and a new technology that produces U-233 in large quantities deserves the most careful and cautious treatment.

    Your apparent refusal to be careful and thoughtful about the potential expansion of nuclear weapons is frightening indeed.”

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks Mr. Lemon for the instructive comment. Really. I mixed up a little bit solid and liquid. there are no less than 7 types of reactors one can build using Thorium, 5 have been tested in real reactors.

      Molten salts high temperature is just one of them. India is considering several types primarily, and molten salts, secondarily.

      However: I was not advocating anybody to start building Thorium reactors in their backyard. I actually doubt that can be done so easily, because should it be that easy, it would already have been done.

      You seem to say that Thorium is all too easy to get going in one’s backyard. Well, the CO2 built-up is all too hard.

      Whatever happens next, salvation will only come from much higher technology…government regulated. Business as usual can only lead to an absolute, and guaranteed, apocalypse.
      PA

  9. Patrice Ayme Says:

    New, safer, more ecological and efficient nuclear technologies have to be developed (among them Thorium technologies and thermonuclear fusion technologies). Massive development and research in renewable energies have to be pursued, and will help. But, in a carbon burning free world only nuclear technologies can provide with basal power.
    https://patriceayme.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/nuclear-salvation/

  10. Equality, Innovation, Civilization Sustained | Some of Patrice Ayme's Thoughts Says:

    […] need bigger solutions. Or we will keep on […]

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