Posts Tagged ‘Thorium’

Nuclear Salvation

November 16, 2013

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.

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Patrice Ayme