Energy: The Nuclear Option

I recently watched a NASA video (http://www.forbiddenknowledgetv.com/videos/earth-sciences/the-view-from-space—countries-and-coastlines.html) showing time-lapse sequences captured by astronauts aboard the International Space Station revealing the lights of cities along the coastlines of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and North and South America.  It was a dazzling display, and as I watched I thought to myself: “These are the lights of civilization—bustling metropolises as well as smaller cities where billions of people live and work—all powered by electricity.”  If you think further of the other activities going on behind the lights and how electricity provides power to the machines, appliances and much of the heating and air-conditioning, not to mention the vast world-spanning Internet on which I was watching the video—if you think of all the energy these activities require in that world visible from 240 kilometres out in space, then you perhaps have some understanding of how much our world depends upon electricity.

Now, if you consider that probably 70-80 percent of that electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, then you begin to appreciate the enormous task ahead of us if we are to substitute alternative sources of energy to generate the same quantity of electricity currently provided by fossil fuels.  And that’s just for today.  Factor in a 5-10 percent increase in demand year over year into the future and the challenge to keep that civilization going is indeed monumental.

In the last post I discussed the critical time pressure we are under to make the changes away from fossil fuels if we are to keep carbon dioxide emissions at “safe” levels as well as face the reality that accessible fossil fuels are running out.  Chris Martenson in The Crash Course proposed a bridging program using natural gas (a lower emitter of carbon dioxide than oil and coal) beginning immediately.  But bridging to what?  That is the question I take up in this post.

Facing this question, two of the world’s most respected climate scientists and environmentalists, James Hansen in the United States and James Lovelock in the United Kingdom, have come to the same conclusion: We have no realistic alternative but to bring nuclear power plants back into large scale operation throughout the industrialized world.  Why?  Because their research into the issue has convinced them that all of the best efforts to improve energy efficiency and to bring renewable sources of energy onstream will fall far short of what is required to maintain that blaze of electricity as seen by the astronauts in the International Space Station.

Of course, a good argument can be made that it would be better for the planet if a lot of those lights were to go out along with many of the activities pursued by people today in the industrialized world.  That is an argument I will come to later in the blog.  For now, I am trying to consider what needs to be done if our grandchildren are to have access to anything like the supply of electricity we have today.  And the answer to that question for Hansen and Lovelock, and others looking at this issue, is to fire up an aggressive nuclear energy program.

A Brief History of Nuclear Energy on Planet Earth

To adequately consider the nuclear option we have to review the relatively short history of nuclear fission on the planet.  Most dramatically we recall the devastation caused by the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945.  Closer in memory was the accident at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island in the United States in March 1979.  A much more serious nuclear accident occurred in Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986, when a huge cloud of radioactive material was spread over large areas of the Soviet Union and Europe.  Most recently in March 2011 triple partial meltdowns were suffered at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan when the plant was swamped by a 14 metre tsunami following a 9.0 offshore earthquake.

This history of destruction and devastation looms large in human consciousness when the subject of nuclear power comes up.  Also the link between nuclear power plants and the possible acquisition of materials to produce atomic bombs, as evidenced by the current international concern about the intentions of the Iranian government, adds to the fear about nuclear energy.  And FEAR is the operative word.  For these and other reasons, most notably nuclear waste disposal, the public is afraid of nuclear power, and the antinuclear lobby has waged a passionate, aggressive and largely successful campaign against it for more than five decades.

Radiation versus Air Pollution

Enter Lovelock, writing in 2006 (The Revenge of Gaia) and Hansen, writing in 2009 (Storms of My Grandchildren).  With regard to the fear of death from radiation poisoning emanating from mishaps at nuclear power plants, Hansen compares the data from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl with the data of death from air pollution caused by coal-fired power plants.  Studies have been unable to find any significant health effects from the accident at Three Mile Island.  “The World Health Organization calculates that there might be as many as four thousand cancer deaths because of radiation released at Chernobyl.”  However, Hansen points out that if we assign a conservative 10 percent of global air pollution deaths to coal, then we get a figure of 100,000 deaths per year, every year.  “Yet,” says Hansen, “there are no two-hundred-thousand person rallies, no nightly ‘No Coal’ concerts.  Death by coal is probably not as sexy as death by nuclear accident.”

With regard to the Fukushima Daiichi accident, Mark Lynas in The God Species (2011) points out that there are so far zero deaths attributable to that event.  Moreover, he asserts that based on his own recent visit to the Chernobyl site “what is most striking about the ecological impacts . . . is how limited they were.”  The conclusion he comes to is “even the worst-case nuclear accident, scattering intense radiation over a wide area, is better for biodiversity in general than normal, everyday human habitation. ‘Without a permanent residence of humans for 20 years, the ecosystems around the Chernobyl site are now flourishing,’ a 2006 scientific report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency concludes.”

Nuclear Waste Containment versus Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage

What about nuclear waste disposal?  Here we find very compelling comparisons with fossil fuels waste disposal.  Lovelock is quite clear about the advantage of the nuclear option.  “Burning fossil fuels produces 27,000 million tons of carbon dioxide yearly, enough . . . to make, if solidified, a mountain nearly one mile high and with a base twelve miles in circumference.  The same quantity of energy produced from nuclear fission reactions would generate two million times less waste, and it would occupy a sixteen metre cube.”

But what about the tens of thousands of years of toxicity contained in this nuclear waste?  All of the writers I am reviewing here insist that this fear has been blown out of all proportions by the antinuclear lobby.  Lovelock has gone so far as to say that he has “offered in public to accept all of the high-level waste produced in a year from a nuclear power station for deposit on my small plot of land; it would occupy a space about a cubic metre in size and fit safely in a concrete pit, and I would use the heat from its decaying radioactive elements to heat my home.  It would be a waste not to use it.  More important, it would be no danger to me, my family or the wildlife.”

On the issue of longevity for nuclear waste contamination, Mark Lynas states that “the vast majority of waste will be no more radioactive than the natural uranium ore that it was originally derived from in just a few hundred years. . . In comparison, of course, hazardous wastes containing toxins like mercury and arsenic stay dangerous forever—and yet are barely controlled in much of the world, and attract nothing like the passion that the nuclear issue does.”

Regarding the volume of wastes from nuclear power generation, Lynas makes the same point as Lovelock.  “The volumes of nuclear waste are also tiny compared with other competing technologies. . . Even after a quarter century of using nuclear power to produce 80 percent of its electricity, France is still able to keep all the high-level waste generated by its nuclear power plants under the floor in a single room.  This is not an ‘unsolved problem.’  It is not much of a problem at all.”

On what is a real problem I quote Lovelock again: “There is much loose talk of burying the carbon dioxide waste [from coal-fired power plants and other sources], but there seems to be little recognition of the sheer difficulty of the task.  How is it to be collected from the myriad sources around the world?  Where can we put these mountains that we make each year?  I find it sad, but all too human, that there are vast bureaucracies concerned about nuclear waste, huge organizations devoted to decommissioning power stations, but nothing comparable to deal with that truly malign waste, carbon dioxide.”

Illustrating Lovelock’s point, an article appeared in the Globe and Mail on January 13, 2012 reporting interest in several Canadian communities in becoming the repositories of the nuclear waste from Canada’s existing reactors.  Community leaders quoted in the article are not unduly concerned about safety issues resulting from the storage of the nuclear waste.  An animated interactive graphic showing how nuclear waste is stored in Canada can be seen at www.tgam.ca/nuclear-graphicWhile not as sanguine about the waste issue as the writers reported above, the impression left by this article and the Internet link is that this is a manageable problem.

Fast Fourth Generation Nuclear Reactors

For the most hopeful aspect of nuclear power as a source to solve the energy problems for our grandchildren I go back to James Hansen.  He describes “fast-reactor technology” known also as fourth generation nuclear power.  “Fast reactors,” says Hansen, “can burn about 99 percent of the uranium that is mined compared with the less than 1 percent extracted by light-water reactors.”  Fast reactors can also burn the waste fuel from nuclear weapons production.  The United States is currently storing about 600,000 tons of this material, enough, according to Hansen, to last a thousand years if it were used as the energy source for fast reactors.

When you read these statements it begins to sound like M. King Hubbert was right when he said back in 1956 that nuclear power could be the power of the future.  As we know, he changed his mind about that, but the 21st century thinking I am reporting here puts another complexion on the issue.

Fast-reactor technology is not new.  It was defined back in the 1940s and by the mid-1960s, according to Hansen, “the nuclear scientists at Argonne National Laboratory [near Chicago] had demonstrated the feasibility  of the concept.”  President Richard Nixon embraced the idea in 1970 and believed “that fast reactors would be providing most of our electricity [in the United States] in the twenty-first century.”  However, public fear and political uncertainty knocked the momentum out of this research and it continued at Argonne with only low-level support until in 1994 the Clinton-Gore administration canceled the program altogether.  Hansen is very critical of this decision and believes that President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore who both knew about the dangers of global warming nevertheless capitulated to the “antinuke people, who heavily supported the Democratic Party.”

Currently it would appear that this technology that, according to Hansen and Lovelock, is humanity’s best hope for meeting our grandchildren’s needs for electricity, is not going anywhere very fast.  According to Wikipedia “all studies on fast reactors have been stopped in countries such as Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. . . In countries such as France, Japan and the Russian Federation that are still actively pursuing the evolution of fast-reactor technology, the situation is aggravated by the lack of young scientists and engineers moving into this branch of nuclear power.”

Mark Lynas in The God Species puts an intensive program on the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) as one of his four top priorities for research and development.  Conventional nuclear power plants are being built anyway by countries like China and India raising the issue of reaching limits on accessible conventionally used uranium, while, according to Lynas, “there is enough depleted uranium sitting around in one yard in Kentucky to run the United States at current consumption on IFRs for six centuries.”

Danger of Nuclear Waste Proliferation

Perhaps the public’s greatest fear about the nuclear option is that weapons-grade nuclear material will fall into the hands of terrorists and rogue nations.  Hansen gets very annoyed by this argument because that danger already exists and will only intensify by continuing with current fission technology, whereas the danger is not increased by fourth generation nuclear power because the fuel used is different and is already sitting around as nuclear waste.  Of the people who criticize him for publicly advocating research on fourth generation nuclear power based on all of the old fears and objections Hansen says: “Do these people have the right to, in effect, make a decision that may determine the fate of my grandchildren?”  He says that China and India are going to proceed anyway and that “it is conceivable that next generation nuclear power might begin to be broadly deployed in China and India as early as the 2020s.  Deployment would be soonest if the United States would cooperate with these nations and treat this as a matter of urgency.  If you do not believe that such rapid development is feasible, you should read some of the stories about the Manhattan Project [to build the first atomic bombs in the 1940s].”

“We Are Going to Restart”

While research and development of fast-reactor technology is virtually dead in the United States, the nuclear industry is still very much alive.  Currently the US produces about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, which is an astonishingly high percentage given that no new plants have been built for 35 years.  However, that may be about to change.

According to Daniel Yergin writing in The Quest (2011) as recently as February 2010 the Obama administration announced loan guarantees to build the first two new nuclear plants in the United States in many decades. . . ‘We are going to restart the nuclear industry in this country,’ pledged the White House energy ‘czar’.”

Significantly, the focus will be on “a new variety of small and medium reactors or SMRs as they are known. . . The idea is to achieve economies of scale not by size. . . but by manufacturing SMRs modularly and in greater volume.”  Ultimately this approach may prove to be valuable, but, as Yergin points out, “it will likely take years for SMRs to be realized technically and for their economic viability to be realized.”

Cost versus Energy Efficiency

Despite this renewed interest in nuclear energy in the United States and the vigorous support for the nuclear option from environmentalists like Hansen and Lovelock, an argument against going this route was voiced more than 10 years ago by three writers who have been active for many years in promoting ecological preservation and energy efficiency, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins.  In their landmark book, Natural Capitalism (1999), they argue for a paradigm shift to align economic production with preservation of the Earth’s store of what they call its “natural capital.”   With regard to the idea that climate change might best be mitigated by switching to nuclear energy from fossil fuels, they argue against it on the grounds that it might be counterproductive because of its high cost.  “Since nuclear power is the costliest way to replace fossil fuels, every dollar spent on it displaces less climatic risk than would have been avoided if that same dollar were spent instead on techniques to use energy more efficiently, because those methods cost far less than nuclear power.”  I will have more to say about energy efficiency in a coming post.  Suffice it to say here that relative cost is a significant argument against the nuclear option.

The cost issue was raised as recently as February 3, 2012 on the “National Post” page of the Vancouver Sun.  With regard to the question of whether Canada might re-invest in nuclear power, the article quotes Professor Bryne Purchase of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University: The price of the technology, including next-generation reactors, is “high and rising.  I would say economic growth is the No. 1 concern and the second concern is cost.”  On the other hand, cost does not seem to be a deterrent to China, for the same article reports that China has approximately 170 new reactors planned or proposed and about 25 under construction now.

The Anti-Nuclear Voice Rings Out Loud and Clear

From the above discussion it is clear there are many voices being raised to gain the attention of governments pro and con around the nuclear option.  Whose voice will governments in the west listen to?  I have reported above the voices of environmentalists and climate scientists who are looking at the big picture issue of the necessity to phase out fossil fuel use, while continuing to provide enormous amounts of energy to a power-ravenous 21st century industrial civilization.

Most vocal on the opposite side of the issue is Helen Caldicott who for several decades has spoken out against what she would call the nuclear establishment in government and industry.  Dr. Caldicott is a pediatrician and founding president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.  Writing as recently as December 2, 2011 in the New York Times, she summarizes her criticism of nuclear power with a question: “Why is nuclear power still viable, after we’ve witnessed catastrophic accidents, enormous financial outlays, weapons proliferation and nuclear-waste induced epidemics of cancers and genetic disease for generations to come?  Simply put many governments and other officials believe the nuclear industry mantra: safe, clean and green.  And the public is not educated on the issue.”

Dr. Caldicott then goes on to summarize the alternatives, which will be the subject of my next post.  “True green, clean, nearly emission-free solutions exist for providing energy.  They lie in a combination of conservation and renewable energy sources, mainly wind, solar and geothermal, hydropower plants, and biomass from algae.  A smart-grid could integrate consuming and producing devices, allowing flexible operation of household appliances.  The problem of intermittent power could be solved by storing energy using available technologies.”  This paragraph covers a lot of territory and glosses over significant issues, the most important of which are time and scale—the time it takes to get the alternatives in place and whether there is any likelihood at all that the scale of production from such sources can match what is now delivered mainly by fossil fuels.  In fairness, time and scale are also big issues for the nuclear option, given the current level of development in comparison with fossil-fuel based generation of power.

Another critic of nuclear power and proponent of renewable sources, Frances Moore Lappé, in her new book EcoMind (2011) asserts that the influence on the United States government of the nuclear industry (as well as “big oil”) results in six times more public monies being spent to support fossil fuels and nuclear energy than renewables.  “Imagine,” she says, “where we’d be if that $300 billion in nuclear subsidies over the last decades had gone to research and development of renewable energy.”

Clearly James Lovelock does not think renewables are up to the job and concerning Dr. Caldicott’s concerns about radioactive poisoning of the planet he has this to say: her “cosmic-scale exaggeration” is “excusable”, but “that was a twentieth-century problem, what we now face is much more deadly: the return to a new hot age.  Ironically, if this happens, anti-nuclear advocacy will have hastened it.”

Nuclear Fusion

I will give James Lovelock the last word on another source of nuclear energy about which he is most hopeful as the ultimate solution for producing the world’s electricity, but about which none of the other writers I have reviewed here have anything to say: nuclear fusion.

The nuclear energy we have so far discussed derives from nuclear fission. It is the energy released “when the large atoms of elements such as thorium, uranium and plutonium split apart. . . The other source of nuclear energy is the fusion of the nuclei of light elements, such as hydrogen and its isotopes.  This energy powers the sun and most other stars; it is not yet providing electricity for public use, but . . . provided that engineering problems do not prevent the building of practical and efficient fusion power stations, I think these will be the future source of electricity.”

Those engineering problems are formidable, but Lovelock believes that progress at the Culham Science Centre in the United Kingdom using the Tokomak reactor is moving as rapidly as can be expected and that “it may take twenty more years before it begins to heat our electric kettles or run our word processors.”  Another writer, Graeme Maxton, in The End of Progress is similarly optimistic about the prospects for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France to ultimately “generate power in the same way as the sun.”

If Lovelock and Maxton are right, it will be a monumental achievement on the nuclear energy front and may be within the timeframe of other nuclear alternatives discussed above.  However, the issue of scale—building a sufficient number of such power stations to meet the world’s demands—remains as a colossal obstacle to putting a lot of faith in this alternative.

In Conclusion

The astronauts on the International Space Station continue to monitor the dazzling display from the lights and activities of human civilization on the Earth below.  Most of the people in those great cities and other outposts continue with their daily work and play, paying little thought to what makes all this activity possible.  Yet, playing out all around them is an epic drama where the roles that will be played by future actors in scenes as yet unwritten are dependent on what today’s actors do today.  The future players are our grandchildren and their grandchildren after them.  Is it possible for us to find the wisdom now to do enough things right so they will have their chance on a planet at least as rich and wonderful as we have known?

The answer is by no means clear.  The options are not yet fully displayed.  In my next post I will make the case for “renewables.” The quest continues.  May we approach it with the high consciousness that it so rightly requires of us.

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4 Responses to Energy: The Nuclear Option

  1. Jim Short says:

    I am not up to snuff on Nuclear power , but am aware that procastination wil solve nothing
    when I left Australia the government had a subsidised program for householders to have solar power on their homes ,how successful I am not aware.at the same time we are selling coal and gas to India and China it seems to be a catch 22 situation where the inevitable is always being postphoned whether by finacial or political,I guess the powers that be world wide have yet to experience some form of tragety close to home before they act responsibly what a pity we could have a PERFECT WORLD

    • Dear Jim:

      Good to hear from you. Yes, procrastination and uncertainty about how to act mixed with conflicting pressures from self-interested lobby groups causes decision-making by governments on vital matters like energy supply to be much less than perfect. Citizens also share some of the blame by choosing not to become informed and very often acting only out of self-interest or stubborn refusal to change. Australia’s less than impressive use of abundant solar power is a case in point. The challenge for humanity in these precarious times is to try to learn from foresight rather than shock. We are on course now for some severe shocks that will impact our grandchildren unless we choose to become better informed about options and choose to act with foresight towards that PERFECT WORLD.

      best wishes,

      Des

  2. Ashley Webster says:

    In some sense it feels also like a philosophical decision about whether to pursue nuclear or renewables. One is a sibling to what we have now, big, powerful and expensive; the other is the opposite, discreet, humble, and natural. We’re a society of roosters so it’s easy to see why nuclear gets the funding but we may be forced to change our preference if economic growth can’t keep up.

    Great post. Best yet in a fantastic series.

    • Dear Ashley:

      Good to hear from you again, and thanks for your encouragemrnt. I take it in your refernce to “a society of roosters” that you mean we are content to sit back and let the decisions be made for us. Big centralized power supplies whether from nuclear or fossil fuels or hydroelectricity or even from a solar thermal plant in the desert somehwere tend to make us passive consumers of energy. In my next post on renewables and after that on conservation I will explore the benefits of people becoming active participants in the production and conservation of their energy needs. You are right about the centralized model depending on economic growth, which puts us in a vicious circle. This may be broken in a severe way with unpredictable consequences by the necessity to deal with mountains of accumulated debt. More on that in the economics section.

      Best regards,

      Desmond

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