Thursday, November 07, 2013

Calling All Enviros. James Hansen Wants You to Back Clean Nuclear Energy

There was a time when diesel-powered vehicles were pretty much the dirtiest, noisiest automotive conveyance on the roads.   Technology improved and great strides were made in diesel engine performance.   Today's 'clean diesels' are actually considered green.   We don't think of diesels today the way we thought of them in the past.

When it comes to nuclear power, there have also been enormous technological advances, yet we still think of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island or Fukushima - first or second generation powerplants, when we think of nuclear energy.

Today's state of the art nuclear technology comes to us in generation four and five reactors.   One good part is that we've already got oodles of fuel for these reactors in the 'spent' fuel rods from our antiquated reactors that only manage to 'burn' a small fraction of the fuel in those rods.   That's why we have to go to extreme efforts to keep those 'nearly new' fuel rods stored safely for thousands of years.  New reactor technologies can get most of the energy out of those not-nearly spent fuel rods.

One guy who knows that we need these new nuclear plants now is American James Hansen who resigned as director of NASA's Goddard Space Laboratory to devote his time to the fight against global warming.

James Hansen and three other PhD-wielding climate scientists published an open letter Sunday calling on the world to ramp up the development and deployment of “safer nuclear energy systems” to help slow climate change. Nuclear power is a notoriously prickly subject for environmentalists: It promises bountiful zero-carbon power in an era of profligate fossil-fuel burning, currently meeting 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. But it produces copious amounts of radioactive waste, and it threatens communities living nearby (you may recall Fukushima in Japan, Chernobyl in the former USSR, and Middletown, Pa., near the Three Mile Island nuclear reactors).

In the letter, which is addressed to “those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power,” the quartet argue that renewables “like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy,” but that such renewables “cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.” Hansen is one of the world’s leading climate experts, renowned for warning Congress about global warming in 1988 when he worked at NASA.  

Hansen et al wrote:

We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants. Regardless of these advantages, nuclear needs to be encouraged based on its societal benefits. … With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.


Troy Thomas said...

This is an already popular article, related not about Hansen, but climate change from a financial perspective:
"I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago. The seriousness of this change is not appreciated by politicians and the public. The scientific world carefully measures the speed with which we approach the cliff and will, no doubt, carefully measure our rate of fall. But it is not doing enough to stop it. I am a specialist in investment bubbles, not climate science. But the effects of climate change can only exacerbate the ecological trouble I see reflected in the financial markets — soaring commodity prices and impending shortages."

Purple library guy said...

People sincerely advocating for nuclear power are being suckered. Many of the people advocating for nuclear power are not sincere but are instead being paid a great deal to spin it.

About safety I'll just quickly note that we don't have to "recall" Fukushima, as the article suggests. Fukushima is still ongoing, if anything worsening, and could yet irradiate most of the fish in the whole freaking Pacific Ocean. And that's not even a worst case scenario, that's just a scenario where the authorities keep on doing nothing effective but nothing too dramatic happens beyond some increased leakage.

But let's ignore safety for a moment. The key here is the notion that renewables “cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires” while nuclear can.

This is nonsense. First, I've seen no evidence that renewables can't scale up fast. Germany recently had a sunny October day in which solar alone delivered a third of electrical demand. Germany is not a notoriously sunny country, and while they have subsidized solar generously there has been no massive installation program, no major public works. And we're not even talking wind here, just solar. No country has yet done a crash program to install renewable energy fast, and no country has yet run into any actual limitations on how much renewable energy can be installed. Until one does, there's no reason not to prioritize just installing more renewable energy until some limit is reached. Installation is incremental, fairly fast, and easily parallelizable--it doesn't take massive amounts of expertise to install solar panels, lots of people do it as a home handybeing project. Wind pylons require a bit more capital and knowhow to put up, but nonetheless it's not hard for firms to proliferate if the market is there.

Now let's contrast nuclear. A nuclear power plant is a truly massive capital investment and a hugely complicated technological project which requires a very big firm to build and make ready for operation. The size and expertise required is scarce and hard to ramp up. These days, from a standing start it seems to require at least a decade to get a nuclear plant running, maybe more. And only a very few firms can make them at all, and each of these is only capable of handling a couple projects at a time. So imagining that the economic case was there and there were no impediments and everyone involved was sure they would make money and all the capital was available, we still wouldn't have any of these whatever-generation plants in place for around ten years if they started working on them now, and even in ten years we'd only have a few. It is nuclear which cannot scale up fast enough.

But the economic case isn't there, and backers increasingly don't seem to think that they can make money. I mean, I really wish it were otherwise, but environmentalists and leftists in North America today have very little power. Nuclear power isn't being blocked by all-powerful NIMBY green lobbies. Nuclear power is failing to happen because nobody can make a business case for it without amazingly huge subsidies and legal shelters against liability, and because construction projects have been plagued by massive time and cost overruns, and because investors have little confident their massive investment will see a return.

To be continued . . .

Purple library guy said...


Nuclear is more expensive than wind and probably more expensive than solar in most markets, and that's without all the hidden costs they tend to slough onto the public sector. Articles wringing their hands about the importance of nuclear for helping against global warming are not really intended for consumption by people like us. The only point to them is to help lobbyists persuade the government that the current nuclear subsidies--billions in loan guarantees, underwriting their insurance, taking care of their waste for them, limiting their liability in case of disaster to a tiny fraction of the damage--are insufficient and they should literally pay whatever it takes to make nuclear power financially feasible. It's a scam. Unfortunately, some sincere people have been taken in.

There is basically nothing going for nuclear except the perception that since it's "hard-nosed" it must really be better than obviously-good solutions, because everyone knows anything environmentalists like must be flaky pie in the sky.

Now it's possible that these however-manyth-generation nuclear plants are awesome, just like the whateverth-generation F-35 (you saw the sarcasm there, didn't you?). But nuclear boosters have been hyping up the awesomeness of their engineering forever; it's been about to be "too cheap to meter" since the fifties, and everything has been amazing and awesome and foolproof and we haven't been worthy for all that time. It hasn't been true so far, why suddenly now? Might it not be better to build something we actually know works?

Anonymous said...

I worked one summer job where we took titanium ingots and turned them into nuclear fuel rods. It was interesting, the wages were good and paid for a year of school.

The rinpoche told me to reflect upon my past actions. He said it will take years.

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't know, PLG, but I think Hansen and his group would be aware of your criticisms and must have reached informed conclusions differing from your own about the merits, feasibility and need for a nuclear option. Do you think he's making a rash, uninformed decision?

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for the link, Troy. Yes, Grantham is an Apostle at this point. I've been keeping an eye on Grantham's institute for the past few years and wrote a post about him several months back.

He doesn't mince words but he's not an alarmist either. He's just looked at facts and ran the numbers which makes disputing his conclusions very difficult.

Purple library guy said...

MoS, you're making an argument from authority. That's invalid, but in any case I've been following these issues for some time. I doubt I know as much about rockets or the details of climatology as Hansen, and I would be reluctant to challenge him on those. But it may well be that he knows a good deal less about the economics and politics of power generation than I do--that is not his area of expertise.

Just as there are quite a few scientists who have talked nonsense about climate science and turned out to know little about it, Hansen is no doubt an excellent rocket scientist and climate scientist, but does he know much about economics or renewable power? My current assumption is, probably not or he wouldn't be talking rubbish. Just as you imagine he must have seen the line I'm preaching, I've seen this line many times before as well. I've never seen anyone who was pushing it actually address any of the economic problems with nuclear, however, they just sort of make a background assumption that

A rash, uninformed decision? Perhaps a decision that puts a bit too much faith in the pronouncements of technocrats with vested interests, just because they're establishment figures. Just look at the bullshit TEPCO and the Japanese government are still spewing with regard to Fukushima, claiming they have everything under control while in fact they've been able to do nothing at all to contain the problem. Three cores have literally melted their way into the ground and TEPCO have been unable to find them much less contain them, but they continue to say "Nothing to see here, move along, we're experts, no second-guessing".

MoS, your argument comes down to, "But PLG, surely you must be wrong because the other guy must be right!"

Purple library guy said...

Ack! Left a sentence dangling.
"they just sort of make the background assumption that" . . . since it's a technology pushed by big corporations the economic feasibility and so forth must be a given. I've never seen anyone seriously argue it while confronting the realities of the current crop of abandoned or long overdue nuclear projects, or the real dimensions of massive subsidy and regulatory favouritism needed to keep the industry alive this long.

Steve said...

I dont think NUKES are a terrible decision, just that renewable s, smart local grids are a far better cheaper, cleaner answer.

ThinkingManNeil said...

I must admit that I'm kind of torn on this issue. That Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island (and who knows how many others that we've not been told about) have been nightmares there is no doubt, and justly so. And the long standing issue of not only waste fuel disposal but also long term disposal/abandonment/isolation of existing reactor facilities and infrastructure in situ have not even been close to being adequately addressed in any real way.

That being said, however, I do think that most of the problems - and continuing fears - have arisen out of existing, obsolete technologies such as Light Water and Heavy Water Reactors which are the most prevalent types in use. But there are alternatives such as the Integral Fast Reactor Program, the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor, and perhaps most promising, the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor. Each of these have simpler safety systems than Water reactors, can use waste fuel and military nuclear materials as energy sources and reduce waste outflow, and also greatly reduce the possibility of weaponized material proliferation. I think that nuclear power can be made more viable and safer as a transitional energy platform, but we have ti adopt new, smaller, and more efficient technologies and set aside old ones as the only option in the field and before they become even more problematic than they are now...


The Mound of Sound said...

I'm making an "argument from authority" and that's invalid, why, PLG? Are you aware of Hansen's multi-disciplinary expert group? You dismiss his credentials while establishing none of your own. Do you have some expertise in nuclear technology or are you, like me, a layman? You wish to stand your opinion against his and claim, in fairness, that Hansen's is rubbish, so explain why yours is at least as credible or even superior. Sorry, PLG, but unless you can do at least that much, I will heed Hansen's advice.

Sanola Jerry said...

Generating electricity through nuclear reactors is good but the main things that it's waste is hazardous to human life and hence government should stop generating power through nuclear reactors.

Sanola Jerry

Plos Constructions

Purple library guy said...

Come on, MoS. The argument from authority is a classic fallacy because it is not in itself an argument. It advances no evidence about the case being discussed. It is considered the classic fallacy, the abandonment of which in many ways defined the transition from the ancient and medieval worlds to the modern. You want to argue with me, by all means argue. Don't just say "Well, this guy's an expert." I could trot out experts too, but that wouldn't be argument either.

If you don't want to actually bother evaluating any claims made and just stick to your belief, there's not a lot I can do about that. So there's not much point my saying anything further. But I can't respect that position.

Anonymous said...

I think Hansen et al have a good point. PLG talks about safer thorium reactors, which I believe the esteemed scientists were referencing. Better to serve civilization's energy demands with safer nuclear than dirty carbon.

I think they are missing the bigger picture. They are proposing that we swap carbon for nuclear. The fallacy and destructiveness of the so called 'free market' will still continue, but with a reduced impact from climate change. Which is a good thing in and of itself.

However, I think we need to start thinking about changing the structure of civilization and how we measure progress. And progress is not GDP growth.

Anonymous said...

SO...WHAT IS KNEW.. Just the same old same old and you think you are bring this to the attention of the masses...laughable.

Anonymous said...

Get the message....people who are the know it alls are the people who have put this world in the mess it presently is. Everyone wants their name in the history book. Nuclear of any ilk is dettrimental to the earth which keeps us alive and humans.

Anonymous said...

MoS, you're making an argument from authority. You just discovered this 9:21 PM? MOS thinks authority is the answer to everything.

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't know, Anon. You tell me, what is 'knew'? And if you think I believe authority is the answer to everything, then you need to spend a little more time reading what I write.

Anonymous said...

MoS has consistently presented an objective viewpoint, with few deviations, on topical discussions.

No reason to attack.

crf said...

Current modern plants being built are generation III+. Those in use right now are mostly generation II and III.

Next generation plants are called generation IV. These are plants that will close the fuel cycle.

You can read about what Hansen thinks of the renewables-only (or renewables+gas) positions of environmental groups and some politicians here:

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for the links, Chris. What are your thoughts on this obviously controversial question.