Thursday, October 4, 2012

Nuclear Power: good solution for Global Warming?

Nuclear Energy is promoted by many environmentalists as basically the only technically feasible approach to ending and reversing the CO2 forcing that will cause terrible suffering and change in the future unless we start making the transition now.

Some examples: The new movie "Switch."  George Monbiot.  David McKay and his monumental "Renewable Energy without the Hot Air."  A famous architect I recently talked to who has been a pioneer in designing energy efficient homes going back 30 years.  John Quiggin--an Australian economist I usually agree with and greatly respect.  And many more.

Now all of the pro-Nuke environmentalists I'm referring to agree with that human activity has been causing CO2 increase and hence Global Warming which must be reversed soon.  And most of them would concede that a lot of renewable energy technologies have merit and should be pursued further.  But at the end of the day, they argue that the energy from purely renewable sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal will not meet the required demand.   The intermittent character of most renewable sources is one of the biggest problems, they say.  And nuclear can handle this problem by providing stable backbone power, and do so as safely as other kinds of things we do, they say, safer than coal plants, they claim.

A typical example of the approach taken for mainstream media is the movie Switch, in which each energy source/conversion/recycling is shown along with a number which purports to show how many people would be served by this amount of energy.  I call this the "big numbers" approach.  When we see some kind of renewable energy system, we see a small number.  When we see nuclear, coal, or oil, we see a big number.

If not exactly wrong, all these numbers are misleading.  At the end of the day, we do not need Nuclear Power.   I'm not just singing Kumbaya here.  Many other scientists and engineers have looked at the problem and reached the other conclusion: that we can produce enough free energy for all human needs without either fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

Some of the pro-Nuke environmentalists might concede that much.  Sure, they might say, we could meet all our needs with renewable energies and energy storage systems, but it might require unlikely circumstances like these:

1) Reducing per-capita energy consumption and/or reducing human populations.
2) Replacing current political and economic systems with a fascist energy dictatorship that doesn't care how much renewable energy and storage actually cost.

In fact, assumption (1) does figure into almost every solution of the future energy problem.  But it also figures into the baseline, business-as-usual assumptions too.  As carbon based fossil fuels become harder to get, and relatively scarce relative to growing demand, prices will increase.  This will provide great "incentives" (as economists like to say) to reduce per-capita energy consumption in developed countries, and also incentives not to max out on fossil energy use in China and India.

And (2) in the form of some serious change in global governance (from the current burn and slash plutocracy) will be required, though it is hard to imagine exactly what form this will take.  Getting money out of politics is something most would agree on and would be a good start.  But we have made almost zero progress in carbon reduction so far, and it is clear to all how the existing power structure will block any useful progress (i.e. before catastrophe) in the future.

Usually the pro-nuke storyline finds every little gap in what renewable energy systems can do and calls it fatal.  The typical issue is energy storage.  But energy storage systems have been around for decades and is now a hot area where new technological developments occur daily.  Energy demand management has also been around for decades, but has been improving much like computers because it is largely based on computers.

We now do have experience with renewable systems providing up to 50% of grid power at some times of day (for example, in Germany).  While the renewable sources are intermittent, they average out over a wide area and with diverse sources, and blend into available power from other sources.  There is very little waste in blending this power with existing sources and displacing the use of carbon based energy.

Many of the naysayers who cry it will never work have already been proven wrong.

I recall reading one analysis by two qualified scientists concluding that an all-renewable-energy future would be feasible that was published in Scientific American.  One group that I feel is very qualified on such issues is the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Their conclusion is that nuclear energy research should continue, but no more deployment of nuclear power stations at this time.  They believe as I do that renewable energy is safer and will probably be sufficient.

In fact, many serious investigators feel that rather than reducing the cost of eliminating carbon forcing, full deployment of nuclear energy would increase the total cost--and not even considering the risk and uncertainty.  One such investigator is the famous Lester Brown.

Taking another look at McKay, he claims not to be pro Nuclear, just pro arithmetic.  But I wonder about his estimates of the excess death from Chernobyl.  And I didn't see Fukushima included in his numbers.  But anyway, even the UCS states clearly the nuclear presents the greatest potential dangers.  As I heard one person say, carbon power could be locally catastrophic, and kill just as many people right away, but nuclear can be regionally catastrophic, and have lingering effects on millions no one can dismiss.  And even if it never happens (which I hope!) there is uncertainty (worse than risk) and therefore fear--among millions--that they could be affected.  How much is that worth?

1 comment:

  1. John Q here. I thought I posted this before, but it hasn't appeared. I'm not pro-nuclear - although I've tried to keep an open mind, I don't believe it's likely to be a cost-effective option in the foreseeable future