Rethinking Nuclear: Can We Change the World’s Cumulative Carbon Emissions Soon Enough?

Joe Lassiter and Ray Rothrock jointly presented a twenty minute talk to Harvard B-school alums on the critical need for large scale nuclear deployment to mitigate climate change. This is a high signal-to-noise update on the challenge and possible solutions. Joe Lassiter summed up the reality of Kyoto-style targeting: 

The political process to getting international agreement on emissions is painfully slow, with pretty much unsolvable problems.

When you look at EIA and IEA projections to 2040 and extrapolate IPCC scenarios past 2100 you see we are on a trajectory to “extremely high ranges of temperature” at levels where “economic and biological models are likely to be invalid”. Poor countries like India and China do what they have to – coal plants. Because as Bill Gates said recently in a Financial Times interview “Renewable energy can’t do the job.” And nuclear still hasn’t crossed the “Cheaper than coal” cost curve. Meanwhile “the rich countries can do what they want” which is mainly the soft path of variable renewables – the path Bill Gates expects to lead to “a beyond astronomical cost”.

I recommend this talk for a bit of insider perspective on nuclear innovation. In the “conflict of interest” declaration, Prof. Lassiter revealed that he is an investor in Terrapower. Later in the NRC-barrier discussion he says “they are rumored to be building a test reactor in China…but they have never issued a press release about that.” Why China? “Because they saw no way to move through licensing in the United States…because of their belief about the un-licensability of anything but a light water reactor in America”.

As you likely know, Ray Rothrock, Venrock partner emeritus, lead the seed investment in Transatomic Power. Ray (via Venrock) is also an investor in stealthy fusion startup Tri Alpha Energy.

Joe used the following tabulation to make a very broad taxonomy of nuclear generation technologies, and the associated build process (on-site v. factory manufacture). Probably none of the example companies are happy with their “box”. Neither Westinghouse nor TerraPower will like being labeled “Classic On-Site Construction”. And characterizing the three technology columns as analogous to Mainframe, Mini Computer, Micro Processor? OK, I’m sympathetic to the challenge of explaining today’s spectrum of nuclear generation to a group of Harvard MBA alumni. In 20 minutes? I score this a good job overall.

BTW, I think it’s cool that Joe picked GE-PRISM and UPower for his category “Gen IV Passive SFRs/Factory Manufacture”. Yay UPower! But the MiniComputer metaphor? No!

Nuclear entrants

The presentation slides are available here if you have Harvard alum login credentials. Fortunately the event video is available at YouTube without HBS login.

Mike Shellenberger: How one of world’s cleanest & greenest technologies became viewed as bad for environment

@MichaelBTI just posted a nineteen-point Tweetstorm on Storify explaining the history of how certain environmentalists discovered their true calling as anti-nuclear activists. Because I wasn’t following energy policy during this period, it has long been a puzzle to me how an “environmentalist” would turn against the cleanest, safest source of energy. To oversimplify a bit, what happened is that a few well-placed people with a strong “Small is Beautiful” and anti-corporate ideology invented issues that could be used very effectively for fear-mongering. Amory Lovins continues today to be an effective purveyor of these anti-nuclear myths. 

Here’s a plain-text recap of Mike’s history – please reply at the Storify page or directly to @MichaelBTI. Emphasis is mine.

1. As pro-nuclear ranks grew among people who care about climate & environment, we were treated as something of a novelty — but we weren’t.

2. Alvin Weinberg & other post-war scientists saw nuclear as huge breakthrough in pollution-free, low-impact source of electricity.

3. While California & others embraced nuclear, faction in Sierra Club saw cheap power as opening door to more people & more development.

4. Nuclear was so obviously superior environmentally to all other energy technologies that opponents had to invent new concerns.

5. Amory Lovins worked with David Brower @sierraclub (against Ansel Adams) to make up various reasons to be against nuclear energy.

6. They made up & publicized scary myths about proliferation & waste that notably had nothing whatsoever to do with the environment.

7. Anti-nuclear env. leaders of 1970s knew they couldn’t win on scientific or environmental grounds so they had to start fear-mongering.

8. But because it was “environmental leaders” who were doing fear-mongering, media misreported concerns as “environmental” — they weren’t.

9. Nuclear waste is deemed the environmental problem, but from environmental point of view it is exactly the kind of waste you should want.

10. From environmental point of view, production you want is highest output using fewest inputs & least amt. of waste: that’s nuclear.

11. Anti-nuclear leaders turned a huge strength of nuclear — its small amounts of highly manageable waste — into a weakness.

12. Grossly exaggerating nuclear waste risks was critically important to undermining its reputation as an orders-of-magnitude cleaner tech.

13. Much of “environmental” attack on nuclear had nothing to do with tech per se but paranoia of “large systems” e.g. the electrical grid.

14. Fear of big systems & utopian views of small communities underlay anti-nuclear movement rejection of both big government & companies.

15. Today anti-nuclear activists routinely talk of “nuclear industry!” but mostly are referring to public or heavily regulated utilities.

16. In truth, nuclear’s biggest advocates weren’t profit-motivated private companies but publicly-minded scientists & utilities…

17. … their motivation & excitement was around vision of powering California & world with pollution-free low-footprint energy.

18. In sum, it was the environmental benefits that were *the main motivation* of pro-nuclear advocates like Weinberg in the 1960s…

19. … while it was highly ideological *non-environmental* concerns that drove fear & opposition to nuclear energy starting in the 1970s.

How to be an Errorist: if anti-nuclear content was factually true it wouldn’t be anti-nuclear

Errorist

I see far too many anti-nuclear press reports. It truly looks like all the big media journos have their favorite UCS and Greenpeace contacts in their Rolodex. And it is a fact that “Fear Sells”, whether clicks or newsprint. So I had a chuckle today when I read this little essay How to be an Errorist from the Northwest Energy folks. They were motivated to write this June 17, 2015 by the satirical New Yorker piece “Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans.”

While the story is made-up, many of these fact-resistant folks seem to be radically opposed to nuclear energy. This normally wouldn’t be of great concern, anyone can believe what they want. But when that ignorance (deception?) is given legitimacy through public policy discussions, then it can create a problem for society as a whole (impeding the development of new nuclear energy resources to combat climate change comes to mind).

So, I have a challenge for you Dear Reader: please email or Tweet me if you have encountered an anti-nuclear article that is factually correct. I’ve been scratching my head trying to remember such an instance — but I can’t think of a single case. If the content was factually true it wouldn’t be anti-nuclear.

James Hansen calls out “Big Green” (Part 2)

James Hansen

More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media.

A year ago James Hansen published a “draft opinion” on the Columbia University website: Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions? The PDF received surprisingly little attention considering the importance of the issues covered. I found the piece when I was researching thinking on how we could dramatically increase China US Nuclear Cooperation.

Here I’ll just highlight some of Dr. Hansen’s remarks on the how he sees the workings of the anti-nuclear lobby. In his closing paragraphs What Can the Public and Scientists Do? he writes

(…snip…) I also recommend that the public stop providing funds to anti nuke environmental groups. Send a letter saying why you are withdrawing your support. Their position is based partly on fear of losing support from anti-nuke donors, and they are not likely to listen to anything other than financial pressure. If they are allowed to continue to spread misinformation about nuclear power, it is unlikely that we can stop expanded hydro-fracking, continued destructive coal mining, and irreversible climate change.

(…snip…) The public is unaware of pressure put on scientists to be silent about nuclear power. After I mention nuclear power I receive numerous messages, often heart-breaking in their sincerity as they repeat Caldicott-like unfounded assertions and beg me not to mention nuclear power. More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media. Each large environmental organization has a nuclear “expert” (often a lawyer, not a physicist) with a well- developed script to respond to any positive statement about nuclear power. Liberal media follow precisely the “merchants of doubt” approach that the right-wing media use to block action on climate change; raising fears about nuclear power is enough to stymie support. The liberal media employ not only environmental organization “experts”, but former heads of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) appointed during Democratic Administrations.

These NRC talking heads are well-spoken professionals with a spiel that has been honed over years. And they have a track record. The NRC, despite its many dedicated capable employees, has been converted from the top into a lawyer-laden organization that can take many months or years to approve even simple adjustments to plans. It is almost impossible to build a nuclear power plant in the United States in less than 10 years, and this is not because an American worker cannot lay one brick on top of another as fast as a Chinese worker. Anti-nukes know that the best way to kill nuclear power is to make it more expensive.

Given this situation, my suggestion to other scientists, when they are queried, is to point the public toward valid scientific information, such as the “radiation 101” page written by Bob Hargraves. “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay lets the public understand calculations as in the footnote above, thus helping the public to choose between renewables and nuclear power in any given situation – there is a role for both.

James Hansen calls out “Big Green”, its the money that drives their anti-nuclear dogma

James Hansen

It is not always easy to speak truth to power, but all citizens have the opportunity if they choose. I have one minor, easy suggestion for you to consider, and another requiring more effort.

The first concerns “Big Green,” the large environmental organizations, which have become one of the biggest obstacles to solving the climate problem. After I joined other scientists in requesting the leaders of Big Green to reconsider their adamant opposition to nuclear power, and was rebuffed, I learned from discussions with them the major reason: They feared losing donor support. Money, it seems, is the language they understand. Thus my suggestion: The next time you receive a donation request, doubtless accompanied with a photo of a cuddly bear or the like, toss it in the waste bin and return a note saying that you will consider a donation in the future, if they objectively evaluate the best interests of young people and nature. — James Hansen October 11, 2014

If you think about this a bit, isn’t it obvious that the leaders of “Big Green” are driven by the same motivations as politicians — Power. Power is increased by raising more money every year. That is their goal. It is that simple. I’m talking about the rich and famous NGOs: Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, National Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, and so forth. 

 Please don’t let your friends donate to Big Green! If you’ve not read ‘To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear Power‘ this would be a fine time.

EROI — A Tool To Predict The Best Energy Mix

I’m happy to see that Forbes contributor James Conca has taken on the central EROI issue — what John Morgan termed the The Catch-22 of Energy Storage. In today’s essay EROI — A Tool To Predict The Best Energy Mix Jim engages directly with the reality that affordable utility-scale storage does NOT make solar PV and biomass into big winners in the future low-carbon energy portfolio. Jim contributed an effective new chart that combines both the with-storage and without-storage EROI profiles. The dotted line at EROI = 7 represents an estimate of the minimum performance required to support a modern industrial society, as represented by the OECD countries.

NewImage

Both John Morgan and Jim Conca based their analysis on the important 2013 paper by Weißbach et al (ungated preprint) published in Energy, Volume 52, 1 April 2013, Pages 210–221.

I want to emphasize that not only is this paper a major conceptual contribution to the energy policy, it is also a model of transparency. Included in the supplementals of the Weißbach et al. paper – are the spreadsheets containing all the materials reference data, assumptions and the EROI and EMROI computations. This means that any motivated reader can audit every detail of the energy inputs, material requirements and computations.

If any reader objects to any of the assumptions they are free to amend the Weisbach spreadsheets to compute their own preferred EROI profiles.

An excellent example of the transparency benefit of the Weisbach spreadsheet contribution is Keith Pickering’s GETTING TO ZERO: Is renewable energy economically viable? Keith used the Weißach model to analyze the progressively improving EROI of nuclear fission. 

With 100% centrifuge, nuclear will have an EROI of 106, EMROI of 166 according to Weißbach’s analysis.

Here’s an earlier 8/13/14 Seekerblog post on the Morgan and Weißach work.

The Great Progressive Reversal: how the TVA supporters became the prison jailers of the developing poor

It wasn’t long before environmental groups came to oppose nearly all forms of grid electricity in poor countries, whether from dams, coal or nuclear.

“Giving society cheap, abundant energy, would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” —Paul Ehrlich 1975

Prof. Erlich continues to preach the same theme, which is essentially the low energy hymnal as written by Amory Lovins. I think Erlich and Lovins are completely on the wrong side of the low-energy/high-energy debate. If you are an Amory Lovins believer I hope to persuade you to read The Breakthrough Institute’s concise briefing document Our High-Energy Planet. Arizona State University's Dan Sarewitz is one of my trusted sources on science policy issues. Here’s Dan’s summary of the choice between high-energy and low-energy policies:

“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”

If, after reading Our High Energy Planet, you are still thinking that we already have all the tech required, that all we need to address climate change is more efficiency and renewables, then I recommend that you need to learn more about the staggering magnitude of the energy transition required. Start with energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, then his Energy Transitions and finally Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

If, like me, you are puzzling over how the former protectors of the energy-impoverished have transformed into the prison guards responsible for preventing their escape, their breakout from the energy-poverty jail — then read the captioned three-part The Great Progressive Reversal. This is a very different history than what I was taught in public schools, even university. When I studied civics and social history the prevailing progressive theme was the signature New Deal program of the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority.

(…snip…) In 1933 Congress and President Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It mobilized thousands of unemployed men to build hydroelectric dams, produce fertilizer, and lay down irrigation systems. Sensitive to local knowledge, government workers acted as community organizers, empowering local farmers to lead the efforts to improve agricultural techniques and plant trees.

The TVA produced cheap energy and restored the natural environment. Electricity from the dams allowed poor residents to stop burning wood for fuel. It facilitated the cheap production of fertilizer and powered the water pumps for irrigation, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. These changes lifted incomes and allowed forests to grow back. Although dams displaced thousands of people, they provided electricity for millions.

By the 50s, the TVA was the crown jewel of the New Deal and one of the greatest triumphs of centralized planning in the West. It was viewed around the world as a model for how governments could use modern energy, infrastructure and agricultural assistance to lift up small farmers, grow the economy, and save the environment. Recent research suggests that the TVA accelerated economic development in the region much more than in surrounding and similar regions and proved a boon to the national economy as well.

Perhaps most important, the TVA established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise. When an effort was made in the mid-'50s to privatize part of the TVA, it was beaten back by Senator Al Gore Sr. The TVA implicitly established modern energy as a fundamental human right that should not be denied out of deference to private property and free markets.

From The Great Progressive Reversal I learned how the progressive movement mutated into what it is today, a supporter of anti-progress development policies. The three-part series concludes with this:

Since Ehrlich made his famous prediction, the global death rate declined from 13 to 9 deaths per 1,000 lives, and India’s fertility rate declined from 5.5 to 2.5, thanks not to forced sterilization's and cutting off food aid, as Ehrlich advocated, but due to the continuing development and modernization of Indian society.

If there is to be a solution to global warming, then it is as likely to come from the rising powers of the global East and South than the superannuated precincts of the West. “Old men like to offer good advice,” Bruckner writes, quoting the 18th-century philosopher François de la Rouchefoucauld, “in order to console themselves for no longer being in a position to give bad examples.”

 

 

Wade Allison: Why radiation is much safer than you think

Originally man relied for energy on the digestion of food like all animals, but at a historic moment he began to domesticate fire as a source of external energy for lighting, cooking and heating his home. Although this was a dangerous step, it was essential to civilisation. No doubt the environmentalists of those days objected and had a strong case, but they had to accept that the benefits outweighed the dangers, provided education and training in the use of fire was given to everybody including children.

Recently retired Oxford physicist Wade Allison continues helping people understand that radiation risks are radically less than the usual media alarmism. Prof. Allison used this cartoon in his recent video interview, to illustrate the political situation when humans first began to burn fuel outside of their bodies.

Here’s a sample of his science communications:

Nuclear Has Scaled Far More Rapidly Than Renewables – The Clean Energy Transition Needs the Atom


Anyone interested in rapidly increasing the production of clean energy should look to nuclear. The most ambitious renewables plan — Germany’s Energiewende — has brought far less zero-carbon energy far less quickly than similar efforts focused on nuclear. Being cool, profitable and popular is fine, but irrelevant. We need a reliable technology that delivers deep energy emission cuts and we need it fast. — Geoff Russell

Please bookmark Geoff Russell’s essay on The Breakthrough. In a very few words Geoff makes it completely clear that nuclear is an essential part of any sane strategy for slashing carbon emissions.  The anti-nuclear activists are the problem.

How do the rollout speeds of renewables and nuclear power compare?

Let’s compare the speed of per capita electricity generation growth in a few countries for renewables and nuclear. I’m guessing nobody will object if we use the German wunderkind as a top performing renewables example. We’ll plot the last 11 years of wind and solar growth, starting 12 months after the beginning of their feed-in-tariff scheme. We’ll also throw in the last 11 years of Chinese per capita electricity growth from all sources. This is just to put their coal/wind/nuclear/solar/hydro build in proper per capita context.

All of our comparison cases, except one, are historical. They aren’t plans, they are achievements. Anti-nuclear campaigners are fond of finding particular nuclear power stations with time or cost overruns to ‘prove’ how slow or expensive nuclear electricity is to roll out. Cherry picking examples is a time-honored strategy when objective argument fails.

(…snip…)

Being cool, profitable, and popular is fine, but irrelevant. We need a reliable technology that delivers deep energy emission cuts and we need it fast.

It’s rapidly becoming crystal clear that the biggest enemy we face in preventing ongoing climate destabilistation is the anti-nuclear movement. They have cost the planet two decades which could otherwise have seen many more countries with clean electricity, and now they are running a distracting strategy promoting technologies which are intrinsically slow to roll out. They have, in effect, created an energy growth vacuum being filled by coal seam gas which is quick to build but which won’t prevent further climate destabilisation.

UCB’s Per Peterson on China’s advanced nuclear program

In this essential Breakthrough interview Per Peterson summarizes China’s advanced nuclear development – including the US – China collaboration. I think this collaboration is the one global effort that could have a material impact on climate change. US support for the cooperation seems to be hidden from the usual political shout-fest — at least if there is anyone in the executive who is taking credit for even allowing the cooperation I’ve not heard of it. Imagine what could be accomplished if there was enthusiastic, high-level backing and 10x as much funding? This is just a fragment of the interview focused on China:

What are China’s plans for advanced molten salt nuclear reactors?

China has a huge nuclear program and is building almost every kind of reactor possible, including a number of experimental advanced reactors. Two years ago the Chinese Academy of Sciences decided to pursue a thorium liquid-fueled molten salt reactor, but first decided to build an intermediate reactor that uses a solid fuel with salt as coolant. (The choice to build a solid fuel reactor reduces the licensing risk without heavily compromising performance.) In 2015, China will be starting the construction of the 10 MW solid-fueled thorium molten salt test reactor. By 2017 they hope to have this reactor operating. And by 2022, they hope to have commissioned a 100 MW thorium molten salt commercial prototype reactor. Alongside this effort, the Chinese will be developing a 2 MW liquid-fueled reactor that will enter the final stages of testing in 2017.

Are you collaborating with the Chinese on this effort?

There is an ongoing formal collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the US Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE has a memorandum of understanding with the CAS. Under this formal umbrella, our research group has an informal relationship with the Shanghai Institute of Physics. There is also a cooperative research agreement being developed between China and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which would provide funding for China’s thorium molten salt research effort.

Tell us more about US involvement in the Chinese effort to commercialize advanced nuclear technologies.

The US DOE has been reviewing the Chinese effort to build a molten salt reactor. The Chinese program has been using US expertise in reactor safety, and US experts have reviewed the early test reactor design and remain engaged. So far, China’s nuclear regulatory policy has been to adopt and follow the safety and licensing regulation of the exporting country. Russian-built reactors in China are have adopted a regulatory approach similar to that of Russia. Likewise, licensing for the Westinghouse AP1000s that are being built in China is following a US approach. There appears to be an emerging, consensus approach in the US and in China for safety for molten salt reactors as well.

How should the US participate in the commercialization of these reactors?

My view is that the United States needs to maintain the capability to independently develop advanced nuclear designs that are being studied and will be commercialized in China. Maintaining such capability could encourage US-China joint ventures, which could accelerate development and thus ensure that commercial designs are deployed at large scale as soon as possible. The United States has a lot of expertise in the areas of nuclear safety and licensing, and could bring such expertise to US-China partnerships. If new advanced nuclear designs are simultaneously licensed in both the US and China, the possibility for large-scale deployment increases.

Do you think such reverse engineering is possible? Isn’t China keeping their plans secret?

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has been remarkably open and transparent in their effort to build their thorium molten salt reactor. They’ve been doing a lot of international collaboration. All of the reports are published in an extraordinary level of detail. This collaboration is really important if we want to see this technology developed and deployed soon enough to make a real difference in helping reduce climate change. If China can stay on track to commission a 100 MW commercial scale reactor by 2022, it would be fantastic if this reactor could include substantial contribution by US industry as well. This kind of collaboration could lead to a joint venture effort that could result in more rapid and larger near-term deployment.

The April 2014 Breakthrough interview is a very concise and up to date informed perspective on the current status and the future of nuclear power: UC Berkeley’s Per Peterson Pursues Radical New Design with Off-the-Shelf Technologies. Please help everyone you know to read and understand.