Our nuclear waste disposal problem (not)

We don’t have a technical nuclear waste problem, but we sure have a political problem. To demonstrate, I’ll repeat a few paragraphs from a June 2013 post:

Negligible risks/impacts

dry cask 190x141As someone who works in the area of dry fuel storage, I can tell you that the answer is pretty obvious. The risks of spent fuel storage are utterly negligible, compared to other risks that society routinely faces in general, and in particular, compared to the risks associated with alternative (fossil) power generation options. No credible scenario for a significant release from dry storage casks exists. Even terrorist attacks would have a minimal public health consequence.

Spent fuel pool risks are also quite low, and neither the 5-year cask requirement nor a repository would do much to reduce those (small) risks, since almost all the heat in spent fuel pools is from the fuel younger than 5 years. The theory of spent fuel pool cladding melt or fire (in the extremely unlikely, hypothetical event of pool drainage) is quite dubious in the first place, and it is being addressed at the few plants where it is thought to be a potential concern. Also of note is the fact that the spent fuel pools did NOT release any significant amount of radioactivity at Fukushima.

The fact is that nuclear waste is generated in a miniscule volume and, unlike the wastes from fossil plants and other industries, it has always been safely and fully contained, has never been released into the environment, and has never caused any harm. Further evaluation needed? In my view, the health/environmental impact evaluation for long-term onsite storage of used fuel could be adequately given in one sentence:

“The public health risks and environmental impacts of long term onsite storage of used nuclear fuel are clearly orders of magnitude less than those of the fossil fueled power generation that would otherwise be used in place of nuclear generation.”

It’s clear that shutting the industry down until a repository is built will result in fossil fuels being used for most of the replacement power.  Even if new plant licensing and plant life extensions are suspended, for a long time, the result will eventually be some reduction in nuclear generation, and will result in some increase in fossil generation.

That was written by senior nuclear engineer Jim Hopf who just happens to be a specialist in this area. Nuclear engineers often refer to “waste” as SNF or Spent Nuclear Fuel. It is not actually spent, because in light water reactors less than 1% of the energy has been extracted in a the Jimmy Carter-mandated once-through fuel cycle. The remaining 99% is awaiting favorable politics to be turned into electricity in advanced reactors such as the IFR. So please do not bury the SNF (high value zero-carbon energy) where it will be difficult to retrieve.

Today I read some useful commentary on how the US got into this mess. I was reading the captioned dialog on Our Energy Policy, when I came to comments by an informed observer, Geoffrey Rothwell, who is Principal Economist, Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That’s the NEA of the OECD.  Geoffrey’s comments:

There are plenty of issues to discuss here, and it seems that the discussion is going off on tangents. For example, I believe that Elliot Taubman meant to say that it isn’t Department of Energy’s fault that Yucca Mountain was defunded. There is a general assumption that the US Government is the Administrative Branch and does not include Congress and the Judiciary; hence, the confusion.
Yucca Mountain was on track until the Environmental Protection (?) Agency determined that the design basis of 10,000 years wasn’t long enough to protect future human species from the present generation’s nuclear spent fuel. Thus, it increased the required design basis to 1,000,000 years. While I can imagine 10,000 years into the future (because we can look back at civilized humans over the last 10,000 years), I cannot (and I daresay no one can) design a facility to function as designed for a million years. This slowed down DOE’s license application to such an extent that the NRC was unable to license the design before the Obama-Reid-Pelosi administration took office in January 2009.

What was the implication? The Nuclear Waste Policy Act states in Section 148(d) of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, PL 97-425, 42 USC 10168: “(d) LICENSING CONDITIONS–Any license issued by the Commission for a monitored retrievable storage facility under this section shall provide that– (1) construction of such facility may not begin until the Commission has issued a license for the construction of a repository under section 115(d); (2) construction of such facility or acceptance of spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste shall be prohibited during such time as the repository license is revoked by the Commission or construction of the repository ceases;…” Therefore, without a license for a repository, no interim storage facility could be contemplated by the DOE; hence the waste confidence issue appeared. All Congress must do is strike Section 148(d), but that implies that Congress could do something. I don’t believe that Congress will do anything. If one looks at all previous legislation related to nuclear power policy since the Three Mile Island accident, it requires at least 3 sessions of Congress to act and then Congress will only pass such legislation after the elections, i.e., in lame duck sessions (where nuclear power policy cannot be used by non-incumbent candidates as a political weapon). Therefore, while Senate Bill 1240 is a good start, as long as Harry Reid is in power, nothing will happen. Is there a House counterpart? If not, why not? (Because House leadership wants to see Yucca Mountain licensed so as to avoid throwing $10B in Yucca Mountain characterization down a hole, literally).

Why isn’t reprocessing a solution? Unfortunately, when Congress passed the legislation in 1986 limiting characterization of reprocessing sites to Yucca Mountain (because more powerful members of Congress didn’t want the repository anywhere near their backyards (note, however, there is an operating repository in New Mexico at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, WIPP), the size of Yucca Mountain was limited to 80,000 metric tons of heavy metal (spent uranium fuel). But 80,000 MTHM doesn’t really have anything to do with the carrying capacity of a repository. The carrying capacity of a repository is limited by the ability of the surrounding geology to dissipate heat over the life of the facility. Once the repository is filled, radioactive decay increases the heat in the repository for hundreds of years before cooling begins. Reprocessing reduces the volume and tonnage of the waste, but doesn’t really change the heat load unless the various radio-isotopes can be separated into separate waste streams. This requires new reprocessing technologies and, unfortunately, there is little money to develop these technologies, which require international cooperation and development (every country with spent nuclear fuel is better off with more effectively reprocessing technologies, but no one country can afford to develop them).

On the other hand, the amount of waste that we are discussing is countable. What is uncountable is the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. Each gigawatt-year of nuclear electricity produces approximately 20 tons of waste (note 20 tons x 40 years x 100 reactors = 80,000 MTHM: Dave, will you check my math?). Given the weight of these 20 tons, the volume is one-third the size of a reactor core: a countable number. One gigawatt-year of coal electricity produces 1,000,000 tons of CO2 (note: 1M tons x 40 years x 100 gigawatts = 4 billion tons of CO2; there are approximately 5 milligrams of CO2 in 12oz can of soda; therefore, we would need to bury 200,000 cans of soda to sequester 1 ton of CO2, i.e., 800 trillion cans of soda; Dave, please check my math). I exaggerate to make the point that Carbon Capture and Storage is a myth and the Waste Isolation Pilot Project is a reality. Finally, climate change is a reality, Hurricane Sandies don’t care whether you believe in climate change: they will flood the New York subway whether you believe in climate change or not. The issue is whether it is easier to manage spent nuclear fuel or CO2. What do you think?

Regarding the quantity of SNF, Geoffrey says it is “countable”. Another adjective is “minuscule”. 

Enviros and climate scientists continue their fight over nuclear power

It didn’t take long for the Bootleggers to organize a roomful of Baptists to respond to the open letter from four climate scientists Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley. The response was signed by 300 of the usual crowd including Greenpeace USA and the Environmental Working Group. John Upton at Grist asked the climate scientists for a response. Ken Caldeira replied with this very civil email:

It is time for people to rethink their positions on nuclear power, and make arguments based on facts rather than prejudices.

Any good scientist and any good citizen should be constantly re-examining their positions, so the basic call for us to rethink our position on nuclear power is most welcome. I hope that the signers of this Civil Society Institute letter can bring themselves to re-examine the nuclear power issue with the same objectivity and lack-of-bias that they seek from us.

The letter confusedly suggests that I “embrace nuclear power”, and implies that I somehow discount the importance and potential of solar, wind, and efficiency. I cannot speak on behalf of my colleagues, but at least in my case, these claims are far from the truth.

We embrace things that we love. I don’t love nuclear power. Nuclear power has brought us Chernobyl and Fukushima. If the current industry were scaled up enough to solve the climate problem, there would be one such accident each year — and that is clearly unacceptable. Were I king of the world, I would decree that solar, wind, and efficiency would be the primary means we deploy to solve the climate problem.

But there is no energy storage system that works at the scale of the modern megalopolis. We need a way to power civilization when the sun is not shining and when the wind is not blowing. In a modern real economy, not ruled by benevolent kings, reliable power is required at competitive prices. There are very few technologies that can provide this reliable baseload power. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are the two leading candidates. I think an objective assessment of the facts shows that fossil fuels are far more dangerous than even today’s nuclear power.

But I do not defend today’s nuclear power industry. Even though most nuclear power plants have an excellent safety record, there are an important few that do not. There is no justification for the claim that this important type of electricity generation can never be made sufficiently safe and inexpensive.

To say that an entire category of technology can never be sufficiently improved is, I think, to adopt a position of technological myopia, where one lacks to the capacity to imagine that future technologies can differ substantially from today’s technologies.

I do not embrace nuclear power. There is no power source that one wants to embrace. They all have negative consequences. I do not want a solar PV factory, a massive wind turbine, or a nuclear power plant in my back yard. But I want the juice. The question is not about what power source I embrace, but about what power source I might think myself capable of not rejecting. Many people want to reject power sources, but want the juice that comes from those power sources.

In summary, I applaud the signers of the Civil Society Institute letter for their concern regarding climate change and for their support of solar, wind, and efficiency. Their call for us to rethink our positions on nuclear power is most welcome, and I ask only that they rethink their position with respect to nuclear power with the same degree of receptivity and objectivity that they ask of us.

I would like to add one point: There is no perfect energy source. What motivated Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley to propose that the environmental community reevaluate their position is because opposition to nuclear is support for coal. Nuclear power is the only scalable, dispatchable, low-carbon energy source that is economically acceptable to China, India and the rest of the fast-developing world. And per terrawatt-hour of delivered energy, nuclear electricity has proven to be one of the safest sources: slightly better or slightly worse than onshore wind, depending on which study you read. There is no perfect energy source.

How Taxes Pervert our Energy Choices

In 2009 Nuclear engineer Joseph Somsel examined some of the US tax code provisions which favor building wind rather than nuclear power. This was originally published in American Thinker.

(…snip…) the current code allows what’s called accelerated depreciation so that they can recover the capital costs earlier in the asset’s life rather than later.  Like cash and lottery payouts, a tax deduction today is worth more than one 20 years from now so we can see how Congress views competing electrical generation sources by how quickly they allow the write-offs to occur.

For wind farms, the current code allows the write-offs over 3.5 years, a real boon for investors in wind mill projects. In fact, many such projects depend on this tax advantage to secure financing, especially since the right to take these deductions can be allocated with some freedom amongst the project’s investors and the developers.

Alas, for nuclear power plants, the tax picture is not so rosy.  They have to take their write-offs over 20.5 years, a significant disadvantage over a comparable investment in a wind project.  Taking a hypothetical $5 billion in generation investment in each technology, here’s a chart showing when those deductions could be taken and for how much:

Depreciationfavorswind

From this chart, it is easy to see that the investors in a wind project get to write-off a LOT more money a LOT sooner than the investors in a nuclear plant.  This is greatly to the advantage of the wind developers.  At a 35% corporate tax rate, the difference in Year 2 alone is over $650 million in bottom line after-tax profits to the wind investors – that’s cash money that can cut dividend checks.  Maybe now you can see why T. Boone Pickens is pushing wind farms.

Let’s take the figures from Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency for capital costs and productive experience (“capacity factor”) to see exactly what this means in terms of electrical production.  Let’s assume an equal “overnight” investment of $5 billion in wind mills and $5 billion in nuclear power plants.  That will buy you about 1.5 gigawatts of nuclear capacity and 2.6 gigawatts of wind farm capacity.  However, that’s only the equipment’s theoretical ability to make electricity and not how much electricity it likely will supply per year once in service.  For that we need to multiply our capacity by something called “capacity factor” which is what it really delivers.  Again, using EIA’s numbers on what really happens out in the real world in terms of expected production:

Nuclear2xwindsameinvestment

So that $5 billion will produce over TWICE the annual electrical output for American consumers if invested in nuclear power plants than if in wind farms.  One has to ask, do these provisions in the tax code really serve Americans’ interests or are they written with someone else in mind?  Yet, Congress wants 20% of our electricity to come from “renewables” like wind.  The California legislature, to prove its green bona fides, recently passed a law to make California electric consumers buy 33% of their electricity from renewables.  All I can say is, “Thanks guys!”

(…snip…)

So, in comparing the tax treatment of wind against that of nuclear power, one could get the idea that Congress is rewarding the inefficient while hobbling the productive.  I’d call that perversion and poor public policy.

What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Answer LNT

At Edge.org John Brockman posed the Edge question 2014 “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?“. There are a number of important short essays in reply to the question. I want to highlight Stewart Brand’s essay nominating The Linear No-Threshold Radiation Dose Hypothesis:

 

STEWART BRAND
Author and founder of The Whole Earth Catalog; co-founder of The Well and The Long Now Foundation

In his 1976 book, A Scientist at the White House, George Kistiakowsky, President Eisenhower’s science adviser, told us what he wrote in his diary in 1960 on being exposed to the idea by the Federal Radiation Council:

It is a rather appalling document that takes 140 pages to state the simple fact that, since we know virtually nothing about the dangers of low-intensity radiation, we might as well agree that the average population dose from manmade radiation should be no greater than that which the population already receives from natural causes; and that any individual in that population shouldn’t be exposed to more than three times that amount, the latter figure being, of course, totally arbitrary. Later in the book, Kistiakowsky, who was a nuclear expert and veteran of the Manhattan Project, wrote: “… a linear relation between dose and effect… I still believe is entirely unnecessary for the definition of the current radiation guidelines, since they are pulled out of thin air without any knowledge on which to base them.”

Sixty-three years of research on radiation effects have gone by, and Kistiakowsky’s critique still holds. The linear no-threshold (LNT) radiation dose hypothesis, which surreally influences every regulation and public fear about nuclear power, is based on no knowledge whatever.

At stake are the hundreds of billions spent on meaningless levels of “safety” around nuclear power plants and waste storage, the projected costs of next-generation nuclear plant designs to reduce greenhouse gases worldwide, and the extremely harmful episodes of public panic that accompany rare radiation-release events such as Fukushima and Chernobyl. (No birth defects whatever were caused by Chernobyl, but fear of them led to 100,000 panic abortions in the Soviet Union and Europe. What people remember about Fukushima is that nuclear opponents predicted that hundreds or thousands would die or become ill from the radiation. In fact nobody died, nobody became ill, and nobody is expected to.)

The “linear” part of the LNT is true and well documented. Based on long-term studies of survivors of the atomic bombs in Japan and of nuclear industry workers, the incidence of eventual cancer increases with increasing exposure to radiation at levels above 100 millisieverts per year. The effect is linear. Below 100 millisieverts per year, however, no increased cancer incidence has been detected, either because it doesn’t exist or because the numbers are so low that any signal gets lost in the epidemiological noise.

We all die. Nearly a half of us die of cancer (38% of females, 45% of males). If the “no-threshold” part of the LNT is taken seriously, and an exposed population experiences as much as a 0.5% increase in cancer risk, it simply cannot be detected. The LNT operates on the unprovable assumption that the cancer deaths exist, even if the increase is too small to detect, and that therefore “no level of radiation is safe” and every extra millisievert is a public health hazard.

Some evidence against the “no-threshold” hypothesis draws on studies of background radiation. In the US we are all exposed to 6.2 millisieverts a year on average, but it varies regionally. New England has lower background radiation, Colorado is much higher, yet cancer rates in New England are higher than in Colorado – an inverse effect. Some places in the world, such as Ramsar in Iran, have a tenfold higher background radiation, but no higher cancer rates have been discovered there. These results suggest that there is indeed a threshold below which radiation is not harmful.

Furthermore, recent research at the cell level shows a number of mechanisms for repair of damaged DNA and for ejection of damaged cells up to significant radiation levels. This is not surprising given that life evolved amid high radiation and other threats to DNA. The DNA repair mechanisms that have existed in yeast for 800m years are also present in humans.

The actual threat of low-dose radiation to humans is so low that the LNT hypothesis can neither be proven true nor proven false, yet it continues to dominate and misguide policies concerning radiation exposure, making them grotesquely conservative and expensive. Once the LNT is explicitly discarded, we can move on to regulations that reflect only discernible, measurable medical effects, and that respond mainly to the much larger considerations of whole-system benefits and harms.

The most crucial decisions about nuclear power are at the category level of world urban prosperity and climate change, not imaginary cancers per millisievert.

 

James Hansen et al “the accepted 2 degrees target is dangerously too warm”

“Although there is merit in simply chronicling what is happening, there is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will.

I have finally found the time to read the entire Hansen et al paper Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”. The complete paper was released December 3rd on the open access journal PlosOne as Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.

I think this is one of the most important climate papers of 2013. James Hansen and 17 coauthors succeed to boil down the current state of climate research to 26 pages (including the five pages of references). The authors make a strong case that the two-degree-consensus is dangerous.  Unlike other high profile climate scientists, actions are proposed that will actually work, included the “N word” advanced 4th generation nuclear power.

To announce the paper Hansen and coauthor Pushker Kharecha published a letter outlining the case that two degrees is dangerous, then go straight into solutions: cooperative technology development and deployment, and especially, rapid deployment of gen 3+ and gen 4 nuclear power. 

(…snip…) Governments should also support technology research, development and demonstration of carbon-free energy including advanced generation nuclear power as well as renewable energy, especially in view of the urgency with which emissions from coal and unconventional fossil fuels must be eliminated. (Unconventional fossil fuels include tar sands, shale-derived oil and gas, and methane hydrates.)

(…snip…)

A preferable approach, for the sake of both global climate and local pollution reduction, would be a combination of renewable energy and advanced (3rd and 4th) generation nuclear power plants2. Abundant affordable clean energy is essential to provide the energy needed to raise billions of people out of poverty, which empirical evidence indicates is a requirement for reducing fertility rates, thus lowering human population, and giving hope that we can provide the opportunity of a good life to all humanity while allowing other life on the planet to flourish.

When the world’s leading nations recognize the urgency of phasing out fossil fuel emissions, and realize that we are all in the same boat, it should be possible to agree on cooperative technology development and deployment. History, including World War II and the Apollo program, reveal how rapidly technology can be developed and deployed. Phase-out of most coal emissions and a substantial reduction of oil and gas use could be achieved rapidly. This would require agreement among leading nations not only to have common internal rising carbon fees, but also an agreement to cooperate in rapid technology development.

Surely rapid phase-down of coal emissions requires a major role for advanced-generation safer nuclear power. Nuclear technology has advanced significantly over the past few decades such that there is now the potential to produce modular 3rd generation light-water reactors that are passively safe, i.e., reactors that would shut down automatically in case of an anomaly such as an earthquake and have the ability to keep the nuclear fuel cool without an external power source. The same concept, modular3 simplified reactor design with factory production and shipping to the utility site, is appropriate for 4th generation reactors, and these should also be pursued to deal with nuclear waste, utilizing the waste as fuel.

Fortunately, the place where deployment of advanced nuclear technology is most urgently needed, China, is also the place that has the potential to rapidly build and grow the manufacturing capability. What is needed is cooperation with nations that have developed relevant technical abilities, especially the United States. Such cooperation has potential for enormous mutual and global benefits via development of scalable affordable carbon-free energy. Contrary to assertions of dedicated anti-nuke activists, such technology can be made more resistant than existing technology to exploitation by terrorists who may seek weapons material. Dangers from rogue states or terrorists will always exist, and the best way to minimize such danger is to cooperate in developing the safest technology, not to pretend that anti-nuclear activism will cause nuclear technology to disappear from the planet.

The principal policy allowing renewable energies to grow to almost 2% of global energy use has been laws imposing specified “renewable energy portfolio standards” (RPS) on utilities or other mandates for renewable energy use. These policies have aided growth of renewables, and by spreading costs among all utility customers of feed-in tariffs, added transmission lines, and the backup power needed for intermittent renewables (usually fossil fuel based), the electricity cost has been bearable as long as the portion of renewables is small. Now for the sake of moving rapidly to carbon-free power while minimizing electricity costs, the need is for “clean energy portfolio standards” (CPS), thus allowing nuclear energy to compete with renewable energies.

The previously discussed 3 November open letter ‘To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear Power’ has provoked much needed debate. Let us hope that this new paper and the PlOS ONE call for solutions papers builds on that interest to get something done.

there is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will.

and free will means “be effective” not more failed “Kyoto commitments”.

Transportation fuels: LCA of Well-to-Tank and Tank-to-Wheels GHG emissions

NewImage

Well-To-Tank (WTT) Life Cycle Analysis of a petroleum based fuel pathway includes all steps from crude oil recovery to final finished fuel. Tank-To-Wheel (TTW) analysis includes actual combustion of fuel in a motor vehicle for motive power. WTT and TTW analysis are combined to provide a total Well-To-Wheel (WTW) analysis.

Following up on my previous post Comparison of Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Various Electricity Generation Sources, I have looked into the GHG contributions of the various parts of the hydrocarbon-fuel part of the transportation cycle. Crude Refining contributes on the order of 13% of the total WTW life cycle of hydrocarbon fuel based transport. Roughly 80% of the emissions are consumption, burning the damn stuff, downstream of the supply chain which puts the fuel into the vehicle tank. Refining is a bit over half of the fuel supply chain. Of course, “your mileage may vary” as there are many variables depending on location, fuel choice, how that fuel is supplied, and how it is consumed.

First, regarding questions about the oil sands GHG footprint, the US Congressional Research Service has recently surveyed just this: Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The CRS report begins with this summary:

CRS surveyed the published literature, including the U.S. Department of State-commissioned studies for the Keystone XL pipeline project in both the August 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and the March 2013 Draft Supplementary EIS. The primary literature reveals the following:

  • Canadian oil sands crudes are on average somewhat more GHG emission- intensive than the crudes they may displace in U.S. refineries, as Well-to-Wheel GHG emissions are, on average, 14%-20% higher for Canadian oil sands crudes than for the weighted average of transportation fuels sold or distributed in the United States;
  • discounting the final consumption phase of the life-cycle assessment (which can contribute up to 70%-80% of Well-to-Wheel emissions), Well-to-Tank (i.e., “production”) GHG emissions are, on average, 70%-110% higher for Canadian oil sands crudes than for the weighted average of transportation fuels sold or distributed in the United States;
  • compared to selected imports, Canadian oil sands crudes range from 9% to 19% more emission-intensive than Middle Eastern Sour, 5% to 13% more emission- intensive than Mexican Maya, and 2% to 18% more emission-intensive than various Venezuelan crudes, on a Well-to-Wheel basis;
  • compared to selected energy- and resource-intensive crudes, Well-to-Wheel GHG emissions for Canadian oil sands crudes are within range of heavier crudes such as Venezuelan Bachaquero and Californian Kern River, as well as lighter crudes that are produced from operations that flare associated gas (e.g., Nigerian Bonny Light);

The above graphic on GHG for transportation fuels focuses on LCA of the Well-to-Wheels. This is from the Jacobs Consultancy slide deck: Life Cycle Well to Wheels Assessment of GHG Emissions from North American and Imported Crude Oils [PDF slide deck 34pp]. The data source for that particular slide is the Detailed California-Modified GREET Pathway for Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) from Average Crude Refined in California [PDF 47 pp]. GREET is the Argonne National Laboratory LCA Model. That report is focused on ULSD, but it confirms the general magnitude of the refining GHG footprint, with the entire supply chain contributing about 21%:

NewImage 

For estimates of how large is the supply chain GHG contribution associated with process heat or electricity I am reviewing the in-depth 2012 study by Jacobs titled: EU Pathway Study: Life Cycle Assessment of Crude Oils in a European Context [PDF 364pp]. This is an industry-funded study, for the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission. The study was prepared for the EU context – EU refineries, EU crude oil sources, etc.  I am curious how big a GHG reduction would be obtained by replacing these heat and electricity inputs with nuclear plants. For oil sands the nuclear substitution would improve both recovery (esp. steam generation) and refining.

‘To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear Power’

James Hansen, arguably America’s most famous climate scientist, has been a forceful advocate for nuclear power, including fast reactors such as the IFR that convert nuclear “waste” into zero carbon electricity: James Hansen on Kool-Aid, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

(…) people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work. This is important, because as Mother Nature makes climate change more obvious, we need to be moving in directions within a framework that will minimize the impacts and provide young people a fighting chance of stabilizing the situation.

The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy

The insightful cynic will note: “Now I understand all the fossil fuel ads with windmills and solar panels – fossil fuel moguls know that renewables are no threat to the fossil fuel business.” The tragedy is that many environmentalists line up on the side of the fossil fuel industry, advocating renewables as if they, plus energy efficiency, would solve the global climate change matter.

On 3 November Dr. Hansen and three other top climate scientists joined together in an open letter directed at the Baptists in the “Bootleggers and Baptists” coalition that have made it impossible to make any real progress decarbonizing the global economy. Some examples of the Baptists are Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FOE), and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). We expect Bootleggers such as Peabody Energy to promote coal powered electricity. The tricky part is that the Bootleggers support the Baptists – who claim to be concerned about the environment. At the same time they contradict themselves by blocking every effort to deploy the one energy option that can scale affordably to achieve a zero carbon economy. If it isn’t affordable, reliable clean energy, then China, India et al are not going to stop building coal plants.

Based upon what I have read in recent weeks, the November 3rd open letter has had more impact than the individual scientist’s efforts. The letter has launched a long-avoided conversation about the critical importance of nuclear in the zero carbon energy mix. Regular Seekerblog readers will be familiar with signatory scientists Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley. Here’s the full text of their letter:

To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

We call on your organization to support the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power

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.

Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.

While there will be no single technological silver bullet, 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 develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

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.

We ask you and your organization to demonstrate its real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.

Sincerely,

Dr. Ken Caldeira, Senior Scientist, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution

Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Atmospheric Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. James Hansen, Climate Scientist, Columbia University Earth Institute

Dr. Tom Wigley, Climate Scientist, University of East Anglia and the National Center for Atmospheric Research

What does this mean for citizens? China, India, Brazil et al are focused on economic growth, and hence on expanding their energy supplies as rapidly as they can. That means cheap energy. “Cheaper than Coal” is the only energy policy path that doesn’t lead to massive emissions increases.

Nuclear is the only option that can deliver Cheaper than Coal at scale. And nuclear can compete sooner and more successfully if the technology leaders such as UK, America, France and Sweden help China et al to deploy mass manufactured nuclear power. But sadly, the anti-nuclear campaigns of the Baptists have been so successful that there is no hope of holding the line at 2°C. Almost all of the nuclear plants that could have been built have been replaced with coal [*]. 

Some of the more informed discussion of the scientists’ open letter has been at Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth.

[*] Today in a few specific markets, such as America, many methane (gas) plants are being deployed. Burning methane initially produces 50% of the CO2 per MW that coal generates, but any methane that leaks is 20 times as bad for warming. And those plants won’t be destroyed until they have lived out their lives – which means 40+ years that could have been zero-carbon power.

A Common Fallacy in the Energy and Climate Debate

Schalk Cloete is a South African research scientist, currently working in Norway on fluidized bed reactor research. Schalk has recently published a string of excellent energy policy essays, including the captioned piece explaining why it is the developing world that matters. If one only follows the usual media you would have been taught that saving the planet from climate change depends on America passing “cap and trade”, or German citizens paying extraordinarily high energy prices to subsidize wind and solar.

The reality is the developed world must help the developing world to rapidly decarbonize at levelized costs comparable to building more coal plants. The following charts summarize where future CO2 emissions are going to come from – both are courtesy of ExxonMobil’s recent “Outlook for Energy“: 

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

In the real world China, India, Brazil and the other developing regions are going to be focused on growth, on expanding their energy supplies as rapidly as they can. That means cheap energy. As the Google Foundation phrased it “Cheaper than Coal” is the only way forward that doesn’t lead to massive emissions increases. In brief the Greenpeacers trying to shut down American nuclear plants should be helping the Chinese climb the nuclear deployment learning curve safely and rapidly.

I highly recommend Schalk’s essay, which I believe is accurate in all the quoted facts. My only disagreement is that I think he is much more optimistic than I that CCS will play an important role in decarbonization. The essay concludes with this summary (emphasis mine):

What does this mean?

People participating in the energy and climate debate should be very careful of always approaching these issues from a developed world point of view. This view is simply not applicable to the part of the world where the most energy is consumed and the most CO2 is emitted. In fact, two short decades from now, the developing world may very well emit triple the amount of CO2 of the developed world.

It is vital that we accept the objective reality that developing world citizens will not prioritize pollution reduction (CO2 and other) over economic growth unless it is very cheap and highly practical. Clean solutions need to come pretty close to a steady, dispatchable coal-fired electricity supply at $0.04/kWh, practical and reliable new cars at $10000 apiece, and direct industrial heat at $0.01/kWh (coal at $70/ton).

Realistically, this implies CO2 capture and storage (CCS), nuclear and large hydro for electricity, a great focus on more efficient internal combustion engines and hybrids for transportation and CCS for direct industrial applications. The green dream of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and EVs quite simply is nowhere close to being able to facilitate rapid developing world growth (see this previous article for example).

In addition, the green dream is still just a dream even in the developed world (non-hydro renewables provide only 3.1% of OECD energy), implying that decades of typically slow trial and error are still required before this largely theoretical world of distributed and intermittent electricity generation, intercontinental super-grids, smart demand management and large scale energy storage can become a reality. The developing world doesn’t want slow trial and error, it wants proven systems that can drive rapid growth on a very large scale right now.

Unfortunately, the developed world has neglected CCS and is abandoning nuclear, thereby leaving renewables as the only clean energy alternative that can be copied by developing nations. Given this state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that traditional energy sources accounted for fully 96.1% of the non-OECD energy consumption increase from 2011 to 2012 – a value very similar to the 96.5% average over the past 5 years.

Realistically speaking, if the developed world wants to make a real contribution, it should develop and mature clean energy technology that can be seemlessly integrated into the traditional energy systems currently being copied and expanded rapidly by developing nations. CCS is arguably the most important of these with fourth generation nuclear as an important longer-term prospect. It is also important that the developed world curbs its current anti-nuclearism so that this resistance does not prevent the buildout of third generation nuclear in developing nations.

Yes, the green dream is ideologically extremely attractive, but, as this article has hopefully demonstrated, it is simply not compatible with billions of developing world citizens flocking to megacities in search of higher living standards. The premature pursuit of this dream will do little other than sustain the rapid increase of CO2 emissions in the developing world while further worsening the already highly fragile economic situation in the developed world. There really is no need to make things so hard for ourselves.

It really doesn’t matter what a Manhattan party hostess thinks or wants. What matters are the decisions taken by the Beijing bureaucrats.

Ben Heard on “The most inconvenient of truths”

Tell people something they know already and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new and they will hate you for it. George Monbiot

Australian sustainability consultant Ben Heard recently published a well-written account of how he discovered “that basically everything I thought I knew about nuclear power was wrong.” Ben’s history parallels that of the high profile environmentalists featured in Robert Stone’s Sundance-acclaimed documentary Pandora’s Promise (trailer). Here’s an excerpt to motivate you to read the whole of Ben’s essay:

(…snip…) I was badly stuck. Career number two was coming unglued under the weight of cognitive dissonance. The problem did not just beat my solutions. It squashed them and barely noticed.

That’s when the words of one of my student colleagues (not coincidentally a Frenchman) paid me a return visit. He had said “I don’t know why you make it so hard here. We just used nuclear power. If everyone had (then) we would be clean, and all driving electric cars!”

I had ignored him at the time. Obviously, my brain had filed it under “Existential Sustainability Crisis”. With a quiet curiosity I set about to decide whether an answer might lie in the energy source I had not just ignored, but actively demonised.

A few years later I had my answers and they shamed me. Applying the same brand of scrutiny to this issue as I had to learning about climate change, I discovered that basically everything I thought I knew about nuclear power was wrong. It was undoubtedly the greatest single tool available to us in the fight against climate change, and my country had outlawed it. I was compelled to share what I had learned for a simple reason. Australia needs significant deployment of nuclear energy to respond adequately to climate change. Little else will do more than nibble the edges of our gross dependence on fossil fuels.

This pathway has been a fascinating journey. I have, at times, discovered what Monbiot meant about being hated for telling people something new. One of the many upsides is I have met some amazing people, including Academy-nominated film director Robert Stone. Robert and I clicked on an important point: planning climate change action on the presumption that people will not support nuclear energy is a mistake. We can bring people with us on this issue. I have learned this to my delight as I have been all over the country speaking to thousands of Australians. What I craved though was a way to scale up this effort, reach more people, and start a bigger conversation.

That’s why Robert’s new film, Pandora’s Promise, is so important. It brings the requisite scale to the most inconvenient of truths. It is those of us who have been championing the cause of our climate who must change our views on nuclear if we are to achieve the outcomes we seek.

Thanks Ben – an excellent post!

How much of our electricity is generated from emission-free energy?

The purpose of this post is to organize US electrical production data for easy access. To impact global warming what matters is the developing world. But the US data is easy to access, so here it is:

 

Most Renewable-Generated Electricity is from Hydropower

Renewable energy sources provided about 12% of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation in 2012. The largest share of the renewable-generated electricity came from hydroelectric power (56%), followed by: wind (28%), biomass wood (8%), biomass waste (4%), geothermal (3%), and solar (1%).

Electricity generation from renewable resources is primarily a function of generation capacity and the availability of the resource. The history of electricity generation has been different for each renewable source.

  • Nearly all of the hydroelectric capacity was built before the mid-1970s, and much of it is at dams operated by federal government agencies.
  • Biomass waste is mostly municipal solid waste which is burned as fuel to run power plants.
  • Most of the electricity from wood biomass is generated at lumber and paper mills. These mills use their own wood waste to provide much of their own steam and electricity needs.
  • The amount of installed wind generation dramatically increased in the past decade, due in part to Federal financial incentives and State government mandates, especially renewable portfolio standards.
  • Unlike other renewable sources, a significant amount of solar power is generated by small-scale, customer-sited installations like rooftop solar (or, distributed generation). According to the Annual Energy Outlook 2013, these small solar facilities are projected to generate an estimated 14.13 billion kilowatthours of electricity in 2013.1