On one of my trips I read a draft of “Prescription for the Planet” by Tom Blees, which I highly recommend. Let me note two of its topics that are especially relevant to global warming. Blees makes a powerful case for 4th generation nuclear power, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). IFR reactors (a.k.a. fast or breeder reactors) eliminate moderating materials used in thermal reactors, allowing the neutrons to move faster. More energetic splitting of nuclei releases more neutrons. Instead of using up less than 1% of the fissionable material in the ore, a fast reactor burns practically all of the uranium.
Wait a minute! If it’s that good, why aren’t we doing it? Well, according to Blees, it’s because, in 1994, just when we were ready to build a demonstration plant, the Clinton Administration cancelled the IFR program. Blees offers a partial explanation, noting that Clinton had used the phrase “You’re pro-nuclear!” to demonize rivals during his campaign, suggesting that Clinton had a debt to the anti-nuclear people. Hmm. The matter warrants further investigation and discussion. It’s not as if we didn’t know about global warming in 1994. Even more curious is the assertion that Argonne scientists, distraught about the cancellation, were told they could not talk about it (why do I find this easy to believe?). Here too there is no explanation in depth, although Blees notes that the Secretary of Energy, Hazel O.Leary, was previously a lobbyist for fossil fuel companies (my gosh, is everybody in Washington an ex-lobbyist – alligators will go extinct!).
I have always been agnostic on nuclear power. I like to hope that, if our next President gives high priority to a low-loss national electric grid, renewables will be able to take over most of the power generation load. Wind and solar-thermal are poised to become big players. IEA’s estimate that renewables will only grow from 1% to 2% (by 2030!) can be dismissed due to IEA’s incestuous relation with fossil industries – nevertheless, one must have healthy skepticism about whether renewables can take over completely. Maybe an understatement – I’m not certain.
Blees argues that it made no sense to terminate research and development of 4th generation nuclear power. Was it thought that nuclear technology would be eliminated from Earth, and thus the world would become a safer place?? Not very plausible – as Blees points out, several other countries are building or making plans to build fast reactors. By opting out of the technology, the U.S. loses the ability to influence IFR standards and controls, with no realistic hope of getting the rest of the world to eschew breeder reactors. Blees suggests, probably rightly, that this was a political calculation for domestic purposes, a case of dangerous self-deception.
Bottom line: I can’t seem to agree fully with either the anti-nukes or Blees. Some of the anti-nukes are friends, concerned about climate change, and clearly good people. Yet I suspect that their ‘success’ (in blocking nuclear R&D) is actually making things more dangerous for all of us and for the planet. It seems that, instead of knee-jerk reaction against anything nuclear, we need hard-headed evaluation of how to get rid of long-lived nuclear waste and minimize dangers of proliferation and nuclear accidents. Fourth generation nuclear power seems to have the potential to solve the waste problem and minimize the others. In any case, we should not have bailed out of research on fast reactors.
I don’t agree with Blees’ dismissal of the conclusion of most energy experts that there is no ‘silver bullet’; they argue that we need a mix of technologies. Blees sees a ‘depleted uranium bullet’ that could easily provide all of our needs for electrical energy for hundreds of years. His argument is fine for pointing out that existing nuclear material contains an enormous amount of energy (if we extract it all, rather than leaving >99% in a very long-lived waste heap), but I still think that we need a range of energy sources. Renewable energies and nuclear power are
compatible: they both need, or benefit from, a low-loss grid, as it is more acceptable to site nuclear plants away from population centers, and nuclear energy provides base-load power, complementing intermittent renewables.
This is simultaneously encouraging and disappointing. On the bright side, it's great to see Hansen pointing out that anti-nuclear activists haven't been doing the climate any great favors. But the particular endorsement of the IFR I'm not so excited about. I'm not a great fan of liquid-sodium cooled reactors like the IFR; I think that various kinds of molten-salt reactors offer more attractive options for Gen IV reactor research. Hansen doesn't seem to be aware of the rather significant difference between the IFR and the fast reactor projects under construction abroad, such as the BN-800.
Commenters on Climate Progress pointed out Hansen's comments on nuclear power, resulting in this response from Joe Romm:
JR: you guys must be joking right? We have thrown some $100 billion in subsidies at the nuclear industry since 1948, we have forced taxpayers to take the economic burden of any nuclear catastrophe, We have streamlined the permanent process, states Re: even allowing nuclear utilities to raise people’s utility bills years before a single electron flows to pay for new budget busting nukes, we’ve had nuclear-loving conservatives running this country for most of the last seven years, and notwithstanding the efforts of most conservatives, we’re probably going to have a price on carbon dioxide within a few years. And all those for an extremely mature technology that is 20% of the electricity market. If we did those things up for efficiency, wind, solar PV, and solar baseload nobody would even think of building another nuclear plant. Your product is too damn expensive to convince even Warren Buffet it is worth the risk.
I won't take the time to respond to these allegations in particular (Charles Barton and others have already done this elsewhere), but rather stick to my own area of expertise in relation to another area in which it seems Hansen's and Romm's views have diverged. Not too long ago Romm wrote a post for Next Generation Energy titled "Forget energy diversity, we need energy action," which contained the following series of gems:
Indeed, the country that may be the biggest obstacle to the clean energy transition is likely to be Russia.
Russia does not have a good solar resource. But they do have a lot of coal and oil-- and they very much want to stake a claim to the rich oil resources in the Arctic. Moreover, they may (mistakenly) think global warming is good for them. Since it will create a navigable Arctic and open up "currently inaccessible energy resources" no less an authority than The Economist has written, "warming is likely to make Russia richer rather than poorer." Sad -- but quite untrue.
Perhaps the most important climatic tipping point is in Russia -- the Siberian tundra. If that defrosts, then avoiding the equivalent of 1000 ppm atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will be all but impossible. After all the tundra contains more carbon than the atmosphere does, and much of it would likely be released as methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Indeed, we have some evidence that may have already started.
Russia does have a staggering amount of wind potential, but it tends to be in the sparsely populated areas. Russia will need to be convinced that some combination of nuclear, wind, and natural gas can provide all the power it needs -- but the even harder task will be convincing them not to use all that oil and coal they have.
As a professional Russia specialist, I was a little mystified by this post. I know that up-to-date information about Russian energy policy is a little hard to find in English, but the fact that coal makes up only a minor proportion of Russia's generation mix isn't exactly a big secret--as Dr. Hansen rightly pointed out in his trip report:
Figure 3 also shows that coal use in Russia is modest and not increasing. Thus the common assertion that Russia is a wild card that would prevent successful control of global warming is diminished by realization that the primary requirement is phase-out of coal emissions.Never mind as well that the Russians are building new nuclear plants as fast as they can, and that their per-capita CO2 emissions are not particularly high by world standards. Indeed, far from being the intractable obstacle to global warming action, Russia has a much more credible policy for developing a post-carbon economy than most. Compared with nations that claim to be building a post-carbon future while building new coal plants, I think that Russia is making a more than respectable showing for itself. At the same time, it must be emphasized that Russia intends to export its oil and gas until it runs out. But I have a hard time ascribing the belief that Russia poses an insurmountable obstacle to climate change mitigation to anything other than ignorance and Russophobia on the part of Joe Romm (and others). It simply lacks any basis in fact.