Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Hansen on Nuclear Redux

In the past I have blogged several times about James Hansen's not-entirely-clear attitudes towards nuclear power as a climate change solution. Interestingly, Hansen's recent "trip report" contains a section on the subject, which I will highlight here:
Nuclear Power
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.


Brian Mays said...

Hmm ... so apparently you've pretty well shown that Hansen is a single issue fanatic, whereas Romm is just a fanatic.

To Hansen's credit, at least he is skeptical about what his anti-nuclear friends tell him. It's just a shame he doesn't spend as much effort thinking about energy solutions as he does thinking about the polar bears and squirrels that he includes in his slide shows.

Romm, on the other hand, is just hopeless. He's a crackpot, and a loud one at that, plain and simple.

Sovietologist said...

I wouldn't be quite so uncharitable to Romm--however much I may disagree with the man and however much I dislike his rhetorical style, he's actually much more reasonable than Amory Lovins, and in a very different category than rabid antinuclear activists of the Harvey Wasserman/Helen Caldicott stripe. What's so odd is that Romm is willing to admit that nuclear is essential for Russia, but seems utterly incapable of facing up to the possibility that there are major electricity markets in the US where this is just as true. In some ways this makes him more frustrating than the genuine crackpots--you know he actually does know better, but for whatever reason just can't say that nuclear power is going to be a significant part of America's energy future.

Brian Mays said...

Hmm ...

You have a good point. Romm is different from the rest that you mention.

Lovins is a business man. He holds his views because they are earning him money, and he is doing quite well at what he does: telling people what they want to hear and green-washing major corporations. Of course Lovins will not compromise; it's bad for business. Instead, he will ignore.

Wasserman and Caldicott are dinosaurs from another era. They're trying to relive their glory days and catch a last bit of the "good fight" before they die. Notice that neither of these two has updated his or her rhetoric significantly in over 20 years. They're still singing the old lies, even though these lies have been disproven through experience in the past decades, sometimes laughably so. Wasserman and Caldicott will not compromise; they have too much invested in this game. Caldicott still has books to sell.

Romm, on the other hand, is an idealogue. He starts from a priori assumptions about how the world is or how it should be, and he is unwilling to consider any other options. His censorship of comments posted to his articles is just one small example of his intolerance of other views.

You yourself have demonstrated that his perception can be extremely narrow and he can rant on and on about something he knows little about. Essentially, his scope is limited to his predetermined beliefs and he is determined not to change them. So if he believes that Russia is a threat because they are going to burn a lot of coal and oil (why they wouldn't export the hell out of these fuels like they do for natural gas is a mystery to me), then that's what he is going to believe.

Would he be willing to come around? Perhaps, but it would take a monumental effort that presses the advantage of leveraging one of his other uncompromising dogmas to get him to move. Otherwise, he'll just stick to the same old stuff that he believes to be true, whether it actually is or not.

In any case, I'm not going to hold my breath while waiting for any of them to start talking rationally.

Tom Blees said...

"...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."

While I agree that it would be wise to pursue development of molten salt reactor systems, the point we're at right now is that we've got a very workable IFR-style design ready to go in the S-PRISM. With a commitment from our government we could have one built by 2015, and after that we could build up to 300 or so with the spent fuel we're so anxious to get rid of, as fast as we could convert it into IFR metal fuel bundles. It's important politically to make solving the "waste" problem a part of any future nuclear power plant development, and this is the way we could do it. Once you start building IFRs, then any LWRs you build (of the passive safety variety like the AP-1000 or the ESBWR, or even the ABWR) don't present a problem in terms of waste because we'd know we have somewhere to get rid of it.

Will thorium reactors prove to be safer than even the new passive safety designs of both LWRs and ALMRs? That may very well be the case. But the fact is that we have to count on government commitment to them, and our policymakers don't even know the option exists. The risk assessment for the S-PRISM is orders of magnitude better than the NRC demands for new reactors, as it is for the newer LWRs mentioned above. We could safely and rather expeditiously get started with these and then shift to LFTRs once we develop them to the commercial level if that would prove to be an even wiser, safer choice. For now, we have some great options, and anyone saying we have to wait 30 or 40 years to build IFRs is simply incorrect.

In myupcoming book I point out that the Soviet Union was successfully running a breeder in what is now Kazakhstan in 1972 for electricity and desalination, which used a very similar fuel fabrication system to the pyroprocessing that the S-PRISM will use. In the Eighties and Nineties Argonne produced thousands of fuel slugs for their EBR-II. It's actually a very simple and long-used technology. Something that the Soviets did very successfully 36 years ago shouldn't take us another 36 years to replicate. It's not a question of either technology or economics. It's all politics.

Sovietologist said...

I can see how a case could be made for using the S-PRISM as a transmutation reactor in the relative near-term. The big question, of course, is capital costs. Given the instability of capital costs for LWRs, what is the cost picture for ALMRs looking like right now? If it's relatively competitive with LWRs, then the argument for ALMRs is quite strong. I suspect that the cost of a commercial version of the S-PRISM is probably a big question mark, and would remain so until someone tried to build one. This turns into a vicious Catch-22: no utility will order the reactors until they have some real-world cost expectations, but the data won't be available until one is ordered. As a result, the only thing that is likely to bring ALMRs (or any other "exotic" reactor) to commercial fruition is political patronage. It's quite possible that Obama's opposition to Yucca Mtn. could be parlayed into political support for some kind of transmutation reactor program, and I think that nuclear proponents should make an effort to sell this idea to a potential Obama Administration.

The history of LMRs in the USSR/Russia is certainly interesting, as they have had much more success than their counterparts abroad. Kalkar and Clinch River were both cancelled; and the Superphenix and Monju both experienced problems. Meanwhile, the BN-350 and the BN-600 operated for decades on a relatively "commercial" basis, despite their experimental nature. The Russians are planning on building a "commercial" LMR on the basis of the BN-600 design, and as a result stand to be decades ahead of the rest of the world in the LMR field. They are going to announce a plan for advanced nuclear fuel cycle research in a few months; I'm eagerly awaiting it to learn what they have in mind.

Personally, I can easily see ALMRs and LFTRs coexisting in the intermediate term. Because they use a thermalized neutron spectrum, LFTRs perform the transmutation task alone, and fast MSRs are probably much further off. Therefore, a combination of existing LWRs, LFTRs, and ALMRs could handle the waste issue quite elegantly.

Tom Blees said...

"I suspect that the cost of a commercial version of the S-PRISM is probably a big question mark, and would remain so until someone tried to build one."

Actually it's not nearly as big a question mark as you might think. The S-PRISM has been designed to be modular, small enough to be built in the factory and then transported to the excavation at the plant. The ABWR (GE/Hitachi) provides real-world data from which we can fairly accurately extrapolate costs. The Westinghouse AP-1000 is supposed to run about a billion per gigawatt. The ESBWR (GE/H again) is estimated to run a little higher, at about $1.3B/GW. The S-PRISM is projected to be right in that same range.

Economic competitiveness was high on the priority list when designing these reactors, one reason why they opted for the cluster concept. Each S-PRISM reactor will generate a mere 380MW, and be built in power blocks where 2 reactors (760MW) power one turbine. As soon as a block is built it could start producing power, even as neighboring power blocks are being built and coming online, one after the other, using a common control center and other infrastructure as possible. Thus the complex would be built up with a final capacity of 2-4 GW if desired.

Each complex would have its own pyroprocessing facility, a relatively small hot cell wherein spent fuel would have the actinides removed and incorporated into new fuel assemblies. For a 2.5GW plant you'd only have to reprocess about a gallon (by volume, it's a solid, of course) per day. These would also be modular, thus benefiting from factory fabrication, better QA, and economies of scale. A major building project of IFRs would be able to divide the component manufacture among many companies around the world, each being able to specialize in their particular components.

By keeping them small and modular, GE/H will be able to avoid the pitfalls and time lag of having to continually upscale their reactors. Again, the politics of it is the stumbling block. With a political commitment, GE/H could build a reactor vessel starting right now to act as a demonstration model (filled with water and fake fuel assemblies) in order to expedite the certification process. That vessel could later be drained and moved to an actual power plant site. If we took this approach we could very realistically be building the first S-PRISM power plant within a few years, and if the ABWR experience is any guide, we could get the first plant up and running in short order, very likely by 2015.

As for selling this to the Obama campaign, I'd like to correspond with you about that. You can email me from my web site. Please do. If you include your phone number I'll give you a call.