Friday, November 28, 2008

Hyperion Poll

Rod Adams' post on Hyperion's claims about nuclear waste production from their Hyperion Power Module has elicited a very interesting series of responses, with several commenters casting serious doubt not only on the volume of fission products produced, but also on the viability of the entire Hyperion concept. I recommend that anyone interested in the Hyperion read the thread. In particular, there is concern that the finely divided hydride fuel used in the Hyperion has never been tested, and that Hyperion has not put out any kind of timetable for doing this despite their ambitious commercialization plans. I'm not sure if it's true that finely divided hydride fuel has never been tested; it's an elegant idea, and it's possible that the Soviets looked into it, so I'm going to do my small part by checking the Russian literature for any exploration of the concept. Personally, I'm choosing to be optimistic that Hyperion has some kind of good answer to the concerns that are being raised about issues like fuel testing, but the company needs to provide some kind of explanation of how they are expecting to demonstrate their technology. In order to gauge the sentiment of this blog's readership on the Hyperion issue, I have created a poll. Also, I'd like to hear about readers' concerns about the Hyperion concept, so please comment if you have any insights or strong feelings on the matter.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Marginal Revolution Discussion of Nuclear Power

Marginal Revolution, one of the internet's premier economics blogs, on nuclear power:
If President-Obama is serious about green energy it's not wind he needs to look at but nuclear. Nuclear is clean and green and we can build power stations where we need power, instead of having to invest in costly and inefficient transport networks.
As you can imagine, this has inspired intense debate. Feel free to contribute your insights.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Romm on Hansen

In response to Jim Hansen's latest piece on policies and taxes to get us to 350 ppm, Joe Romm felt the need to write an "Open Letter to Jim Hansen" in which he claims that have made an uncompelling case about how President-elect Obama should go about achieving 350 ppm in your new draft essay Tell Barack Obama the Truth — The Whole Truth and in previous essays (see here). You are, for instance, overly dismissive of cap-and-trade and overly enamored of a carbon tax, when, in fact, neither holds any prospect whatsoever of achieving your goal. Your discussion of as-yet non-commercial 4th generation nuclear technologies is equally off the point, as we’ll see.
Romm's position is basically as follows:
1) Neither cap-and-trade nor a carbon tax can work because pricing carbon high enough to drive amortized coal plants out of business is impossible
2) Generation IV nuclear power is irrelevant
3) A WWII-style national economic mobilization (apparently based on command-and-control economics) is the only way to address the climate crisis

All three of these arguments are unconvincing, and indeed Romm seriously contradicts himself on the energy technology issue. But I believe that Romm's argument rests on his glib dismissal of Gen IV nuclear options. With Romm's favored technologies, 350 ppm is impossible; with LFTRs and IFRs, 350 ppm becomes feasible and potentially not even that difficult. As Blees put it, it's the "painless" option.

On nuclear, Romm claims that:
NUCLEAR: The single nuclear wedge requires building 35 nukes a year — roughly 10 times the current production rate, more than 50% higher than the greatest rate the world ever sustained for even a single decade, and far in excess of what current production bottlenecks would allow. Nuclear plant prices in this country have already tripled since 2000 to nearly price themselves out of the market (see “The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power, Part 1“).

Is it now clear why your extended nuclear power discussion is off the mark?

If I can speak for Dr. Hansen, "Not really, seeing as none of those points have anything to do with the Gen IV reactors under discussion. You're just changing the topic to link to your critique of Gen III+ reactors, which has received a Bronx cheer from most of the informed people who have read it."

Romm continues in response to Hansen's comment that Gen IV reactors could be ready in the 2015-2020 timeframe:

Sorry, too late. The incomprehensibly fast scale up of low carbon generation we need for 350 ppm leaves no time for such hypotheticals, no time for hoping things get commercialized within 10 years. After all, somebody has to build the massive manufacturing capacity right now, and somebody has to train all of the people needed to build these reactors right now (not to mention training people to run them), and somebody has to contract for all of the relevant raw materials pretty damn soon.

Damn, it's a good thing Eskom and Hyperion are already well on their way to mass-producing small, mass-produced, idiot-proof reactors in the middle of the next decade. Rosatom is in the middle of constructing their "commercial" LMFBR, the BN-800, and has a lead-cooled passively-safe IFR-like fast reactor in the development pipeline as well. Speaking of which, even though Russia is short on forging capacity to build VVER pressure vessels, they have ample spare capacity to construct components for various Gen IV reactor designs, particularly fast reactors--a field in which Russia is undisputed world leader. Indeed, Russian companies like OMZ and Energomash would jump at the chance to build this stuff for export. This is one more reason why we need to get Gen IV reactor development going again in the US--otherwise, the Russians and other nations with more foresight will end up ruling our energy future.

Maybe fourth-generation nukes could be useful in the next set of post-2030 wedges, which is why a major ramp up of R&D remains incredibly valuable. But for getting off of coal in two decades, we gotta go with what we have.

Again, I’m not advocating building 700 nuclear plants over the next 20 years, and certainly agree with the myriad failings of existing commercial nuclear plant designs that you describe. I am merely pointing out what the logical technology and policy implications of your paper is.

This is one of your problems, Joe; you should be. Actually, I think you should advocate building, say, 2500+ GW of nuclear by 2030. About 3 1/2 "wedges" and eminently achievable using mass-produced small reactors like the Hyperion. This would require building an average of 6,200 27 MWe Hyperions every year between 2015 and 2030--and given that the reactors are about the size of a hot tub, not a serious manufacturing problem. What about the infrastructure? Why, we reuse what we already have, using the Hyperion to generate steam to turn turbines in existing coal plants, sending electricity through existing grid resources. Perhaps this scheme could be scaled up further, but it is not at all implausible at this scale. Between this and the number of LWRs that will probably be built in the next two decades, that's half of your eight wedges--without needing either the IFR or LFTR. Now, I'm certainly not saying that we can't do a similar deployment of those in the 2020s...

As for Romm's favorite energy technology, solar thermal:

And the other renewable wedges require an even more challenging ramp up. Solar thermal electric (aka solar baseload power) holds perhaps the most promise of all renewables because it can be integrated with low-cost high-efficiency storage to provide power when it is most needed, because it has no obvious production bottlenecks, and because the United States, China, and India have vast solar resources. The market might plausibly achieve 50 to 100 GW a year of growth, but only after a steady ramp up for the next 5 to 10 years. If you wanted to do that faster, you’d again need the WWII-style approach.

Never mind that energy storage on solar thermal plants is far from being proved cost-effective; there are several ways to do it, and between that and the diversity of different solar thermal technologies it's hard to issue any kind of blanket statement. Solar Two demonstrated molten salt storage in the 1990s, but its performance in terms of cost per annualized capacity factor was less than spectacular. Ausra's approach is apparently the same as that used in fireless steam locomotives, which is simple but comes with unavoidable thermodynamic efficiency limits. A lot of the solar thermal capacity currently being built is of the stirling-dish type made by Stirling Energy Systems; these do not lend themselves to thermal energy storage at all. What's really significant here is that Romm admits that solar thermal needs the government to force people to buy it in order for it to become the dominant energy source he insists it will become.

Indeed, it turns out that Romm simply distrusts "the market" to solve climate change. Instead, he repeatedly uses the metaphor of WWII to describe the policies he thinks should be enacted:

This national (and global) re-industrialization effort would be on the scale of what we did during World War II, except it would last far longer. . . .

But of course we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, the world was at war, and the entire country was united against a common enemy. This made possible tax increases, rationing of items like tires and gasoline, comprehensive wage and price controls, a War Production Board with broad powers (it could mandate what clothing could be made for civilians), and a Controlled Material Plan that set allotments of critical materials (steel, copper, and aluminum) for different contractors.

He says to Hansen that "[this] is what you are talking about — or should be — not “tax & dividend” and fourth-generation nuclear power."

There is, in fact, a much more adept historical analogy for what Romm is proposing: the forced industrialization program undertaken by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s. And as an honest-to-God sovietologist, I feel I am more qualified than most to comment on the efficacy and pitfalls of command-and-control economics and central planning.

To be fair, the command economy worked--for Stalin. This was because Stalin had very definite goals--avoiding being conquered by the Nazis, building an atomic bomb--and cared not a wit at the cost paid by his subjects in blood and treasure to effect these ends. At the end of his life Stalin and the Soviet Union were more powerful than ever--he had won WWII, he built the bomb, he and his allies straddles most of Eurasia--but tens of millions were dead, living standards were abysmal, and the threat of a new war loomed. In order for a command economy to operate optimally, planners need to be both omniscient and precognitive. Generally, this approach is only called for in order to do something a market will never do--like mobilize resources for a large war. But as a rule, they are inefficient--given information problems, this is unavoidable.

Economically, Romm's charge that Hansen's proposed carbon tax would be ineffective makes little sense.
A price isn’t what is needed to stop building any new coal plants and shut down every existing one in 10 years in rich countries and 20 years everywhere else — and replace all that power (plus growth) with carbon-free generation and efficiency.

Indeed, I can’t imagine how high a price would be needed but it is probably of the order of $1000 a ton of carbon or more starting in 2010. Talk about shock and awe. Remember, we are talking about a carbon price so high that it actually renders coal plants that have been completely paid for uneconomic to run. And once you stop new demand and start shutting down existing plants, the price of coal will collapse to almost nothing.

Once you start building all of the alternatives at this unimaginable pace, bottlenecks in production and material supply will run up their costs. The collapse in coal prices, making existing plants very cheap to run, together with the run up in the price of all alternatives will force carbon prices even higher.

So carbon pricing is a bad idea... because it would fulfill its intended purpose by making carbon emissions expensive? I'm not sure what Romm is getting at. The point is that pricing carbon will make whatever changes are necessary cost-competitive, and nothing Romm presents suggests that this will not work.

He continues that
But, in any case, if you want to replace all those existing coal plants with carbon free power that fast, again the carbon price is almost beside the point. How are you going to site and build all the alternative plants that fast? How are you going to site and build all the power lines that quickly? How are you going to allocate the steel, cement, turbines, etc? How are you going to train all the people needed to do all this?
This is where Romm really falters. Of course, if you try and build eight wedges of windmills and solar thermal plants, you won't be able to build infrastructure fast enough. We need low-carbon power that can use existing infrastructure wherever possible, and small, mass-produced nuclear reactors fit the bill perfectly. Given an appropriate regulatory environment and a sufficiently high carbon price, utilities will buy these reactors. The initial adjustment will be painful, but once transport is electrified, the economy would actually benefit, since nuclear power was already qualitatively superior to carbon-based energy anyway. Meanwhile, the idea that massive government intervention into the economy is likely to successfully develop a low-carbon energy infrastructure seems profoundly improbable. In the absence of price signals, it is not merely implausible, but laughable. This is the same organization that gave us the Synthetic Fuels Corporation and ethanol subsidies; how is it wiser than individual consumers? Without a recourse to Romm's (apparent) skepticism about the ability of markets to solve complicated economic problems, this makes little sense.

In any case, I believe nuclear technology already in the commercialization pipeline is more than sufficient for a 350 ppm strategy. Without nuclear, even 450 ppm is probably unfeasible. Hence, Hansen's preoccupation with nuclear power in his letter is absolutely justified--especially in a global perspective, Gen IV nuclear technology is the key to our energy future. Furthermore, Romm's critique of Hansen's carbon tax proposal is based far more on his own incredulity than any kind of reasoned argument. On the whole, I have to say that I'm proud to share Hansen's position on this one.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is Obama's Energy Plan Enough?

I fear it may be too much--of the last thing we need more of.

From Time:

With the possible exception of Barack Obama's puppy-anticipating daughters, no one is more eagerly awaiting the incoming Administration than the leaders of the renewable-energy industries. President-elect Obama campaigned on the promise to spend $150 billion over the next 10 years to support alternative energy, like wind and solar, as well as the green jobs that the sector has the potential to create. At California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's climate summit on Nov. 18, Obama, in taped remarks, reaffirmed that he would hold fast to those campaign promises, starting with mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. "This is a crucial step forward," says Linda Church Ciocci, the executive director of the National Hydropower Association.

The problem is, it won't be enough. As ambitious as Obama's campaign promises were — at least compared to his predecessor's — the future state of global energy will demand government policies with a much longer reach, according to alternative-energy leaders.
And what precisely is it that these "leaders" want? Turns out, it's our tax dollars.

In a press conference last week the leaders of the solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower industries called on Obama and the incoming Congress to look ahead. First, energy leaders asked Obama to immediately adjust the alternative-energy production credit to provide green investors with a cash rebate, rather than a tax reduction. With the economy tanking, simple tax credits — which Congress renewed in October and without which the renewable-energy industry would not survive — aren't the lure they once were for companies looking to invest in new energy projects.

Other items on the renewables industry's wish list: a national renewable-energy portfolio standard, which would require a certain percentage of U.S. electricity to come from alternative sources. (More than 20 states already have similar standards, but a national one would be tricky, given that utility regulation in the U.S. is localized.) Green energy leaders would also like to see an executive order that would greatly expand the federal government's procurement of renewable energy — a smart idea, easily doable — plus a major initiative to update and smarten the nation's aging, overworked electrical grid.
Huh, I'm kind of curious as to why an industry that is supposedly so much more economic than nuclear power needs the PTC "just to survive." This is rent seeking, plain and simple, as are all the other desires of the renewable energy industry. The last thing America needs is another corporatist energy boondoggle--remember this one? How about this one?

In all fairness, it's not like this list is Obama's actual energy platform, which remains obscure. Recent indications, however, suggest that many of the desires of the renewable energy industry will be realized. Most worrisome is the prospect of a national renewable portfolio standard, which is just bad policy any way you look at it. Most forms of renewable energy are already a costly means of reducing CO2 output, but a national RPS would encourage building renewable generation facilities in marginal areas--making them increasingly uneconomic. Furthermore, certain parts of the country are far better endowed with renewable energy potential than others. For instance, my home state of Tennessee is deficient in solar, wind, and geothermal resources, and TVA has already tapped out most of the hydro potential. While an RPS would presumably allow trading so that utilities in such underendowed locales could buy offsets, this doesn't end up going anywhere near far enough. This is because it would require that the areas with better renewable potential (such as, say, California) develop an overdependence on renewable energy, creating all kinds of attendant problems and costs.

Furthermore, such a scheme actually encourages making compliance maximally expensive. Let's think through the incentives facing the "haves" in a system with an RPS that requires that every utility either produce a particular percentage of electricity from renewables or buy credits from another utility with excess renewable capacity. Say it's 2030, and you're a utility in Southern California. There's a 25% RPS, but thanks to some very expensive solar thermal plants built during the Obama administration, you actually generate 30% of your output using renewables. This gives you tradeable credits worth 5% of your output that you can now auction off to the highest bidder. These are worth a lot, since no utility east of the Mississippi has actually managed to meet the RPS by generating its own power. This, of course, means that whatever ratepayers ultimately pick up the tab for these credits end up paying the most any utility would bid on them. This is one disincentive to building more renewable capacity--the tighter the market for RPS credits, the more the utilities that sell these credits can get for them. If the utilities are rational maximizers, they will only build out their capacity to a point that is far less than adequate for supplying cheap credits to the rest of the country. The second disincentive is that the utilities' need to deal with the intermittency of the renewable resources on their grid. Even with the construction of "smart grids" and "green energy superhighways" (whatever the hell those are), this will be first and foremost a local problem, since renewable generation facilities have to be integrated into the utilities' own grid resources. Research from Europe indicates that once you start trying to integrate much more than 30% intermittent generators, things start getting really unmanageable (and it's pretty hard even below that). These two disincentives would work together to encourage the utilities with renewable resources to maximize the cost of compliance for the have-nots, rendering the RPS an extremely inefficient and expensive way of reducing CO2 emissions.

A better plan would be some kind of cap-and-trade scheme for CO2 emissions themselves. Indeed, I like the sort of "cap-and-auction" idea that Obama is pushing, but I'm extremely wary of the apparent plan to use the proceeds to subsidize certain energy technologies. Personally, I think that the ideal policy would be as follows:
1. Set stringent CO2 output limits that go down each year.
2. Auction off emissions permits for the legal CO2 emissions--no grandfather clauses for industry or other measures that would render the scheme impotent.
3. Enforce compliance, but let individuals and corporations find their own preferred measures for doing so.
4. Divide the auction proceeds among all American taxpayers as a dividend. This will both act as a way of helping American families deal with the costs of compliance, but also serve as an economic stimulus. And as the costs of permits go up, so does the dividend.
I believe that this scheme probably has the best achievable mix of economic efficiency and fairness. In practice, I believe that it would encourage investments in efficiency in the short run, and modular, mass-produced nuclear reactors in the long run. But even if I'm wrong about that, these measures should find the most cost-effective means of reducing CO2 emissions. Compared to the RPS, which even on paper appears to be a highly inefficient way of fighting climate change, this is a vastly superior policy prescription. But somehow I imagine we'll end up with an RPS anyway. Let's just hope the government realizes the folly of this before they've done any more damage to our already faltering economy than necessary.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Soviet Civil Defense: Now A Tourist Attraction

Tourists Don GP-5 Gas Masks to Relive the Soviet Experience

In 1980, the Soviet government constructed an underground TV station near Vilnius, the capital of the Lithuanian SSR. Intended to be used in the aftermath of nuclear war, the facility has now been perverted to the ends of capitalism--that is, it is now a tourist attraction. For a mere $44, you can descend underground to eat Soviet food, listen to Soviet music, and be "interrogated" by the KGB. You'll also get to learn all about the the GP-5 gas mask, just like generations of Soviet people did in civil defense drills.

The tourists in the picture have donned GP-5 gas masks (Гражданской противогаз-5, lit. "civilian gas mask 5") and are circling around an "injured" comrade on a stretcher. The combination of gas masks and first aid was a common тренировка (drill) used by Soviet civil defense in its training activities. The GP-5 is probably the most common of the many civilian gas masks made in the Soviet Union, and is now widely available as a surplus item.

Gas mask training was the closest Soviet equivalent to the "duck and cover" drills found in the US in the 1950s. It was not, in fact, a product of the Cold War; they were something of an obsession dating back to the days of Osoaviakhim before WWII, and were merely continued from that era into the nuclear age. Beginning under Khrushchev the claim was made that gas masks like the GP-5 would help protect citizens from internal radionuclide expose following a nuclear attack, but Soviet civil defense was also convinced that NATO would also use biological and chemical weapons against the USSR. Therefore, the gas mask drills continued up until the end of the Soviet period, and became an ubiquitous part of every Soviet citizen's education.

While I was in Moscow this summer, I met with prominent Russian historian Elena Zubkova, who told me an anecdote about these gas mask drills. Just like almost every Russian I've met, Zubkova and her peers did not take civil defense training very seriously. Instead of paying attention to the instructor, she and her schoolmates kept twisting the air inlet on each others' gas masks, making it impossible to breathe. I gather that Soviet kids spent most of their time in these classes goofing off. Somehow I doubt this dimension of Soviet civil defense training is showcased in the totalitarian world portrayed by the underground TV station outside Vilnius, but who knows. I'm mainly just fascinated that these civil defense activities are now regarded as quintessentially "Soviet," at least it Lithuania.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Stylish and Functional

I recently noticed that someone has listed a vintage operating fluoroscope on eBay. This head-mounted radiological appliance was made during the interwar years and allowed surgeons to x-ray their patients constantly during surgery--at the cost of massive radiation exposure to everyone in the operating theatre. In practice, the patient would be "illuminated" by an X-ray tube, while in order to simultaneously operate the surgeon could be afforded little or no shielding. Add to this the fact that fluoroscopes require relatively large amounts of X-rays to get satisfactory results, and the problems of the device become even more onerous.

The Patterson Operating Fluoroscope: X-Ray Glasses That Really Work

The fluoroscope is on a hinge, allowing it to swing out of view if necessary. A red lens included in the device keeps the surgeon's eyes adapted to the dark, ready to re-engage with the darkened interior of the leatherette-covered fluoroscope.

Fluoroscope in Use.

These devices seem useful, and remained in use from WWI until the 1950s, but died out in light of increasingly stringent X-ray exposure standards. In 1965, E.R.N. Grigg wrote: “The appliance is hopelessly obsolete by any standards of radiation protection”. ORAU has one of the fluoroscopes in its collection of antique radiology equipment. I wonder if modern imaging technology could produce an equivalent device with acceptable exposure levels...