Monday, December 28, 2009


The disappointing end of the talks in Copenhagen has predictably resulted in a slew of finger-pointing. Although Bill McKibben and others laid the blame on President Obama, other observers argue that China intentionally crippled the talks. For instance:

While Brown refrained from naming countries, his climate change minister Ed Miliband said China had led a group of countries that “hijacked” the negotiations which had at times presented “a farcical picture to the public.”

In a very interesting Guardian piece Mark Lynas gives an account of how this transpired:
Even George Monbiot, writing in yesterday's Guardian, made the mistake of singly blaming Obama. But I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying "no", over and over again.

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord's lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak "as soon as possible". The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.

Lynas accounts for this diplomatic strategy as follows:

Why did China, in the words of a UK-based analyst who also spent hours in heads of state meetings, "not only reject targets for itself, but also refuse to allow any other country to take on binding targets?" The analyst, who has attended climate conferences for more than 15 years, concludes that China wants to weaken the climate regulation regime now "in order to avoid the risk that it might be called on to be more ambitious in a few years' time".

This does not mean China is not serious about global warming. It is strong in both the wind and solar industries. But China's growth, and growing global political and economic dominance, is based largely on cheap coal. China knows it is becoming an uncontested superpower; indeed its newfound muscular confidence was on striking display in Copenhagen. Its coal-based economy doubles every decade, and its power increases commensurately. Its leadership will not alter this magic formula unless they absolutely have to.

I think that Lynas is probably too generous here. The existence of sizable renewable energy industries means little with regard to climate change in the absence of meaningful emissions reductions, which were explicitly rejected by the Chinese.

Beijing's logic in rejecting binding emissions targets is not hard to understand. Following the Chinese Communist Party's abandonment of socialist ideals, its only claim to legitimacy is China's continued economic growth. The cessation or even deceleration of economic expansion would place the stability and potentially even the survival of the regime at risk. And as Lynas points out, China's rise to economic prominence has been fueled by cheap coal. Thus, for the PRC, emissions caps are more threatening than climate change. That they managed to deflect the blame for crippling the talks on Obama is just icing on the cake.

The lesson of Copenhagen, then, is that the only way to forge an international agreement to limit greenhouse emissions will be to offer a real alternative to coal. A carbon-free source source of energy that will allow the developing world to develop without wrecking the Holocene. Given geostrategic and engineering realities, this basically means Gen IV nuclear reactors--ideally LFTRs and IFRs but also less sustainable reactors such as the Russian SVBR that can conceivably scale quickly in the near term.

Furthermore, the promise of these technologies could prove an indispensable "carrot" in future climate change talks. Taking steps to commercialize advanced reactors, and offering assurances to share these with countries making efforts to decarbonize their economies, could provide a major incentive for recalcitrant nations to accede to emissions reductions, or at least a disincentive to sabotage negotiations like the PRC did. Furthermore, the promise of advanced reactors doesn't have to wait until they reach commercial status. Even a major development effort could be a significant incentive for developing nations hesitant to commit to emissions controls. Therefore, we don't have to wait decades for Gen IV nuclear to begin saving the climate--its enormous potential can start playing a vital role right now in climate negotations.

But until we have a viable alternative to coal, we can expect future negotiations to turn out like Copenhagen did. Gen IV nuclear reactors like the LFTR can be the carrot that saves the climate; it's high time we put some real political muscle into developing them, so that they can start putting some muscle behind our diplomacy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Books on VVER and RBMK

Since I arrived in Russia three months ago I have been accumulating books not merely about civil defense, but also about the Soviet civilian nuclear power. The one on the left is titled "NPP with VVER: Procedures, Characteristics, Effectiveness," and the one on the right is "Channelized Water-Graphite Reactors: Textbook."

The book on water-graphite reactors is particularly interesting, as it was sent to press a mere six months before the accident at Chernobyl Unit 4. In the fourth chapter, "Safety of Nuclear Reactors," the authors note that:

Нарушение соответствия между выделяемым и отводимым теплом и, как следствие этого, разрушение твэлов и других элементов конструкции могут возникуть или при повышении энерговыделения выше допустимого уровня, или при ухудшении теплоотвода. В результате бесконтрольного увеличения реактивности первый процесс возможен как в активной зоне в целом, так в отдельных ее частях. Причинами такого явления могут быть, например, заклинивание регулируюших стержей на вводе в активную зону, резкие изменения темпуратуры теплоносителя и т. п.

A lack of agreement between produced and removed heat, and consequently the destruction of fuel elements and other elements of construction, can result from either an increase in heat production beyond acceptable levels, or from a reduction in heat removal. The first process is possible as a result of an uncontrolled increase in reactivity in the active zone as a whole, or in a part of it. The causes of such an event can be, for instance, the jamming of control rods on entry to the active zone, abrupt changes in coolant temperature, and so forth. (p. 104)

Although such a reactivity spike caused the explosion at Chernobyl, it's clear from the textbook that the accident the authors envisioned was much more limited than that which actually transpired. This was probably because if the RBMK-1000 was operated according to regulations, the resulting power excursion would have been much smaller. (RBMKs have "safety rods" as well as control rods, and the operators removed most of these in order to start the reactor while it was subject to xenon poisoning, leaving it in an extremely unstable and dangerous state.) In any case, the book is merely an introduction (albeit a highly technical one) to Soviet water-graphite reactors. I'll keep my eye out for a more complete account of RBMKs, like the book about VVERs on the left.