Thursday, October 29, 2009

As Though the Future and the Climate Didn't Matter

I've had some fun on this blog in the past critiquing Joe Romm's various "analyses" of nuclear power, but I basically gave up once Romm came out as an apologist for fossil fuels. That took the joy out of it for me; it hardly seems worth the bother to pursue "debate" with someone who's so clearly out of touch with the real issues in the climate crisis to realize that all fossil fuels are too carbon intensive, PERIOD.

Predictably, however, Romm has continued his bizarre crusade against new nuclear builds in the US. Seizing upon setbacks such as the NRC's letter challenging Westinghouse to demonstrate the efficacy of the AP-1000's shield building design to the rejection of AECL's ACR-1000 proposal in Ontario, his disdain for the nuclear option is readily apparent. And in keeping with past examples, the announcement that Toshiba's asking price for the South Texas nuclear project had increased by $4 billion came in for similar treatment.

However unpleasant the cost run-up is, it appears to be mainly a hardball negotiation tactic on Toshiba's part. As usual, veteran nuclear industry-watcher Dan Yurman is on top of things:
CPS interim general manager Steve Bartley told the San Antonio newspaper the $4 billion price increase could be a "negotiating tactic." He agreed with Mayor Castro that the decision to postpone the bond vote "sends a signal to Toshiba" that the delivered price of the twin reactors must come down. Bartley added that CPS Energy will send a delegation to Japan to sit down with Toshiba to discuss costs.
Note that a similar process happened with Rosatom's nuclear tender in Turkey. The Russians originally offered an extremely high quote of $0.21/kWh, which of course Romm seized upon as "proof" that nuclear power is ruinously expensive. But as more sober observers always knew, it was really the Russians' desire to gouge the Turks, rather than anything intrinsic about nuclear power, which resulted in the high bid. As of a few weeks ago the Russians and the Turks were down to $0.15/kWh and were still negotiating. Look for a similar process in coming months with the project in Texas.

Romm's constant companion in his recent anti-nuclear tirades has been Craig Severance, a Republican (!) accountant and disco-era coal apologist. I have to hand it to Mr. Severance--he's an alchemist who would make Hermes Trismegistus jealous. He transmuted Joe Romm, crusader against climate change, into Joe Romm, shill for natural gas. I never thought I would see the day.

It seems that Joe Romm is merely among the more prominent individuals suckered by the natural gas industry's present marketing strategy, which is really quite brilliant. I might even admire it, if it didn't have the unpleasant side effect of wrecking the planet upon which I happen to live. Fortunately, Rod Adams has been paying close attention to this trend (see particularly here and here). Essentially, the natural gas industry is selling itself to the public as a "cheap bridge to a renewable future" while assuring its investors that the lean times won't last forever, and that soon their industry will be buoyed by strong demand resulting from economic recovery and the need for carbon reductions. A fine visual example of this cynical gambit pulled from the web:

Note that nearly all of the "clean energy alternatives" that Romm's recent post puts forward are really ways to burn natural gas. Compressed-air energy storage to "firm" wind capacity? Gas. Combination solar-thermal/gas plants? Gas. (And a particularly wasteful use of it, given the lower thermodynamic efficiency of such an arrangement compared to a CCGT). Severance even goes so far as to cut to the obvious and suggest
Another type of power plant San Antonio could build might be a natural gas power plant (of course, it can wait until at least 2015 to decide to do so, as noted above under “Rushed Decision”).
The reason this isn't OK is not just because natural gas prices will recover from their currently depressed level by then (keep in mind that the REAL reason for recent low prices is the economic downturn, NOT the unconventional gas discoveries, and that those merely pushed the date that US natural gas production will begin to decline from the immediate to the intermediate future), both due to probable economic recovery as well as the fact that new legislation will encourage gas in preference to coal for electrical generation. Nor is it because the Russians are clearly hoping to manipulate the world energy market to maximize their gas export revenues in coming years. It's because the climate advantages of natural gas have been greatly exaggerated. It's true that gas is better than coal--but nowhere near as much as many believe, including Joe Romm.

The issue is methane. Burning methane for fuel may produce less CO2 than coal in the same applications, but methane is itself a very strong greenhouse gas--indeed, twenty-five times as much as CO2. While comparing the smokestack CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas plants may suggest that gas plants are vastly superior, this gives only an incomplete picture of the actual situation. A full-lifecycle analysis including the methane inevitably lost during extraction and transport leads to much more sobering conclusions.

This shouldn't really be news. See, for instance, this 2007 paper from Environmental Science & Technology, "Comparative life-cycle air emissions of coal, domestic natural gas, LNG, and SNG for electricity generation." The authors found that when the entirety of the fuel cycle is accounted for, conventional gas is nearly as bad for the climate as coal--and LNG is as bad as coal! Natural gas hardly seems to be the stuff from which a bridge to a climate-friendly energy future will be built.

The importance of accounting for non-CO2 greenhouse gases has recognized by professional climatologists for years. Indeed, a 2006 NYRB piece by James Hansen (who has been the target of repeated and increasingly unreasonable criticism from Joe Romm) noted that:
Further global warming can be kept within limits (under two degrees Fahrenheit) only by means of simultaneous slowdown of CO2 emissions and absolute reduction of the principal non CO2agents of global warming, particularly emissions of methane gas. Such methane emissions are not only the second-largest human contribution to climate change but also the main cause of an increase in ozone—the third-largest human-produced greenhouse gas—in the troposphere, the lowest part of the Earth's atmosphere. Practical methods can be used to reduce human sources of methane emission, for example, at coal mines, landfills, and waste management facilities.
If we want to get serious about fighting climate change, we need real clean energy solutions. Funding underhanded schemes that will drain our pockets via fuel surcharges while depositing methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere do not fall into this category, however successful the gas industry's spin doctors may be at convincing credulous pundits like Joe Romm otherwise. If we we're going to act like the future and the climate actually matter, we must be willing to take the steps needed to build a genuinely climate-friendly energy infrastructure--and this is definitely going to include considerable investment in new nuclear facilities.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Atomic Technology in the Sixth Five-Year-Plan

From Voennye znaniia, June 1956:

"We Communists must place the greatest discovery of the 20th century--atomic energy--in full service of that task, the fulfillment of which is the programmatic goal our Party--the task of building Communism."
--N.A. Bulganin, at the 20th Party Congress

One of the most poorly-remembered aspects of "Atoms for Peace" back in the mid-50s was the way in which the Soviets responded to it. President Eisenhower and his advisors hoped that their proposal for an international nuclear fuel bank would deprive the Soviet weapons complex of fissile material it couldn't spare, and thus restricting the growth of the USSR's nuclear arsenal. Instead, the Soviet Union elected to produce a flood of propaganda demonstrating that the "peaceful atom" really only existed on their side of the iron curtain. Touting the construction in Obninsk of the first nuclear power plant in 1954, two years before Calder Hall in the United Kingdom and three before Shippingport went into service in the United States, as proof of a Soviet lead in civilian applications of atomic energy, Soviet propagandists in the mid-1950s portrayed a world in which socialism and nuclear power combined to alleviate technical and social problems.

Emboldened by this early success, the Communist Party adopted outrageously overambitious goals for their civilian nuclear program during the Sixth Five-Year-Plan (1956-60). As described by a 1956 article in Voennaia znaniia (Military Knowledge):

In the Sixth Five-Year-Plan it is planned to build five large atomic power stations. A large atomic power station will be put into service near Moscow. It will have a 400 thousand kilowatt capacity. Two atomic power power stations with a total capacity of a million kilowatts will be constructed in the Urals.

Altogether in the current Five-Year-Plan atomic power stations will be constructed with a total capacity of 2-2.5 million kilowatts. . . .No capitalist country, including the USA and England, are planning to place atomic power stations of such great capacity into service.

The USSR saw the construction of these plants as a means of fulfilling two goals: firstly, as a means of constructing energy centers in regions lacking local fuel supplies, and secondly, as a "great experiment" in order to determine what reactor technologies would be most economical and advantageous for widespread deployment in the subsequent Five-Year-Plan. According to the article, "up to ten types of reactors" ranging in electrical output from 50 to 200MWe would be developed before 1960. One suggestion was a homogeneous reactor that would use the radiolysis of the fuel solution to power a galvanic cell in addition to a turbine. One of the reactors would use thorium fuel, and might potentially be an aqueous homogenous reactor as suggested by Academician A.I. Alikhanov in Geneva in 1955, producing U-233 from Thorium.

Besides power stations, atomic energy would also be put to use by the Socialist motherland for transportation purposes. One goal for the the Five-Year-Plan was the construction of an atomic icebreaker; this would ultimately see the light of day as the Lenin, entering service in 1959. But this was not to be all; nuclear airplanes and locomotives would also be the objects of intense research and development. It is true that the Myasishchev design bureau made several prospective designs for nuclear-powered strategic bombers in the late 1950s--the M-30 and M-60--but like their American counterparts, these aircraft did not ultimately see the light of day. And while the article stated that "it can be expected that atomic locomotives will travel our railways in the near future," and was illustrated with an elaborate picture of a two-story atomic locomotive quite reminiscent of the one in the 1979 NBC flop Supertrain, no such conveyance ever left the drawing board.
Atomic Locomotive As Imagined By Soviet Artist (1956)

The article concluded that:
Our country stands ahead of other countries in the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes. In the years of the Sixth Five-Year-Plan the Soviet Union will make a great new leap ahead in the development of atomic technology and in the use of the immeasurable energy of the atomic nucleus.
Unfortunately, this was not quite the way things turned out. The only item mentioned in the article that actually got completed during the Five-Year-Plan was the icebreaker Lenin. The next nuclear plant to go into service after Obninsk was in Tomsk in 1958; but these were basically plutonium-production reactors for the weapons program that also produced electricity. The civilian reactors (water-graphite in Beloyarsk and light water at Novovoronezh) began construction in 1957 and 1958 respectively, but only entered service in 1964. But little notice was paid to these failures at the time, given another technological marvel grabbed the world's attention:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Amory Lovins Admits He Doesn't Know the Carbon Intensity of "Micropower"

From Amory Lovins' reply to Rod Adams' critique of this post on Grist:

Mr. Adams’s claim about “an awful lot of diesel, coal, and natural gas” being consumed by micropower is addressed in Part One of my response to David Bradish’s post at Mr. Bradish was referring to the fuel mix of the non-biomass cogeneration that our “micropower” database combines with renewables other than big hydropower. As I stated, cogeneration does burn some coal, but not much. The mainly gas-fired cogeneration fuel mix is unknown in detail but does include some coal, chiefly in China and India (where gas is often available), and to some extent in Germany, all aided by coal subsidies. USEIA also reported that 18.7% of the U.S. cogeneration in its partial database for 2006 that burned fossil fuels was coal-fired, including culm or waste coal. However, even coal-fired cogen greatly reduces the carbon otherwise emitted by separate production of power and heat, because it displaces the separate fueled boiler(s) otherwise needed to produce the heat that cogen recovers. The resulting carbon saving is smaller than for the predominant gas-fired cogen, let alone for renewables, but is still substantial. I hope soon to receive updated cogen data casting more light on the fuel mix, and if I do, will post it to our micropower database at

So Amory Lovins admits that, so far as the supposed carbon savings from "micropower" are concerned, he really doesn't know what he's talking about... but he might find out soon?

As I pointed out in the past, Lovins' definition of "micropower" makes no sense and only serves to obscure the fact that Lovins is in practice essentially shilling for fossil fuels, his (perhaps earnest) claims to the contrary aside. All that's new is that Lovins is admitting he doesn't actually have the data to support his claims.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

No, the Soviets Did NOT Build a "Doomsday Machine"

From Wired:

"The Perimeter system is very, very nice," he says. "We remove unique responsibility from high politicians and the military." He looks around again. Yarynich is talking about Russia's doomsday machine. That's right, an actual doomsday device—a real, functioning version of the ultimate weapon, always presumed to exist only as a fantasy of apocalypse-obsessed science fiction writers and paranoid über-hawks.

No, no, NO. Perimeter is NOT a doomsday machine and does not meet the definition of one. As Russian nuclear arms expert Pavel Podvig explained in a 2006 post on his excellent blog:

The Soviet Union never built this automatic Doomsday Machine (also known as Dead Hand) -- the Perimeter communication system that is often mistaken for it is something quite different.

As Podvig explains, the "Dead Hand" was a proposal made in the mid-1980s that was ultimately rejected. Distinct from Perimeter, it was to be fully automated--if it detected nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union and lost contact with all human agencies with the authority to launch a retaliatory strike, it would retaliate on its own. Perimeter, meanwhile, merely automatically delegates launch authority from the highest civilian and military authorities to a hardened command center in case of a decapitation strike. The difference is that Perimeter is not fully automatic--launch authority ALWAYS remains under human control. Furthermore, never mind that the classic doomsday machine was supposed to be much more destructive than Perimeter--keep in mind that Perimeter would in all likelihood only ever be activated once a very substantial fraction of the Soviet nuclear arsenal had been destroyed in an American preemptive nuclear strike. The doomsday device proposed by Leo Szilard and explored by Herman Kahn in his 1960 On Thermonuclear War was supposed to be a world-destroying weapon which would render the world uninhabitable. By this definition, even the fully automated and unrealized "Dead Hand" would not be a doomsday machine.

I can see the temptation to confuse Perimeter with a doomsday machine--after all, everyone loves Dr. Strangelove and you wouldn't exactly sell as many books if they were titled "Perimeter: Soviet Automated System for Delegation of Launch Authority in Case of Decapitation Strike." But Perimeter just isn't the stuff pulp thriller novels are made of. Indeed, Thompson even admits this, despite the hype contained in his own article:

According to both Yarynich and Zheleznyakov, Perimeter was never meant as a traditional doomsday machine.

Unlike some other spurious Soviet doomsday machine myths this one contains a germ of truth. Furthermore, Perimeter is not in fact particularly dangerous. Multiple layers of human authority are still required to launch a nuclear attack, in addition to the detection of nuclear strikes on Russia. What was really dangerous was the practice in the 1950s and 1960s to field nuclear weapons that either lacked permissive action links or in which they were effectively disabled (it is well-known that SAC bypassed the PALs in the 1960s by setting all of them to strings of zeros). This would raise the possibility of lone "General Jack T. Rippers" launching nuclear wars all on their own. During the early Cold War Soviet nuclear posture was vastly less aggressive and accident-prone than that of the United States (the actual weapons were only to be released to the military in a crisis), greatly reducing the likelihood of such a scenario.

Perimeter is neither a doomsday machine nor a serious threat to U.S. security, past or present. It's time to stop pretending otherwise.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Energy Crisis in the Capitalist World, 1975

I apologize for my recent lack of posts. I received a Fulbright-Hays grant and am currently in Moscow conducting dissertation research about the history of the Soviet civil defense system. Hopefully my efforts will lead to some kind of closure to the longstanding debate in the US during the Cold War about the extent, nature, and intent of Soviet civil defense. I'm making solid headway in the archives so far--today I found some figures for the implementation of the 1955-56 campaign for the education of the adult population in "anti-atomic defense" for various Soviet republics. (It turns out Estonia did very, very poorly).

I'm currently living in a building that was constructed in the 1950s to house members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and (presumably) because of this, it's right across the street from the Academy of Sciences bookstore. On my previous trips to Moscow I had always made a point to frequent this establishment, as it offers a very good selection of used items at reasonable prices. Last week I found an interesting book there--a 1975 analysis by the Soviet Academy of Sciences of the capitalist world's energy woes.

Titled Энергетический кризис в капиталистическом мире (The Energy Crisis in the Capitalist World), this 478-page volume offers fascinating insights into Soviet thinking on energy in the mid-1970s. Published in an edition of 5000 copies, this highly technical book was clearly intended mainly for specialists, rather than everyday readers.

On the whole, the authors of the book attribute the energy crisis to the "fundamental contradictions of capitalism," and in particular to a lack of planning. In their view the attendant inflation resulting from the energy crisis would deepen international capitalism's problems, encourage increasing divisions between the first world and the third world, and ultimately further the cause of socialism. Comecon, meanwhile, was utterly devoid of energy problems and indeed a model for the world to follow: "These countries supply the current and perspective fuel cycle from their own resources . . . act as exporters of energy resources on the world market, and work to provide assistance to many developing countries in accessing their energy resources, without demanding political, military, or other concessions. In effect the socialist energy sector is the most stable and balanced component part of the world's energy industry." (p. 474) While certainly rather hyperbolic, keep in mind the role that the energy export sector played in enabling the USSR to avoid confronting its many internal problems in the 1970s--at the very least, it was one of the best-run aspects of the socialist economies.

What's perhaps more interesting sections of the book is its analysis of the Ford Administration's then-current efforts to free America from oil imports by 1985--"Project Independence." Presciently, they predicted the failure of the United States to achieve these goals. Of the range of measures intended to solve America's energy problems technologically, ranging from synthfuels to renewable energy, the Soviets expected only one--nuclear energy--to meet expectations. At the same time, they expected all of these efforts to be realized on a larger scale than they actually were. For instance, follwing contemporary western estimates they forecast 280 GW of nuclear generation in service in the United States in 1985, when the actual figure was under 100.

The Soviet authors made the following comment about renewable energy that still rings true 34 years later:
Preliminary evaluations of many new trends in energy take on an extremely polemic character in the USA. On the one side, strong monopolies established in the fuel-energy complex attempt to minimize the potential technological and economic value of these resources. On the other side, small firms (most of the efforts for the development of new forms of energy come from this sector) loudly advertise their products, making maximum use of the current market situation. (p. 329)

One of the more surprising sections is that on energy efficiency efforts in the US, particularly with regards to combined heat and power (CHP) plants. In a statement that would make free-market "natural capitalist" and CHP guru Amory Lovins' head explode, they declare that:
American economists are attracted by Soviet experience in the development of centralized heating of cities with the assistance of CHP plants. But under the conditions of capitalism speculative land prices and laws regarding the laying of thermal mains discourage the development of this trend in energy. (p. 315)
On the whole, an interesting historical artifact. The more things change...