Nuking global warming

What with most southern capitals facing severe water shortages and scorching summer temperatures already beginning to occur (I gather it was 37 in Adelaide yesterday), it’s an opportune time for passionate advocates of the Kyoto Climate Protocol to start ratcheting up the rhetoric. The Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton, who knows money doesn’t buy happiness, says that “I think parts of Australia which are currently inhabited will be uninhabitable“, while NSW Premier Bob Carr released a CSIRO report commissioned by the NSW Greenhouse Office:

Mr Carr said the report found a worst-case scenario of a 70 per cent increase in drought frequency by 2030, and warned living in NSW could be akin to “living in an oven”.

Carr has been a long-time advocate of Kyoto and frequently talks about global warming. But you’d have to question his sincerity, as the Greens haven’t hesitated to point out:

About 50 protesters delivered a letter to Mr Carr through the gates of Government House asking him to stop the expansion of both coal mining and coal-fired power stations.

Greens MLC Ian Cohen said Mr Carr was being hypocritical by hosting the conference because the government had approved construction of five new coal mines for NSW, as well as the expansion of eight existing mines.

But the Greens are just as hypocritical about global warming as Carr. Neither they nor Carr are prepared to countenance let alone actively push for the only solution that would make any real difference to global warming, namely a major acceleration in construction of nuclear power plants to take the place of fossil fuel-burning plants. It’s an expedient that green guru James Lovelock of “Gaia” fame at least has the honesty to acknowledge.

The stark reality is that there is no other current or reasonably foreseeably-available large-scale energy source that would have any significant effect on reducing greenhouse emissions. Solar and wind power are both more expensive on average than nuclear, and in any event could only ever meet 10-20% of the world’s energy needs at most. Tidal energy has considerable potential in some limited areas, but its total potential is much less than 10% of world energy needs.

Hydrogen fuel may conceivably have larger-scale potential, but the extent is uncertain and it’s at least 10-20 years away, which on the more alarmist global warming scenarios may be too late. Moreover, there is a considerable energy requirement to produce hydrogen fuel in the first place, so in some respects it really begs the greenhouse question (although it may be a useful medium to transport energy from places where it can be efficiently and cleanly produced).

John Howard also made great play of the potential for sequestration of carbon from coal-generated power stations in a fairly recent statement. But the practicality and cost of any such solution is speculative at best. Again it’s at least 10-20 years away and would almost certainly make coal a significantly more expensive energy source than nuclear.

As I said, nuclear energy is the only existing, mature technology able to meet the world’s energy needs without boosting greenhouse emissions. Moreover, it’s increasingly competitive at least with gas and oil in view of recent price movements.

Given the alarmist scenarios painted by Hamilton and Carr, why aren’t both of them actively advocating nuclear energy if they really believe what they’re saying? In Hamilton’s case, I suppose the answer’s easy. He thinks materialism is a curse anyway, so gutting and filleting the western capitalist economy would serve a dual purpose for Clive. Carr’s attitude is both more equivocal and less consistent. Quizzed about it on Lateline a couple of nights ago, he neither supported nor opposed it, but mumbled about the difficulties of waste disposal and nuclear non-proliferation, and said people were nervous about it in light of Chernobyl!

But waste disposal is eminently manageable using a variety of technologies including Australian-developed Synroc, and non-proliferation raises no problems that don’t already exist. Proliferation of weapons-grade material can readily be prevented if the necessary international will exists. Indeed safe disposal (e.g. in a Synroc lattice) would of itself also largely resolve the proliferation problem as well.

It’s difficult not to conclude that Carr is just playing cynical politics with global warming, or that greenies like Hamilton have a hidden agenda of beggaring the world economy to further a crazed vision of “back to mother earth” neo-hippiedom. Anyone who takes the threat of global warming seriously would at the very least be attempting to stimulate public discussion on the issues surrounding nuclear power. Hence this post.

Of course, there’s also the problem of safe operation of nuclear plants (as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island graphically illustrate). But few experts (and not even Bob Carr) doubt that nuclear plants can be built and operated in complete safety with current technology. What will be needed is International Atomic Energy Agency supervision of both construction and operation of all nuclear plants, especially in third world countries that might otherwise be tempted to cut corners to save money (or as a result of corruption). Governments of advanced economies should seriously consider offering large subsidies to third world countries to go nuclear, as long as they submit to close ongoing IAEA supervision. Such an expedient would make major inroads into the biggest shortcoming of the Kyoto Protocol, namely that it has no effect whatever on third world countries where all the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is occurring. That’s the main reason why Kyoto would only have a miniscule effect on global warming, even if the US and Australia were to sign up. Even strong advocates of Kyoto merely argue that it’s a good symbolic start. Well, in view of the increasing evidence on the existence and scale of the global warming problem, and the long time lags between action and effect, that’s just not good enough. It’s time to get serious about the nuclear option

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Ian
Ian
2022 years ago

Good luck Ken; I’ve been pushing the same line since I was 15 and I’m now 54. As you can see, it’s something I have been very interested in for a long time. I lived in the US in my teenage years and received monthly publications from the US Atomic Energy Commission. These were of a scientific nature, non political and very balanced (for all those naysayers). The message appears to have been missed and we are now starting to live with the results of those old, but in hindsight accurate, predictions. To those critics who refuse to believe that our climatic changes are anything other than normal fluctuations; I can only say two words: tobacco, asbestos.

Spiros
Spiros
2022 years ago

Ken,

I have some first knowledge about this and I can tell you that the leaders of some environmental groups are coming to view that the nuclear opotion should be considered, but are not prepared to say so publicly, yet, as their members would rebel. But the issue has to be faced and when it is there will be a big fight between the ‘realists’ and the ‘fundamentalists’ within the environmnental movement.

Ron
Ron
2022 years ago

Now this subject is more worthy of debate than abortion.

I consider myself ‘green’. Over the last few years I have begun to feel nuclear energy is the way to go.

I think Spiros is right and there are a quite a few who feel as I do but fail to speak for fear of being ‘excommunicated’.

Susie Q
Susie Q
2022 years ago

According to a UK environmentalist interview this morning on ABCFM radio, the problem we have here is that John Howard doesn’t understand the science – Tony Blair does, apparently, and is trying to push George into looking further into it.

His comment that John doesn’t understand the science would appear to make him one of the few people in the world, as a leader of a nation, that doesn’t!

Where does that leave us?

Perhaps up the proverbial creek in a wire net canoe without – water!

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Had a look through previous posts on the global warming issue – the amount of heat generated would have been enough to cause global warming by itself!

Ken, as regards your point that solar and wind can only possibly generate 10-20 % of the world’s energy needs – I simply don’t believe it. Possibly that is the most we can see with the further refinement of existing technology. However, given that the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth’s surface every 15 minutes is enough to power the whole world (or should I say all of humanity) for a year, it does not seem that a particularly big increase in the efficiency of harnessing the sun’s power would be needed to provide all our energy needs for the next 6 billion years or so.
I note also that you have not mentioned geothermal power as a possible alternative source. Although it is early days for the technology, this certainly shows some promise. One of the advantages of geothermal is that it can be tapped on a large scale (eg the methods now being explored by Geodynamics in the Cooper Basin) or on a very low tech, small scale basis (eg heat/cool homes using a heat pump, which only needs to go down into the earth’s crust about 15 metres. The large scale projects also have the advantage,assuming they can master the technological challenges, of providing base load power(ie 24/7), unlike both solar and wind.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

PS to my last post – an even simpler way to exploit the even temperatures of the earth’s crust is simply to build underground – as in the opal mining towns like Coober Pedy. 20 degrees all year round, regardless of the outside conditions!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Alex

I’d forgotten geothermal. And you may well be correct that increased efficiency of solar cells could one day allow them to produce a significantly larger proportion of the world’s energy needs. However, as you mentioned, neither it nor wind power is “base load” in that you don’t get power when the sun don’t shine or the wind don’t blow.

However, there remains the problem that in the areas of greatest power demand there’s little vacant land for solar arrays (although there are always rooftops if the cells are efficient enough). OTOH, possibly this is where hydrogen fuel could come in, with huge solar arrays in desert regions with high sunlight generating power that is then turned into hydrogen and shipped to more densely populated, less sunny regions to be used to generate power.

The problem with these options, and geothermal as well, is that they’re anything but mature technologies. We’re talking about 10-20 years until we achieve the sort of potential discussed above. If the worse case scenarios for global warming are correct, we really need to be taking strong and effective action (not just Kyoto tokenism) to reduce greenhouse emissions well before that time. Hence at the very least I reckon nuclear ought to be seen as an essential “stop-gap” technology. If global warming is as big a threat as the more pessimistic scenarios say, anything else is dangerous, pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

PPS to my last but one comment – Ken’s intro to his post (re soaring temps and water shortages)reminds me that, IMO, the issue of water usage is a far more pressing and vital question for Australia than global warming (not to mention that the facts are more or less indisputable). Are there any (reasonably) expert people in Armadilloland who might consider kicking off with an analysis of the current situation, Howard gov’t response so far, state gov’t positions etc?

For what it’s worth, I think that so far we seem to have seen a lot of posturing about water saving shower heads and not washing your car, and very little about the profligate waste of water in our rice and cotton growing industries. The establishment of a water rights trading regime is a step in the right direction, but until farmers pay realistic prices for their water, the Murray/Darling basin is a lost cause. Putting the blame almost entirely on urban consumers is bonkers.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Ken, I don’t disagree with the essential thread of your argument – if nuclear is good enough for the French and Japanese, it should be good enough for us. And as you say, maybe we should be looking at what we can do now.

On the other hand, taking a non-anthropocentric view for a moment, we could be doing the planet a *favour* by releasing all that carbon. After all, the coal was once trees and ferns, the oil was once sea creatures. In the carboniferous age, the planet teemed with life in areas that are now desert ;)

Ian
Ian
2022 years ago

Alex, I agree with the general thrust of your posts but am somewhat leery of geothermal, still. The end result of cooling down the earth’s mantle may well be negligible in the short to medium term; more thought should be given to the long term effects. All the things you propose are feasable but nuclear is here and developed; the evil uses and effects of the byproducts are less of an impact than they were years ago. Anything can be used for bad purposes; an uncountable number of people have died as result of carbon based fuels but we’re still at it. I fully agree that water is a more pressing issue for most of us, by the way; cheers.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Readers (if there are any out there at the moment!!??) might like to check out the comments at this link http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4000225.stm
about options to deal with the energy use side of this equation. Not really written from the point of view of ameliorating global warming, but still of interest.

Ken Miles
2022 years ago

Geothermal is a mature power solution. It has been used in New Zealand and Iceland for a long time. The problem is that it is very region specific. Great if you can get it, but not really an option for most of the world.

Ken Miles
2022 years ago

While I agree with the gist of this post, I think that it contains a number of misconceptions which should be cleared up.

For example, a recent (2003) MIT study of the future of nuclear power finds four significant problems

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

One might also note that Australia holds nearly a third of the world’s known supply of Uranium.

Speaking to visions of solar panels in the desert, let me point out some of the problems. The big one is the concept of Mean Time Between Failures – MTBF. This idea is the absolute bane of data storage, where if you have x thousand hard drives storing whatever amount of data, a reliable fraction will fail every single day. But which ones, you are unlikely to know (though SMART makes this easier to predict).

Solar panels exacerbate the problem because you need a lot of them over a very large area. If only 0.5% fail per day in a 20x20km solar farm, you have an expensive operation to run to identify, travel to and replace bung panels. It doesn’t help that compared to a big ol’ turbine, panels aren’t very robust.

Solar power is simply not technically viable as a serious replacement for coal. Only nuclear meets the requirements of massive, centralised, constant and flexible power provision.

Some interesting factoids:

More radioactive materials are unlocked in the coal fuel cycle per KWh than in the uranium fuel cycle.
If you could economically extract the naturally occuring uranium from coal, it would have more nuclear power than the coal has chemical power.

People truly underestimate how powerful nuclear fuel sources are. A few dozen kilos of uranium would replace hundreds of thousands of tonnes of coal.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Re more efficient buildings – Dilbert’s ultimate house is an interesting take on improved energy efficiency in housing, using existing technology. See http://www.dilbert.com/comics/dilbert/duh/

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Jacques, you are spot on about the uranium in coal. “Uranium is naturally present in Australian earth and coal at a level of one or
two parts per million. Each year in Australia, tens of thousands of tonnes of
coal are burnt, releasing hundreds of kilograms of uranium into the environment
in the resulting ash and emissions. A 1000MW coal-fired power plant is
actually two and a half times more radioactive to its surroundings, than a nuclear
plant of the same capacity.” Quote taken from http://nerdling.net/issues/issueS02.html (Warning: large pdf file). This is of course assuming that said nuclear power plant isn’t run by idiots who override the safety cut-off systems, as at Chernobyl.

Ian
Ian
2022 years ago

^Alex Thanks for the BBC link.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Ken, your point that this issue needs to be tackled from many different angles is a valid one. The simplest solutions are often the best – for example, fit out your home with energy efficient light bulbs, have motion sensors built in to light circuits, turn the heating thermostat down and wear a jumper. Use cold water in your washing machine. Use the sun and/or wind to dry your clothes. Recycle more, particularly energy-intensive materials such as aluminium. All low-tech, simple measures. Yet there are millions of people in the western world who are still to implement them. Indeed, there are probably millions who think these ideas are a commie plot.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Alex and Ken

I agree that tackling the problem from a variety of micro and macro perspectives is probably the only way to go. I was pleased to see Ken’s quoted source agree that nuclear power IS a part (but part only) of a viable anti-global warming strategy.

However, small individual actions alone aren’t going to do the trick. In fact, it needs large scale, co-ordinated government and corporate action to impress the urgency of the situation on ordinary people. Otherwise, it’s human nature to adopt a “she’ll be right, mate” attitude, put it off to another day, assume it’s someone else’s job not theirs, or believe that their own individual actions are too tiny to make any appreciable difference, which is true in itself, except when that attitude is replicated millions of times.

But it still seems to me that the key to real major improvements lies with extending remedial action to the third world, and that almost certainly means substantial “carrots” by way subsidies/tied foreign aid for adoption of non-greenhouse gas-producing energy sources, as well as some “sticks” by way of trade and other sanctions for non-compliance. Of course, at the moment we can’t even achieve the minimal commitment of Kyoto (at least for the US and Australia) let alone that sort of much more extensive action.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

BTW There seems to be a much more enlightened, constructive, open-minded attitude to this topic here at Troppo than in the mainstream media, the ALP or among the majority of environmental groups. I wonder why? Most of the commenters so far are anything but died-in-the-wool right wingers. Could it be that public attitudes towards nuclear energy are beginning to change under the impact of the harsh reality of global warming?

Ken Miles
2022 years ago

Jacques, the problems which you have identified with solar are exceeding minor. The real issues are cost and availability.

Ken Miles
2022 years ago

A few dozen kilos of uranium would replace hundreds of thousands of tonnes of coal.

Do you have a cite for this? I would suspect that your out by a few orders of magnitude. A small nuclear reactor may use a couple of hundred tonnes of natural uranium per year.

Ken Miles
2022 years ago

I like the idea of internationally tradable carbon credits, or a carbon tax.

However, for this to work, a much better system of greenhouse gas accounting, plus a lot of political will is needed.

Peter Murphy
2022 years ago

Ken,

There aren’t that many anti-Nuke RWDBs… and there aren’t that many LWDBs, period. I’d also guess that a lot of the hysteria occured when people confused nuclear power with nuclear weapons. But people old enough to remember the Cold War are getting a bit long in the tooth. It’s been nearly 20 years since Chernobyl and more than 20 since Nuke-horror movies such as “The Day After”. I’m teaching kids who weren’t even born then. (So I guess are you.)

Myself, I’d rather try other things first: sequestration of CO2, wind, solar, and any other little thing that preserves the surf. Reading a (long) list of nuclear accidents, one sees how common operational and management mistakes are. Good engineering and bureaucratic safeguards can only get you so far. That’s why I remain sceptical on nuclear power.

Now if you are looking for stridency, wait until they come to build the damned reactor. Let a 1000 NIMBY groups bloom.

Don
Don
2022 years ago

Ken,

This is a nice bit of greenie baiting isn’t it.

All but the shallowest greens are in a bit of a fix over global warming. The solution many prefer is a halt to economic growth, industrialization, and consumerism.

Hydro is out because it drowns forests (Franklin dam etc).

Wind power is questionable because it makes noise, looks nasty, and pisses off neighbors who don’t own land on the tops of hills.

And nuclear is out because … well it’s NUCLEAR!!!

Solar power is in. But solar isn’t really much of contender is it? And I’m sure that if you suggested building a kilometer high chimney stack style solar generator near Byron you wouldn’t have much hope of getting the locals on side.

Presumably the solution is to ride a bicycle to work, wear your clothes for a week before you wash them, grow your own vegetables, stop eating meat, sweep your recycled floor boards rather than vacuuming carpet, and wear a woolly jumper when it gets cold rather than turning on the heater.

harry
harry
2022 years ago

An interesting response to nuclear power, particularly in Europe, is what to do with nuclear waste. The loudest say that it should ‘go back to where it came from’.

Fine by me.
Since most of the uranium will come from Australia (and we can use our handy number1 exporter of coal customer list to help this along) then I reckon we put our hands up to take it all back again. It becomes Synrock as Ken pointed out which emits less radioactivity than granite, and less than the radon gas that seeps up through the ground below any major city you care to name.
It either gets shipped to us as Synrock or as whatever state nuclear waste is currently transported round the world for processing here.

A brave and proud first step for Australia would be to put that one the table from the word go.

TimT
2022 years ago

Heh. I’d rather a Nuclear Winter rather than an Eternal Summer of the Manmade Kind…

TimT
2022 years ago

Sorry, couldn’t help myself there. To clarify: I’m a global warming skeptic, but quite enthusiastic about nuclear energy.

Seems this topic is in the air at the moment. In Sydney last weekend there was a debate between Ian Plimer, Colin Keay and a representative of Greenpeace over nuclear energy. I wonder if anybody saw it?

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Jacques and Ken M
re the amount of uranium used by nuclear power plants –
“About 200 tonnes (of uranium oxide (U308))is required to keep a large (1000 MWe) nuclear power reactor generating electricity for one year.” Source: http://www.uic.com.au/nfc.htm

To put this in perspective, this is far less (by several orders of magnitude) than the amount of *pollutants* produced by a coal power station of comparable capacity. The average emission rates in the United States from coal-fired generation are: 2,249 lbs/MWh of carbon dioxide, 13 lbs/MWh of sulfur dioxide, and 6 lbs/MWh of nitrogen oxides. Multiply these by 1000 for a 1000 MW power station, then by the number of hours in a year (8760), divide by approx 2200 to convert pounds to metric tonnes, and you get approx 82,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 52 tonnes of sulfur dioxide and 24 tonnes of nitrogen oxides generated a year.

Robert Merkel
2022 years ago

My housemate (who’s currently doing urban planning at university) and I have made a bit of a hobby of looking into alternative energy technologies. Our view is that without the ability to store energy for later use, wind and solar are essentially useless for making the kind of cuts to fossil fuel use required.
There are a number of technologies which are currently being looked into for this purpose. They are all way more expensive than fossil fuel generation. Fuel cells are very expensive, producing hydrogen through electrolysis is expensive and inefficient, and hydrogen is a bitch to store and pump. There’s also redox flow batteries, and compressed air storage (you use your cheap baseload generator to compress air, you use the compressed air to run your peak load gas turbine). None of them is likely to allow more than a small fraction of the grid to be run from irregular energy sources in the medium term.
That leaves more reliable sources of renewable energy. There is the Solar Tower being planned just across the Murray from Mildura. Basically, they plan to cover a big area of dirt with glass (or transparent plastic, I think) and in the center have a 1 kilometre tower. Air gets hot under glass, rushes up through tower, spins turbine. The thermal mass of the rocks ensures that power can be generated 24 hours a day; water tubes under the glass accentuate the effect. Not perfectly reliable, but a hell of a lot more so than a solar cell or wind turbine. Still, it’s going to be very expensive to build and it’s not totally predictable (and thus you need expensive reserve capacity just sitting there for a rainy day).
As somebody has mentioned earlier, there’s Geodynamics, which is exploring geothermal energy from Hot Dry Rocks buried kilometres below various places around Australia. The idea is simple; drill a deep enough hole to reach these rocks, pour water down hole, up comes boiling hot water, turn turbine. Easy, reliable, fairly abundant (though rather inconveniently located in some cases), and by renewable energy standards pretty cheap, apparently. This is one to watch, IMO – even if their recent ASX announcements indicate that they’ve managed to lose their drill head down their trial well… :)
Geosequestration, John Howard’s campaign donors’ favourite, might actually work in the long term, but it has serious problems, amongst others that there’s nowhere in New South Wales that’s suitable for geosequestration (so you’d have to pump the CO2 to Victoria…). It’s also not something that you can retrofit to existing plants; you pretty much have to start again from the ground up. The technology is also very immature. In other words, it’s a long way off.
While we’re talking blue sky technologies, there are a couple that might eventually solve our (fixed) energy problems permanently. The best known is nuclear fusion, but that’s a long way off, and the latest research reactor (ITER) is stalled by bickering between the international partners as to the siting, and America’s fusion program is grossly underfunded. An even more out-there alternative is orbiting solar cells beaming power back by microwave. It sounds outrageous – how can you possibly afford to put enough solar cells in orbit to power the earth? You’d be right, using contemporary launch technology. However, there are some wide-eyed researchers working on rather sci-fi idea called the space elevator. Without going into the technical details, materials science research is proceeding into materials that might let us build a ribbon so strong that you can dangle it down to the ground from geostationary orbit (the height where communication satellites rotate with the earth, so they appear still). You can then use a “climber” to lift things up to orbit, at a far, far lower cost and far higher reliability than rockets. If one of these miraculous devices can be built, orbiting solar power is one of the many things it would make possible. However, nobody has any real idea if or when such materials will become available, so being serious for a moment, I wouldn’t be planning our energy policy around the availability of orbital solar power! :)
Finally, a word about energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is great, good and wonderful, but it seems to me that economic growth will ensure that energy efficiency gains will have the same effect as running on a treadmill; we’ll have to run pretty damned fast on energy efficiency just to stay where we are on emissions, let alone make absolute cuts.
So, Ken is right. Nuclear is the only option available right now. It does pose risks, no doubt, and waste disposal presents some environmental challenges. But then, even ignoring greenhouse, so does coal power. For instance, coal plant exhaust contains mercury, which gets into the food chain and which (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) collects in predator fish like tuna and shark to dangerous levels.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

Ken, Alex has pointed out that I was off by orders of magnitude. My error. Could we chalk it up in the hand-waving figures column?

Alex, thanks for the details.

Robert, I read Gerard O’Neill’s book – The High Frontier I think it’s called. It’s truly amazing stuff. You may recall that the SPSes (spaceborne power systems) were to be serviced by orbital colonies. A bold and brilliant idea that too few people are familiar with.

A fellow called McKendree has subsequently redone O’Neill’s engineering calculations in light of the future availability of carbon nanotube fibre. It’s staggering. O’Neill envisaged colonies built from titanium, about thirthy kilometres long and with a diameter of around 11km. McKendree predicts that we could theoretically build colonies with an internal diameter of over 900km, several thousand kilometres in length. Two or three such colonies could be built from large carbenaceous asteroids and each one would have an internal surface area greater than Earth’s.

Mindboggling stuff. I hope to live to see some of it.

Oh, on SPSes. The problem is that O’Neill’s plans called for investment of hundreds of billions over about 20 years. I don’t expect that anyone will step up to the plate.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Jacques, in one sense you are not as far out as it might seem at first. The figures I quoted for raw material used by nuclear power stations are for the amount of U3O8 used. But once the uranium from this is extracted, only about 0.7% of the uranium is U235, which most nuclear power plants use. U 238, which is the remaining 99.3%, can be used by breeder reactors, but at the moment these are not very common because of proliferation concerns.

Robert Merkel
2022 years ago

Jacques, I haven’t read O’Neill’s book (too many others on the pile already), but I’m familiar with the basic idea. However, the point of the Space elevator in making the whole SPS scheme viable is that you don’t need hundreds of billions of dollars to build an O’Neill-style colony to build SPS’s. You can just build them the old-fashioned way in factories on Earth, run them up the space elevator at the cost of a few dollars a kilogram, and do it that way. The capital costs of building the space elevator are still very high, but probably less than the ISS and with much bigger payoffs.
Longer term, the kind of things that nanotubes might make possible, including gargantuan O’Neill colonies and a safe way to get Orion-drive spacecraft into orbit, are truly mindblowing, but that kind of thing is getting way beyond the scope of this blog posting :)
In any case, this isn’t going to be an option for 30 years at the most optimistic in my view, and that’s too long to wait to do some serious greenhouse abatement. And that is going to mean large-scale adoption of nuclear power.

Vee
Vee
2022 years ago

Hi, I do not think I have ever posted here.
I usually just read. I am no one special.

I agree also on the nuclear power front. Perhaps we should make the nuclear component of high school physics a mandatory part of physics rather than an elective.

That is really my only knowledge on the subject, what little I can recall.

It is an efficient system.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

In retrospect, the most impressive feature of Bob Carr’s television performance was the manner in which he avoided the inadequacies of the “solutions” being trotted out for the numerous problems facing civilisation. He has made a far better fist of it than I thought on the night. My initial reaction was that it was a topic no plitician could raise safely on television; but the interviewer was kind, which made me wonder the extent to which there was an agreed script.
None of the “solutions” avoids what the planet is goiing to have to face. And the point at which we’ll no longer be able to pretend, comes increasingly closer as our consumption of non renewable resources continues to surge.

Ian
Ian
2022 years ago

This article from The Washington Monthly is not exactly on topic but, IMHO, relevant to the current debate; plenty of research and links in the long comments section: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2004_10/004899.php

kyan gadac
kyan gadac
2022 years ago

My God the education systems failing again. Look nuclear power has a waste problem and an expense problem and a transport problem(you can’t run internal combustion engines with it, H2 fuel notwithstanding).

Anybody who thinks that global warming can be taken in isolation has their head in the proverbial. Desertification, habitat destruction, pollution and the threat to renewable resources such as water and food and air supplies are at least as important as the impact of warming due to increased carbon dioxide. In fact global warming is a last stage event in global scale perturbation of the environment by the human species.

We are like locusts on our first plague – we have to figure out how to behave differently once we’ve eaten everything. Not how to behave the same. Forget nuclear power – think about how to solve some of the real problems for a change.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, there was an interesting story on Lateline last night about oil depletion (hooked on a contention that the tipping point where only half the world’s oil reserves will remain from 2005) which suggested that it would take 10 000 nuclear plants being built (presumably in the US but I’m not sure) to replace current fossil fuel consumption. If that were done, apparently the uranium reserves would be wholly gone within two decades. The interviewee was Professor David Goodstein, a physicist from Caltech, and author of ‘Out of Gas – The End of the Age of Oil’.

The transcript is here: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2004/s1249211.htm

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

The contention that uranium reserves would be used up in two decades is predicated on the assumption that none of the 10,000 nuclear reactors would be fast breeder reactors. If the world were to go wholly nuclear, this would be a ridiculous assumption. If fast breeder reactors were used, the time frame for nuclear energy could be measured in billions of years, not decades. As I pointed out in an earlier post, only 0.3% of uranium is the U235 used by conventional reactors. Breeder reactors use U238 to generate plutonium. Although Prof Goodstein is correct in saying that plutonium is a dangerous substance, we shouldn’t get too carried away about its dangers. All nuclear reactions result in a net loss of radioactivity for the earth as a whole, and the more radioactive a substance the faster it decays (that’s what being radioactive means :-)). And any terrorist organisation that wanted nuclear material for either a nuclear weapon or a “dirty bomb” could already easily acquire it.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Further to my last post, the notion that there will be a sudden crisis and we will all have to give up fossil fuel use overnight is ridiculous. Yes, the price will go up. Yes, we will have to reduce our use. But it will surely be a gradual process (or at least it will be seen as such in hindsight – it’s amazing how small an event can be blown up into a “crisis” in the minds of our short-termist minds). One aspect of diminishing fossil fuel reliance that hasn’t been canvassed much so far is the dependence of Western society on the petrochemical industry. Imagine a world where we can no longer afford detergent or plastic. Back to the 1940’s, folks!

Robert Merkel
2022 years ago

Mark, that’s a little misleading, for a variety of reasons:
* Nobody’s been searching really hard for more uranium, unlike oil. Thus, there’s fairly likely to be a lot more of it out there if we really tried to find it, particularly if we were prepared to pay a bit more for it.
* Fuel costs are a small part of the cost of operating a nuclear reactor, so even if the fuel came from higher-cost sources it doesn’t impact the economics that much.
* Because of the low proportion of fuel costs, operating reactor designs aren’t terribly fuel-efficient – they “burn” only a small fraction of the available energy before the fuel needs to be replaced.
* More fuel-efficient designs are available, such as the newer CANDU designs.
* In the longer term, thorium is likely to be usable as a replacement fuel. There’s a lot of thorium available.
* Breeder reactors do exist. If the choice was between no power and using breeder reactors, I know which is more likely.

As for the proliferation problem with breeder reactors, if a nation really wants a nuclear weapon, it’s just not that hard to do. South Africa managed it pretty straightforwardly, without even bothering with plutonium.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Alex and Robert, this is an area that I know nothing about – I was just passing on what the Lateline bloke said in the hope that someone more informed could enlighten me. Thanks!

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

PS to my last post – I posted the comment re petrochemical industry before reading all the Lateline transcript. As Prof G rightly points out, the most important product of this industry is fertiliser. He is quite right to say that the world cannot support the present human population without chemical fertilisers (despite what the “organic” advocates on their ABC’s Gardening programme would have you believe). There is a huge array of other products that are an integral part of our lives. I pointed to plastics and detergent in my previous post. How about we add things like paint, glue, pesticides, so-called “rubber” as used in car tyres? Maybe it will be back to the 1840’s, not the 1940’s. But the onset of fossil fuel product shortages *will* be a gradual process, whatever unfolds.
There are also other factors that may intervene. It may be that the depopulation that Europe is looking at will unfold in the rest of the world before the shortages get out of hand. Or a major pandemic may wipe out a considerable part of the world’s (human) population. Black Death, anyone?

Mark Bahner
2022 years ago

“Solar and wind power are both more expensive on average than nuclear, and in any event could only ever meet 10-20% of the world’s energy needs at most.”

Nonsense. Photovoltaics could meet 100% of the world’s energy needs (roughly 400 quads…or about 400,000 Petajoules).

Yes, I mean 100%…including transportation (through conversion to hydrogen).

It’s just a matter of expense. In another 30-50 years, photovoltaics will be competitive with the grid power we get today. But that’s still a lot more money per unit of energy than we get from other energy sources.

Even though photovoltaics *could* provide 100 percent of the world’s energy use, I don’t see that happening…and certainly not in the next 50 years.

My guess for the world energy breakdown circa 2050: photovoltaics, 10%; natural gas (mainly from methane hydrates), 50%; nuclear (conventional fission and breeders, but with fusion ramping up really fast) 30%; oil, 10%; coal, 10%.

The last coal mine in the world will probably be shut down somewhere between 2040 and 2080.

Circa 2100, we should be almost completely in a hydrogen economy (probably mainly with fusion). But if there is any natural gas, it will be from methane hydrates.

P.S. This energy breakdown is just a general guess, made without a whole lot of thought. So I reserve the right to revise my predictions. ;-)

Mark Bahner
2022 years ago

P.S.:

400,000 petaJoules = 111,111 terawatt-hours = 12.67 teraWatts, continuously. That’s 12.67 x 10^12 Watts. Call it 13 x 10^12 Watts.

The total solar power to the earth’s surface is 173,000 x 10^12 Watts.

So, at 10 percent conversion efficiency, we’d need to cover (13 x 10)/173,000 = about 0.1 percent of the earth’s surface. That assumes we can move the energy around (or generate hydrogen to use at night).

Piece of cake. ;-) Like I said, it’s just a matter of cost. (And the fact that green weenies would probably find some objection to photovoltaics.)

Mark Bahner
2022 years ago

P.P.S. The 173,000 x 10^12 number is from Scientific American’s Energy and the Environment, copyright 1971.

In that book, the estimate for U.S. energy use in the year 2000 is 160 quads. That was from the 1971 usage of 68 quads.

The ACTUAL year 2000 value was approximately 96 quads. So the projected energy use was much, much higher than the actual value.

trackback
2022 years ago

To Nuke, Or Not To Nuke

Ken Parish makes some interesting points in favour of nuclear power, over all other available forms of alternative energy creation,…