A debate at TED in February over nuclear power’s merits as a clean source of electricity featured Whole Earth Catalog guru Steward Brand (pro) and Stanford energy systems analysts Mark Jacobson. A lot of ground covered in 23 minutes, including just how much ground various clean energy options cover.

The winner? It was a slam dunk for …

I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.

“Does the world need nuclear energy?” is an important question, for at least two reasons. First, Congressional legislators seem intent on including increased support for the nuclear industry in any climate or energy bill. While it is now quite possible that similar provisions in favor of offshore oil drilling will be dropped from the legislative agenda, nuclear doesn’t appear to be going away. It’s probably not a question of whether we’ll see more nuclear reactors, but how many.

Second, unlike solar and wind alternatives, the high cost of nuclear energy shows no sign of falling any time soon. If we go down this road, we are committing considerable financial resources. And when you get right down to it, that’s what the debate is all about: how much are we willing to spend on the transition to a post-fossil-fuel era?

Unfortunately, neither debater gets into the meat of the economic issues involved. But they do address plenty of other critical issues, including physical footprints and life-cycle CO2 analyses.

Comments

  1. #1 Alex Besogonov
    June 10, 2010

    “Second, unlike solar and wind alternatives, the high cost of nuclear energy shows no sign of falling any time soon.”

    Bad argument. It has NO CHANCE to fall, since virtually no new reactors are built in the US. And the ones that are built are based on 40 year old technology.

    There are lots of ideas (continuous burning wave reactors, pebble-bed reactors, integral fast reactors, etc.) which can produce energy at drastically cheaper.

    And even if all this fails, we already have nuclear success story: France. It shows that nuclear can be scaled with our current technology and very safely at that.

    Except that there are plenty of reactors being built elsewhere, and the cost is going up for them. And France’s nuclear utility is also carrying a monstrous debt burden. And no one knows how much 4G reactors will cost. If they do prove more economical, it will take decades to turn prototypes into viable commercial products. And we don’t have the time. — jh

  2. #2 Robert S.
    June 10, 2010

    It seems like Mark Jacobson did something very simple, he lied. Unless he is totally ignorant and was simply handed things to say he should know that finding a year in California where renewables could, in his opinion, have given 100% of the needed power. He neglects to mention that it is much easier to hook a nuclear plant into the grid then a large set of generators (wind or solar). He uses a wind map at 100M, the upper end of the height of wind turbines. Wind and Solar are great, and depending on the area can sometime correlate peak output to times of peak demand (AC units run during the day when the sun is out). In response to the audience member with the scary “nuclear material rolling through your neighborhood” point, what happens when any number of the nasty chemicals used in semiconductor manufacturing leak, oh wait, the solar panels are made somewhere else so you don’t care. What happens when the giant windfarm fubars radar systems designed to give advanced warnings of tornadoes. It would be wonderful to have a solution to our power needs that didn’t have any downside but until that happens, we need sane licensing for nuclear power plants for baseload. With solar and wind where both the economics and environment permit.

  3. #3 Alex.Besogonov
    June 10, 2010

    “Except that there are plenty of reactors being built elsewhere, and the cost is going up for them.”

    Uhn. The company I own will be involved in the building of the new reactors for the Khmelnitsky Nuclear Power Plant. Adjusted for inflation, their cost is pretty much constant. And their design is also pretty much standard.

    “And France’s nuclear utility is also carrying a monstrous debt burden.”

    [citation needed]

    France has a very low electricity cost. And I haven’t seen good analyses about their total debt burden.

    Also, renewable energy is barely profitable and still requires large subsidies.

    “And no one knows how much 4G reactors will cost.”

    Also we don’t know how much large-scale renewable energy projects will cost.

    “If they do prove more economical, it will take decades to turn prototypes into viable commercial products. And we don’t have the time.”

    Ditto for renewables. They almost generally require rebuilding of the grid and new ‘smart grid’ technologies. So your argument about time applies to them.

    Jacobson tackles this problem in his presentation. — jh

  4. #4 B166ER
    June 10, 2010

    The real cost of nuclear power isn’t the ridiculously low danger of a meltdown, it’s storage of waste. But hey, as long as we have native lands to to use as “official sacrificial zones”, we don’t need to worry about anything at all.
    The only issue any rational person can have with nuclear power is the disposal of waste products, and I think it’s an important issue.

  5. #5 Alex Besogonov
    June 10, 2010

    I’m rewatching the presentation in more details. Looks like the ‘anti-nucular’ guy is not quite honest.

    Several bad arguments:

    1) “Nuclear construction takes too long”.

    Yeah, sure. About 10 years for permits and then 4 years for construction, according to presentation. Or in other words: environmentalists says that nukes are bad because environmentalists do everything to slow down their deployment.

    2) Wind power has no footprint beyond a ‘simple pole’. That’s TOTALLY wrong, you also need to have a power distribution network which requires quite a lot of trenches dug and cable laid. You need to produce turbines which (apparently) can not yet assemble themselves.

    3) His numbers show that geothermal has lower footprint than nuclear. WTF?

    4) Grid. It’s still a problem. Germany plans to replace 20% of their generating capacity with reneweables (great!) while phasing out nuclear (stupid!). They right now have the problem of balancing the load. Denmark has the same problem – they “solved” it by exporting energy to Norway to power pumped hydrogenerators.

    5) Space. In Denmark and Germany the available space for turbines is almost maxxed out. No way it’ll be enough for 100% of capacity.

    6) Offshore farms are not the solution. For one thing, a lot of places are too far from shores.

    Also, I would like to see all the sources for this presentation. I can’t find them on TED anywhere…

  6. Lonnie Dupre and Eric Larsen could tell you — although unless they’re better men than I take them for, they wouldn’t — that the use of the word “need” is deceitful framing. You don’t have to need it to want it.

  7. #7 Fred Magyar
    June 10, 2010

    I find multiple technical and economic argument flaws with both debaters presentations. As a grade they both deserve a C+ at best. That having been said the most glaring flaw to me is the fact that the underlying assumption that we can or even should attempt to maintain BAU is the right course of action. Our current economic paradigm is founded on the concept of growth.

    We live in a world of finite resources there is no way that we can continue to grow the human poulation and our current economic model for ever.

    To take even a very simple example, where is it written that the only way to have a civilization worth living in is to have 24/7 power generation for everyone and all segments of our infrastructures. We need serious outside the box thinking about alternative ways of organizing our societies starting from scratch. To paraphrase Einstein, we can’t solve our problems with the same kind of thinking that gat us into them in the first place.

    My personal view is that if we are to survive as species for the long term we have to stop growing and enter a phase of sustainable maturity. Perhaps we need to reconsider metrics such as GDP as the gold standard for measuring progress and well being and substitute them for a GNH (gross national happiness).

    We need to seriously tackle the problems of human population growth and find a way to circumvent our innate biological instincts that evolved to give us a survival advantage and were adequate for a time when we lived in small tribes.

    In my opinion we need to find a way to get away from things and material wealth as markers of status. Perhaps substituting them for wisdom and scientific knowledge and artistic achievement.We need to give more value to having free time, basically we need to slow down and grow up.

    BTW, I’m not against nuclear energy generation per se but unless we find an infinite source of nuclear fuel I’m more inclined to think that a better alternative is to restructure our way of living in such a way that intermittent sources of power such as solar and wind are worked into a new and more sustainable framework.

    Best hopes for people who understand the implications of the exponential function, Cheers!

  8. #8 Alex555
    June 10, 2010

    I just don’t like how the anti/pro-nuclear behave together: they can’t even listen to the other.

    I am shocked to see such great problem, global warming, and having both sides still fighting each other…

  9. #9 Steven Earl Salmony
    June 11, 2010

    “Bolus of insight” from a great poet regarding the breach between an unsustainable civilization and a self-sustaining, “strong earth”.

    The Purse-seine, by Robinson Jeffers, 1937

    …….I cannot tell you
    How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible,
    then, when the crowded fish
    Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall
    to the other of their closing destiny the
    phosphorescent
    Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body
    sheeted with flame, like a live rocket
    A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside
    the narrowing
    Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up
    to watch, sighing in the dark; the vast walls
    of night
    Stand erect to the stars.

    Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
    On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light:
    how could I help but recall the seine-net
    Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how
    beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible.
    I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
    into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now
    There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
    of free survival, insulated
    From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
    dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
    Is being hauled in…….

    ___________________________________________
    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001
    http://sustainabilityscience.org/content.html?contentid=1176

  10. #10 Alex Besogonov
    June 11, 2010

    “We live in a world of finite resources there is no way that we can continue to grow the human poulation and our current economic model for ever.”

    I’ve always wanted to question this. Yes, population can’t grow indefinitely on one planet.

    But why can’t economy grow? We have a good example in CPUs – they’ve grown about 10 orders of magnitude since their conception. While resources required to produce them are almost constant.

  11. #11 red pepper
    June 11, 2010

    My personal view is that if we are to survive as species for the long term we have to stop growing and enter a phase of sustainable maturity. Perhaps we need to reconsider metrics such as GDP as the gold standard for measuring progress and well being and substitute them for a GNH (gross national happiness).

  12. #12 Oakden Wolf
    June 12, 2010

    My main position is that the world needs nuclear power now because there is nothing else feasible that could be implemented in the near-future that has significant energy-generation capacity to replace fossil fuels. We need nuclear energy to bridge, probably for decades, to a future where most of the energy is generated by renewables. I believe that there are ways of doing it effectively (note that Bill Gates has thrown in with Toshiba on micro-nuke generator design that uses byproduct uranium) and cost-efficiently. And when “cost efficiency” is considered, the cost to the environment of climate change must be calculated, as Gore has advocated for a couple of decades (and which still hasn’t been done, but BP is certainly doing some calculations right now, aren’t they?)

    That’s why I really have a dislike for climate change skeptics, because their slimy activities are maintaining the public belief that the world can continue to generate most of its electricity with fossil fuels. Down that road, simply put, lies destruction. Nuclear is a main road to a different future.

  13. #13 Steven Earl Salmony
    June 12, 2010

    Perhaps the following article will stimulate this discussion. Comments from one and all are welcome. Special thanks are due Fred Magyar.

    Population Overshoot Is Determined by Food Overproduction
    Sunday, 02 May 2010 03:50
    By MWC News
    Share Link:
    by Steve Salmony

    Even after more than ten years of trying to raise awareness about certain overlooked research, my focus remains riveted on the skyrocketing growth of absolute global human population and scientific evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel http://www.panearth.org/ that the size of the human population on Earth is a function of food availability. More food for human consumption equals more people; less food for human existence equals less people; and no food, no people. This is to say, the population dynamics of the human species is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other living things. UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan noted in 1997, “The world has enough food. What it lacks is the political will to ensure that all people have access to this bounty, that all people enjoy food security.”

    Please examine the probability that humans are producing too much, not too little food; that the global predicament humanity faces is the way increasing the global food supply leads to increasing absolute global human population numbers. It is the super-abundance of unsustainable agribusiness harvests that are driving population numbers of the human species to overshoot, or explode beyond, the natural limitations imposed by a relatively small, evidently finite, noticeably damaged planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth.

    The spectacular success of the Green Revolution over the past 40 years has “produced” an unintended and completely unanticipated global challenge, I suppose: the rapidly increasing supply of food for human consumption has given birth to a human population bomb, which is exploding worldwide before our eyes. The most formidable threat to future human well being and environmental health appears to be caused by the unbridled, corporate overproduction of food on the one hand and the abject failure of the leaders of the human community to insist upon more fair and equitable redistribution of the world’s food supply so that “all people enjoy food security”.

    We need to share (not overconsume and hoard) as well as to build sustainable, human-scale farming practices (not corporate leviathans), I believe.

    For a moment let us reflect upon words from the speech that Norman Bourlaug delivered in 1970 on the occasion of winning the Nobel Prize. He reported, ” Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas.”

    Plainly, Norman Bourlaug states that humanity has the means to decrease the rate of human reproduction, but is choosing not to adequately employ this capability to sensibly limit human population numbers. He also notes that the rate of human population growth surpasses the rate of increase in food production IN SOME AREAS {my caps}. Dr. Bourlaug is specifically not saying the growth of global human population numbers exceeds global production of food.

    According to recent research, population numbers of the human species could be a function of the global growth of the food supply for human consumption. This would mean that the global food supply is the independent variable and absolute global human population numbers is the dependent variable; that human population dynamics is most similar to the population dynamics of other species. Perhaps the human species is not being threatened in our time by a lack of food. To the contrary, humanity and life as we know it could be inadvertently put at risk by the determination to continue the dramatic, large-scale overproduction of food, such as we have seen occur in the past 40 years.

    Recall Dr. Bourlaug’s prize winning accomplishment. It gave rise to the “Green Revolution” and to the extraordinary increases in the world’s supply of food. Please consider that the sensational increases in humanity’s food supply occasioned by Dr. Bourlaug’s great work gave rise to an unintended and completely unanticipated effect: the recent skyrocketing growth of absolute global human population numbers.

    We have to examine what appear to be potentially disastrous effects of increasing large-scale food production capabilities (as opposed to small-scale farming practices) on human population numbers worldwide between now and 2050. If we keep doing the “big-business as usual” things we are doing now by maximally increasing the world’s food supply, and the human community keeps getting what we are getting now, then a colossal ecological wreckage of some unimaginable sort could be expected to occur in the fairly near future.

    It may be neither necessary nor sustainable to continue increasing food production to feed a growing population. As an alternative, we could carefully review ways for limiting increases in the large-scale corporate production of food; for providing broad support of small-scale farming practices; for redistributing more equitably the present overly abundant world supply of food among the members of the human community; and for immediately, universally and safely following Dr. Bourlaug’s recommendation to “reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely.”

    Steve Salmony is a self-proclaimed global citizen, a psychologist and father of three grown children. Married 38 years ago. In 2001 Steve founded the AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population to raise consciousness of the colossal threat that the unbridled, near exponential growth of absolute global human population numbers poses for all great and small living things on Earth in our time. His quixotic campaign focuses upon the best available science of human population dynamics in order to save the planet as a place fit for habitation by children everywhere.

  14. #14 Russ Finley
    June 13, 2010

    Verbal debate in front of an audience is outdated and outclassed by internet blogs where you can post links to sources. I didn’t waste my time watching the video.

    Jacobson has done some good work suggesting that the health impacts of ethanol are worse than gasoline.

    We will need more nuclear. No doubt about it:

    http://biodiversivist.blogspot.com/2010/02/reframing-nuclear-power-as-ally-of.html

  15. #15 Erasmussimo
    June 16, 2010

    I share the opinion that building more nuclear power plants is a sound policy option. I reject the claim that rad waste disposal is a problem. It isn’t a problem, it has been demonstrated up the wazoo and it just isn’t an issue. I do, however, have concerns about the capital intensity of nuclear power stations. In effect, you pay all the money up front, which means that a full-scale effort to build lots of nuclear power stations would soak up lots of free capital, driving up interest rates, which would not be good for the rest of the economy. Of course, that has not been a problem during the last few decades when we haven’t built any new reactors. But now we’re in catch-up mode — we’re going to need to spend a lot of money just to replace the reactors that are nearing the end of their productive lives.

  16. #16 Electronic Cigarettes
    March 30, 2011

    Please examine the probability that humans are producing too much, not too little food; that the global predicament humanity faces is the way increasing the global food supply leads to increasing absolute global human population numbers. It is the super-abundance of unsustainable agribusiness harvests that are driving population numbers of the human species to overshoot, or explode beyond, the natural limitations imposed by a relatively small, evidently finite, noticeably damaged planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth.

  17. #17 Electronic Cigarettes
    March 30, 2011

    Please examine the probability that humans are producing too much, not too little food; that the global predicament humanity faces is the way increasing the global food supply leads to increasing absolute global human population numbers. It is the super-abundance of unsustainable agribusiness harvests that are driving population numbers of the human species to overshoot, or explode beyond, the natural limitations imposed by a relatively small, evidently finite, noticeably damaged planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth.

  18. #18 Isaias
    March 30, 2011

    BTW, I’m not against nuclear energy generation per se but unless we find an infinite source of nuclear fuel I’m more inclined to think that a better alternative is to restructure our way of living in such a way that intermittent sources of power such as solar and wind are worked into a new and more sustainable framework. [weather forecast](http://www.weathercastforecaster.com)

  19. #19 Deltron
    March 30, 2011

    According to the weather forecast “We live in a world of finite resources there is no way that we can continue to grow the human poulation and our current economic model for ever.”

    I’ve always wanted to question this. Yes, population can’t grow indefinitely on one planet.

    But why can’t economy grow? We have a good example in CPUs – they’ve grown about 10 orders of magnitude since their conception. While resources required to produce them are almost constant.

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