World's Fair

(Thanks to Steven Starr, at the Energy Justice Network, from whom I got most of this.)

This is all strange to me. The January/February 2007 edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says (on page 71): “Major progress towards a safer world would include engaging in serious and candid discussion about the potential expansion of nuclear power worldwide. As a means of addressing the threats from climate change, nuclear power should be considered as an alternative energy source.” They also say that “nuclear energy production does not produce carbon dioxide.”

They don’t say anything about how producing and maintaining nuclear facilities, about how the very infrastructure that could make this CO2-free power source viable requires exorbitant amounts of CO2 production.


They also, curiously, ignore their own history of observing the links between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

What is more, there is a curious ad on the back cover of the magazine, by the McGraw-Hill Companies for the 3rd Annual Platts Nuclear Energy conference, offering “Opportunities for Growth and Investment in North America.”

Beyond the thorny issue of energy consumption and CO2 emissions, there is also the matter of nuclear war and climate change. Will a nuclear explosion give us a Big Chill? (Articles from Science News, ABC, and Defense Tech all speak to this. Defense Tech’s piece is also laudable for using a Mr. Plow reference.)

And, as a final curiosity, In the same issue of the same magazine, Amory Lovins (“Mr. Green,” as Elizabeth Kolbert called him in her Jan. 22, 2007 New Yorker profile [not available on-line]), noted that the carbon offsets from nuclear production are less significant than that from micropower or efficient use, and that they are slower at doing so. So, the BAS board either disagrees with what it prints, or didn’t read its own magazine.

Comments

  1. #1 etbnc
    February 13, 2007

    I find myself reminded of this insight from a couple of months ago:

    The key to modern life is strategic ignorance.”

  2. #2 Blair
    February 13, 2007

    You seem concerned that “producing and maintaining nuclear facilities…requires exorbitant amounts of CO2 production.” The construction of the nuclear facilities would produce no more CO2 than would a concrete dam of comparable power output and would have the benefit of reduced emissions of greenhouse gases during their operation than would a comparable hydroelectric project. Needless to say, both hydroelectric power and nuclear power create substantially fewer greenhouse gas emissions than would coal-fired plants which are the primary sources of power in lesser-developed countries. In these countries micropower and efficient use cannot meet the growing power demands. Simply put, developing countries need access to power. Large scale alternatives to hydroelectric, nuclear or fossil fuels do not exist at this time. So pragmatically we have to come up with the best of a set of bad choices. If the production of greenhouse gases is of major concern then nuclear power has to be on the table.

    As for your comment: “They also, curiously, ignore their own history of observing the links between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.” Current technologies exist (light water reactors) to produce ample nuclear power without any potential for nuclear weapon production. Raising the spectre of nuclear war in this context seems to be unnecessary scare-mongering.

  3. #3 BRC
    February 13, 2007

    Blair, I appreciate your points, though I disagree with the approach they presume to offer. There is always something unstated lurking behind a claim for “pragmatic” action — namely, on whose idea of pragmatic? I like it that your concern is for developing countries, so I’m aware that your reply isn’t simply willy-nilly rah-rah nuclear. But developing what? What is the source of those energy needs? How much development? For what ends?

    Also, I wouldn’t be inclined to characterize the mere mention of nuclear weapons as scare-mongering. I don’t think that’s a fair response. We’d have to carry on this conversation (and I hope we might) by getting at the differences between responsibility and scare-mongering. That is, I would say it is irresponsible to suggest that nuclear weapons have no part in the conversation. And that’s not the same as saying that nuclear energy leads directly and swiftly to weapons.

  4. #4 katherine sharpe
    February 13, 2007

    I’m almost through with the New Yorker piece on Amory Lovins — fascinating stuff.

  5. #5 markus
    February 13, 2007

    Blair: you can so *totally* get your sweet bomby-goodness from a light water reactor. it just means you have to shut down the plant every couple of months and purify what you’ve got, otherwise the plutonium 239 will get overdeveloped into 240, which just won’t be a big hit at the next party.

    in short, if one monkey develops a nuclear plant of any possible design, some other monkey out there will probably be able to develop a perfectly sensible monkey-based protocol for developing a weapon out of the materials and byproducts of the plant, which are several: (a) fisible fuel, (b) half-spent rods, (c) electricity itself, (d) radioactive waste, (e) etc.

    thus i think the mere mention of weapon-i-zation in the context of a post about nuclear plants is probably warranted.

  6. #6 Blair
    February 13, 2007

    Benjamin,

    Regarding your questioning behind my discussion of pragmatism, let me put your mind at rest. What I am trying to say is that the citizens of China and India (as the two largest examples but not nearly the only ones) are demanding a quality of life that is comparable with their growing prosperity. We are not talking about SUVs and expresso makers here, but rather about the basics: refrigeration for foodstuffs, lighting during the night in non-urban areas, electricity for cooking in lieu of wood or coal burning fires and reliable heating in winter. We are talking about over two billion people who are looking to get a small measure of the quality of life that we enjoy in North America. The problem is once you start to figure out the megawatts needed for all those refrigerators and stoves the numbers become mind-numbing. At this point in time China has over 200 coal-fired power plants in construction/planning. Their INCREASE in CO2 emissions in the next decade is anticipated to be greater than the sum total of all emissions generated by the Canadian economy. The reality is that the Western world simply cannot tell these people that they have to live without refrigeration for their food; electric lighting for their schools; and stoves that don’t lead to increased levels of asthma and deforestation to cook their dinners. Thus I say simply that we have to be pragmatic. There is a demand for energy out there. It isn’t nefarious, nor is it evil, it simply is. As a consequence we have to consider where the power is going to come from to feed that demand. If greenhouse gases are to be a consideration in the calculation then nuclear power has to be on the table for discussion.

    As for your second point, the relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons must be addressed in the context of world political history. If you go on a case-by-case basis it becomes clear that achieving nuclear weapon status was the primary aim when nuclear power technology was imported for virtually all of the non-original nuclear weapon possessing states. These countries deliberately sought out dual-use technologies with the primary aim being the secondary uses (nuclear weapons) while claiming innocently that they simply were simply seeking the primary use (nuclear power). It is both possible and practical to supply the technology to produce nuclear weapon proliferation-proof power without needing to consider devastation through nuclear war as a necessary outcome. That you insisted on linking the two, in my mind, fits the definition of scare-mongering. So I?ll turn this one around on you. Explain to me why feel you have to consider an increase in the likelihood of nuclear war as a necessary outcome of an increase in the use of nuclear power. As a bonus please consider the proliferation of fissionable material from the Former Soviet Union when formulating your answer :)

  7. #7 markus
    February 14, 2007

    blair: in thinking about your first point, and reflecting on some of my travel through remote spots in asia, i have to say you’ve nailed the point. i’d like to see an equation or something that estimates what those energy needs truly are, as that could be a particularly revealing exercise. if i may, i’d propose two additions to your list of energy ‘needs’ in the developing world that (a) don’t seem to have ever been designed to run efficiently, and (b) are probably going to push the ‘need’ end of that equation way higher than previously thought.

    1. water purification systems. how much energy do they burn? any ‘green’ one’s out there?

    2. the (damn) TV. seriously. even in places where people are living off strange cats they hunt in the jungles, they’ve got an energy-sucking cathode-ray tube back at the hut. maybe one for every 10-15 people, but still something to consider in the equation. which leads me to wonder, is there even such a thing as a low-power ‘green’ television?

  8. #8 R. Ashok Kumar
    February 14, 2007

    I like your friendly and carefully worded persuation to deal with development and nuclear energy programmes. I found Amory Lovins the most convincing in this matter. I then wrote a number of articles and letters to the editor and took part in cycle yatras to convince people about the non-utilitarian nuclear power programmes of the world, notably the USA, France, Japan and now in people intense India. The URL http://nucleargulfstreamconnect.blogspot.com/
    threads through the other URLs of mine on this huge issue. I also like the way in which people participate in a discussion on the issue. It is sadly lacking in India. And thats dangerous, in fact suicidal.

  9. #9 Gerry Wolff
    February 14, 2007

    Regarding “Bulletin of the atomic scientists endorses nuclear power as ‘an alternative energy source’” (2007-02-14), there is absolutely no need for nuclear power in the US because there is a simple mature technology that can deliver huge amounts of clean energy without any of the headaches of nuclear power.

    I refer to ‘concentrating solar power’ (CSP), the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. It is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days. This technology has been generating electricity successfully in California since 1985 and half a million Californians currently get their electricity from this source. CSP plants are now being planned or built in many parts of the world.

    CSP works best in hot deserts and, of course, these are not always nearby! But it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over very long distances using highly-efficient ‘HVDC’ transmission lines. With transmission losses at about 3% per 1000 km, solar electricity may be transmitted to anywhere in the US and Canada too. A recent report from the American Solar Energy Society says that CSP plants in the south western states of the US “could provide nearly 7,000 GW of capacity, or ***about seven times the current total US electric capacity***” (emphasis added).

    In the ‘TRANS-CSP’ report commissioned by the German government, it is estimated that CSP electricity, imported from North Africa and the Middle East, could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe.

    Further information about CSP may be found at http://www.trec-uk.org.uk and http://www.trecers.net . Copies of the TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded from http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/reports.htm . In case anyone is thinking nuclear power might be a solution, the many problems associated with that technology are summarised at http://www.mng.org.uk/green_house/no_nukes.htm .

  10. #10 Blair
    February 14, 2007

    Gerry,

    I read your references and was impressed. In North America it sounds feasible, but I don’t even want to think about the costs in upgrading the North American power grid to meet the stated requirements (still it should be done on principle). Clearly CSP should be an option for most of the Southern US however.

    That being said I’m not sure things are as rosy for the Europeans. If they went to a full CSP system as envisioned most of Europe would be completely and utterly dependent on North African and Middle Eastern supplies for energy in winter. Certainly a good idea in theory, but given the political uncertainty in both supplier regions it simply isn’t in the cards in the foreseeable future. Think of what the current natural gas situation in Europe (with Vlad turning off the pipelines on a whim) is doing and now imagine a scenario with a supplier even less dependable than Putin….

  11. #11 jody
    February 14, 2007

    So, whats this table that everyone is always referring to lately? Is this the same table that people like Condi Rice reference when they say that all options have to be on the tale when dealing with Iran, North Korea, and the like? Seems like it might be the same table. Must be a big table, though, with all of these things sitting on it. Can I flip the statement into a question and ask whats *not* on the table since, purportedly, everything *is* on the table? Are rolling blackouts on the table? Mandatory efficiency standards for consumer goods? Research dollars for decentralized energy producing technologies? A breaking up the oil cartel? The invasion or occupation of foreign countries to maintain energy supplies? Rethinking development so that doesnt equal consume more for the people of these countries? Im just trying to get a sense for whats still on this table everyone keeps talking about lately.

  12. #12 Damien
    February 15, 2007

    Energy usage:
    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/ene_usa_per_per-energy-usage-per-person

    From memory: the US uses 10 kilowatts of energy per person. From the list above, Italy is more than 1/3 of that. It’s not clear why there’s such a difference; some of that may be having a nicer climate than Canada or much of the US, some of it may be shorter distances and less driving. At any rate, it seems safe to think a First World-like lifestyle will take at least 3 kilowatts per person, which from
    http://gasprices-usa.com/kilograms_of_oil_equivilant_ener.htm
    will mean an increase by several times.

    Another usage not mentioned: air conditioning.

    As for water purification, I’ve seen energy costs for commerical reverse osmosis desalination in the 10 kilojoules/kilogram range, which is actually 100x more efficient than heat-based evaporation like the natural cycle does. So I’m optimistically not too worried on that front.

  13. #13 Kevin Arthur
    February 16, 2007

    I didn’t interpret that paragraph in the magazine as an endorsement. It continues:

    “While nuclear energy production does not produce carbon dioxide, it does raise other significant concerns, such as the health and environmental hazards of nuclear waste, the production of nuclear materials that can be diverted to the production of weapons, and the safety and security of the plants themselves. As such, any contemplation of the expansion of nuclear power must be predicated upon a thorough assessment of the technological and legislative safeguard required to curb these risks;”

    So maybe they slipped by not saying more about CO2, but otherwise I got the impression from reading the entire magazine that nuclear power is *not* something they endorse. (Though they don’t come right out and say “don’t pursue it at all,” for whatever reason — they could certainly have put it more clearly.)

    There’s also a column on the front page of the Bulletin’s website right now called “No To Nuclear Energy” by Toshiyuki Toyoda.

  14. #14 BRC
    February 17, 2007

    Kevin, Thanks for the follow-up. That’s helpful.

    Blair, It is clear that we have a different view of things here — you are taking consumption needs as your premise, and then trying to figure out the most environmentally feasible way to achieve them. I am taking the notion of consumption as my premise, and pushing for more reflection on that as a taken-for-granted. (Plus, there is surely a lot more to say about what “environmentally feasible” means, and I usually bristle at overconfident expressions of certainty about what it means.) I’d like to aim at reducing Western consumption, so that others cannot argue that the rest of the world is simply trying to have the good and great life we Western consumers have. (And in any case, Europe consumes half as much, or less, as the US, so saying “the West” is still too generic.) Your use of refigeration as an example is telling, too, because it assumes that the need for refrigerated food is universal and the same. If you are to defer to world political history, as you did above, you might also draw upon cultural context and the differing cultural connotations of “need.” I suspect you would reply to that line by saying that you have the welfare of the third world in mind, and I don’t. But that is not the case. My thought is to reflect on what we in the West can do to help prevent the very problems we’ve created for ourselves from growing elsewhere.

    As for your second question, I can’t say I understand what you’re driving it.

    Clearly, we agree that there are energy problems. Clearly then, we are on the same side. My approach is to think more about what it means to consume, and why we take the fact of over-consumption as a given.

    All in all, thanks for staying in this. It doesn’t do anyone any good to avoid the conversation.

  15. #15 Blair
    February 20, 2007

    Benjamin,

    I was absolutely flabbergasted by your reply. You make it sound like I am asking for frivolous things. International human rights groups argue that every citizen of the planet deserves a certain quality of life. Not to be too obnoxious but how can you as a Westerner state that citizens of third world countries should be denied refrigeration? Refrigeration reduces spoilage of food allowing for less waste. It allows for individuals to buy, cook and store larger quantities at a time. This reduces the cost of foodstuffs both in preparation and retail sense, and most importantly it has an incredible effect on community health. By reducing bacterial and fungal growth on foodstuffs you reduce the number and severity of intestinal diseases that will ultimately be shared within a community. The result is that as far as my reading has shown in EVERY community where refrigeration has been imported the result has been an increased quality of life and lower levels of intestinal illnesses.

    As for energy use for other uses, as has been demonstrated in virtually every industry and service there are efficiencies in scale. Even if you say third worlders can live without refrigeration I’m going to guess you still think they need heat for cooking and for their living quarters in winter. Currently a large proportion of all cooking in non-urban portions of India and China is carried out using inefficient fires fueled by coal or wood to cook food. This results in reduction in air quality (due to poor/inefficient combustion), deforestation (for fuel) and substantially increased greenhouse gas emissions (less efficient combustion requires more energy to achieve the same end result). Large energy production facilities allow for more efficient energy production AND the installation of pollution reduction technologies at a large scale. As an example a single coal power plant can include scrubbers to reduce sulfer emissions, etc. that cannot be incorporated into every stove and fireplace. So the question remains, how would you prefer that citizens of developing nations cook their foods? in the least environmentally, ecologically or health outcome manner or using the benefits of larger facilities? This is not a trick question, I really am a bit confused and would like to figure out where you are coming from? If you decide to suggest alternatives to coal/hydro or nuclear, I’d ask you to explain using currently existing technologies that can be made available at a reasonable cost to non-urban citizens of these nations.

    As for nuclear power and its relationship to nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons were the aim of nuclear programs in Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea and now in Iran. They sought out dual use technologies due to external threats (either real or perceived). In this day and age, with the volumes of uncontrolled fissionable material in various previously secure locations in the former Soviet Union states, a new government seeking fissionable material can access that material at a fraction of the cost of developing the enrichment systems domestically. A fear of nuclear weapons in respect to modern nuclear technology simply displays a lack of understanding of current technologies. In my view nuclear power is one of many alternatives in any responsible power mix. As new technologies emerge and are made feasible, it is likely to be one of the first forms that will be discarded, but until then we have to accept the pragmatic reality that if we are to provide power for, what I would argue, is a basic level of power in lesser developed parts of the world. This is power they will get some other way, be it through burning of indigenous forests or some other greenhouse gas emitting form.

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