Global warming skeptics argue that fixing global warming will cost us so much that it would be ruinous to society to even attempt a solution. This is nonsense. We can take a few steps over the next 40 years to bring at least half of global greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions under control. 50% to 60% of CO2 emissions can be eliminated by bring two sources of CO2 emissions under control. There are great secondary benefits for controlling theses sources. Indeed the secondary benefits may save so much money, that they will pay for the changes on their own.I explained my approach:
The two sources that produce over 60% of the CO2 emissions in the United States are electrical generation, and the use of internal combustion engines in ground transportation. Existing technology can eliminate all of the CO2 emissions from electrical generation within the next 40 years. Using existing technology we can eliminate at least half of the CO2 emissions from the ground transportation sector. Expected technological breakthroughs can eliminate the other half.
The changes are simple but radical. By 2050 all base load electrical generation should come from hydroelectric sources and nuclear power plants. All coal fired electrical generating plants should be phased out. Since most world wide hydro electrical resources are already utilized, the replacement of fossil fuel power plants will be primarily through conversion to nuclear reactors. Reactors can be mass-produced and either constructed modularly with local assembly, or by constructed on barges at reactor factories, and then towed to permeate locations at costal or riverine settings. Smaller pre-assembled reactors can be shipped by rail.
Many old and inefficient American and European fossil fueled fired plants, having come to the end of their useful life, will scrapped during the next 40 years. Since they will be replaced anyway, there will be replacement costs. Increasing demand for electrical energy will lead to massive new power plant construction as a matter of course. Already in the United States electrical utilities are focusing on building new nuclear power plants to replace old coal fired plants, and to bring new generating capacity on line.
While it might seem impossible to accomplish the goal of replacing fossil fuel generation with nuclear power, the commitment of societies including national governments, and international cooperation can accomplish it. For example, if the United States makes a national commitment to convert all fossil fuel generation electricity to nuclear, this can be accomplished using existing technology and resources.
The problems of transportation can be solved through the replacement of fossil fuel energy with electrical energy. Existing technology already makes plug in hybrids practical. Even with no new technology, it is feasible to build plug in hybrids with 40 to 50 miles (60 to 75 kilometers) range with no fossil fuel input. This range would cover almost all urban use. Thus it would be possible to perform everyday activities like drive to work, shop and do errands and go out for the evening, without starting the backup fossil fuel engine. Urban trucks and buses could also run on portable stored electricity. Finally American rail roads can be electrified thus eliminating the use of diesel power to haul rail freight.
I promised secondary benefits, they are these. First we will see a significant decline in national health care expenses. A few years ago a group of Canadian doctors began to look at the health related costs of producing electricity from coal. They found that atmospheric pollutants from coal fired electrical generating plants were a significant source of health problems in the province of Ontario. There research found that air pollution from all sources kills more than 5,900 people each year in Ontario. An Ontario government follow up study found that coal-fired power plants in Ontario were responsible for up to 668 deaths. In addition, atmospheric pollutants from coal-fired generators were responsible for 928 hospital admissions and 1,100 emergency room visits every year. The health related cost to the people in Ontario associated with generating electricity by burning coal was found to be $4.4 billion.
A more recent Canadian study found that Ontario hospitals received in one year 12,518 asthma related visits (7,825 children and 4,693 adults). There is little doubt that emissions from fossil fuel engine are a major cause of a worldwide asthma epidemic. In the United States alone, the number of people with asthma grew from 6.7 million people in 1980 to 17.3 million in 1998, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Elimination of coal fired power plants and most autos and truck exhaust would save many billions of dollars in health care costs, and would prevent an enormous amount of human suffering. Thus a secondary benefit from switching electrical generation and ground transportation, from CO2 emitting sources to CO2 free sources, would be decreased a hospital admissions due to repertory illness, and a significant health care savings which in time would by itself more than pay for the conversion.
A further secondary benefit for switching from the use of oil-based fuels in transportation to stored electricity has to do with the oil-based economy. It would be present far cheaper in the United States to power autos with locally produced electricity from nuclear reactors than to power them using energy derived from imported oil. Even without global warming, two factors are driving the price of crude oil ever higher. They are, the growing demand for oil in India and China, and the peaking of world oil production. So just as the oil supply has reached its maximum, tens and even hundreds of millions of new oil consumers are entering the market. Switching from fossil fuel based transportation to a transportation based on stored electricity would save consumers in North America and Europe hundreds of billions of dollars and euros.
The costs of fixing global warming will not be exorbitant, and indeed the secondary benefits of fixing it will by themselves, more that pay the cost of the fix.
"I must say that I consider my views revolutionary. I recently came to these conclusions after reading about the medical costs of coal fired plants in Ontario. I decided to extend the analysis to other secondary benefits that might occur if we switched from fossil fuel to nuclear power generation and battery powered cars. The result is not simply savings in health care costs, but potentially huge savings in transportation costs, as battery stored electricity replaces increasingly expensive oil transportation fuels. The economic benefits seem obvious. The discussion has included people I know to be global warming skeptics agreeing with my analysis. In this regard, my argument has accomplished what I wanted it to, which is to move the debate away from the global warming issue toward changes that most people will like. Changes that will incidentally help make the CO2 problem go away. "
"Many old and inefficient American and European fossil fueled fired power plants, having come to the end of their useful life, will be scrapped in the next 40 years. Since they will be replaced anyway, the replacement costs will have to be paid. Increasing demand for electrical energy will lead to massive new power plant construction as well. Already in the United States electrical utilities are focusing on building new nuclear power plants to replace old coal fired plants, and to bring new generating capacity on line."
"While it might seem impossible to accomplish the goal of replacing fossil fuel generation with nuclear power, the commitment of societies including national governments, and international cooperation can accomplish it. For example, if the United States makes a national commitment to convert all fossil fuel generation electricity to nuclear, this can be accomplished using existing technology and resources."
There were, I went on, considerable economic and health care benefits to doing this. (Brian Wong has also repeatedly made the same point.):
"A more recent Canadian study found that Ontario hospitals received in one year 12,518 asthma related visits (7,825 children and 4,693 adults). There is little doubt that emissions from fossil fuel engine emissions are a major cause of a worldwide asthma epidemic. In the United States alone, the number of people with asthma grew from 6.7 million people in 1980 to 17.3 million in 1998, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Elimination of coal fired power plants and most autos and truck exhaust would save many billions of dollars in health care costs, and would prevent an enormous amount of human suffering. Thus a secondary benefit from switching electrical generation and ground transportation, from CO2 emitting sources to CO2 free sources, would be decreased hospital admissions due to repertory illness, and a significant health care savings which in time would by itself pay for the conversion."
Shortly after this post hit the Internet, critics of nuclear power emerged from the wood work.
"Field" was especially adamant in opposition to nuclear power:
"Field" was especially adamant in opposition to nuclear power:
I'm not prepared to look at nuclear sympathetically. We have an abundance of energy from the sun and we have tidal. We should be concentrating all our efforts on solar energy, wind energy, Thin photovoltaic film is just coming on to the market and will revolutionise the solar power scene. Wind turbines are fantastic sources of energy and can be sited offshore to minimise damage to countryside views. We can now tap into tidal energy without ruining the ecology of estuaries.At one point I responded to comments by "shlemazl:"
At present only a tiny fraction of electricity generation is nuclear.My response:
In Ontario 50% of electrical generation comes from nuks. Two more old nuks are being refurbished.2. shlemaz:
Your "2050" forecast is utopian as it ignores practicalities.My response:
With mass production it is practical. You accomplish what you really want too.3. shlemaz:
There is not enough uranium to replace oil.My response:
With breeder reactors, especially breading thorium they is enough nuclear fuel to last for several thousand years. It is, by the way possible to modify the CANDU design to do breeding.4. shlemaz:
Fuel reprocessing ("recycling" to you) is an economic disaster. It's not so hot environmentally either. Only makes sense with fast reactors, which are also an economic disaster.
A fluoride reprocessing system was developed by ORNL in the 1960's, in connection with the molten salt reactor. The chemists all liked and believed in the system, but could not sell it to the bureaucrats. The molten salt reactor appears to be the best long range option for safe, and reliable nuclear power. It is a excellent breeder, and thorium is an ideal breeding material.Having proposed the use of thorium, I got this response from "MFB,"
Nice try, Mr. Barton, but not convincing.I pointed to the many unsolved problems associated with renewable energy and argued that it would not offer an economically viable replacement for fossil fuel energy sources. I argued that the nuclear option was the only viable option, if we are to replace fossil fuels. Few of my Harry's Place readers bought into my suggestion.
I come from a country with loads of uranium (although producing less and less as our gold mines are closed down) and a fairly active nuclear industry developing, for reasons which escape me, the Pebble-Bed Modular Reactor which is supposedly inherently safe. (Unlikely to be so in practice, and appallingly expensive, but never mind.)
The first Big Issue with nuclear power other than the questions of safety and waste disposal, is the shortage of uranium. We really don't have enough unless we can find some way of properly breeding plutonium from U-238. So far, all fast-breeder designs have failed. The problem with slow breeding is that uranium apparently gets turned into other isotopes, such as U-234 and U-236, which have rather bizarre properties such as neutron absorbtion which make the fuel less efficient.
The other problem is that you need a plutonium reprocessing plant. This is a huge chemical plant for dissolving fuel elements in nitric acid or some equivalent and then precipitating out the plutonium. Note that some of the plutonium is Pu-240, which is not fissionable; the more Pu-239 becoming Pu-240, the less efficient the process. Meanwhile you are left with a caustic solution of horribly radioactive stuff which is dangerous to store and expensive to get rid of. No doubt you could precipitate out some of the radionuclides and make use of them, but that, too, would be expensive. It's nasty and dangerous (most of the world's worst nuclear accidents have been at reprocessing plants).
Thorium is not fissionable by itself, although it can be bred into fissionable material. Then it needs to be reprocessed in much the same way, and with much the same problems, as with plutonium. However, this is blue-sky stuff; nobody yet has a workable commercial thorium breeder reactor and nobody knows whether one will work. The record of new nuclear reactors is not brilliant (virtually all the working designs were developed in the 1940s) and not likely to attract much investment.
So, to sum up, you want to spend vast amounts of money developing a technology which may not work, and developing another technology which almost certainly does not work and wastes vast amounts of energy (uranium enrichment is very problematic). It seems to me that this is an unwise policy.
A much more sensible policy, cheaper and known to work, is to enlarge the current solar and tidal systems (including, of course, hydro power). A vast array of improvements can be made with very little investment and virtually no risk, and with the advantage that solar/tidal power is not going to run out in the next few decades (or centuries in your rather over-optimistic perspective).
In the longer term solar power stations in space will be able to beam down energy to earth.
What is interesting to me about my Harry's place post is that I first developed the Message I continue to elaborate on Nuclear Green,
1. Nuclear reactors provide the only reliable CO2 free source of electrical energy, among currently proposed energy options.
2. Reactors can be mass produced, just like cars and computers.
3. The mass production of reactors will bring the cost of individual reactors down very significantly. Mass produced reactors will be cheaper to build than the coal fired power plants they will replace.
4. There is enough nuclear raw material in the world, to last a nuclear power industry for a long time.
5. Electrical energy, supplied by nuclear power plants can be substituted for fossil fuels in many present uses.
6. These include both personal and commercial transportation.
7. Plug in hybrid automobiles with a 40 to 50 mile trip range are possible using current technology.
8. The substitution of reactor generators for coal, and the use of plug in hybrids in place of fossil fuel technology will bring us very important secondary economic benefits that will save society and individuals more money that the conversions will costs.
9. The secondary benefits include billions of dollars in health care savings. The use of fossil fuels - coal and crud oil - is responsible for the respiratory illness and other health problems effecting millions of people in the United States. The treatment of these illnesses and other economic costs associated with them cost the United States economy hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Switching away from fossil fuels would save most of this money.
10. The international supply of crud oil has peaked, while millions of new consumers in China and India have entered the market for crude oil products. This has lead to a condition of rapidly expanding crud oil prices. The price of crud oil was $12 a barrel in 1998. Today (early October, 2007) it is over $80. Next year it is expected to reach as high as $140. (It reached $138 on 6/6/08). The substitution of electrical energy for crud oil products like gasoline, will save American and European consumers hundreds of billion dollars on imported oil and oil products.
11. Most autos now in use, and most coal fired power plants will come to the end of their useful life and will need to be replaced during the next 40 years. It will cost little or nothing to replace coal fired power plants with reactors, and to replace conventional cars and trucks, with long range plug in hybrids. Thus the total economic consequences of the conversions I suggest will be an enormous savings, not an added cost. Thus conversion to CO2 free energy far from entailing an enormous cost, will cost society nothing.
12. The nuclear waste problem is much less serious than is often believed. Most of what is called waste is potential reactor fuel. Each reactor produces only a few hundred pounds pounds of true waste a year. Some of the byproducts of nuclear fission, are useful material. The by products of nuclear fission grow less and less dangerous in time. As they grow inert many of he byproducts of nuclear fission can be diverted to industrial use.
13. Materials that are radioactive over long periods of time are not very dangerous, and can be stored in places like abandoned uranium mines, where elevated levels of radiation occur naturally.
In the Harry's Place post the nuclear option is the only viable option, if we are going to successfully respond to the threat posed by Anthropogenic Global Warming we much shift to the use of advanced nuclear technology. My disappointment with the reception it received lead me to my decision to create Nuclear Green, as an educational tool.