Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The cost of saving our skins

Some of my readers are global warming deniers. I have given up trying to argue with them. I have come to the conclusion that global warming skepticism has become a part of political "Conservative" identity, and such not curable by appeals to reason. This is really too bad because in matters related to mitigation of AGW the right is likely to be far more sane than the left. The left has bought into mitigation formulas that will make mitigation far more difficult and expensive than it need be. First much of the left has bought into a set of truly crazy ideas peddled by Al Gore, Amory Lovins, and Joe Romm. It pains me no end to include Al Gore in the crazy solutions to AGW crowd, but the fact is that Gore has bought into the "renewables and efficiency can save us," ideology.

When I started Nuclear Green, I expected to be writing more about my father's career than I have. Instead I have been doing something that Other people should be doing, which is analyzing the cost of coal replacement with renewable electricity. I have actually and informally accepted the argument that conventional nuclear is too expensive to serve as a fossil fuel replacement in the long run. But given the investment choice between renewables and conventional nuclear, conventional nuclear winds hands down in terms of CO2 displacement, cost of base load electricity, reliability, and flexibility. Part of the cost of conventional nuclear is due to excessive regulations, and a regulatory reform is desperately needed. As for the objections to conventional nuclear, new reactor designs are highly safe, and I expect "nuclear waste" to play a valuable role in a post carbon nuclear economy. The argument that because we build reactors in the United States, Congolese rebels and assorted terrorists will acquire nuclear weapons is down right silly. The anti-nuclear crowd clearly crosses the line into fanaticism, offering us arguments that are silly, and/or dishonest, rather than carefully thought out reasoning. I have pointed out before that rational objections to nuclear power can be answered by improved technology, and in particular the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Were critics of nuclear power rational, they would be open to dialogue about the advantages of LFTR technology. Alas, Greenpeace and the Amory Lovins crowd are not in the slightest interested in solutions to the nuclear waste problem, advances in nuclear safety, or proliferation resistant nuclear technology.

The real discussion about the future of energy should focus on the advantages of the LFTR over conventional nuclear technology, the need to get LFTR development started as soon as possible, and methods to accomplish the rapid and low cost deployment of LFTR generators world wide, starting in about a decade. I am well aware that I am going against conventional wisdom by saying this, but the LFTR is the silver bullet, or rather the thorium bullet. If we have only hope of saving our skins, it is going to be through rapid deployment of LFTR technology.

Conventional nuclear technology still costs less as a base power source than renewables. Conventional nuclear is far more flexible and reliable. But conventional nuclear is still too expensive, requires too much labor to construct, and takes too long to build. Even the NIE, which speaks for the conventional nuclear industry admits conventional nuclear cannot be more than part of the show. In addition the world energy economy cannot be sustained with once through nuclear fuel technology. The disadvantages of conventional nuclear become apparent when it is compared to the LFTR potential.

The biggest obstacle to global warming mitigation is ideological. The right denies the necessity of mitigation, but is more receptive than the left to a rational mitigation approach. The left accepts AGW, but buys into a wish fulfillment approach to mitigation. A sane conversation about mitigation is not yet possible in the United States, or most of Europe for that matter. If we cannot talk about rational approaches to AGW mitigation, progress toward that goal is not possible, and the time is short. My call then is a call to reason, a call to sanity. Let's put all of the cards on the table face up. Let's talk about who is holding what, and stop grinding axes. Well that is what should happen, at the very least the media should start reading the ax grinders out of the conversation. It is disgraceful that Scientific American has turned its name over to a poorly informed, journalism school graduate, who follows the Amory Lovins/Joe Romm partly line on nuclear power. It is disgraceful that the New York times turns its pages over to the poorly informed art restoration specialists, who poses as an expert on nuclear technology issues for Greenpeace. We are not going to make progress on mitigation sanity until the fanatics, the ideologically motivated ax grinders, the dishonest, and the ill informed are shoved to the side in the conversation.

A sane conversation is not going to happen overnight. There has to be a real awakening to the difficulties we face, and that has not happened yet. It will happen soon, however. We are about to be brought to an incontrovertible awareness that our own skins are at stake, and that the need to act quickly and decisively is most urgent. At that point, given responsible leadership, the conversation should become serious. Then the central question will be how will it be possible to save our skins. How will it be possible to afford to save our skins, and do it in time?


Lynne said...

This has been a concern of mine for quite some time. If we allow these 'energy charlatans' to direct funding to renewables, then we may not have the financing to build or refurbish nuclear plants. Money has to go to a reliable baseload source on which we can build a recovery at the end of this recession. Watching California is very instructive. Now that the 'greens' have influenced the energy supply plan, I read that they are looking at banning plasma and large screen LCD televisions. The move to control energy, and now lifestyle choices, is proceeding as planned. Will sanity ever prevail?

Charles Barton said...

Lynne, your voice needs to be heard. The Greens are over reaching, and eventually will be pushed to the margins, but right now the politicians and the media are looking for answers, and the greens are talking in very loud voices. The politicians and the media have not yet noticed that what the Greens are saying is crazy.

Lynne said...

I found this quote from Amory Lovins on the Canadianbluelemons blog. "If you ask me, it'd be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy becasue of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won't give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other." This is from the Mother Earth-Plowboy Interview Nov/Dec 1977 on page 22. Now we understand Lovins' irrational objection to nuclear power. I wonder what his vision of "adequate for our needs" is?

donb said...

I am a political conservative. I take an "agnostic" view of anthopogenic global warming. But I believe we political conservatives can strongly support doing the right thing with respect to advanced nuclear energy, even if it is for the "wrong" reasons.

I believe that the two biggest reasons are the negative health effects of burning fossil fuel, and their increasing scarcity/cost. I would hope that both sides of the political spectrum could agree on this.

The cost issue needs work. Part of the solution is factory built, truck/rail transportable modular reactors, as Charles Barton has often suggested.

I think also there is a regulatory cost problem. For conventional reactors, this is the single biggest cost, exceeding the cost of labor to build a power plant or the cost of the reactor. The role of government should be to regulate for the success of advanced nuclear energy. Success means quickly obtaining safe, low cost energy from advanced reactors such as the LFTR. Government needs to be a stakeholder in that success, not just a provider of safety regulations.

With regulation for success and mass production, I believe that advanced reactors will eventually provide energy at lower cost than coal does today.

Charles Barton said...

domb, Your comments reflect why I think it important that conservatives participate in mitigation discussions. Although i do not count myself a conservative, I believe that mitigation efforts need not involve extensive long term government involvement in the personal lives and choices of its citizens. I also view the most desirable energy option to be the one which delivers the greatest amount of energy at the lowest cost. I would expect agreementfrom conservatives on that view.

Anonymous said...

I'm skeptical on AGW climate catastrophe, though like donb I recognize good reasons for moving away from fossil fuels. I'd also suggest that ending our oil addiction will free us of the necessity of engaging in imperialist behaviour in the Middle East, with all the repercussions that goes with this.

The biggest problem I have with AGW alarmists is that they may convince people that they're screwed and that there is therefore no point in doing anything (after all, even if the West could with a truly Stalinesque level of effort become carbon-neutral in 10 years, that may well be cancelled out by increased Third World use of fossil fuels).

Personally, I think that we'll be OK as long as we keep CO2 below 500 ppm, and get it back below 350 ppm by 2100.

To give a comparison, if Klaus von Stauffenberg and his like-minded German officers had been aware of the stuff that the Allies were talking about among themselves - Morgenthau Plans and the like - do you think they would even have bothered trying to overthrow Hitler?

No, they would have given up in despair and resigned themselves to fighting to the last alongside the Nazis - even though they hated them. "If that's all we've got to look forward to, we might as well go down fighting..."

donb said...

Charles Barton said:
I think it important that conservatives participate in mitigation discussions.

The political hurdle here, as George Carty implied above, is that participating in CO2 mitigation discussions (as such) basically admits that it is a legitimate problem. It is hard to discuss solving a problem you don't believe exists.

That is why I would frame the discussion in terms of the moving away from fossil fuels to the safe and economical alternative of advanced nuclear energy, and let the various groups take away what they will -- CO2 mitigation, improved health, conservation of increasingly scarce fossil fuels, reduced exports of dollars.

We don't have to agree on what what we think is the biggest problem to be solved, so long as we all agree on the same solution. Let the political discussions revolve around the exact path to the solution, so long as that does not substantially impede progress towards it.

Robw said...


I also consider myself an AGW agnostic like Donb and George.

I also believe that the conservatives could be more easily swayed to the benefits of LFTR technology if it is presented as an energy independence/national security interest vs. global warming, even if that's the primary benefit. Most conservatives just believe your a 'nutcase' once you mention global warming....


Charles Barton said...

George Carty and Domb, I have argued not too long ago, that this is a tribal thing. Let's acknowledge that everyone who is a member of other tribes is a nut case, and not be too clear about the tribe I am a member of. In fact some 40 years ago I discovered that insanity was the rule rather than the exception in my tribe.

Anonymous said...

Conservatives/skeptics can love LFTR for energy security and low cost power for the world's poor.

Liberals/AGWCC believers can love LFTR because they fear co2.

LFTR can attract 80% of the public. We will never get the fewer people fewer resources crowd and we will never get the coal infrastructure crowd.


Robert Hargraves said...

We don't have to castigate global warming skeptics to present the benefits of thorium energy. Bjorn Lomborg, for example, writes about alternatives to spending excess money on carbon constraints. [Europe spent $50 billion already with no results!]

Energy cheaper than from coal is a persuasive, positive way to BOTH increase economic productivity worldwide and to dissuade nations from burning coal. That's the focus of Aim High,


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