I have argued that this is the case even if the problem of Anthropogenic Global Warming is discounted. My argument in no small measure has rested on the limitations of renewable energy and the high costs of overcoming those limitations. Although my argument is not yet reflected in mainstream discussions of energy, there is growing recognition that the problems I point to cannot be easily solved.
I have also pointed to problems with the conventional nuclear option. I have defended the conventional nuclear option from the ritualized, mythic criticisms from anti-nuclear spokes-persons, but this does not mean that I think the the conventional nuclear option is without flaws. My view is that despite some flaws, the conventional nuclear option comes in at a lower cost than renewables, once the flaws of renewables are corrected and the corrections paid for. I have been criticised for taking this viewpoint. I have also been criticized for pointing to the flaws of conventional nuclear power, even though there is no real disagreement with my account of those flaws.
Now some of my critics, critics who would say I should not talk about the issues, are people I respect, including Rod Adams and Bill Hannahan. But they must understand that the issues that I raise are not new issues and they are not trivial issues. Nor do I view these issues as trivial in their implication. I will not shove issues-related technological progress in nuclear energy under the rug.
I have a stake in both sides of the issues I discuss. My brother David came by my apartment on Saturday. He brought with him two boxes of my father's publications which he had brought back from Oak Ridge. In one of the boxes was a letter acknowledging that my father's assignment of patent rights to the industrial process for the separation of zirconium and hafnium. This was an important patent for the development of conventional nuclear power. My father looked with satisfaction on this achievement, and his role in the development of conventional nuclear technology does give me something of a personal stake in conventional nuclear power production.
The two boxes of my father's papers contained copies of many of my father's papers documenting his Molten-Salt Reactor chemistry research. So I have another stake in that. Although my father's nearly 20-year involvement with Molten Salt research was not crowned with success my father never stopped believing in the idea and my LFTR advocacy gave him much satisfaction during the last year of his life.
My father also holds a patent for the fuel formula used in the first MSR prototype. As I have documented elsewhere in this blog, his Molten-salt research at ORNL included numerous accomplishments. Although he was proud of his accomplishment in the development of conventional reactors, even during the last year of his life, in conversations I had with him, he saw MSR/LFTR technology as the way into the energy future.
Thus even if I had no views independent of my father's views. I would still be forced to acknowledge his views, that the LFTR represents the future of nuclear technology. I simply, and in all honesty cannot keep quiet on the relative merits of the LWR and the LFTR, and it is not fair to ask me to do so.
The debate between the LFTR and the conventional reactor is far too important to be allowed to pass without noting. We are in urgent need of addressing the emissions of CO2 in energy because of global warming. The issue of peak coal was recently placed on the table. I am not convinced by the case for peak coal yet, but even without arguing either for peak coal or for Anthropogenic Global Warming, a strong case can be made for the elimination of coal use in the generation of electricity. I expect that energy concerns are very quickly going to become much more important in the public mind, and in the mind of decision makers. I also expect that there will be growing awareness of the short comings of renewables, and no small amount of dismay at the inability of renewables to cut the mustard.
Between Anthropogenic Global Warming, peak oil, and the liabilities of coal, society faces a looming energy gap. This will be no where more significant than in the United Kingdom, where the need to close reactors and old fired power plants in the next decade will almost certainly lead to significant electrical shortages. It is unlikely that the British Government's plan to build 33 GWs of wind powered generating capacity can be accomplished within the timeframe projected as a project goal. Constructing enough nuclear generating capacity to fill the gap would be a realistic alternative, if the British Government were willing to go beyond a business as usual approach, and assign the construction of nuclear power plants a war-time-like priority.
The case for urgency in resolution of the British power gap is very powerful, and it failure to do so would be a disaster for the political system. In the short run politicians who might be aware of the problem are afraid to get out ahead of the public. Thus national leaders are are failing to provide leadership. I am aware of the problem from the writings of Christopher Booker and Richard North, and discussions on the Oil Drum. A number of reports have also discussed the energy gap problem, but to date the problem has not gotten sufficient traction with the British public to become important.
But within less than a decade the British Energy Gap will begin to tell. Whatever else will happen, electricity will be in short supply in the UK. The insecurity of the British gas supply, which Mr. Putin demonstrated this winter, can potentially aggravate the problem. New electrical capacity, whether nuclear or wind, is likely to be more expensive than the old plants that are being shut down. The term "energy poverty" is beginning to pop up in discussion of the inability of the poor members of society to pay for electricity. Energy poverty is very much a life and death issue in the United Kingdom where winters, while hardly Arctic, can still be very cruel to those who cannot afford to pay for heat.
In addition, there are serious implications for the British economy. First the energy intensive industries that remain in the United Kingdom must look at the future reliability problems of the British electrical system. Chinese reactor costs are currently running between $1565 and $1760 per KW. The Chinese plan to have as many as 100 reactors under construction or completed by 2020, with the capacity to rapidly expand that number between 2020 and 2030. Yesterday I pointed out that Indian reactor costs appear to be even lower, with construction costs for Generation IV Liquid Metal Fast Breeders coming in at $1400 per KW. The Indians also possess an long term assured reactor fuel supply, and the Indian nuclear program, although complex is well thought out and technologically more advanced than the Chinese program.
Thus the British Industrialist, contemplating future energy shortages and electrical costs, might well be tempted to move his production to one of the emerging Asian superpowers. Such temptation is widely shared and acted on, would contribute to an economic decline for the United Kingdom. Even if the British government acquired the cojones needed to prevent the energy gap, the cost of a high priority nuclear solution would leave British electricity more expensive than Chinese or Indian electricity. Thus the Chinese and the Indians would possess a considerable competative advantage over the UK. Add to that advantage, the advantage of lower labor costs, and you get a formula for a long term economic decline of the UK. Of course this would not make the greens weep, not at first at least. But eventually the Greens would come to see that they did not solve the problems associated with human wealth, rather the problems would be transfered from Europe to Asia.
Unfortunately current understandings, or rather misunderstandings of American energy have distorted public thinking about our options. Renewable advocates are both dishonest and confused. I have on Nuclear Green, Energy from Thorium, and Daily Kos, explored the renewable options, and the cost of making renewable electricity dependable. Renewable advocates when confronted with the shortcomings of renewable electricity usually resort to talking about three options. They are:
1. Energy efficiencySeparately, and in combination energy efficiency and a smart grid will not produce electricity if the wind stops blowing on a cold winter night. Curiously when confronted with these facts, renewables advocates fall back on the carbon emitting grid back up as if we will never dispense with it. When it comes to negative comparisons with nuclear, renewables advocates will argue that renewables electrical generation will always be supported by and will require the burning of CO2 emitting fossil fuels.
2. the smart grid
3. energy storage
I have documented the conceptual problems involved in the claim that energy efficiency can fill the gap. Nothing about a smart grid allows it to deliver energy that is not produced or stored. I have looked at a number of proposed systems for storing electricity from wind generation under very favorable wind conditions. Even under favorable wind conditions, no wind energy storage system can make reliable West Texas wind cost competitive with conventional nuclear generated electricity. Nor will West Texas wind even with energy storage ever be as reliable or flexible as conventional nuclear. The problem then with conventional nuclear is not its cost competitiveness with renewables, rather it is the fact that both renewables and conventional nuclear cost too much.
My advocacy of the LFTR then is not simply motivated in my father's role in its development. My father never looked at the potential of the LFTR for lowering electrical costs. Thus in addition to solving the major issues of nuclear power, including outstanding safety, and largely resolving the problem of nuclear waste, cutting CO2 emissions to next to nothing, and eliminating the need to mine for nuclear fuel for thousands of years, LFTRs have the potential of being built at a fraction of the cost of renewables or conventional nuclear.
My view has always been that a rapid conversion to a post-carbon energy system that is safe, efficient, reliable and affordable is not an option. If the American economy is to have a future, and the American people are to live in relative prosperity, comfort, safety, security, and good health, then the potential of the LFTR is not an option. The only post-carbon energy source that has the potential to realize these goals is the LFTR. I believe then that it is appropriate for me to discuss the relative advantages of the LFTR over both conventional nuclear and renewable electrical sources.