Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The transformative potential of nuclear power or a cruel hoax?

The title of Michael Tobis's post on the Energy Collective today tells the story, The Cruel Hoax: Growth and Equity Cannot be Sustained Tobis tells us. Tobis claims:

the 2.5 % growth for 50 years amounts to a 3.4 fold increase in wealth for us. If the population does not increase, that means the 11-fold increase in the prior calculation (for others to catch up only to 2008 levels in the west) has to be multiplied by 3.4 to catch up to the west, plus another factor of 1.4 to account for the increased population.

As a consequence, the impact per unit of wealth has to decline by a factor of 11 * 3.4 * 1.4 = 52.9 .
In order to support business as usual without increasing net impact or abandoning any claim to international equity, impact per unit wealth has to decrease by more than a factor of fifty. Even that may not be sustainable: that is what is needed to fulfill the implicit promise of a growth economy to the rest of the world for another fifty years without increasing the RATE at which the earth is damaged. And even so, the growth idea implies continuing reduction in impact per unit of wealth thereafter.

Contrary to Tobis, from the viewpoint of energy, the long-term economic growth of the human economy is sustainable. The largest single terrestrial energy source remains completely untapped, while 99% of the second largest potential energy source is now wasted. The potential energy from these sources would be great enough to sustain the entire current population of the Earth at Western European levels of energy consumption for hundreds of millions of years. The energy sources are thorium and uranium, and every year enough energy from both are thrown away, to sustain the entire planet at energy levels that Mr. Tobis seems to think are impossible to sustain. While the use of oil as an energy source is not sustainable, the use of thorium and uranium can be and they can be substituted for oil as an energy source.
In 2007 Sparton Resources Inc., investigated fly ash samples taken from the Ajka Power Station in west- central Hungary. It was reported that a 20 million ton ash pile contained between 92 and 154 parts per million U3O8 (yellowcake). U2O8 is recoverable from fly ash using low energy, low cost recovery technology. Assuming that 0.1 pound of uranium is recoverable from every ton of fly ash, this means that 1000 tons of uranium could be recoverable from the Ajka ash pile. If efficient energy extraction technology were use to extract the energy from the 1000 tons of uranium, it could run 1000 nuclear power plants for a year. Those power plants would produce 2 and a half times the electricity now produced in the United States during a single year. Sparton did not even bother to assess the amount of thorium in the Ajka ash pile, but we can presume that if the average proportion between uranium and thorium holds, there would have been enough thorium to power another 3000 large reactors for a year. 3000 reactors would produce enough electricity to supply the entire population of India at near American levels of electrical consumption for a year.

It should not be assumed that it would be impossibly expensive to extract electricity from uranium and thorium. India is building a commercial fast breeder reactor that it expects to be finished by 2013. The technology has already been tested an earlier small prototype. The new Indian reactor will efficiently extract 100% of the energy from uranium at a cost of six and a half cents per kWh. Later serial produced Indian fast breeders are expected to produce electricity at a cost of four cents per kWh.

I have argued that Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, capable of efficiently extracting 98% of the energy in Thorium, could be manufactured in factories at a cost as low as one dollar a watt of generating capacity. I might be wrong about this cost estimate, but so far no one had demonstrated that my estimate is impossible.

The ability to produce abundant, low costs energy is the key to maintaining human material well-being. When I was a young man, considerable concerned was expressed because human society faced a shortage of mercury. "How can human society survive, once the mercury runs out," people wondered. Yet substitutes were found. Mercury no longer goes into thermometers, but people still get their temperature checked.

The Indian government has already paid for the development of the fast breeder nuclear technology that will allow for low cost efficient conversion of uranium and thorium into electricity in India. The Indians estimate that building their fast breeder reactors will cost about $1.20 per watt of electrical generating capacity. This is almost half the capital cost of wind generators in the United States. If the Indians can build reliable post-carbon generating capacity at $1.20 per watt, a lot of electricity and energy intensive industries is going to relocate to India during the next 40 to 50 years. The same Indian technology that lowers power costs with use uranium and thorium several hundred time more efficiently, than uranium is used in current nuclear technology.

A lot of now poor Indians are going to see revolutionary changes in their standard of living and quality of life in the next fifty years. The future material prosperity of India is not a hoax. I can only conclude that Michael Tobis simply does not understand the potential of nuclear power.


Finrod said...

"I can only conclude that Michael Tobis simply does not understand the potential of nuclear power."Or that he does, and hates it.

Charles Barton said...

Robis ignores nuclear power. In his universe such a thing seems not possible. **

Barry Brook said...

Well said Charles. Who would have thought that nations like India would be the leaders of the world energy transformation -- but they do give me real hope.

crf said...

In the Tobis post you cited, he didn't anywhere say that energy was the limiting factor, which is what you are claiming he wrote. It doesn't follow that if one argues that there are limits to growth and prosperity, that energy is THE limit. Why are you claiming that? So you can write this insult: "The energy sources are thorium and uranium, and every year enough energy from both are thrown away, to sustain the entire planet at energy levels that Mr. Tobis seems to think are impossible to sustain".

From his essay alone, he doesn't "seem" to think that. You just invented this out of wholecloth.

Charles Barton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Barton said...

crf, if energy is not the limiting factor, what is? if hundreds of times more energy can be produced with a decline in total impact, how can Tobis say that limiting factors prevent the equitible increase of wealth?

Soylent said...

Crf. Energy is the master resource; with energy and ingenuity you can make anything.


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