My anonymous pro-renewables commentator advocated nuclear power as the Plan B for renewables advocates. His argument is in effect that renewable advocates, are betting the farm on low cost renewable generated electricity, unless they have a back up plan. While he and I do not agree about the extent of the risk involved in the renewable gamble, we agree that there is a risk, and the belief that renewables can be both low priced and reliable, and that they can be deployed fast enough to control global carbon emissions by 2050. There are plenty of reasons for skepticism about this belief. So much so that we must ask our energy advocating friends, if they are really interested in a rational approach to energy, or if they wish to resolve energy issues through faith. My view is that faith might get you to heaven, but on Earth it will not provide you with warmth and light on a cold but windless winter night in East Tennessee.
Renewables advocates, like David Roberts of Grist, when challenged with the uncertainties of renewables, have respond with the following dodges:
1. We will get electricity from non-renewable backups on the Grid.
This means of course that we are still going to be burning quite a lot of fossil fuels to keep electricity flowing through what is suppose to be a post carbon grid.
2. We will build pump storage facilities to back up wind generation. Pump storage facilities are expensive, locations are difficult to find in high wind areas, and pump storage may fail with catastrophic consequences.
3. We can use compressed air energy storage with both wind and solar generators. CAES is very inefficient, and current CAES systems require the burning of natural gas. Thus CAES is both expensive and not exactly carbon neutral.
4. We can back up with batteries. But battery backup is expensive,and it would take a huge amount of battery - or for that matter CAES or pump storage back up to tide us over during a worst case renewables scenario. A worst case reneweables scenario for wind be a series of several windless days over much of the United States. The worst case scenario for solar might involve huge multiday dust storms in the Southwest, or the sort of winter storms such as those currently (December 26, 2009) sweeping the American mid-section.
5. We can build lots of windmills over a large area, enough to to compensate for localized wind patterns. But a huge number of redundant windmills will be very expensive and we would end up with a huge and hugely expensive grid expansion to move electricity from the innumerable wind farms required to make wind reliable to the electricity hungry consumers.
6. We could build redundant solar capacity over a wide area. But a huge number of redundant solar facilities will also be very expensive and we would end up with a huge and hugely expensive grid expansion to move electricity from the innumerable solar required to make solar reliable to the electricity hungry consumers. Plus the sun still does not shine at night.
7. Solar thermal advocates will counter that solar energy can be used to heat liquid salt, and that the heat can then be drawn on at night to provide generate electricity. But to provide enough heat to provide round the clock electricity on long winter nights, solar thermal gathering fields need to be tripled or quadrupled. This redundancy will make round round the clock solar thermal power extremely expensive.
8. Renewable advocates point to geothermal power. But natural geothermal resources are limited to a relatively few areas, and the "hot rocks" approach poses an earth quake risk. Furthermore, the "hot rocks" do not qualify under many definitions of sustainable energy, as a sustainable resource.
There is ample reason then to question the possibility of deriving low cost, reliable electricity from renewable sources on the massive scale required by 21st century society. Many renewable advocates argue that energy efficiency, by itself, will so lower energy and electrical demand, that efficiency can will lower electrical consumption demands. But efficiency does not replace carbon based generation capacity, with electricity generated by post-carbon sources. Nor does efficiency compensated for the unreliability of renewable generated electricity. In addition nothing would prevent reaping the advantages of efficiency along side a non-renewable nuclear approach to electricity generation.
Many renewable advocates claim that a smart grid will compensate for the instability of a renewables based grid. But a smart grid cannot solve the problems based on long term wide scale generation outages that are possible with renewable sourced electricity. Smart grids, by themselves are not electrical generators. In addition smart grid management systems are vulnerable to sabotage by hackers. Sabotaging an enemies smart grid, may replace the guided rocket delivered nuclear bomb, as the new ultimate weapon.
Thus renewable generation plans carry with them a high degree of uncertainty. But nuclear power offers the possibility of generating large amounts of low cost, electricity, and given a modest investment would be sustainable for billions of years. Many but by no means all renewable advocates will object to to the Nuclear Plan B on a number of ground.
1. Nuclear energy is too dangerous. Reactors can blow up like bombs and kill millions of people. Reactors cannot blow up like bombs, old reactors have been modified to improve their safety, and current reactor designs are much safer than the modified older designs. Even safer reactors are possible, if we are not satisfied with the safety of current reactor designs.
2. Nuclear reactors create a huge amount of deadly, highly radioactive waste, that will pose radiations hazards to anyone who gets within a hundred miles of it for the next billion years. Nuclear reactors can be designed that will use what is now considered nuclear waste as fuel. The more efficient use of nuclear fuel will solve most of the nuclear waste problem. What is now considered nuclear waste is in fact a potential source of many valuable raw materials, used by modern society. Thus far from being waste, nuclear power holds the potential to become an important source of many increasing scarce materials needed to sustain society.
3. Nuclear power will inevitably lead to a nuclear arms race, and inevitably lead to nuclear exchanges between nuclear powered countries. Terrorist groups will gain control of power reactors and will inevitably use them to build nuclear weapons. But most reactors will be going to nations which already posses the human and technological resources to build nuclear weapons, and the current design of power reactors makes electrical generation incompatible with the production of weapons grade plutonium. The redactor grade plutonium, produced by power reactors, is very radioactive and will not produce large explosion. Although all nuclear armed nations have easy access to large amounts of reactor grade plutonium, they have chosen to not build nuclear weapons with it.
Reactor grade plutonium typically explodes with far less force than weapons grade plutonium, and terrorist groups can accomplish the same effect with conventional explosive with can be obtained with far less effort, at far lower prices, and which would be far easier to manage. Small nations wishing to obtain nuclear weapons can obtain the plans for a low cost, easy to construct weapons grade plutonium production reactor from North Korea, which already attempted to sell one to Syria.
A low or inadequate energy future might well lead to conditions that might well spark a war. In a still nuclear armed world, energy resource wars might well lead to nuclear exchanges. Thus, ironically, one of the risks of a failed renewables future would be the greater likelihood of a nuclear exchange of between energy starved countries fighting over energy resources.
4, Nuclear critics claim that reactors are too expensive, and take too long to deploy. But the projected costs of reliable renewable electrical systems are far higher than the cost of a nuclear dominated system. Nuclear advocates point to numerous steps that can be taken to lower nuclear costs. Building small reactors in factories, and shipping them to be assembled like legos, at reactor sites is one. Recycling old coal fired power plants as reactor sites is a second. Housing reactors underground would remove the necessity of building massive and expensive concrete and steal containment buildings. Small reactors can also be air cooled. Small reactors can be just as safe as large reactors, but would be seen by lenders to be far less risky this would lower construction finance cost. Smaller factory manufactured reactor will take much time to build, and the time between inception of a project and its completion can be greatly decreased.
5. Nuclear critics claim that we are running out of uranium, and thus scarcity of resources will be make long term use of nuclear power impractical. But Generation IV nuclear technology can assure a high energy future for all the people on earth, for as period stretching out for millions of years. If thorium is included in the nuclear fuel mix, the human population of Earth will be assured adequate energy until solar evolution makes the Earth uninhabitable.
6. Nuclear critics claim that it would be too expensive to develop Generation IV, nuclear technology, and that it would take to long to develop it. In fact it would cost far less to develop Generation IV technologies, than the $73 Billion that the German government has already spent on a failed attempt to produce a viable solar alternative to coal, The Manhattan project demonstrated that by abandoning a business as usual approach, and giving priority to energy developments, what would take more than a generation to achieve could be done in as little as three and a half years. Compared to the effort required by the Manhattan Project, and the resources it required, the effort and resources required to produce viable and mass producible Generation IV power reactors would be small. But the potential would be enormous. Reactors like the LFTR would be simple to manufacture in factories. Large numbers of LFTRs could be produced and set up on appropriate sites quickly. In addition LFTRs could be used as an industrial heat source and can produce heat for co generation. Rejected heat from LFTRs could be used for desalinization, or for district heat or even air conditioning. LFTRs, like all Molten Salt Reactors can be designed to achieve high levels of safety at low costs. LFTRs can be used to dispose of the nuclear waste from conventional reactors, thus offering a no cost solution to the so called problem of nuclear waste. Thus for a relatively small research project and development cost, a technological that could solve all of the major problems of nuclear power could be made available, and potentially most of the energy needs of human society can be served by a long term sustainable, low cost, low waste, or no waste, nuclear technology.
The biggest problem with Plan B is that it looks a lot better than Plan A. The Plan B risks are lower. Plan B is likely to cost much less, and Plan B is very scalable. The real question is "why isn't Plan B, our Plan A?"
Post Note: This post summarizes arguments developed over the last two and a half years after an argument on the relative merits of renewable and nuclear power generation systems with David Roberts on Grist. Roberts, a follower of Amory Lovins, exaggerated the liabilities of nuclear power, which he claimed could never be solved. On the other hand, Roberts insisted with 100% certainty that all of the problems of renewables could and would be solved, and that renewables could be melded into a low cost reliable generation system, with sufficient flexibility to provide all of societies post carbon energy needs. At the same time Roberts argued that any any defficiency of renewables could be made up by resorting to the burning of carbon based fuels, appearantly without climate consequences. People like Roberts are beyond rational persuasion, but the issues that emerge in debate with them can be resolved to the satisfaction of more rational people. I have not supplied links to the numerous arguments that lie behind this post, but those arguments are available on Nuclear Green and Energy from Thorium to those who have a seriou interest.
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