Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Faustian Bargains: Weinberg or Lovins?

One of the hazards of coining a memorable expression is wearing it out and continuing to use it after it should have gone out of fashion. Even thinkers as gifted as Alvin Weinberg can develop a mental cramp as far as their own memorable expressions are concerned. Weinberg's phrase "Faustian bargain" is a singular example of the problem. By the early 1970's the Faustian bargain idea had been made obsolete by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory team of reactor scientists, but Weinberg, almost always in the forefront of understanding the implication of new ideas failed to see that the relevance of the Faustian bargain idea was passing as far as nuclear science was concerned. Indeed Weinberg's post-ORNL work was to demonstrate that new Faustian bargains were emerging, bargains which held far more serious consequences than that which people believed they were confronted with by nuclear power.

In the conclusion to his November 1972 Nuclear Safety speech, Weinberg stated,
We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer - in the breeder reactor - an almost inexhaustible source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy, when properly handled, is almost nonpolluting. Whereas fossil fuel burners must emit oxides of carbon and nitrogen, and probably will always emit some sulfur dioxide, there is no intrinsic reason why nuclear systems must emit any pollutant - except heat and traces of radioactivity.
Yet Weinberg saw that the benefits of nuclear energy came at a cost,
the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions to which we are quite unaccustomed.
Yet this contention has turned out to be untrue. As I pointed out in my first post on this speech, by the time Weinberg delivered it, the very molten-salt reactor technology which he had led Oak Ridge scientists in developing had made the Faustian bargain concept of nuclear energy potentially obsolete. This is a unique feature of molten-salt reactor technology. Charles Till and Y.I. Chang of Argonne National Laboratory attempted to replicate the MSBR level of safety with the IFR, but there was still a Faustian bargain aspect to the IFR. Sodium burns while molten fluoride salts do not. It is impossible to remove noble gases from IFR fuel during operation, while it is both possible and highly desirable to do so with a LFTR. The LFTR without xenon removal will not reach a one-to-one conversion ratio, and thus will eventually run out of fuel and shut down. The IFR's neutron economy does not require xenon removal, so the Faustian bargain is still in force.

Both the potential safety of molten salt nuclear technology, and its ability to destroy the most dangerous and long lived constituents of nuclear waste, the actinides including the various isotopes of plutonium. offer ways out of the Faustian bargain. Thus in terms of the classic objections to nuclear energy, which Weinberg articulated, the molten-salt reactor offered solutions to the problem of safe reactor design, and nuclear waste disposal. The "Faustian bargain" proved to not be interminable, and the keys to ending it had been developed before Weinberg left ORNL. IFR technology still involves a Faustian bargain despite the claims of its advocates to the contrary.

The Molten Salt Reactor offered truly amazing features as Uri Gat was later to point out in papers he authored with L.H. Dodds. Given the fact that the MSR established that the nuclear communities bargain with society was not inevitably a Faustian bargain. And indeed, IFR advocates would also state that the same is in fact the case with the IFR.

In a review of "NON-NUCLEAR FUTURES: The case for an ethical energy strategy" by Amory B. Lovins and John H. Price, published in Energy policy in December, 1976, Alvin Weinberg pointed to a Faustian bargain Lovins was offering his readers and society,
Despite its title, the book is not concerned with non-nuclear futures. The reader of a book so named is entitled to get from the authors a reasoned description of a feasible non-nuclear future. The authors excuse this omission with the assertion (p159), 'To show that a policy is mistaken does not oblige the analyst to have an alternative policy.' But this is inadequate. This is not dealing with a hypothetical issue, but a real one. It is not enough to point out the deficiencies of nuclear energy; one must deal with the situation that would arise if Lovins and price were successful in their onslaught: should the society indeed turn away from nuclear energy, what then?
Here Alvin Weinberg exposes Amory Lovins' Faustian bargain with our society. Weinberg Ferrets out Lovins' fundamental assumption about energy and society,
(p xxi), 'Low-energy futures can (but need not) be normative and pluralistic, whereas high-energy futures are bound to be coercive and to offer less scope for social diversity and individual freedom.
Weinberg raised a problem with Lovins' low-energy, high freedom claim, by pointing to an inevitable tradeoff between energy and time. The more energy we have, Weinberg argued, the more freedom we have to control our time. Weinberg pointed to a truth problem in Lovins' argument
So much of the argument is at the border of Science, or even trans-scientific, that one cannot prove the authors to be wrong, any more than one can prove the nuclear advocates to be wrong.
Weinberg put his finger on the greatest single environmental flaw of Lovins' argument, his failure to identify CO2 emissions from energy as a major environmental issue, and his willingness to accept carbon emitting coal as a substitute for nuclear energy. Weinberg wrote,
the authors regard net energy analysis as a convenient device for casting nuclear power in an unfavorable light, a feat they attempt to accomplish by ignoring significant comparisons, - nuclear and non=nuclear of the same doubling time and relative effects of heat release and CO2 release.
In response to Lovins recommending a coal burning bridge between the period when nuclear power was considered acceptable and the time when all energy would come from renewable resources, Weinberg asked,
Can we really ignore CO2 during the coal burning fission free bridge?
Lovins countered that he
worried about the climate effect of the release of CO2
but that nuclear power would not prevent CO2 emissions from high coal use. Clearly then Lovins offered a Faustian bargain with his anti-nuclear energy scheme. In 2010, long after a process which Lovins forecasted would have begun to shift human society from fossil fuels to renewables, coal use for energy continues to rise. If Lovins worried in 1976 about the climate effects of CO2 emissions, he did not worry sufficiently. Lovins Faustian bargain put society clearly on track for a climate disaster, and in 2010 Lovins still has not figured out how to avoid the disaster without nuclear energy. The Lovins Faustian bargain is still in force, and until we are willing to listen to Alvin Weinberg, we will continue to follow Lovins to perdition.

1 comment:

donb said...

The "Faustian Bargains" revolve around the waste from the process of generating energy.

With nuclear, most of the "waste" is fuel for other types of reactors. It is very concentrated and is easily accessed.

With fossil fuels, the waste (CO2) is not a fuel. It is widely dispersed throughout the atmosphere, and thus is costly to access. And its quantity is vast.

The true waste from nuclear is fission products. The quantities are very small and relatively short-lived, such that they are easily stored until they become non-hazardous. And with relatively simple safeguards, this storage can be made safe enough so that the hazard (while it exists) is self-contained even if civilization should fail totally.


Blog Archive

Some neat videos

Nuclear Advocacy Webring
Ring Owner: Nuclear is Our Future Site: Nuclear is Our Future
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Get Your Free Web Ring
by Bravenet.com
Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High