Sunday, January 20, 2013

Truth, Speculation And The Energy Future

I generally follow Carl Popper when assessing truth claims made inside or outside science. The problem of the energy future, however cannot be solved by reference to Popperian science alone. Questions about future energy sources can only be answered by reference to things that have not been tested and are unlikely to be tested in the near future. Furthermore, by the time the claims are tested to scientific standards it may be too late. Great harm could come to society if we fail to meet the energy demands that we will be facing. Finding alternatives to standard energy technology presently in use will not be easy. Myths about the viability of future energy technology abound. The future of energy needs to be assessed using all of the tools that are available to us.

Nuclear energy should be given serious scientific assessment, not propaganda based claims. That assessment must go beyond the bounds of empirical research. Mathematical and computer modeling tools must be employed. New technologies ought be modeled with computers and the operations of future reactors simulated. Critical parts need to be designed and tested. Technologies that have already been tested may be employed in the construction of prototype reactors. All of these steps will serve as confidence building measures.

The various forms of research described here can be used to identify areas requiring special research. Hopefully we can reach the point where we have high confidence in a reactor design before we undertake the construction of a new reactor prototype. For those who would say, this is impossible, there is a long string of prototype and developmental reactors that did not entirely rely on tested technologies. For example, the early Stagg Field Reactor used technologies that had never been tested before. It was wholly successful. The X-10 Reactor scaled up the Stagg Field Reactor over ten times. It was designed and built with great confidence despite no experience with reactors of that size. The Hanford, Washington, reactors used untested technology namely water cooling. Despite doubts about its' safety, indeed, the reactors were located in the middle of the desert for safety related reasons. In spite of the fears of some scientists, the Hanford reactors did not blow up and operated safely until they were shut down at the end of the Cold War.

The Navy built the first prototype of a pressurized water cooled reactor despite the lack of previous experience with that technology. Thus lack of experience with a new technology is not a good grounds for arguing in opposition to a new reactor concept. Yet in a very real way we do not know what technologies are likely to offer viable solutions to our energy problems. In addition, we may not be able to answer our questions about future energy sources without major implementations of those sources in large scale experiments directed toward the powering of society. Some energy sources are clearly more practical than other sources while romantic myths surround some energy technologies. Some members of the public are blind to the flaws of the mythologized energy sources. In other cases, some believe, wrongly, that great evil is attached to other future energy sources. For this reason, part of any review of the future must differentiate between the mythical and the practical.

Wind and solar renewable energy are afflicted with serious flaws. Even wind and solar advocates acknowledge that these energy sources are unreliable, that is, they fail to provide energy on demand. Both fossil fuel based energy and nuclear energy are able to provide energy on demand. Society needs energy twenty-four hours a day, not just when the sun shines or the wind blows. Solar power is even more handicapped in the winter than in the summer while wind is never completely reliable even in the most favorable locations for wind power. Both of these unreliable renewable energy sources require reliable backup electrical generating capacity. While it is possible to produce backup electricity with coal, natural gas, and even petroleum based products, it is highly undesirable that we do so because using fossil fuels produces atmospheric CO2 which can only contribute to global climate change. Paradoxically, the use of renewables, such as sun and wind, will not lead to a decline in a demand for fossil fuel fired electrical generating facilities.

Nuclear power, unlike fossil fuels, does not produce CO2 and unlike wind and solar technologies nuclear power reliably produces electricity . Both the reliability of nuclear power and the unreliability of renewable energy sources are matters of scientific knowledge rather than speculation. The discussion about future energy ought to begin with an acknowledgement of these facts because unlike many statements about the future of energy these statements rests on scientifically proven facts. Renewable energy advocates offer various add-ons to future renewable energy systems. These add-ons include replication of generating facilities, the building of large numbers of new transmission lines, and the construction of many energy storage facilities. All of these schemes point to high costs for renewable energy and they have serious unintended environmental consequences. For example wind generators are know to kill birds and bats. Solar concentration facilities are constructed by scraping fragile desert soil bare and then mounting mirrors on that soil. This process rips up the desert habitat and yet renewable energy advocates claim themselves to be conservationist.

Critics of nuclear power portray it as a boogieman that will kill us all. In fact, even with a few well known accidents, conventional nuclear power is extremely safe. Alternative nuclear technologies such as the Molten Salt Reactor are even safer and may reach the level of ultimate energy safety. Thus, nuclear power ought to be considered as an important constituent of any future energy system designed to arrest and begin to reverse global climate change. Nuclear power would serve as the best backup to renewable energy.  The reliability of nuclear power is so superior to that of wind and solar that little need for wind and solar could be found in any future energy system.

Supporters of the use of nuclear energy in any future energy system point to a potential wide range of uses including industrial heat, electrical generation, desalination of seawater, production of medical isotopes, and other radioactive isotopes that are used in business, industry, and agriculture.

As we review the future of energy, we move more and more away from the realm of science toward the speculative. As we do so, the likelihood that our statements are true drops. For example there is reason to believe, based on work at ORNL and more recent scientific research, that Molten Salt Reactors will have smaller material inputs than conventional Light Water Reactors. Decreasing material input lowers costs. In addition, Molten Salt Reactors may have far fewer parts than conventional Light Water Reactors. Fewer parts mean less costs per part and less costs for the labor to put them together. Molten Salt Reactors can be built in very small modules that can be assembled in factories and driven by truck or train to the final reactor assembly site where relatively simple assembly procedures would not be more costly than ordinary industrial construction. Do we know this for scientific certainty? We most certainly do not, but we do have reason to believe that it may be true. On the other hand, if a statement about a wind generator suggests that it can produce large amounts of electricity for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week without stop, this would be nonsense. Nothing we know about wind generators would support this claim. This is scientific fact. Thus the case for nuclear power, and in particular, advanced nuclear power as represented by the Molten Salt Reactor, has some scientific support and deserves further examination. On the other hand, the case for renewable electrical sources such as wind generators intended to meet the energy demands of society on a twenty-four hour a day basis is at present weak. Wind should not be dismissed as a possible energy source. It may prove useful for some energy requirements, but not for others that require a higher degree of reliability.

1 comment:

Redfool said...

Hi Charles – I’m pleased that you seem to be back on your feet again.
An interesting post here and thanks for introducing me to Carl Popper as I’ve never heard of him before. I understand where you are coming from with the general argument in the post and there is so much that I agree with. I do wonder whether eventually the decision whether or not to go ahead with the Nuclear Program must be taken before the "Popperian" principles are fulfilled. Here in the UK the government and the public are in a perpetual conflict about Climate Change, Wind Power and reasons for energy price rises that it seems unlikely that a consensus will ever be reached.
In particular the positions of the pro and anti-Nuclear camps are so entrenched that a resolution seems impossibly far away. It is of course possible that the authorities do have a long term plan but I doubt that. So in the mean time all we can do is publicize, educate, lobby and continue to argue our position.
Keep up the good work.


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