Roads Not Taken (yet)

Guest Post by Tom BleesTom Blees is the author of Prescription for the Planet – The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises. Tom is also the president of the Science Council for Global Initiatives and a board member of the UN-affiliated World Energy Forum [wef21.org]. Many of the goals of SCGI, and the methods to achieve them, are elucidated in the pages of Blees’s book. He is a member of the selection committee for the Global Energy Prize, considered Russia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize for energy research. His work has generated considerable interest among scientists and political figures around the world. Tom has been a consultant and advisor on energy technologies on the local, state, national, and international levels.

Roads Not Taken

Those who grew up during the years of the Cold War will probably never forget the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, a time when two superpowers came perilously close to unleashing all-out nuclear war. Several of John Kennedy’s generals were purportedly advising an attack at least on Cuba, if not on Russia itself. Kruschev was likely receiving similarly bellicose advice from some of his advisors. The fact that these two men took the decision to stand down brought the world back from the precipice.

But this harrowing incident was certainly not the only time that those two nations came close to initiating nuclear Armageddon. Yuri Andropov was also reportedly urged at one point by his military advisors to attack the United States, but refused to listen to them. And then there have been close calls caused by malfunctioning early warning systems, sometimes in the USA, sometimes on the other side. The average citizen was blissfully unaware of these near misses, and will likely never know about them except from hearsay or historical reporting many years after the fact.

But there is another nuclear road that was not taken. Ironically, the failure to take that road can lead to global catastrophe for both humankind and many of the species with whom we share this planet. This time the problem is not nuclear war but the threat of climate change, and nuclear power can be the solution.

This article is being written on the one-year anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated communities in northeast Japan in March of 2011. Though nearly 16,000 people were killed in the tsunami and over a million buildings were destroyed or damaged, if one were to ask nearly anyone outside Japan about the Tōhoku earthquake it would likely elicit no recognition. But mention Fukushima and immediately people know which earthquake you’re talking about. For the press coverage of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant dwarfed the attention paid to the devastation wrought elsewhere by the tsunami.

As a result of this phenomenon, Japan has taken nearly every one of its 54 nuclear power plants offline amid pressure to abandon nuclear power entirely. Since those power plants were supplying about 30% of Japan’s electricity, this has dramatically increased the country’s carbon emissions as it turned to fossil fuel imports to keep the lights on and the factories running. It has also created Japan’s first trade deficit in over thirty years, with an estimated cost of about $100 million per day for additional energy imports.

But the impact of the Fukushima accident reached far beyond Japan (Aside: can it truly be termed a “disaster” or “catastrophe” when there was not a single instance of radiation-induced injury to the public? Even among emergency workers at the plant there were only a few who are expected to have any radiation-induced health risks. One worker died, but it was from a heart attack and had nothing to do with radiation exposure.) Shortly before the accident, Germany had been arguing over whether to decommission their perfectly serviceable nuclear power plants in deference to political pressures from the Greens. Fukushima tipped the scales, consigning Germany to a future of more coal and gas burning and almost certainly more (ironically, often nuclear-generated) electricity from its neighbors. Some other European nations have likewise reacted to Fukushima by foreclosing the option of building any new nuclear power plants.

But the nuclear road not taken that was alluded to above was a far more consequential decision, and one that might without exaggeration be termed a disaster. Like many choices of great import, the decision to abandon a new type of nuclear power system was taken by a few people in key positions. History will not likely judge them kindly, though as in so many cases those who exercised the most influence remain for the most part nameless, unknown to those who were outside the process.

The road not taken was the one that would have led to the deployment of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). (I wrote about this nuclear power system in an article for this journal that came out shortly after the Fukushima accident.) The IFR had been invented by a group of brilliant scientists and engineers at Argonne National Laboratory who had recognized the need to solve all the problems with nuclear power if it was to become the world’s first source of unlimited energy that could be economically and feasibly tapped. They successfully demonstrated a system that could consume nuclear waste, weapons-grade material, and even depleted uranium as fuel. It was designed to be inherently proliferation-resistant, passively safe, and over 150 times more efficient at utilizing the energy from uranium than the type of reactors currently in use around the world.

Then in 1994, as the project entered its final phase, the U.S. Congress peremptorily pulled the final funding request for the project that had taken years of dedicated work and billions of dollars. The Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II), which had operated flawlessly for over thirty years and demonstrated the many virtues of the IFR, was to be shut down and dismantled. Because Japan had offered tens of millions of dollars to help finish off the project, sending that money back across the Pacific meant that it actually cost the U.S. more to shut down the project just short of its goal than it would have cost to finish it. What on earth could have prompted such a short-sighted and self-destructive decision?

The author (at left) and colleagues visit the EBR-II shortly before its planned demolition. Dr. Charles Till, the director of the IFR project, is in the middle.

Despite years of research into the subject, there has never been (to my knowledge) credible evidence of any sort of conspiracy. It seems—on the surface, at least—that like so many other good things gone bad, the IFR project was the victim of ignorance, misinformation, political self-interest, and abysmal shortsightedness. But if there were no powerful players at work behind the scenes to scuttle the IFR, it would only be because they were ignorant of what the IFR era portended.

The team at Argonne National Lab that developed the IFR expected that the final demonstration phase of the project would be finished by about 1996. Long before the fateful day that Congress pulled its funding, a consortium of major American corporations (including General Electric, Westinghouse, Bechtel and Raytheon, among others) had been working with the scientists and engineers at Argonne to design a commercial-scale version of the reactor, a mass-producible modular reactor dubbed PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Module). The expected progression of events would have seen the first PRISM built by the turn of the millennium, and soon they could have been deployed not only in the United States but around the world.

France had already clearly demonstrated just how quickly a country could convert its electricity infrastructure to nuclear power. In the Seventies that nation’s leaders realized the precariousness of relying on fossil fuel imports and decided that nuclear power was a far more stable option. The reactors that they decided to build were relatively primitive compared to today’s new designs, requiring much on-site fabrication. Yet in little more than a decade France had replaced nearly all its non-hydro generation with nuclear, without even breaking a sweat. Today France has some of the cleanest air and lowest electricity rates in Europe, and electricity is their fourth largest export.

How much easier would it be if a country were to embark on a similar path with the opportunity to use modular systems that could be mass-produced in factories and shipped to the power plant sites? This is the promise of the PRISM system (and its somewhat larger offspring, the S-PRISM, which will hereinafter be simply referred to as PRISM). In my book Prescription for the Planet, I analyze the economic impact that France experienced during their nuclear transition and demonstrate that a developed nation could effect a similar conversion to nuclear power using PRISM systems within about a decade.

This is truly disruptive technology in the most wide-ranging sense. Half a century of nuclear power has left many countries not only with substantial amounts of spent fuel, mischaracterized as “nuclear waste”, but with vastly larger amounts of depleted uranium, the leftovers from the process of uranium enrichment that must be employed to fuel the light-water reactors (LWR) that comprise the vast majority of today’s nuclear power stations. All of this, plus material from decommissioned nuclear weapons, can be used to fuel PRISMs. Not only is the fuel already available, but its cost is less than free, for those in possession of these vast inventories would happily pay to get rid of them. (It should be noted here that there are some superb new LWR designs being built or planned that utilize both passive safety and modular design. The IFR  solves the problem of what to do with their spent fuel. Both LWRs and IFRs can be used to speed the transition to nuclear and away from fossil fuels.)

Since PRISM reactors, like other nuclear power plants, operate very well at full power around the clock, imagine the impact on a nation that opts for an all-out conversion to IFRs. Today’s electricity generating systems are sufficient to meet peak demand, fueled mostly by coal and natural gas (except in France and a couple other countries that rely primarily on nuclear and hydro). Now think about what it would imply if those fossil fuel sources were replaced by IFRs. Since the fuel is free they could run at full power all the time. But peak electricity demand is 2-3 times average demand. This means that the system would have an excess of up to twice as much power as what’s needed to provide for the entire grid.

This state of affairs would completely overturn the energy status quo. Liquid fuels could be generated with the excess power in a number of different ways. Hydrogen derived from electrolysis of water could be combined with nitrogen from the air to produce ammonia, which is not only a widely-used fertilizer but can also be used as a liquid fuel for automobiles or trucks. And of course the deployment of electric vehicles would be far more desirable once their electricity wasn’t being generated by dirty coal.

After a decade-long conversion to IFRs, the fossil fuel industries would soon be on their way out. Coal would be first, the direct victim of the conversion. But natural gas and oil wouldn’t have much time left either. And let’s not forget that desalination projects (and the energy to move the freshwater to wherever it’s needed) would be possible on hitherto unimagined scales, enabling semi-arid and even arid regions to bloom.

Had the IFR road been taken in 1994, we would be well along on this path, and greenhouse gas emissions would be diminishing rapidly and on their way to a negligible level. Instead, emissions are rising precipitously, methane is bubbling out of the tundra, and the prospects for a future of severe weather, population dislocation from rising sea levels, and even runaway greenhouse effects threaten our very survival. Even if our politicians decided today to go all-out for an IFR transition, would it be too late to stop the effects of human-caused climate change?

But we’re not even close to such a transition. Politicians are still arguing about whether carbon emissions are even a problem, whether the spectre of climate change is even a real phenomenon. The Department of Energy has decided that the U.S. inventory of almost 800,000 tons of depleted uranium should be converted from its gaseous form into solid so that it can be buried—instead of used as IFR fuel. At the moment, it’s stored in vast storage areas of row upon row of canisters, tucked away where the public takes no notice. This so-called waste, if used to fuel IFRs, would be enough to provide all the energy America needs for hundreds of years. No more mining, no more drilling, no more imports.

May I make a suggestion? As those canisters are emptied, ship them to Washington DC and line them up on the National Mall, between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument. That way when legislators and employees of the Department of Energy are ruminating about where we can possibly obtain all the energy our country needs, they’ll be able to simply look out the window for the answer.


For comments on this post, we encourage you to use the BNC Discussion Forum. The link for this post is: http://bravenewclimate.proboards.com/index.cgi?action=display&board=bncblogposts&thread=141
About these ads

17 Comments

  1. In my opinion, it would be premature to stake our future on only one nuclear technology at this time. The liquid fluoride thorium reactor seems promising, so I think that we should be putting considerable effort into developing it so that it can be deployed. Probably other reactor technologies should also be developed. Then, from experience, we will know which to implement.

    It took the railroads years of experience to determine that Diesel locomotives should replace steam locomotives. Similarly, it could take a while to identify the best nuclear technology. We’ve already made a mistake by deploying only PWRs. Let us not repeat the mistake by limiting ourselves to only one nuclear technology before we have had sufficient experience to know which is the best nuclear technology.

  2. It’s not that I disagree with the article, but let me point out that I find both the carbon intensity chart and the statement ‘this has dramatically increased the country’s carbon emissions’ misleading.

    First, the chart’s Y-axis does not start at zero, resulting in an exaggerated hockeystick curve; redrawing it would give a more realistic representation. Second, comparing the actual figures between March and November 2011, the increase is less than 5% ( [2.22-2.12]/2.12 = 4.7%). IMO it would be fair to point this value out when mentioning subjective terms like ‘dramatically’.

  3. Ward,

    That is not the only reason that the graph is misleading.

    The Japanese have taken strong energy conservation measures which probably are not sustainable, else the increase in CO2 emissions would probably be much greater than the 4.7% shown in the chart. It will take longer for us to get a true picture of the results of shutting down the nuclear reactors.

  4. How do you log on to http://bravenewclimate.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=bncblogposts&action=display&thread=141
    ????

    You have confused Depleted Uranium [DU] with spent fuel. Spent fuel is NOT Depleted Uranium!

    This confusion is a matter of life and death because this confusion could cost the lives of American soldiers!   DU rounds are the best for killing enemy tanks and making them stay killed.   DU is NOT radioactive.   Spent fuel is VERY radioactive. Depleted uranium is what you get as leftover from the enrichment process.   DU NEVER sees a reactor.

    This confusion has already cost US taxpayers $billions.  The lives of our soldiers are at stake.   They Need DU ammo.   With any other material,  an enemy tank is repaired and sent back into battle.   My guess is that since uranium is pyrophoric, it starts a fire, causing secondary explosions of ammo stored in the tank.
    depleted uranium (abbr.: DU)
    noun
    uranium from which most of the fissile isotope uranium-235 has been removed.

    As opposed to enriched uranium. Depleted uranium is left over from the enrichment process. Most reactors need uranium that contains more than the 0.7 % U235 that natural uranium has.

    Depleted uranium cannot be used as nuclear fuel unless it is first bred into plutonium. DU is NOT waste.

    573 certified deaths were due to evacuation-related stress at Fukushima. Zero due to radiation. February 4, 2012
http://www.beyondnuclear.org/home/2012/2/4/japanese-authorities-recognize-573-deaths-related-to-fukushi.html

    “Japanese authorities recognize 573 deaths related to Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Catastrophe
    As reported by the Yomiuri Shimbun:
    “A total of 573 deaths have been certified as “disaster-related” by 13 municipalities affected by the crisis at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant….
    A disaster-related death certificate is issued when a death is not directly caused by a tragedy, but by fatigue or the aggravation of a chronic disease due to the disaster. ….””

    ZERO deaths were caused by radiation. 573 deaths were caused by the evacuation that was forced by officials. The people who died were evacuated from such things as intensive care. They might have survived if the evacuation had not taken place. Fukushima’s natural background radiation is still higher than the radiation from the reactor leak. Fukushima’s natural background radiation plus the radiation from the reactor leak is still less than the natural background radiation here in Illinois. Natural background radiation varies greatly from place to place. Our background radiation is around 350 milli rem/year.
    “milli” means “.001″
    350 milli rem/year means 0.350 rem/year
    People living in Ramsar, Iran have a background radiation of 10 to 20 rems/year and report no ill effects.

  5. Funny, nuclear power was once the pride of the…yes…Sierra Club! It should be once again. If we focused resources on practical and capable designs, we could unburden the environment and provide the ‘energy density’ required to get to the next level economy. Negentropic growth is required to lift mankind out of this current declining levels of true wealth development. Want to solve the problems of the world? Our sights need to be on Fusion!

  6. Asteroid Miner, you just need to create an account over at the Proboards site. Or, you can got to reply box at the bottom of the post I linked to, and enter your comment there. It is fairly straightforwards, I’d encourage you to persist.

    As to your comment above, I suggest you re-read Tom’s essay. He does not conflate/confuse depleted uranium with spent fuel. Indeed, he says:

    but with vastly larger amounts of depleted uranium, the leftovers from the process of uranium enrichment

    (note the BUT)

    and

    They successfully demonstrated a system that could consume nuclear waste, weapons-grade material, and even depleted uranium as fuel.

    (note the AND EVEN)

    This is Tom Blees we are talking about. He does not get such basics wrong.

  7. It constantly amazes me how the USA can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to funding innovation in energy production. Thanks Tom for making the complex understandable.

    Like Frank Eggers I am a fan of the LFTR but we don’t need to make a decision “up front”. The market place is big enough for several solutions to fight it out.

    No matter how many Solyndras we fund there will always be plenty more green energy projects waiting in line for their turn to squander tax payer dollars.

  8. Nuclear power will do nothing to phase out fossil fuels. I suggest you research Jevons Paradox. Even as we become many times more efficient, fossil fuel use continues apace. This is because the efficiency just goes to more growth. The same is true for nuclear. Even with our nuclear plants doubling output since the 1990s, fossil fuel use continued apace. All the nuclear did was go to more growth. Fossil fuels are like magic, and if we use less the price collapses, like in 2009 when the economy shrank, and then the low price spurrs their use. As long as all our politicians want more growth, nuclear won’t reduce fossil use, it will just create more growth. Just think of the economy this way: energy in, garbage out. So, nuclear would just create more garbage. Who wants more overconsumption, more obesity, bigger homes, population growth? Who wants that? At 3 percent economic growth, energy consumption increases by a factor of 16 in 93 years. All we can do is wait a few decades for peak oil, peak coal, peak gas, and peak uranium to put growth in its tracks, and force us to end population growth and transition to a steady-state society. China will reach peak coal by 2015, and the U.S. peaked in energy output from coal in 1998. The U.S. has now shut down 103 coal plants due to coal shortages, and coal is just 36 percent of our electricity. Conventional gas is running out, and shale declines 90 percent in the first year, making high flow rates impossible, and technically recoverable reserves amount to only an 11 year supply. Peak oil was in 2005, and the plateau will end very soon, creating chaos. The U.S. will be using half the fossil fuels by 2025. We will be living like the Amish by 2040, which is when we can start rolling out the fast reactors and return to growth, and rebuild civilization. Trust me, this is the only way. The peaks means that global warming can’t exceed 450 ppm, so the planet won’t become uninhabitable, and we will avoid the worst of climate change. Trust me, the situation will solve itself, due to the natural peak phenomenon. Nature will save itself. We can’t rely on our politicians to do the right thing, and they are forcing all this population growth and economic growth upon us, and will do everything they can to keep the status quo. Only a couple of decades of steadily increasing economic contraction and job loss will teach people that there are limits to growth, and teach people to live within population and economic limits. We already have 313 million in the U.S., do you want to see it reach a billion? That is where we’re heading, and this must come to an end. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover gave a speech in 1957 about how only the breeder would work, but then he became very antinuclear in the 1980s, and said that what we were doing with all this growth was wrecking the human condition. Trust me, we will eventually go with the IFR around 2040, and it will provide most energy by 2060. I will be 76 in 2060, so that is well within my lifetime, and maybe yours. Just be patient, it will happen. We will still live within the fossil fuel age for a few more decades, but they are running out before our very eyes, and bringing the global economy to its knees. Won’t it be fun to watch as our idiot politicians are humiliated by the next big oil shock in 2013, and 2008 style collapse into depression, and tens of millions of lost jobs, and a reverse to immigration? Our politicians deserve what’s coming, trust me. They knew what they were doing when they cancelled the IFR, that’s why when Bill Gates gave a TED speech about the fast reactor in 2010, then approached the DOE saying he wanted us to build them, they told him to do it in another country. Let South Korea build the first one, they aren’t faced with the same growth problems we are, they already have more of a steady state population size and economy. If we went with the IFR now, it would kill us all, just a billion people going on hundred mile a day commutes, living in mcmansions out in the middle of nowhere, and countries like China trying to copy us and kill themselves too. It would be maddness. I think that by 2040 the U.S. population will be 250 million, and we will be living in villages, and growing our own food, and living without electricity, and be happier as a result. Trust me, nature will solve itself. The situation is non-negotiable, and the infinite growth paradigm that has been killing us all is coming to an end, non-negotiabally. I suggest you pick up a copy of the new “End of Growth” books by Heinberg and Rubin, or check out Chris Martenson and Al Bartlett. Regards, Zachary

    MPDERATOR
    This spiel from you is merely your personal opinion. In future, please abide by the BNC Comments Policy and supply scientific refs/links to support your aeesrtions, otherwise they may, in future, be edited or deleted. Thankyou.

  9. There is serious discussion of building an Integral Fast Reactor in the United Kingdom to dispose of stockpiled plutonium. The government is currently pondering between alternative methods of disposition of the plutonium, including using it in conventional reactors (MOX), burying it in the ground, and using a fast reactor. The US company General Electric Hitatchi have offered to build an IFR in the UK out of its own money, and then simply charge the government for every unit of plutonium it ‘burns’ in the reactor. The entire stockpile of plutonium could be burned up within about ten years – after which the reactor could start to consume the rest of the spent fuel built up in the UK. If the UK fast reactor turns out to be a success, it would show the world that the technology is viable – it could lead to similar IFRs being built all over the world, consuming nuclear waste, generating electricity and helping to fight climate change. All the UK government has to do to start this ball rolling is say ‘yes’ to the General Electric Hitachi offer to build the IFR. Please support this Facebook page which encourages the UK government to accept the IFR proposal.

    Link to the Facebook page –
    http://t.co/w7Bgs253

  10. Zachary;
    “Trust me”, you say repeatedly. Despite uttering lotsa falsehoods.
    Don’t think so.

    Population is not a problem, except insofar as crashing replacement birth rates are likely to harm the world’s economies. http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/oc64ch07.pdf

    And the always-correct “Low Band” of the UNPD sez population peaks at <8bn ~2040.

    As for your "garbage" nonsense, try this: http://www.plascoenergygroup.com/

    And so on. You might want to step down from your soapbox. (deleted perjorative remark)

    MODERATOR
    Please take this conversation over to the BNC Discussion Forum where commenting on this post is now taking place

  11. Barry…this isn’t working. If you *allow* comments here (which you should be able to turn off) then people will comment. The reality is that board like at the BNC Public Forum do not get the intensity of discussion because we are presented with a diffuse set of topics. But this is especially true if you post HERE and not THERE. You end up drawing people here as if it’s a portal to the Public Forum space. It’s not, it’s brick wall. You should make a decision to either reopen this as a discussion site OR shut it down and have all these main posts go there.
    David Walters
    MODERATOR
    Thanks for your comment. We are aware that there are some problems with the overlap of BNC blog and forum but these should be sorted soon when the KnowMoreFearLess website goes on line, which is when Barry plans(I think) to make the BNC blog a portal page to the linked sites and an archive of past material. If you wish to comment on the current posts on the main BNC blog you need only go to the Main Menu (not the “new topics” which are just links to the latest comments on all boards including new ones posted by users) and click on the “BNC Blog Post Comments” board. The latest blog posts comments threads are listed and you can select the one you wish to comment on. I have let Barry know of your concern and he may also reply here.

  12. Moderator :
    I’m afraid I just have to say as well, that I much prefer the ergonomics (esp. page presentation) at this, the old forum. There might be some innate conservatism in this, but the tapeworm style blog seems easier on the eye and the scrolling fingers.

    I just can’t find my way round the new forum, with the many sub-divisions.

    Nonetheless, many thanks for providing such an extremely valuable resource for the energy-concerned.
    peterc
    MODERATOR
    Peter – thanks for your input. You are right that some of the older BNCers (including the Mod) found the new forum difficult to navigate so may I suggest to you, as I did to them, that for the present you concentrate on the first board on the Main Menu “BNC Blog Post Comments” http://bravenewclimate.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=bncblogposts Click on this and you will be taken to the various comments threads for the latest BNC blog posts. Click on the one you are interested in and off you go commenting as usual. I suggest you ignore the “new topics” button as this only leads to the latest comments on whichever board and can be confusing as new topics and previous ones which are still “live” turn over regularly on the list. However, there is a useful feature on the “new topics” list – on the right a burning folder icon indicates which topics have received the most comments and on the left the numbers of views and comments is listed, which may help you to check out the most interesting topic threads. This is a work in progress, with the KnowMoreFearLess web site coming soon and then the BNC blog will be re-organised as a portal, with opinions like yours being taken into account in the re-organisation. So, please hang in there for a while longer. :)

  13. peterc, you (and others) are correct. Logically (in my mind, and that of the BNC Moderator), it made sense to give people a classification structure. But in practice, such an approach is NOT user friendly.

    So, I’ve totally revamped the Boards. There are now only 4 options – BNC Blog Posts, Energy, Climate Change, and Forum Help. Basically, if you want to find something specific, just put it in the search box (the search engine on Proboards is excellent). No more fine-grained hierarchical classification. Just nice and simple.

  14. David Walters, you are also right. I’ll now close comments on all the new (Post BNC Forum) blog posts, and not open them for most blog posts. The only place to comment on BNC blog posts henceforth will be at the BNC Forums: http://bravenewclimate.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=bncblogposts

    Thanks everyone for the critical feedback – much appreciated.
    Read more: http://bravenewclimate.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=bncforumabout&action=display&thread=30&page=2#ixzz1x1cK62M7

Leave a Reply (Markdown is enabled)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s