Emissions Nuclear Renewables

Put all energy cards on the table to fix climate change fully

I know I’ve been pushing the energy supply bandwagon a lot recently, with relative little attention to climate science issues (and even less to the ‘pseudo-sceptics’!). I guess that in some ways reflects the ebb and flow of my perceived priorities, what I happen to be reading, and what I consider particularly urgent or crucial to communicate at the time. Anyway, as a heads up, I’ve got some interesting things (at least I think!) to say about climate sensitivity (‘it’s nailed’), warming in the pipeline (lots), changes in species distributions (new modelling — a selfish promotion of my own research) and geoengineering (ranking options), among other things, which I plan to cover here on the blog in the coming weeks.

But for now, bear with me for a bit more on energy policy, as I feel my thinking on this issue is sharpening and I’d like to continue to bounce ideas of you guys.

This week I wrote an Op Ed for the relatively new opinions website set up by ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation — Oz’s national TV/Radio broadcaster). It’s called ‘Unleashed‘, and attracts a diverse audience, to say the least (that can be good and bad…). My article’s about the energy solutions required to ‘fix’ the climate crisis fully, and of course discusses renewables, energy efficiency and nuclear energy. Even before reading through the 350 or so comments this generated, I could see the need to write a follow-up piece in the coming weeks for the ABC site which explains the ‘newclear option’ in more detail. But before I did that, I had to set the scene/mindset about the fundamental requirement — solutions that fix the climate+energy bugbears completely, not half-measures that only delay the worst problems but end up solving nothing (I absolutely knew by doing this [ignoring the details of nuclear power] that I was risking a whole bunch of ill-informed feedback!).

So here’s my first effort at broaching the nuclear issue to a non-BNC audience. Oh, and now I’m apparently outed as a ‘proie’. So much the better. Judge for yourself whether my first piece would have convinced any ‘anties’ to look again at nuclear being ‘one of the cards on the energy table that makes up the royal flush’.


Nuclear power: a real solution (ABC Unleashed, 16 Jan 2009)

The climate changes because it is forced to do so. That may sound a little strange, but ‘forcing’ is a real technical term for any pressure that causes the ‘average weather’ to shift. Positive forcings (e.g. increased solar activity, more greenhouse gases) induce global warming, whereas negative forcings (e.g. more low-level clouds, volcanic dimming) result in cooling. Climate system feedbacks (e.g. melting ice, more water vapour) act to enhance these processes. That’s the way it’s always been, throughout Earth’s long history. When the planet is thrown out of energy balance by a change in forcing, it must respond, by warming or cooling. It can’t be bargained with and it has no room to compromise. It will do what it must do. It’s the laws of physics.

So there’s no point in half-fixing climate change. If this is our strategy, whether implicit or explicit, people may as well enjoy the Platinum Age (as Ross Garnaut calls the last few decades) and be done. Cap-and-trade systems to reduce emissions by some percentage are a good example of an ultimately useless ‘half-fix’ policy. Due to the long lifetime of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere (about 20 per cent of CO2 released today will still be airborne in 1000 years), it is only the total amount of CO2 released by humanity during the fossil-fuel age that really matters. We must limit total emissions.

In order to stop forcing the climate system towards further warming – to avoid the worst predicted impacts of climate change – we therefore have to stop using coal, oil and gas. We cannot afford to burn all of the available reserves of these, and other carbon sources, such as tar sands and oil shales.

But modern society needs energy. Lots of it. Although there is plenty of scope for more efficient use of energy in developed nations, the developing world is desperately striving for energy growth. The obvious source of energy for these emerging economies is the same source used by the developing world to build its wealth and prosperity. Wishing this weren’t so won’t make that fact go away.

But if neither the developed or developing worlds can risk using coal, oil and gas, where does this energy come from? Renewable energy, for instance solar, wind and wave power, is clean, and there are huge amounts of it available. But it is diffuse – vast areas of land or coastline must be harnessed to use it on a significant scale – and it is mostly intermittent, so a distributed grid with plenty of storage and backup is essential. Scaling up renewables to be a viable replacement power source on a planetary scale is an incredible logistical challenge, and quite possibly not ever achievable.

This above should not be taken to imply that I do not support expansion of renewable energy and widespread adoption of energy efficiency measures. In some places there are wonderful opportunities for these. For instance, Australia could cut its greenhouse emissions by around 30 per cent, at no net cost, due to the payback from lower power bills thanks to more sensible use of energy. Further, Australia has a wealth of renewable energy options at its disposal (huge deserts that are perfect for solar thermal power, long stretches of windy coastline for large turbines, and a large endowment of deep hot dry rocks that have the potential to supply baseload geothermal energy).

Sadly, that isn’t the case everywhere. Some nations with large populations have few renewable energy sources available to them. And even for Australia, it will almost certainly be too difficult and costly to run our entire energy economy using renewable power, without sufficient non-coal backup.

Nuclear energy may well be that backup, or indeed a mainstay for future energy generation. For instance, there is a technology developed at the Argonne National Laboratory USA called integral fast reactor nuclear power, which burns up 99 per cent of the nuclear fuel, leaves no long-lived waste, is passively safe (‘meltdowns’ are exceedingly unlikely) and does not generate weapons-grade material (see Integral Fast Reactor [IFR] nuclear power – Q and A, for more details). It’s been researched for over 10 years and is ready for demonstration. It warrants further attention.

One risks ire from many sides when discussing nuclear energy as a climate solution. Those climate sceptics with a vested interest in the fossil fuel forever status quo will say there is no climate or energy supply problem to fix, so why bother? Hardened environmentalists will tell you that nuclear in any form is unsafe, polluting, risks weapons proliferation, and is unnecessary given renewable power sources (even when briefed about how integral fast reactors solve all of these concerns). No matter. It is vitally important that everyone else, and that’s most people, understand the real issues.

So my basic point is this. Do you wish to fully solve the climate crisis? Or alternatively, do you want a secure energy supply that is not dependent on foreign oil and other dwindling, polluting sources? If you are merely satisfied with half-fixing these problems, then sure, hold your ideological ground.

But if you’re honest about seeking real solutions, it’s time to lay out all of the future-of-energy cards on the table, for open and rational discussion. Nuclear may well be the ace in the deck, or it may be the card that makes up the royal flush. Either way, don’t throw it on the discard pile.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

53 replies on “Put all energy cards on the table to fix climate change fully”

While I accept the problems you point out with some of the renewables (solar, wind), I’m not sure you’re dealing fairly with all of them. The Science Show (Australian ABC) had a discussion on tide power recently. The engineers working on it in WA said that, unlike solar and wind, it’s not intermittent (there’s always waves 20 Km out from the coast) and it could supply a significant portion of Australia’s energy needs. Re ‘hot rocks’, I know one of the main developers of the technology and he’s very confident of its potential to be a major supplier of clean energy. I have always been opposed to nuclear power (fission) but your discussion of the 4th generation systems has persuaded me that, if everything said about them is correct, they certainly should be seriously considered. It’s my view though that we should have a diversity of energy sources and not base our entire society on one.


Barry if I may bore you and the rest with some background (key sountrack to MattB’s life… I did physics and an honours in Environmental Engineering at UWA in 1997 “Sustainable Development of Energy Globally and in WA” for Prof Jorg Imberger. blew my mind and turned an engineering degree I was bored with and floundering with in to a vision for my future… now sadly I’d floundered too much in earlier years to scrape my way to a decent degree, and had significant ideological differences with Prof Imberger (he probably thought I was just a lazy and ideological s#$t and maybe I was) … essentially in 1997 it was crystal clear to me that an ETS or carbon tax was pretty much essential, and that was the thrust of the thesis, with an analysis of all the energy options that could provide for a sustainable energy supply. I think the Prof wanted a discussion about sulphur particles in the sky, geosequestration and some sort of carbon sucking machine… but I was convinced it was the economics that was the 1st essential step.

Now I was a greenie at Uni, and I’d say I still am, and I’m sure it tainted my view of nuclear… but I was pretty convinced by the arguments about the realities of the fuel supply if it was scaled up to replace most baseload power… some 50 odd years it looked like on mainstream (not lefty moonbat) figures. I also referenced the political obstacles of public acceptance (mostly in the West Australian and Australian Context). So Nuclear was pretty much a write off with potential future breakthroughs like Fusion pretty much written of as pie in the sky.

So from the view of a hippy lefty anti-nuclear former student newspaper editor kinda guy, I can tell you I’d be totally supportive of this IFR technology, on the proviso that it is part of the whole climate package and not just a freebie to the nuclear industry without any real economy wide commitment to slashing GHGs.

I also think that politically, it is the pot of gold “wedge”… sceptics would be stunned that the environmental solution embraced nuclear, and the pieces would fall in to place. IFR is not just a technological solution, but a political one. But no more current Gen nuclear… my thoughts on those have not changed… I don;t see the point of in AUstralia closing coal for those kind of plants… marginal benefit in terms of gases, public hate them, too many waste issues, and significant costs of retiring current infrastructure.

I’m said this before, but I honestly think that in the current climate you’d get further replacing:

“Cap-and-trade systems to reduce emissions by some percentage are a good example of an ultimately useless ‘half-fix’ policy. ”


“Cap-and-trade systems (or carbon taxes) to reduce emissions by some percentage are a sound economic tool to help us get there, but without a clear technological direction and commitment, and a cap that represents genuine science, they will be neutered as an ultimately useless ‘half-fix’ policy. Furthermore without technology that can deliver genuine cuts in emissions while maintaining energy supplies and jobs, no government will ever commit to serious emission cuts.”

I know Hansen is off cap and trades too, but I think abandoning cap and trades will pander to the deniers and buy them another 5-10 years of delays and distortion. Using cap and trade also lets govts show they are not totally dictated to by Hansen! (Maybe Hansen knows this and is falling on his sword to get C&T through – but I think I could be getting carried away lol).

Anyway that’s my two bob’s worth:) hello anyone still with me… you guys wake up!


Has anyone done a table showing the operating temperature of the variety of coal plants (the whole range of old to newish)?
That’s the key to whether the new fission plants can replace the coal burners (keeping the rest of the plant, the turbines and infrastructure) — whether they can run hot enough.


I really think we need to get this discussion out into the political sphere. Perhaps we could send emails to our local members, the P.M., Wong, Garrett etc urging them to check out the info on this site, and the links to related information and to seriously consider this option as well as renewables and the CPRS.
As Matt B opines “this could be the golden wedge” being acceptable to environmentalists and the general public as well as weakening the pseudo-sceptics arguments that the green movement(and the scientists) are trying to take us back to the Dark Ages.
Barry, surely you could involve Mike Rann and the SA Chief Scientist and persuade them to lay the information in front of the government.Maybe even approach Wong and Rudd yourself, assuming they really are interested in a solution – more likely with this technology I believe.
Good luck:)


Dez #1: Diversified – I agree completely – I hope renewables end up supply a large amount of power – but I’m now strongly of the opinion that these should NOT be our only (or even strongest) bet – I think, from what you say, you agree.

Tidal and wave generation will be important at local scales. But ideal tidal locations are not abundant, and wave power, like most other forms of renewables, is diffuse, and so requires huge stretches of coastline to deliver a substantial fraction of our power needs. Australia’s southern coastline is a great location for it, but many other areas of the world have limited surge strength (or no coastline!). The IPCC 2007 report (WGIII, Ch4) estimates a exploitable global resource for wave power of about 7 exajoules (EJ) per year – global demand is currently around 500 EJ and will be closer to 1000 by 2050 – so you can see it can only constitute a small (albeit important local) contribution to the total supply picture.

Hot dry rocks are technically a larger exploitable resource and is, in my view, the most promising renewable energy source – albeit still at a relatively early stage of R&D/demonstration with questions about how long a field can deliver before local heat depletion and mineralisation of rock strata fractures. Locally, I expect it to be very BIG, but in many parts of the world, again, not available.

Hank #3: I suspect you are right for the supercritical coal burners, but the run-of-the-mill subcritical burners that are mostly being built in China and India are lower temp at <500C – of the same order as the ALMRs. The proposed gas-cooled (helium) FBRs are very hot – they’ve been proposed as a way of thermal hydrogen production also. But I haven’t found that table you’re looking for – if you come across it, post the link here!


MattB #2: In an ideal world, a CPRS-style cap-and-trade should work. It would need to go something like this:

1. Set a total allowable carbon budget through to target date (e.g. 100 Gt C allowed through to 2050).

2. As mentioned above, because of the ‘forever airborne’ nature of about 20% of the CO2 released, and the fact that we’re already over ‘safe’ levels, the cap should also imply that this is a total allowance forever i.e. by 2050, emissions must be zero.

3. Set a per annum allowance, that meets the target – if we started in 2010, for instance, with an emissions allowance of 10 Gt C, then it should decline at about 10% pa (compound). This would result in a total release of 98 Gt by 2050, with a reduction of 65% by 2020, 88% by 2030 and the rest mopped up through to 2050. I’m not saying a simple decline exponential curve like this is optimal or desirable, but it illustrates the basic point.

4. After 2050, no more (net) C emissions from human activity. So net emissions by 2100 would still be that 100 Gt. Actually, ideally, a draw-down via agriculture and geoengineering (e.g. -ve biomass CCS plants).

But you see what we’ve done above? We’ve defined a total cap for carbon, and then used a cap-and-trade to get there. That is not how current or proposed models work.

They might say, let’s reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. You could get there with a 4% cumulative reduction, starting in 2010, with the total C released over that period being 203 Gt (under the above hypothetical model of 10 Gt in 2010). Then we might hold it at 80% reductions through to 2100 – this would result in an additional 100 Gt released (so 303 Gt over 2010 to 2100). If we keep going at that 4% rate, by 2100 the total would be 243 Gt, and reduction rate of 97% by 2100. But that’s still an addition 43 Gt over the 2050 amount, and 143 Gt over the maximum allowable cap. As so it continues, year in, year out.

Is 100 Gt better (climate wise) than 243 or 303 Gt? Sure. But is 100 Gt ‘safe’? Perhaps, perhaps not. It depends how much heating it induces, what tipping elements it tips etc. The point is, that’s a climate science question as to what the total Gt cap should be – a question that is, right now, being ignored.

So cap-and-trade models only make sense if they are tied to a total, scientific cap and a pragmatic risk assessment of trade-offs. The CPRS doesn’t do this, and neither do the Kyoto or G5 commitments(e.g. 50% reduction by 2050 – what then?). That is their problem. It’s a subtle, but very important distinction, because without stating the total permissible target, they are horribly prone to distortion and greenwashing and eventually, burning ALL the oil, gas, coal and tar.

Which was my point when I said:
“Cap-and-trade systems to reduce emissions by some percentage are a good example of an ultimately useless ‘half-fix’ policy. Due to the long lifetime of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere (about 20 per cent of CO2 released today will still be airborne in 1000 years), it is only the total amount of CO2 released by humanity during the fossil-fuel age that really matters. We must limit total emissions.”

You mentioned the carbon tax and Hansen’s call on capping coal emissions. His point is pretty simple, with the cap clearly set (total coal emissions halted by 2030, forever, with all the oil and gas burned [at the worst case]). The carbon tax is a means of easing/expediting this coal phase out process, as well as being a way to stretch the oil and gas supplies a little further (longer). But the defined, total coal (+tar) cap is what counts.

I do like your replacement words, as long as you add the phrase “with a defined limit on total carbon emissions allowed”, or words to that effect.


As a stand-alone piece, I don’t think you make the case for ‘half-fixing = useless’ sufficiently clear. Certainly not to me, anyway, though I think I have some idea what you’re getting at from your other writings.

Other than that, this is very good, immensely encouraging stuff. I hope it, or at least the ideas, get very wide and high-level circulation.


Barry wrote “Hardened environmentalists will tell you that nuclear in any form is unsafe, polluting, risks weapons proliferation, and is unnecessary given renewable power sources (even when briefed about how integral fast reactors solve all of these concerns).”

Unfortunately the time factor was left out of list of criticisms of IFRs. I’ve made several posts citing calcuations that show the inability of IFR or any new nuclear plant from making a significant impact on emissions before 2040.

“If our objective is to get to 20% nuclear in our energy mix, that means we must build one 3GW plant per week for the next 25 years” (Steve Kirsch).

This goal is clearly no where near eventuation.

Does Blees write about this problem?

Some IFR critics say IFRs are not proven safe. Barry say this concern holds even when critics are “briefed about how integral fast reactors solve all of these concerns [proliferation etc]”.

Yet early Barry wrote that he’d “prefer a more thorough analysis from an independent review/committee to draw a conclusion on this [the proliferation risks of IFRs].”

Am I to assume from Barry’s subsequent opinion piece that he has received this independent assessment? And that the necessary questions have been addressed?


Mark Byrne #8:

Current world power demand is ~16 TW (terrawatts, or 16,000 GW). By 2050 it could be as high as 32 TW – let’s take that as our aim (this is to replace ALL electrical and liquid fuel demand!).

That would require 11,600 x 3 GW power stations operating at 90% capacity, for a complete supply replacement.

If we wish to achieve this by 2050, starting in 2020, we’d require 386 new power stations per year, or about ~1 a day, worldwide.

That’s a whopping rate — but what is the alternative?

Let’s try solar, and narrow our focus a bit more (or the numbers just get ridiculous).

Let’s say we wish to replace 70% of 2050 US electricity (not +liquid fuel) demand with solar thermal power from a sunny spot (say Nevada). That will take about 30,000 square miles of collectors, if we assume no transmission line loss. Again, we start this big project in 2020 and aim to finish in 2050.

That will require covering ~3 square miles a day, every day from 2020 to 2050, in the US alone. For 70% of the US electricity demand. For comparison, the Nevada Solar One project took 16 months to cover 0.5 square miles.

And the above has not even considered cost…

Either way, IFRs or renewables, it’s an incredibly challenging task. But merely complaining about widespread IFR deployment being “no where near eventuation” without discussing the alternatives is being naive at best and disingenous at worst.

Regarding the risk assessment, for power station failure, yes, there has been one. See Prescrition pg 218. For proliferation risk, no, I’m simply deferring to Socratic logic. I judge a closed-fuel-cycle system (that’s what the Integral stands for) that systematically eliminates current stockpiles of HLW and decommissioned warhead material, and is administered under a system like GREAT (which I will talk about later) to be far safer than the current sitution. I suggest you read Chapter 10 of Blees’ book.


Barry @ 9
“Either way, IFRs or renewables, it’s an incredibly challenging task. But merely complaining about widespread IFR deployment being “no where near eventuation” without discussing the alternatives is being naive at best and disingenous at worst.”

Perhaps I can convince you that I have genuine valid points that are neither naïve nor disingenuous.

I have been citing the alternatives- just haven’t reiterated the references in every post. The alternatives I referred to are the models by Mark Disendorf, Hugh Saddler, Sven Teske etc. (40% cuts by 2020 and Coal free by 2030- in the Australian context) Other regional models with similar cuts are here ( )

I also advocate culture change (which is consistent with demands by Ted Trainer). It is virtually impossible to meet the projections for continuing energy growth with either renewables or nuclear power. There is no technology solution to the problem of continuing growth. The solution requires culture change – to change the energy consumption and growth.

But IFR seem to currently be getting a different standard of treatment on BNC compared to renewables. Keeping in mind IFRs are not yet even at demonstration stage. There are many questions and test that are yet to be addressed; yet to date IFRs current promotion on BNC has tended to focus on the most optimistic (without the critical assessment warranted by renewables).

The recent post – ‘Getting Real About Renewables’, had critical points that were equality valid criticism of IFR (neither can realistically meet the IEA’s fantastic energy projections). This point was well made in Mark Diesendorfs 2007 book (

So where do we get most bang for our resources? Early indications from a draft report by Amory Lovins suggests that a dollar spend on nuclear power represent a missed opportunity to make greater carbon reductions with other approaches. The lite version of the paper is here

Yet cost should not be the only determining factor. But in a race between renewables and nuclear power, cost is an essential element for nuclear to stay in the race.


Tens of thousands of nuclear reactors, thousands in construction at any moment, would be a manageable and desirable public-works project if the same purpose could not be accomplished more efficiently. But it can. It is unreasonable, if developing nuclear terawatts, to develop them 0.001 at a time. That unit size is based on electrical grids.

If the reactors’ purpose is to make fuel rather than electricity, we can make them using only materials in their natural isotopic mix — uranium and helium — at a scale such that 100 or so supply the world.

— G.R.L. Cowan (How fire can be domesticated)


Heard on the radio in the SF Bay area last week — I haven’t found a source for it yet — California is moving toward requiring coastal electrical generating plants (both coal and fission) to upgrade by building cooling towers, where they now have their secondary cooling loop in the ocean.

I gather the resulting warm water has contributed to the increasing anoxia problem in coastal waters that’s been happening more generally.

This will change the economics a bit, but then, it already had; it’s internalizing an externalized cost.

This is generally related to the problem with using freshwater rivers and lakes for cooling; France has during heat waves had times when their fission plants could not get rid of waste heat fast enough, and so had to be operated at reduced power when most needed for air conditioning.

“… during the heat wave that swept across Europe in 2003. Environmental rules ban Electricité de France from discharging water above a certain temperature, so the utility either reduced output or shut down 17 of its 58 reactors. The state-owned EDF, which normally exports power, was forced to buy energy on the open market at prices as high as 10 times the average summer price.”

Some earlier discussion of what may be the proposed rule was here:

Electricity Reliability Impacts of a Mandatory Cooling Tower Rule for Existing Steam Generation Units
U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability

Click to access Cooling_Tower_Report.pdf

Let’s hope some of the ideas about using relatively low heat as a power source can be developed.

Wish there were a way to put the waste heat into a big grid pointed at the northern sky, kept at the temperature of one of the infrared windows.


Some interesting further discussion here (+ see 43 comments) on nuclear power and the ABC Unleashed article.

Hank #12: Interesting re: the cooling water supply issue in France. I agree that using seawater for the steam-generation loop, or desal, could fix these problems. It’s going to apply to coal also, as you note, but also to solar thermal – as you have to wash all those desert mirrors with something, every month or so.

Let’s hope some of the ideas about using relatively low heat as a power source can be developed.

Thinking of cold fusion are we? :)


No, the externality is the cost to the fishery along the coast; hot water doesn’t carry as much dissolved oxygen.

Mr. Cowan, I’m not against you or your ideas; I think this Barry is inviting discussion on a necessary direction to go in, and that discussing the problems is part of working it out. The energetics of cooling have to be considered.

An alternative:

Click to access 124898.pdf

Paper Number: ICONE14-89305
Session: Track-5: Next Generation Systems
14th International Conference on Nuclear Energy

“Although dry cooling is expensive, about 30,000 MW(e)
of fossil plants worldwide have such systems. Dry cooling
systems have not been used with nuclear power plants because
the lower efficiency of LWRs (33%) relative to fossil plants
(40%) implies larger cooling systems. Increasing the
efficiency of the nuclear power plant from 33% (LWR) to
50% (AHTR) reduces the heat rejection per kilowatt of
electricity by a factor of 2. This reduction is sufficient to
make dry cooling a potentially viable cooling option under a
wide variety of circumstances. To obtain efficiencies of
50%, the peak reactor coolant temperatures must be above

This is one of the better arguments for the next generation reactors, and the first time I’ve seen it mentioned. The savings in water and environmental impact should be considerable, if this works. What are current reactor peak temps?


Mark #10: “But IFR seem to currently be getting a different standard of treatment on BNC compared to renewables. Keeping in mind IFRs are not yet even at demonstration stage. There are many questions and test that are yet to be addressed; yet to date IFRs current promotion on BNC has tended to focus on the most optimistic (without the critical assessment warranted by renewables).”

I don’t see how I’ve giving IFR a different treatment to renewables. The post above is a good example – it states that renewables and energy efficiency will be crucial. But insufficient. Hence the plea not to exclude nuclear as being an important, locally variable contribution to the mix.


What are current reactor peak temps?

Most are water-cooled and stay a few tens of K below water’s critical temperature, 647 K IIRC, and a few tens of bar below its critical pressure. Britain has some carbon dioxide-cooled ones that work near 900 K, but gaseous coolant has relatively low heat capacity per unit volume.

A couple of prototypes have operated with liquid lithium and beryllium fluoride mixtures as heat transfer fluid and fuel, all in one. Charles Forsberg, q.g., is an advocate of fluoride-cooled reactors with conventional metal-clad ceramic fuel. gThey could drive very efficient multiple-reheat Brayton cycles, plus the fluoride, not being fuel-laden, is transparent. And like any fluoride it is incombustible.

The THTR-300 was air-cooled.


Here’s a reference to the recent story:

Coastal power plants could face tougher rules
by Jane Kay
San Francisco Chronicle
——excerpt follows——-
San Francisco’s Mirant Corp. power plant, under fire from the city attorney and environmental groups, is one of 19 power plants in California that could face tougher regulation under the Obama administration for killing billions of fish.

For now, state water regulators are allowing the Mirant plant in the city’s Dogpatch neighborhood and the other power plants in California, including the huge Diablo Canyon Power Plant, to continue using a cooling system that sucks and grinds fish, flattens them on screens or boils them in hot water.

The coastal power plants withdraw cold water and discharge hot water at a rate of about 16.7 billion gallons per day, according to reports. The Mirant Potrero plant is blamed for killing hundreds of millions of fish larvae, including goby, northern anchovy, Pacific herring, California halibut and rockfishes.

Mirant also operates power plants in Antioch and Pittsburg. Dynegy of Houston runs the Moss Landing Power Plant, which takes and discharges water to the environmentally rich Elkhorn Slough on Monterey Bay.

California regulators could require the electric power plants to upgrade to fish-safe systems now under existing laws, environmental lawyers say, but instead are using legal questions over a 2004 U.S. EPA regulation to delay replacing the World War II-era technology, known as once-through cooling systems.

Two state agencies have objected to extending permits to operate the old systems, citing studies showing that 88 billion organisms are killed a year. Several of the state’s power plants are moving ahead with projects to replace old systems – one on Humboldt Bay and others in Southern California. The technology at new power plants uses towers to cool boiling water and does not require cold seawater….

—–end excerpt—-


Perhaps it’s legit. The reference to boiling water seems ignorant. It is, of course, condensing water, and I think they condense it at rather a low pressure. So the seawater that supplies the coolness for this is not heated anywhere near water’s normal boiling point. It typically is discharged 10-20 K warmer than it was taken in.


Barry @ 17

The differential treatment between renewables and IFR that I pointed out was that there has been an unequal critical assessment of these.

Case in point is the posting on “Getting real about renewables” It may have been better named “Getting real about energy”. This is because the criticism of renewables inability to meet the IEA projections equally applies to IFR and any new nuclear plant.

My critique has been aimed at prompting a critical assessment of the promise of IFRs. I think it is helpful in the long run to look at the warts and all picture. What some may perceive as trying to take IFRs “off the table”, might alternatively be a seen as stringent critical assessment. I believe that such an assessment in warranted given the risk of proliferation and the risks of diverting resources away from potentially more effective renewable solutions.

I am open to IFRs having a role to play in reducing nuclear waste and weapons stockpiles. My mind is still open about the passively safe operation design; I still have critical questions on this point. I am however still gravely concerned by the risks associated with potentially hundreds of new reactors each year (let alone thousands). [If we try this path and things turn bad, what is plan B? What opportunities are forgone if we start to see catastrophic failures?]

I also have a healthy skepticsim (classical skepticsim) about the ability of IFRs to meet the most optimistic claims of its proponents. Many observers have been inoculated against similar claims by the nuclear industry over the last 50 years.

But even if IFRs could meet its technical challenges and attain commercialisation in the next 15 years, I am concerned that it could divert resources from more effective solutions, as suggested by Amory Lovins.


Barry – Assuming that the IFR was all you say lets look at the practicalities of deploying any solution based on nuclear power.

1. Starting today there are no IFR reactors in commercial production so a pilot plant would have to be built and debugged. This would take even with a crash program 5 to 10 years.

2. Once the pilots are working then the first commercial plants would have to be constructed and debugged. This would take at least 10 years.

3. The exacting nature of IFR plants with liquid sodium would require the highest standards of materials and construction. Thousands of reactors of this nature would not be possible with the current nuclear infrastructure that is struggling to build the reactors that are on the books now. Evidence of this is the skyrocketing build price for reactors.


Just how do you make sure all the thousands of required reactors are all built to the same high standard? is: the one for Sierra Leone or Haiti is exactly the same build for the same price as the one for Sydney?

Just how do you ensure the ones for, for instance, Iran or North Korea are never used to make plutonium?

How do you ensure that the reactors for Sierra Leone actually produce power for the people that need it – how do you build the required infrastructure.

How do you ensure that all the counties that get this new miracle savior actually keep the waste safe for 500 years considering nations like Australia are a little over 200 years old which is less than half the required storage time.

Should we wait for 20 years doing nothing while IFR reactors are built? The danger is that in that 20 years wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and all the other renewables will have taken over anyway and actually supplied a very significant portion of the world’s power requirements. Why not just pump the money into solutions that are ready now rather than something that will not even be ready for 20 years and then have deployment and construction problems that you have not even seemed to think about?

Renewable power is scalable from a single village to a large city something that no nuclear power plant is. A village in Sierra Leone can have an appropriately sized renewable power plant installed without any need for infrastructure. In fact many dedicated teams around the world are doing this often with the same amount of money that studies on IFR receive. This technology has no risk of proliferation and places the power of the village in the hands of the villagers instead of the often corrupt central energy suppliers. There is also no waste to dispose of.

The same technology, debugged and ready, can be deployed to cities with the addition of HVDC power lines that our creaking electricity grid need anyway to replace years of neglect and penny pinching. HVDC power systems also can easily incorporate storage and diversity that makes renewable sytems 24X7 power systems.

Reliance on pie in the sky technologies is the sure way to ensure we never get anything done. We need to start now with what we have and save the money that would be wasted on a dinosaur centralised technology like nuclear with a new distributed smart grid based on small independent cells linked with smart distributers and storage.


Here’s California’s state page:

Enough, I think, the point is to put all the energy cards on the table; as long as these concerns are known to everyone who has a proposal to make, they’ll be dealt with. My only concern is that many experts in the energy field never heard about this concern.

Biologists, who pay attention to those who track changes in distribution of species, know this stuff. Our host is one.

Ready to move to the next card?


Ender #22 and Mark #21 – you two end up making much the same point. But you clearly didn’t read my article above clearly. Did I say renewables should be dumped in favour of nuclear? No. Did I ignore the great gains that can be made, quickly, with energy efficiency? No.

So why set up your rebuttal of me on the basis of a straw man – that it must be either renewables/geothermal/EE OR nuclear. You example of the African village was an example – solar may work great here, or a ‘nuclear battery’ might serve well. Let’s keep our options open. Indeed, my opinion is that we’ll have a good contribution from renewables in our future energy mix, but that they won’t meet all (or perhaps most) of our needs. Indeed, that is why I said:

This above should not be taken to imply that I do not support expansion of renewable energy and widespread adoption of energy efficiency measures. In some places there are wonderful opportunities for these… Nuclear energy may well be that backup, or indeed a mainstay for future energy generation… Nuclear may well be the ace in the deck, or it may be the card that makes up the royal flush. Either way, don’t throw it on the discard pile.

In other words, don’t try too hard to pre-judge what will work and don’t demand that certain techs are excluded from consideration. Large-scale renewables, geothermal and EE have some big problems and face major challenges – social, economic, technical. Large-scale fast-spectrum nuclear has some big problems and face major challenges – social, economic, technical. A mix of solutions is likely to emerge, but it’s really tough to pick what (if any one thing) will come up trumps. So don’t close options. John Mashey, an ex-Bell Labs guy and regular commenter here whose opinion I respect greatly, has repeatedly made the same point.

Ender, I see you have a deep dislike of the ‘nuclear option’ (your comments on the Oil Drum reinforce this view — and note that you set up the same either/or strawman there, and are duly chastised for it). I’m not sure why you’ve taken to referring to those who discuss nuclear technology as ‘nuclear addicts’ (your words on the Oil Drum site). But you posed a lot of good questions in comment #22, which suggests that for the most part, you are trying to look at this issue rationally – which is precisely what I was suggesting in the above article needs to be done. Fortunately, all of those questions have been asked before and answered, so rather than repeat them here, I’ll refer you to the relevant links:

And of course I suggest you read the book, Prescription for the Planet, by Tom Blees, which has a very detailed examination of all the points made above.

Finally, you say:
Reliance on pie in the sky technologies is the sure way to ensure we never get anything done. We need to start now with what we have and save the money that would be wasted on a dinosaur centralised technology like nuclear with a new distributed smart grid based on small independent cells linked with smart distributers and storage.

First, IFR is not pie in the sky. Worldwide, we have over 300 reactor years of experience for fast breeders. The EBR-II ran for 30 years. The IFR programme at Argonne ran for 10 years, and tested every component of the IFR process, except commercial-scale pyroprocessing. Yet you consider a distributed smart grid of renewables to supply all of our electricity needs to already be ‘ground-truthed’ and ready to go? (by implication – I don’t want to put words in your mouth but I’m presuming that was the intention of your meaning). Well, I suggest you read chapter 2 of “Prescription”, and note the chapter title for an ironic twist.


Barry @ 26

Your reply at 26 is addressed to me, but did not address the points I raise. My critiques were on the lack of critical review of IRFs to date on BNC. I did not say nor imply that you did not support renewables. I said you have so far put IFRs to a different standard of test than you have for renvewables.

I’m not sure of the strawman argument you say I have used, perhaps we are experience a similar problem, as I would ask that you address the critique I made, not one I didn’t make.

I am happy to reiterate the points of concern if you believe I have not been clear to date. A brief summary are the issue of proliferation and Amory Lovins calculations that demomstrate that money spent on nuclear power is a lost opportunity to have a greater impact with renewables, efficiency and culture change. According to Lovins, nuclear growth can reduce the our carbon mitigation. That is, make climate change worse than would be with an optimal mix of responses. [Point being that Lovins provides is evidence that the optimal mix of responses does not include nuclear power.]


Mark #27, my comments #26 were mostly directed towards Ender, but you also pushed the point (and again in #21 and #27 that the optimal mix of responses does not include nuclear power – which I take to be an appeal to either/or exclusion of nuclear.

So, it ends up being that you are asking me to think of problems with IFR to ponder, that have not already been raised in the Q&A documents I linked to above, and in the 400 page book Prescription for the Planet. That is a very reasonable request – but to be quite honest, I can’t think of any that haven’t already been answered. But feel free to ask them yourself and I’ll either direct you to where they’ve been answered, or have a go at them myself if I’m not aware of them already being asked and answered. The best one I’ve heard so far has been Hank’s questions about cooling tower water. That needs looking into.

Now Ender certainly raised a bunch of questions in #22 – which were good questions – but as I noted above, they are all answered already. That is, there was nothing new there (although by nominating specific countries, one could argue some questions hadn’t been asked precisely in that context before). I suppose I could go through all the FAQs and Prescription again and provide all the answers Ender seeks, but I think it is better if he seeks those answer himself. I can at least guarantee him that all the specific responses ARE there, so he won’t be searching in vain.

Lovins is not calculating on the basis of fuel-efficient breeders, with no long-lived waste, nor a standardised, modular, factory-built design, nor a simplified certification process, nor an amendment to the US law which allows private utilities to gouge their customers for projected future construction costs on new projects (yes, this currently exists – but not in Japan, for instance). So (a) I’m not surprised that he drew this conclusion, and (b) I don’t see how it is relevant to the above IFR proposals.


> cooled by salt water

From the Ca. Republican Caucus paper linked above, that’s the problem they’re trying to figure out how to address both for recertification and new construction.

“… These impacts are directly regulated under the federal Clean Water Act by the US Environmental Protection Agency. New rules that affect once-through cooling (OTC) will take effect January 1, 2008. These regulations may adversely impact the availability, reliability and cost of power from these plants. Although it is unclear how state and local agencies will implement these federal rules, it is certain the new standards will cause significant compliance costs…”

Just saying, this can’t be ignored in doing the energy and cost calculations, it’s actively being discussed.


Barry Brook – “Ender #22 and Mark #21 – you two end up making much the same point. But you clearly didn’t read my article above clearly. Did I say renewables should be dumped in favour of nuclear? No. Did I ignore the great gains that can be made, quickly, with energy efficiency? No.”

I don’t think that you read my response correctly. I did not say that you favoured dumping renewables or anything like it. I realised from your article that you still favour the path that renewables need. Your are perhaps unwittingly setting up a strawman yourself.

However in your post you are presenting a false dichotomy:

“Do you wish to fully solve the climate crisis? Or alternatively, do you want a secure energy supply that is not dependent on foreign oil and other dwindling, polluting sources? If you are merely satisfied with half-fixing these problems, then sure, hold your ideological ground.”

Basically you are saying that the choices are solution with nuclear that will work or a solution without nuclear that will not work. There is in fact a third choice that of a solution without nuclear that also works. So by presenting your final statement in this way you are basically saying that a solution with nuclear is the only working option if you want to be serious about climate change. You also go a bit further an imply that anti nuclear people like myself are ideological zealots. I do see in your reply that you grudgingly acknowledge that I may be able to see the light.

The problem I have is that if you are going to propose a solution in a written article in the press or on a blog you should be able to defend it. I asked perfectly reasonable questions that are common to all facets of nuclear which you replied to read the literature and answer yourself rather than defending your position. If I am to be dismissed in this manner then why did you write the article in the first place. If you are going to be like this then your article should have been:

“Here are some interesting links on nuclear power – go and read them.”

It would have been a lot shorter.

Also my discussions on the Oil Drum where about a completely different technology and I did not ask exactly the same questions. The authors there were presenting their technology as a “silver bullet”. I simply pointed out there are no silver bullets.

The problem I have with nuclear is the unanswered or swept-under-the-carpet problems of waste and proliferation. I do not accept that a solution that endangers the planet with the possibility of nuclear war and leaves a dangerous legacy for future generations is acceptable. I also do not accept that our model of conspicious consumption is necessarily should be propped up at all costs.


Barry – In addition to my previous comment my questions were not answered by any of your links.

Nuclear ‘addicts’ (again I have a long history with Charles B over a few years so please forgive me for this) tend to ignore the practicalities and problems inherent in a large scale nuclear rollout hence my questions to you about this. I do realise that you are probably not qualified to answer them however they still remain.

Ted Traynor does not mention the shortage of skilled technicians required to build reactors, the shortage of critical materials and the skills and materials required for the exacting metal forgings that safe nuclear reactors need.

These problems can be overcome however they will take time – lots of time which you admit we do not have. If we want to fix the climate then the question is can we wait until nuclear power is ready to make a difference? And if we wait and it does not work what is Plan B?

This if course poses the question – if we are not sure nuclear can do the job in the time required why spend any money on it all and save it to spend on other things that can?

Renewable addicts such as myself of course tend to exaggerate the benefits of renewables however if you go to the like of Ted Traynor I don’t think you will get a balanced view of them. You need to speak to Mark Diesendorff who had done peer reviewed studies into renewable power. Somewhere in between these two the correct answer may lie.

The nuclear technology that Charles B was championing on the Oil Drum was a Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). This type of reactor produces, and cannot produce, any weapons grade material. It also eats nuclear waste and has only short-lived waste products. This as I said in my comments is a nuclear technology I could support. It can, due to the fact that it generates power with a gas turbine, interact a with renewable smart grid with automatic controls.

I do agree that a fully renewable grid is not workable however that is not what anyone wants. What I would like is for all of us to first waste less power to make the problem smaller, use renewables where we can up to an average of 70% or 80% and fill in the rest with other sources.

However we really need to think about whether in all conscience use a system of generating power that has so many problems. We can ignore the problems and use it anyway however is this to me is unethical. Is is ethical to leave waste toxic for 10 000 years around for other people to deal with? Is it ethical to give unstable countries the tools to create weapons that can kill millions of people?

If you can answer yes to these questions then nuclear is OK. I cannot, and many others cannot answer yes to these questions, and that is my opposition to nuclear power.


Ender – thanks for your two detailed responses.

Before I reply to you in more detail (and I will – these are good points to reiterate, but bear with me until I get the time), could you clarify which of your previous questions you believe were not answered in the links I provided? I am aware of answers to all of them, but I’d like to know what you missed.


Sorry the line:

“This type of reactor produces, and cannot produce, any weapons grade material.”

Should read

“This type of reactor does not produce, and cannot produce, any weapons grade material.”


Interesting debate Barry and Ender. Here’s my 2 bob’s worth.

I’ve noiced an emphasis on this site to ‘hard’ solutions (eg geo engineering, next gen nuclear) to the climate crisis (at least in recent entries). This may reflect Barry’s particular interests, expertise and/or recent readings. And that’s fair enough given that it IS your site, Barry. I suspect it also reflects a realisation of the magnitude of the challenge that climate change poses.

However, I am concerned that in urging the consideration of all possible solutions, including next gen nuclear, that you are expressing a particular bias (apparently heaviliy influenced by your reading of Blees’ book) without giving sufficient coverage of the risks associated with that option. In my view, one of the biggest risks is that next gen nuclear will be seen as the silver bullet by policy makers and others of influence, resulting in significant public funds being directed away from other (hard and soft) solutions.

Geo engineering and next gen nuclear have the potential to swallow trillions of public $’s. Potentially, they also allow us to continue in our profligate ways when it comes to energy and the use of non-renewable resources, and ignore the impacts (climate related and others) that these ways have on the planet.

I think it’s encumbent upon those responsible for sites like this to canvass all of the consequences (good and bad) of possible solutions. After all, you never know who might be listening!


Barry – this is the first time I have missed cut and paste on my iPhone.

The main unanswered questions are:

1. Given the shortages in nuclear construction materials can nuclear be rolled out fast enough to make a difference.

2. How can you ensure, given the failure of the NPT to prevent proliferation, how do you prevent weapons grade material being made from civilian nukes.

3. Given the lack of power infrastructure in 3rd world countries how do nukes benefit anyone other than rich countries.

Thanks for your limited time.


Okay to address Ender #22 questions (references are external links [or sublinks] in comment #26, PFTP [page # given – there is a reason a 400 page book was written on this – it is rather comprehensive, if you take the time to read it] or IFR Q&A BNC post):

1. General Electric’s S-PRISM is ready to build now. A demonstration plant could be built quickly for certification purposes, then deployment begins. ~3-5 yr time frame if the US gov got serious.

2. Based on Japanese experience, 36 months for construction – faster once factory production begins on a large-scale and quicker for the smaller modular units or retrofitting coal-fired power stations.

3. You are talking about multiple one off designs. The large-scale IFR system is about a standardised, factory built turnkey design.


1. Public ownership, standardised design, certified production facilities, international oversight via GREAT (or equivalent organisation). Please read PFTP pg 302-317, ‘going global’.

2. Read PFTP pg 263-284 re: international oversight. In addition, pyroprocessing does not result in weapons-useable purified plutonium due to actinide mixture. These nations would therefore have to set up a specially designed PUREX facility – just as they would for LWR. A good summary from Wiki on FBR:

“To date all known weapons programs have used far more easily built thermal reactors to produce plutonium, and there are some designs such as the SSTAR which avoid proliferation risks by both producing low amounts of plutonium at any given time from the U-238, and by producing three different isotopes of plutonium (Pu-239, Pu-240, and Pu-242) making the plutonium used infeasible for atomic bomb use. Furthermore, several countries are developing more proliferation resistant reprocessing methods that don’t separate the plutonium from the other actinides. For instance, the pyrometallurgical process when used to reprocess fuel from the Integral Fast Reactor leaves large amounts of radioactive actinides in the reactor fuel. Removing these transuranics in a conventional reprocessing plant would be extremely difficult as many of the actinides emit strong neutron radiation, requiring all handling of the material to be done remotely, thus preventing the plutonium from being used for bombs while still being usable as reactor fuel.”

3. This is all carefully and meticulously detailed in PFTP pg 263-317 and again, very specifically, on pg 377-382.

4. There will be less waste around than currently via LWR’s generation of long-lived high level waste. Further, IFR fission products can be vitrified in such a way as to render them ‘inert’ for over 1000 years – you can then drop the contents to the sea floor (or a geological repository if you wish). Point is, waste management becomes easy. See PFTP pg 218-220.

5. We shouldn’t wait. We should be pursuing IFRs and expanding the renewable and geothermal infrastructure and pursuing vigorous energy efficiency and conservation. It is not an either/or. To claim ‘…and then have deployment and construction problems that you have not even seemed to think about?’ is unfair – why do you think I have not thought about them? Or Tom Blees. Or George Stanford, etc. etc. What is your evidence for this lack of consideration?

6. Renewables could be suitable for the village. Or a buried 30-year nuclear battery (again described in PFTP and No one is proposing to put IFR construction and oversight into the hand of corrupt central energy suppliers. That’s what’s so great about GREAT – see PFTP ch 9 and 10 for details, or here for some brief snippets:

7/8. It is not pie in the sky, it is not theoretical, as noted in comment #26.

RE: Comment #31:

Ted Traynor does not mention the shortage of skilled technicians required to build reactors, the shortage of critical materials and the skills and materials required for the exacting metal forgings that safe nuclear reactors need.”

The optics for solar thermal and the systems control required for an intergrated renewable grid (as just two of many examples) are also demanding. The labour required for large-scale renewables installation and maintenence is high. etc. They may be more or less challenging than expanded nuclear – that’s a difficult question to answer without some learning-by-doing. Point is, there is no need to automatically assume one is feasible and the other isn’t. And if we are serious about implementing the most effective ways to combat climate change, then such matters are simply hurdles that MUST be overcome, whatever techs we pursue.

As above, I’m not suggesting we ‘wait until nuclear is ready to make a difference’ (what, beyond the 16% of power it already supplies?). I’m saying we go hard at all the feasible options.

Is is ethical to leave waste toxic for 10 000 years around for other people to deal with? Is it ethical to give unstable countries the tools to create weapons that can kill millions of people?

From such comments it is clear that you have not debriefed yourself sufficiently about IFR (yet you pointed out the 500 year time for IFR fission products to drop below background radition in an earlier question – I’m confused by the incongruety of these two statements). It does not generate toxic waste that lasts for 10,000 years, and it does not create weapons-grade material – far from it – it can consume weapons grade plutonium and the pyroprocessing makes it incredibly hard to get any useful material, except for a dirty bomb perhaps.

If you can answer yes to these questions then nuclear is OK. I cannot, and many others cannot answer yes to these questions, and that is my opposition to nuclear power.”

I, or specifically, others with the most knowledge of this topic such as Argonne physicists, can answer yes to both of your questions. Please read the material I have suggested above, and like your views on the LTFR, your may find your views changed.

As I was writing this, I saw your most recently comment #35 – thanks for the summary. I think I’ve captured all of those points above, but to briefly recap:

1. It needs a major worldwide mobilisation of effort – no argument there. But so does large scale renewables, or indeed investment in fossil fuel infrastructure (IEA estimates a spend on business-as-usual tech of $26 trillion by 2030 to keep up with projected demand). Any way you look at it, we face a herculean task. So let’s roll up our sleeves and deal with it.

2. You can’t fully do this, but a GREAT like system sure helps. But IFR is a really bad way to make weapons-grade nukes, since the material is horrendously radioactive to handle and you need to build a separate PUREX facility anyway (you can’t do it on-site). So why not take the easier LWR route? Point is, IFR has a high probability of reducing proliferation risks, not enhancing them. Oh, and a good chance of saving the planet to boot.

3. Answered comprehensively above.

Thanks Ender, for staying polite, asking some penetrating questions, and being flexible of mind. The world needs more people like that.


John #34: Thanks for your comments. You are correct that I’ve been reading a lot about ‘hard’ solutions recently. But my motivation is clearly this: what can we do that will really fix the climate and sustainability problem – fully?

For instance (just one example) – is there a way to stop those new Chinese coal fired power stations pumping CO2 and aersol gunk in to the atmosphere for the next 50 years (i.e. not just stopping China building more, but persuading them to get rid of the huge number they’ve already got)? And so on, with a hundred other hurdles to overcome. I’m looking for real solutions that have a decent chance of working. Perhaps it’s large scale renewables, but my honest call is that these can’t do the whole job. There is simply no way to ever overcome the diffuse ‘energy supply’ challenge these face in being the total package.

If I’m biased towards next gen nuclear (that is a reasonable characterisation), it’s for two simple reasons. First, it strikes me as the best chance I’ve yet seen to get ourselves completely off fossil fuels, pretty quickly (a few decades), and simultaneously avoid the peak oil crunch (it becomes almost a non-issue). Second, I’ve yet to see any persuasive arguments that an IFR-boron-plasma solution can’t actually be the silver bullet (actually, the depleted uranium bullet, as Blees says) – that is, I’ve read through all the pros and cons (good and bad) arguments I can lay my hands on (believe me, I’ve look as hard as just about anyone for both sides) – and I find the pros greatly persuasive over the cons, with almost all of the cons being irrelevant to IFR or a problem common to any and all energy solutions, renewables included.

If you can think of some killer arguments or find links to them, please do post them here. Canvas away. I’m absolutely willing to be persuaded otherwise, just as I was with large-scale renewables being the full solution (they’re not – at least IMHO).


Hi Mark – good question.

First up, coal-fired power stations vent huge amounts of radioactive uranium and heavy metals into the atmosphere that we are all currently inhaling – far, far more than IFRs or any other nuclear power station would (there is some venting of short-lived isotopes such as Xe, Kr and I). So, replacing the world’s ‘fleet’ of coal-fired power stations with nuclear (not saying we necessarily do this, but as an example) would decrease radioactive atmospheric emissions by a couple of orders of magnitude compared to today (in addition to the obvious CO2 benefit). But Blees also has some comments on this here and a solution for IFRs via vitrification of salts in the waste stream and noble gas capture:

The Inoue/Koch paper refers to LWR spent fuel processing and the voloxidation step for decladding is not a necessary step. The only implication is that iodine in the IFR processing for metal fuel would stay in the salt rather than being released as gas. That salt could be incorporated into the vitrified waste. Nevertheless, Xe and Kr will get released into the hotcell. In a conventional reprocessing plant, the Xe and Kr released into the cell would have to be released through a stack. However, in pyroprocessing, the cell volume is small and filled with inert argon gas, and hence Xe and Kr can be collected cryogenically as part of the argon purification system. The collected gases can be compressed and stored until they decay away: Xe with a very short halflife of 12 days or less and Kr with about 10 years. You are correct in saying gases are not vitrified. However, being able to collect and compress for storage provides an alternative management option to simply releasing them through a stack. Xenon is no problem whatsoever with such a short half-life. It can be compressed and just stored for a few months until it decays. Krypton is a bit more problematic because of its longer half-life, but still very manageable. Rather than storing it compressed for decades while it decays, however, it could more practically be disposed of in the vitrified waste by combining it in a salt with fluorine


On the widescale use of new generation nuclear, I have to wonder at the time scales and costs involved in the development of such designs to the point where they can be considered safe, reliable and then go in to production. Are there any such reactors in operation or under construction? If not, can they be built quickly, in quantity and with high confidence in the reliability and safety and cost?

I realise the Argonne fast breeder can be considered a prototype of sorts for new generation nuclear that appears on the face of it to be successful but I notice there was no rush to build upon it’s success and Light Water reactors have remained the mainstay of the civilian nuclear power industry. I can’t help but wonder, if it was so good, why it wasn’t emulated and improved upon (and admit I don’t have the time or opportunity at present to research such questions and probably won’t get to do the reading suggested any time soon). The time needed to build another Argonne – or many – is crucial if it is to be a major component of energy infrastructure reform. If a lot of development work is needed, how might that compare in time and cost to the development work for technologies that would deal with intermittency in renewables, such as large scale CAES or molten salt storage?

Light water reactors have had a history of major cost overruns, which is considered the primary reason nuclear fell out of favour, although it’s popular to blame environmental and weapons proliferation concerns. In nuclear’s heyday I believe cost overruns averaged 320% for US nuclear plants. Are IFR’s likely to similarly fail to come in on time or within budget?

I’m disappointed that the lack of large scale energy storage (apart from the geographically and climatically constrained pumped hydro) is being use as a primary argument for needing new nuclear when it ought to be used as a primary argument for developing large scale storage. Given that there’s been no need in the past for it, minimal need for it in the present and all the requirements for it are future ones I think it’s sloppy to argue from the current lack of it that it is unachievable. Sure, it’s an enormous challenge but so must be building, deploying and keeping safe hundreds and probably thousands of new nuclear plants. If large scale energy storage had the decades of research and the big budgets of nuclear behind it, would storage still be unachievable? The primary technologies needed for large scale storage aren’t that complex and aren’t new. No essential requirement for breakthroughs (although the possibility for low cost batteries is worth some R&D), just funding for implementation, which probably won’t be forthcoming – because it’s not desperately needed now.. It shouldn’t be presumed unachievable in order to promote the idea that renewables don’t have a future for baseload power in order to promote the nuclear option. It also shouldn’t be used as the catch 22 reason to keep the coal fires burning – don’t build any because we don’t need any now and end up unable to close down coal power stations because we haven’t built any.


Barry – Thank you for taking to time to answer my questions and provide the information that you did. I always try to be polite because I am interested in learning and you can’t learn when you are shouting. The only time I become impolite is the last couple of posts on Jennifer Morohasy’s blog and that is why I left it – again.

Please correct me if I am wrong however you support nuclear power as long as it is an IFR? If this is correct then I am in the same sort of boat as I would support the LFTR as it is even more proliferation resistant.

My comments were more because I thought you were advocating any type of nuclear including LWRs and the breeder fuel cycle.

On the deployment question wind is deploying at the moment at about the rate that it needs to be to start seriously reducing CO2 emissions. As wind turbines have no specialised parts or fabrication methods that are used exclusively for them and nowhere else, increases in production can be accomplished by the aircraft industry or boat building if we need ramp production up.

Solar PV is already increasing about as fast as it can however new technologies like are coming online now that promise dramatic increases in solar cell production with far less materials.

Solar thermal shares the current shortage of steam turbines however these parts are common with almost all power generation so nuclear plants will have the same problems. In fact the new Ausra plant in California is waiting now for its turbine. The reflectors, especially Ausra’s are simple affairs of steel and plastic and can be rapidly deployed with minimal labour. In fact it is not to dissimilar to roofing so out of work house builders could find employment here.

The control electronics for all the renewables are common off the shelf items not. IGBTs are commonly used now in inverters for all sorts of applications.

The nuclear situation however is not so rosy. Gen IV reactors need a single 600t steel forging. There is at present only one company in the world that can do it.

“Given Japan Steel’s limited capacity, the math just doesn’t work, said Mycle Schneider, an independent nuclear industry consultant near Paris. Japan Steel caters to all nuclear reactor makers except in Russia, which makes its own heavy forgings.

Competitors’ Moves

“I find it just amazing that so many people jumped on the bandwagon of this renaissance without ever looking at the industrial side of it,” Schneider said.

It would take any competitor more than five years to catch up with Japan Steel’s technology, said the company’s chief executive officer, Masahisa Nagata. ”

and shortages of personel:

“The biggest problem, though, is a shortage of qualified scientists, engineers and technicians. Nuclear power’s long unpopularity has left the industry depleted, and many of those who remain are greybeards.”

All of these problems can be overcome however they will significantly slow nuclear growth making it almost impossible for nuclear to grow as fast as renewables that have none of the same shortages as they are far less specialised and demanding.


Ken #40: Yes, there are a number of Fast Breeder Reactors in operation and more being built, and other reactors that use closed-fuel cycles. The whole IFR package is what is needed. P4TP has more on the grand vision for expansion and large-scale deployment, see ch8.

As I see it there were two main reasons why there was no rush to embrace FBRs. First, the economics of Uranium meant it didn’t make sense – U was cheap and abundant enough during the 20th C that there was no real pressure to look for ways to make better (more efficient) use of the fuel, and there was little environmental concern in the 1950s and 1960s about long-lived high level waste – so LWR made sense. Second, LWR were developed for the military first and made sense for domestic deployment, whereas Liquid Metal Reactors had more technical issues to solve (the Argonne project and others have almost completely solved these),and so their development time was longer. It’s somewhat like VCR vs Betamax – the latter was a technically superior system, but the former won the ‘format war’ because it was so quickly adopted (also, in VCR’s case, due to heavy advertising by Phillips!).

Cost overruns from LWR come mainly for long-certification times and non-standard designs – the Gen III+ projects such as EPR and ABWR are designed to solve this problem, as well as introduce new passive safety systems.

I agree renewables storage will improve greatly as demand increases – but it is still an energy inefficient business and the diffuse nature of renewable energy means a lot of area must be used, no matter what – which costs, and will continue to mean massive scale up is challenging. so in my view, it’s worth MAJOR investment, but not SOLE investment, and is easily as far off as large scale next gen nuclear. Possible – maybe, best option – too hard to tell, which is why nuclear must remain viably in the mix.

But this isn’t the main reason to advocate IFRs – they have so many redeeming features that they should be pursed anyway, irrespective of whether renewables also end up being a large part of the future energy solution.


Ender #41: To clarify, the long-term nuclear vision I support is the IFR model, yes. In the short term, I have no problem with nuclear club nations pursing Gen III LWR such as the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR), AP-1000 and Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) – these promise to be far cheaper and safer than even the high quality Gen II systems, aren’t a proliferation risk (since these nations already have nuclear weapons or have voluntary chosen not to build them [e.g. Japan]) and of course their waste stream will be useful in kicking off large numbers of IFRs in the future. Same deal for Breeders – these are necessary initially to produce enough enriched fuel to kick off the IFRs, which can operate as burners (they will all do this for most of their lifetime, eventually, except when needed for kicking off her IFRs).

So without the IFRs, the LWRs don’t make long-term sense – mostly because of the high level waste and peak uranium issues. But with the IFRs as the overarching future system, I’m happy to see the current fleet of safe LWR being laid out in a big way over the coming decade in nuclear club countries. Note that I don’t support the Pebble Bed style reactor for a simple reason (even though they are very safe and a neat design) – the graphite bound silcon carbide coated fuel elements (nuclear fuel pebbles) cannot be recycled to produce IFR fuel! Their long-lived waste stream truly is forever. The same applies for the proposed Advanced High Temperature reactors that are incompatible with a closed fuel cycle.

You comment on the lack of production facilities for Gen IV reactor pools. The S-PRISM modular design for an IFR type reactor, by GE, has a standard unit of 380 MW and so, because of their smaller size, do not require the sort of specialised steel forging facility you describe. Also, as you note, if we go at this in a big way, there will be plenty of demand for a ramp up of production facilities – much like the huge number of aeroplane factories in WWII, which six months previously didn’t exist or were instead rolling out motor cars. Just as with large-scale renewables and the capacity need to build 30,000+ sq km of mirrors or millions of huge wind turbine blades – we need a whole new level of manufacturing infrastructure to power the zero-carbon energy revolution.

Nuclear or Renewables, it’s the same deal.


Note that I don’t support the Pebble Bed style reactor for a simple reason (even though they are very safe and a neat design) – the graphite bound silcon carbide coated fuel elements (nuclear fuel pebbles) cannot be recycled to produce IFR fuel! Their long-lived waste stream truly is forever.

When you strike a bell, it rings forever. After a while, other sounds predominate and it’s hard to tell whether it’s still ringing or not. Nuclear wastes’ “forever” is of a similar kind —

P/P_0 = 0.1*{
- (t + T_0 + 10)^(-0.2)
(t + 2e7)^(-0.2)
- (t + 2e7 + T_0)^(-0.2)

That's the Untermeyer and Weills formula (eqn. 3 here, eqn. 18 here). In-service time 'T_0' and cooling time 't' are both in seconds.

It predicts that if you run pebble bed reactor pebbles at 1000 watts each -- I don't know if that's their actual design power -- for ten years, and then put them in a concrete vault for 50-to-60 years, their radioactivity diminishes to 7.35-to-5.93 milliwatts each.

No method has been developed of reprocessing dead pebbles yet, but if a lot of them were in such vaults and they were producing that little heat, it might be worthwhile to develop one. Silicon carbide isn't the ultimate solid. I seem to recall molten caustic (NaOH and/or KOH) can eat it. Certainly high-pressure oxygen or fluorine can.

--- G.R.L. Cowan (How fire can be domesticated)


This bit in the news:
Slovakia cancels decision to relaunch nuclear reactor
[Soviet-type VVER-440/230] lJan 23, 2009

Looking up the type, I came across this:
Nuclear Engineering and Design
Article in Press, Corrected Proof

RPV [Reactor Pressure Vessel] material investigations of the former VVER-440 Greifswald NPP [Nuclear Power Plant]

—–excerpt follows—–

The real toughness response of RPV material can only be determined after the final shut down of the NPP. Such a chance is given now by investigating material from the former Greifswald NPP (VVER-440/230).

The comparison … typically resulted in deviations of 50%. Possible reasons for the observed differences are discussed….
In the second part first results of fracture mechanic investigations are reported.

It’s reassuring to see this kind of study is being done and published.


Barry, not hoping for cold fusion. But Scholar has a lot about infrared-range photovoltaic recently.

Also there’s one window in the infrared still open (except for California’s new favorite agricultural pesticide gas, sulfur something fluoride — which apparently blocks exactly that window). Fix that little problem (the stuff was brought in to replace a known greenhouse gas with a worse one, go figure) and the notion of dry cooling could, perhaps, be tuned to have the grids radiate in exactly the open window temperature.

Of course get an intrinsically safe heat source and all this becomes far more possible because we have lots of uses for low grade heat — they just need to happen around people.


Belatedly, for anyone who wasn’t sure this was a real issue:

Publication date: Dec. 10, 2008


… On Dec. 2, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could decide whether the Clean Water Act (CWA) allows EPA to weigh costs and benefits when determining the best technology available for the cooling water intake structures at existing power plants.

The case, Entergy Corp. vs. Riverkeeper Inc. (07-588), involves the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, NY. Like many conventional and nuclear power plants, Indian Point takes in a huge volume of river water daily in its “one-pass” cooling system (1950s-era technology). At issue is whether EPA can require Entergy to pay to upgrade Indian Point’s cooling system, considering the environmental impacts of the existing system. Specifically fish eggs, smaller fish, and other aquatic organisms are destroyed when sucked into the intake. Also, the water returned to the ecosystem is warmer.

Section 316(b) of the CWA, which covers thermal discharges, requires power plants to employ the best technology available to protect fish and other aquatic life. In 2004 EPA established national regulations for cooling water intake systems at existing power plants, which are used in NPDES permit decisions. The “Phase II Rule” applied to over 500 existing power plants that withdraw more than 50 million gallons of water per day…..

Found here:

much more information and links to sources there.


An Oops! for reactor construction in Finland:

That’s an old type reactor, not the kind Barry’s talking about.
Same for all the others currently planned, near as I can tell:
“… More than 100 new nuclear plants are being built or planned around the world. In the United States, there are thirty-five reactors on the drawing board, with licensing applications for twenty-six of them already under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)….”

What will it take to get the 4th Generation plans submitted for actual use?


PS, do read the above article, down past the Finnish story; it cites quite a few induatry studies and financial studies.

After that the author goes on:

“… How is it that new reactors make so little economic sense, even with massive government support? Part of the answer is that the industry still hasn’t solved the problems that led to its initial collapse. A decade on, the standardized plant designs, on which nuclear advocates pinned their hopes of lower costs and greater reliability, have yet to materialize. This is not to say that no one has built a uniform fleet: some countries—most notably France, where the government holds a controlling stake in the main electricity-generating company—have managed to created a degree of standardization among their own reactors. But … the patchwork American utility market, … the new NRC licensing process…. Initially, the industry had hoped to limit the number of reactor models to two or three. Instead, there are eight on offer, half of them certified, the rest awaiting approval (a process that takes years)…. all but one of the seventeen companies that are planning to build new reactors have chosen designs that are either not yet certified or that will need to be recertified because they have been substantially redesigned….”

“… we will need to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The designs for most of the reactors on the drawing board in the United States won’t be certified until 2011 or 2012. Only then can the NRC approve individual licenses—after which the plants still need to be built. Last time around, construction took an average of twelve years.

The other key problem is that, given the enormous expense and the industry’s hunger for subsidies, pursuing the nuclear path can crowd out investment in green energy. …”

This sounds rather like the problem bailing out Detroit — it apparently precludes spending on the new more efficient designs, although the electric vehicles use far fewer parts and less maintenance.


A tidbit for the numerate, perhaps useful for calculations. Note I have no idea if this is right or the best source, just pointing out that it exists, for those of you drawing up stimulus and foreign aid budgets:

The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Springer Berlin / Heidelberg
ISSN 0948-3349 (Print)
1614-7502 (Online)
Issue Volume 11, Number 4
DOI 10.1065/lca2006.02.244
July 21, 2006

Environmental Assessment of Freight Transportation in the U.S.

Goal, Scope and Background

This study provides a life cycle inventory of air emissions (CO2, NOx, PM10, and CO) associated with the transportation of goods by road, rail, and air in the U.S. It includes the manufacturing, use, maintenance, and end-of-life of vehicles, the construction, operation, maintenance, and end-of-life of transportation infrastructure, as well as oil exploration, fuel refining, and fuel distribution.


The comparison is performed using hybrid life cycle assessment (LCA), a combination of process-based LCA and economic input-output analysis-based LCA (EIO-LCA). All these components are added by means of a common functional unit of grams of air pollutant per ton-mile of freight activity.

Results and Discussion

Results show that the vehicle use phase is responsible for approximately 70% of total emissions of CO2 for all three modes. This confirms that tailpipe emissions underestimate total emissions of freight transportation as infrastructure, pre-combustion, as well as vehicle manufacturing and end-of-life account for a sizeable share of total emissions.

Differences between tailpipe emissions and total system wide emissions can range from only 4% for road transportation’s CO emissions to an almost ten-fold difference for air transportation’s PM10 emissions.


Rail freight has the lowest associated air emissions, followed by road and air transportation. Depending on the pollutant, rail is 50-94% less polluting than road. Air transportation is rated the least efficient in terms of air emissions, partly due to the fact that it carries low weight cargo. It emits 35 times more CO2 than rail and 18 times more than road transportation on a ton-mile basis. It is important to consider infrastructure, vehicle manufacturing, and pre-combustion processes, whose life-cycle share is likely to increase as new tailpipe emission standards are enforced….


Over the past 2 years or so I have been trying to find a two page explanation of the mechanism by which CO2 drives global warming /climate change. My request has been that the explanation be presented in terms of quantified applications of basic laws of physics/chemistry.
My enquiries have been directed to organisations who I believe should have such material as support for the fundamental changes they promote or who should be capable of producing such material. To date these organisations have either offered the IPCC material or have ignored the question.(ACF, WWF, CSIRO, Qld Govt, Aust Govt ,ABC programs etc.)

The IPCC material does not appear to offer explanations of what the CO2 molecules do with the absorbed infrared radiation. An understanding of the energy disposal processes is fundamental to modelling the impact of this energy on climate? As late as yesterday Dr Karl K informed ABC 612 listeners that 50% of the energy simply came back to earth. Is it that simple? This is perhaps the best science communicator we have in Australia. If it is complicated then he should be more than capable of explaining why.

Steve Fielding’s recent questions could not be satisfactorily answered by Penny Wong and her team and were avoided by Al Gore. What does the average citizen make of that? We are being asked to accept fundamental changes to the way we live on the basis of exhortations by leaders (political, environmental,societal etc) who are not able to explain how CO2 does what it is accused of..or worse still are comfortable with promoting fundamental change without fundamental facts.

What appears to be condoned misinformation of the public occurs almost daily. We are shown power station cooling towers belching steam as visuals accompanying reports telling us we need taxes on CO2 emissions. If the debate was fair-minded wouldn’t some of the credible advocates of alternative energy,who would obviously be aware of the error,be pointing out the error?

Climate change is happening but no amount of observation,data gathering or analysis of the observations and data is going to change the behaviour of atmospheric CO2 in the presence of infrared radiation. Such observations highlight the effects of climate change but ,in the absence of fundamental science, as opposed to science observations,the role of CO2 and hence the impact of carbon taxes on climate change are not so clear.I am sure the physics/chemistry needed to understand CO2’s behaviour is well documented.
Surely before we compile a catalogue of CO2 emissions and potential means of reducing such emissions it would be wise to be sure that CO2 is really the culprit?

Perhaps contributors to this blog could provide these fundamentals?

Just to be quite clear, climate change is a fact and needs action but we have scarce resources to expend on such action. Let’s be sure that the action we take and the use of scarce resources produces worthwhile results. At present the debate in this country seems to be more of a demonstration of political expertise as opposed to the public demonstration of the scientific expertise necessary to describe CO2’s role.

Whatever CO2 does it will continue to do it long after the current batch of politicians have cashed their pensions.

So the question is…how does CO2 drive climate…and if you can’t answer this in terms of basic laws of physics/chemistry why waste your time pondering/debating non-CO2-emitting means of meeting society’s energy needs? We may need the energy from those coal-fired behemoths to help us combat the real drivers of climate change!


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