Last time in my multi-part review of the book Prescription for the Planet, by Tom Blees, I overviewed chapters 4 and 5, which describe the technology behind Integral Fast Reactor nuclear power and boron combustion for vehicles. But Blees had made a fairly bold claim in the subtitle of his book — “The painless remedy for our energy and environmental crises“. Painless? Energy and environment? That’s a big call, and however good these carbon-free energy alternatives may be, there are still leave gaps that must be filled if we are aiming to achieve a sustainable society.
This post, part III of VI, reviews chapters 6 and 7:
– Chapter 6: A Decidedly Immodest Proposal (pg 155-172)
– Chapter 7: Exxon Sanitation, Inc. (pg 173-195)
The immodest proposal starts with a good quote by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein — “Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done and why. Then do it.” (a thought occurs — perhaps this is why no one is doing anything serious to fix the greenhouse gas problem — they’re not even listening to the experts!). And the first sentence by the author sets the scene well for what chapter 6 is trying to push through — “There is perhaps no field of scientific endeavor more rife with misinformation, ignorance, passion and hysteria than the field of nuclear power” (well… I can think of one other — check out the main theme of this blog). That is, can nuclear really be a viable, large-scale solution to our future power needs?
First there is a critique of a 2003 MIT review of the future nuclear power. This report’s recommendation apparently reads like something out of Australia’s Switkowski Inquiry — a slow and steady increase, ignore closed fuel cycle technology (which will apparently only be ‘feasible and preferred in the distant future’), stockpile huge amounts of radioactive waste for millennia, and get places like the US to run the enrichment and re-processing game. I haven’t read the full report in detail, but I did read the for-the-public précis that two of the report’s authors wrote up for Scientific American called “The Nuclear Option“. All I can say is that any ‘antie’ who read that article (go on, I dare you) would have every justification to say “gee, well, on that basis, I opt for no!”. So Blees spends half a dozen pages carefully explaining why this vision is myopic, at best.
With that (necessary) grizzling about the MIT study aside, most of chapter 6 is devoted to explaining why IFRs really can be a major 21st century energy solution. Some discussion of the international energy consortium that will be required to manage the IFR programme worldwide is to be found here, although this is expanded upon greatly in chapters 10 and 11. There is also a fascinating description of sealed IFR-style nuclear ‘batteries’, which sit in an underground concrete silo and could deliver 10 MW of power for 15-30 years before needing to be recharged. As the book notes, “The possibilities for Third World nations in desperate need of electricity are stunning”. This tech will need more R&D before it goes global but it is by no means pie-in-the-sky — Toshiba Corporation are ready to deploy the first demonstration unit, for free, in Galena, Alaska by 2012.
Blees then runs through some ‘what if’ scenarios for IFR roll-out, based on a number of conservative assumptions. Given a 2005 total energy use of roughly 16 terawatt-years (TWy) of energy for humankind, and triple that in 2050 (taking the worst-case scenario), we’d expect to need an average of 32 TWy of energy, on average, over the 2005-2050 period. If we took each of the non-renewable fuels as delivering that total demand, how long would they last (remember, this is just a thought experiment to get a handle on the stockpiles available). Well, we’d have 16 years for conventional oil and another 22 years for the unconvential stuff, or 156 years for coal (almost 1000 years for oil shales and tar sands), a mere 47 years for uranium in Light Water Reactors (LWR — the once through style in use today), or… around 46 thousand years worth for uranium in IFRs (even if fusion is ‘always 40 years away’, we should have it or something better by then). Why such a long-term future for IFR fuel, when they are “only” 60 to 100 times more efficient in their extraction of the energy value of uranium than the LWR? Well, because at that level of efficiency the EROEI skyrockets, meaning the peak uranium problem all but goes away. As Bernard Cohen has argued, with breeders and seawater, uranium effectively becomes a renewable energy source.
A wholesale or even 50% conversion to IFRs would take decades, to be sure. But as Blees says, the IFR plan is NOT the enemy of renewables. It’s simply a proposal to replace the portion of the world’s energy supply that renewables can’t meet (whatever the fraction may end up being), with a24/7 baseload technology that has the side effect of solving a suite of currently intractable problems such as long-lived radioactive waste. There’s no time to delay starting with the roll-out though, as both IFRs and vast renewable deployment have a common problem — entrenched fossil fuel interests.
This is where, in chapter 7, a really nifty rabbit is pulled out of Blees’ energy hat — an idea that may just loosen the iron grip of the oil cartels on world energy and at the same time tackle a whole lot of garbage and wastage. Solid and liquid, dirty nappies to old orange pee, toxic sludgel and scrap metal. The rotting ‘stockpiles’ of municipal solid waste (MSW) and all future goods that society churns through and discards each and every day. Just call in the fourth state of matter — plasma.
The idea sounds rather fanciful — pour all the waste society produces into incinerators which are so hot (around 17,000 C, or a couple of times hotter than the surface of the sun), that they don’t produce the usual ash and char (nor vent heavy metals, dioxins etc. into the air) — they instead dissagregate the molecular structure of everything that goes into them. Something for the distant future perhaps? Well, no actually, these so-called plasma reactors are already operating and thermal plasma torches have been used for years in industry.
So, just drop the waste (almost everything that currently goes into MSW dumps, and more, such as old oil, industrial chemical waste, treated sewage sludge etc.) into a giant hopper, where a massive shredder breaks the solid garbage component down into ‘bite-sized’ chunks, and then feed the whole vile mixture into the plasma combustion chamber. The result is a hot molten stream and an abundance of sythesis gas (syngas) which can be captured and used to make plastics, lubricants etc. or used as a combustion fuel (after about a quarter of the syngas must be channeled back to continually power the plasma gasification plant burners and operations).
The slag can be spun into ‘rock wool’ (a substance with properties similar to fibreglass), and water cooled to recover its valuable metal elements for recycling. Blees spends some considerable space explaining the great variety of possible uses for syngas and the molten ‘waste’ stream, and it’s honestly hard to do justice to the detail of his argument in this short space; so I simply recommend you read the chapter yourself. The idea of virtually 100% recycling of materials that would normally end up in landfill is certainly appealing.
In classic Blees style he is of course thinking big and bold — perhaps the big oil companies will see the value in becoming garbage kings and so retain some corporate interest in the syngas and derivative products market (after all, if the P4TP vision becomes reality, there will be no market left for their mineral oil — which is dwindling fast anyway). Convinced? I’m not sure, but the idea is already getting some serious traction in the US and it certainly has to be infinitely better than the current throw-away-and-bury method of MSW disposal. After all, if we (global society) are going to have any chance of avoiding ongoing depletion of natural capital and the staggering environmental destruction that ensues, we MUST aim for a near-100% recyclable system. Plasma burners might just be it.
Next up, in chapters 8 & 9, we look at costs, logistical feasibility, and likey impediments to realising the grand vision.