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Could nuclear fission energy,etc., solve the greenhouse problem? The affirmative case

I have published a new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy with the title “Could nuclear fission energy,etc., solve the greenhouse problem? The affirmative case” (currently online first, DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2011.11.041 — it will appear in the print version, with volume/page details,  later this year). If you would like a PDF copy of the article, email me and I’ll be happy to send it to you.

My paper was written as a response to Ted Trainer’s (mostly) excellent 2010 article “Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case” — hence my particular choice of title. I explain the purpose of my piece in the introduction:

…In this context of needing to replace fossil fuels with some alternative(s), Trainer (2010) examined critically the adequacy of renewable sources in achieving this energy transition. He concluded that general climate change and energy problems cannot be solved without large-scale reductions in rates of economic production and consumption.

However, Trainer’s (2010) sub-analysis of nuclear energy’s technical potential involved only a cursory dismissal on the grounds of uranium supply and life-cycle emissions… In this paper… I argue that on technical and economic grounds, nuclear fission could play a major role (in combination with likely significant expansion in renewables) in future stationary and transportation energy supply, thereby solving the greenhouse gas mitigation problem.

Thus my aim was to critique the only substantive weakness I could identify in Trainer’s analysis — the short sub-section on nuclear energy.

The abstract provides the core thrust of my argument:

For effective climate change mitigation, the global use of fossil fuels for electricity generation, transportation and other industrial uses, will need to be substantially curtailed this century. In a recent Viewpoint in Energy Policy, Trainer (2010) argued that non-carbon energy sources will be insufficient to meet this goal, due to cost, variability, energy storage requirements and other technical limitations. However, his dismissal of nuclear fission energy was cursory and inadequate. Here I argue that fossil fuel replacement this century could, on technical grounds, be achieved via a mix of fission, renewables and fossil fuels with carbon sequestration, with a high degree of electrification, and nuclear supplying over half of final energy. I show that the principal limitations on nuclear fission are not technical, economic or fuel-related, but are instead linked to complex issues of societal acceptance, fiscal and political inertia, and inadequate critical evaluation of the real-world constraints facing low-carbon alternatives.

Below I’ll fill in a few details, but I’d of course encourage you to read the actual paper (contact details above for the PDF).

The paper begins with one of my favourite quotes from one of the best books on energy, by Alvin Weinberg (you can get it as a Kindle e-book):

I can still remember the thrill that came with my realization that the (nuclear fission) breeder meant inexhaustible energy… I became obsessed with the idea that humankind’s whole future depended on the breeder.” (Alvin M. Weinberg, 1994, The First Nuclear Era)

After setting up the context (climate change, energy crisis, issues facing nuclear) in the introduction, I lay out some assumptions and a future scenario. I explain:

Before the technical potential of nuclear fission and complementary low-carbon energy technologies (renewables and fossil fuels with CCS), a scenario must be set against which plausibility and sustainability can be assessed objectively… The future energy mix scenario offered… should not be considered a prediction – it is better thought of as a ‘working hypothesis’… consistent with the projected demand… and IPCC greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets…

I first present a summary of current energy use from low-carbon sources, based on a compilation of data from the IEA, EIA and other sources. I also develop a projection of possible final energy use in 2060 (~50 years time), under a ‘storyline’ where wholesale decarbonisation of global energy production has occurred. It is summarised in the table below:

I spend considerable space justifying the assumptions and calculations that underpin section (b) of Table 1, which I won’t detail here — but it is consistent with Trainer (2010), with some modifications, and also some projections from integrated assessment modelling (a family of computable general equilibrium simulations).

Table 2 offers a potential energy mix, based on current deployment, possible future major contributions and growth rates (including consideration of the boundary conditions outlined by Trainer), and some basic intuition on my behalf. It is not based on an economic forecast, because for these lengthy time frames, it is very difficult to assess the relative competitiveness of currently nascent renewable, energy storage and nuclear technologies. Instead, I take the position that “This is possible, and if this occurred, then could nuclear actually reach and sustain these levels of usage?”.

Note the massive growth here in wind/solar (over 8% p.a. over five decades, a 50-fold expansion on installed capacity compared to 2010), a substantial contribution from fossil fuels with CCS, and a more modest (though still major) expansion of the use of hydro, biomass and other renewables. The ‘gap’ is then filled by nuclear — this amounts to 52% of total final energy. The world in this scenario is almost completely electrified, so assuming a Carnot cycle efficiency for nuclear of 35%, this is equivalent to 13 TWt of primary energy (heat) from fission.

The final section of the article then justifies the large-scale nuclear component of Table 2, addressing the following major issues (briefly,  naturally — this is not a book!):

  • Technology options
  • Is there enough fuel?
  • Will carbon emissions intensity be sufficiently low to meet IPCC targets?
  • Can nuclear plants be built quickly enough?
  • Safety, proliferation and cost

I also note that:

In reality, there may be a greater or lesser supply from any of these low-carbon energy sources (i.e., the relative mix of nuclear fission, various renewable technologies, and CCS); this will depend on a broad range of complex factors, including carbon prices, subsidies and tariffs, energy security considerations, fossil fuel supply constraints, and technological, logistical, economic and socio-political circumstances…

If, for instance, renewables or CCS fail to reach the high penetration assumed in Table 2, then nuclear (or something else) will have to take up the slack.

I conclude with the following:

The critique of the future global role of renewable energy by Trainer (2010) underscored many important limitations associated with variability, dispatchability, large-scale energy storage, the need for overbuilding and geographical replication (and the likely consequence: ‘dumping’ of unused excess energy), energy returned on energy invested, and other key points. The meta-analysis by Nicholson et al. (2011) also considered technological maturity, cost and life cycle emissions as constraints on renewables’ capacity to displace fossil fuels. Although I support Trainer’s (2010) conclusion was that renewables alone will not be able to ‘solve’ the greenhouse problem, I argue that his dismissal of a major role for nuclear fission energy, working in complement with other low-carbon energy sources, was unjustified.

The principal limitations on fission energy are not technical, economic or fuel supply – they are instead tied up in the complex issues of societal acceptance and public education (Adamantiades and Kessides, 2009; Pidgeon et al., 2008), fiscal and political inertia (Hyde et al., 2008; Lund, 2010), and inadequate critical evaluation of the alternatives (Jeong et al., 2010; Nicholson et al., 2011; Trainer, 2010). Ultimately, as the urgency of climate change mitigation mounts, and requirements for sustainable growth in developing economies and replacement of aging infrastructure in the developed world come to the fore, pragmatic decisions on the viability of all types of non-fossil technologies will have to be made. Engineering and economics realities point to a large role for fission in this new energy future.

I hope this summary has interested you enough to read the full paper, and after that, to encourage others to do the same!


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.

55 replies on “Could nuclear fission energy,etc., solve the greenhouse problem? The affirmative case”

A conceivable outcome is that world energy use is actually less in 2060 than 2010, independent of population. This is not necessarily due to a Mad Max style scenario but more along the lines that Jared Diamond proposes happened to Easter Island. Due to collective lack of foresight we simply fail to prepare in time. That is we allow bad things to overwhelm us while failing to replace necessary things. I see few signs of the suggested future energy scenario other than temporarily subsidy driven wind and solar. Everything else (the vast bulk of energy supply) is the subject of complacency and dithering with little sign of any resolve.


I remain an optimist about the world future economy and suspect that energy use might, in fact, be much higher in 2060 than Barry’s 277 EJ estimate. What’s more, I believe mankind will find a way to supply it.

Giant breakthroughs in energy sourcing seem few and far between. Wood, coal, oil, gas, wind, sunlight, moving water have taken many decades to centuries to develop as energy sources. Fission energy was first commercialised 50 years ago – about the same time as solar PV. We cannot expect too many “game-changing” energy discoveries over the next 50 years.

For all the reasons Barry has enunciated, fission energy needs to be a primary source if we are to provide the energy the world needs in 2060. Society might have to face the choice of coming to terms with this energy reality or reduce wealth and consumption (attractive to some, anathema to many).

We know the key barrier to expanding nuclear power is societal acceptance not technology. To me, this is the challenge to be faced. Convincing enough society members that nuclear power is both necessary and (we hope) sufficient.


MN, I agree that 277 EJ of final energy is a low-ball estimate. Although it represents an almost 4-fold increase in electricity use, such a scenario assumes that (a) much of the developing world continues to develop but does not come anywhere near to catching up to energy use rates of the developed world within the next 50 years, and (b) that energy efficiency can really act as a substantive counterbalance to demand growth. I agree with you that energy availability is not the constraint (from nuclear or lower-grade fossil fuels) — other considerations will determine just what level of energy use is realised in 2050.

Thanks to all the people who’ve requested a copy of the paper so far by email — over 50 so far (plus I sent it out unsolicited to a fair few people who I thought would be interested in it).


A useful idea may be to monitor ‘on-trackness’ whereby interim outcomes align with interpolated long term goals. We can do this for wind, solar and biofuels. However I fail to see reliable evidence that we are ‘on track’ with CCS, battery electric transport and synfuels. To meet 2060 goals these technologies would have to spring up from almost nowhere. A counter argument is that they seem bothersome or the urgency is not yet apparent to the public. When and if the realisation dawns these technologies will be implemented as a matter of necessity.

Maybe not. An analogy would be death by hypothermia in which the victim does not know he or she needs more warmth. In the case of liquid transport fuels the price stays moderate because few people still drive or fly due to mass unemployment. The warning signal isn’t there but the underlying symptoms persist. Thus I’m not at all sure the world of 2060 will be energy rich allowing for efficiency. We could have missed the boat.


Integrating variable sources such as wind and solar requires a comparable sized balancing agent. When high carbon balancing agents are excluded (and doubting the viability of CCS) that leaves bulk storage such a pumped hydro. The sheer size of buld storage required suggests it would be excessively expensive. Therefore the cost drivers push towards more NPPs and less variable sources.

I worked out a couple of examples on Open Thread 20, one for wind and one for solar PV.


Thanks Barry for keeping us up with these issues. May I recommend to those interested a very good talk on Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor this Sunday by Terry Kreig (google Ockham’s Razor). At the end Robin Williams recommends your book with Ian Lowe “Why Nuclear Power, (Yes [Brook] and No [Lowe])”. Maybe you should think about doing one of these presentations. I’m sure it would go well.

John Patterson Adelaide


Oliver K. Manuel: There are 2 options for spent nuclear fuel.   It is clearly NOT “waste.”   
1.  Recycle.   France recycles fuel now.   We recycled fuel in the old days.   We could have our fuel recycled in France.
The newspaper makes the usual errors, such as calling spent reactor fuel “weapons grade” which it certainly was not.   
We don’t recycle nuclear fuel because it is valuable and people steal it.   The place it went that it wasn’t supposed to go to was Israel.   This happened in a small town near Pittsburgh, PA circa 1970.   A company called Numec was in the business of reprocessing nuclear fuel.   I almost took a job there, designing a nuclear battery for a heart pacemaker.   [A nuclear battery would have the advantage of lasting many times as long as any other battery, eliminating many surgeries to replace batteries.]     Other uses for radioactive elements from spent fuel:  cancer treatment, such as radioactive “grains” to put in your cancerous prostate.

Numec did NOT have a reactor.   Numec “lost” a quantity of spent fuel.   It wound up in Israel.   The Israelis have fueled  their nuclear reactors by stealing nuclear “waste.”   It could work for any other country, such as Iran or the United States.   
It is only when you don’t have access to nuclear “waste” that you have to do the difficult process of enriching uranium.   Numec is no longer in business.   They paid a $930,000 fine.   Private corporations must not be allowed to reprocess [recycle] spent fuel because the temptation/profit in diverting spent fuel to other places is too great.   My solution would be to reprocess the fuel at a Government Owned Government Operated [GOGO] facility.   At a GOGO plant, bureaucracy and the multiplicity of ethnicity and religion would disable the transportation of uranium to Israel or to any unauthorized place.   Nothing heavier than a secret would get out.
 The problem is political:   The Republicans think GOGO plants are socialist/communist, which is nonsense.   A COCO [Contractor Owned Contractor Operated] plant can be the low bidder by being a front for Israel or some other country.   

2.   Use Fourth Generation reactors.   Generation 4 reactors have several advantages, such as being impossible to melt down and being capable of consuming all of the fuel with on site recycling.

Read the book: “Prescription for the Planet” by Tom Blees, 2008

Public acceptance: Reference:
“Climate Cover-Up” by James Hoggan
“Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway
“Denying Science” by John Grant

The fossil fuel industry spent $2 Billion over the last decade to prevent nuclear power. Their spending is increasing.

The average American has never heard of natural background radiation. The average American does not know that coal contains uranium. A little education goes a long way. Get on your local school board.


Thanks for your message, Edward.

Waste is the radioactive fission products that accumulates on the spent fuel.

It is a concentrated form of energy, as is the spent fuel.

Instead of burying such waste underground and hoping it remains contained, the waste should be encapsulated and used to power steam generators, etc.

Future unexpected leaks could be detected and corrected, if they occurred instead of waiting for future generations to separate the waste out of their water supply.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
This discussion is veering off topic. Please continue on the Open Thread.


Nuclear energy is the sole guarantee of sufficiency of energy to mankind. Of the top ten countries by population, only two, the USA and Japan, may see a stabilisation of energy demand. Others, headed by China and India are where energy demand is increasing. Only energy from U238 and thorium can meet the increasing demand.
Global warming, even if the observations confirm it, is not sufficient argument for nuclear power. Energy security is too important a matter to be argued solely with reference to global warming. There is even a thinking that global warming may be actually a good thing, moderating the next Ice Age due in a thousand years;
The greenhouse effect could also be a useful state for increasing production of bio-mass for food and fuel but only if sufficient power is available for water desalination and other needs.
Please be aware that, other than on the Open Thread, you need peer reviewed refs/links to support your comments. Please supply the links to your assertions in this comment. Further violations of the BNC Comments Policy may be deleted.


On the global energy consumption front, putting my pessimistic hat on, there are some time bombs out there. One obvious one is mobility, but another one could be air conditioning.

In large parts of India, China, Africa and Latin America it’s not terribly widespread at the moment but it could easily be on the wish list as soon as increasing prosperity makes it affordable.

As a long term energy consumer, it could beat heating in the northern hemisphere.


I have just read Andrew Charlton’s Quarterly Essay titled Man-Made World. Andrew sets out a brilliant discussion about choosing between progress and the planet in which the need for plentiful cheap energy is clearly defined. Andrew was senior economic adviser to Kevin Rudd when he was prime minister. Nevertheless, he is a strong supporter of the need for nuclear power in the world. I strongly recommend his essay.


Regarding the Charlton QE, the argument goes back (as far as I’m aware) to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, c2007, in their book “Break Through”. You can get the free PDF here. hey’ve expanded on their thesis a lot since then, but that was where this new line of thinking arose. Charlton and Lomborg are mostly just finessing. The new edited book “Love Your Monsters” (2010) continues with the argument.


“I show that the principal limitations on nuclear fission are not technical, economic or fuel-related, but are instead linked to complex issues of societal acceptance, fiscal and political inertia, and inadequate critical evaluation of the real-world constraints facing low-carbon alternatives.” This is exactly what I’m worried about. I used to think that nuclear was inevitable since there was no alternative, but now I am not so convinced. People really may choose to just power down and go back to pastoral ways like Trainer wants, just because they hate nuclear so much. I have articulated my case to a lot of people, eloquently proving that nuclear is the only thing that will work, and the IFR solves the problems associated with it, but they just don’t want it. All we hear about now from politicians is growth, growth, growth, let’s return to growth. When I hear growth, I just think, “exponential growth in fossil fuel consumption.” That’s all that it is. This modern global civilization we have is the result of the decision to exponentially increase fossil fuel consumption forever, say by some fixed percentage, like 2 percent per year or more. We’re now chasing after “shale gas” and such nonsense just because this decision to chase after every last bit of fossil fuel is so deeply ingrained. Now that we’ve passed peak oil and coal, and growth is ending, you would think that at least one politician would argue for more nuclear to allow growth, but instead we see politicians backing away from it after Fukushima, which befell dated water cooled reactors. Humans are not necessarily rational creatures. You would think that if what they want is unlimited growth, they would love nuclear, but this is not the case. What they love is fossil fuels. We are burning the stuff off as fast as possible because we are simple creatures, and burning things has been a primordial part of our psyche since we discovered fire. No one complains about eliminating all carbon-based weapons, just nuclear weapons. People just hate everything nuclear. We will just have to sit and watch as we power down and civilization comes to an end. Nuclear is not limited by physics or thermodynamics, it is limited by human nature– most people just don’t like it. Our addiction to burning stuff exponentially has created an immense global civilization that many, like Trainer, find they don’t like very much anyway, and many now yearn for simpler times. I guess we will just have to power down and live in villages. I just wish that our politicians were more honest about the power down. I just wish they told people that oil and coal, and soon gas, are running out, and we should debate whether civilization should be allowed to continue or not using nuclear. You would think that if all our politicians did this, most people would want nuclear, but most of the people I have talked too, including politicians, just don’t want it. It will be interesting to see how things turn out, which Weinberg didn’t live to witness, but we will. Civilization probably only has at most a couple of decades. Global warming is a chimera that will solve itself due to depletion.


Ok, building enough nukes is feasible. But what about that 8.6 EJ of
biomass and the 15 EJ of biofuels? Where is that going to be grown?
That’s a part of the mix that I think
needs to be reduced and not expanded.


Geoff, I tend to agree — I’m not a fan of biofuels in most circumstances. Algae is appealing if it can be made to work at low CO2 concentrations, but that may require some nifty genetic engineering.

If biofuels don’t shape up, the residual liquid fuels will need to come from nuclear or renewable-powered synfuels. It’s like a balloon – if you squeeze one part of it, the other sides pop out.


Barry, your paper estimates that wind/solar will have to supply 2.5TWe by 2060 (Table 2). Trainer’s paper estimates 10 to 20 W/m2 for solar thermal. If we assume 15W/m2 for solar thermal to supply the whole amount, this implies a footprint of about 0.17 million km2. The total land area of the US is about 10 million km2. Assuming the US share of the global amount was 50% of the 2.5TWe, we would have to cover almost 1% of the US land mass in solar plants in 50 years?!
For comparison, the entiire US interstate highway system is about 0.003% of the US land area.
Seems unlikely!


Dino, unlikely, yes, but possible. As I noted in my post and recently to Geoff Russell with regards to biofuels (see above), if renewables can’t reach 2.5 TWe (and they almost certainly won’t without a substantial improvement in storage technologies), then nuclear, fossil fuels or fossil will take up the slack. I hope the slack is all nuclear, but for anti-nuclear activists, they don’t realise that they risk locking in fossil, fossil, and more fossil. Dangerous assumptions, dangerous outcomes. Thanks for your calculations.


Those interested in progress on synfuels should follow the Green Car Congress website, with a listing on articles mentioning synfuel here . Various approaches use hydrogenation, fermentation, lipids based, starch based, gasification and so on. My reluctant conclusion is that that no form of affordable synfuel can currently provide the equivalent of 85 million barrels a day of mostly petroleum derived liquid fuels.

In my opinion the US Air Force, Virgin Airlines and others are just greenwashing when they do short publicity flights on biofuel. There will never be enough of any of the present types of biofuel to make a difference. Incidentally I have several hundred litres combined of biodiesel, methanol and waste vegetable oil at home, a fire hazard. The fact that 40% of the US corn crop goes into making fermentation ethanol is a scandal. Now that the subsidies are to be dropped I suspect only a couple of percent of US gasoline will still be local corn ethanol since the EREOI is just too low (1.0-1.5) to be worth the bother absent subsidies.

I believe that the versatile hydrocarbon that can replace liquid fuel is compressed methane… NG, CSG, biogas, perhaps some synthetic. If we didn’t burn it in power stations we could run road vehicles on it for decades.


Enough LWR Fuel to Initially Start 1000s of Reactors?

Your paper calls for an exponential growth in the number of reactors started each year but I don’t see anything in the paper about where the initial charge of fuel comes from for all of those IFRs. At what point after IFRs are the predominant reactor of choice will the backlog of LWR spent fuel be used up to start IFRs?
In other words, is the amount of LWR a limit to IFR growth as projected by your paper?
Is there any simple rule of thumb to approximation the number of IFRs that can be started from LWR spent fuel? Like 10 years of LWR can start one IFR of similar size?
Do you need a high breeding rate to make your projection work?


Biofuels. If we talk in absolute terms of elimination of liquid fossil transportation fuels then yes, it becomes problamatical. So, don’t. We don’t need to eliminate all liquid fuels, just most of them. I think we should look at what it will take to start lowering their use, not total elimination.

IT is also assuming that some massive breakthrough in electrical storage generation won’t occur. I don’t. There is a LOT of money now going into battery tech.


The specific inventory of fuel in IFRs depends on reactor size – a 600 Mw reactor requires much less than twice as much inventory as a 300 Mw reactor


Reactor clustering also reduces inventory. A single reactor needs fuel in the reactor, plus fuel cooling plus fuel in the reprocessing plant, with the out-of-core inventory being perhaps half the in-core inventory. Several reactors at a site can pool the out-of-core inventory, so it is less per Gw.

Pick 600 MW modules, which is where the specific inventory curve flattens out, and build 2 or 3 per site, and you need roughly 8 tonnes of fissile per Gw. LWRs make roughly 200 kg of plutonium etc per Gw-year, so it takes 40 years for a LWR to make the fuel for the IFR that is to replace it. On this basis, we could start ~400 Gw of IFRs on existing spent fuel stocks. Once running, they are the dominant fuel source, producing several times as much as the LWR fleet.

For a faster start up, you can fuel IFRs with enriched uranium. This needs much more fuel up front than a LWR, but then nothing further. Roughly 10 years worth of fuel for an equivalent powered LWR, plus extra enrichment, bought in advance.

Another option, if the development work gets done, is to use thorium cycle molten salt reactors (MSRs or LFTRs) as well. These have lower fissile inventory requirements – only 1-2 Te per Gw, instead of 8 Te -, but do not breed much. Once you get to ~ 1/4 of your final power requirement with IFRs, you can use them to breed LFTR startup fuel, and build the last 3/4 of the system in about 10-15 years. This would far exceed feasible build rates, so you could start building some LFTRs earlier, dividing the available fissile between maximum breeding for the future and maximum power in the short term so as to minimise the total fossil fuel use over the period.


The technical benefits of nuclear are overshadowed by the public’s and media’s insane fear of radiation. In todays news there are alarmed reports of “high” radiation levels in apartments used to house Fukushima evacuees……10milisievert for an annual dose supposedly in contaminated concrete from a quarry near fukushima. I would bet the source rock is a naturally hot granite. If a 10millisievert/yr dose can make world news then our ability to seriously deal with climate change is in BIG trouble.


“It is concluded that the general climate change and energy problem cannot be solved without large scale reductions in rates of economic production and consumption, and therefore without transition to fundamentally different social structures and systems.”

This is the final line of the abstract of Ted Trainer’s (mostly) excellent 2010 article “Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case”.

I find it extremely odd that the paper can be mostly excellent. As a nuclear power advocate the anti renewable part of the paper obviously resonates with you and your mode of thinking therefore it is correct. However the nuclear power part, equally dismissive of nuclear power, must be wrong.

Ted Trainer’s thesis is that ALL wonder power systems, that others say will save the world, to him will only accelerate overshoot which according the the also excellent book “Limits to Growth – The Thirty Year Update” shows that an unlimited energy scenerio such as detailed in the first part of Chapter Seven (The Base Case) runs into the hard limits of the planet.

I take it then the “mostly excellent” Trainer paper has two wrong parts. As you did not mention any Limits to Growth I am assuming that you have glossed over the Simpler Way that Ted advocates. Perhaps as the paper gets it ‘wrong’ two times out of three you could be accused of cherry-picking the part you like, and completely missing the overall thrust and conclusions of the paper.

Climate change is people like Trainer is a symptom of overshoot along with soil depletion, water shortages, pollution of natural systems etc. Wonder energy systems can only solve one symptom leaving the core problem untouched. This is the space age so we need to slow down to go faster.


Ender, thanks for your comments, but did you read both of these papers yet (beyond the abstracts), or only my descriptions on this blog? You’ve not emailed me for a PDF of either original (I acknowledge you may have sourced them from elsewhere).

The logic is simple enough. Trainer’s paper is 8 journal pages long. Of that, the section on nuclear energy is 13 lines of 1 column, which is about 1/8 of a page, or about 1.5% of the whole paper. I considered this extremely brief dismissal of nuclear energy to be unjustified, hence my detailed response, taking on all that he said in this brief section and much more. Of the rest of the paper, the alternative “Simpler Way” section gets 22 lines of 1 column, or about 1.8% of the paper. The “Simpler Way” conclusion is undermined if the nuclear section is incorrect, although general points about sustainability are still valid.

The remainder of Trainer’s article is on the ‘limits of renewables’ problem (the majority), references, and a context setting introduction (short), constitutes >95% of the paper. Hence, I’d argue that my statement that Trainer’s paper is mostly excellent is a completely valid one, and in no way whatever could be construed as ‘cherry picking’.


I don’t get Ender’s comment. He seems to be saying you must accept either all or nothing of any given work, without the possibility of some parts being sound and others questionable.

I often find works with elements I agree with alongside others that I think are wrong. What I take from them comes from a process of rational discrimination, which is not cherry picking. I’d be very suspicious of someone trying to railroad me into accepting everything an author writes when I think he’s only right in parts.


Barry Brook – “The logic is simple enough. Trainer’s paper is 8 journal pages long. Of that, the section on nuclear energy is 13 lines of 1 column, which is about 1/8 of a page, or about 1.5% of the whole paper.”

If anything I find this odder still. Surely if Ted Trainer thinks that nuclear can be dismissed in 13 lines and the logic he uses hangs together then 13 lines to me would seem to be enough however the question I posed is not about the content of the papers, hence my non reading of them, but more why comment at all about Ted Trainer’s work?

First of all Ted Trainer is a not an engineer or physical scientist as far as I can see. His only qualifications seem to be in Social Work therefore his work on on both renewables and nuclear are the comments of a self educated amateur rather than a professional. Therefore I am not sure why you place such faith in his comments on renewable energy. To me his renewable critiques contain just as many errors, though they are longer. He also presents no modelling or any other work besides a few back of the envelope calculations that you seem to think is a devastating critique of renewable energy.

However I am not criticising Ted Trainer at all. In his area of expertise he is spot on, therefore I stopped working on the critique of his renewable work that I was researching and writing. Once I read Limits to Growth and other work from people who study the social sciences I ‘got’ what Ted was banging on about.

His whole thesis is the simpler way:

He is not an authority on energy systems. He only comments at all on them because they are a reason to an end. He starts with the Simpler Way and everything he writes (the hundred or so links on his page) is a justification for this. Given that he starts with the, to me, correct idea that we are in overshoot and no energy system will save us, it is hardly surprising that he concludes that renewable and nuclear energy will not work. The conclusions of the Simpler Way do not depend on any one technology which is the part you do not seem to get.

The research shows, and Ted tries to demonstrate, that even if a personal IFR could be rolled out tomorrow for $50 each and everybody had unlimited energy we would just overshoot harder and faster. Therefore him being dismissive of nuclear energy makes no difference to the over all conclusions of Limits to Growth.

This is why I think you are cherry-picking the part you like out of Trainers work and ignoring the rest. If you truly understood Ted’s philosophy then you would not be promoting nuclear power as the answer to climate change.

You challenged me to read the papers however have you read and understood the other parts of Ted’ work. Sure you do not have to agree with everything he says and it is possible that he is correct about renewables and wrong about nuclear however it is far more likely that he is wrong about both. However the thesis that he holds is to me correct and lies firmly in his area of expertise. In this he is far more likely to be correct. Given his investment in the Simpler Way do you think it likely that he will tomorrow say “I was completely wrong about (insert wonder energy system) all this time so my life’s work is all just wrong and we can save the world with (insert wonder energy system) after all?” If you think this is correct then you have not understood his work at all.

“The “Simpler Way” conclusion is undermined if the nuclear section is incorrect, although general points about sustainability are still valid.”

This is the key statement that demonstrates your non-understanding of Ted’s work. The Simpler Way is valid no matter whether nuclear is the best thing since sliced bread or a white elephant that should have been shot years ago.

The WHOLE idea of the Simpler Way is rooted in opposition to our capitalistic consumer society and the direction it is taking us. If you understood this and understood Ted’s work then you could not have possibly said this. BTW I am not as far Left as Ted. I am a bit more in the center.

Hence the conclusion that you are only using Ted’s work because he bags renewables and this agrees with what you think.



I understand the point you are making in your comment, however, your point and Ted’s ignore the reality of humans’ wanting a life, and wanting to improve their life. As long as that is the case, etc (promoting “The Simpler Way”is (not) going to catch many votes at elections. Therefore, pragmatically, if we want to improve the lot of humanity and improve sustainability it has to be done in a way that is acceptable to people at the time. Therefore, the economics of what is proposed is fundamental. Because the economics governs what happens to people’s well being – all over the world.

You say:

The Simpler Way is valid no matter whether nuclear is the best thing since sliced bread or a white elephant that should have been shot years ago.

The same applies to renewables, except the evidence has been available for decades that we should have pulled the plug on renewables decades ago. Yet you continue to strongly advocate and agitate for them. Your position seems to me to be inconsistent. (deleted personal opinion of motives)
Barry has explained in many previous posts why he does not accept Ted’s “doom and gloom” scenario. Most people don’t.


Peter Lang – “The same applies to renewables, except the evidence has been available for decades that we should have pulled the plug on renewables decades ago.”

Exactly right which is why Ted is so critical of renewables. Remember the circles that Ted normally circulates in. They would be constantly saying that renewables are the answer and can save us from climate change. Ted’s thesis is that they cannot nor can any technology and we need to change. Also to these people nuclear is the poster child of the “man” and he would never be getting that nuclear is the savor, hence his brief dismissal of it.

“Barry has explained in many previous posts why he does not accept Ted’s “doom and gloom” scenario. Most people don’t.”

Which begs the question of why Barry would use any of his work. Which is exactly the question I posed. If he is so wrong about a Simpler Way and so wrong and dismissive of nuclear that a large article needs to be written then there is a good chance his renewable work is a bit dodgy as well.

Also I am not really a Simpler Way sort of person. My life and work is technology. I have just spent the last week installing gear in probably the most high-tech thing imaginable, a brand new offshore DP drilling rig. I do not really embrace Ted’s whole thesis. However my opinion is that we can transition to a high tech lower energy society mostly powered by renewables which again in my opinion are a better fit with a low energy society.


Ender, do you have any real critiques regarding the main arguments of Barry, or are you intentionally downgrading the discussion into lawyer science?


Cyril R – “Ender, do you have any real critiques regarding the main arguments of Barry, or are you intentionally downgrading the discussion into lawyer science?”

Yes it the question of why Barry uses any of Ted Trainers work. I believe it is because his work on renewables is a clear case of Confirmation Bias:

“Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias, myside bias or verification bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses.[Note 1][1] As a result, people gather evidence and remember information selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. ”

Barry favours the renewable arguments of Ted Trainer’s despite all the other problems and uses them because they confirm his beliefs that renewables will not power society.
Ender – you are off topic which is “Could nuclear energy solve the greenhouse problem?”- this is not the thread for your philosopy. If you want to continue with this line of reasoning please use the Open Thread.


David Walters, on 18 January 2012 at 3:50 AM said:

IT is also assuming that some massive breakthrough in electrical storage generation won’t occur. I don’t. There is a LOT of money now going into battery tech.

28% of the cars built in the US in the year 1900 were electric.

There has been a ‘lot of money’ poured into energy storage technology for at least 100 years.


Ender, thanks for confirming my suspicion. Typical lawyer science. You are engaging in ad hominem accusations without any link to the content. In stead of debating the contents, you debate motive. That’s what I meant with lawyer science. It’s what gets us nowhere.
Ender has been asked to move to the Open Thread to continue expounding his “philosopy”. Please follow him there – if you want to!



I believe it is because his work on renewables is a clear case of Confirmation Bias:

“Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias, myside bias or verification bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses.[Note 1][1] As a result, people gather evidence and remember information selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. ”

I’ll certainly agree that there is one hell of a lot of confirmation bias going on regardiing …. but I am not referring to Barry’s use of Ted’s work.

I’d suggest you are displaying extreme example of confirmation having been reading and commenting on BNC for at least two years (and hopefully learning) and still you continue with your advocacy for renewables. This is despite you by now being aware renewables would cost five to ten times more than nuclear to power society, use some ten times more material per unit energy delivered (excluding storage), and use orders of magnitude more materials if they are to provide a reliable energy supply (i.e. if storage is included).

High cost like this means damaged economies -> reduced human welfare.

There is nothing good about renewable energy other than the warm glow it gives to those who are so ideologically biassed as to apply confirmation bias to an extreme extent.



Money going into energy storage, eh? Battery cars, eh?

Yea!. Great. More waste. More public funding to damage the economy. For what?

On 18 January, the Australian Energy Market Commission released this report:

An article about the report in the Weekend Australian (behind a pay wall for many) has this to say:

ELECTRIC vehicles will make up 20 per cent of new car sales in Australia by the end of the decade and 45 per cent by 2030, potentially requiring up to $10.2 billion in upgrades to the electricity system.

The findings are cited in a report by Julia Gillard’s top energy adviser, which finds that although electric cars are still a niche in Australia and are forecast to account for only 1 to 2 per cent of sales until 2015, the take-up is expected to surge later as vehicle prices fall to become competitive with those powered by petrol and diesel.

People in relatively affluent urban areas who are “more educated, environmentally conscious and technologically aware” will spearhead the early take-up. Most of the sales will take place in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

The issues paper by the Australian Energy Market Commission, which commissioned research into the vehicles, says consumers are likely to start buying more hybrids, which use both electricity and petrol. Pure battery-operated vehicles will become increasingly popular as charging infrastructure and batteries improve.

Overall, fuelling electric cars will only lead to a 4 per cent increase in electricity use by 2030, but the costs will be significant if consumers charge the cars in the evening peak period.

If there is “unmanaged” charging — meaning drivers plugged them in when they wanted, especially when other appliances such as air-conditioners were running — this would saddle electricity users with higher bills.

Nationwide, uncontrolled charging during the peak times of 3pm to 8pm would require $3.9bn in spending by 2020 and $10.2bn by 2030 to upgrade the poles, wires and transmission, and build new electricity generation.

Even if drivers were convinced to charge and discharge vehicles outside peak times, there could be other costs such as metering.

Please explain why I am having to pay more for electricity and have higher costs imposed on society when it will have little effect unless we are prepared to implement low cost low emissions electricity generation.
(Deleted pejorative.)


Peter Lang, on 23 January 2012 at 8:21 AM said:

Money going into energy storage, eh? Battery cars, eh?

Significant R&D money has been flowing into energy storage and battery research since the time of Thomas Edison.

I would note that in the US the main Nuclear Submarine Contractor, ‘Electric Boat’ was founded in 1899 (Eighteen Ninety Nine)to build ‘battery powered’ boats. It’s been building ‘nuclear powered’ submarines since 1951.

Of course the US Navy…always quick to adapt to changes in technology has maintained it’s ‘battery’ R&D program.

The ‘solar powered’ dream has been around for more then 100 years as well.

It’s not historically unusual for hundreds of year to pass between the time someone ‘envisions’ something and someone else figuring out how to build it.



Good points. However, my point is that there is a lot of greenwash, hope and smoke and mirrors going on as well – like the nano tubes that John Morgan did a great job of critiquing some time ago and the granite cylinder hydro dynamic thingy.

Worse still, we are being driven to waste enormous amounts of money on (renewables) while avoiding the realistic, least cost solutions. As the link I provided makes clear, (it) is costing us an enormous amount of money by forcing our electricity industry to implement renewable energy, electric cars (while 90% of our electricty is generated by fossil fuels), and the transmission and distribution upgrades and enhancements needed to support it.


Ted Trainer seems to propose switiching to a decentralised command economy in order to achieve a “zero growth” economy. He calls for a fundamental change in the values people hold, promoting collectivism over individualism.

This sounds like wishful thinking. It didn’t work after 1917 — with massive indoctrination — and it probably won’t work now. I’d rather stick to technological solutions to the sustainability problem. Economic growth can be disconnected from the unsustainable use of natural resources.


Ender has been asked to move to the Open Thread to continue expounding his “philosopy”. Please follow him there – if you want to!”

Actually it is Ted’s philosophy not really mine however point taken.
Fair point :)


Peter Lang – “There is nothing good about renewable energy other than the warm glow it gives to those who are so ideologically biassed as to apply confirmation bias to an extreme extent.”

At the risk of attracting further attention from the moderator I could say EXACTLY the same about yourself.

I only mentioned this at all because it seems to such a perfect example of it. You (and Barry) only accept one part of a whole life’s work and hundreds of papers which just so happens to be the one you agree with.

Anyway enough said I think.



You ignored the substance of my point (which I believe is on topic for this thread)

renewables would cost five to ten times more than nuclear to power society, use some ten times more material per unit energy delivered (excluding storage), and use orders of magnitude more materials if they are to provide a reliable energy supply (i.e. if storage is included).

High cost like this means damaged economies -> reduced human welfare.
You have not been able to refute that. Therefore, your criticism – of the point sentence you quoted from my previous post – is not valid. The sentence you objected to was:

“There is nothing good about renewable energy other than the warm glow it gives to those who are so ideologically biassed as to apply confirmation bias to an extreme extent.”

Therefore, I maintain my point has not been refuted and remains valid.

[This thread is about how to solve the Greenhouse problem and the argument about nuclear versus renewables is a key issue. Therefore I believe my post is on topic for this thread]
Ender was off-topic on this thread when concentrating on the philosophies of Ted Trainer. Strictly speaking the thread asks the question whether nuclear power(not renewables) can solve the greenhouse problem. A topic Trainer basically ignores in his paper.


The references for your paper look like a great resource. Having just read “Plentiful Energy” before I read this paper I found myself agreeing with just about everything in it.

My only disagreement was over one word in section 3.3, i.e. “the 2009 UNFCCC recognized the scientific view that any increase in global temperature should be kept below 2 degrees C”

My impression is that many if not most scientists don’t believe that the 2 degrees target is “scientific”. I think most see it as a target some involved in the political process have selected after hearing warnings from scientists for decades.

Eg: Bob Watson (one of the creators of the IPCC) addressed this subject during a recent debate at Tyndall, (online here: ) He used the word “dangerous” which in that context was equivalent to 2 degrees:

“I think we have to recognize that we scientists should not define dangerous – dangerous is something that has to be defined by the socio-political process, but informed by the evidence”. He then said it is a “value” judgement.

The late Stephen Schneider went on at length about this when he was interviewed at Copenhagen during the negotiations there. (see )

He started out by saying he thought somewhere about 2 degrees was almost already certain to happen, and made a plea that it is “absolutely urgent” that we don’t go beyond 2 or 3 degrees. Then he said:

“science doesn’t tell you what to do about anything. science is [about assessing ] risk: what can happen… what kind of risks do you want to take with the planetary life support system. I happen to be a risk averse person and I think we should be investing tremendously to reduce it but that’s a personal value judgement. Other people say that’s going to reduce the market share of the coal industry… so we’ll just tolerate climate. So you’re really running a whole series of value judgements about how much insurance you want to buy for the planetary life support system.”

He then got specific about 2 degrees:

“Let me start with the EU target of 2 degrees – which is quite sensible… …What it is is a judgement about where to put a line in the sand about enough is enough. Its based on science, including my chapter in IPCC… But its not a “hard 2” – its spread out between 1 – 3 and after 3 you really start getting nasty outcomes. Why else do you say 2? Because they’re political realists – they know about the inertia in the system they know it takes decades to replace lots of coal with alternatives, they know its going to take even longer than that to get the developing world to agree to leapfrog over the industrial revolution, so they named the lowest number we have a plausible shot at.”

Which doesn’t sound very scientific to me.

The interviewer then asked So Tuvalu’s call for 1.5 degrees is just a delusion? Schneider: “… I’m with Tuvalu, but its just unlikely to happen”

He summed things up: “the science itself can’t tell you what to do. … We cannot let the imperfect be the enemy if the mediocre. You know the cliche is the good. We aren’t going to get anywhere near the good. But mediocre is better than going at high speed in the wrong direction….”

So when you used the words “the scientific view” is that “any increase in global temperature should be kept below 2 degrees C”, in your new paper, I thought, I wish you could find a way to include what it looks like is actually the case, i.e. that most scientists of Schneider’s stature have a view that anything like 2 degrees is not “good”, its mediocre at best. Its something our descendants or even we may come to profoundly regret we allowed to happen after we and they experience the result. It is definitely a political construct, not a scientific view.
David – this is really way off-topic on this thread. Please move to the Open Thread if you wish to explore this further.


David Lewis, I agree, 2C is just an arbitrary number. There is nothing special about it, just like there is nothing special about 1.5C or 1C or 0.9C. With different temperature changes come different (sets of) non-linear changes. In my article it was really just shorthand for a heavy mitigation target. The reality is more complicated, as you point out.


If I’d got off topic like this my comment would have been deleted within minutes :)
Yes Peter I agree – Barry is more lenient than I am and he got to the DL comment before me :) However, most folk, including yourself, get at least one warning on their off-topic comment before being banished to the OT


Hi, I am a school teacher and my students are having a debate which is related to fission energy. Would you please send me a copy of your work so my students can benefit from you?

Ed: I sent the paper to your listed email address


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