Future Nuclear Policy

Current World Energy Demand, Ethical World Energy Demand, Depleted Uranium and the Centuries to Come

Guest Post by NNadir (who blogs occasionally at Daily Kos, profile here). This is a long but really interesting post. If you’d rather a PDF version, click here.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released last year, 2013, a free PDF brochure, available online, entitled “Key World Energy Statistics”[1] which reports total world energy consumption, comparing figures from 2011 with those of 1973.    The energy unit that is used to described is the non-SI, if evocative, unit, “MTOE” which is an abbreviation for “Million Tons of Oil Equivalent,” a somewhat artificial energy unit – given that the energy content of grades of oil vary considerably depending on their source – that pretends that all the world’s energy comes from a standardized form of the dangerous fossil fuel petroleum, which, of course, it doesn’t.    The conversion factor, as given in the free IEA brochure, between the SI unit, the Joule, here reported as terajoules, TJ, a trillion Joules, is 1 MTOE = 41,868 TJ.

The actual forms of primary energy that the consumed energy took are shown in the following graphic from the text:

As shown in the graphic, the document reports that in 2011, world energy consumption (TPES = “Total Primary Energy Supply”) was 13,113 MTOE; in 1973, the year which those old enough to remember will recall as the year of the “oil shock” where gasoline prices in the United States surged toward the then unheard of figure of $1.00/gallon, world energy consumption was, according to the document, 6,109 MTOE.   Before leaving this somewhat curious unit for the more satisfying SI units, it serves to note that it suggests, on a planet with a population in 2011 reported as 6.9 billion[2], plus or minus some 100 million human beings, that, on average, each person, as recorded in recent times, is responsible for burning the equivalent of 1.9 tons of oil equivalents per year.  In 1973, the world population was something on the order of 3.9 billion people, and on average, each person on the planet was responsible for consuming 1.5 tons of oil equivalent energy each year.

In 1976, which – if I have the math right – was 3 years after 1973, the energy mystic Amory Lovins published a paper in the social science journal Foreign Affairs, “Energy Strategy, The Road Not Taken?”[3] that suggested that by the use of conservation and so called “renewable energy” all of the world’s energy problems could be solved.    The thin red sliver on the 2011 pie chart, identified as “other” – solar, wind, etc, – obviates the grotesque failure of so called “renewable energy” to become a meaningful source of energy in the worldwide energy equation, despite consuming vast resources and vast sums of money, this on a planet that could ill afford such sums.   As for conservation, in 2011 we were using 147% of the dangerous petroleum we used in 1973, 286% of the dangerous natural gas we used in 1973, and 252% of the dangerous coal we used in 1973.  The rise in average figures of per capita energy consumption, as well as total energy consumed worldwide, show that energy conservation as an energy strategy has not worked either.

The reason that energy conservation as an energy strategy has failed is obvious, even divorced from population growth.   According to the 2013 UN Millennium Goals Report[4], as shown in the following graphic from it, the percentage of the Chinese population that lived on less than $1.25 (US) per day fell from 60% of the population in 1990 to 16% in 2005 and further to 12% in 2010.     From our knowledge of history, we would be fair to assume that the situation in China was even worse in 1976 than it was in 1990.


By the way, it ought to weigh on the moral imagination…that figure…less than $1.25 a day…less than $500 per year…for all a human being’s needs…food, shelter, transportation, child care, education, health, care for the elderly…

Seen from this perspective, Lovins’ writings are all marked by myopic bourgeois provincialism.   The huge flaw in his 1976 conceit, and his conceits forever thereafter, was that for him, people living in the United States, and maybe Western Europe, represented the only human life that mattered.  Chinese and Indians, for two examples, may as well have not existed if one reads his 1976 fantasy; he blithely assumed that they would agree to remain unimaginably impoverished while Americans pursued hydrogen HYPErcars[5] in every suburban garage and solar heated molten salt tanks[6] in every suburban backyard.     Apparently, from his high perch in the überrich suburb of Aspen – Snowmass, Colorado – where he lives today in a super-efficient McMansion, he continues to issue rhetoric equally oblivious to the status of the larger fraction of humanity, this while collecting “consulting fees” from companies that among other things, mine and refine oil sands[7].   Consideration of the two to three billion people defined by the IEA today as living in “energy poverty”[8] – 1.3 billion of whom lack access to electricity for any purpose, never mind for the purpose of charging up their swell Tesla electric cars, and/or the 38% percent of human beings on this planet who lack access to what the IEA calls “clean cooking facilities” – is definitely not in the purview of a person who writes books with awful titles like, um, “Winning the Oil Endgame.[9]

Out of sight, out of mind…

This raises another point:

The worldwide energy consumption averages I calculated above say nothing of the distribution of energy.   On some level energy is wealth, and wealth, as most people are aware, is ever more disproportionately distributed.

By reference to the free IEA energy brochure, summing its figures for produced and imported “MTOE” energy, (see page 56 of the report) one can calculate that an “average” citizen of the United States, as of 2011, where the midyear population was 312,000,000, was consuming 7.2 MT tons of oil “equivalents” each year, almost 4 times the world average for such consumption.   In comparison, an “average” consumption for a citizen of Zambia, (also on page 56 of the report) where the population was 13.4 million midyear 2011, was 0.6 tons of oil equivalent, less than a third of the world average.

As I am one of a family of four living in a single house, and I am also somewhere, I suspect, near “average” as Americans go, I am compelled to imagine where I might put 28.8 MT of oil I would need each year were this figure reflected by an actual case of the “distributed energy” that one hears so often is supposed to be so wonderful.  That is,  were I compelled to generate all of my energy demands at home, keeping my yearly share, perhaps as “biofuel,” if not petroleum, on my property, this would be the amount of oil I would need to either grow (in the biofuel case) or have delivered and store in the dangerous fossil fuel case.    In real life, of course, I don’t need to do this; other people and organizations do it for me.   Happily, I have yet to live, my car excepted, to live in a total nightmare of “distributed energy.”

Of course, not all the energy involved in my family’s imagined 28.8 tons of oil “equivalents” is consumed directly by my family to power our refrigerators, our TV sets, our computers and our automobiles; some of it is used elsewhere, to manufacture materials for instance.    About 3% of the world’s electricity is assigned, for example, to producing aluminum for cans, window frames, engine blocks and, for that matter, for Tesla cars.  Some metals are even more energy intensive to refine than aluminum is.   For example, the metal neodymium in wind turbines and many electric and hybrid cars involves a laborious process of extraction from lanthanide ores using nitric acid, itself made using natural gas, and copious amounts of petroleum derived solvents or complexing agents for solvent extraction separations, or ion exchange resins made from dangerous petroleum, lots of pumps and other energy consuming forms of mass transfer.   (When wild catted at its sources in China – China dominates the world supply of lanthanides – as it sometimes is, lanthanide production can be and often is an environmental nightmare.[10])

Out of sight, out of mind…

Even if I really don’t need to store it myself, the image of 28.8 tons of oil in my backyard is illustrative, I think.   I will have more below about what it might look like, in size, were it “plutonium equivalent” rather than “oil equivalent,” but before going there, let’s move to SI units, the units in which science is largely spoken today.

Translated into SI units, converting from the figures to the free brochure, world energy consumption in 2011 was 549 exajoules (exa- = 1018); in 1973 it was 256 exajoules.    From these figures one can calculate that in 2011, the average continuous power output of all the world’s energy generation systems of all types was 8.1 trillion watts, or, in more familiar power units, 8.1 million megawatts.    The per capita average continuous power demand overall for all people on the planet was 2500 watts, roughly the power output of a small American suburban lawn mower; in 1973 that figure was roughly 2000 watts.    Billions of people of course, had much less than a lawn mower’s worth of power on average in 2011 (and for that matter in 1973), whereas other people got to use several orders of magnitude more power than a “lawn mower’s worth” of power, driving, for instance, in swell Tesla electric cars by which they express, in unconscious drollery, their “concern” for the environment.

If Amory Lovins has completely ignored, and continues to ignore, the issue of the billions who live in “energy poverty,” others have noted it.   The Nobel Peace Prize winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed El Baradei, for one example, used to make speeches in which he indicated that his drive to bring nuclear power to Nigeria was informed by his understanding that the average power consumption of a Nigerian was 8 watts,[11] although in saying this, he may have been referring to electricity alone, and not total energy demand.

Out of sight, out of mind…

Too often, discussions about energy, be they technical arguments that are either conservative or creative and dynamic, realistic or wish based, seem to divorce themselves from ethics, if not from people like El Baradei, then from many – maybe even most – others.    When atheists like me discuss ethics, we are often accused of casuistry, but I think this ungenerous.    Valid ethical axioms exist, I argue – they have been called, not without some irony, “self-evident” – axioms that are sometimes articulated, even advanced, by religious ideologies or principles, although, I also argue, independent of them and sometimes even in conflict with them.    When we discuss energy and energy technology however, we must also keep in the back of our minds the ethical question of what a human being is worth, and thus what any particular system of energy is physically capable of providing for and measuring that worth.    Surely we can agree that a human being is worth more than $1.25 a day, can we not?   I will speak more of this at the end of this diatribe.

However this all may be, let us now return to some technical arguments:  The neodymium and aluminum to which I referred above are just two examples of materials that require significant quantities of energy to obtain:  Our modern industrial culture relies on the separation and refining of significant quantities of some sixty to seventy elements from their sources, be they rocks, gases, or liquids; all of these processes of separation from ores and refining require energy.

One element that has been mined and processed on a grand scale – and has proved essential to our way of life – is the radioactive element uranium.  For use in most nuclear reactors – heavy water reactors excepted – an additional refining process beyond chemical isolation of the element itself is generally required; one of its rarer isotopes, 235U, must be enriched in the final product.   Isotopic enrichment processes are generally more energy intensive than simple chemical separations.   In the case of enrichment of 235U from around 0.7% in natural uranium to roughly 3%, sometimes more, in fuel grade uranium, the energy invested in this concentration process is easily overcome by the incredible energy density of 235U isotope when it is fissioned.  Nevertheless as a result of process – the vast majority of nuclear reactors that have operated over the last half a century use this “enriched fuel” – most of the mined, refined and isolated uranium is left behind, even though considerable energy has been invested in mining and refining it from its ores.

This uranium left behind, of course, is the famous, or infamous, “depleted uranium.”   Many people consider this uranium to be “nuclear waste,” although it has found some use as ballast in aircraft and in ships, as a shielding agent for x-rays, gamma rays and other radiation, and, also infamously, in armor piercing tank shells used in both of the US-Iraq oil wars.   “Depleted uranium” is nonetheless less radioactive, gram of uranium for gram of uranium, than the natural uranium found in ores, the seas, and in common household items like granite countertops, since the more radioactive 235U isotope in it has been partially removed.

How much depleted uranium is there?   According to the World Nuclear Association, the world inventory of depleted uranium is about 1.5 million tons.[12]

As for what we should do with it…well…speaking only for myself, I’m not fond of war, especially resource wars, the most common kind of resource war that we have seen over the last century being the aforementioned kind of war, the oil war.    So leave me out on the tank shell thing, putting uranium in a tank shell seems like a waste of perfectly good uranium.     In addressing those who consider depleted uranium to be so called “nuclear waste,” I can say I have no idea what they’re talking about, since I personally consider that nothing that is useful can be considered “waste” at all.   As it happens, I argue, there are few radioactive atoms on this planet that cannot be made to do something useful[13] and in many cases there are things that radioactive atoms can do that nothing else can do as well.  Depleted uranium represents just such a case.   I believe that all of the depleted uranium, for which the energy for isolation has already been expended and is thus, more or less, essentially available for the taking, should be converted into plutonium and fissioned in nuclear reactors, this to eliminate the necessity for any kind of energy mining in the immediate future.  In this way coal mining, horizontal drilling for oil and gas (“fracking”), offshore oil drilling, and even uranium mining might be completely eliminated on a time scale of centuries.

This, of course, is not a new idea.    The men and women who first harnessed nuclear energy – some of the best minds the world has known – understood this almost immediately upon uncovering its potential.   In fact, the very first reactor to produce electricity in the world, this in 1951 – it was part of an experiment and not a commercial enterprise – was a breeder reactor, a reactor that made more fissionable material, this in the form of plutonium, than it consumed.  The reactor, EBR-1, Experimental Breeder Reactor 1, was built because of the “enthusiasm” of Enrico Fermi,[14] who might well have been the greatest scientist to bridge both experimental and theoretical science since Newton, or maybe even Archimedes.

Noting this, and having some small insight as to who Fermi was, I cannot avoid some sarcasm:   In the 1970’s Amory Lovins, who was, for reasons that leave me cold, awarded the “MacArthur Prize,” and thus was thus declared by some in the media to be a “genius.”   Such a declaration, when Fermi has existed, the same Fermi whose work Lovins has the unparalleled hubris insipidly to dismiss[15] with silly speculations, innuendo, and frankly, gross ignorance, is the equivalent of declaring a tone deaf third grader seated as a second cellist in a musically weak elementary school orchestra to be the peer of Yo-Yo Ma.

Unfortunately for humanity, Lovins’ “Road Less Traveled” is now the “Road Most Traveled” even though, as the graphic at the opening of this piece shows, neither conservation or so called “renewable energy” has not, cannot, and will not accommodate the energy traffic required for a decent lifestyle for the overwhelming majority of human beings.   Lovins’ road represents the daydream of the unconscionable and indifferent elite with scant attention paid to the relatively impoverished and absolutely impoverished bulk of humanity.   There was a reason that reliance on diffuse forms of energy, so called “renewable energy,” for all of humanity’s needs was abandoned around the beginning of the 19th century and all the reactionary rhetoric in the world cannot change that fact.    That reason, even more so than today, was that the overwhelming majority of human beings lived short miserable lives of dire poverty.

Nuclear energy, and only nuclear energy, has the energy to mass density to be sustainable indefinitely at levels of energy production that involve a balance of human decency coupled to environmental justice.

Fermi – who despite his vast intellect is said to have been no elitist – understood, way back in the 1940’s, that we would require depleted uranium to be made into energy, and well more than half a century later, as we are in crisis whether we see it or not, it is very clear that he was, in recognizing this, handing us a key by which we might save what can still be yet saved at this point.

So how much energy is there in the isolated and refined “depleted uranium” now available for the taking?  As stated, before the energy content of this uranium can be recovered, it needs to be converted into plutonium.    I have prepared a spreadsheet, using the nuclear data tables available at the website of the Brookhaven National Laboratory,[16] showing the breakdown of the types of energy released when an atom of plutonium – the 239Pu isotope – fissions.    The table below is from that spreadsheet:


In the calculations below, I will include all of the forms of energy except neutrinos – which represent energy that cannot be recovered owing to the weak interaction of neutrinos with matter – assuming that all of these forms can be converted into thermal energy, thus claiming 199 MeV from each fission as recoverable as heat which may be converted to electricity, to fluid fuels (or other chemicals), to drivers of industrial processes:  All the things for which we use energy.

The reader who has a sophisticated understanding of nuclear engineering, nuclear physics, and nuclear chemistry might question the inclusion of gamma radiation of both types, delayed and prompt, and delayed betas in my list, even if their contribution is minor compared to the kinetic energy of fission products and neutrons.   In the gamma case I argue that advances in materials science, as well as the need to provide very high temperature systems to increase energy efficiency and thus to enable the elimination of the need to mine dangerous petroleum, dangerous coal, and dangerous natural gas, imply that a much superior fast reactor coolant is pure unalloyed lead as opposed to sodium – even if the most recently built fast reactors in Russia and in India still use the historically utilized and more problematic lighter sodium coolant.   (We need to think anew.)   Lead’s high atomic number provides for lots of electrons and heavy atoms that absorb and thermalize gamma energy via the agency of pair production, photoelectric emissions,[17] and Auger emissions, etc.   Although other elements, including sodium, also capture some gamma radiation, the most efficient elements are all heavy, with lead and the actinides being the most efficient.    This said, lead cooled reactors are a small subset of the thousands of types, arguably infinite types, of possible reactors.

As for delayed betas (and gammas), it is true that some of the beta energy, that involved with long lived radioactive fission products, may be removed from the reactors when used fuel is removed, but the majority of delayed betas, will in fact, decay in situ, while still in the reactor.    From the BNL Nuclear Data Center referenced above, one may obtain the full fission product profile for the fission of 239Pu in either tabular or graphic form.   I will reproduce the graphic – with the caveat that the live version at the BNL website which may be accessed by following the directions in the notes[18] is interactive – here:


I have accessed the table form of the graphically shown data above, imported the data in it to MS Excel, summed the fission yields from plutonium-239 fast fission for each mass number, and have shown that on the left side maximum in the two “humps” above, the most common fission product mass number is 103 – as one just about make out in the graphic above – in which all of the radioactive members of the series decay to the single stable isotope of the rare, expensive, and industrially important element rhodium (Rh).  (It is interesting to note that by 2030, the world supply of rhodium found in used nuclear fuel will exceed the supply found in ores.[19])  In direct fission, the mass number 103, which is produced in 6.59% of fission events, is represented by a distribution of elements from rubidium (103Rb) to palladium (103Pd), all of which, with the exception of 103Rh, are radioactive.  (For practically every mass number, with a few exceptions, there is one, and only one, stable nuclide associated with it.)    In the case of mass number 103, the most prominent nucleus among these isotopes which is formed directly in the fast fission of 239Pu is 103Mo, formed in 3.63% of fissions.  Its half-life is just 67.5 seconds.  With two exceptions, the half-lives of the others are all much shorter, ranging from nanoseconds to a second and a half.  Thus while the beta emissions are “delayed” the beta energy of its decay of the isotopes in the mass 103 series will all, more or less, be released in the fuel during reactor operations.    Indeed the longest lived radioactive isotope in the entire mass 103 series is 103Ru, which has a half-life of 39.6 days.   Since nuclear fuels may be expected to remain in the reactor for periods longer than two years, and reactor designs are either available[20] or conceivable[21] in which fuel may remain in the core for periods measurable in decades, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of this ruthenium isotope will also decay to stable rhodium during reactor operations for all kinds of reactors, both of types that have been built, or among the many thousands of unbuilt types of nuclear reactors that one might imagine, with the overwhelming majority of the energy produced by mass 103 fission products recovered as thermal energy during reactor operations.   Mass number 103 in this aspect is not really unique.[22]

(As an aside, on the topic of long fuel cycle time reactors, the Sekimoto monograph, Light A Candle, just referenced (reference 21), includes a charming account[23] by Sekimoto of how pleased he is that the Bill Gates funded nuclear design company, Terrapower, has essentially appropriated the ideas behind his “CANDLE” reactor, rebranding it, apparently (at the time the account was written) without attribution, as the “Traveling Wave” reactor.   Sekimoto discourses, quite cheerfully, about his ultimate visit to Terrapower’s luxurious offices, where he feels that however unstated, his innovations are nonetheless appreciated.    Sekimoto is, apparently, a gracious and generous soul who can be pleased to die with nothing more than the knowledge of his contribution to the welfare of humanity.)

While the analysis above suggests I am largely justified in claiming the full 199 MeV of plutonium fission as recoverable energy, it is true that a small amount of the fission products produced will be sufficiently long lived to decay outside the reactor, 137Cs, for instance, which has a half-life of 30.08 years[24] (the majority of the decay heat for mass number 137 is released before 137Cs forms).   I am not among those who consider isotopes like 137Cs to be “waste,” which needs to be buried or discarded, nor do I believe that the energy that they release after removal from the reactor need be useless.   Quite to the contrary, with a little less irrational fear attached to them, they might solve some problems that are otherwise intractable, or far more difficult to address without the use of radiation.

For example:  It has been shown[25] that a form of “synrock” designed for the immobilization of radiocesium isotopes, synthetic pollucite, by evaluating samples manufactured in the late 70’s and early 80’s, remains essentially structurally unchanged over periods of decades, despite incorporating the stable barium to which radiocesium decays and despite having been subject to continuous radiation exposure.  (Natural pollucite is a cesium aluminosilicate found in some of the oldest rocks on earth.)  This suggests that such pollucite might easily be used as a portable gamma source, and indeed it is, however, to a far too limited extent.   Gamma radiation can be utilized, for instance, not only for sterilizing water, but also for the total destruction very dangerous polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s)[26] – with only carbon dioxide and sodium chloride as the products – the destruction of powerfully carcinogenic nitrosoamines that are side products from the (necessary) disinfection of water,[27], [28] pharmaceuticals and their metabolites excreted or dumped into surface waters via sewage systems,[29] fuel additives in water,[30] and a host of other persistent organic pollutants (and especially in the case of air, persistent inorganic pollutants).     Possibly even more interesting than radiocesium containing pollucite are titanium containing cesium synrock forms,[31] cesium titanosilicates, given the well-known ability of photochemically stimulated titanium oxides using visible, UV and X-ray radiation, to produce semiconductor “holes”[32] useful for catalyzing the destruction of a wide variety of very troublesome pollutants.    This is recovered energy in the sense that the irradiation of water or air might serve to eliminate or reduce reliance on chlorination and/or the superior (to chlorination) practice of ozonolysis, both of which are energy intensive.   This suggestion points to the fact that in a idealized nuclear powered world, energy might be used quite differently, with a vast number of similar efficiency and performance improvements.

With all this out of the way, let’s go to the punchline, and figure out how much energy is available in the world’s “depleted uranium:”

An electron volt (eV) is the amount of energy required to move a single electron through a potential of one volt, and it follows that the conversion factor from an electron volt to a Joule is simply the charge on an electron, 1.6022 X 10-19 Coulombs.  Since a Watt is a Joule sec-1 it follows that the reciprocal of the total energy per fission divided by one second gives the number of fissions per second per Watt of power, which the table above gives as 3.14 X 1010.

Those who have completed a high school chemistry class (or beyond) may recall that any number of atoms can be converted into a mass by use of the concept of a “mole,” – defined by international agreement by an international organization known as IUPAC – as the exact number, Avogadro’s number, of atoms in exactly 12.00000000… grams of the pure carbon-12 isotope.    The best recent measurements of this number suggest that there are 6.02214129 X 1023 atoms found in this circumstance.    This number of atoms can thus be used to calculate the number of moles in any other pure substance, including pure 239Pu.    Thus one watt of energy is equivalent to fissioning 5.2108 X 10-14 moles of 239Pu per second.   Multiplying the number of moles of an isotope by its isotopic mass, 239.0521565 grams per mole for 239Pu, one can find the mass of a number of moles; in this case, a watt of energy is produced by fissioning 1.2457 X 10-11 grams of 239Pu, or 12.5 picograms, an amount which is so tiny as to be invisible even using an ordinary optical microscope.

We are now prepared to calculate what the one year “plutonium equivalent” amount of energy consumed by an “average” human being on this planet, understanding that the average reflects the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich, since, as stated above, the continuous power demand of modern humans is roughly 2500 watts, as well as from the fact that a calendar year has 31,557,600 seconds in it.  When we do this calculation we see that the “plutonium equivalent” of “average” human energy consumption, as compared to the 1.9 metric tons of “oil equivalent” is 0.98 grams per year “plutonium equivalent.”    Thus if one is average across the broad range of humanity, and one lives to become a centenarian, one would be, for the purpose of energy consumption, responsible for the utilization, for the purpose of meeting all one’s energy needs, of less than a tenth of a kg of matter in a lifetime.   By contrast, one might consume a kilogram of a dangerous fossil fuel in a few minutes of driving to a shopping mall.

The next question to address is how much plutonium must be fissioned over all.    The answer to this question is that to address 100% of humanity’s energy demand at current consumption levels, an average continuous power demand of 2500 watts, 6,800 tons would need to be fissioned each year.   Thus at these levels the inventory of mined, refined and isolated “depleted uranium” would last roughly 220 years before any other energy source would be required anywhere at any time, and thus every energy mining operation on the planet could in theory be eliminated for this period of time.    Under these conditions, the scourge of air pollution, responsible for more than 7 million deaths per year[33], would not exist, and many other intractable environmental problems that are currently ignored might be addressed.

But is 2500 watts of average continuous power enough to sustain a human life decently?

In Switzerland, there is an organization that calls itself the “2000 Watt Society” which argues that the world’s population should all strive to live on 2000 watts of average continuous power and declares, somewhat arbitrarily, that this goal should be reached by the year 2050, when presumably and conveniently, many of the people who have been making this argument will be dead, thus having avoided taking the responsibility they expect future generations will gladly embrace.  (In 2011, we can calculate from the data in the free IEA report that the average continuous power demand of a Swiss citizen was roughly 4,300 Watts.)  As we have seen above, 2000 Watts was the average continuous power of humanity in 1973, when the population of the planet was, again, 3.9 billion people, the percentage of whom who lived on less than $1.25 per day was much larger than it is now.    By 2050, population projections of the US Census claim that the world population is expected to be 9.3 billion people.    In a “2000 Watt” world – with each person entitled to a lawn mower’s worth of average power – the planetary energy demand would be 587 exajoules, only 37 exajoules more than is currently used in our 2500 Watt world but nonetheless a prodigious amount of energy, since what we use now is prodigious.

Realistically though, how many people would we expect to have clean water in a “2000 Watt world?”   Clean air?   Medical care?   Educational tools?   Again, how many?  A narrow elite?   Everyone?

I personally believe that the world population will never reach 9.0 billion people, since it is becoming increasingly clear that the world cannot indefinitely support 7.0 billion people, never mind two billion more, without seriously degrading its carrying capacity, a process of degradation well underway now, no matter how many lies we tell ourselves in denial.  Since his timing was wrong, and his mechanism was wrong, we have become rather glib and smug in assuming that Malthus was a blithering fool.   But can we be sure he was?   Call me a “doomsayer, an apocalyptic prophet,” if you wish, but I believe that the world population will fall, sooner rather than later, most likely not in an orderly fashion, not as a result of managed attrition, not because of lower fertility rates, but rather in the catastrophic fashion described in Jared Diamond’s insightful book on the environmental history of remote, isolated societies, “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail.”[34]   And let’s be clear:  On a galactic scale this planet is, in fact, remote and isolated.

Nevertheless, I hope I am wrong about the mechanism by which population – the elephant in the environmental room – will fall, but the population must fall, one way or the other.

Repeatedly, I have argued in my writings and comments around the internet, by frequent appeal to the fine and widely read paper on the environmental and human effects of nuclear energy by the climate scientists Kharecha and Hansen,[35] that the fact that nuclear energy saves lives lies at the crux of the argument that the use of nuclear energy must be expanded as a moral imperative.   At the same time as I am arguing for saving lives, I am arguing that the population must be reduced for decent human life to remain – or in too many cases to become – sustainable.   It would seem that these ethical arguments are at cross purposes.    However, with some exceptions, it is now understood by observation that those places where the fertility rate is at or below replacement level are most often the same places where people are secure in their homes, the places where they are well provided for, where they are educated and safe.    Maybe, just maybe, the key to yet saving what might be saved of the planetary environment would be involved with honoring in practice, rather than broach, the 25th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.[36]

From the data in the free IEA brochure, one can calculate that the average continuous per capita power consumption of a citizen of the US is 9,534 watts; the same figure for a citizen of China – a country about which many Americans complain because its carbon dioxide emissions, 825 watts.    For the current world population, reportedly 7.16 billion, to consume like the average American consumes, world energy demand would be required to be 2,154 exajoules, as contrasted with approximately 550 exajoules actually consumed at present by the world population.   Under such circumstances, the “exa-” prefix would no longer be adequate; we’d need to speak of “zetajoules.”

That I have spent part of this work making it clear that I regard Amory Lovins to be an insufferable fool does not imply that I have no respect for the idea of energy efficiency; the questions of “Jevon’s Paradox” aside, I still think that any true environmentalist should applaud efficient use of energy.   The incontrovertible laws of thermodynamics show that the highest efficiency – the maximum “exergy” or work that can be extracted from an energy system – require the highest sustainable temperatures, and right now the best sustainable approach to producing such temperatures, in light of recent advances in materials science, is nuclear fission.    Thus all of the ideal nuclear reactors I imagine in a sustainable future are high temperature systems with “combined cycle” features, where electricity might be a side product of other operations.   A completely, or nearly completely nuclear powered, again, world would use energy quite differently than the world we actually live in, which as the introductory graphic shows, is largely a dangerous fossil fuel powered world.   Perhaps, in this light, a decent world, the average citizen might live very well at 5,000 watts average continuous power per capita, in which case the mined, isolated uranium would still be good for more than a century, rather than two centuries at current levels of energy demand, with a requirement, of around 13,600 metric tons of plutonium requiring fission each year.

Thus far I have not discussed the favorite fuel of many nuclear energy aficionados, thorium.  I have nothing against thorium; it’s a fine nuclear fuel, probably not infinitely available as uranium is owing to uranium’s higher solubility[37] in seawater, but available from crustal rocks for millennia to come.  I disagree with anyone who argues that thorium is the only acceptable nuclear fuel, but yes, it’s a fine fuel with the potential to increase the fuel efficiency of the existing thermal spectrum nuclear infrastructure.

Let me say this about thorium:  In the Ridgewood section of Queens, New York there is a “superfund site” described in The New Yorker as “The Most Radioactive Place in New York City.[38]”   The media, with its fondness for anti-nuke hysteria has tried to imply that the thorium dumped into the sewer system there by the Wolff Alport Chemical Company, which operated on the site beginning in the early 1900’s through the 1950’s was a dedicated thorium production site that existed to serve the nuclear energy and nuclear war industries.    Actually, the site, for most of its historical operations, was a site for the refining on lanthanides (aka “rare earths”) – the same lanthanides now used to make wind turbines and electric cars – most ores of which are, in fact, mildly radioactive owing to the presence of thorium in them.   The Wolff Alport people only stopped dumping the thorium into the sewer system when a nuclear market appeared for it.    In various places around the world, including the United States, there are lanthanide mine tailings containing significant amounts of partially refined thorium.   These mined resources might extend the potential of already recovered nuclear fuel materials for another few centuries, although a complete inventory of such materials seems to be not readily available.

And when, after some centuries, the already mined and refined, or partially refined (in the case of thorium) supplies are exhausted what then?   I referred earlier to a post of mine elsewhere where I examined in detail the sixty year history of research on approaches for obtaining uranium from the massive reserves in the sea; it is known to be feasible to so obtain uranium at any point where the price rises high enough to justify it, even though price increases in uranium have little effect on nuclear energy prices because of the extreme energy/mass density uranium transformed into plutonium enjoys.

However, there are other uranium sources from natural geological formations, and it might make sense to remove this uranium – killing two birds with one stone – from places where it may impact human health.   For instance the Marcellus shale, particularly that in New York State, which is being pulverized in the very short sighted attempt to offer transitory supplies dangerous natural gas for one selfish generation to burn at the expense of all future generations, occurs in a natural uranium formation, something we can recognize by the large amounts of radioactive radon gas found in the produced gas[39].  Indeed, the brines used in hydraulic fracturing, can have concentrations of radium (which decays to radon and has a half-life of 1610 years) that exceed 10,000 pCi/liter (370 Beq/Liter or 370,000 Beq/m3) according to a news item in one scientific journal[40], an amount of radioactive material that exceeds, by 4 to 5 orders of magnitude, the amount of radioactivity in seawater associated with the leaking of cesium isotopes outside the Fukushima reactors[41].   (Water of this type from fracking operations, called “flow back water,” is often brought to the surface and dumped in landfills.[42]  In the Marcellus shale formation, the amount of flow back water created in 2014 is roughly 5 billion liters.[43])  Unless the uranium, the parent element of the radon, from this formation is removed, the radon gas will continue to leach forever from the shattered shale into the ground water and air that all future citizens of the area will drink and breathe for as long as the humanity exists.  The uranium might be removed, after the gas is gone, by injecting supercritical carbon dioxide[44] (with an appropriate uranium complexing solute) into the formations, and “washing” (leaching) the uranium out, and fissioning it.

Similarly, groundwater used for, among other things, drinking water can sometimes leach uranium.   There is, for example, a region in Germany near Munich where the groundwater has significantly higher concentrations of uranium than the maximum allowance by German regulatory authorities, more than 10 μg/L.[45]

Thus we might reasonable – using well understood solid phase uranium extraction resins – collect additional resin from waters or residues contaminated with uranium because of horrific environmental practices such as “fracking” or because of the necessity of mining ground water naturally “contaminated.”

Before closing with some commentary on ethics – and, as stated, I do believe that energy and ethics are very much involved with one another – let me discuss some related technical issues, as I am largely a technical guy:

A facile challenge to my arguments above would note that very few commercial breeder reactors have been built, and with some exceptions, most have been balky economic failures.  There are several reasons for this – and they are complex – some technical and others clearly cultural, involved with the fear, ignorance, and selective attention of the world’s cacophonous, if jejune, anti-nuke community, and others involved with the unsustainable, if increasingly universal, disposable culture.    Thus in recent years only two major examples of fast breeder reactors have been built, a Russian version and an Indian version. Russia ran the most successful commercial breeder ever built, the BN-600 for about 3 decades – and has just finished a BN-800 a model that China is considering purchasing to construct a small fleet of breeders. India will shortly bring the indigenously developed Kalapakkam fast 500 MW breeder on line and plans building more such reactors.

The latter reactor is designed to produce plutonium as a key to unlock the potential of India’s huge reserves of thorium.   India is a world leader in the use of heavy water reactors which, when charged with 233U produced from thorium, can function quite well as breeders even under thermal conditions; in fact, fueled with 233U, all of India’s 18 heavy water reactors[46] now operating, as well as the four due to come on line in the next two years, will be operating as breeder reactors.   Breeding with thorium is slower than breeding with plutonium but breeding is still breeding.    A nice paper[47] discusses the many options open to the innovative Indian nuclear power program, utilizing various schemes to utilize plutonium, uranium (both enriched and depleted) and thorium to power its reactors under breeder conditions.

(It is a matter of some irony that Lovins’ 1976 “Road Less Traveled” discourse mentions India only once, and not with any sympathy for, or acknowledgement of, the even worse living conditions that existed in that country then than those we observe now, but only to remark, with absurd confidence:

 Nuclear expansion is all but halted by grass-roots opposition in Japan and the Netherlands; has been severely impeded in West Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria; has been slowed and may soon be stopped in Sweden; has been rejected in Norway and (so far) Australia and New Zealand, as well as in two Canadian Provinces; faces an uncertain prospect in Denmark and many American states; has been widely questioned in Britain, Canada and the U.S.S.R.”; and has been opposed in Spain, Brazil, India, Thailand and elsewhere.[48]

Tarot card readers, I would guess, could have produced more accurate predictions for ten bucks on a boardwalk in a vacation beach town, probably at considerably less cost than the trillions of dollars that have been squandered in failed attempts to make many of the ideas Lovins advanced in that otherwise silly fantasy of 1976 into practical policies.  What is worse than the squandered trillions is the tragedy of the cost of missed opportunities.

In 2011, we were using 1,216% as much nuclear energy as we used in 1973, but it was hardly enough.

Despite what urban myths you may have heard, advanced by people who take Lovins seriously, experimental results, which always trump theory, show that nuclear energy and not so called “renewable energy” was over a period of 4 decades, the fastest growing form of climate change gas free primary energy.   Without catcalls from people who know nothing at all about nuclear energy but hate it anyway, it might have done even better.)

To return to what critics of my ideas might easily point out, it is true that neither current plutonium inventories, including both reactor grade material from used nuclear fuel and weapons grade material available from practical nuclear weapons disarmament are nowhere near the 6,800 tons I indicated would be needed to be consumed each year to provide for the “2500 Watt world” in which we now live, never mind a “5000 Watt world” requiring 13,600 tons.

The United States has been, for more than four decades, the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy.    According to figures from the Nuclear Energy Institute, the NEI, the inventory of commercial used nuclear fuel in the United States was 71,780 metric tons[49], accumulated over a period of half a century.   Most of the mass of this fuel, roughly as much as 95%, is simply unreacted uranium, about 1% is plutonium formed from uranium during operations, with the balance consisting with both radioactive and non-radioactive fission products.   This suggests that the United States could obtain about 700 MT of plutonium from its used nuclear fuel.    Possibly, if we came to our senses and found a politically viable way to dismantle our stupid and useless nuclear weapons, we might obtain an additional 200 MT; let’s say for argument sake that we might have (by the time we come to our senses and reprocess used nuclear fuels) 1,000 MT here.

Below is a table, labeled “Table 7.3” as it was in the original reference, a comprehensive monograph on fast breeder reactors published in 1980,[50] showing the proposed fuel loadings of types of breeder reactors that were designed nearly half a century ago, in the late 1960’s, reactors that would never be built today – they’re way too primitive – but are nonetheless illustrative in the sense that they show the required fuel to load a large breeder reactor.   Crudely, from this data, this suggests that available US plutonium inventories are only sufficient to fuel for a single cycle, between 250 and 300 fast breeder reactors, reactors that could be built as fast as is possible, perhaps in a fashion similar to that by which Henry Kaiser built “Liberty Ships” during the second flare up of the “Great War,” sometimes called “World War II.”  After these reactors were built however, the rate at which reactors could be built would be essentially constrained by the rate at which plutonium excesses from breeding accumulated and became accessible.


This is some hand waving on my part, but I believe that there are no unmanageable impediments for nuclear power plants to reach 60% thermal efficiency, although this may not involve direct “exergy” per se, but might also include producing from nuclear energy chemical products including the replacement of materials now produced from petrochemical sources, and portable high density fluid fuels, such as jet and diesel fuels.    In this case, in order to produce a sustainable and decent “5,000 watt world” with a population of 7 billion we would need something like 6,000 nuclear 3000 MW(th) reactors operating at 60% thermal efficiency.  There clearly isn’t, right now, even enough plutonium on the planet, regrettably, to run this number of reactors for a single year.

Of course, every breeder reactor is built and fueled will accelerate the rate at which plutonium (or in the thorium cycle case, 233U) accumulates, and the “doubling time” – the time required for a reactor to produce enough fuel to fuel not only itself but also another reactor just like itself – will not refer simply to a single reactor (as in table “7-3” above) but to the entire system of reactors.   In this case, plutonium (or 233U) will accumulate much like compound interest accumulates in a bank, with the main difference being that “withdrawal” for use would accelerate, rather than slow down, accumulation of “interest.”[51]

This said, it may not even be necessary to have large reserves of plutonium from used nuclear fuel to utilize depleted uranium as a source of energy.   Earlier I alluded to the Terrapower reactor, design details of which have been published[52] recently, (acknowledging this time the contribution of Seikomoto, Teller and others to the original conception).    This is a “breed and burn” type of reactor, in which transmutation of the fertile fuel (238U or 232Th) into fissile fuel (239Pu or 233U) is carried out within the reactor over very long periods without shutting down.   In the Terrapower case, the reactor is said to be designed to run for 60 years without ever refueling, and without ever having the fuel reprocessed, simply converting “depleted uranium” into energy in situ.    After 60 years, future generations would be able to dismantle the reactor, recover the fission products and put them to use to face the vast set of problems they will surely face because of this generation’s irresponsibility, and “reload” with the residual plutonium and the inventory of “depleted uranium” that remains for them to use.

Let me say that from my less than fully informed perspective, the Terrapower reactor, which is sodium cooled and is chock full of cladded solid phase fuel and seems to face, in spades, all of the historical challenges associated with high burn up fuels (as well as with sodium coolants), with respect to fuel swelling and xenon, krypton and helium gas release; they intend to vent the fuel rods.  Most likely, though, I raise these concerns out of ignorance, since they claim they have proprietary technology for the preparation of metallic fuels with excellent “smear density” properties to address swelling.   (Venting in oxide fuels can be very problematic from a swelling prospective, owing to the formation of low density sodium plutonates and uranates[53])   One hopes, therefore, that they will succeed.

Metallic fuels, in general, are superior to other types of fuels when it comes to providing breeding neutrons, as is shown in the following table reproduced in a recent publication[54] referring to a “reference” uranium/plutonium fuel cycle[55] as discussed 3 decades ago.


Probably owing to the age of the document, nitride fuels, which have many interesting properties that in my view have not been fully explored, are not discussed.    It seems safe to assume however that the generation of breeding neutrons would be similar to that obtained for carbide and nitride fuels.

All of this relates to solid fuels, but many people argue, with considerable justification, for fluid phase reactors, of which the famous Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, the LFTR, which has been widely promoted by the admirable and remarkable enthusiasm of Kirk Sorensen, President and Chief Technologist of FLIBE energy,[56] is one example.   The FLIBE technology is based on the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE), a reactor that operated in the late 60’s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In my view, the chief advantage of fluid phased reactors – and as a chemist who is quite fond of actinide, lanthanide and other fission product chemistry – is their capacity for in continuous in line reprocessing of nuclear fuels via chemical, electrochemical or even physical separation, for instance, distillation.   (Arguably the venting of Terrapower fuels, depending on operating temperatures, would result in some physical separation, via volatilization, not only of gases, but of other volatile fission products, notably iodine and cesium, thus minimizing the risk of a large scale failure releasing accumulated fission products such as occurred at Fukushima.)

What is seldom discussed is the unique opportunity represented by another of plutonium’s rather unusual properties, its low melting point.   A “connected” phase diagram of the actinide elements[57] shows this unusual plutonium property quite graphically, also showing that a neptunium-plutonium eutectic exists with an even lower melting point than pure plutonium metal:


Alloys of plutonium and neptunium are attractive nuclear fuels because they further reduce the already low (but often over emphasized, ad absurdum) risk of weapons diversion of reactor grade plutonium, by causing the buildup of the heat generating 238Pu isotope that essentially renders plutonium useless[58] for use in weapons, this while consuming neptunium, which in many ways is the most problematic of all actinides produced in nuclear reactors, at least in the silly case where actinides are buried as “waste.”  (I note that no similar technology exists for making oil useless for use in weapons, which is probably why wars using oil based weapons of mass destruction are continuously observed and nuclear wars are not.)

For reference, here is the isolated phase diagram of neptunium/plutonium metal alloys is available[59] and is reproduced here:


In general, the low melting point of plutonium is considered problematic in most modern fast reactor metallic fuels,[60] since liquid plutonium metal is considered quite corrosive to cladding, but historically a 1 MW research reactor – far less famous perhaps than the MSRE – was run for a few years in the early 1960’s in which liquid plutonium fuel, in this case an iron eutectic that actually melts a lower temperature than pure plutonium, was utilized.   This was the LAMPRE experiment, (Los Alamos Molten Plutonium Reactor Experiment)[61].

I wouldn’t regard this reactor as “off the shelf” in the way the LFTR is sometimes represented.   In many ways it was primitive.   Compared to modern times, materials science was relatively poorly developed and the only material that was known then to have sufficient resistance to corrosion by liquid plutonium was the metal tantalum, a constituent of the tragic ore “Coltan” that has resulted in modern tragedy[62] for those, including children, who mine it under near slavery conditions to make “super capacitors” on which cell phone technology and other devices (including computers) depend.   On moral grounds, I would never approve of a reactor dependent upon tantalum mining.   But, again, materials science has advanced tremendously in the last half a century, so that one might easily imagine a reactor utilizing refractory ceramics, perhaps nanostructured composites, to contain the plutonium, for example, and coolants other than the molten sodium, which would allow it to operate at much higher temperatures than the LAMPRE operated.   Noting that some of the most refractory ceramics known happen to be actinide ceramics,[63] most famously thorium oxide, but also including many high temperature uranium compounds, very interesting possibilities for future reactor types suggest themselves.  (The melting point of uranium nitride has recently been measured, using laser heating, as being 3125 +/- 30K.[64] )

As I play around with these ideas privately, it occurs to me that reactors are possible that include features of “breed and burn” reactors, molten fuel reactors, and very high temperature reactors in one reactor type.   Indeed the interesting physical and chemical properties of plutonium metal[65] suggest passive control features as well as remarkable spontaneous in situ fission product separations that to my knowledge have not been extensively explored but might be in some conceivable future.

A conceivable future however, is not necessarily a likely future, and I do not expect that all of the knowledge we have acquired about nuclear energy in more than half a century of practice will be employed to save what might have been saved were things otherwise.  Too many absurd and selective elements of fear and ignorance directed against nuclear energy have been allowed to prevail culturally for that to happen.  I could go on almost endlessly on the topic of possible reactor designs that might serve humanity well, but it would amount to little more than spitting at a hurricane.  Thus, having referred, in the Coltan evocation above, to the moral dimension of technology, let us now turn to the subject of the ethics of nuclear opponents, of whom Amory Lovins is only an egregious and prominent example.

There are those who can fly around in private jets to “Live Earth” concerts like those held in 2007 for the ephemeral, disingenuous, transient and absurd genuflection towards the idea of
“fighting” climate change (as opposed, one imagines, to partying through it) – such people burn orders of magnitude more than their 1.9 ton share of oil “equivalents” per year.  On the other hand there are those whose income have never, not once, afforded them access to any dangerous fossil fuel “resource” at all, who live burning sticks harvested from the edges of dying forests, or else on the combustion of bits of gathered  garbage, or perhaps a few pieces of coal in a desperate effort to stay alive.

For me, with my peculiar attention, the image that sticks in my mind of the 2007 “Live Earth” debacle, is that of some hirsute Rock and Roller enjoying his Warholian 15 minutes, prancing around in front of tens of thousands of watts of sound equipment with his guitar wearing an insipid “No Nukes” tee shirt, thus sharing his obliviousness with those who are not illiterate by choice but rather by their lack of opportunity – those pulling sticks and pieces of cardboard out of the mud to cook their food for example – but nonetheless illiterate all the same, each in their own way moving with us all to our shared destruction.

If there is a God – something I personally doubt – may that God forgive that hairy rocker.

The real question is not about the inane affectations of bourgeois rock and rollers but rather about the whole of humanity and this is why nuclear energy, the only energy form powerful enough, concentrated enough, to provide safely for all of extant humanity the inherent standards set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, represents an essential ethical issue beyond the ken of insipid sloganeering.

Why should every human being, beyond conditions of birth, matter?   Couldn’t some of us – the privileged few, imaging ourselves born into special rights –  just hole up with our bourgeois solar power/wind power/electric car dreams and forget them?

The great theological thinker Elaine Pagels, a more worthy MacArthur fellow perhaps than Lovins, has suggested[66] that the real triumph of Christian theology was to insert into the world moral culture the axiom that individual human beings have equality in value, and thus in the right to justice, be it secular or divine.    This is hardly obvious in a world that has contained, as aforementioned, both Fermi and Lovins, or for that matter, Yo-Yo Ma and tone deaf third graders. Indeed, the way we live our lives even today suggests we really don’t believe in that axiom, any more than Thomas Jefferson, he of the “self-evident truths,” believed himself the equivalent of his sometime “lover,” (or victim) the barely pubescent slave Sally Hemmings.    Still, for me at least, this moral axiom nevertheless has power, I accept it as a basic tenet of human decency, even if it is more honored in breech than practice.

Almost exactly a century ago as I write, a tremendous shock, from which the world has never really completely recovered, commenced – the “Great” war – an event by which we understood, almost too late, that the power of knowledge, of technology, our machineries of wealth, run irresponsibly, indeed childishly, had a vast potential to kill as well as save.     As the “Great” war died out, and rose in fits, spits and starts here and there again and again, launched once more into full flame, right through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, we grew to fear our technologies as we fear ourselves, some technologies more than others, not always rationally, and not always with a clear and sober balance between what we must do to live, and what we must not do to prevent ourselves from dying out as a species.     In making these choices, too often we have fed on the intoxicating ambrosia of fear and ignorance, coupled with wishful thinking, self-delusion and denial.

Against this backdrop, the outset of visceral terror of the ongoing “Great War,” during which human lives were macerated, burned, boiled, punctured, dissolved alive, namelessly, facelessly, becoming no more than shreds of rotting meat, some poets among the shock of shells asked themselves, “What is a human being?  Is there anything to such a thing as the human being that might be as to make human beings worth saving from themselves?”

Writing in 1918, Die Dichter – the poet – Herman Hesse, in his transcendent prologue to Demian[67], wrote this:

Was das ist, ein wirklicher lebender Mensch, das weiß man heute allerdings weniger als jemals, und man schießt denn auch die Menschen, deren jeder ein kostbarer, einmaliger Versuch der Natur ist, zu Mengen tot. Wären wir nicht noch mehr als einmalige Menschen, könnte man jeden von uns wirklich mit einer Flintenkugel ganz und gar aus der Welt schaffen, so hätte es keinen Sinn mehr, Geschichten zu erzählen. 

What that is, a real living person, one actually knows today less than ever, for we shoot lots of people – each of them  a valuable, unique experiment of nature – to death.     Were we nothing more than individual persons, were it really possible to take one completely out of the world with a rifle bullet, it would not make sense to tell (human) stories anymore.

I would suppose, with the growing contempt around the world for the poor, who more or less represent a majority human beings now living, many of whom still are born and die in short brutal lives of unspeakable horror and, too often, equally unspeakable violence – people whose stories are not told, or if they are told, are widely ignored – we still “know less than ever” what a human being is.   It seems certain that there are billions of human whose whole lives we value at less than the cost of a fashion or gossip magazine, much less than the cost of a ticket to a football game.   Could we not provide for these people at least enough for a modicum of decency so as to see in their unique realities the awe inherent in the universe?   How?   Shouldn’t we do so?   Again, why?

For me, the answer to the last question, “Why?” is contained in the text following the lines above in Hesse’s same prologue to Demian[68]:

Jeder Mensch aber ist nicht nur er selber, er ist auch der einmalige, ganz besondere, in jedem Fall wichtige und merkwürdige Punkt, wo die Erscheinungen der Welt sich kreuzen, nur einmal so und nie wieder. Darum ist jedes Menschen Geschichte wichtig, ewig, göttlich, darum ist jeder Mensch, solange er irgend lebt und den Willen der Natur erfüllt, wunderbar und jeder Aufmerksamkeit würdig. In jedem ist der Geist Gestalt geworden, in jedem leidet die Kreatur, in jedem wird ein Erlöser gekreuzigt.

I have my own translation of these lines; with their beautiful evocation (and rearrangement) of Christian moral Trinitarian theology.   Whatever my failings as a translator, the translation is one by which I have tried to live, so much as has been possible, my moral life, such as it is.

(All of the translations I have seen seem to strip away the poetry, and cannot capture the beauty of the original.  As such, knowing how limited and weak my German is, and not wanting to trample upon the sacred, such as there are sacred things, I will leave it for those who know the language well enough to read it themselves to do so.)

…der…wichtige und merkwürdige Punkt, wo die Erscheinungen der Welt sich kreuzen, nur einmal so und nie wieder…

With our vision extending now literally across the universe, perhaps we are less profane, more sacred then we know.

This diatribe is way too long already, so let me close it and close it with this:

The physics and chemistry of plutonium are too beautiful, too weirdly mutable, too wonderful to fall short of the ineffable: Plutonium, the frenetic dancing element, the dervish element, with its raging picometer seas of its profligate electrons, its kaleidoscopic dance of color as each atom wriggles through oxidation states irrespective of its neighbors, its armory of collapsing and heaving phases, its helium breath, its unbound krypton and xenon and radon breath, its heat, its light, its way of becoming and then of coming apart, flinging particles in and out of itself, becoming what it never was in ways both regular and wholly free of order, its bolts of energy, its property of self-destruction whenever it finds too much of itself.

Were we mystics, if we really looked at plutonium, really strove to know as much as we could about it, we should see plutonium as though it were a chimeric god, at once terrible and nurturing, at once as profane and sacred, at once loving and fearsome, a giver of power and a means to weakness, giving both a danger and a safe harbor alike; like all our gods, such as they are, reflections of ourselves, measures of ourselves, as women, as men.

Were we mystics, we might decide that so compelling is the element plutonium, so like and unlike the world, that its existence had to be put here for us to use.   Were we mystics, we might see plutonium as perhaps the ancients saw fire itself, fire being a gift so awesome that the gods punished Prometheus for eternity for giving it to humanity, for in so doing, Prometheus thus gave mere human beings powers beyond the gods, ideally powers to do the good and great things that the gods and perhaps humans, when fueled like gods, may do.

Even as I have little use for mysticism myself, I would that it were so.

Notes and References.

[1] Key World Energy Statistics, 2013 (Accessed August 23, 2014)

[2] For all population figures in this article, both explicitly stated and in used in calculations, I have used, assuming reasonable accuracy, this internet link:  United States Census Bureau International Database  (Accessed August 23, 2014)

[3] Lovins, Amory, Foreign Affairs, October 1976, pp 65-96 “Energy Strategy:  The Road Not Taken”

[4] United Nations Millenium Goals Report, 2013 (Accessed August 31, 2014)

[5] Janet Ginsberg, National Geographic Today,  October 16, 2001 “Hydrogen Cars May Hit Showrooms by 2005”

[6] Op. cit. Lovins (1976) page 83.

[7] Rocky Mountain Institute, Founder’s Biography.  (Accesses October 18, 2014) The oil sands company for which Lovins “consults” is Suncor.  One may note in this autobiographical commentary, the large number of dangerous fossil fuel companies for which Lovins “consults.”

[8] IEA Topic Web Page:  Energy Poverty (Accessed August 31, 2014)

[9]  Lovins, Amory; Datta, Kyle; Bustnes, Odd-Even; Koomey, Jonathan; Glasgow, Nate Winning the Oil Endgame Rocky Mountain Institute, 2004.

[10] Rural21:  The Real Cost of Lanthanide Mining. (Accessed August 23, 2014)

[11] Nuclear Power: Preparing for the Future by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei March 21, 2005, Address to the International Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century, Paris France. (Accessed August 23, 2014)

[12] World Nuclear Association:  Uranium and Depleted Uranium.  (Accessed August 23, 2014)

[13] I made this point in the case of the radioactive metal technetium in a post on the Energy Collective:  Technetium: Dangerous Nuclear Energy Waste or Essential Strategic Resource?

[14] Waltar and Reynolds, Fast Breeder Reactors, 1980, Pergamon Press, page 4

[15] Lovins, Lovins, and Ross, “Nuclear Power and Nuclear Bombs” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1980, pp 1137-1177

[16] BNL National Nuclear Data Center (Accessed September 6, 2014) This link brings one to the search page “Evaluated Nuclear Data File (ENDF) Retrieval & Plotting.”    To find the data I have used for the types of energy produced in the fission 239Pu, one should enter “239Pu” in the “target” box and in the MT box below, enter “458” – a value that can be found by clicking the “browse MT” button.   In the sub-library, the “neutron reactions” box should be clicked and the box for ENDF/B VII.1 should be clicked in “library”.    Then one should click “submit” and will be brought to another “Evaluated Nuclear Data File (ENDF) Retrieval & Plotting” page, where one should click on the “interpreted” link in the “library” column to see the data.

[17] The K shell ionization energy for lead is 88.0128 keV, for thorium, 109.65827 keV, for uranium, 115.60989 keV and for plutonium, 121.79547 keV, energies that under photoelectric conditions approach the energies of many gamma rays of nuclear origin.   cf. P. Indelicato, S. Boucard, and E. Lindroth Eur. Phys. Journ. D 3, 29-41 (1998)

[18] Op cit.  BNL National Nuclear Data Center (Accessed September 7, 2014) To access the table or graphic, one should follow the directions above in reference 14, but for the “MT” box, one should choose the second “457” accessed by clicking the “browse MT” button, that for “cumulative fission yield,” click the “back to form” button in the middle of the table, and choose in “library” box, either “Rossfond,” or “All” box.   On the web page that comes up, one may choose under the “human readable” heading, either “interpreted” to get fission yields in tabular form, or “plot” to get the interactive graphic reproduced above. (Accessed September 7, 2014)

[19] (a) T.G. Srinivasan et al,  Electrochimica Acta 53 (2008) 2794–28016  (b) NNadir, Supply of Rhodium in Used Nuclear Fuel To Exceed World Supply From Ores by 2030.(Accessed September 7, 2014)

[20] Gen IV Energy Web Page

[21] Hiroshi Sekimoto, Light a Candle, An Innovative Burnup Strategy for Nuclear Reactors, 2nd Edition, Center for Research into Innovative Nuclear Energy Systems, Tokyo Institute of Technology, 2010.

[22] For a more detailed examination of this point see NEA/WPEC-25 International Evaluation Co-operation. Vol 25, T. Yashita, Co-ordinator, Assessment of Fission Product Decay Data for Decay Heat Calculations

[23] Op cit Sekimoto (2010), page 83-85.

[24] Op. Cit  BNL National Nuclear Data Center, CS-137(DECAY),RNP   MAT=1800 MF=8 MT=457   Library: ENDF/B-VII.1

[25] Fortner, Aase, and Reed, Mat. Res. Soc. Symp. Proc. Vol. 713 J11.37.1-J11.37.07

[26] Mincher et al, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2000, 34, 3452-3455

[27] Stephen P. Mezyk, et al. Free Radical Chemistry of Advanced Oxidation Process Removal of Nitrosamines in Waters, Chapter 22,  pp 319-333 Disinfection By-Products in Drinking Water Tanju Karanfil, Stuart W. Krasner, Paul Westerhoff, Yuefeng Xie, Eds. 2008 American Chemical Society Publishers.

[28] Stephen P. Mezyk, et al. J. Phys. Chem. A 2012, 116, 8185−8190

[29] J. Rivera-Utrilla et al, Water Research, 43, (2009) 4028 – 4036

[30] Stephen P. Mezyk, et al. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2004, 38, 3994-4001

[31] T. M. Nenoff et al, Chem. Mater. 2000, 12, 3449-3458

[32] Shengyi Zhang et al, Applied Surface Science 255 (2009) 5975–5978

[33] Lancet 2012, 380, 2224–60:  For air pollution mortality figures see Table 3, page 2238 and the text on page 2240.

[34] Jared Diamond, Collapse, How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, Viking Penguin Press, 2005.

[35] Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (9), pp 4889–4895

[36] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)  (Accessed September 13, 2014)

[37] I have advanced an argument showing why uranium resources are inexhaustible – at least when uranium is transmuted into plutonium – over on Rod Adams’ website, Atomic Insights in a guest post: NNadir, On Plutonium, Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace

[38] The New Yorker, May 8, 2014

[39] E.L. Rowan and T.F. Kraemer, “Radon-222 Content of Natural Gas Samples from Upper and Middle Devonian Sandstone and Shale Reservoirs in Pennsylvania: Preliminary Data” USGS Report 2012-1159

[40] Valerie Brown, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 122, Iss. 2. A50-A55 (2014)

[41] Hideki Kaeriyama, et al. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2014, 48 (6), pp 3120–3127

[42] Gary R. Walter, Roland R. Benke, and David A. Pickett Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 62(9):1040–1049, 2012

[43] Michael K. Schultz et al, Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2014, 1, 204−208

[44] For just one example of the extraction of uranium using supercritical carbon dioxide to extract uranium see, Park et al. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2006, 45, 5308-5313

[45] Thomas R. Rüde, et al, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2013, 47, 13941−13948

[46] Data on the operating and soon to be completed Indian nuclear reactors can be found by use of the  Advanced Search Tool of the World Nuclear Association’s Nuclear Database.   (Accessed September 28, 2014.)

[47]  H.P. Gupta, S.V.G. Menon, S. Banerjee  Journal of Nuclear Materials 383 (2008) 54–62

[48] Op. Cit, Lovins (1976) page 90.

[49] Used Nuclear Fuel and Payments to the “Nuclear Waste” Fund.   (Accessed September 21, 2014)

[50] Op. Cit Waltar and Reynolds, page 241.

[51] Ibid.  pp 234-245.   The discussion of difference by Waltar and Reynolds, between reactor breeding and “doubling time,” system breeding and “doubling time,” and compound system breeding and “doubling time,” in this 34 year old text is excellent, and remains relevant and informative today, despite an unfortunate choice of using abbreviations as opposed to symbols in equations, and despite the fact that better fuel cycling technologies and reactor types are known today than was the case in 1980.

[52] Pavel Hejzlar, et al. Nuclear Engineering and Technology.Vol.45 (6) 2013, pp.731-744

[53] Anthony M. Judd, An Introduction to the Engineering of Fast Nuclear Reactors, Cambridge University Press, 2014.   See page 120.  To my knowledge this recent publication is the first textbook devoted– Seikimoto’s Light a Candle, which has a better description of lead coolants, excepted – to broad Fast Nuclear Reactor Engineering to appear in more than a decade.   It has its limitations as well as considerable strengths, but it is very, very, very nice to see such a book being published at this time.

[54] Yang, Nuclear Engineering and Technology.Vol.44 (2) 2012 177-198

[55] C. E. Till, Y. I. Chang, J. H. Kittel, H. K. Fauske, M. J. Lineberry, IVI. G. Stevenson, P. I. Amundson, and K. D. Dance, ANL-80-40 (1980)

[56] FLIBE Energy Website (Accessed October 11, 2014)

[57] Seigfried Hecker, “Plutonium and Its Alloys, From Atoms to Microstructure”  Los Alamos Science No. 26, 290-335 (2000)  pg. 301  See also A.C.Lawson, B.Martinez, J.A.Roberts, B. I.Bennett  PHILOSOPHICAL MAGAZINE B, 2000, VOL. 80, NO. 1, 53± 59 and Smith, J. L., and Kmetko, E.A., 1983, J. L ess-common Metals, 90, 83 (1983).

[58] G. Kessler, C. Broeders,W. Hoebel , B. Goel, D.Wilhelm  Nuclear Engineering and Design 238 (2008) 3429–3444

[59] Ogawa, Journal of Alloys and Compounds, 194 (1993) 1-7

[60] Op cit., Judd, page 127.

[61] R.E. Peterson and R.L. Cubit, Operation of the Plutonium Fueled Fast Reactor LAMPRE, AN-DC-8398 from a presentation at the Fast Reactor National Topical Meeting, ANS-101, San Francisco, 1967.

[62] Top Documentary Films:  “Blood Coltan”  (2007) (Accessed October 19, 2014)

[63] An excellent, if dated, overview of the properties of some high temperature ceramic actinide compounds is found in the classic monograph by Matzke, Science of Advanced LMFBR Fuels:  Solid State Physics, Chemistry and Technology  Carbides, Nitrides and Carbonitrides of Uranium and Plutonium. 1985, North Holland Publishers, Amsterdam, Oxford, New York and Tokyo.

[64] U. Carvajal Nunez, D. Prieur, R. Bohler, D. Manara, Journal of Nuclear Materials 449 (2014) 1–8.

[65] A very interesting, detailed, and I think thought stimulating account of the irradiation of liquid plutonium in the LAMPRE experiment exists:  M.D. Freshly “Irradiation Behavior of Plutonium Fuels,” The Plutonium Handbook, A Guide to the Technology O. J. Wick, Ed, Volume 2, Section 20-2.8, pp 662-664, Gordon and Breach Science Publishers (1967).

[66] Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve and The Serpent, Random House, New York, 1988, see pages xx – xxii of the introduction and see also pages 55 – 56

[67] Herman Hesse, Demian, Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend  Guttenberg Project, Released 2013.   (Accessed September 16, 2014)   The translation is mine.

[68] Ibid.


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.

119 replies on “Current World Energy Demand, Ethical World Energy Demand, Depleted Uranium and the Centuries to Come”

Our failure to develop fast reactors is an immense tragedy. It is sad to reflect on the poverty of imagination.

Yet I was reminded today that the issue of climate change is not really that old. In the year 2000 it was really only a blip on our conscious landscape yet after 14 years we have come a long way in focusing the world’s attention.

NNadir has done a lot in this article the combine the energy equity problem with that of the impediment of technical illiteracy.

Its a very good article and one that needs to be distributed to our nuclear savvy brothers and sisters


How refreshing this article is! I have read it carefully, with a growing respect for its author and his message. Most of all, I have been blown away by the complexity of the subject and the multitude of options before us.

Thanks, Barry, for bringing this to our attention – it is a delight and a challenge.

Next: a few days digging into the reference documents.


I have additional proof as to why I am smart when I know to rely on those smarter than I am. I wrestle with the human culture reasons relating to why we refuse to manifest those technologies available to us right now which would suerly appear to satisfy and exceed the survival needs of human forever for all practical purposes.

Nadir has given me a paper I can wrap my mind around for some time. Thanks so much.


One of the most interesting and thoughtful essays I’ve read in quite some time. A few comments:

  1. Energy efficiency is admirable in its own right and for obvious economic reasons. But it will not and cannot reduce overall energy demand, because of rebound effects (often called the Jevons effect, but properly enlarged to include other economic rebounds as well.) In short, saving energy saves money, and whatever money is saved increases GDP, which sooner or later will gobble up all of that energy savings and more. This has been formally demonstrated in a thermodynamic framework in a remarkable series of under-read and occasionally misunderstood papers by Tim Garrett; start with “Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?”.

2, At the risk of opening an old wound, I would like to publish this essay using my own ID at DailyKos, but of course attributed to NNadir. If you would like to discuss this privately, email me at .

  1. FWIW, my own translation of the final Hesse quote:
    “Every human being is not only himself, he is also unique and completely extraordinary, in each case he is the important and remarkable point where the phenomena of the world intersect, only once thus and never again. That is why every human story is important, eternal, divine, why everyone as long as he lives is the fulfillment of some desire of nature, wonderful and worthy of everyone’s attention. In each the spirit has become whole, in each the body suffers, in each a savior is crucified.”


One other point: the global supply of uranium is essentially inexhaustible, even at the billion-year timescales anticipated until the swelling Sun strips Earth’s atmosphere and boils the oceans. This timescale essentially makes fission just as much a “renewable” resource as wind. For a cogent argument on this point, see my essay on DailyKos,


A very fine article by someone who cares deeply about his subject and its applications. As a footnote, Nadir appears to favor lead cooled fast-reactors over sodium, whose reactivity with water inspires nightmares in the popular imagination. I’d only suggest enthusiasts don’t get overly dogmatic one way or the other over such issues, as there are chemistry, radiological, and engineering trade-offs either way. Russia pioneered lead-cooled designs, but their BN-series commercial power reactors are cooled by sodium, as is GE-H S-PRISM. Russia’s declassification of lead technology has renewed interesting the west, and there will certainly be lead and LBE applications. And thorium, and molten-salt.

And in the immediate future, light-water reactors and CANDU. They’re what we’ve got.

Please lets keep foremost in our minds the need for application. The difference between our current 400 ppm CO2 and the needed 350 ppm is about 100 billion tonnes atmospheric carbon. And we continue to add 8 another billion tonnes each year. The magnitude of our task is daunting, the straits dire.


A very informative essay. I have one minor quibble. You note several times the large amounts of energy required to make swell Tesla cars, implying none too subtlety that anyone who buys a Tesla, Elon Musk included, is a hypocritical fool masquerading as an environmentalist. There are several things worth noting. First, on a low carbon grid of the kind that you advocate, the total life cycle carbon emissions of a swell Tesla are much less than that of even very efficient ICEs like the Prius. Second, Musk’s ultimate goal is not to produce swell luxury vehicles for the few, but to mass produce EVs in the hope they will replace ICEs. But he needs to produce and sell the swell luxury vehicles to finance this project. If succeeds (which is far from certain, given the difficult economics of the auto industry), and if we can clean up the grid (also far from certain, as you note), we will drastically reduce carbon emissions from transportation, one of the main sources of emissions in wealthy countries. David Mackay in his great book on energy numeracy convincingly argues that we need to electrify transport. So perhaps slightly less ungenerous view of swell Teslas and their owners is that they are the financing mechanism that (it is to be hoped) will allow for the mass production of very efficient EVs, an important step in drastically reducing our carbon emissions. Of course, we could alternatively abandon cars – ICE and electric- altogether and join the 2 kw society, but I had the impression from your essay that you were not endorsing this option …

-Swell Tesla Owner


Just on rare earths:
Wind turbines predominantly use copper generators. Permanent magnets cost more.
Electric cars use lithium batteries not the old NiMH. Tesla uses copper motors as well, not sure about others.
The largest use of neodymium is hard drives, and the largest consumer of hard drives is The Internet. Your blog is the bad guy here friend.
Oh and just for completeness – PV contains no rare earths.



Many types PV would be less toxic if they only used lanthanides which were historically known as rare earths. Cadmium is far more toxic than any lanthanide I know about. So, for that matter is tellurium. The real dirty secret of the expensive failed solar industry is not the final constituents, but rather the solvent and by product organohalides, (CF4, for example) and inorganic halides like NF3 and SF6.

The time between the disappearance of some of these compounds and now is actually greater than the time between the invention of writing and now.

CIGS thin film solar panels are much hyped. There is not enough indium and gallium on the planet to allow this technology to ever become a significant, 10 exajoule per year or more, form of energy. The invention of the touch screens has probably limited supplies to less than two decades in the case of indium.

The toxicology of the solar industry, which is pretty much identical to the semiconductor industry in general is masked by the fact that the solar industry remains a very expensive failure, a trivial form of energy. It would be a disaster if it produced 5 of the 550 exajoules humanity uses, but it doesn’t, and it likely never will.

That’s probably good news, whether our gullible public believes it or not. Distributed energy – and I include all examples of all kinds of cars in this rubric of “distributed energy” – is distributed pollution, quite nearly impossible to reign in.

The lanthanide usage in wind turbines varies, but it is well known by most literate people that many magnets in wind turbines – most – are neodymium iron boride types. It’s all over the scientific and nonscientific literature, one could find thousands of references using a modern neodymium laced computer in seconds, if one was actually interested in producing references, as opposed to simply making blind statements.

The fact that the wind industry is also an expensive failure may have mitigated a neodymium crisis, however, I fully concede that. After spending a few hundred billion dollars on this short lived junk, it doesn’t produce 5 of the 550 exajoules we consume each year either. Most wind turbines won’t be around 30 years from now. If we need neodymium, we can always yank it out of their carcasses.

Some car batteries, although not the batteries for the silly expensive Tesla, do use lanthanum, while the magnets use neodymium. The Prius is an example.

Lithium batteries are not, however, environmentally pristine, and there are many reports involved in the LCA associated with them. I direct you to one example of the many reports in the scientific literature on this subject:

For the record, reports in the literature shows that in some places, notably China, show that electric cars can actually induce more morbidity than gasoline cars, an effect resulting from the source of the electricity – most often coal there as it has been here – and the awful thermodynamics of effecting multiple thermodynamically (and thus environmentally) expensive energy transitions.

I tweaked this information elsewhere, as always, causing a cascade of criticism from the Musk cults who hear what they want to hear:

In China, there are cities where the pollution from electric cars (not electric scooters which are far more common) is 19 times more likely to cause mortality than the exhaust of a gasoline car.

The second law of thermodynamics requires that any electric car is energetically problematic. When electricity is produced using a dangerous fossil fuel the transitions are these: Chemical energy is converted to thermal energy which is then converted to mechanical energy and then to electric energy, transported at a loss, reconverted to chemical energy, then reconverted to electrical energy and finally to mechanical energy. All of these processes involve considerably quantities of waste heat.

We may compare a car fueled by filthy mined petroleum: Chemical, thermal, mechanical, three conversions as compared to seven.

A nuclear powered car, if we actually think we want or must have the car CULTure: Nuclear to thermal to chemical to thermal to mechanical. (In this case I am envisioning a high temperature carbon dioxide reducing hydrogen cycle, for example a Zn based cycle.) Of course in the nuclear case, no carbon is involved except for that which is reduced, i.e. removed from the biosphere. If the carrier fuel is DME, there are essentially no particulate pollutants, and only tiny amounts of formaldehyde and formic acid.

I note however, than I am less interested in Egon Musk’s fantasies and his dishonest, if highly successful, marketing programs, than I am in the 1.3 billion people who lack electricity at all. There are only a few thousand billionaires, the majority of whom seem to have problems with not confusing themselves with God. These billionaires are at best irrelevant to humanity’s greater goals and needs, however, and at worst an impediment to addressing these goals and needs. Like Nero, who also confused himself with God, eventually they will all end up as dusty foot notes in esoteric histories. And, further, again, the desperately poor easily outnumber the number of people who own cars. It is very clear, even if every car owner had one car, that the number of people who live without electricity outstrips the number of car owners by hundreds of millions of human beings.

Thanks for your comment. Have a nice day tomorrow.


Nnadir has written on the topics the I am most passionate about. The unique value of each person, Christian Ethics, poverty, energy, and nuclear energy. Well done and I share his ethical perspective on the question of energy if not his doubt about a creator. I would be one of those mystics who see the gift of uranium as a gift from our Creator at just the time in history that it is needed.

I understand that the human population is growing but will taper off due to decreasing fertility. There are several ways to address the food needs of this increasing population.

is one, but with enough energy is is possible to grow crops in skyscrapers of farmland.

As people’s wealth increases their fertility decreases. This is a historical norm recorded over thousands of years and demonstrated on large scales today. Once the population peaks it will decline and it might decline quickly since the aging population will be much less fertile and will begin to die off in fairly massive numbers due simply to age.

We don’t need wars or population controls, we just need to move as many as possible from poverty to comparative wealth. Nuclear power is able to help with that significantly.



If you strip away your frequent gratuitous insults and name calling (which detract from your important message), you offer five substantive arguments against EVs:

  1. Claim: Lithium-Ion batteries are not environmentally pristine. You link to a paper stating that LI batteries (like the one that you probably carry around in your pocket) contain things like lead, cobalt, copper, and nickel and that these can be hazardous. The authors of the paper call for stronger regulations to require recycling and reuse of the materials in LI batteries.

Response: This and similar papers are an argument for the need to recycle and reuse battery materials, not an argument against EVs.

  1. Claim: EVs run primarily on coal are worse for human health than cars run on gasoline.

Response: This is an argument against coal, not against EVs.

  1. Claim: The second law of thermodynamics makes EVs energetically problematic. To support this claim, you consider the case where the electricity is produced by a fossil fuel. You note that in this case, energy is converted seven times, and at each step there is a loss. You contrast these seven losses to the three losses that one sees in a car powered by petroleum. Without explicitly claiming this, you seem to be suggesting that because seven is greater than three, EVs must use fossil fuel energy less efficiently than conventional ICEs.

Response: There are two problems with this argument.

First, the fact that more energy conversions are involved does not necessarily imply that the overall efficiency is lower. To see this, let’s consider the worst case scenario where the electricity is produced by an old inefficient coal plant. In that case, about 1/3 of the total chemical energy is converted to electrical energy. According to the EIA, about 6% of this electrical energy is lost in transit to your house ( So the total efficiency of the electricity delivered to the uses is, in this worst case scenario of an old inefficient coal plant, about .33*.94 = .31.
From my dedicated wall meter, I see that my Tesla uses an average of around 400 wh/mile. (This number is on the high side because I live in a cold climate and don’t drive much. Fleet wide averages are lower.) So to travel one mile, I use 400/.31 = 1.29 kwh of primary energy. Now consider the average NEW ICE. Average gas mileage for new ICE vehicles in the US, weighted by sales, is around 25 mpg ( . A gallon of gasoline contains about 33 kwh of chemical energy. So to travel 1 mile in the average new US ICE, requires 33/25 = 1.32 kwh of primary energy, which is the same as the Tesla. The error in your seven is greater than three argument is the implicit assumption that losses for each conversion are of a similar magnitude which is simply not true.

Second, and more importantly, you don’t need to run EVs on fossil fuels. They can run on any source of low carbon energy – nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, whatever. That is the whole point. If we can get our grid to look like that of France, or Sweden, or Ontario (or in geographically lucky places like Quebec, Norway, and Iceland) – which I take to be your goal, and one that I support, we can all drive around in EVs with almost no CO2 emissions. ICEs can’t do that, even the most efficient ones. Yes, one needs to look at the whole LCA, and yes, currently EVs require more energy to make than ICEs, but energy/carbon from use dominates energy/carbon from production. On a clean grid, for example, the energy for making aluminum will be carbon free (as it is already in many places where aluminum is produced).

  1. Claim: I am interested in getting electricity to the 1.3 billion people who now lack it.

Response: I fully support this worthy goal, as do most humanists, but I don’t quite see how working to simultaneously decarbonize the grid and decarbonize transport via the production of affordable EVs in rich countries in any way conflicts with it. Maybe I am missing something.

  1. Claim: (I am extrapolating from your remarks this one, so please correct me if I did so incorrectly). We should get rid of our car CULTure because cars are a wasteful extravagance.

Response: You might be right in some sense but this strikes me as both practically and politically impossible. Lots of people live in areas which require car transport. Lots of people like their cars. Lots of people in poor countries would like nothing better than to buy a car, and they often do so as soon as they have the means. So telling people they need to give up their cars stands about as much chance as persuading them to join the 2 KW Society (a notion that you ridicule in your article above). A better, more practical strategy is to make cars carbon neutral.

Overall, I like your article and you make many important points, but you would appeal to a much wider audience and be much more persuasive if you cut out the vindictive insults and instead focused on the facts. It might be emotionally less satisfying to do this, but it would be more effective.


Comments were OK until a few became emotionally reactive. Quite a few folks still do not understand that strongly held beliefs are little beside elegantly reasoned arguments such as those Nadir presents.



I don’t see where I gratuitously insulted you, but if I did so, I apologize. I am basically a very sarcastic old man, ashamed of the world I am leaving to my children, angry about my shame, and disgusted by the fact that none of this was necessary, but, nevertheless, here we are.

I will never be a “nice” person, and if it mars my “message,” sobeit. Realistically no one is going to hear what I’m saying in any case, and if people wish to care so much about the messenger that they can’t be bothered with the message, it doesn’t matter a whit.

I believe that the world is better for understanding gravity, even if Newton was an obnoxious person, but that’s simply my rationalization.

You may be the same fellow who writes excellent posts over at the Energy Collective, and I must say that I have a measure of respect for many of your writings.

Now where to begin with my response to your “retort.”

I simply state, that batteries are distributed energy by definition. I get rather tired after many decades of what we “could” do, but “don’t” do. Recycling, while it always sounds good involves energy and entropy, the latter in the sense in the sense that the more diffuse a system is, the more energy that is required to concentrate it, and the greater the probability that it will be prove to not be recoverable.

People always say they’re going to recycle their solar cells. Really? I once calculated that the entire solar installation on the roof of the MOCA museum in Massachusetts – purchased with a $750,000 grant – produces about as much energy in a year as half an American uses in the same year. I would submit that any LCA calculation involving recycling theory would need to include the externalities of gathering the electronic junk up when it becomes waste. And the processing has huge external costs, not for the users, but for the people who pay the consequences for the user’s luxury. These people who pay are called “poor people.” You may or may not know anything about the serum PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants) in the poor souls in China who make us “environmental” by “recycling” our electronic garbage, but I certainly do. Try this experiment: Go to Google Scholar, type: PBDE, serum electronic waste and see how many hits you get. If you have access to a scientific library, open some of the links. It’s enlightening.

Now you may claim that your Tesla car is not an electronic waste wannabee, but I am not convinced of that at all.

Now, nuclear aficionados such as myself lean heavily on recycling nuclear fuel, and it’s a good idea. It will not make nuclear energy completely and totally harmless, but it will help to increase the margin by which it is already the risk minimized form of energy. Minimizing the risk of any form of energy is all that is possible; no energy is risk free. It happens however that in the nuclear case, the risk is globally minimized, not locally minimized.

But nuclear fuel is very dense, very compact, and it can’t be strewn around everybody’s garage, backyard, campground, landfill etc. Thus it is feasible to recover, depending on how much money and effort you want to expend, to be reasonably assured of recovering and utilizing 99%+ of any element or compound in it.

Not so distributed electronic waste.

I would be very surprised if the Tesla people – who I expect will have forgotten all of their recycling promises twenty years from now when the Tesla is garbage, as it surely will be – were able to recover 60% of the matter in the car.

900 million battery packs for electric cars are quite another story.

Right now I am reading a book called “Thanatia, The Destiny of the Earth’s Mineral Resources, A Cradle to the Grave Thermodynamic Assessment.”, (Capilla and Delgado, World Scientific Press, copyright 2015.) You may want to try this book out if your so confident that the externalities of highly subsidized Tesla are so great and we can just solve all our problems by waving our hands and yelling “recycle!”

Easily recoverable lithium is a limited resource because concentrated ores are relatively rare, even though the element is about as common as zinc, and more common than lead or tin (cf. Thanatia, pg.223.)

Theoretically one could recover lithium from seawater, but recovery will be considerably higher in cost than the 432.5 GJ/ton obtained from ores mined today. (Ibid pg 234) I note that the energy density of lithium is trivial when compared to the energy density of uranium, which can also be isolated from seawater.

Again, there are 900 million cars on this planet. If Egon Musk isn’t lying when he claims he’s selling his expensive cars to the rich to someday trickle down to the masses, I want to know whence the lithium for this adventure is going to come. Let me tell you something, wherever it comes from it isn’t going to come in at 432.5 GJ per ton. And all those stupid fraudulent solar panels he puts on his charging stations aren’t going to provide that kind of energy. All the solar PV energy collected on this planet since the invention of the solar cell in 1954 would not isolate that much lithium. A Tesla right now contains about a third of a ton of lithium. Let’s say that he magically reduces that to 1/4 of a ton. It follows that if the cost of isolation doesn’t go up (as it surely will) 900 million Tesla cars would consume, just for lithium isolation, 97 exajoules of energy, about the yearly energy consumption of the United States.

I may be being rude here, but I’m not impressed. I think it’s a waste of effort that won’t do very much positive, and may in fact make things worse.

My complaint about the expenditure of resources to make Tesla cars seems obvious to me. Tesla took a loan of $465 billion dollars from public funds to stay afloat, so that, um, people as rich as bankers would have the Tesla car to buy.

Now the millionaires and billionaires who bought the car have allowed the government to be paid back. How nice of them! But let’s ask the question this way. Suppose we “loaned” society $465 billion dollars to do something else, like provide free vaccination to people around the world who couldn’t afford it. Suppose we loaned some of our substandard schools in this country new books and fixed the roofs in leaky school buildings.

Wouldn’t this really be paid back, albeit not in cash, but rather in resources not spent to heal the sick, make up for their losses of productivity, the prisons we might need to build if they get as fed up about their lives as I am about energy and give up and fall into an abyss of criminality?

How many people were served by that $465 billion dollar loan to Tesla?

How many people would be served by a $465 billion dollar loan to build septic systems for some of the 2 billion people on this planet who have never seen, much less operated a toilet bowl?

As for your thermodynamic argument, I fully credit what you say about the efficiency of different energy conversion systems varying, although I note you have not included the external costs of transporting coal, or drilling and fracking gas in your calculation. You claim a “profit” of 0.04 kg of CO2 per mile over gasoline. I might quibble with your accuracy, but I’m sure you’re very close.

I do need to note that the need to feather down and up some dangerous fossil fuel power plants when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, will reduce the thermal efficiency of just about every dangerous fossil fuel power plant there is, owing to the “zeroth” law of thermodynamics. Good luck with maintaining .33 thermal efficiency.

In any case, the savings if they are very slightly positive, are trivial. I don’t know if that’s really worth 60 grand or 70 grand or even 50 grand, however much these Tesla toys cost.

Of course, in a nuclear powered world, the electric car system would in fact, do much better, not as good as an electric train, or even a DME diesel bus, but better. I would concede that in New Jersey, where 50% of the electricity produced in state is nuclear, a Tesla car is superior to an individual gasoline ICE. (The paper on China that I linked in my last comment in this post does a nice job saying what the gasoline mileage for an ICE car must be to be as good, or as bad, as an electric car.)

That’s all wonderful in theory. But reality is that almost 80% of the electricity in this country comes from dangerous fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide is only one of the pernicious external costs that these fuels spew on humanity.

I think we all serve ourselves better when engaged in the actual purchase of an item to acknowledge not what we would like the world to be, but what it actually is.

The United States is a gas, oil and coal burning hell hole. It didn’t have to be, but it is. Nuclear energy was invented here, again, by some of the finest minds the world has ever known, but the smallest minds in our country have proved to rule what was done with that opportunity. Now that opportunity is lost, and we have neither the moral or intellectual infrastructure to save it.

Those of us still living in our bourgeois fantasy land may escape paying for what we have done, but surely the burden will fall on our children and their children and their great grandchildren. They may not forgive us, nor am I likely to suggest that they should.

It’s a sin.

I do understand the good will of people who buy Teslas. They want to do the right thing, to feel like they are doing something. But that is, frankly, not enough. Not at this point. It is the responsibility of every cognizant citizen to really try to dig into their choices. That’s my view anyway.

The Tesla car is a triviality, an Amory Lovins type affectation in service to oblivion. Whatever I say about it is a waste of time, but I do somehow choose to perform that time wasting whenever I encounter the strong emotions applied to defend the indefensible.

If I were sensible, which I often am not, I would find another metaphor to evoke how clueless those of us in the top 20% are about the larger bulk of humanity in the lowest 20%.

Even you concede, that as nasty as I am, I do in fact have something to say, possibly something worth saying. It’s not to my credit that I spend time tweaking this Tesla affectation, but it’s telling that whenever I do tweak it, the Tesla, somehow that generates the most emotion in people who read the garbage I write.

The emotion I would have rather generated would have been about those billions of people living on less than $1.25/day.

That, alas, was not to be.

Thank you for your comment, and your calculation. I like calculations, as they are minds at work and obviously, to your credit, your mind is working.

Have a nice evening.


I noticed this line in NNadir’s post and thought it worthwhile to comment on it:

“ The reader who has a sophisticated understanding of nuclear engineering, nuclear physics, and nuclear chemistry might question the inclusion of gamma radiation of both types, delayed and prompt, and delayed betas in my list, even if their contribution is minor compared to the kinetic energy of fission products and neutrons.”

NNadir evidently doesn’t know that readers familiar with Candu reactors wouldn’t think of questioning the inclusion of delayed gamma radiation – it is the uniquely defining characteristic of Candu safety, as regards operational control !

That’s because delayed gammas from fission products cause neutron emission from deuterium in the heavy water by way of the so-called photo-nuclear reaction denoted as D(g,np).

Delayed neutrons are paramount to reactor operational control, but those emitted by fission product precursors are only delayed by a fraction of a second to a few seconds at most.
By contrast, delayed neutrons from photo-nuclear reactions with deuterium have an effective delay time up to many minutes (in significant quantity).

And although the yield is relatively small, compared to fission product precursors, weighting applied to the delay time gives them a disproportionate significance – and an added control safety margin of Candu compared to other reactor types.

A similar photonuclear reaction occurs with Beryllium – Be9(g,n2a) – which may be useful in reactors such as MSRs that include beryllium fluoride (BeF2) in their salt mix.



I didn’t mean to imply that you insulted me. I was referring more to way you seem to dismiss Musk’s goal – mass producing EVs – as silly, swell, a fantasy, dishonest etc. Given that a number of intelligent, well informed, and thermodynamically literate people such as for example David Mackay have argued strongly in favor of EVs, and given the obvious appeal of EVs coupled with carbon free electricity from, for example, nuclear power as a way to decarbonize transport, I just don’t think pooh-poohing the approach is justified. I think taking that approach detracts from your otherwise excellent and informative analysis. I could imagine that someone who might otherwise be receptive to your arguments in favor of nuclear power might be turned off by what seems to be an unduly dismissive attitude toward a technology (EVs) that is not (in my opinion) obviously foolish. But this is just my opinion – I could certainly be wrong and it would not be the first time. (The Tesla loan was for 500 million, not 500 billion).

Maybe you are right and there are solid reasons why EVs won’t scale or why batteries won’t be recycled – I need to think through the points you raise in your last comment when I have some spare time.

I agree with you about the importance of focusing on the needs of the very poor. Over the last year or so I’ve read a lot of books about development economics. ‘Poor Economics’; ‘The Bottom Billion’; ‘The Tyranny of Experts’; ‘The White Man’s Burden’, ‘Poor Numbers’; ‘The Idealist’;’More than Good Intentions’; ‘Dead Aid’ and several more. After all this reading, it’s far from obvious to me how to go about helping the poor. The track record of foreign aid, in all its many guises, over the past fifty years is not exactly inspiring. The one thing that does seem to help the poor is helping them build lots of coal and hydro plants. Can we help them build safe, terrorist proof, walkway, nuclear plants instead? That would certainly be better for the climate.

Thanks for your compliments on my occasional comment on Energy Collective. I have learned a huge amount from reading your comments there and elsewhere.


We seem to be drifting into the area of playing the man and not the ball. Please keep it civil at all times or risk your comment being moderated or deleted.
Please take time to review the Comments Policy on BNC before posting again to make sure you are abiding by the rules of this blog. Thankyou.


Let me describe my dream EV system. Electrify the railways. Nuclear powered ships. For roads I really like the eHighway idea.

Convert all the major free-ways to electric. Have two classes of vehicles. One class would be freight. The right most lane would be reserved for this class. The other class would be smaller vehicles. All the other lanes would be for this class. In order to pay for it make them all toll roads. Vehicles will need RFID to identify them at various places and charge their account automatically. With this cars can have smaller batteries. Maybe only enough to get between ten and twenty miles. Slow charging stations all over the place would help as well. I kind of like acid lead batteries if possible. They can be recycled really easlly . All of this powered by nuclear.


@ sodacup, re EV’s.

Thanks for the pointer to Seimens’ site. The idea of diesel-electric trucks fitted with pantographs and using electricity on the mainlines while still able to operate off-grid seems to be very reasonable.

This is especially so in Australia, where B-Doubles can gross 60+ tonnes and thus are substantially larger and heavier than the standard American 18-wheeler. I’m talking 34-wheelers. The larger size truck would lend itself to larger engines and greater efficiency overall.

On some roads, road trains with an additional trailer and 20 more tyres on the road are also legal. Maybe that outside lane you mentioned could be predominantly occupied by 85-tonners, provided that pavements and bridges are up to it. They would prove to be very competitive with rail, while avoiding the need for double handling from train to truck for final delivery.

However interesting that may be, we are now drifting O/T, which is that only nuclear power, by various reactor and generator configurations, can in the foreseeable future replace fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix.


Sodacup said “acid lead batteries … can be recycled really easily”

Sure they can, while there is a strong market for recycled lead. (And where there is a market too, as not every battery dies in a big city.) Sooner or later lead-acid batteries will become obsolete and the price will collapse. Then unsaleable dead batteries in backyards all over the world will begin to leak their poisonous liquid into the environment. In the big picture view of NNadir, vehicles with batteries are permanent polluters.

In more than a hundred years of battery development, we have only advanced from lead to lithium, if that is an advance at all. Trouble is that the catalogue of reversible chemical reactions just doesn’t offer factors of a hundredfold or better.

However chemistry only moves the outermost electrons. If more of the electron cloud in a covalent solid could be displaced fractionally, then we have greater scope for storing energy in capacitors.


Roger Clifton,

Because certain elements are toxic to humans and often other life we work hard to find substitutes. This makes those elements of little value which often leads to illegal dumping and various other unpleasant situations. I wonder if this is always the right path.

I’m not that knowledgeable about mining, but I think a lot of mining digs for more than one element at a time. Certain elements tend to be grouped together in nature and if you are taking one thing up out of the ground you also get the others. Sometimes those others are toxic. It seems like it would be better if we can find some us for these toxic element instead of leaving them as mine tailings.

If we electrify enough major roads then lead acid would be good enough. Because it is easy to recycle we can keep using it over and over again thus keeping it out of the environment. Seems like a good deal to me. Maybe people shouldn’t let it become obsolete.

Although if everything falls apart like some people think it will then eventually it will probably end up in the environment, but personally I like to be hopeful about the future. Otherwise it’s just too depressing.


@ Sodacup:
Was not Roger’s primary point that, regardless of which chemical element is involved (Pb, LI, etc), chemical storage on a vast scale will require materials on a vast scale?

Lead acid and lithium batteries may, indeed, be with us for many years, but it does not necessarily follow that future large-scale storage options using , say, stationary lead acid and mobile lithium batteries are the least cost storage solution in the longer term.

With this in mind, then energy solutions which need little or no storage are preferable to those with high storage demands. From this perspective, nuclear power has the edge over all forms of intermittent generation options, at east unless and until energy storage advances beyond lead acid and lithium batteries.

Quote: “[lead] will probably end up in the environment.” Lead in the environment is already a major problem, whether due to mining, smelting, manufacturing, usage or disposal. The ultimate fate of every tonne of lead seems to be to do harm environmentally.

Much is made of the problems associated with decommissioning and dismantling nuclear power stations. I wonder whether the future financial and environmental costs of dismantling and storing the waste products from distributed generation involving Pb, Li, etc will not exceed that of nuclear power on the same scale. Pb in paints was withdrawn over half a century ago, yet is still causing health problems. Cleaning up lead and other metals from wide areas surrounding the smelters in Lake Macquarie, NSW and elsewhere across our country, plus the sites where the mines are/were located, plus every manufacturing site is already an insurmountable problem.

Cockle Creek smelter was closed over a decade ago, but is still responsible for a dead zone in the creek and the northern end of the lake, plus elevated heavy metal levels in houses and soils for miles around the former plant. Foods such as oysters harvested from this, Australia’s largest saltwater lake, will never be safe due to elevated lead, cadmium and selenium levels.

Chemical wastes last for ever. Lead will still be lead in a millenium and will be just as lethal. Radioactive wastes decay, so (for example) the radioactive iodine which was released into the ocean from Fukushima had disappeared within weeks.

So, no… the problems involved with chemical battery storage cannot be ignored today on the assumption that the future will look after itself.


Surely we can agree that a human being is worth more than $1.25 a day, can we not?

No.  Someone incapable of contributing $1.25 of worth per day to other people is not worth $1.25 a day.  Such people may be worthy of humanitarian charity, but in exchange for that charity they should give up their ability to perpetuate whatever deficiency makes them unable to carry even such a trivial fraction of the weight of the world’s necessary work.

If this sounds eerily like “The Cold Equations”, it’s because the real world is like that.  Just because we can support 2 people who have no useful output to contribute, it does not mean we can support the 8 children they “just have”.  Rights come with obligations, beginning with the obligation not to undermine the system that secures those rights.  A system designed with the intent of assisting people must include the consequences of what people do with that assistance.

Why should every human being, beyond conditions of birth, matter? Couldn’t some of us – the privileged few, imaging ourselves born into special rights – just hole up with our bourgeois solar power/wind power/electric car dreams and forget them?

Maybe we should.  Even those incapable of producing $1.25 of value per day have the primordial right to be left to live their lives unmolested.  Give nothing to them, ask nothing from them.  Let the Bushmen and Amazonian tribes go on as they always have, without technological man interfering with their ancient habits and rites.  If they go extinct as so many tribes and races have before them… that is nature’s way.


As people’s wealth increases their fertility decreases.

This is not generally true.  Randall Parker recently noted a case where water taps put into an African village (a clear increase in wealth, saving labor) allowed more time to have and raise children, so that’s what the villagers did.

You can’t just assume that increasing a population’s wealth will accomplish what you want.  We have multiple examples in the USA alone of populations which did the exact opposite, and a number of destroyed cities to show for it.  If you enlist people who lack either the ability or the will to go with the program and allow them too much control, it will end in ruin.


Lead acid has a great deal more potential than is currently being used by the standard design. Fireflyenergy had a design that seems to have died due to lack of marketing.

This would spray lead particles into a graphite foam base rather than using plated lead. The power density is much higher and the longevity is higher since the damage from sulfation is less.

It seems the company did not succeed since it was using government loans as it’s primary capital source. I sure wish I could buy it.

In terms of transportation, I do like the system described by seimens linked above. I would point out that a Molten Salt reactor that load follows on physics rather than on human or digital feedback would keep such a system running with rock solid power delivery, steady voltages and amperage. You would supply the system with enough MSR’s to meet peak traffic demand. As traffic varied through the day the power needed would match power delivered in fractions of a second. This means that you could use smaller on board batteries as a buffer and would need less robust electric motors than would be required if the system voltages varied greatly.


Hi, David.

Have you overlooked the feature of Siemens’ system which enables diesel engines to power the “last leg” to the final delivery, thus removing the need for double handling from train/barge/ship onto local conventional road transport? Siemens make no mention of on-board batteries, either small or large. Motive power is either mains electricity or diesel.

Of course, it is hypothetically possible for this to be powered by batteries, but Siemens have not recommended that. They recommend diesel-electric with supplementary pantograph electricity on major routes.

Otherwise I agree that a chunk of heavy road transport on selected routes could be powered via diesel-electric drives, using any grid that meets the load, but let’s consider this for a moment.

Given that Australia’s National Highways amount to 16,000km of sealed road of various designs and that they do not reach most of the major rural communities above (say) 40,000, the Siemens system is severely limited – it would rely approximately 50/50 on electricity and diesel, at best (IMHO) and would only include semi-trailers (22 wheelers) and above, up to B-Triples. It would be optimistic to expect that Siemens’ proposal could reduce liquid fuel consumption for road transport nationally by even 25%, ie it would be marginal at best, even if money grew on trees. (Ref:


I don’t see where you get from a claim that the sealed (paved) roads may be a minority of the lane-miles in Australia to the implicit assertion that travel on those national routes is such a small fraction of the vehicle ton-miles.  If you’ve gone to the trouble of paving a road it implies that there’s plenty of traffic on it.


@ EP,

Thank you for a cogent argument. You write,

“No. Someone incapable of contributing $1.25 of worth per day to other people is not worth $1.25 a day. Such people may be worthy of humanitarian charity, but in exchange for that charity they should give up their ability to perpetuate whatever deficiency makes them unable to carry even such a trivial fraction of the weight of the world’s necessary work.”

I have seen many economies in my work and travel through many areas where the wages are very low and 40 / month is the normal wage of a laborer. I observe that often these are in areas with very oppressive governments, who permit the stealing of land and the charging of interest at 240 to 500 % per year. In the Philippines they call this 5/6 but the practice is common throughout Asia. You loan 5 or 500 in one month you pay back 6 or 600 the next month. There are people on motorcycles who collect a few coins a day to make sure these loans on repaid. This traps people in poverty by sucking out their marginal earnings.

At the same time, because the whole economy is functioning at a different level the value of labor is driven down. In some countries you can hire a teacher with a Master’s degree for only $80 / month. They can have the same or very similar educational background but because the prevailing wages are so low in that area their services are undervalued on a world market. This is why there are SO MANY immigrant workers moving into western countries and being well accepted there.

Finally, I note, in regards to population that adding a water well to a community does decrease their work load and they have more time for reproduction. However, the mechanisms whereby wealthy people (women especially) choose to not have children (this goes back many ages before contraceptives) is that the women receive education when their work loads are lightened, and the cost of raising children in a wealthy context is much higher and thus discouraged. So, while a small increase in living conditions will not effect this, a wealthy society will. Please note most of Europe, the majority population in the USA and Russia, Japan, and finally Australia whose birthrate has declined.

I understand that there are only a few countries now where the birthrate is increasing and most of those are Islamic, which is a policy / cultural decision on their part.


Thank you David, for that very enlightened and enlightening evocation. One thing worth noting as we assert “blame” for poverty, as if such an enterprise were ethical, is that of the seven million people who die each year from air pollution, about half are under the age of 5.

It is, I think, difficult to imagine what a five year old’s “responsibility” for his or her condition is.

And then, there is the matter of child soldiers. In the coltan mining regions of the Congo, there are ten and eleven year old “soldiers” fighting in petty and obscure wars over a few rocks.

There is obviously there some criminality in that somewhere on the part of someone, but somehow, I can’t believe that the ultimate moral responsibility lies with a ten year old who has ended up toting an AK-47 through a jungle and firing at other ten year-olds.

If I allowed myself to believe otherwise, I will absolutely be certain that I have not been alive at all myself, but rather have existed as a kind of ghost in a some incomprehensible hell.

I once knew a man who grew up in an obscure backwater village in China, quite a good scientist as it developed, who told me that in the village in question the high birth rate was attributable to the fact that there were no other amusements in the village beyond work and sex. At the time there were no contraceptives available, as food, never mind condoms, was a luxury.

Fortunately for him, he did exceptionally well on some kind of exam that authorities traveling through his area gave to school aged children, and he was plucked from his home, sent to some of the finest schools in China and ultimately to world class universities in North America for his doctorate and post doctorate education. He ended up enriching a lot of people’s lives, most of them, however questionably, American.

It says something I think.

Thanks again for your comment.


@ Engineer-Poet:
The reason for paving 100% of Australia’s national highways was essentially political. The Australian Federal Government funds selected highways, which are paved regardless of traffic counts. For example, National Route 1 across the Top End.

I chose these highways as my example simply because I do not have access to more detailed figures for less favoured roads and highways.

I have heard that there is a parallel between this situation and the Interstate HIghway system of the USA, which was constructed for military and political purposes many years back and which may still preferentially receive federal funding.

Despite the lack of detail in my discussion, I remain convinced that my central point is correct – diesel-electric trucks combined with overhead electrical power supplies which, where present, enable the diesel to be shut down will not have sufficient impact on the carbon intensity of ground transport and absolutely zero effect on air transport.

For mine, there is more promise in using electricity via one or more of many pathways to produce either gas (hydrogen?) or liquid fuels. That may be a discussion for another day, however abundant and reliable nuclear power will get us all much closer to these objectives than any distributed or even gridless electrical system.


@ NNadir,

While in the USA there are people in relative poverty due to personal choices such as drug use, many of the people in Asia and Africa are true victims of actual abuse. I was in Asia for about a year before I began to realize the difference between most of the wealthy people I knew in the USA and the wealthy in Asia. They are a very different type of person.

The uniqueness of each person gives a great motivation to do what is possible to help them realize the potential they were created with.

When I began to study energy issues back in 2008 in an attempt to find ways to relieve some of the poverty I saw, I found Nuclear Energy. Extensive study, which you have greatly assisted, has convinced me that abundant energy is a true solution to many of our problems.

I have come to understand that the fear of low level radiation is very similar to superstitious fears of all kinds. Witch doctors live on superstition. They extract money and respect based on lies.



I am very pleased that my work has helped you in yours, particularly as it would seem that your work is of a higher moral order than mine. Comments like yours make me feel worthwhile.

I have been to India, and I know something of which you speak.

Thank you for your kind words, but above all, thank you for caring so deeply about humanity.



You are correct that I was unaware of this control mechanism in CANDU/HWR types. I like these reactors very much from what I know of them, but confess to being a dilettante with respect to their operational details.

I know from previous encounters that you are an expert on HWR, and I appreciate your illustrative comment and educational effort.

However, this case of control was not what I was getting at, but rather the thermalization of gamma radiation, since gamma radiation can be highly penetrating. The threshold energy for the reaction you describe is on the order of 2.25 MeV, if I have this right, and thus it does effect the gamma flux of lower energy gamma emissions.

As for beryllium, I know that this is a constituent of the popular FLIBE and related systems, such as the sodium analogue, and besides the photo-emission mechanism there is the famous alpha, n reaction which has been been important to historical scientific research and early nuclear technology, notably early nuclear weapons.

I have to admit that my early enthusiasm for FLIBE has waned quite a bit in recent years because of some concerns about beryllium that have less to do with its nuclear properties and more to do with its toxicology. I don’t like to give nuclear energy opponents too much confidence in their often silly objections, but I can imagine a hue and cry about beryllium arising that might have some appeal to people less educated than yourself.

As much as we might object to ignorance, it has power, and in a design consideration, it needs to be considered along with all of the more important technical engineering issues.

There is of course FLINAK, and in fact, a number of other interesting molten salts, and I think, an almost unlimited number of ionic liquids, even some exhibiting some radiation stability. I was recently reading a very cool paper with a species generated from an ionic liquid with actinide counter (non-organic) counterions. (cf. Inorg. Chem. 2004, 43, 2503-2514). It would be interesting to review the universe of these types of compounds to determine their phase systems.

It is possible that FLIBE might someday become a salt more of historical interest than practical industrial significance, rather like the alpha,n reaction in beryllium.

I’m not crazy about the accumulation of Be-10, but one might object to my more recent fondness for Pb coolants – especially considering the discovery of MAX phases as potential coatings – would involve the accumulation of Pb-205. I personally consider either concern rather trivial, for beryllium or for lead since one could in theory use these atoms essentially for eternity, and in any case the capture cross sections for both Pb-204 and Be-9 are low across the neutron spectrum, and of course, Pb-204 is a minor isotope in natural lead. Of course in pure lead coolants, as opposed to LBE at its eutectic point, the overall effect is to transmute toxic lead into less toxic bismuth.

We could, in fact, claim the transmutation of toxic lead into pepto-bismol. ;-)

Lead is, of course, toxic, but easier to control than beryllium from a toxicology standpoint, at least that’s my view. In any case, people have a habit of hauling around lead in their cars, and as we know, anything in our culture involved with cars is sacrosanct.

Delayed neutron fractions have been a concern with plutonium in many settings of course for control, although we now have MOX reactors operating commercially. There are a number of interesting physical chemistry properties of plutonium that I think might lead to other elements of control that it seems to me at least, are rather unique. Neat plutonium metal is a very cool material, and so are the vast spaces of binary, tertiary and higher alloys. I’ve spent some time digging out historical data involved with this stuff, enjoying a trip into the era when nuclear science was free of all the garbage attached to it in recent times, when people were free to explore all the good that nuclear science might do for humanity (and is doing as a result of the work of the scientists of that era).

Thanks for your comment and the interesting information about CANDU reactivity control. You always have something interesting to say.


NNadir-Thank you for all the work that you are doing to educate the public. As you and others have clearly demonstated, the case for nuclear energy is overwhelming to any honest person. Also, thank you for directly challanging elitist “conservationists” like Lovins who don’t give a crap about all those who have no electricity to conserve. They deserve to be ridiculed and treated with contempt.


An excellent article, as usual, informed with facts an enlivened by stout statements of our predicament, by NNadir, one of the nuclear heros of our time, who is willing to risk his head in stating things as they really are.

I feel though, that NNadir has underestimated the usefulness of electric vehicles, especially in a nuclear powered world, but this was pointed out already by others. Also NNadir has undervalued just how good nuclear power is. For one thing, low grade supplies in the ocean alone are enough for billions of years even with today’s reactors. Even with ancient submarine reactors on steroids having a resource efficiency of 0.5%, nuclear energy can supply ten times today’s electricity supply for as long as we have oceans and plate tectonics. (removing uranium from the sea will cause more to leach back in from the seafloors, it is in chemical equilibrium).

Nuclear energy is in fact so good, that even the most devout pro nuclear writer can easily underestimate it!


Thank you Cyril for your kind words.

I have been accused of a lot of things in my blogging career, but underestimating the power of nuclear energy isn’t one of them.


I wrote in some detail about the inexhaustible nature of uranium resources from seawater over on Rod Adam’s website, with a fair number of references, as a side diversion.

See reference 37 in this piece.

My issue with electric cars is not about the source of energy for them, to the extent that some may powered by clean nuclear energy, but rather about issues connected with their external costs not connected with their source of energy.

I’m fairly well convinced that if we must have cars at all – something about which I’m actually not sanguine – a nuclear derived chemical fuel such as DME (the best of all possible chemical fuels) would be more sustainable to the extent that any cars can be sustainable.

Thanks again.


Please, somebody, tell me what is good about DME (DiMethylEther). It appears, in practice, to have natural gas as its feedstock, plus electrical energy in its transformation. So what? Does discussion about the hypothetical potential to use grass clippings as feedstock mean anything, when this is not commercially rational?

Is there a process about which I know nothing which uses water, CO2 and electricity as the primary inputs? A quick look at the International DME Association’s website hasn’t suggested anything like that.

Since it is energy dense is it perhaps a battery of the future – store our spare electrons as DME?

It also has extremely clean exhaust emissions, although still with 5% of the carbon emissions of diesel.

What is good about the cradle to grave picture? Why is it seen as a solution to the world’s needs for a zero carbon transport fuel?


The point here is that nuclear plants can provide the electrical energy to support the reaction needed for a transportable fuel, I assume could work in aircraft as well as cars and trucks. Am I missing some facts?


Or the thermal energy, right? With a mature nuclear infrastructure it won’t be just electricity, but thermal levels which can allow us to utilize chemical activity at another magnitude.

(My dad was a physicist; I made my living as an electrician, so don’t hold me to too much scientific rigor)


Why DME? DME, or dimethyl ether, CH3-O-CH3 is readily produced in industrial quantities by the dehydration of methanol, CH3OH. Methanol is just about the simplest species of C1 that is not a gas at normal temperatures. DME has three non-hydrogen atoms, making it conveniently liquid for handling but lacks the high energy content of three-carbon molecules.

In another thread, the difficulties of creating transport fuel from atmospheric CO2 were explored. Although there are chemical pathways available, they all seem to have mediocre energy efficiencies. In particular the polymerisation from CO2 to a chain of carbons, required to achieve a liquid at room temperatures seems particularly difficult. The polymerisation of carbon is at least one process where the biosphere (in the form of photosynthesis) triumphs over industry. But when it comes to adding energy (as hydrogen) to carbon atoms, any process, whether thermal or electric, based on nuclear trumps solar.


From browsing “heating value of fields”:

Click to access dme-fact-sheet.pdf

I don’t think anyone around here would knock electricians. As much as anyone, electricians understand how renewables and distributed generation affect the balance of reaction power and the (in)stability of the grid. I for one would welcome your perspective on such issues.


Many thanks, Roger – I had forgotten where John Morgan’s article was.

However, any discussion about the benefits of DME must include discussion of the proposed feedstocks. John’s article was based on ocean recovery of CO2, with side discussion of atmospheric or carbon capture sources. Each of those sources of CO2 removes carbon from the biosphere before adding it back – net zero, assuming carbon-free electricity.

I do not believe that the current proponents such as Mack Trucks and the International DME Association have anything better in mind than natural gas feedstock plus grid electrical power, which in USA means 80% fossil fuelled electricity.

DME from such a process is essentially repackaged fossil fuel, i.e. window-dressing.


Mack has put on the market an engine capable of running on a practical non-fossil carbon fuel. That must encourage everybody who wants the conversion of atmospheric CO2 into transport fuel, whether via desalination, photosynthesis, renewables or nuclear. Surely that is evolution in the right direction?


Agreed, Roger, but only up to a point.

Until something happens to drive a switch away from DME derived from natural gas plus fossil fuelled electricity, your desire to “evolve in the right direction” remains only a desire. As the fact sheet states, the required mods from diesel to DME are minor.

Two considerations: (1) there is a 40% reduction in power after conversion, and (2) DME which is derived from natural gas is not “biofuel”. The fact sheet does not mention that all commercially available DME is derived from LNG, apart from one small establishment in Sweden which uses “black liquor, a papermaking waste.

“DME-capable” is not a revolution; it is spin. It is essentially a CNG conversion, plus retuning of the engine management system to the calorific value and cetane number of the fuel.

Apart from the reduction in storage tank pressure, what is the advantage of DME over natgas when both are derived from raw natgas and are compatible with the same engines? This isn’t evolution, it is wasting time.

I am an engineer. I like to think that engineers are problem-solvers. This isn’t true when it comes to DME. Real change will flow not from minor redesigns and re-badging of diesel engines by mechanical engineers. The driving force will be the dollar. What s needed is a price on emitted CO2 which is sufficient to make liquid fossil fuels unprofitable. Only then will truly low carbon liquid fuels, those without fossil parentage, come into their own.


Yes, I concede the point. Token schemes, as you say, waste time. They fob off public anxiety for effective action to save the greenhouse.

Perhaps a chemical engineer would be able to point out an energy-efficient mechanism that turns three CO2 molecules into a three-carbon fuel such as propane, C3H8.


Thanks, Roger.

Since transport fuels and cooking fuels amount to a third or more of global energy-related anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions they deserve equal time with electricity options.

However, we never hear that PV can substitute for ovens or gas rings or dry dung cooking fires. We need to find a way to skip past kerosine powered cooking and to transition straight to carbon-free, but that is another topic again.

One of the references states that propane is not OK for diesels except as a fraction in a dual-fuel mode. Methane is reported to be preferable, but there remain the problems with energy density (40% more mass?), hazardous materials in a transport environment, seals and pumps, although to what extent these are just scare tactics akin to the stories which still circulate regarding ULP and ethanol. We do, indeed, need a chemical engineer’s guidance.

I’m a civil engineer, by the way, with a few additional chemistry units to support an interest in management of (chemically) contaminated land. My knowledge is transparently thin when it comes to organic fuels generally and zilch regarding production of same.


I wonder why anyone is bothering with DME, when its source molecule (MeOH) is a liquid at STP, has more chemical energy per carbon molecule and can be used in engines with much higher power density.  It even has the potential to be reformed to H2 and CO using exhaust heat, increasing the net chemical energy by about 10%.


I see there’s been considerable discussion of DME in this thread.
Let me offer some general comments about why I have a strong fondness for this fuel, including and beginning with some remarks on its source.

  1. It is true that currently almost all of the world’s DME is made from either dangerous natural gas, or worse, notably in China, dangerous coal. The chemistry for this utilization utilizes syn gas, CO + H2, with the preparation of syn gas from dangerous fossil fuels being one of the most widely practiced industrial chemical processes in the world, not only for ammonia synthesis, but for the synthesis of many other commodities.
  2. Humanity has about a century of experience with syn gas based industries. This said, in all of my writings everywhere, I have consistently called for the immediate phase out of all dangerous fossil fuels, so DME from gas or coal, or for that matter petroleum is unacceptable to me.

  3. This said, syn gas can be made from carbon dioxide and water if there is enough heat. As many people know, there are a great many thermochemical cycles for splitting water. Perhaps the most famous is the sulfur iodine cycle, but, again, there are many others. What is less well known is that there are many carbon dioxide splitting thermochemical cycles. Many of these cycles can be dual purpose, reducing either or both. The Zinc Oxygen cycle, which is often mentioned in the context of the failed solar thermal industry is one example, other CO2 cycles include ferrite cycle, and certain cerium based cycles. Note that whenever one has CO available, one can always make hydrogen gas via the very well-known water gas reaction. Thus any carbon dioxide splitting cycle is also a potential hydrogen cycle. The point is that syn gas can be made using nuclear heat.

  4. I note that the oxygen side product in either water splitting or carbon dioxide splitting, can also be utilized to make syn gas in what amounts to closed systems, in the presence of water. (I’ve thought a lot about this for hours: It’s built around stackless combustion ideas similar to the often discussed “chemical looping” schemes.)

  5. Thus with nuclear heat, carbon dioxide could be commoditized. I don’t think that even the most enthusiastic nuclear advocates realistically believe that the transition from dangerous fossil fuels to nuclear energy will take place in a period of weeks. However the capture and reduction of carbon dioxide to fuels make petroleum phase outs the actual “low hanging fruit” of dangerous fossil fuel elimination. Ultimately, one might be able to obtain carbon dioxide from the combustion of waste biomass, at least for some of it; air capture is not totally out of the question, particularly with a seawater intermediate, using something like the famous “Navy process.” I once published article on the Energy Collective, a sort of “tough in cheek” rumination on biofuels, particularly “solketal” from glycerol, in which I noted that considerable biomass, wet biomass ideal for treatment with oxygen, might be obtained from “harvesting” eutrophic blooms, thus restoring destroyed fisheries, such as those in Louisiana, while collecting carbon to be converted for nuclear heat.

  1. Many of these points were made in an excellent “perspective” written by Nobel Laureate George Olah (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2011, 133, 12881–12898). If one cannot open the paper, lacking a subscription or access to a library, the graphic attached to the abstract page makes the point clear enough. Olah has written extensively on this subject, and, if I recall correctly, also has written a monograph on the subject. Olah’s Nobel prize, ironically enough, involved discoveries in chemistry that were important in modern petroleum refining, and so there is some irony in his later work to rid the world of the petroleum scourge.
  • Note that DME need not be made from a methanol intermediate. It can be made directly from syn gas over copper catalysts with various kinds of dopants and co-catalysts. The reaction to make DME from hydrogen and CO is exothermic, (as is the production of methanol from syn gas) but as Olah has noted in one of his papers, small amounts (or large amounts of CO2 are required, at least catalytically. (DME can be made, and sometimes is made, by the dehydration of methanol as well.)

  • Either methanol or DME can be utilized to make more complex carbon compounds. (Olah’s perspective covers this quite well.) The starting chemistry is the “MTO” process, “methanol to olefins” process.

  • DME is superior to natural gas because it can be easily liquefied under mild pressures; its critical point is above the atmospheric boiling point of water. Equally important, its atmospheric half-life is about 5 days, whereas that of methane is on the order of decades. Many proposals to make DME have been proposed because of “stranded” natural gas. I oppose natural gas, and want it banned. But if it is not banned, it is far less dangerous when converted to DME.

  • DME is superior to methanol because it is almost completely non-toxic and it is easy to remove from water – by simple aeration – in the event of a spill. Methanol by contrast is toxic and totally miscible with water. Thus a large methanol spill, from a tanker, might serious impact water supplies, whereas a major DME spill will be relatively benign by comparison, especially given the volatile nature of DME.

  • DME is superior to diesel fuel because it contains no carbon-carbon bonds, and thus produces no particulates. It can be used directly in diesel engines with minor modifications.

  • DME is a well-known refrigerant. These properties, along with its high critical temperature make a consideration of its usefulness as a heat transfer agent, maybe over considerable distances in insulated pipelines. From what little has been written on the subject, I garner that supercritical DME is a potential substance of considerable interest as a solvent as well.

  • DME is superior to all light alcohols, including both MeOH and EtOH because it is non-corrosive. It can be utilized either in existing LPG or natural gas infrastructure with only minor modification of some types of seals.

  • I hope these points make my position on DME clear and addresses some of the issues raised here.


    Methanol has a half-life of 1-7 days in soil and water; its atmospheric lifetime is much longer than DME but far too short to accumulate.  Spills are only a problem if the spilled substance is both present at toxic levels and persistent.

    DME is not compatible with the existing fueling infrastructure and can’t be retrofitted into most conventional vehicles.  MeOH largely is.  DME can be made from MeOH on demand, so a vehicle fueled by MeOH could use DME as its compression-ignition fuel, dissociated CO+H2 as its main fuel produced by reclaiming exhaust heat, and carbureted liquid MeOH for spurts of high power demand.  It would also serve as Otto-cycle motor fuel as M85.  If we’re looking to replace that fraction of petroleum that electricity won’t do for, methanol is a really attractive prospect.


    You sure have opened up a whole new area here. I think my new motto will be “Everything I was ever taught is a lie!” I don ‘t envy those professional scientists and engineers out there who ride the tiger every day and every year and maintain their sanity!



    Although Olah makes many of the same arguments about the toxicology of methanol that you do, and of course, you are right about the relative short half life of MeOH in the environment.

    He points to window washer fluid as an example of the commercial utilization of MeOH that has little health consequence.

    However, I for one, would be extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a methanol economy as opposed to a DME economy.

    I’m not sure that the media would care a whit about a case of MeOH poisoning from windshield washer fluid in a child or an adult: It may happen from time to time without anyone caring that someone dies from MeOH – or is irreversibly blinded by it – with nor report being issued.

    I worked, early in my career in organic chemistry, with lots of MeOH/water solutions; they were convenient for making fixed low temperature baths using dry ice. They were in almost every sense of the word indistinguishable from pure water, except for their lower melting point.

    I don’t think a methanol economy is going to happen, or a DME economy is going to happen. I think we will be conservative and burn all the petroleum we can forever, until it ends up killing the planet, so the point is on some level moot.

    Nevertheless, we are talking billions of tons of fuel if we attempt to maintain the car CULTure with methanol, be it nuclear methanol or some other kind. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of kilometers of pipelines, and other forms of transport. In densely populated areas these pipelines will be very close to water pipelines.

    We know that humanity is pretty sloppy and lazy about maintaining infrastructure once its in place, and moreover we know that alcohols are corrosive over the long term to pipelines; the inability to make use of ethanol pipelines has been a problem to the biofuel industry.

    I can easily imagine an accident at this scale in which methanol is ingested inadvertently resulting in many thousands of cases of blindness or death.

    A tanker full of methanol sinking on Lake Erie might dwarf in long term consequences the incident in Toledo last summer where the water supply was shut by microcystin generating organisms. It might, or course, be a non issue in a matter of days or weeks, but it could do considerable damage within a few hours.

    DME by contrast might at best, result in the worst victims getting a mild case of anesthesia.

    Finally, I am not interested very much in existing automobiles. My own idea of an ideal world would be one in which the bulk of the car CULTure were phased out, with transport vehicles being limited to short haul buses, trucks, tractors, ambulances, that sort of thing. (I recognize that this is eccentric, but I don’t believe that hundreds of millions, or billions of self propelled vehicles will ever be sustainable in any way, shape or form.)

    DME is compatible with the LPG and dangerous natural gas infrastructure, the latter being the kind of infrastructure humanity is racing to build, no matter how silly, myopic and short sighted this is.

    Finally, the conversion of methanol into DME is not the best route to DME. Direct formation from syn gas is cheaper and easier.

    Thanks for your comment, but we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this point.


    A tanker full of methanol sinking on Lake Erie might dwarf in long term consequences the incident in Toledo last summer where the water supply was shut by microcystin generating organisms.

    The EPA defines the tolerance dose for MeOH as 0.5 mg/kg/day.  For a 60 kg human, that’s 30 mg/day.

    If someone consumes 3 liters of water per day (a rather high amount), they’d receive this tolerance dose at a concentration of 10 mg/liter (10 ppm).  It seems unlikely that really large tankers would be used on the Great Lakes, so assume loss of a string of 3 barges with 30 kbbl/ea (9e4 bbl total).  Diluting to 10 ppm requires about 1e5 as much water, or ~1e10 barrels.

    1e10 barrels of water is about 1.6 billion cubic meters, 1.6 cubic km.  Total volume of Lake Erie is 484 cubic km.  It appears that even a very large spill in the lake would be quickly diluted below any level of concern, even if drinking water treatment systems had no features (e.g. activated carbon filtration) which would remove methanol.  If some towns had higher concentrations at their inlets and no alternative sources (e.g. wells), bottled water would be advisable for drinking and cooking until dilution and bacterial oxidation had eliminated the threat.  That would appear to be a matter of days.  Other uses could proceed as normal.

    Losing 90 kbbl of DME would be one spark away from a massive explosion and fire.

    I for one, would be extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a methanol economy as opposed to a DME economy.

    I think any sort of liquid-fuel economy is silly.  We need an economy that does essentially all its heavy lifting with electrons.  There will be niche applications where electrons are too difficult/expensive to employ, and that is where “MeOH or DME?” will be pertinent.


    Come on now you guys. How many people get killed by the gasoline in their cars? Gasoline is explosive and is toxic and has carcinogenic benzene in it. But it is a minor hazard. People get killed by cars hitting things and/or people. Cars are dangerous because of the people that are in them, not the fuel. The fossil fuel pollution upstream can be bad if no scrubbers, filters and the like are used. GhG is bad.

    Benzene in gasoline is something that would worry me a hundred times more than methanol in a methanol economy. But even benzene is a minor worry because modern cars burn it very efficiently. That said the electron economy is more likely, with possibly a methanol or other liquid fuel part where the electrons can’t cut it (aircraft and such). Methanol would be expected to always be at economic downside as its not so efficient as electrons.


    NNadir: You claim that each Tesla contains 1/3 ton of lithium. The fact is that each Model S contains approximately 300 kg of cells. Lithium ion cells contain about 2.5 % lithium by mass, and each Model S thus contains around 8 kg of lithium. Your claim is wrong by a factor of 40.

    Li-ion batteries can be recycled very efficiently and almost completely provided you know precisely what’s going into the process. As long as only one Li-ion variant is being processed at a time, then high purity materials suitable for production of new batteries, including the lithium, can be recovered. No high temperature processing is required so energy consumption is very low. EV batteries are large, which reduces the difficulty of keeping the input stream uniform. The success of lead-acid battery recycling (99 %) suggests that recycling of the much larger li-ion batteries can be successful too. See this document published by Argonne National Laboratory:

    Click to access 855.PDF

    The battery has little impact on the life cycle energy or carbon footprint. Also by ANL:

    Click to access 945.PDF

    Taken together, battery recycling and lower grid carbon intensity has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of EVs dramatically.

    Should lithium ever become a limitation, then other chemistries are possible. The Zebra battery powered Think City has a range of 280 km, which is particularly impressive for such a small car. The Zebra battery requires aluminium, sodium and chlorine. We will never run out of those elements.

    Regarding efficiency, I would be very interested in seeing a calculation of the source to wheel fuel efficiencies of a DME powered vehicle. There’s nothing like numbers.

    The source to wheel efficiency of my Tesla is approximately 0.98 (water turbine) * 0.98 (large generator) * 0.94 (grid) * 0.96 (cabling) * 0.75 (charging and monitoring) * 0.88 (drivetrain) = 0.57. Replacing hydro power with a 33 % efficient nuclear power plant reduces overall efficiency to 20 %, which is still a bit better than well to wheel combustion engine vehicle efficiency. Higher temperature, 4-gen NPPs like S-PRISM would push the overall efficiency towards 25 %.

    The efficiency of a gasoline engine barely reaches 20 % on long drives, real world efficiency with short distances and traffic is worse. If you take DME production losses into account then I suspect the efficiency number will be ugly.

    Another factor is that DME production requires lots of CO2. I feel fairly confident that this will not be sucked out of the atmosphere, but rather taken from some carbon intensive process like for instance coal burning to make that seem more green and because the concentration is much higher. In this case, making DME out of it is just a way of recycling the CO2 once before it goes into the atmosphere. It should be buried instead.

    As for the comment about people lacking electricity outnumbering car owners, I really can not see how this has anything whatsoever to do with electric vehicles. Emissions from transportation matter, and until cars are banned those who can afford it will drive them. If anything, poverty indicates a potential for more cars in the future, should the poor become more wealthy. Look at car sales in India and China.

    I agree that putting solar panels on the roof of the Tesla superchargers is ridiculous, though.


    I enjoyed Eledille’s detailed essay, also introducing us to the “Zebra battery requires aluminium, sodium and chlorine. We will never run out of those elements”. I might add that their eventual destination in the environment is harmless. Not so the nickel. Some more links for Zebra cells: intro, patent, description.

    I must take issue with our habit of flattering our listeners’ ignorant belief that the world is running out of mineral resources, because our reiteration reinforces the belief and further motivates the vain quest for limitless “renewables”. Instead we should retort that what we are/i> running out of is somewhere to put our wastes.



    Nothing, absolutely nothing I say or do offends so much as pointing to futility and myopia associated with the meaningless and useless Tesla car.


    No matter how many times I talk about energy and poverty and the environment, what I hear is never what is good for humanity, but what is good for cars, especially if I display my trademark contempt for the Tesla.

    I don’t hear much passion how we can make humanity survive, or how we can minimize the impact of our lives on the environment as it provides for future generations, but instead I hear about…cars…cars…cars.

    Let me explain something. To me the automobile…any automobile…is a case of distributed energy writ large. To me the worst of all possible choices in energy is distributed energy, precisely for the reason that no individual can possibly take responsibility for the impact on the environment.

    99% of the world’s lead is recycled? Really? Do you have a source for that claim? Is 1% of the lead that escapes recycling acceptable? If we raise 0.99 to the hundredth power, what is the result?

    Lead’s a heavy element. What is the environmental cost of hauling it around and collecting it? How many miles are driven each year to collect lead batteries? Are there no cars with lead batteries rotting in people’s back yards? Abandoned cities?

    The people who recycle our distributed “stuff” have tragic lives and yes…they are human beings. We may feel all “green” because we can say the word “recycle” about everything and anything but, why don’t you go to google scholar and enter the words “lead,” “recycle” “plama levels” and “China?”

    Or just read the abstract here:

    There is a wonderful book, over a decade old now, by a (then) young woman named Katie Alford called “Divorce Your Car,” which, among other things, drew a history of the marketing of cars as objects of liberation, of environmental purity – by eliminating the urban scourge of horse manure – and as a means of breaking the power of the railroad robber barons.

    Really? The car brought justice and sustainability to humanity? We should do anything, deplete every element in the periodic table, dig every hole we haven’t dug, because we “need(?),” we worship cars?

    If the Alford’s book weren’t so much about a tragedy, it would be as funny as hell. It isn’t enough to say that a battery is better than benzene and therefore a battery is good.

    We run out of lithium and go screaming into the night for aluminum, which we will “never” run out of?

    What, by the way, else is in a lithium battery?

    Here’s an accounting in connection with SI a recent paper in the literature I happen to have handy. (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2014, 48, 3047−3055):

    Click to access es4037786_si_002.pdf

    No matter though…

    Here’s the ultimate problem with the Tesla in my view: It’s a car.

    I have been misinterpreted badly, and it’s my own fault because I let myself be dragged into a discussion of “what’s good for cars” and what is a “better car.” Better than what? A horse? A city bus? A subway train?

    To me the suggesting the Tesla car as a cure for humanity’s ills is rather like Marie Antoinette’s famous statement about cake; she lost her head a result. Unfortunately the situation so spiraled out of control that other, maybe more worthy people, less responsible than she, the great chemist Lavoisier comes to mind, also lost their heads as the event when out of control.

    I think we are all losing our heads trying to save the car CULTure.

    But no matter…

    I am not willing to look my children in the eye and say, “I did whatever I could so you could live in a suburb with a car.” I’d rather say, “I did what I could so you could live.”


    I am, I’m afraid, something of a radical, a radical environmentalist, which is why I support nuclear power.

    I know…I know…undoing the car CULTure is a pipe dream. Even so…

    My political hero from American history is Fredrick Douglass, also a “radical,” the escaped slave, who argued against the generally held conviction that eliminating slavery in the United States was impossible, because our way of life here in the United States depended upon the wealth slaves produced. And let’s be clear; in the 1850’s most of American wealth was, in fact, a product of slavery, human slavery.

    These statements of impossibility did not dissuade Douglass from making his case. To the surprise of everyone involved, except perhaps Douglass himself, that wealth in slaves all disappeared, almost in a flash, albeit at the cost of great tragedy, and, believe it or not hundreds of millions of Americans found a better, healthier and happy way of life after slavery ended.

    I would argue that their new way of life, post slavery, was superior to their old way of life, but that’s just me.

    As for “wheel to wheel” stuff, about which I’m not very interested, I do recall skimming a paper on the subject a while back, and I just pulled it up out of my computer. (Roorda, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2012, 46, 6363−6370.)

    He writes this in his conclusion:

    “Charging PHEVs from hydroelectricity can only occur in regions that have significant hydroelectric resources. Other renewable electricity generation options also have resource restrictions. Charging PHEVs from natural gas involves the use of a nonrenewable energy resource. Charging PHEVs from coal has questionable environmental benefits, and coal dominates the marginal electricity supply for charging of PHEVs in many regions of the United States.8,22 Other environmental aspects are also important to consider. PHEVs could transfer tailpipe air pollutant emissions from regions of high population density to electricity generating facility emissions in regions of lower population density. On the other hand, production of PHEV batteries results in emissions that do not occur during production of nonplug-in vehicles.36”

    He does state that plug in hybrid cars are, overall, marginally superior to regular cars in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline cars.

    To me this reads like a statement that it better to have breast cancer than pancreatic cancer, since the former is sometimes treatable.

    It’s still, um, cancer. I may be wrong about this, but I think it’s better not to have cancer at all.

    I shouldn’t have mentioned nuclear DME, which I regard a fuel for things requiring portability other than cars, tractors, remote machineries, rescue helicopters, some trains, the heating or remote structures, campout stoves and gas lamps, that sort of thing. (Right now the main use for DME is as a propellant for hair spray.) I wasn’t advocating it as a way to make the world safe for cars.

    Let the record be clear though. I do not advocate and have never advocated coal, gas or oil produced DME. I oppose the use of all dangerous fossil fuels, unequivocally. As nuclear power exists, they are all unnecessary, even if they are popularly used and identified as something we need.

    Probably I should never insult the Tesla and its billionaire marketeer corporate founder – about whom I really couldn’t care less – if I want anyone to hear what I really want to say, not that what I really want to say seems to matter all that much. Marketing is all to which modern life, Western life at least, has reduced. I’m powerless against that fact.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Have a nice day tomorrow.

    Best regards,



    If we raise 0.99 to the hundredth power, what is the result?


    I think that you wanted to ask, If we raise 1.1 to the hundredth power, what is the result?



    NNadir: I did not write that 99 % of lead is recycled. But I have already given you a very good reference, from Argonne National Laboratory, that lead-acid batteries have a 99 % recycling rate in the US. This supports my claim that battery recycling can be successful. I surely hope we can agree on this.

    My problem with your contempt for Tesla and EVs in general is that it is wholly unsupported by numbers. You are shouting and wildly waving your arms about without any calculations or references to support your claims. The few numbers you have provided so far are wildly wrong.

    I should not have to tell you, on this site at least, that if you want to convince us you need to show us some references and calculations, particularly when your claims are incompatible with the arguments we hear from people we trust already, like MacKay.

    You are exactly like Lovins. All handwaving, no calculations, wild claims and no substantiation.

    Read the references I gave you. Then tell me, [i]using numbers[/i], why something that consumes as little energy and can (and almost certainly will) be recycled as fully as the Tesla is any worse than, say, electric heating. Its power consumption hardly even shows on my power bill. I have shown you already why the Tesla is rather less bad than e.g. my neighbor’s Ford Mondeo.

    Numbers, please. And I’m interested in the relative merit of Tesla vs other EVs, the relative merit of EVs versus alternatives (ICE, FCV, hybrids), and how EVs impact global and local emissions and pollution. Please keep the morality of driving cars out of the equations for the moment. Cars are a fact of life for the foreseeable future.


    I forgot to tell you that the 99 % lead acid battery recycling success is happening in the US. No poor poisoned children are involved at all.


    @Roger Clifton: Thank you, I’m very pleased to hear that.

    I was not aware of the nickel content of the Zebra battery. I do not know how much energy is required for recycling of such batteries either, unfortunately. Molten salt batteries without nickel are possible, but I know little about those. The sodium-sulfur battery is one possibility. My point is that EV batteries can be constructed from abundant materials if required.

    But both nickel and aluminium are used for construction at a very large scale. Scarcity will hit those sectors before battery manufacture, I think. This is handwaving, of course.


    This is a really interesting discussion. I’ve been thinking about lead. Obviously lead paint for houses, lead bullets and leaded gasoline are a horrible ideas. As for lead batteries I’m not completely sure. I think they would need very close to 100% lead batteries recycling with no, or least very little, lead ending up in the environment where it can cause harm to people and animals. I’m not sure how feasible that is, so maybe lithium would be better if people are going with batteries. The problem is that lithium is really reactive and light. I think this makes recycling it difficult. I know that it is difficult for some reason.

    “But lithium still costs about five times more to recycle than to mine, so environmental laws will drive recycling for now.”

    Maybe batteries are a bad idea. Maybe cars are a bad idea. I don’t know. I think I’ll just focus on the nuclear power for electric production issue for now.

    On a some what related note I’m curious what people here think about this site that that talks about recycling for profit.


    NNadir: I skimmed the li-ion life cycle analysis you linked to. You are correct that li-ion battery production has environmental impacts. But that study does not say anything about what happens to the environmental impact of EVs when everything except the plastic foil separator can be recycled. The report just highlights the need for recycling, which the report I linked to shows is entirely feasible.

    I completely support public transportation and city planning that encourages walking, cycling and public transportation. Those are better for the environment than even EVs.

    Even if such plans succeed, there will be lots of cars in the future, so it is still important to create as environmentally friendly cars as possible.

    EV batteries can be fully recycled at minimal energy cost, except for the plastic separator foil. This is shown in the Argonne paper. The separator foil is a small problem compared to PET bottles.

    Battery recycling has been a spectacular success in the US, with recycling rate of better than 99 %. Same paper.

    EV batteries are even better suited to recycling than lead-acid batteries because they are much larger, so more effort can be put into labeling and sorting to get the required uniformity. Argonne paper again.

    The environmental cost of EV batteries are mainly extraction of materials and a relatively small amount of energy for assembly. Raw materials can be recycled at negligible energy cost and this removes most of their impact in the long run. Argonne paper.

    The energy for cell production and battery assembly is mostly electricity, so a shift to nuclear energy will remove GHG from this step.

    The vast majority of the life cycle GHG footprint of an EV, without considering battery recycling, is from the “long tailpipe”, i.e. from generation of the electricity consumed for propulsion. See the other Argonne paper.

    The EV, even the Tesla which is not as efficient as e.g. the Leaf, is more efficient than current vehicles, even when powered by BWR/PWR NPPs at 33 % efficiency.

    The sum of all this is that a switch to electric vehicles and nuclear power can bring the environmental impact of personal transportation to a very low level, provided that the necessary recycling is implemented, and that this is entirely feasible. Of all the ideas I have seen, this is the one that to me seems most likely to succeed.

    But Tesla owners should remember that walking is both healthier and more environmentally friendly than driving the Tesla.


    I am beginning to be discouraged by the level of dialogue here. This has been one of the best conversations on Brave New Climate. But it is beginning to sound like a proud display of esoterica.

    NNadir has got to be wrong about the weight of Lithium in a Tesla, but he made some powerful statements. Perhaps this is how Amory Louvins went wrong! I follow this blog because many of you are my superiors in physics or engineering. I want this to be a dialogue I can respect even though it’s not my business.


    “If we raise 0.99 to the hundredth power, what is the result?” That is,
    (1 – 1/100)^100 ?

    The residue turns out to be approximately 36%, much the same as for
    (1 – 1/5)^5
    (1 – 1/10)^10
    (1 – 1/20)^2
    in fact for large “N” in
    (1 – 1/N)^N -> 1/exp(1) = 1/e = 0.368

    Bear this in mind when a politician promises that emissions will be reduced by 5% per year for the next 20 years. Right at the beginning, he or his puppet masters have planned to deceive us into accepting a future of ~36% emissions, which is still in the same ballpark as we started from.

    To my mind, when I see a hand-wringing politician promise any “reductions” at all, I know that he intends “business as usual”, cheating on our requirement for him to “eliminate” emissions.


    We don’t need to criticize the politicians, or any other professional class. Cynicism and sarcasm has it’s place in a bar room or for entertainment in a social gathering.

    There is a source of power which can change humanity forever and to find a way to affect the cultural conversation is tantamount. Bickering is undignified given that IFR’s or Thorium, or other technologies are a distinct near future possibility, since fusion still remains distant.


    (of course that should read (1-1/20)^20 in the above)

    NNadir is quite correct when he points out that even a 99% recycling success rate for Pb batteries is not good enough, when you realise that a hundred cycles would leave 64% (ie, 1-.36) of the dissolved and solid lead scattered through the inhabited environment.


    Indeed, why?  It’s very unlikely that lead would continue in use in batteries for more than 40 years, and batteries are not at all like paint or anti-knock additives.  Lead lost due to failure to recycle would wind up in landfills (or elsewhere in the processing of MSW) rather than the broader environment.


    @Engineer-poet, re lead:

    The true problem with lead is not its recycling.

    I used to live reasonably close to a lead smelter which was run by a proud, technologically literate and well financed corporation. Yet it still poisoned the air and soil and lives of those for miles around it. My dentist once explained that frequently he could see the signs of lead poisoning in his younger patients’ teeth before it presented as reduced IQ or nerve or joint damage.

    So, please discontinue the hypothetical “recycling” discussion and refocus on the cradle to grave situation, including all those pesky unintended consequences that are part and parcel of separation of metals from their impurities and reducing them to parent metal.

    In closing, I relish NNadir’s comments. He is absolutely unashamed to defend a radical stance. I use the word “radical” in its original meaning. He gets at the root of issues with great clarity.

    I wish that I had the strength of character to do the same and to expect the same from politicians.


    Lead isn’t always the primary thing being mined. I worry if lead becomes worthless more of it will end up in the environment instead of less.

    “World Resources In recent years, significant lead resources have been demonstrated in association with zinc and/or silver or copper deposits in Australia, China, Ireland, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Russia, and the United States (Alaska). Identified lead resources of the world total more than 1.5 billion tons.”

    Click to access mcs-2011-lead.pdf

    I’m not a that knowledgeable about these things, but I worry what will happen to the lead that is mixed in with other ores if it’s no longer worth extracting.

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something about mining and this isn’t a problem. If so someone please explain it to me.



    I have been traveling and missed the chance to see your remark about how I am “exactly like Lovins” because I have failed to “do the numbers” on the useless and worthless Tesla car.

    The opening post here has 68 references, most of which I’ve read and considered at great expense in time and effort.

    As you dig deeply and passionately into to numbers associated with the absurd Tesla car, you may note, in passing, or may NOT note that I provide numbers in issues I CARE about, and am uninterested in wasting my time on digging into to numbers on subjects that I find trivial and silly.

    I have, I’m afraid, better things to do.

    I’m sorry that I don’t give a hoot about the ridiculous fantasy represented by the Tesla car. I have made my position on cars completely and totally clear and unambiguous, and I refuse to engage in any more quibbling over the moral equivalent of Lovins’ “Hydrogen HYPERcar” (see reference 5 above).

    In fact, I have been clear on the subject of cars in my entire blogging career.

    An effort I made to be fairly serious about the subject in a Daily Kos post that I reposted to Charles Barton’s “Nuclear Green” is found here:

    “Should Nuclear Energy Be a Panacea.”

    A sloppier version of my feelings about cars can be found here:

    “China Already Has 100 Million Electric Vehicles.”

    A more fun rumination on the foolishness and myopia associated with the absurdity of car talk can be found here, “A Note On This Race and IQ Business:”

    I am quite sure that you and other Tesla car owners feel ennobled, and perhaps you feel that you all deserve a Nobel Peace Prize similar to that offered collectively to the IAEA some years back, the IEAE prize, by the way, that I feel was deserved.

    With all due respect, I would rather regard this award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the collective of Tesla owners as the equivalent of the historical award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger, who argued for several months over the shape of a table at a Peace Conference while men, women and children died in Vietnam and who also worked to engineer a coup in Chile that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

    My general impression of the car CULTure is that it is unnecessary and unsustainable in all and any forms. I regard it as an enormous human tragedy that has resulted in a vast number of deaths, as well as untold destruction to the environment.

    If I approached the issue of the lithium content of the absurd and ridiculous car in a sloppy fashion I offer no apologies. My time in my day to day life, and in fact, my time on the planet, is limited. I would note that lithium is merely one element in the car. The issue of mineral resources is a serious one that does not extend merely to automobiles, but to the whole range of human activities, some of which are actually far more important than cars. (cf. my reference in the comments above to the book Thanatia above, the merits of which, and faults of which, are certainly open to debate, but the discussion is definitely worthwhile, even if the minutiae of the silly Tesla car is not.)

    You seem to believe that I am writing here for Motor Trend Magazine. Nothing, I’m afraid, could be further from the truth.

    Thanks for your kind remarks comparing me to Lovins. You may have misinterpreted my ethical and scientific focus, but of course, you are entitled to your opinion. Trust me, I have taken no major offense since I always consider the source.

    Thanks again. Have a wonderful weekend.


    For the life of me I can’t understand how the wind and solar debacle was sold to otherwise intelligent people. I remember buying into those technologies as just part of the accepted rejection of nuclear power as we went from decade to decade to the present. The arguments against Nuclear seemed obvious until one takes a closer look at the actual production and cleanliness of our 104 reactors quietly pumping huge amounts of giga-watts through 500 and 765 KV transmission lines straight to where to user needs the power.

    It never made sense that when we have had several major blackouts in huge regional areas (recently India and Bangaladesh) how highly distributed sources like wind and solar could ever be funnelled to where they need to go with any coherence.

    I have a fair amount of idle time which I have spent plotting transmission lines in my region. I have a love affair with electrical power and to me a 500-765kv tower is a thing of beauty when I consider the energy being delivered. I took a street level tour thanks to Google Earth however on the road south from Gibralter and noticed that was not attractive were the formerly beautiful mountain ridges being despoiled by non-stop wind turbines and high voltage lines.

    I’m sorry. Every time I hear about the failure of a wind or solar project, I just have a sigh of relief. I swear I’m not a “hate-a”. I just hate stupidity, especially on a gigantic scale.

    From a cultural standpoint, I can certainly see how nuclear energy could have been taken to task in the past, and I know there are areas in Nevada and elsewhere that are ultra-toxic, but we have seen that most radioactive disasters were more contained than we thought and most were the result of the infancy of the technology.



    I agree with most of your standpoints, including that wind and solar is a waste of effort and that nuclear is our best hope. And that picturing the Tesla in front of windmills to make it look attractive is either intentionally misleading or uninformed. I only disagree with you on the issue of electric cars. But within that area I think you make sweeping statements without any data backing, which is why I compared you to Lovins, who is doing exactly the same about nuclear power.

    I think that if you care enough about a subject to offend and ridicule those who disagree with you, then you ought to also care enough to check the facts and do the numbers. If you don’t, then I will feel free to compare you to Lovins.

    I do not believe that a future without cars will materialize in this century, at least not as long as society does not break down first. Nothing that I am aware of currently indicates that such a thing will happen.

    If it is reasonable to assume that there will be cars in the future, then surely it is important to make their environmental impact as small as possible.

    My position is that while cars may never be environmentally friendly, they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. As EVs are much less environmentally problematic than traditional cars, EVs are still a good thing even if they are not completely harmless. And I think Tesla deserves credit for having shown that it is possible to make EVs that people want to buy and for having gotten the ball rolling.

    To convince me that I’m wrong, you will have to either:

    Demonstrate that the environmental benefits of EVs are small and will continue to be small in the future. This will require doing the math.

    Demonstrate that an even better alternative exists and is realizable. This will also require doing the math.

    Or show that the world is likely to be mostly free from cars in a few decades. Good luck on that one.

    A very good day to you too.

    Some remarks to no one in particular:

    I’m surprised no one jumped at me for comparing the use of electric power for heating to transportation. The truth is that electric heating is obsolete, because you can get five times more heat per unit energy input from a heat pump. On the other hand there is no better alternative for transportation than electricity.

    I don’t understand the continued debate about lead recycling, no one is using lead for EV batteries. I mentioned the better than 99 % lead acid battery recycling rate only to show that battery recycling has in fact been successful historically. There is good reason to believe that li-ion battery recycling can reach even better numbers.

    Energy storage for wind and solar is at a quite different scale from EV batteries. Even if energy storage for unreliable sources is not viable, EV batteries may well be.


    The above link gives a good discussion of what civilization is likely to be like, given plentiful nuclear generated electricity, but no super batteries or cheap way to make liquid fuels without petroleum to make running cars & airplanes reasonably cheap.

    Something rather relevant to the argument between eledille & Nnader



    Eledille questioned why we are discussing lead and the recycling thereof by writing “I don’t understand the continued debate about lead recycling”.

    If you care to read your posts of 20 days ago, you will see that you have been the most strident on this subject. You will also read others’ comments, my own included, regarding the irrelevance of quoting a lead acid recycling figure for mainland US, when the damage done by lead in the environment is a cradle-to-grave, global issue.

    NNadir has provided vastly many more citations to support his opinions, including those re private automobiles, than you have yet you have stated and repeated such as: “you make sweeping statements without any data backing, which is why I compared you to Lovins”. Not only is this incorrect; it is off topic.

    Why not return to the main event, which is a delightfully well presented discussion of the relative merits and resource limitations of nuclear technologies and of the so-called renewables, solar and wind powered electricity?

    I certainly found much in the initial post that is authoritative, well supported by citations, new to me and fun to read.



    First thank you for an interesting article and many interesting comments as well. I agree with you that Tesla style thinking is impractical to deliver cheap and environmentally safe transportation to the masses.

    The cheapest price point so far achieved is $250 per kWh battery storage capacity and the near term ambition is $100 per kWh, which still will make a Tesla size battery more expensive than many widespread small car models.

    What I simply do not understand is your strong anti wind views.

    Cost is king so any winning no polluting technology without risky supply chains is as good as any other. And especially so if you can use cheap electricity to out compete fossils on pure economics because Synfuel production would create a huge optional power dump that reduce the storage need.

    Nuclear runs with best economy if it runs continuously and this will be especially true if you aim for 60% electric conversion efficiency as in your calculations.

    John Morgan wrote an excellent blog about Synfuel and did a calculation of Synfuel cost based upon soon to come Chinese nuclear price point at $0,0204 per kWh. A figure I have not been able to get verified.

    Verified albeit a little old data from 2013 shows that the average 20 year wind PPA in US interior was $0,021 per kWh, which is about $0,031 per kWh when you factor the PTC in.
    The weighted average PPA for the entire USA wind market was $0,025 in 2013.

    As much as I agree that there never will be shortage of nuclear fuel provided breeder designs such as those you describe materializes, then you have to factor in cost of Uranium extraction provided that the methods you suggest. Ugo Bardi has in his study “Extracting Minerals from Seawater” analyzed the economic viability of extracting various metals from sea water and found limited grounds for optimism due to huge energy cost.

    If the point of Nuclear is that it can pull the global climate away from potential disastrous changes then new nuclear that it must be air cooled to avoid water waste and release of greenhouse gasses via cooling towers.

    You do not estimate the cost of electricity that can be achieved with the Nuclear revolution. I am curious about this because Saudi Arabian oil fields produce a barrel between $5 to $10 per barrel and have approximately 25% of known oil resources.

    According to John Morgans Synfuel analysis the price per liter can be $0,82 based upon low Chinese nuclear power at $0,0204 per kWh, which sums up to $130 per barrel Synfuel. Even with refinery costs and transportation fossil based fuels are easily cheaper.

    According to EIA the average price of a gallon of regular gas in May 2014 was about $3.67 whereof 65% is crude oil based, 13% refining cost, 12% taxes (federal, state and local), and 11% distribution and marketing. So refining is roughly $0,477 per gallon or $0,126 per liter. If you deduct that from John Morgans Synfuel cost you find that Synfuel is competitive only if crude oil is above $110.

    The most problematic oil fields are deep sea, arctic, Tarsand and small on land pumps that ooze a lot of metan for little oil production. They generally require high oil prices as they are expensive to explore, so initially Synfuel does not have to compete head on with cheap oil from Saudi Arabia.


    The answer to Jens’s question re cost of nuclear Vs cost of wind has been presented many times and ignored just as often.

    Wind alone is useless. It needs support from one or several other sources. Jens knows this but has yet to provide clear indication that he accepts that 100% wind requires 100% backup and hence the cost of both must be considered when evaluating wind.

    Further, I have yet to see in his contributions on this site provisions for the cost of grid upgrades to move this energy around on a national or global scale. Wind power is seen to be entitled to be provided, gratis, backup and network services, it seems, while other customers and generators must pay for them.

    Quite simply, Jens is unfairly (or, perhaps, blindly?) comparing a partial system to a complete solution to the world’s electricity supply problems.

    Jens: “If the point of Nuclear is that it can pull the global climate away from potential disastrous changes then new nuclear that it must be air cooled to avoid water waste and release of greenhouse gasses via cooling towers.”

    First, Jens has several times on BNC stated that cooling water is fresh water. Of course that is not necessarily true. There are three main, mature, methods for disposing of waste heat: salt water cooling, fresh water cooling and air cooling.

    Second, the affirmation that fresh water cooling towers release greenhouse gases is incorrect. Cooling towers release water vapour which is very quickly returned to equilibrium in the atmosphere, air and a trace of chlorine which is typically used to suppress algae growth. The greenhouse effect of a cooling tower is negligible until proven otherwise: the onus of proof is on the person making the claim.

    I look forward to reading the retraction.


    Hi Singletonengineer

    You will never get a retraction about the greenhouse effect of cooling towers simply because that would violate the laws of physics. Water vapor is in its own right the most significant climate gas and many other gasses contained in water (fresh water and seawater alike) are also climate gasses.

    Grid upgrades are just the same for a Nuclear future without fossils as for any other strategy.

    Nuclear is just as needy of backup and means to balance demand and supply as renewables and you have admitted to this and even suggested EV’s as part of that balancing.

    If nuclear does not have spinning backup and is not stabilized by a fortified grid then how would you suggest to handle Nuclear intermittency where entire reactors at times have to stop unintentionally. Current state of the art nuclear have 0,8 unintentional incidents annually while older plants and plants of lesser quality has far more.

    You have suggested to run nuclear flat out, which is a sensible technical and economic strategy but requires storage, which you also have suggested. So what is the difference between Nuclear and renewable storage – is one bigger and more expensive than the other.

    As for the cost of Nuclear and wind the fossil parity question is very interesting. If you prefer to ignore the race between non emissive technologies then be my guest but in long haul the cheapest solution will prevail so for other nuclear proponents the question is a central one. Dismissing wind based upon anything than up to date figures makes no sense at all and when you plan a nuclear plant you have to assess the price point of competing technologies in the projected lifetime of the nuclear plant.


    “If nuclear does not have spinning backup and is not stabilized by a fortified grid then how would you suggest to handle Nuclear intermittency where entire reactors at times have to stop unintentionally. Current state of the art nuclear have 0,8 unintentional incidents annually while older plants and plants of lesser quality has far more.”

    Either you are playing word games or you are uninformed. Nuclear doesn’t need any backup or storage. Assuming that you are serious but technically illiterate, suppose that there is a peak demand for nine gigawatts, build ten one-gig nuke plants. Case closed. Wind and solar are useless for the grid. In fact, they are worse than useless for supplying grid power because they are not reliable and have extremely low capacity factors.


    Jens, I believe your climate science is wrong. While water vapour is an important greenhouse “gas”, the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is a function of temperature, not external additions. Pumping water vapour into the air does not result in a prolonged increase in atmospheric water vapour. It’s not there long enough to change the temperature to keep it there. The extra just falls back down to Earth again.

    Extra CO2, on the other hand, lingers in the atmosphere, which is why CO2 emissions matter. Water vapour thus provides feedback, amplifying the effect of other greenhouse gas additions (the atmosphere/ oceans warm, water vapour increases, so temperature goes up a bit more). But water vapour doesn’t initiate changes. It’s not a “driver”.


    Jens really should provide a link to justify the claim that, in effect, water vapour from cooling towers has a substantial CO2 equivalence? Without such a link, his claim simply cannot be believed.

    I did not know whether to laugh or cry after I read a statement that refers to “Nuclear intermittency” as though, at 0.8/unit/annum is somehow much more significant than the hundreds of annual intermittency events of wind and solar. All power systems include spinning reserve in order to allow for unexpected shutdowns of a unit or two. “Nuclear intermittency” is no more an issue than meteor strike: can happen, probably will happen some day, but at an extremely low frequency.

    It is an entirely more challenging task to provide a combination of hydro, spinning reserve (generally fossil fuelled), batteries and plain old standby generation for the frequent loss of wind and/or solar as the primary energy sources of a system, whether due to the daily rotation of the earth, a stationary high pressure system coupled with low wind, or passing clouds. I have decided to laugh.


    Rick — Wind turbines and solar PV panels are quite reliable. What is much less so is the availability of the energy sources, wind and sun respectively. Both require balancing agents to match generation to demand. For example here in the Pacific Northwest hydro generation is used to balance a modest wind capacity.


    That is what I meant. Wind and solar are useless to the grid because 80% of the time, they produce no energy. And, the small amount of time that they do produce, the energy output fluctuates wildly. I am reasonable sure that the electric energy producers are somehow forced to integrate that junk into the grid because it is not economical to do so. There is nothing wrong with wind and solar as long as they are not connected to the grid. If I lived in a warm and sunny climate, I would consider a home solar installation, And, if I lived in a windy area, I would consider a windmill. And, I am still hoping for a breakthrough in battery tech. The physical facts are that it is much cheaper to produce electrical energy than it is to store it. It will probably never be economical to store amounts large enough yo benefit the grid.


    Hi Rick

    Apparently better informed than you.

    Do you in all honesty propose to run nuclear with no backup?

    You can run nuclear as a load following power plant but that will make the electricity much more expensive if you have to have a capacity to match peak demand and deliver only average demand.

    Nuclear power plants does not tolerate frequent shifts in load well and is not able to switch power up and down nearly fast enough to follow demand spikes.

    Nuclear power plants are intermittent. The newest generation state of the art nuclear reactors have 0,8 unintentional shut downs annually, which may grow over the years as has been the experience with earlier generations of nuclear power plants. This means the power plant goes from full power to zero power nearly instantly. Not an easy situation for the grid when a large contributor to the grid suddenly without forewarning seize to deliver power. Also the high capacity factor for nuclear power plants is not 100% on because there are refueling and planned maintenance schedules.

    Many countries have experienced sudden situations where they have been required to shut down a large proportion of their nuclear reactors if not all of them.

    I think it will totally blind-sighted to imagine a nuclear grid with no back and no storage unless you created a huge power dump such as a Synfuel facility or multiple heat pumps etc. that could handle excess electricity output from the reactors.

    If however you create huge power dump facilities you could just as well run the grid with solar and wind despite their lower capacity factors. In the unlikely event that wind and solar does not deliver regularly you will have experienced problems on a scale most wont survive. And capacity factors for wind is growing fast and solar too can increase the capacity factor as well as conversion efficiency considerably.

    It simply boils down to which power generation form is cheapest.

    The timeline from the initiation of a just nuclear or just renewable grid completely substitutes existing power generation is decades so you will not see the entire electricity grid go nuclear or renewable overnight and will thus have backup.

    Your assumption that energy storage will remain uneconomic is naive. To the contrary it is possible to extract CO2 and hydrogen from seawater and fabricate Synfuel using electricity from any source. The price point where cheap oil production cost in Saudi Arabia becomes in competitive with Synfuel will be reached if the cost trend in wind power during the last five years is kept in the next ten years. And there is a lot of mileage in wind power.

    The development of battery technology has exceeded expectations and is currently assumed around $300 per kWh for EV’s and some battery producers and developers talk about $100 per kWh by the end of the decade.
    As per BNC Comments Policy, please supply peer reviewed references to support your claims otherwise they may be construed as opinon only and if repeated without scientific back-up, as trolling. Thank you.


    Nuclear and coal do not need backup because they run 90-95% of the time, night and day independent of weather, unlike wind and solar that run only 20% of the time and are dependent on weather and sun. It is difficult for me to take you seriously. Comparing intermittent wind and solar with the steady output of nuclear and coal is beyond ridiculous. I am glad that you mentioned syn fuel because that is another huge advantage of NE, especially high-temp reactors. As far as load following, run the nuke plants WFO (wide freaking open) and use the energy not needed for the grid to produce hydrogen or some other syn fuel.

    “Many countries have experienced sudden situations where they have been required to shut down a large proportion of their nuclear reactors if not all of them”

    You are like a drowning man grasping at a straw. By the way, the vast majority of all unplanned shut downs are caused by the irrational fear of tiny amounts of radiation which are, in fact, harmless. Many people have been duped into believing the no-safe-dose propaganda pushed by the fossil fuel industry. I confess to having been one of them even though I have a background in mathematics and physics. Stating the facts of NE to the fossil fuel industry is like showing a cross to a vampire.


    Rick — A modest amount of wind power integrates fairly well with hydro and in so doing extends the time water is stored in the reservoirs. This works quite well in Spain, for example, where the wind resource is better inegrated into the grid than here in the Pacific Northwest.


    Jens Stubbe — The French grid is about 75% nuclear and so the French perforce load follow with their reactors. It works well enough.


    David — Thank you for the info. I knew that I was probably exaggerating. As you probably know, hydro cannot be expanded, so, the percentage will keep going down.


    Jens – please identify the “many countries” that have been forced to shut down most or all of their nuclear plants at the same time, and give us the relevant dates when this happened. I think you are making things up.

    You repeatedly point to busbar costs for renewables which are achievable because of a raft of subsidies, including offloading onto ratepayers the cost of massive new transmission lines without which remote renewables are not available to load. This is a factor you seemingly are going to refuse to discuss. Societies need energy systems that will support civilizations. Analyzing the comparative costs of such systems is how you can determine the relevant cost from a policy perspective. If you don’t do that, its just hand-waving to get attention to some data point that is of very limited relevance.

    Also, you are in error on the trend in unplanned shutdowns. It is, at least in the US, generally headed in the other direction as the legacy Gen II nuclear fleet ages, i.e., fewer, not more shutdowns.

    In 2005, the Nuclear Energy Institute (USA) noted:

    “Unplanned Automatic Reactor Shutdowns: More than one-half (61 of 103) of reactors experienced zero unplanned automatic reactor shutdowns, with an overall median industry value of zero per plant. This is the seventh time in the past eight years that the median industry value has been zero”

    This continued (2011):

    “The number of unplanned shutdowns achieved near record levels in 2011, with just 62 across the whole of the US reactor fleet, according to data complied by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO).
    “The record-low number of unplanned shutdowns helped America’s nuclear power plants achieve reliability levels on par with the high operational efficiency sustained throughout the past decade,” the US Nuclear Energy Institute said in a statement.
    Unplanned shutdowns can result from severe weather or grid disturbances that trigger safety responses. In 2011—despite tornadoes in the Southeast, the Virginia-centered East Coast earthquake, Hurricane Irene and flooding in the Midwest—US nuclear energy facilities posted a capability or availabilty factor of 91.4% percent. The US industry’s record-high capability factor, 92%, was set in 2005.”

    And continued (2015)

    “Unit capability factors – a measure of the amount of time a plant is online and producing electricity – stood at 91.7%, close to the 2015 target of 92% and remaining above 91% for the 15th consecutive year. The 59 unplanned automatic or manual reactor shutdowns, also known as scrams, experienced by US plants were the fewest recorded in the last 12 years.
    Indicators for 2014 show that US nuclear plants are approaching or already exceeding performance targets for 2015, the NEI notes. Targets are set on a five-yearly basis, so goals for 2015 were set in 2010.”

    Please also note some of the identified causes. I presume you are not going to claim that weather-dependent renewables are immune from severe weather events and grid disturbances, which, in their case, sit on top of their inherent intermittency issues.

    I suggest that it makes sense to compared existing to existing or projected to projected when looking at technology options. Comparing projections for one technology against existing operation of another is misleading. Comparing hoped-for projections on one technology to cherry-picked data about problems with another is very misleading.

    Engineering and technological development marches on for all technologies. I only wish we could divert all of the R&D money from fossil into nuclear, solar, and storage.

    Finally, I think Jens is correct about some segment of the residential market being able to substitute solar for some of their grid requirements because their “avoided cost” is their retail rate. However this trend and potential, regardless of how exciting it may be on a micro level to the people well-heeled enough, and properly situated, to take advantage of it, is approximately meaningless against the scale of the energy and emissions problems.

    Rick – Wind and solar run more often than 20% of the time. For example, wind turbines have a “cut in” speed, after which they will produce increasing amounts of power until they are producing at or very near rated capacity. Solar also is not on/off.

    The intermittency issue for these resources is not obviated by the ability to produce at below-capacity for a portion of the time.

    I note that no one, on any of these parallel threads, has falsified Armond Cohen’s statement that, even with perfect storage, you need a 5x or 6x overbuild for reliability on an intermittent renewables system. That requirement coupled with the cost of storage, and the grid enhancements needed to address power quality and consistency issues, are problems for which there is no discernible solution. Wishful thinking is not a discernible solution.


    I am rather surprised to find this thread revived in such a way as to suggest that the revival came from someone who has not read the post, or maybe read it, but didn’t comprehend it.

    Invariably the defenders of the failed, enormously expensive, and essentially useless (in an environmental sense) so called “renewable energy” industry flail with selective attention arguments.

    I will come back later with some referenced comments a little later, I suppose, should I choose not to give up and surrender the future to insipid penny counting.

    It happens that I’m in a university library now, and just for fun, I’ll try to find out who Ugo Bardi is. I’ve probably read several hundred papers, technical papers from the primary scientific literature, going back 50 years, on the extraction of uranium from seawater without once having come across his name.

    Before parting for the time being, anyone, absolutely anyone, who complains about the cost of mineral extraction – and (possibly unread) post was about suspending, for a time scale of centuries, mineral extraction for energy – and is defending the wind industry, obviously is entirely and totally unaware of the mineral depletion, and mineral extraction costs associated with the wind industry.

    I am not, in saying this, referring merely to the costs of mineral extraction as internal costs, but, as my arguments are moral arguments as well as economic arguments, I am certainly and unambiguously including external costs, costs to the environment, costs to human health, and above all, costs to the future.


    Frank — I won’t dispute your facts because you are better informed than me. However, I do recall reading a study on wind power in Germany that gave a figure of 22% for the year. One more example: I live in the northeast, just north of Boston, and I can tell you from personal observation that there is very little sun in winter, not a lot in the spring and fall, none at night, very little in early morning and very little in late afternoon. I also think that it is ridiculous that electric energy producers for the grid are forced to buy electricity that they don’t want or need. I am not opposed to wind and solar that is not connected to the grid. It already requires much effort and expense to follow the load without the wild, unpredictable, fluctuations of W and S. In the future, I predict thousands of small, super-safe, maintenence-free reactors that are returned to the factory after a few decades. The problem is that the anti-nuke luddites have made it practically impossible to build new reactor designs.


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