3 Arguments that Renewables Don’t Suffice

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I have recently become convinced by the pro-nuclear arguments. Here are three points I offer in support.

I – TIGHT PROFIT MARGINS ON A PER-WATT BASIS LEAD TO CORNER-CUTTING

One point is simply that the EROEI on renewables is so tight that corners will be cut. It turns out that the Chinese dominate the solar industry
by virtue of very high tolerance for releasing toxic chemicals into the local environment. The costs we see now that are so widely celebrated are supported by an implicit subsidy of China ruining their own landscape and their own health. I am not sure about the scale of this pollution, but given the scale of the production, it is likely vast.

By contrast, the energy profit of nukes in normal operation is immense. The nuclear industry can therefore afford and ought to support a very high level of rigor in safety and environmental protection.

I realize this is counter-intuitive, and I haven’t seen anybody make this argument. But I find it hard to argue against.

II – THE NUCLEAR WASTE ISSUE ALREADY EXISTS

We should have thought of this problem before deploying nukes in the first place. The costs of managing this issue already exist. The issue must be dealt with regardless of whether nuclear scales up. Credible top-notch engineers tell us that most of what we now consider nuclear waste can be consumed as fuel in new processes. Just on the basis of the waste issue, it’s madness not to pursue this with vigor.

III – THE LAND FOOTPRINT ISSUE

Although this is Shellenberger’s hobby horse, and Shellenberger can be mightily obtuse, this doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

This two-part video, presented by Saul Griffith, a renewables advocate, actually were what tipped me over to accepting the point that real estate is crucial to a pure-renweables solution:

https://www.themonthly.com.au/video/2013/03/24/1364105156/personal-and-global-view-energy-and-climate-saul-griffith-p2

(part 1, less germane to my points is here: https://www.themonthly.com.au/video/2013/03/24/1364105156/personal-and-global-view-energy-and-climate-saul-griffith-p1 )

It’s well worth your time, even though I take the opposite message from it than the one he is sending.

He starts with the following optimistic assumptions:

1) Global energy growth can be stopped at present levels, limiting the amount of renewables to come online to be the amount needed to replace existing production.
2) International equity is necessary, so per capita energy consumption must be redistributed. This amounts to a voluntary 80% cut in energy usage in the west. He claims to have managed this himself and expects others to do the same, neglecting that he is wealthy, unusually skilled, and unusually motivated.

Given those optimistic bases, he concludes that the land surface needed to support the renewables needed is about equivalent to the area of West Australia or about quadruple the area of Texas.

He points out that the issues with this are not only with allocating the land, but that the area is large enough that we must consider direct ecological impact.

If you believe that the west will not reduce its consumption and the rest of the world will be allowed to catch up, the land area needed is clearly quintupled, amounting to roughly the whole area of the USA or Australia.

If, net of intensity improvements, there is any further growth in the west, you’re starting to look at the industrialization of the entire surface of the world in this century. This is not an ecologically sound trajectory to say the least.

I do not believe that the west has the capacity to abandon growth very soon (although it must do so eventually), and I don’t think a solution that allows growth in the west at the cost of poverty and desperation in the rest of the world can be sustained, or indeed, tolerated (on ethical grounds).

This has convinced me that renewables do not realistically suffice and a strong push on nuclear power is necessary. We are not going to restrain our desires fast enough nor commit our resources to alternatives with enough urgency.

Comments:

  1. Michael Tobis: We are headed for a human population crash from 7 Billion to 70 thousand or zero people within 13 years.

    [ This is, I suppose, on topic and polite, but I find it terribly overstated. -mt ]

    We don't have time for research or fooling around with renewables. Causes of a population crash:

    1. Global Warming [GW] will cause civilization to collapse within 13 years because GW will cause the rain to move and the rain move will force agriculture to collapse.

    2. Population biologist William Catton says that we in the US are overcrowded; immigration must reverse. Collapse from overpopulation could happen any time now. The Earth has 4 Billion too many people. An overshoot in population requires an equal undershoot. We overshot by 4 billion, and the consequence is an undershoot by 4 billion. The carrying capacity is 3 billion. 3 billion minus 4 billion is zero because there can't be minus 1 billion people.

    3. Aquifers running dry No irrigation, no wheat. No wheat, no bread.

    4. Resource depletion
    4A oil
    4B minerals
    etcetera.

    War will kill a lot of people. Famine will kill 8 billion out of 7 billion. 7-8=-1, but with population, the crash ends at zero.

    NATURE has lots of other ways to kill humans. Don't provoke her.

    The population crash will happen before 2040, possibly as early as 2022. There is simply no time for this eternal refusal to take action. You should not expect to be among the survivors, if any.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800914000615
    Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies

    http://upriser.com/posts/study-predicts-impending-collapse-of-industrial-civilization

    http://planetsave.com/2015/06/25/climate-change-induced-collapse-of-civilization-by-2040-reports-uk-foreign-office/
    Scientific Model Indicates Climate Change-Induced Collapse of Civilization by 2040

    https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28046-extreme-weather-could-trigger-frequent-global-food-shocks/
    Extreme weather could trigger frequent global food shocks

    "Accuracy Check on Predictions of Near-Term Collapse" by Barton Paul Levenson
    http://www.ajournal.co.uk/pdfs/BSvolume13(1)/BSVol.13%20(1)%20Article%202.pdf

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2015/03/unforced-variations-march-2015/comment-page-5/#comment-627687
    233 Barton Paul Levenson says:

    http://www.lloyds.com/~/media/files/news%20and%20insight/risk%20insight/2015/food%20system%20shock/food%20system%20shock_june%202015.pdf
    "Food System Shock" Food prices go up 500% by 2030. Lloyd's of London insurance

  2. I agree a nuclear build-out makes good sense. This is a very reliable way to get a lot of consistent energy.

    However I do not think that 100% renewable is impossible or even impractical either. It would be more expensive, complex, and difficult than a plan using nuclear, but I think we tend to underestimate the sheer amount of resources we COULD bring to bear IF the political will existed to do so. Given that political will is in short supply, this is an important caveat!

    One approach is space-based solar: http://theidiottracker.blogspot.com/2013/08/space-based-solar.html.

    Enhanced geothermal systems (http://www.economist.com/news/business/21612193-why-geothermal-new-fracking-hot-rocks) and tidal power (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/bay-fundy-tidal-project-approved-1.3643256) both offer the potential to evade the limitations of the solar-wind-hydro triad.

    Basically, the problem I see in a lot of the debates between pro-nuclear activists all all-renewables activists is that both tend to apply creativity and flexible problem-solving when looking at their favored solution tend to treat the other as a rigid, one-size-fits-all toolkit.

    Thus nuclear folks rarely look seriously at demand management, unconventional sources like space-based-solar, or unconventional storage solutions like syngas. Pure-RE advocates point to nuclear's expense and slow rollouts without reflecting on whether mass production of standardized designs or newer "advanced" nuclear tech could address these problems.

    There are many things we can do. All will be expensive & difficult, although some will be more difficult than others (http://theidiottracker.blogspot.com/2016/06/we-can-do-100-renewables-but-we.html). What matters that we do something, something serious, starting now.

  3. I agree that there are a lot of avenues to pursue. What I can't agree to is not pursuing the ones that are already open.

    As for this: "both tend to apply creativity and flexible problem-solving when looking at their favored solution tend to treat the other as a rigid, one-size-fits-all toolkit.", well yes and no. In some sense this is a human failing and is bound to be seen everywhere. On the other, I don't see pro-nuke people as anti-renewable (or anti-efficiency or anti-load-balancing), so much as makin gthe case that these won't suffice. Which I am increasingly convinced is correct. So this seems a bit, hmm, mainstream-media-ish.

    The real question is whether to constrain the availability of energy because the problem is difficult, or whether to expand the availability of energy because the problem is even more difficult with energy constrained.

    This is really the question at issue as far as I am concerned. Is it necessary to constrain wealth? Is there a way for a wealthy society to protect and manage the environment that is better than what a constrained, materially unambitious one cannot? I don't think the case has been made well either way. By staking out the possibility of a high-energy path, I am trying to bring this question into focus.

    If something else comes a long that is capable fo doing what nuclear can do at lesser risk, so much the better.

    Based on a talk at AGU a few years back, the last time I was able to attend, the geothermal idea has enormous potential. I am not sure how quickly it can be realized.

    I had thought the space solar thing had pretty much run out of steam; I can't recollect why. I was arguing for it in the 90s, based on stuff that Stewart Brand was pushing in Coevolution Quarterly. I'll read your piece on it. Also I am adding your blog to the syndicated blogs page if you don't mind. This will push your RSS feed to the @planet3org Twitter stream as well.

  4. I had thought the space solar thing had pretty much run out of steam; I can't recollect why.

    It is easier to get forgiveness than to get permission.

    Now-a-days fossil fuels are where government gets a lot of its money. People say fossil fuels are subsidized, but that is essentially a lie, much as it would be for a rich kid with a $200-a-week allowance, after taking his father to a movie, to say Dad is subsidized by him.

    In this analogy we, the fossil fuel-using public, are Dad, and government is the child. The allowance we pay is royalties and severances, motor fuel excise taxes, import duties, "green taxes", and perhaps others.

    It would be a major public service if someone who easily can, would document the totality of this inappropriate interest in an accessible way. If this person is in the relevant department in a civil service that wants the information to remain fragmented and obscure to the public, but has an internal document on his workstation that lays it out with elegant claruty, perhaps he could leak it anonymously ... or publish his own, similarly bean-spilling version of the document the day after retiring from the department, as Hansen did with his and Kharecha's Prevented Mortality.

    Forgiveness and permission ... the offence for which nuclear power has to some extent been forgiven, and fans of space solar power fans hope it will be permitted, is depriving public servants of huge amounts of fossil revenue; in nuclear power's case, cumulatively, trillions. Mega-millions.

    The mechanics of that permission would be allowing space freight vehicles to resume the trend of increasing size and efficiency that abruptly ended with the Apollo program. Efficiency can greatly increase even if vehicle sizes don't, witness this rocket first stage not being thrown away after one flight.

  5. Hi there, I arrived here from researching Guy McPherson. I'm a little confused. You present a rather harsh, if not down-right personal attack aka "take-down" of his prognostications and observations. Yet most, if not all the modelling on the subject of GW have led to inaccurate time line estimates (sometimes its the model sometimes the interpretation). Is it not reasonable for a layman to conclude that "we" are in a state of chaos as far as accurate trending going forward? Perhaps he is right about the compounding effects of things he hasn't even considered?

    The other confusion is that I read your estm about the population reduction, ie. die-off due to climate changes. Is the difference between you and McPherson a question of degree and/or causality?
    Lastly, the guerilla in the room, the building of more power reactors not withstanding (construction estm 10+ years and $$?), what odds do you place on a nuclear weapons exchange in the next 6 months if not 13 years. Which will make all of this hot air mute.
    (I would bring to our attention the failed CIA backed coup attempt in Turkey which is likely a historical turning point for the region turning East)

    "The brain use to be my favorite organ until I realized who it was that was telling me this" -- Annon.

    Best,
    A

  6. Nothing personal about it. McPherson's analysis is wrong.

    That said, if we don't get a grip soon, which appears on present evidence increasingly unlikely, I do think the consequences will be very severe.

    But McPherson's advice is that the game is already lost, and there is nothing left to save no matter what we do, except for our dignity in his inevitable planetary extinction. This is terrible advice.

    Do I think a nuclear war is still possible? Unfortunately, I do. Even that is not the same as utter extinction. Even in a nuclear exchange there will be something left to save. But let's try not to get to that eventuality.

  7. So-called waste isn't a problem. The current plan is to keep the once-through uranium pins on-site rather than centralizing the way the navy does. The amount is trivally small. In the long term these materials will contribute to the high electricity, low greenhouse gas emissions society of the future.

    What is a waste issue is the proper disposal of all the fly ash from burning coal.

  8. I agree with this Michael. It is indeed odd that nuclear power has suffered so much from in my view unreasonable fear. I would compare it to airplane travel, an inherently dangerous activity. By very careful regulation and vastly improved aircraft designs, safety has gotten better and better. Certainly on any objective basis, airline travel is vastly safer than any other form of transportation. Why would we expect nuclear technology to be any different? The other shameful part is the failure of the government to solve the nuclear waste issue. Deep burial or storage should be easy and cheap. All in all, not a confidence builder in our ability to deal with problems effectively.

  9. I suspect that operators of nuclear, already with cost and competitiveness problems, will never be free of the desire to cut corners - although strong and enforced regulation will tend to limit the opportunities to do so. Massively expand it's use around the world and almost certainly we will more opportunities and examples of corner cutting gone wrong. If renewables manufacture is excessively polluting that is cause to see that addressed, not cause to limit the growth of renewables; that may well increase prices although I think we are still a long way from truly optimised or least cost versions. Such optimising ought to include recovery and re-use of materials from within the production stream as well as post-use.

    Nuclear waste, renewables waste and waste in general all needs to be dealt with. I'm not sure how well we will manage to do that - it tends to involve foresight and planning which are acceptable enough and regulation and enforcement which are not. Nuclear waste becoming fuel in IFN style breeder reactors remain effectively hypothetical. A major nuclear renaissance would be needed to make them the standard and I don't think that can happen without an end to the conflicted climate/energy/emissions political quagmire. I don't think we can get serious nuclear for climate expansion without that change and I think the greatest impediments to that are not the renewables favouring climate advocates but the ongoing combination of reluctance and resistance to strong climate action that encompasses such a large and influential portion of the political landscape, much of it across the middle ground.

    With the greatest concentration of existing support for nuclear having it's home in Conservative Right politics it is overlapping and allied politically with opposition to strong climate action so it can't be mobilised effectively. Take away the influence of "green" advocacy by discrediting it and I think it will see the reluctant and resistant positions strengthened rather than nuclear for climate advanced. Here in Australia the most prominent and publicised nuclear advocacy is by people who are staunch defenders of fossil fuels and opponents of strong climate action. Frankly, I think if anti-nuclear activism didn't exist and nuclear was the principle policy of popular climate advocacy the tankthinkers seeking to legitimise the permanent avoidance of climate responsibility being a legally recognised thing would probably have to invent it.

    More broadly with respect to managing waste I've found the approach of McDonough and Braungart ("Cradle to Cradle" and "Waste Equals Food") that aims for truly recyclable materials that can be reused at the original quality rather than the more familiar downcycling that merely puts a step or two between use and disposal inspiring - but I don't think we have the combination of community awareness and concern or the political maturity for it.

    Footprints and EROI? I expect PV at least will be increasingly integrated into made structures and into already seriously disrupted landscapes. I think renewables can thrive with lower EROI than nuclear - clearly they are doing so. To what extent price reflects an EROI component I don't know but expect there is a relationship. If there are real limits for RE we haven't hit them yet but right now, even in a conflicted political landscape, it is proving to be transformative in ways nuclear has failed to be. Nuclear, far more than renewables depends on clear, long running climate policy commitment across the political mainstream. Renewables can incrementally chip away at the fossil fueled status quo, and having passed crucial price barriers, will continue to do so even with reduced direct subsidy and support. In the absence of good policy it may well be disruptive, but in the absence of those renewables and their effective advocacy I think the fossil fueled status quo would remain rock solid.

    Renewables may have gotten policy support as populist appeasement to community concerns, I suspect with a big dose of "give 'em enough rope" cynicism, but they continue to exceed expectations and the well of innovation is a long way from running dry. I think the framing of the issue as an Environmentalist driven one was itself a consequence of mainstream failure to engage with it, aided by deliberate efforts to taint it by association with extremist ratbaggery. No surprise that Environmentalists jumped on the issue and sought to promote their preferred responses as part of that - what is a surprise is that the mainstream allowed and even encouraged them. The climate science part they got right and that boosted the credibility and effectiveness of their advocacy. Renewables proved much less costly than anticipated which boosted it more. By changing perceptions about such an approach having real prospects it has changed the way the whole climate/emissions/energy issue is perceived. That, perhaps more than actual emissions achievements, has been profoundly transformative.

    It is my hope that being even intermittently low cost will see it continue to expand, and that expansion will impact the entrenched assumptions about the viability of transforming energy systemes that sustain the obstructionism. It can divide the influential commerce and industry sector from it's dependence on and support for the fossil fuel sub-sector and I think economic alarmism within commerce and industry around acceptance of the climate science has been fundamental to sustaining the Doubt, Deny, Delay politics that has been preventing a non-partisan and therefore adequate commitment to facing the problem. Even if it cannot achieve 100%, renewables are forcing change on electricity supply systems and that in turn is cracking those systems and the politics they are built on wide open. Nuclear advocacy has failed to make any dent in the alignment of powerful interests that has sustained the reluctance and resistance to embracing the necessary change. Ironically Enviromentalist advocated growth of Renewables may even trigger the political changes that the nuclear for climate option desperately needs, not by causing the end of the influence of anti-nuclear advocacy, which I think has never been that deeply embraced within the halls of power, but by ending anti-climate advocacy, which has.

  10. In illustration of David B. Benson's point, this photo of CANDU nuclear waste. Like the ancient Magnox reactors whose existence I pointed out, I think it was here, a few years ago, CANDUs run on unenriched uranium (but unlike Magnox, they have an isotopically enriched moderator: heavy water).

    Unenriched fuel means that roughly the same amount of radioactivity is created per unit of useful energy, but it is distributed through a greater spent fuel volume, compared to the contents of similar casks in the USA. Even so, each of the pictured waste casks accommodates the leftovers from about 300 people's lifetime electricity use, direct and indirect.


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  1. The first spent fuel we dumped in the ocean. We stopped doing that because we couldn’t find it again to get it back. The reason We keep spent fuel is because we intend to recycle it some day. If we really wanted to get rid of it, we would still dump it in the ocean.

    In the 1960s, we recycled spent nuclear fuel.  We don't recycle nuclear fuel now for two reasons:

    1. It is valuable and people steal it. The place it went that it wasn't supposed to go to was Israel. This happened in a small town near Pittsburgh, PA circa 1970. A company called Numec was in the business of reprocessing nuclear fuel. [I almost took a job there in 1968, designing a nuclear battery for a heart pacemaker.]

    2. Virgin uranium is so cheap that it is cheaper than recycling. This will change eventually, which is why we keep the spent fuel where we can reach it. The US possesses a lot of MOX fuel made from the plutonium removed from bombs. MOX is essentially free fuel since it was paid for by the process of un-making bombs.

    Please read this Book: "Plentiful Energy, The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor" by Charles E. Till and Yoon Il Chang, 2011
    Or get a free book from: http://www.thesciencecouncil.com/prescription-for-the-planet.html

    Recycling processes:
    Purex process: The old one. Separates out plutonium, but does not separate the isotopes of plutonium. Any bomb made with this plutonium from a powerplant reactor would fizzle.
    Pyro process: Leaves plutonium mixed with uranium and trans-uranic elements. [All fissionable elements are kept together with uranium]
    Other processes [wet] are also under development.

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