Going Nuclear

Going Nuclear May 9, 2021

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is proving to be an interesting and thought-provoking read. In this excerpt, he gives an account of how some of our energy and carbo problems are necessarily solved by nuclear energy. This is from his chapter on The Environment, and starts with a look at the idea of decaarbonisation:

The long sweep of decarbonization shows that economic growth is not synonymous with burning carbon. Some optimists believe that if the trend is allowed to evolve into its next phase—from low-carbon natural gas to zerocarbon nuclear energy, a process abbreviated as “N2N”—the climate will have a soft landing. But only the sunniest believe this will happen by itself. Annual CO2 emissions may have leveled off for the time being at around 36 billion tons, but that’s still a lot of CO2 added to the atmosphere every year, and there is no sign of the precipitous plunge we would need to stave off the harmful outcomes. Instead, decarbonization needs to be helped along with pushes from policy and technology, an idea called deep decarbonization.73

It begins with carbon pricing: charging people and companies for the damage they do when they dump their carbon into the atmosphere, either as a tax on carbon or as a national cap with tradeable credits. Economists across the political spectrum endorse carbon pricing because it combines the unique advantages of governments and markets.74 No one owns the atmosphere, so people (and companies) have no reason to stint on emissions that allow each of them to enjoy their energy while harming everyone else, a perverse outcome that economists call a negative externality (another name for the collective costs in a public goods game, or the damage to the commons in the Tragedy of the Commons). A carbon tax, which only governments can impose, “internalizes” the public costs, forcing people to factor the harm into every carbon-emitting decision they make. Having billions of people decide how best to conserve, given their values and the information conveyed by prices, is bound to be more efficient and humane than having government analysts try to divine the optimal mixture from their desks. The potters don’t have to hide their kilns from the Carbon Police; they can do their part in saving the planet by taking shorter showers, forgoing Sunday drives, and switching from beef to eggplant. Parents don’t have to calculate whether diaper services, with their trucks and laundries, emit more carbon than the makers of disposable diapers; the difference will be folded into the prices, and each company has an incentive to lower its emissions to compete with the other. Inventors and entrepreneurs can take risks on carbon-free energy sources that would compete against fossil fuels on a level playing field rather than the tilted one we have now, in which the fossils get to spew their waste into the atmosphere for free. Without carbon pricing, fossil fuels—which are uniquely abundant, portable, and energy-dense—have too great an advantage over the alternatives.

Carbon taxes, to be sure, hit the poor in a way that concerns the left, and they transfer money from the private to the public sector in a way that annoys the right. But these effects can be neutralized by adjusting sales, payroll, income, and other taxes and transfers. (As Al Gore put it: Tax what you burn, not what you earn.) And if the tax starts low and increases steeply and predictably over time, people can factor the increase into their long-term purchases and investments, and by favoring low-carbon technologies as they evolve, escape most of the tax altogether.75

Before going on to look at nuclear energy as being the best solution for it:

A second key to deep decarbonization brings up an inconvenient truth for the traditional Green movement: nuclear power is the world’s most abundant and scalable carbon-free energy source.76 Although renewable energy sources, particularly solar and wind, have become drastically cheaper, and their share of the world’s energy has more than tripled in the past five years, that share is still a paltry 1.5 percent, and there are limits on how high it can go.77 The wind is often becalmed, and the sun sets every night and may be clouded over. But people need energy around the clock, rain or shine. Batteries that could store and release large amounts of energy from renewables will help, but ones that could work on the scale of cities are years away. Also, wind and solar sprawl over vast acreage, defying the densification process that is friendliest to the environment. The energy analyst Robert Bryce estimates that simply keeping up with the world’s increase in energy use would require turning an area the size of Germany into wind farms every year.78 To satisfy the world’s needs with renewables by 2050 would require tiling windmills and solar panels over an area the size of the United States (including Alaska), plus Mexico, Central America, and the inhabited portion of Canada.79

Nuclear energy, in contrast, represents the ultimate in density, because, in a nuclear reaction, E = mc2: you get an immense amount of energy (proportional to the speed of light squared) from a small bit of mass. Mining the uranium for nuclear energy leaves a far smaller environmental scar than mining coal, oil, or gas, and the power plants themselves take up about one five-hundredth of the land needed by wind or solar.80 Nuclear energy is available around the clock, and it can be plugged into power grids that provide concentrated energy where it is needed. It has a lower carbon footprint than solar, hydro, and biomass, and it’s safer than them, too. The sixty years with nuclear power have seen thirty-one deaths in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the result of extraordinary Soviet-era bungling, together with a few thousand early deaths from cancer above the 100,000 natural cancer deaths in the exposed population.81 The other two famous accidents, at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011, killed no one. Yet vast numbers of people are killed day in, day out by the pollution from burning combustibles and by accidents in mining and transporting them, none of which make headlines. Compared with nuclear power, natural gas kills 38 times as many people per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, biomass 63 times as many, petroleum 243 times as many, and coal 387 times as many— perhaps a million deaths a year.82

Nordhaus and Shellenberger summarize the calculations of an increasing number of climate scientists: “There is no credible path to reducing global carbon emissions without an enormous expansion of nuclear power. It is the only low carbon technology we have today with the demonstrated capability to generate large quantities of centrally generated electric power.”83 The Deep Carbonization Pathways Project, a consortium of research teams that have worked out roadmaps for countries to reduce their emissions enough to meet the 2°C target, estimates that the United States will have to get between 30 and 60 percent of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050 (1.5 to 3 times the current fraction), at the same time that it generates far more of that electricity to take over from fossil fuels in heating homes, powering vehicles, and producing steel, cement, and fertilizer.84 In one scenario, this would require quadrupling its nuclear capacity. Similar expansions would be necessary in China, Russia, and other countries.85

Unfortunately, the use of nuclear power has been shrinking just when it should be growing. In the United States, eleven nuclear reactors have recently been closed or are threatened with closure, which would cancel the entire carbon savings from the expanded use of solar and wind. Germany, which has relied on nuclear energy for much of its electricity, is shutting down its plants as well, increasing its carbon emissions from the coal-fired plants that replace them, and France and Japan may follow its lead.

Why are Western countries going the wrong way? Nuclear power presses a number of psychological buttons—fear of poisoning, ease of imagining catastrophes, distrust of the unfamiliar and the man-made—and the dread has been amplified by the traditional Green movement and its dubiously “progressive” supporters.86 One commentator blames global warming on the Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, and the other rock stars whose 1979 No Nukes concert and film galvanized baby-boomer sentiment against nuclear power. (Sample lyrics of the closing anthem: “Just give me the warm power of the sun . . . But won’t you take all your atomic poison power away.”)87 Some of the blame might go to Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and the producers of the 1979 disaster film The China Syndrome, so named because the melted-down nuclear reactor core would supposedly sink through the Earth’s crust all the way to China, after making “an area the size of Pennsylvania” uninhabitable. In a devilish coincidence, the Three Mile Island plant in central Pennsylvania suffered its partial meltdown two weeks after the movie’s release, creating widespread panic and making the very idea of nuclear power as radioactive as its uranium fuel.

It’s often said that with climate change, those who know the most are the most frightened, but with nuclear power, those who know the most are the least frightened.88 As with oil tankers, cars, planes, buildings, and factories (chapter 12), engineers have learned from the accidents and near-misses and have progressively squeezed more safety out of nuclear reactors, reducing the risks of accidents and contamination far below those of fossil fuels. The advantage even extends to radioactivity, which is a natural property of the fly ash and flue gases emitted by burning coal.

Still, nuclear power is expensive, mainly because it must clear crippling regulatory hurdles while its competitors have been given easy passage. Also, in the United States, nuclear power plants are now being built, after a lengthy hiatus, by private companies using idiosyncratic designs, so they have not climbed the engineer’s learning curve and settled on the best practices in design, fabrication, and construction. Sweden, France, and South Korea, in contrast, have built standardized reactors by the dozen and now enjoy cheap electricity with substantially lower carbon emissions. As Ivan Selin, former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, put it, “The French have two kinds of reactors and hundreds of kinds of cheese, whereas in the United States the figures are reversed.”89

For nuclear power to play a transformative role in decarbonization it will eventually have to leap past the second-generation technology of light-water reactors. (The “first generation” consisted of prototypes from the 1950s and early 1960s.) Soon to come on line are a few Generation III reactors, which evolved from the current designs with improvements in safety and efficiency but so far have been plagued by financial and construction snafus. Generation IV reactors comprise a half-dozen new designs which promise to make nuclear plants a mass-produced commodity rather than finicky limited editions.90 One type might be cranked out on an assembly line like jet engines, fitted into shipping containers, transported by rail, and installed on barges anchored offshore cities. This would allow them to clear the NIMBY hurdle, ride out storms or tsunamis, and be towed away at the end of their useful lives for decommissioning. Depending on the design, they could be buried and operated underground, cooled by inert gas or molten salt that needn’t be pressurized, refueled continuously with a stream of pebbles rather than shut down for the replacement of fuel rods, equipped to co-generate hydrogen (the cleanest of fuels), and designed to shut themselves off without power or human intervention if they overheat. Some would be fueled by relatively abundant thorium, and others by uranium extracted from seawater, from dismantled nuclear weapons (the ultimate beating of swords into plowshares), from the waste of existing reactors, or even from their own waste—the closest we will ever get to a perpetual-motion machine, capable of powering the world for thousands of years. Even nuclear fusion, long derided as the energy source that is “thirty years away and always will be,” really may be thirty years away (or less) this time.91

The benefits of advanced nuclear energy are incalculable. Most climate change efforts call for policy reforms (such as carbon pricing) which remain contentious and will be hard to implement worldwide even in the rosiest scenarios. An energy source that is cheaper, denser, and cleaner than fossil fuels would sell itself, requiring no herculean political will or international cooperation.92 It would not just mitigate climate change but furnish manifold other gifts. People in the developing world could skip the middle rungs in the energy ladder, bringing their standard of living up to that of the West without choking on coal smoke. Affordable desalination of seawater, an energyravenous process, could irrigate farms, supply drinking water, and, by reducing the need for both surface water and hydro power, allow dams to be dismantled, restoring the flow of rivers to lakes and seas and revivifying entire ecosystems. The team that brings clean and abundant energy to the world will benefit humanity more than all of history’s saints, heroes, prophets, martyrs, and laureates combined.

Personally, I have always been rather split on uclear. I am a massive fan of renewables and alternative energy and nuclear kind of straddles the gap between fossil fuels and alternatives. It’s interesting to consider the actual damage caused by nucelar as opposed to the perceived danger it represents. This disconnect is kind of to be expected with how irrational human thought can be.

Yes, that level of dense energy provision is certainly an attractive prospect, and the land needed for comparable rennewable provision is huge. But I wonder with technological advances whether renewables can provide in a more efficient and cost effective way (such as super heating devices, hydricity and concentrated solar power – CSP).

Anywho, I’m not sure where i sit on nuclear. In principle, if I knew if was clean and safe, obviously I would not have any issue with it. Perhaps I just need to know more about it.


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