My post about fighting climate skeptics in the nuclear community has attracted some rather passionate discussion. I encourage you all to visit that post and read through the comments to learn a little more about several different points of view. This discussion is not about picking a side in a bipolar battle, but about making informed choices that require understanding complex subjects.
When it comes to picking energy paths, there is as much need to understand human communications and decision process as there is to understand the technology opportunities. Business plays a role, political leaning plays a role, and international policy plays a role.
Some of the commenters have darkly warned me with a message that I first heard at an ANS meeting in the mid 1990s – they tell me that I had better not choose to align with environmentalists over fossil fuels. I guess they think that might makes right,
Perhaps they do not understand that I make a clear distinction between sincere people who are honestly working to make the environment cleaner and more hospitable for all living creatures and “Environmentalists” that preach messages about the need to avoid using nuclear energy and the benefits of expensive energy in sending a conservation signal to people that like to drive large cars or operate power boats. The end result of that kind of Environmentalism is to benefit the establishment fossil fuel industry; my hypothesis is that the relationship is far from accidental.
Other commenters have asked why I would risk alienating nuclear supporters by picking fights with people who are in the community. The answer to that one is complicated, but it seems to me that there is little risk of any of them abandoning their support for nuclear energy development just because I make an argument that offends them.
On the other hand, if I tell the truth about the benefits of nuclear energy as I see them, I might attract a passionate supporter or two. My arguments might result in a few people recognizing that nuclear energy is a powerful tool that will help them win an important battle for our future prosperity or survival. Passionately writing about nuclear energy as a climate change solution (among its other beneficial qualities) seems to be a reasonable risk for someone like me to take. I do not charge anyone to visit Atomic Insights and I do not host any advertising; if a mass of readers decide to never again return it has no effect on my well-being.
One of the more passionate contributors to the discussion is a man who doubts that human produced CO2 plays much of a role because the natural sources of CO2 are so much larger. I thought it would be worthwhile to elevate my response to his comment to the front page.
The nuclear-focused part of the energy industry is quite tiny and limited to just a few companies like Bruce Power or Cameco. A large portion of the rest of the participants in the industry are actually in the energy equipment business and do not care whether they sell equipment to be used in coal, natural gas, oil, biomass, wind or solar.
Another portion of what is often called “the nuclear industry” includes the operating companies that are actually in the business of selling electricity; most of them are structures so that their profits are not based on what kind of power plant they operate. They make the same return on investment even if the capital is idly invested in solar or wind or if they are operating a gas turbine burning expensive fuel inefficiently. Fuel costs are often passed directly to consumers, and there is no cost associated with dumping hydrocarbon waste products to the common atmosphere. That purposeful set up ensures there is no real incentive to consider buying equipment that produces power with really cheap and emissions free fuel.
I’ve spoken on numerous occasions to PR representatives for both energy equipment suppliers and utility operators at events touted as being about nuclear energy. Inevitably they have told me that they are not allowed to compare nuclear energy against its alternative ways of producing heat or electricity.
They can tell people that nuclear is safe; in fact they are almost invariably told that they must lead with that message. The NEI even started a web site with this URL http://safetyfirst.nei.org/. However, they are not allowed to mention that nuclear has proven to be far safer than coal, natural gas, oil, wind, or solar. They are allowed to call nuclear “clean air energy” but not allowed to mention that the alternatives of coal, natural gas or oil produce “dirty air energy”.
I view the energy discussion through the lens of a unique set of experiences (we all do). I started out my collegiate education as an English major who was more interested in humanity than in engineering. I studied topics like “Satire and Sensibility in the Age of Reason” and completed an individual advanced research project that compared the influence of Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) against that of Joseph Heller (Catch 22). I was trained to recognize slant, to dig through stories to find out why characters did or said what they did, and to attempt to understand what authors were really trying to say with the words they carefully chose to share.
I served as a submarine engineering and communications officer and earned a Master’s in Systems Technology with a focus in decision support systems. I then served as the engineering department head where I gained important hands on experience in how a fission power plant can really run. I became friends with many sailors and chief petty officers because submarines have tight crews with few boundaries if you do not want to recognize them. (My dad was a WWII sailor and my father in law is a retired master sergeant; I never looked down from any blue tile perches like some of my fellow officers.)
I’ve not only been a professional naval officer who studied the importance of fuel in world affairs, but I’ve also been a businessman selling the concept of small modular reactors starting in 1993. I’ve been a businessman competing in a cutthroat enterprise of selling plastic injection molded toys, cooking tools, medical supplies and marine products against competitors that used other materials or really cheap labor from China or the Asian tiger economies.
I became friends with production factory workers by getting out on the floor, participating in assembly parties to get an order out the door, running equipment to provide bio breaks, operating a forklift, and making deliveries to other local companies that used our parts in larger assemblies. My wife worked for a major regional environmental organization, which gave me the opportunity to become friends with a number of people from that “community.”
When skeptics talk about the small percentage of annual CO2 released by human activity, they often neglect to mention that all natural sources of CO2 also have natural sinks (loss terms in a differential equation) that lead to an annual cyclic balance. The portion of CO2 released by burning long ago buried hydrocarbons is a pure addition term, leading to a small annual increase in inventory.
The buildup is a little like a savings account started by a disciplined child who permanently puts away 1-5% of his income every year. As that child develops and prospers, her savings account keeps growing and growing to the point where the numbers get quite impressive. There may even be a little bit of compound interest helping that account to grow.
There is another analog that nuclear-trained skeptics should think about when told about the small fraction of anthropogenic CO2 in the overall production rate. The fraction of neutrons that is “delayed” and does not appear at the instant of fission is quite small, somewhat less than 1%. That small portion of the total neutron production ends up being extremely important in our ability to control reactor power and the rate at which reactor power changes.
At steady power or at times when only a small amount of excess reactivity is in the core, things work wonderfully. If, on the other hand, systems allow operators to insert enough reactivity so that the core is “critical” on prompt neutrons alone, things get out of control in a hurry. That is why we are so careful to make sure that there is a vanishingly small probability of ever inserting that much reactivity – unless the reactor is a research reactor specifically designed to “pulse” to a much higher than average power.
I worry about CO2 driven climate change. Human activity produces about 30 billion tons of the stuff annually. Sure, it is natural and food for plants, but so is feces. Both are important, but should be kept in their place or under control.
I push for reliable, affordable nuclear fission alternative energy that will make us more energy secure and not require any lifestyle changes or sacrifices other than spending a little more time learning math and science. I frequently point out that spending resources on wind and solar energy is dumb. Someday, someone might prove that my worry was misplaced, but I would prefer that outcome over pursuing business as usual and finding out that increasing CO2 concentration was as bad as some of the experts tell us it is.