Cure climate crisis by shifting to Fission, Fast!

Randy Olson’s post about the contribution of a short, alliterative slogan to the mass attraction of the No Nukes movement inspired my recent post about using Fission Fast! to inspire effective action to improve our climate situation. Olson has responded to that proposal with his own idea in a post titled Curb Carbon or Fission Fast?.

In that post, Olson leads with the following statement:

Pro-nuker Rod Adams correctly pointed out that I know nuttin’ when it comes to the issue of nuclear power today, but more importantly, he offered up a simple slogan (Fission Fast!) just as I was thinking of a similar simple slogan (Curb Carbon), neither of which are much use in a world so fractious and leaderless that nobody’s listening to any leaders. Oh, well.

Know New Nukes

Great slogan. Cool concept. Unistar’s execution hit hurdles.

Considering the fact that the initial post that inspired mine was one in which Olson drafted an ode to the No Nukes movement, my gut reaction was probably typical nuke – see, I told you those antinuclear activists were ignorant. I need to educate him! I immediately realized that approach was doomed to failure; Olson is a scientist with a bonafide PhD; he is probably not terribly interested in being educated by an arrogant nuke who can show him the way to the atomic truth.

Instead, I am going to try a more friendly, personal approach that offers inspiration and hope instead of criticism for not knowing much about a technology that has been purposely kept quite secret and suppressed.

Well-educated, successful people like Olson are often quite interested in understanding more about the activities that motivate others. They are intensely curious about the world and are justifiably proud of their ability to read, write, evaluate, form and mold opinions. I am more interested in learning more about Olson’s filmmaking and storytelling expertise than I am in trying to educate him about nuclear energy.

Aside: Olson’s book, Don’t be Such a Scientist inspired me to purchase his film titled Flock of Dodos which is a delightful way to learn a bit more about biology and the environment. He is a skilled communicator who is interested in helping others develop their own skills. End Aside.

Perhaps one way to become closer is to share just a little about what inspires me to be an atomic optimist (or “pro-nuker” in his lingo.)

Energy density matters

Energy density matters

Since the earth’s ability to sustain our civilization’s infrastructure – coastal cities, farms, rivers, hydroelectric dams, riverfront factories, etc – is being threatened by our combustion waste products, we are in desperate need of a solution that will work. I love homo sapiens as a species and believe that our technology and creations are a fundamental part of what makes us human.

I have enjoyed a good life as a middle-class American enabled by access to abundant energy sources. I’ve always lived in a comfortable home, been able to travel freely, and consumed plenty of good food – perhaps just a little too much of that – and clean water. I’ve traveled enough to know that most people in the world do not live like we do in America. I have read enough to understand that the primary difference is our access to affordable energy that gives us the power to do work.

I want to leave a world full of the opportunities enabled by abundant energy for future generations. I’m inspired by my love of human beings to seek ways to spread that abundance far and wide. If the only solution to a continued increase in CO2 was cutting back or doing without power; I would have probably fallen into an incurable depression by now.

Power of a ton of coal between your fingertips

Power of a ton of coal

Instead, I had the good fortune to learn early in life about an amazing gift given to humans by nature (God if you prefer) that enables our natural desire to create a better life for ourselves to continue by expanding our capacity to do work instead of living a world of diminished expectations.

Dad introduced me to the magic of atomic energy when I was about eight years old. I was later inspired to focus my career on energy production because I came of age in the 1970s, a time when everyone was frightened about the future by two rather dramatic leaps in the price of oil and reductions in access to oil products.

I chose to attend the US Naval Academy because I wanted to be a nuclear engineer. My high school guidance counselor told me that the Navy had the best program in the world for nuclear engineering. The best news was that the Navy operated a well respected college; not only was tuition, room and board free, but they would pay me to attend. Even though there has always been intense competition for slots at that school, I rarely earned a ‘B’, led a student organization or two, and competed on a national level in swimming. My guidance counselor was pretty certain I could get an appointment – if I would cut my hair and stop hanging out with the pot heads and boozers.

During my senior year at the Naval Academy, Admiral Rickover accepted me into his program, figuring that even though I had chosen to study English, his people could pour enough knowledge into my head to turn me into a nuke.

I personally experienced atomic energy’s incredible capabilities by serving on board submarines built in the early 1960s that were able to operate for 14 years on a load of fuel that could fit under my office desk. It was an amazing experience; the academic descriptions in books did not do it justice. The plant that provided our power did not discharge any waste to the environment other than a little warm water; it retained all of its waste products in that same tiny volume where the fuel was loaded.

Aside: I later learned that all of the US Navy’s used fuel from all of its ships and submarines is stored in a single facility that occupies a small portion of a vast federal installation in the Idaho desert. End Aside.

Another Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy

Another Environmentalist for Nuclear energy

As I read and heard more about the long term effect of dumping billions of tons of combustion waste products into the atmosphere every year, I became energized about the potential for nuclear energy to save the world. I became an “environmentalist for nuclear energy.” People around the world have always wanted energy that was abundant, affordable and clean, but many of them had, for some unfathomable reason, turned their backs on a fuel that could do the job.

After my Engineer Officer tour on a submarine, I started on a quest to figure out why the world did not like nuclear energy. I took several advanced engineering classes to learn more about alternative energy from one of the real leaders in the field. It took about a year an a half of intense investigation to learn that fission was the ONLY available alternative that could beat hydrocarbons in almost every application.

A friend pointed out that hydrocarbon marketers were not terribly happy about being pushed out of their current dominant role by geeks holding handfulls of tiny pellets of uranium. After I understood the real reasons for the aversion to nuclear energy, I started to work on figuring out how to change the world’s mind about a technology that I had grown to respect, admire and, quite frankly, love.

Oil Heat Institute advertises against nuclear

Oil Heat Institute advertises against nuclear

Based on folklore frequently discussed in Navy nuclear circles, I was under the initial impression that the fuel was expensive and difficult to make. It did not take me long to realize that even with all of the artificial overhead of a fuel fabrication supply line that was deliberately spread out across the country, and the overhead of federal regulations voluminous to sink a ship, nuclear fuel is quite cheap per unit of released energy.

I also found out that it was easy enough to make that the United States had an enormous stored inventory. That treasure trove is so abundant that the US stopped producing the purified version of the fuel that enables extremely small reactors sometime in the early 1990s and still has plenty left for our current fleet of ships and submarines.

Commercial nuclear fuel costs about 0.68 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity or about 68 cents per million BTU of thermal energy including, “amortized costs associated with the purchasing of uranium, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication services along with storage and shipment costs, and inventory (including interest) charges less any expected salvage value”.

That price compares quite favorably with North American “cheap natural gas” which reached a nadir of just under $2.00 per million BTU (MMBTU) and has climbed back up to a hub price of about $3.50 per MMBTU. The delivered price of that widely touted “cheap” fuel has been as high as $35 per (MMBTU) in some locations in the US in the past month. That’s 50 times as costly as commercial nuclear fuel!

The one somewhat legitimate argument against nuclear energy is that building the plants required to gain access to that cheap fuel is substantially more costly and difficult than building the plants that create electricity, process heat and motive force by burning hydrocarbon fuel. However, that fact is not a natural truth, but it is a man-made invention.

After working for more than two years on a project to develop a commercial nuclear reactor for use in the United States, I am pretty confident that I can explain the high costs well enough to develop solutions that will drive down the cost to levels that are competitive with all other options. If nuclear power plant capital costs approach those associated with natural gas power plants the levelized cost of nuclear would be far below all other options when fuel costs are included. Cheap nuclear energy means widespread nuclear energy; which means a real ability to improve the atmosphere’s ability to maintain a more stable climate and a halt in the gradual acidification of the world’s oceans and bodies of fresh water.

Of course, making the cost reducing changes I would propose will require breaking a few eggs (perhaps eggheads is a better choice of words) and moving a few obstacles. The good news is that the obstacles were erected by humans; they can be eliminated by humans. That is a much easier task than trying to engineer your way around fundamental chemical characteristics of lithium ion batteries, solar photovoltaic panels or off shore wind turbines.

Wow – that was a longer diversion than planned.

Going back to the main point of this thought piece – people who are concerned about stabilizing our climate to keep it comfortable for human beings should be excited to know that we have an available set of tools in the form of dozens of different ways to release and capture atomic energy for beneficial purposes. It’s a toolbox that enables us to effective cure the climate crisis and go on living abundantly.

Cure the climate crisis by shifting to fission, FAST!

PS – I am sure that my optimistic message will not resonate with many marketers-in-activist-clothing who have made their living by beating the crisis drum to sell products. I am also sure it will not resonate with the people whose wealth and power depends on maintaining the fiction that energy is scarce, no matter what Einstein’s equation implies on a planet virtually teeming with uranium and thorium resources. It will not resonate with those who want to use legitimate concerns about the effects of combustion waste to constrain the human creativity that is represented by numbers like the Gross World Product – aka “the economy”.

However, I expect it will resonate with happy, optimistic people who prefer to take effective action that improves our collective life styles over trembling in fear, consumed with worry and fatalism.

About Rod Adams

27 Responses to “Cure climate crisis by shifting to Fission, Fast!”

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  1. Daniel says:

    I know I have posted this bit on the other Fission, Fast board. But I like to contribute about the strong force misunderstanding:

    Nuclear fusion is strong force. Nuclear fission is electro magnetic force:

    Date: Sun, 30 Sep 2012 01:27:43 +0000

    @John Cantelle Just a minor correction: Nuclear fission doesn’t actually release “strong force” potential energy. It releases mass-equivalent electromagnetic energy and kinetic energy from the repulsive Coulomb force of the positively charged nuclear fragments. Potential energy of the strong force is actually stored in the smaller nuclear fragments. Nuclear fusion is the process that releases the “strong force” potential.

    I wasn’t aware of this until I read Wade Allison’s “Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear” (2009). The explanation is on pp. 41-42. I highly recommend this book as well as Ed Hiserodt’s “Underexposed: What if Radiation is Actually Good for You?” (2005). Have your anti-nuke environmentalist friends take a look at these and see what they think. Not that many people are aware of the radiation hormesis concept. It needs to be more widely known.

    Sorry for wandering off the topic of the current blog post.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Daniel

      Don’t be such a nuke. The actual energy release in a fission reaction might come from electro magnetic force, but that force is released like a spring by the action of neutrons that break the strong force that holds atomic nuclei together.

      Perhaps it is the strong force that was actually mass that gets converted into energy during the reaction.

      Whatever. All I know is that every fission reaction releases about 200 million electron volts and that fissioning a single gram of heavy metal completely releases about 1 MW-day (24,000 kilowatt hours) of thermal energy.

      Rules of thumb are good enough for power systems designers. I’ll leave the nit picking details to others.

    • Keith BSNE '77 PE says:

      See Nuclear binding energy (BE) : “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_binding_energy”
      if you look at the “BE/A” vs. “A” curve, you will note that fission releases BE by moving to the left from the right side of the curve and fusion moves up the curve on the left side. They are both using the strong force.
      When the BE is released, then the EM forces come into play to convert the BE to heat. If not, please explain 2 MeV neutrons from fission, (some >20MeV).
      The are only 4 forces that people know of; Strong(nuclear), weak (radioactive decay), EM(chemical/orbiting electrons) and gravity.

  2. Engineer-Poet says:

    Instead of “Fission Fast”, I’d suggest something that also uses the N-word:

    “Nuclear Now!”

    FYI, Daniel, the gamma emissions from the return of nuclei to their ground state are unmediated releases of the strong nuclear force.  Even the EM forces which throw fission daughters apart are stored by the even-stronger strong force until fission releases them.  The daughters have a larger deficit of binding (negative) energy to electric potential energy (positive) than the original nucleus does, and it’s that difference that’s released.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Engineer-Poet

      I am an additive kind of guy. Nuclear Now! is a fine slogan that can be used in addition to Fission Fast! It can join Know New Nukes, Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy, and Fission is the New Fire as communication tools that are ready for the taking.

      Be an atomic optimist. Cure the catastrophic climate crisis. Use nuclear now! We need fission fast to fuel our fun.

    • Daniel says:

      @Engineer-Poet

      So Wade Allison would be wrong. It would be nice if he could join this discussion. But I am the novice here. Fun stuff anyway!

  3. donb says:

    Rod Adams wrote in this blog posting:
    Commercial nuclear fuel costs about $0.68 per kilowatt hour of electricity or about 68 cents per million BTU of thermal energy….

    The decimal point slipped a couple of places on the nuclear fuel cost for making electricity. It should be $0.0068 per kilowatt hour.

  4. praos says:

    Another possible slogan: It’s clear – nuclear! Or, maybe, No nukes, no way.

  5. Milton Caplan says:

    Great post Rod. The issue is how to get public policy to support a move away from fossil fuels towards nuclear. Today policy in both the US and Canada is clear – fossil fuels are heavily subsidized effectively making the cost of carbon negative. http://bit.ly/YAZXdu

  6. praos says:

    May I have another try? IT’S NUCLEAR, STUPID.

  7. Pseudonymous Engineer says:

    Please excuse my use of a pseudonym, I hope that if my words have the ring of truth, they will stand on their own merit.

    Premise: Fission power generation has been hamstrung by political force, brought to bear by fear-mongering, outright lies, and junk science peddled to a public deliberately kept ignorant of basic science principles and fearful of any projected hobgoblin of the unknown. The pack of lies is sold as a package deal by an impressive array of charlatans, fakirs, and Official Respected Learned Spokesmen Authorities with Titles, most of them paid by money filched from the public, but also brought to a recognizable social phenomenon with the aid of the entertainment and news industries. We bathe in it, as in a cesspool. The only antidote is independent reason and logic, guided by careful epistemology and informed by a healthy distrust of pronouncement by authorities, taking into account the motivations that might lead them to misinform themselves and others. And so the antidote can be taken individually, alone, through the arduous work of learning and judging the learning material independently, sifting fact from conjecture, assertion from proof, and learning not to fear that a widely held truth might turn out to be absurd, when undeniable fact renders its underlying premise untenable.

    In an atmosphere where statements of knowledge that are qualified by acknowledging the boundaries of current knowledge are instantly dismissed, any careful epistemology being discarded in favor of absolute pronouncements by some authority, still if any progress is to be made, these limitations must be honored and addressed nonetheless. Skipping this and resorting to bald assertions and slogans puts one firmly in the camp of, and in the hands of one’s adversaries whose aim is to control people, truth and prosperity be damned.

    And so it is with profound disappointment that on discovering your work, I come across this entry. The very same goal — control over people by getting a throttle on their standard of living through restrictions on access to energy — the very same tactics used against any technology with the word Nukuler in it; some of the very same charlatans and fakirs; the same junk science; the wanton disregard for epistemology; the social fear campaign; cherry-picking data; wild Armageddon scenarios; deliberate dumbification indoctrination starting in kindergarten; discrediting honorable men who point out the truth; all this and more are on blatant display with the anthropogenic/CO2 global warming campaign.

    And here you appear to swallow the whole campaign at a single gulp without question, and further, attempt to sell your agenda to the same gullible public by riding on their pack of lies with … a slogan!

    You soil yourself and discredit your position if you adopt your enemy’s standard of truth as a method in fighting lies. Those who you seek to partner with will turn on you and never let you win. It is they who run the machine that extracts money and power from disinformation, lies, and hatred. They are experts at it. They will eat you alive.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      You have to give the fossil-fuel noise machine this much, it’s on the ball.

    • Rod Adams says:

      I had to re-read my post just to make sure – but where did you get the idea that I have any desire to restrict access to energy. My goal is abundance, and empowerment, not scarcity and control.

      • Engineer-Poet says:

        “Restricting access to energy” is a standard AGW-denialist accusation made at anyone who takes climate change seriously.

        • Engineer-Poet says:

          … and that’s how you know this is a post from the noise machine (likely a sock puppet under a “personality management” system), not a real person.

      • Pseudonymous Engineer says:

        Rod, I did not accuse you of that motivation.

        I accused you of pandering to those who do have that motivation, on the premise that their epistemology is the self-same one that attacks your position.

  8. Pseudonymous Engineer says:

    And so we will have a double standard for epistemology and the scientific method. Disappointing.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      And so we will have a double standard for epistemology and the scientific method.

      And I’ll be damned if you didn’t read the very next line from the denialist script.

      I just went through that script last week starting here at Joanne Jacobs, and found that the epistemological chops of the “skeptics” are in sad shape.  I couldn’t even get “allen” to admit that he’d looked at the IR radiance data I linked to, let alone discuss what it meant.  He talked about “the scientific method”, until he was actually called upon to put it into practice.

      I’ve got tons of radiance and IR transmittance data which shows that something is going on.  If you have both the intelligence and the will to dig into it, I’m game.  But given a choice between the climate scientists and their models built on the best available information we have, and the denialists’ asseverations that “it’s all a conspiracy, nothing is going to happen”, I’m with the scientists.

      • Pseudonymous Engineer says:

        Well, Poet, nobody gave me a script, so I’m on my own. I haven’t been following the debate very closely for the last year or so, work interferes. When I left off, I didn’t think anyone was denying that something is going on, but as of then the hockey stick prediction had been discredited, the tree-ring proxies had been exposed, the cherry-picking of weather station data had been revealed, they were still refusing to release the models used to make the predictions, they were not accounting for the medieval warming period, their model couldn’t extrapolate backwards from known data, they were relying on ground temperatures and discarding satellite data, apparently they were weighting CO2 more in their models than water vapor, they were not accounting for solar cycles, and a few other little doubt-casting issues that I can’t recall right now. The graph behind Al Gore still shows CO2 increases happening AFTER temperature rises (which sorta raises issues with the cause-and-effect assertion). They were proposing taxes and regulations and schemes to limit energy use, and promoting fear to the general public while stiff-arming and attempting to starve out any qualified questions to their conclusions. And then there were the emails. And then the long line of ‘businessmen’ lined up to get government handouts. Perhaps we won’t solve the entire issue here, but my point remains; the tactics used by anti-nukes are duplicated by the AGW crowd.

        • Rod Adams says:

          @Pseudonymous Engineer

          Perhaps you don’t need a script. Like any good actor, you have memorized your lines quite well.

        • Engineer-Poet says:

          Well, Poet, nobody gave me a script, so I’m on my own.

          Feel free to break from it.  You can start by explicitly considering epistemology and how the various hypotheses can be tested using the scientific method you say the climate scientists aren’t using.  We can then test the credibility of the denialists by seeing if the scientists have or have not performed those or similar tests.

          I find the denialists to be without credibility, because every time a soi-disant “skeptic” has said that the scientists have not done test X, I have always been able to find something regarding test X being done some time in the past.  (Climate-change skepticism does not seem to extend to being skeptical about claims made by talk-radio guests and on random web pages.)

          If you’re a real person and serious about this, jump over to that blog thread I linked to and open the links to the data.  Do some reading, then come back and discuss it.

          • Pseudonymous Engineer says:

            http://lidar.ssec.wisc.edu/papers/dhd_thes/node27.htm#SECTION00050000000000000000

            The paper you linked to in the other thread appears to be written by a person who struggled mightily to bring some accuracy or at least determine a calculable error range to one specific input to a climate model.

            If you read his conclusion, he is forthright about what he found and what the limitations are. He acknowledges that the model, with the errors identified, only applies to one single set of well-defined conditions, and suggests more study for other conditions.

            Aside: Interesting also is his page on the fascod3p model itself. http://lidar.ssec.wisc.edu/papers/dhd_thes/node5.htm. Notice the error magnitudes and the sources of them.

            I find the work interesting to read, but I do not believe it proves or even lends support to the cause-and-effect relationship that is claimed by the political movement ( namely, that fuel use has raised the temperature of the planet and all kinds of Bad Things will ensue because of it, and so we must sacrifice our standard of living and our freedom in order to prevent further damage). In fact, it seems to indicate acknowledgement that water vapor is much more important than CO2 in trapping heat, and honestly acknowledges the limitations on knowledge of the state of the atmosphere in a single column of the atmosphere. Which would be a first step towards modeling a larger area, let alone the entire globe. There’s a long way to go along the path started by the author of that paper before any kind of certainty about the results of a model can be claimed.

            Best wishes to you and yours.

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            The paper you linked to in the other thread appears to be written by a person who struggled mightily to bring some accuracy or at least determine a calculable error range to one specific input to a climate model.

            It’s not a climate model, it’s one guy’s master’s thesis (from 1996, at that).  I linked the particular page of it because it shows a characteristic graph of atmospheric downwelling IR radiance.  You have still refused to discuss what the squiggles in that graph mean, preferring instead to quibble about error terms.  Ironically, after accusing the community of climate scientists of not using the scientific method, you latch onto an example of a master’s candidate using the scientific method.

            I find the work interesting to read, but I do not believe it proves or even lends support to the cause-and-effect relationship that is claimed by the political movement ( namely, that fuel use has raised the temperature of the planet and all kinds of Bad Things will ensue because of it, and so we must sacrifice our standard of living and our freedom in order to prevent further damage).

            There’s been a MEASURED increase in atmospheric downwelling IR radiance on the order of 2 W/m².  There is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between increased greenhouse gas concentrations and this change.

            As for the rest, you are guilty of tendentiousness and a lack of appreciation of cause-and-effect:
            1.  Increased downwelling IR radiance, in an absence of reduced insolation, will increase temperatures (particularly night and winter temperatures).  It’s possible for other pollution such as aerosols to offset this via dimming, but aerosols are short-lived while GHGs are long-lived.
            2.  Increased temperatures mean increased evaporation of water.  The areas which receive less rainfall as a result will experience a loss of agricultural productivity.  This will directly affect the local standard of living.
            3.  Throwing around vague terms like “sacrifice our… freedom” ignores the principle that your freedom to swing your fist ends where someone else’s nose begins.  If what you’d prefer to do would flood a river delta that’s both the home and the food supply for millions, you can’t legitimately claim the freedom to do it.  On the other hand, splitting all the uranium you can get your hands on isn’t going to have a significant influence beyond the immediate locale.  There’s a legitimate freedom to use all the nuclear energy you want.

  9. Rasmus Kiehl says:

    From around the interwebs:
    “Fissile Fuels not fossil fuels !”
    “New, Clear Energy” (iteration: “It is crystal clear, go nuclear!”)
    “Smash the Atom, not the bulbs!”
    “There’s no cleaner exhaust than pure water!”
    “Fission for the Future”