Integrated ecological modeling – positive results require healthy dose of nuclear fission

Barry Brook and Cory Bradshaw are the co-directors of the Global Ecology Lab. In less than three minutes, they provide an understandable picture of the lab’s mission and it’s scientific challenges.

In the above video, Dr. Brook and Dr. Bradshaw explain the complexity of the systems they model along with the importance of using accurate information to obtain the best possible results. They also help illustrate the scale of the physical challenges that face us all, but offer a path that should enable positive future outcomes. Their recommended energy supply system includes a healthy dose of atomic fission energy input as a replacement for a substantial portion of our current fossil fuel use.

I realize that skepticism abounds about the long term effects on our environment of having a growing population of 7 billion human beings all trying to live more prosperous, productive lives. There are many people who cringe at the idea of trying to base power systems decisions with huge cost implications on the results of complex mathematical models.

I am encouraged by knowing that there are serious researchers using the best available tools to create those models. They are working hard to help ensure that we do not have to make our decisions based on empirical results AFTER it is too late to do much about the physical inputs that we still have the ability to change. I am also encouraged by knowing that there are visionaries with resources who are willing to invest time and money into improving the availability of nuclear energy options.

Unlike natural gas, which under the best of circumstances produces the equivalent of 400 kilograms of CO2 for every megawatt of electrical power, producing heat or electricity using atomic fission is not just a little better than burning coal. On average, the lifecycle emissions of a nuclear power plant are about 17 kilograms of CO2 for every megawatt of electricity.

Life-cycle emissions of CO2

Life-cycle emissions of CO2

Instead of producing 40-80% of the CO2 of a modern coal-fired power station (depending on the specific technology employed) by switching to natural gas, producing power at a nuclear power plant results in less than 2% of the CO2 of a modern coal station. The future emissions from already built nuclear plants are in the range of 5-10 kilograms per megawatt and the average keeps going down as fuel cycle improvements like highly efficient centrifuges, laser enrichment, and fuel recycling gain market share.

The larger the share of fission in the global energy mix, the larger the overall energy supply will be for all of us while still achieving the desirable result of keeping total emissions within the ability of the earth’s natural systems of mitigation. I want to make it very clear that I am not demonizing coal, oil or natural gas and the contributions that they all make toward enabling better living, especially compared to the alternative of doing without power. We need energy; but it is sure nice that nature (or our Creator) gave us the ability to produce a growing portion of our power without pollution.

That is the result that Dr. Brook was talking about when he said the following:

My personal view is that we are going to need a mixture of energy sources, but nuclear fission is likely to be the most dominant solution.

Unfortunately, I need end this post on a slightly depressing note by pointing out that the biggest tragedy coming out of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor destruction is that Japan and Germany, two of the world’s more influential economic powers, are moving in the wrong direction. Here is a thought-provoking post at things worse than nuclear titled 10% conservation – nuclear = still a lot more fossil fuels

PS I just realized that today is the 26th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. No matter what you might read, the fact remains that the measurable death toll from the accident is less than 75 people. Only a handfull of the deaths attributed to the accident were members of the general public who contracted thyroid cancer; all of the rest were either plant workers or first responders ordered into high radiation areas, often without proper training or protection. The very worst impact of the accident is still the irrational fear and subsequent imposed stress on a population that was not put at any actual risk of negative health impacts from radiation.

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5 Responses to “Integrated ecological modeling – positive results require healthy dose of nuclear fission”

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  1. Ioannes says:

    “I realize that skepticism abounds about the long term effects on our environment of having a growing population of 7 billion human beings all trying to live more prosperous, productive lives.”

    God endowed the Earth with enough uranium and thorium for countless billions of human beings to live at a standard of living and energy consumption equal to what the modern American consumes all without injury to the environment.

    Indeed, the only ones crying overpopulation are those (mostly liberals) who won’t themselves end their own lives to do something about the problem. Everyone’s life is expendable except their own.

    Remainder of off-topic political diatribe removed by moderator

  2. Rod Adams says:

    Ioannes – I think you completely misunderstood my point.

    The skeptics I was talking about were those who think that it is perfectly fine for a growing population of people striving for better lives to burn as much fossil fuel as they can extract as fast as they can extract it.

    They are the ones who think it is too costly to consider taking a different path that will enable the use of the earth’s endowment of uranium and thorium because there are some initial learning curve type costs that must be invested to change course and speed.

    By the way, I am a liberal who loves children and proudly point to numerous friends with large families of 7 or more children. People are our most important resource, especially when they have plenty of access to energy and education.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Renewable electricity is easy. An 80% renewable/20% conventional with just a smart grid and conservation is easily achievable with few new conventional plants and little storage.

    Renewable power replacing oil for transportation is the hard part.

    And no combination of nukes, renewables, or unconventional oil. Is going to replace conventional oil for any significant period of time.

    Salvage the suburbs!

  4. Don Cox says:

    I can’t see the point of “renewable” energy sources when the supply of Uranium is enough to last for centuries. Indeed, in countries such as the UK which already have fission power stations, the supply of partly used fuel is enough to last for centuries.

    Practical nuclear fusion power is almost certain to be developed long before current fission fuels run out. Why not use fission in the meantime?