Nuclear fission can help solve George Monbiot’s environmentalist dilemma

George Monbiot has recently published some thought provoking articles about the dilemmas facing people who are focused on protecting the natural environment. Those articles have made me think hard about trying to share my own thoughts on the matter, perhaps offering a way of overcoming at least some of the challenges.

One of my favorite tee shirts carries a message of hope in words that occasionally start some interesting conversations. It is a dark green shirt with an American Nuclear Society logo on the front with big white letters on the back proclaiming “Another Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy”.

Like many of my colleagues who are nuclear professionals, one of the main reasons that I entered the field in the first place is the fact that it allows humans to do so much with so little. A single fuel pellet that is about the size of the tip of my pinkie releases as much heat energy as a ton of coal – a quantity that would load down the bed of a heavy duty pickup truck. That comparison is valid today, using fairly primitive technology that has been in use for almost 50 years.

If we pursue the technology with vigor, Atom’s Law provides almost as much room for future improvements as Moore’s Law – the ultimate limit for the amount of energy produced by fissioning 7 grams of uranium, plutonium or thorium is equivalent to the amount provided by burning 20 tons of high quality coal . Nuclear engineers and scientists have already produced systems that offer hope of moving much closer to that limit, but resources required for complete development have not yet been made available. Not only can we increase fuel utilization using breeder reactors, traveling wave converter reactors, or liquid fluoride thorium reactors, but we can gradually improve the conversion efficiency.

The environmental importance of being able to produce massive quantities of reliable energy with minimal quantities of raw material is awe inspiring, especially for a man whose fondest memories include camping trips in verdant national forests, hiking outings in places of absolute wonder like Zion Nation Park, sailing trips around the Delaware, Maryland, Virginia peninsula, but also include summer gatherings with neighbors in comfortable suburbs, family trips to beach houses, and visits to marvelous cities like Washington DC and Paris, France. I am well aware of the amount of energy required to produce steel, concrete and glass and the amount required to heat, cool and light indoor spaces.

I love and deeply respect the Earth’s natural beauty and love visiting special places that are only lightly touched by human development. However, I also love human beings and share the aspirations of the majority for a comfortable, protected place to live with some amount of personal space, reasonable mobility, the ability to control indoor temperatures, and the ability to operate computers, turn on lights, and refrigerate food.

For me, the promise of fission is truly a promise of enabling a much greater portion of the world’s population to have the comforts of the middle class lifestyle that most of the people I know have enjoyed for the past 50 years, while not destroy the natural spaces that provide so much value and should be protected and enhanced as part of our legacy to our descendants.

I know there are some in the environmental community that decry what they see as the excesses of that middle class lifestyle, but I believe that they are mainly thinking about the caricatures portrayed on television instead of the real life people who work hard, help each other out, and support the development of their children. They worry about the amount of material goods that would be required to allow a greater number of people to live the way that most people do in developed countries and the effect that producing those good would have on natural systems. However, with access to plenty of energy, most of the materials used to enable a comfortable way of life can be recycled and reused.

All of the non fission energy supply alternatives consume vastly larger quantities of material resources. With fossil fuels, the materials consumed in combustion are quite obvious, but there is also a substantial quantity of material consumed by the infrastructure of drilling rigs, powered shovels, pipelines, tankers, and trucks needed to move all of that material from the place where natural phenomena left it to the places where it will be burned to provide for human needs. I understand that uranium mines share some of the same needs, but the amount of material that needs to be extracted and then moved is vastly smaller per unit of energy. A few truckloads of commercial nuclear fuel every 18 months provides as much energy as 100 train car loads of coal every single day.

Systems that collect energy from natural flows – like wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal – might seem to use less material until you notice just how large the collectors are and how often those collectors are operating at far less than their designed capacity. Barry Brook at Brave New Climate has produced a terrific series of posts that provide a depth of information about the material consumption difference between nuclear energy and that of other fossil fuel alternatives.

There was a time when I was fascinated with the idea of using wind, solar and biomass energy sources. I was an open ocean sailor who looked down his nose at “stink boats”. I noticed all of the fallen logs in the forests that I visited and thought about ways to collect them for useful energy. I also grew up in Florida, the “Sunshine State” and knew that early subdivisions often included solar collectors for hot water heaters. However, I have recognized since then that weather dependent energy sources are inherently unreliable and require a significant level of continuous financial subsidy. The amount of energy available from forest and crop waste is trivial and difficult to collect. Much of that material is already being used in natural cycles of decay and nourishment for important parts of the food chain.

Germany’s famously “successful” feed in tariffs have locked customers into long term, mandatory purchases of power at fixed rates that are several times higher than the average wholesale cost of power. The solar cost versus nuclear cost “crossover” that was described in Blackburn’s NWWarn sponsored paper and that continues to be promoted is dependent on taxpayers directly paying 65% of the initial cost of installation and on the system owner being able to borrow money at a lower than market rate of interest to pay for the remainder of the cost. Even with those generous allowances, the analysis ignores the important feature of reliable, on demand power that is provided by a nuclear generator.

I recently read about a political event celebrating the commissioning of the first onshore wind farm in Massachusetts. That 15 MWe (peak) system with ten turbines each capable of producing 1.5 MW of electricity in windy conditions took 13 years to plan and build and cost close to $70 million. That tells me that wind and solar systems can experience the same kinds of delays and cost overruns that many nuclear projects have experienced.

I do not deny that it is possible to produce large amounts of power by collecting natural flows, but I do deny that it is a productive path for future prosperity. Though many renewable energy system salesmen – and their often unpaid allies in the environmental community – like to talk about how the unreliable output of wind and solar systems can be firmed by “the grid” they do not like to talk about the fact that the quick response generators on the grid are usually either hydro or simple cycle natural gas plants. Displacing hydro does not directly reduce any fossil fuel consumption or emissions. Installing systems that lead to a greater need for simple cycle – and far less thermally efficient – gas turbines can significantly reduce any advantages from emissions reductions or fuel consumption.

Renewable energy advocates do not like to discuss or quantify the financial and environmental costs of extending the grid to those often remote places where the wind is most readily available or to deserts where the sun is rarely inhibited by clouds. I like to remind environmentalists who favor wind and solar power that they are singing in a chorus with people who sell natural gas. Their promotional efforts also align closely with the financial interests of large corporations like GE, Vestas, and Siemens that manufacture wind turbines, transformers, switches, and smart grid controllers.

One additional bit of cognitive dissonance that should cause heads to spin is the fact that many renewable energy advocates favor solar and wind power because they seem to offer a chance to be independent of the grid and large corporations. The problem with that thought is that the cost reductions associated with wind and solar generation in the past few decades have come from economies of scale associated with very large solar collection systems and wind turbines with blades longer than a football field. You cannot logically claim that the grid will firm up the power output of unreliable generators if you want to be “off the grid.”

I realize that the events at Fukushima Daiichi require a critical reevaluation of the tradeoffs associated with using nuclear energy. Not only have large areas of a densely populated country been declared unfit for current human habitation, but there are also recent reports that the conditions inside some of the reactor pressure vessels is worse than initially assumed. There is even some indication that some of the containment barriers have been breached, potentially allowing a small portion of the damaged fuel materials to escape into other parts of the reactor building – with a much lower portion potentially escaping into the surrounding environment.

However, Fukushima Daiichi’s slow motion destruction did not expose a single human being to a fatal dose of radiation – the highest exposures even to employees involved in the response and clean up has been limited to less than 250 millisieverts (25 Rem). According to the BEIR VII, that dose may result in a 2% increase in the life long probability of cancer, but according to the work of the radiation health effect specialists who disagree with the Linear, No Threshold (LNT) dose assumption, that is most likely an exaggeration of the risk.

Access to many of the contaminated areas should be restored as short-lived I-131 decays away and as other materials are cleaned up. Analysis of the radiation effects after Chernobyl have led many scientists to believe that caesium exposures carry less risk than previously assumed because of its short biologic residence time and the slow rate of decay. The most damaging effect of Chernobyl was the effect of stress and loss of optimism about the future that was imposed by forced displacement from ancestral homes and the presumption that exposures from the accident would inevitably cause negative health effects. It is not healthy to live as if you are doomed to suffer – that tends to lead to poor choices.

There is little doubt that the financial consequences of the destruction at the six-unit site are severe or that there remains a difficult clean up effort. Building new reactors that have the same design features as the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi would be a risky investment, but no one is considering building new reactors using a 50 year old design and locating them on the coast of a geologically unstable region. Shutting down and demolishing already built and reinforced reactors of that design, however would be a little like undergoing radical surgery to remove a healthy organ in order to prevent a chance of getting cancer sometime in the future.

Despite all that has happened since March 11, I remain a forceful advocate of intelligent use of nuclear energy. I am motivated to do that because I am concerned about the environment and global human prosperity. By way of full disclosure, I am also motivated to promote nuclear energy because it provides my employment and the employment of some terrific people who are important to me. Working in an industry should never disqualify someone from explaining why they have chosen to work in that industry or why they are excited about going to work each day.

I guess one might described me as a balanced environmentalist/humanist. I do not worship capital, so I do not qualify as a capitalist, but I do believe that free markets in goods and services are more effective than centrally planned markets.

Some segments of modern society would thrive without nuclear fission energy, but the result of turning our back on the energy source with the greatest potential for improvement would be a dirtier, less prosperous, less egalitarian society. Of course, natural gas producers would be happier and richer if those darned nuclear plants would go away or never get built so that they can sell more gas at higher prices.

About Rod Adams

7 Responses to “Nuclear fission can help solve George Monbiot’s environmentalist dilemma”

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  1. Huw Jones says:

    Monbiot is certainly right that uranium mining is perhaps the worst bit of nuclear fission, and you Rod are wise to address the issue. However, I am surprised you don’t mention in-situ leaching – a method of mining with little or no environmental impact.

    On the issue of Fukushima, I would debate the issue of if areas of Japan are now inhospitable. According to the US EPA, even the most fallout stricken areas should yield a one year cumulative dose of 2 rem (20 mSv). This is equivalent to some forms of CT scan, and parts of the world have a normal background natural background dose higher than this. And yes, I would go live there.

    Your right that reactors of a similar design should not be shut down. Any which are shut-down will likely be replaced with coal plants, which will without a doubt result in death and illness for more people than Fukushima will cause.

    Finally, it is worth noting that modern reactor designs are a world away from the 60s designs used at Fukushima. The Onagawa plant for example was built in the 1980s and was hit harder by the earthquake and tsunami – why didn’t that experience similar problems? Designs built today – such as the EPR and AP1000 are even safer still.

    • Rod Adams says:

      Huw – I thought about mentioning ISL mining, but the post was already getting to be a bit longer than most people will read. That is the only form of uranium mining currently in use in the US, but it is not appropriate for all deposits.

      I was not aware of the max dose rate being as low as 2 REM per year. I agree, that is not inhospitable; people in Ramsar have been living their whole lives in areas where it is possible to accumulate 70 rem per year every year.

      Modern designs are indeed more resilient. We never stop learning and never stop working to make things better.

      • Huw Jones says:

        This is the image from which I obtained the figure of 2 REM being the max dose –

        http://oi56.tinypic.com/50sa3o.jpg

        Sorry I looked everywhere, I can’t seem to find the original source. I had it on my computer and had to re-upload it. It’s probably best that the exclusion zone remains whilst the situation is resolved at the reactors, however in the long run, I do not feel that these areas should be permanently abandoned.

    • Edmund in Tokyo says:

      The Onagawa plant got lucky – one of their three power lines survived the earthquake / tsunami. We don’t know whether its more modern design would have helped if it had lost all three, like Fukushima 1.

  2. Bill Young says:

    I think this is the source for Huw’s annualized dose rate:

    http://www.slideshare.net/energy/radiation-monitoring-data-from-fukushima-area-04182011

    There are more up to date radiological surveys but the one for 4-18 appears to be the only one with an annualized dose.

    Bill

  3. Rod Adams says:

    I checked out the graphic. It made me think of an interesting question – how much of that annualized dose, starting with March 16, comes from the measured level of I-131 on that date?

    Since that isotope is a major contributor to radiation levels soon after shutdown, I suspect that its gamma rays were big contributors to the levels that the flyovers measured. Of course, that isotope also has a short, 8-day half life, so the doses would have nearly completely disappeared by now. What would the graph look like if a flyover was conducted today or tomorrow, 2 months later?

    I suspect that the red area would be almost undetectable.

  4. Phil says:

    I also support nuclear power for the same reasons you do, but I would not write off the “renewables”. Basically, abundant energy — electricity in particular — is just too vital to our way of life.

    No, scratch that. Energy isn’t merely vital to our way of life, it’s vital to human survival. With 7 billion of us now depending on modern, energy-intensive agriculture and food distribution, a major hit to our energy supply means reducing our population — perhaps all the way to to pre-Industrial-Revolution levels — by means of famine on a scale far beyond anything in human experience.

    So it would be foolish to write off any method of generating energy that is even remotely viable. That does exclude the fossil fuels because, while they’re still viable right now, they won’t be much longer. Either we’ll deplete them or we’ll create a massive environmental disaster in the form of global climate change, or both.

    So I’d say that we need nuclear AND solar AND wind AND hydro AND geothermal AND biomass AND anything and everything else that works, as long as it doesn’t produce net CO2. Yes, solar energy is intermittent and thinly distributed — but the total potential dwarfs everything else available to us, even nuclear. Solar technology is just too new to say how well it will ultimately work. We’re inventing diverse ways not only to convert solar insolation to electricity but also to store large amounts of electric energy and to make loads as well as generators dispatchable.

    Electricity generation has always used a highly diverse set of sources and I see no reason to change that. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket when those eggs are so vitally important.

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