Adam Curry interviewed Curt Stager, the author of Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth for his Big Book Show. During the interview, Curry and Stager spent several minutes discussing the potential for “green nukes” to be an important climate change mitigation tool.
There are many terrific reasons to favor the rapid development of nuclear fission technology.
- It is a reliable and affordable alternative to hydrocarbon combustion
- It is a technology that can use less material per unit energy output than any other power source
- It is a technology where much of the cost comes in the form of paying decent salaries to a large number of human beings
- It is a technology where wealth distribution is not dependent on the accident of geology or the force of arms in controlling key production areas
- It is an energy production technology where the waste materials are so small in volume that they can be isolated from the environment
- It is a technology that is so emission free that it can operate without limitation in a sealed environment – like a submarine
- It is an important climate change mitigation tool
For some odd reason, possibly having to do with certain brands of political ideology, many nuclear professionals are reluctant to emphasize that last feature. They count themselves as climate change skeptics who occasionally indicate a belief that the whole topic is a plot designed to make their hobbies (for example: racing, RV’ing or boating) more expensive by enriching liberal elite carbon market traders. (Note: I am not expressing any agreement with that statement.)
There are also many people employed in nuclear-related activities who are energy agnostics. They do not care much about the source of heat or motive force used to turn the machines they are really interested in designing or operating. Utility companies that operate both nuclear and fossil fuel plants have a strong economic incentive for not directly comparing the effects of their fossil plants to the lack of effect of their nuclear plants because they do not want to redirect the ire of protesters from one of their facilities to another.
I have a different point of view. Our current economy is built on an industrial foundation that removes about 7-10 billion tons of stored hydrocarbons from the earth’s crust every year and then oxidize that extracted material to form heat, water and CO2 – along with some other nasty side products due to various impurities in the hydrocarbons and atmosphere. The 20 billion tons or so of stable CO2 that we dump into the atmosphere is not disappearing – there are some natural removal processes that were in a rough balance before humans started aggressive dumping, but most of the mass of CO2 that we are pumping into the thin layers of atmosphere that surround the Earth is not being absorbed or used.
As Curt Stager and other researchers like him have determined, the material will be suspended in our atmosphere and affecting our climate for at least 100,000 years. Many of the effects are somewhat unpredictable and not terribly beneficial. The duration of the effect gets worse if we continue on our present course and speed. An unaltered dependence on fossil fuels also puts future generations at risk of trying to figure out how to operate an economy WITHOUT access to reliable sources of controlled heat.
I freely admit that I consume at least my share of hydrocarbon based materials and would cheerfully continue consuming at my current rate if I did not know of a better alternative.
The twin attributes of supply sustainability and climate change mitigation are nuclear fission power advantages topics that have attracted some high profile converts (Mark Lynas, George Monbiot, James Hansen, Stewart Brand, Gwyneth Cravens, and Patrick Moore, for example) to the cause of pronuclear advocacy. If nuclear energy’s potential as a climate change mitigation strategy is something that attracts former antinuclear protesters and causes them to reevaluate their opposition, that alone makes it something worth emphasizing.
It was interesting to hear that the primary nuclear technology that Curt mentions as being worth aggressive pursuit is based on thorium, but I am pretty sure that is mainly because thorium evangelists have done a better job of guerilla marketing since 2005 than the people who have been refining uranium-based nuclear reactors for the past 5 decades.
As I often to tell my thorium enthused friends – you cannot build or operate a thorium reactor without uranium. I also tell both my buddies who are thorium advocates and my integral fast reactor (IFR) friends that any atomic fission power plants is better than any hydrocarbon based power plant. I hope that someday soon, fission fans will stop engaging in fratricidal attacks on each other, but I guess I have always been a bit of a dreamer.
My plan is to visit Dr. Stager’s blog at http://savethecarbon.blogspot.com and begin a discussion to help him understand that there are a lot of very exciting things about nuclear engineering that should provide him with optimism in addition to the excitement that he has found in relation to the good news about thorium. I encourage you to join me.