During the past week or so, I have been spending quite a bit of time following a discussion about nuclear energy between Theo Simon and George Monbiot. It is a deeply philosophical engagement between two literate and concerned people who view nuclear energy through different lenses and have, so far, reached different conclusions about its value and potential for growth.
I have no desire to put words into the mouths of either man, but here is my summary of their current arguments. Both of them start with the perspective that corporate power is often destructive, that concentrated wealth can corrupt government, and that human development is best when people work locally, individually and in cooperation with their immediate communities. Both of them have spent their lives trying to resist over development, destructive technologies, and concentrated power.
However, in the past few years, Monbiot has shifted his position on nuclear energy from strong opposition to reluctant support. He has done a thorough job of explaining that positional shift on his blog and in his columns. Just in case you have not taken the time to read the many words he has written on the topic, I think it would be fair to say that his strongest motivation was a recognition that nuclear energy is an indispensable tool in the battle against global climate change.
He has taken a road similar to that traveled by Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, James Hansen, Patrick Moore, Gwyneth Cravens and Barry Brook; he has listened carefully, read deeply and “done the math” to realize that we will have a far better chance of reducing CO2 emissions in time to avert catastrophe if we use both nuclear and renewable energy to replace fossil fuel energy. Monbiot has, on several occasions, indicated that he still does not “like” nuclear energy, but he accepts that it provides enough benefits to accept the associated costs.
I like to think that I played at least a tiny role in encouraging that activity; I first exchanged email with Monbiot in October 2005, almost exactly 7 years ago. My note to him was in response to an article in which he praised Amory Lovins and indicated that he thought no one could disagree with Lovins’s math. Here is that exchange – which was far shorter than the one between Monbiot and Simon.
From: Rod Adams
To: George Monbiot
Cc: Rod Adams
Sent: Wednesday, October 26, 2005 4:54 AM
Subject: I’m investing in new nuclear power
Dear Mr. Monbiot:
I just wanted to let you know that there is at least one team that
disagrees with your math and that of Amory Lovins. I have a pretty
good facility with numbers – I have served as the chief engineer of a
nuclear powered submarine and have an MS in systems technology – and
I have had a pretty good track record as an investor.
My analysis shows that Lovins is dead wrong. Among the many flaws in
his arguments is the fact that he confuses capacity with production.
In the best locations in the world, wind turbines produce less than
30% of their nameplate capacity when averaged over the course of the
year and that production comes at the whim of the weather, not
necessarily matching with the demands of the customers.
It is also quite technically feasible to produce nuclear combined
heat and power plants; in fact, that is one of the applications that
we favor quite a bit.
Anyway, if you are intellectually curious, you could visit our web
sites – otherwise feel free to continue in your current cognitive
dissonance that hates emissions and hates an energy source that is
clean enough to seal inside a submarine full of people for months at
President, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc
Editor, Atomic Insights
From: George Monbiot
Subject: Re: I’m investing in new nuclear power
Date: October 26, 2005 5:38:46 AM EDT
To: Rod Adams
Perhaps it would have helped if you had bothered to read his report first: then you might have noticed the following. G
Windpower is assumed to incur a 0.9¢/kWh firming and integration cost (generally well above actual), but no corresponding reserve-margin or spinning-reserve cost is counted for nuclear or other central plants, although their large unit size makes them tend to fail in larger chunks and their forced outages often last longer. Every source of electricity is intermittent, differing only in why they fail, how often, how long, and how predictably.
From what Monbiot has written about his slow conversion to accepting the value of nuclear energy in the battle against climate change, I was not the only person who encouraged him to engage in more research, but it is still nice to think that my effort might have helped stimulate a questioning attitude.
Theo Simon, on the other hand, remains firmly committed to battling nuclear energy development. He is a man who camps out in the vicinity of proposed new nuclear plants in order to protest their construction; he is not terribly concerned about being arrested for his troubles. He is convinced that he is working to save future generations from the burden of cleaning up after a short spree of using nuclear energy as a minor, but messy detour on the way to a utopian nirvana powered by the wind and sun.
I have tried to interject yet a third perspective into the discussion, with some modest reaction so far. Like both Monbiot and Simon, I do not trust people who seem to be more motivated by money than by any other measure. Though I have worked in large organizations and been close to those in positions of wealth and power, I have actively avoided getting absorbed by the borg. Some of my college classmates have made different choices and achieve far greater successes, but the people who have made the most money have often had to make choices that would have been unacceptable to me. Many other classmates have achieved a far more balanced measure of success with happy children, fulfilling careers, and creative achievements.
Unlike Monbiot and Simon, I thoroughly like nuclear energy and see it as a tool that has more than just lack of CO2 in its favor. One of its most fascinating characteristics is its potential to enable a huge shift in the world’s power structure – this is a characteristic that I think both Simon and Monbiot would appreciate if they could begin to understand and accept it.
The path that might free up nuclear fission energy’s true potential involves the recognition that nuclear energy is not limited to massive central station power plants. I like to point to the developmental path of computers as an example of the path I advocate for nuclear energy. In the very earliest days of both computing and nuclear, discoveries were made on a modest scale and the technology was developed by individuals and small teams.
Both technologies, however, were influenced by war and corporate power to develop massive scale machines surrounded by security barriers and a desire to limit access to the chosen few – including corporations that used government functionaries to help protect their monopoly profits.
In computing, a few brave, independent thinkers broke down the barriers that made scale so important to companies like IBM, Control Data, Honeywell, UNIVAC, NCR and their corporate customers. Computing pioneers invented ways to shift computing power to ever smaller scale machines, moving through mini computers to desktop personal computers to laptops to handheld smartphones, tablets and ultra portable laptops. Those innovators were joined by the rest of us as we purchased their inventions, cheered their successes, and excitedly contributed to a technological development that has resulted in billions of people having instant access to the world’s accumulated knowledge through devices they can carry in their pockets.
Unfortunately, nuclear fission, which has many of the same potential for “Moore’s Law” paced innovation as microprocessor based computing, remains tied up in Lilliputian threads that have kept it almost entirely locked up in enormous scale machines owned and operated by corporations and governments that can only move lethargically. The owners and operators of current nuclear machines have a huge reluctance to do anything that would dramatically change the status quo because they are current beneficiaries of the way things are today.
The recent acceptance in the United States that nuclear energy might be better if we allow smaller machines is encouraging. Successful deployment of smaller instances of nuclear energy just might help convince people like Monbiot and Simon that the basic technology, like most technologies, can be used on a community scale. Smaller instances of nuclear energy have the potential to allow a far greater number of people to share the experience of getting to know nuclear in the same intimate way that submarine engineers get to know their power plant.
I’d like to encourage more people who think locally to think about how much impact it could have on all of the things that they really care about if they could live in communities that were powered by smaller nuclear energy systems. Those systems could be distributed, locally operated, emission free, and reliable. The used materials could be gathered into regional storage areas until such time as there was a sufficient inventory to develop effective recycling programs.
Land, water and air resources would be less stressed. Transportation requirements for new fuel would be substantially reduced. Concentrated wealth and power in the hands of the fossil fuel pushers would be dispersed. Sure, perhaps I am also a utopian, but I think of myself as an atomic optimist who is capable of doing math and recognizing the difference between a realistic goal and an unreachable mirage.
Disclosure: My day job is with B&W mPower, Inc. a company that is actively developing the B&W mPowerTM reactor module as part of the Generation mPower development team. Everything I write on this blog is my own and does not reflect the positions of my employer.