Atomic Show #293 – Robert Bryce – Journalist and Bird Watcher
Robert Bryce is an admired journalist, book author, filmmaker, public speaker, Congressional witness and podcaster who has focused on energy, power and its implications for mankind’s prosperity. In his free time, he loves to watch birds.
He recognizes that electricity is the lifeblood of modernity. He is saddened by knowing that there are billions of humans on Earth who have such limited access to electricity that their consumption each year is less than an average American refrigerator.
Starting with Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego and the Death of Enron in early 2004, Robert has published six books on energy with the latest being A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations. He wrote that last book while he was also recording and producing Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.
He would like everyone to watch his movie and has made it freely available through several outlets. He also asks that people buy his books – he excuses everyone from reading the books as long as they buy them.
In June of 2020, Robert started the Power Hungry podcast and continues to release new episodes with fascinating guests at a furious pace.
Robert and I talk about his work, his passions, and the difficulty of writing a book and creating a movie at the same time. We talked about his recent testimony at Congressional hearings about the growing fragility of our energy system due to what our mutual friend, Meredith Angwin, has labeled the fatal trifecta of energy policy decisions – oo much reliance on imports, too much reliance on gas and too much reliance on renewables.
I think you will enjoy this discussion. Please leave a comment and engage in discussion about the important points that Robert made.
PS – there is a point in the show when Robert turns the tables and begins to interview me about recent progress at Nucleation Capital. We are bullish about the growing recognition that nuclear energy is a vital tool and that advanced nuclear energy development is an enormous opportunity for solving many sticky problems.
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I highly recommend watching this film. It is one of the few videos which I can say is fully worth one’s time.
Rod Adams reports tomorrow’s news today!
Thanks, Engineer-Poet. I can usually count on you to read carefully and help me find errors.
I have publicly commented at NRC meetings which most times are attended by mostly Anti-Nuclear folks. Referring to NRC Mission Statement to stress that Nuclear Materials provide clean air and small eco – footprint THAT, ” promote the common defense and security and to protect the environment. ”
The NRC licenses and regulates the Nation’s civilian use of radioactive materials to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety and to promote the common defense and security and to protect the environment. https://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc.html
I have to admit that I borrowed that line (slightly modified) from an old friend.
Happy to help. I do the same for others too, and will as long as I can (however long that may be). It’s just part of what I do; the job of the engineer is to take a vision and make it happen.
Oh, I also try to throw in a bit of humor in the process.
Life is better with laughs.
Hi Engineer Poet,
Earlier today (04 Dec 2021, 7:28 am) you wrote:
I highly recommend watching this film. …”
Just to be clear, what film are you referring to?
I’m assuming that you are referring to Bryce’s
documentary “Juice: How Electricity Explains
The World” as opposed to a YouTube video
recording of an interview with Bryce on his
book “A Question of Power: Electricity and
the Wealth of Nations” whose title appears
in the quoted text immediately preceding your
Please confirm or correct my assumption.
You are correct. Sorry for not making that clear. I was sloppy.
When it comes to energy independence, nothing will provide that to the degree nuclear power will.
In the US there are large reserves of uranium ore to provide the fissile U-235 to run nuclear power plants. Also fast spectrum “waste” burner reactors are in rapid development. There is close to 100,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that can be used as part of the fuel cycle in those. As well as several thousand tons of plutonium.
There is also stored about 700,000 tons of uranium hexafluoride which contains about 470,000 tons of depleted uranium. This can also be used as part of fast spectrum fuel cycles. The more large fast spectrum waste burner reactors you build the faster the long term actinide rich spent nuclear fuel, plutonium and depleted uranium is consumed.
All that from an energy source that is the definition of dependable, you don’t need sunny or windy days to power your grid. In the case of something like the Elysium MCSFR that relies on how quickly the fuel salt is pumped through the reactor vessel for power output, it is well suited to load following.
That’s one of the very positive things about nuclear power, it is not restricted to one reactor type or even neutron spectrum. A wide variety of reactors can be developed already, think of the incentive to take this even further when a large portion of energy investment is in nuclear power.
Every year we procrastinate on this essential transition to a nuclear power based energy model is another year wasted.
PS, the discussion on fridges made me laugh. I’m Canadian and have only ever had one fridge. My parents live in rural Washington state and have three. One in the house and two in the garage. Must be an American thing.
Thank you both for mentioning me during this important podcast. The growing fragility of the grid is a world-wide problem. I am grateful that you and Robert Bryce can share the wide view of the problem with so many people who follow you!
I was also very interested to hear how Oklo prepared its documents for the NRC. I was delighted, and I hope the Oklo approach becomes a growing trend!
It’s a little ironic that Jimmy Carter decided to go with coal power in the 1970s as a response to the energy crisis at that time. Considering that during his Navy days he was nuclear engineer under Hyman Rickover and stated that next to his parents Rickover had the most influence on him.
Doug – In my opinion, some of Jimmy Carter’s most important support came from people that were adamantly antinuclear – especially including Ralph Nader. In early August 1976, Nader spent a couple of days in Plains talking with Carter about a host of issues of interest to him. That visit included a full evening during which Nader lectured and Carter listened. On the second day, Nader umpired a softball game between a team captained by Jimmy and one captained by his younger brother Billy.
After that weekend, Nader came out with a strong endorsement of Carter. (Nader’s Raiders were influential in the 1970s.)
(I have found descriptions of the meeting by people who were there, but they did not document or share the topics discussed or the agreements reached.)
My guess is that Nader asked Carter to help discredit nuclear and put it low on the priority list. He knew that Carter had already decided to emphasize his navy experience in a misleading way.
Carter was never a “nuclear engineer” in the US Navy. He left the service in Oct 1953 to go home and run the family farm after his father died in July 1953. (At the time, Billy was only 16 years old and not capable of running a business.)
I wrote about Carter’s very brief time in the Navy Nuclear Power training program. https://atomicinsights.com/jimmy-carter-never-served-nuclear-submarine/
I still remember how a big a deal Carter being a “nuclear engineer” was made during the 1976 election. And the Rickover connection, some accounts made it seem like Carter was Rickover’s right hand.
I don’t remember anything about Nader’s involvement in his campaign being in the media in 1976.
On the energy issue alone Nader shows how far off he was. As you say in that piece on Carter, generations of US submariners have spent much of their service inside sealed metal tubes with active reactors powering their boats. Not just that but providing all the fresh water and breathable oxygen they needed for months from sea water.
That alone blows out of the water the claim how unsafe nuclear power is. Or exposure to slightly elevated levels of ionizing radiation. Right around the time Carter was running for President there was anecdotal evidence that nuclear shipyard workers for the US Navy had elevated levels of leukemia.
So the US Navy carried out an extensive study through the 1980s, that found the opposite. The high dose cohort in the study had significantly LOWER mortality than the non-nuclear workers from all causes of illness.
So not only is nuclear power one of the safest forms of energy production on the individual level, because it emits no GHGs during its normal operation, it doesn’t present the collective threat we all now face from fossil fuels.
Maybe things would be much different now if Jimmy Carter had spent time as a nuclear engineer on a US sub.
Hi Rod. At about 26:00+ in you mentioned a “recent UNECE publication” stating nuclear emits the lowest CO2 per unit energy of any source save hydro.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe is modestly prolific — could you perhaps point me to the publication you had in mind?
Ed Good question. Here’s the direct link.
Dunno Rod: either that doc is dense, or I am. Its Figure 37 gives global over/unders of 11/6.1 gCO2eq/kWh for moderate-size hydro (with short-haul for materials), vis 6.3/4.9 for conventional nuclear. Global averages (Figures 32 and 35) are given as 10.7 and 5.13 g/kWh respectively.
Grim. And Figure 38 projects things will only get worse by year 2050.
Have safe holidays, and thanks anyway.
Ed – I must be the dense one. I have read your comment a couple of times and still don’t understand. What’s grim?
Ah… I was practicing my irony — one of the lighter elements. I tend to spend time with Ars Technica‘s flaming hive of 100% WWS proponents. In this case and in the seasonal spirit of equanimity and generousity, I was trying to see UNECE’s stats from their pov. Which could be pretty discouraging, should any actually give it credence.
Will do what I can. UNECE’s discussion of emissions related to energy storage (Box 4 pg 34) and their suggestion 4 hours of battery storage can add between 4 and 30 gCO2eq/kWh to solar PV, depending on insolation and chemistry, might also prove contentious.
It might also wait for the new year. I’ve several reviews of relative economic value and costs also grinding through the works. Perhaps I can fit this in.
From that article.
“As shown in Figure 35, front end processes, and especially mining, are the main contributors to the overall life cycle impacts of nuclear power. Depending on the indicator, core processes and back-end activities come next, but do not contribute more than 30% and 10% to overall impacts, respectively. Energy use on site, mainly from diesel generators, are the main cause of GHG emissions for mining and milling processes.”
That is with “conventional” nuclear power reactors. With the rapid development of SMRs and some molten salt reactor designs, this will change significantly. Some of those designs already have all the fuel they will need for centuries stockpiled currently as high level waste. Mining will be greatly reduced or possibly eliminated entirely in coming decades.
Also most of the new designs won’t require as much front end processes. That includes the fabrication of large and energy intensive things like the massive stainless steel pressure vessels for PWRs and BWRs. Or the massive secondary containment for any potential primary water coolant leaks flashing into steam.
Or the use of diesel backup, because their safety measures are passive and in most cases won’t need power. Like SMRs with natural circulation to cool the reactor if there is an emergency power down without power.
Nuclear power is already one of the lowest CO2 emitters in the energy market, but that will be significantly improved by new designs.
The ability to produce so much heat from such a small amount of fuel in such a limited volume with nuclear fission, while using such relatively low resources is unbeatable.
The main roadblock to nuclear power has been the waste stream issue and where to put all those long lived actinides like Pu-239 that will remain a health issue for thousands of years.
The answer is inside a fast spectrum reactor which will convert almost all of them to short lived fission products and that can also be configured to breed new fuel from fertile uranium or thorium as the reactor runs. Fissiles that can also be used in flexible slow spectrum reactors like SMRs which can be deployed almost anywhere.
Is there another energy source that can create its own fuel as it operates or is this flexible? While having such low impacts…
Doug – repeating phrases like “will remain a health issue for thousands of years” only reinforces the messages of the fear-mongers. For that matter, fast reactors will not solve the confected “waste stream issue”. You can’t just chop up used fuel and bung it in the reactor as if it were an incinerator. Sure, “close to 100,000 tons” of once-used nuclear fuel can be used to extract top-up fuel for operating fast reactors. But that’s after a lot of processing.
Moreover a greater challenge is to provide the start-up fuel for the same reactors. Till and Chang (in “Plentiful Energy”) estimated that a gigawatt fast reactor would require 10 tons of fissiles, that is, 235 and 239 in the fuel mixture. That is about five times that required in a PWR, and at a much higher enrichment. Top-up fuel must also be enriched, at least for practical fast reactors.
Manufacture of both start-up and top-up fuel from used fuel requires an ongoing industry supplying multiple reactors. So that is a vision for the future. In the meantime, HALEU (40% U235) production is currently starting up in the US and is likely to shape the design and operation of the first generation of commercial fast reactors.
Roger – HALEU is, by international definition, limited to <20% U-235. Fuel enriched to 20% or above is classified as HEU.
On the subject of why President Carter’s antinuclear ideas may have
sprouted and taken root when they did, Kirk Sorensen’s Google Tech Talk
on “Why didn’t molten salt thorium reactors succeed the first time?” was
referenced in this column a decade ago:
I found Sorensen’s talk to be very interesting on both technical and political
subjects. Regarding the latter, there is a great cluster of information on
President Carter’s energy policies in a slide at 26:10 into the talk. The
slide rattles off details of Carter’s policies announced during early spring
of 1977, including a heavy emphasis on solar energy, a ban on nuclear
reprocessing, and a National Energy Plan featuring less petroleum,
more coal, zero plutonium, and no breeder reactors, whether fast or
No mention of influence by Mr. “Unsafe At Any Speed” but it seems quite
plausible that Ralph Nader could have planted copious seeds of FUD
in his visit with then-candidate Carter during the campaign of 1976.
The futile importance of turning the thermostat down and accumulating
a collection of sweaters to ward off the chill during days of overcast
came later in Carter’s administration.
The reality of massive blackouts caused by the intermittency of
“renewable” wind and solar based on lithium-ion battery storage
is admirably illustrated in Robert Bryce’s film “Juice”. Kudos
to Mr. Bryce for providing that insight.
On the topic of robustness of the grid and the possible role of nuclear power Ed Pheil of Elysium Energy had an interesting point during one discussion. He was asked about safety concerns of his reactor design in a disaster where there was a total loss of power in the grid.
He said his intention was to design a reactor and power plant that would be there to provide power in a disaster when all other energy sources were down.
SMRs also offer this advantage. Some will have enough fuel for the lifetime of the reactor, they will be slowly spitting atoms for decades now matter the weather or whether their is an earthquake or destructive super-cell system moving across the US MidWest for instance.
You are almost up to 300 episodes. I would say you have educated me, but per your current podcast you don’t want your “sharing” to be referred that way.
I particularly took note of one minor detail that has been irksome to me for some time. The irksome thing has been the idea that “market forces” is always the preferred solution. Both you and your guest seemed to agree that market forces alone will not be the panacea for the energy problem. I was kind of curious what your guest would say in this regard when I saw that the title of one of his books included the phraseology, “The Wealth of Nations.” I certainly agree with the idea that sometimes market forces work great and sometimes other financing to solve problems work better. I think the energy situation will need a little help to have a long term viable solution for global warming. Thanks to you and your guest for sharing your wisdom in this episode.
I will say that the episode also gave the impression that the pendulum is now swinging pro nuclear around the world. Nuclear progress certainly appears to be less stymied than a few years ago.
@Eino Mr. Bryce speaks for himself of course, but he and Rod also refered to “how we structure markets.” Adam Smith did as well.
There is no such thing as a “free” market. Rather, there is a theorem in Classical Economics to the effect that any hypothetically “free” market will of necessity devolve into monopoly, duopoly, or oligopoly. Witness the oil and transportation “markets” of 19th century America.
Markets are what we make them. If they do not do what we wish to best serve society, we have only ourselves to blame.
Ah… I was de-oxidizing the irony — one of my lighter elements. I tend to spend time with Ars Technica‘s flaming hive of 100% WWS zealots. In this case and in the seasonal spirit of fraternity and generousity, I was trying to see UNECE’s stats from their pov. Which could be pretty discouraging, should any actually give them credence.
Do what I can. UNECE’s discussion of emissions related to energy storage (Box 4 pg 34) and their suggestion 4 hours of battery storage can add between 4 and 30 gCO2eq/kWh to solar PV, depending on insolation and chemistry, might also prove contentious.
It might also wait for the new year. I’ve several reviews of relative economic value and costs also grinding through the works. Perhaps I can fit this in.
@ Roger Clifton
“repeating phrases like “will remain a health issue for thousands of years” only reinforces the messages of the fear-mongers.”
Pu-239 is an alpha emitter which sits at the top of the biological damage chart, so yes, we need to safely contain SNF for thousands of years.
“For that matter, fast reactors will not solve the confected “waste stream issue”. You can’t just chop up used fuel and bung it in the reactor as if it were an incinerator.”
Depends what kind of reactor you’re talking about. Say a fast molten salt reactor using table salt and chopped up SNF rods and plutonium like Elysium Energy is designing.
“Moreover a greater challenge is to provide the start-up fuel for the same reactors. Till and Chang (in “Plentiful Energy”) estimated that a gigawatt….”
Some of these new fast molten salt reactors are designed to run on SNF and plutonium. There are about 100,000 tons of SNF in the US and several thousand tons of plutonium. Providing the fissiles for the start up fleet of these fast reactors isn’t going to be an issue.
To provide the fissiles for follow on reactors, they will likely build breeder variants of their reactors.
“Manufacture of both start-up and top-up fuel from used fuel requires an ongoing industry supplying multiple reactors. So that is a vision for the future…..”
The start up fuel loads for these reactors is currently stored as high level waste. As I said “processing” the fuel for something like the Elysium MCSFR involves melting the table salt and dropping in chopped up SNF. Topping up the reactor involves dropping more chopped up SNF into your already optimized fuel load. Even depleted uranium can be used as top up fuel when the reactor salt chemistry is mature and there is almost 500,000 tons of that stored in the US alone.
Just my opinion but there really is a “nuclear revolution” coming and much sooner than many seem to realize. SMRs that can be deployed almost anywhere and combined into larger generation stations simply add to that.
Not that it matters very much, but less than 1% of spent nuclear fuel – to use the common term – is plutonium. http://www.jaif.or.jp/ja/wnu_si_intro/document/2009/m_salvatores_advanced_nfc.pdf
Therefore, in 100,000 tons there is a little less than 1,000 tons of plutonium.
I think the issue is far more political than it is practical. Plutonium was cast as “the most dangerous substance on Earth” decades ago and the common opinion of most people is we can’t have any of it anywhere on Earth. It’s not, right now coal, oil and gas are. In that order.
It’s an alpha emitter, you’d have to breath in plutonium dust or drink it or eat it to be exposed to damaging levels of radiation. A piece of paper or even your skin will block alpha particles.
Being able to burn it in fast reactors is a great solution to how to power the nuclear sector for potentially centuries if we’re breeding new fuel from depleted uranium as well.
It also removes just one more tool used by the anti nuclear movement to block the needed expansion of the nuclear power sector.
One thing that stood out for me is something I’m really concerned about: wind and solar are renewable, but require very much larger amounts of non renewable resources to produce and maintain. This is such a red flag: if wind and solar have developed to the point of being serious energy sources on the scale of nations, how come they can’t even power their own production, maintenance upkeep?
Wind turbines are installed on massive concrete foundations, concrete which is made from minerals dug out of the ground with fossil fuel powered machines, processed using fossil fuel to cement, mixed together and transported using more fossil fuel power. Ditto with the wind turbine tower: it is made from steel, which is made from iron by fossil electricity, and the iron itself coming from iron ore which has been reduced by fossil fuel. The tower sections are transported over land and sea by fossil fuels. The turbine nacelle is more steel, the electrical generator is a lot of copper which is again mined with fossil fuels, then processed with fossil fuels. The turbine blades are glass fiber reinforced epoxy material. The glass fiber is made from minerals dug out of the ground by fossil fuel powered machines. It is then processed by fossil fuels and drawn using more fossil powered machines. The epoxy binder itself is a petroleum product! Everything about wind turbines is fossil fuel produced. It is then maintained by fossil fuel infrastructure – maintenance crews and equipment powered and made by fossil fuels. Again not a breath of wind powered anything is involved. There’s no wind powered wind turbine factories.
Solar is a lot of glass and metal. All of which made by fossil fuels. Solar enthusiasts like to boast that solar panels are made from sand. What they like to omit is how energy intensive the purification is from sand to high grade silicon semiconductor material, and that all of this energy is supplied by fossil fuels. Solar panels use large amounts of silver, being the biggest silver consumer at the moment. Silver mines are not powered by solar or wind. They are powered by diesel fuel going into big machines. The silver is then processed using more fossil fuels.
Installing solar panels is done using fossil powered machines (after being transported by fossil powered transport).
Even if no fossil fuels went into low density renewables, the massive land use and mineral and metal requirements is a serious concern. And what to do with all that material when they wear out in several decades.
Rod has a piece here comparing energy density. I couldn’t find it but it basically says that nuclear power can have up to 10 million times the energy density of fossil fuels when everything is factored in. And fossil fuels can have up to 1,000 times the energy density of some renewables like solar and wind power.
So we could be looking at nuclear power potentially having 1 billion or more times the energy density of some renewables. Even tens of millions times makes it far more practical, economic and ecologically sound than trying to make the energy market 100% low density energy. Which would require massive and massively expensive grid scale energy storage.
I’d far prefer to have an SMR nearby providing 30+ MWe going completely unnoticed for 30+ years than be surrounded by wind turbines, solar farms or biomass burning plants.
Low density energy generation has its place, just not at the base of the power generation system. That’s where nuclear power needs to go.
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