Sami Mäkeläinen and I agree that the world’s economy is barreling forward on a course that will result in a great deal of pain and suffering as we collide with the limitations on the available supply of hydrocarbons paired with the negative environmental effects of continuing to increase the rate at which they are consumed. We are both frantically waving our arms and attempting to attract the attention of the people who are driving the ship without paying attention. We want them to look ahead and take effective action to avoid the hazards that are so apparent to both of us.
From Sami’s lookout station, however, the obstacle ahead looks like a continuous continent with no available open water except in the direction from which the economic ship is racing. His recommended action is roughly the equivalent of heaving to, which is a nautical term for slowing forward progress – almost to the point of stopping. His prescription for our energy future is to learn to live with less available energy, to aggressively pursue energy efficiency and conservation, and to use renewables like wind and solar energy to provide the bulk of the power that fossil fuels now provide.
Though Sami recognizes that nuclear energy has some appealing characteristics, he does not think it will save the world’s economy from the need to shrink so that we can live within the Earth’s material limitations. Here is his explanation for that position:
I won’t go too deep into details why here, but aspects like policy environments, long plant build lead times, limited skill base, waste fuel problems, susceptibility to climate change (primarily from water being used as a coolant), surprisingly low EROEI, high initial costs and energy expenditure as well as questions on the sufficiency of fuel supply all played a role in me coming to this conclusion. A widespread roll-out of thorium reactors and other “unconventional” solutions improve the situation in theory, but I don’t believe they can or will be ramped up in the time period in question.
My lookout station offers a different perspective on the availability of open water. I can see that the land mass in front of us is not a continent, but just a large island that can be avoided by a slight change in course – if the course change is ordered in a timely fashion. The longer we wait before putting the helm over, however, the more radical and hazardous that course change is going to be.
The open water I see is enabled by a virtually unlimited source of clean, emission free heat. Heat is exactly the same energy form that most of our current power sources are designed to convert into useful work in the form of electricity, motive force, or chemical/process changes. We have an essentially inexhaustible resource in the form of accessible supplies of both naturally occurring uranium and thorium supplemented by a reasonably large resource of artificially produced plutonium and other fissionable actinides. On a per unit mass basis, those fuels contain at least 2 million times as much energy as the most energy dense hydrocarbon fuels – even if you ignore the mass of the oxygen required to release hydrocarbon heat.
When they release their heat, they produce such a tiny amount of waste material that essentially every atom of nuclear waste that has ever been produced remains in monitored, shielded, retrievable storage. It is not an environmental hazard because it is not hard to prevent it from ever reaching the environment. It is not even a personnel hazard because it is rather simple to apply the principles of time, distance and shielding to protect humans from harm.
Sami and I traded tweets about our views about the future of energy before coming to the conclusion that we needed to agree to disagree. However, we also determined that it would be worthwhile to make a bet to see who’s view is more correct. This is a long term bet; the energy business has way too much inertia for anything to happen very rapidly. Here are the terms of the wager:
Rod predicts that nuclear energy will supply 25% of the world’s electricity and more than 12% of its primary energy within the next 20 years (as measured from Jan 1st, 2013). Sami’s position is that nuclear energy will fall short of these numbers.
The winner agrees to provide both a sumptuous meal and a week of tour guide services. Sami and I live on opposite sides of the planet, so I threw in that week of touring to make sure that it was worth our while to have the meal together instead of just sending whatever will be the 2033 version of a gift card.
One of the best things about this wager from my point of view is that Sami is almost hoping that he will lose.
Let me go on record to say that if the rise of nuclear comes at the cost of (i.e. replacing) oil, gas and most of all coal, I am all for it and I hope I will be wrong with this prediction. I have no doubt nuclear energy will play an important role in the energy mix going forward; I simply do not believe it will be feasible to have nuclear energy go up that significantly in that “short” timeframe of 20 years.
I’m already looking forward to the trip to Australia. Based on his blog and his photos, Sami seems like the kind of person who will be an exceptional host and an informative tour guide. If I am right about the direction that we might be able to take energy technology, Sami will be conceding long before 2033.
Disclosure: I almost feel like I am cheating because I really do have a different perspective from my side of the “ship”. I’ve been involved in nuclear energy technology since 1981. I recognize both its warts and its almost magical capabilities. I also have at least a minor say in the direction that the ship will take. I’m not in the Captain’s chair and not able to order any course changes, but I know the people with their hands on the physical helm. I’m pretty sure that we might be able to put on a slight rudder change without the Captain noticing until after we’ve already pointed the ship into the open water.
Speaking of knowing the helmsmen who are actually doing the driving, Jim Hopf has published a relevant thought and discussion piece on ANS Nuclear Cafe titled How Can Nuclear Construction Costs Be Reduced?
Reducing construction costs and the uncertain schedule issues will play a significant role in helping me win the bet against a modern day Mathusian like Sami. With respect to energy, I fall into the category of a Cornucopian. Since abundant energy enables the use of many materials that are currently considered to have little to no value, I guess that makes me a full blown optimist about society’s ability to achieve a growing economy without serious material limitations.