Joe Romm at Climate Progress has an interesting point to make about the frustrations of debating people who make stuff up on the fly. It can be quite challenging to be in a situation where you have done your homework, have all of the charts and graphs, and can speak with reasonable fluency about the subject at hand only to be confronted with someone who eloquently spews whatever he or she believes will win points with the audience. I have been in a few discussions like that over the years that I have been an atomic advocate.
If you are new to the discussion, you might not quite understand the below response that I posted as a comment on Joe’s post, but suffice it to say that Joe is a Lovins acolyte who believes to the depth of his being that any source of energy is better than nuclear fission, even coal, oil, and gas.
Of course, he does not really say it that way and claims to be against fossil fuels, but he has often claimed that we can accept continued use of existing energy sources as a bridge instead of building new nuclear plants while somehow building up enough wind, solar and biomass to take on the task of meeting the energy needs of 6 billion humans beings. Since I cannot get my inquiring mind around just how you make the sun and wind into reliable, scalable energy sources, I believe that means he is either wittingly or unwittingly a fossil fuel advocate.
Here is my response to his post. I am copying it here because Joe has a demonstrated history of deleting comments that challenge his assumptions.
Joe – As a person with a reasonably comprehensive science and engineering education, I find nothing to debate about with regard to the diagnosis that human generated emissions of CO2 (and other gases) are causing long term harm to the planet and must be reduced back to within the rate at which normal biological processes like photosynthesis can prevent the ever increasing concentration. I look at the problem as a differential equation where the source term is overwhelming the destruction term and which needs to be adjusted to rebalance the equation.
It is clear enough to me that we need to take the necessary actions now in order to prevent an uncertain, but most probably very uncomfortable situation where the earth’s ability to sustain human society as we know it falters.
In other words, I am a believer, not a denier.
Though I have no dispute with you on the diagnosis, my problem comes on the prescription side.
Having been around the block a few times, I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in detailed knowledge about a number of the technologies that you discuss as the medicine to solve the disease. You avoid the use of the most powerful and effective medicine I know – atomic fission. In the above, you accuse the deniers of being stuck in the 1990s with regard to solar thermal, industrial scale wind and solar photovoltaic, but it seems to me that you got stuck in the 1960s with regard to atomic fission.
Unfortunately, most of the “nuclear industry” has made the same error and is marketing plants that have some useful improvements over the ones that they built in the 1960s, but are roughly equivalent to attempting to introduce very nice vacuum tubes for high fidelity sound rather than using MEMS to tackle the same problem. There are a number of proven, but quite different ways to apply fission the old problem of supplying useful, reliable, electricity in as clean a way as possible, but the “nuclear industry” is reluctant to do anything that upsets their existing business models. That is understandable, most of the rest of the energy industry has the same attitude.
Fission based systems like Hyperion’s Power Module, NuScale’s simple and small BWR, and Toshiba’s 4S recognize that enormous light water reactors have cost and schedule limitations that make them inappropriate for many of the applications where emission-free electricity or heat are needed. There are a wide range of other possibilities like the Liquid Fluoride Thermal Reactor (LFTR), the Integral Fast Reactor, and even a number of different versions of pebble bed reactors (I kind of like the Chinese plan that is moving up from their well demonstrated HTR-10.)
James Hansen, Steve Kirsch, James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, Patrick Moore and many other well known people who are just as concerned as you are about reversing climate change have done their homework and recognized that fission is a vital tool in the society reconstruction effort that is required.
Clean air, clean water, lower cost, reliable energy for a greater number of people, reversal of climate damage, are all potential benefits of a renewed atomic industry that really takes lessons from the past and applies what we have learned in the 60 years since the very basic physical process of fission was discovered.
Humans – including some very capable physicists, mathematicians, engineers, and inventors – have been refining their ability to collect intermittent and diffuse energy flows from the sun and wind for tens of thousands of years. Our ancestors have never been terribly happy with the overall results from combustion and have often faced resource challenges that encouraged focused efforts for an alternative. We approached the asymptote for their ultimate capability quite some time ago. (That is not to deny the fact that there are still improvements to be made, nothing is ever perfect, but the rate of likely improvement and the distance from where we are to perfection is getting vanishingly small.)
There is a darned good reason that so many scientists and engineers are so excited about fission – the energy release per unit mass is 2 million times more than oil combustion if you ignore the mass of oxygen required. If you include oxygen the comparison is more like 6 million to 1. That opens up a whole new world of ‘S’ curve improvements that are possible, yet we have only made a modest effort to move up the very first ramp and are still debating issues that should have been overcome by moving on to the next higher improvement opportunity.
By denying the potential for fission to address the disease we both recognize, you open yourself up to the kinds of questions that I will not ask at the risk of you deleting my comment. (BTW – I am most certainly not a conservative or any other kind of troll.)
The questions that seem to encourage Joe to hit “delete” are those that question the political or economic motives for his stances. I am certain that he really believes that climate change is a problem that must be addressed, but I am also pretty certain that he has a very specific and partisan way to approach the problem that is greatly disturbed when someone suggests the use of atomic fission as the most important component for all of the potentially effective tools in the box. In my mind, trying to solve climate change without fission is a bit like trying to build a house without using any steel at all, including in your hammers, screwdrivers, saws, and ladders.