Monday, December 27, 2010

Green Nukes: Saviors or Charlatans?

As we struggle to deal with greenhouse gas pollution, it's easy to treat the search for alternative fuels as a secondary issue, as a way to resist global warming, ocean acidification, and such. 

But I see it differently.  I think we need to do it ASAP for lots of reasons that are even more pressing than global warming, because we're going to run out of cheap oil and coal in the relatively near future.  When that happens, the consequences for us, our descendants, and the environments we live in could be devastating, potentially escalating rapidly from frustrating inconvenience to a cause of increased poverty, famine, social unrest, ecological degradation, and/or war.  Reducing climatic impacts is a great side benefit to this important issue, but even those who deny a human role in climate change can get behind the search for lucrative new energy sources.

At the moment, at least as much governmental-scale attention also seems to focus on reducing energy usage, mainly by trying to make it too expensive to use as we do now. But there's much political resistance to that idea, and although I worry about climate change I think that trying to use economics to artifically choke off fossil fuel consumption is short-sighted and will  harm too many people who live at or below the poverty line. 

Some say that rich nations could avoid that pitfall by subsidizing less wealthy nations for the increased costs, but I seriously doubt that it can be done without millions of innocent, struggling folks falling through the cracks.  What are we going to do; simply send millions of compensatory dollars to some "wonderful" government head like Robert Mugabe to disseminate fairly among all impoverished Zimbabweans, then watch him use it to fill his pockets and those of his supporters?  And what about the impoverished folks who happen to live in the rich nations - how will they all be found, evaluated, and compensated?  And what about the resultant inflation in the prices of fertilizers, plastics, or anything that needs to be imported from another country, not to mention the fuel costs themselves... anyway, you get the picture.

As far as I can see, the only way to treat the whole political, social, and economic spectrum of humanity fairly, effectively, and with a minimum of controversy is for a new generation of sustainable, cheap, non-carbon fuels to come on line soon and naturally replace the fossil stuff.

This is where "green nukes" come in.

The only environmental action I ever took in college was protesting the use of nuclear power plants in New England.  My uncle, aunt, and cousins stayed with my family as refugees of the Three Mile Island accident. And I remember being told to avoid reindeer meat in the grocery stores when I lived in Sweden because the free-range commercial herd was contaminated with Chernobyl fallout.  Not surprisingly, the first word that arises in my mind when I hear the words "nuclear power" is "no," as in "no nukes."

Imagine my shock when arch-environmentalist Bill McKibben recently began to tout nuclear power as an energy source that emits no greenhouse gases. What? Has he drunk so much of the global warming Koolaid that he's now talked himself into making a pact with THE DEVIL????

But now I'm starting to come around, too, thanks mainly to my geologist friend David Franzi.  We were exploring the Altona Flatrock in the northeastern Adirondacks this past summer, looking for wetlands that might contain long climatic records in their underlying peat and mud deposits.  In the course of conversation, he mentioned a new kind of nuke that lacks most of the problems that have made "regular" nukes so objectionable.

They're called "thorium reactors." Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much easly readable info about them on the web yet; most of the items online are too full of nuclear/engineering jargon to be decipherable by non-experts.  But the gist of the topic sounds almost too good to be true.

If I have this right, thorium reactors can't melt down; they shut themselves down naturally if they get too hot. They produce little or no waste, and what waste they do make breaks down fairly rapidly.  Thorium is cheap and abundant, and safe enough to carry in your pocket.  And thorium reactors don't make plutonium or other isotopes suitable for bombs (the one form of uranium waste product that might do so is easily diluted on site so it's unusable).

So why aren't we using them now? You might be able to guess if you put on your cynic cap and re-read the last paragraph. Apparently, it's mainly because you CAN'T make bombs from thorium reactor fuels or wastes. In other words, the main reason the regular nukes are the machines of choice, despite the risks of meltdowns, contamination, storage leaks,  and terrorism, is that they enable the countries that have them to build nuclear arsenals.

Now, suddenly, the Iranian nuclear power plant controversy make more sense...

Anyhow, what if the world switched quickly to these new "green nukes?"  They would make lots of cheap electricity, enough to generate yet another green fuel as well; hydrogen gas, from the electrical hydroloysis of water.  No coal mining disasters or strip mines. No fuel cartels. No wars over oil fields. No fossil greenhouse gases or soot or nasty smog chemicals; the waste product from the burning of hydrogen is water.

So what are we waiting for? 

From the little I know thus far, I'm cautiously optimistic, but part of me is also still suspicious.  In my experience, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.  Unfortunately, as I said earlier, there isn't much online that's very readable, even for a nerd like myself who has some scientific background (well, I didn't do all that well in physics, either, come to think of it).

The closest thing to a good online summary that I've found so far is this one, from Wired:

I'm hoping that someone who reads this post and knows more about the subject will pass along some truly useful links or other info sources.  If thorium reactors are really as great as they seem, then there's real HOPE for civilization and the ecosystems we depend on.


  1. Another great post Curt, thanks!

    I have another view about raising the price of carbon -- i think raising the price of carbon is one of many strategies we should be undertaking. The price of carbon-based resources is rising inexhorably. Better to raise it sooner than later; if sooner then the money is much more readily re-distributable than if it disappears into the coffers of greedy oil companies and unfriendly countries. I do think we can find effective ways to redistribute the proceeds from taxing carbon.

    (It behooves us, btw, to remember that there are many non-renewable resources that are being rapidly depleted, and whose prices are rising, not just oil. Then there's water, and dwindling species and ecosystem diversity....sheesh, and you know what, we knew about all this stuff 35 years ago.)

    I'm pretty skeptical about hydrogen as a way to drive cars -- hydrogen is really hard to transport and store.

    Curt, has anyone looked at the impacts of releasing large quantities of water vapor into the atmosphere?

    I'm also curious about the following: Suppose this thorium thing or some other energy source (like solar panels) came into wide use and effectively produced no nasty by-products, except one: heat. Consuming energy produces heat. How much energy can we consume before the amount of generated heat begins to affect the earth's climate?


  2. Thanks for the insightful comments, MFMC/"Dog";

    You raise lots of great points and questions, and I wish I had more answers to most of them, but I'm still new to considering the practical aspects of climate change mitigation - most of my nerd-energy has been going into the climate science/history itself.

    As for the water vapor question, I don't think there would be too much of a problem with us emitting excess water vapor because it condenses and falls back out fairly quickly, and because we already live on a planet whose surface is mostly one big evaporation pan anyway. And most of the rest is full of transpiring plants and moisture-emitting soils... not much we can do about water vapor in the big picture.

    The heat emission process might be more significant; we already see that sort of thing happening with the urban heat island effect raising surface temperatures just from the proliferation of buildings, pavement, and such.

    In the end, of course, there won't be any escape from all environmental problems no matter what we do. Living things consume resources and emit waste, and no getting around it.

    Sometimes, though, one organism's waste does eventually become another one's life-support; animal life evolved on a planet utterly polluted with the waste gas of photosynthesis, after all.

    So there we have it... one possible bright side to global air pollution, at least!


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  6. Curt, My blog, Nuclear Green, devotes a great deal of attention to Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs), and a class of Molten Salt Reactor, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR), the melt down proof reactor that would not be very useful to would be nuclear bomb makers. in fact all MSRS are extremely safe, and the technology also offers a way to dispose of plutonium from nuclear weapons, and from nuclear waste.while efficiently producing carbon free energy for a post fossil fuel world.

    i am not a scientist or engineer, so i attempt to discuss MSR/LFTR technology with the lay person kept on mind. Here is a link to Nuclear Green:

    In addition, Kirk Sorensen's blog, Energy from Thorium offers a great deal of useful information, especially to those willing to wade through the technical details.

    Not only does Kirk offer a conventional blog, but he also offers an online document repository, that contains links to hundreds of MSR/LFTR research related documents.

    in addition Kirk's blog also includes on of the best open science discussion forums on the internet.

    Kitk also has an Energy from Thorium Facebook page.

    i hope these links will be helpful to you and your readers.

  7. ==> Here's a little more "beef" (a copy of my latest letter to the editor) ...

    In response to Obama's innovation initiative, it's "been there, done that," -- *40 YEARS AGO* -- at Oak Ridge. Let's finish the development of molten salt reactors, build a factory, hire the workers, and start producing small, modular, molten salt reactors. A daily 100 megawatt reactor is the goal. I hope the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is prepared to include a whole new paradigm of reactor designs, i.e., molten salt reactors (MSR's), in the regulatory structure. Please consider the following questions ...

    Do you suppose the United States should be paying attention to this development?!? Is this the "Sputnik Moment" Obama mentioned in his State of the Union speech?!? The People’s Republic of China has initiated a research and development project in Thorium Fueled Molten Salt Reactor (TFMSR) technology. This project was announced at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) annual conference on Tuesday, January 25, 2011. An article in the Wenhui News followed on Wednesday. Chinese researchers also announced this development on the Energy from Thorium Discussion Forum, which has seen a 1600% increase in traffic since the announcement.

    Led by Dr. Jiang Mianheng, a graduate of Drexel University in electrical engineering, the new TFMSR program aims not only to develop the technology, but also to secure intellectual property (patent) rights to its implementation. This is a clear and important endorsement of the benefits of TFMSR’s, namely:

    * Safe -- cannot melt down; passive SCRAM system operated by gravity -- no human intervention required; self-regulated cooling; load-following fission; burns nuclear plant waste and plutonium from weapons

    * Clean -- no CO2 emissions; no proliferation; .004 as much as non-LFTR mining waste; .001 as much as non-LFTR nuclear waste; 10-year storage for .00083 of the non-LFTR waste; 300 years for .00017 of the non-LFTR waste

    * Proven -- successful operation for over 5 years at Oak Ridge National Labs

    * Efficient -- continuous refueling; continuous waste processing; nearly 100% fuel consumption; nearly 50% thermal/electric conversion; competitive with coal and NatGas

    * Affordable -- no high-pressure containment required; no thorium enrichment required; air cooled; no redundant cooling systems required; $10,000 annual fuel cost for 1GWe; .01 as much land area, and no buffer zone required

    * Plentiful Fuel -- thorium is abundant (400% more than uranium); high energy density -- one ton of thorium equivalent to 200 tons of uranium, and to 3,500,000 tons of coal.

  8. ==> China has grand plans to build enough nuclear power plants to supply 200 gigawatts by 2030, and do it with a modified (Gen-III) Westinghouse AP 1000 design. Now they've included TFMSR's in the plans, which may eliminate the need for the much more expensive Westinghouse reactors. China's nuclear capacity is already replacing coal-fired plants, amounting to 60 gigawatts of coal capacity since 2006.

    China has 13 nuclear plants in operation today, another 25 under construction, and 200+ more on the drawing boards. They aren't waiting around to sign any pollution reduction treaties, they're just *DOING* it! Now they're siezing the fantastic opportunity to leap straight ahead to Gen-IV designs, such as TFMSR and Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors (LFTR's). Please google "Energy From Thorium" and "Thorium Energy Alliance". I promise you'll be amazed.

    By the way, the United States is preparing to destroy (i.e., down-blend and bury) one thousand kilograms (455lb.) of Uranium 233 (currently classified as toxic nuclear waste). Then there's another 3,200 metric tons of U233 already buried in the Nevada desert. U233 can be used to produce many beneficial medical and industrial isotopes, and is an ideal "starter" fuel for TFMSR's. It's going to cost several hundred million dollars to destroy this valuable stockpile of U233. The United States could proceed with the destruction plans -- which would make the Chinese TFMSR success more difficult -- OR, we could develop our own TFMSR program and beat the Chinese to the patent office. The latter notion gets my vote.

    So here's a new challenge for the NRC: adopt and adapt regulations to take into account the concept of liquid fueled reactors that can operate at atmospheric pressure and passively shut down in an emergency. The SCRAM process for a liquid fuel reactor will automatically, or manually, drain the molten fuel in the core into holding tanks where the fuel cools, solidifies, and traps all the radioactive materials. What a concept! We've come a long way from 2Dec1942 and the first atomic pile, where SCRAM stood for "Safety Control Rod Axe Man."

  9. Did you know that Dr. James Hansen has endorsed LFTR?

    Anthony Watts (WUWT) CAGW skeptic has also endorsed LFTR.

    "This article was sent to me by Charles Hart, and I have to say, I really like this quote from Curt Stager in Fast Company. Between the extremes of Hansen’s pronouncements about coal death trains and people in Britain having to choose between food and fuel, this is where we need to be.

    This is the middle ground I believe we can all agree on. Forget reconciliation attempts, let’s just get busy.

    Stager writes:

    In other words, I want you to help save the world. If green nukes are even half as promising as their proponents claim, then supporting their development may be our best hope for a sane, sustainable, and abundant energy future."

  10. I heard your comment on thorium reactors on KERA (Dallas) today. Thanks for the info. It is good to know there is something we can do now to hopefully improve our (descents) Deep Future.

  11. Thanks everybody for your helpful and interesting comments on "green nukes." An important topic for us to be delving into!