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China Earth Power Hardware Science Technology

The Nuclear Approach To Climate Change 432

Harperdog writes "A new roundtable at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explores the question of whether nuclear energy is the answer to climate change, particularly in developing countries where energy needs are so great. This roundtable, like the ones before it, will be translated into Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish within a week of each article's publication. Here's a summary: From desertification in China to glacier melt in Nepal to water scarcity in South Africa, climate change is beginning to make itself felt in the developing world. As developing countries search for ways to contain carbon emissions while also maximizing economic potential, a natural focus of attention is nuclear power. But nuclear energy presents its own dangers."
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The Nuclear Approach To Climate Change

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  • SOS (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 26, 2012 @12:57AM (#40773379)

    Same Old Sh*t

        the nuclear industry is enormously profitable (if you ignore waste disposal) and long-lived (if you ignore a thousand years of aftermath).. these f*** wait in the wings and try this again and again.. What about an accounting system that values the natural world and rewards efficiency ?!!? If we are to survive as a species, the question is not "where do we get more power" but rather what we do with the capacity we have.

  • by zippo01 ( 688802 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @01:02AM (#40773403)
    If you took all the effort and energy spent, developing green energies, clean coal, fracking. Couple that with all the energy spent fighting each of them for what ever reason. Just think how safe and efficient 2020 nuclear power plants could be. A new nuclear plant hasn't been built in the US since what the 80's. Thats 30 YEARS. Just think of the improvements and innovations we could make or had made had we pursued it. If you really think that global warming is the end of days, then how can you not embrace nuclear? Its like vegetarians who believe in evolution. It just doesn't make since.
  • Re:Migrate! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @01:20AM (#40773489)

    I moved to Alaska several years ago. After three winters, I am acclimatized. For instance, when it gets up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit I am strolling around in shorts and a t-shirt. Trying to survive shifting climate is something life has always done. Those who migrate and adapt survive. Those who nuke themselves deserve what they get - just leave the rest of us out of it.

    It's much easier to adapt to a cooler climate than a warmer one. When you get cold you can put on another jacket. You can only remove so many clothes to remain comfortable when the temperature rises to 101 degrees with high humidity.

  • Re:Honest question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @01:26AM (#40773517)

    And even nuclear power is a problem there - mining and enrichment are very expensive phases and they produce carbon dioxide.

    It's a question of calculating the total emissions for each type of energy source, and it's not an easy process.

    If you had practically unlimited and cheap electrical power available from nukes (an awfully big "if"), you could eliminate much of the carbon emissions while extracting nuclear fuel. If nothing else you could split hydrogen out of water and use hydrogen as a fuel for equipment and processing plants. There'd still be some carbon emissions from things like deforestation during mining, etc.

  • by dark12222000 ( 1076451 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @01:38AM (#40773585)
    My concerns are not the original designs, or the engineers. It's the cheap profit seeking idiots who attempt to cut corners while running them. Fundamentally, Nuclear is a great idea! Unfortunately, Nuclear Power in the hands of a capitalist society which values immediate profit over the chance of blowing themselves up is actually really freaking dangerous.

    This is what we saw with Fukushima. That reactor was well designed - and the others in the region held up decently. If the plant had been kept up even close to spec - there wouldn't have been a disaster. Hell, even if after the initial issue, if they had just dumped the core, it would of been a passing mention in the newspaper. Instead, somebody who valued money over other peoples lives, decided to make a profitable decision instead of a safe one.

    It only takes one stupid idiot to ruin a good thing.
  • Re:Honest question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by symbolset ( 646467 ) * on Thursday July 26, 2012 @01:47AM (#40773633) Journal

    **for completeness, we might also consider the distribution of the heat between the surface and the molten core, but to be fair, other than the trivial amount of geothermal energy we use, there's a negligible amount to think about here.

    Well thanks at least for including it for completeness, since that one source exceeds our current electrical energy needs for the next thousand years with current technology - by which time technology may have advanced a wee bit. The Yellowstone Caldera by itself throws off more thermal energy each minute than, converted to electrical energy, the world requires. And cooling that damned thing might be in our best interest since it's likely to bury 60% of the US in ash someday - again, as it has many times before.

    Solar is great too, and can also be baseload power with a big enough heatsink - or balanced with geothermal plants that produce on demand solar and wind can use geothermal for a heatsink / corrector for low/no production. Geothermal plants can with slant drilling occupy a tiny surface space and tap a vast region, and can be baseload power as well as a peak power source.

    There are a lot of other sources we aren't using right now. Petroleum refineries throw off a lot of waste heat, as do pulp mills, organic composting, server farms, volcanos, iron and aluminum and glass refineries. Any place there is a reliable significant thermal delta is an opportunity to reap electrical power, and the question is whether or not it can be done economically. As science progresses the delta and size of the installation becomes smaller. It's not as much "geothermal" as it is "thermal delta" electrical power.

    There is no reason not to use both solar and geothermal to diminish our dependence on oil.

    Nuclear works on thermal deltas too, but doesn't exploit them enough. Spent fuels, for example, heat their pools for a decade before they're considered "cool" enough to put into permanent storage (should any ever come available). That's a waste heat that's dissipated by evaporation (phase change) of water rather than claiming it as electrical power through modern energy capture technologies. Given modern technologies the spent fuel might give more electrical power than the reactor if it were exploited. I have issues with the whole "we don't have to take the trash out" mentality of nuclear proponents, but I have no problem with making the most of what they do.

    We need to come to grips with the idea that "a big enough thermal delta is an electrical energy source." And then moderate the "Big enough" term with advances in technology. That's the ultimate recycling: finding utility for the thermal energy we are now throwing away.

  • Re:Honest question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @02:04AM (#40773769)

    cheap electrical power available from nukes

    That's not really true.

    That's why I said it's a big "if", but in any case, the cost of nuclear power versus fossil fuels depends on how seriously you believe that there is a link between carbon emissions and global warming. Global warming could result in many trillions of dollars of damage as coastal areas are inundated by rising seas, droughts and other extreme weather, crop loss, etc.

    If Nuclear power really does emit less carbon and carbon is causing global warming, then nuclear power could be far less costly even if the raw price per kwh is higher.

  • Re:Honest question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @02:35AM (#40773899)

    With enough electrical energy we could convert to a hydrogen/oxygen economy, rather than a carbon-based one. There are some issues though, like the Hindenburg.

    Then don't build your airship with a highly flamable skin - hydrogen was only part of the problem.

    It turns out that Hydrogen in a normal Earthlike atmosphere is explosive.

    So are many other common fuels like gasoline and natural gas, yet we've learned to harness them safely.

    Also, it wants to be a gas rather than a liquid, which limits its utility.

    As does natural gas, yet there's growing talk of using Natural Gas to fuel long haul trucks due to the dropping costs of natural gas.


    And as a gas, it passes freely through any known material at room temperature because hydrogen2 molecules are as small as molecules get.

    Generate it at the filling station so it doesn't have to be pumped for long distances, and dissolve it in some other substance [] to ease storage.

    And then there's the whole "we get half of our electrical energy from coal" thing, and the conversion losses.

    But the whole premise of this article is that we need to move to "clean" nuclear power, not fossil fuels.

    Unless we get some good watts from some other source, your electric hybrid is likely generating more CO2 than my Chevy truck.

    Unless your Chevy truck gets better than 53/48 mpg, then my electric hybrid generates less CO2 than your truck since both of our vehicles are powered by the same fuel - gasoline. Even when electric cars are powered by coal plants, they than conventional cars. []

    If I had an electric car, most of its power would come from hydroelectric power.

  • Re:Honest question (Score:4, Insightful)

    by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @02:35AM (#40773901)
    If power, from whatever source, was free, what would the world look like?
  • Re:Honest question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JSBiff ( 87824 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @02:37AM (#40773907) Journal

    In addition to the other commentor's point about using nuclear power to extract, transport, and enrich fuel would allow you to dramatically decrease the carbon footprint of nuclear, there's also the points that:

    2) Newer enrichment technology like centrifuges and, soon, laser excitation enrichment, dramatically reduce the energy needed to enrich uranium (which is a proliferation concern of course, but us keeping ourselves from having centrifuges doesn't seem likely to stop Iran from building them). I mean, the energy requirements for a gas centrifuge is something like 1/50 the power needed for the old gas diffusion plants (which were just horribly inefficient). I don't know what laser enrichment will be, but I gather it will use something like 1/100th the the power of gas diffusion facility.

    3) If you use Thorium in a molten salt reactor, you don't need any enrichment at all (well, ok, you need startup fissile and for the first few decades, that probably means some enriched uranium or U/Pu mix, but eventually you can start new plants from the U-233 which was bred in old Thorium plants which will be being decommissioned, so you wouldn't need much Uranium mining at all), and it is currently a waste product of mining other minerals, so there's essentially no additional mining footprint (as demand grows, this may eventually change).

  • Re:Honest question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @02:38AM (#40773913)

    If power, from whatever source, was free, what would the world look like?

    A whole lot brighter at night!

  • Re:Migrate! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SwampJack ( 2690239 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @02:44AM (#40773939)
    In the 1960's and 1970's, through the concerted efforts of well meaning organizations like Greenpeace, the nuclear power industry was destroyed. In their attempt to do good this organization indirectly caused the construction of untold numbers of carbon emitting power stations. In our current attempt to "do good" it is important not to let our hubris lead us to make mistakes that will cost future generations. No scientifically accepted model says the Earth with turn into a Venus-like desert. Average temperatures are expected to rise 2 - 12 degrees F by 2100 according to the EPA. Sea levels are expected to rise at most 2 meters by 2100 according to the IPCC. If it costs us a mere 1-2% of our GDP each year to prevent that change, over the course of 100 years that adds up: Current World GDP (About 64 Trillion USD) * 1.02 ^ 100 = $ 460 Trillion Dollars For $460 Trillion dollars we could move everyone within a mile of the ocean inland, build greenhouses to supply the entire world's food supply, and plant 100 billion trees with money left over.
  • Re:Waste problem (Score:4, Insightful)

    by JSBiff ( 87824 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @03:03AM (#40774013) Journal

    Well, for one thing, our current approach to nuclear waste is completely moronic. Trying to bury it for 100k years is a bit of a fool's errand.

    The only sane solution to the nuclear waste problem is to force the long-lived waste (mostly plutonium, but some other actinides as well) to fission, and the only way to do that is in a fast nuclear reactor.

    In truth, we've painted ourselves into a bit of a corner. We NEED to do R&D on fast reactors (especially molten salt fast reactors, and the Integral Fast Reactor), and start to build whatever is going to be the safest, most effective nuclear reactor.

    When you burn off the long-lived waste in a fast reactor, you do get more radioactive waste as output BUT that waste cools off "quickly" - it becomes basically non-radioactive after 300 years (I say "basically non-radioactive" because you do get extremely low levels of lingering radiation for a long time - that's how half-lives work, mathematically, but the radiation is lower than average earth crust after about 300 years).

    I don't know about you, but I'd rather have a 300 year problem than a 100k year problem, wouldn't you?

  • Re:Honest question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nusuth ( 520833 ) <> on Thursday July 26, 2012 @04:15AM (#40774297) Homepage

    It would be like magic, almost post-scarcity. Energy is *the* price setter. We tend to think raw materials and technology are more limiting, but actually more energy can substitute both raw materials and technology. For example, it is possible but energy inefficient to separate dilute chemicals.If energy is free, it would be possible to mine *everything* from waste and oceans. If you need a complex molecule, make an organic soup and separate useful stuff. If a certain production process has low yield, do not research ways to increase yield, instead increase capacity, separate, reuse. If farmland is not sufficient, use hydrophonic farms with artificial lightning and synthesized fertilizers. Need water, desalinate. Need water in the middle of Sahara, pump. Need cold air, condition. Make a dome over the a city o a desert; you don't need an impermeable dome if you don't mind using energy inefficiently...

  • PS. My mum is a vegetarian because she doesn't like meat. Some vegetarians just don't like the idea of factory farming and killing animals for food. I'm not sure how that is counter to evolution.

  • irrational fear (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tom ( 822 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @05:01AM (#40774553) Homepage Journal

    yes, nuclear is the answer.

    Our culture has an irrational fear of nuclear power, much like in the early trains of steam trains, people thought they would die from asphyxiation if the train went too fast.

    Some nuclear technology is dangerous. Thorium reactors (see other comments), for example, aren't.

    But through our irrational fear, we've actually put us into a worse situation. In most western countries, we have nuclear reactors running well beyond their lifetimes, because we are too afraid to allow the construction of new, modern reactors. So instead we have old, less reliable, less safe and slowly falling apart reactors. Do you really think that's an improvement?

    Burning coal and oil and gas is what has to stop, right now. I'm with a power company that offers renewable energy right now. But if there was one that offered renewable plus nuclear, I'd sign up immediately. For some reason, there isn't. You either get totally dirty power, with nuclear and fossil, or renewable. But nobody has the balls to ask the market if maybe there are enough people like me who don't really mind nuclear, but do mind fossil.

  • Re:Honest question (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 26, 2012 @07:51AM (#40775285)

    Yes, it's science. The link between human carbon emissions and global warming is a model. It fits very well with the current data, including the estimations of past data (with the associated big error bars). However, new observations CAN invalidate the model, either with new data or better estimations of past data.

    Be careful. It's science, not faith. It's a theory, just like relativity. It CAN be falsified by real data, just like Newton's gravitation was falsified in the large-field regime by Einstein. It's not a "settled" dogma.

  • by rmstar ( 114746 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @07:54AM (#40775307)

    It is simply not possible for this design to explode

    That is exactly the type of claim I take issue with. If you are talking "gigawatts" and "can't blow up", then you are likely talking nonsense.

    like Fukushima.

    That's a very narrow definition of safe. It will most likely have its own way of making a mess. Perhaps it will be bloody unlikely in theory, but in practice, corrupt, greedy and stupid operators will make it happen.

  • by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @08:00AM (#40775349) Homepage Journal

    Right, because socialist society with communist ideology does such a wonderful job running nuclear power plants. []

    It is the government that should be kicked out of nuclear, not the other way around. Capitalism in a free market (without gov't intervention) will deliver the highest possible quality products and services at best possible prices.

    Over 40 years of operations Standard Oil was constantly lowering prices, from 30 cents per gallon of refined oil in 1969 down to 5.9 cents per gallon and so on, until it was broken up by the corrupt government that should have never touched the company that had 150 competitors at the time and was providing the market with the best quality, lowest price service.

    Why was it done, was it done to help the consumers, clients of Standard Oil? No. It was done to help some other companies, who could not otherwise compete with Standard Oil. Prices never came down again since then, they always went up since that time.

    The last thing a company wants to do is to destroy itself, to have a nuclear disaster on its hands and to kill its own people and destroy its own capital asset that makes money.

    The problem is not capitalism, capitalism in a free market is the solution. The problem is the government meddling with the free market, setting up moral hazards, creating monopolies, causing prices to rise via money printing (inflation) and all the regulations and laws that destroy productivity.

    Combining a company with government produces terrible results, allowing government to run something produces terrible results.

    The best results are produced via competition among many people trying hard to make profit.

  • Re:Honest question (Score:3, Insightful)

    by moeinvt ( 851793 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @08:04AM (#40775369)

    Come up with a solution other than "The government needs to ...." and I'll weigh your solution with patience and objectivity, then likely participate.

    F*** the government. They just want you to be a serf with a government-issued energy ration card and a electricity monitoring meter on your home.

    Not to mention a food voucher, an apartment with X# sq feet of space (as determined by some federal bureaucracy to be what you "need") and a job that pays slave wages from whatever corporation paid the most in campaign contributions.

    "global warming" is the new "fear generator" that they need now that they've milked terrorism, "the children" and communism for everything they're worth.

    Stop being afraid.

  • Re:Honest question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tmosley ( 996283 ) on Thursday July 26, 2012 @08:55AM (#40775773)
    I'm not sure you understand what the tragedy of the commons is (it refers to common property that doesn't have a distinct owner, and as such is not taken care of). You certainly don't understand why it doesn't apply here.

    Energy that is so cheap that it is easier to give it away than to sell it will be given away, while money is made from other sources. For example, the energy is so cheap that it might not be cost effective to charge households for its use, but you WOULD charge customers that use more than a certain amount (ie factories, large buildings, etc). This is similar to the way we treat roads now. Yes, we pay a gas tax, but commercial vehicles pay a use tax that is assessed by the mile. If roads were so expensive that they couldn't pay for the roads that way, then it would be more likely for roads to cost money to use for individuals.

    I think a major mental block you are dealing with here is the fact that you aren't able to wrap your mind around the way that economies of plenty work. This is understandable because almost all real goods are governed by scarcity economics. Luckily, we have created a realm that is governed by economics of plenty--the internet. Think about the way internet services are provided. Free email. Free websearch. Free porn. Free everything. Yet the services continue to be provided, even by big companies that use expensive infrastructure. There would be nothing to stop a company like Google from providing free power to consumers if they could do it effectively.

...there can be no public or private virtue unless the foundation of action is the practice of truth. - George Jacob Holyoake