Monday, February 21, 2011

Review of James Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren

John Farley reviews James Hansen's book. Environmentalists gag at nuclear power.
Last fall, I reviewed James Hansen's book, Storms of My Grandchildren, for the Monthly Review. Hansen finds that the consequences of global warming are happening faster than the predictions of the IPCC: melting ice caps, rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans. Hansen believes that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere already exceeds a safe level. Hansen advocates a carbon tax ("fee and dividend") to phase out coal, and phase in renewable energy, including nuclear power. The last point is of course anathema to many environmentalists. The review of Hansen can be found here.

The Southern California Federation of Scientists (SCFS) wrote a letter saying that both coal and nuclear power are disasters. They want renewable power, excluding nuclear. My response is that nuclear power definitely has its disadvantages, but does not threaten to melt the polar ice caps and flood coastal cities around the world. The SCFS and my response can be found here.


Anonymous said...

Regarding Nuclear vs. Coal....

Nuclear power may have its problems, but the bottom line is, future generations would be able to deal with nuclear waste even if it were dumped into open pits than with an atmosphere loaded up with 800+ PPM CO2.

Nuclear accidents have the potential of leaving horrendously expensive messes to clean up (but would not threaten the existence of human civilization), whereas unlimited carbon emissions would virtually guarantee a premature end to human civilization as we know it.

We need to put a heavy tax on carbon emissions and then let nuclear power compete with the standard "renewable" options. No need for special subsidies or anything like that -- price carbon appropriately and nuclear power will be able to play on a level playing field. But by all means don't exclude nuclear for ideological reasons -- that would simply be another form of "denialism".

--caerbannog the (radioactive) anonybunny

Anonymous said...

Gotta frame this right:

We need to put a heavy tax on carbon emissions

NOT a tax. A waste-disposal fee!!

--caerbannog the (radioactive) anonybunny

Dallas said...

I like nukes, as long as the design does not have a significant positive temperature coefficient. CANDU has a slight positive. Not a fan of PBRs. Some of the Generation IV are interesting, integral fast reactors, if truly safe, can greatly reduce the waste problem.

seamus said...

Fer sure, this is the debate that wants having. There's no other option but building nuclear fission plants as a *temporary solution* to replace coal-burning facilities.

Conservation? I tend to throw that silly idea right out, mostly. We need to generate more power to supply increasing demand. Of course common sense conservation measures should be pursued where there's a visible benefit: insulating your house and using efficient light bulbs saves on energy bills.

The problem is that when you say things like "conserve energy" and "radical transformations in social relations", average joe hears that you want to take away his air conditioning and automobile and guns and bibles and establish an evil orwellian new world order. Just put a tax on gasoline and make an incentive to buy a more efficient vehicle. Keep gas at $3 a gallon or higher, and eventually everyone will want an electric car.

We're not going to change human nature to achieve sustainability either. OTOH, current economic thinking and policy fails to even consider any other model than continual growth. But that's a whole nuther topic.

Environmentalists need to recognise that with everything there are trade-offs, and there are no magic bullets. Nuclear is smarter than coal right now. With nuclear, fuel reprocessing technology is the main problem. Nuclear is going to have to be part of the solution, so let's talk about how we are going to do nuclear.

But what's the long term solution? If this is our Sputnik moment, where's our equivalent Apollo program? It would be nice to see leaders come together and announce a major international effort by the biggest energy-consuming nations to develop fusion power in 25 years.

Besides that, the roadblocks to free, open, and fair markets that stifle innovation need to be dismantled. Yes, the good old boy network that maintains the status quo. That's corruption, not healthy capitalism.

Oh, and Power to the People. Carry on.

Jim Bouldin said...

"Conservation? I tend to throw that silly idea right out, mostly. We need to generate more power to supply increasing demand."

Some of us have this wild assed idea--oh man I have a hard time not busting up whenever I think of this--that maybe the demand side of the equation needs to be addressed. Again--totally hare-brained there--you know how these crazy thoughts come up sometimes.

tamino said...

I too dislike nuclear power -- a lot. But "beggars can't be choosers." If they'll help reduce carbon emissions, and help us leave the coal in the ground, I say bring it on.

Anonymous said...

Given the rapidly degenerating situation, it's bitterly hilarious that Hansen's "plan" relies on nuclear technology that does not yet exist.

The operation of a nuclear power plan may be a relatively low CO2-emission process but there is a great deal of fossil fuel expended in the overall to project to bring ore to the stage of electrical generation.

Besides the mining and processing of the fuel, the fabrication of power plants contribute a great deal to the overall CO2 equation. Will the "fourth generation" plants require the massive amounts of concrete as the earlier designs? Perhaps more? Cement production itself is a significant source of CO2 emissions. Add to that the emissions associated with transporting of the many m(b)illions(?) of tons of concrete. Don't forget the emissions associated with the manufacture transport and fabrication of the non-concrete elements of the plants.
(cement and CO2:

Assuming most folks here accept a relatively long CO2 half-life, I would suggest that Hansen provide the complete analysis of CO2 emissions associated with nuclear power. Is it really that much less, per unit electricity, relative the lifespan of the plant, for us to consider it THE answer? (Perhaps he can do the calculation for existing technology, for later comparison to the 4th generation, if and when it arrives.)

This is especially critical in the apparent total absence of any attempt to limit world population or alter the "always consume more" basis of the "triumphant" global economic system.

John Puma

bob said...

How can a nuclear plant possibly generate more CO2 than a coal powerplant over its lifetime? If that is even remotely true I'll eat my hat.

carrot eater said...

Forget climate change. Just think of the illness and death caused by pollution (in a traditional sense) due to coal power plants. The numbers in China alone are quite something. In that light, the health/environmental risks of nuclear look quite manageable. The capital cost of building the things, however, are another story.

seamus said...

"Technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource."
Jevons paradox

We need more energy supply, plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

John Puma has a point--but there is another technology that has been demonstrated successfully--with the use of thorium as fuel in a liquid-salt reactor that seems to be 1) inherently safer 2) generate much less waste 3) use a fuel that does not require isotope separation and 4) is proliferation-resistant.
Just sayin'.

Meeska Mouse

David B. Benson said...

All of these points (and many more) have been addressed on
in which I particularly recommend the TCASE series, linked on the side4bar.

Jim Bouldin said...

"We need more energy supply, plain and simple."

How about a change in the practices that leads to Jevon's paradox in the first place? You think "Jevon" found something like the law of gravity or what?

David B. Benson said...

Other countries don't have the problems in constructing nuclear power pants that the USA does:

Hank Roberts said...

> don't have the problems in constructing
> nuclear power pants

Ouch! Ouch!
What could possibly go wrong?

Some good news:

Anonymous said...


I'm completely with Jim Bouldin on this.

Human energy use is, at its most essential, a proxy for our capacity to exploit all of the other resources of the planet. If we use more energy, that energy is expended with the concurrent consumption of animal, vegetable or mineral inputs.

Humans are already over-exploiting much of the planet, whether it is by extraction from under the earth, or from the forests and the soils of the land, or from the rivers and oceans. Increasing energy use inevitably means that we will increase our extraction/utilisation of other resources, pushing our presence on the planet further into unsustainability.

If technology could replace our fossil energy usage with renewables and with nuclear, with no explicit addressing of subsequent increasing energy consumption, humanity's future becomes one less threatened by the avoided warming and more threatened by its damage to other aspects of the biosphere.

The problem is that we do not pay for the real cost of our energy use. We certainly do not pay for the direct greenhouse pollution of the atmosphere, but even more than this we do not pay the more general biospheric cost for the exploitation of cheap fossil energy. It is future generations, and much of the non-human biosphere, that will subsidise, or that currently subsidises, our current (and past) predilection for conveniently dense and apparently cheap energy.

To frame it in another way, we didn't (at the time) pay fully for our use of the energy embodied in the burning of (and even in the construction with) the timber cut from the post-glacial forests. That price has really only began to be 'paid' in the last several centuries. We haven't been paying anywhere near the total cost to the planet (and thus to ourselves and our descendants) of burning coal, oil, and gas. If our energy use in a post fossil fuel economy increases, then it is inevitable that we (and subsequent generations) will not be paying the full biospheric cost of exploiting that energy.

You might insist that we have to "generate more power to supply increasing demand", but if we do so then we are not going to to be doing it indefinitely. It's a matter of basic number-crunching in a finite system. When human energy- and resource-use go up, resource availability elsewhere in the biosphere goes down. At some point, they're going to pass each other on the autobahn, and by that time it will be too late to apply the brakes to protect them from being catastrophically separated.

I would suggest that we have only a limited time to avoid that point even if we instantly, actively and concertedly put our shoulders to the grindstone. However, given our current prevarication, we have probably already passed the point at which we could truly avoid our unsustainability without penalty being incurred in the coming decades and centuries.

Should we conserve? Yes. Should we just continue to ramp up our hunger for energy use? Um, no, not if we want our decendants to enjoy the society that we do.

Will humans pay for the true inter-generational, inter-species cost of energy use? I doubt it, because I suspect that one would have to price all energy at human-power or horse-power levels of costing.

The alternative is to have drastically fewer humans on the planet, and as a species we (unsurprisingly, really) show no serious capacity to rstrict and to reverse our population growth.

The phrases "rock and a hard place" and "devil and the deep blue sea" spring to mind...

Bernard J. Hyphen-Anonymous XVII

Anonymous said...

How unknown in practice are the thorium liquid salt reactors? How many are there? Can a declining USA build them?

Pete Dunkelberg

David B. Benson said...

Pete Dunkelberg --- There are no thorium reactors yet, but sev eral countries are actively working on that. Possibly India is the furthest along.

Anonymous said...

Why are thorium reactors so hard? Or are they? Doesn't Brave New Climate indicate they're a piece of cake?

Pete Dunkelberg

MArion Delgado said...

Eli can you twist Mr. Farley's arm and make him read this post/comments?

I am happy to give in on the non-issue of these amazing nth generation clean and perfect nuclear plants.

That said, we won't get them. There's zero chance of that. The nuclear industry has promised pie-in-the-sky and given us pigeons overhead since the start and it's not changing its ways.

What really happens is, no one wants to come off as an anti-science or anti-technology extremist, so we say, sure, if you could build, e.g., a thorium liquid salt reactor that's safe, vastly more efficient, and also gets rid of radioactive material, no, we wouldn't object to that being part of the solution, especially if it doesn't cost the bulk of R&D or construction money for non-fossil-fuel energy.

Then what happens is, the nuclear proponents and the industry say, yay, and build the 1.5th generation same-old-same-old plant they were going to build anyway, and screw you DFHs.

Farley has to at least think about that at least once. What guarantees is he getting - is anyone getting? Ever? For any of this? Has he ever asked how that would be assured and enforced? Why does nuclear as it is even have a place at the table?

I'm assuming Hansen either isn't familiar with the vaporware history or just wants to finesse the "seriousness" issue.

Best WV ever: uncited

Marion Delgado said...

seamus is answered completely (As is "Jevons' Paradox" - yet another free market cult piece of nonsense pretending to be some sort of natural law) over at Climate Progress, and repeatedly.

Marion Delgado said...

Bernard: market fundies are "cornucopians." There are no limits. One quoted in "Great Mambo Chicken" thought the population limit for Earth was so many people that when you calculate the mass involved, it was millions of times the mass of the Earth. If we make all the species go extinct? well, if Market God wants them back, Market God will produce them again, somehow. And if not, then they aren't a "real" loss, hence not a "real" limit. The only thing that ever changes in the true world is prices. If the "real" world fails Market God, then it does. That doesn't change the Truth™ of the market faith. Nothing does. Nothing can. In fact, if Market God makes humans go extinct, so there are nothing left but machines and corporate persons existing only in legal databases, good! Because if the money numbers add up, that was what was for the greater good, by definition.

Marion Delgado said...

Here's a market fundie source approvingly quoting Bob Truax that the Earth can support a septillion people:

Overpopulation scares that followed the original population of the Club of Rome study, and the later Global 2000 report, provided part of the original push to settle in space colonies. But analysis by Harvard University's Harvey Brooks concluded that "the world could support a population of a trillion people at a material standard of living better than that of the most affluent countries." Brooks envisions two-thirds of these future folks living on artificial islands spread across the oceans. Brooks' scenario is a little too spread out for Bob Truax, who figures that the Earth would support a total population of about a septillion." That may seem a little crowded, but according to Great Mambo Chicken author Ed Regis, "even mainstream Harvard University social-scientist types were saying that the carrying capacity of planet Earth had not been even remotely approached."

Physicist Cesare Marchetti of the Internatinal Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, wrote that "from a technological point of view, a trillion people can live beautifully on Earth, for an unlimited time and without exhausting any primary resource and without overloading the environment." ("A Check on the Earth Carrying Capacity for Man," Energy, Vol. 4, 1979, p. 1107.)

Other scientists weighed in with studies documenting the lack of limits to economic growth. H.E. Goeller and Alvin Weinberg review and project man's past and future natural resource usage in "The Age of Substitutability," explaining that, "most of the [Earth's] essential raw materials are in infinite supply: that as society exhausts one raw material, it will turn to lower-grade inexhaustible substitutes."

Economists say, "substitutes are everywhere." As any natural resource gets more expensive to dig up or process, its price rises. As the price climbs, resource users begin to look for similar but cheaper resources to serve as substitutes. Higher prices encourage more recycling, too.

Actually, I was thinking the old-fashioned British and current European septillion, 10^42. But Truax undoubtedly meant the now-standard 10^24.

A septillion people would weigh 6.5 * 10^25 kg. The Earth weighs 6 * 10^24 kg. So we'd only need about 11 Earths or so to produce enough ATOMS to have a population of a septillion people. Making the DFH greenie socialist command-and-control-economy assumption that they'd need enough non-human mass to keep from floating away (and what's wrong with a planet made entirely of people? People eating people. People walking on people? People mining people? People buying and selling people? People all the way down, until they compress into a stable core in the middle? Nothing, really, but us radical environazis are just not people people, I'm afraid) - I guess you'd only need to make the Earth 22 x bigger than it is, or so. Which Market God can do overnight assuming there's sufficient demand, and sufficient supply side lack of taxation and regulation. And you could use all that waste mass for heavy raw materials to make bank computers and ATMs.

By the way, the Foundation for Economic Education the market fundies who agree with this are not "fringe" elements. They're an offshoot of the Chamber of Commmerce. Leading CEOs are members. They helped set what has become by now the dominant economic policy in the US, UK, Canada. This is serious stuff.

David B. Benson said...

Pete Dunkelberg --- Many threads and comments on BraveNewClimate are quite optimistic. There already are or have been some molten salt reactors, just not quite what one needs for electric power production yet. There are good reasons to be optimistic, but thorium cycle has to be reduced to practice.

There are already some designs which can use some proportion of MOX, reprocessed once-through (used) fuel. The ones I know about still need to complete NRC type approval and I am confident this will occur. But that still leaves about another 15--20 yeaars of development before MSTRs and IFRs are ready for deployment; that includes the Indians.

Anonymous said...

David Benson, thanks very much for your help on this question. I know from your comments at BNC that you look into these matters carefully and do the calculations. It does seem a bit odd though that getting liquid salt reactors online takes longer than putting a man on the moon, especially in view of the urgency.

Most commenters at BNC sound educated, but not all lessons sunk in. The like nuclear reactors because they like them. They're not so sure about this CO2 - climate problem.

"We're not convinced of CAGW."

Why not?

"Cause we hate greenies."

Whap! What's that have to do with physics, brain child?

"Greenies" must be hated for two reasons:
1) Just because
2) greenies are (they think) the evil force standing between them and nukes.

Meanwhile the molten salt reactors (MSRs) and in particular the liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) are the 'nicer' nukes. Much safer (already molten, so no meltdown danger, air cooled so no large water requirement, radioactive waste can be reprocessed to a form that last just a few hundred years, much safer for underground storage...)

Freshwater supply is a very large factor going forward. One reason that some proposed nuclear reactors are opposed is that they are sited in coastal areas in danger from sea level rise.

What about the accounting (computing levelized cost of energy (LCOE)) at BNC? It's standard "externalities don't count" accounting. Can you do better?

Pete Dunkelberg

seamus said...

I don't buy into the notion that use of energy translates automatically into unsustainable growth. Energy efficiency, cheaper energy and more abundant energy are all the same thing. If some new technology saves or creates more, cheaper energy, then there are more resources to put into sustainable development. Is there no such thing as enlightened self-interest?

The other side of cheaper is putting a real price on the environmental costs on every form of energy. The more it harms, even in the long term-- especially in the long term-- the more it costs. This means smart taxes and regulation on energy production. Until we get down to what, 350 ppm or so, tax carbon off the freakin map. (Don't let industry write the rules. Stop electing their henchmen.)

Achieve industrialization and democratization of developing countries. Population growth will level off with development.

But I'm picturing smart development. Abundant, clean, cheap energy enabling a sustainable, modern infrastructure. People live in giant cities, not sprawling suburbs. There are very few cars and trucks, mostly bicycles and trains. Some of the buildings are high-rise agricultural structures. Windmills and solar panels are everywhere. Desalinization and recycling are cheap. The resources exist to set aside giant areas of land, forest, and ocean as protected habitat. Biodiversity is the planet's most precious economic resource, and properly managed, it will thrive.

One place we can look at the demand side is with distribution efficiency. Wouldn't a superconductor power grid be nifty? Of course with superabundant energy, no matter what the source, there will undoubtably be unforseen, generally negative (and possibly dire) consequences. That's the way it goes.

So we need not only clean energy, but more energy. To fuel sustainability both in the developed and developing parts of the world. Windmills going up everywhere is awesome. It's very exciting. But it's not going to be nearly enough and something has to replace all those coal plants.

All kinds of new energy sources are possible, and that means innovation but also regulation. Regulation so the little guy can be competitive in any market, and the system is broken right now. For example, look at how patents are being abused... patents are being granted for things like crustless peanut-butter sandwiches FFS. Free markets need to be fair, open markets.

Nuclear is a good idea because it's the one obvious thing we can do right away that "conservatives" seem to simply adore. Reprocessing technology will come along, by all means let's speed that up, and it's a good leverage point for compromise.

quokka said...

Pete Dunkelberg,

Estimates of the external costs of various methods of electricity generation are given in this EU study External Costs: Electricity and Transport

Nuclear is estimated to be comparable to, if not better than various renewables. As I understand it LCOE does not normally include external costs. Also LCOE only tells part of the story. In the end it is the total system cost that really matters and variable non-dispatchable technologies imply a higher system cost due to the need for overbuild and/or backup generation.

I quite agree that a couple of commentors on BNC (and one in particular) can be a real PITA, but I doubt that they are representative of most on BNC - just more noisy. The thing that sets BNC apart is the hard headed approach to energy not just in terms of the engineering and cost but also in recognition of the most likely trends for future energy demand. The latter is at the very core of the climate problem and trying to wish it away really doesn't help at all.

To me the prospects of effective action on climate look grim, and if some right-wingers want to support nuclear power, that just fine.

David B. Benson said...

Pete Dunkelberg --- Wherever possible I use actual contracted busbar prices. Such only include the exernalities required by the regulatory authority. Otherwise, I use NREL’s “Simple Levelized Cost of Energy Calculator”,
which doesn't fully account for even all the intrnalized costs.

The one exernality I use is simple: No coal and avoid natgas.

The BNC crowd is a diverse bunch; I don't think you should lump them all in the same basket; they even not all Aussies.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to quokka and again to David for clarification and links. I agree that not all BNC-ers are as I described. Perhaps some like that are welcome there as long as they do distract from the nuclear arguments.

Meanwhile I don't think the externalities are well addressed in the links provided. I have lots more to read but near the top of quokka's large linked pdf there is a statement about finding the easiest way to satisfy Kyoto - hardly a sufficient response in 2011.

Pete Dunkelberg

Marion Delgado said...

I don't buy into the notion that use of energy translates automatically into unsustainable growth. Energy efficiency, cheaper energy and more abundant energy are all the same thing. If some new technology saves or creates more, cheaper energy, then there are more resources to put into sustainable development. Is there no such thing as enlightened self-interest?

If that's your take, you should go to climate progress and look up all the "rebound" and "Jevons' paradox" posts. They'd probably clarify your understanding of this issue. When you actually look at the amount of rebound, I think that will change your perspective.

WV: this one is, swear to Atlas, bunfoo

Flavius Collium said...

You don't have to generate long term nuclear waste:

Though, i'm much more confident in storage technology after seeing this documentary (which they probably didn't intend!):