Monday, November 11, 2013

Three words missing from the Caldeira/Emanuel/Hansen/Wigley letter supporting safer nuclear power

The letter's here, with the operative sentence "As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems." I would change the ending of that sentence to safer nuclear energy systems if fiscally prudent.

I personally couldn't support the letter as written just as I couldn't support the reverse, a letter urging unqualified opposition to nuclear energy. The reverse may be somewhat worse in the real world, because I think much of the opposition to nuclear energy isn't empirically based but tiered off of Cold War era ideological battles. Still, I don't see a whole lot of empiricism going on here. Why not urge advocacy and deployment of carbon capture and sequestration? CCS certainly has economic issues but adding 40% to the cost of coal might still keep it cheaper than nuclear, and CCS of biomass power is a carbon negative solution, one of the very few available. I'm not saying we must do CCS - maybe it doesn't pencil out - but then the same flexibility should apply to nuclear.

Just adding those three magic words may not be enough. We might need to finish the sentence  as safer nuclear energy systems if fiscally prudent and if nuclear proliferation issues are addressed. Nuclear power won't be a large solution to the climate change problem unless it spreads to many countries where it doesn't currently exist, maybe virtually all medium-sized and larger countries. Al Gore used to be a national security guy before he went green, and I think proliferation is one of the reasons for his nuclear skepticism.

Finally the sentence might need to read if fiscally prudent and if nuclear proliferation and terrorism issues are addressed. Terrorists causing catastrophic radioactive releases or getting their scheming hands on some radioactive material from these thousands of new nuclear plants around the world could be problematic. I'd concede this one isn't as important as the other two, but it's there.

The letter writers are right that accidents and nuclear waste, the issues most opponents emphasize, are way overblown, but they take a big step from that point to saying nuclear is therefore a good idea.

I'll stay a nuclear waffler for now.


Fergus Brown said...

CCS Coal is cheaper than any other energy source apart from non-CCS coal. In the UK, CCS plants aren't planned by utilities without incentives to help maintain relative profitability. It's more about the profit than the effect, always has been.
'Terrorism' might not be the right word - for example, in the Middle East, where one of the risks to security is military government, which requires enemies to justify itself, and is plausibly less stable and less focussed on the longer term than other models.
Finally, as with arms sales, for certain if there is a product and a demand there will be a market for it. Anything less than tight control on Nuclear capability increases the risk of tactical strikes many times over.
All that said, I can't see how energy demand is going to be met without fossil fuels unless nuclear is increased - there really is little alternative :(

Turboblocke said...

"CCS Coal is cheaper than any other energy source apart from non-CCS coal."

Do you have any data to back that up?

Fergus Brown said...

2# ; Thanks for responding. I have read the evidence but don't have it to hand. It may be available at the IEA or DUKES in the UK. I work in the energy industry and know others who do intercomparisons for a living, so for me it's sort of a given. Sorry I can't be more precise.

EliRabett said...

Given the cost of natural gas today, the increasing use of natural gas to generate electricity in place of coal without CCS and the fact that CCS has not really been demonstrated on a commercial scale, frankly Fergus, without some backup Eli finds that a huge carrot to swallow.

Anonymous said...

There might be a few carrots you haven't considered. Modular nuclear reactors are a whole different breed and the Chinese are rapidly improving on earlier designs.

John McCormick

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

Totally unoriginal in the box thinking from these individuals. Why am I not surprised by this result?

Fergus Brown said...

Eli: it's totally different in the USA at the moment - fracking has literally changed the game plan there on energy prices - elsewhere, globally, gas costs about the same as good quality onshore wind, and more than coal.
Thomas: I don't like coal at all, even with CCS. I'm not sure about nuclear, yet. Wind can't meet demand, even where it works efficiently. I say that, as working in wind.
I'll dig up something for you all.
Don't misunderstand my post as reactionary - I'm not - but a bitter bite of reality.
My intel comes largely from mouth of horse, ie, those who build these things and their consultants, and political circles.

Fergus Brown said...

These are for the USA:

EliRabett said...

Frankly IEHO, CCS anywhere right now is science affliction.

Brian said...

My question would be at what point is the cost of either natural gas or coal plus CCS more than the cost of nuclear. My impression is that it would have to be really high - so if CCS doesn't make economic sense now (quite possible) then why does nuclear make economic sense?

KAP said...

US EIA puts the levelized cost of electricity from coal with CCS at $135.50/MWh, and "conventional" coal without CCS at $100.10/MWh.

The same source puts nuclear at $108.40/MWh. Which means nuclear beats CCS right now, even assuming actual deployed CCS costs aren't just pie-in-the-sky.

KAP said...

And I would agree that it would be nice to have a level playing field in the energy game, but that's certainly not happening now. Fossils are skating on the public with huge external costs (including massively huge external costs from climate change), and renewables are skating on the public with massive subsidies and market skewing regulations like portfolio requirements. Nuclear is subsidized too, but at much lower rates than renewables.

KAP said...

One more thing: there are nine nations in the world that have nuclear weapons, and eight of those deployed their first bomb without having a nuclear power plant within their borders. IMHO, the proliferation "issue" is a complete red herring. One does not need an automobile to make a napalm bomb, even though they both use gasoline. The critical technology is enrichment, not power plants. And thorium plants won't require enrichment at all.

John said...

CCS = carbon capture and storage. I am willing to believe that, by spending enough, we can separate the CO2 from a coal-fired plant. But then comes the hard part: sequestering the CO2 (almost) forever: say for 1000 y or more. If you pump the CO2 into depleted oil wells or coal mines, you have to be sure there aren't any leaks. How can you be really sure? What about earthquakes which could produce new leaks?
Also, the volume of CO2 to be sequestered is truly staggering.

OTOH please note that some good climate researchers (for example, Wally Broecker, at Columbia), are very enthusiastic about it. WB thinks it's practical to turn CO2 into a solid carbonate by reacting it with pulverized rock. The reaction can be exothermic once it gets started.

Burton Richter, Nobel laureate physicist at Stanford, is skeptical about the storage issue. See Richter's 2010 book, "Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate change and energy in the 21st Century" for details.

Anonymous said...

"Nuclear power won't be a large solution to the climate change problem unless it spreads to many countries where it doesn't currently exist, maybe virtually all medium-sized and larger countries"

I think that the number of countries that have at least some nuclear power is not commonly recognized. A recent OECD/NEA survey found that 25 of 34 OECD countries plan to add new nuclear capacity. Russia, China and India have nuclear power as does Pakistan and so will Bangladesh and Vietnam. Add all that lot (and some others I've probably missed) together and they represent a very sizable portion of global CO2 emissions some of which could potentially be avoided by expanding nuclear capacity.

A major difference between nuclear and CCS is that nuclear demonstrably works and works at scale. CCS *might* but tearing off on a CCS track to avoid nuclear does not seem like a prudent approach to climate risk.

When it comes to nuclear power there always seems to be yet another gadget that supposedly will remove the need nuclear power. Funny thing is that they never seem to deliver.

Anonymous said...

"What about earthquakes which could produce new leaks?"

or worse

There is some evidence that CO2 injection may actually increase the likelihood of earthquakes.

The best of all possible worlds. :)

GRLCowan said...

John says,

WB thinks it's practical to turn CO2 into a solid carbonate by reacting it with pulverized rock. The reaction can be exothermic once it gets started.

Not just exothermic but spontaneous.

And so it has already got started, see for a man-caused instance and for satellite imagery of a place where (Mg|Fe)2SiO4 has grown a crust of laterite many metres thick. (The magnesium carbonate washes away as bicarbonate.)

Comments like John's are like discussions of, I don't know, giving guns to rebels that dwell on the way the guns might be used to hit oppressors but get around, as an afterthought, to acknowledging they might also be pointed at them and fired.

This is miles better than common CCS discussions that never acknowledge the thermodynamically favoured, and therefore demonstrated, method at all. But I'm still hoping for discussions that discuss enhanced weathering and ignore the other methods.

Anonymous said...

@John, RE: leakage.

Well one way to think about it is that right now the leakage rate is 100%/year...

If you get your leakage rate low enough you can make up the difference with air capture or biomass co-firing as CCS equipped plants.


Eli doesn't like CCS... why not? Start listing actual concerns or be quiet. "It feels wrong" is just arguing from incredulity. If you know something we don't, stop holding out on us.


Brian said...

Haus Maus - my problem with CCS is seeing one pilot project after another crash and burn despite all the massive subsidies.

Despite that, I hold out hope and support for still more subsidized research. Maybe someone will get a cost breakthrough. Also the problem with CCS is just cost - if we're staring a high end climate sensitivity in the face, then the cost of CCS is well worth it.