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Comment: Re:Far better to have safer plants (Score 1) 776

Yes, once the general public begins to understand the nature of our predicament. And strictly speaking, water is not necessary for power generation, though it is of course used with common LWRs. High temperature systems can use other heat transfer mediums like CO2 or He. Ambient air cooling systems are known as "dry cooling" within the industry, and will be necessary to use to increase production (water supplies are already under strain).

Global energy production is on the order of 17 terawatts which brings the per capita average to about 2 kW. The US average is over 10 kW. This is quite significant as it affects individual freedom, the quality of food available, affordable goods and services, etc. Encouraging energy use is the primary method for reducing poverty, so of course it is necessary to not only increase the usefulness of energy already delivered (through efficiency), but also to increase the quantity. Just to bring per capita use up to 5 kW by 2050 will require producing about 3 times as much as what we produce today. Considering that in addition to that we must completely eliminate fossil fuel use, quite a formidable challenge awaits us.

There really is no alternative as renewables are not a realistic option for our predicament: we must eliminate fossil fuel usage while drastically reducing the cost of that energy (in terms of energy return over energy invested). Trying to do this with low density sources (renewables) will only promote environmental destruction and continue our dependence upon fossil fuels (estimates for the cost of this kind of infrastructure conservatively runs into the 100s of $trillions and is very likely completely impractical at scale). Current renewable equipment prices are not a true measure of the actual cost in terms of energy, and indicates very little of what happens when the industrial system tries to use renewable energy as a manufacturing base (the cost will drastically rise while the return will plummet).

Truly, the issue is quite complicated and no laughing matter. If it were not for some very poor political decisions made decades ago, we might already have applicable technology available today, but now we must educate the public and then embark upon an aggressive development program to try and minimize the damage while mitigating future risk.

And of course, there is no guarantee that we will avoid catastrophe as the risks we currently face are quite formidable. Nuclear fission only gives civilization its best shot.

Comment: Re:Not good at math (Score 1) 776

So, we can ruthlessly proactively eliminate "excess" population (ie Nazi Germany), just let things deteriorate and see what happens; or we can try to manage with education, contraception, and intelligently lowering the cost of energy. Obviously one of these options is far more civilized than the others.

The only reason for my optimism is that there are technological options for confronting our predicament, and once we get going on the right path, there will be great benefits for everyone. Heaven or Hell, the outcome is ours to choose.

Comment: The real problem is the high cost of energy (Score 2) 776

High levels of poverty is a result of high energy costs. Unfortunately, we do not have anything currently that can replace the low cost and convenience of fossil fuels. Renewable sources require equipment manufactured with primarily non-renewable sources to keep the costs down. This is a really bad place to be, and the real risk civilization faces here can not be underestimated.

To get out of this mess, we must dramatically lower the cost of clean energy, which will require massive innovation within the nuclear sector. There is simply no lower risk alternative, but the public remains superstitious with regards to radioactivity, the nuclear industry entrenched with obsolete technology, and nearly everyone remains mired in confusion when it comes to the fundamental relationship between energy production and poverty. We are not in an enviable situation, but it is conceivable that we can innovate ourselves out of this position with sufficient focus on the right kinds of energy-dense solutions. Molten salt reactor technology, pioneered in the 60s with a very successful prototype, remains are best hope in addressing the costs and liability associated with nuclear fission power production.

There will be no "new economy" without a new industrial revolution fueled by a new generation of low cost and easily deployable nuclear power plants. That is the realization that the public must come to if we are to overcome our current crisis. Not addressing this challenge appropriately can easily bring about conflicts far worse than what was experienced in the first half of the twentieth century (the world wars).

Comment: Far better to have safer plants (Score 1) 776

With the right nuclear fission technology, it may be practical to integrate power plants right into urban areas. Besides, locating the power near to where it is going to be consumed is considerably more efficient. There are ways to dramatically improve the reliability, maintainability, and safety of nuclear fission power generation, and in fact it is necessary for reducing costs. Better to tackle the problem head on than to merely react and accept the current state of the industry.

Comment: Really, this is a complex problem (Score 1) 776

All that "math and science and graphs and studies..." contain the crucial details necessary for understanding this complex issue. Not everyone is going to be able to participate in a coherent fashion, but the choice of nuclear fission for dealing with this situation is not a political choice- it is merely practical. The public's dissatisfaction with the current line of nuclear plant technology is somewhat akin to disliking an early, expensive, and unsafe car. It is not representative of the quality and value that is possible with this type of energy. There is very good reason to believe that with adequate funding and a decent design, nuclear fission is very suitable for powering the globe's economy.

The issues with fusion are manifold ranging from very immature technology to high costs. It may come to pass that fusion may one day be a practical source of energy, suitable for running the economy, but that is clearly no where near the case today. Today we must choose wisely, and wisdom dictates that we tackle the design issues related to nuclear fission. Molten salt reactors hold incredible promise, and should go a great way in making this energy source not only very safe, efficient, affordable and practical, but even desirable.

Our goal is 50 terawatts by 2050 (~17 TW are produced today), which means we'll have to get to the point where we can manufacture power plants similarly to how we build airliners. Imagine compact, high temperature reactors that can fit on the bed of a typical semi to be delivered via common roads to dry areas where ambient air is utilized for the cooling system. This is the kind of vision that can produce the throughput necessary for our needs. Reactor efficiency can greatly reduce the volume of waste, and a sensible disposal system can sequester that unwanted byproduct in deep boreholes. Many more details which I won't get into here, but it would be prudent to not be so dismissive of what the informed have to say on this subject.

Comment: Re:Not good at math (Score 1) 776

If you are a regular reader of Do The Math, then I am surprised that you are not aware of Tom Murphy's apprehension about renewables in addressing this crisis. It is not merely an issue of abundance, but also cost, convenience, and EROEI (net energy). That surplus energy is what makes our economy possible. If that surplus is eaten up by all the additional costs of trying to make a large-scale renewable system work (redundant infrastructure, storage, lengthy transmission), then our economy dwindles and we lose this game. The solution will not be found in low energy density sources of energy that inherently rely upon copious land and material use. And if we are to raise global energy-per-capita to merely 5 kW, what percentage of land do you think will need to be used? Far more than what you are suggesting.

This is the hard problem we are faced with. The general public has a great deal of superstition regarding nuclear energy and our industries have struggled to keep conventional technology cost effective and safe. There is no getting around the fact that not only do we require fission as the primary source of energy, but we must achieve a near term radical innovation in order to lower both liability and cost so that it becomes a commercially practical solution. Anything less than that (ie business as usual) and we have little hope of getting through this crisis without a major escalation of our problems.

Comment: 50 TW by 2050 should be our goal (Score 1) 776

Today global energy use is on the order of 17 terawatts. Global capita consumption is close to 2 kW while in the US the average is closer to 10 kW. To merely raise the global average to 5 kW requires that we produce on the order of 50 TW by 2050. This is inconceivable with any kind of renewable plan which at best aspires to deliver a fraction of today's consumption while dramatically raising costs and land use. In fact, 50 TW is also inconceivable with conventional (solid fuel) fission power plants as well.

Liability and waste management can be addressed with better designed systems, but we need to show some enthusiasm and support for the innovation we need in nuclear development. Time is running out for mitigating our collective risk in this very precarious situation that lies at the nexus of economic, climate, and sustainability challenges. Energy is what ties everything together.

Comment: We need a new nuclear vision to save our economy (Score 1) 776

We cannot solve the climate crisis without also addressing the economic crisis. Lowering energy costs and revitalizing the economy demands that we utilize our most practical energy dense sources. Nuclear fission has incredible potential, but unfortunately innovation in this sector has stalled for decades and today we are left without adequate technology for addressing our problems. Back in the 60s, the United States Manhattan-era nuclear physicists pioneered a radically new approach to power production: the molten salt reactor. That research culminated in a very successful prototype of a high temperature liquid fuel machine that ran for over 10 thousand hours. Today we need to pick up where they left off so that we can finish the work and transform how we produce energy. It'll take years and $billions to address the additional technical challenges that await us, but the alternative is the remain mired in confusion as our low density energy sources fail to make fossil fuels obsolete. If our goal is not to completely wipe out fossil fuel use with a vastly more cost effective and convenient energy system, we are headed in the wrong direction!

Comment: Doing more with less does not solve the problem (Score 3, Insightful) 776

To the contrary, energy prices need to come down drastically to help us mitigate the risk of all of the issues we are facing in relation to sustainability. Lowering energy costs is critical for addressing poverty, and it will be vital for combatting global warming. So it isn't that we want fossil fuel costs to go up so that renewables are more competitive which will exasperate the economy, rather, we wish for nuclear power production to become far safer, flexible, efficient, and cost effective to drive fossil fuels out of the market. Completely eliminating fossil use while lowering energy costs must be the goal!

Comment: The High Cost of Clean Energy is the Central Issue (Score 2) 247

by cbarcus (#45306977) Attached to: Bill Gates: Internet Will Not Save the World

Energy use fundamentally underlies all economic activity, and this is primarily a technological issue. The general ignorance regarding this relationship and what it implies about how we produce energy can theoretically be addressed by the Internet as it is an issue of consciousness.

Gail Tverberg's excellent article on the matter should be carefully considered: http://oilprice.com/Finance/the-Economy/Why-Rising-Energy-Costs-are-Responsible-for-Widespread-Economic-Recession.html

The globe consumes on the order of 17 terawatts, primarily in some form of fossil fuel. Average use per person is around 2 kW, while the United States average is around 10 kW. As increasing energy use is a primary method of reducing poverty, we need to consider raising global per capita use. In order to address both the economy and the climate, all fossil fuel consumption must be eliminated while dramatically lowering the cost of that energy production. Meaningfully lowering the cost of energy requires minimizing land and material use, so energy density is of great significance. The only reasonable candidate for accomplishing this is nuclear power, but as current technology is no where near suitable for this task, so we must look to new technologies. Currently the most promising approach involves something called the molten salt reactor, which has precious little public support despite its potential for addressing both cost and liability. If we are going to responsibly manage the great risk that all of humanity faces, this situation must radically change.

To have some idea of the scale of the challenge that faces us, aiming for 50 terawatts of production by 2050 will merely raise per capita consumption to 5 kW. Today, it is unimaginable that this will be achieved as current efforts are focused on increasing efficiency to mitigate rising costs. This will not solve our problem or help us avert the risk of catastrophe- it only buys us a little time. With the right technological approach, this goal looks within reach, but this will require substantial public support in terms of mindshare and $billions, perhaps 10s of $billions. Current renewable approaches figure in the range of 100s of $trillions and is not remotely feasible for addressing poverty, climate, or any of the other myriad of problems we face including disease.

This truly is an issue of consciousness, and hopefully the Internet will serve its purpose in helping us confront our widespread superstitions and general fear so that we may focus our efforts towards policies that will make a difference. Our intelligence is being challenged and our future is at stake. What will we make of this? Are we going to be content with a hellish existence, or will we rise from this mess with a coordinated effort to address fundamental problems with this experiment at civilization?

Comment: The real problem...and solution? (Score 1) 355

by cbarcus (#45181477) Attached to: The Cost of the US Government Shutdown To Science

Our failure to address this issue stems from a general lack of appreciation for the role of energy within the economy. Energy production underlies all economic activity, and the quality of this production comes down to the ratio of energy return over energy invested, which is largely a factor of material and land use. More energy dense sources should facilitate a higher return, and this is why nuclear energy is of such great importance in this matter. While conventional nuclear technology remains expensive and unpopular, this does not in any way detract from the incredible potential bound up within an atomic nucleus or what might be achieved with the right technological approach.

Currently, there is quite a bit of interest (in the nuclear community) in pursuing a nuclear liquid fuel system (see MSR); one which was pioneered with a very successful prototype back in the 60s. Unfortunately, the lack of general interest in a nuclear energy solution has hampered innovation, and we sit pretty much in the same position we were in decades ago, accept that now things are worse, we have less time to respond to problems arising from increasing carbon within the atmosphere/ocean, and we have fewer resources with which to save ourselves.

Current global energy-per-capita is around 2 kW, while in the United States energy-per-capita is closer to 10 kW. Merely doubling the global metric will require a radical new approach to energy production, and it is not at all clear whether we are capable of generating the Will to do so. It should be abundantly clear that not supplying ample resources as our population peaks during the onset of all of these environmental problems is a recipe for global disaster.

This issue of consciousness is really the most important matter we face today.

Comment: Re:Billions in harms way? (Score 1) 497

by cbarcus (#43692719) Attached to: CO2 Levels Reach 400ppm at Mauna Loa For First Time On Record
Climate scientists are not necessarily the best people to decide policy, but we must eliminate CO2 emissions if we're going to minimize the risks of global warming- there is just no getting around it. How we go about eliminating carbon is not straight forward as our economy depends upon the quality of our energy production system. Despite numerous plans to try and scale renewable generation to over ten terawatts of production, I have yet to see an approach that is remotely economical- intermittency (needs expensive storage), low energy density (lots of land), and redundancy are just killers. If our energy system is not economical, we will destroy our economy and ourselves with it. We're already feeling the effects of EROI decreasing as we are in the middle of a transition to unconventional fossil sources. All an expensive renewable plan will do is waste valuable and diminishing resources that might be put towards something that will actually work.

Nuclear frightens people, but as it is very energy dense, our hope lies here. Conventional nuclear power plants are very inefficient, costly, and take a long time to build. We are at the dawn of a new age of nuclear with the introduction of mass producible small modular reactors, though the best machines will probably be based upon molten salts. Unfortunately, we haven't built a molten salt reactor in decades and our current regulatory system is not conducive to their development. That can change with public support.

So, I would advise that instead of pouring our resources into trying to build out an economically uncompetitive renewable system, that we would instead invest in aggressively developing the most promising nuclear technology so that we can lower the cost of clean energy and push fossil fuels into obsolescence.

Comment: Re: Hydrogen Sulfide (Score 2) 367

by cbarcus (#43635439) Attached to: Observed Atmospheric CO2 Hits 400 Parts Per Million
Actually, radiative forcing (necessary for the basic assessment of the contribution of the various greenhouse gases to warming) is not 'grade school level physics'. The key problem that any plan to address this warming must deal with is how to address the problem economically. As it turns out, the political compromise to try and build a renewable economy on intermittent low power density sources is entirely misplaced, and it is distracting us from real potential solutions based on nuclear fission/fusion.

http://nextbigfuture.com/2013/04/terrestrial-energy-will-make-integral.html

Comment: IMPORTANT: nuclear energy policy (Score 1) 694

It can be said that the underlying weakness of the current political system is that it is straddling a transition from fossil fuels to an unknown. The key to making it through this transition is to understand the scale of energy need, the economic problems with low energy density sources like traditional renewables, and the potential of nuclear technology that is decades old.

Our current level of energy consumption is some 17 TW globally, dominated by fossil fuels. Projections of future consumption will depend upon factors such as: population size (9-10 billion), quality of life desired (5-13 kW per capita), and the availability and economic viability of various energy sources (fissile and other vital materials for reactor initialization). It is conservatively estimated that we will need somewhere between 2 and 3 times current capacity by 2050. I suggest trying to imagine a global energy system that can provide 50 TW of usable capacity by 2050. This is the point where anyone with a familiarity of our current regulatory system and state of technology give up in despair. It is a frustratingly daunting task to try and conquer poverty and global warming simultaneously.

As we scale up traditional renewables, poor capacity factors, high material use, and remote siting end up negatively influencing the economics. Furthermore, copious land use becomes coupled to economic activity as we ruinously strive to give everyone their due resources by covering more land (and shallow sea) with energy generating equipment. At the scales I am suggesting, we will be covering at least single percentages of land with energy farms. This should give all renewable energy advocates extreme pause, though most will gladly sacrifice this land on the altar of their radiological superstition.

For decades we have been in possession of nuclear technology capable of helping us realize a vision of a world without poverty and global warming. Numerous crises from economic shocks to industrial accidents have malformed the political landscape, and the present confusion over how to proceed on energy threatens us all. Building out nuclear capacity rapidly will require the efficient production and use of incredibly rare and valuable fissile. We will probably need fissile factories (super breeders) in addition to U mining and enrichment. Reactors will need to breed their own fuel (from fertile isotopes), but will still require a quantity of fissile for initialization. The most efficient reactor system to mass produce will be a thermal molten salt reactor based on thorium, as it should only require about 1 ton of fissile for 1 gigawatt capacity. No other system comes close to this, and all of the fast neutron systems have large fissile loads (not a problem if you are only going to build a few machines). We need to build tens of thousands of machines. Present global fissile stockpiles are in the few thousands of tons.

Energy is easily the most important issue facing our civilization as it is the fundamental input into our economic system. Our failure to respond to this situation of inadequate technology, political backwardness, and general public ignorance, superstition, and apathy can entail us becoming another 'accident of history'.

Comment: Re:Thorium Nuclear (Score 5, Informative) 452

by cbarcus (#39903675) Attached to: Japan's Last Nuclear Reactor Shuts Down
This comment is very far off.

Unlike molten salt reactors, a class of fast breeders utilize liquid sodium, which reacts violently with water- and has been a bit of a problem (very costly) when heat-exchangers, reheaters, and similar equipment fails.

Molten salt reactors, like the one prototyped at Oak Ridge National Laboratories back in the 60s, ran for years. The corrosion issue stems from the inadvertent production of tritium (from an undesired isotope of lithium in some formulations of the salt) which can combine with the fluorine (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor/LFTR) to produce a strong acid. These and other problems appear to have very viable solutions (from listening to the relevant scientists and engineers), and should not be used to disparage the technology.

To compare this fission technology that has already been demonstrated in principle with a prototype, to fusion which has not even achieved break-even demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the issues involved. The primary advantages of the molten salt reactor to energy production are the following:
- based on fission which is a well-understood phenomena; U-233 liquid-fueled reactor already demonstrated in principle decades ago (found to be very reliable)
- a liquid fuel system that operates at low pressure and high temperature which allows for very high levels of safety and efficiency
- the above which contribute to the high likelihood of low-cost reactors
- low cost reactors will dramatically lower the cost of carbon-free energy
- high temperatures allow for more efficient cogeneration; example: ammonia synthesis which could be used as an energy carrier on the scale of petroleum, which would address both concerns about fuel supply and carbon emissions
- high temperatures also allow for the use of dry cooling (as opposed to "wet" cooling which uses a lot of water), necessary for an efficient thermodynamic cycle
- thorium fuel is about as abundant as lead (3-4 times more abundant as uranium), and so very low cost
- fissile startup requirements are minimal (less than a tonne of 20% enriched U-235 is possible)
- system is very proliferation resistant (lots of technical details in the specifics)

The disadvantages:
- we must face our fear of nuclear energy
- more R&D (substantially less than $10 billion) will be required before this technology is a commercial reality
- bureaucratic and industry resistance to a new technology (they've already committed themselves to something else which is not suited for solving our systemic problems)
- the general public remains woefully ignorant of the risks it is facing by foregoing nuclear energy

The potential is that we have a nuclear system that is so safe and efficient that it may have the convenience, but at lower cost, than modern and ubiquitous natural gas plants. We are looking at perhaps the greatest technology humanity has ever developed, at best critical to our transition to a sustainable existence, and at worst, an essential technological step to reduce the risk we currently face. The United States may lack the technical leadership to step into a new era of low-cost carbon-free energy, but its rivals are seriously looking at this approach (China is apparently putting around $100 million annually into this), and if it proves viable on a commercial scale (all signs so far showing absolutely "yes"), the US will be left behind. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this issue to national security. Our economic well-being is dependent upon the cost and convenience of energy, and "farming" low-density energy sources dramatically increases our risk in this area. Lower the cost of energy and you will facilitate wealth creation, otherwise we face recession and decline.

I've got all the money I'll ever need if I die by 4 o'clock. -- Henny Youngman

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