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  • Whither Nuclear Power? A Few Comments on Thorium and the End of the “Nuclear Renaissance”

    Posted on September 2nd, 2017 Helian No comments

    About a decade ago there was much talk of a “nuclear renaissance” amid concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and the increasing cost of fossil fuel alternatives.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission received applications to build no less than 31 new nuclear plants as the price of crude oil spiked to over $140 per barrel.  Now, however, with last month’s decision by SCANA Corp. to abandon the V. C. Summer project, a pair of nukes that had been under construction in South Carolina, nuclear’s future prospects look dim, at least in the United States.  Two plants remain under construction in Georgia but, like the ones abandoned in South Carolina, they are to be AP1000s, designed by Westinghouse.  Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in March.  Delays and massive cost overruns similar to those that led to the demise of V. C. Summer also afflict the Georgia project, and its future seems doubtful at best.

    In short, the dream of a nuclear renaissance has evaporated.  For the time being, at least, nuclear in the U.S. is no match for more agile competitors like wind, solar, and natural gas.  However, there may be a silver lining to this cloud.  Plants like Westinghouse’s AP1000 waste most of the energy in their nuclear fuel, creating massive amounts of avoidable radioactive waste in the process.  To the extent that it makes sense to build nuclear plants at all, these are not the kind we should be building.  To understand why this is true it is first necessary to acquire some elementary knowledge about nuclear physics.

    The source of the energy produced in the core of nuclear reactors is a nuclear fission chain reaction.  Only one material that exists in significant quantities in nature can sustain such a chain reaction – uranium 235, or U235.  U235 is an isotope of uranium.  Isotopes of a given element consist of atoms with the same number of positively charged protons in their central core, or nucleus.  Like all other isotopes of uranium, U235 has 92.  There are also 143 neutrally charged neutrons, making a total of 235 “nucleons.”  Natural uranium consists of only about 0.7 percent U235.  Almost all the rest is a different isotope, U238, with a nucleus containing 146 neutrons instead of 143.

    When we say that U235 can sustain a nuclear chain reaction, we mean that if a free neutron happens to come within a very short distance of its nucleus, it may be captured, releasing enough energy in the process to cause the nucleus to split into two fragments.  When this happens, more free neutrons are released, that can then be captured by other uranium nuclei, which, in turn, fission, releasing yet more neutrons, and so on.  As noted above, U235 is the only naturally occurring isotope that can sustain such a nuclear chain reaction.  However, other isotopes can be created artificially that can do so as well.  The most important of these are U233 and plutonium 239, or Pu239.  They are important because it is possible to “breed” them in properly designed nuclear reactors, potentially producing more usable fuel than the reactor consumes.  U233 is produced by the reactions following absorption of a neutron by thorium 232, or Th232, and Pu239 by those following the absorption of a neutron by U238.  In other words, we know of three practical types of nuclear fuel; U235, U233 and Pu239.  The first occurs naturally, and the other two can be readily “bred” artificially in nuclear reactors.

    Let’s consider what this means in the case of conventional nuclear reactors like the Westinghouse AP1000.  These are powered by fuel elements that typically are enriched in U235 from the naturally occurring 0.7 percent to from three to five percent.  The remaining 95 to 97 percent of the uranium in these fuel elements is U238.  When the fission process starts, some of the neutrons released are captured by the U238, eventually resulting in the production of Pu239.  Some of this plutonium fissions along with the U235, contributing to the total energy produced by the fuel elements.  However, only a small fraction of the U238 is converted to Pu239 in this way before the fuel is consumed and it becomes necessary to replace the old fuel elements with fresh ones.  In addition to a great deal of U238, these spent fuel elements contain a significant amount of plutonium, as well as other transuranic elements such as americium and curium, which can remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.  The “waste” plutonium might even be used to produce a nuclear weapon.

    Obviously, if possible it would be better to extract all the energy locked up in natural uranium rather than just a small fraction of it.  In fact, it is possible, or very nearly so.  Breeder reactors are feasible that could burn nearly all the U238 in natural uranium as well as the U235 by converting it into Pu239.  In the process they could destroy much of the transuranic waste that is the main source of radioactive danger from spent fuel.  In as little as 500 years the residual radioactivity from running a nuclear plant for 30 years could potentially be less than that of the original naturally occurring uranium.  Unfortunately, while all this is scientifically feasible, it is not economically feasible.  It won’t happen without massive government subsidies.  Perhaps such subsidies are warranted in view of the threat of climate change and perhaps not, but, regardless, breeder reactors won’t be built without them.  Since they are really the only types of reactors it makes sense to build, we would probably be better off, at least for the time being, building no reactors at all.  That’s the “silver lining” I referred to above.  Perhaps a time will come when the world runs out of expendable sources of base load electrical power, such as oil, coal and natural gas, and no way has been found to take up the slack with renewables.  In that case, it may once again make economic sense to build breeder reactors.  Until that time, the United States would do well to build up a healthy stockpile of uranium, and put a stop to the stupid, wasteful, and counterproductive use of depleted uranium that could potentially become a source of vast amounts of energy to produce munitions and armor.

    But wait, there’s more!  What about thorium?  Thorium by itself can’t sustain a nuclear chain reaction.  It can, however, be converted into U233 by neutron absorption, and that is an ideal reactor fuel.  Among other things, it generates more neutrons per fission at lower neutron “temperatures” than either Pu239 or U235.  That means that extra neutrons are available to “breed” fuel at those lower temperatures where nuclear reactors are easier to control.  By “temperature” here, we’re referring to the average speed of the neutrons.  The slower they are, the more likely they are to be absorbed by a nucleus and cause fission reactions.  Neutrons are slowed in “moderators,” which can be any number of light types of atoms.  The most common is plain water, consisting of the elements hydrogen and oxygen.  Think of a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball head on.  It comes to a complete stop, transferring its energy to the other ball.  The same thing can happen with neutrons and the proton nucleus of hydrogen atoms, which are of approximately equal mass.  To breed plutonium effectively, reactors must be run at significantly higher neutron temperatures.

    There’s more good news about thorium.  It can be dissolved in various exotic mixtures and breed U233 in a reactor with a liquid instead of a solid core.  This would have a number of advantages.  In the first place, a “meltdown” would be impossible in a core that’s already “melted.”  If the core became too “hot” it could simply be drained into a holding pan to form a subcritical mass that would quickly cool.  It would also be possible to extract waste fission products and introduce fresh fuel, etc., into the core “on the fly.”  As a result the reactor would be able to stay in operation longer between shutdowns for maintenance and refueling.  The necessary technology has already been demonstrated at places like Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Shippingport, Pennsylvania.  Recently, a Dutch team finally began experiments with molten salt technology intended to take up where these earlier experiments left off after a hiatus of more than 40 years.

    Perhaps thorium’s biggest problem is the tendency of its proponents to over-hype its promise.  It even has a founding myth based on bogus claims that thorium technology isn’t dominant in the energy industry today because “it’s much harder to weaponize.”  For example, according to the article about the Dutch experiments linked above, entitled, ‘Safer’ thorium reactor trials could salvage nuclear power,

    But, if it’s so safe and reliable why hasn’t thorium been used all along? Because (unlike uranium) it’s much harder to weaponize. As a result, it’s historically been sidelined by nations in search of both energy and a potential source of weapons-grade plutonium.

    This yarn about a benign source of energy that might have benefited all mankind being torpedoed by evil weaponeers might sound good, but it’s complete nonsense.  Thorium itself can’t be weaponized, because it can’t sustain a nuclear chain reaction on its own.  The sole reason there’s any interest in it at all as a source of nuclear power is the possibility of transmuting it to U233.  Of course, it can’t be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.  However, there is no better material for making nuclear bombs than U233.  As is the case with Pu239, four kilograms is sufficient to make a nuclear weapon, compared to the 25 kilograms that is a sufficient quantity of U235.  It’s main drawback as a weapons material is the fact that small amounts of U232 are produced along with it in thorium-based reactors, and U232 decays into radioactive daughters that are deadly sources of powerful gamma rays.  However, the amount of U232 produced can be reduced dramatically by cooling the neutron spectrum to a low “temperature.”  In short, thorium could definitely be used to make weapons.  The reason it isn’t the dominant technology for that purpose is the same as the reason it isn’t the dominant technology for producing electric power; it would be significantly more complex and expensive than using natural or slightly enriched uranium as a fuel.  That reason is as valid now as it was in the days of Little Boy and Fat Man.  The “dominant technology” would be the same as it is today whether nuclear weapons had ever been produced or not.

    When it comes to the technology itself, thorium proponents also tend to be coy about mentioning problems that don’t afflict other reactor types.  For example, the materials needed for practical molten salt reactors are extremely corrosive.  There has been progress towards finding a metal that can hold them, but no ideal alloy has yet been found.  This isn’t necessarily a show stopper, but it’s not an insignificant problem, either.  Such material issues have been largely solved for conventional reactors.  If, as would seem to be the case, these are no longer economically competitive with their rivals, then molten salt is pretty much out of the question, at least for the time being.  It’s important to point out that, if breeder reactors ever do become economically feasible again, it will always be necessary to insure that they are secure, and that the materials they produce can’t be diverted for making weapons.  That concern applies to both plutonium and thorium breeders.

    Meanwhile, it might behoove our political leaders to consider the question of why it was once possible to build more than 50 experimental reactors at what is now Idaho National Laboratory alone in a relatively short period of time for a small fraction of what similar reactors would cost today.  Merely negotiating the regulatory hurdles for building a power reactor based on anything as novel as the thorium fuel cycle would take the better part of a decade.  All these hurdles have been put in place in the name of “safety.”  That begs the question of how “safe” we will be if we lack reliable sources of electric energy.  There is a point beyond which excessive regulation itself becomes unsafe.

  • Of Solar Energy and Amateurish Agitprop at Fox News

    Posted on October 31st, 2015 Helian 1 comment

    Reading the “news” can be a painful experience in our time.  Most of it consists of a blend of sensationalism, human interest stories, accounts of the lives of various vapid celebrities, and attempts to inspire virtuous indignation based on a half-baked knowledge of some ideologically loaded issue or other.  One finds very little that could be accurately described as useful knowledge about things that are likely to have a major impact on our lives.  I generally find Fox News less painful to read than what is commonly described as the Mainstream Media because I happen to be emotionally conservative.  However, I must admit that Fox can occasionally be more ham-handed than the competition when it comes to dishing out propaganda.

    A story that recently turned up on the Fox website is a case in point.  It happened to be about the Ivanpah solar generating system that was recently completed in California’s Mojave Desert.  The word “solar” should enable most readers to predict the ideological slant on the story one is likely to find at Fox.  Sure enough, the title of the story is, “Taxpayer-backed solar plant actually a carbon polluter.”  In the article itself we learn that the plant,

    …is producing carbon emissions at nearly twice the amount that compels power plants and companies to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program.

    In fact, the plant does emit CO2 because it burns natural gas to avoid damage to equipment and to serve as a baseline source of power to meet electricity needs at night or during cloudy days.  A bit further on, we learn from a “research fellow at the Heartland Institute” named H. Sterling Burnett that,

    …designers also erred in placing Ivanpah between the tallest mountains in the Mojave where there is significant cloud cover and dust which would interfere with the sunlight.

    He adds that,

    …They say it is green, but that assumes that there is a power source without any environmental impact.

    I don’t find anything as egregious as actual lies in the article.  Rather, Fox limits itself to “creative” use of the truth.  For example, it may be quite true that the plant, “…is producing carbon emissions at nearly twice the amount that compels power plants and companies to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program,” but it’s also true that it produces far less carbon per unit of electricity delivered than a purely fossil fuel fired plant, a fact that is left unsaid in spite of its much greater relevance to the underlying issue of climate change.  A researcher at the Heartland Institute is quoted without mentioning that the institute is funded by the fossil fuel industry, and is considered a source of blatant disinformation by environmentalists.  That charge may be unfair, but one can hardly claim that it is irrelevant and should be ignored.  As for his claim that, “designers also erred in placing Ivanpah between the tallest mountains in the Mojave,” etc., I invite interested readers who may happen to visit Las Vegas to drive out and have a look at the plant.  It’s actually quite a spectacular sight.  It certainly doesn’t appear to be sitting in the shadow of towering mountains, and the cloud cover is generally minimal, as one can confirm by Googling nearby locations.  As for the dust, one surmises that it would have been worse if the plant had been built on the Los Angeles side of the mountains.  As for Burnett’s last remark, as far as I am aware not even the most wild-eyed and fanatical environmentalist has ever claimed that the description of a power source as “green” implies the assumption that it has no environmental impact at all.

    The reality is that the plant is reasonably sited given the location of the major consumers of the power it produces.  Given the current limitations in our ability to store and distribute the excess power produced by renewable energy sources like wind and solar, some form of baseline power is always necessary to insure a steady supply of electricity when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.  My own choice for that purpose would be nuclear, but given the regulatory hurdles in the way, that would probably have been impractical for Ivanpah.  Natural gas produces significantly less CO2 than, for example, coal, and was probably the best choice.

    In short, the article is an example of what I have referred to above as “attempts to inspire virtuous indignation based on a half-baked knowledge of some ideologically loaded issue or other.”  If the goal at Fox had been to inform rather than propagandize, they would have provided the reader with “fair and balanced” information about the cost of electricity produced at Ivanpah compared to alternative sources, the amount actually produced in comparison with predictions, the amount of CO2 it produces per unit of electricity in comparison to coal or oil fired plants, the relative advantages of solar and nuclear in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, etc.  None of what I write here should be taken to imply a belief that solar should be preferred to any alternative.  In fact, my own choice would be to reduce the regulatory burden to rational levels and build next generation nuclear plants instead.  However, regardless of the technology involved, I would prefer to see it judged on a level playing field.

    I know, I know, the MSM is hardly innocent of slanting the news.  Indeed, its hysterical response after the announcement that Sarah Palin would be John McCain’s running mate puts anything I have ever seen at Fox News completely in the shade.  Generally, however, it tends to be at least marginally more subtle.  For example, instead of attempting to slant important news stories that don’t fit its narrative, it will often simply ignore them.  If the story is too big to ignore, it will vilify the messenger instead.  Of course, such techniques reflect a greater maturity and experience in handling agitprop than is available to the team at Fox News.  However, that doesn’t prevent them from learning by example.  Given that we will be subjected to propaganda no matter which “news” source we choose to follow, we should at least be able to demand that it not be crudely done.


  • The Regrettable Overreach of “Faith versus Fact”

    Posted on June 12th, 2015 Helian 10 comments

    The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier.  That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin.  It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more.  Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists.  These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.

    Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him.  However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well.  For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF.  In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state.  Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.

    For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal.  It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens.  It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.”  It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview.  It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter.  Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”

    As it happens, I am a scientist myself.  I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present.  I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming.  However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.

    In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface.  Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena.  A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art.  It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data.  The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.

    In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built.  The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate.  These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems.  In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions.  The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values.  The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.

    In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades.  If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment.  However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities.  Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives.  Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger.  To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?

    For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm.  The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources.  Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized.  Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas.  Instead he was bullied and vilified.  A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn.  In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth.  There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.

    Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism.  Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it.  Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.”  I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame.  Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist,  here.  There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist.  No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff.  Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.

    Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk.  I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten.  Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website.  In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures.  And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal.  Go figure!  One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.

  • Nuclear Power and the Anti-Science Ideology of the “Progressive” Left

    Posted on February 22nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    The ideological Left is fond of accusing the Right of being “anti-science.”  The evidence often comes in the form of Exhibit A (climate denialism) and Exhibit B (Darwin denialism).  True, these maladies are encountered more frequently on the Right than on the Left.  As it happens, however, there are also scientific allergies on the Left, and there is little question that they have been a great deal more damaging than their conservative analogs.  The best example is probably the Blank Slate debacle.  In order to prop up leftist shibboleths, denial of the very existence of human nature was enforced for more than half a century.  The effect on the behavioral sciences, and with them the self-knowledge critical to our very survival, was devastating.  “Scientific” Marxism-Leninism is another obvious example.  However, when it comes to scientific allergies, the Left’s irrational and often fanatical opposition to nuclear power may turn out to be the most damaging of all.

    Those who seek to alarm us about rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and yet reject the most effective technology for bringing them under control, are not serious.  They are mere poseurs.  Thanks to these anti-science attitudes on the Left, dozens of dirty, coal-fired power plants will be built in Germany alone to replace the baseload generating capacity once provided by nuclear reactors.  The situation is no better in the U.S.  Both countries have developed some of the most advanced, not to mention safest, nuclear technologies known to man, and yet both, hamstrung by opposition coming from the Left of the political spectrum, have abdicated the responsibility to apply that knowledge.  Instead, they are exporting it – to China.

    As I write this, we are helping China to build a novel type of reactor that combines molten salt technology developed in the United States with a version of the “pebble” type fuel pioneered by the Germans.  Approved in 2011, the original target completion date of 2015 has now slipped to 2020, but both goals would be out of the question in the byzantine regulatory atmosphere of the 21st century United States.  U.S. knowhow will also be used to build the novel “traveling wave” reactor design favored by Bill Gates – also in China.  The Chinese are also actively pursuing the high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology that was proposed for the ill-fated Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), further development of which was recently cancelled in the United States.

    I certainly have nothing against China building advanced reactors using technology that was developed elsewhere.  It’s good that the knowledge in question is being applied at least somewhere on the planet.  However, I find it unfortunate that we no longer have the leadership, vision, or political will to do so ourselves.  It was not always so.  The U.S. commissioned the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, in 1954, little more than a decade after the successful demonstration of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago.  More than 50 experimental nuclear reactors were built at what is now Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in a period of about two decades stretching from the 50’s to the mid-70’s.  None has been built since.  The situation is similar at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), site of the world’s first molten salt reactor.  Instead of working, next generation reactors, INL, ORNL, and the rest of the U.S. national laboratories now turn out only paper studies – gigantic mounds of them – in quantities that would probably stretch to the moon and back by now.  The chances that any of them will ever be usefully applied in this country are slim and none.

    The technologies in question are not mere incremental improvements over the conventional nuclear power plants that now produce almost all the world’s nuclear power.  They have the demonstrated capacity to extract more than an order of magnitude more energy out of a given quantity of mined fuel material than conventional designs.  They can burn the long-lived radioactive actinides and other hazardous isotopes produced in nuclear fission that represent the most dangerous types of radioactive waste, reducing the residual radioactivity from operation of a nuclear plant to a level less than that of the original uranium ore is less than 500 years – a far cry from the millions of years often cited by hysterical anti-nukers.  Under the circumstances, it is worth taking note of where the opposition that stopped the development and application of these technologies in the past, and continues to do so today, is coming from.

    The regulatory nightmare that has brought the continued development of these technologies in the United States to a virtual standstill is primarily the legacy of the “progressive” Left.  The anti-nuclear zealots on that side of the political spectrum cling to bogus linear no-threshold models of radioactive hazard, grotesquely exaggerated horror stories about the supposed impossibility of dealing with nuclear waste, and a stubborn cluelessness about the dangers of the alternative coal and other fossil-fired technologies that their opposition to nuclear will inevitably continue to promote in spite of all their strident denials.  These are facts that it would be well to keep in mind the next time you hear the Left calling the Right “anti-science,” or, for that matter, the next time you hear them pontificating about their deep commitment to the fight against global warming.

  • Of Smug Germans and Sinful Australians: Global Warming Update

    Posted on October 4th, 2014 Helian No comments

    No doubt the outcome of the Nazi unpleasantness resulted in attitude adjustment in Germany on a rather large scale.  Clearly, however, it didn’t teach the Germans humility.  At a time when a secular mutation of Puritanism has become the dominant ideology in much of Europe and North America, the Germans take the cake for pathological piety.  Not that long ago the fashionable evil de jour was the United States, and anti-American hate mongering in the German media reached levels that would make your toes curl.  In the last years of the Clinton and the first years of the following Bush administrations it was often difficult to find anything about Germany on the home pages of popular German news magazines like Der Spiegel because the available space was taken up by furious rants against the United States for the latest failures to live up to German standards of virtue.  Eventually the anti-American jihad choked on its own excess, and other scapegoats were found. Clearly, however, German puritanism is still alive and well.  An amusing example just turned up in the Sydney Morning Herald under the headline, “Merkel adviser lashes Abbott’s ‘suicide strategy’ on coal.”  The advisor in question was one Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Chancellor Merkel’s lead climate advisor.  A picture of him posing as the apotheosis of smugness accompanies the article, according to which he,

    …attacked Australia’s complacency on global warming and described the Abbott government’s championing of the coal industry as an economic “suicide strategy”.

    Alas, we learn that Schellnhuber’s anathemas also fell on our neighbor to the north.  The SMH quotes him as saying,

    Similar to Canada, Australia for the time being is not part of the international community which is cooperating to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions.

    Tears run down our cheeks as Schellnhuber describes Australia’s fall from grace:

     …it had been disappointing to see Australia’s retreat on climate policy after it became “the darling of the world” when Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2007.

    As readers who were around at the time may recall, the Kyoto Protocol conformed perfectly to German standards of “fairness.”  It would have required states like The United States and Canada to meet exactly the same percentage reduction in emissions from the base year 1990 as the countries in the European Union, in spite of the fact that their economies had expanded at a faster rate than most of Europe’s during the period, they did not enjoy the same access to cheap, clean-burning natural gas as the Europeans in those pre-fracking days, and, “fairest” of all, they weren’t the beneficiaries of massive emission reductions from the closing of obsolete east European factories following the demise of Communism.  In other words, it was “fair” for the US and Canada to shed tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in order to meet grossly disproportionate emissions standards while Germany and the rest of the Europeans cheered from the sidelines.

    What is one to think of this latest instance of ostentatious German piety?  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  For one thing, the apparent concern about climate change in Germany is about 99% moralistic posing and 1% real.  Solzhenitsyn used a word in The First Circle that describes the phenomenon very well; sharashka.  Basically, it’s a lie so big that even those telling it eventually begin to believe it.  The German decision to shut down their nuclear power plants demonstrated quite clearly that they’re not serious about fighting global warming.  Base load sources of energy are needed for when renewables are unavailable because the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.  Practical alternatives for filling in the gaps include nuclear and fossil fuel.  Germany has rejected the former and chosen one of the dirtiest forms of the latter; coal-fired plants using her own sources of lignite.  She plans to build no less than 26 of them in the coming years!

    It’s stunning, really.  These plants will pump millions of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that wouldn’t have been there if Germany had kept her nuclear plants on line.  Not only that, they represent a far greater radioactive danger than nuclear plants, because coal contains several parts per million of radioactive thorium and uranium.  The extent of German chutzpah is further demonstrated by a glance at recent emission numbers.  Germany is now the worst polluter in the EU.  Her CO2 emissions have risen substantially lately, due mainly to those new lignite plants beginning to come on line.  Coal-generated energy in Germany is now around 50% of the mix, the highest it’s been since 1990.  Even as the German government shook its collective head at the sinful Australians, telling them to mend their evil ways or bear the guilt for wars and revolution, not to mention the bleaching of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef, her own CO2 emission rose 1.5% in 2013 over the previous year, while Australia’s fell by 0.8% in the same period!

    In a word, dear reader, for the German “Greens,” the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

  • Kerry, the Democrats, and the Demagoguing of Global Warming

    Posted on March 16th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    Secretary of State John Kerry appeared quite concerned about global warming during a recent visit to Indonesia, telling students,

    The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the worlds most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.

    A bit later, Harry Reid and his fellow Democrat senators pulled an all-night talkathon to sound the climate change alarm.  According to Reid, climate change is “the worst problem facing the world today.”  All this left reporter Susan Davis at USA Today scratching her head:

    The Democratic effort is cause for some confusion because these senators are calling for action in a chamber they control but without any specific legislation to offer up for a vote, or any timetable for action this year.

    As noted at Hot Air, the talkathon and Kerry’s bloviations were nothing but PR stunts:

    In other words, this is nothing but a stunt — and transparently so. Senate Democrats control all of the Senate committees, and what comes to the Senate floor. Boxer herself is the chair of the committee on environmental affairs, and could push through legislation any time she wants to the floor.

    In other words, it’s business as usual when it comes to environmental activism.  The pose is everything, and the reality is nothing.  The reality is that Kerry, Reid, and the rest are transparently indifferent to the problem of climate change, except as it serves them as a political tool.  If they really cared about it, they would have put a stop to illegal immigration long ago.  The carbon foot print per capita of the United States is four times that of Mexico, and the ratio is much greater for most of the other countries of origin.  If they really cared, they would put a stop to Nuclear Regulatory Commission stonewalling of innovative nuclear plant designs, not to mention grossly excessive litigation hurdles for plant construction.  If they really cared, they would get behind the shale-energy revolution which has cut 300 million tons of US greenhouse gas emissions by replacing heavily polluting coal with natural gas, a contribution greater than that of all the worlds solar and wind power installations combined.  In other words, they don’t care.

    It’s sad, because climate change actually is a potentially serious problem.  Kerry is just blowing hot air himself when he makes statements like,

    We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact.

    The idea that someone like Kerry could distinguish “shoddy scientists” from “scientific fact” when it comes to climate change is beyond ludicrous.  What qualifies him to even make such a statement?  Certainly not the faintest understanding of current climate models.  The most powerful computers on earth couldn’t even come close to achieving a deterministic solution of the problem.  It involves billions of degrees of freedom in atmospheric and ocean conditions, and the necessary initial conditions are mostly either unknown or of limited accuracy.  The only way we can even begin to address the problem is with serious (and potentially inaccurate) data interpolation, and probabilistic computer models, the equivalent of “throwing dice” on a vast scale to see which numbers come up.  The statistical noise alone in such models renders it impossible to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change, but only a range of possible outcomes.  In other words, Kerry’s crude “alarmism” is an easy mark for the climate “denialism” on the other end of the ideological spectrum.  That’s too bad, because denying that any problem exists is just as bad as demagoguing it.

    We may not be able to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change.  We do know, however, that solar radiation passing through a simplified model of the atmosphere and striking an “average” patch of the earth’s surface will raise the temperature of that atmosphere in proportion to the concentration of greenhouse gases.  The best computer models we have are not perfect, but they’re not useless either, and they predict that significant warming will occur over the coming decades.  In other words, we can’t speak of “facts” or certainty here, but we can say that there is a substantial risk that significant human-induced climate change will occur.  The effects might be benign, outweighed by the same factors that have driven variations in the earth’s climate throughout its history.  They might also be disastrous.  Given that earth is the only planet we have to live on at the moment, it seems foolhardy to rock the boat.

    Under the circumstances, Kerry, Reid, and the rest might want to think twice about the value of crying “wolf” to score cheap political points, when it’s clear that they have no intention of seriously addressing the problem.  Particularly at the end of a 15 year pause in the rate of increase of global temperatures, the result, already much in evidence, will be an increase in cynicism and skepticism that the problem is real.  The resulting reluctance to sacrifice other priorities to address it may come back to haunt the alarmists if, as the boy in the story discovered, the “wolf” turns out to be real.

    What to do?  Some of the most effective solutions are precisely what the alarmists who bray the loudest don’t want to do.  End significant immigration to countries with the most emissions per capita, for one.  Lead in the introduction and adoption of more efficient and safer nuclear technologies and the expansion of nuclear capacity instead of blocking it for another.   Instead, the wildly misnomered “Greens” in Germany are shutting down the nuclear plants in that country, with the entirely predictable result that Germany is currently planning to build 26 new, heavily polluting, coal-fired power plants to replace them.  Divert heavy subsidies for existing solar and wind technologies to investment in green technology research and development.  As those famously “green” Germans discovered once again, taxing the poor to finance the solar energy hobbies of the rich in a cloudy country whose capital lies above the 52nd parallel of latitude is a dubious proposition.  The cost of electricity there after years of massive subsidies to solar and a nuclear shutdown is now twice as high as in heavily nuclear France.  As noted in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the burden of these skyrocketing costs is falling disproportionately on the backs of those least able to afford them.

    Beyond that, we might want to get serious about finding another habitable planet, and developing the technology to get there.  We’ve been doing a lot of rocking the boat lately.  It would behoove us to have an alternative in case it eventually tips over, and the sooner the better.