Alternative Energy Myths and the Nuclear Orphan

Another interesting article turned up in Foreign Policy recently entitled “Seven Myths about Alternative Energy,” by legacy media environmental journalist Michael Grunwald. His collection of “myths” provides a revealing look at the psychology of the “green” would be saviors of the planet. Let’s run down his list.

Myth number one is, “We need to do everything possible to promote alternative energy.” Grunwald prefers a different emphasis: “…though the world should do everything sensible to promote alternative energy, there’s no point trying to do everything possible.” The information content of this bit of wordsmithing as it stands is epsilon (a very small number). From the left to the right of the ideological spectrum, I have never encountered anyone who proposes that we should do everything possible to promote alternative energy, including things that don’t make sense. Reading on, one notes that, in a blurb that is supposed to be about alternative energy, Grunwald studiously avoids any mention of such credible candidates as wind, solar, and geothermal. Rather, he directs his ire at alternatives that aren’t quite ready for prime time: “Hydrogen cars, cold fusion, and other speculative technologies might sound cool, but they could divert valuable resources from ideas that are already achievable and cost-effective.” This statement is logically absurd.

Consider fusion for example. The amount of resources being “diverted” worldwide to the energy applications of fusion, including both its hot and cold flavors, is utterly insignificant in comparison to the amount we spend on energy production, the total amount we spend on research, or any other number one could reasonably compare it to. I am no fusion true believer. It is a high risk technology, and one that will almost certainly not figure in the world’s energy equation before Grunwald’s target date of 2050. If, on the other hand, we can overcome the daunting technological hurdles Mother Nature has put in our path and find a way to use it, fusion has the potential to meet the world’s energy needs indefinitely while releasing no greenhouse gases and with an insignificant radiological hazard compared to nuclear and coal. There are many interesting research efforts afoot to finesse the technological problems that beset such “traditional” approaches as magnetic and inertial confinement fusion. The amount of research dollars being devoted to these efforts is miniscule. They can all be characterized as high risk, but it is hardly implausible to suggest that, eventually, one of them will succeed. If so, the payoff will be enormous. The problem of greenhouse gas emissions might be solved once and for all, without the severe environmental impact of covering massive areas with wind farms and solar collectors. In a word, if we are truly worried about global warming, it would be utterly reckless and senseless to eliminate the tiny resources we currently devote to energy applications of fusion. As we shall see, Grunwald’s reasons for rejecting such alternatives, not to mention the seeming lack of interest in such immediately available sources such as wind, solar and geothermal have more to do with psychology than logic.

Moving on to myths 2 and 3, Grunwald turns his ire on biofuels, such as ethanol derived from corn. No surprise there, as he has often hammered the “clean energy” hype emanating from that sector in the past. He notes that such “renewable fuels” have been heavily promoted by governments around the world, including ours, but points out, “…so far in the real world, the cures — mostly ethanol derived from corn in the United States or biodiesel derived from palm oil, soybeans, and rapeseed in Europe — have been significantly worse than the disease.” So far, so good. I have yet to see a convincing argument in favor of biofuels that seriously addresses such problems as the facts that their production results in a net loss in energy, horrific environmental damage, and a reduction in the world’s food supply. The problem with myths 2 and 3 is that they are strawmen. I know of no credible authority outside of industry advocates who is seriously suggesting that biofuels are a plausible solution to global warming.

Grunwald’s myth 4 is, “Nuclear power is the cure for our addiction to coal.” This seems counterintuitive, since, according to the most reliable studies, the carbon footprint of nuclear plants is a small fraction of that of its fossil fuel alternatives. Among the reasons Grunwald cites for dismissing the nuclear alternative is the fact that it will be too slow coming on line to make a dent in carbon emissions in the near term. That’s quite true, but while one may certainly point to it as an unfortunate fact of life, it is certainly no reason to abandon nuclear altogether. If global warming is really the problem Grunwald claims it is, than surely late is better than never.

Be that as it may, Grunwald cites cost as the real show stopper for nuclear power. As he puts it,

Nuke plants are supposed to be expensive to build but cheap to operate. Unfortunately, they’re turning out to be really, really expensive to build; their cost estimates have quadrupled in less than a decade. Energy guru Amory Lovins has calculated that new nukes will cost nearly three times as much as wind — and that was before their construction costs exploded for a variety of reasons, including the global credit crunch, the atrophying of the nuclear labor force, and a supplier squeeze symbolized by a Japanese company’s worldwide monopoly on steel-forging for reactors.

At this point, the familiar anti-nuclear “green” narrative emerges from the mist, and Grunwald leaves logical argument in the dust. Amory Lovins is certainly someone worth listening to. He is also one of the legacy media’s beloved “mavericks,” and hardly someone whose cost estimates represent the final word on the subject. In fact, if one looks at the credible cost estimates of nuclear versus its alternatives, not just from sources connected with the industry, but, for example, from a study done in 2003 by an interdisciplinary group of MIT professors and updated in 2009, the suggestion that nuclear is “really, really expensive” compared to the alternatives may be dismissed as bunk. Grunwald might have had some credibility if he had taken the trouble to dispute these estimates with arguments more substantial than anecdotes about Japanese steel monopolies. As it is, it is clear that his rejection of nuclear has nothing to do with its intrinsic merits or lack thereof. Rather, it simply doesn’t fit in the “conservation and efficiency” narrative he shares with Lovins. Grunwald uses myths 5 through 7 to outline the narrative.

It turns out that myth 5, “There is no silver bullet to the energy crisis,” is only a pseudo-myth. As Grunwald himself admits, “Probably not.” Be that as it may, he clearly has a silver bullet in mind; efficiency. In his words,

But some bullets are a lot better than others; we ought to give them our best shot before we commit to evidently inferior bullets. And one renewable energy resource is the cleanest, cheapest, and most abundant of them all. It doesn’t induce deforestation or require elaborate security. It doesn’t depend on the weather. And it won’t take years to build or bring to market; it’s already universally available. It is called “efficiency.”

Conservation and energy efficiency are certainly laudable goals, and ones that should be pursued aggressively. However, Grunwald’s problem is that he sees them in typical journalistic black and white. They are the one true path to salvation, as opposed to the “inferior bullets.” This setting up of artificial barriers separating the plausible alternatives to solving our energy problems into a “good” approach standing in opposition to other “bad” approaches is more a reflection of human psychology than logic. For example, the hard fact is that rejection of nuclear power has and will continue to result in the building of more fossil-fired generation capacity. That is precisely what is going on in Germany, whose “Greens” have forced the foolhardy decision to shut down nuclear plants rather than refurbish them and keep them on line, resulting in the building of new coal plants even as we speak, and in defiance of these same “Greens” warm, fuzzy rhetoric about the virtues of alternative energy. Similarly, Grunwald’s blasé attitude towards alternatives such as wind, solar, and geothermal is more likely to encourage complacency than, for example, an aggressive approach to building the power transmission infrastructure we need to accommodate these new technologies. According to Grunwald,

Al Gore has a reasonably plausible plan for zero-emissions power by 2020; he envisions an ambitious 28 percent decrease in demand through efficiency, plus some ambitious increases in supply from wind, solar, and geothermal energy. But we don’t even have to reduce our fossil fuel use to zero to reach our 2020 targets. We just have to use less.

Al Gore may be right, but he may also be wrong. Regardless, it would be foolish of us to put all of our eggs in one basket. In particular, it would be very foolish to cut off the already miniscule support we are currently giving to high risk, high payoff technologies such as fusion. It is highly unlikely that global energy demand will go down as the world’s population continues to increase, or that the citizens of emerging economic powers such as India and China will continue to be satisfied with a third world lifestyle. Ignoring technologies that could plausibly solve the problem of global warming because Grunwald thinks they are dumb would be both illogical and, potentially, suicidal. His attitude is typical of the representatives of what H. L. Mencken used to call the “uplift” on the left. Though I suspect most of them don’t realize it themselves, they are far more interested in posing as saviors of mankind than in actually saving mankind. Hence, for example, the hand waving dismissal of nuclear technology. The Grunwalds of the world will continue to dismiss it, not because it is not a plausible piece of an overall solution to the problem of global warming, but because it is unfashionable. If one would strike a truly heroic pose, one cannot afford to be unfashionable.

When the Wind Blows…

…the wind turbines will rock, or at least they did for a while in Washington State and Oregon (hattip Atomic Insights). Meanwhile, it seems Germany’s conversion to alternative energy sources seems to have run into a few snags. According to IEEE, they’re “readying a new generation of coal-fired power plants—including three proposed for Brunsbüttel,” to take up the slack as they shut down their nuclear generating capacity at the behest of the wildly misnomered “Greens.” As Rod at AI puts it, “Fortunately, the article does mention that all of the effort to attempt to build wind, solar and new fossil fuel stations could be avoided if Germany simply decided to keep its existing nuclear power plants on line with a program of continuing improvements.” Kinda tells you something about how serious the “Greens” really are about global warming, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, Chicago Boyz cite a report in “The Economist” about the lugubrious prospects for Britain’s energy future, passing on the rather dubious intelligence that, “Coal has a bad environmental rap and it is hard to imagine any new coal plants being built in any Western countries.” No doubt that will come as a shock to the folks who are planning to build 43 new coal-fired plants in the US in the next five years, especially since some of them are already under construction.

Apparently Poland’s leaders have seen the handwriting on the wall, and aren’t quite crazy enough to follow Germany’s example. Meanwhile, as Carl at Chicago Boyz points out, China is building new coal fired plants hand over fist. Somebody needs to send them Al Gore’s movie in a hurry before they completely bury us economically. Then again, so what if they do? Consciousness of our superior environmental piety will surely console us as we freeze in the cold.

Update: So it’s natural gas you want? (Hattip Instapundit)

Nuclear Power: Thoughts on Thorium

Rod Adams has an interesting post on thorium power over at Atomic Insights. I tend to think that nuclear power is more environmentally benign than the alternatives, such as paving thousands of square kilometers of our environmentally fragile desert southwest with solar collectors. If we do restart the nuclear industry, it will also make a lot more sense to build breeders of the type mentioned in Rod’s post, which produce more fuel than they consume during operation, than to just burn up all the uranium 235 we can find in natural uranium.

There are two basic breeder reactor fuel cycles. In the first, uranium 238, which makes up 99.3% of natural uranium, is converted to plutonium 239. In the second thorium 232, which is more abundant than natural uranium, is converted to uranium 233. Both are fissile reactor fuels. Both can also be used to make nuclear weapons. If we breed either of these isotopes, it is essential that we be sure of one thing; that they never fall into the wrong hands, either now or in 10,000 years from now. For that reason, it seems to me that thorium breeders are the better of the two options.

As noted above, both types of breeders would produce fissile material that could be used to make a bomb. In both cases, the material could be separated from spent fuel using relatively straightforward chemical methods. However, spent reactor fuel remains highly radioactive for many years after it is removed from a reactor core. It would be lethal to work with without highly specialized equipment unlikely to be available to other than technically advanced states. In the case of thorium breeders, however, the fissile uranium 233 would be contaminated with uranium 232, a short-lived, highly radioactive isotope that could not be separated from the U233, making it even more difficult to work with than plutonium.

In both cases, the levels of radioactivity of the spent fuel would decay exponentially over time, gradually making it easier to handle the material. Eventually, it would become possible for non-state actors to separate the bomb-grade material. It is immaterial whether this happens in a thousand years, or ten thousand years. We cannot simply put such material in a nuclear storage facility and leave it for future generations to deal with. In the case of plutonium, the only way to reliably eliminate it, other than, perhaps, rocketing it into the sun, would be to burn all of it up. However, in the case of U233, it could be “denatured” by mixing it with large amounts of non-fissile U238, rendering it, for all practical purposes, as difficult to convert to a weapon as natural uranium.

Scientific Conformity

This New York Times science column linked by Instapundit gets it about right on scientific conformity.

As the author notes:

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You’re an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah.”

Of course, conformity among environmentalists is the current cause célèbre, but I see the same thing going on in the response of the scientific mainstream to “cold fusion.” Despite the intriguing results of recent experiments at SPAWAR by seemingly competent and credible researchers, I continue to hear deprecating remarks by other scientists who probably haven’t read a research paper on cold fusion in the last five years.

Scientific conformity can have unfortunate results. For example, the DOE recently stood up ARPA-E, its version of the military’s DARPA. It received a generous chunk of change ($400M) to fund “high risk, high payoff” research. The solicitation for research proposals for this money hit the street some time ago, and the proposals are already in and are currently being reviewed. I may be pleasantly surprised, but I suspect no cold fusion research will be funded. If not, I hope the cold fusion community screams bloody murder, and someone in Washington listens.

Well, let’s wait and see.

The Big NIF Dis

NIF Beam Lines
NIF Beam Lines
It appears the dedication ceremony for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has come and gone, but a rather important guest who had promised to be there turned up missing. I refer to Secretary Chu, avatar of alternative energy (er, politically correct alternative energy that is). At the last moment he discovered that he was “too busy” to attend, (or did he get a headache, I forget?).

True, the NIF was built as a weapons facility, and that’s a big strike against it in the warm, fuzzy world of today. That’s not the whole story, though. The “ignition” in National Ignition Facility means inertial fusion ignition, and a great number of dedicated scientists have devoted their careers to the proposition that fusion ignition will usher in an era of clean energy with a virtually limitless fuel supply. I, personally, find that proposition dubious, at least with the hot spot ignition approach currently envisioned for the NIF. However, a lot of outstanding scientists who probably know more of the relevant physics than I are not similarly dubious, and believe the daunting technical, economic, and engineering hurdles on the path to inertial fusion energy can be overcome.

Now, 35 long, difficult years after the first confirmation of fusion neutrons produced by laser implosion, we finally have an operational facility capable, according to the theorists, of achieving significant energy gain, and we stand on the threshold of the decisive series of ignition experiments that are likely to determine whether they’re right or wrong once and for all. It seems to me that those who have dedicated their lives to a goal they believe will be of incalculable value to all mankind should now, at least, be given a fair shot at achieving that goal. The tool they need is in their hands. Given what’s at stake, not to mention the massive amounts we’ve recently been spending on far less worthy goals, does it not seem logical to give them a chance?

Perhaps Secretary Chu does not agree. It would certainly seem so. NNSA, a part of DOE, manages the NIF, and its budget has been cut to the bare bones. This budget slashing cannot help but affect the coming campaign of ignition experiments at the facility. Well, then, if Secretary Chu does not agree, perhaps it would better befit the leader that he is supposed to be to stand up and explain why, instead of playing hide and seek at dedication ceremonies. Those who have worked long and faithfully to make this project a reality deserve no less.