Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Go Nuclear to Avert Climate Change.

This is the prognostication of Professor David MacKay, who is the U.K. government's chief scientific advisor (following Sir David King), who thinks that emphasis on nuclear power is the only way that Britain can keep pace with its inexorable demand for electricity but at the same time, holding rein on its carbon emissions. On his first day in this new role, Prof. MacKay delineated a plan for the nation could produce a three-fold increase in its electricity by a four-fold increase in nuclear power. I'm not entirely sure how the figures stack-up for this but this is what is written in the article cited below. At any rate, "nuclear" is our only hope.

I'm not immediately scared of nuclear power since for the most part nuclear power stations have run quite safely for years, there being only three really bad accidents that come to mind: Three Mile Island, Windscale and Chernobyl. Apart from the nuclear waste, it is a pretty clean technology too, especially in terms of carbon emissions, so I take his point. That said, we need to import uranium, which is enriched somewhere?, and there are issues over potential terrorism, so I am not convinced by the usual "security of supply" argument for nuclear.

It is reckoned too that there is around 40 years worth of uranium in known reserves and so if we are going to go for nuclear, we need to get hold of a lot more of the stuff. Obviously, if we all go four-fold in our adoption of fission-based reactors, that divides into 10 years worth and since it takes about 10 years to get a nuclear power plant up and running from scratch, we may have left it a bit too late.

I agree with Professor Mackay too that renewables are unlikely to provide more than a small fraction of our energy at least in the short term, and yet in the rounder and longer view they are all we have. At the risk of repetition, this reminds that we have to cut our energy use - transportation is an issue in its own right and will begin to decline in the wake of the most precious and vulnerable of fossil resources, namely oil - by a wholesale relocalisation of society. However, if this is not done in a structured way, and no government wants to point out the severity and proximity of the situation for fear of scaring the living daylights out of its electorate and augering-in anarchy, then it is exactly the latter that is likely to prevail upon us.

Related Reading.
"Professor David Mackay: Britain 'must go nuclear' to control climate." By Jonathan Leake: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6860181.ece


Yorkshireminer said...

Dear Chris,
Professor Mackay is one of the best things the lying British Government has done in a long time. I have his E-book on Renewable energy somewhere on my computer. I downloaded it several months ago before he was made Scientific adviser. I certainly enjoy his no nonsense approach. He is certainly up there with Steven Chu the new head of the DOE in America. Hopefully he can take the politics out of the energy problem, with his practical no nonsense approach. I unfortunately do not agree totally with him on Nuclear power. I think the Energy debate is being driven by the new religion of global warming, something that is Business as usual cabal, I am very sceptical about it, has the smell of give me that good old religion revivalism. A bandwagon that the self proclaimed good beautiful and virtuous can jump on without thinking, your average Guardian reader. The hysteria of the debate is getting to be very irritating and manipulative in a very ominous way.
My first complaint is that I am not convinced that the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere is due to mans use of fossil fuels and that it is the CAUSE and not an EFFECT of Global warming. Very much a Chicken and egg argument. It is automatically assumed by the greens that it is, and no one seems to to take any notice of the thousands of feed back mechanisms that must exist in the atmosphere. I am no atmospheric scientist but I would assume that if the CO2 concentration caused the temperature to rise you would have more evaporation which would mean more clouds which would alter the albedo of the earth reflecting more sunlight. I would also assume that that the extra precipitation would also dissolve more of the CO2 in the atmosphere slowly reducing it, a negative feed back loop. A few extra parts per million of CO2 is still insignificant when it comes too the atmosphere. Simple logic to me says that the big currant bun is most likely the culprit, the simple size of the sun must be the driving factor even a million th of one percent change in the suns radiation must surely have a far greater effect on our atmosphere than burning of fossil fuels. I am also a bit of an amateur historian it is a fact that Europe suffered from a warm period in the Middle ages and the climate then cooled down culminating in the little ice age in the middle of the 17th century when the Thames froze over 20 year on the trot. It most likely was the main reason why we never had any more real outbreaks of plaque after 1666. Simple logic tells me that there must have been a cold period before the warm period so what caused the world to warm up, that surely couldn't have been cause by the burning of fossil fuel.

Yorkshireminer said...

Part 2

Anyway that my rant over now lets get back too my criticism of Nuclear power. My first one is that if one of the many windmill I can see from my back garden in Germany were too blow over I would not end up glowing in the dark like I would if I have been living in Chernobyl or what ever they call the place. The only law I know that works in one hundred percent of the cases having worked in engineering is Sods law or Murphy's law. It doesn't matter however much you plan something is going too go wrong. And most of them are caused by human stupidly like using a candle too check the cables in some ducting at three miles island, you cannot factor out human nature. When a windmill blows over you get a brush and pan and start again immediately not a couple of hundred years later when the radiation has faded away. You are not going to get thousands of cases of cancer and birth deformity as at Chernobyl. Thats my first point, my second point is will it really save all those CO2 emissions that will be saved over the life of a nuclear plant. Have the planers really factored in all the millions of tons of CO2 that will have too be emitted to make all the millions of tons of concrete the reactor shell the transport involved over the 15 -20 odd years from conception too completion that is apart from all the bloody hot air generated by the debate. Have they factored in the carbon cost of storage which will have too be in the range of several hundred years. Then take that away from the saving, I do not know, but I very much doubt it. The best and simplest way too cut carbon emissions, is too save on energy and not build the bloody thing in the first place. The whole thing too me seems like a business as usual ploy so that the Nuclear industry can get more government subsidies at the expense of the taxpayer. A better system is that the Government subsidize the taxpayer to install thermal water heating better insulation and Photo voltaic panels. There are thousands of ways to save energy and reduce carbon emissions and therefore take away the reason for building the plant in the first place. I know that I bang on about PV but too me it makes far better sense. Nanasolar has just finished an automated thin film panel plant just south of Berlin that has a capacity of 640m/w, three years production is about the same as the output of a Nuclear plant and at a fraction of the cost and manpower. I know that they cannot be used for base load at present but too me it makes far better sense too have carbon reductions now than in 20 years time and my Grandchildren do not have the option of glowing the dark.

Deep regards


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Dave!

The debate over how much GW is down to human CO2 continues and I
down think it's all our fault either.

It looks like there is a big push on for nuclear but certainly for solar too, especially in Europe. Germany and Spain are going all-out for it. This technology isn't just photovoltaics but also concentrated solar and thermal solar systems in general.

Again, the engineering is going to take decades but it's all moving in the right direction.

If only we'd begun all this forty years ago when there was plenty of fossil energy!

Deep regards,


Alex P. said...

It's a common mistake to claim we have "only few decades" of uranium. It's not true for a series of good reasons. First of all, current price market for uranium ( ~ 130 $/kg) is in the range of one US $ per oil barrel equivalent, thus it' far to be ALL the uranium available and that's producable at a cost of less than 130 $/kg.
Second, enormous nuclear fuel savings (both of uranium and thorium, an other nuclear fuel)can be achieved with LWR/CANDU spent fuel recycle and/or breeding/waste inceneration processes; pratically all the world energy needs can be satisfied with very small amount of natural resources of U or Th, or none at all - infact, only burning the plutonium and transuranics waste and depleted uranium we have already produced we can produce enough electricity for the whole planet for more than 2000 years


Alex P. said...

Alternatively, thorium can be used as nuclear fuel, with incredible features in terms of natural resource savings (and efficiency and passive/intrinsic safety, too)

With only less than 8,000 tonn/year (~800 cubic meters) of natural thorium(current production is 32,000 tonns/year, clearly all for non energy purposes) we can produce enough electricity pratically for the eternity for a planet of 10 billions of people with a western pro-capita energy neeed - and we can destroy current nuclear waste inventory, too, converting it in usefull energy

This article from the "the oil drum" worths the read :


"Famed Climate Scientist James Hanson, recently spoke of thorium's great
promise in material that he submitted to President Elect Obama:

The Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) is a thorium reactor concept
that uses a chemically-stable fluoride salt for the medium in which nuclear
reactions take place. This fuel form yields flexibility of operation and
eliminates the need to fabricate fuel elements. This feature solves most
concerns that have prevented thorium from being used in solid-fueled
reactors. The fluid fuel in LFTR is also easy to process and to separate
useful fission products, both stable and radioactive. LFTR also has the
potential to destroy existing nuclear waste.

Alex P. said...


(The) LFTR(s) operate at low pressure and high temperatures, unlike
LWRs. Operation at low pressures alleviates much of the accident risk with
LWR. Higher temperatures enable more of the reactor heat to be converted to
electricity (50% in LFTR vs 35% in LWR). (The) LFTR (has) the potential to
be air-cooled and to use waste heat for desalinating water.

LFTR(s) are 100-300 times more fuel efficient than LWRs. In addition to
solving the nuclear waste problem, they can operate for several centuries
using only uranium and thorium that has already been mined. Thus they
eliminate the criticism that mining for nuclear fuel will use fossil fuels
and add to the greenhouse effect.

The Obama campaign, properly in my opinion, opposed the Yucca Mountain
nuclear repository. Indeed, there is a far more effective way to use the $25
billion collected from utilities over the past 40 years to deal with waste
disposal. This fund should be used to develop fast reactors that consume
nuclear waste, and thorium reactors to prevent the creation of new
long-lived nuclear waste. By law the federal government must take
responsibility for existing spent nuclear fuel, so inaction is not an
option. Accelerated development of fast and thorium reactors will allow the
US to fulfill its obligations to dispose of the nuclear waste, and open up a
source of carbon-free energy that can last centuries, even millennia. "


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Alex,

I believe the 40 year figure applies to existing reactor technology and the amount of uranium in known reserves.

That said, if breeder reactors are used and the waste transuranics and all of the uranium (i.e. 238 + 235) plus thorium in used in breeders, indeed there is enough in principle for 2000 years.

More U and Th could be found too, albeit in less rich deposits and with a lower EROEI, but there is
a lot around and about 3X AS MUCH Th as U in the earth's crust overall.

That said, other forms of energy particularly oil are used in the equipment used to mine and process the ores, and it will be these that most immediately present a shortfall in supply.
I did not intend to make a particular anti-nuclear stance since I think we are going to need all kinds of energy, and as Yorkshire Miner says, implementing solar on a grand scale is the ideal long-term goal.

That said, we will need to keep going for several decades while such alternatives are implemented.

Thanks for your insight,

Chris Rhodes.

Alex P. said...


Thorium is extremely abundant in the earth's crust, which appears to contain
somewhere around 120 trillion tons of it. In addition to 12% thorium
monazite sands, found on Indian beaches and in other places, economically
recoverable thorium is found virtually everywhere. For example, large-scale
recovery of thorium from granite rocks is economically feasible with a very
favorable EROEI. Significant recoverable amounts of thorium are present in
mine tailings. These include the tailings of ancient tin mines, rare earth
mine tailings, phosphate mine tailings and uranium mine tailings. In
addition to the thorium present in mine tailings and in surface monazite
sands, burning coal at the average 1000 MWe power plant produces about 13
tons of thorium per year. That thorium is recoverable from the power plant's
waste ash pile.

One ton of thorium will produce nearly 1 GW of electricity for a year in an
efficient thorium cycle reactor. Thus current coal energy technology throws
away over 10 times the energy it produces as electricity. This is not the
result of poor thermodynamic efficiency; it is the result of a failure to
recognize and use the energy value of thorium. The amount of thorium present
in surface mining coal waste is enormous and would provide all the power
human society needs for thousands of years, without resorting to any special
mining for thorium, or the use of any other form or energy recovery.

Little attention is paid to the presence of thorium in mine tailings. In
fact it would largely be passed over in silence except that radioactive
gases from thorium are a health hazard for miners and ore processing

Thorium is present in phosphate fertilizers because fertilizer manufactures
do not wish to pay the recovery price prior to distribution. Gypsum present
in phosphate tailings is unusable in construction because of the presence of
radioactive gasses associated with the thorium that is also present in the
gypsum. Finally organic farmers use phosphate tailings to enrich their soil.
This has the unfortunate side effect of releasing thorium into surface and
subsurface waters, as well as leading to the potential contamination of
organic crops with thorium and its various radioactive daughter products.
Thus the waste of thorium present in phosphate tailings has environmental

The world's real thorium reserve is enormous, but also hugely
underestimated. For example the USGS reports that the United States has a
thorium reserve of 160,000 tons, with another 300,000 tons of possible
thorium reserve. But Alex Gabbard estimates a reserve of over 300,000 tons
of recoverable thorium in coal ash associated with power production in the
United States alone.

In 1969, WASH-1097 noted a report that had presented to President Johnson
that estimated the United States thorium reserve at 3 billion tons that
could be recovered for the price of $500 a pound - perhaps $3000 today. Lest
this sound like an enormous amount of money to pay for thorium, consider
that one pound of thorium contains the energy equivalent of 20 tons of coal,
which would sell on the spot market for in mid-January for around $1500. The
price of coal has been somewhat depressed by the economic down turn. Last
year coal sold on the spot market for as much as $300 a ton, yielding a
price for 20 tons of coal of $6000. How long would 3 billion tons last the
United States? If all of the energy used in the United States were derived
from thorium for the next two million years, there would be still several
hundred thousand years of thorium left that could be recovered for the
equivalent of $3000 a pound in January 2009 dollars "

Alex P. said...

Chris wrote :
" believe the 40 year figure applies to existing reactor technology and the amount of uranium in known reserves.

That said, if breeder reactors are used and the waste transuranics and all of the uranium (i.e. 238 + 235) plus thorium in used in breeders, indeed there is enough in principle for 2000 years ...."

If you read my other posts, you'll understand on your own this is not a fair assumption.
First, you are assuming only uranium (and thorium)at a cost of only one $ per oil barrel equivalent at max (that's not ALL the fuel available), second you avoid uranium recycling (including current reactor technology),lastly you don' t fully consider thorium breeders and fast waste burners - they can use ONLY the nuclear waste already produced for pratically the eternity

In particural, I want to point out that with thorium breeders/high converters and fast breeders, nuclear is an almost renewable energy source, pratically unlimited on an human scale (hardly only the "2000 years" you claimed)

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

O.K. Alex,

I take your comments unreservedly. The issue remaining therefore, is investment to build LFR's to burn thorium on the grand scale.

If a high profile figure like Hansen is behind a campaign to do so, all the better the chances of it happening.

It is beautiful if nuclear waste can be destroyed but in such a beneficial way.

Regarding the thorium reactors to the best if my knowledge there have been two that have run successfully so far and hence the technology is developed.
It is thus an action of persuading government will to establish an energy sector of this kind.



Alex P. said...

I may agree here on your last post, but - I hope it's enough clear now - this has nothing to do with claims like "nuclear doesn't worth the work, because we have only 50 years of uranium..." or stuff like this. Actually, current uranium price, ~ one $ per oil barrel equivalent (market price, not the cost to extract it) is so cheap, has little sense to invest in totally different,new kinds of reactors (even if they have been developed successfully in the the past). However, it's worthwhile, in my humble opinion, that these technologies exist and can be used again in the next future, if we need it (today, it's very likely we don' t), making nuclear power perfectly (almost) renewable

At last, I want to point out I'm NOT a big fan of *current* nuclear technology and I have a lot of doubts about its economic competitiveness in a energy free market, even if we include CO2 emissions and other atm pollutants - I rather consider it an unavoidable transition technology/ energy source in order to implementation 4th gen nuclear reactors and a wider use of new renewables (including transportation and heating/conditioning sectors)

Thanks for the space and to read my (humble) opinions

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Alex,

ny opinions are humble too. Again, thanks for your considerable insight into the potential of "future nuclear".

It is clear that this will be of an entirely different kind to the status quo, and this is the essential point that I and many others have overlooked.

We agree in any case that "current" nuclear technology has many limitations and probably this is unsustainable.

Again too, as with all new kinds of energy technology, there is a massive scale of new engineering required and depending on exactly how this is yo be done, may stress resources of other metals and materials, and necessitate finding new supplies of them too, even if the nuclear fuel issue is as amply resolved as you affrim.

In my mind's eye, I can perceive a brave new world with all its energy furnished by thorium and solar eventually, but efforts to begin the path there are needed now.

Otherwise a low-energy future will fall upon us by default if our prevailing energy supplies are unable to meet present demand, let alone meet new technological challenges.



Soylent said...

"My first one is that if one of the many windmill I can see from my back garden in Germany were too blow over I would not end up glowing in the dark like I would if I have been living in Chernobyl or what ever they call the place."

I have several objections to this statement.

First, the most obvious objection, is
that so far Chernobyl has caused 56 verified deaths, mostly among rescue workers and it can be predicted, if one assumes the linear no treshhold model of carcinogenesis, that 4000 excess cancer deaths will occur.

Germany suffers the equivalent of several Chernobyl accidents, every single year! You don't even have the foresight to evacuate any of the affected areas, nor is it even an accident; it is the known consequence of inhaling particulate pollution from brown coal, which is burnt on a truly massive scale (4% of the entire worlds coal consumption) in densely populated Germany. Particulate pollution causes lung cancer, COPD, atherosclerosis/heart disease and is suspected of causing alzheimers.

My second objection is the fact that wind turbines are quite useless and not capable of displacing coal and gas, at least not in any forseeable time-frame.

You absolutely have to back them up with natural gas. It is about as scarce as oil, it's imported from Russia and very little of it can be stockpiled(days) in case of a supply disruption. The natural gas turbines cannot be thought of as an idealized machine where you just put in gas when you want electricity and it magically and instantaneously converts it to electricity at the stated efficiency. No, it takes time to start a gas turbine, therefor some of them must be kept running as spinning reserve without generating electricity in case the wind dies down. It wastes fuel to frequently start and stop a gas turbine. If you run it at less than the rated capacity it will not be as efficient. There are two types of gas turbines, there are single cycle turbines which are ~30% efficient and there are combined cycle turbines which tack on a heat engine that runs off the still hot turbine exhaust, they are ~60% efficient. The steam engine stage of a CCGT is quite slow, not only because it takes time to heat water, but because rapid and frequent thermal cycling causes thermal stress which reduces the useful life of the generator. CCGT is fast enough to meet most consumer demand absent wind power, but with wind power the rates of variation are frequently large enough that single cycle turbines must be used. Big natural gas consumers usually have to pay the significantly higher spot price for natural gas if they cannot forecast their demand well in advance; there is a slight tendency to overconsume gas by incorrectly forecasting wind output and having to take delivery of gas when in principle the wind turbines could do the job.

To whatever extent wind turbines actually do save natural gas and reduce CO2 emissions, it is not very significant. It is entirely possible that the near-miracle in transmission cost and electricity storage will fail to materialize and that wind turbines are useless in a post-carbon grid.

Before Germany started to reconsider the phase-out of existing nuclear plants the plan was to shut them down over the comming decade and construct 26 new non-CCS coal plants.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, I've just read the "nuclear" posting, which, as usual is excellent. However, whenever I read of nuclear accidents, Chernobyl is there, one of the immortal 3.
Now, as we all know, news stories change as an event progresses, for all sorts of reasons, one of which is "organisational pride", or at a national level "national pride" aka known as "National Interest".
When Chernobyl happened, i like most people was following it avidly, my vantage point being the South of France. So the story I read was hardly accidental. It was said that the engineers where testing one of the units, but the limits they wanted to test for could not be achieved because of the in-built safety devices. So they switched off the safeties, or blocked them in some way, and got on with their test. The result we know. This version (that the accident was the result of operating engineers hubris) very swiftly disappeared from the news and it became "an accident", and as such it remains.
Now, was the version I read about correct, or not? I've never heard of it since. Can any of your sources throw light on this?
The thing is, if this "testing" version is correct, then it dramatically reduces the number of nuclear plant acccidental failures by 33%.
And improve your (and mine) "feel good" factor for nuclear accordingly!
Peter Melia

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Dear Peter,

I am pretty sure that Chernobyl needn't have happened. I wrote something about it its the 26th anniversary:


I was in Russia shortly afterwards and getting any information there was practically impossible. We got most of it from our colleagues in Sweden.

Yes there was a "test" done and this seems to have triggered-off the chain of events. I have heard that the reactor design is inherently unsafe and yet some specialists in the nuclear industry don't think there's a problem.

Hence overall I think you can reduce that failure-rate by 33%.

I can understand that being in France, which makes 80% of its electricity from nuclear, would make you question pretty hard issues of its safety and overall I think nuclear is quite safe, while acknowledging the problems of how to dispose of the waste that it produces.

There is another fascinating comment here about using waste-transuranics as an "almost limitless" (on a human timescale) fuel and maybe two birds can be killed with one stone - finding new energy and getting rid of nuclear waste.

Best regards,


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I don't quite understand what you mean here, Angel?


Chris Rhodes.

RickSmith said...

The 40 year number for Uranium reserves is balderdash.

We talk about peak oil and oil has been explored and explored to the ends of the earth. We have pumped up the cheap stuff and the medium priced stuff. We are working on the expensive stuff and we are getting involved in Tar Sands and "Oil Shales" both of which are not oil at all. (They need a lot of energy and water to chemically convert them to oil.) When we talk about Peak Oil, we know what we are talking about.

However, Uranium (U) has barely been searched for. We found it all over the place when the price was high and more nuclear power plants were being built. Then 3 Mile Island happened along with a collapse of the price of electricity and people stopped building nukes. Also the army started selling enriched U to power plants as they dismantled bombs. We stopped exploring for U years ago. There are PLENTY of places where high grade U ores can be found; we simply have not looked there yet.

Also, there are many, many low grade reserves of U which will become ores if the price of U rises. So much money is spent on nuclear safety and capital expenses, you can increase the price of U twenty fold and end up with less than a 1 cent increase / kW(e) on the power bill. The price of U can rise a lot and it will still be worth while to mine and 'burn'.

You should look at the paper written by Deffeyes, MacGregor and Kukula. They used data collected from aircraft with giger-counters flying over vast areas of land and radiation detectors put down thousands of oil well holes to measure the amount of U in a huge statistical universe of typical rocks all over the USA. They found:

-- That the concentration of U ores followed a bell curve with a single peak.
-- That if you reduce the U concentration of an ore by 10 fold, you would find 300 times as much ore.
-- U in ocean water was richer than this curve.

If we look for more U we WILL find it.

Also there is so much U in ocean water, that you can put a chemical filter in an ocean current and extract enough energy to power the world (as well as pulling out significant amounts of vanadium). We don't bother with grabbing sea water's U because land deposits are so cheap, of course. But the extraction of ocean U with a positive ERoEI puts paid to the whole myth that we are near 'Peak U'.

I am no fan of burning U. I much prefer Thorium in molten salt reactors since the fuel is more common, it does not build substances suitable for bombs, these reactors are passively safe, they are load tracking and they produce 1,000 times less nuclear waste (10,000 times less after 1,000 years).

It just bothers me that the meme that we 'are near peak U' is so widely spread when it is totally false.

I recommend Kenneth S. Deffeyes book, "Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak" for more information on this and Peak Oil.

Warm regards, Rick.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Dear Rick,

there is a difference between a "reserve" and a "resource". The 40 year figure refers to the reserve, i.e. how much uranium is technically and economically recoverable using present technology.

The resource is all the rest, including what might be garnered from the sea. I didn't think that the "chemical filters" were, as yet, all that viable, and the EROEI overall for getting U from the sea is pretty low.

I've read Deffeys' book and he focusses on peak oil. As I have stressed (along with others) that peak oil is not about running out of oil, but it's most immediate impact will be a liquid fuels crisis.

Even if we get "limitless" nuclear power, we would need a largely electrified transportation network, which would take a very long time to suppmat the 1 billion cars on the world's roads. I doubt we will see so many electric cars any time soon, and the best means to move people round using electricity is via rail transport. This will also take a long time and considerable new engineering.

Many things are technically feasible as "solutions" but must be done against a backdrop of rapidly declining liquid fuel supplies. Our most pressing resource is "time".

Incidentally, I am also a fan of liquid fluoride thorium reactors, which offer many advantages over nuclear fission.

Warm regards,