The Ergosphere
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
 

Nuclear energy and evolution vs. nihilism

There's no such thing as an infinite power source.  The Sun isn't infinite.  Hell, the entire visible universe isn't infinite.  Even if we get off this ball of mud and power ourselves using the longest-lived of red dwarf stars, the best we can hope for is a few trillion years before the lights go out.

If you're a nihilist, stop reading here and log off.  Killing yourself over the pointlessness of it all is optional, but please... GO AWAY.  The rest of what I have to say will only upset you.

Still reading?  Here's the rest of the story for readers who can handle nuance.

No civilization on Earth has lasted more than a thousand years or so.  Nuclear energy can support more than our current standard of living for longer than that; on the time scale of civilizations, that IS infinite.  But more to the point, the century-scale supply of fossil fuels has bootstrapped us to the hundred-plus century scale supply of nuclear fuels.  Even that's not the limit; we're on the edge of gaining inexpensive access to directly-converted solar energy.  That will last as long as Earth can support life, and a few billion years beyond.  The problem is that we've blocked the progression to nuclear power for political reasons, and now depletion of fossil fuels threatens to bring down the whole edifice before we can bootstrap the next leap.

People who say it's wrong to use nuclear energy make me think of some single-celled moralist not long after the emergence from the primordial goo, as everything else ate up the abiotic organics and were left with the "sustainable" flows of energy-rich chemicals like hydrogen sulfide from volcanic vents.  "Stop trying", it cried.  "Be content with what we've got."  The rest said "Nuts to you, we'll evolve if we want to" and one went on to invent bacteriorhodopsin.  Running its proton pump on sunlight, it went on to be wildly successful and beget uncounted trillions of photosynthetic offspring tapping the hitherto-wasted energy from the Sun.  The rest is, as they say, history.

(taken from a comment on The Oil Drum)

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Comments:
Sure, civilizations don't last too long, historically. However, that is hardly a reason to continue, by our own actions, to assist our downfall. Nuclear energy isn't a panacea, even if we could develop the technology to keep nuclear energy going for centuries or millennia, without any of the potential side effects. We have a civilization that is unsustainable. Let's get to the basics of sustainability; consuming resources beyond their renewal rates or behaving in a way that damages our habitat is unsustainable. Developing an, essentially, infinite power source will not make an unsustainable civilization sustainable unless the power source can deliver power at infinite rates, which even the most ardent pro-nuclear voice would not claim.

So, we have two choices. Either continue as we are, perhaps building new technology nuclear facilities at breakneck speed, and simply deal with the collapse when it comes (then the survivors continue on the roller coaster) or we start to realise that everything about this planet is finite and start to live in ways that at least avoid us bringing about our own demise.

I know which choice I'd make.
 
umm... or both?
 
Once again I can only shake my head and ask the same question:  Are you for real?

"Nuclear energy isn't a panacea"

What do you mean it's not?  It won't eradicate polio and malaria, eliminate child sex trafficing and bring about universal peace and brotherhood?  I guess that makes it completely useless!

</sarcasm>

One of our most pressing issues is dealing with the ecological impacts of our energy systems (especially electricity) while maintaining the services people demand.  Shutting off the lights is not an option; the public will send children into tiny holes in the ground to pull coal out before they accept that.  Nuclear power is a solution to that set of problems.

"if we could develop the technology to keep nuclear energy going for centuries or millennia"

You're way late to this party; we did so in the 1980's-90's, and before that in the 1960's.  We can run at our current energy demand indefinitely using fast-breeder reactors; we can recover uranium from seawater at a very affordable price, and rivers wash uranium into the oceans several times as fast as we'd consume it.  We've already got several hundred years worth of energy for the USA sitting in warehouses.

"without any of the potential side effects."

Oh, for pete's sake.  You start from the premise of "power-down" (implying a collapse of industrial civilization and, inevitably, the population it supports), and now you're worried about side effects?  Side effects such as slashing greenhouse emissions without having to starve several billion people to do it?  You're a piece of work.

"Let's get to the basics of sustainability; consuming resources beyond their renewal rates or behaving in a way that damages our habitat is unsustainable."

Do I have to remind you that geothermal heat comes from a one-time gift of gravitational and radioactive energy, and it inevitably runs down and will stop?  That hot rocks will take far longer to be re-heated by the mantle than it took to pull the energy out of them?

Yes, it's absurd to worry about this.  It's just as absurd to worry about the sustainability of the nuclear fuel supply.  We have more than enough, and we don't have to damage or deprive anything else to get it.

"Developing an, essentially, infinite power source will not make an unsustainable civilization sustainable unless the power source can deliver power at infinite rates"

You've gone beyond the realm of concepts which make rational sense.  There is no relationship there to be analyzed; it belongs to the class of statements which are "not even wrong".

"we start to realise that everything about this planet is finite and start to live in ways that at least avoid us bringing about our own demise."

Funny, I thought that taking the electric energy supply out of the realm of climate-wrecking industrial phenomena was part of that.  Maybe there's a case to be made that it either causes worse problems or leaves too much unsolved, but someone who casually throws around claims of infinite rates lacks the connections to reality that they'd need to formulate and state it.
 
Hmm, your style of discussion is hardly conducive to changing minds.

Yes, I'm for real.

I explained why nuclear energy wasn't a panacea, so I'm not sure why you suggest that I thought it was a miracle worker.

And why imply that I'm all for shutting of the lights? If there is a lifestyle that is sustainable (i.e. that doesn't entail us bringing about our own demise by our behaviour), it is likely to be one of much less waste and much less energy consumption. Would we need nuclear energy in that world? Maybe not. Would nuclear energy make sense in such a world, anyway? Maybe. However, we may be able to get along just fine, after the painful transition to sustainable behaviour, with a small amount of renewable energy, much of it distributed, so why bother with the more complex nuclear option?

Fast breeder reactors have been built but none, that I'm aware of, operated commercially in breeder mode. It's been talked about for so long that it seems almost like the magic elixir. Uranium from sea water? Another magic elixir. Why bother with all of that, anyway, if we can get by happily with a lot less energy?

Will a power down result in a much reduce population? You think the answer to that is yes (I don't take that for granted, unless the contraction is unmanaged) and yet you also appear to believe that nuclear can keep 7 billion (maybe 10 billion by mid century) comfortably fed and sheltered without any adverse side effects.

Infinite uranium supplies? Obviously, you have great faith that no matter how much nuclear build there is, the uranium supply can keep up. That's a strong faith but it does not necessarily match reality. The same faith is employed by others to believe that US coal will last another 200-500 years, or that oil will not peak, or at least not decline, until mid century, or that US natural gas will now last centuries.

My mention of infinite rates wasn't just "thrown around". Obviously, with an ability to harness energy at whatever rate is needed would allow humans to consume resources at whatever rate their hearts desired. It might even allow us to geo-engineer a climate solution or build an artificial living environment, here, on the moon or on Mars. That infinite rates of energy generation and use aren't on the cards is why nuclear isn't a panacea for our energy woes.

I don't know why the concept or living within the annual budget of this planet, and doing so without detriment to our habitat is so difficult for some people to grasp but you are certainly not alone.
 
"your style of discussion is hardly conducive to changing minds"

If you're beholden to a faulty dogma from which you can't be moved with reason, that's not my problem.  If ridicule is what you deserve, ridicule is what you'll get.

"I explained why nuclear energy wasn't a panacea"

No, your dogma ascribed to ME the position that it was.  I've attempted to disabuse you of this misconception twice without success, so I can add obtuseness to your list of character faults.

"Yes, I'm for real."

Yet your connection to reality is broken; when someone else's position is explained to you in detail with a focus on the elements you got wrong, you Just Don't Get It.  In other words, you're sincere but deluded (or worse).

"If there is a lifestyle that is sustainable (i.e. that doesn't entail us bringing about our own demise by our behaviour), it is likely to be one of much less waste and much less energy consumption."

Why would we need to consume less energy?  Far less chemical energy, yes (especially anything using fossil carbon) but humanity uses only about 4*10^20 J per year; the Sun delivers that much energy to Earth in about 40 minutes.  Suppose we increased that to the equivalent of 1 day's worth per year (about 4 minutes per day); what's the harm?  What's unsustainable?

I doubt you can answer that.  Your mind can't stretch that far.

"Would we need nuclear energy in that world? Maybe not."

Part of your delusion is the failure to recognize that we don't live in that world.  It will take us at least one generation (maybe several) to build it, and in the mean time we are dealing with an immediate set of crises which make it much harder to get there and have the potential to cause a civilizational collapse first.  Nuclear energy is abundant and carbon-free, potentially relieving two of the crises.  Yet telling you this is like talking to a wall.

"Fast breeder reactors have been built but none, that I'm aware of, operated commercially in breeder mode."

Blocked or killed by cheap uranium (they were before their time) on the one hand, and politics on the other.  However, FBRs are the solution to the "problem" of transuranics.  Instead of trying to bury them, we need to burn them.

"Uranium from sea water? Another magic elixir."

Japan already has the cost down to about 3x current world prices using persimmon juice.  Given that FBRs use about 1% as much uranium per kWh as LWRs, the cost per kWh would be about 3% as much as today.
 
"Why bother with all of that, anyway, if we can get by happily with a lot less energy?"

An "if" you fail to substantiate.

"Will a power down result in a much reduce population? You think the answer to that is yes"

Perhaps you are ignorant of the fact that today's world population is supported by large amounts of fossil fuel for (a) nitrogen fixation and (b) food transportation.  Eliminate that and several billion people starve.  Perhaps you can replace it, but the replacement needs time to develop and must be in place first.  You can't just wish it into being.

"you also appear to believe that nuclear can keep 7 billion (maybe 10 billion by mid century) comfortably fed and sheltered without any adverse side effects."

Nope, I never said any such thing and I don't believe it.  Nuclear power can only do so much to relieve pressures on living space and cropland (nor cure malaria and produce universal peace).  What it can do is eliminate extra ecosystem damage from fuel mining, ash disposal and climate change.

"Infinite uranium supplies? Obviously, you have great faith that no matter how much nuclear build there is, the uranium supply can keep up."

Didn't I start this thing by telling you that you're WRONG when you talk about infinities and ascribe such attitudes to others?  How stupid do you have to be to keep repeating yourself without paying any attention to the counterargument?

I get the feeling you're innumerate, but try to keep up here:  the best figures I have are that the 7000 cubic miles (29000 km³) of river flow per year contains roughly 1 ppb of uranium.  That is around 30,000 tons of uranium flowing into the oceans every year from natural sources.  At a reasonable economy of 0.8 tons per GW-year of electricity, this would allow a world-wide electric consumption of nearly 40,000 GW for as long as the world's rivers continued to flow and we pulled uranium from the sea.

Average US electric consumption is about 450 GW.  The US has about 5% of world population, so this would allow per-capita electric consumption to be over 4 times current US consumption if population does not increase.

"My mention of infinite rates wasn't just "thrown around"."

My entry into this discussion began with telling you that you've got no concept of what numbers mean, including non-numbers like "infinity".  The output of a 0.1 solar mass red dwarf would beggar what a planetary society could consume, because they couldn't get rid of the waste heat.  You cannot grasp this, which is why you are incompetent to debate the issue.  I repeat:  you are INCOMPETENT TO DEBATE THE ISSUE.

If you want to claim I'm wrong, tell me how much power an earth-like planet could use assuming no stellar radiation and a 300°K surface temperature and compare to the output from said 0.1 solar-mass red dwarf.  Remember, this is my forum and I allow you to play here; if you fail to address the question seriously and accurately, I retain the option to remove your blathering instead of letting you pretend to have an argument.  This is your homework problem, and no further comments will stand unless you include a good-faith attempt at solving it.

"It might even allow us to geo-engineer a climate solution or build an artificial living environment, here, on the moon or on Mars."

The power levels required for that are not merely finite, but quite within our grasp.
 
"That infinite rates of energy generation and use aren't on the cards is why nuclear isn't a panacea for our energy woes."

That you can make such a statement in all apparent seriousness shows you are incompetent.  It is semantically meaningless, and you cannot recognize this.

"I don't know why the concept or living within the annual budget of this planet, and doing so without detriment to our habitat is so difficult for some people to grasp but you are certainly not alone."

How many times do we have to go around this?
1.  "The annual budget of the planet" doesn't have a precise definition.
2.  This budget includes erosive transport of about 30,000 tons of uranium per year from continents to the oceans for at least millions of years.
3.  The use of uranium appears to have no inherent detriment to our habitat.
4.  By replacing the use of fossil fuels, uranium can eliminate the problems with climate change and other issues which do have detrimental effects on our habitat.

You don't get this.  That's YOUR problem, not mine.  And don't forget the homework problem.
 
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For someone using the name "sofistek", you aren't very sophisticated.  I said it and I mean it:  no more comments until you do your homework.
 
Luckily we in North America are not the only sample of "civilization". The Chinese for example, certainly count, and they have no such qualms about building nuclear reactors.

Even if we decide to self destruct a la the Western Half of the Roman Empire, civilization will continue and you can bet your last rapidly devaluing dollar that nuclear power will be at least partly powering it.

The future unfortunately, does not appear to be American.
 
While we're talking about scientific impossibilities such as infinite power in the realm of a finite planet, how would that overcome putative "limits"?

Wouldn't we be able to overcome the limits far in advance of "infinite" power?

The woe-is-me-we're-doomed-squad make some heavy assumptions:
If NATURE can endlessly recycle just by using sunlight then we sure as hell can do it using sunlight PLUS.

Likewise, who says we'd be LIMITED to the Earth if we had infinite power.

Hell, we're not even limited to the Earth RIGHT NOW. We just don't have the political will to spend the required big bucks to pull resources from out there to right here.

The doom squad lack imagination.
 
Please don't address comments to sofistek.  He's banned until he shows at least a good-faith effort to do a quantitative analysis of a fairly simple energy issue, and he appears to have given up rather than make the attempt.
 
If physics was all there was to it, you might be right. But economics and politics happen, and are real. Nuclear projects tend, as a matter of history, to be full of budget overruns and hidden public costs. They appear economical only because we socialise the losses.

I've nothing against nuclear power in principle - it certainly has its place - but declaring it to be an entirely trouble-free source of power is to ignore the many real problems it has had. I'm not saying these are inherent to nuclear, per se — many of them could have been fixed if the people building them were perfect rational beings, for example. But we are crazy, hallucinating apes, and since the entire project is to sustain this ape species (with optional but preferable subgoal of maintaining a tolerably habitable biosphere for primate life) it seems like that's something we need to bear in mind.

Pumping heat out of rocks, using mirrors in the desert, seeding our coastlines with buoys to harvest the moon's gravity, all these are experimental and imperfect, not without their flaws either. But when it comes to public money, I would rather spend it researching brave new worlds of energy generation (particularly since many of these technologies lend themselves better to microgeneration than fusion does - I doubt I shall be powering my home from my own personal fusion reactor any time soon) than sinking upfront costs subsidising a private company to build a two-billion dollar power plant based on a mature technology.

Of course, I am open to the idea that we have to transfer to nuclear regardless of cost in order to ensure we still have energy generation capacity when the carbon infrastructure really begins to crumble. In that case, all I would say is that I would rather the funding was direct investment in exchange for shares, rather than subsidies and tax breaks. If the taxpayer is fronting half the cost, I would rather that cost be declared upfront and reflected in the distribution of profits from the plant. I think we can all agree that socialising losses and privatising profits is a generally bad idea, mais non?
 
I'm not going to get into the nuclear/impossible fix because I believe it poorly reported and analyzed. Frankly there is a lot of sentiment like yours in the engineering community from what I can tell.
Yet I recall French breeder experiments back in the 60's ran afoul of runaway processes happening faster than physical control mechanisms could react. Has this changed ?
Yet there are bugaboos about resource depletion of minerals that must be addressed. I note Greg Hilbert at Sen4Earth has that as his pet project with a lot of enviro sentiment behind it.
He and I already disagree in that I refuse to subscribe to the idea we should be acting as if Anthropogenic Global Warming is a proven fact simply because of frantic and incessant claims it is...without sensible backup.
JoNova was describing one model in which thunderstorms vented excesss heat.
I may have information on problems with accessing uranium that is not exactly selling its use either. Rather than talking about the reusable supplies, groundwater contamination from prospecting and disused mines is my concern. And there is, of course, the question of adequate material to retrieve.
opitslinkfest.blogspot.com>Topical Index>Uranium
The nonsense around proliferation of power stations has another snag : geopolitics. I wonder if you are familiar with the use of Sanctions as a tool to deprive people of the use of nuclear power ? The NPT Trap is a ploy based on a double standard for the use of nuclear power : enforced by the holders of atomic weapons.
The invasion of Iraq on spurious grounds is a fine example of what faces North Korea and Iran : propaganda from Hell combined with economic warfare. CASMII will give you numerous examples.
Hopefully the Foreign Policy cache may add useful additions.
 
"economics and politics happen, and are real."

Real economics is a consequence of natural law (like EROEI).  Politics changes with each election.

"declaring it [nuclear power] to be an entirely trouble-free source of power is to ignore the many real problems it has had."

Excuse me?  NOTHING is trouble-free.  However, many of the "real" problems affecting nuclear power in the USA have been consequences of policy and politics.  Yes, including Three Mile Island; the overly-complex controls and instrumentation mandated by the fledgling NRC were key in the meltdown of Unit 2, while Unit 1 ran without incident.

"when it comes to public money, I would rather spend it researching brave new worlds of energy generation (particularly since many of these technologies lend themselves better to microgeneration than fusion does - I doubt I shall be powering my home from my own personal fusion reactor any time soon) than sinking upfront costs subsidising a private company to build a two-billion dollar power plant based on a mature technology."

"Brave new worlds of energy generation".  That's quite a lofty-sounding phrase, for schemes which haven't proven to be able to shoulder the burden of supplying our needs.  I'd love to see those "brave new worlds" myself.  One of the more interesting ideas I saw was to lift lunar rock past the Earth-Moon L1 point using a beanstalk, drop it on an orbit which grazed LEO and catch it with a regenerative decelerator.  The energy available from a ton of rock would be many times what a ton of coal produces, with no air emissions.  Practical?  Who knows.  Microgeneration?  Hah!

If it takes $2000/kW to build pollution-free powerplants in bulk, I'm happy to pony up money for stock in the company doing it.  I walk the walk; I own utilities today.

"I would rather the funding was direct investment in exchange for shares, rather than subsidies and tax breaks."

Oh, no.  That's a huge can of worms.  If you do that, you wind up with Congress having an incentive to pump up the value of the project to make itself look good.

I prefer loan guarantees.  Congress has taken many highly prejudicial actions against nuclear energy in the past; loan guarantees gives Congress an incentive not to mess with things, and little else.  Keeping the grandstanding ideologues' mitts out is all we really need.
 
"I recall French breeder experiments back in the 60's ran afoul of runaway processes happening faster than physical control mechanisms could react. Has this changed ?"

I'm not sure it was ever the case.  France built the Phenix and Superphenix, which were shut down for political reasons.  Japan just restarted its own FBR.  The EBR II was designed to be passively safe in a loss of cooling incident, proven under test.

"I may have information on problems with accessing uranium that is not exactly selling its use either. Rather than talking about the reusable supplies, groundwater contamination from prospecting and disused mines is my concern."

You should be rooting for FBRs, then.  The USA has enough uranium already in inventory (about 500,000 tons elemental U) that we could run the country for centuries with no need to mine a thing.  Future needs would be small enough that we could supply them from seawater.

"The nonsense around proliferation of power stations has another snag : geopolitics."

Nobody's worried about power stations; PWR fuel, fresh or spent, is utterly impractical to turn into weapons.  It's all about plutonium production and uranium enrichment.
 
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