Climate change

June 1, 2009

Al Gore’s blind spot on nuclear power

Filed under: Global Warming, IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power — Tags: — Barry Brook @ 11:37 am

I’ve just started reading a book by William Tucker called ‘Terrestrial Energy‘. It’s really very good, and I’ll write up a full review of it here once I’ve finished it. But the reason for this post is to consider a quote from Al Gore that Tucker cites in the Preface, pages ix — x. It comes from his testimony, in March 2007, to the US Senate. Gore says the following, when asked about the possible role of nuclear power in combating global warming:

I think it’s likely to be a small part of it. I don’t think it will be a big part of the solution, Senator… I’m assuming that we will somehow find an answer to the problem of long-term storage of waste… I’m assuming that we will find an answer to the problem of errors by the operators of these reactors…  But the main problem I think is economics. The problem is these things [nuclear reactors] are expensive, they take a long time to build, and at present, they only come in one size—extra-large….

There was quite a bit more said, and you can read the entire transcript of his conversation with Senators Isakson and Alexander, here. Gore added:

So I mean, I’m not a reflexive opponent of nuclear—I just happen to think it’s only going to play a small role….

He repeated much the same line in an interview on CBS television in July 2008, and in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in March 2009, so we can safely assume that the position he states above has not changed over the last few years. For those who follow the news on energy futures, you may recall what Gore said about renewable energy in July 2008:

America must commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and other clean sources within 10 years.

So Gore foresees the need for a transformational change in energy supply in a rapid time-frame, but considers that nuclear power is likely to have little or no role in this second industrial revolution. I will leave the matter of whether 100% renewables by 2020, or indeed any other time-frame, is realistic. Suffice to say that regular readers of this blog know that I have concluded that such a target is extraordinarily implausible, from many technical, logistical and socioeconomic standpoints. So what about Al Gore’s view on nuclear power prospects — are these also being overrated by its proponents?

Tucker (pg x — xi) has the following to say in response to Gore’s cited testimony:

Saying that nuclear reactors only come in “one size — extra large” is woefully uninformed. Reactors can come in any size. Experimental reactors in laboratories and universities can generate 1 or 2 megawatts (A megawatt — MW — is the standard unit of commercial electricity, able to power about 1,000 homes.) Submarine reactors in the Nuclear Navy generate between 20 and 50 MW, and battleships run on 70 to 100 MW. When Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the Nuclear Navy, “beached” one of his submarine reactors at Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957 to produce the first commercial nuclear plant, it generated 60 MW — about 1/25th the size of today’s.

Utility reactors grew to 300 and 500 MW and beyond, with the largest now reaching 1,500 MW — what Gore calls “extra large”. This is because giant generators are the cheapest way to produce electricity. Coal plants are built to the same size, but this isn’t the only way reactors can be built. The Russians are now powering Siberian villages with 80 MW reactors floated in on barges. China and Japan are building modular reactors of 150 MW to power small communities. There isn’t any reason reactors can’t be built to the neighborhood level, combined with hydrogren production or water desalinization. If we ever colonize the moon, it will probably be with transportable nuclear reactors.

The real problem is public fear of all things nuclear. In truth, nuclear power still terrifies people. It seems unnatural and diabolic, a bastard technology conjured up by guilt-ridden scientists trying to exonerate themselves for inventing the atomic bomb. For many people — even those most concerned about global warming — nuclear remains the embodiment of evil, the symbol of all that is wrong with the modern world.

[Yet]… Nuclear energy is the source of the earth’s natural heat, the incredible furnance that heats the earth’s interior to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, spitting out volcanoes and lava flows, floating the planet’s continents like giant barges on its molten core. The source of this energy is nuclear power, the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century. While we have always looked to the sun for our energy, the unlocking of nuclear power has left us with an alternative — terrestrial energy. There is nothing sinful or reprehensible about using this energy. In fact, it has come just in time to help us deal with what may be our twin crises — climate change and the increasing scarcity of world oil.

I would agree completely with Tucker — Al is poorly informed on this matter and I can only conclude has failed to grasp the full realities of our energy challenge.

Look at Gore’s Senate testimony again. We have the answer to the problem of long-term storage of waste. They’re called fast spectrum  and molten salt reactors, which burn up all of the actinides. We have the answer to the problems of errors by operators. It’s called ‘inherent’ or ‘passive’ safety sytems, which are reliant on the imutable laws of physics. One size, extra large? Nonsense. Reactors now come in all different sizes, and design schematics for the Integral Fast Reactor’s commercial exemplar, the S-PRISM by General Electric Hitachi, are set up in blocks containing multiple standardised, modular loops of 380 MW each (by the way, if you are at all interested in the technical aspects of the IFR, that linked paper by Allen Dubberly is a must read). Standardisation, modularity, additivity, passive safetly, on-site processing of self-protecting fuels — they’re all game-changers for the economics of the nuclear power industry (and a carbon price that puts a real environmental cost on coal would also be useful).

So I’m extremely disappointed to find that a man like Gore, who has taken so much time and effort to listen to scientists on the problem of climate change and has been in the position to receiving the top-level advice and expert briefings for decades, seems to have taken no time to try to understand developments in nuclear power, nor to listen to the world experts at his doorstep in the Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories. Why the bipolarity of effort? I don’t know, but to me, it’s Gore’s own Inconvenient Truth. Yet I’m hopeful that it is also something that can be changed, given that he (and many like him) are surely people who are willing to look at complex problems logically, are able to cast aside deep-seated preconceptions, and are willing to face up to really big, confronting challenges.


1 Comment »

  1. That’s really interesting. If we can find a long-term solution for nuclear waste, I’m all for it – nuclear reprocessing sounds possible. Like you said, it’s really just the connection with “nuclear war” that makes “nuclear power” sound scary. Hydroelectricity is another zero-emission technology, I wonder why there isn’t more of it in the world?

    Have you seen my blog? It has to do with how climate change relates to ideas such as credibility, responsible journalism, and risk management. I think you might enjoy it.

    You can probably just click on my name and it’ll take you there.


    Comment by climatesight — June 1, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

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