I’m in Japan this week, attending the 1st Asian Heads of Research Council Joint Symposium in Nagoya, with a follow-up workshop for training junior researchers later in the week. This is my fifth trip to Japan, but it’s always an exciting place to visit — and I have a special connection to this country, as my wife is Japanese. Today, after an intensive morning session at which I gave a keynote talk on my work on integrating bioclimate and population models to improve forecasts of species extinction under climate change, we visited the Ramsar-listed Fujimae Tidal Flats and the stunning Kaisho forest.
Reflecting on the energy situation in Japan and its chances for complete decarbonisation, this is a country with few natural advantages — almost no domestic fossil fuel reserves or uranium supplies (fast breeders anyone?), poor conditions for solar thermal (today was 32C and cloudy — such is the rainy season), and few suitable locations for onshore wind (offshore may be more viable for any serious expansion). Its hydro resource is mostly tapped. The Greenpeace [r]evolution scenario for Japan, for what it’s worth, demands huge gains in energy efficiency and conservation, and yet is still left with a disturbingly large dependence on fossil fuels (one wonders why they eliminated Japan’s nuclear power…).
Anyway, to the main point of this post — to reproduce the third in a series by Steve Kirsch on IFRs as a solution to the global energy crisis. Like the previous two articles, Steve published this originally on the Huffington Post. I’m mirroring it here because its material is obviously highly relevant to the ongoing BNC discussion on the prospects for IFR nuclear power — and Steve (now a good friend of mine via regular electronic conversations!) has a real knack of asking the right questions about climate change mitigation. He, like me, is seeking a real solution, that will WORK, globally. Take it away Steve:
The climate crisis is the most important issue of all time. But the White House has no plan to solve it. How do we save the planet without a viable plan?
The ship is sinking slowly and we are quickly running out of time to develop and implement any such plan if we are to have any hope of saving the planet. What we need is a plan we can all believe in. A plan where our country’s smartest people all nod their heads in agreement and say, “Yes, this is a solid, viable plan for keeping CO2 levels from touching 425ppm and averting a global climate catastrophe.”
At his Senate testimony a few days ago, noted climate scientist James Hansen made it crystal clear once again that the only way to avert an irreversible climate meltdown and save the planet is to phase out virtually all coal plants worldwide over a 20 year period from 2010 to 2030. Indeed, if we don’t virtually eliminate the use of coal worldwide, everything else we do will be as effective as re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Plans that won’t work
Unfortunately, nobody has proposed a realistic and practical plan to eliminate coal use worldwide or anywhere close to that. There is no White House URL with such a plan. No environmental group has a workable plan either.
Hoping that everyone will abandon their coal plants and replace them with a renewable power mix isn’t a viable strategy — we’ve proven that in the U.S. Heck, even if the Waxman-Markey bill passes Congress (a big “if”), it is so weak that it won’t do much at all to eliminate coal plants. So even though we have Democrats controlling all three branches of government, it is almost impossible to get even a weak climate bill passed.
If we can’t pass strong climate legislation in the U.S. with all the stars aligned, how can we expect anyone else to do it? So expecting all countries to pass a 100% renewable portfolio standard (which is far far beyond that contemplated in the current energy bill) just isn’t possible. Secondly, even if you could mandate it politically in every country, from a practical standpoint, you’d never be able to implement it in time. And there are lots of experts in this country, including Secretary Chu, who say it’s impossible without nuclear (a point which I am strongly in agreement with).
Hoping that everyone will spontaneously adopt carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is also a non-starter solution. First of all, CCS doesn’t exist at commercial scale. Secondly, even if we could make it work at scale, and even it could be magically retrofitted on every coal plant (which we don’t know how to do), it would require all countries to agree to add about 30% in extra cost for no perceivable benefit. At the recent G8 conference, India and China have made it clear yet again that they aren’t going to agree to emission goals.
Saying that we’ll invent some magical new technology that will rescue us at the last minute is a bad solution. That’s at best a poor contingency plan.
The point is this: It should be apparent to us that we aren’t going to be able to solve the climate crisis by either “force” (economic coercion or legislation) or by international agreement. And relying on technologies like CCS that may never work is a really bad idea.
The only remaining way to solve the crisis is to make it economically irresistible for countries to “do the right thing.” The best way to do that is to give the world a way to generate electric power that is economically more attractive than coal with the same benefits as coal (compact power plants, 24×7 generation, can be sited almost anywhere, etc). Even better is if the new technology can simply replace the existing burner in a coal plant. That way, they’ll want to switch. No coercion is required.
Since Obama doesn’t have a plan and I’m not aware of a viable plan that experts agree can move the entire world off of coal, I thought I’d propose one that is viable. You may not like it, but if there is a better alternative that is practical and viable, please let me know because none of the experts I’ve consulted with are aware of one.
The Kirsch plan for saving the planet
The Kirsch plan for saving the planet is very simple and practical. My plan is based on a simple observation:
Nuclear is the elephant in the room
70% of the carbon free power in America is still generated by nuclear, even though we haven’t built a new nuclear plant in this country in the last 30 years. Hydro is a distant second. Wind and solar are rounding error. Worldwide, it’s even more skewed: nuclear is more than 100 times bigger than solar and more than 100 times bigger than wind. If I drew a bar chart of nuclear vs. solar vs. wind use worldwide, you wouldn’t even see solar and wind on the chart.
So our best bet is to join the parade and get behind supporting the big elephant. We put all the wood behind one arrow: nuclear. We invest in and promote these new, low-cost modular nuclear designs worldwide and get the volumes up so we can drive the price down. These plants are low-cost, can be built in small capacities, can be manufactured quickly, and assembled on-site in a few years.
Nuclear can be rolled out very quickly. About two thirds of the currently operating 440 reactors around the world came online during a 10 year period between 1980 and 1990. In southeast Asia, reactors are typically constructed in 4 years or less (about 44 months)
Secondly, the nuclear reactor can replace the burner in a coal plant making upgrading an existing coal plant very cost effective. Finally, it is also critically important for big entities (such as the U.S. government in partnership with other governments) to offer low-cost financing to bring down the upfront cash investment in a new nuclear reactor to be less than that required to build a coal plant.
Under my plan, we now have a way to economically displace the building of new coal plants that nobody can refuse. People will then want to build modular nuclear plants because since they are cheaper, last longer, and are cleaner than coal. No legislation or mandate is required.
My plan is credible since it doesn’t require Congress to act. Power companies worldwide simply make an economic decision to do the right thing. No force required.
My plan would provide huge economic benefits to the United States. We’d create jobs, improve our trade deficit, and get a nice on-going monthly cash flow from the plants we finance. So whether you believe in global warming or not, this plan works.
The only political impediment to overcome is to convince those countries that have a ban on nuclear to reconsider. However, this is not strictly required since the few countries that have such a ban have relatively small coal emissions compared to the countries that have no such ban.
Nuclear waste and proliferation issues are quite manageable. These issues are covered in my Huffington Post article “Climate Bill Ignores Our Biggest Clean Energy Source.”
Do we really think we solve our biggest crisis without a plan? That would be insane. If the White House doesn’t like my plan then they should propose a more viable plan, communicate it to the world, and start implementing it now, while there is still time.