Thursday, May 28, 2015

Energy matters, be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.

Nuclear power invokes a strong reaction, particularly in environmentalists. Often times when I debate these people they tend to react from a clear stance filled with all sorts of confirmation bias. Why would I debate them? Why have I become a proponent for nuclear energy?

I used to be opposed to nuclear energy, simply because I thought that the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents were really terrible and caused a lot of death and destruction. After careful consideration of the facts, having read countless of articles and looking at how things are today, I've had to re-examine my reasoning. This basically means that I have been convinced to take on a new stance on energy related subjects : Renewables aren't as green as advertised, coal, gas and petroleum are very dangerous, cause thousands of deaths each year and may well precipitate the doom of many species currently alive. The most efficient, safe and plentiful way to produce energy is Nuclear. We need to address the nuclear stigma and gradually defeat it, using reason and by forming our judgements based on the evidence, rather than on our gut feelings. Why? Because we otherwise would never be able to get fossil fuel energy generation out of the picture.

The biosphere of Earth is changing rapidly, species are going extinct at a terribly high rate. The increased extermination of species is being precipitated by several factors : pollution, the increase in temperature, a steady decline in precipitation, poorer air quality, acidifying oceans and of course the hunting practices of humans. It all comes down to this, the environment is changing faster than these animals, fish and insects can adapt to.

A couple of these factors are clearly tied to Anthropogenic Climate Change. Our influence on the biosphere of Earth cannot be ignored anymore. People always tend to focus on models, temperature, sea ice, etc. I am concerned about them as well. Climate change deniers can educate themselves using the links in the navigation bar, sceptical science is particularly good.

What needs to be done? Firstly we desperately need to mitigate carbon emissions aggressively. This means supplanting fossil fuelled energy generation with some renewables but mainly nuclear energy. Secondly we need to transform our transportation system, we have to shift from the internal combustion engine (ICE) to preferably a battery electric vehicle future. A future in which our transportation methods are either completely electrified, and in which airplanes would run on synthesized fuels.

If we achieve these goals, we would be cleaning up our air significantly, mitigating not only carbon emissions but also emissions like Nitrous Oxides, Sulphur Oxides, Flea Ash containing all sorts of harmful elements (including radioactive Uranium particles for instance).

Another thing we need to acknowledge is the growing need for fresh/potable water. Currently about 800 million people do not have access to potable water. This number is now declining, however... With the growing instability of precipitation patterns, and the increasing droughts, the availability of water becomes a growing problem. Just look at the American state of California for instance. They depend on water from the Colorado River, and the Sierra Nevada Snowpack. It is estimated that California will run out of potable water reserves before this decade is over, some people even go as far as to say that it will happen this or next year.

Aquifer depletion is a serious problem, especially in America's plains. The food basket for a large portion of the world's population depends on the availability of potable water in the Ogallala Aquifer, a source of water that is depleting i.e. running out... Replenishment rates need to be higher than the rate at which we draw water from these fresh water sources, at this moment replenishment rates are down, if this unbalance continues, aquifers will deplete eventually.

We can desalinate water, this is already being done on a large scale in countries like Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The problem with water desalination is that it takes a lot of energy.

I foresee a giant shift in energy consumption i.e. a shift from fossil based transportation to electricity based transportation; And a very steep increase water desalination activities. These changing paradigms have forced me to take a new view on electricity generation.

Let's look at current energy generation ratio's, in particular the coal fired energy plants. Roughly 75 to 80% of all the electricity on Earth is generated through burning coal and lignite. This amounts to 2300 coal fired energy plants in the world. It is estimated that we have about 100 years worth of coal left in the ground (source : So we will be forced to alter our course eventually, there's no denying it.

Also the currently known oil reserves of the world only add up to roughly 4 decades. So we don't have a lot of time left. Another consideration is that if we burn all these reserves, we will precipitate an uncontrollable temperature rise which in term will lead to increased extreme weather patterns, droughts, famine and eventually extinctions.

So it is clear, something needs to be done.

Why would I advocate nuclear and not renewable?

I've been an avid supporter of renewable for a long time. Until I started looking at the figures, the amount of energy produced all over the world. There are some optimistic figures claiming that by 2050 roughly 30 to 40% of the energy production in the world will come from renewable energy sources. The punch required to deliver the final knock out to coal fired energy production simply isn't there.

I've tried to look at predictions about future energy consumption and it didn't seem that they had included a paradigm shift in the transportation sector, meaning that one has to assume that we would still be making massive use of the ICE. If the current BEV revival starts gaining momentum, and it seems that it does, it would mean that the source of energy would shift from petroleum to electricity. Depending on the amount of shift, one can only conclude that the figures of future energy consumption in terms of electricity are too conservative.

Secondly people have not looked at our growing water issues. Which will also require vast amounts of energy.

Thirdly the capricious nature of renewable energy production requires load following energy production, which can only come from either nuclear or fossil energy generation.

Finally the amount of materials required to create this vast network of renewables is incredible, and the waste streams tied to them remain unaddressed. Also take into consideration the limited life span of said technologies, the limited amount of possible repurposing and the inability to recycle key components like wafers, turbine blades, certain electronics. And let's not forget that it takes a huge amount of energy to create for instance 99.99999% silica, required to produce these wafers.

Trying to understand renewables, fossil fuel energy generation and nuclear energy have led me past several interesting routes and have given me new insights. There is no optimal form of energy generation, there's always a catch. The renewables aren't as green as advertised and in our struggle for survival, even though it may not be evident at this moment, requires high energy density, low feedstock, zero emission energy generation. Nuclear is the form of energy generation that does just that and then some. Nuclear energy has a very good track record. France for instance has one of the lowest possible carbon footprints per energy unit produced, simply because they have embraced nuclear energy.

While delving into the history of nuclear energy and looking for possible innovations I came across the terms Generation IV and Molten Salt Reactors. I will dedicate a new article to "new nuclear". These developments are very promising, we can expect a shift from 3~4% fuel efficiency to 90~95% fuel efficiency, passive safety features which make a reactor "walk away proof" and the propensity to get rid of the so-called "spent fuel" or "nuclear waste". As an added bonus we get the propensity to "eat" the world's nuclear arsenals. Turning Megatons into Megawatts, a tremendous force for peace if you ask me!

Nuclear energy has a near perfect track record, compared to the fossil fuel industry it is by far the cleanest source of energy with the least amount of deaths tied to it. Even renewable energies have a higher death toll, these technologies are used in places rather hostile to humans, especially with regards to heights. People tend to fall of roofs a lot. Deathprint per energy source...

We are looking at a bright future if we embrace the possibilities of nuclear energy. We would be cleaning up our atmosphere, we would be able to provide everyone with ample electricity, we would endeavour in sciences and technologies which will help humanity build a completely sustainable future here on Earth, and will allow us reach out farther into space.

If you're interested in these developments I would suggest you to visit these websites :

NASA on nuclear

Letter to the California Energy Commission - by Alex Cannara

What is happening in the world of MSR's?

I will be dedicating the next articles to MSR development and Nuclear Fusion.

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