The nuclear option is inevitable


Our civilization faces tremendous challenges today, and its very survival is at stake. The population is expected to stabilize at over 11 billion people at around mid-century. Given that the average person's standard of living—with associated resource consumption and pollution—is also increasing, this may more than double the already unsustainable strain we put on the planet. The resulting human-induced climate change is a big threat, but isn't the only one. In a couple of decades large cities are forecast to run out of drinking water, the so-called 'water crisis.' The velocity and ferocity with which we extract resources from the planet far outstrips our ability to recycle these resources. Our current waste management strategies soon won't be able to cope with the load. Food production will have to more than double, although the planet's surface isn't getting bigger. The challenges are many.

You see, the planet itself will do just fine even if we throw our very worst at it: give it a million years or so—the blink of an eye for a rock that's been around for 4.5 billion years—and it shall have luxuriant forests, rich oceans and abundant fauna again, after we are gone. As a matter of fact, even our species will survive: there are a few of us in Africa, Australia, the Amazon and the arctic circle who have the skills to ensure human survival even if technological life ceases to exist.

I am not concerned about the planet or even our species. My concern is our civilization, our culture. Letting these die would be a waste of, literally, planetary proportions. We've striven and suffered for thousands of years to learn a thing or two, have an insight or two, and now we are about to reset the clock on all that. Despite the deplorable state of our metaphysics today, we have made progress. True insight is only achieved when we've turned every stone and flirted with every vaguely attractive but ultimately stupid idea conceivable, at great cost to ourselves. And now that we've finally done much of the suffering and are about to emerge into daylight, to reset the whole process and go back to square one would be just unspeakably, unthinkingly catastrophic. All the wars, all the famine, all the despair... for nothing? Just to start over before we bank anything?

No, we must survive. But to escape catastrophe we require what in military jargon is called a 'forward escape.' Technology—used for resource extraction, industry, transportation, manufacturing, etc.—carries much of the responsibility for the crises we now face. Yet, to overcome these crises while preserving the positive things about our culture and civilization, we have no other option but to deploy more technology. If we were just a billion or two, perhaps we could do without technology, but not with over 11 billion people on such a small rock.

To effectively address the many challenges we face, we need energy; no, abundant levels of energy; no, even more: we need practically inexhaustible and cheap sources of energy everywhere. The reason is simple: recycling consumes huge amounts of energy, and we need to recycle a whole lot more than we do now, for the planet is not getting any bigger or richer; desalination of ocean water consumes enormous amounts of energy, and we will soon need to do a lot more desalination, for only about 1% of the planet's water is suitable for drinking (that is, after it is treated and pumped to the people who need it, which also requires significant energy); waste management, from sewage treatment to incineration to air pollution control, requires a lot of energy; vertical farming—of which we will need to do much more to keep a growing population fed—requires a lot of energy because of its reliance on artificial lighting and automated systems; and so on. You get the picture. Abundant cheap energy everywhere is the key to addressing our problems through the use of advanced technology, in a forward-escape to avoid catastrophe.

But wind farms, solar panels and the other sustainable, non-polluting energy sources embraced by eco-conscious people today cannot provide it. Sun and wind aren't reliable or abundant sources of energy, even if we project significant advances in the associated technologies. And they have their own cost for the planet, given the huge areas they require. These otherwise sustainable energy sources face enormous challenges to merely meet our current energy needs, let alone what is required for a forward-escape. I know this isn't a popular opinion, but I have had the chance to look at the numbers. For a forward-escape, we will need a lot more energy than we currently consume; wind and solar just won't do, I'm afraid.

Yet we do have the knowledge to solve any conceivable energy challenge within my life time, or even earlier (I am 45 years old as I write these words): nuclear energy.

Okay, before you dismiss me, please continue reading just a little further. I am keenly aware of the problems associated with nuclear energy, not the least of which are safety and radioactive waste. I know why you probably despise this idea. But perhaps what you don't know is that there are extremely robust and effective solutions to the problems of nuclear energy.

The nuclear reactors we despise—think of Chernobyl and Fukushima—are from an old generation, technology from the 1950s and 60s. These reactors require active-safety: unless one actively intervenes to keep the reaction under control, the reactor melts in a nuclear runaway. These systems are inherently unsafe, no matter how many levels of redundancy one builds to prevent a runaway reaction; there can always be an unfortunate alignment of circumstances that leads to catastrophe. And catastrophe in these cases is unacceptable even if it happens only once. So I believe we should eventually phase out all reactors that depend on active-safety, which is just about all reactors in operation in the world today.

But there are also passive-safety reactors: these require active intervention to stay running. They are inherently incapable of a runaway reaction. If you shutdown all power to the reactor and/or if every system in the plant fails, the reactor just stops; it just can't keep itself running unless it is in some way poked or stimulated to do so from the outside. Such reactors are inherently safe; they just can't go out of control. And as if this weren't enough, there are passive-safety reactors being developed that use, as fuel, what current nuclear reactors produce as waste! Many passive-safety reactors do not require uranium enrichment, so the technology also cannot be used for weapons. It's hard to think of any significant risk or disadvantage associated with these technologies.

The holy-grail of passive-safety reactors is, of course, fusion reactors, which produce no harmful waste products (mostly helium, an inert gas used to fill party balloons). Many groups are now actively doing research to develop nuclear fusion power plants. The problem is that we are still decades away from large-scale commercial deployment, time we may not have. Right now, China, for instance, isn't waiting: the Chinese are building new active-safety nuclear fission reactors at a very fast pace.

There are options to bridge the gap between now and the time when fusion reactors can be deployed. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors come to mind, although a more prominent recent example is the TerraPower reactor, pushed by Bill Gates. This latter one is a fission reactor with passive-safety. The problem is that 'nuclear energy' has got such a bad name in our culture that many people, including politicians and regulators, aren't even aware that these new developments effectively solve the problems of older technology. To simply assume that all nuclear energy is bad is, frankly, a dangerously uninformed position. Here we have the most promising—perhaps even the only viable—way to effectively address the many incredibly difficult challenges we now face, and we dismiss it unthinkingly. We don't have the luxury to act based on slogans and prejudices here; the issue requires thoughtfulness and a rather pragmatic attitude.

I believe governments and regulators must aggressively facilitate research and development of passive-safety nuclear technologies; we must allow prototypes to be built, which right now isn't possible in the West. Moreover, Europe, the USA and Japan must use their technological lead and entrepreneurial culture to not only allow, but also foster and accelerate these developments. Significant government funds must be allocated for it, for we are dealing with a matter of survival here. Passive-safety nuclear reactors can potentially solve our world's growing energy needs in an inherently safe way, without significant pollution or waste.

We have a way out, but we must want to explore it.
Share:

18 comments:

  1. As it happens, I have been studying the nuclear energy option in the past few weeks and my overall sentiment is similar to yours. The first thing I found out is that the health risks of nuclear power are greatly exaggerated: the statistics just don’t support the alarmism which surrounds nuclear notwithstanding several major disasters over the past 50 years. Although there are severe health implications to radiation exposure, cancer being a major one, there is no evidence at all that it is teratogenic. That is, there is no evidence of birth defects even in mothers exposed to high, non-lethal doses of radiation. I’d invite people to verify these facts for themselves.

    As you point out, one of the major problems with existing nuclear technology is that is active-safety-based. In fact, the greatest disasters have resulted not from the problems caused by the fission process itself but from failures in the safety measures: Fukushima was due to a tsunami damaging the cooling system and Chernobyl was the compounding of several errors during the testing of safety systems and the creation of experimental conditions.

    At present, nuclear energy generation is dominated by reactors which combine high pressure water, itself a hazard, with the uranium fuel cycle which creates long-lasting radioactive waste. There is a much safer alternative which uses the thorium fuel cycle, generates far less radioactive waste and can be implemented in a passive-safety system which uses molten salts and avoids the involvement of pressurised water. Furthermore, thorium reactors can be used to ‘burn’ harmful nuclear waste and render it much safer.

    Depending on their worldview, readers may or may not be surprised to learn that thorium has always been an option and that uranium was only favoured because it facilitated the production of nuclear weapons. It is virtually impossible to make a bomb using thorium technology.

    While I’m sceptical about the idea that AGW is a major driver of climate change there is little doubt that the dominant, coal-fired method of energy generation creates a significant pollution hazard even when it is working as intended. In comparison, nuclear processes do not spread waste in the environment, barring accidents.

    Appealing as they are on sentimental grounds, solar and wind energy are not going to replace fossil fuels as a means to answer our energy needs because they are unreliable and very costly to implement. Conversely, a tonne of uranium can yield the energy which would require the burning of 16,000 tonnes of coal while thorium is 35-times more efficient. That is, a tonne of thorium, which is much more widely available than uranium, could yield the energy equivalent to the burning of 560,000 tonnes of coal.

    I think that now would be a good time for intelligent people to look into nuclear fission as an energy source, thorium in particular, so that we can start to change the direction of this conversation towards a practical and realistic solution to our energy needs as a society.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Some of the very best books that describe how we can move forward towards a better world (in a grounded way, while simultaneously understanding our deeper spiritual nature) are the works by Charles Eisenstein (mainly The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, as well as Sacred Economics...).

    These works lay the oh so important ground-work for a new society and a new story of inter-being to flourish. We already have all the technology to save our civilization, so as we can see, that is far from the problem, the problem is the level of consciousness and with it our ignorance, unwillingness, apathy and lack of co-operation to do so. There is so much that can be done, but if there is no will to do it, or if humanity is fragmented and has no understanding of a unified solution, nothing will be done.

    Only a genuine spiritual awakening of massive proportions can lay the ground-work for such change to happen and your books Bernardo are laying the ground-work for this spiritual awakening to be accepted and understood on the level of our intellect.

    There is much to be done, but without a radical inner change, we can have all the technology to save our civilization and culture, yet still destroy ourselves as the waves of problems come crashing down on our collective selves.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "There is much to be done, but without a radical inner change.."
      My totally humble opinion is that, if our civilization is meant to be saved and to continue to exist, then a radical inner change will take place.

      Delete
    2. In my mind personal fear has to be taken out of the equation. That's easy to say, hard to do but necessary. If one accepts the concept that we are part of one mind and death is only a change in perception that should be easier, not easy but easier. As much as I love Bernardo's work I do not share the "optimism" that this civilization can continue without catastrophic change. Being an old automation engineer I was part of the crowd that got us here. The perception that automation is going to ride in like the cavalry and save us from ourselves and maintain our life styles is a false hope in my opinion. It is a hope generated by fear of what is most likely going to happen. People like us commenting on this website probably represent the top 1% of the population financially and intellectually. What about the unwashed masses? I have worked all over the world and have always been amazed how many people with nothing are happy and how many with everything are miserable. I live on top of a mountain in rural Ecuador surrounded by people with nothing. They are poor but not impoverished. Their houses are spartan to say the least but they are always full of happy, laughing family and friends. So I believe our western culture is unsustainable and all of us smart people have got to start taking our cue from people that have what we really want, peace and happiness. We have to prepare to do with far, far less. Have to learn to be far less self indulgent intellectually and materially and learn to enjoy the thrill of the rapids we are about to enter. Then we can face them clear eyed. To me the power of Bernardo's work is to clarify our place in the scheme of things and allow us to do the work we intuitively know we need to do. What you need to do and what I need to do may be completely different and maybe even at odds with one another. Anyone that doesn't accept life is full of paradox is barking up the wrong tree in my mind. So partly through Bernardo's work I am able to sit back and enjoy the ride.

      Delete
    3. Wonderful comment and I very much agree :)

      Delete
  3. Passive safety nuclear technologies seem a major qualitative step that shall be further researched and eventually developed. Still, I don't necessarily see this as the forward-escape option (nuclear fusion would probably qualify for that but I am not sure about nuclear fission). We have made a lot of progress and continue doing so in building more energy efficient devices, optimizing energy consumption, and storing energy. Also, I am not sure about the claim that to avoid catastrophe we need abundant cheap energy everywhere within the next 50? years. Haven't we been there before? Why is so dramatically different now? Last, active safety is not the only issue, nuclear waste disposal is a huge issue too. Massively contaminated lakes in Russia have been reported. Of course the cost of these externalities is assumed zero. How do you ensure the maintenance of all the disposal sites to keep them safe for tens of years to come? And how much would that cost?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some of the technologies I mentioned, such as certain types of Thorium reactors and the TerraPower 'Traveling Wave Reactor' consume spent nuclear fuel, so they actually clean up existing nuclear waste.

      Delete
  4. Given the levels of serious and chronic disease at work today and worse in children, it is highly unlikely that younger generations will live as long as those in the past in the developed world. We are likely to see a dramatic decline in population. Our kids are more sickly than they have ever been with both serious and chronic diseases at epidemic levels.

    However, the world is going to need reliable energy and until solar and wind can provide base-load power, they can never meet our needs.

    I am not sure that the 'bad name' given to nuclear energy can be overcome. Then again, it will be a matter of how desperate people are or believe that they are.

    ReplyDelete
  5. anyone who looks at it seriously comes up with he same solution. The answer is the fourth generation nuclear plant. Thank you for articulating so clearly Bernardo

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is the clear answer to the energy problem. you stated it clearly as always Bernardo

    ReplyDelete
  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The obvious error of 100 million species at risk needs to be corrected -- it's 1 million species.

      Delete
    2. This version is better in identifying quotes from BK.

      WHEW! I'm astounded.

      Nope! Not about the inevitability of the nuclear option in some sort of energy mix, nor about the safety of doing so. I'm fine with that. The issue is about the possibility of quickly altering the infrastructure developed for fossil fuels and industrial society, a challenge that surely exists for all alternative energy sources (consider the huge challenge for transportation). Given that so much GHG and pollution has already been front-loaded (for the next 25 years for CO2, longer for other forms), some very smart people whose views have been prescient in the past (James Lovelock, for example) argue that the window of unique opportunity for the nuclear option has already closed. And, there's a need for a lot of recapture, recovery, restoration and renewal. For these, reforestation is probably the best option but it also has an "iffy" timeline.

      "To effectively address the many challenges we face, we need energy; no, abundant levels of energy; no, even more: we need practically inexhaustible and cheap sources of energy everywhere."

      However, according to the Jevons Paradox, more cheap energy results in more collective consumption of Nature's Bounty (known as natural resources). This consumption is producing the Sixth Great Extinction and the First Human Caused Extinction. The latest warnings say that nearly 100 million species are at risk and the only way that we might avoid this would be a a crash program to change what we value: nature, ecosystems, social equity, not growing the GDP.

      "I am not concerned about the planet or even our species. My concern is our civilization, our culture. Letting these die would be a waste of, literally, planetary proportions."

      I DISAGREE!

      I think our entire human Cache of Civilization and Culture is a crate of extreme poverty when compared with the miracle of life on this planet. The Idealist perspective says that consciousness is non-local, a property of M@L. But manifest consciousness (the productions of time) requires sentience and evolution, which means people, plants and critters living embodied in places. There are many imaginal realms for consciousness but where other than on earth does one find this abundant garden of sentience? Yes, it would be tragic to lose it.

      "And now that we've finally done much of the suffering and are about to emerge into daylight, to reset the whole process and go back to square one would be just unspeakably, unthinkingly catastrophic. All the wars, all the famine, all the despair... for nothing? Just to start over before we bank anything?"

      "Bank?" Where's the bank if not "the planet or even our species"? The loss is the adaptive creative imagination associated with the miracle of life -- all life. Imagine about 100 million species at risk because of the cumulative collective impact of one species dedicated to unlimited growth because of its faith in new inexhaustible sources of energy? Is this real? More real is that Homo sapiens like other varieties of being human are not forever.

      YES! We need to go on a wartime footing and find a "forward escape." What might be the moral or ethical or ecological justification for pouring such an enormous effort into new sources of energy fueling more consumption? How will energy instead be coupled to recapture, recovery, restoration, renewal, saving the pieces, reducing the suffering and, ABOVE ALL, living within limits? How might it be accomplished within the window of opportunity? Is there any chance of doing this without a radical change of consciousness about growth and progress?

      Energy must be decoupled from growth. If Homo sapiens are unable to do it Nature will. The challenge is not an energy-fix or technofix. It's a consciousness fix. The carpenter builds the house, not the hammer. Is a sustainable form of "degrowth" or decoupling energy from growth a possibility or is it "see ya later, alligator?"

      Delete
    3. I very much agree. We only need more and more energy to sustain an unlimited growth culture. There are zero or negative growth cultures that we see as primitive but they lived sustainably with their environments for millennia until they either became civilized or were ethnically cleansed by our "civilization." We don't have to throw out our entire civilization to go to this model but we do have to change our values. I'm all for advances in energy consumption, but we should also talk about efficiency. Nature is very good at giving us answers to efficiency where we haven't even conceived of possibilities--just look at the computing and power efficiency of neural systems compared to our general purpose computing devices.

      Delete
  8. Despite the deplorable state of our metaphysics today, we have made progress.

    LOL. I wonder if the dinosaurs were troubled by how little their "metaphysics" progressed before their end.

    The working man could give two shits about whether consciousness is fundamental or an epiphenomenon or whatever. His day to day life does not change one iota whether he dives into metaphysics or never gives it a second thought. How does "our metaphysics" matter? More than 99% of species did just fine without it for almost a billion years. Less than 1% of the only species to invent it even think about it. It's just a hobby for the well to do, who have time for such trivial pursuits only because they live off the labor of others.

    to reset the whole process and go back to square one would be just unspeakably, unthinkingly catastrophic. All the wars, all the famine, all the despair... for nothing?

    It was good enough for the 75% or more of species that died out the last five mass extinctions. What was all their suffering for? Nothing, just like ours.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Bernardo great article. I'm just now catching up on your website. I've read about everything of yours and watched the bulk of the Youtube videos. In my case I came out of the Air Force as technician in 1977 on the weapons control system of the F 4E fighter bomber which included the latest computers at the time. I found myself perfectly situated due to the dramatic change to the digital world that was occurring that time in industry. Long story short I worked as an automation tech/engineer for the next 22 years without a university degree. After that I became a professional artist in wood furniture and large lathe turnings. 10 years ago my saintly wife( teacher with a masters degree) moved to Ecuador. I haven't returned to the states for 10 years as of Feb. 11. Only reason I bore you with the details is for the purpose of context.

    I'm curious what specifically is it that you see our culture bringing to the party that will be so hard to replace beyond the technology? I agree that nuclear energy is our only hope to deal with that crisis but as you know there are at least 10 more "crisis" standing in line to take it's place. These perceived problems are being generated by the need to continue the trajectory of our consumption of everything which I personally see as impossible. Please don't take this as me being a pessimist but as being a realist. One of the problems with technology it has created a huge dependency on that technology. Most people in western cultures have no idea where anything comes from, not the food, their gasoline, their water etc. Just like the keys on this keyboard. Where does the N key come from? How is it built and inscribed? And as far as what happens after you press the N key how that ends up being on the screen probably far less than 1% understand that process. My point is I see many benefits from the loss of the technology just like there were many benefits to later society's due to the black plague so I feel no fear of that consequence. And through mental exercises that people like yourself provide, both modern and ancient I don't feel the fear. Even you as absolutely brilliant as you obviously are you are only capable of describing the one square inch of the elephant you can see. So again my question is what is it that you see in our culture that would be lost that is so difficult to be replaced or even should be replaced?

    ReplyDelete
  10. As a retired Los Alamos staff member, I can understand why the nuclear option seems so attractive. However, due to my LANL experience, and a year spent at Westinghouse Nuclear in Pittsburgh, I found both organization to be absolutely untrustworthy and into hiding problems, even punishing scientists who raised technical problems. Not to be trusted. I am keen to see the Chinese effort go forward, but our USA nuclear establishment is NOT to be trusted, and should not be supported.

    ReplyDelete