June 6 2019
The Transition to a Different Climate and Geology
and Molten Salt Nuclear Reactors
2. Will the human species survive
3. Why nuclear and not renewables
4. CO2 and temperature variation
For the purpose of slowing and limiting global warming while fulfilling all land and ocean based energy requirements, molten salt nuclear reactors are necessary and perhaps ultimately sufficient, and at least one company has a prototype ready for implementation.
Today's solar panels, hydroelectric, and especially wind and ethanol are environmentally inferior to molten salt reactors, and cannot meet our energy requirements.
As the population grows and energy consumption grows, the
equation becomes ever more difficult, even for nuclear.
Society is rushing forward with wind and solar installations,
of which wind is the bigger mistake. Today's solar panels
average 17 percent efficiency. They will all need to be
ripped out and replaced with new panels in the years ahead,
assuming cell efficiency can be increased two or three fold
as some people are predicting. At 50 percent efficiency,
solar panels could actually be a meaningful contributor
to carbon free energy.
A recent front page headline in U.S.A. Today was that of a just-approved
100 megawatt capacity solar farm project in Utah. If we see 300,000
more identical headlines before world population increases,
then we will have achieved global carbon-free energy (considering capacity factors and intermittency).
As to whether the human species survives, it's largely academic for me. The world is already so over-populated, over-developed, over-abused, and humans so oblivious to it, that I have little interest in returning to this planet, so far as I can detect. But my heart is with the non-human life forms.
With that established.. before proceeding to the energy resource essay -
Some basic considerations about our
chances of surviving as a species:
There are many theorized geological, oceanographic and atmospheric tipping points ahead, and we will remain mostly clueless as to the particulars or the timing until they are well underway, if they do occur.
We're now at 0.9 degrees celsius above the pre-industrial global mean temperature.
Humans can survive in the outdoors in the upper and lower latitudes until the global mean temperature exceeds roughly ten degrees celsius above pre-industrial.
Plant life, including food-producing plant life, can thrive at those higher temperatures. Plants thrive at extremely high levels
of CO2, and even humans can thrive at a CO2 level of 3000 ppm. The legal limit
for submarine crews is 5000 ppm. Our current atmospheric CO2 level is 415 ppm.
Primates have lived during times when global mean temperature was eight degrees celsius higher than today's and atmospheric CO2 was at least as high as 750 ppm (more likely 1500 ppm).
No one is predicting storms at any point in the future that are so powerful and numerous as to wipe out civilization.
No one is predicting that all land mass on the planet will ever dissappear.
If molten salt nuclear reactors - or perhaps even fusion reactors - become sufficiently numerous, it's plausible that carbon dioxide could be removed from the atmosphere, as the obstacle has always been one of insufficient energy to perform the task.
Even if we continue to burn coal, oil and natural gas, it's plausible that civilization would survive the transition to high temperature conditions and reduced land mass, since the transition will proceed at a rate such that differences in climate or geology would be noticed on a yearly, rather than weekly basis.
We'll return to the topic of global warming after the following
essay on energy sources.
SOLAR, WIND, ETHANOL, NUCLEAR
You've probably heard that we have made great
strides in renewable energy in recent years.
Take a quiz: What percentage of the world's energy
consumption in 2018 did the combination of
solar and wind power provide? The answer is near the bottom
of this page.
Neither wind power nor today's solar panels can be an adequate
solution to global warming. No combination of today's renewables can meet the needs of
the global infrastructure already in place. The earth is running out of material from which to make concrete for the wind turbine towers. If one could actually solve global warming with wind turbines, the rural countryside would be utterly decimated by wind farms and electrical transmission towers and lines, and the low frequency noise emitted by the wind turbine blades would make hundreds of thousands of square miles of once beloved rural landscapes uninhabitable.
fear nuclear energy due to their
lack of understanding of simple concepts associated
with it, especially when it comes to comparing
the environmental impact of nuclear energy with
the environmental impact of every other form of
energy production, including every type of
renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro, biomass, biofuel).
Molten salt nuclear reactors are nearly set to begin replacing the
current generation of reactors. Even so, looking back: Power plant meltdowns
and nuclear waste have had insignificant environmental
impact in the global context compared to naturally occuring radiation,
and compared to other types of pollution.
Also, consider the number of
deaths globally per watt-hour from both pollution and accidents associated
with all fossil fuels and biomass. Nuclear's impact in that
area has been comparatively insignificant. A chart is lower on this page.
And again, I'm writing here of our old fashioned
nuclear plants. With molten salt reactors, the
superiority of nuclear power goes up even more.
Molten salt reactors are immune from meltdowns,
even in the absence of human controllers. They
consume as fuel our current stockpiles of spent
uranium and plutonium, including weapons grade
plutonium. Beyond that, they can use thorium
as fuel. Thorium is abundant on a global scale,
and there is enough to meet the needs of civilization
for about a thousand years. Additionally, molten
salt reactors can function as breeder reactors,
producing an infinite amount of fuel.
And they produce a small fraction of
the waste of current nuclear reactors.
Additionally, the waste produced is innocuous
after 300 years, versus tens of thousands of years
for current nuclear waste.
Molten salt reactor technology is sixty years old.
A successful demonstration plant operated for
four years in the late 1960s. Political
dealings in those years by uninformed people
resulted in funding loss for continuing
development. The technology was revived during
the first few years of this century, and at least one company has a prototype ready for implementation.
Molten salt reactors can be mass produced in factories
at scales ranging from backyard sized to giga-sized, and
The challenge is one of politics, public perception, and beaurocracy.
Keeping all existing nuclear power plants operational
during the redevelopment of molten salt reactor technology
would have been the best ecological path.
The implementation of wind
farms and low efficiency (17% average) solar farms was an environmental travesty
in many ways. They are devastating to rural and wilderness areas both ecologically and visually. (Which is one of the reasons I had pontificated against them from the outset.)
They exact a large toll on the wildlife of the land, even in desert settings. Wind farms are additionally devastating to birds and bats.
And we get little in return.
The amount of power generated as a ratio
to the gigantic footprint and infrastructure
of these "farms" pales in comparison to the ratio
of power/infrastructure of nuclear power, which of
course is tiny footprint and high output.
Land area required for 10 Gigawatts capacity:
Wind: 5000 km2
Solar: 400 km2
Nuclear: 2 km2
The intermittent power generated by solar and wind farms complicates
the electrical grid while at the same time necessitating
a greatly expanded grid (meaning a great increase in transmission towers
and transmission lines) which of course devastates
even more rural and wilderness area. And of course massive scale battery
storage of the intermittent energy produced would be another
substantial environmental adversity.
And most tragic of all, there is no possibility of overstating the following: Wind turbines generate low frequency noise which propogates more than a mile, to the torment of wildlife and humans. Low frequency noise stands out from normal background noise, meaning that simple decibel comparisons are not relevant. Simple decibel readings are what wind power proponents limit their arguments to. Those proponents either do not live near wind turbines or they stand to gain financially from their implementation.
There is also a certain percentage of people who, for various reasons having to do with their range of hearing or with their lifestyle, do not pick up on the the low frequency pulses. The people who do are not making up their debilitating experiences of the pulsating low frequency noise in their homes. Low frequency noise penetrates ones house so unhindered that it is typically heard more loudly in ones house (where the background noise is lower) than outside ones house. The house itself resonates with the low frequency noise which is bombarding it, becoming a veritable speaker box. The pulses from the wind turbines travel through both the air and the ground. There is no means to soundproof against it.
As for infrastucture - even 1970s era nuclear power plants required 1/5 the steel
and 1/11 the concrete per watt delivered to the consumer
of today's wind turbines. That favorable comparison to
wind power increases when one considers the extra transmission
towers necesitated by wind farms.
Rooftop solar panels and backyard wind turbines
also complicate the electrical grid due to the intermittent
output. Perhaps it works better than centralized
solar or wind farms, but the intermittency and associated
batteries are still deal-breakers.
Again, molten salt reactors can be mass produced in factories
at scales ranging from backyard sized to giga-sized, and
The challenge is one of politics, public perception, and beaurocracy.
Germany has purportedly made more progress than any
other western nation the past ten years
in the area of "clean energy", relying solely
on solar and wind to make their transition. But their
carbon emissions over that time period have changed
little, and in fact are currently rising, due largely to the
recent decommission of nuclear power plants.
In short, today's large scale solar power and wind power are not only failures as compared to nuclear,
they are ecologically inferior. Not only are they ecologically
inferior in and of themselves, but every dollar of our natural
resources and time spent on them is a dollar not available
to spend on nuclear.
Ethanol from corn is at least as tragic.
Every time you fill your tank with ethanol, you are contributing
to global warming more than you would by filling up
with pure gasoline. About as much carbon is released in the
process of making ethanol as what is saved by burning
ethanol instead of pure gasoline. And the land used for
growing this damaging fuel is never allowed to capture
carbon properly, as it would if it were left in a natural
state or used for traditional farming and allowed to
recover periodically. Ethanol exists only as an
attempt by non-analytical and/or opportunistic politicians to win votes by claiming
it would set us free from reliance on foreign oil.
The false ecological pitch was part of the misrepresentation, and big
business seized the opportunity to get rich from
the government subsidy.
Many promoters of solar and wind power will mislead
regarding the contribution of solar and wind to
global energy consumption by talking only about
global electrical energy consumption.
Global electrical energy consumption is only 18 percent
of global total energy consumption.
Data sources vary quite a bit, but I'm pretty confident in the following figures, after exhaustive data harvesting:
In 2018, total global energy consumed from coal, oil, natural gas and biofuels was about 6820 Mtoe. This is not including the energy content which was used for things other than energy (such as construction materials, lubricants etc).
2018 wind farm capacity was about 445 Mtoe.
At 25 percent capacity factor, this yields 111 generated Mtoe.
2018 solar PV capacity was about 380 Mtoe.
At 20 percent capacity factor, this yields 76 generated Mtoe.
Nuclear energy generation was about 220 Mtoe.
Hydroelectric energy generation was about 220 Mtoe.
6820 fossil fuels
7450 Mtoe very roughly
Thus, wind generated energy = 111/7450 = 1.49 percent
and solar PV generated energy = 76/7450 = 1.02 percent
However, the capacity factor for fossil fuels is about 30 percent. Therefore we can create the following addition column:
2046 (nuc/PV/wind/hy to replace fossil)
2673 Mtoe very roughly
Now wind generated energy = 111/2673 = 4.15 percent
and solar PV generated energy = 76/2673 = 2.84 percent
This means that we would be 7 percent of the way to powering the world using just wind and solar, provided there were no intermittency of generation issue. (Electrical generation occurs at unpredictable and/or at the wrong times.)
But of course there is, and no one knows the exact penalty for that, number-wise. Overcoming the intermittency issue requires storing much of the generated electricity. It's doubtful that the actual delivered energy from wind and solar would be even 2/3 of what is generated, considering the ongoing replacement costs (energy-wise) of battery storage systems themselves.
So "4 percent of the way there" is a more realistic figure, but then only if we could increase solar and wind power by a factor of 25 before any increase in global energy consumption. Not gonna happen is it. And if it were to happen, there would be no rural landscape, anywhere, free of wind farms.
There is no intermittency issue with nuclear energy.
Links for further reading are provided at the
bottom of this page.
Three graphs pertaining to energy sources
Largely as a result of the net loss of nuclear power
plants over the past 20 years, the percentage
of global "clean" electrical energy has declined
by five percent:
CO2 AND GLOBAL MEAN TEMPERATURE VARIATION
Over any time interval, increased atmospheric CO2 will raise global temperature, and increased global temperature will result in increased geological and oceanographic release of CO2 into the atmosphere. In other words, there are feedback loops which occur on any time scale. There are a multitude of other natural phenomona driving global temperature change over long time periods as well.
Over the past century, data clearly indicates which of the two parameters mentioned above is primarily driving the other over the particular short time interval in question:
This past century is a special case in that we know how much carbon has been released into the atmosphere (where it combines with oxygen to form CO2) as the result of burning fossil fuels. Although that amount is small compared to natural releases of carbon (as part of the CO2 molecule) into the atmosphere, it is the part that has clearly disrupted what had been an overall stable system going back thousands of years:
The oceans and land release carbon, but they also absorb it. Burning coal and oil only releases carbon. That is what is unique to the past century.
The additional CO2 in the atmosphere (up from 280 ppm to 415 ppm) is, to within a small margin of error, accounted for by the carbon released by burning fossil fuels over the past century.
Whether or not a doubling of atmospheric CO2 (to 800 ppm) is possible (given the debate about CO2 saturation), I couldn't tell you. That would apparently raise the global mean temperature another one or two degrees celsius.
Studies suggest that atmospheric CO2 was
at least as high as 2700 ppm 500 million years ago. However,
unlike the past 800,000 years, atmospheric CO2 and global mean
temperature show little correlation with each other
on the "hundreds of millions of years" scale. See graphs below.
Next, let's look at CO2 and temperature
graphs for four time periods -
1880 - 2018
Past 1000 years
Past 800,000 years
Past 570 million years
1880 - 2018
Past 1000 years
Past 800,000 years
Past 570 million years
Among the next generation of nuclear reactors,
molten salt reactors are getting the most attention,
and that is one of the reasons I focused on them
in this piece.
Also, ThorCon is about set to begin building molten
salt reactors for implementation in Indonesia.
It's a good thing there are many companies
developing both MSR's and other types of next
generation reactors, because it doesn't seem that
ThorCon's plan alone could switch the planet over
to nuclear soon enough. Lars Jorgensen of ThorCon
states in one of his presentations that his builders
can turn out 100gw of new reactors every year.
I did the arithmetic. At that rate it would take
50 years to bring enough of them online to meet
today's land based and ocean based energy requirements.
Also, there are only about two decades of lithium
reserves in the world for making batteries for cars
and trucks, once internal combustion engines have
been entirely replaced with electric motors. Another
energy storage device will need to replace lithium
batteries in the near future. Nano-technologists
will perhaps invent materials which will improve
performance of flywheel energy storage.
Finally, it should be noted that while all the
developers of next generation nuclear power plants
are taking precautions with their designs to guard
against proliferation of weapons grade nuclear material,
it's my understanding that there is always a possibility of
the operator of a plant making alterations to the
design which would allow them to produce weapons
grade uranium. So that could be another bonus:
With each metropolitan area destroyed by a terrorist
with an atomic bomb, world population decreases and
along with that of course energy requirements.
Or.. how about just breeding less, stop putting up new
buildings, and stop cutting down trees.
June 6 2019 Roger Luebeck
I rarely hear anyone talking about geothermal energy
these days, which is why I forgot to consider it until
this postscript. Having not investigated it for this
article, I can only say that passive or near-passive
geothermal heating and cooling for homes and businesses
has always seemed like an excellent idea to me, while
using geothermal energy for conversion to electricity
has not. Moving heat in and out of the ground
(heating and cooling) seems to me mostly safe, while
pumping massive quantities of heat out of the ground
for the purpose of generating electricity seems
awfully likely to create deep-ground instability..
October 15 2019
Nuclear Power in India
Srikumar Banerjee, nuclear scientist and metallurgical engineer,
is the Indian Department of Atomic Energy’s Chair Professor at
Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.
Thorium to Light Up the World
ThorCon: Cheap, Reliable, CO2-Free Electricity by Lars Jorgensen
Moltex SSR (Stable Salt Reactors) - A Roadmap to Thorium
Published on May 31, 2019
Adam Owens of https://moltexenergy.com/ outlines Moltex Energy's 3 reactor designs:
SSR-W, SSR-U and SSR-Th. Each one targets a different world market, with the
primary distinction being SSR-W is fueled by Plutonium from spent reactor fuel.
Fast-Spectrum Molten-Salt Reactor - Elysium Industries - Ed Pheil
Elysium Fast Spectrum
The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment
The Oak Ridge 1960s Reactor
NASA: Causes of global warming
© Roger Luebeck