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
5. Breed less, stop putting up new
buildings, and stop cutting down
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 design for prototyping.
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 daunting, even for nuclear. We've probably already waited too long.
Society has rushed forward with wind and solar installations,
of which wind was 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 800,000
more identical headlines before world population increases,
then we will have achieved global carbon-free energy (considering capacity factors, intermittency, demand fluctuation, and energy storage issues).
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 geologic, 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 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 the entire planet's rural countryside 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, which are immune from meltdowns, should already have been 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, along with thorium. Thorium is abundant on a global scale,
and there is enough to meet the needs of civilization
for about a thousand years. Though more expensive to extract than land sourced uranium, the oceans contain a virtually limitless amount of uranium and add only one cent per KWh to the cost of nuclear generated electricity.
Molten salt reactors produce a small fraction of
the waste of current nuclear reactors (and 1/100,000 the amount of waste of a coal powered plant).
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 early 1970s. 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 design for prototyping.
Molten salt reactors can be mass produced in shipyards
at scales ranging from backyard sized to giga-sized, and
The challenge is one of politics, public perception, and beaurocracy.
The reactors can be located strictly along coasts, with the power easily delivered by electrical transmission lines to the deepest interior of any continent. Ocean water can thus be used for the reactor cooling cycle. Even if molten salt reactors provided 100 percent of all energy for the world, and even if the ocean never gave up its heat, it would take 1000 years to raise the temperature of the world's oceans 1/10 of one degree centrigrade as the result of reactor cooling cycles. Thus, a caveat associated with current inland nuclear reactors is avoided. (This is my arithmetic, based on ThorCon's stated 16 cu meter sea water flow per second per 500 MW generation per 10 degree centigrade heat exchange.)
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 nameplate capacity:
Wind: 5000 km2
Solar: 300 km2
Nuclear: 2 km2
In the images below, capacity factors, the relationship between intermittency and demand fluctuation, and energy storage issues are taken into account. And remember, this is in regard to total energy consumption. (Globally, electrical energy consumption is 18 percent of total energy consumption).
Due to the intermittent output of solar and wind installations, we would need to triple the number of electrical transmission towers and lines if we were to rely mostly on solar and wind energy as mere replacements for coal fired electricity generation. To use solar and wind for all of U.S. energy, the number of towers and transmission lines would need to be multiplied many times over. The images below don't even include the land area required for, or affected by, that.
There is no intermittency issue with nuclear energy, and therefore far fewer transmission lines would be needed. Also, they automatically power up and down, meaning they self-buffer without the need for battery or fossil fuel backup.
It's not remotely possible to achieve any of the three scenarios depicted in the first three images below. This is due to both lack of raw materials and available space. If we could achieve such scenarios, the cost would be tens of trillions of dollars with any one of the three scenarios.
Hydro power should be considered to be beyond maxed out. We've already destroyed too many river valley environments. Currently, hydro power accounts for about 3 to 4 percent of global consumed energy.
Safe, clean, Thorcon nuclear reactors can supply energy more cheaply than coal, solar PV or wind, and with just a tiny fraction of the land footprint. And they are silent. See the link at the bottom of this page.
To meet total energy needs of the United States:
The above images were generated using the typical capacity factor of 0.25 for solar PV, the typical capacity factor of 0.33 for wind turbines, 0.6 buffering factor for solar PV and wind, and 2400 GW U.S. total power consumption.
Considering that the average wind speed of the U.S. and surrounding coastal areas is only 2/3 of what's needed for a 0.33 capacity factor, the area in the first image above would actually need to be 1.5 times what is shown.
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 also complicate the electrical grid due to the intermittent
output. Perhaps it works better than centralized
solar farms, but there is limited potential since such a small percentage of structures are conducive to it.
Again, molten salt reactors can be mass produced in shipyards
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.
Solar PV and wind turbine share of consumed energy
Virtually all 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.
As of 2020, the combination of solar PV and wind turbines accounted for about 1.7 percent of global energy consumption, based on the following data and typical assumptions (using average global capacity factors):
(Global primary energy > 150,000 TWh, which is different from global energy consumption which is used for power.)
Global energy consumption = 123,000 TWh
which implies global power consumption = 14,000 GW.
Solar PV installed capacity = 584 GW
A solar PV capacity factor of 0.25 yields 146 GW generated power.
A buffering factor of 0.6 yields 88 GW consumed power.
(Buffering factor: Waste results from energy being dumped due to mismatches between power generation and hour by hour demand, what irregularities the power grid can accomodate in the absence of fossil fuel or nuclear power generation, energy lost during battery storage, and the energy cost of the buffering batteries themselves.)
Wind turbine installed capacity = 743 GW.
A wind turbine capacity factor of 0.33 yields 245 GW generated power.
A buffering factor of 0.6 yields 147 GW consumed power.
88 GW + 147 GW = 235 GW
235 GW / 14,000 GW = .017 which equals 1.7 percent
Capacity, generation and consumption are three different quantities, in descending order. Consumption is the bottom line for any analysis.
To improve the buffering factor, we would need to greatly expand the grid of transmission lines and towers. Either way, the land use works out to about the same.
The factor with the largest margin of error is the buffering factor. But you get the gist of it.
The snippet immediately below indicates that the range of the buffering factor could end up being stuck between 0.4 and 0.6.
From Thorcon's website:
"Storing intermittent electric energy for later dispatch adds expensive storage buffering costs. A 2018 article in the journal Science by Steven Davis and 32 other renowned scientists analyzed storage costs. Using low-cost, mass-market, lithium-ion batteries for daily buffering raises electricity costs from 3.5 cents/kWh to 14 cents/kWh. For weekly buffering the cost grows to 50 cents/kWh. Even if future battery costs are halved, that cost will be 29 cents/kWh. Even free intermittent electricity would not significantly reduce storage-buffered, dispatchable electricity costs."
The two graphs immediately below also indicate that the buffering factor is not likely ever to rise above 0.6 even when an entire continent is populated with solar and wind farms with the goal of maximizing the evenness of output.
In fact, there are innumerable dynamic variables at play when moving from one energy source to another. Electricity is a higher quality energy source than heat. Transportation accounts for 18 percent of global energy consumption. Therefore replacing internal combustion engines with electric motors would bump the 1.7 percent figure up a bit. But pushing it back down is the fact that global energy consumption continues to grow sharply.
Again, you get the gist of it.
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 using the world's existing shipyards.
I did the arithmetic. At that rate it would take
more than 140 years to bring enough of them online to meet
today's land based and ocean based energy requirements. Geothermal heating and cooling, passive solar building designs/modifications, rooftop solar panels, and global lifestyle changes could combine to maybe cut that time requirement in half; but only if world population doesn't increase during that time.
Perhaps the combined plans of all nuclear power companies and/or an expansion of ThorCon's shipyard paradigm could bring it down to 20 years.
Also, there might be 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
Most recent update: May 14 2021
ThorCon: Cheap, Reliable, CO2-Free Electricity
ThorCon - economics
See especially the final section of the web page.
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
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