In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff


We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.







Try Advanced Search


  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...


CultureBlogs
Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
PhilosoBlog
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Gregdotorg
BookSlut
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Cronaca
Plep
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Seablogger
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette


Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Samizdata
Junius
Joanne Jacobs
CalPundit
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Public Interest.co.uk
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
Spleenville
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
CinderellaBloggerfella
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
InstaPundit
MindFloss
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes


Miscellaneous
Redwood Dragon
IMAO
The Invisible Hand
ScrappleFace
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz

Links


Our Last 50 Referrers







« Renaissance and Religion | Main | My Stance, and I'm Sticking With It »

October 12, 2004

Energy and Politics

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I picked up a copy of the New Yorker (October 11, 2004 issue) the other day while eating lunch at the mall, and read a piece by John Cassidy called “Pump Dreams—Is energy independence an impossible goal?”

The article was an interesting for several reasons. One, it dealt with U.S. energy policy, which is both important and not sufficiently discussed. Two, it gave me some insight into the giant gravitational pull that politics has over discussions of this topic. (To be fair, this gravitational pull wasn’t entirely hidden, as the piece ran under the heading “The Political Scene” and I suppose the ideological slant of the New Yorker is hardly a secret.)

Using the war in Iraq (which he seems to believe is “really” about controlling Mideast oil reserves) and the differing positions of the two candidates for the presidency as his launching pad, Mr. Cassidy summarized the current American energy situation.

This is not so hot. In oil, the U.S. is dependent on foreign suppliers (especially those zany Arabs) and certain to become more so. If forced to rely purely on domestic proven reserves, America would run through them in a little over 4 years at current levels of consumption. (Of course, consumption levels would actually plummet in the case of such a contingency because prices would go through the roof, but never mind.). Even adding in Alaskan oil will only improve those reserves by roughly 33%.

In natural gas things aren’t a whole lot better. Again, the U.S. lacks sufficient supplies domestically and is currently importing quite a bit of gas from Canada (which, although Mr. Cassidy doesn’t mention it, itself lacks sufficient reserves to supply North America for very long.) While natural gas is a pretty good (clean) fuel in a lot of ways, increasing our use of it would quickly return us to the problems we face with oil, i.e., dependency on possibly unstable foreign governments (including especially Russia, Siberia being the Arabian peninsula of natural gas, so to speak.)

Coal, which the U.S. is swimming in, can of course be converted into gasoline, but has nasty global warming problems—as do all fossil fuels, of course, because their combustion produces carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide sequestration (essentially, storing carbon dioxide underground or in the deep oceans) which is the erstwhile “fix” for coal-fired electric power generation, seems to be more of a short-time than a permanent solution to this problem—although I’d like to be proven wrong here.

Mr. Cassidy pretty much dismisses—reasonably, from my point of view—talk about the hydrogen economy. At least in the short term, hydrogen fuel isn’t going to save our bacon because (1) the technology required, such as fuel cells for transportation purposes, isn’t sufficiently mature, (2) a whole hydrogen delivery infrastructure doesn’t exist and would be hugely expensive to build, and (3) hydrogen is really more of battery than a power source, as no supplies of pure hydrogen exist and supplies would have to be manufactured (today, most efficiently, out of fossil fuels like natural gas.)

So Mr. Cassidy turns to conservation, which he admits won’t solve the problem entirely but would help. This could be encouraged by providing tax breaks to people who buy more fuel efficient cars, such as gas-electric hybrids. Better, in Mr. Cassidy’s view, would be to up the C.A.F.E. requirements on autos. Better still, in Mr. Cassidy’s view, would to up the price on gasoline and possibly all fossil fuels by increasing taxes on them (although he admits, grudgingly, that a hydrocarbon tax seems like a political loser in the U.S.) He points out, in its favor, that the higher energy prices that would result from a carbon tax would encourage the development of alternative sources of energy, which today are uncompetitive because of their high costs.

My reactions to this section of Mr. Cassidy’s argument are less favorable. The problem with gas-electric cars and with upping C.A.F.E. standards is that both of them will fall victim to the “clawback effect.” For example, although current U.S. automobiles are far more fuel-efficient than their 1960s-era predecessors, this hasn’t really helped our per capita oil consumption, because people drive their cars considerably more miles each year today—enough more miles to have completely “clawed back” the benefits of the higher fuel economy (even if we all gave up S.U.V.s and drove Toyota Corollas). My working assumption would be that greater governmentally-mandated efficiency gains from cars would just encourage driving more miles as the U.S. population continues to expand and commutes continue to lengthen.

Hydrocarbon taxes--an excellent idea, under the circumstances--could probably be made politically palatable (by lowering income taxes correspondingly) but oddly, perhaps predictably, the idea isn’t explored by Mr. Cassidy, who doesn’t seem to realize that most people regard hydrocarbon taxes as just another way Washington wants to get its hands on their paychecks. (And given the reluctance to consider corresponding tax reductions on the part of politicians who have recommended it--I'm thinking Al Gore in 1992--I think that fear is justified.)

Alternative energy is great, I love it, but let’s face it, I don’t think anybody (sensible) thinks it’s “the” solution. Not all parts of the U.S. are suitable for wind-farming, and even in those parts where wind-farming is possible, the wind doesn’t always blow. (This is a major problem in hooking up wind power to the grid, BTW, and is causing lots of spats between wind farm developers and utilities trying to schedule their power generation.) Also, the very best location for windfarms—just offshore on the coasts and the Great Lakes—are off limits for development because of NIMBY resistance from many, er, New Yorker readers. Likewise, solar power is only potentially viable in the Southwest — clouds really, really reduce solar intensity hugely (as I learned from making measurements while helping my daughter with a science project.) Ethanol and other forms of biomass require almost as much energy from fossil fuels (or, in some cases, more) to produce than they contain, although I understand marginal improvements have been made in the energy efficiency of their manufacture.

So, we finally come to the big, bad solution—as I see it, anyway—to U.S. energy policy as constrained by global warming. To wit: nuclear power.

This is where Mr. Cassidy's politics really come out, so to speak. He simply ignores nuclear power, a silence that, er, speaks volumes...at least to my right-wing ear.

Anyway, assuming we're not all in Mr. Cassidy's state of denial, we got to get real on nuclear power. If we want a hydrogen (global-warming friendly) economy, it's going to require a series of giant nuke plants up and down the coasts producing major megawatts to crack seawater into hydrogen (not a terribly energy efficient process, but necessary as all the other ways to get hydrogen release carbon dioxide.)

Heck, if we just want to keep the lights on–let alone all drive electric cars—without building a whole new fleet of coal-fired plants (and continuing the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) we will have to get over our phobias about nuclear power. While the problems of spent nuclear fuel storage and plant decommissioning are real, these are problems that can be solved—with enough political will.

While I realize that opposition to nuclear power is a sort of religious doctrine among the environmentati, I think this is a remarkably unenlightened attitude. Opposition to nukes by greens should be used as the illustration in the dictionary definition of the phrase, “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” Nuclear power—used more responsibly than it has often been in the past, I admit—is the least evil—and hence, “greenist” option we got, folks.

Nuke-o-phobiacs, it’s time to, er, get over it. We need to move on...energy wise.

Cheers,

Friedrich von Blowhard

posted by Friedrich at October 12, 2004




Comments

I've been gone for awhile, and apparently have entirely missed Friedrich's return, but anyway---happy to see ya.

I totally agree, BYW, with your assessment, and have long wondered when the progressives and environmentalists among us were going to rear up in rage at Jane Fonda and Co. making such a big dumb deal out Three Mile Island (which actually did more to prove the safety of nukes---with improvements required, certainly--than the danger of them) and stopping the one really good thing of Jimmy Carter's presidency---energy policy--in its tracks. We are now required to coddle the Saudis and give a damn what's going on in the middle east because of this. Gary Hart said in 1984 that the U.S. had better be prepared to go to war in the middle east to protect our access to oil, coz if we were going to continue to depend on them for 50% of our energy supplies, we were gonna have to fight eventually. He was right! Of course, he didn't get elected, coz Americans didn't want to hear it. It's morning in America, after all...

Posted by: annette on October 12, 2004 1:08 PM



Ah, I've been so busy with college I missed FvB's return! Anyway, on the nuke plants...

The problems with spent fuel have been solved in modern reactor designs. Far more efficient nuclear power plants that can consume reactor waste have been designed and prototypes built, and they are MUCH, MUCH safer that past designs. They don't rely on complicated, error prome computers and humans to shut down in crisis, they rely on simple pressure valves and gravity to drop coolant into the core if it's too hot, or else simply can't melt down due to their design (pebble-bed reactors). Both non-water cooled gravity coolant and pebble-bed designs are 'walk away safe', i.e. if the power goes out and Homer Simpson just goes home, no melt-down, no radiation release.

The other alternative is space-based microwave power, but you have to have reeeaalllly cheap access to orbit for that one to be anything other than an instant non-starter (Go Private Space!)

Posted by: David Mercer on October 12, 2004 1:33 PM



Good to have FvB posting again, indeed!

It occurred to me as I read this that a development of the race to commercial space flight - via the X-prize - might be a way to permanently get rid of our nuclear wastes (and other undesirables) much more affordably. I don't know what a spent fuel rod weighs, but if we're talking about getting paying passengers into space in the next five years, can shooting garbage into the sun be far behind?

And if these space planes are going to be safe enough for passengers, why couldn't they be counted on to get radioactive stuffs out of our gravity well, too?

Posted by: Nate on October 12, 2004 3:13 PM



I recently read that using radioactive power would give us much better batteries for phones and laptops than we currently have.

But, something else is the question if it is even possible to discuss the building of nuclear plants in the current political climate that raves on and on about terrorists, and the chances those people could get real weaponry.

Posted by: ijsbrand on October 12, 2004 3:18 PM



Thanks for all your warm greetings.

I understand security concerns relating to nuclear power. However, if developed countries would make a major commitment to nuclear power, I believe these security issues could be handled. Frankly, given the very large capital costs of nuclear facilities, the cost of fairly elaborate security measures would be, um, chump change.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 12, 2004 3:37 PM



I wonder why there isn't more excitement about bio-diesel. I know that people pushing alternative energy ideas tend to overstate the benefits and downplay or ignore the drawbacks but I haven't even seen any debunkings of bio-diesel. It's almost like nobody knows it exists or, are trying to pretend it doesn't exist.

Posted by: Lynn S on October 12, 2004 4:11 PM



You've reached the same conclusion that others have viz our energy policy. Nukes and nukes it will be for the forseeable future. We've got miles to go on the education part, though.

Last I recall about bio-diesel was that production costs were high in terms of petrochemical usage, resulting in a net negative worth. But that could be WAY wrong. No reason not to apply to nukes to that equation, though.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on October 12, 2004 4:33 PM



You might want to take a look at Steven den Beste's on "alternative energy". Try a Google search on:

alternative energy site:denbeste.nu

Or start with this article.

The biggest problem is that for a source to be significant, you probably need to be able to get something like 1% of the country's energy from it. Most people have no idea how much energy that is.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on October 12, 2004 4:49 PM



"While the problems of spent nuclear fuel storage and plant decommissioning are real, these are problems that can be solved—with enough political will."

What is your source on this statement? It contradicts everything I have ever read from any sort of serious source.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 12, 2004 5:31 PM



Mr. Sucher:

Plant decommissioning of nukes has been ongoing for quite a while now, and five or six have been decommissioned under the current regime.

Nuclear waste storage can certainly be accomplished...assuming that we give up on ludicrous standards like being able to walk away and leave high level radioactive materials on their own for 50,000 years--i.e., until they are no longer radioactive--and still have a high degree of confidence that there will be no leakage of radioactivity. I mean, realistically, if one can store high level nuclear waste safely for 1,000 years, I personally have a high degree of confidence that our ability to store materials will have advanced considerably by then. Hence, the standards that Yucca Mountain are being subjected to are, ahem, absurd and chiefly reflect our current nuclear paranoia.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 12, 2004 5:40 PM



Mister Friedrich.

"...we give up on ludicrous standards like being able to walk away and leave high level radioactive materials on their own for 50,000 years." Where does that one come from? Who is proposing such a standard?

But I think we have come upon the nub of the issue: you have (blissful, it seems to me) confidence that nuclear wastes can be stored for even a thousand years with no issue...that future societies -- even 50 years hence -- will be sufficiently orderly and law-abiding so that saddling those future generations with the storage of nuclear waste is just a la-de-da issue. No?

Posted by: David Sucher on October 12, 2004 7:25 PM



Life is tradeoffs, and there ain't no guarantees. And what's your alternative ...watching the ecosystem try to adapt to significantly higher temperatures?

But I take comfort that the risks are manageable from the very high level of safety that nuclear power has demonstrated to date. And with enough political will, I'm sure that we can do better still.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 12, 2004 8:27 PM



God bless, Friedrich.

But God does bless most those who prepare and can cite serious sources for their statements.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 12, 2004 10:22 PM



Cellulosic ethanol holds more promise than you give it credit for. This article by Sam Jaffe explains the potential, although his case for hydrogen is overstated given the current state of research.

Windpower is now competitive with mainstream forms of energy generation, and is becoming more so. If you think NIMBYism dooms windpower, look how much worse is the opposition to nukes.

Nuclear power plants currently emit significant quantities of greenhouse gases when the full life cycle is factored in: mining, processing, transport and construction. A computer model developed by several European governments and the World Bank (here and here) finds that nuclear power plants emit 34 grams of CO2 per kWh. This is roughly equal to gas-fired cogeneration plants and (yes) solar PV.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuels have the potential to perform as well as nuclear or better. The cogen plants mentioned above are one example. Zero-emission processes are under development for coal; these can sequester CO2 into solid form (such as synthetic limestone) at competitive costs per kWh. See for example this firm's work. It's far from ideal, but it's also a great improvement over the current state of affairs. Other countries are now taking the lead on developing this.

If you think pebble-bed reactors are going to save us, consider this article that presents the anti case in a reasoned manner. Main points:

* In the U.S., an earlier version of the technology (330 megawatt Fort St. Vrain reactor in Colorado) was abandoned in 1985 because it was uneconomical.

* Safe operation depends on perfect manufacturing of the fuel balls, which the industry has not yet achieved.

* More vulnerable to terrorist attack; malfunctions and lethal radiation release are still possible.

* Proponents say insurance liability exemptions should stay in place -- why, if the design is inherently safe?

* It has the same problems with high level waste transport and disposal as other reactor designs.

The amount of research money invested in efficiency and renewables is dwarfed by the research budgets for fossil fuels and nuclear. We don't even know yet what we can achieve. As a general strategy, we should be making fossil fuels as clean as possible, while converting to renewables as rapidly as is feasible.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on October 12, 2004 10:31 PM



Although it may be true the environmental activists currently tend not to look favorably on nuclear power, it's my impression that actual scientists working in areas related to the environment have much less of a knee-jerk opposition to it. For example, James Lovelock, who's one of the great heroes of the environmentalist movement because he originated the Gaia hypothesis, recently came out very strongly in support of nuclear power as the most practical way to combat global warming:

James Lovelock: Nuclear power is the only green solution

Another example is the Royal Society, the top science academy in Britain, which also recently published a statement advising that nuclear power was the only practical way to reduce fossil-fuel dependence:

Top scientists back nuclear power

And MIT recently published a report titled The Future of Nuclear Power saying that nuclear power cannot be ignored if we wish to fight global warming:

MIT Study Sees Nuclear Power as Green Weapon Against Global Warming

I think that the more scientists working in environmental fields who come out in support of nuclear power, the less the environmental movement as a whole will oppose it. I hope so, anyway--it really seems like the only feasible solution for the next few decades, although in the long term we will hopefully develop even safer clean power sources.

Posted by: Jesse M. on October 12, 2004 11:35 PM



The summary of the MIT study is worth reading. This ringing endorsement of nuclear power lists four conditions that are major, perhaps insurmountable obstacles to a massive expansion program.

* Cost. New taxes and subsidies required.

* Safety. The number of serious reactor core incidents must be reduced ten-fold.

* Waste. "No country has yet successfully implemented a system for disposing of this waste," and "new repository capacity equal to the nominal storage capacity of Yucca Mountain would have to be created somewhere in the world every three or four years."

* Security. "The current international safeguards regime is inadequate to meet the security challenges."

These conditions make other low-CO2-emission technologies look like a cakewalk. Other sources are safer, more secure, more flexible, more competitive, and are able to be brought online more quickly.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on October 13, 2004 12:10 AM



Atomic power in the US thrived and declined with the fortunes of the A.E.C. The conservatives have always been in favor, the extra factor the A.E.C. added was public power. The Left ignored their fear of the atom, in exchange for federal suppport for this slice of socialism.

Posted by: Ripper on October 13, 2004 7:50 AM



I've read den Beste's article on alternative energy, though it's been a while. It seems like a defeatest attitude to me. Certainly there are obstacles and it's not going to make a huge difference overnight but why not try? Think in the long term and get started now.

Posted by: Lynn S on October 13, 2004 8:06 AM



"But I think we have come upon the nub of the issue: you have (blissful, it seems to me) confidence that nuclear wastes can be stored for even a thousand years with no issue...that future societies -- even 50 years hence -- will be sufficiently orderly and law-abiding so that saddling those future generations with the storage of nuclear waste is just a la-de-da issue. No?"

Well, the odds of us having a decent society 50 years from now go way up if we don't run out of fuel. The best way to go back to savagery is to let the trucks, factories, modern farms, and so forth shut down for lack of fuel.

If we go back to savagery, nearly all of us will die - I see no reason to worry about what will happen if we go back to savagery and a few of the savages wind up living near radioactive crap. It's not like an entire human race composed of savages will end up living in the desert next to Yucca mountain - I don't expect any significant portion of the human race to live in the middle of the desert without modern industry to bring them water and food, among other things.

Averting savagery by keeping modern civiliation fueled is far more important than protecting a tiny fraction of the handful of savages that will exist if we fail.

Posted by: Ken on October 13, 2004 12:18 PM



As for global warming, I don't see any reason to assume that a slight warming in the climate will even be a net negative, much less catastrophic. Throughout human history, warmer periods generally coincided with rising population and increased abundance.

Posted by: Ken on October 13, 2004 12:19 PM



Ken wrote:
As for global warming, I don't see any reason to assume that a slight warming in the climate will even be a net negative, much less catastrophic. Throughout human history, warmer periods generally coincided with rising population and increased abundance.

It is generally agreed that any significant warming beyond the current levels would bring us to a point that's warmer than it's been at any time in at least the last half-million years (as far back as ice core data on global temperature fluctuations goes). The world has been fluctuating between glacial periods and warmer interglacial periods for millions of years now, and living organisms mostly have adapted to be able to survive within this climate envelope, but ecological studies suggest that significantly warmer temperatures would leave many species unable to adapt, causing a huge mass extinction--a recent study suggested that a small change of 0.8-1.7 degrees C by 2050 would drive an estimated 18% of all species to extinction, while a larger increase of over 2 degrees could drive 35% extinct. The basis for these estimates is discussed in the following two posts from Carl Zimmer's blog:

post #1
post #2

Posted by: Jesse M. on October 13, 2004 12:44 PM



Good to have you back, Friedrich, even if I am about to go on holiday and be out of the debate for a while!

On nuclear power, I think you're ignoring the cost. Early nuclear plants were built because no one had a clue how much they were going to cost to decommission. You can't say that any more, and when you factor in decommissioning costs into the final cost per kWh, nuclear ceases to make any economic sense.

And on CAFE standards, you write that "greater governmentally-mandated efficiency gains from cars would just encourage driving more miles as the U.S. population continues to expand and commutes continue to lengthen." I'm sure that more miles will be driven in the future, but what's that got to do with CAFE standards? Are you seriously saying that if we don't classify SUVs as cars, people will drive fewer miles in future?

Posted by: Felix on October 13, 2004 3:04 PM



"On nuclear power, I think you're ignoring the cost. Early nuclear plants were built because no one had a clue how much they were going to cost to decommission. You can't say that any more, and when you factor in decommissioning costs into the final cost per kWh, nuclear ceases to make any economic sense."

Well, yeah, if you decommission them prematurely, the decommissioning cost is going to form a larger share of the total lifetime cost. So don't do that.

"And on CAFE standards, you write that "greater governmentally-mandated efficiency gains from cars would just encourage driving more miles as the U.S. population continues to expand and commutes continue to lengthen." I'm sure that more miles will be driven in the future, but what's that got to do with CAFE standards? Are you seriously saying that if we don't classify SUVs as cars, people will drive fewer miles in future?"

The point is, and I think it's a good one, that if you force people to buy cars that are cheaper to drive per-mile, thus reducing the per-mile cost of the car, people will end up driving more miles. If instead you allow the cost of gasoline to rise, the per-mile cost of the car (as opposed to its fixed cost) will rise,and people will drive fewer miles than they otherwise would.

Posted by: Ken on October 13, 2004 3:48 PM



"The world has been fluctuating between glacial periods and warmer interglacial periods for millions of years now, and living organisms mostly have adapted to be able to survive within this climate envelope, but ecological studies suggest that significantly warmer temperatures would leave many species unable to adapt, causing a huge mass extinction--a recent study suggested that a small change of 0.8-1.7 degrees C by 2050 would drive an estimated 18% of all species to extinction, while a larger increase of over 2 degrees could drive 35% extinct. The basis for these estimates is discussed in the following two posts from Carl Zimmer's blog:"

Interesting. This illustrates that, while the experience of human beings in warmer climates has generally been positive, not all species can handle the change.

The most interesting question to me is, will human civilization fare better in a world where the climate changes little but we use less energy, or where the climate changes more but we use more energy. Even given the differences in species dieoffs, I'd say humans will fare better if their civilization gets to use more energy, which generally means more travel, more automation, more excess wealth which means more advancement, and a greater array of new techniques to mitigate any challenges from our environment. The natural environment is never friendly to human beings; civilization is meant to mitigate the ravages of a hostile natural world, and it will continue to do that given plenty of energy, wealth and freedom.

Posted by: Ken on October 13, 2004 4:01 PM



Felix:

Glad to hear from you as well. As to your contention that nuclear power is not economic when you factor decommissioning costs in, I think you've got ahold of an urban legend there. Current nuke plants are reserving large sums for decommissioning (amounts based, realistically, on the sums actually spent on decommissioning plants) and yet remain very cost competitive on wholesale power markets. I just saw figures on equity returns in the utility industry, and Exelon, the American utility with the highest concentration of nuclear generation, was among the top performers (over the last five years.) Nuke plant performance was greatly improved by the spectre of power industry deregulation, which is one of the major factors in the current revival of interest in building more nukes. Nuke plant performance and thus, economics, have also been considerably improved by the recent transfers of nuke plants from "amateur" utilities which only operated a single nuke (usually, inefficiently) to "professional" utilities, like Exelon, which run big fleets of nukes.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 13, 2004 10:59 PM



Umm, just to clarify something that my post might have left unclear...I am not disrespecting any of the attempted fixes proposed by Mr. Cassidy, including greater efforts at conservation, alternative energy, etc., etc. I just think they won't get us all the way to the goal-line without a sensible nuclear policy.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 13, 2004 11:12 PM



Friedrich.
And we can assume that your failure to offer any citations for your claims means that you are conceding the issue?

Posted by: David Sucher on October 14, 2004 12:21 AM



David:

I'm not quite sure what you're looking for in terms of citations. In the course of my business dealings I actually talk to people in the nuclear power industry with some regularity and I read power industry publications. Having done so, I see no evidence from the past decade of reading Public Utility Fortnightly that supports the points you are making. I'm not trying to blow you off, but I also have a rather demanding day job here, so it's hard for me to respond with chapter and verse, so to speak.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 14, 2004 10:48 AM



I admit to not having read all the comments on this subject but I have a financial interest in this topic as I am invested in a company called Calpine, an IPP (Independent Power Producer) which may go bankrupt, despite have the cleanest burning fleet of gas burning plants in the country.
This is primarily (what else is new?) a political problem. Many of the utilities have tremendous political clout, which enables them to go on running "dirty smokers" indefinitely. If the old dirty smokers were shut down the problem would be, if not ended, at least significantly mitigated.

Posted by: ricpic on October 14, 2004 11:02 AM



What none of the anti-nuke crowd seem have addressed is the likely worldwide energy demand over the next couple of decades, factoring in the new consumer societies of India and China.
My own view is that the world's most technically advanced nation has a moral responsibility not to leave the development of the next generation of nuke powerplants to someone else.

Posted by: Nigel Bates on October 14, 2004 1:59 PM



Friedrich.
You spent a lot of time making some very big points e.g. about how it takes only "political will" to solve the nuclear waste issue; and now you say you are too busy to document those claims.
I call that a concession.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 14, 2004 3:44 PM



David--

I say the problems associated with storage of nuclear waste are solveable. You say they aren't. You do so without advancing a single specific reason in support of your position. Then you challenge me to prove you wrong. I'm guessing that you want me to lay out a discussion of the problems of long term storage of nuclear waste and how they can be solved. Are we on the same page so far?

Don't you think you could sort of help me out here, at a minimum, by listing a few reasons--unrelated to NIMBY opposition and other 'political' issues--that nuclear waste cannot be successfully stored? I don't think this is an unreasonable request. Since I am about to leave my office for over a week on matters having nothing to do with this blog, I also beg the indulgence of a few weeks to prepare a serious response.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 14, 2004 4:19 PM



But I think we have come upon the nub of the issue: you have (blissful, it seems to me) confidence that nuclear wastes can be stored for even a thousand years with no issue...
The world has plenty of naturally radioactive material. We dig some of it up, refine it into nuclear fuel, use it and now want to return it to the ground as nuclear waste. Why is this such a big problem? And if it is a problem, why isn't naturally occurring radioactivity also considered to be a problem?

Posted by: Jonathan on October 14, 2004 5:15 PM



You are looking for a source on the statement that the waste issue can be solved. Where is your source that the proper threshold that must be met before we can consider the waste issue solved is safe storage for 50,000 years or even one thousand years, as you state:

"But I think we have come upon the nub of the issue: you have (blissful, it seems to me) confidence that nuclear wastes can be stored for even a thousand years with no issue...that future societies -- even 50 years hence -- will be sufficiently orderly and law-abiding so that saddling those future generations with the storage of nuclear waste is just a la-de-da issue. No? "

Where is your source that convinces you that (a) future societies even 50 years hence will not be orderly and law-abiding or (b) that we should even care whether this hypothetical post-civilized society 50 years or 50,000 years from now has nuclear waste sites given that (a) the fall of civilization would kill nearly everyone anyway and (b) those who are left will not tend to hang around deserts and will not all congregate around nuclear waste dumps in any event.

When you've got a source for claiming that such a high threshold is the proper standard for allowing large-scale nuclear generation to occur, especially when such large-scale nuclear generation will guarantee against a fuel-shortage-spawned fall back to savagery, then maybe you'll have some call to ask for others' sources.

Posted by: Ken on October 14, 2004 5:49 PM



Friedrich.
You are the one who said the problem of storage/disposable of nuclear waste is solvable.
You wrote:
"While the problems of spent nuclear fuel storage and plant decommissioning are real, these are problems that can be solved—with enough political will."
I didn't say that say. So please don't try to put the burden of persuasion on me.
I am genuinely curious to learn how you think that "political will" is even part of the story -- unless you are advocating (which I sincerely doubt) some sort of police state to guard those wastes for the many, many centuries until they naturally degrade.
I am simply curious about what seems to be your blithe dismissal of that one problem: long-term storage of extremely dangerous wastes.
But you brought it up and said that it was a solvable through "political will."
So. How?

Posted by: David Sucher on October 14, 2004 8:06 PM



David,

Even if you're not willing to grant me some time for a measured response, I'm going to have to take it.

Perhaps I can briefly explain, however, why I used the expression "political will." We have, scattered throughout the Midwest, tens of thousands of megatons of nuclear weapons. These are hundreds, if not millions of times more dangerous than even high level nuclear waste; they are ready to detonate and can transport themselves to remote places on earth. None of these were manufactured onsite; all were shipped to their current sites. While many of us are concerned about their existence, there seems very, very little political opposition to their presence across large swaths of the American landscape. I think the difference in the political response between these weapons--which will also remain dangerous, hugely dangerous for tens of thousands of years--and nuclear power can be summed up under the heading of "political will." If we become as committed to energy independence (and avoiding global warming) as we are to political independence, if we summon the "political will" to do so, we can certainly manage the far lesser risks associated with atomic power and the transportation and storage of nuclear waste. IMHO.

However, I will come back with a more considered and well researched response in a few weeks. Until then, adieu.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 14, 2004 10:57 PM



Friedrich.

I look forward to your further consideration of this issue. Your response above is a serious one.

But for me it's not yet even remotely persuasive because it answers the security question -- the source of the problem in the first place -- with precisely the "wrong answer." You immediately accept the necessity to place nuclear waste "resources" under some sort of military discipline over thousands of years and to assume (?) that such discipline will stay under civil control for those many many centuries. That's a bad burden to place on our heirs.

(And take all the time you like, enjoy wherever you are going; but let's get the ground rules straight: you made the provocative statement, not me. And why it is so provocatively important is that I see waste disposal as the true Achilles heel of nuclear power, which is unfortunate.)

Posted by: David Sucher on October 15, 2004 5:06 AM



"But for me it's not yet even remotely persuasive because it answers the security question -- the source of the problem in the first place -- with precisely the "wrong answer." You immediately accept the necessity to place nuclear waste "resources" under some sort of military discipline over thousands of years and to assume (?) that such discipline will stay under civil control for those many many centuries. That's a bad burden to place on our heirs."

If the alternative is running out of fuel and reverting to savagery, that's an even worse burden to place on our heirs.

Posted by: Ken on October 15, 2004 10:17 AM



Ken.
You really think that's the choice? :)

Posted by: David Sucher on October 15, 2004 12:27 PM



Well, we could switch to coal, I guess. But we're going to run out of oil eventually.

In the long term, we'd better work out ways to import energy from space affordably. In the medium term, I'd like to at least have a backup for oil.

Posted by: Ken on October 15, 2004 3:00 PM



Very interesting discussion. I second FvB's conclusion about nuclear power - as a chemist, I keep up with some of the technical aspects of the hydrogen economy, and I think that nuclear is (for the near- and medium-term) just about the only option we have.

I also second the suggestion to read Steven den Beste's writings on energy sources. The attitude in them that sounds "defeatist" is, in my view, a realistic one. (The laws of thermodynamics sound pretty defeatist, too, but try beating that house sometime!)

We should plow serious money and effort into alternatives, but at the same time realize that most of that money will turn out to be wasted. Hope for something good to happen, sure, try to make it happen, absolutely, but don't pencil in any breakthroughs on your calendar.

As someone who does drug discovery research for a living, this mindset is second nature to me. I've gone fifteen years and never worked on anything that a sick person has put in their mouth yet. Most things don't work, in any field of research.

My fondest hope is for a Hail-Mary touchdown pass in the field of odd approaches to nuclear fusion. But that's a low-percentage play if ever there was one. We'd better have a big honking Plan B.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on October 15, 2004 4:19 PM



Run out of oil? I don't think we'll ever literally "run out of oil."
Oil will become more expensive and we will adjust.
Somehow.

The important question in my mind is whether the price line follows a gradual slope upwards or some sort of cliff which will provide a a major barrier and shock. National policy, obviously, should be to make sure that we have alternatives which will soften the impact if there is a cliff. The problem is that we do not want to get in the way of market adjustments if the price climb is gentle but are preepared for real emergencies. There is no emergency now. Yet.

So overall, the policy choices are hardly clear.

Since the current oil price rise seem to be common to other commodities -- lumber, steel -- the "problem" is probably improving world economic growth, which is a good thing, as opposed to politically-induced changes i.e. artificial oil shortages created by political actions.

So my gut sense is that less interference with energy markets is the wisest course to allow those markets to adjust and find alternatives.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 15, 2004 6:43 PM






Post a comment
Name:


Email Address:


URL:


Comments:



Remember your info?