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The future, Indian-style

http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP_Thorium_exports_coming_from_India_1709091.html

In a nutshell: India is getting ready to start exporting nuclear reactors.

But not just any old reactor. These ones are designed to run on the thorium fuel cycle.

As wikipedia puts it, "A thorium fuel cycle offers several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle, including greater resource abundance, superior physical and nuclear properties of fuel, enhanced proliferation resistance, and reduced plutonium and actinide production."

The Indian Atomic Energy Authority are proposing to sell 300Mw units with a 100-year design life, that produce one-third the high level waste of conventional designs "and has a 'next generation' level of safety that grants operators three days' grace in the event of a serious incident and requires no emergency planning beyond the site boundary under any circumstances."

The first AHWR is due to begin construction in 2012, using low-enriched uranium (not suitable for weapons use) and thorium fuel.

Okay, so what do you say to a new nuclear power technology that comes with reduced waste, improved safety, reduced risk of weapons proliferation (because it's bad at manufacturing Pu239), and that partly runs on a different fuel that's much more abundant than uranium ore?

(Before shouting "nuclear power is eeeeevil!" I suggest reading Without Hot Air and then thinking hard about the alternatives. We aren't going to get to a carbon-neutral energy ecosystem purely on the back of renewables — at least, not within the next fifty years — which means we're either going to get a bit toasty by and by, or we're on a one-way trip back to a pre-20th century energy economy, with all the poverty and starvation that implies.)

I'd also like to add: the public perception that nuclear power is inextricably linked to nuclear weapons is one of those tragedies of the history of science: if James Chadwick had discovered the neutron in 1922 or 1942, rather than in 1932, we'd have had peaceful applications of nuclear energy for power production long before anybody tried to weaponize it. It's just our bad luck that neutrons, and then fission, were puzzled out in the run-up to a world war. Our current nuclear infrastructure is badly adapted for civilian use; the first generation reactor designs were optimized for weapons production — plutonium from the UK's Magnox plants being one of those dirty little secrets nobody likes to mention — or adapted from naval submarine propulsion plants. What we desperately need is a new nuclear power cycle that is resistant to weapons proliferation, runs on cheaper fuel, produces less waste, and has inherent safety features (that is: reactors engineered to shut down automatically if they go out of envelope — the opposite of Chernobyl, with its prompt criticality mode). And with commercial fusion still thirty years in the future, this is probably the best we're going to see for a while.

105 Comments

1:

I wonder what the security of the fuel and waste chain will be like?

Kraw. Corvids can't eat it if it's radiation contaminated.

2:

The Raven: one of the interesting things about the thorium cycle is that the real fissionables in the cycle are thorium, U233 (which isn't suitable for making bombs), and Pu238 (which actively poisons plutonium bombs, but is great if you want to make radioisotope thermoelectric generators).

You can probably pervert a thorium cycle to produce weapons grade material if you try really hard ... but there's a reason why countries who want the bomb don't go that route.

3:

Last year in Parameters (http://www.carlisle.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/08autumn/elhefnawy.htm) I mentioned investment in Generation-4 reactors as potentially a way of alleviating many of nuclear energy's problems.

I do think it has to be remembered, however, that here we're talking about a prototype going online in 2011 (rather than a proven technology), and that while the Gen-4/thorium design reduces the risks posed by plutonium or enriched uranium (because of the waste products it generates, etc.) it does not completely cut them out of the fuel cycle.

4:

Nice to see some modern reactor designs finally happening - most of the operating reactors are ancient, high-risk, high-waste monsters. Now if we can only get pebble bed technology working...

5:

The "weapons-grade" classification is a bit of a misnomer. *Any* radioactive materials are usable in "dirty bombs". I wouldn't worry about Etceterastan getting weapons-grade plutonium. I think a more plausible scenario is J Random Terrorist plundering a nuclear waste dump.

That said, it's good to see *someone* finally commercializing the Thorium process. Much cleaner overall, and could be a good stopgap until we have decent solar tech.

6:

Well, somebody had to engineer (not even invent) the future for us, after the old industrial states refused to do it.

100 year design life also sounds neat, I do hope though that they will not take this as any reason not to work out beforehand how to refurbish them afterwards with minimal waste.

As for commercial fusion, I guess that hybrid fusion-fission will come first and it should. Because they can use U238 and also transmute quite a bit of other stuff that should decay a lot faster. Maybe we will see some of those in the next 20 years or so.

The real problem though is that society has hardly moved beyond being scandalized after being told that there are atoms in their coffee ... (Or, omnipotent being forbid, uranium in their water.)

7:

Terrific! Let's get a few of those sold to Iran, and then all the ridiculous sabre-rattling can stop. Very quietly, I can hear the ghost of Fred Hoyle chuckling...

8:

I once heard the historical accident of nuclear weapons before nuclear power compared to napalm (petrol+ mineral salts) being used before cars were common.

"put my kids in a vehicle that runs on WHAT?"

9:

But,gosh the American Coal Industry is promoting "clean coal Electricity"! The smoke coming out of the stacks looks so White ;>

10:

Charlie--

U-233 actually is suitable for making bombs, but the thorium fuel cycle also produces U-232, which isn't, and which further has strong gamma-emitters in its decay chain, making it very difficult to reprocess, along with all the usual isotope-separation problems.

Minor quibble with fusion being 30 years in the future: The ITER/Tokamak approach is certainly that far in the future, but there's a remarkable, fairly recent vitality in other approaches. Not only do you have the laser inertial confinement folks making progress, but there are several approaches that bear some degree of promise--still moderate long shots, but promise nonetheless. Cf. magnetized target fusion, various field-reversed configuration approaches (including the Tri-Alpha folks), the Bussard polywell (inertial electrostatic confinement) folks, the periodically oscillating plasma sphere (another IEC approach), and a company called General Fusion that's doing a magnetized target fusion variant where you compress the plasma by--and I'm not making this up--whacking a spinning vortex of molten lithium with deuterium-tritium in the middle of the vortex with hundreds of hydraulic pistons to form a shockwave. It's a steampunk's wet dream...

So, probably 30 years away, but you could be surprised.

11:

I think there are two scary issues on this one. One is the perennial "where oh where should we put the waste" (sung in rounds until our ears bleed). The other is, um, where exactly is India going to get the cooling water for these new reactors?

They're running out of groundwater, at least in part of the country (http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/46322/title/Big_Gulp%2C_Asian_style), and I'm not sure putting it on a coast that's hit by annual monsoons and longer-term sea-level rises. Mother Ganges, I guess? What happens when the Himalayan glaciers run out in a few decades and the big rivers dry up?

Not saying I'm against the technology. Just that there are some fairly *interesting* logistics problems to be solved, along with the gee-whiz engineering problems. And we're not even talking about that oh-so-vulnerable power grid you have to create/maintain to feed the energy from the plant to the consumers.

Also, to note: pre-20th century energy economy with poverty and starvation. I haven't run the numbers, but we've got 16-20% of the world's population on insufficient rations right now, and even more on a pre-20th century energy economy right now. Personally, I enjoy being an energy-wasting slob, but you've got to admit that a big part of the problem is the few who use and waste so much, and the aspirations our existence causes. Crashing our lifestyle is probably the simplest solution to this mess, and in my darker moments, I wonder if it's a) the only viable solution, or b) the most environmentally benign solution. This is a dark, contrarian musings, by the way, not my normal stance. I'm all for progress. Really.

12:

I curse myself for my lack of knowledge, but can thorium isotopes be used in the same way as uranium-based isotopes for nuclear medicine? Or do they behave the same, rendering my question moot? Would current medical imaging equipment need re-calibration to detect them? Given the current shortage of medical isotopes, it would be wonderful if these new reactors could provide a new source.

13:

Madeline: isotopes of uranium and thorium have, IIRC, zero use in medicine: what's needed is stuff like technetium and iodine isotopes, which are manufactured to order by exposing precursors to high neutron flux in specially designed reactors. (Which could in principle be designed around thorium-cycle plant, but nobody's done that so far.)

Waste disposal: our big headaches are (a) the 90%+ of the waste stockpile that comes from the 1940s and 1950s era weapons programs, (b) the failure to adopt reprocessing and a MOX fuel cycle (fuel from PWRs is usually considered to be "waste" after only about 1% of it has actually been burned -- with reprocessing, up to 60% of it could be used for energy production), and (c) the idiotic insistance that any waste repository has to be situated on the producer's territory rather than in the most sensible place (i.e. in arid, tectonically stable deserts -- wherever they might be).

14:

@13:

Currently, the most sensible place would clearly be Australia. Dry, stable for a couple billion of years, infertile (= unlikely to draw too many people), stable politics for the last century.

I'd suggest some serious soul-searching to compensate the Australian aboriginals though to keep it that way. (After all, it would be "their" territory where the stuff would be, however miserable the place is that they got from the British).

Also, I wouldn't put it anywhere where you couldn't monitor the stuff or get it back for whatever reason that might be necessary (like an Australian dictator taking over the continent. That's almost sure to happen during the next 10,000 years or so). The Egyptians were quite capable of building permanent structures, they have already been there for a couple of millennia, despite being used as a quarry or targets for shooting practise ...

15:

Hi Charlie,

Here in the western US, we're getting a spate of solar/wind power plants being proposed, and a lot of them, interestingly, are scheduled to be put up on relatively pristine lands in the middle of designated wilderness areas or right next to national parks, rather than, say, near highways on degraded land where someone tried farming or mining and failed, leaving a trashed area with little biological value.

That's why I get a little peeved when there's a proposal to put either a plant or a waste dump "out there in the desert, because there's nothing and nobody there." It's amazing how, even with all this degraded land available, the big companies seem to be drawn to trashing undeveloped land.

Not that I'm saying you're wrong to want to site a nuclear dump in a place that is stable and not amenable to dense human habitation. However, such logic gets subverted by people who like to build out of sight so that they can indulge in needlessly destroying things. The US secret military base system is an example of similar impulses, as is the siting of American prisons in remote, rural areas.

Given the way these people act, "Under Corporate Headquarters" is (right now) my first choice for a dump site, and "On Top of Corporate Headquarters" is a great place for a wind farm and biogas facility.

This is why keeping waste in country makes a certain level of political and pragmatic sense. At least, if it's in your back yard, you have to figure out how to live with it sooner rather than later.

16:

I had a look at the article you referenced and the word "thorium" is used in it a lot for sure, but it seems to be used in homeopathic doses in the real thing...

It's not a thorium reactor, it's a mixed-fuel reactor with an unspecified amount of thorium in the mix along with Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), defined in the article as 19-20% enriched. That AGR at Torness you visited a while back is fuelled with uranium oxide fuel pellets enriched to only 2.5% or so. This reactor the Indians are planning to sell into developing countries will have U235 concentrations in the fuel rods that are well on the road to a workable multikilotonne-yield bomb (50-60%); it would make excellent feedstock for a secret centrifuge line for a nuclear-weapons production plant as the concentration of fissile material in the rods has already been significantly boosted. Given it has LEU in the fuel mix (80% U-238) this reactor also produces Pu239 and centrifuges could also be used to separate that from the Pu238 in the mix. Referring to it as a thorium reactor is a bit of a misnomer; it's a regular uranium reactor with some thorium added.

The higher-tech Indian heavy-water thorium reactor designs all require plutonium and U-233 precursor fuel elements generated by conventionally-fuelled U235 breeder designs, again not a good thing to hand out to developing countries. I presume that India plans to supply and reprocess fuel rods for the reactors they sell. One can only hope they would not happen to "lose" exposed fuel pellets returned from particularly well-paying customers.

17:

Even more promising than the Indiaian heavy-water thorium reactor is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). The concept was successfully built and operated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1950s-60s. It produces a tiny fraction of the waste that the Indian reactor does. It's not pressurized and is safer in operation. The fuel is plentiful. It is less complex and therefore cheaper.

Here's a short introduction to the advantages and challenges. This video lecture presents a sober, technical assessment of LFTR characteristics and challenges to commercialization. The Energy From Thorium site is a portal to much more detailed information and a community of [prickly] advocates.

18:

Fuel cycles are pretty irrelevant as to whether nuclear power can help lower carbon emissions in time to alleviate global warming. The problem is fission power plants of any sort take too long to build (15-25 years on average given the endless reviews and safety approvals that are necessary), cost too much per plant and use vast quantities of concrete, steel and other high-carbon emitting stuff during construction (thus ensuring they release much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than looking only at their actual running emissions indicates).

There is no way on earth anyone can responsibly and safely (let alone economically) build the number of nuclear plants required to reduce carbon emissions in the time we now have left (15-20 years).

Maybe if we'd taken alternate fuel-cycles seriously 20 or 30 years ago nuclear might have played a significant role, but that window is closed now. We have to go with things we can deploy relatively quickly using current technology and that don't require 20+ years of planning, construction, safety reviews and slipping schedules per plant.

Oh and then there's the problem of the waste which the thorium cycle doesn't do much for, we still don't have an operating system for safe and permanent disposal (or recycling) of high-level nuclear waste anywhere in the world after sixty years! The thorium cycle may reduce the quantity of high level waste a bit but given the huge number of new plants that would have to be built the overall quantity of waste that would need to be disposed of is still going to be much greater than now.

19:

Personally, I think you apes have been hitting the fermented fruit a bit too hard. See #5, #16, and #17. Perhaps more on this later. Krawk!

20:

When considering nuclear as a solution to global warming, the most important considerations are the global attitudes and regulations, not the US ones- This design isnt aimed at Europe, the US or China - to a certain extent, I dont think its even aimed at India - its aimed at all those countries in the world that currently dont have enough/any electricity and grids that would basically just melt into scrap metal if you tried to fit a 1600 megawatt EPR into them.

The waste problem wont be "solved" until someone gets a fast neutron reactor designed at a reasonable price point so the actinitides can be burned up, but we consider geological disposal as good enough for toxic chemical wastes every bit as nasty as spent fuel rods and we arent going to run out of bedrock to drill tunnels into..

21:

By the way, fusion power, at least the technologies using the most likely reactions¹, is not clean, in the sense that it generates radioactive waste. You have to get the power out somehow, and most of it is the form of fast neutrons, which have to be captured and turned to heat. The containment vessel is going to intercept some of those neutrons, resulting in transmutation of some elements into radioactive isotopes. Eventually the vessel's structural integrity will be impaired by the neutron bommbardment, and it becomes radioactive waste (multiple tons). The actual isotopic content depends on what the structure is made of. In theory you could design the structure to minimize the amount of long-lived isotopes so the long-term waste storage problem is easier. Though if you do that, the radioactivity is higher in the short-term. Engineering is the art of making trade-offs.

Of course, we really should take advantage of all those neutrons to process spent fission fuel into enriched U235, but then we still have to maintain the uranium reactors that will burn that fuel.

1. The ones requiring the lowest temperature and pressure for breakeven, like dueterium/tritium. There are reactions that don't generate neutrons, but we're already pushing technology to get the low temperature reactions going; I doubt we can wait for neutron-free technology before getting fusion power online. If we ever do.

22:

On the topic of nuclear waste disposal, note that one is to be built in Sweden.

"Forsmark, in the municipality of Östhammar, was selected in preference to Laxemar in the Oskarshamn municipality after a process of investigation and engagement that has lasted since 2002, said WNN.
...
The repository is designed to isolate the wastes for the 100,000 years it will take until their levels of radiation return to the original low levels of natural uranium.
...
Used nuclear fuel assemblies are to be packed in cast iron baskets within thick copper canisters and packed in clay almost 500 metres below gound in a continguous section of igneous rock."

http://www.bellona.org/news/news_2009/forsmarks_waste_repository

23:

You know what? Even thou this makes sense to me,
I won't stand up for this sensible use of radoiactives...
Those promoting this crap over here in Germany don't have any idea how to senisbly store the watste. It doesn't matter if it is 100 or 33% the amount of waste... They are gonna pay the corporations whatever it takes to keep the ppl "quiet"...

Don't get me wrong, I will happily take a mix of nu-clear and renewable energies, but the price of nuka-cola has to reflect the inflict on our future!
Dropping it down some mining shaft where the crap will mix with our drinking water doesn't fair that well...

But here we go, omg the industry messed up so lets take over control over that dump by the gov... Nice, now we pay for what the corps didn't do right before...

There are enough books to point out how wrong they are.

PS:
Have fun proof reading those books. And Wireless was veeeery nice! :)
Since i won't get anything new from you soon, I think I am gonna start over reading Richard Morgan's books again, no hard feelings; can't wait for "Rule34"!!! ;)

24:

Being upfront about my biases I think I'd describe myself as a nuclear sceptic, but persuadable. I certainly believe that carbon-dioxide emissions need to be reduced, that renewable sources are unlikely to be available soon enough and that nuclear fission may be the only available stop-gap till better solutions become practical.

But... the biggest problem for me is that the nuclear industry has a history of staggering mendacity. It could teach Richard Nixon some useful strategies in deliberate and wilful deception.

So, I read ideas like this and my default assumption is that in this proposal I'm seeing a careful packaging of lies and unreasonable assumptions that I don't have the expertise to unpick. Certainly experience has taught me to optimistically double the cost of the reactor and multiply the predicted economic cost of its electricity by a minimum of one order of magnitude.

25:

Bruce @17

By the way, fusion power, at least the technologies using the most likely reactions¹, is not clean, in the sense that it generates radioactive waste. You have to get the power out somehow, and most of it is the form of fast neutrons, which have to be captured and turned to heat. The containment vessel is going to intercept some of those neutrons, resulting in transmutation of some elements into radioactive isotopes. Eventually the vessel's structural integrity will be impaired by the neutron bommbardment, and it becomes radioactive waste (multiple tons). The actual isotopic content depends on what the structure is made of. In theory you could design the structure to minimize the amount of long-lived isotopes so the long-term waste storage problem is easier. Though if you do that, the radioactivity is higher in the short-term. Engineering is the art of making trade-offs.

Long-term waste storage of plasma facing fusion components (those that will get the highest doses of neutrons, and will be the most radioactive, and need replacing most often) is of the order of 100s years, and these components will be less radioactive than coal plants in less than 400 years. Yes, you still have waste that needs to be stored, but not for the thousands of years that make other storage methods problematic. See here [warning: powerpoint pppl.gov] for a look at the economics behind fusion.


TheRadicalModerate @10:


Minor quibble with fusion being 30 years in the future: The ITER/Tokamak approach is certainly that far in the future, but there's a remarkable, fairly recent vitality in other approaches. Not only do you have the laser inertial confinement folks making progress, but there are several approaches that bear some degree of promise--still moderate long shots, but promise nonetheless. Cf. magnetized target fusion, various field-reversed configuration approaches (including the Tri-Alpha folks), the Bussard polywell (inertial electrostatic confinement) folks, the periodically oscillating plasma sphere (another IEC approach), and a company called General Fusion that's doing a magnetized target fusion variant where you compress the plasma by--and I'm not making this up--whacking a spinning vortex of molten lithium with deuterium-tritium in the middle of the vortex with hundreds of hydraulic pistons to form a shockwave. It's a steampunk's wet dream.

The laser confinement people are lying to you, and everyone else, if we are to be honest. To make a laser plasma reactor would take lasers with more than 500% improvements in efficiency and repeat rate, as well as neutron resistant lenses. All of these things are very unlikely. Laser plasmas are brilliant if you want to build better nuclear weapons without breaking the Test Ban Treaties, which is why they get lots of funding, but terrible for power generation purposes. Other methods have large questions to answer about how ready this technology is to be used for self-sustaining reactions. Efficiency is a big problem here.


Other than this, the Chinese are putting big money into fusion/fission reactors, as you can run these without a self-sustaining plasma, however the fusion programs in the west have made the decision that this is, for a number of reasons such as the increased proliferation risk, the increased problem of radioactivity making your plant very expensive to work on, and such like, not the best area for research.

Apologies for getting a little sidetracked here.

26:

@23: The nuclear power industry is not alone in its tendecy to deceive the population; for example Germany's coal power station industry spent hundreds of millions of Marks in the 1970s and 1980s to persuade the country to dismantle its nuclear power station fleet so it would have to build more coal-fired stations and burn more coal. They are now applying for yet more licences to build new stations at the moment, burning surface-mined low-grade brown coal (lignite) to meet the increasing demand for electricity in Germany as the existing nuclear fleet is decommissioned. You can imagine what that's going to do to carbon emission levels.

Solar and wind power generation is a spit in the bucket in comparison to the demand for electricity and it's going to get worse as we are forced to replace natural gas heating of homes and premises with electrical heating, plug-in electric vehicles, electrified railway systems etc. We're going to need a lot more generating capacity than we've got right now and the renewable systems are planned to replace a few of the existing stations, not to meet the future increased demand for electricity. As for conservation, great idea but it's another spit in the bucket -- saving 10% of generation while needing double the capacity to meet the new demands means a lot of new power stations need to be built and the only two existing generating systems that are carbon-neutral in operation are nuclear and hydro. We've pretty much used all the hydro that's worth tapping already so the only one that's left is nuclear. It's either that or, as Germany does, pay lip-service to the idea of reducing carbon emissions while burning more and more coal. It's time to start on the long road towards actually reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere rather than the current fumbling attempts to simply reduce the rate of increase.

27:

Let me add: I'm with James Lovelock on the nuclear issue.

On the subject of waste disposal, there's somewhere that can give us a pointer for the way forward: Moscow and environs.

The Soviets took a robust (okay, lunatical) approach to waste disposal in the 1950s; they pumped around 3000 MegaCuries of high level waste into the ground around Moscow. (For comparison: the Chernobyl "B" reactor released around 200 MegaCuries.) This wasn't deep disposal -- the waste is coming up in places, and back in the late 90s and early 00s it was making news. The news has of course gone away under Putin/Medvedev ...

The point is: they've already fucked up enormously. So we should be monitoring the outcomes -- looking to see how the Russians are handling remediation and risk mitigation, and what effects it's having. There may be some surprising answers.

Nor are the obvious problems necessarily permanent. The significance of cancer clusters around nuclear accident sites tells us nothing about how we may live with the consequences if, for example, medical breakthroughs render cancer effectively curable: would it be cheaper simply to shrug and include the cost of medical treatment in with decommissioning overheads?

28:

David S @18: I'd love to know where you get your 15-25 year time-to-build from. Are you perchance thinking a little too locally?

The one country that's got nuclear power mostly right is clearly France, by the way. No 15-25 year delays there! (In fact, as/when the UK's third-generation reactor building program kicks off, it's probably going to be run -- and owned -- by EDF and Alsthom.)

29:

Apologies, my link in comment 25 appears to be broken.
This [again, powerpoint and pppl.gov] should hopefully work better.

30:

OT, but here's today's Life Imitates One Of Charlie's Novels moment: v1.0 of the data goggles from Halting State

31:

Homebrew bioweapons are probably a bigger threat than some terrorist group or state getting a nuke or dirty bombs. Another couple decades and any biology grad student with a couple thousands dollars of equipment could probably made designer viruses and bacteria.

32:

@31: Pantywaist. Prior to 9/11, any mycology grad student could have taken down western civilization, if he'd been interested. We had cultures of all sorts of nasty crop plagues (late potato blight, wheat rust, southern corn blight) sitting around in teaching labs so that budding crop pathologists could learn what they looked like. After 9/11, I heard some mutters about how it was a good thing that Bin Laden was so clueless and hadn't used biotech, particularly a fungal attack that would have caused mass famine. Shortly thereafter, the live cultures disappeared from the teaching labs and got locked up. This was before Homeland Security got its act together and realized the same thing.

Creating a disease technically isn't that difficult. It's like building a nuke (which isn't that difficult either). The problems are a) getting the ingredients (in this case, the cultures, vectors and time that you need, because there's very little privacy in a lab), and b) figuring out how to set up the attack so that you don't get caught.

However, the biggest safeguard is ethics. As noted above, ethical scientists quickly realized the potential threat and took action before the government figured it out. The very best safeguards are teaching bright, talented people to be ethical, and giving them enough societal status that they'd rather belong to the status quo than destroy things. This won't protect against psychos, but they're rare in any event. You've got a problem when you have a lot of bright, disaffected young men and women with little or nothing to lose. Look how that's played out in Palestine and Iraq.

33:

Ian Fleming spotted the biowarfare threat and used it in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (published 1963). There's certainly authorial hand-waving in the plot, but it's clear he tried to be plausible. Once you accept the scheme which James Nond directly foils (hypnosis?), the choice of targets makes sense.

I see "dirty bombs" have been mentioned. It's really hard to disperse radioactive materials with a transportable chemical explosion. You almost need a nuke to put enough energy into the system. Dispersal is why bioweapons are difficult. Plants don't move, for instance, though potato blight seems to be almost endemic. It's one of the almost-hidden problems out there.

It's interesting that the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak led to strict rules on livestock movements. It's hard to imagine a terrorist biowarfare attack being effective now. Agricultural shows aren't the target they once were.

(I can't see how you could make a Laundry story about the end of the Royal Show, and you've already done concrete cows.)


34:

@33: Actually, plants do move, because a few seed companies send out a majority of the seed corn every year. I hope they're got decent security around their breeding fields and seed distribution centers, because that's a natural area to attack.

Bigger thing, though, is that fungi and similar pathogens actually move pretty quickly. Many plant pathogens are specially adapted to launch spores into the air, and when the wind's blowing, they're moving. Things like potato blight are technically not fungi, and they have flagelae and can swim in soil water, as well as being moved around in flowing water and in the mud stuck to people's shoes, tires, animal hoofs, and the like.

The big problem with bioweapons isn't dispersal, it's containment. If someone launched a crop killer, if it wasn't contained, it would eventually end up in their back yards. Moreover, a lot of armed, starving people would be ending up in their backyards, and probably a lot sooner.

The only reason to launch a crop killer is to destroy a country through famine. Fortunately for us, it looks like Al Qaeda and similar terrorists are not interested in attacks on this scale. That doesn't mean that we should let our guards down, but it does suggest that they're not totally insane.

35:

This really are interesting posts. And it is really refreshing to encounter some open minded thinking on the subject of nuclear power. I consider energy policies and generation on a daily basis and not hearing somebody scream murder is a blessing.

But nuclear power is again a hybrid step in energy generation and furthermore it is one with a really unpleasant side effect. Expanding energy generation with large waste heat by production isn't the most intelligent course and neither the increased production of low altitude water vapour. The latter being a very strong greenhouse contributing factor and the first is just as much a contributor to global warming as greenhouse gas accumulation. Technologies that are thermically neutral or negative should really be further developed, and there are many more than solar and wind. Problem is those are seen as the sole possibilities because secondary effects of solar energy aren't immediately seen as energy sources. One can for example consider salinity potentials or thermal potentials between seas and oceans or rivers different ocean depths.
Just as bountiful, electrostatic potential differentials in the atmosphere.

On the nukes and their gradual spread, in a very abstract way it has long since stopped being a question of destructive potential. Everyone acknowledges that between a ten kiloton yield and a megaton nuke if you are within blast radius you re toast. Therefore the fear is really only about radiation, since direct death and destruction almost becomes random (it all depends on where you are and where the nuke detonates), radiation is mobile, invisible and sneaky. So whether a reactor will produce highly weaponized plutonium or something with the same radiation levels as kitty litter, it doesn't matter, the fear of radiation and a dirty bomb will remain. I mean if you release a comprehensive list of what yields or contains radioactive material and manage to convey it to the larger population, society would more or less stop. Your plaster walls, the diesel in your car, the stairs you are climbing, etc. Just notice how people react when they learn that some lead water pipes still are in use...

36:

While the nuclear power generation industry in the UK certainly has some problems (and Windscale certainly counts, and the whole management culture there), the biggest assertions of deception against it are some which, to my understanding, are better labelled against the UK government.

To wit, the decommissioning costs and the so-called nuclear levy, levied because of a claim that the nuclear industry didn't plan ahead for decommissioning. An assertion which I've heard from two people who have worked in the UK nuclear industry is that the decommissioning costs were raised three times over.

I explicitly can not vouch for the truth of what I'm told, as I have no first-hand knowledge, so am repeating this in the expectation that a degree of scepticism is applied to it (lest Charlie or I get in trouble re the libel laws referenced in the moderation policy). Given my knowledge of the industry, this could be a fabrication, but given my knowledge of government, the same holds for their assertions, so it's he-said-she-said from two groups who I do not trust to tell the truth.

The first time, I'm told that the CEGB reinvested the money (since cash piles depreciate fast) in itself, in coal power plants; come privatisation, some dodgy financing resulted in the previous accountancy getting lost and some rather higher first-year share dividends to make sure that the privatisation was a success.

The second time, in this story, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (then a Tory government) saw the big pile of cash and grabbed it as general government funds; the industry protested that the money was needed, was told to re-raise the money.

The third time, the CotE did the same thing. This time the industry protested, was told to re-raise, said that the profit margins on the aging fleet were now small enough that this couldn't happen. So the government turned around and told the British people that decommissioning had never been planned for and introduced the nuclear levy. Again, still under the Tories.

Yet the follow-on Labour government's CotE must have seen the books and how they were cooked. So if there is truth to the story, then the current Prime Minister is culpable of continuing the spin. Quel surprise.

Something to think about, at least.

37:

@Govert (in-or-around #35): ah, so you've visited California then, and seen the results of Proposition 65, where every residence complex and every commercial building will have a plaque somewhere near the entrance saying something along the lines of "This area contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm."? (Businesses larger than 10 employees must prove absence of harm to avoid posting the notice, so it's easier to just post it everywhere).

The signs are generally ignored, because they're so prevalent. If there's a building where the sign is warranted, it'll be ignored, as the spam has trained people to ignore the warnings.

A pity, in the nuclear debate, that people who don't understand "background radiation" or "why my glow-in-the-dark watch-hands glow" get to influence what people hear reported.

38:

Govert says,

[Energy generation with large waste heat by production] is just as much a contributor to global warming as greenhouse gas accumulation.

What? Got a cite there? Obviously it's a contributor, but "just as much of a contributor"? I've never heard anyone make any such claim.

39:

Dirty bombs and nuclear proliferation:

I'm not always sure if I'm really quite that concerned about those. One of the not-secrets that nobody is really talking about, is that there has been a lively nuclear war going on on our planet in the 50ies and 60ies, with several *hundred* nukes scorching the earth - minus the cities underneath. (*)

I guess we survived the radiation from that one. So, even if there was, say, an all-out nuclear war between India and Pakistan the effect on the world as a whole would be dramatically less than complete devastation ... (Don't get me wrong, it wouldn't be pretty.)

(*) Have the 70ies been a nuclear winter? It sure was a lot colder then, especially in winter as most of the older folks here (in Germany) keep reminding me. Especially the winter of 78/79 was a disaster. The last dead people (who got trapped in the snow drifts and blizzard like weather) were found in May, when the snow had *finally* melted. Does anybody know about research on that matter?

40:

David @18: Yes, there's carbon emissions from constructing the nukes, and making the fuel, but all up, over the total life-cycle, the total emissions per kWh from nuclear are similar or better than those from wind. Wind takes a lot of concrete for the bases to stop the buggers from falling over. Figures are: wind 2.5-13 grams carbon dioxide per kWh, nuclear 2.5-5.7. For reference, coal is 200-400 or thereabouts.
(Data from http://www.iaea.org/OurWork/ST/NE/Pess/assets/03-01708_Rognerspeech.pdf)

Charlie @28: It's the French AREVA who are building the first third-gen EPR in Finland. Yeah, the one that's supposed to have opened this year, but is currently 50% over budget and only half built.

Govert @35: Waste heat from industry is around 2% of climate change forcing, 0.03 W/m^2, compared with 1.5 W/m^2 from all the other effects. It's pretty insignificant.

41:

Charlie, have you ever read Daniel Davies on the nuke industry?

In particular, the first of these Indian reactors isn't going to start being built 'till 2012 and there isn't even a site selected yet.

The prototype isn't online yet either. So I'd be very very wary of any claims about the characteristics of these things, given they don't really exist yet.

42:

Jez: presumably materials other than concrete could be employed to hold up a wind turbine, if it came to it? It's just ballast.

43:

.. What?
Ehh.. No. Absolutely nothing gets built without concrete, and if you insisted on trying, the total emissions would likely go up. Certainly, cost would explode.

44:

Thomas: pray tell, how would substituting rocks for concrete around the base of a wind turbine make the total emissions go up?

And I hate to tell you this, but the house I'm typing this in is entirely made of wood. There are proposals afoot here to build quite large structures out of timber for carbon emissions reasons. "Absolutely" is absolutely not the right term to use here.

45:

Chris: The issue is holding the tower against a sideways force at the top. Given that the towers are getting towards a hundred metres high, then the forces are pretty huge. Because the force is a bending one, there's compression and tension, in different directions depending on where the wind is blowing from. Oh, and fatigue from vibration. Yes, you can use rock as ballast, but something will have to transmit the tension. I suppose you could use steel guy ropes to steel baskets full of rocks, but then, what keeps the steel from corroding?

The cheapest, longest lasting solution by far is just to put that steel inside a big block of concrete. You could try for a higher-price, lower carbon-emission route, but wind is pretty low in life-cycle carbon costs already, like 1-2% of coal. Making it more expensive will just mean less wind gets built and more coal gets built, increasing the overall carbon emissions from your electricity system.

46:

And they are erected on concrete foundations, or they rot shortly - Ive done this for a living. There are ways to use less concrete for housing foundations than is typically done, some of them really quite clever and elegant, but for an industrial structure designed to catch the wind at the end of a long lever? No was possibly a bit abrupt, but it is just a daft idea, because the earthworks would get much more extensive, which isnt energetically free, and the labour involved would increase dramatically.. which isnt energetically free either. most importantly, even if you manage a design that would reduce the CO2 load, the attendant cost increase would guarantee that fewer windmills got built, which is not a climate win.

Mostly, tough, worrying about the lifecycle emissions of nukes and wind is daft - The important thing to keep in mind when people bring this up is coals 300g/kwh. Because coal is king. Currently, power *is* coal unless you are in france or sweden, and that means that this is the benchmark alternatives need to be measured against.

47:

Something we desperately need: lower-carbon concrete. Something like this would be a good start ...

48:

Phil @36 It really is like the "may contain traces of nuts" label on a paquet of peanuts isn't it. I really am quite partial to your point. Then again I wonder how much such things depend on demographics/education/culture. There are people who would only drink/use bottled water, others who'd say "what doesn't kill you..." Fine particulates (especially those from SUVs) in the Netherlands produced quite the polemic (for a few months anyway) with a very large population base. Whether the public awareness was due to the way the information was spread, the visibility of the problem, the media or something else still remains unclear to me. I wonder what initial reactions where in California. People are quite irrational, with the dioxin scare in Belgium people where so outraged that dioxin was fed to baby chicks that some forgot that it looped all the way to themselves.

Micheal & Jez @ 37&39 Mmmh sorry, english isn't my first language, what I meant to say is that waste heat is a heavily disregarded contributor. While it is true that in terms of direct influence it is far less, industry is not a real representation of energy consumption since waste heat is just a fraction of the initial energy input, processes tend to be quite efficient. The numbers aren't the same for the other branches of human activity, those generate more low enthalpy energy streams. And heat is a direct contributor to what is apparently a cumulative system. Percentages do matter in the long term even small ones, big percentages usually connect to factors people consider important. Which is why price and tax increases go in increments and spread out over items and activities. Then again nobody appreciated the concept 6 years ago.

@the concrete discussion, When used properly has really one advantage it is more or less eternal, as long it doesn't becomes a "cradle-to-cradle" situation, environmentally speaking it is quite sound whatever the situation. But I wonder whether we will have low carbon concrete. Concrete is also a waste sink, car tires being the most notorious one, river and sewage sludge here, are used during the firing process. As an energy source and way of disposing of these kind of waste streams, but it involves high combustion temperatures to avoid creation of harmful compounds dioxin, pcbs, etc. They also dump al kinds of waste into the cement itself. Leading to one "humorous" incident where the rebar dissolved/corroded due to what was dumped in the cement. Anyway when opening a cement bag, remember to breathe deeply, it makes you stronger...

49:

One of the things that drives me bug about discussions of nuclear power is the default assumption that everything else doesn't have waste, or side effects.

Fossil fuels kill about 5,000 people in Ontario every year through the direct effects of pollution(= increased difficulty breathing in various flavours); there's a big statistical furball over exactly what that number is, and how it's measured, but that's the generally accepted range. So, roughly, 13 million people, 5,000 deaths, 5/13,000, call it 40 per hundred thousand. This is somewhere with relatively low population density and relatively good pollution controls. Nuclear, well, the net deaths per hundred thousand from nuclear is *negative*, due to nuclear medicine. (Think about medical treatment with no Xrays.) Direct deaths are very small. It's just that people think radioactivity is the devil.

Chemical waste -- concentrated heavy metals etc. -- from coal has no half-life. It doesn't decay. It's there forever. There is a staggeringly huge amount of it, even ignoring the atmospheric CO2.

It is not enough to *reduce* carbon emissions. Somewhere between 800 and a 1000 ppm of atmospheric CO2, everybody dies. (See "Mass extinctions, Permian"). We're somewhere around 300. It doesn't matter, in one sense, if the rate of climb is rapid or not; if we're headed at a global, ongoing, trend to increased atmospheric CO2, sooner or later, everybody dies. On that scale of concern, economic disruption is not important. (And you can't do 19th Century tech and not have this problem, it's just slower. You have to go back to 5th century, and kill anybody who builds a windmill and might start the process over. Only having the windmills is a huge military and political advantage, so as a process this is is not going to work.)

None of the technological problems with nuclear power from fission are serious; there are a whole pile of innovative options for getting around just about anything. What there isn't a fix for is that the folks currently making piles of money and in a socially dominant position due to controlling the supply of fossil carbon aren't willing to give that position up, irrespective of the consequences. (Cue documentary of African drought, which came back to take pictures of the completely skeletonized bull crocodile in the middle of the dry mud, "dominant to the end".)

Not only do we entirely have to stop burning things, we have to start sequestering carbon because everybody else isn't going to stop with the burning as fast. The only way -- and I will be delighted if the Bussard polywell fusor works, mind -- we've got to do that right now is nuclear power from fission.

The systemic problems with an industry designed to fail while extracting maximal public subsidy, well, that's a political problem. It is not, in principle, difficult to solve.

50:

And Coal plants produce radioactive waste...

51:

I've become convinced that extended human survival is dependent not on politicians gaining the consensus required to instate measures, but on disruptive technology becoming 'incontournable'.

Look at the lithium battery powering out entire technological lifestyle- hand up who uses a fuel cell laptop. Or one running on gasoline, for that matter.
Electric cars? Lithium again. And it's early years, given the availability of lithium and the efficiency of the different technologies.
Anybody willing to take a wild stab at how long it would have taken for battery tech to displace gasoline without Al Gore marketing global warming?

A few people here have already referred to the non-climate effects of petrol usage..

So given the shift to electrical vehicles, the rise in industrial energy needs worldwide, and the renewed tension between the superpowers- How long before energy companies order ready-made nuclear reactors? Given that this is only one of a handful of possible solutions- the market is perceived to be there.

And how long before major cities begin ordering them? Industrial terrains? Hospitals?

Politicians will be hard-pressed to stop these- especially if a 'njet' is followed (as it's likely to be) by power outages.

52:

L2GX: Utilities already order ready-made reactors. The manufacturers of reactors (Areva, Westinghouse & co.) are not the people who commission and operate them (the utilities).

As for the nuclear option, India really does not have that much choice. Their own power generation capacity is woefully inadequate at the moment. They have around 130 GW total generation capacity installed (4 GW of which is nuclear). This is about the same as Germany, for a population over ten times the size. Half the population doesn't have access to electricity, and for the half that does, it's not reliable.

Even using conservative estimates of future growth, they're likely to want to at least double their installed generation capacity within the next 10 years. That's around 10-15GW/year, or the equivalent of, say Belgium, every year.

They'll have to go for a mix of technologies to achieve this at an affordable level:
- coal is cheapest (large domestic reserves, but big climate impact)
- natural gas is not a large-scale option (needs to be imported at international prices, small climate impact)
- hydro has limited potential (you run out of rivers eventually)
- other renewables are still expensive (solar resources are good, wind resources are ok, but costs are high)
- homegrown nuclear power seems the cheapest and least climate-intensive option (plus they can export both the technology and the thorium)

In the end, barring a sudden miracle cure for the world's energy problems, it will come down to a choice between nuclear and coal power for India, with other odds and ends thrown in. Given the sheer size of the gap India is desperate to close, they'll likely do both, and they they won't ask too many questions on the long term environmental impact until the majority of the population actually has access to power and clean water.

I cannot deny India's desire to develop, while, over in the developed world, we spend decades quibbling over the equivalent of drops in the buckets and buckets of actions which are actually required to stabilise the current climate situation.

Either way - interesting times ahead.

53:

Govert @48: Sorry, by industry I meant all anthropogenic waste heat, so all human activity. You're right that it is cumulative, but the 98% of cumulative radiative forcing from greenhouse gases is a tad more important than the 2% from waste heat.

Graydon @49: Yes, we need to get to net zero carbon emissions before not too long. Fission isn't the only way, NZ's electricity system is 70% renewables already and we're building wind and geothermal pretty rapidly. Renewables are plummeting in cost, in exactly the way that nuclear isn't, with wind cost-competitive in open markets pretty much everywhere, solar hot water cost-competitive anywhere south of Scotland, photovoltaics becoming 10-20% cheaper each year, and marine power starting 5-10 years off cost-effectiveness. The side-effects are visual, not bomb proliferation. The waste problem? There is no waste problem. End-of-life decommissioning? Not an issue.

It seems a pretty simple choice.

54:

You can't use wind for more than about 25% of the total everybody-at-first-world-living-standards energy budget without *also* screwing up the weather. Most places people live can't do geothermal; NZ and Iceland are lucky that way.

New Zealand has really minimal primary industry, too. Which is one of the problems with solar and wind; unpredictability of supply.

(And solar hot water is helpful but not sufficient pretty much everywhere in Canada in the winter. I suspect this is also true of northern Europe.)

Wind kills birds (as does all-night light pollution.) Tidal, if it can be got to work, is going to hammer important shoreline ecosystems to the point where I don't think it should be attempted. Offshore wiggly-tube energy extractors remove energy from ocean ecosystems, which will cut their productivity. Current solar photovoltaic tech is very, very expensive in water-and-resources terms to create; if it had to carry its proper externalities cost no one would touch it. Solar thermal is a much better choice but not really practical for base load.

There is no single ideal answer. There are a bunch of things that must be done, like building energy efficient housing -- to a first approximation, none exists -- people want to live in, and producing a power distribution system that doesn't suck rocks for efficiency, but it's not a "oh, renewables will save us" situation.

Even if everything good about wind and photovoltaic was true, with none of the bad, it *still* wouldn't be the right choice in all applications because both are inherently and inescapably constrained by land area. There are large population centers that have too many people per square whatever to use either solution as their comprehensive power source.

55:

Graydon @ 49:

It doesn't matter, in one sense, if the rate of climb is rapid or not; if we're headed at a global, ongoing, trend to increased atmospheric CO2, sooner or later, everybody dies.
While this statement is true, it is a bit misleading, in that if the rate of climb is sufficiently low we have some time to develop new technologies (and grow some new politicians) to deal with it. But we probably don't have the luxury of assuming a low rate of climb, and had best be about the business of decreasing net emissions to zero as rapidly as possible. In the short term I don't see any way to do that even if we go completely nuclear in the First World without a major carbon sequestration program.

56:

The 25% limit on wind is due to the unpredicatble power supply from wind farms, not any effect upon the weather. So what? The power demand fluctuates as well, that's why the UK has pumped storage and NZ has hydro stations. Hydro varies on a month-to-month timescale, wind varies on an hour-to-hour timescale, one fills in for the other.

NZ doesn't have minimal primary industry, our economy is far more primary than the UK. Farming, food processing, and forestry are surprisingly energy intensive. One of our major exports is milk powder, and the water in that milk's not going to evaporate all by itself. Oh, and then there's that phuge aluminium smelter that uses 10% of our electricity on one site. Our economy is more energy-intensive than most, it takes us about twice as many Joules to make a dollar than it does in the UK.

Yes, wind kills birds. The figures I have are US stats, where wind kills tens of thousands of birds. However, cars and plate glass kill tens of millions of birds. When you've banned cars and plate glass, feel free to complain about wind turbines.

Again for wave power, ocean ecosystems are driven by photosynthesis from sunshine, not energy input from waves. Locking up whole estuaries like the Severn will have ecosystem effects, but putting a whole heap of wiggly tubes offshore is about as zero impact as it gets. Seriously, please look up the global energy content of waves, compare that to human consumption and you'll see that it's just not an issue. It's certainly less impact than all the other options.

Renewables are not inescapably constrained by land area. Again, here's some numbers:
http://www.landartgenerator.org/blagi/archives/127

Agree with you on energy efficiency, but it's not a case of one or the other. A zero carbon energy system is going to mean lots of different types of renewables, each filling in for the other, and efficiency.

57:

New zealand can be trivially powered with renewables because it is a sparesly populated, seismically active chain of mountains placed atwart moistureladen prevailing winds. If you tried to deliberately design geographic conditions to maximise easily extractable and cheap renewable energy, it would be honest-to-goddess difficult to do much to improve on that. This means two things; one, that it would be daft for new zealanders to use anything else. and two, that it is a bloody awful example to generalize from.

58:

Thomas: You missed our marine potential. Our capital city is right next to Cook Strait, where they have gales one day in three, resulting in some of the best coastal wave hieghts around.

But you can argue that renewables makes sense for many places, yet they still barely use it. Australia and the South-western US have amazing solar potential, they barely use it. Central US and Canada have fantastic wind, yet they're just getting off the ground. The US has good geothermal prospects, they already produce 30% of the geothermal power in the world, but that's less than 1% of US electricity.

So why has NZ got so much in the way of renewables when other nations have just as much potential? It's coz we had governments from the 1940s to 1970s that didn't leave developing national power systems up to the market. They actively planned and built these systems. Ooo, sounds a bit like socialism... The nation with the fastest growing renewable energy systems right now? China.

59:

Late to the thread, unfortunately, but I believe I've heard somewhere that Iran is looking into the feasibility of becoming the world's nuclear waste storage depo. Why not? Once the oil's gone, what's left? Large, deep holes in the ground that have stored petroleum and natural gas for millennia.

Sounds like a winner to me.

60:

Jez @58: Word. The NZ example is well known. Australia could easily lead the world in solar power. CSIRO had the plug pulled on a working, full-size demonstrator plant that had been running for years. Whenever I bring up these examples of countries I know about, people say "oh, but that's only country X". Pretty sure if I'd lived in countries P, Q, or W the same thing would happen. Kind of the opposite of "Not in my backyard". Like Stockholm syndrome for thermal generation...

In fact, it's only northern Europe that seems to have problems generating renewable power. Time for a high-voltage cable from Libya? :)

61:

Jez --

That total land area requirement calculation is useless, both because achievable transmission distances/efficiencies for anything non-superconducting are sucktastic, and because no one is willing to shut down when it gets dark! For that set of figures to mean anything, lossless or near-lossless transmission would have to be an available technology, and it's so very much *not* available. It would also have to work globally, so that Arizona is powering China during the Chinese night time, and that goes beyond "presents engineering challenges".

And, yes, there *is* an expected effect on the weather from extracting energy from wind. You can't take terrawatts out without side effects. ("Sensitive dependence on initial conditions"; there are weather side effects from the waste heat in cities, which is well-studied. Take that much *out*, of course there will be effects.)

It can't be a zero-carbon energy system; it has to be a _negative_ carbon energy system. Because the less developed world is going to keep burning coal. (And so are we, if we can't figure out another way to produce steel.)

I'll admit I don't think of farming or forestry as primary industries; yes, energy intensives, and yes, NZ has a lot of both, but they're not general refining (everything from oil to vanadium), the stuff that has to run 24/7 with very predictable energy inputs. (Which is not to say there isn't room to greatly improve energy usage per result in most of those industries. Just that they're not suitable for any kind of power source that's not 100% reliable.)

62:

Graydon, if you don't think of forestry as a heavy industry, you've never been near a paper mill. Those things run 24/7 and generally have intimate relationships with dedicated or nearly-dedicated power stations. Ditto dairy factories. We have probably have more steelmills per-capita than most Western nations, too.

Changes in landuse can actively suck up carbon, by the way. That's an area of very active research.

63:

It is not, in principle, difficult to solve.

What? This is rubbish. If politically something can't be done, that's killed the project as dead as if it's physically impossible; the idea that you can handwave political/human-factors problems out the way is bizarre & one of the essential failures of the pro-nuke crowd.

64:

What happens if someone develops a "Solar Panel" that is even 30% efficient?

I think that would change the equations somewhat.
What is the current state of progress in this field?

65:

Cris- you seem to be under the impression that the rest of the world is just not trying hard enough, which is eh.. annoying?
Denmark is the canonical example of a country with an extreme political commitment to renewables, and despite 20+ years of heavy government support for RnD, investment, energy conservation, and several world class export industries based on that expertise, we are still running a grid that is 80% coal fired. Okay, in some ways, denmark is the anti-new zealand and we are idiots for even trying, but it does prove the point that geography matters, and generally speaking, the extent to which the developed nations of the world have renewable energy reflects their natural endowments far more than any lack of political will. There are basically no good spots for hydro power plants in the industrial world that dont have turbines installed already, good locations for geothermal are in use, and the primary reason solar concentrating power sees as little use as it does is that it uses cooling water in places where water is a very scarce resource.

66:

Thomas: not so much with the not trying, rather not trusting the offhand remarks filtering out of places I've never spent time in myself...

As an island dweller, I have to ask why every European nation has to be self-sufficient in electricity production? The self-sufficiency is an illusion anyway, unless you mine all your own coal.

67:

Graydon @61: That land area calculation is simplistic, but we already transmit power across continental distances with acceptable losses. HVDC lines like the Pacific DC Intertie already take power from Oregon to LA using 1960s technology. Transmission losses in the US are around 7%. Modern grids have the potential to do so much better, to the point that HVDC links from solar stations in North Africa to Northern Europe are on the table.

Northern Europe has great renewables, wind and wave. Scotland alone has enough wind and wave potential to power 55% of UK electricity needs (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/47176/0014633.pdf).

But wave technology isn't ready yet, you could say? True, and the UK government has a 50 million quid Marine Renewable Deployment Fund and a 22 milion Marine Renewables Proving Fund, both aimed at scaling up the technology as fast as possible. Had they started this investment ten years ago, then we'd have wave power ready right now. Stephen Salter invented his Duck in 1974, so it's not as if wave power is being rushed through development.

NZ has an oil refinery, and a steel mill that produces 650,000 tones per year. It also happens to kick out lots of vanadium. Again, that's with an electricity system that's 70% renewables.

And as for wind affecting the weather, you can happily take terawatts out if the resource is zettawatts. Kindly provide some peer-reviewed references to show that this is a believable problem, coz it's not seen as an issue by anyone I've spoken with (Disclaimer - I'm paid to know this stuff, so I'll be keen to see if you can make a convincing case.)

Thomas @65: I'll admit, Denmark is a good example of the few nations with poor renewables prospects. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, they're world leaders in wind. I have to disagree though that all good locations for geothermal are in use. Even in NZ, where we've been doing this since the 1950s, there's still room to expand multiple times over.

But yeah, big hydro is fairly tapped out, as well as being a great example of how not to do development projects in less developed countries.

68:

Chris L: European nations aren't self-sufficient in electricity production. F'r'xample, the UK is a net energy importer from France (via the grid interconnect running under the Channel). France is a net exporter -- those reactors they've got supply base load power to neighbouring countries as well.

The trouble is, population density, latitude, water resources, and prevailing weather don't make Western Europe very promising for renewables. No convenient deserts to stick solar arrays in, much of it so far north that we get as little as six hours of daylight in winter, existing hydro resources already at high utilization, and overall population density in the same league as China.

Jez @56: the UK has one big pumped hydro storage plant. It can store enough power to run the national grid for roughly ten minutes. We'd need to build an order of magnitude more plants to be useful for more than smoothing demand peaks -- at a cost of billions each, and the reason there's only one is that we don't have many natural geological features that lend themselves to that sort of structure. Even if we did go for it as a wholesale solution to solar cells not working during the night, it would be hideously in efficient: remember, you've got to pump the water up-hill to store it, then extract gravitational p/e from it via turbines when you let it back down. That's going to give you, at best, about 15% of the energy you put into it (assuming your pumps and turbines are both about 40% efficient).

Building a single 2GwH pumped store as a load balancer for the grid: made sense. Building 2TwH of storage: madness! (You'd have to hollow out the whole of the Lake District to fit them in, and half the Pennines and Grampians as well.)

69:

Three points

I would REALLY LIKE someone to come up with how far forward we are (anywhere on the planet) with efficient solar direct-conversion-to-electricity cells.
Any numbers/realistic predictions anyone?

Power storage is a real problem.
Any BIG power-store, is, almost by definition, a bomb, but we need load-smoothing storage.
Where are the technologies currently on this?

Hydro is STILL grossly underused in the UK.
I keep on and on and ON about this - I think that, with decent modern equipment, and standardised units, you could get a sizeable proportion of the UK's energy from low-level hydro (modern water-mills, in fact) I would guess between 20 to 35% of our base-load.
IF it was done right.
No-one is interested.
Vested interests?

Vested interests, big oil, coal, nuke-weapons are getting in the way of real progress.

BUT, if it gets desperate enough, even the politicians notice ...
Something else I've been going on about for years has finally, eventually been noticed by guvmint and they might actually do something about it, to prevent us from starving .....

70:

Again, I really can't see these exportable thorium reactors as anything but vaporware; they don't exist yet, and the precursor doesn't exist yet either; you may as well be talking about how awesome Windows 8 is going to be based on MS' PR.

Which, fair enough, why not? but you can hardly expect us to make decisions based on this sort of puffery.

71:

Charlie: Dinorwig runs at 75% efficiency, but I take your point, you're not going to store solar overnight.

Still, that's not quite the issue. The requirement is matching variable demand against a portfolio of different renewables, each with differing variability and dependability. For example, tidal is entirely dependable, you can predict power supply decades in advance. However, it does drop to zero twice a day. Wind is variable locally at an hourly timescale but predictable over monthly periods. I've seen models saying the UK can be fine with up to 25% wind power. Wave power works fine in the night and offshore wind isn't bad at night. Wave is strongest in winter when solar is weak and heating demand is high. Geothermal is base-load, as reliable as coal.

Given that continental transmission grids let you source power from one end of Europe to another, then there'll be a variety of supply. The worse case scenario is a winter night with an anti-cyclone covering most of Europe, widespread low winds, a neap tide, high heating demand, and a whole host of electric cars needing overnight recharging. In that case, we can keep some gas peaking plants around to fill in. Capital cost is low. Running cost and carbon emissions are bugger all coz we only use them five nights a year.

72:

Greg @69: There are hard physical limits, as in Second Law of Thermodynamics hard, to the maximum efficiency of solar cells. Hangar-queen lab-bench sample designs have exceeded 30% efficiency but they're expensive, difficult to make, use very rare expensive elements (many of them toxic and/or carcenogenic) and the cell's performance degrades rapidly when it is exposed to sunlight (oops).

Generating electricity via solar cells involves ionising atoms, knocking electrons off them by photon impacts to cause electrical potentials in substrates. Do it slowly enough or at a low enough rate then other electrons migrate to replace the displaced electron and the same site can be ionised again. More efficient cells have less time to recuperate from this ionisation and gradually the sites degrade as more persistent ionisation causes chemical changes locally. That's why solar cell output reduces over time; it's the reason why existing terrestrial solar cell arrays have to be replaced every twenty years or so when the output falls below an acceptable amount.

As for micro-hydro, it's not really a goer for widespread use; the maintenance costs to keep the turbine running, keep the waterway in good condition, fish shopping trolleys and other debris out of the feedpipes on a regular basis, the expense of tie lines from the generator to the grid etc. and all to deliver an intermittent 4 or 5 kW?

My uncles on the hill farm did have a micro-hydro system to power the farmhouse in the 1940s; it only ran at night and they built and maintained it themselves, sweat equity. It could light a couple of lightbulbs and power the valve radio and that was about it. When the Electricity Board ran a 11kV feeder up the hillside to the farms there they happily switched over to a 24/7 power supply they didn't have to beat into submission on a cold winter's night when the inlet pipe to the turbine iced up.

73:

Richard@72: Right. And it's actually rather worse than that: those super-efficient solar cells are actually three-in-one jobs. QM places fundamental limits on the efficiency of what each individual cell can collect from a given spectrum of radiation. Iow, it's the Suns's fault, lousy piece of black body radiation, d'oh! Note that 50% plus efficiency was demonstrated for solar cells in the 70's, and they weren't particularly hard to fabricate, nor were they particularly exotic. They were, however, powered by a laser whose output was close to the optimal frequency for that particular cell. As is often the case the wiki is a good first cut for these issues(at least going by my spotty memory and on a subject we covered 20+ years ago in QM.)

Also, the relevant figure seems to be not overall efficiency, but dollars per watt; $1.20 for a 15% efficient cell beats $8.20 for a 30% efficient one. The collection area is definitely a second or third order correction term; even in the most green fantasy where each house generates it's own power, my rooftop, for example, has more than enough area needed to collect all the power I use at the lower efficiency figure(although it needs to be said that I don't use electricity for heating or cooking. That's done by gas.) But like nuclear fusion, those cheap solar cells have been coming Real Soon Now for at least thirty years. It's fun reading about them, but it's more for the optimistic can-do buzz they generate, like an old Astounding story, rather than to get a realistic sense of what's actually happening.

74:

Greg @64

There's *deployed* solar dish thermal at 30% efficiency. It lacks effective PR.

http://www.sandia.gov/news-center/news-releases/2004/renew-energy-batt/Stirling.html

Much, much better choice on pretty much any grounds you care to name than solar photovoltaic. (Regular generator maintenance beats the snot out of every-two-year-full-panel-replacement.)

Jez @67

Actually, no, we *don't* transmit power over continental distances with acceptable losses, for at least some values of "acceptable". 70% efficient transmission is doing well over *small* (100s of km scale) distances. You can't just count the efficiency of the high tension lines under optimal circumstances, you've got to count source-to-point-of-use; getting the power *off* the high tension lines is not perfectly efficient! This gets done anyway because 70% of a hydro dam is often much cheaper than the other option, but there is a good reason why aluminum smelters get put at the power dam, and never mind where you have to ship the bauxite. One of the big problems with the North American grid is that something meant to be a distribution system is being used as a transmission system and the efficiency is sucktastic, plus there's been a tendency to concentrate on fewer and larger generation stations.

The NZ steel mill (_the_ steel mill) is a)not powered by renewables, it is like every other steel mill powered by coal (because we as a species *don't have another way to make steel*) and b)taking advantage of a rather rare geologic formation in that you've got surface iron sands.

Try http://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16115 for wind power effects on climate. They still think it's a good idea, and they might be right, but "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". Long-term climate modeling is _iffy_. They could be wrong about what kind of weather response will occur.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/videos/2005/1012-wind_farms_impacting_weather.htm is a popular article on local effects. Many of which (turbulence and mixing) apply to anything in the water; many marine ecosystems are limited by nutrient availability (there is some evidence that the Korean particulate plume from industrializing South Korea has had immense effects on the Antarctic Ocean by introducing a lot of extra iron) rather than energy availability. Turbulence means a different (and possibly larger) nutrient distribution. The whole reason the current cold oceans are more productive than warm oceans out of the fossil record is that cold oceans do more mixing.

So, really, _wind is not free of ecological side effects_. Nuclear isn't, either -- mining must take place -- but it's not instantly obvious that nuclear is *worse*.

75:

OK I KNOW about QM & other efficiency limits - I hadn't thought about the cheaper 15% compared to the expensive 30 model (which I should have)...
@74 Interesting.
Stirling engines have been around for a long time - the engineering history of the Stirling family is fascinating stuff .....
But has this Sandia/Stirling set-up worked, and if it has, why are we not seeing more of them?

@72 That was THEN for micro-hydro.
What about now, with everything modular, and solid-state controlled? I think you might get a different answer.

76:

Greg --

It works, they get about 25 kW out of the thing, something close to 1kW/m^2. There were contracts to install lots as pilot projects; no idea what happened. I have a lot of trouble imagining an utter showstopper engineering difficulty and no trouble imagining either red tape, funding exhaustion, or not being able to hit the per-installation price target just yet.

77:

Tingley@75: Stirling cycle engines and people who say good things about them have been around for a long time. The devil is in the details. Stirling engines tend to be delicate, overly-complex, and a real bear to service. Remember that other Engine of the Future, the Wankel rotary enginge? Same thing.

There's a reason why the Otto cycle engine is the preferred prime mover, and it's not because of a conspiracy of the government or corporate kind.

Graydon@76: Solar insolation is only about 1400 W/m^2 at the top of the atmosphere, and down to about 1000 W/m^2 at sea level on a good day. That's an efficiency considerably greater than 30%

78:

Greg@75: Stirling Cycle engines as prime movers suffer from Development Hell -- the usual process is some funding goes into the preliminary design, the designers find the ideal gas to use in the displacer is hydrogen and they use up the rest of the budget trying to keep the escape artist of the periodic table where it belongs and not leaking out past the piston seals, through the walls of the displacer etc. They run out of money and give up. Step and repeat.

The external costs with micro-hydro are the same as they ever were -- maintaining the feedstock ponds that supply the turbine, cleaning out the intake grids of garbage that will get into the supply (tree branches, fly-tipped garbage, dead animals, live animals, silt, mud, bricks, local kids...) etc. etc. Cost it at about 10 man-hours a week per hydro site, and all for 5kW-10kW or so of generating capacity. A small dam-hydro system generating 10MW or so base-load requires a team of two or three on-site workers to keep the whole thing running; serious engineering (bearing replacement, frex) has specialists called in as necessary. The return on investment is great enough to justify the manning, for micro-hydro either it's a hobby thing with unpaid labour maintaining it or it's put in where there isn't mains electricity available and the cost is less of a problem (although solar panels/wind generators and storage batteries are usually a better solution in those sorts of locations). Micro-hydro won't work properly for long unattended.

79:

Graydon @74: Yes, _the_ steel mill, one steel mill for 4 million people is probably more than you have... anyway:

That mill uses an unusual (titanomagnetite) ore. Normal blast furnaces don't produce steel if you feed them that stuff. Although Glenbrook do use coal as source of reducing carbon, a lot of the energy requirements for the plant come from electricity. Bear in mind that as well as the refining, smelting and working steel use LOTS of energy. Ever visited a steel refinery? You can feel the heat coming off various things from about 100 metres away.

"Sensitivity to initial conditions", AKA chaos theory, says that you can't predict what a system will do just because you know some of the inputs. We've cleared millions of acres of forest without worrying about how it would affect wind patterns (and apparently it has had a measurable effect on where rain falls in Western Australia). Why should we suddenly get squeamish about that for wind turbines?

80:

Graydon @ 74: "The NZ steel mill . . . is like every other steel mill powered by coal (because we as a species *don't have another way to make steel*)"

Data point: when I last toured the steel mill a few miles north of my home (in Seattle) a few weeks ago, it was still using the type of electric arc furnace which requires rather substantial amounts of electricity, but only operationally insignificant quantities of carbon compounds (added to the pot, to adjust the carbon content of the finished steel to the desired level). Not surprisingly, most of the power actually used to produce the steel is from the hydro facilities with which the region is rather generously sprinkled.

Now, this type of "mini-mill" steel plant is optimized to use scrap steel as its primary material input, rather than the types of iron ore commonly associated with blast furnace operations, which do typically use a lot of coal in their processes. However, with the huge amount of scrap steel feedstock available, and the operational cost advantages of the "mini-mill" approach, it's now possible to produce a lot of steel, as long as you have a sufficiently reliable baseload of electrical power available, from any type or combination of sources.

81:

AGAIN
Tell me something I didn't know already.
What I want to know is why Stirling-engine developers use (less efficient) but more practical working "fluids" than Hydrogen - in terms of the previous discussion of lower efficiency, but MUCH lower costs .....
You want, actually, a relatively large molecule, with lowish vapour pressure, that is nonetheless a good heat cycler.
Any suggestions?
I'm a physicist/engineer (retired) not a chemist.

82:

Greg@81: Stirling cycle engines are meant for low-temperature-differential operation (typically 100-250 Celsius degrees in solar plant), to extract energy from that difference and turn it into something useful like electricity. Sadly the Carnot cycle tells us this will not be an efficient process and so the Stirling engine designers have to use every trick they know to make the engine as efficient as possible to justify using Stirling engines for the job rather than just using simple well-proven steam turbines which are less efficient than a theoretical Stirling engine using hydrogen in the displacer, but you can buy turbines off-the-shelf today.

Graydon@74: I think the reason those Sandia solar concentrators aren't widely deployed is because of capital construction costs. Each "dish" is big, fragile, it moves X-Y to track the sun and each one has its own generator. There are better simpler solar concentrator systems out there -- they use a fixed parabolic trough which doesn't track the sun and hence is less efficient but the capital and maintenance costs are much less.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Energy_Generating_Systems

The SEGS plants are deployed and have been operational since the early 1990s, generating real saleable electricity. Similar large installations are planned or going ahead elsewhere in Spain and Australia.

83:

Graydon @74: Cheers for those links. I shall have an in-depth read, though I note the abstract from the first says "wind power has a negligible effect on global-mean surface temperature, and it would deliver enormous global benefits by reducing emissions of CO2 and air pollutants", which is rather what we're after.

Yes, there's no way around using coal for the reduction reaction, which means that nukes aren't a help here either.

(Although Lanzatech, one of NZ's shinest startups, is working away at capturing carbon back from the flue gases via algae. God knows about the economics at this stage.)

Turbulence might be important in moving nutrients from dust around once it gets into the oceans, but other effects are the stratification that comes with increased warming, giving a nutrient and CO2 rich layer at the surface and preventing downwards transport of nutrients to below, changes to marine snow composition, UV stress from the ozone hole and changed offshore dust from changed on-shore land use patterns. Oh, and the on-going unsustainable rape that is the fishing industry. Right now, it's anyone's guess which of these effects will have most impact on ocean productivity (after fishing). Reduced waves due to marine power isn't seen as one of the big issues, though more research might change matters.

84:

Sneddon@82 IIRC, there were proposals to use Stirling cycle engine's in O'Neill's solar power satellite. Again iirc, the conclusion was that even the solar cells of the day beat using a heat engine when all the figures were toted up. Speaking of which good point on the hydro @78. Let's say that a worker clearing out debris from the intakes and performing other simple tasks makes $40K/yr. So in one week, he makes $800, and if you divide that up amongst four hydro plants, that's $200. Now, let's say on the output side you're pushing ten kilowatts; to make things easier, let's say there are 200 hours in a week, so that the total output over a week from this plant is 2000 kWh. Then simple maintenance costs alone will run you ten cents a kWh.

Isn't the internet great! Looking up my provider, I see that I'm paying about $0.09/kWh. The point here being at when people are talking about 'smaller and greener', labor costs start to really take off. You need those economies of scale so that instead of paying ten cents a kWh for labor costs, you're paying half that or less. Otherwise utility rates - even assuming coal is delivered to the doorstep of your local power plant gratis(That is no cost for either the coal itself or for hauling it in) - would be much higher than they are now. That's the real cost saver for those pocket nuclear plants, the modular pebble bed reactors everyone is going on about. Well, that and the insurance :-)

85:

T here is plenty of energy out there - wind, solar, hydro etc. - but that a lot of it isn't there when you need it and when you factor in CO2 emissions there doesn't seem to be any way of avoiding Nuclear power in one form or another and its something people need to face up to.

I live in Devon and I find it unbelievable that we haven't got around to building a tidal barrage on the Severn estuary - projects like this can generate meaningful amounts of power. I suppose though that we will probably always need big power stations too; although I've been thinking a lot about things like micro power generation. What are the economics if every house in the UK had Photo Voltaic Cells on the roof (for instance) - how would this change things? And does anybody know how much power is wasted in transmission?

86:

Charlie @47: Sounds like Ceramicrete. It's more expensive than regular concrete, but has some interesting advantages--frex, the pH during the curing process runs between 4 and 8, way lower than regular concrete. So you can use it with embedded aluminum components and not have to worry about eating them away.

87:

John @85: The Severn tidal barrage was costed out thirty years ago and the numbers didn't add up -- the amount of energy it would return versus the amount of energy required to construct it makes it a marginal proposition to start with, never mind the maintenance and running costs. A barrage also destroys the Severn estuary's mud flats for miles upstream. This is a critical wading bird habitat that makes up a major feeding ground for many migratory bird species, some of which would go extinct if the barrage was put in place.

If a lot of houses had photovoltaic cells on the roof the death and maiming rate from falling accidents would increase dramatically -- solar cells need crud cleaned off them pretty regularly, plus general repairs etc. to replace failing modules and that requires someone to go up on the roof to do the job. If it's done by a contractor it will need a cherrypicker to be hired but if the building is taller than the cherrypicker can reach then scaffolding will be required; it's not a job for the amateur handyman. I live in a block of flats with five floors on a busy street. Doing anything on the roof costs at least a thousand quid in scaffolding costs day one.

Energy wasted in transmission -- how long is a piece of string? It can be worked out for given circumstances such as the distance, the voltage carried on the transmission cables, the types of conductors used, the efficiency of the up and down conversion stages, the local air temperatures etc. The expense of reducing losses in a given situation might well exceed the value of the electricity saved in the process in which case the existing line losses are tolerated. It's a balancing act.

88:

The Indians are going to be building Thorium Cycle Reactors, and last I heard the Chinese were investing heavily in pebble bed technology.

Note that pebble bed reactors are low proliferation and importantly self regulating like the thorium cycle ractors, but add ease of handling nuclear materials, and are modular and scalable.

Meanwhile the West is thinking about maybe, possibly, if we ever get around to it, building a few more CANDU heavy water reactors.

I think the smart money is on the Chinese and the pebble beds simply due to the scalability factor (they can be built as small at 10 megawatt economically) but either way the West is going to find themselves well behind the power curve.

89:

@Robert (86) - I don't think it's that simple. There are studies for the Severn Barrage going on all the time - and I find it hard to believe that the most recent figures date from 30 years. For sure if you just dam the entire estuary then it will cause havoc to things like the mud flats (whether or not that is a price worth paying is a different argument) - however I believe that there have been other proposals that don't involve damming the entire estuary but which involve either creating lagoons in the middle or just having tethered generation machinery.

Anyway everything has to be looked at in context. The taxation system in all areas is always biased some business models and some technologies will always be favoured over others and manipulating the taxation system is going to part of any energy solution.

Whether or not things like PV become economic in this country is a matter of both changing technology (i.e. cost per unit generated) and taxation - but what that really means is simply it is dependent on government policy.

90:

John @89: I wish folks would read the links I post sometimes. Because maybe I anticipated some questions by posting a link to the answers in advance?

Without Hot Air, page 87 (in chapter 14) talks about the Severn Barage, with footnotes and references. In total, tidal power -- including the Severn barage, tidal lagoons, and tidal stream farms -- could deliver up to 11kWh/d per person in the UK. Our current energy requirement is 195kWh/d per person. (See Chapter 18). If we ditched the defense sector, all flights, all shiny consumer gadgets, and 50% of our car journeys, we'd still need 140kWh/d per person. This would bring us within the margin of sustainability from 100% environmental energy sources -- but only by a narrow margin, at the cost of going onto a wartime austerity footing, covering the whole land area in wind farms and solar panels, and having to import food to make up for the land area taken over by energy production. (In practice, I don't think we can do that without major economic dislocation, which in turn would reduce our marginal ability to deploy environmentally friendly technologies.)

Now, the USA is another matter. They've got New Mexico, Arizona, and large chunks of Texas that are eminently suitable for solar/wind energy and very lightly utilized at present. Transmission losses across continental distances are going to hurt, but using solar power to produce oil via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis is one possibility; ditto algae farms for biodiesel, and that kind of thing. They've got the low-population-density land area. Whereas large chunks of Western Europe are on a par with Japan in the over-population stakes.

If we want a solar powered Great Britain, we should be outsourcing the solar panels to Libya (population: 6.5 million, one tenth that of the UK: land area, 1.76 million km^2 -- seven times that of the UK) and building a transmission super-grid to connect North Africa to Southern Europe.

91:

Charly @ 90

Outsourcing our power supply to Khadaffi? That'll be interesting..

92:

L2GZ: Gaddafi is 67; he won't be around forever.

93:

There's an interesting thought - countries like Saudi Arabia can still produce synthetic oil for export by virtue of their vast solar resources. There's also the possibility that after the oil rush these countries can sell themselves as a natural depo for spent nuclear waste. These mid-East states seem like a worrisome trouble spot in the late 21st century. Their oil dries up, their player status diminishes, they have no other commodity they can sell on the open market . . . what's left? Especially after the first world abandons after pumping them for all they were worth? Conveniently, the U.S. abandons Israel under some vague regional determinism principle and from there, it's just a hop, skip, and jump to the first nuclear detonation during wartime in over a century. Quite possibly, also the first nuclear exchange between countries, ever.

94:

Stross begins with a number of errors. Most of the world's nuclear power plant, being adapted from naval propulsion plants, is in fact quite well adapted to civilian use, because military ship designers want the same things in a ship power plant that anyone would want in any power plant. He speaks of resistance to weapon proliferation, and nuclear power stations with naval ancestry have been perfect in this regard in practice, if not in theory.

He may be right about Magnox plants, designed for two trades and therefore masters of neither, having actually accomplished some weapon Pu production. Certainly Britain's first Pu producer had no attached heat engine, and therefore did not have to run hot. Since heat suppresses fission, a lower operating temperature allows a reactor's minimum size to be smaller. That is why Windscale ran cool enough that it was able to accumulate Wigner energy and then, releasing it, set itself on fire. Well, that, and the air-cooling.

And why would the fuel have to be *cheaper*? Already uranium costs only about $110,000 per tonne, versus natgas at two million dollars per tonne-U-equivalent -- plus tax. In Europe, I think it's several million. Natural gas and petroleum subsidize Western governments, so the comparative cheapness of uranium makes it a large thorn in their sides. Thus, all the cool kids refer to the many antinuclear moles that must be ever and again whacked as *petrodollar* moles. This doesn't mean the oil *companies* are behind them; it means the oil *interests* are, and these interests include government.


--- G.R.L. Cowan ('How fire can be domesticated')

95:

"Doing anything on the roof costs at least a thousand quid in scaffolding costs day one."

No - I just got 4m^2 of solar thermal put on mine, and the total scaffolding cost was 2 guys for 8 hours, for a 30ft roof which is a pig to get onto compared to your usual 2-up 2-down terrace or 3-bed semi. They subbed for it on a flat rate of £200 a shot, which certainly a loss as far as my house was concerned, but £400 would probably have covered it. That was for 2x 40kg panels plus plumbing - nipping up with a mop on a stick would not need such hassle.

OTOH, I take your general point. Widespread amateur solar = a lot more headers. A bit like satellite telly in that respect, then.

96:

Chris, trust me (you don't live in central Edinburgh) Robert's cost estimate for scaffolding is on the nail, for central Edinburgh. Also? A typical Scottish five story tenement block doesn't come with a roofline 30 feet up, it's more like 60. (Ten foot ceilings in all rooms, traditionally.) There's all sorts of council paperwork to file before you can stick scaffolding up, not to mention careful planning as to precisely when you can do it -- no parking at certain times of day (for values of "parked cars will be towed immediately"), for example.

97:

Charlie @96:
I grant the central Edinburgh context of your situation, but fortunately for you most people in the UK don't live in central Edinburgh (even if it feels like they all come to visit in August).

I would hazard that 2-4 bed terraces and semis constitute a large fraction of the nation's housing stock (it describes my house fr'instance) and those are a much more tractable form factor for domestic solar. A significant deployment of solar thermal (or perhaps the hybrid PV/T units that you can get nowadays) won't be applicable for some people (ie. you) but just as there won't be one single solution, so each partial solution doesn't have to be universal.

Of course domestic solar may well not be worth the candle once you do a full lifecycle analysis of the societal costs and benefits (that's what Mackay's book attempts, no? - ISTR he prefers heat pumps for domestic heating). From what I've seen on my recent trips to Germany they've gone nuts for domestic solar solutions over there, but they're still planning to build a bunch of new coal burners to do their energetic heavy lifting - which is definitely a data point against the strategy.

Regards
Luke

98:

Charly @ 92

Granted Gahdaffi won't be around forever, but I'm sure someone said the same about Khomeini...

My point is that the moment hugely influential business consortia become Europe's prime interface with any region, all of our human rights politics go out of the window.
And double that when natural resources are at stake; you don't need *half* as much infrastructure to pump oil as you need to sew sneakers.
Given that those pesky democracies will inevitably try and organize some sort of economy for the population, well.. anyone who delivers energy to Europe is fucked.
We're not even more polite about it than the US is.

And you can't expect tomorrow politicians to be more human rights minded than today's batch- in fact I know you expect nothing of the kind.

So perhaps you might consider we really need to look inside Europe for solutions...

99:

L2GX: Isolationist much?

100:

Pessimism about the political consequences of basing very large percentages of the european energy supply in north africa doesnt make you an isolationist, just somewhat worried. - Its the sort of thing I really wouldnt like to see happen unless the countries in question had joined the union, just due to strategic concerns. And even in a situation where north africa could be considered "home territory" and the price had dropped to a reasonable point, it would still likely only really make economic sense for daytime peak load (because used in this manner, storage doesnt become such a nightmarish issue)

101:

If Libya won't play ball, there's Algeria (where there's a long historic connection with France -- some very bad, but some not so bad). Or Egypt.

More to the point -- to what extent are the middle east's political problems aggravated by them being exporters of raw material within a fungible market, where the price is volatile due to constraints outside the supplying country's reach, rather than a market with a limited customer base (because you can't easily export electricity across intercontinental distances)?

Another possibility: use all that sunlight not for electricity but for fuel synthesis. There are some leads here ...

102:

"If Libya won't play ball, there's Algeria..."

Plus Morocco and Tunisia (both more convenient for western europe interconnects than Egypt).

Tunisia is the least problematic from a human rights/regime nastiness perspective.

Regards
Luke

103:

@ all about isolationism.

If it's about not letting our dogs shit on other people's lawns.. yeah!

You can talk realpolitik all you want, but at the end of the day our politicians let the populations in those countries suffer.
They do so because our corporations tell them it's necessary, omelet and egg etc.
Our corporations tell them so because they need to turn a profit.
End of the line.

If you want practical examples, read your newspapers, but rest assured that if Africa is the mess it is, you can go back and name those responsable, and the decisions were not made in Africa.
Strong African leaders have a habit of getting whacked or bombed, or shot out of the air, executed... on Western orders.
Not because we want to export chicken at killer prices (although we do) but because our business tells our governments that that is what's required to get the uranium, gas, coltan,...

Same for the middle east. And China (although we're talking 'investment opportunities' there, not resources).
Etc.

We want secretaries of development to help Africa and their very first brief is about zero sum games, those backstabbing bastards across the atlantic, the yellow threat and what will happen to the country if they fail to keep the whole bloody machine rolling.

/running out of breath here but not rant.

TL/DNR:

Companies lie to our governments to get them to do things we don't want our governments to do.
The result is the shit-heap of a planet we find ourselves on.
However those lying bastards winning streak is over.
Please don't give them more power.


104:
and their very first brief is about zero sum games
And this is one primary cause of the current international scene: as long as you insist the world is a zero-sum game, you can justify almost any kind of action on the basis of survival. The fact that human culture, and especially technology, creates a strong non-zero component of both economics and politics seems to have been missed by most people. Education about this concept might be helpful, though I expect that many of the rich and powerful alive today are never going to get the point.
105:

While moving to the thorium cycle is a good first step, I think what holds the greatest promise for the future would be a single fluid molten-salt fueled reactor (operating on the thorium cycle).

see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten_salt_reactor

One of the great advantages of the design is that it can actually be used to burn the waste from current solid fuel reactors and produce less then a 10th of the waste of current solid fuel designs (with lower radioactivity and and a fraction of the half-life).

What I don't understand is why absolutely nothing has been done in that direction since the Oak Ridge National Laboratory reactor (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten-Salt_Reactor_Experiment ) shut down in the 1960's, despite everything I can find about it pointing to highly successful test (The costly cleanup of the site in the last couple of years is a result of simply turning the reactor off and letting it sit with it's fuel in place for 40 years instead of properly decommissioning it).

I would guess the most likely reason why there is no further work done on MSFR's is because of the inkjet effect. It's my understanding that nuclear reactors are usually built at-cost and the REAL money is made by selling the fuel rods with large profit margins. Which naturally wouldn't work with a reactor design that doesn't require any complex fuel assemblies and which is able to do all fuel reprocessing on site.

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