Monday, February 23, 2015

Nuclear and renewable energy might consider an alliance against carbon

While researching another article, I found this:
"Some of the earliest documented instances of opposition to the development of commercial nuclear power in the United States originated from designated representatives of the coal industry. They were the first people to mount sustained opposition to the use of taxpayer money to support the development of nuclear power stations."
That is from Rod Adams and the Atomic Insights blog. That article runs at length describing the beating coal was taking from nuclear power in the 60s and how coal used proxies to hobble nuclear power. As I read that article, it became clear to me that nuclear and renewables had a common enemy: coal. I've never seen any evidence to suggest that the nuclear industry lobbied against renewable energy. But here, it's plain to see that coal did not like the competition it was getting from nuclear.

Coal isn't the only lobby working furiously to ensure that nuclear remains a cottage industry. Mr. Adams believes that coal, oil and gas together have been happy to help the antinuclear crowd with financing and talking points:
"My analysis of the same events includes a wider range of actors, puts some blame on the antinuclear industry, and points to the underlying financial support for all who oppose nuclear energy that is available from the coal, oil and gas establishment, a group for whom the dream of unlimited amounts of clean power is a nightmare of epic proportions."
In a nutshell, the renewable power lobby might just be an unwitting useful tool of the carbon interests, a pawn offered to trip up nuclear power, to delay as long as humanly possible, mainstream discovery of what nuclear power has to offer. Take a look at the chart below:
Notice the incredibly slow rate of progress of renewables and nuclear. Notice also that coal use remains relatively constant for the next 25 years, while natural gas yawns wide into a dominant position edging out coal only slightly. This is the best estimate we have from our own government to project where our energy will come from. This is based on current and projected public policy outcomes. Hear that phrase, "public policy"?

The solution to our energy problems is not a question of technical knowhow. This is a question of political will. Coal, gas and oil will be nearly impossible to displace unless nuclear gets a clear shot at dominance in production in the near term. I've never seen nuclear power interests lobby against solar - OK, maybe I didn't look hard enough, but it would be obvious in my search results if they did. I believe that renewable power and nuclear power are not mutually exclusive nor are they adversaries.

I've also had a chance to watch Pandora's Promise on Netflix. It is well worth the watch even if they don't delve too much into thorium. What is important here is that some environmentalists are waking up to see that they need nuclear to win the fight against coal, oil and gas. Sure, the movie has it's critics. Every movie has critics. But in this case, there is a cogent rebuttal from a practicing nuclear engineer who knows what he's talking about and can separate the hype from reality.

Look at that chart again and see the overwhelming power and force of coal and gas. If renewables ever had an ally, it's nuclear power. Why? Nuclear power can scale like no other energy source on earth because the energy density of nuclear is a million times greater than the carbon-hydrogen bond. Nuclear power can make carbon fuels obsolete with a smaller footprint, in a shorter amount of time than renewables can do it. Nuclear is a great mid-term solution to the energy problem until renewables can get some traction.

In my review of the supposed conflict between nuclear and renewables, both lobbies seem to have missed a common adversary: carbon. Both can often be found fighting each other when they really should be working together. Renewable energy is obviously the best long term solution, but both nuclear and renewables reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

In case anyone wondered, both involve mining. Obviously, nuclear power requires mining, but if we use thorium as the fuel and spent uranium fuel as a source of neutrons to get thorium going, then mining is minimized. Thorium is a by-product of rare-earth mineral mining as well, and rare-earth mineral mining isn't going away anytime soon.

On the other hand, solar and wind advocates seem reluctant to admit that solar power requires mining. Here, the Mining News provides some details about the need for minerals in the solar industry:

"Renewable energy requires metals and minerals The increased production of renewable energy is also driving increased demand for mined metals and minerals. New solar panels require arsenic, bauxite, boron, cadmium, coal, copper, gallium, indium, iron ore, molybdenum, lead, phosphate, selenium, silica, tellurium, and titanium dioxide.[3] Wind turbines use concrete, bauxite, cobalt, copper, iron ore, molybdenum and rare earth elements.[4] The rare earth elements (REE), also known as rare earth metals, are particularly important in wind turbines as they reduce the weight and size needed for magnets in wind turbines.[5] - See more at: http://www.miningfacts.org/Blog/Mining-News/Mining-needed-to-meet-mineral-needs-of-renewable-energy/#sthash.xpxOkO0e.dpuf"
The long term solution (centuries) is renewables because they will capture energy from the sun, the moon and the core of the earth. Solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy can do it all. But given the dominance of carbon now, renewables are going to need a lot of help to catch up if that chart is accurate. They need to see nuclear as an ally not an enemy, and vice versa. Together, they can be an effective force against the carbon interests and they have good reason to work together. They are simply not big enough to defeat the carbon interests alone. But working together would combine their power. They are not mutually exclusive. Even nuclear power can recycle spent fuel and nuclear warheads as fuel. They recycle.

Ultimately, it comes down to fundamental campaign finance reform. Nuclear and renewables are not going to make much headway unless we deal with the money in politics. Look again at that chart above. That chart is a reflection of public policy and as long as big money influences politics, well, carbon has the money and they are going to make the rules until we remove the influence of money in politics.

It can be done, but it will take time. Here are two resources to consider:

Mayday.us
Friends of Democracy
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