Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Greens Go Nuclear?

First off, I need to apologize for the recent lack of posting on my part, but things have been a bit busier now that school is back in session. However, I can guarantee that we have not yet gone the way of Andrew Sullivan. Of course, some people might want us to stop blogging as they believe we are in fact worse than convicts (yep, that's right, convicts come after Renaissance Men.) Humorous linking aside, I've also been busy working on a piece for the University of Maryland student paper. I'll withhold details for now until it *hopefully* gets published. Come back here for more information later.

Okay, onto my actual post:
I originally intended to put much of this into our Real State of the Union post, but for the aforementioned reasons I never got around to it.

Shortly after Nick asked his question (and received the only praise from the moderator the entire night-- Score 1 Nick), I asked James Fallows about energy policy in relation to a point he made in his latest piece:
Why has America had a harder time lately pushing its vision of justice? The need for oil drenches America in hypocrisy

I referenced the argument espoused by Gregg Easterbrook in the pages of The New Republic that simple changes such as cutting back on useless and counterproductive horsepower and making modest gains in fuel efficiency in order to rather painlessly eliminate our independence on Gulf State oil in about a decade (see first Easterbrook link for more on this).

Fallows agreed with my point, and also proceeded to clarify his use of the word "justice," and Nick may shortly be doing a post on this somewhat seperate topic. However, linking oil to foreign policy has been a favorite pasttime of first dove-liberals decrying oil as a motivation for the Iraq war, and interestingly enough "green neocons" today. (Of course, I think care needs to be taken with this label. First off Neocon is used to describe just about any kind of conservative nowadays, and just because Iraq Hawks who may have previously made unfounded arguments are embracing intelligent energy policy doesn't necessarily make for any new breed.) While Matthew Yglesias rejects the notion that a reduction in oil dependence should be couched in geopolitical terms, he at least recognizes the environmental imperative.

When Congressman Roscoe Bartlett visited the University of Maryland last semester, he said "My grandfather witnessed the birth of the age of oil. My grandson will witness the death of the age of oil." After all, we are going to probably be running out of sustainable petroleum reserves sometime this century. Bartlett also agrees that our dependence on oil further complicates geopolitical affairs, and he is actually the owner of a hybrid vehicle. Of course even modest gains in hybrid sales can't counterbalance the evil done by SUVs as, Easterbrook has argued. The next logical step past hybrids is of course the much hyped "Hydrogen Economy" which the eventually disappearing petroleum reserves will practically necessitate.

Now, the problem with the Hydrogen Economy is that a great deal of energy is still needed in order to create the zero-emission hydrogen fuel, and burning fossil fuels for this task is very counterproductive to the whole idea. If only there were some method of energy production that were cheap, non-polluting, and with decades of engineering and research, known results and expenses. Well, such a method of production does exist, and it's called Nuclear Power. (Warning: LONG article but well worth the read) Nuclear energy is much safer and more efficient than it was several decades ago as a result of engineering advances made in foreign markets while the U.S. had put a halt to any future production. The Wired article isn't an advocate of the Yucca Mountain solution to spent fuel, but the only reason this argument holds up is because the author is an advocate of reprocessing the spent fuel. Otherwise Yucca is still the only scientifically sound choice.

In fact, nuclear is right now just about the only viable energy option for ever expanding worldwide energy demand and depleting petroleum reserves. Hopefully the Greens, Neocons, and people all around the political spectrum will come to see this reality, and according to the Wired article, a consensus seems to be forming about the great potential for investing in a Nuclear future. Regardless of alleviating geopolitical concerns (which to me seems fairly plausible-- at least to a certain extent), it's a great move for the environment and for the stability of our economy. I don't have the article on hand to link to here, but a few weeks ago I remember reading about how Japan's economy is so much less affected by the international energy market as a result of producing the majority of their energy via nuclear power.


At 6:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Chris -
While I certainly agree with you that better reactor design has obviated most of the safety concerns that historically plagued the nuclear industry, I'd hesitate to endorse it as being "just about the only viable energy option."

From what I've read, there simply isn't all that much uranium in the world. The World Energy Council reported a few years ago that there are about 2.96 million tons of uranium recoverable at $50/lb. Current market prices for uranium are pretty volatile but have ranged from about $7/lb to $16/lb, so $50 uranium represents going after what would today be considered very marginal stocks of the element. Now, 2.96 million tons of uranium sounds like a lot - until one realizes that nuclear power, the use of which would have to be increased almost tenfold to meet the world's current energy needs (and significantly more as the human race's energy consumption continues to rise at 2-3% a year), currently consumes about 60,000 tons of the stuff a year. Assuming a tenfold increase in nuclear power generation, we can expect our uranium supply to run out in roughly 50 years, and for nuclear-generated electricity to cost several times more per kW-hour than it does today.

This isn't to say that nuclear power is totally worthless. Fifty years is a long time, and in reality nuclear power will remain only a fraction of the world energy supply - and so last a lot longer. Ultimately, its worth remembering that uranium is just as nonrenewable a resource as coal or oil, albeit one that doesnt pollute, or have the negative geopolitical consequences that fossil fuel extraction does.

At 10:15 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Nick- Not necessarily. Reprocessing spent fuel can greatly increase uranium reserves because spent fuel still maintains about 95% of its energy content (see Wired article linked to in post). Thus, 50 years would only be 5% of the available energy of the current uranium reserves meaning roughly about 1000 years of nuclear power. Not to mention the fact that we can, although currently for a much more significant cost, mine for uranium in the ocean. This will become a viable option once economically necessitated, and we'll probably develop cheaper, more efficient ways of doing it than we have now.

At 10:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris -
I would like to point you to the idea that the world might not be in such a horrible state right now. And though I will not disagree that fossil fuels pollute, this pollution seems to be causing less problems than many people suggest. I refer you to The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjorn Lomborg. He is a lifelong member of all the green organizations of the world that decided to sit down and actually look at the numbers. Granted this is a long read, and I don't have it in front of me to point out specific passages, but after reading it I found that the so called "pollution scare" is no more than just a scare, relatively unfounded, and should not be used as a basis for judgement. Also, I would like to refer you to "Has global oil production peaked?" (http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0129/p14s01-wogi.html) which clearly shows that the world has used at most 23% of all oil reserves in the 2 centuries. Factor in some growth, assume that oild use will rise at a steady 2% rate, and we are still looking at another 400 years of oild usage at the least.
Looking at the stats the argument for cleaner fuel is not refuted, but is at least put into perspective. Cleaner fuel is important, but so is a cure for cancer, HIV/AIDS, and Alzheimer's, and I would put these three before the supposed fuel crisis. You should know by now that it is impossible to fight every battle.


At 12:29 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Chris - breeder reactors certainly do extend the viability of nuclear fission by an order of magnitude or two, by converting atomically inert U-235 to the quite fissile Pu-239 (in fact, I was under the impression that the natural ratio of U-238 to U-235 is about 180:1, although maybe that attenuates down to 20:1 when you factor in the energy cost of plutonium conversion). In an ideal world, breeder reactors would represent a very efficient way to approach the problem of power generation.

But we live in a world where our government can't even get its shit together long enough to lock up Russia's vast supply of tactical nukes. And we've had almost 15 years to do this. If the threat of nuclear proliferation seems bad now, imagine what it would be like in a world with not only many more nuclear reactors, but with dozens of breeder reactors churning out large quantities of Pu-239 on a regular basis. Keep in mind that Pu-239 is significantly more fissile than any isotope of uranium. Terrorists trying to make a nuclear weapon don't have to bother with things like neutron reflectors or implosion charges if they have access to Pu-239 - all they have to do is assemble 22 pounds of the stuff in a suitcase-sized space and it'll go off on its own. Unless something close to absolute security could be guaranteed for these breeder reactors (and whatever way they transport the plutonium they produce to other reactors), I'm not sure the vastly increased risk in nuclear terrorism is worth it.

At 12:36 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Quick correction: breeder reactors convert U-238, not U-235, to plutonium.

At 12:56 AM, Blogger Chris said...

AV- Funny you should point me in the direction of Lomborg's "Skeptical Environmentalist" as I actually read it over a year ago. In fact, while working on the post I considered linking to his book page, but decided to leave that for a later post I'm thinking of working on about other environmental issues.

I'll have to do some more research to come to a better conclusion about oil reserves, but I would at least *hope* that Congressman Bartlett had done some quality research in order to create his view that we would be running out of oil in the coming century. In regards to Lomborg's points, I don't think that they contradict mine. In fact, I think they support my assertions because, as the Wired article stipulates, Nuclear power will be necessitated by economic forces in the near future if we are to switch to the Hydrogen economy. I also agree that there are certainly plenty more issues to talk about other than energy policy, but while a somewhat dry and uninteresting topic to most, it has great significance for all of us.

I remembered just now where I read that point about Japan: In the Jan/Feb issue of the Atlantic, pg. 54, there is a blurb on a report bpublished by the Baker Institute for Public Policy of Rice University which concluded that Japan's shift to dependence on Nuclear power would save japan $20 billion in GDP if the price of oil rose 25%....Which brings me to my next point: Even if we still have a good deal of oil around *theoretically* it can get very difficult to actually get to and thus more expensive. All I'm saying here is that nuclear power poses a lot less environmental risks than fossil fuel, is economically viable, and has known capacity for production.

Nick- Good points all. Certainly security would have to be taken into account, but I'm not so sure that our failure to reign in the former Soviet Union's nuclear material means we won't have the capacity to protect our own domestic energy production facilities. Yes, we would have to think about and spend a great deal on security, but let's face it, we have nuclear reactors generating about 20% of our energy nationally right now, and nobody is saying that we should shut them down for fear of terrorist attacks. (Rather, many people clamour to say we shouldn't store the spent fuel in Yucca and would prefer the plants to keep it where it is where it is theoretically more vulnerable to attack or theft.)

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, I have come to recognize (in the several times that I checked this page) that the most verbose entries always belong to you. Not an insult, just an observation. I would love to read your entry, but I simply do not have the time right now; I just wanted to say hi. I know that the high brow nature of your blog is not a forum for comments such as the one I am posting, but we can't all be perfect. My apologies. Jude Law.


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