“We Need an Energy Miracle”

So says, Bill Gates in an interview that was recently published by The Atlantic1.

A number of salient points were raised and the commitment of Mr. Gates to combat climate change is impressive as are his insightful views on solutions. In essence, he believes that the answer to the further destruction of our planet from climate change will come through a dramatic increase in R&D spending. He has pledged to commit $2 billion himself.


I read often about the energy market argument that gradually transitioning from oil and coal to natural gas is a solution and like Gates, believe this is an unacceptable outcome. Gates suggests we need a carbon-free source of energy and that innovation at an unnaturally high-pace is required. He would like to see $18 billion a year invested from the U.S. government alone on R&D.


Unfortunately, he understates the immediacy of a need for remedial change when he discusses the negatives of the present day alternatives and in particular nuclear power. Pertinent extract from the interview as follows:


“Wind has grown super-fast, on a very subsidized basis. Solar, off a smaller base, has been growing even faster—again on a highly subsidized basis. But it’s absolutely fair to say that even the modest R&D that’s been done, and the various deployment incentives that are there, have worked well. Now, unfortunately, solar photovoltaic is still not economical, but the biggest problem of all is this intermittency. That is, we need energy 24 hours a day. So, putting aside hydro—which unfortunately can’t grow much—the primary new zero-CO2 sources are intermittent. Now, nuclear is a non-CO2 source, but it’s had its own problems in terms of costs, big safety problems, making sure you can deal with the waste, making sure the plutonium isn’t used to make weapons. So my view is that the biggest problem for the two lead candidates is that storage looks to be so difficult. It’s kind of ironic: Germany, by installing so much rooftop solar, has it that both their coal plants and their rooftop solar are available in the summer, and the price of power during the day actually goes negative—they pay people to take it. Then at night the only source is the coal, and because the energy companies have to recover their capital costs, they either raise the price because they’re not getting any return for the day, or they slowly go bankrupt.”


Let’s address his concerns with nuclear power:

Big Safety Issues

Nuclear, in my opinion, is by far the safest method of generating power in the world. Natural sources account for most of the radiation we all receive each year. The nuclear fuel cycle does not give rise to significant radiation exposure for members of the public, and even in two major nuclear accidents – Three Mile Island and Fukushima – exposure to radiation has caused no harm to the public.


Radiation protection standards assume that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, involves a possible risk to human health. This deliberately conservative assumption is increasingly being questioned. Of course, every death is a tragedy, but significantly more people have died working in the coal and oil industries relative to the nuclear industry - by an enormous factor (see my blog of May 7, 2014)



Plutonium

Over one-third of the energy produced in most nuclear power plants comes from plutonium. It is created in the reactor as a by-product. Plutonium recovered from reprocessing normal reactor fuel is recycled as mixed-oxide fuel (MOX). However, in practical terms, there are two different kinds of plutonium to be considered: reactor-grade and weapons-grade. The first is recovered as a by-product of typical used fuel from a nuclear reactor, after the fuel has been irradiated ('burned') for about three years. The second is made especially for the military purpose, and is recovered from uranium fuel that has been irradiated for only 2-3 months in a plutonium production reactor. I question how well Mr Gates understands the use and application of plutonium.


Storage

His concluding concern is that storage is too difficult but he is wrong. Like all industries, the thermal generation of electricity produces wastes. Whatever fuel is used, these wastes must be managed in ways which safeguard human health and minimise their impact on the environment. Nuclear power is the only energy industry which takes full responsibility for all its wastes, and costs this into the product.


Nuclear power is characterised by the very large amount of energy available from a very small amount of fuel. The amount of waste is correspondingly very small. However, much of the waste is radioactive and therefore must be carefully managed as hazardous waste. Since radioactive wastes are essentially created in a nuclear power reactor, it is accepted that they are the responsibility of the country which uses uranium to generate power. There is no moral or legal basis for the responsibility to be elsewhere.


I won’t go into the different types of waste but the greatest risk is from “high-level waste.” High-level waste is very radioactive and people handling them must be shielded from their radiation. Such materials are shipped in special containers which shield the radiation and which will not rupture in an accident.


Solid nuclear waste is produced in minuscule amounts relative to other forms of power. In fact, the average, modern Westerner could receive 100% of her power from nuclear energy for an entire lifetime, and require the production of about enough waste to fill a regular 355 ml can of Coke. The same energy production calculation for coal gets you numbers ranging from 50 to 80 tons, much of which includes airborne CO2. The relatively small amount of nuclear waste involved allows it to be effectively and economically isolated.


In my opinion, there are no grounds to stop nuclear power on the basis of issues with waste. Please see http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Nuclear-Wastes/Waste-Management-Overview/ for more information.


Action is required TODAY, and the best way to deal with halting climate change is through the use of nuclear and other carbon-free sourced energy. R&D is definitely part of the longer term solution, but we can’t wait for the hoped for breakthrough as it may come too late.


1 – The Atlantic, November 2015 Issue. Written by James Bennet and available for viewing at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/11/we-need-an-energy-miracle/407881/

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