Atomic Fission Offers a Path That Addresses Climate Change Without Making Ugly Tradeoffs
Atomic fission is an abundant, natural source of heat from materials that have few competing uses. The heat released by completely fissioning actinide source materials like uranium, thorium or plutonium is 1-10 million times as much as burning the same mass of typical combustible materials.
That energy dense fuel reduces the complexity and operational importance of a continuous fuel delivery infrastructure. If necessary, fission power plant owners could store a lifetime of fuel on site. The primary reason they don’t keep that much fuel around is financial or political, not technical.
Like heat from combustion, heat from fission can be used directly, readily converted into mechanical energy (motion), or be converted into electricity.
All those beneficial features are joined by fact that fission produces such a tiny volume of waste that it can be fully contained and easily stored. Ever since the beginning of the Atomic Age, operators of fission power plants have carefully controlled their waste products to the point where almost every gram of the roughly 250,000 tons currently stored around the world can be readily located.
Fission has been proven to work in almost every location on earth – including the deep ocean – and in the parts of space that humans have explored. Other than the heat source, fission power plants use equipment that is either similar to or identical to the equipment used to put combustion heat to work.
Fission is a simple way to turn water into steam or to heat up gases for expansion through a turbine.
Fission power plants can be built next to operating power plants or on top of decommissioned and dismantled power plants. They fit readily into the already built transmission network, though some upgrades of the lines over certain pathways would be needed to make full use of the systems.
If you believe that addressing climate change is a high or extreme priority, the fact that fission produces no CO2 should be enough to motivate your support.
Since we know about such a capable source of clean energy, why aren’t we using more of it to enable human flourishing? Why are we listening to dire warnings about the demise of civilization as we know it? Why are we accepting limits on expansionary visions and dreams of future prosperity for a steadily growing portion of a growing population?
People who have been reading Atomic Insights for any length of time understand that my answers to those rhetorical questions can be a little complicated. Here’s the pithy version – we aren’t taking full advantage of atomic fission because we still have a lot to learn AND because there is a diverse population of powerful entities who would lose both wealth and power if we were making strides towards erasing our current atomic knowledge gaps.
Some of those entities, however, have their own knowledge deficit that prevents them from realizing that they could benefit greatly by shifting their strategy from atomic opposition to support and investment. (I’ll say more about this idea later.)
I prefer to avoid “ugly tradeoffs”
David Roberts (@drvox) recently published a conversation-stimulating article on Vox titled Reckoning with climate change will demand ugly tradeoffs from environmentalists — and everyone else.
One of this piece’s primary messages is a belief that the existential threat of climate change requires a focused response that prioritizes solutions to the threat above all other concerns. He states that solving climate change is so important that it transcends traditional divisions and labels. He suggests the term “climate hawk” to describe members of a movement that not only recognizes the threat of climate change, but also acts to implement solutions even if they negatively affect other deeply felt values.
He suggests that Environmentalists who claim to be climate hawks will have to give up on a long-standing desire to close existing nuclear plants and large hydroelectric dams, that conservative climate hawks will have to accept the need for more prescriptive and intrusive central planning, liberal climate hawks must accept that greater urban density requires high rise construction and mass transit projects that intrude on their beloved “backyard”, that well-to-do climate hawks might have to get comfortable with imposed restrictions on air travel and consumer goods and that everyone will have to learn to accept the need for massive transmission line projects and reduced expectations of future energy access.
Roberts concludes his piece as follows.
To take that seriously is to support massive, immediate carbon reductions, not only at the level of theory, not only in statements and proclamations and pledges, but in the sense of preferring the lower carbon strategy in every local, city, state, or federal decision, whether it’s about land, housing, transportation, infrastructure, agriculture, taxes, regulations, or lifestyle habits.
It means preferring the lower carbon strategy even if other things you value must be sacrificed, even if the lower carbon strategy is suboptimal in light of your other preferences and priorities.
Judged by that harsh criteria, pure climate hawks are a rare species indeed. None of us can claim purity on that front, so we should show one another compassion. But we should also, at every opportunity, drag our eyes back, unflinching, to the terrible truth.
Blazing a better path to desired outcome.
My understanding of human nature and available solutions leads me to a different conclusion. Though I would never self-identify as a climate hawk, I believe there is a way to effectively mitigate the potential risks by drastically changing our current carbon cycle balance.
If climate change is as dire a threat as Roberts believes, his recommended solution is doomed to be a dangerous failure. It depends on “ugly tradeoffs from Environmentalists – and everyone else.” Any course of action that demands fundamental – and admittedly uncomfortable – changes in both behavior and belief systems from nearly everyone on the planet is asking the impossible.
Aside: Some people believe that nothing is impossible and reject sweeping statements employing the term. I use the word because some circumstances have hypothetical exceptions whose chances of happening are so low they can be ignored from a practical engineering point of view. End Aside.
Roberts’s prescription is the equivalent of a scorched earth approach to winning a war. Nothing else is considered to be as important as victory, so almost any violation of normal behavior and democratic decision-making falls within the bounds of acceptable action if it can be claimed to be part of the war-figging effort.
Such an attitude carries the risk of enabling the equivalent of creating climate hawk “Generals” with the amorality and short-sighted decision-making skills of a Curtis LeMay.
The root of my disagreement with Roberts’s scenario is our opposing views on the value and importance of available power technologies. We disagree on the current and potential capabilities of solar and wind. We also have opposing views on the value and importance of atomic fission.
Roberts grudgingly admits that existing nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams produce large quantities of zero emission power. He’s not so positive about new construction – rightly so, given recent performance on large nuclear construction projects in almost every location other than China and South Korea.
However, even under his proclaimed desire to become a consistent climate hawk, he believes that it is legitimate to be adamant about the closure of certain nuclear plants that have a bad public reputation. He apparently takes for granted the unproven idea that those bad reputations have been earned and fairly represent reality.
For example, he accepts as legitimate the concerns of antinuclear activists and their claim that the Pilgrim nuclear plant is unsafe instead of noting that the plant is still licensed and still allowed to operate by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
That status means that the plant has been judged by responsible, independent professionals to be safe. It might be one of the worst performing nuclear power plants in the US, but that is approximately equivalent to being the slowest runner in an Olympic finals. There is room for improvement, but the objective conclusion is that the plant is reasonably reliable and run by acceptably competent people.
Stop battling fossil fuel
It might seem a little contradictory, but I believe that we can achieve a sustainable, prosperous clean energy economy faster and with less uncertainty if we stop battling against power sources that have been selected as the current bogeyman or odd man out.
We should develop nuclear energy as a capable tool that can make other fuel sources cleaner, easier to transport and more valuable. Instead of positioning atomic energy as an interloper angling for an increasingly large share of an energy supply industry with little growth, we should be using atomic energy to enable expansionary thinking that begins to view kilowatt-hours as being as worth conserving as kilobits on fiberoptic cables or kilobytes on terabyte hard drives.
Growing demand eliminates much of the infighting and technology suppression that we have been experiencing since the early 1970s. It’s time to move forward and embrace growth. There may be limits, but we are not even close to seeing where those limits might be.
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