Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Atomic Fission Offers a Path that Addresses Climate Change Without Making Ugly Tradeoffs - by Rod Adams

The electricity sector of Kosovo relies on coal-fired power plants (97%) and is considered one of the sectors with the greatest potential of development.  (Photo Credit: IAEA Imagebank via Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Read more at Atomic Fission Offers a Path that Addresses Climate Change Without Making Ugly Tradeoffs

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