Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Nuclear and the moral case for energy development

Recently, the Dalai Lama spoke out in favor of the peaceful use of nuclear energy to help bridge the gap between the developed world and the world's poorest, causing quite a stir, particularly among nuclear supporters. In his own words, he said
There is still many developing countries with a huge gap between rich and poor…millions of people’s lives remain under the poverty level and we have to think about these people
I'm arriving somewhat late to the party on this one, coming off the heels of giving five talks at the recent American Nuclear Society conference (incidentally, several of which pertained to nonproliferation education and research). However, there was a point that particularly resonated, similar to what Rod Adams recently touched on and in the theme of the Dalai Lama's comments: specifically, the moral case to be made for energy development. In this respect, I am reminded of the The Obligation of the Engineer, specifically:
Since the stone age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.
Engineers have made usable nature's vast resources of material and energy for humanity's benefit.
As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth's precious wealth. 
When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good.
Many of us who came into the nuclear profession did so out of awareness of the enormous potential nuclear energy holds, particularly in creating a world of energy abundance. In particular, balancing the dual concern of how to continue our current standard of living against pressing environmental concerns (despite my otherwise lack of granola / hippie cache) is part of what drove me into the field of nuclear engineering. Fundamentally, what motivates many in this regard is thus nuclear's capacity to help bridge the gap in what the late resource economist Julian Simon described as the greatest scourge: energy poverty.

Consider for a moment all of the conveniences that afford those of us in the developed world to call ourselves prosperous: homes which are kept comfortable and lit at night, sophisticated medical technology, the capacity to grow, transport, and maintain fresh food over long distances - each of these critically depends upon abundant access to energy. Take away the energy wealth of the developed world and suddenly much of this capacity is lost.

In this vein, nuclear energy is unique in several respects, but most remarkable in the sheer energy density. Fossil fuels (like coal and natural gas) exploit the breaking of chemical carbon bonds to produce energy, which until the discovery of nuclear fission was the most energy-dense process known around. Indeed, this density along with portability is still what makes fossil sources some of the most economical and attractive forms of energy. Nuclear fission takes this to a new dimension, exploiting the fundamental forces of nature (e.g., the strong force which binds the nucleus itself) to harness orders of magnitude greater amounts of energy, without the harmful byproducts of combustion of organic materials, some from combustion itself (carbon dioxide) and some which are inherent to the source (lead, mercury, and sulfur dioxide - i.e., the precursor to acid rain).

Underlying the Dalai Lama's endorsement of nuclear energy development is something nuclear professionals and advocates are keenly aware of: despite the attractiveness of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, they are by nature diffuse and subject to the whims of nature. While there are other professionals (as adamantly  feverant about the idea of energy abundance as any nuclear advocate) who strive to soften the issue of the inherent instability of these sources through technologies such as energy storage, none of this gets around the fact that the density of renewable sources is critically constrained by nature, inherently limiting their ability to provide the level of power of sources such as nuclear without taking enormous amounts of land and resources out of other productive uses.

Relative abundance of elements of earth (Source: Wikipedia)
Nuclear, in particular with the development of new technologies such as grid-appropriate small modular reactors (SMRs) as well as alternative fuel cycles like throrium (yet more abundant in nature than uranium, itself more abundant on earth than silver, and both more abundant than the "rare earth" metals essential for components of wind and solar energy systems) thus has the capacity to provide for energy abundance in the developing world without the rather painful environmental trade-offs developing nations such as China have been forced to make, with their heavy reliance on coal.

Does this mean nuclear is a free lunch? Of course not - something which both the Dalai Lama and I freely acknowledge. Spent fuel is still an issue - although as we have seen, a political challenge rather than a technical one. (Looking beyond, the waste problem is one hardly exclusive to nuclear, either.) And indeed, the Dalai Lama is right to emphasize the need to minimize risks to public safety, something which nuclear professionals are acutely aware of (although, as is historically the case with technology, something technical managers are sometimes still catching up to). But what makes the case for nuclear is its capacity to balance these risks against the real and ever-present harms of other sources (especially those from coal, which is responsible for far more deaths per unit energy) against other factors like availability and economics.

Finally, there is of course the issue of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, something the Dalai Lama has long campaigned against (likewise an area I myself specialized in during my graduate studies). Yet as I have pointed out before, nuclear development need not come with the capacity for weapons (and in fact, the broader use of peaceful uses may yet prove to be antagonistic to weapons, both in consuming the feedstock as well as cementing economic benefits not readily yielded for a decision to proliferate).

Ultimately, there is fundamentally a humanist case to be made for expanded energy development in the developed world, in order to enable all of humanity to enjoy the benefits of energy abundance. Nuclear is and will continue to play a fundamental part in this.