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.


  1. I am so pleased that you have all figured out a way to dispose of nuclear waste that will not harm the world's underground water supply and it's oceans. If you have done this, well maybe we can clean up the rest of waste later and I'm onboard.

  2. Honestly? Much of the technology for eliminating long-lived radioactive materials been there since the days of the Manhattan project - i.e., it is simply a matter of extracting out long-lived actinides. We're still improving this technology, obviously - to try to make it more efficient, less expensive, and generate less process waste. But what you do with the actinides from there - fission them in a reactor designed to burn them up, destroy them in an accelerator, etc. - is up to you. That, by mass, is over 95% of the problem.

    As for the rest, nearly all of it has a relatively short half-life; these are things we have enough knowledge about materials (both from engineering and archaeology) to store to the point where they're no longer radioactive.

    Even assuming we eschew the idea of reprocessing, deep borehole disposal gets us around the problem of groundwater contamination by isolating waste far, far away from groundwater. Likewise, salt dome formations exist in nature because water hasn't been there for thousands of years - another option. It isn't a case of not having options - it's a case of not being able to decide upon one.

    The question is thus not, "Can we do it?" It's a question of balancing out political and economic concerns.

  3. As a nuclear engineer I have always believed the solution to the waste problem would be biological and not mechanical.

    We are on the precipice of a resurgence of Nuclear in the USA with 2 new plants in Georgia and 2 in South Carolina. I am deeply concerned that this could fizzle due to cost over runs and utilities no longer interested in investing in these plants. My concern stems from the fact that one EPC contractor is now building 6 AP100 plants 2 in China and the 4 in the USA. This company has never built one single Nuclear plant. They recently sold their share of Westinghouse and they had purchased Stone and Webster, which was going bankrupt. Stone and Webster is an excellent engineering firm, however their construction abilities were not quite stellar.

    On Shaw's website they proclaim placing "first concrete" as a major technical and engineering accomplishment. Hello...is anybody home? They had to close there modular construction facility in Louisiana for a period because of "quality issues". I believe they have taken on more than they can handle. A new nuclear plant license has not been issued in 20 years. I have worked on 2 nuclear construction projects, as well as nuclear operations. The first project a GE BWR was constructed by Bechtel and came in on time and on budget. The project was well managed and had fewer than 200 management and engineering personnel on site. The resources were put into quality of skilled craftsmen and strict critical path and cost control. At Seabrook, a PWR project there were approximately 2000 management, engineering and administrative personnel. It was a veritable office city with 23 subcontract project management teams, had fallen 5 years behind on design updates, and had exceeded budget at 45% completion. There was no critical path or cost control. Employees stopped investing in a quality product because they had to rework systems frequently. Needless to say this led to the industry pulling back on investment in new nuclear plants.
    These lessons learned need to be brought forward. The Industry needs to take baby steps. One EPC contractor should build one plant successfully, prove it's merit and go from there.
    The first indicator that Shaw Group will not succeed is the fact that they are advertising for a "Project Manager"....to build office buildings on site. There should be one office building with a lean management and engineering team. Subcontractors should be in office trailers with a Construction superintendent and a hand full of administrative personnel at most. I can assure that Shaw's next press release will say. "10 on site office facilities are now complete...this is a major technical and engineering achievement"...now hiring...office personnel!!!

  4. @devonshire

    I want to be clear that I'm not agreeing with what you've said, but I do want to offer this video (the later half, which the link takes you to) for its relevance to what you brought up:


    I don't know what the reason is for setting up permanent offices as opposed to bringing in trailers. I think that is a good question, and I will ask it next time I'm talking to a rep from one of the companies involved.

    There is a lot of power behind your statements because it strikes at the heart of the problem with expanding nuclear power. But I would counter with a different point, which is that the AP1000 builds in China have not been successful because of a leaner workforce. Quite the contrary in fact. I have heard that they have gone well over the 3,000 or so workers that is though to be typical for peak workforce in construction. My information is rumor-level quality, but no one I talk to seems to argue against either the fact that new builds in China are are a success story, or that they have a comparatively larger workforce.

    I don't have the answers, but I do agree that the problem is that the price is currently too high.