Two months ago, during the CNN Climate Town Hall, I was quite disappointed in the number of Democrats rejecting New Nuclear and Fusion power, especially Warren, a numbers and science person to their core.
As an engineer, I was happy to see Andrew Yang and Cory Booker making some of the points I’m about to make supporting New Nuclear, what I call Gen IV(4) Nuclear Fission or Nuclear Fusion, in addition to solar and wind.
So I have to ask, if Climate Change is our greatest threat (as almost all in the town hall stated) then why wouldn’t we have all hands on deck? Why wouldn’t we do everything we can to protect our landscape, wildlife and natural resources in the process? Why wouldn’t we try to minimize our impact on the environment?
Solar and Wind are great, but they are not a silver bullet to fix our energy needs. At their most basic level, they are great renewable resources on top of buildings or walls, or over some unused land. However, at scale Solar and Wind are not free of environmental costs. They don’t produce energy 24/7, and storing that power has an environmental impact. Elizabeth acknowledged these risks, but waved her hand and said “science” would bail us out and invent new energy storage technologies, it however has not, and probably won’t given an increase in funding.
Laptops, phones, tablets, and electric cars all use batteries, all of them are products at scale, are in competitive markets, and have sufficient margins to leverage large amounts of research. Any new battery technology that needs ‘just a little bit of science’ has been invested in and worked on. We don’t have any big secret ideas to double, triple or logarithmically enhance battery density. Batteries have been stuck in this capacity at a growth rate of 5–8% per year ( https://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/test-cafe/4462251/Do-lithium-ion-batteries-follow-Moore-s-Law- ). Even doubling that rate might get us to 10–16% growth rate, however, historically the last big leap was 17% growth in a year — in gravimetric energy density, measured in Wh/k,. It’s grossly irresponsible to bet the survival of the planet on a magical break through. We should be looking at reducing risk where we can to achieve our goal of a carbon net negative industrial revolution.
On top of that, these batteries need rare earth minerals to function. Minnerals that need large invasive mines to gather. Furthermore, as batteries improve, there chemistry and resource change changes. Those changes create an unpredictable challenge to constantly source new trade deals, each requiring huge new mines devastating landscapes. We have to be realistic about energy density growth, and we need to work towards predictable outcomes that we know we can solve in 10–15 years.
There are other ways to store energy other than chemically or electrically, you can store it physically as potential energy. Pumped-storage hydroelectricity (PSH), or pumped hydroelectric energy storage (PHES), use surplus energy to pump water up ( or down into ) into a reservoir while Solar or Wind are at peak supply, and then later uses that same water to turn turbines to produce / release that stored energy when the wind dies down, or sun sets. Some sources have described these systems as being able to return 12% or less of the energy put into these potential energy systems. These systems are less complicated than say thousands or millions of smaller batteries, but they still have massive environmental impacts at scale. They require huge dams, and at scale will end of modifying huge swaths of the Earth. It’s a massive geo-engineering effort to create the storage capacity we need. Again, it’s fine to do this a little here and there, but at the levels we need to change all of the world’s energy to renewable, it’s just not ideal.
We need to use every card we have in our fight against Climate change.
So why should we consider New Nuclear, because we must consider it. We must make it safe.
Science and engineering will be a huge part of meeting the demands of Climate Change, but we should spread the risk out and seek out all available solutions. New Nuclear including Fusion and Gen IV(4) MSR ( molten salt reactors ) Fission Reactors are critical to our efforts moving forwards.
It’s totally fair to require New Nuclear to be safe to use. It’s totally fair to say that nuclear in the past hasn’t been safe enough. It’s totally fair to criticize the refinement of weapons grade material. It’s totally fair to say we need to develop solutions to deal with the spent nuclear fuel, but here’s the thing, Gen 4 Nuclear packages a number of these things together. ( http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2019/02/26/molten-salt-nuclear-reactors/?fbclid=IwAR3BeOehhqnuYHp0jmbBzlIlCpeqamQ2eMvIiY5RzFtMDefuaJr-1NVPICk#.XXGsFyhKhGp )
It’s walk away safe, can be configured to consume spent fuel and nuclear waste, it doesn’t produce weapons grade material and it doesn’t have the same risk profile anywhere near what Gen 1–3 has. The best part is it’s in the final stages of engineering and is almost ready to scale and deploy. Gen 4 MSR reactors are raising money right now and with a bit more money could reach scalability and deployment.
These reactors can be used in two capacities, to produce energy and to produce industrial heat. Unlike, Wind and Solar, Nuclear heat can be directly used in industrial processes like melting and forging metal. Using the heat directly like this lessens the burden on electrical lines, and it’s more efficient because there is so much energy loss in transmission. Nuclear energy is also a 24/7 power source allowing power all through the night and all weather conditions. I’d love to see Gen 4 reactors replace all Gen 1–3 reactors and even replace some of our fossil fuel plants. ( https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_shellenberger_how_fear_of_nuclear_power_is_hurting_the_environment?utm_campaign=social&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_content=talk&utm_term=global-social%20issues&fbclid=IwAR1QUIuRRRAhlEFkUNCjGp2hMwMvoYZhyXt7MT70rgJqzp93wePFEDZTqTA )
Solar and Wind are great to support Peak Energy demands, or even surplus energy demands like charging cars, powering air conditioners or heaters, or powering our computers at work. Doing all of these things minimizes the amount of stored power we need to add to the grid, because the energy is used as it’s generated. Doing this leverages the best of solar and wind, while minimizing it’s environmental impact.
Nuclear by comparison is better at running 24/7.
Our goal here should be to use Science and Engineering to make Nuclear safer than ever before.
On the “Dream Big” front, Fusion power is closer than ever. For decades we have claimed it’s the clean, renewable energy source of the future, but many have given up waiting. However, we reached a critical milestone recently and fusion researchers have created machines that are energy neutral and positive. It’s a huge leap to get to this milestone, and it should not go unnoticed or under appreciated. Fusion is at a point where large sums of funding could really push it from being an expensive physics research project to something that might be commercially scalable in a decade or so. There is no guarantee that it will happen, but we can do a lot to make this possible.
Funding New Nuclear with Gen 4 reactors will create nuclear jobs, those jobs will create interest in nuclear education and nuclear advanced degrees. It will create a growing, thriving market place where new technologies like Fusion power can siphon off of, cross-pollinate with and borrow from. All nuclear energy research and commerce creates fertile ground for breakthrough technologies like Fusion power to flourish. It’s imperative that we foster this environment.
As an engineer who incessantly follows our progress on this, I can tell you the research articles and papers have transitioned with Fusion power from ‘big physics’ to ‘big engineering’ type articles. People are thinking about efficiency more than plausibility now. We are trying to grow from 1% gains to commercially interesting gains in electric power. Machine Learning is helping us dial in the knobs and designs much faster now, and projects that anticipated another 20 years are reducing their numbers and updating earlier timelines. New Nuclear is less than 20 years away!
We must not exclude the push on New Nuclear from our climate battle it would be irresponsible. We need to push hard on nuclear, and make it the energy source we dreamed of, because we can, and if we do, it will save this planet and conserve our land.
Finally, if none of the other reasons were convincing then there is one final reason to pursue New Nuclear as hard and as fast as we can. Because if we don’t, someone else will. Why would we want to lose out on all of the IP and revenue that could be had from building Gen 4 reactors, and Fusion power? As a nation, we should maintain or advance our technological lead and be the one place in the world to design and develop these tools. If not to save the planet and fight climate change, then we should do it so that all of the nuclear engineers and physicists are here in America working on energy systems and not working elsewhere on weapons of war.
If Gen 4 or Fusion become viable elsewhere, then those countries may not need to buy our solar, wind and battery technology. To defend these jobs and revenue streams we need to corner the market on all renewable energy for our benefit and for the world.
Support a New Nuclear Deal! Our lives depend on it.
ONE MORE THING
An interesting thing to consider is what if we had Surplus Energy? What would we do with it? How could we further use extra energy to green the planet and pull us back from historically high CO2 levels?
We could use the excess energy to reverse desertification through in land irrigation and other techniques. After the process get’s started nature should help support it’s own moisture farming as plants can pull moisture out of the air and cycle it through the ecosystem.