Friday, December 18, 2009

Nuclear energy, hierarchy, and civilizational "pain management"

Back from an extended break on Kaua'i, and back to blogging (new Diagonal Economy post soon).  From the mailbag:

This video on liquid flouride thorium fast breeder reactors was recently sent to me:

Some people think that nuclear energy, particularly fast breeder reactors that ues far less fuel, may be the solution to our energy problems.  I have serious concerns.

I'm generally opposed to nuclear power, though not on the traditional grounds. Initially, I think we'll have fuel and net energy issues if we try to rely on conventional reactors. I'm not yet convinced that a thorough net-energy analysis has been run on breeder reactors, but I'm open to the possibility that they provide sufficient net energy (I'd draw the line at roughly 10:1 after a fully-inclusive accounting of energy inputs). That said, I don't think the technology is mature enough to know this either way at this time (and it's a potential deal-breaker in my view). Also, I'm concerned by the long time of energy payback with nuclear--as with most forms of renewably-generated electricity, a high percentage of the energy input comes up front, but the payback is stretched over the next 30-50 years. That can create a real energy "cash-flow" problem, what I've called the "Renewables Gap" (not that I'd classify nuclear as renewable, but breeders come effectively close to that).

However, it may be possible to overcome all of these issues.  I think we may even be able to find a way to address the many and serious externalities of nuclear power (namely spent fule disposal, proliferation risk, operational risk). What concerns me most about nuclear (all reactor types) is that they are exceedingly centralized and maintain and spawn intensification of hierarchy. I think this the most significant problem because, ultimately, we need to overcome our addiction to perpetual growth if we ever want to be truly sustainable. My theory is that, at its core, we will not solve growth unless we reduce the excess of hierarchy in our civilization.  For that reason, nuclear energy, even the potential of very efficient and "safe" breeder reactors, is like a chronic-pain patient treating their narcotic side effects and rebound pain with new and more powerful narcotics... it may postpone the problem, but ultimately it's making it much, much worse.

(This is actually one of the first topics I wrote about on this blog.  See Energy, Society, and Hierarchy.  The more I think about and learn about our situation, the more I confirm these opinions...)

Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.


Yiedyie said...

That guy sounds more like a salesmen than like a scientist! I don't buy nothing of that gargle! They always forget about scale, potential and EROEI.

Jeff Vail said...

Minor details! Don't get caught up in things like math and physics, and always assume that there are no hidden or systemic issues that need to be considered...

ryan said...

heh. safe assumptions indeed Jeff. Why, with this wonderful technology we could power a civilization so grand and epic it could ceaseless expand and extract resources from the entire universe for the sake of... ummm... of... dang it... i forgot what the point of civilization was. hmmm... another minor detail - not important. now let's all march onward to the rhythm of "progress." I trust that these pocket-protected science types have all of our best interests in mind and will be able to use these liquid fluoride thorium thingamabobs to solve social and environmental catastrophe, resource wars, climate change, the mass extinction of biodiversity, the stratification of societies, the giant Pacific garbage vortex, and the problem of growth!

sweet! now that the energy crisis and all that other stuff is solved i can return to building giant stone heads to appease the "gods."

Rice Farmer said...

Good criticisms. I would like to add one more -- my pet peeve, as it were.

Just take a look at a nuclear power plant. That is one heckuva huge construction project! The landscaping, the tons of steel and concrete, the high technology (which itself embodies much energy), and what have you. Of course, all this would be impossible without fossil fuels, and the industrial infrastructure that fossil fuels have built and maintain. Although I too am curious to know the EROEI of nuclear, it's actually an academic question. The bottom line is: without affordable fossil fuels, nuclear is dead, no matter what its net energy.

gardenserf said...

As a health care professional I appreciate the title of your post. Speaking of pain (and death) which is inevitable for finite living beings, I seem to recall reading somewhere that nuclear fuel itself was a finite resource. This means at some point it would be used up. Seems we keep hitting a dead end no matter where we drive.

Simit Patel said...

I agree with your concern regarding the need to shift to a decentralized society, although that is precisely why I'm so bullish on modular nuclear reactors. I'm curious to see if you had an opinion on them? They do have a lower EROEI than conventional nuclear reactors, at least at the time of this writing based on the current advancements in technology.