Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Fission Power

Evidence continues to mount that fossil fuel combustion is causing climate havoc. Floods and droughts, damage to cities and farms: it is becoming clear to more and more people that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels somehow. This is, however, an enormous challenge. We humans live very large on the earth nowadays, in our combinations of large populations and comfortable lifestyles. We consume energy globally at a rate of about 20 TeraWatts. We cook, heat our homes, drive our cars, run our factories... energy is fundamental to our modern way of life. Most of this energy comes from fossil fuels: coal, petroleum, and methane. To avoid enormous difficulties from any total change to our way of life, we need to substitute non-fossil sources to continue to provide energy at the required scale. Maybe in the future we will develop new sources, but in the next few decades at least we will need to rely on existing technology. Renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydro are already in widespread use. Energy storage systems can help bridge the gap between fluctuating supply and fluctuating demand. But how to scale up renewable sources to meet the requirements of our modern society remains a daunting challenge. Nuclear fission is another existing technology that already provides steady reliable power at large scale. It is an very real option on the table for addressing climate change.

When your credit card bill is due and your checking account is empty, it is tempting to pay one credit card bill by borrowing from a different credit card. The general temptation is to solve short term problems by creating even larger long term problems. It's not an entirely invalid approach, but it's definitely smart to go down that road with eyes wide open. If we do choose to ramp nuclear power up by the factor of about 25x that would be needed to meet our energy needs, how might that move fit into a longer term strategy?

The long term strategy for modern society is rather cloudy but still worth considering. There is not going to be any kind of consensus possible, but that shouldn't stop a person from thinking about it. Some of the main options:

  • The world is due to end quite soon, so a long term strategy has no application.
  • We cannot have any idea about the future. Long term planning is an absurd pretense.
  • Technology will continue to advance at an ever more astounding pace. Any problems we create now will easily be fixed by the people of the future with their capabilities that will be almost miraculous by our present standards.
  • Maybe after a few thousand more years of expanding population and increasing comfort, humanity will start to bump up against actual planetary limits, but there is no point in worrying about that now.
  • We are clearly hitting real planetary limits already. But it takes time for us to shift our various systems, such as agriculture, to more sustainable patterns. We cannot continue to consume energy at today's rate, but we need a few decades to shift. The immediate dangers of climate change mean that we need to shift to non-fossil sources sooner than we can reduce our energy consumption. Nuclear power can provide a bridge from today's unsustainable way of living to a future sustainability.
It's worth thinking through what nuclear power would look like under these various scenarios. To ramp up nuclear power by 25x over the next decade or two is already a daunting prospect. If energy consumption continues to double every 50 years or so... what this would mean exactly in terms of uranium mining, waste management, fuel transport, etc. - I don't have answers, but it would be worth exploring such possibilities.

To flesh out such visions of how nuclear power could be scaled up in the future, perhaps the baseline assumption might be that everything goes according to plan. But effective engineering requires us to think about what might go wrong. If we are considering the option of walking down a tightrope to get to our destination, we'd be wise to understand how high off the ground that rope is!

Some of the unpleasant surprises worth considering:

  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes can cause radioactive material to escape containment.
  • Safe management of nuclear material can require a somewhat advanced level of industrial capabilities to make available the necessary equipment and materials. Even with scaled up nuclear power, other factors could cause our industrial capabilities to be significantly reduced.
  • All kinds of human bungling are not just possible but unavoidable. People are not perfect - not even close to perfect.
  • It's not just that people make mistakes. People will quite deliberately act to benefit themselves at whatever cost to others. It may be possible to build a very safe reactor, but it will cheaper to build one that is less safe.
  • People are always involved in conflicts at every scale. Nuclear technology can be weaponized in any number of ways. Of course we have very many nuclear explosive devices already built and ready for action. But the more we have fissile material circulating and the machinery for refining it etc., the easier it will be to build more explosive devices.

    Weaponization is not limited to nuclear explosives. Depleted uranium is already in widespread use in various types of bullets and other projectiles, just because of its metallurgical properties. Easy availability of radioactive materials will make them attractive for all sorts of uses. Various sorts of dirty bombs, conventional explosives coupled with radiactive shrapnel, are also straightforward possibilities. We have seen in the Ukraine where Russian troops occupied nuclear power facilities, because Ukrainian forces would not likely attack them there because of the risk of releasing radiative materials into the environment.

  • Nuclear technology can be a source of conflict. A nation might be developing nuclear technology for entirely peaceful purposes, but this unavoidably also increases their ability to build nuclear weapons. Their enemies will be motivated to attack and destroy their nuclear facilities, to cut off that nuclear capability.
It's also important to think about how we should evaluate consequences. We could just decide that it is too difficult to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and just accept the ensuing climate change. We could cut our energy consumption dramatically to avoid climate change, and just accept the ensuing disruptions to our way of life. Or, if we decide to scale up nuclear power and some of the possible negative consequences arise, how bad could they be? Nowadays I see folks arguing that nuclear war wouldn't be so bad. Perhaps any cost short of human extinction should be considered acceptable. Even if ramping up nuclear power leads to human extinction... well, humans will surely go extinct sooner or later anyway, and if nuclear power improves our lives before that point, maybe it is a worthwhile bargain.

Understanding the various risks is very difficult. Many of the numbers involved are simply unknown, especially when the time scales involve many thousands of years. But there are also more complicated sources of uncertainty. Government inspectors will help prevent dangerous cost-cutting in nuclear facilities, but then government inspectors are themselves corruptible too. Nuclear advocates will point out that there have been no documented fatalities due to plutonium toxicity. But of course the people that handle plutonium employ many safety measures. Is plutonium safe because we know how dangerous it is? It's a bit like how the Mutually Assured Destruction provided by nuclear weapons has made the world a safer place, in some sense or other.

How can we decide what to do, in a game with such high stakes, with such high uncertainty, faced with such paradoxical logic? At least if we can get some common understanding of the predicament, that might be a start!

1 comment:

  1. ah, another way that the nuclear option can fail to go according to plan: humanity may well be nearing all sorts of ecological limits beyond energy related ones like greenhouse gases and peak oil. Without nuclear power, we might well hit those limits earlier. Nuclear power could enable us to push growth etc. significantly more, which could cause us to hit those limits much harder.

    E.g. the added growth enabled by nuclear power could drive us into such a severe overshoot that the risk of human extinction is considerably increased.