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Answering the Attacks on the Green New Deal

Answering the Attacks on the Green New Deal

John Feffer

It’s become a common trope of the Trump era for columnists and commentators to attack the lunacy of the far right at the same time as castigating the “loony left.”

These pundits, who usually place themselves in a comfortable “moderate” position, adopt a tone of consummate reasonableness. The president is certainly an idiot, they say, but it would be a mistake to respond with comparable insanity from the other side of the political spectrum.

Restricting this post to the issue of nuclear power, we desperately need a serious and credible inventory of the stockpile of all nuclear material in this nation. I know that it exists, but is quite opaque to the population, even though it is certainly known to our major adversaries. How much spent fuel is being warehoused instead of interred into a geologic repository so that it is available for reprocessing into weapons? The public needs to know the risks associated with living in proximity to aging nuclear plants. True believers in the free market would insist upon such. What masquerades as free marketeers are the complicit buffoons of the M$M pretending to keep the public informed (through infotainment). I spent four years working for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management within the US Department of Energy back in the 1980s and know a thing or two about the complexities involved, both technically and politically with the nuclear industry from cradle (mining) to (theoretical) grave (repository). The 3/11/11 incident, more commonly known as Fukushima Daiichi, revealed quite a bit about the seemingly Sisyphean tasks involved with overcoming nuclear accidents. As energy emerges as a topic of political importance, I hope that the nuclear genie will be fully subpoenaed and that the answers can be used to help us move forward to a safer future.

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We have not advanced beyond where we were 70 years ago with respect to dealing with nuclear waste.

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“Addressing climate change and economic inequality should absolutely be at the very center of any sensible, reasonable political program — left, right, or center.”

The very center of any political program today should absolutely be Blockchain secured Cellphone Voting and Liquid Democracy. Left, right, or center, everything stems from it.

If it’s good enough for our troops, it’s good enough for our citizens.

The U.S. currently has around 85,000 metric tons of spent fuel in pools or casks, zero tons interred in geologic repositories, and zero tons available for reprocessing into nuclear weapons. Weapons material does not come from reprocessing spent fuel. It comes from production reactors, and we also have around 13,000 metric tons of high-level waste from that–plus a few hundred tons of weapons-grade fuel not currently installed in any bombs. We also have around 800,000 metric tons of depleted uranium.

“The public needs to know the risks associated with living in proximity to aging nuclear plants.”

And also how those risks are far lower than those associated with coal power.

“I spent four years working for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management within the US Department of Energy back in the 1980s and know a thing or two about the complexities involved, both technically and politically with the nuclear industry from cradle (mining) to (theoretical) grave (repository).”

Uranium mining has changed a lot since the 80’s and there are fast reactors in development which are being designed to consume existing spent fuel. That could not only displace mining, it might also greatly reduce the amount of spent fuel that winds up in repositories.

“The 3/11/11 incident, more commonly known as Fukushima Daiichi, revealed quite a bit about the seemingly Sisyphean tasks involved with overcoming nuclear accidents.”

That also appears to be the point at which private development work on next-gen nuclear kicked into overdrive. The accident crippled the dominant old-tech nuclear model, and created a long-overdue opening for new kinds to emerge.

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Have you heard much about potential US sale of nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia? Perry mentions Westinghouse as the provider, and I’m sure we aren’t talking about any Gen IV designs (all I see online by Westinghouse is some lead cooled reactor design which is Gen IV but I hardly see the design mentioned in lists of promising Gen IV options).

If I were Saudi Arabia, the last thing I’d want to buy is an old design reactor. They could build out more solar and perhaps approach one of the more innovative companies to see when they could have an MSR design they are willing to build in that country. But my faith in Saudi Arabia or the Trump administration to make good decisions on anything is zero.

“Perry mentions Westinghouse as the provider, and I’m sure we aren’t talking about any Gen IV designs”

It’s their AP1000–an updated version of their old designs.

“(all I see online by Westinghouse is some lead cooled reactor design which is Gen IV but I hardly see the design mentioned in lists of promising Gen IV options).”

The old-line companies sometimes float proposals for new kinds of reactors, mostly when some relevant study grant becomes available. Typically, after the fundings run out, the projects get shelved. I suspect this is mostly about blocking others who would actually do something with their research from receiving the funding.

Lead cooled reactors have some interesting potential, but not with solid fuel–which most of them have had. The most notable exception is the German dual-fluid reactor–a very promising design which probably won’t go anywhere–unless Germany changes its attitudes toward nuclear power. (which seems unlikely)

“If I were Saudi Arabia, the last thing I’d want to buy is an old design reactor.”

A long time ago, the Saudis entered into an agreement with the U.S. not to enrich uranium or process plutonium. Now, they would like to be released from those commitments, without damaging the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Nuclear power provides the fig-leaf justification for such processing, and they have linked that condition to this purchase offer (even though Westinghouse would be supplying the fuel). But there are forms of nuclear in development which won’t require enrichment or reprocessing, so they need to buy old-tech now in order to keep that justification. And they are making it a needlessly large purchase offer to make it more enticing. And Westinghouse is the lead contender, even though they are now owned by a Canadian asset-management firm, because that firm is adept at technically-legal bribery and doing political payoffs to buy the right U.S. politicians and lubricate the process to ease this deal through. The Saudi’s get their release, Westinghouse’s owners get lots of money, and the politicians get their fat rewards, so for all the players directly involved it’s a win-win-win.

“They could build out more solar”

I expect they’ll do that anyway, up to a point. (You’d think a sunny desert would be the ideal place for PV, but sand and heat degrade PV performance, there’s not much water for cleaning the panels, and pumped-hydro storage is pretty much out of the picture.) But however much PV would be usable, I think they are going to be playing that down at this point. If they are going to preserve the nuclear power justification for enrichment and processing, they will need to preserve the justification for nuclear power in the first place.

“and perhaps approach one of the more innovative companies to see when they could have an MSR design they are willing to build in that country.”

And thereby help somebody develop an energy technology which might be used against them and hurt their fossil fuel sales.

“But my faith in Saudi Arabia or the Trump administration to make good decisions on anything is zero.”

Your criterion for “good” is not the same as theirs. For what they are actually trying to do, their strategy makes sense.

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Thanks for the info. I didn’t realize they are bribring us to get out of an enrichment deal. That’s all the more depressing.

As far as rational choices, I guess I should have said if I were the leader of Saudi Arabia and had the people’s interest at heart I would invest in Gen IV. I agree the corrupt leadership they have is acting (mostly) rationally. But in terms of Gen IV competing with oil, I don’t see that relationship as strongly tied as you do. Not much electricity generation world wide uses oil and to the extent that plentiful nuclear power enables faster rollout of BEVs which would displace oil consumption, I don’t see Gen IV expanding that fast to cull too much oil demand anytime soon. Saudi Arabia will likely sell all of its reachable oil anyway and future prices are just going to be higher.

I think the rollout of BEV’s is already baked in, so the gasoline fraction of oil is already vulnerable. Two of the more-secure fractions which nuclear could cut into are heating oil and bunker oil for heavy ships (several of the new nukes in the works would be easy to adapt to marine applications). But the big threat is aviation fuel. We have no alternative to aviation that stands a realistic chance of displacing a significant amount of it, and batteries are a very long way from having the needed energy density to displace anything beyond very short jumps, so it looks like our best shot at making aviation low-carbon lies with non-fossil synfuels.

As it happens, the Navy has already demonstrated a process for making synthetic jet fuel from seawater. Using the Navy’s expensive marine reactors, that process amortized out to around $7 per gallon, or closer to $3 per gallon if current-tech land-based reactors were used. That’s not competitive in today’s market, especially since most of that cost would be up-front capital cost. But all of that could change if we had smaller, cheaper reactors that could efficiently use uranium, especially if they could be adapted to marine use. The total facility and operational cost could drop to something comparable to today’s refineries, but the feedstocks would be seawater and uranium (and actually, you could get the uranium from seawater), and it would be very tough for oil to compete with that. And once we set up marine refineries for synthetic aviation fuel production, that would inevitably lead to a range of by-product synfuels which might compete against other fractions of oil. (And coupling such facilities with desalination might boost their economics even further.)

How rapidly such facilities could deploy would mostly be a function of cost. If the reactors are cheap enough, demand will be high, and the build rate will rise to meet demand. Currently, the global heat output from all aviation fuel averages about 600 gigawatts (roughly a million cubic meters of fuel per day). Thorcon, based on their ship building experience, projects they could build their reactors at a rate of over 250 gigawatts (thermal) capacity per year from a single production yard–and several of the new reactor designs look like they would be at least as small and simple to manufacture. Even if it takes 2000 gigawatts of heat to make 600 gigawatts worth of fuel, it would only take a handful of reactor production yards to crank that out in a few years. So even if demand is high, the bottleneck is more likely to be the time it takes to build the marine refining facilities themselves.

So you aren’t very optimistic about bio fuels like algae based bio jet fuel? It seems appealing if it works better than solar to electricity to synfuel. But I always figured it was a ways off if ever.

I’ve seen numbers as low as 2% for CO2 from aviation. I don’t think it’s that bad an answer to use fossil fuel for another 50 years assuming we cut out everything else which has easier technical solutions. I agree batteries will probably never work for most person flight miles. Not only is the mass energy density terrible for a plane but now you are limited to the speed of a propeller aircraft (I see the record speed for prop aircraft is quite fast at 623 mph, but a battery or fuel cell based prop plane that carries over a hundred people I doubt is going to go faster than 400 if it ever works at all).

What are your favorite aviation syn fuels? I believe they’ve tried hydrogen which works ok but can’t be stored in the wings effectively.

So for large boats I’m sure you favor these new small Gen IV reactors. What we about smaller boats? Same syn fuel or another one? Do you see autos as going primary BEV or do you see synfuels in plug in hybrids for a while? (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I’m leaning towards a Honda Clarity lease now that my Nissan Leaf lease is up - hopefully I can limit my yearly gas use to under 100 gallons but the Leaf has been a bit limiting).

I think there will be a growing algae-oil industry, but I’m not optimistic about it being cost-competitive against fossil oils anytime soon or for it scaling up quickly. It would need many thousands of square miles of artificial growing ponds with good liners and a ready supply of water and more thousands of square miles of drying pans, plus all the infrastructure needed to maintain water, distribute nutrients, to move the algae from the ponds to the pans, and to harvest the dried algae. It’s not technically difficult in principle, but figuring out how to do it all on the cheap seems to be the sticking point that has killed the most algae-oil ventures so far. My suspicion is that much of the early production will go for higher-value applications, like foods, cosmetics and lotions.

“I’ve seen numbers as low as 2% for CO2 from aviation.”

That sounds like the figure for total greenhouse gas impact from all human activity. It’s closing in on a billion tons of CO2 per year (about the same as total global CO2 emissions back in 1920) which is more like 7 or 8 percent of total fossil fuel CO2 emissions. It’s not our largest emissions problem right now, but it has one of the fastest growth rates–roughly doubling each 15 years.

“I don’t think it’s that bad an answer to use fossil fuel for another 50 years assuming we cut out everything else which has easier technical solutions.”

After you factor in growth, it eats up a major chunk of our remaining carbon budget in 30 years, and we are not likely to have good alternatives which could even help to slow growth for another 10 years anyway.

“I agree batteries will probably never work for most person flight miles. Not only is the mass energy density terrible for a plane but now you are limited to the speed of a propeller aircraft”

I’ve seen some electric ducted fans, but increased speed would probably reduce the range.

I’d be interested to see how the Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile engine works. It seems to be capable of both great speed and range.

“What are your favorite aviation syn fuels? I believe they’ve tried hydrogen which works ok but can’t be stored in the wings effectively.”

As I understand it, the Navy research team started with hydrocarbon starter molecules which were then combined into larger molecules, and their end-product fuel was a liquid with a mix of molecules having from nine to sixteen carbon atoms. They were even able to fly a model airplane with a 2-stroke piston engine on this liquid fuel. It looks like fuel transport and storage infrastructure could remain basically unchanged and that there would be minimal need to modify aircraft or change the way they operate.

“So for large boats I’m sure you favor these new small Gen IV reactors.”

Also intrigued by the possibility of doing ocean traverses in large, nuclear-powered ekranoplans.

“What about smaller boats?”

Generally, it is heavy boats that cover the long distance routes, and smaller boats go shorter distances. The smaller the boat and especially the shorter the distance traveled, the more feasible it becomes to cover that with batteries. I gather electric ferries are already starting to enter service, and I expect that will expand into other kinds of short-haul ships as batteries gradually improve. I suspect there aren’t that many smaller boats that traverse large distances, and some of those could be covered by hybrid solutions including battery, solar, sail, and kite, mixed with synfuels.

“Do you see autos as going primary BEV or do you see synfuels in plug in hybrids for a while?”

I think hybrids will dominate in the mid-range to larger passenger vehicle class for quite some time. The full-BEV’s will first take hold in the smaller, lighter, metro-class cars, but even there, I think hybrids will the the preferred choice for people who have longer commutes, and those who occasionally have to do road trips. I’ve seen small range-extender trailer generators, so that you could effectively convert a BEV into a hybrid for longer trips and not have to haul the motor around the rest of the time, but I think the trailering option would be more bother than most people (in the U.S. at least) would care to put up with.

“(I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I’m leaning towards a Honda Clarity lease now that my Nissan Leaf lease is up - hopefully I can limit my yearly gas use to under 100 gallons but the Leaf has been a bit limiting).”

I’m guessing this would not be so much of a quandary if we had widely-available synfuels that it could run on.

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