Supporters of nuclear power like to argue that nukes are the key to combatting climate change. Here’s why they are dead wrong.
A better headline might read something like "Why Nuclear Power Should Not Be Considered as a Salve to Global Climate Change".
The rest of the article is mostly inaccurate nonsense, mostly not supported by the references given, so the nonsense title fits right in.
There is hardly a correct statement in this article. The scientific ignorance is breathtaking and ranks right up there with the AGW-denying wackos. The condenser cooling water dumped into a lake, sea, or cooling tower is not "irradiated" whatever that could mean. The heating of the atmosphere from such thermal emisisons is absolutely insignificant compared to the global radiational heat-budget changes from increased CO2.
All manufacturing processes produce very large amounts of waste heat. Wind turbines use lots of steel, concrete, and carbon-fiber composites - the latter two involving big high temperature kilns. Solar panel manufacturing is similar.
BTW, all energy of any sort spent doing some useful thing period ultimately gets turned into heat . (mechanical friction, air drag, electrical resistance)
But to repeat, except for some very local effects, all this industrial heat production is insignificant compered to CO2 emissions produced, or on the case of nuclear power, not produced
This article seems to be a less rigorous version of a similar piece put out by the World Information Service on Energy in 2005: https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/621-622/3-nuclear-power-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions
I understand that, based on your experience, you are supportive of nuclear power, just as I, based on my experience, am more supportive of renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, ocean wave, etc.). However, I hope that our scientific background enables both of us to maintain the ability to be critical of poor practices in the energy producing industries that we favor. For example, even as a proponent of solar, I recognize that the move by some US photovoltaic producers to stop production in the US and, instead, to ship materials from abroad, to be manufactured in China, then shipped back to the US, is hardly a "Green" energy practice.
Leaving aside the topic of the present article, the critique I have found most valid, even if nuclear power and/or renewables result in global warming is no longer being a problem, without a focus on ending the unsustainable practices of material and energy consumption of the developed world, and their environmental impacts on land, water, and other living things, 'green energy' is still only a temporary fix.
"Every nuclear generating station spews about two-thirds of the energy it burns inside its reactor core into the environment."
Actually, 100% of the energy produced in reactors will eventually make it into the environment. But all the energy generated by all the nuclear reactors on Earth produce less than a quarter-millionth the heat energy of solar radiation at the Earth's surface. And more than 99.7% of all of that heat energy radiates into space each day. A small amount of it doesn't escape immediately, and the time lag is what's responsible for global warming, but virtually all of that heat came from the sun. The heat from burning fossil carbon on average releases about one five-thousandth the heat which the CO2 produced will add. So by displacing fossil carbon, the heat directly produced by nuclear reactors is offset by orders of magnitude in CO2 heat savings.
"Nuclear fission is the most water intensive method of the principal thermoelectric generation options in terms of the amount of water withdrawn from sources."
That doesn't make it a cause of global warming, and using the water for cooling doesn't preclude other uses afterwards. It's still good for agriculture, for example, even if it's made temporarily warmer.
"In 2008, nuclear power plants withdrew eight times as much freshwater as natural gas plants per unit of energy produced"
Because gas turbines dump most of their heat in the exhaust--along with all that CO2, which really does contribute to global warming.
"and up to 11 percent more than the average coal plant."
The water use is irrelevant to how coal contributes to global warming.
"All nuclear reactors emit Carbon 14, a radioactive isotope, invalidating the industry’s claim that reactors are “carbon free.”"
They emit a few grams of C-14 per year per plant. You get more CO2 emission from burning a gallon of gas than from all the C-14 emitted annually by all of the world's nuclear power plants.
"And the fuel that reactors burn is carbon-intensive. The mining, milling, and enrichment processes needed to produce the pellets that fill the fuel rods inside the reactor cores all involve major energy expenditures, nearly all of it based on coal, oil, or gas."
Life-cycle greenhouse gas footprint for nuclear power is already as good as most renewables, with more improvements under development.
"And of course there’s the problem of nuclear waste."
Not a cause of global warming.
"After more than a half-century of well-funded attempts, we’ve seen no solution for the management of atomic power’s intensely radioactive waste."
We've seen no "forever" solution. We of course have been managing it, and remarkably well--with very close to 100% containment of spent fuel and a safety record that would be the envy of any heavy industry.
"Atomic apologists have claimed that the intensely radioactive spent fuel rods can somehow be usable for additional power generation."
Can "somehow" be usable? I take it Wasserman doesn't understand how.
"But after a half-century of efforts, with billions of dollars spent, all attempts to do that have utterly failed. There are zero successful reactors capable of producing more reactor fuel than they use, or able to derive more energy from the tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel rods they create."
There are zero commercially successful reactors like that. There have been multiple successful demonstrations of breeding and of burning the actinides found in spent fuel. There might have been commercial versions of the Integral Fast Reactor by now, if that program hadn't been killed by Clinton/Gore/Kerry shortly before completion--an inherent vulnerability of the government lab approach. This time, most of the breeder and waste burner reactor projects are private.
"It’s possible some of this “MOX” fuel containing plutonium, actually fissioned at Fukushima Unit Three,"
It would be pretty useless as nuclear fuel if it couldn't fission.
"The mushroom cloud that appears on video as Fukushima Unit Three exploded stands as an epic warning against further use of these impossible-to-manage fuels."
The fuel for that explosion was hydrogen. Is Wasserman saying hydrogen is an impossible-to-manage fuel?
"The MOX facility under construction near Aiken, South Carolina, is now projected to require another ten years to build"
This is really doing nothing towards showing how nuclear power causes global warming.
"There are no credible estimates of the global warming damage done by the intensely hot explosions at the four Fukushima reactors,"
Three reactors. And the global warming damage done was trivial. A hydrogen burn releases no CO2. Explosions also have such a brief burn time that the total energy release is small. You probably get more direct heat generation from burning a tank of gas in a car, and vastly more greenhouse gas heating.
"Atomic apologists argue that the disposal of high-level reactor wastes should be a relatively simple problem,"
It's a straightforward problem for which there are basically two options. Burn it up or stick it in the ground. We'll probably do both eventually, but there is no urgency to dispose of the spent fuel right now. Better to take some time and do some research before deciding on our best options.
"Overall, the idea that atomic power is “clean” or “carbon free” or “emission free” is a very expensive misconception, especially when compared to renewable energy,"
It is cleaner than most of our options, way cleaner than the coal it could displace, the price is already competitive against most intermittent renewables if you factor in the supplemental cost of storage or backup, and that's even before nuclear has the benefit of mass production.
"Among conservation, efficiency, solar and wind power technologies, there are no global warming analogs to the heat, carbon, and radioactive waste impacts of nuclear power."
Conservation and efficiency will do nothing to lift the billions of people currently living in energy poverty, the greenhouse gas profile of nuclear is similar to renewables (and can be improved further) and direct heat from reactors or spent fuel has negligible global warming impacts.
"No green technology kills anywhere near the number of marine organisms that die through reactor cooling systems."
And that would be overwhelmingly single-celled organisms. And "green" hydroelectric power may not kill or curtail marine populations, but they can be highly destructive to river ecosystems and organisms.
"Rooftop solar panels do not lose ten percent of the power they generate to transmission, as happens with virtually all centralized power generators."
And yet, almost everyone using rooftop solar panels still hooks their houses to transmission lines for the perks of centralized power.
"No terrorist will ever threaten one of our cities by blowing up a solar panel."
And solar panels won't be enough to displace the fossil carbon that threatens everyone.
"But the nuclear industry that falsely claims its dying technology doesn’t cause global warming does threaten the future of our planet."
Showing that the nuclear industry threatens the future of our planet would be a much more ambitious project than showing how nuclear power causes global warming--and Wasserman didn't even accomplish that much in an article which was supposed to be about that very topic.
That would undoubtedly result in increased CO2 emissions. So why would we want to do that?
Silver bullet loving Murkins will never admit that nuclear power plants are the most expensive method of boiling water ever devised by mankind.
Wasserman failed to mention that with each passing day the extraction of uranium becomes more carbon intensive as the shallow uranium runs out and deeper digging in more remote locations is required to meet demand.
Nuclear is great for job security. When i was working for a global engineering firm two decades ago they offered me more pay and promised 500 years of job security if I transferred to the Hanford, WA nuclear reservation. Glad I passed on that offer.
The point deserves a stronger argument.
The major reasons that nuclear power does not help with climate change are these:
- The plants, mining, disposal, and so forth take tremendous quantities of conventional energy to arrange. A comparison with coal, say, is worse than useless and creates a false standard because coal is not something that we can continue to use.
- Because nuclear plants are immense and complex, they inherently support opaque bureaucratic plutarchies that impede more useful solutions.
- The toxicity, produced heat, and problems of storage create ecological damage that has secondary carbon-related impact, much like any other large and very destructive industry--with huge fishkill figures, ocean and river carnivores actually waiting in line outside of water-outlets for flash-cooked and irradiated organisms. Again, these are not more damaging per energy created than other horribly damaging technologies like coal and gas. Still, the factor is not nil.
- They are otherwise damaging and unsafe, so "solving climate" by their use has other drawbacks that will reduce and eventually prevent their use as the first generations of plant and storage facility create increasingly public problems
We really do not have to be afraid that the plants will cook the planet. They just cook a part of the local water--a large part when compared to most technologies, but a small part compared to the surrounding oceans.
Moving outside of this particular article, which could have been better researched, a major problem with the consideration of such things by very many authors is that they start with the premise that whatever is used or developed has to continue to support and operate the rather bizarre global social and economic engines that now exist. This is not feasible over any sort of long term. Moreover, the insistence of the rich and powerful on running these systems at full bore continues to reduce the time and extent to which they can be run to accomplish transitions--something that will be necessary, in the sense that it will or would save a whole lot of human life.
I like Harvey Wasserman - I get a kick out of listening to his podcast every week, but I agree with Trog's post on almost every point. In science, numbers matter and you can't just say things like Carbon-14 matters w.r.t. not being zero-carbon without citing the actual production amount (besides, there are detailed accounting budgets of Nuclear showing its carbon-12 profile which obviously won't be zero since you have to mine and transport fuel and build and dispose of plants and there is no way you can do that with electricity alone - still Nuclear is pretty low in the CO2 per kWh metric compared with many options).
I'll disagree with Trog on one point - he says "And yet, almost everyone using rooftop solar panels still hooks their
houses to transmission lines for the perks of centralized power." But again numbers matter. What if you have so much solar power on your roof that your demand from the grid went down by a factor of 3? This can happen if you live in the hot Southwest where the solar is available at the exact time as you need it for A/C. Clearly that is a benefit to the grid and the smaller the centralized need can be made, the more possible it is to use non-nuclear sources (which don't adjust to dynamic loads very well anyway). For this need, you can even use Solar Thermal sources like the one in CA just outside of NV on the way to Vegas (which I'm sure uses a bunch of water too) which have there own storage (via heat and not electric which is eluding us right now for cost effective solutions).
Overall, though I'm very scientifically minded, I have to put my vote with the no nuclear crowd. There have been too many mistakes made, the cost advantage is not there and I'd rather spend my tax dollars on advancing renewables to see where we get. I'm OK with relatively small amounts of money being used on a research reactor or two (maybe they'll figure out some of the problems that LFTR reactors have and they can become worthy of a political discussion on whether they should be used commercially (at least they are a lot safer). I used to be more optimistic about Fusion (in the mid 70s) but now I don't see that going anywhere though I'm OK spending a small amount of money there too (too bad deuterium-deuterium reactions are so much harder than deuterium-tritium reactions which require consuming lithium and which produce a fast neutron eventually making the reactor low level radioactive waste).
What is completely lacking in this piece is that the 450 nuclear plants world wide require constant maintenance and control at a very high technical level. This is true for all aspects of plant operation from actual energy production to the storage of spent fuel. This level of control and maintenance depends of stable political and economic systems. We have seen what happened in the USSR/Russia transition in political and economic management; controlling nuclear material only was possible with the help of other stable nations. Any significant failure of maintenance and any or all of these 450 plants would go critical. Never in the history of the human dominated earth has economic and political stability been constant.
Once nuclear material is concentrated or generated in reactors we are no longer in control of it, since such material is active on its own principles and time lines; we only box it up and hope it never escapes.
The thing is that the fuel cost is such a small percentage of the cost of the electricity that it doesn't make much difference. The cost is ultimately capped by the cost of recovering Uranium from the Oceans.
What do you mean: "would go critical"?
If you think that other reactors are capable of exploding like the RBMK (Chernobyl), you are mistaken.
The problem with Light Water Reactors is that you can't just turn them off. It takes a while for them to reach Cold Shutdown where they no longer require external cooling.
They do require maintenance and operation by a skilled staff.
Excellent rebuttal Trog! You must and shall have your own blog. Wasserman has clearly strayed from the reservation, possibly as far as the moon.
The fear of radiation has become pathological; Wasserman now takes things to another level by attributing AGW to the carbon 14 emissions of a nuclear plant, to say this is trivial is an understatement. the lifetime
emissions from a nuclear plant are about the same as a flight from luxembourg to Amsterdam by a Greenpeace head honcho.
I am saying that as a social/economic system goes into decline infrastructure is progressively less well maintained. Nuclear power plants have the highest requirements for maintenance of any widely used infrastructure and that once radioactive material has been concentrated or generated high levels of control or adequate sequestration is necessary in perpetuity. If there is a synergistic economic-environmental failure (we are actually entering into such a time), then the level of maintenance required by nuclear power plants (and all storage and uses of nuclear material) could suffer to the point that the escape of nuclear material into the environment (not explosively) would become common place. You obviously know what that would mean. Eventually every plant on earth that was not maintained or material not properly sequestered (and you know that we still can't to that) will be involved.
I had an editing glitch on my comparison. (Now corrected.) I was going to change from comparing all reactors total cumulative C-14 CO2 emissions to the CO2 from a pickup truck tank of gas, and meant to change it to all the reactors annual C-14 CO2 emissions being less than the CO2 from a gallon of gas, but I got distracted halfway through the change.
""the lifetime emissions from a nuclear plant are about the same as a flight from luxembourg to Amsterdam by a Greenpeace head honcho."
The CO2 due to C-14 emitted by reactors is less than 8 grams per year from a pressurized water reactor and less than 15 grams per year from a boiling water reactor.
Say 60 years at 15 grams per year would be .9 kilograms. A high efficiency aircraft booked to capacity can manage roughly 33 passenger kilometers per liter. Aircraft fuel produces a little over 2.5 kilograms CO2 per liter, so you could burn a little over a third of a liter to equal the lifetime output from a BWR, or enough to go not quite 12 kilometers--or about 1/33 the distance from Luxembourg to Amsterdam. I think whoever did that calculation might have accidentally multiplied by 33 twice when converting from liters to kilometers.
"I'll disagree with Trog on one point - he says "And yet, almost everyone using rooftop solar panels still hooks their houses to transmission lines for the perks of centralized power." But again numbers matter.
There are roughly 180,000 families living off the grid in the United States and more than a million homes with solar power. Even if we generously assume that every single off-grid home is using some amount of solar power, that would still mean about 85% of all houses with solar are grid connected. And my bet would be that the proportion of off-grid homes which don't use fuel-powered generators would be tiny.
"What if you have so much solar power on your roof that your demand from the grid went down by a factor of 3?"
What would happen is that your panels would produce way more than you need for several hours in the middle of the day, and you'd dump the surplus onto the grid, and then for the rest of the day, you'd pull power back out of the grid as needed. This avoids the high costs of battery storage and periodic replacements, and provides great reliability--perks of centralized power.
"This can happen if you live in the hot Southwest where the solar is available at the exact time as you need it for A/C."
Yes it can, especially for west-facing panels. (Though most rooftop installations are south facing, which doesn't do as good a job of covering the late afternoon A/C hump.)
"Clearly that is a benefit to the grid"
Possibly some benefit--though not as much as solar from a centralized facility with tracking, which is cheaper, does a better job of covering late day A/C demand, and can have the output curtailed if the grid operator needs it. But even if the grid does get some benefit from home solar, that doesn't mean the people with solar remain connected to the grid for the express reason of benefiting the grid. They put power on the grid because they get paid high prices for doing so--which the grid operators wouldn't be able to afford to do without the large component of centralized power (and the large proportion of their customers who don't have solar).
"and the smaller the centralized need can be made, the more possible it is to use non-nuclear sources (which don't adjust to dynamic loads very well anyway)."
More precisely, the more energy fluctuation there is in the grid, the more it crowds out slow-ramping baseload power, which includes present-tech nuclear. Operators have to curtail the baseload plants and increase the peaking plant component to handle the fluctuations--which here in Texas means increased natural gas generation. The irony here is that it is the supporters of intermittents--which can't even deliver baseload, much less load follow--who most criticize nuclear for having been primarily designed to deliver baseload and thus being not very good at load following to accommodate their intermittents
"For this need, you can even use Solar Thermal sources like the one in CA just outside of NV on the way to Vegas (which I'm sure uses a bunch of water too) which have there own storage."
That location sounds like Ivanpah, which doesn't have storage. It basically uses solar to multiply the productivity of natural gas by a factor generally between 4 and 9. There are solar facilities which have thermal storage, but the pertinent point here is that these are all centralized power plants--like nuclear, only less dependable (and for now, more expensive).
"Overall, though I'm very scientifically minded, I have to put my vote with the no nuclear crowd."
If you mean you are opposed to any possible form of nuclear power, I'd be very interested to hear the scientifically-minded argument for that position. If you mean you are opposed to some particular kinds of nuclear power, well of course. As it is with fire and electricity, there are zillions of bad ways to use nuclear energy. Anything can be done badly, and I don't know of any nuclear proponent who isn't opposed to some forms of nuclear power. Nobody is calling for more Soviet-era RBMK reactors for example. But the existence of bad ways of doing something doesn't mean there can't be good ways, so to be opposed to all forms of nuclear power would either require a working understanding of every possible way of doing it, or it would be an ideological position based on something other than reason.
"There have been too many mistakes made, the cost advantage is not there and I'd rather spend my tax dollars on advancing renewables to see where we get."
The Ivanpah solar facility cost $2.2 billion and averaged only 74 megawatts last year. Do you think we should proclaim solar thermal too expensive and give up on it, or do you think we should look for ways to bring the cost down? One of the deadliest mistakes in power generation (far exceeding all deaths from commercial nuclear power) was the Banqiao dam disaster (and the Mosul dam has high potential for a disaster that could be even worse). So should we give up on hydropower? Or should we learn from our mistakes and get better at it?
I'm not terribly keen on the way we do nuclear power now, but I also agree with Hansen, even the kind of nuclear power we have, with all its problems, and all the mistakes and accidents, was still far better than the fossil fuels it displaced. We do have many renewable options now we didn't have back when today's reactors were built, but the evidence is pretty clear that, in our present reality, when a nuclear facility closes, most of that capacity is then filled with natural gas. And electricity prices go up. I can see a case to be made for some public spending to forestall both those outcomes.
"I'm OK with relatively small amounts of money being used on a research reactor or two"
Research is a bargain that we don't invest nearly enough in. By far the largest nuclear power research project in the U.S. was the Integral Fast Reactor, sucking up more money in its day than all the other reactor projects combined. And even at that, the cost, spread over 10 years, was about a billion dollars. We've blown about that much just on the renewable energy taxpayer-guaranteed loan defaults, and that wasn't even for research. Research is considered by some to be high risk, because more often than not it doesn't pan out, but that assumes that everything we learn from the failures has no value, when often it winds up contributing to later successes. And when there are successes, the payback can be enormous.
So I think we should be investing more in research, but I also think we should be investing smarter in research. The big lab approach is generally to pick one option and then to put all the eggs in that basket. But sometimes the process of picking the winner isn't based on the best science. The IFR
won out over other research projects which had as much or more potential largely for political reasons. And now ITER is sucking up the lion's share of all fusion research dollars. Instead of dumping all our research dollars into one government lab project, I think we could spread our dollars over a much larger number of projects and leverage the public funds by helping private research efforts--which are often faster. (Remember how long the human genome project was going to take using the big-lab approach?) There are dozens of private advanced reactor projects underway in North America right now, and their collective budgets are only around $2 billion. A few tens of millions to many of these would be a tremendous boost. Lawrenceville Plasma Physics has had remarkable achievements on only around $5 million dollars spent so far (much of it from crowdsourced donations). As for the payback, what would it be worth to have something like TransAtomic's waste burner reactor? Tens of billions in long-term sequestration costs could be avoided, and spent fuel, currently a liability, could be converted into an asset worth trillions.
"(maybe they'll figure out some of the problems that LFTR reactors have"
My expectation is that we'll have enriched uranium molten salt reactors first--like Moltex or Thorcon. We don't have to make the transition to LFTR's or waste burners in a single leap.
"and they can become worthy of a political discussion on whether they should be used commercially"
It should be a regulatory decision as to whether they should be allowed. Whether they should be used commercially would be a commercial decision.
"(at least they are a lot safer)"
That would be the case for molten salt reactors generally. Also cleaner, probably a lot cheaper, and capable of load following.
" I used to be more optimistic about Fusion (in the mid 70s) but now I don't see that going anywhere"
Would you be opposed to fusion power if someone did develop it, or is that a form of nuclear power you'd find acceptable? I don't see the ITER approach getting usable results for several more decades, but again, there are a lot of private teams who are looking to get there faster.
"(too bad deuterium-deuterium reactions are so much harder than deuterium-tritium reactions which require consuming lithium and which produce a fast neutron eventually making the reactor low level radioactive waste)."
Neutrons are useful for breeding fuel (such as U-233, tritium, and helium 3). Neutron activation of the reactor metals just means wasted neutrons, but it'll take us a while to figure out how to minimize that. But radioactive metals are easy to shield, aren't volatile, have very low mobility in the environment, and some could even be recycled for use in radioactive applications. Compared to the waste and environmental problems of other major sources of energy, activated metal is a very small and easily managed problem.
Trog wrote (to uberteuchter):
'...The CO2 due to C-14 emitted by reactors is less than 8 grams per year from a pressurized water reactor and less than 15 grams per year from a boiling water reactor.
Well, since each adult male worker at a nuclear power plant exhales 730 kilograms of carbon dioxide (of which 27 micrograms are C-14) per year, one must wonder why the article even mentions the point.
Thanks for a detailed reply. I didn't know much about Ivanpah (not even the name) before and skimmed a few things during lunch. I had just assumed heat storage was part of the design almost automatically (to level out the size of the steam generators if for no other reason), but now I know otherwise. I was also disappointed to learn they aren't reaching their targets yet and have to burn natural gas ramping up the system each day (which I presume they wouldn't have to do had they incorporated storage).
Interesting statistics on #grid connected PV installs which I assumed was the majority these days. I agree with what you said about the obvious advantage for the home owner to use the grid as their battery. Laws are always changing, but I think there should be some price incentive to locate the PV panels correctly - if you are in a location where the overall cost to you and the grid is minimized when you place panels more to the southwest or west, than that is what you should be incentivized to do.
Since I said that I am OK with my tax dollars supporting a few research reactors, I am not opposed to any possible form of nuclear power. But I'll be honest and say that I include "reasons" in my various life decisions that aren't always scientific or rational in the sense that I can put them into numbers that flow into a single metric that I can say I pick A over B because the metric is better. I'm vegetarian (mostly vegan) based partly on numbers by also partly on not being comfortable killing animals if I don't have to (but I live with my considerable impact as a not that much below the average US consumer). For nuclear power, I have not done the research to the degree I've looked into food production, but my impression is that we've botched it pretty badly in the US even from a cost basis alone compared to France. I don't trust any new reactor project on the books (and I believe they are trying to get a couple going).
I had been bullish about Solar Thermal because of the heat storage, but I can see it may not be the right answer too if it can't be cost competitive even with centralized PV and his issues with water consumption or other environmental concerns. I do think we either have to give up on hydro power or perhaps the small scale multiple head systems (if that is what they are called) which are getting better at efficiency and don't require as much flooding could be used going forward.
I agree with your comments on small vs. large research project funding - I hope we can get our politicians to agree more on this going forward. I'll look into Moltex and Thorcon later. True, regulatory and commercial decisions are required before new plants can be built, I just meant that at this point, if we don't get also get an educated public to agree on what is going to happen and get mostly behind it, I'm not sure it can work out.
My (limited) understanding of Fusion is that if we can get any form of it working at all, it will be the winner against any Fission reactor in terms of waste production (both onsite and mining) though the fact that we already have all this spent fuel around may skew towards fission reactors that can process that stuff down further. It's just that as I kid, I thought there would be zero waste from fusion and was a little disappointed when I understood it a bit better later.
What do you think is the comparison of waste production of say a successful magnetic confinement fusion reactor including a successful lithium to tritium production from the fast neutrons? Do you think there are any resource issues on consuming lithium (I doubt it since I'm assuming it would be tens or hundreds of thousands of times less of a demand than lithium batteries are)? What do you think are the best investment strategies now? Is inertial confinement just as good a place to invest? (I worry that they want bigger and bigger laser facilities so that makes for fewer investment possibilities as you say when you are stuck with big projects).
What do you think are the main interesting renewable energy research projects? Is bio-fuels (algae to diesel or jet fuel, cellulose to alcohols, etc.) worth it or is the food displacement too big of an issue? Grid storage? Conservation (better home efficiency on A/C, fridge, etc.)? Is off-shore wind a good idea?
I agree with another poster that if you don't already have a blog where you can organize your thoughts into some interesting articles that people can read through (who might miss any post to a site), it would be great to start one!
There was a solar thermal project in south central California (Solar Two) which operated for a few years back in the late 90's, and it did have storage, but only enough for about three hours. I think they are building a similar one in Spain which they're hoping will have enough storage to run 24 hours in the summer.
"For nuclear power ... my impression is that we've botched it pretty badly in the US even from a cost basis alone compared to France.
When Rickover decided he was going to do for civilian power what he had done with the nuclear fleet, he understood that so long as development work on better reactors was underway and making progress, nobody would want to commit to a design which would soon be eclipsed and made obsolete by something better. So Rickover picked a design, based on Navy reactors, and he and his minions set about undercutting continuing research which might compete. (Hence, his disparagement of "paper reactors".) But Weinberg, the guy who invented the design the Navy adopted, opposed the use of his reactor for civilian power. He felt molten salt reactors would be far more appropriate--favoring a design he didn't invent over one that he did. His opposition got him steamrolled and he was ousted from his position heading up Oak Ridge. And pretty much every reason he thought his reactor would turn out to be an inferior choice for civilian use has come to pass.
"I don't trust any new reactor project on the books (and I believe they are trying to get a couple going)."
The safety of the current designs is much improved, but the cost and build times are not. The decision to build these reactors now is effectively an expression of confidence that none of the advanced reactors under development will be competitive for another 20-30 years. Maybe that's what'll happen, but that conclusion seems a bit premature to me.
"I had been bullish about Solar Thermal because of the heat storage, but I can see it may not be the right answer too if it can't be cost competitive even with centralized PV"
Centralized PV is cheap right now because eating into peaking capacity isn't included in the cost. And that's fine while PV is only a few percent, but if it is to grow to a meaningful share of electricity, it'll need storage of some sort. Thermal storage has the best efficiency potential, since the storage takes place before generation and you don't have to go through extra changes of states, but capacity is proportional to volume and efficiency relates to insulation, and it's tough to do those on a large scale and keep the price down.
"I do think we either have to give up on hydro power..."
That would be nice, but it's going to be tough without nuclear, or some breakthrough in cheap mass storage.
"My (limited) understanding of Fusion is that if we can get any form of it working at all, it will be the winner against any Fission reactor in terms of waste production (both onsite and mining)"
The biggest problem with today's reactors is that the waste profile is more than a hundred times bigger than it needs to be. A high-efficiency gigawatt-scale fission reactor would produce about a pound of fission products per day that would need longer-term sequester (ie. more than ten years). One deep borehole could cheaply service hundreds of such reactors for decades. The short term fission products, and some of the radioactive ones we have uses for, would have the potential to generate revenues that exceed the costs of borehole disposal, so it isn't clear that fusion would have any advantage over fission on this count. Uranium mining has gotten simpler, cleaner, and cheaper with in situ leach mining, but terrestrial mining might soon be competing with extraction from seawater--the price of which has fallen by a factor of 7 over the last 15 years, now down to about double the cost of mined uranium. If that trajectory continues, it could start undercutting land-based mining in just a few years. Ultimately, the largest deciding factor between fission and fusion is probably going to be simply the cost of the reactor.
"though the fact that we already have all this spent fuel around may skew towards fission reactors that can process that stuff down further."
And maybe eat some depleted uranium and bomb fuel as well. Hard to improve on a negative waste profile.
"It's just that as I kid, I thought there would be zero waste from fusion and was a little disappointed when I understood it a bit better later."
As with fission, there are different flavors of fusion. Proton-boron 11 (pb11) fusion is probably not that far from what you envisioned.
"Do you think there are any resource issues on consuming lithium"
There is a limit on the extraction rate at the moment. There are only a few companies in a few countries responsible for almost all the world's production, and the demand for batteries is growing faster than production (currently around 34,000 tonnes per year), so some near-term price increases are likely. But I doubt we'll ever approach actual depletion. Known land reserves are around 14 million tonnes, and that should buy us plenty of time to develop direct extraction from seawater (a dialysis process developed in Japan looks promising) and there's over 200 billion tonnes of lithium in seawater, with more washing in all the time. Extracting just 1% of that could take 3 billion gigawatt years or more, depending on reactor efficiency. Plenty of time to work out the kinks in d-d fusion, and there's about 50 trillion tons of deuterium in seawater. I don't foresee any actual resource limitations for any kind of nuclear power except possibly for PB11 fusion. For present uses, we have so much boron that we throw it in laundry as a detergent booster, but it's actually not a very common element. If we tried to power the world with PB11 alone, we could start feeling the pinch in only a century or so.
"What do you think are the best investment strategies now?"
For the small private investor, I don't know. There are too many players to see any clear winners, particularly while some the major players are being secretive about their progress. For public investment in research, I think the smart play would be a diversified portfolio. More diversity means more choices to pick the best from, and even though that would mean investing in projects which ultimately won't pan out, there might still be valuable information that comes out of that research, and supporting a suite of teams also fosters competition between them, where even the losers could benefit everyone by spurring the winners to work faster and think more creatively. And a good diversified portfolio will put most of the money into the best prospects, but also have smaller investments in long-shot projects. Most people think Lawrenceville Plasma has very small odds of success using today's technology (most think Lerner's approach could work eventually, but they think he's attempting this decades too soon), but he's already surpassed most expectations, his budget is absurdly cheap, and if he succeeds, it would be an energy revolution beyond anything we've seen before. But I would only invest in projects which have a credible scientific basis. (not the supposed "over-unity" or "free energy" projects which abound out there)
"What do you think are the main interesting renewable energy research projects?"
I don't see anything potentially revolutionary. It's mostly down to the hard slog of making small improvements in efficiency and getting the costs down. And really, solar and wind are already pretty good when they are producing. The problem is making them dependable, which comes back to storage. Molten salt batteries could go big if they can get the price down, and a couple of the more interesting storage ideas include high-pressure electrolysis in deep water and Heindl hydraulic rock storage (unorthodox, but definitely interesting).
"Is bio-fuels (algae to diesel or jet fuel, cellulose to alcohols, etc.) worth it or is the food displacement too big of an issue?"
Algae is one of the most energy dense options with one of the lowest harvesting energy requirements, but even at that, it would still need a huge amount of area to make a dent in our liquid fuel consumption, there's a large chance the algae would be something genetically engineered--and possibly something we wouldn't want getting loose--and coming up with a cheap nutrient distribution system to cover vast areas is not a trivial challenge. Some biofuels aren't awful, but tend to be patchwork and local only. Nuclear synfuels don't have the energy density problem, but with today's reactors, they aren't cost effective. The Navy explored making jet fuel from seawater using shipboard reactors, but they concluded the amortized cost would be around $6 per gallon, which would only be competitive against mid-ocean resupply. Anytime they are near land, it can be had much cheaper. But with cheaper reactors, some liquid fossil fuels might be undercut by synfuel alternates.
"Is off-shore wind a good idea?"
It takes more materials and cost than onshore wind, but it doesn't have the land use and access road issues, there would be less resistance from people who hate the noise and appearance, it wouldn't have to be site-built, the wind is usually steadier, and it could be coupled with deep water electrolysis. But whether it's a good idea will depend on where you are and what alternatives are available. China and Russia are pressing ahead on off-shore nuclear, which would be more dependable than off-shore wind, but also much more expensive at this time. That, too, could change with cheaper reactors.
And working towards that end: