I once wrote about how we aren’t really doomed, per se. Things could get bad, even really bad, owing to climate change and irrational energy and environmental policies, even economic crashes, even war, even worldwide NBC war. But it won’t be an apocalypse. It won’t wipe out the human race. It won’t even likely send us to Road Warrior for a century or two; although even if it did, that would just be a brief dip in the upward march of progress of human civilization in its four thousand year history—since we’d just recover eventually and start marching even further on; like happened in the Middle Ages: an advanced civilization collapsed, but eventually was restored, and then even its scientific and technological advances were far exceeded.
That’s still true. But one thing I said in the course of making that point is this:
[The] innovation of solar-thermal power is actually a better alternative to nuclear (and won’t be blocked by superstitious fear), and such plants are now starting to appear in the U.S. and will inevitably replace all coal and natural gas plants within fifty to a hundred years.
Well, turns out, that’s not quite true. Sure, we may expand and benefit from solar-thermal. But it actually isn’t better than nuclear. And actually, any sane energy policy would devote considerable resources into expanding our nuclear power infrastructure instead. The people’s fear of it just has to go. This is, after all, the same ignorant populace that is so scientifically illiterate they think “irradiated food” will be radioactive or poisonous; when in fact it would be neither, and actually save the lives of thousands of people every year by nearly ending food-born illnesses and extending the shelf-life of perishables. By the same reasoning, we need to replace the bulk of our power generation with nuclear plants. And we need that badly. Because all the other options, “(like solar, wind, seismic, and thermal) and alt fuels (like algal biofuels, hydrogens, and other artificial fuels),” even smarter uses of old-school petrofuels (from coal to oil to gas), are actually super shitty. Yes, even solar and wind. Super, super shitty.
Let me explain. Because the explanation might shock you. For you might not have thought of it. Yet it’s almost face-slappingly obvious.
The Problem in a Nutshell
This all came about when discussing energy policy with a savvy Canadian engineer one day as I was staying at his place. He was a lovely host. And also knew his shit. He had the research to back up his claims. And I followed up even to double check. And it checks.
Of course, no surprise Canadians know more about this stuff than Americans. Americans are idiots. Almost half of us still want to elect Donald Trump to be our President. We’re not, let’s be honest, smart.
But back to the point. We’ll start with the example of solar power. That’s awesome, right? Zero pollution, doesn’t hack the heads off of birds, just sits there and generates totally free energy from the sun. Wellll… About that zero pollution thing. Uh, actually, making solar panels pollutes the shit out of the planet; recycling them is not an option at this stage (since we need vastly more of them than there are to recycle), nor is that pollution free, either; and maintaining them consumes energy and resources, and that also generates pollution down the line. It’s also expensive. The amount of energy that goes into both making and maintaining solar panels is so enormous, that the net gain we get back from those panels before they expire is paltry. Shockingly paltry.
The same plays out for wind power or any other energy source: when you step back and count the resources and energy consumed, and pollution generated, making and maintaining every other source of alternative power, from wind to solar, even solar thermal, the same shocking result comes out of the math: they all suck. Well, actually, hydro doesn’t suck so much, but alas, its capacity potential is woefully insufficient to solve our energy needs (there just aren’t that many rivers to damn; even if damning rivers wasn’t environmentally destructive, a serious downside to hydro people often forget). Ditto geothermal, where though capacity potential may be theoretically adequate, the costs of making and sustaining such plants on the required scale is on the order of ridiculous—which is not to slight its tremendous advantage where it’s most easily tapped—just like hydro, use it when you can; but it’s not going to supply the world.
People often forget, building and replacing solar panels or wind turbines requires mining (which entails toxic waste, pollution, energy costs, and environmental damage), manufacturing (which entails toxic waste, pollution, energy costs, and environmental damage), transportation and emplacement (which entails toxic waste, pollution, energy costs, and environmental damage), maintenance (parts and labor and cleaning, which collectively entail toxic waste, pollution, energy costs, and environmental damage), and disposal or recycling at end-of-life (which entails toxic waste, pollution, energy costs, and environmental damage).
It also entails hidden costs in power storage. Solar panels generate only during the day (and wind likewise only blows some of the time), but you need some of that power at night (likewise when the wind isn’t blowing), so you have to store it; but batteries or any other storage system costs again in mining, manufacturing, transportation and emplacement, and disposal or recycling; and they also lose a lot of what they hold (no battery system is 100% efficient; especially when you count the energy cost to make them, and their variable efficiency at temperature), so they waste energy, too (and hence, they also are consuming energy).
(The delivery system, e.g. the U.S. power grid, also wastes energy, as all those miles of wires lose electricity as waste heat etc., but as that’s the same loss for all generation types, it doesn’t count against any one power source over another, so we can ignore it for the purpose of comparing the sources of power generation.)
We forget to add all that up. And when we do, solar panels start to look like a really shitty idea. They have their uses (e.g. it can’t hurt to roof your house with some, since it’s not like you’d realistically line your roof with natural gas combustion generators instead), but they really truly suck for large scale energy solutions. On such scales they are bad for the environment. And they waste almost as much as they produce. Wind turbines are only marginally better. So, what then?
Oh Right, We Have to Subtract the Energy Put in from Energy Produced
This is all analyzed in such research reports as “Energy Intensities, EROIs (Energy Returned on Invested), and Energy Payback Times of Electricity Generating Power Plants” by Dr. Weißbach et al. There, for example, they find that on just energy return alone, “nuclear, hydro, coal, and natural gas power systems (in this order) are one order of magnitude more effective than photovoltaics and wind power.” They find that we get 28 times more energy out of a natural gas system than we put in (counting all energy costs to create and sustain it). Solar panels, even in the best cases, get us only 4 times more energy than we put in; and most systems don’t even get twice as much out as we put in! Solar panels, in other words, royally suck as an energy source. They waste far too much energy just to exist. They have their own unique advantages (e.g. they are quiet, they don’t locally pollute, etc.). But they cannot, on scale, solve the world’s energy needs. That would be the dumbest policy ever. There is a reason gas and oil still kick solar’s ass: they are just vastly more efficient in practice.
Solar thermal gets us a return of between 8 and 21 times the energy we put in (or 9 to 19, depending on which data you look at). Which is way better than solar panels, but still not as good as natural gas. Solar thermal also consumes considerable quantities of water—though much of what it consumes is reusable, and it’s comparable to nuclear in this regard if we measure it against the well-known and still widely used light water reactor model; new nuclear reactors consume less water (I’ll get to that).
So apart from the water consumption, I was right that solar thermal was the shit. Sort of. Compared to solar panels anyway. But you can see why it doesn’t quite compete with gas, which on average doubles the output. Wind power gets us 4 to 16 times the energy out that we put in, so not exactly good competition either. But notably, better than solar panels; although wind doesn’t blow enough everywhere. But contrast hydroelectric: 35 to 50 times the energy out as in! Even when this requires building and maintaining giant damns (it doesn’t always), hydro kicks even gas’s ass. But alas, as noted, there just isn’t that much hydro energy to capture. For comparison, coal is about an even 30. So it’s already comparable, and far more plentiful, even still after all the extraction we’ve done so far.
So, what about nuclear? Guess what. It gets us 75 times more energy than we put in. And yes, that even includes all the energy costs of mining (on the front end) and waste storage (on the back end). And with known advances in the pipe, that figure will exceed a factor of 100 in a few decades. This kicks the ass of every energy source we have. And it’s almost endlessly scalable. Nuclear power thus returns over three times more energy than even the most efficiently emplaced solar thermal. Five times wind. Twice hydro. And forty times more than any realistic solar panel solution. The following table (from the Weißbach paper, p. 29) illustrates the significance of this:
Note that “economical threshold” bar. What does that mean? It means that if that energy source is relied on in the aggregate for our nation’s electrical power needs, and yet its energy return is below that amount (which is a factor of about 7 times, energy produced to energy put in) we will actually be wasting so much money generating the energy we use to run our economy that our economy will tank. Notice this nixes solar panels. They are far too wasteful to even be useful as an energy policy solution. If we tried it, we’d crash our economy.
Likewise biofuels. And also wind; though unbuffered wind power can beat the mark, most wind power has to be buffered—because the wind doesn’t blow all the time, so you have to store the energy you need, for when the wind isn’t blowing, and that adds economic costs that plummet wind power’s utility. Solar thermal is just barely useful. Gas and coal are great (hence why we are using them). Hydro is better, but again, not a practical solution, owing to limited emplacement. But nuclear rocks over everything, twice as good as even hydro, more so coal and gas, and far better than solar thermal, and vastly better than wind (even if we could get wind to always work at its max, and we can’t).
Pollution & Environment
And that’s just by energy cost. If we factor in pollution and other environmental costs—e.g. coal and gas both increase global warming; and to an extent so do the others, due to the carbon emissions they entail at the stages of manufacturing, maintenance, transport, disposal, etc.—alternative energy sources don’t look so great as you may have imagined.
This is particularly important when considering nuclear. Everyone freaks out at the prospect of storing all that radioactive waste. But like people who freak out about terrorist attacks but not about driving (despite vastly higher odds of dying from the latter), this is an irrational focus on the sensational at the expense of reality. In reality, the pollution caused by the manufacturing and deployment of solar power is worse than nuclear waste. It’s greater in quantity (per terawatt hour); it’s greater in lethality (per terawatt hour); and it’s greater in personal odds of exposure (just like you are very unlikely to be present at a terrorist attack, you are very unlikely to be affected by nuclear waste; whereas you are far more likely to be affected by all the air and water pollution caused by solar panel manufacturing).
And that’s not all. See, for example, this analysis of Lifetime Deaths per TWH from Energy Sources. Here is one table produced there (the data is crude but the proportions realistic):
You’ll notice coal-sourced energy, even in a safety and environmentally concerned state like the U.S., will kill 375 times more people than nuclear would, if we replaced all our coal capacity with nuclear. So if you had to choose, the nuclear waste is really an awesome deal. It’s far less deadly. Likewise natural gas would kill 100 times more people than nuclear power. Solar panels kill 10 times more people than nuclear (and that’s just deaths from workplace accidents etc.; that number isn’t counting pollution deaths from manufacturing, transport, etc.). Wind power kills 4 times more people than nuclear (ditto). Even hydroelectric kills over 2 times more people than nuclear. Nothing in fact is safer than nuclear power.
Even if we count shitty nuclear, e.g. Chernobyl—which we shouldn’t, because as an applied energy policy in a major developed nation today, we would not build shitty plants like that, so we would not face Chernobyl-level risk factors (more on that point below)—nuclear still is safer than everything else. That’s right. Everyone freaks out about “the next Chernobyl,” but in fact, Chernobyl didn’t really do all that much harm. And it was the worst in history.
After Fukushima, whose effects were substantially less significant than Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island, which caused no statistically measurable deaths from its far smaller leak of radioactive material, the worst ever incident in any Western democracy in the last half century was a tornado strike at Brown’s Ferry, Alabama, which caused zero deaths, and no radiation leak, and led to significant improvements in nuclear plant safety design—as did the incident at Three Mile Island, which, BTW, occurred half a century ago.
Meanwhile the still over-cited incidents at Windscale, England, and Fast-Chalk River, Canada, occurred seventy to eighty years ago. Ancient history, by technology standards. And yet just try comparing that with the death rate in and because of the coal industry eighty years ago, and the comparison is still night and day. Similarly, there have been a few worker deaths in the nuclear industry over the last thirty years; but the number of workplace deaths from implementing the solar industry have been much greater (likewise every other alternative).
There actually hasn’t been a seriously deadly nuclear accident, ever, in human history (not counting deliberately, which has happened only once: when the U.S. nuked Japan in 1945). That is, compared to, for example, even just net mining deaths in the coal industry, total deaths from nuclear meltdowns and waste disposal has always been trivial; vastly more so when we include deaths from the pollution using coal generates. And environmentally, from Exxon Valdez to Deepwater Horizon, oil has done far more damage; and with the vast scale of aging oil caps and rigs, the damage inevitably to come will exceed even that. Moreover, nuclear deaths have always been the product of correctable bad design, and thus not actually a scalable risk. To the contrary, the risk plummets vastly when you take safe design and disposal seriously; this is as true of nuclear as of coal, as one can see comparing the death rate caused by American coal-use with Chinese.
And so the same analysis found, that even adding in the total lifetime deaths creditable to Chernobyl, nuclear power is still safer than even hydro; twice as safe as wind; six times safer than solar; and over 200 times safer than even the safest and least pollutive of coal industries. And that’s just as things are; and even not counting a lot of deaths in industries like solar caused by associated pollution in manufacturing and transport etc. Again, solar power, not that clean. Neither is wind power. Of course, what matters is the differential, i.e. the amount of pollution entailed along the entire production train for competing sources, nuclear vs. wind for instance. But that differential does not come out so well for any source over nuclear, because so many more solar panels and wind turbines have to be made to add up to a single nuclear plant, and that’s even after factoring in the peculiar potency of nuclear waste—simply because the amount of nuclear waste generated is also so vastly small.
Then There Is As Things Could Be
So even as things are, nuclear outperforms every other source of electrical power, in efficiency, pollution, and public risk. That’s right. It pollutes far less, it kills far fewer people, and it generates far more energy in proportion to input. But we actually can do better at nuclear than that. Most nuclear plants today are old. Because of irrational public fear, new plants get nixed at the proposal stage and old plants are left to be kept running with shoestrings and glue. And yet that’s doubly irrational. Because the old plants are the most dangerous. New plants implement safety and security and efficiency advances that vastly reduce the dangers and risks of nuclear power; and which also greatly reduce the amount and potency of nuclear waste as well.
Thus, the very thing that causes people to fear nuclear power so much as to stop its development, is precisely what its development would have solved. People who protest nuclear power are therefore increasing public risk. If they would instead promote a new plant replacing an old one, they would be greatly reducing public risk. Indeed, they would be doing so even if they support the building of several new plants in place of an old one, the improvements in design are that significant. There are literally no alternatives to replace old nuclear plants with that won’t kill far more people.
This reality played out recently in Japan, where the Fukushima plant disaster was entirely due to its aged design (built in 1971). Newer plants were immune, and thus survived the earthquake and tsunami essentially undamaged, posing no risk to the public. Even Fukushima’s sister plant, still quite aged (though still newer, built a decade and a half later), only required staff management to handle a minor coolant emergency. Others built around the same time were fine and could have resumed operation immediately, but public fear kept them off line until fairly recently (after reports showed they were not in danger from earthquake or tsunami; and they were upgraded anyway to be even less so). And these plants were built thirty years ago. Newer plants are even more superior. Similarly, Chernobyl was so badly designed it would never have been erected in the U.S., in any decade. It therefore cannot be used as representative of the dangers of nuclear power. Nor can Fukushima. As no new plant built will be at all as badly build as that antiquated plant was.
What we have today is a much safer plant design, much harder to damage with natural disasters or terrorist attacks, and producing much less waste material with a much lower radioactivity or lifespan. In fact, the newest designs actually consume nuclear waste and convert it into energy! And further investment will only lead to more improvements in these respects. The readiest version is the molten salt reactor, which has been around a long time, but has recently been upgraded into the most advanced nuclear reactor in tested use. It has numerous safety advantages (e.g. it is meltdown proof; it consumes no water; etc.); and by actually consuming nuclear waste as a fuel it reduces the environmental impact of even old reactors, and produces less environmental impact itself. Moreover, these models allow numerous smaller plants to operate efficiently and safely, reducing the danger of concentrating a large region’s power supply in a single plant vulnerable to a disabling attack. Other new designs, especially with more R&D, have the same or similar merits (integral fast reactors, including lead-cooled and gas-cooled; and currently in development, wave reactors).
The new tech has convinced even stalwart anti-nuke environmentalists to change their mind about the viability and indeed urgency of going nuclear, as the only plausible alternative renewable and clean energy source there is for the world’s power needs. See, for example, How Humans Save Nature, a TEDx talk by Michael Shellenberger. All of it is good, but pertinent here is his reversal on nuclear power, which he explains starting at timestamp 13:52.
On balance, being against nuclear power is just like being an anti-vaxxer: it is based on a false assessment of risk. Both exaggerate immensely the actual dangers of these technologies. And both fail to assess risk differentially. Even if a vaccine can cause death, the probability it will is vastly less than the probability of dying from the disease it inoculates against. The net risk is therefore a no brainer in Game Theory: only a fool wouldn’t vaccinate. You are trading an enormous risk for a trivial one. In other words, you might not be eliminating risk, but you are vastly reducing your risk by making use of the technology rather than opposing it.
(Oh, and BTW, the logic is identical for whether you vote this month; if you don’t go out and cast a vote for Clinton, unless you are already in a totally Trump-safe state, you may as well go join the anti-vaxxers; even just on the single factor of appointing judges to the Supreme Court, upon which all human and civil rights depend—never mind the dangers to our economy, security, and effectiveness and efficiency of government. This is true both individually—your own interests will be far more damaged by Trump winning than Clinton—and in terms of herd immunity: if you let Trump win, you are fucking over the rest of us, just like sending your unvaccinated kids to a public school. And let’s be honest: that kind of makes you an asshole.)
Similarly, opposing nuclear only furthers dependence on mass-scale use of other technologies that are and have been causing far more deaths than the technology you are opposing would. This is true hundreds of times over for fossil fuels, still our primary energy source, and the only practical and efficient energy source available (because wind and solar don’t even approach their return on investment; and hydro and geo can’t be scaled up enough to replace fossil fuels). But even these alternative energy sources cause more deaths than nuclear. So if protecting human life is your goal, you should be pro-nuclear. The more so if you want to save the environment, end global warming, and yes, even reduce poverty (because cheaper access to energy has a direct correlation with reduction in poverty).
Ironically, almost all energy is ultimately a form of solar power. Photovoltaic and solar-thermal power are obviously so, directly converting sunlight into electricity. But even wind power only taps the motion of air that is ultimately the result of the heating of that air by the sun. Hydroelectric taps the falling of water that is continually raised to higher ground by being evaporated by the heat of the sun (and then falling as rain or snow). Fossil fuels (and all their organic substitutes), including oil, coal, and natural gas, are only “fuels” at all because of biological processes that stored solar energy in plants (and thence the animals that ate them, or ate the animals that ate the animals that ate them), which ultimately came from the photosynthesis of solar rays. In other words, even oil is just a liquid battery for solar energy.
That’s right. No sun, no fossil fuels. Nor wind. Nor hydroelectric. There would have been some fossil fuel without the sun; there are a scattered few geothermal ecosystems on earth, but you need space-age technology just to visit them, and the petrochemical sedimentation they’ve deposited throughout the earth’s history probably wouldn’t have lasted beyond the 18th century—even if we could have gotten to it. Hence, realistically, nearly all our sources of electrical and mechanical energy (both actual and potential) are just different kinds of solar power. Geothermal and nuclear are the only significant exceptions, not deriving from our sun’s energy. Although they also got their energy from stars, probably stars previous to our sun, which generated the requisite elements in their own nuclear furnaces, and supplied the heat and rock (whose stress and pressure produces even more heat) that has become concentrated in the core of our planet. But geothermal is not commonly accessible. And nuclear is what everyone is afraid of.
And though all the other sources drawing energy from the sun are, in fact, far less efficient than direct solar power (when measured solely by how much electricity they generate per hectare of sunlight), they are ironically still vastly cheaper and thus more efficient for us to access. Yes, photovoltaic energy (solar panels), though less efficient than the heated-salt solar-thermal steam turbine (generators that convert reflected solar heat into kinetic and then electrical energy), converts more sunlight to electricity. It’s just that it does so at such great expense to us that it falls far below all other sources in utility. A solar panel can’t compete with an entire planet generating millions of years and millions of hectares of fossil fuel. Nor can it compete with an entire region’s climatic redistribution of rainwater to power hydroelectric plants. That process may be inefficient. But it operates automatically (costing us nothing), and concentrates the resultant stored energy from such a vast area, that it costs us little to tap it. Wind power similarly beats solar by tapping an automatic collection of solar energy over a vast area (all the sunlight hitting all the air of an entire region, thereby pushing it on as wind).
This is why solar power is simply not a viable model for world energy policy. Some limited use of solar is practical. But the scale of power output we need is too vast. If you want to get away from the deadly and destructive use of fossil fuels, hydro and geothermal are not scalable enough (they work cost-effectively only in a few places, so if we invested more in them, we’d quickly reach practical capacity; worth doing, but it’s not the end solution), wind and solar thermal are too weak to compete with fossil alternatives (they have a place, but it’s limited), and solar panels are not even economically viable at all (it’s at best a localized solution). Nuclear is the only power source that generates huge returns, far exceeding even fossil fuels, and more cleanly than any alternative that exists, with far less threat to human life and the environment. There isn’t any reason not to invest in it as our primary energy solution. Particularly with the new and advanced technologies available.
You probably didn’t know solar and wind generated so much less energy after subtracting the energy we put into them. You might not have thought how limited hydro and geo are, because we are already close to capacity with them. And you probably didn’t think about the deaths, dangers, and pollution that a solar and wind power industry entail. They are still better than fossil fuels in terms of environment and safety, but come not even close in terms of net energy return. Nuclear is considerably safer than solar and wind, less toxic to the environment, and far exceeds fossil fuels in energy generated even after subtracting the energy we have to use to build, supply, and maintain the plants. And this will become even more the case as we continue to tap out easily accessed fossil fuel deposits and have to burn more and more energy accessing them in harder to reach places. Whereas the opposite is happening with nuclear: new plants burn nuclear waste, so nuclear fuel will actually become far more accessible.
It’s time to give up our irrational fear of nuclear power. It’s time to invest in the new advanced reactor technologies and begin eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels for our electricity nationwide, and worldwide. For our health. For our economy. For our environment.